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.