Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 5

The little flock of hybrid hens that I keep in my back garden are hardy enough to cope with whatever conditions the British weather throws at them. With their personal duvets fluffed up they will sleep cuddled together for warmth on the cold, winter nights. In the warmth of summer they will spread out on their perches and raise their wings slightly to allow air to flow and cool their bodies. However, as with any pets (or people of course), hens can and do get sick.

Hens are stoic creatures and will often hide their illnesses well. As part of the daily routine required to take care of them I will watch each bird as she goes about her business to make sure that all seems well. Hens are active and inquisitive creatures so should be bright and alert. They should have sleek feathers, upright heads and tails, clear eyes and smooth legs. Any change in their demeanour signals a potential problem that requires further investigation.

Minor issues that are easily dealt with can become major problems if left untreated so it is important to take action as soon as anything untoward is spotted. We accept a duty of care when we choose to keep living creatures and their well being, safety and comfort are in our hands. My aim is for my birds to thrive in a pleasant and stress free environment. Hens do not like change so I will try to treat any illnesses that they develop myself in their familiar surroundings. Sometimes a bird will need to be isolated from the flock but I try to minimise this as reintroductions can result in injuries. An established flock is liable to attack an unfamiliar bird.

I am going to go through a number of illnesses and issues that I have had to deal with in this post. If you are of a squeamish disposition then please read no further.

1) Sniffles

Just like humans, hens can catch a cold. I have no idea if that is the correct term for it, but symptoms present in much the same way. The hen will sniffle and sneeze, become more lethargic than usual and show less interest in scratching with the flock. She may look hunched with her head and tail down or rest in the coop during the day. Her eyes may not look as clear as they should. When I spot this sort of behaviour I will add a couple of spoonfuls of poultry spice to their feed and a squirt of apple cider vinegar to their water. These are like vitamin supplements for hens and offer a general pick me up. The entire flock will benefit and therefore be able to fight off any infection that could be passed around. The hen should look better within a few days.

2) Worms

A hen can suffer from a number of internal issues which can be spotted by keeping an eye on their poo. A keeper soon becomes familiar with what is normal and can take steps to treat problems quickly when anything unusual appears in the droppings. As I allow my flock to free range but have kept their runs in the same part of the garden for years (each run can sit on one of two areas available) I need to be vigilant about the risk of intestinal worms. I have had to deal with this once.

The best course of treatment is to mix a powder called flubenvet in with the feed and ensure that the birds eat nothing else for seven to ten days. After this period of time I move the runs to their alternative position, dig over the ground and sprinkle it with a disinfectant called Stalosan F. Even if I do not notice any problems I will move the runs and clean the ground several times a year as a precaution. If left untreated worms will kill a hen.

The worms that I have spotted in the birds poo have been small but noticeable. Other types of worms can afflict hens but can be harder to spot. If my birds look ill, show no other signs of a particular illness and do not recover in a few days then I will consider worming as a precautionary measure. I would not do this more than twice a year.

3) Scaly Leg Mite

A number of my birds have developed scaly leg mite which presents itself as raised scales on the legs when the scales should be close and smooth. The problem is caused by a mite which burrows into the leg, under the scales, causing discomfort and pain. If left untreated this can lame the bird and could thus, ultimately, result in death.

There are many proprietary products available to treat this condition but I use nappy rash cream and petroleum jelly. Applied weekly for around four weeks this quickly soothes the discomfort and kills the mites. The legs are unlikely to look fully recovered until the scales are replaced, normally when the bird moults, but the suffering hen’s gait should improve quickly. Mites can move from bird to bird so the whole flock needs to be carefully checked and all affected birds treated.

4) Blocked Crop

If a hen eats too much long grass or other solid matter then she can suffer a blocked crop. This presents itself as a swollen chest that, in the worst cases, can swing from side to side. A suffering hen will appear to struggle to swallow and may open and close their beak a lot as if gasping for air. If the blocked crop becomes infected then a smelly, greenish brown liquid may come out of their mouth when she leans forward to drink. As all food and water needs to pass through the crop this blockage can be a serious issue and measures need to be taken to try to clear it.

Hens are lactose intolerant so it is not usually a good idea to feed them dairy products. However, live yoghurt can help with digestive issues and this is what I have fed a hen to try to clear a crop. Prior to feeding I have gently massaged the blockage and tilted the hen forward to pour out the accumulated liquid (this is yukky!). The yoghurt is then fed and nature left to take it’s course. I have lost one hen to this problem and successfully treated another. The surviving hen has laid me no further eggs.

5) Calcium Deficiency

Producing eggs and regrowing feathers requires a lot of calcium and I have had two birds who have suffered from severe deficiencies. This has caused them to lose the use of their legs and I have found them collapsed on their sides in the run. Treatment was to isolate them to ensure no bullying and to provide food with added limestone flour and cod liver oil. The food and water offered had to be placed on the ground within reach as the bird could not move. Poo was cleaned away regularly and after about twelve hours the bird could be placed on their feet and hold their body weight. They were then returned to the flock and the general feed treated with limestone flour and cod liver oil for a couple of days. Both birds made full recoveries.

6) Prolapse

Laying all those delicious eggs puts a lot of strain on the hens insides and I have had several birds suffer prolapses. I always try to treat this but have only had one survivor. A prolapse results in blood, which is irresistible to hens, so the suffering bird must be isolated quickly. An attempt can be made to gently push the ejected mass back into the bird (wear disposable gloves to guard against infection). However, if too much damage has been caused or if it all comes out again then the kindest treatment is to dispatch the bird. This should only be done by someone who is confident and capable with the procedure as no bird should be made to suffer.

7) Avoiding Infestations

The plastic chicken coops that I use are not as prone to harbour red mite as wooden houses, but both these little pests and the white lice that can live on a bird must still be watched out for. As well as causing discomfort a major infestation can kill. If I spot anything on a bird or in the coop that I believe may be a risk (e.g. black or white powder like material that is not shed skin) then I will clean out and disinfect the coops. I will then sprinkle a proprietary powder in the nesting material, under my birds wings and around their necks and vents. I have done this as a precaution a couple of times and have, so far, avoided infestations.

8) The Unknown Killer

Sometimes, however vigilant we have been, a bird just dies. It is rare for there to have been no sign of illness, but a hen that has been looking under the weather will generally recover more often than succumb. This week one of my elderly hens started to look a little less alert than is normal. Being an old lady in my flock she was less active than the youngsters already but she had been noticeably stiffer in her movements and less interested in her friends in recent days. Yesterday she went into the nest box (she has not been laying eggs for some time) and tucked her head under her wing. She did not appear to be in pain and had other no visible problems. She showed no interest in food which is never a good sign in a hen. When I closed the coop last night she was in the same position. This morning she was dead.

Losing a pet is always sad. I comfort myself with knowing that my hens live a good life with plenty of food, shelter and space. Their presence in our garden enriches our lives with a great deal more than just eggs. Dealing with their deaths is a necessary part of hen keeping but it is still hard. Today is a sad day as we remember the little chicken that we named Cracker. I wonder if the rest of the flock are aware that she has gone.

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Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 3

One of the more obvious advantages of keeping a small flock of chickens in the garden is the constant supply of freshly laid eggs. I will never tire of the pleasure of going to the hen coops and opening the nest boxes to check for these treasures. We got our first egg from our first chicken within a few days of them moving into our garden. I haven’t had to buy an egg since. When our hens lay more eggs than we can use I have friends who will buy them from us which provides a welcome contribution towards feed costs. The number of eggs laid by the flock depends on many things:

  • the age of each hen;
  • her breed;
  • general health issues;
  • the number of hours of daylight in which she may feed;
  • the ambient temperature;
  • whether she was spooked by a scary aeroplane flying overhead or a sudden noise.

I learnt early never to go into the chicken garden with an umbrella. Better to get wet than to frighten my poor birds with this huge, flying object.

When a hen lays an egg she goes to a familiar place where she feels safe and comfortable. She will move the bedding around with her beak, throwing a little over her shoulder to the right and to the left as she squirms down into a comfy position in the nest that she has made. Having sorted herself out she will wait a little while before rising up slightly and laying the egg that she has been growing in her body for the last twenty-four to twenty-six hours. Some hens, when they lay the egg, will immediately leave the nest box. Others will settle down in an attempt to warm the chick that may be inside. They will check it from time to time, gently turning it with their beak. Once you observe a hen laying an egg you will never again take it for granted. Each egg is a little miracle, produced with such care by these affectionate, funny and loyal birds.

A hen will lay an egg whether or not she runs with a cockerel. Keeping a cockerel will help to maintain order in the flock, minimising the risk of bullying, and will also allow breeding. As I have no wish to raise chicks at this stage I keep only hens. My little flock is made up of different types of hybrid hens of different ages. This is not an ideal set-up. It is recommended that a flock should be of the same age and the same type of bird to minimise the risk of bullying. Pecking can be a serious issue as, if blood is drawn, the birds can become cannibalistic. Thankfully things have never got that bad amongst my birds.

A pullet will come into lay from around twenty to twenty-four weeks of age. It will take a few weeks for her to settle down into regular egg laying during which time eggs will vary in size and some may be soft shelled. A good egg layer will soon be providing an egg nearly every day. Laying hens have large, bright red combs and wattles and should be fully feathered, glossy and sleek. Almost all of their energy goes into producing that delicious, daily egg so they carry little fat. They should be alert and bright eyed, happily running with the flock in search of tasty treats to eat.

Hybrid hens should continue to lay eggs regularly until they are around three years old. As they come to the end of their laying lives the eggs may become larger with weaker shells. When they have laid their lifetime supply of eggs their combs and wattles will turn a pale pink and shrink back in size. These old ladies of the flock will continue to demand the respect of their juniors with a sharp peck if they are not allowed to feed when they wish. They will move more stiffly and face feathers will look paler. Hens do not grow grey and arthritic but that is what comes to mind when I watch my elderly hens as they move around the garden.

There are times in a laying hen’s life when she may take a short break from egg production. It is natural for a hen to moult periodically. This can appear quite dramatic with bald patches appearing and dropped feathers floating around the garden in large numbers. The hens can look worryingly ‘oven ready’ between dropping their old feathers and regrowing their sleek, new, personal duvet. The energy required to produce the replacement feathers can take all of a hens energy leaving none available to produce an egg.

Some types of chicken are also prone to broodiness. When this happens the hen will remain sitting in the nestbox with all the eggs she can find warming under her. She will turn them periodically and leave them only once a day to fill up on food and water, and to rid herself of one enormous, very smelly, broody poo. It takes around twenty-one days for a fertilized egg to develop a chick and hatch. A broody hen will sit on eggs for that length of time. As I do not wish to raise chicks I try to discourage broodiness by removing eggs regularly and lifting the hen out of the nestbox. She will always try to go straight back. If a determined broody is shut out of the nestbox then she will settle herself down as close as possible to where she thinks the eggs are. For the twenty-one days that she displays this behaviour she will lay no eggs.

I am always looking at where I am going next in my hen keeping adventure. When my current birds reach the end of their lives I am considering replacing them all at once with one type of bird. I will stick with hybrids as they lay more eggs per year than pure breeds. Pure breeds are now aimed more at keepers who wish to show birds or who wish to watch pretty little things run around their garden. I find my birds quite pretty enough, and I want them to keep laying me lots of yummy eggs.

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Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 2

The hands on experience gained from keeping a small flock of hens in my back garden has taught me much about what is required of the domestic poultry keeper. It is not for those who wish to keep a well manicured garden. Hens scratch the ground for food, and clean themselves of parasites by rolling around vigorously in loose soil (dustbathing). Neither of these activities is conducive to a tidy garden. They like to eat; grass, flowers, shrubs, fruit, vegetables; if it grows they are likely to find it tasty. If a hen finds a tasty plant then that is the end of the plant. Garden netting is a wonderful thing but hens are impressive in their ability to get through it when the reward on the other side looks edible.

In the five years that I have kept hens my ambitions to grow my own vegetables have necessarily diminished. When we first got our birds I allowed them to free range wherever they wanted to go in our garden. I loved the idea of hens pottering around; I had not anticipated that they would find the house as interesting as the garden. The first hot, summers day when I came downstairs to find hen poo on the floor of our family room and hens making their way through the front hall was the last time that I left doors open without suitable barricades. Having allowed the square of lawn nearest to our house to become pot holed with dustbaths in the early years I have now fenced it off as a no hen zone. I still grow beans in buckets along the house walls in the hen free area but have given up trying to harvest the raspberries that grow beyond. The hens are drawn to those tasty red fruits long before I can get to them. Our apples grow beyond their reach but they enjoy the windfalls.

I have mentioned hen poo. Of the many things that I had not expected when I first decided to keep hens, the most significant is probably the amount of poo that they produce. The volume of droppings is impressive for such small creatures. To start with I tried to lift and dispose of it all on a daily basis. As the number of birds we kept increased this became quite a chore. The decision to keep them off the square of lawn nearest to the house helped as this was an area much used by my young children and their friends so needed to be kept poo free. The chickens now have a dedicated patch of garden where their coops and runs sit. They free range on the wilder, sloped areas of garden beyond the house. I brush off the paths and decks but the rest of their poo is left as fertilizer. By making chicken care less of a chore I can ensure that they remain welcome in our garden.

Adapting the garden to suit the chickens and adapting our own behaviour to accommodate their habits has helped to keep chicken keeping a pleasure. Each family member has a pair of garden shoes by the back door. This ensures that stepping in something nasty is not an issue. The chicken garden has been relaid to allow the runs to be moved periodically, thus resting the ground that takes the most wear. Paving slabs laid around the run edges ensure that nothing can dig into the run so our birds are safe from predators when enclosed. The borders of our garden are secured with chicken wire that overlaps the ground to keep the birds from straying into our neighbouring woodland. They do still escape periodically. Our neighbours know that we are the chicken keepers and will alert us when they spot feathered visitors sampling their plants. Thankfully this is a rare occurrence.

The benefits of keeping hens more than make up for the damage they cause. I cannot imagine a garden bereft of these fabulous little bundles of feathered character. They are so funny and charming. I walk out of my back door and they flock to greet me. I go around the garden and they follow me hopefully. They flap and argue and sunbathe; get under my feet and cluck loudly for food. They are wonderful creatures.

When our garden looks less than pristine I have this valid excuse for it’s wildness. The chopped wood left in piles; the leaf mulch that is never quite cleared; the hedge borders that could always do with a trim; the playhouse that is rotting but under which the hens love to dustbathe; all provide ideal areas for bugs to breed and chickens to scratch. If our garden is untidy but a haven for our feathered friends then I see no reason to change the way we keep it. Anyway, that is my excuse and I am sticking to it!

A free range hen in a garden.

Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 1

For a little over five years I have kept a small flock of hens in my back garden. Initially, these were introduced as pets for my children. In lieu of the requested cat, dog or horse, I provided a creature that I felt I would be able and willing to look after; all parents know how fickle young children can be in their willingness to take responsibility long term. Chicken keeping has grown in popularity since we acquired our first birds, but that initial decision to keep domestic poultry was greeted with some amazement by our friends and wider family.

I was brought up in the suburbs of a city and had no previous experience of keeping farm animals. I was aware that my husband’s parents had kept a few birds in their garden at some stage in their lives but did not consult them before I embarked on this adventure. Perhaps I did not want to be dissuaded from my fine idea. When I first mentioned my plan to my own little family they were encouraging but not overly interested. I suspect that they did not expect it to go further than many of my other vaguely thought through ideas. I am not sure who was more amazed – them or me – when I actually ordered a coop, run and three pullets.

Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Not only could I research how easy it was to keep a few hens in the garden, but with a few clicks I could order the whole set-up. From making that momentous decision to go ahead it was a short couple of weeks before a van arrived in our driveway bearing all that we needed to keep hens, including the birds themselves. The lovely gentlemen who brought these treasures quickly assessed the area of garden that I had earmarked for our hens, assembled the coop and run, placed bedding in the nestbox, attached the food and water containers and handed me my birds. As I cuddled a chicken for the very first time I was reminded of the day my baby daughter was placed in my arms following her birth; my initial reaction was panic. I knew nothing about how to care for this living being! As the van drove away leaving me alone with our new pets I wondered what I had let myself in for.

Luckily hens are a great deal more straightforward to care for than babies and I soon grew used to their funny little ways. That first night, when it grew dark and they could not seem to find their way into the coop, I used the recommended torch to shine a light to show them the way. When I started to let them out of their enclosed run to free range in the garden I ensured that they associated me with tasty treats so that they followed me back to the coop for safe enclosure. I talked to them gently, picked them up and cuddled them regularly, so that they saw me as a protector and would come to me when I needed them to. My children were enthralled with these three little brown bundles of warm feathers and claimed one each, naming them and learning to tell them apart. They too quickly learned to handle the birds and would stroke and feed them, helping with many of the day to day tasks required to ensure comfort and well being.

Throughout this initial learning period I relied on the internet to answer any questions I had on keeping domestic poultry. There were several, active, discussion forums where I could post queries and get swift advice. My family assumed that I would know what to do, that I was the expert. As it was I who had made the decision to get the birds I knew that it was my responsibility to keep them well and safe. This was my first experience of keeping a pet and I learnt quickly.

Hen keeping is a strangely addictive hobby. Those initial three birds were soon joined by another couple. We accepted a lost hen when one of my daughter’s friends needed to rehome a bird she found living in her garden. No owner could be traced and she had no wish to keep hens. It is not wise to introduce just one new bird to an existing flock so we acquired a friend for this stray and introduced them together. The addition of these new hens to our flock made it necessary for us to purchase a second, bigger coop. Having all that additional space then allowed us to purchase a further four hens, and then another four. We went from keeping three hens to fourteen. We currently have eleven.

The two coop set up works well. The small house is used to introduce new hens to the flock. It is important to keep them separate for a while to ensure no diseases are brought in and also to prevent bullying. The phrase hen pecked cannot be fully understood until one has witnessed how hens establish the pecking order within the flock. They can be quite brutal. Once all the hens are running together in the garden with no issues they can be moved to roost together in the big coop. I currently keep hens in both coops as, in bad weather, they are confined to their runs for longer periods. Boredom can cause bullying issues so avoiding overcrowding is important.

I cannot now imagine our garden without hens. The children show less interest in them than they did when they were younger, but I enjoy my daily interaction and gain a great deal of pleasure from just watching the birds feed and scratch and bathe. Each hen is a unique little character; trusting, inquisitive and hungry – always hungry for tasty treats and optimistic that I will provide. Following through on my initial bright idea to keep a few chickens in the garden was one of my better decisions.

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