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.