The last six months have been very difficult chicken-wise. We lost Chickpea to a coyote, who snatched her a few yards from us, we lost Miss Amelia and Madge from unknown ailments, and we’ve nursed chickens back to health as well. Mulan had a prolapsed uterus, which we cleaned, stuffed back in coated with honey from our own bees and bandaged. She recovered and is laying happily, thank goodness. Viola and a couple of others had impacted crop, which means that they swallowed something like long pieces of grass which have blocked up the exit from their crop to their stomach. There have been many mornings I’ve spent making a chicken throw up, without breaking her neck or suffocating her. We’ve been frazzled with the health of our hens, all purchased through feed stores. Our past chicken experiences had no egg binding, no septic peritonitis, no crossbill (which should have been bred out of the hens) and no infected eyes.
I’ve purchased mostly organic feed for them, and given them greens in their large Fowl Fortress or brought them into the fenced yard for grazing. Organic feed is amazingly expensive. Since we don’t eat the hens and we use their eggs as one of our main protein sources, they need to be in good productive health. Chickens can live ten years or more, and lay that long, too. Ours seem to top off at three.
I tried fermenting their food. Fermented food is all the rage and I read many articles about the health benefits of fermenting chicken food. In a 5-gallon bucket I’d mix water and their lay crumbles along with some cracked corn and wait a couple of days until it smelled yeasty. Then I’d give them some and replenish the bucket. It took awhile for the hens to come to like the food, but it didn’t seem to do anything for their health. In our warm San Diego weather it was tricky to not have the fermented food spoil. Eventually I gave that up.
One of the hen’s purposes in the garden is to create compost. They excel at pooing. When the opportunity arose to be able to pick up discarded fruit and vegetables from the Fallbrook Food Pantry four times a week, I jumped at it. Much of the produce is still edible for the hens; when mixed with pooey straw and dirt the chickens could grub out, well, grubs and fly larvae and eat more naturally. Although we’re still picking it up, we are devoting hours a week lugging stinky veggies around. It is hard and heavy work, and the fly population has exploded. However we have seen more flycatchers hanging around the yard recently and the phoebe is truly fat. I shovel and rake the produce mixed with carbon sources (paper goods from the house mostly) and then the hens kick it all over. It is good exercise for them, they eat far less lay crumble, and they are producing some very good quality compost for the veggie garden. Their health has been better.
One of the reasons that the hens came down with just about every known illness was because they were purchased from hatcheries. Hatchery birds live in hell from the second they are born. Since few people want roosters, the male chicks are swept into trash bags and thrown away, live. The female chicks are inoculated and packaged up for shipment through the mail. There are always extra chicks packed in because the heat of the ones on the outside keep the ones on the inside warm enough to possibly survive the stressful, hungry, thirsty and brutal trip. Therefore the ones on the outside of the bundle are sacrificial. I didn’t want to support this animal cruelty any longer.
I decided to find a local breeder who cared for her hens. I found someone who seemed reputable; her mother owns a feed store and the woman breeds horses, dogs and hens. On conversation with her I learned that she had imported chickens from good stock and bred them at her place. The hens weren’t inoculated, but that wouldn’t matter to us since we have a small isolated flock. With glee I ordered four pullets, from several weeks old to a couple of months. They were different breeds and were to lay different egg colors. We sectioned out the back of the Fowl Fortress and happily put the girls in. Not long after we found out they were crawling with lice. None of our other girls had lice, thank goodness. Upon contacting the woman she said that she’d put Frontline on the hens per advice from her vet. We smeared Vaseline around the eggs that encrusted their necks and powdered diatomaceous earth on their bodies. We’ve repeated the treatment, but we haven’t won the war yet. I noticed when we picked the girls up that the blue maran, Nora, had a watery eye. That eye became infected, and we learned that it was probably a small eyeball, and now she’s blind in that eye. Just a few days ago her other eye was bothering her so we are treating it. She is underweight, and Miranda noticed that her beak was overgrown so it was hard for her to peck food. Miranda trimmed it, having had lots of experience with our poor late crossbill, Belle. So Nora lives for the time being in the house as we hope that she doesn’t go completely blind, and as we try to feed her up so that if the time comes when we can reintroduce her, the flock won’t attack her.
Then there is Branwyn. She’s a feisty olive-egger. A few weeks ago Miranda noticed that Branwyn’s legs were bowing out as she walked. By the time she brought the bird up to the house she was paralyzed in both legs. Our immediate fear was Merek’s disease, which is highly communicable and would have meant death for all our birds, sterilization of the coop and no hens for six months or more. Within days Branwyn showed signs of moving her left leg. Miranda configured a Rubbermaid container as a bouncy chair, tying a t-shirt across it and cutting leg holes through it so Branwyn could rest with legs down and feet touching the bottom. Later, Miranda cut the legs from an old pair of tights and stuck Branwyn through to bounce her across the floor, giving her physical therapy. Sounds nutso, I know, but its working. Branwyn’s left leg is much stronger and she’s beginning to force her right leg to work. She can’t stand, but she can now get her feet under her. We still don’t know what was wrong with her; some kind of neurological disorder or possibly vitamin deficiency. We were giving her Vitamin E and B complex with selenium heavily for a week and saw her initial improvement. Vitamin deficiency can be inherited; common chicken feed should have enough in it, especially when combined with vitamins in their water.
Lark, who was huge with sterile peritonitis, was drained by the vet and is several pounds lighter and much happier. She’s with the rest of the flock. Since we have no idea what caused the condition (she’s barren), it might happen again but for now she’s back kicking fruit around with the rest.
I still don’t want to participate in the hatchery butchery and torture. Anything mass-produced, be it animals, food, plants or products, are rooted in cruelty: sweat shops in other countries, underpaid workers, poor root stock, diseased, malnourished and maltreated animals, unhealthy chemical-laden food. I’m holding off on purchasing any new hens, even though I wanted a lavender Americauna. I still think that buying local, while more expensive, is better. For whatever reasons this batch have all been ill. In fact, the only hens we’re treating right now are all four of the new girls!
Chickens have wonderful personalities and make great pets, and they are pets; having a few hens for eggs and meat sounds easy but just like any living thing they require work. Especially OUR hens, who must know we won’t cull them and have decided that we are an early retirement home with personal nursing care. I wish I could look forward to such a deal!
Permaculture Lectures in the Garden!
Learn how to work with nature and save money too
Finch Frolic Garden and Hatch Aquatics will present four fantastic, information-filled lectures in June. Join us at beautiful Finch Frolic Garden in Fallbrook, 4 pm to 6 pm, for refreshments and talks on…
Saturday, June 7: Introduction to Permaculture and Finch Frolic Tour: We’ll take you through the main precepts of permaculture and how it can be applied not only to your garden, but to yourself and your community. Then we’ll tour Finch Frolic Garden and show rain catchments, swales, plant guilds, polyculture, living buildings and so much more.
Saturday, June 14: Your Workers in the Soil and Earthworks: Learn the best methods for storing water in the soil and how to replace all your chemicals with actively aerated compost tea and compost.
Saturday, June 21: Aquaculture: You can have a natural pond – even in a tub! How natural ponds work, which plants clean water and which are good to eat. Even if you don’t want a pond, you’ll learn exciting information about bioremediation and riparian habitat.
Saturday, June 28: Wildlife in your Garden: What are all those bugs and critters and what they are doing in your yard? We’ll discuss how to live with wildlife and the best ways to attract beneficial species.
Your hosts and lecturers will be
Jacob Hatch Owner of Hatch Aquatics. With years of installing and maintaining natural ponds and waterways, and a Permaculture Design Course graduate, Jacob has installed earthworks with some of the biggest names in permaculture.
Miranda Kennedy OSU graduate of Wildlife Conservation and wildlife consultant, Miranda photographs and identifies flora and fauna and maps their roles in backyard ecosystems.
Diane Kennedy Owner of Finch Frolic Garden, lecturer, consultant, Permaculture Design Course graduate, former SDC Senior Park Ranger, Diane educates homeowners on how to save money and the environment while building their dream gardens.
Each class limit is 50 attendees, so please make pre-paid reservations soon before they fill up. Fee for set of four lectures and tour is $45 per person. Single session fee is $20 per person. Contact Diane Kennedy at email@example.com for reservations and directions.
You will not want to miss this fascinating and useful information!
Thanks to my daughter Miranda, our permaculture food forest habitat Finch Frolic Garden has a Facebook page. Miranda steadily feeds information onto the site, mostly about the creatures she’s discovering that have recently been attracted to our property. Lizards, chickens, web spinners and much more. If you are a Facebook aficionado, consider giving us a visit and ‘liking’ our page. Thanks!
Today my daughter and I made good headway in the completion of the garden. In the morning the bed still had some veggies that needed transplanting, the ground needed smoothing, the giant clumps of asparagus plants we’d hauled out needed to be planted right away because they were already trying to come out of dormancy, and we certainly didn’t want to lose this spring’s crop.
We let the girls loose since we were watching out for coyotes. They loved the grubs and unfortunately, the valuable worms too. Lark, the barred rock in the foreground, was up to her old tricks of jumping onto my shovel and quickly kicking half the dirt off in search of bugs. Miranda painstakingly dug up lots of salad greens for transplanting. We both dug up and pulled out lots of Bermuda grass as we went. The trash cans are full of it.
While digging those 2 foot deep trenches we unearthed a lot of clay. On the surface the colors of what had been good garden soil next to what lay under it was very clear. With the deep hugelkultur beds and the sheetmulching, all this clay will be turned into microbial rich soil.
Finally we were able to measure off and draw out the design of the garden. We used gypsum which is good for the soil. So many people use spray paint to mark the ground… just don’t! Toxic fumes and toxic chemicals in the soil. If you don’t have gypsum, use flour! The light is bright in the above photo so you can’t see the design so well. We had carefully drawn out several designs on graph paper. An intricate Celtic design was the most favorable one until I’d realized the garden wasn’t square but rectangular. It was just as well because it would have been a nightmare of measuring. This one has 2′ wide pathways from prime entry angles (a wheelbarrow can fit), each planter bed is easily reached from all sides, and the circular design is pleasing and fun.
There was a big flaw in the plan. There was this boulder that had been placed during the original construction of the garden. It didn’t serve a purpose, it was always in the way, it was a shelter for Bermuda grass, and it wasn’t attractive. Now it was at the head of one of the pathways. It had to go. My daughter and I decided to move it to the center of the garden. After transplanting the heavy batches of asparagus, we dug out a hole for the rock to sit in; when placing boulders it is visually more attractive if the boulder is buried at least a quarter of its size into the ground to look natural. We placed wet newspapers around the hole so that the boulder would sit on them and they would block Bermuda grass from emerging.
Although the garden was sloped down from the boulder, the rock wasn’t round and didn’t want to roll. We dug out a pathway for it, and using a long crowbar and a digging bar we managed to turn it over. We pushed and heaved and balanced and flipped it until it was right at the rim of the hole, and then things became difficult because it wasn’t positioned in the way we wanted it. The rock has a flat side, and is long. Miranda suggested that the tall side should stand up for birds to perch on, and I liked the Half-Dome look to it. We heaved the rock into the hole, then walked it around, tipped it up, centered it, and eased it into place, using the bars and all of our strength. Luckily the boulder didn’t roll on a foot, or the bar slip and break my collarbone. Finally we tiredly decided that the position it was in was good enough and we were both happy. Exhaustion had much to do with this decision. Miranda propped it up with clay chunks as I held it in place with the digging bar, then backfilled around it. It looks fantastic; a good central point for the garden, and a source of thermal retention.
We messed up some of our pathway lines, but we can easily redraw them. The sun was setting and the mosquitoes humming; the Pacific chorus frogs began calling by the hundreds, and the wigeon came in to feed on the pond. There were still chores and dinner to be had, but exhausted as we were, we were pretty darn proud of ourselves for moving that big guy by ourselves. Next comes the sheet mulch.
Chickens are primarily bug eaters who also snack on greens. Feeding hens grains began with the industrialization of agriculture. No one cutting grain with a hand scythe would spend all that time and energy to feed hens.
My hens live in the Fowl Fortress, to protect them from coyotes and hawks (our hawks won’t be able to carry one away but they could tear them up pretty badly). After losing Chickpea to a coyote while we were only so many yards away made me eliminate any open foraging time for the girls. This wasn’t healthy for them. I haven’t invested in a solar electric fence yet, to make a ‘day’ coop for them to forage in relative safety, but that may be on my investment list for the new year. The largest problem is poor design in the garden, which I’m trying to remedy as easily and inexpensively as possible. I didn’t know how to fit in chickens, or where the garden was going when it began nearly three years ago. I have weedy areas, and I have chickens. To bring them together safely is the problem.
Sometimes we bring the hens into the fenced yard with our 100-pound African spur thigh tortoise (Gammera); however, that yard is also where some of our cats live. We’re not sure if Moose, Chester and Cody would behave themselves around hens, so unless we prevent the cats from leaving the house for the day, then we can’t carry the hens into this grassy yard to graze.
Inside the Fowl Fortress there is a layer of muck composed of old straw, the hard bits of veggies and fruit fed to the hens, old scratch and lots of chicken poo, made into an anaerobic muck by recent rains. Once turned up we discovered lots of the grain had sprouted, which the girls sucked up like noodles. This muck was also turning the hard ground below into prime soil. Why couldn’t we use this muck in a more productive manner?
If I couldn’t bring the hens to the garden, then I thought I’d bring the garden to them. Inside the Fowl Fortress I propped up four big boards in a square, then filled it with some of the rotting straw and muck from the coop. I topped it with Bermuda grass – laden soil from one of my raised beds. This was the bed, in fact, where I composted in place for the past year. What rich, chocolate-colored, worm-laden soil! If not for the invasive grass it would be perfect.
In this new garden, along with the Bermuda grass, my daughter and I planted oregano we divided from one of our plants, nettles, borage, some other kind of grass weeds that had sprung up after our Fall rain, plus we scattered corn and mixed organic grains which we feed the hens and pressed the seed into the ground.
Miranda wired together a bamboo lid out of scrap pieces. The idea is that the plants can grow up through the lattice of the bamboo lid and the hens can stand on it and eat greens. Oregano is a good medicinal herb, as are nettles, which reputedly encourage egg laying.
I also dig up chunks of weeds or Bermuda grass in this mercifully looser post-rain soil, and throw the whole mess into the Fowl Fortress and let the girls forage and exercise those strong legs by kicking through the heap. It is only logical that the strong kicking motion of foraging hens strengthens their bodies so that they have fewer egg-laying illnesses (egg-binding primarily), and of course their nutrition is much better with greens and bugs
This is by no means a permanent solution, but until I find the right design that keeps healthy, safe hens and eliminates weeds without a lot of work, then a chicken garden and weed-tossing is the way to go.
Last Tuesday when I opened the chicken tractor to let the girls come bounding and clumsily flutter out for their breakfast, Belle our genetic crossbill Americauna didn’t emerge with her usual energy. I make a custard of blended chicken food, whole eggs, greens and fruit, cooked and cooled, to feed her. The custard contained all the goodies the other hens had, but was easier for her to scoop with her twisted beak. I’d fill her dish before I come down to ‘do the hens’, and she was fed first. Her dish was placed into the top of the quail hut with the door propped open so only Belle coud get in and out; the other hens loved to share her food otherwise.
Although Belle ate vigorously, she never gained full body weight. Her beak prevented her from eating well enough. Out of every five scoop attempts at the custard I’d say that she’d get one mouthful. Yet she was always perky, always running around interested in everything, and even tried dominance tactics over some of the other girls. They’d let her since she wasn’t a threat to any of their food.
Because Belle’s eating habits were very messy her neck and head feathers were straggly, and combined with her twisted beak gave her a comical, slightly crazed look. Because she was handled so much when she patiently allowed us to trim her beak and nails, and give her a bath, she was very friendly. She’d jump on our backs and shoulders any time we’d bend over in the coop. She’d enjoy being carried around. She was very spoiled. We’d read posts where owners of crossbills, who didn’t cull them but kept them as pets, had them live up to ten years and lay eggs. It was all dependant upon to what degree their bills crossed, and Belle’s became severe.
About a month ago we noticed mites on her, something that is common on hens, and gave her a good bath and treatment with food grade diotomaceous earth. The FGDE works immediately and is very effective and safe. Otherwise she was bright, fun and perky, burrowing under the other girls on the roost overnight to cuddle.
Tuesday Belle was slower to come around, and didn’t want to eat. A hungry hen not wanting to eat? Bad news. We immediately took her into the house. It was a cold day, so we made her comfortable next to a space heater. On inspection we discovered that she had mites all over her. We also checked the other hens right away and they were all okay, so apparently Belle’s diminishing health encouraged them to reproduce, and as she couldn’t groom herself she was stuck. We coated her with FGDE, not wanting to bathe her while she was feeling poorly since it was a cold day, and dropper fed her food. She showed some energy and wanted to run around, and took the food hungrily.
It was time to trim the Christmas tree, and my daughter put Belle under her sweater to keep her warm and comforted as we worked; Belle loved being cuddled and held, so she put up no resistance, but we could see that she was ill.
We brought in the cage that we used for Viola the ex-house chicken, and for all of our patients, and tucked Belle in for the night next to the space heater.
In the morning Belle was sitting very still. I knew that she was nearly gone. Just after waking my daughter, Belle died as she held her. She is buried outside our bay window where we watch birds, close to the house.
Birds are so tricky. They can seem perfectly fine, but when they show illness it is usually too late and the end comes quickly. There is little you can do for them besides keep them comfortable. Neither of us expected Belle to pass away; she showed no previous symptoms and was her usual plucky, fun self. Something internal gave way from slow malnutrition caused by that darned crossed bill and her inability to eat enough. On reflection I don’t think that Belle had a bad life. She ate enough to not be hungry all the time, and her custard gave her ease of eating. She was much loved and spoiled. Her end was quick, which was merciful and not granted to many of us. But Belle will always be remembered.
Fall and winter are the times of year when many outdoor pets disappear. I’ve blogged on this before, too. ‘Teenaged’ coyotes, hungry (just like human teens!), bolder and less cautious will come closer to homes and people to grab food. If there is pet food outside the house, coyotes will take it if they can. If you have small pets outside, even chained, they can be killed by coyotes.
This doesn’t make coyotes evil. They are predators, a very necessary part of the food chain. Look up ‘trophic cascade’. That is how preditors in a wild environment cause prey animals to keep moving in natural patterns. Unthreatened, not only can prey animals reproduce to extremes, but also they will linger over feeding areas and eat plants down to the ground rather than trim them and move on.
Coyotes are intelligent, loyal, family-oriented, playful animals. They also make very scary sounds when howling and yipping in packs. Coyotes are no threat to humans unless the coyotes are sick, or if a child comes close when a coyote is eating outdoor pet food and is frightened.
Now that our last dog, Sophie, has passed away, coyotes are jumping the five-foot chainlink fence nightly and hunting in our yard. They have been unable to breach the Fowl Fortress (the hens are also locked into their coop within the FF for double protection). Unfortunately on Halloween I let the hens out of the coop about 45 minutes before dark. They had just gone under the Mock Pavilion, and I went into the FF to give Belle some of her special mash when there was a wild clucking. A coyote had come close and grabbed Chickpea our Americauna, and they were gone. My daughter saw it running away, and I dashed after, losing my slippers on the way, and hunted all over the neighbor’s yard but there was no sign of her.
It was tramatizing, and I kick myself because I should have known better, even though I was just yards away and the hens had been released only minutes before. It was a lucky chance for the coyote, who must have already been in the yard but hidden by plants. At least it was a quick death for our darling Chickpea. It hurts us both that she is gone. No more ‘outies’ for the girls, even with a hensitter.
The coyotes leave scat in our yard and we can tell what they’ve been eating.
Tiny seeds show that they were eating figs off of some volunteer fig trees down in the barranca. Larger seeds and skin in the scat shows that they are eating the red Eugenia berries in our yard. There is never much fur in the scat, so these omnivores have to scavenge to stay alive.
On the funny side, one day a few weeks ago I saw some fuzzy green thing in the yard.
It turned out to be what looked like the center of a plush sunflower dog toy. It squeaked. It wasn’t ours. Some young coyote found it in another yard, carried it over the fence and played with it down by our pond. Over the next week it was moved around each night. One morning I found it next to a veggie bed I’d recently planted.
Then I realized that the rubber snake I put down in the bed to discourage birds was gone! My daughter and I looked everywhere for the snake, even for pieces of it, but it was gone! Some neighbor is going to have a real bad moment one of these days when walking through their property and they come across my rubber snake.
There is a fantastic, information-packed permaculture convergence coming up at the beautiful Sky Mountain Institute in Escondido. It will be two days packed with great information for a very reasonable price; in fact, scholarships are available. Check out the website at firstname.lastname@example.org. On that Sunday I’ll be teaching a workshop about why its so important to plant native plants, how to plant them in guilds using fishscale swales and mini-hugelkulturs. Come to the convergence and be inspired!
When we added to our flock of five last March by acquiring chicks, we soon discovered that our Americauna (ironically already named Belle), was a genetic crossbill. Crossbill is a genetic mutation found particularly in Americaunas which causes the beak to scissor so that they don’t meet. Some unfortunate crossbills are affected so extremely that the hen eventually would starve to death. Because of the crossbill, the hens can’t peck at food.
So far Belle is able to eat, provided that we give her special food. We also use nail clippers and a nail file to trim as much of her beak off as we can without nipping the wick and making it bleed. Belle is very patient during the process. Mostly.
She also can’t preen well. Preening in hens means that they dip their beak into an oil gland over their tail feathers and smooth that over their feathers, knitting them together and combing out the pin sheaths emergent feather shed as well as dirt and other itchy things.
Belle’s food has to be mushy so that she can scoop it rather than peck at it. We grind up the foods we feed our other hens and then mix it with water until it has a scoopable consistancy.
We feed Belle the mush in a deep container with enough room for her twisted beak. Because the pecking behavior is so natural to her she finds it hard even with months of practice to scoop to the side. She shakes her head often but miraculously enough goes down.
Although what we feed Belle is exactly what we feed the other hens, only wet, they still are jealous and will push her away from her food. So she is fed in a special upside-down milkcrate of my daughter’s design, in the upper portion of the quail coop (the quail won’t go upstairs). The door is closed to just a Belle-sized crack and held open with a sophisticated latching unit (a stick). Even so some of the bolder girls will invade.
Some food does go down Belle’s throat, but much of it decorates the crate.
After giving her a bath (as in the top photo) to soak off the dried hen food, her feathers looked so pretty (and she strutted around the porch so much as she dried) that I endeavored to find a solution to keep her clean. Alas, nothing worked. We ended up trimming her neck feathers to reduce the dried clumps.
With all the handling Belle gets she has become a spoiled girl. She lives outside the hen’s pecking order, often scooting under their legs or pushing them out of the way when a treat comes even though she can’t eat it and has to have hers separately.
Belle likes to help. I usually feed the hens in the morning while in my bathrobe. As I bend to scoop their food I find there is a chicken clawing her way up my back. She enjoys sitting on one’s head as well, particularly on my daughter’s as she has so much hair coiled up that it gives Belle a nice place, albeit an unwelcome one, to perch.
When we fill Belle’s food dish with water outside the Fowl Fortress, she often sneaks under the door as it is closing and makes a leap for her food. Usually this results in food everywhere but in Belle’s very hungry stomach.
Belle is a happy chicken, eager for attention and enjoying being ‘teacher’s pet’. She doesn’t mind being carried around like a small football.
After making fried zucchini for dinner one night I had extra beaten egg and soy milk left over. On a whim I cooked it into a custard for Belle. Well. I’ve never seen a hen eat so much. It was the perfect consistancy for her to scoop and it was tasty. Giving her a few day’s break I eventually made her a more nutritious custard. In my handy-dandy Vitamix (I really should be paid to sponsor them, although hen custard probably isn’t in their advertising scheme) I mixed quail eggs and their shells, lay pellets, ground cracked corn, oyster shell, buttermilk, and celery greens which I happened to have right there (from home-grown celery). The custard turned out very unappetising.
Apparently it was only unappealing to me and Miranda.
It is worth the extra effort to insure Belle has a good meal and a full crop at the end of the day. When she’s full of custard she actually struts around the yard, happy with her fullness and the fact that she had a treat no one else had. Belle is of laying age but her size is smaller than the other hens and she’s still growing. I don’t mind if she doesn’t lay; she’s a darling friend and a neutral hen in the coop. I’m sure Belle will be the source of many more stories and certainly a lot more mess. Just another crazy, high-maintenance, unproductive little animal here at Finch Frolic!