Monday, 31 January 2011

Empty Handed

So, I have returned empty handed. Despite my best efforts to encourage the ever tolerant husband to make a very circuitous trip up and down the country, in the end it was deemed an inconvenience too far. As we made our way up the M1 I had to concede that he was right. I hate it when he's right. Humph. The breeder was indifferent to my angst, luckily.

I now find myself set up for newbies with no actual newbies. Odd. Not to be deterred, I have contacted a much more local breeder and am obsessively refreshing my inbox waiting for a reply. I am determined to see a serama in the flesh before the end of the week.

The girls were looked after by my fabulous chicken sitting friend, so barely noticed my absence. However, I don't allow them to free range when I'm not here so they were a bit more appreciative of my presence this morning. Much chuntering and clucking ensued though when they realise we'd had a heavy frost. As they crunched across the crisp lawn I suspect we were all thinking the same thing: roll on summer.

Hilda spent a happy few minutes ice skating on the bird bath much to my amusement. Maeve was unimpressed by the frozen earth, and her attempt to beautify herself with a dust bath was a non-starter. As she flapped about on the ground I admit to sniggering a bit. She stopped her break dancing for a moment and fixed me with an ASBO glare. I thought it best to retreat and leave her to it.

No change there, then.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Just In Case

The ever tolerant husband is staying quiet when I oh-so-casually mention the serama plan. He has looked up the breeder's address and worked out a route without comment. I have left pics of the potential new girls on the laptop to see if he'll pass comment, but he doesnt. I think I've finally done it. I have broken him.

Not that I'm definitely going to get the serama, you understand. I mean, it makes sense to clean out the pet carrier and disinfect it. You never know when it might be needed. Similairly with the spare feeder and drinker. Keeping things hygienic is a good idea, generally. And the hospital wing hasn't been swept clean since Doris spent some time there. So naturally that needs a full clean out and scrub. Also, I've been meaning to replace the bulb in the heatlamp for ages. It doesn't actually mean anything. Honest.

The garage has gone from well organised chaos to, well, just chaos over the winter. I'm not quite sure when or how it happened, but it's like a junk yard in there. So tomorrow I might possibly spend some time trying to organise it a bit. Just to make access easier and the environment safer. In case any of the birds end up living in there for any reason.

You know, it's good to be prepared.....

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

How The Garden War Progresses

Well, to be honest, it's going ok. After the initial installation of the Barrier, Maude achieved vertical take off and landed straight on the ornamental curly grass. With a firm hand, I removed her and plonked her back down on the lawn side. There was much chattering about this development and disgusted strutting. However, so far, no one else has attempted to trespass. Hmmm.

Perhaps I've been looking in to the psyche's of my hens for too long, but I can't help feeling that they're just biding their time. They have taken to patrolling the Barrier while throwing surreptitious glances back towards the house. Something is probably, maybe, almost certainly up. Every time I look out of the window I expect to find eight feathery vandals tossing bulbs hither and thither with glee. It will almost be a relief when it happens at this stage. This compliance is unnervingly out of character.

Just to prove that they haven't gone completely soft, there was a concerted effort to murder one of the rose bushes yesterday. A team effort of digging around the base left it leaning in a most alarming manner. The guerrila gardeners watched with interest as I firmed it back down all the while swearing like Mutley. Perhaps they are running interference. Or trying out new torture techniques. Either way, my reaction probably means that it mill happen again. I am seriously considering making chicken guards from chicken wire to prevent the little madams from scratching up my favourite plants.

In other news, I have to make a decision about the serama by friday. I am still torn between really, really wanting them and being nervous of rocking the boat. I adore my pekins, and the silkie experiment did not end well. The ever tolerant husband just rollls his eyes when I prattle on about flock integration, and he was most ungentleman-like when I asked him if he thought the heat lamp could be threaded through to the Palace at 2am the other morning. To be fair, he migt have a point on that one.

We shall see.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

This Is A Restricted Area

I have no wish to decieve anyone via my blog. Much as I adore my girls, it would be wrong of me to only highlight the amusing positives of hen keeping. So, today I am tackling one of the downsides. The garden.

As mentioned several times before, my back garden is not measured in acres. In fact, it can be measured in a few fence panels and long strides. Therefore certain allowances must be made. If you've ever heard a back garden chook keeper say that their hens make no impact on their garden, I can safely say that they either keep their birds confined, have no interest in their garden looking nice for the neighbours, or own a country estate. The truth is that chickens are like any other pet. They rearrange the landscape somewhat.

If you're going to keep chooks in the garden, get used to poo picking. And not once a week either. We're talking daily vigilance. Unlike say, a dog that thoughtfully defecates once a day, a hen will poo as she roams. And she will poo a lot. The more you let your hens roam, the wider a poo picking area you have to cover. And don't expect them to have any respect. Anywhere is fair game.

Now that my pampered ladies have the Palace to call home, I am restricting their free ranging. Many people would argue that letting them out for 3-4 hours a day is actually quite a lot, but usually they have been given their freedom for most of the day. In the summer that equals approximately 12 hours of pooing, munching and digging. This year, I am taking back control.

I have got in to the routine of letting them out in the morning, and shutting them back in to the run at lunchtime. They are tolerating this at the moment, but I know that when the longer days roll around they will be most miffed. Thing is, this comes back to the poo issue. Twelve hours of unfettered wandering leaves the garden smelling less than fragrant. Sizzling chicken poo has a scent straight out of Hades. Until someone invents a nappy for chickens, letting them spread manure all over the place in the heat is off the menu. While I love seeing the girls sunbathe and laze about the garden on sultry summer evenings, I'd also quite like to have some flowers. Or any plants really. Apparently, I can't have both.

In an effort to give the newly sprouting plants a fair chance, I am going to fence in the main border. I've tried keeping the hens penned in, and frankly they treat such measures with total disdain. It usually works for five minutes before one by one they harrier jump jet over the netting and wander off to eat something. I am hoping that penning the plants in has more success.

Ask me if it's worked around May.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

My Head Has Been Turned

Don't tell the flock, but I have had my head turned. I have been introduced to another breed. A teeny, cute rare breed. I have eyed them for some time from a distance, but now the fates have conspired and I have the opportunity to acquire two pullets of my very own. I may soon be the owner of a Malaysian Serama. Or rather, two.

The serama is the world's smallest chicken. Exhibition birds tend to be around the size of a coke can (plus a tail). They are all about the bosoms and being extremely upright. Wings should, ideally, be vertical. In short (ha ha) they are, in my opinion, an odd looking show bird. However, a not quite ideal specimen is a very pretty bird. They look proud and dignified. Males have a frankly pathetic crow on the whole, although of course there is variation across the breed. I am extremely tempted.

So at the end of the month I have a decision to make. I can collect two very pretty pullets, or I can be sensible about things and decline. Of course, I don't want to decline. Yet it is the responsibility of all chicken keepers to put their birds' welfare first. It may be possible to integrate two tiny hens in with my robust pekin girls, but it cannot be assumed. There is a good chance that the others will take one look at the tiny newcomers and decide to eat them. Or squash them. Or in some other way terrorise them. Especially ASBO Chicken. If this happens, the serama would require their own lodgings. Luckily, they are so tiny that they can be kept quite happily in a rabbit hutch as long as they have access to an outside pen. A rabbit hutch would fit quite easily in the garage....

Anyway, back to the existing pekin kingdom. Doris appears fully recovered, which is a huge relief. I am still not quite sure what is going on with that hen and her eyes, but it has been suggested to me that she has an allergy. I rather hope that that is the case. Celia continues to shed featehrs like a speed stripper. She is thoroughly miserable at the moment, and spends a lot of time snuggled next to a more well covered flock mate. I have to say that the other hens are being remarkably kind and allowing this heat sharing. Even Maeve.

Last weekend, all of the girls got a pedicure. The mud and wet means that they are inclined to pick up mud balls on their feet which need soaking off. When you first approach a bucket with a chicken, they become understandably agitated. But once they are soaking their feet and getting a toe massage, more often than not they relax totally. Which can be awkward because you're balancing them in one hand. Maude even went to sleep, and she's no light weight. After a quick once over, I discovered that it was only Celia that needed her nails clipping. As she clacked away across the patio, the others watched presumably expecting a tap dance. They were disappointed.

Any thoughts about the serama would be appreciated.

Friday, 14 January 2011

A Possible Murder Mystery

After two and a half years of chicken keeping, you tend to think you've probably seen it all. Just as you start to feel smug, your birds are certain to throw you a curve ball. And this one is a doozy.

In between rain showers, I headed out to clean out the coop. The hens were all happily forgaing in the border. I opened up the Palace and removed the perch. And then I paused. Because the perch was dotted with blood. In fact, a good half of the perch had splashes and dots of blood on it. Setting it aside, I studied the floor and walls of the coop. More blood dotted the newspaper under the perches, and large splatters of blood sprayed up the walls. Dear God it was even on the roof. Taking a deep breath, I did a rapid head count of the girls. All, thankfully, present and correct. And watching me now with interest.

Verifying that the nest box was blood free (Purdy had produced one of her perfect eggs), I began my investigations. Maude was injury and blood stain free. As were Doris, Gladys, Hilda, Purdy, and Celia. Mabel glared at me from the back step, apparently injury free. Which left Maeve.

Maeve had one tiny dot of blood on her comb. I inspected it carefully, and realised that there was no injury. She looked at me impassively. The evidence seemed to suggest that ASBO Chicken knew something about the blood in the coop. But she wasn't talking. Maeve is jet black, so frankly she could have been covered in dried blood and it would be hard to spot. Still, I looked. I found nothing else.

So now I'm left with a mystery. Eight hens, all injury free. No one is gasping or bubbling blood out of their nostrils. Yet the coop looks like something met a very sticky end in there. It's made me a little nervous of turning my back on them all, tbh. Especially Maeve.

I'm fairly sure I know whodunnit, I'm just not yet sure who the victim was.

(In other news, the inspection highlighted a few mud balls beginning to form on feathered feet, so tomorrow they'll all be having a foot bath. It also brought Celia's freaky feet to my full attention. Celia has twisted and fused toes, so her nails grow sideways and twisty. They are now beginning to get a bit long (not helped by her long broody spell) so she requires a pedicure. That should be fun.)

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Being Watched is Rather Off-Putting

Like countless other lunatics in January, I am attempting to make my body a temple. It's not going very well so far, to be honest, but I am trying. One of the ways in which I'm trying is by following a virtual fitness trainer. The emotionless avatar puts me through my paces while I swear inventively at her. It works for us.

I stand in the living room facing the telly and try hard not to asphixiate or fall over. The only problem with this is that the hens seem to find it fascinating. I start my puffing and panting without an audience, but it isn't long before one curious hen spots me doing jumping jacks through the kitchen door. It doesn't take a moment for her to communicate this to the others, and after a few minutes I turn my head to find eight hens with their beaks up against the back door watching me. As I lunge, they track me like spectators at Wimbledon. This usually results in me losing it completely and laughing.

Laughing doesn't impress the virtual trainer, and she with the perfectly sculpted abs tells me off with her patronising lilt. So I close the kitchen door and try to concentrate. Unfortunately, the kitchen door appears to be on a slant, and during my next series of squats it slowly swings open to once again reveal my audience. They are utterly bewitched by my aerobics, and sit along the back step like a luxurious chicken-headed draught excluder.

When I turn off the evil trainer woman, they don't immediately disperse. It seems to take a while for them to come out of their exercise trance. This might be useful if you ever have a handling resistant bird. Trouble doing a health check on that narky hen? Do a few star jumps or knee touches and she will be putty in your hands. A cockerel that would ratehr kill you than eat out of your hand? Have you considered the power of the squat lunge?

As the great Iggy Pop once said, it's just like hypnotising chickens.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Doris Returns

After five days of being force fed Baytril, Doris has finally returned to the Palace. Her eyes are considerably better, she's eating and drinking and to be honest I doubt she's infectious. The other hens are all symptom free, something which I am thanking my lucky stars for. With an indignant squawk, Doris fled her garage quarantine and landed amongst her flock mates. They barely looked up to welcome their sister home. Business as usual, then.

Celia is now decidedly straggly. She has taken to hiding in the coop out of the elements, and perhaps embarassment. Her deleted plumage really is a very sorry sight. No matter how much she attempts to arrange her sparse feathers, there's no disguising the bald patches. Celia is half the chicken she was. As yet, her new quills haven't made an appearance so she doesn't seem in any discomfort. I predict that next week she will need some tlc.

It's very windy and dark here this morning, and on their release the girls spent a scant five minutes being blown about the garden before giving up and retreating back to the shelter of the Palace. Hilda made her customery exit from the run, which is a frantically flapping fly/long jump. She generally lands right in the middle of the gently ambling flock and causes chaos. Today the wind carried her a little further, and she strutted about a bit feeling quite clever. She was roundly ignored. Chickens aren't big on praising individual achievements.

For now, all is calm.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Ooh, Videos!

I have thought long and hard about uploading films to my blog. I am no Scorcese, and more pressingly I sound like a four year old on helium when captured in video form. Still, just for chuckles, here are a few short films.

A quick intro to the flock, minus the quarantined Doris.

Just to show the space available. You really don't need acres.

The hospital wing, and a disgruntled Doris.

And yes, I know I held the camera the wrong way up. Doh.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Painful Separations

Doris is now in residence in the garage. The hospital wing has swung in to action and she is not overly impressed. Since thursday evening, I have been squirting .2ml of Baytril down her throat twice a day, and she has been making her displeasure known. Her condition seems no worse but no better. She seems to spend most of her time sitting in the mini coop and I can't be sure that she's eating or drinking unless I put her out in to the hospital run. Then, she pecks about a bit, drinks and nibbles at her food. This could be a sign of serious illness. Equally, it could be a sign of a depressed hen who has been separated from her flock.

Her demeanour isn't hunched, and she is still carrying her tail high. I don't think she's lost any weight, and she doesn't feel thin or scrawny. I feel sorry for her, locked away on her own in the garage to be honest. However, I know that the best way of ensuring her recovery, and the rest of the flock's health, is to continue as I am. The rest of the girls seem well, but I am keeping a close eye. They also seem oblivious to Doris being missing. Chickens are not generally sentimental creatures.

Celia has finally given up on being broody. I was just congratulating myself for this development when I spotted a huge pile of feathers in the corner of the Palace. Celia has chosen January to go in to moult. I swear that bird's biological clock is wonky. She is back mixing with the flock, and belatedly duffing up Gladys and Hilda. When she can catch them. Which is not often. Those hens can move. I was stroking her yesterday while she chatted away to me when something rather embarassing happened. I tickled her under the chin, while surruptitiously checking her general condition. Being broody for weeks on end rarely results in a beauty queen. I gave her a quick once over and was pleased to find her healthy, if just a bit scruffy. I ran my hand down her back and through her tail. And when I lifted my hand, most of her tail came with it. It was like a dandelion clock getting caught in a strong breeze. I looked down at my hand full of feathers, and looked at the hen in shock. For her part, she seemed to register from my reaction that something was up. Straining her neck around, she clocked her own bald bum. I've never seen a hen do a double take before, but Celia was clearly astonished. She looked at me, looked at the empty air where her once fine cushion had been, looked at the feathers in my hand and then squawked with horror. We both felt a bit awkward at this point, I suspect. I couldn't very well stick Celia's bum back on, and she couldn't easily walk away with any dignity. It was a stalemate. Being the human, I decided it was my responsibility to bring this encounter to an end. I took my handful of Celia to the composter, giving her the perfect opportunity to scuttle away in to the shrubbery to inspect the damage.

I later saw her rearranging what was left, much in the way a balding man might try and fashion a comb over. Poor chook.

(In completely unrelated news, I wanted to let everyone know about Hedwig. Hedwig was the little frizzle cockerel I hatched in the summer who I initially christened Nigel. He went to live with a lovely Twitter friend and was spoiled rotten. Sadly, Hedwig was found dead yesterday. With no obvious signs of illness, and no sign of attack, it seems it was just his time. My sympathies go to his owner, who I know adored the crazy little shuttlecock. I'll admit to feeling a little sad at his passing, but also know that his short life would have been extremely priviliged.)

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Doris, Again

Well, isn't this nice. Doris is now bubbling at both eyes. No signs of respiratory distress (wheezing, coughing etc). If I put my ear to her back there's no scary bubbling sounds. Her face doesn't smell bad, and here nostrils are clear. There is no swelling apart from some slight inner eyelid irritation. None of the other hens seem remotely symptomatic. I could scream.

I last treated Doris for something very similair at the beginning of last November. The vet prescribed Baytril, and I had to bribe my lovely chicken sitter with a bottle of good Merlot to fire the medicine down Doris's throat three times a day. It was a tad stressful for all concerned. I am quite disheartened to find myself back at square one.

Doris is one of four hens that I bought from one breeder. The others were Delilah, Belinda and Mini. Can you spot a connection there? Yep, the other three are all ex-hens, and were within a year. They all died of different conditions and cost a significant amount of money to treat. I thought that perhaps we'd got lucky with Doris. However, within weeks of bringing her home initially she'd had an eye issue. On and off, there have been flare ups of spotty eyelids and bubbling. I can only assume that Doris has dormant myco which comes to the fore when she is stressed/under the weather anyway. Since the New Year I have been adding various tonics and supplements to the girls' feed and water in an effort to ward off the nasties. I am still waiting for the colloidal silver to arrive.

So now I am once again contemplating the vet and  yet another course of Baytril. This is not really a good or smart move. I am loathe to go down the route I did with my beloved Mini, spending months and literally hundreds of pounds attempting to cure something which was ultimately uncurable. If I was a breeder, I'd probably be thinking of dispatching Doris off to that big coop in the sky. And yet. Yet, she is a pet. She has been with me now for two and a half years. I cannot and will not see her in pain or suffering. So when I finish this post, I will once again phone the vet. I will attempt to convince him to prescribe the Baytril without making me and a poorly hen trek down to the surgery. If I am successful, I will spend the next seven days wrapping Doris in a towel and forcing meds down her reluctant throat. I will do all this and hope that it works. And all the time I will know that it is probably pointless. That she will probably get ill again. That I am possibly risking the rest of my flock.

Sorry for the depressing post, but I am feeling really quite disheartened.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Alternative Action

So, Doris is still buggy of eyes. Despite my best attempts to not fret about the repeat offender hen, I of course am. But I am still holding firm(ish) about trying to avoid another trip to the vet. Doris has been treated for eye issues three times in two and a half years, and has had minor untreated flare ups another two times. Quite frankly, I doubt this is an issue that will ever be 'cured'.

So instead of putting us both through the trauma of baytril dosing three times a day, I am going to try something different. Now, as a rule, I am far too cynical and practical to hold much store by complimentary/natural type remedies. When I am ill, I generally want some decent well tested drugs to make me better. But Doris has had many doses of antibiotics, and it doesn't seem to improve her overall weakness. After a tip off from a Twitter follower (Thank you, @practicalpoultry) I have ordered some Colloidal Silver.

Colloidal Silver is apparently an anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-biotic which was used widely before the discovery of penicillin. As a topical substance, it can be used on open wounds to prevent infection. It can also be ingested as a general help-all. I have found many articles online where wild claims are being made without any actual evidence (a cure for cancer! HIV! Full blown AIDS!) which makes me feel rather uneasy. However, I have also found many poultry pages where experienced breeders swear by it as a first port of call. I haven't quite worked out whether it needs firing down Doris's throat or dabbing on her eyelid yet, though, so if anyone knows anything please let me know. After finding some quite alarming pictures of blue skinned humans online during my investigations I am a little bit concerned that Doris may take on a Smurf-like appearance. Although Doris is technically a blue pekin, the term generally applies only to her feathering.

So the silver solution is ordered, and is expected through the post around Wednesday. Coupled with the garlic cloves and ACV in the drinker I am hoping to alleviate the eye problems at home, possibly incorporating eye of newt and tongue of frog.

Just call me the Chicken Witch.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

New Year, New Plans

Yes, yes. I know. Just yesterday I was saying how it's probably best that I don't know what this year has in store for me. But that was yesterday. Today I feel the urge to make plans. I was outside earlier, adding a top dressing of garlic powder to the girls' feed (another attempt to cure Doris and prevent any further sniffles), and found myself looking about the winter battered garden. Last year, we were planning on moving, so the garden was a bit neglected. This year, I plan to get stuck in.

Anyone who keeps hens will tell you that they are not very kind to your gardening ambitions. What they don't eat they tend to stomp on. There are three solutions to this problem. Firstly, you can just give up and let the chooks totally take over your garden. This is only really an option if a) you don't care that there will be a stinky quagmire outside your back door and that b) neither will your neighbours. It is extremely unlikely that b) will occur. The second solution involves giving up a portion of your garden as a chicken-only domain. Personally, I tend to think that unless you have acreage, this just condenses the problem highlighted in the first solution. Plus, I actually enjoy seeing the hens roaming about the place. From a certain angle and with a certain set of rose tinted specs, it can look lovely and romantic. You just have to ignore the trails of destruction.

This year I am going to attempt the third option. The plan is to plant the garden with hen resilient plants. I believe that I have mentioned this in a previous post, but now is the time for action. From now on, when I visit a garden centre of plant nursery, I will be focused. No more wistfully wandering amongst the pretty perennials for me. From now on my botanical hunting ground will be amongst the hardy and rugged. Woody shrubs are possibly the way forward. I am contemplating a low lavender and rosemary border around the Palace. I may even build raised beds and tightly pack them with plants to prevent the inevitable dustbathing. In short, right now I have many ideas. We shall see how they pan out over the next few months. I fully expect the girls to test these new arrangements to the limit.

If anyone's had success with chicken landscaping, please let me know.