Friday, 31 December 2010

So, That Was 2010

Happy New Year! Nearly. As we approach the end of 2010, I find myself looking back at an eventful year in chicken keeping. This year, I lost my beloved Mini which was rubbish, but hatched my first ever chicks, which was amazing. I said goodbye to the Convent, and hello to the amazing Palace. I waved the Silkie sisters off to their fab new home, and welcomed four new girls. One of which was my much coveted frizzle. I performed emergency first aid on ASBO Chicken and kept all of my fingers (I am particularly proud of that). Yep, it's been interesting.

So, what does 2011 have in store? It's probably best that I don't know to be honest. I find that things run more smoothly if disasters are sprung upon me rather than giving me time to panic. Doris is currently sporting another bubbly eye minus any other symptoms. Rather than running off to the vet, I've decided to ignore the attention seeking faker and see if it miraculously improves. Just so that you don't think I am completely heartless, you should know that Doris has form. She also has a massive amount of tonic in her drinking water right now.

I hope this year has been kind to you, and that 2011 is downright generous.

Maeve aka ASBO Chicken and her incredible swivelling neck.

Gladys at her frizzly best.

Purdy, the only layer at time of writing (so she's my favourite).

Doris, Maeve and Mabel.

A super curious Hilda.

My beautiful Maude.

Purdy and Mabel.

Hilda demolishing my alpine trough. Sigh.

Celia was knocking about, but managed to evade the camera. Her broodiness seems to be over. At long bloody last.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Thaw

The snow has finally departed. We are now left with a boggy quagmire where the back garden should be. Even the very air is saturated, and the thick fog adds a deeply unfestive gloom. The hens all look like they're sporting wet look gel in their feathers and squelch forlornly across the lawn in search of bugs. It's nice to see them emerge from the Palace, even if conditions are less than favourable. Although there is something rather majestic about a short, shuffling chicken emerging from the fog.

Wet, muddy conditions are a pain in the neck when it comes to pekins. Their beautiful foot feathers get clogged up with balls of mud which have to be gently soaked away so as to not cause serious foot problems. Luckily for me, my girls are pretty sensible and dislike getting their feet dirty. After a brief foray, they can be seen perched in the run fastidiously cleaning their feathers. I still check their feet regularly during the winter. It is a problem which can easily be rectified if spotted early, and a real welfare concern. Many pekin breeders who show never let their birds free range for this reason (plus broken foot feathers from digging up your plants looks scruffy). Personally, I'd rather give the odd pedicure and have them careering about the place.

During the summer months, the chooks use various inconsiderate places to dust bath. Barely a pot or container is left undisturbed in their efforts to beautify themselves. During the cold/snow/frozen ground/muddy months, things get a bit trickier. I have run out of clean, dry dustbathing materials and the girls are not happy. In fact, so great is Purdy's displeasure that she decided to bathe herself in the soggy border. She is now stalking about the garden looking like someone has used her to clean around a U-bend. Spikey, scrawny and covered in mud, I can't help thinking that this was not the effect she was aiming for. Every so often she strectches up and flaps her wings, sending arcs of sloppy mud flying across the rest of the flock. They mutter offendedly and shuffle further away from the skanky hen.

I will be buying some play sand in the morning.

Monday, 27 December 2010

A Christmas Miracle

Sorry for the lack of posts, but it is Christmas. Plus I'm still shaking off the vestiges of woman-flu/pleurisy, so my blog writing has had to take a bit of a back seat. You'll be pleased to hear, though, that now I'm back to update you all on the flock news!

You may recall that the freeloading feather bags haven't actually laid me an egg in months. Well, that all changed on Christmas Eve when Purdy decided to break the drought. I was so surprised to see an egg in the nest box that at first I thought it was a mirage. I reached out for the small-yet-perfectly-formed egg half expecting to clutch at empty air. Purdy watched the egg collection with interest, clearly expecing a medal, or at the least a handful of raisins. I did not disappoint her and snuck her some treats. She strutted about the run with a distinct self satisfied air which did not go unnoticed.

Celia proved that her broody psychosis is completely irrational by ignoring the actual, real egg and instead attempting to hatch woodshavings. I am no nearer to curing Celia of her madness and while there is still snow on the ground I doubt that I will. As long as she is eating and drinking I just have to cross my fingers that she'll remain strong enough to get through the winter, because as soon as spring hits that hen needs a bath and her toenails clipping. Never the most vain of hens, Celia is beginning to resemble Rab.C. Nesbitt. To be fair, though, none of the hens have been able to dust bath in the frozen earth. As soon as the roads are passable I will be heading out to buy some sand/compost so that they can clean themselves. Due to my illness I haven't been spending nearly as much time with my girls as I'd like, and I can't help fretting.

I hope you've all had a good Christmas.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Twelve Days Of Christmas, Madchickenlady Style

On the twelfth day of Christmas my chickens gave to me:

12 hatching eggs
11 weeks broody
10 (very nearly)
9 bins of compost
8 hens a-squawking
7 sane non-broodies
6 eggs on average
5 trips to the vet!
4 new girls
3 peeping chicks
2 attempts to hatch
...and an ASBO Chicken in the Palace!

Please don't judge. I'm stuck on the sofa with an illness and have had a lot of time on my hands.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Congratulations! It's A Nest Box!

You know that hen who went broody in September? Just as it started to get cold and miserable? Celia? Guess what? She is still broody. Yes, hard as it is to believe, the insane silver partridge is still firmly welded to the nest. I have had various attempts at breaking the spell, but she just plays along until I think she's cured and then legs it up the ramp as soon as I turn my back. I'm beginning to wonder if her software needs a reboot.

I've had determined broodies before, but generally the psychosis sets in during a more rational time of the year. Such as the spring or summer. As temperatures are plummeting well in to the minuses here in the midlands, I have to wonder just how crackers Celia is. No rational hen would consider these conditions perfect for rearing chicks in. The fact that she hasn't even had an egg to sit on in weeks and weeks is also perplexing. Usually a broody only stays broody for any length of time if she can find eggs to sit on/steal. Curiously, Celia doesn't seem interested in eggs. I have come to the conclusion that the little oddball is trying to hatch the nest box.

If I shut her out, she chunters with distress for a bit before joining the rest of the flock on a foray about the garden. As soon as able, though, she's back in to her beloved nest. The rest of the hens ignore her having obviously written her off as loopy. She is eating and drinking, and her overall condition is good. Apart from her tummy/chest feathers, which have taken on a bit of a wavy appearance what with being rubbed in to wood shavings for hours and hours a day.

If the weather was warmer, I would dunk her in a bucket of water and then broody cage her. However, with the cold being quite extreme the first option would be animal cruelty and even the second option leaves her at risk of not making it through the night. So I have devised a cunning plan. Her favoured nest box is the one nearest the pop hole. Tomorrow morning I am going to block it off. Now, she might just move next door which will be a little annoying (but not a major issue because none of the hens are currently laying. I could just shut down the whole nest box wing of the Palace). But if like I suspect she is actually mothering nest box number four, she might come to her senses.

Well, I can hope.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Palace Is Suitably Adorned

Now that the snow and ice have made a temporary retreat, the ever tolerant husband and I got outside this morning to clean the Palace run. The girls took the opportunity to have some time rampaging around the garden which was lovely to see. The poor things haven't left the Palace in over a week. They don't do the cold, white stuff. The garden has gone from a scene of serene, beautiful winter to a recreation of the Somme. I'm sure I used to have a lawn under the mud somewhere.

On a happier note, may I present the unveiling of the Palace's fab new sign:

A very talented Twitter friend made it for me, and I love it.

That's Mabel and Maude starring in paint form. The Mighty Mille's deserve recognition.

I am ridiculously pleased with it, and have deliberately placed it on the end of the Palace which gets the least sunlight to prevent fading. It's also visible from the kitchen, and every time I see it I grin. The ever tolerant husband is bemused but glad that I am no longer hassling him to make me a sign.

Now for the solar powered fairy lights.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

One Flew Over The Chicken's Nest

I've been keeping hens for two and a half years at this stage and consider myself to have a fairly good grasp as to what it involves. I have dealt with illnesses and deaths, injuries and bullying, and even the world famous ASBO Chicken's cowbag mood swings. On the whole, I thought I'd seen it all. So imagine my surprise when I looked out of the kitchen window earlier to see a chicken sitting on the roof of the greenhouse.

At first I thought I must be mistaken. Surely that vague chicken shape was merely melting snow inching its way down the glass? Erm, no. That would be Hilda the white pekin. Sitting on the greenhouse roof. Looking rather startled.

I barely paused to tug on my boots before legging it down the garden. As I left the house, I shrieked for the ever tolerant husband over my shoulder. The greenhouse is eight foot high at its peak, and Hilda was sitting on the glass roof very near the ridge. After my mad dash down the garden I found myself clueless as to how to proceed. Hilda peered down at me with interest while the ever tolerant husband stood in the door way hardly believeing his eyes.

Pekins can't fly. It's a basic fact of the breed. Their stubby wings and rotund bodies can at best manage a sort of flapping jump. I have never clipped a pekins wings for this reason. Yet here was Hilda, somehow having scaled at least seven feet. Now I may have mentioned that I didn't think that Hilda was the best example of a pekin. She has limited foot feathering and a rather pointed tail, none of which is desirable in the breed. However I have no intention of breeding or showing my birds, so I can happily overlook these things without any consequence. Or so I thought. Because apparently Hilda's non-Pekin-ness means that she can get some serious height in to her flight.

As I stood there, vaguely formulating a plan involving a broom, Hilda began to move. The snow that she had landed on was inching its way like a glacier towards the edge of the roof. At first she didn't seem to notice and carried on watching me in an interested sort of way. As momentum built she adopted that long necked, comically startled expression that chooks do so well. She began her squawk just as she slid in to grabbable distance, and I managed to rescue the errant hen before she ski jumped from the roof in to the roses. It wasn't the best save in the world, as Hilda ended up upside down and hanging on to my thumb by one claw, but at least she wasn't buried under the avalanche her descent had created.

I righted the adventurous chicken and she seemed no worse for wear from her ordeal. The ever tolerant husband tried unsuccessfully to suppress a guffaw and made a passing remark about 'You've Been Framed'. Hilda stalked back in to the coop with her head held high, clearly trying to preserve her dignity. As all of the other hens had watched proceedings from the run perches, I closed the door after her so that she wouldn't attempt to fly south for the winter. I can only assume that the covering of snow made her think that the greenhouse roof was a legitimate landing strip.

Hilda may need grounding.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Seriously Unimpressed

When I look out in to my garden, I see a six inch covering of snow. Everything is white and sparkly and beautiful. Icicles hang from the Palace's roof and frosted spiders webs decorate the fence. Where once there was water there is now ice. And where once there were eight chickens pootling about the garden there are now....well, no chickens pootling about the garden.

The chooks are refusing point blank to engage with the weather in any way, shape or form. They make brief excursions out in to the run to eat and drink, but that's it. The rest of the time they are holed up in the coop no doubt muttering darkly about the lack of sunshine and heat. I make frequent visits to break the ice in the drinker and check on my feathered friends. No amount of bribery will bring them out of the Palace. I even tried throwing an enticing handful of corn out on to the frozen tundra, but they watched the arc of the treat fly through the air like specatators at Wimbledon and then stared at me. The message was clear: you'll have to do better than that.

Keeping them clean and warm has been a bit of a challenge if I'm honest. The newspaper I use under the perch was frozen to the coop floor this morning and when it finally came loose, peeled off in a solid sheet. Thankfully the copious amount of poo was similairly frozen and adhered to said sheet. I found myself in the strange position of trying to fold this befouled tabloid in to the compost bin. It wasn't as brittle as you'd expect.  The girls watched all of this from the perches in the run and complained bitterly about being temporarily evicted from their quarters. Replacing the paper and perch, I threw in a few handfuls of woodshavings to help with the extra dung being produced by eight housebound hens.

Here's hoping that the arctic conditions let up soon.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Thank Heavens For The Palace

More snow has descended on us overnight. The girls have refused to leave the coop for the third day in a row and only venture out to grab food and water. This is my first winter with the Palace, and I have to say I am hugely grateful for it. Last winter I spent hours clearing the Convent's run and weighing down tarpaulin to keep the chooks dry and draught free. Now I don't have to do anything except defrost the drinker regularly. The Palace is worth every penny.

If you look carefully, you will see eight small hens scoffing porridge.

The snow has dared to breach the Palace run walls, but the hens are ignoring it.

Obviously bored of waiting for me to sort out some festive decorations, the Palace has provided its own. And very nice they are too.

I am not sponsored by Smiths Sectional Buildings, but I would highly recommend them if you're looking for good quality housing.

If anyone from Smiths is reading this, I am not adverse to being sponsored and being paid in chocolate. Ahem.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Some Winter Tips

With temperatures not rising above freezing for days, it's fair to say that it's a bit parky. The boiler is being put in to full time service and I for one am beginning to wish we had a fireplace. Bloody modern houses and their lack of chimneys. Still, I am keeping warm with various oh-so-stylish layers, many hot drinks and a hot water bottle. These options are not open to the hens, sadly.

So, I thought this might be a good time to make some husbandry suggestions. Chickens can tolerate cold, but they cannot cope with cold and damp. As long as their coop is dry and draught free they will be fine using each other for warmth. I always make sure that the nest boxes have extra bedding in at this time of year just in case the girls want to use them as bedrooms. So far they remain poo free, so I can deduce that all eight chooks are snuggling together on the roosting bars. I am still leaving the pop hole open at present, but it really depends on the design of your chook housing as to whether closing it would be of any benefit.

I cannot over emphasise the importance of making sure that your birds have access to fresh water in this weather. They will be drinking considerably less in the cold, but they still need to keep hydrated. My drinker is freezing over within three hours at the moment, so I am checking it regularly and defrosting it as required. I have a plastic drinker and my girls are just a short walk from the back door so this isn't a huge problem. However, if you keep your birds at a bit of a distance you will have to be a bit more cunning. If you have a galvanised drinker you could try placing a lit tealight under a upturned terracotta plant pot and standing your drinker on top of it. It should provide just enough heat to stop the water from freezing. Of course, this is best done outside of the henhouse. No one wants to call the fire brigade with the immortal words: 'My chickens have set fire to the house!'.

Your hens will be fine on their usual rations even in the depths of winter. However, if you're a softy like me you can make them warm porridge. I use one dessert spoon of basic porridge oats per bird, and mix it up with warm water. I generally add a teaspoon of poultry spice to this, and either a small handful of raisins or mixed corn. My girls go mad for this mixture, and I feel better knowing that they've had something warm. How beneficial this is to the birds is questionable, but it doesn't do any harm. If porridge is not on the cards for some reason, I do always throw some mixed corn in to the run for them to scratch at. My chooks are not laying now, so I'm happy enough to see them put on a little bit of weight (Little being the operative word. Fat chickens are not healthy chickens).

Lastly, even though it is bitterly cold and you'd rather be indoors (understandable) please don't neglect the weekly health checks. I certainly spend less time outside at this time of year than at others so actually handling the girls becomes more important. Spotting any problems early gives your chickens the best chance of making it safely through the winter.

Ok, lecture over. Back to writing the Christmas cards.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

First Snow

We awoke to a slight covering of snow this morning. Despite having hideous woman-flu, I dragged myself out of my warm bed so that I could attend to the birds. Trudging across the frozen ground in my dressing gown and boots I'm sure I cut a very stylish figure. The hens were nowhere to be seen. I found them all huddled together on the perch block looking thoroughly unimpressed.

They seem to remember the white stuff from earlier this year and are having nothing to do with it. In fact, the insolent weather has had the sheer cheek of encroaching in to the Palace's run. It has even dared to cover the bottom half of the ramp. When I replaced the thawed out drinker I watched in great amusement as eight grumbling hens made their way gingerly down the ramp to the very edge of the snow. The lead hen, in this case Mabel, refused to step on the cold crunchy stuff and her sudden stop led to a squawking pile up. Much muttering and craning of necks occurred as everyone tried to work out what the hold up was. Maeve was bringing up the rear and still stuck in the coop. Everyone stayed still for a moment wondering what would happen next. What happened next is that Maeve pecked Celia hard on the bum, causing her to scarper from the ramp on to the run perch. Finding this method successful, Maeve continued dispatching her flockmates as she mooched determinedly towards breakfast. When the only obstacle in her way became the mighty Mabel she seriously considered more of the same tactics. However, a low bok from outr illustrious leader seemed to remind the younger hen of who was actually in charge around here. Wisely, Maeve backed up a little and broke eye contact. The other hens were by now stuffing their crops, and Mabel seemed to be quite deliberately keeping Maeve on the naughty step. I admired her technique. In fact, I took notes.

Eventually, everyone was fed and watered. The six older girls then immediately made their way back inside. The newbies however had never seen snow before and spent a happy ten minutes exploring it like inquisitive toddlers. Once it had been walked on, pecked at and eaten though the novelty wore off. Unfortunately the troublesome twosome were now in the border and scared to cross the white expanse to get back home. With some human assistance, they also legged it back in to the coop.

Pekins do not like snow.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Darth Doris And The Onset Of Winter Proper

Now that winter is in full swing the hens and I see each other mostly divided by double glazing. Much as I love my chooks, sitting outside in the freezing cold does not appeal. I sit at the kitchen table with a cup of tea. Occassionally, Gladys will wander up to the back door and tap haughtily, demanding a treat. I perform the necessary husbandry quickly so that I can get back to the central heating. Therefore, the girls have to work a bit harder to get my attention.

Doris has hit upon a novel way of getting me to linger. She breathes heavily through her nostrils. The sound is hard to describe, and saying that she sounds like a chicken doing an impression of Darth Vader probably won't help. Yet that is what she sounds like. She perches in the Palace run, happily deep breathing apparently at will. If I grab her for a closer examination, all nostril music abruptly ceases. I go through the necessary health checks and come up blank. We stare at each other for a bit. Sometimes Doris tries to engage me in conversation 'Bok bok bok?'. The second I place her back down and turn to come inside, the Sith impersonation starts up again. Sometimes she stops if I give her a hard look.

Maude has taken an interest in this phenomenon, and cranes her neck around to peer up her flockmates nose. She mutters interestedly to Doris while carrying out these examinations. Doris randomly Darth's, and then stops when bored. Occassionally, Maude pecks at Doris's nostrils in a spirit of helping. This is rarely appreciated, but does stop the droning. As Doris is showing no signs of illness or lack of condition, I am for now going to put this behaviour down to attention seeking.

Luckily, the hens have no access to the weather forecast. I do, and am bracing myself for possible snow in the next few days. Whether or not the white stuff shows up is debatable, but the freezing conditions at night are not. I will be adding a deep layer of woodshavings to all nest boxes so that the girls can make themselves comfortable. Sleeping in the nest boxes is deeply undesirable when the hens are laying, but as none are I am quite happy for them to be used as bedrooms.

Although I pity whoever ends up sharing with the still arsey Maeve.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Rain It Raineth Every Day

We are in soggy, damp winter hell. In between bouts of rain, the fog descends just to ensure that everything stays dank and miserable. Several times on the way out to deal with the birds I have gone skidding across the patio on the slipperiest substance known to man: soggy chicken excrement. Lovely. I am beginning to think that the placement of these mini turds is deliberate. Maeve can often be seen loitering around the back step looking suspicious.

Poor ASBO Chicken is still in moult and it is beginning to get her down. Even her favourite pastimes of chasing underlings and ambushing superiors have lost their appeal. So desperately itchy is she that she will tolerate me rubbing her quill-spiky neck without attempting a fingerectomy. Her foot feathers have grown in beautifully, but the head, neck and hackle feathers are taking their time. Hopefully she will be back to her evilly gorgeous, bouffanted, black self by Christmas.

Celia is on day three of lock out. She seems to be coming around and taking more notice of the others, so my hopes are high that this approach will work. The dodgy-eyed Doris seems much better at this point and I am hoping that my trips to the vet are now over for this year. I think every keeper has a run of bad health in the flock, but after last years months of misery I rather feel that I've earned a few hassle free seasons. Of course, even typing this is tempting fate so I'm both touching wood and crossing fingers.

The Palace will soon have a bespoke sign courtesy of a very talented Twitter pal. Once it arrives and is in place expect a photo. It is everything I had hoped for and more, and even has the mighty Mille's featured. You will be impressed, I guarantee it.

Now I just have to source the perfect solar fairy lights and some bunting.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Oh, The Guilt

Celia is still broody. This has been going on for weeks, if not months, and enough is enough. It is a cold, damp day here and I have bitten the bullet. Celia has been ejected from the nest and the coop door has been closed. Access denied, would-be mother hen.

Broody hens make a curious low level bokking sound. It sounds nervy and anxious because it is. In Celia's hormonal mind, every second she is away from the nest her invisible eggs are in danger. In between this worried chuntering she will stuff her face with pellets and have a swift drink. Usually, though, she is away from the nest for mere minutes before legging it back up the ramp. This morning she found her way barred and set up a pitiful racket of maternal anxiety. I feel hideously guilty, but will persevere.

I had assumed that she would come out of her broody spell naturally once the weather got cold enough but that has proved not to be the case. In fact, the fact that she hasn't had an egg to steal in ages also hasn't cured her. Purdy shook off her broody spell as soon as she realised it was pointless. Celia seems not to have a 'common sense' switch. Day after day, she sits on nothing, in a psychotic trance and growling at any of the other chooks that wander too close. Such insubordination usually earns her a swift peck. Even being regularly duffed up hasn't made her see sense.

As I sit here typing this, she is still running laps around the Palace attempting to find another way in and shrieking her head off. Maeve periodically joins in the chase, which at least silences her as she needs all of her breath to escape the narky moulting one. I am hoping that she will eat more while locked out because her own daftness is beginning to affect her weight. At this time of year, this cannot be allowed to continue.

Let's hope she comes to her senses quickly.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Hanging In There

We're back from our wanderings, and I'm pleased to report that Doris seems to be on the mend. The spot has vanished and the inflammation looks like it's on the retreat. So a collective sigh of relief all round. My heroic chicken sitter managed to administer all of the medicine without serious incident so I will be delivering a bottle of wine to her door with copious amounts of grovelling thanks. Hopefully she hasn't been put off for life.

The Palace stood firm in the face of extreme gales the night we left, for which I am eternally grateful. I can just imagine the ever tolerant husband's face if we came home to a pile of very expensive timber. My chicken sitter came to check on the girls early the next morning and confessed that she was apprehensive about what she would find, the wind was that strong. The hens were apparently unmoved by the whole experience and just demanded raisins. Typical of them, really.

The temperature has plummeted over the last few days and this morning we awoke to a thick frost. Pekins are not generally happy about cold/wet conditions, so when released this morning they hopped from one foot to the other across the lawn to the relative comfort of the sunny patio. The lawn gets a break over the winter from chickenny attentions, but the patio takes a beating. I am not looking forward to chiselling rock hard poultry poo from the slabs before the ever tolerant husband gets home.

All in all, it's good to be home.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Hurricane Chicken

To say it is a tad blowy here would be a huge understatement. There is a silver birch opposite our house which is virtually touching it's toes and several wheelie bins have gone sailing regally past the window. I am watching the high jinks with trepidation. We are supposed to be catching a flight tonight to visit the ever tolerant husband's family. I am not the best aircraft passenger as it is and am considering dulling my anxiety with vast quantaties of vodka. However, the journey is only part of my anxiety. I am also reluctant to leave my girls.

I did battle with the elements this morning to clean the coop out ready for their long incarceration. After being slapped in the face with droppings laden newspaper and picking bits of well used woodshavings out of my teeth they were at least clean and dry. The hens usually vacate the premises during a clean, but the unpleasant conditions meant that I had to clean around them. No easy feat when Maeve wants fingers for breakfast. My chicken sitter has been briefed and is coming this afternoon to give Doris a taste of her own medicine. I'm hoping that the chicken side of the equation will behave, and that the human side will keep her courage. Fingers crossed, eh?

I am keeping an eye on the weather reports and confess to feeling uneasy. We are predicted winds of up to 80mph here this evening and as we live on top of a hill we're rather exposed. I have been around the Palace, tugging at the roof looking for any signs of movement. So far it appears rock solid, and I can only pray that it stays that way. With all the under eaves venting it would be the work of a moment for a mischievious gust of wind to whip under it and lift it off. At least, this is what I fear in my darker moments. I envision eight heroic little chickens clinging on to the perch and being sucked off of it one by one, never to be seen again. Although to be fair Maeve would probably have devised some kind of anchoring system.

Doris's eye is no better, but no worse. She continues to eat, drink and harass the youngsters so I am not overly concerned at the moment (she says with her fingers, toes and everything else crossed). I am reluctant to leave her though while she has a problem. In an ideal world, I'll return from our travels to find her perfectly fit. Experience tells me that this is highly unlikely, but it's nice to be optimistic occassionally.

Let us hope for less turbulent times.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

An Indignity Too Far

After this mornings post I spent a few hours ruminating on the problem of Doris's spotty eye. Eventually, I decided I'd rather take her to the vet and be mugged for twenty quid while the vet looked vaguely puzzled than live with the uncertainty. At least then my conscience would be clear. As luck would have it, though, I managed to get an appointment with a thoroughly charming vet who had recently been on a poultry course. Result!

The hens have become wary of the cat carrier. All too often they have seen one of their flockmates packed in to it and returned to them some time later with a haunted look in their eyes. Or worse, not returned at all. Therefore, Doris did not greet the sight of the carrier with glee. In fact, as I attempted to gently lower her in to it, she spread her wings and essentially made herself a cat carrier hat. After some careful folding, I had the grumbling girl secured. The rest of the flock looked on solemnly with barely a murmur.

Doris behaved herself impeccably en route to the surgery. I placed the carrier on my lap in the passenger seat and she bopped her head away to a Nickelback song. Chickens have limited taste in music, I find. She looked merely interested as we pulled up in the car park, and slightly bored as we walked up the steps to the reception. All going well so far.

After checking in, we took a seat in the waiting room. At this point Doris seemed to work out that Something Was Up. Neck stretched high, she bokked a low alarm call. I soothed her and hoped that no one was about to barge in with an excitable terrier. Yep, thought Doris, Something Is Definitely Up. She was just working her way up to a full on 'I am NOT liking this!' bokking crescendo when the charming vet ushered us in.

She decided to go along with it as the vet lifted her up and looked at her this way and that. She even sat placidly while he used a bright light to examine her spotty eye. When he squeezed the area above her nostrils, she told him off but managed to restrain herself from removing his fingernail. I was quite proud. At this point, the vet was thinking that some eye ointment was all that was necessary. However, just as he was about to dispense the ointment, he decided to just check her temperature. Instructing me to hold her still facing me, he advanced with the thermometer.

Now, some people will tell you that it is very hard to read expressions on a birds face. Some might say impossible. Chickens are without eyebrows or lips, so they are rather limited it's true. However, when the vet took Doris's temperature the shock was very much written all over her small beaky chops. Eyes wide and beak hanging open, the poor girl just could not believe that this was happening. Stunned in to silence initially, she let out an air raid siren of 'How very dare you!'. Withdrawing the thermometer, the vet was just telling me that Doris had a temperature of 107.5F (a normal body temperature for a chicken is around 104F) when she got her revenge. I knew the signs as she dipped her head and lifted her tail but didn't get a chance to warn the poor vet. He found his pristine examining table, and not a small portion of his white coat, splattered with narky hen excrement. Feeling that her point had been made, Doris turned around and glared at him. Hastily, I shoved her back in to the carrier and made a speedy exit.

So Doris is on Baytril, a small dose twice a day, to treat an infection. The vet also gave her an injection of Baytril to get it in to her system. I have put her back out with the flock rather than seperate her. It's a tricky line to tread when it comes to seperation versus flock integration, but right now I think she's better with her chums. I am hoping to see a marked improvement come the weekend as we are travelling.

So now I have to break the news to my hen sitter that she will have to administer oral antibiotics to a small chicken. I should probably buy her a bottle of wine.

Mycoplasma Is Evil

Ok, I give up. After four days of squirting antibiotic eye drops in to Doris's spotty eye, I'm reaching for the Tylan. She still shows no respiratory symptoms, but now her other eye is bubbling slightly. I loathe dosing the whole flock, but it seems to cause less stress all round rather than seperating Doris and treating her on her own. Plus, myco is generally present in the whole flock if one shows symptoms. I still suspect that Doris is just low from her moult, but I'm not taking any chances. I am reminded of my long battle this time last year to save my beloved Mini and feel generally quite glum.

The weather hasn't helped my mood. It has been blowing a gale here now for two days and the ground is decidedly spongey. The chooks are not impressed and have stayed in the coop only venturing forth for pellets and the now medicated water. On occassional forays in to the run they sit on the perches out of the wind and we all eyeball each other miserably. Maeve's hackle feathers are growing in now, so she's slightly less demented and the whole flock is thankful.

I wrap up in wet weather gear to go out and attend to them which is a sight they find troubling. The wind snapping my windbreaker causes a kefuffle, so I haven't even had and chickenny cuddles to cheer me up. This morning, while cleaning the coop, I heard several sneezes and saw a few headshakes. I have my fingers crossed that everyone just has a cold, but my experiences last autumn make me feel terribly fatalistic.

I promise I'll cheer up for the next post.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

We Are Back In Business

As usual, I have spent the last two nights on edge and worrying about the girls as the rest of the country plays at being explosives experts. Also as usual, the girls have been absolutely fine and seem completely unmoved by all my fussing. I should probably learn something from that.

There have been some slightly concerning weather reports that we're in for a rough ride through tonight and in to tomorrow. The wind is expected to reach gale force and there is talk of localised flooding. In our case it will be very localised, as we are on top of a hill yet our garage is apparently immune to the natural laws of physics. Every time we get a heavy downpour the bloody thing fills up. I am beginning to wonder whether it secretly harbours a desire to call itself an indoor pool. So this afternoon I went through a ridiculous process of clearing all damagable items from the garage floor, and balancing them on top of undamagable things. It's a bit like a particularly evil game of Jenga. The hens watched me with interest from the doorway, occassionally offering muttered encouragement or letting out an alarmed squawk as a sack of feed tried to launch itself at my bent head. They are sometimes very helpful.

They followed me cheerfully around the garden as I packed away hanging baskets and any potential missiles that could take out the greenhouse. Typically, their enthusiasm waned as it became obvious that I was not going to offer a treat or dig up the garden a bit so that they could go worm hunting. I finished battening down the hatches in peace, and then sauntered casually towards Doris. Yesterday, this approach had worked but the wily blue hen was now on her guard. She stood tall and chuntered a 'Don't even think about it, mate'. Unfortunately for her as a responsible chicken keeper I did have to think about it, and I scooped her up as she attempted to escape between my wellies. Doris has a small pimple on her lower eyelid. It's probably nothing serious, and she has had similair occurrences in the past, but I'm not taking any chances. I have some eye drop antibiotics which were issued for my beloved Mini, and poor Doris has to endure this treatment three times a day. Once captured, she tends to submit to the drops with an air of weary resignation. Still, getting an eye drop in to a chicken's eye is no easy task. She generally shakes her head once the medicine finds its target. Tomorrow I must remember to close my mouth. Bleurgh.

My adventures outside were rounded off nicely today though by finding an egg in the nest box. I haven't had an egg off of my girls for at least six weeks, so I was most pleased. I am guessing that Purdy left this small treasure, but I didn't spot anyone in the coop so can't be sure.

May there be many more to come.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Remember, Remember, The Fifth Of November...

Yes, it's that time of year again. The day that for some bizarre reason we celebrate killing Guy Fawkes by letting anyone with a valid birth certificate buy explosives. Marvellous. You can probably tell that I'm not a fan.

Last night, despite high winds, one of my neighbours decided to celebrate early. As rockets flew up the road, blown off course by the gales and flying horizontally, I gritted my teeth. Practicing an air of tolerance and good neighbourliness, I managed to only mutter under my breath instead of hanging out of the window calling them morons. As a rocket explodes mere feet above your car it can be quite difficult to not slap the endearingly grinning and shrugging neighbour. However, I kept all urges for violence in check and spent the evening fretting about the birds.

Dodging out of control rockets and escaped catherine wheels I filled a bucket with water just in case one of these pretty fire bombs set fire to the Palace. As all pet owners know, animals don't like fireworks. They don't stand outside staring skywards going 'ooh' and 'aah'. They spend the noise barage cowering, shaking and generally on the verge of a heart attack. Even our demented budgie retreated to the bottom of his cage and attempted to comfort himself by doing his very best 'washing machine on spin cycle' impression.

I stood outside and waited for a lull in the bombardment before peering in to the coop. All of the girls were snuggled together in their respective places. They blinked at me blearily as I shone the torch around to make sure that there were no traumatised hens rocking wide eyed in the corner. Chickens are amazingly relaxed about noise once they are asleep. There was no panic, and when a rocket squealed over head there was just a low level muttering, like elderly ladies gossiping and feigning shock. Taking no chances, I locked them in to block out as much of the light show as possible and ran back to the house before the neighbour could score a direct hit.

Once the fire starter had run out of ammunition things calmed down. However, tonight is the official firework extravaganza and no doubt tomorrow will be equally pyrotechnic. So, my advice to all hen keepers is to lock your chooks up as soon as it gets dark. If they can't see it, it doesn't seem to worry them. If they are asleep before the re-enactment of the Blitz commences, they are unlikely to be troubled. However, if you live next door to a professional display, it might be worth moving your birds if possible. I know quite a few pet keepers who set up home for their girls in the garage at this time of year.

After this weekend, the skies should be quiet until New Year.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Maeve Loses Her Mojo

Maeve is half the chicken she was. Before our very eyes, she is diminishing in size. It goes without saying that she is seriously narked about the whole affair. She angrily rips out stray feathers and spits them contemptuously on the grass. The coop is generously upholstered with black fluff which the other hens tip toe warily around. I wonder if chickens are superstitious and fear that ASBO's cowbag tendencies might be catching. In the middle of this feather storm sits a seething, raggedy creature no bigger than a pigeon.

I have tried comforting her, but got a nasty peck for my troubles. The welt is still on my finger. If I offer her treats, she either ignores me or picks up the piece of apple or crust of bread and tosses it on to the floor. All the time her orange eyes glitter with malevolence. I find it best to back slowly away.

The other hens are in fine form. Gladys and Hilda appear to have been accepted fully at this point, and all the girls sit together on the run perches and preen. Apart from Maeve, of course. Maeve is not feeling particularly proud of her appearance. To be fair, she does currently have a band of spikes where her neck feathers should be and no arse. It is not her best look. They studiously ignore her as she stroppily rips up the newspaper I use to line the coop floor and tosses it out of the pop hole door. They rightly recognise her attention seeking behaviour, and like good parents everywhere,  pretend it isn't happening.

So far we are weathering the storm.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Doris The Incredible Colour Changing Chicken

Huh. This is an odd thing. Doris, my blue pekin, is currently going through her moult. The poor thing hasn't enjoyed it much. Doris is prone to myco-type infections and any stress brings on a return of symptoms. For a few days, she had the sneezes and a runny eye. Luckily, it all seems to have settled down again now without me having to resort to Tylan. However, something unusual has occurred.

Doris has always been a pure blue pekin. Well, a pretty grey colour in reality, but blue is the official colour. Today while giving her the once over I found one jet black feather near her tail. Thinking it was a stray from Maeve, I went to pluck it free. Doris's shriek let me know that it was very firmly attached to her behind. I stared at in bemusement. Never has Doris, in her two years of residency, had a black feather. How curious. I quickly checked for any other randomly coloured plumage but came up blank. Hmmm.

I have two theories. One, that Doris in some bizarre reverse aging process is changing from her original grey to a darker hue. Perhaps she will be downhearted by this sign of impending decrepitude and will start tapping on the back door looking for an application of 'Nice'n'Easy'. Or, and I admit this is unlikely, ASBO Chicken is attempting to take over the flock by assimilation and Doris is her first victim. Perhaps the other birds will start showing random black feathering, slowly increasing until I have a coop full of Maeve clones. A chilling thought for Halloween.

I would be willing to hear a more plausable explanation.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Happy Halloween!

ASBO Chicken reveals her true nature.
(Many thanks to the ever tolerant husband and his computer wizardry. Also huge respect to him for not even raising an eyebrow when asked to do this. He is marvellous).

Cleaning The Palace

As the year oozes in to November, I have a strong suspicion that the opportunities for a full on Palace scrub are probably ebbing away. So today, despite having a hideous dose of woman flu, I decided to give the girls' residence a deep clean. Armed with scrubbing brush, dustpan, broom, bucket and disinfectant I headed outside to disrupt the chooks busy schedule of lazing about the place and pooing in inconvenient places.

First, I had to remove all the aubiose from the run. Removing all of the chicken paraphenalia (drinker/feeder/grit hopper/interesting perching log) I shovelled the well used bedding in to a bucket before emptying said bucket in to the bin. Theoretically, this should take no more than ten minutes. It takes significantly longer when a very bad tempered chicken decides to 'help'. As I began to fill the first bucket, the relentlessly arsey ASBO Chicken appeared in the doorway. She watched me half fill the bucket and then jumped up in to it. Suddenly I found myself with a loaded dustpan staring down at a hissing Maeve. I deliberated for a moment, and then unceremoniously dumped the contents of the dustpan in to the bucket anyway. This did not please our would-be dictator, and she squawked and flapped her displeasure. She still didn't get out of the bucket, though. After emptying another two fragrant loads over Maeve, I realised that she was not going to admit defeat and leave voluntarily. Briefly, I considered emptying her in to the bin with the bucket's contents. In the end, though, I bribed her with imaginary corn. Cupping my hand and cooing 'Chook, chook, chook!' at her, I led her from the Palace grounds. She eyed me with suspicion initially, but greed got the better of her.

As Maeve hunted for the invisible corn, I turned my attention to the coop. Removing the perch block, I emptied all of the old newspaper and started sweeping out the nest boxes. Celia is still broody, and clamped determinedly to the fourth nest box. Gingerly, I reached out to move her. She managed to get the soft flesh between my thumb and first finger and give it a really good twist. I treated the psychotic harridan to some inventive swearing before using the sleeves of my coat like oven mitts and dumping her on to the lawn. She lay there muttering like a boneless tea cosy for a moment before drunkenly staggering off. Now the Palace was empty and clean. Good.

The ramp and perch block tend to get rather mucky so I always scrub them down with a weak disinfectant solution. As I set about scrubbing the ramp, Hilda and Gladys wandered over to investigate. With every upward scrub the cleaning mixture sprayed skywards. The two adolescent newbies thought this was brilliant and took to running back and forth in front of me, looking for all the world like toddlers in a sprinkler. Unfortunately this water was rather mucky and Hilda is now covered in dots of poo. Lovely.

Before replacing the run bedding and nest box woodshavings I sprinkled the Palace liberally with red mite powder. I have yet to have an outbreak of the dreaded mite, but it is better to be safe than sorry. Once everything was dry, I returned it to its rightful place. There is something inherently satisfying about cleaning out the hens, and I stood back to admire its pristine cosiness. The hens wandered over to investigate the new arrangements. We then all stood for a moment, taking in perfection. Sadly the spell was broken as Mabel defecated on the doorstep and then Doris booted aubiose in to the drinker, but it was nice while it lasted.

I like to think that they appreciate my efforts.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Insulation Has Its Downside

Pekins are wonderfully feathery. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that two thirds of the little round bird you see is comprised of feathers. A soggy pekin is a pitifully skinny (although amusing) sight. In the summer this over-abundance is a pain, and my girls can be seen panting in the shade. I imagine it's a bit like being wrapped in a high tog duvet all year round. However, in the winter it's a God send.

I will freely admit to fretting about my girls once the thermometer dips below zero. Last winter, when the temperature hit the perishing lows of minus twelve, I almost smuggled them indoors. The only thing that stopped me was the thought of the ever tolerant husband getting up in the night to use the toilet, only to turn sleepily around to find eight small chickens perched on the side of the bath. I couldn't see it going down well. Instead, I made them comfortable with extra bedding, hot porridge and extra corn rations. All was appreciated, but I'm not sure how much was necessary.

They appear to cope well with the cold on the whole. The one thing they are not keen on, and which frequently accompanies the colder weather, is the wind. Being light and covered in feathers is a positive disadvantage when faced with a northerly gale. For the first time this season, the air movement got up beyond a breeze today.

With a strong wind blowing, your average pekin finds walking in a straight line next to impossible. She finds herself going woefully off course. In her panic, she speeds up, which only seems to increase the problem. Hence a hen that was ambling towards the bird bath finds herself mysteriously plastered against the rhododendron bush in the corner. She will usually mutter in alarm, before attempting to reverse her course back to the Palace. Unfortunately, the wind whistling down the garden means that she is more likely to end up in the greenhouse where she will huddle with fellow refugees.

When the wind is particularly strong, I don't let the girls free range. I learnt my lesson last year when a frightened Maude attempted to fly back home to safety only to find herself smeared across the patio doors. I'm not sure who was more traumatised to be honest. Today the wind wasn't dangerous, but challenging at times. I watched a grimly determined Maeve dig her claws in to the soft lawn and drag herself towards the coop like a chicken Terminator, while the others cowered in the shrubbery. The wind blew her feathers over to the right, giving her a curious lop-sided look. She made the door way, and turned around to throw a disgusted look at her inferior flockmates before scoffing all the corn.

Poor Gladys has had the most trouble. All of her feathers are fluffy, so today she resembled a ball of lint in a tornado. Only by offering her a grape could I work out which end was which. As one end elongated and a beak emerged, I was surprised to find I'd been offering her backside a snack.

Let's hope for calmer weather tomorrow.

Monday, 25 October 2010

The Inpenetrable Properties Of Water

We had our first proper frost last night as the thermometer dipped below freezing. With customary anxiety, I awoke several times through the night with chickens on the brain. Particularly young frizzled chickens. Gladys has been off heat for several months at this stage, but the curious formation of her feathers make me doubt their insulation abilities. She doesn't seem to be suffering, but I am keeping a close eye. I have been told by some breeders that frizzled birds are less hardy to the winter elements, and yet others have reported no problems. I am tempted to create some kind of chicken sleeping bag, just to be sure, but have so far resisted. I imagine that the ever tolerant husband would seriously look in to redecorating the bedroom with soft walls if I were to mention the sleeping bag idea.

Blearily, I made my way downstairs this morning and peered out of the kitchen window. The hens were all present and correct and busy getting breakfasted. As I watched, Hilda mooched over to the drinker and dipped her head for a drink. Imagine her surprise when the water actually repelled her attempts. As her beak rebounded from the frozen surface, she squawked in surprise. The squawk drew Gladys's attention who curiously pecked at the previously drinkable wet stuff. They stood about a bit, unsure what to do next. Mabel sailed over in her resplendent new plumage and dipped down for a cooling drink. Meeting resistance, she eyed the drinker and then the two youngsters. Perhaps she suspected witchcraft. Before a Salem type situation could ensue, I dashed outside to collect the drinker.

When I replaced it, fully defrosted, the rest of the flock dived in to wash down their pellets. The newbies hung back, a little suspicious of the changeable H2O. The others drifted away to have a good preen, and Hilda once again approached. She pecked gingerly at the surface, and came up with a bead of water on her beak. This was apparently good enough, and both girls gulped down a cropful of water.

A little physics lesson for you ladies.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

She's Called ASBO Chicken For A Reason

Winter is well and truly here. For the last few mornings there has been a frost on the lawn, and the hens have been rather reluctant to come down for breakfast. They emerge slowly, blearily blinking in to the faint light before stuffing their crops with pellets. As soon as they've refuelled, they retreat to the relative warmth of the coop. I don't blame them.

Sometime around mid morning they decide that conditions have improved enough to warrant a rampage around the garden. After a short sprint, most end up huddled in the corner in a vain attempt to catch some warmth from the weakening sun. After just a few hours, my ladies have usually had enough. I am back to making a warm porridge for them laced with poultry spice, and they devour this before taking themselves off to bed at 6pm. All in all, the rapid change in temperature has mightily disgruntled them.

I was upstairs when I heard the cat scream. I assumed that a rogue moggy had got in to a fisticuff's situation with another of it's kind, and looked nosily out of the window. The cat was in the back garden. The hens were free ranging. Not good. By the time I got to the backdoor, I realised that I hadn't heard one bok from the girls. Hmmm.

The cat is an irregular visitor. It is a young white, ginger and black tom and has shown considerable interest in the hens over the past few months. It was now peering out from behind the blueberry bushes in the corner. I initially assumed it had taken up this vantage point all the better to stalk from. However on closer inspection, I realised that the cat was the one being stalked.

Maeve stood in the middle of the lawn, hackles and wings raised. She strutted back and forth, just a few steps, in what was clearly a 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough' manner. The cat was apparently unnerved by this which seemed odd, until I remembered that I'd heard the sound of a considerably unhappy cat just a moment ago from upstairs. The other hens were nowhere to be seen, but I could hear appalled mutterings from the coop. I suspect that once the cat had shown itself, the flock scattered. All but Maeve ran for safety. Already in a vile mood due to her moult, and with the added indignity of the lack of sunbathing opportunities at this time of year, the appearance of the feline intruder apparently proved too much. It is easy to imagine Maeve leaping in to the air, and going all kung fu master on the poor puss. Either that, or she waited for him to stalk close enough to be within pecking range, and then went for the tender flesh of the nose. Either way, Tiddles had apparently got more than he bargained for.

I watched this bizarre stand off involving one of natures most efficient hunters and a very small pissed off chicken, and thought: that's my girl. She stopped her display momentarily to eyeball me, then turned back to the cowering cat. Lifting her skirts and thrusting her head forward, she charged. The cat was up and over the fence in seconds. Maeve watched it's progress, then shook herself and nibbled at the lawn. One by one, the rest of the flock emerged and joined her. The cat sat on a neighbouring fence, and tried to regain it's poise. Every so often it would crane it's neck, presumably to make sure that the raggedy black chicken wasn't in pursuit.

I wouldn't put it past her, to be honest.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

A Helping Claw

It's a lovely autumn day here in the midlands, so I decided to force the ever tolerant husband in to helping me tidy the garden for the winter. With reasonable good humour, he battled through the ankle high lawn with our frankly rubbish hover mower. The hens watched this warily. They are not great fans of noisy garden equipment, so retreated to the Palace to mutter darkly about the pesky humans encroaching on their kingdom.

I set about tackling the greenhouse. Last year, because we were planning on moving, I neglected a lot of my gardening duties. The greenhouse was badly underused this season, but I have big plans for next year. The chooks never miss an opportunity to raid the greenhouse, so I had lots of, er, help. Every few minutes, a sneaky hen would dart in and grab a stray tomato before legging it out again. It was a tag team of thievery. I didn't want to spoil their fun by pointing out that they could eat all of the split tom's on the floor, so turned a blind eye. Much strutting about the lawn ensued.

Hilda and Gladys think they are soooo clever.

Gladys pretends she's not there, while a very nosey Hilda bobs in to shot.

Mabel watches over all the thievery with an approving eye.

Doris, Maeve, Celia and Purdy. Reservoir Chooks.

Maeve plays bouncer to the broody Celia and Purdy.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

God Help Us All

I have been secretly dreading this moment for weeks. Yesterday, while cleaning out the coop, I came across a single black feather. A jet black wing feather. I lifted it up, and a shiver ran down my spine. Maeve is in moult.

Maeve was hatched in January 2009, so last winter she didn't moult. I watched her all year, expecting a mini moult at some point, but it never came. The amazing ASBO Chicken has always been an unpredicatble lady, but I don't imagine that she will take this well. I can't say I'm looking forward to the next few weeks. This morning, there are a few bits of black fluff blowing about the lawn, and her magnificent tail is looking a bit skewiff. She came down for her breakfast as usual, but growled at the other hens face deep in the feeder. As one, they backed away. Even Mabel. No one wants to tangle with a grumpy Maeve.

To try and combat her filthy mood, I have added ACV to the water and a top dressing of poultry spice to their feed. She watched me do this from a pot on the patio, where she was attempting to dig up a clematis. Purely for the destructive fun of it. Apparently, her moult has not yet reached her foot feathers.

Every so often, I hear a demented shriek from the back garden. Maeve has decided that their should be an exclusion zone around her, and if any poor unsuspecting flock mate wanders too close, they get earache. The rest of the flock have had a few muttering meetings on the lawn, always keeping one eye on the glowering ninja in the shrubbery. The consensus seems to be that it would be best to leave her be. I think it's a wise decision.

I had some apples that were past their best, and took them outside for the girls. As the majority scoffed with abandon, Maeve stayed huddled in her dust bath. I approached with caution with half a granny Smith as a peace offering. The closer I got, the bigger Maeve grew. This ability to slowly raise and lower her hackles is quite impressive (always reminds me of that dinosaur in 'Jarassic Park'). Once the apple was within pecking range, I gently placed it on the ground and backed off. She eyeballed me the whole time, beak slightly open.
Once I had retreated to a safe distance, she investigated the treat. Obviously deciding it was wanting, she stood up, turned around and kicked mud all over it.

I predict a riot.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Egg Drought

It seems unbelievable to me that just a few months ago I was being buried under an avalanche of eggs. The girls were going full throttle, and at their most productive I was getting close to forty eggs a week. My egg basket was over flowing, and I resorted to giving boxes away to anyone who knocked on the door (the British Gas salesman looked quite bewildered). Now, I look at the two lonely eggs lurking in the bottom of said egg basket and think: I won't be able to make a cake until March.

To be fair to the flock, the two newbies are not yet in lay. Mabel, Maude and Doris are in moult, and Maeve is about to go in to it. The partridge pair are both welded to the nest, more interested in incubating phantom eggs than laying any. Still, I can't help but feel a bit hard done by. Last year I had a few eggs a week well in to November. We appear to have shut up shop early this year.

Aside from two softies (I suspect Mabel), I've had no nest box bounty for a fortnight. For the first time this year I might have to resort to buying eggs from the supermarket. Perhaps if I wave the box about near the hens they'll be shamed in to getting back to work. However, as they are currently spark out on the patio catching the last of the years sunshine, I highly doubt it.

Apparently, they're all taking a holiday.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Hysteria Is Catching

I still have two broodies. Celia and Purdy are under the impression that they could become mummy chickens. Despite the fact that there are no eggs. And it's October. They are completely mental. Unfortunately, they are also totally single minded and refuse to be distracted.

Every so often, they leave the coop in a flapping, squawking tornado of psychosis. The other hens will be peacefully pottering, or dust bathing, or generally just being quiet. Suddenly, the loopy twosome will explode from the coop door and cause ructions. The squawking and flapping ripples through the flock in a bizarre mexican wave. Celia startles Mabel. Mabel leaps up, startling Maude. Maude takes off down the garden, frightening Doris. Doris runs around in a circle, shrieking like she's being plucked alive. The babies jump, scare each other, and inadvertently startle Mabel. And so it goes on.

The only one immune to all the fuss is Maeve. She watches this spectacle from her hiding place in the shrubbery, tracking the baton of mentalness as it passes through her flockmates. Just as it's dying down, and feathers are being unruffled, she might decide to jump out and kung fu kick someone in the head. This triggers the whole shebang again. She seems pleased with her handy work. The others look knackered by the time that the broodies return to the nest box.

In other news, I am toying with the idea of setting up a webcam in the Palace and streaming it to my blog. I say toying, because I haven't the faintest idea how to do it. In fact, I don't even know what kind of camera I'd need.

If anyone could give me any pointers, I'd be very grateful.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Potato Snaffler

I was enjoying a lovely hot bubble bath last night when I heard a strange noise from the back garden. Initially I ignored it, assuming that it was the neighbour's dog over the back. When the strange squeaking sound came again, I paid more attention. I climbed out of the bath, grabbed a towel and peered out of the bathroom window. I couldn't see anything, which isn't surprising since I wasn't wearing my glasses and was trying to see through obscured glass. Realising my lack of visual effectiveness, I wandered in to the eldest's bedroom to gaze down upon the Palace. All looked well.

Just as I was about to head back to the bath, the sound came again. A rapid succession of squeaky yelps. They were definitely not coming from the garden to the rear. These sounds were much closer. my heart sank. These had to be the sounds of a young fox. Taking the stairs three at a time, I legged it past the ever tolerant husband, garbbed a torch from the kitchen and flung open the back door. There was no more squeaky yelping, but I could now hear scrabbling from near the Palace.

This is it, I thought. The local fox population has finally cottoned on to the walking buffet in my back garden. My girls will never be able to free range again, and at some point the wiley creatures will get lucky. I will one day have to face the aftermath of a fox attack. Every chicken keeper knows that this might happen, but I couldn't believe just how devastated I felt by the possibility that it was happening now.

I shone the torch all around the Palace, expecting at any minute to see a fox attempting to chew it's way in to the run. Seeing nothing, I widened my search. The (rather pathetic) beam of light skipped over the children's football, the chooks treat bowl and an old brown shoe. Hang on. An old brown shoe? I homed in on this stray footwear for a closer look.

The shoe was eating a roast potato. Because it wasn't a shoe. It was the biggest, fattest hedgehog I have ever seen. And it was squeaking with joy at having found a stray piece of spud that I'd given the hens after dinner. It momentarily stopped stuffing it's chubby hedgehog cheeks to watch me thoughtfully. Deciding that I wasn't going to try and steal it's prize, it went back to chowing down.

We watched the hedgehog finish it's meal, and then wander about the garden looking for more. Coming up short, it mooched over to the bird bath for a drink, then wombled off under the rhododendron. It was a delightful encounter, and it was good to see Mr. Hedgehog carrying a few extra ounces as he prepares for hibernation. I checked on the hens, and found all but ASBO Chicken snoozing, oblivious.

I wonder if Maeve sensed the spud stealing intruder.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Some October Pics

The sun was shining here this morning, so I took advantage of the fine weather and cleaned out the Palace. The girls were happy to pose for a few snaps, as long as I bribed the narky madams with raisins.

Mabel, coming nicely through her moult.

Maeve, aka ASBO Chicken, eyes up the raisins. You can just see Maude rushing in to shot.

Maeve, Mabel and Doris. Mabel is doing her best pneumatic drill impression, hence the blurry head.

The eldest takes his life in his hands removing a broody Celia from the nest box.

The marvellously frizzled Gladys, and Hilda's glowing white bum.

Purdy, recently evicted from the nest box, chows down. Maude is considering an ambush.

The newbies huddle in the border, catching the last of the sunshine.

Purdy disobeying the 'don't drink from the bird bath' rule. Sigh.

Hilda and Gladys might look nonchalant, but it's faked. They have just flattened that plant.

Maeve and Doris are unimpressed with the invisible treats.

Hilda about to decimate the globe thistles.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Autumn Broodies Are Bonkers

Purdy has decided to join Celia in her broody psychosis. I have decided to blame this completely ridiculous (not to mention totally unsuitable) state of affairs on the fact that these two ladies are not yet a year old. They are obviously in the grip of adolescent, hormone induced unreasonableness. A more seasoned hen wouldn't dream of bothering with all this pallaver in October.

Daily, I turf them out of the nest box and rescue any eggs (Out of eight chickens, I now have one laying girl. ASBO Chicken is still going strong and keeping me in cake). Purdy leaps up, shrieks her head off and runs laps around the garden. She is generally persued by the mighty Mille's, who for some reason favour the galloping Purdy with their sexual favors. She is not a particularly willing participant.

Celia remains flattened on the lawn, like an elaborate cow pat. I nudge her with my foot, and recieve growls for my troubles. I have learnt that approaching her with my hands is painful and fruitless. Gradually, I shove the spaced out chicken across the grass. Maeve usually wanders over at this point to deliver a few sharp pecks to Celia's head. Even this rough treatment merely earns her a hiss. I shoo Maeve away, and stick my welly under the reluctant silver partridge in an attempt to get her up on her feet. Eventually, she stands like someone awakening from a deep sleep. She staggers a short distance, and usually defecates in a truly spectacular fashion.

Broody droppings are always vile, but Celia has the ability to create something so mind bogglingly enormous and fetid that it has to be seen to be believed. The first time I came across one of these ginormo-poo's I thought it must have been left by a fox and became quite alarmed. She stands next to her creation, looking at me as if to say 'See? Are you happy now?!'.

I can only imagine that if I didn't force her from the nest occassionally, she might actually explode.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Damp Settles In

Autumn has well and truly arrived here in the midlands. Temperatures have plummeted, and the house once again resembles an industrial laundrette. The damp air is doing interesting things to my hair, but more amusingly, it's doing interesting things to Gladys.

Poor Gladys. Being frizzled apparently comes at a price. While all the other hens look sleeker now that their feathers are damp, Gladys has puffed up. She now resembles a pom pom with legs. Her neck feathers have curled so far over her head that she has to strain her neck out to see where she's going. She looks strangely alien as she wombles across the lawn looking for bugs. If the rain was anything other than this barely there drizzle, she wouldn't have this problem. Even frizzles de-frizzle when very wet. However, this current dampness just adds to the curl. She looks magnificent, but also embarassed.

She has taken to perching in the Palace grounds, and determinedly preening. With painstaking attention to detail, she attempts to flatten out the worst offenders. I think this serves to act like an open bladed scissors on ribbon, and just curls her feathers more extravagantly. Eventually, she sits and sulks. With her head tucked in, it can be tricky to work out which end is which.

The other girls are being suitably sympathetic. Maude has taken to following the follicly challenged youngster about. Not to chase or peck her, but seemingly purely because she can't believe her crazy hairstyle. If chickens could laugh, Gladys would hear nothing else.

I think she's gorgeous.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

All Is Well

Doris has gone in to moult in the last few days. Copious amounts of silvery feathers are blowing about the garden making the place look untidy. The moulting hen seems quite embarassed about the whole situation and is lurking in the shrubbery, leaving soft piles of fluff every time she moves. The rest of the flock are being generously decorated, and Purdy spent a good ten minutes yesterday trying to remove one of Doris's knicker feathers from her comb. The Palace's grounds are a swirling mass of ex-Doris. I am secretly hoping for gale force winds just to tidy the place up a bit.

Maeve has been busy in the garden this week. She finally managed to dig up one of my recently planted daffodil bulbs. Not content with this minor act of vandalism, she dragged it over to the back step and left it there while I was eating a sandwich. The Dark One eyeballed me through the patio door, just to make sure that we understood each other. Attempting to plant things in her dust bath was not going to end well. With a resigned sigh, I replanted the bulb in a less sunny spot. She is training me well.

Gladys and Hilda are still running the flock gauntlet with aplomb. Celia has taken to giving them a hard time during her infrequent forays from the nest. They out run her easily, and follow impressive figure or eight routes around the other girls before coming back together to compare notes. Celia is benefitting from the exercise, but getting increasingly psychotic. Any day now she will explode through indignation.

In other news, it's possible that two more pretty ladies will be joining them by Christmas. Details to follow....

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Ascending To The Palace

The new chicks on the block, Gladys and Hilda, have been with us three weeks now. It was always my aim to have an integrated flock by the time that the weather turned, but the speed at which the new girls have been accepted is astounding. The two factions eye each other warily, but the usual violence is conspicuous in it's absence.

I went out to shut the hens up for the night at dusk yesterday, and had a mild panic. Hilda and Gladys were not cosied up in the garage. I hunted around the garden by torchlight, looking for a glimpse of Hilda's rubbish camouflage. Finding nothing, I opened the coop. Celia is still nest bound, and growled at me grumpily. The other five ladies were arranged about the perches in that very exact way which relates to the pecking order. And right in the back, huddled in the corner, were the two newbies.

I closed the coop door, and retrieved my jaw from the top of my wellies. My 14 week old baby pekins had voluntarily gone to bed with the big girls. I couldn't quite work out whether this was a stroke of awe inspiring courage, or extreme stupidity. It was entirely possible that Maeve would wake up bright and early and eat them both for breakfast, barely stopping to cough up a feather. Not to mention how the mighty Mille's might respond to these tresspassing young upstarts. Moulting makes a girl have cowbag tendencies.

As I stood there dithering, the ever tolerant husband stuck his head out of the back door and told me to stop standing in the garden with a torch like a loon and come and drink my wine. This seemed like a brilliant idea, so I locked up the Palace and trudged back to the house.

Five minutes later, I trudged back out, opened the pop hole and made sure that there was another feeder and drinker in the run. I then checked that no one was using Gladys as a pillow and poked maeve a bit until she hissed at me, just to make sure she wasn't ill. Crossing my fingers that all homicidal tendencies would stay well hidden, I left them to it.

This morning, the girls got themselves up for breakfast. When I came downstairs, the five non-broody ladies had finished their breakfast and were lounging about the run. Taking a deep breath, I opened the coop. Celia was still pancaked on her imaginary eggs, and mumbled a bit at being disturbed. The newbies were sat on the perches, unharmed. I checked the coop for stary feathers that should still be attached to young bums, but found none. No feathers, no blood and apparently no big deal.

They are not a fully integrated flock yet, but it's very close.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Don't Hate Me 'Cause I'm Famous

Blogger has a nifty new tool. I can now access information about visitors to my chronicles. Not creepy 'I-know-where-you-live' info, but general stuff such as which country they are in, which browser they are using, when they accessed the blog, and also how they found it. It is the last of these which has intrigued me. A fair bit of traffic comes through google (which is to be expected), but the search words that people are entering are most enlightening. The most searched term which brings people here is (wait for it) 'ASBO chicken'.

That's right, the small black hen with a big attitude appears to have a fan base. Now, techinically, I suppose it's just as possible that people are googling through frustration at a neighbours noisy poultry and wish to obtain an ASBO. However, I prefer the idea of a celebrity chicken. She certainly has the arrogant sense of entitlement nailed.

If she was aware of her new following, I'm sure she'd be making lots of unreasonable demands about heating in the coop and only drinking Evian. As it is, she is blissfully unaware of the public's adoration. Love her or hate her, she does not care. She'd peck your toes either way (I have the painful experiences to prove it). What I am sure of is that if Maeve was a human celebrity, she'd be of the train wreck variety, possibly punching photographers. I'm thinking of a slightly less polite Liam Gallagher.

As I type this, the Famous One is glaring at me from the back step. She is waiting for her toast, and will start tapping on the back door if I don't make a move soon.

The job of a personal assistant is never done, especially when you have such a demanding boss.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Dining Al Fresco

One of the first lessons I learned when I went in to chicken keeping is that chickens will eat just about anything. They will eat most of your garden, and also most of the food that you like to eat. Naturally, I restrict their diet for their own good, but they are never happier than when they procure some 'illegal' food stuff and hot foot it under the rhododendron bush so that I can't seize it. The youngest is regularly relieved of biscuits and cakes in this way, and comes inside howling with indignation. Eventually, he will learn that if you don't want to share, don't take it outside.

I will have to take some responsibility for this thievery, though. I am an extremely indulgent chook owner. When preparing the human meal, I often make a bit extra for my girls. Particularly when the weather is cold. Therefore, it is not unusual to see the human family sat at the table eating a roast dinner, and the chicken contingent sitting just the other side of the patio doors waiting for their share. Spoiled doesn't really cover it.

Yesterday we had jacket potatoes. Now, if there's one thing a chicken really, really likes, it's a spud. Once I was reasonably certain that the ever tolerant husband wasn't watching, I lobbed a 'spare' jacket in to the garden. The hens were in raptures. They attacked it like mini jack-hammers. Bits of potato flew. The aim of the game appears to be burrowing in to the potato faster than your flock mates, therefore getting all of the good squishy spud. Maeve regularly wins this contest, and ends up wearing the potato shell like a helmet. Once it has been completely hollowed out, then begins the race for the skin.

Eating the skin is harder work, but they seem to see it as a delicacy. There is often a lull in proceedings as they all catch their breath. They regard Maeve and her potato helmet solemnly for a while, before one of them leads the war charge. Last night, Mabel did the honours.

Maeve and her spuddy head gear is then chased about the garden, in a Benny Hill stylee. I think that this is a very clever way of burning off all those carbs. During the race, the potato will begin to disintegrate. Maeve becomes a sort of chicken pinata, shedding yummy flecks of skin as she goes. Impressively, the rest of the flock barely break their stride as they hoover them up. Eventually, Maeve loses her edible crown, and the rest is devoured. They then laze about in a gluttonous stupor, occassionally pecking bits of spud from each other's heads.

The dance of the jacket potato is complete.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Latest Season's Trends!

My millefleur girls are very special to me. They're special because they were the ladies which introduced me to the realities of hen keeping. I spent many weeks researching chickens, and the best way in which to keep them. Once Mabel and Maude arrived, I had to put all of my theoretical knowledge to the test. Every time one of them sneezed, I panicked and thought: myco. Every time one or other of them snaffled a stray knicker feather, I thought: calcium deficiency. Now, experience has taught me that a hen that sneezes might be doing so because she stuck her beak in something unsavoury, and that feather snaffling is sometimes done just because they don't yet know the difference between each other and food. Me and my mille's have been on a journey together, that thankfully they have survived.

Both girls are currently going through their moult. Typically, they spend the first half of said moult feeling rather rubbish. As the old plumage falls out and the new quills push through their skin, they are obviously in some discomfort. I always ensure that the flock is given supplements during moulting season. It takes considerable energy to grow new feathers, and this is a prime time for illnesses. Luckily, my mighty mille's have survived this first stage with nary a sniffle. They are now in to the emerging pattern phase.

The picture at the top of my blog is of Mabel when she was in her first year. Post moult, she became a lot whiter and more matronly looking. So I am watching her with interest as the new feathers begin to emerge. She is much happier in herself, and has decided to randomly thunder up the garden towards the new chicks, causing them to scatter in amusing ways. Once satisfied with their terror, she boks happily to herself. I can already see that her markings are going to be even whiter than last year. Do hens lose feather pigment as they age, I wonder? Will Mabel eventually be as white as Hilda and demand a blue rinse?

Maude is spending oodles of time dustbathing. I wonder if the new feather growth is itchy, and this is her way of scratching. Maude emerged from her moult last year stunningly beautiful. I very much hope that we have a similair effect this year.

The other girls will moult in turn, but it's not nearly as exciting as seeing what the mille's will do. A single colour hen will moult and grow back single colour feathers. A patterned hen, though, could surprise you. Not with corporate advertising on their backside, granted, but still. There are possibilities.

They should be displaying their latest creations within a fortnight.