Dear Diary: Still no one has laid her eggs. We think an owl is going after our chickens; we lost four two-year old laying hens this week. The chickens used to sleep in the trees and the turkeys on the ground. Now that it is colder, they sleep huddled next to the shed, the chickens in the middle surrounded by the turkeys. Late last night Roy went out to check, after we heard a noise. He saw all the turkeys on their feet, “foaming at the mouth” in defiant protection mode. Animals never cease to amaze me, their compassion, their honesty, their strength of identity and secrecy. Who is to say whether animals have an inner dialogue but they certainly have a moral code; it does not match ours but exists none the less.
The lessons from a flock of birds illuminate many truths about raising animals in general. It can be especially lovely if you don’t have the heart to kill for food, as at you can have a house of hens who happily leave their eggs for you to eat. Without your intervention, a hen will lay an egg, on average, every other day consecutively for years. In full compliance with providence if you do let your hens live in accord with their natural life rhythms and interact with males, they will produce chickens for you to eat as well.
You wouldn’t think of chickens and turkeys as extinct but that is closer to the truth than not. Only propagating the most efficient birds for profit has reduced them to a very limited gene pool. These varieties are bred for a very short life in a very small area, sometimes a cage. This is not natural to the nature of birds so very few varieties survive. Would you?
Choice breeds have good dispositions towards other birds and their keepers. You desire the hens to consistently lay strong eggs and be devoted mothers to their young. Good breeds to look for are in chickens are Speckled Sussex, Silverlaced Wyandotte, Buff Orpingtons, and Isa Browns. That said it is better to have any breed of chicken then have no chicken at all.
Small chickens will be able to fly out of any coup. I have even seen a mid sized chicken literally walk up the wire fence to get over it. Small birds eat less than big birds, need less space and still lay great eggs. Larger chicken breeds will not escape the coup, are big enough to eat and still lay great eggs. Chickens and turkeys may try to escape the coup but they stay too far away from home.
We have only raised Broad Breasted Bronze and White Nicholas Turkeys. The heritage breeds of turkey still have enough instinct and stamina to survive the winter. The birds have a friendly disposition and the meat is superlative. Avoid buying the white turkeys, they are very stupid and not hardy at all. These have been bred for factory farms to live through the summer to be butchered in the fall. It is most efficient to raise turkeys for meat production.
You can purchase day old chicks from a hatchery. They come in a cardboard box through the mail. If you buy them this way try to get them vaccinated for coccidiosis. It is best to buy chicks to arrive in May or June when you won’t have to worry about the cold as much. Although the initial brooding procedures seem a little finicky, take heart that you should only have to do it once.
Make sure you have everything prepared ahead of time for their arrival. They must be kept very warm and free from cold drafts on the way home from the post office. Have a large box already lined with newspaper and a layer dry wood shaving and/or straw. Do not use cedar and do not use sawdust.
It is necessary to round the corners of the box with other cardboard. If chicks get cold they huddle in corners, piling on top of each other to stay warm, inevitably killing the ones on the bottom.
Plug in the heat lamp the night before and use a thermometer to ensure the heat in the box is a constant 85-90 degrees for chickens, 95-100 degrees for turkeys.
Use a red light in the heat lamp and measure the heat in the box, slightly away from the light and an inch from the ground. The red will keep them from pecking each other.
Birds will always need sand or small gravel at the ready to help them digest their food. Mix up a batch of feed and sand for small feed dishes in the box and each time you move them to a larger area.
If you have eggs that have been fertilized by a male, you can hatch them yourself in an incubator. Store bought eggs have not been fertilized. A person needs to have heat and humidity and patience to incubate eggs. You can only bow to the majesty of nature’s alchemy of perfection when you see that little life appear from an egg. Not all the eggs hatched. I did four batches and each time added the new chicks to the growing brood scurrying around the brooder. It was amazing to see the day old chicks eating and sleeping among the older chicks.
Although we have used an incubator last year it was not necessary. Too many hens were broody and sat on their eggs until they hatched. Not all sitting hens cared for the chicks once they hatched and some of the best hen mothers didn’t sit on their eggs. Left to their own devices you could end up with a yard full of chickens of all ages happily thriving together as a group.
We incubated more eggs later in the summer with eggs found from deserted nests. When these chicks hatched I put them down outside the coup to see what would happen. A few hens squawked and carried on so I let them out to join the babies. It was so beautiful and it happened so quickly, the mothers claimed her chicks and set about cooing to them and showing them where to eat. It happened so quickly, one minute an egg and three minutes outside pecking the ground for food and enjoying the love of a mother.
Chicks are all adorable but they are also very vulnerable to moulds and viruses. Wash your hands really well before and after handling birds. Rub a little tea tree oil on your hands before taking them from their shipping box and each time you handle them. Take each bird out separately, let it relax in your hand, then you have to dip each of them in water for their first drink. You may have to be a little forceful but this very important to teach them to drink. Use room temperature water for small birds.
Their water dish must be small so they can easily know where to drink. The dish must not be deeper than an inch because they can drown in it. Being so small it must be filled with clean water regularly. Be diligent not to get the bedding wet. Wet bedding chills the chicks and invites toxic mould impairing their health. Wet bedding must be removed and replaced immediately.
You will have to dutifully care for their needs, checking on them every three or four hours for a couple of months.
It is important to note the birds will quickly outgrow the box and will always need more space so plan ahead knowing the secured areas must kept warm and dry. If your brooding area is too small not all your chicks will live.
With a lack of meaningful activity and over crowding a scenario where the strongest pick on the weakest is created. The taunting goes on until the poor chick somehow agrees it is time for her to die and she shuts down. You have to catch this early, even if you have to make a separate brooder box for the smaller chicks. But don’t isolate single birds alone as they seem very hurt by loneliness.
Turkeys are sensitive to a virus chickens carry but are immune to, it is called blackhead. Try to put your birds where no birds have been before. I have always raised chickens and turkeys together and never had a problem. Sprinkle tea tree essential oil on the coup floor and add a little apple cider vinegar to their water every month as a preventative measure. In the wild male turkeys don’t live with females.
Birds spend all day foraging in the pen for bugs and seeds. You will never have a pen big enough to provide all their nutritional needs. Feed them grains, a mixture of dehulled barley, wheat, oats and/or rolled corn every day from first frost until last frost. Feed a handful or two per bird depending on the size of the bird and the amount of other food available in the pen or supplemented with kitchen and garden scraps. It is preferable not to feed at same time every day, keep them guessing and foraging themselves. Don't over feed them; you want them hungry enough to keep active looking bugs and such. They will always be excited to get food, but they shouldn’t appear desperate.
For birds, in winter when they can not forage for food, include a mixture of following in their feed dish: apple cider vinegar, yoghurt, molasses, kelp, nettles, egg shells, oatmeal, dried peas, lentils, flaxseed, hemp seed, brewer’s yeast, mustard seed, broccoli seed, radish seed, millet, sunflower seeds, cooked egg, dill, chia seed, amaranth seed, kale, some weeds and most weed seeds, green tea and sprouted grain. They also like worms, bugs and fish. Do not feed birds potato peelings, coffee, meat fat, rice and uncooked egg shells from unknown source.
As vulnerable as chicks are, chickens inherently know all that is needed to thrive and be satisfied. They are always collecting food and will always announce the arrival of new food to the others. They can be fierce protecting their little ones and they always feed their babies before themselves. Chickens love long dirt baths. Some hens are broody, some are bullies and some like to be left alone.
Dear Diary: A bluejay landed to eat the feed with my now grown chicks. Immediately they put the run on him, sent him screaming, it was awesome! Chickens henpeck so I have been reluctant to add these babies to the flock, but I see they are ready. It will be a relief as their droppings make a mess around the yard but I will miss so intimately watching their antics. It was easy for us to believe chicks were delicate; I suppose it is true for any critter without a mama. But these chicks were born to Little Mama two days before two feet of snow fell announcing the permanent arrival of winter. We couldn’t believe our eyes when she brought them to the front door to show us. It has been quite funny watching them try to manoeuvre through the snow, as the mom tried to ditch them as they got older, and now their bliss as the snow vanishes to reveal endless snacking.
I fell in love with chickens from the first chicken who wanted to be my pet. Mildred was her name because that what she called out, “Mmmillllldrrreeeeaaad”, after she laid her egg in the laundry basket in the porch. Almost all chickens raised in the proper environment will let you pick them up, stroke their faces and feathers and they will coo and rub their faces against fingers.
The chickens that have a hard time in the coup live in my garden, as free as birds can be. They eat ants and insects and scratch up the earth. Occasionally they will dig up or eat a plant I wanted but they are random munchers and don’t take out whole crops. It is worth is as they are weeders, bug catchers, fertilizers, layers and pets all at once. This is the wonderful bonus of chickens is that they can be loyal and affectionate egg laying pets.
We had a pet turkey for seven years and I don’t suggest keeping meat animals as pets. It was very sad for him to see all his kin gone and even more depressing when the new hens ran from him as if he was a dirty old man for wanting them. The young toms always challenged this leadership and in the end he was very lonely.
Every homestead should raise chickens to have eggs. You could say if you had ten hens you could expect five eggs per day. They like to lay eggs in seclusion so set a side an area along a wall to use as laying boxes. Fill it with bedding like wood shavings without cedar or dry straw or hay for their comfort, and to help keep the eggs clean. The will lay in these little nests regularly. Gather eggs every day. Don’t be surprised if your girls don’t lay for a few days after a predator attack. This is also an indicator that an undetected predator is threatening the birds that is they aren’t laying as they should.
A red dot on the yolk is natural if you have a rooster. A green tinge to the yolk is also natural if the hens have eaten a lot of greens. If you find eggs and are not sure if they are edible, fully immerse them in lukewarm water and if the eggs pops up and floats it is too old to use. Washing eggs destroys the natural bacteria boundary that makes eggs safe to eat and these should be consumer right away. You can tell how fresh a cooked egg is by the size of the air pocket space. The larger the space the older the egg and the easier it is to peel.
Hens don’t lay very well during the winter but you can stimulate your girls to lay more eggs by putting a flourescent light and/or a heat in the coup. Make sure the light has a protective cover as those little shards of glass from a broken bulb can wreck a perfectly good coup forever. Any other little luxury you can give them helps too like treats in their feed, warm water in the dish and lots of dry warm bedding. The happier the chicken is the more she will produce.
Birds can freeze combs and feet right off and hens will stop laying eggs in winter. Make sure you have enough birds in the coup so that the collective body heat keeps everyone warm enough. Birds like to sit on branches or perches set up off the ground in the coup. Rub perches liberally with tea tree and neem essential oils to keep parasites at bay. Under the perches is where the droppings collect, plan your design so these are easily removed. Use additional dry bedding throughout the coup to help it warm and dry.
Dear Diary: The coyote was long gone. I found her under the bush, reaching in and gently dragging her to me, was she dead? Literally there was a bite had taken flesh. Her pretty feathers were wet soaked in saliva and blood. Her heart was beating, her flesh was soft and hot. At first she lay lifeless in my hands, her head limp and pointing to the ground. Before I could decide what to do, she lifted her head and looked right at me. What could I do? What would you do? I carried her home in my sweater and letting her use that favourite sweater as a blanket I put her in a box by the stove.
I couldn’t do anything for her and she lived. I have not always been so lucky and either will you. When raising animals some days are so sorrowful. Attrition is the scourge of every homestead; it is the balancing factor to life. I can rationalize that the life or death of one is really is no big deal in the scheme of things, but all life is magic and death the great disappearing act.
Essential oils are the modern and ancient medicine of every homestead. All bird and animal injuries should be disinfected with tea tree or lavender oils. Parasites, like fleas and mites, and viruses are also keep at bay using peppermint, neem and eucalyptus oils. Do not use lavender on dogs, do not use essential oils on cats.
Males must be kept to fertilize eggs but also for protection and companionship for the females. Keep only one male per ten females. An excellent male will let a female eat first. I keep one rooster out of the coup to act as a lookout and alert me to predators. Many times we have witnessed male animals bravely defend the females with their lives, this contribution is never forgotten and these males, if they live, are never eaten.
It very important to eat the extra birds, you don’t have the room for or can’t afford to feed and house through the winter. If you don’t, it is the equivalent of caging young thugs to rule over dainty mothers and their young. The violence and self-centeredness of some females and most males is destructive and can wreck the disposition of the group. The choice members of the community are the females who dutifully go about producing eggs and raising chicks and males who protect them. Culling is the only way to assist perpetuating their life cycle in a sustainable way.