Monday, 28 March 2011

Right, Which One Of You Was It?

In my experience, just as you think you've got the whole chicken keeper thing nailed, they decide to throw you a curve ball. You can almost time it to the minute. The moment the thought 'Ah, I think I've got this just right' enters your head you are practically begging them to cause mayhem. I'm beginning to wonder if they have some psychic abilities.

The feeder in the Palace run holds 3kg of feed. During the winter months, I might only need to fill it twice a week. However, once the girls are in full lay it generally needs filling every other day. A chicken that is making eggs needs more fuel, so it's not surprising. Yet it is quite surprising when 3kg of feed disappears from the feeder within 12 hours. The first time this happened last week, I began to mildly panic. I have never had a rodent problem and I'd very much like to keep it that way. I could all too easily imagine a family of sleek tailed rats sitting around the feeder discussing whatever rat families discuss while stuffing their chubby chops. Careful examination thankfully revealed a carpet of pellets under the feeder. I'm no rat expert, but I'm assuming that they would eat the feed, not redecorate the floor with it. Which brought my suspicions back to the feathery fiends.

I refilled the feeder and watched the hens on and off all day, waiting to see which one of the little darlings was playing with their food. Under scrutiny, hens tend to be on their best behaviour. So I saw nothing except dainty pecking and polite noshing. Hmm. Deciding it was a weird one off, I forgot about it. Until this morning. Because yesterday I definitely refilled the feeder, and this morning it is empty. The feed is all over the floor. Lovely.

As I don't know who the culprit is, and it's a fairly new habit, I've decided to nip it in the bud. I've ordered a new feeder with slats across the dish part. The theory is that the naughty hen will be discouraged from digging by the lack of room. Well, that's the theory anyway. As the feed from yesterday is all over the floor, I am not rushing to refill the feeder today. This makes me feel a little guilty, and also like a parent disciplining a naughty child.

They won't be going to bed without any supper, though.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Battle Line Has Been Crossed

The serama sisters have been with us for nearly two months now. They happily live together in the two tier rabbit hutch in the garage, and venture in to the garden when they think that the pekins aren't looking. With very little encouragement on my part, they have become silly tame. Especially Vera. The tiny black hen has a bad habit of running between your feet when you're mid step. I'm not sure if this is designed chicken evilness, in an attempt to give me a heart attack, or whether she is an adrenalin junkie. Perhaps given half a chance she'd be bungee jumping from the Palace roof.

I have more or less resigned myself to having a split flock at this stage. I mean, I've always thought that my pekin ladies were petite, but next to the serama twosome they are truly enormous. The serama are understandably wary, and if they do get too close to the others a chase usually ensues. In fact, Gladys and Hilda seem to zoom out of nowhere and run Betsy and Vera back in to the furthest recesses of the garage.

Today was a big clean out day, however, and as the ever tolerant husband was throwing things with enthusiasm in to a skip, I thought it best to keep the serama contained. As the pekins roamed about the garden, the serama were safely pecking about in the Palace run. After a bit, it became apparent that Hilda and Mabel needed to lay. As I was outside anyway, I decided to open the run door and see what would happen.

Initially, Betsy and Vera sat on the perch nearest the pop hole and tried to blend in with the wood work. As our Illustrious Leader and the grubby white hen had their legs crossed, however, they didn't bat an eyelid at the intrusion and just waddled up the ramp in to the coop with barely a glance at the newbies. I expected one of the other girls to chase them out soon enough, but after twenty minutes of being totally ignored Vera went looking for trouble. She alighted on to the ramp and had the audacity to stick her head in to the inner sanctum. Instantly, two narked hens squawked at her. Yet this didn't phase her one bit. I watched in amazement as she sauntered in to the coop, only pausing to call her side kick in with her.

With both serama now in the coop, I chewed my nails fretfully. Every so often, a stroppy 'Bwaaaaaaark' issued forth from the nest boxes, but no real sounds of trouble. Unable to bear it any longer, I peeked inside the door. Unbelievably, Betsy and Vera had climbed in to the nest box between Mabel and Hilda and were chattering gently. Mabel looked suitably disgusted. She is a very private chicken, and the others usually show her the respect her position deserves by letting her lay in peace. Now not only was Hilda in the nest boxes with her, but now two pip squeaks were chatting right by her left ear. Unbelievable.

Hilda was busy laying, and only had time to hiss at me in passing.

Deciding that the hens had obviously called a truce, I left them to it. An hour later, the ever tolerant husband stuck his head in the door to tell me that ASBO Chicken had chased Betsy across the lawn and back in to the garage. I wasn't surprised. I expected that both serama would be back in their lodgings discussing the morning's events within minutes, and thought no more of it. Until a while later when I went out to hang the washing.

I could hear that Mabel was still in the nest box. This isn't unusual. Mabel really likes to make the most of her nest time and can often hog the best box for hours. However, these weren't normal 'Mabel in labour' sounds. These were more 'Naff off or I'll eat you' sounds. Curious, I opened the nest box and peered in. I saw Mabel's voluminous derriere, but that was all. The other boxes were vacant. With a frown, I secured the door and went to check on the serama. I found Betsy dust bathing happily in the wood shavings, but no sign of Vera. A quick scout about the garden proved fruitless, and with a slightly panicky feeling I considered the probability of Vera having escaped through the garage while the ever tolerant husband was filling the skip. In my mind's eye, she was road-runnering up the road as I stood there, half way to Birmingham.

Before I sent out a search party, I opened the nest boxes again and was greeted with Mabel, side on. She had shifetd herself around a bit, which gave me then a view through to the coop proper. Suddenly, a small black head popped up over the lip of the nest box. Mabel raised all of her hackle feathers and squawked. The little head dropped back out of sight. Mabel relaxed. The head reappeared, agitating my top hen all over again. No wonder Mabel had spent so long on the nest. She was being taunted by a very cheeky serama playing the chicken equivalent of 'Knock Down Ginger'. I grabbed the errant Vera from her hiding place in the coop and deposited her back with Betsy. She seemed quite happy about her little adventure, and a mere five minutes later Mabel announced her egg. With no small measure of relief, I'm betting.

This could be interesting.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

How To Wash A Chicken's Knickers

It's a beautiful spring day here and uncharacteristically warm. On such days, my mind rather strangely turns to knickers, and the washing thereof. For you see, chickens have a design flaw. They have lots of fluffy feathering around their bum. And that means that they get mucky on occassion. Being without the ability to use toilet roll, the clean up operation falls to you, dear Chicken Keeper.

I use a large builders bucket, and fill it with six inches of warm, soapy water. I then try and look innocent as I amble towards the dirty hen. Unfortunately, chickens aren't nearly as stupid as most people think they are, and if they've already had experience of the bidet they will not be overly cooperative. Today I had Mabel, Hilda, Doris and Celia in need of a spa treatment. I collared Hilda first, and she managed to thoroughly drench me by splashing about in the water and shrieking like I was attempting to drown her. Once she'd calmed down, it's a fairly simple procedure. I just work any dirt out of the hen's feathers gently with my fingers. The warm water makes this a fairly easy if unglamourous task. Once Hilda was clean, I placed her on the patio. She stalked off wetly, leaving a trail of bubbles in her wake. A wet pekin is a sorry sight, and rather resembles someone trying to walk in snow shoes.

The other hens were rather less dramatic and it was all over and done with quite quickly. The hens who had escaped the bath sat smugly on the perches in the Palace run, preening their fluffy tail feathers. Hilda sat next to them, hunched up like a vulture, and periodically shook her tail and sprayed the dry hens in an act of pure vengeance. Much muttering ensued.

This isn't just an aesthetic procedure. As we move in to spring, the fly population will be on the increase and it isn't just rabbits that can suffer from fly strike. My advice will always be: see a dirty pair of drawers, fetch the builders bucket. They won't like it much, but it's a basic welfare issue. It's also worth noting that feathers are like hair, they can be cut with no pain to the owner. If you have a particularly bouffant chicken bum in your flock, sometimes a quick trim can cure the problem. They do look odd when you do this, though. And disgruntled.

As one of the older hens, Doris has learnt a few tricks. When released from the bucket, she shook herself and then ran straight down to the greenhouse. She is currently laid out on the greenhouse path, enjoying her own personal sauna. It's rather disconcerting from a distance, as she rather looks like a discarded feather duster. However, in an hour or two she will unpeel herself from the ground and will be back to her glamourous and bouncy self.

Where as I think Hilda's vulture stance is here for the day.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Only Girls Allowed

Now that our brief stint of cockerel ownership is over, I can reflect on the experience with some clarity. It was lovely to see Rocky fussing around Betsy and Vera and finding them tidbits to eat. He was charming in his behaviours and hugely entertaining. However, the early morning crowing outweighed all of the positives. I spent a week living on my nerves, so now it is lovely to go back to just enjoying my ladies.

I was a little concerned that Betsy and Vera would miss their suitor, but in typical chicken fashion they are simply enjoying the extra coop space. One thing he did manage to do was to coax the serama out of the garage. Even without their bodyguard, they are now venturing out in to the garden more often. I am still shutting the pekins in to the Palace run for the afternoon to allow the micro chooks a chance to explore unmolested, but most of the pekins seem bored of the 'eat the mini chickens' game. The 'most' was deliberate.

Anyway, today has been a warm, glorious spring day and the girls have all been making the most of it.

ASBO Chicken monopolises the dust bath while Mabel looks on.

The most unintentionally hilarious pic of Celia ever. Just how surprised does this chook look?

Betsy and Vera standing still long enough for me to get a shot. A rare occurence.

And busy stripping the border of all vegetation. Sigh.

A grubby Hilda waiting for me to turn away so that she can jump in the laundry basket for a poo. Don't ask me why, the crazy hen seems to be litter trained.

So now to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. At least until the new hatching adventure begins.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Rocky's Revenge

Just as I was beginning to think suburban cockerel ownership might be possible, a spanner was thrown well and truly in the works. I awoke at 6am to Rocky giving a splendid solo performance. As did the rest of the family. Curiously, he could barely be heard outside of our walls, but the bizarre acoustics of our integrated garage meant that he came at us in stereo. After a week of toing and froing about the plucky youngster, I decided with not a little regret that he had to go back from whence he came.

Decision made, I contacted the breeder and arranged to take him back this afternoon. I let him out with his harem for a few hours and watched the trio moving about the garden and annoying the sunbathing pekins sadly. But finally the time came. Fishing out the cat carrier, operation Return Rocky began.

I say 'operation' because what should have been a fairly straightforward procedure turned in to quite an epic. It should have gone a) open cat carrier, b) pick up cockerel, c) place cockerel in carrier, d) close carrier. It didn't go that way. For a start, he can fly quite well. Well enough to escape my clutches and fling himself in to the pile of crap currently occupying my garage. So for a good ten minutes I played a nerve wracking game of jenga, where the object was not to pull things out and keep a cohesive whole, but to not flatten the hiding boy chicken. After a lot of swearing, several heart stopping moments where I suspected I had squashed him and one severe shin gouging, the little sod gave himself away by chuntering on the step behind me. Oh yes, Rocky had found his way out of the pile of teetering crap undetected, and had spent some time watching the funny human injure herself.

At this point, the ever tolerant husband wandered outside to find out what was keeping me. I roped him in to help and we spent at least fifteen minutes running laps around the garden with a jubilant Rocky easily zooming between our legs, flying over our heads and generally making us look like the clumsy mammals we are. We were certainly no match for the small yet perfectly formed powerhouse of speed watching us from the Palace roof. The pekins had come out in to the run to watch the show and were shouting encouragement. Such rabble rousers, pekins.

Finally I managed to herd him in to a corner. As I reached for him, he shot off again by running up my arm and down my back. I shrieked for the ever tolerant husband to grab him as he flew past. So fast was Rocky, the ever tolerant husband merely grabbed air, but in his haste to assist he managed to wrench his back. It took me a while to register that he was now clinging to the back wall of the house in a most unnatural pose. I only really spotted it as I dashed past the second or third time in pursuit of Road Runner. Asking him if he was alright seemed a bit pointless going by the look on his face and the interesting language he was using, so I settled for fetching him some pain killers. Now a man down, I reluctantly went to plan B. I gently herded the by now frantic young cockerel in to a corner, and swiftly grabbed him with the use of a towel. He shrieked like all the torments of Hades were upon him but didn't try to kill me, for which I was most grateful. I wouldn't have blamed him for wanting a fleshy souvenir.

The ever tolerant husband was by this time swearing less, but gurning more. More pain killers were found and ingested, and after a while we made the trip to return Rocky to his original home. When I arrived at the breeder's house, I put the carrier on the lawn and opened it. The plucky youngster was up and out of it quicker than I could blink, and leggesd it straight back to his old flock shrieking of the indignities that had befallen him.

I hope, unlike us, he isn't scarred by the experience.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Terror Of Suburban Cockerel Keeping

So day 3 of owning a cockerel dawned quietly. It wasn't until the ever tolerant husband was brushing his teeth that Rocky decided to greet wednesday. As I listened to his muffled squeaks through the eldest's bedroom floor, I was quietly pleased with myself. You see, last night I covered the serama hutch with some old carpet, and I'd say it makes a considerable difference to the volume. Whether it deadens the sound enough so that no-one else can hear it remains to be seen. Indeed, as I stood outside the school this morning one of my neighbours from over the back approached me. I confess to breaking out in a cold sweat and thinking: this is it. Gulp. It was somewhat of an anti-climax when she asked me if I had any eggs spare. Anyway, this is Rocky crowing in the garden:

Such is my cockerel paranoia that I actually downloaded a decibel meter app for the ever tolerant husband's iPhone. I packed him off to work with my decidedly uncool mobile, and decided to try and measure Rocky's output, as it were. I spent an hour sat outside bundled up in many layers of clothing while he watched me with interest. As if he knew my intention, the little blighter stayed stubbornly silent until 2.30pm. However, I did get a reading. The background level was around 50 decibels, the dog barking over the back registered at 67 decibels, and Rocky's best effort was 80 decibels measured right next to him. I have no idea what this proves, so if anyone reading this can tell me that would be great.

After the school run, I decided to bite the bullet and let all of the chickens out together. The pekin ladies were happily munching a slice of toast (provided by me as a distraction tactic) when Rocky just strolled among them, cool as a breeze. It took a moment for this to sink in, and then Maude bit him on the arse. He shrieked a bit and ran over to round up his serama harem. Hilda and Gladys both gave chase, but a pekin's waddle is no match for a serama's road runner-esque gait. So, no surprises there really. Except this is the first time that Betsy and Vera have voluntarily stayed anywhere near the pekin hordes. And Rocky was very sweetly herding them away whenever a sly ASBO Chicken made out that she was just strolling towards them totally innocently. He even stole them some toast to munch on.

Interestingly, I observed both Mabel and Maude attempting a cockerel like dance towards the younger hens. They have never done this before, and I can only assume that it's a power display. It did look less than elegant, and the younger hens watched it all with a quizzical eye. Mabel gave up after a bit as if embarassed, but Maude got quite in to it.

Maybe they'll challenge Rocky to a dance off.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Rocky Makes His Presence Known

Well, here we are. Two days in to cockerel ownership. Rocky has well and truly arrived. He was utterly silent until 9.30 yesterday morning, when he gave forth a volley of squeaky crows which made sure that I couldn't deny his existence any longer. He was then thoughtfully silent until lunchtime, when he once again gave us his best solo performance for about a minute. After that, he seemed to lose interest and didn't open his beak again until 8am this morning, which was terribly inconvenient as the ever tolerant husband was on the drive at the time about to get in to his car. He, for his part, is remaining stoically silent about the whole thing.

The girls are not quite sure what to think. I've let them out in the mornings, and then returned them to the Palace grounds so that the serama can have some free ranging time without being eaten. They have borne this amazingly well. When Rocky crows, they watch him with interest. The young cockerel has no idea of the danger he could be in, and wanders up to the door of the Palace at regular intervals to chatter to the much larger girls. For now, they merely observe him, no doubt imagining a fajita or other chicken based wrap.

The serama ladies are very accepting on the whole. Yesterday, the plucky youngster attempted to woo Vera. He staggered to the left with his wing sweeping the ground, and then staggered to the left, all the while chuntering a song of seduction. Vera watched the whole performance while scoffing some grass and seemed less than impressed. In fact, she turned away from him and began to amble off. Misreading the signals, Rocky thought she was giving him the green light and attempted to climb aboard. Not a smart move. Vera turned on him like a chicken possessed. There was much hissing and hackle raising and a few open mouthed pecks. Dejected, Rocky sloped off to hide behind a plant pot and no doubt attempt to regain some dignity.

I wish I could relax and enjoy him, but I'm still waiting for the complaints to start rolling in.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

I Appear To Have Lost My MInd

Yep, it's finally happened. It's taken three years, a few deaths, a nightmare sourcing birds and the decision to try and hatch serama, but here we are. I have finally taken leave of my senses. Because right now, in the garage, is this little fella:

He is a black silkied serama boy, aged approximately 3 and a half months old. Now, before you roll your eyes, let me just explain. I saw this particular chap when I collected Betsy and Vera 5 weeks ago and thought he was adorable. In the meantime, he has become 'free to a good home', because the breeder didn't require him. And no-one wants the ratty tailed youngster. So he has been running the gauntlet with the other more dominant cockerels and was never allowed near the hens. During a discussion on the British Serama Forum, the breeder offered him to me on the basis that if he was noisy he could go back. So he's on a sort of trial run, really. I still went to my nearest neighbours to fill them in on my plans, though, and I would always advise a new keeper to do the same. Being up front from the outset can prevent phone calls to the council. Hopefully.

Anyway, Rocky has caused quite a stir. As he explored the garden, the pekins followed his progress by running about the perimeter of the Palace run. The low 'Booooooooork's made it clear that they weren't overly keen on the idea of a dude moving on to their patch. Indeed, Maude seemed most aggrieved, and if chicken's had handbags she'd have been swinging hers. For his part, Rocky ignored the horrified madams and goose-stepped about the lawn in a strange gait which is apparently quite normal for a serama cockerel but makes me think of John Cleese. Betsy and Vera were less alarmed, and pretty much ignored him. He chattered at them gently as he foraged for goodies, but the older serama were immune to his smooth tongue.

There was no chasing at all, so feeling brave I stuck some apple in the hutch and waited to see what would happen. Betsy and Vera hopped straight in and began scoffing. After observing for a moment, Rocky jumped up to. This caused the girls to stop mid-scoff for a moment, before chowing down again. Tentatively, the new boy moved towards the apple, chattering gently all the way. Vera turned her head just enough to peck him smack on the base of his beak before turning back to the grub. But that was it. Rocky didn't react at all to the duffing, and just approached the apple again. I have left them shut in the hutch, happily eating apple together side by side. I can't quite believe it to be honest.

Now I just hope that I'm not awoken at 3am by a tiny chap with a big voice.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Great Escape

The Barrier has been in place for several weeks now. It has been pretty successful in keeping the marauding flock out of the flower bed, and I am now able to look out of the kitchen window and see some early tulips and daffodils being battered by the force 9 gales. Still, the colour is pleasing. This morning, however, I had a mystery on my hands.

A mere ten minutes after letting the girls out to free range, I spotted a soil fountain behind the rosemary bush. On closer inspection I found Maeve happily dust bathing. Carefully, I extracted her from the border and plonked her back amongst the flock on the lawn. She was most disgruntled, and I earned myself a swift peck on the heel for my insolence. I returned to the house, assuming that the determined ASBO Chicken had managed to scale the fence with a gale assisted flap.

A short while later, I discovered that Maeve was back in her favourite spot, and this time she had company. Hilda and Celia were busy attempting to dig up some late flowering bulbs. With a muttered 'bloody hens' I traipsed back out to remove them all. They didn't put up a fight and all just sat waiting to be transported. Which was odd. I mean, usually we have a bit of a flap at an eviction. But nope, they were all a picture of serene good naturedness. So naturally I was suspicious. I decided to watch them to see if I could find their access point.

After twenty minutes of watching the girls mooch about looking innocent, I decided to empty the dishwasher. This took approximately five minutes, during which time all seven pekins breached the barrier and trampled over the new poeny growth. At this point I thought darkly about wing clipping, or perhaps leg weights. It turns out, however, that I was completely on the wrong track. After turfing them all back on to the lawn, by chance I turned around just at the moment that Maude walked back through the barrier, like some cyborg, 'Terminator' chicken. Now chickens have many interesting properties, but the ability to pass through a fence via osmosis isn't one of them.

On closer inspection, I found that the netting had frayed. But it had frayed in a most interesting way. The hole was exactly at the spot that I have a heavy plant pot weighing down the fencing, in a bid to stop chook tunnelling. It is perfectly placed for a small, canny hen to jump up on to the plant pot, and then squeeze through the gap. And the gap is virtually undetectable unless you are actively looking for it (or see Maude going ghost). It's all just a bit too....convenient. I find myself contemplating just how long it would take a determined hen to saw through nylon strings with their beak. I find myself thinking of 'The Shawshank Redemption', and shuddering. Using some garden twine, I have resealed their point of entry.

Maeve watched me work with glittering, interested eyes.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Look What The Postman Bought Me today

The new incubator has arrived! As I type, it is plugged in next to me, whirring it's way to optimum hatching conditions. I am very impressed. Compared to my little Covatutto 6 manual incy that I hatched the meeps in last year, it's a technological age away. If the new incy is a supercar, the old one is a horse and cart. Where the horse is old. And possibly a bit lame.

Look at it's lovely shininess!

The super intimidating control panel.

Now, this particular outing is just to check that it all works, and also to try and decipher the instructions. I swear that NASA sent man to the moon with less programming. Still, the fact that it is so adjustable was the entire point in purchasing it. My friend is planning on a fairly straight forward large fowl hatch, but my serama experiment requires something that can be fine tuned. With any luck, and a lot of advice from the UK Serama Forum, I should be able to tweak the conditions within the incubator to give me optimum hatching results.

Roll on April.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Encouraging Relations

The mini chooks have been with us about a month now. They have made themselves perfectly at home, and both are now laying absolutely perfect, tiny eggs in their washing up bowl nest box. Every day, I open up the bottom section of their hutch and prop open the garage door so that they can come and go as they please. And every day they ignore the open door, and explore the garage instead.

Now, it must be said, that they have their reasons. The pekins periodically lay seige to the garage step, and occassionally cross the threshold in an effort to take part in some up close and personal intimidation. Being tiny has its advantages, and Betsy and Vera manage to hide themselves in plain sight. In fact, several times I have had to search for them and discovered them perched at the top of a step ladder or sitting amongst the paddling pool and lawnmower. They are experts at chicken camouflage.

If I carry them outside to force some outdoor time, they run hell for leather back to the garage door. Often before I've stood up from crouching to put them on the lawn. They are speedy little madams. The rest of the flock seems quite content with this state of affairs. They don't even have to make the effort to waddle after them in a threatening way. Simply being in sight causes panic and an attempt to break the land speed record.

I've allowed this to continue while the weather has been bad, but today the sun is shining and the back step is covered in a feathery duvet of sunbathing hens. Taking a deep breath, I put both serama on the patio, and attempted to shut them out of their garage sanctuary. I say attempted, because as soon as I got one out of the way the other was in danger of being decapitated by my closing the door. Eventually, using my welly clad foot as a roadblock, I got the door safely closed without anyone being dismembered.

The tiny twosome stood in the sunshine looking utterly lost. Like a parent encouraging a reluctant child on their first day of school, I attempted to coax them on to the lawn. Maeve raised her head from her prostrate position on the step and watched my 'chook, chook, chook'ing with a disdainful eye. As the serama gradually inched forwards and appeared in her line of sight, she muttered to the others that the newbies had emerged. One by one, flattened chickens roused themselves to cast a gleeful eye in the serama's direction. However, the chances for sunbathing have been few and far between, and no-one could muster the enthusiasm to actually unpeel themselves from the warm patio slabs.

Taking this as a good sign, I've left them to it.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

A New Venture

I am excited. Happy, smiley and very excited. I have just gone halves on a Brinsea Mini Advance incubator with a friend of mine. I might have also just purchased a quail tray which will fit teeny serama eggs perfectly. This particular adventure is go!

It'll be a few days before the shiny new incy will be in my dirty little paws, but that's ok. I'm not intending on setting any eggs until next month anyway. That is if I can find any eggs to set. Tracking down a breeder who will sell me fertile eggs is proving rather difficult. There are a few eggs for sale on ebay, but as I've been told by those in the know that serama eggs don't travel well I am reluctant to go down that route. I have a month to try and find a breeder willing to part with a few precious eggs, so if anyone reading this thinks they may be able to help please don't be shy.

My friend is planning on starting his hatching journey with a half dozen Light Sussex eggs. Having only hatched pekins, I am quite interested in how his hatch will go. I have recommended Chicken Street as a potential supplier of eggs, and he is planning on taking the family on a day trip. I am secretly wondering what he will come back with once he sees the variety on offer.

And another one falls under the poultry spell.....

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Advice For A Newbie

I am by no means an expert, but it suddenly occured to me that I've been keeping hens for two and a half years. Which is not bad, really. So maybe, just maybe, I'm now qualified to give some pointers to anyone out there who is toying with the idea of keeping a few hens in their back garden. You don't have to agree with me on all of my keeping practices, after all if there's one thing I've learned as a chicken keeper it's that everyone has there own way of doing things. But there are a few things which everyone should know and care about. So, here goes.

Firstly, make sure that you have the space, time and permission to keep chooks on your property. Some housing will have a 'no livestock' rule in the deeds/rental agreement. It is best to check this out before you spend money on coops and feed. Chickens don't take up a huge amount of time if you don't want them to, but they still require daily attention. Even a few layers will need around 20 minutes a day for food/water/egg collecting/health check purposes. The amount of space you have available should direct you in the type of birds you can keep. If, like me, you don't have acres of land, it's best to stick to a small number of large fowl or go for bantams. Most large fowl have bantam counterparts, but bantam sizes vary. Jersey Giants are amazing looking chickens, but they will not be happy living in a confined space. In the same way that you wouldn't keep an ostrich on a balcony, you can't keep all breeds in your average garden. Best to resign yourself to that straight away. Also, consider your garden. Hard landscaping is not ideal for hens.

Secondly, invest in the best housing you can afford. It will always be cheaper to make your own, so if you're in any way competent that might be the way to go. If you're like me, however, and a bit useless, you'll have to buy a coop. I've noticed that a lot of pet shops now sell chicken housing. By and large, it is over priced and hideous quality. Do some research, and keep in mind that cheap housing is a false economy. It will fall apart, probably in the middle of a horrific weather event. It is no fun having to repair a roof in the middle of a snow storm/torrential rain/a hurricane. To be honest, I think that the housing cost highlights the lie that chickens are a cheap source of eggs. Decent housing is not cheap, but will last you a decade or more. Also, buy a bigger house than you think you'll need. A lot of housing woefully overestimates the number of birds it will hold. Overcrowding should be avoided at all costs. Birds that are overcrowded are more prone to stress, and therefore illness. They are also more likely to develop bad habits, such as feather plucking or egg eating.

Thirdly, welfare must be your priority. If you get the housing and number/type of birds right, you are on the right track. Predator protection is the next thing to tackle. Letting your birds free range is always going to be a risk. Some people leave their hens out all day even if they're not at home, knowing that there is a risk or predator attack but balancing that out with the benefits of the birds having their freedom. I personally don't, but I am at home most days so my pampered girls spend a lot of time gardening. I also have a secure run attached to the Palace for when they are confined. Some people keep their birds in a secure run all the time, and if it's big enough it isn't a problem. It is a question of risk versus benefits, and one that every keeper has to weigh up according to their circumstances. However you choose to manage your girls, they must have adequate space to roam in. They should also have access to a dust bath and if they are confined to a run it's a good idea to provide some environment enhancing features (perches, logs to jump on, treats hung on string etc).

I knew nothing about chickens when I first decided to keep them. I read a lot, but most things had to be learned on the job. It was terrifying. So my advice is to arm yourself with a basic chicken first aid kit. Personally, I always have to hand: apple cider vinegar (helps to prevent worm infestations, and is a good general tonic), anti-peck spray (to deter pecking of injuries), flubenvet (wormer, which I use every 3 months), poultry spice (a feed additive, which is useful if the hens are under the weather/in moult), gentian violet (a purple spray which can be used to mask any wounds, hens peck at the colour red), red mite powder (both as a preventative in the housing and the dust bath, and also a talc used on the hens) and a mite spray (to treat any suspected infestations on the birds). Most problems can be dealt with using these things, although of course if in doubt you should consult a vet.

My last piece of advice is this: get to know your birds. Take the time to build up trust and handle your ladies at least weekly. A well handled bird makes all of your husbandry easier. It makes health checks a breeze, and stops the bird (and you) going in to a stress induced panic. Spend time just observing them. You quickly get to know what is normal behaviour, and what is just a bit off. Chickens are amazing at masking their illnesses, so often your first indication that something isn't quite right will be a slight change in behaviour. There are many ailments which can be effectively treated if caught early.

Now, I hope I haven't put anyone off.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Death And The Birth Of Ideas

Just as you think that spring is here to stay, it wanders off again leaving cold, wet greyness in its wake. Humph. When Purdy decided to leave this mortal coil she appears to have taken the sun with her. The birds and I stare at each other in dejected grumpiness. Even Maeve seems to have lost some of her vavavoom. She hasn't battered anyone in days.

In an effort to amuse themselves, the girls broke through my border protecting barrier while I was otherwise occupied. I caught them happily rampaging through clumps of spring bulbs and merrily digging around fresh shoots. They managed to nibble a considerable amount of foliage before they were firmly ejected. To be fair to them, Gladys and Maude managed to look at least slightly embarassed at being caught, and shuffled and muttered a bit. Not everyone has a conscience, though. Hilda continued dust bathing while I turfed her flock mates back on to the lawn and glared at me as if I was the one tresspassing. She shook herself all over my wellies in disgust before stalking back to the Palace to lay.

Betsy and Vera have settled in to their new premises well. They are gradually getting the hang of the ramp, although neither have so far ventured forth in to the washing-up bowl nest box. I'm hoping that Betsy will get the idea in the next few days and lay me an egg. At the moment it seems to be taking all of her concentration and brain power just to avoid falling down the ramp opening. Vera seems to have a better grasp of gravity at this stage, and can sometimes be heard issuing a warning bok-ARK as Betsy falls through the trap door.

Since losing Purdy, I confess to toying with the idea of hatching again. I still have my little incy in the garage which hatched the meeps last year. However, I find myself looking at more sophisticated incubators on ebay.  The idea that you pop your fertile eggs in one day, press 'go' and then come back 3 weeks later to chicks is very tempting. Don't worry, I know that it requires more thought. Last year I was very lucky to find all of my cockerel chicks good homes. I am well aware that that is not always the case, and boy chickens will always be a part of hatching.

The thing is, with the right incubator and a bit of research, I'd love to have a go at hatching serama....