Prickly Chickly

I posted last week about Esme’s sudden loss of feathers and over the week the reason it happened so quickly has become clear – the new ones were just below the surface ready to burst forth! She has been reluctant to be handled during her moult, but I managed to catch her yesterday afternoon and hold her whilst Mr Snail of happiness took a few photographs.

New neck feathers

New neck feathers

The new feathers are very prickly at the moment, resembling porcupine quills, but are coming through in great abundance. It’s interesting to see the colour contrast too – her old feathers are quite brown and faded, but the new ones are beautiful black and white. She is still losing some of her old ones, though not at the same rate as last week. It is possible that she will have a complete new set within the next few weeks.

Back and tail area

Back and tail area

One she’s finished growing her new feathers it will be interesting to see how long it takes for her to start laying again. In the past she has always laid over the winter, but as she ages (she’s nearly four years old now) we expect her laying to decline. The two youngsters, Aliss and Perdy*, are less than two years old and are still laying every day or two. Lorna, the same age as Esme, as only ever laid intermittently, but we keep her because she does other jobs in the garden and is our top slug-hunter!

New wings

New wings

One of the joys of keeping backyard hens is to see these natural cycles taking place. We do not provide our girls with extra light or heat during the winter, so their bodies follow the seasons. This means that we are bound to get fewer eggs in the winter, but we don’t mind that, as eating seasonally is an important aspect of understanding the food on our plates.

-oOo-

* In case you’re wondering, Esme, Perdy and Aliss are named after some of Terry Pratchett’s witches – we used to have a Gytha too.

Peace in our thyme

Please excuse the pun, in fact our thyme expired over the winter and I haven’t got round to replacing it yet. This short post is, however, about peace.

Bathing together… well, three of them anyway

Last night, for the first time, all four hens chose to sleep together in the old hen-house. The previous night Perdy had joined the oldies, but Aliss had remained resolutely alone in the palatial new house. But last night when I went out to close the doors on them at 9:30 they were all together. Aliss was sitting just inside the door and I had to tuck a few tail feathers in, but they had all chosen to remain together. So, we now seem to have a single flock once more.

I can’t help feeling that giving them plenty of space in which to interact has made life much easier than had we tried to confine them all together in a small space.

-oOo-

For those of you visiting for the first time because of the lovely nomination from Metan, they are named after Terry Pratchett’s witches:

Esme: Mistress Esmeralda Weatherwax aka Granny Weatherwax
Aliss: Black Aliss (she’s a black rock chicken, you see)
Perdy: Perdita X Dream aka Agnes Nitt
Gytha: Mrs Gytha Ogg, aka Nanny Ogg (alas no more – the chicken not the original!)

and finally Lorna… the rogue non-Pratchett chicken, named by Mr Snail-of-Happiness: he’s banned from naming any more until I run out of witches, and we’ve got to get to Anagrama before that happens

The newbies

We have been profligate in the chicken department… after the demise of Gytha we decided that a replacement was in order so off we went to the chickenery (or Country Lane Nurseries as they call themselves) to get a new girl to add to our flock.

‘We’d like a chicken,’ we said to the nice lady.

A chicken?’ she responded with slight incredulity, or possibly amusement.

‘Yes, a chicken. One of ours has recently died and we want a replacement. We have two others that also came from here.’

One chicken?’

‘Yes, please’

‘Well, we don’t advise getting a single one… she might get bullied by the existing chickens, so it’s better if she has a friend.’

Now, I know this is common thinking, but we have limited perching space in the hen-house and three fit nicely, but it would be a squash for four. But the prospect of our newbie getting bullied was too much… so we bought 100% more chickens than we had intended to. They will just have to get very cozy in the hen-house… or sleep in the laying boxes.

So, let me introduce our two new ladies:

The new girls

Carrying on the Terry Pratchett witches theme, that’s Aliss at the front (Black Aliss because she’s a Black Rock) and Perdy at the back (Perdita aka Agnes Nitt – another Speckledy).

Esme, being the boss (as befits the one named after Esmeralda Weatherwax – chief of witches despite them not being hierarchical, unlike chickens) has decided that she will spend time letting them know the pecking order:

Esme letting everybody know who’s boss

She has been strutting up and down and making herself look big – plus when allowed direct contact, she occasionally pecks and sits on the newbies. Interesting thing this chicken behaviour. Lorna is not interested particularly and is just getting on with life as normal, hence her absence from the photos.

They all slept together last night, but during the day we are mostly keeping them apart until they are more used to each other. By August we should be having eggs from all four. Plus we will have built a new and bigger house for them… and we may even have stopped being rained on for more than a day or two. Actually, perhaps we should build them a chicken ark!

Filling the gap

In my earlier ‘Waste of Space‘ post I described my plans for a previously unused area beside the house. The first stage was just to get something in the area and I started by placing some potatoes along the fence in bags. These have grown like mad, but the rain and strong winds last Friday rather battered them – being raised above the ground they are more exposed than plants growing directly in the soil. However, they weren’t completely destroyed and so should still be producing tubers down in the compost.

Mangetout with some of the storm-ravaged potatoes

But potatoes were only the beginning. The next addition was two large pots of mangetout to grow up the fence. This fence has had to be covered with mesh and the height increased because of escaping chickens that would  get over the top (via the compost bins) in order to visit the neighbours or take a stroll down the street. Sadly our greatest escapee, Gytha, died yesterday, but the mesh has to stay as the others are not entirely trustworthy. So, tall pea plants seemed a good way to mask the mesh and make use of vertical space that was just begging to be utilised. The plants were started in the greenhouse where some of them were eaten by a mouse; however, some survived and are now a few inches tall… fingers crossed they will produce some pods.

My latest addition to the area is a ‘dumpy bag’ filled with compost from my big green cone compost bin and planted with the ‘three sisters’. For those of you who don’t know, a dumpy bag is one of those cubic metre sacks that building materials arrive in. The builders merchants won’t take them back for reuse (in case they fail, I guess) and so they are generally regarded as rubbish. We have several of them and I’ve heard of them being used elsewhere for planting so thought I would give it a go once I had enough compost to fill one.

Mostly from waste: a dumpy bag filled with grass clippings, cardboard and home-made compost.

As for the ‘three sisters‘, they are squash, corn and beans, which grow well together as a ‘guild’. In theory, the corn should provide support for the beans, but I know that corn is a tricky crop here in west Wales, so I have added some canes for the beans. My planting is very dense, but since the bag contains compost with a cardboard-grass clippings-cardboard sandwich in the base (to hold moisture and provide heat as it breaks down) there should be plenty of nutrients and the beans should fix nitrogen to further boost the fertility. I did cover the top of the home-made compost with about an inch of coir fibre with no added nutrients to serve as a mulch and discourage weed growth from the compost until the squash leaves get big enough to suppress any weeds on their own. I only had three runner bean plants left from my earlier garden planting and these are looking the worse for wear, but I’m hoping that they will perk up now they are in such a great growing medium. I planted three different squashes: Boston (a winter squash), summer crookneck and a courgette (zucchini)… any rampant rambling can be across the tarmac or along the little fence. This is a real experiment for me, but I think that it might be quite successful.

Slowly less of the space is wasted

Chick still sick

Despite the lovely sunshine I noticed yesterday that Gytha was starting to puff herself up again… the previous sign of her becoming unwell. She was happy and active and eating well, so we let her be. Today, however, whilst doing a spot of chicken wrangling to get them back in the run I picked her up. There, once more, was the smell of rotten eggs.

Mr Snail-of-happiness held her firmly and I had the pleasure of unblocking her vent. It was surprisingly easy to unclog her and I managed to get my finger well inside to be sure. There was no sign of any egg-shell, which is good. The next procedure is a salt-water douche, to ensure that she’s rinsed out inside.

I have now washed my hands once with lavender liquid soap, twice with charcoal soap and used tea tree sanitizer on them twice… the smell of rotting egg is finally disappearing.

All this happened just after I had returned from an appointment to try out wearing contact lenses. So today, my right index finger has been in my own eye and up a chicken’s bum. I think I probably chose the right order.

Never satisfied

The British are well-known for their obsession with the weather… and we do deserve this reputation. We have been grumbling for weeks now about how cold and miserable it has been and that we haven’t had a proper spring and we can’t transfer our plants outdoors because the risk of frost is not over Then – WHAM – suddenly we are having a heat wave and we’re all complaining that our seedlings are dying of heat stroke. In addition to this, it’s windy today, so they are all dehydrating too. As a gardener it is easy to focus on the adverse effects that the weather is having, so I though that I would try to look at the positives of this massive swing in the weather…

First, we are suddenly making up for the poor electricity generation last month… the solar panels are working at peak efficiency, especially with the wind to cool them down a little.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS! All the well established plants are really building up their resources… potatoes and rhubarb, raspberries and blueberries, redcurrants and sage, chives and willow… and we’re chucking the washing up water on them in the evening to help them along.

Lorna and Gytha… not complaining about the weather

All the washing is drying in double-quick time… and it smells so fresh when it comes in off the line.

Gytha is recuperating in the sunshine… although she hasn’t started laying again, she’s bright and perky and enjoying sunbathing.

The wood for burning is seasoning well and drying nice and quickly with the wind… Mr Snail-of-happiness was hopeful that he would be able to light the Kelly Kettle by directing the sun through my hand lens onto the kindling, to minimise the resources used when boiling the water. Sadly this didn’t work, but it was worth a try and we’ll have another go on a less windy day.

And, of course, we feel bright and cheerful on these lovely sunny days and get to drink our tea in the garden… so, let’s count our blessings not complain about the weather!

Sick Chick

The past 48 hours have been fairly fraught in the chicken department – it turns out that Gytha wasn’t just cold. ..

Mr Snail-of-happiness had to go away on Wednesday down to Surrey; not long after he left I embarked on a thorough chicken house clean. When I pulled the tray out from beneath their slatted perching area I was worried to see that it contained a lot of liquid. I had noticed that Gytha’s rear end was a bit grubby, but since she has been active and eating well, I had not investigated. However, clearly something was wrong here. I put the cleaning activity aside and inspected Gytha – she had a sore patch beside her vent and a very dirty bottom. So, I came in and consulted the wonder that is the interweb-thingy. Several options seemed possible… worms, bacterial infection or possibly she was egg bound. I had already felt externally for an egg and couldn’t feel one, so went to look at poo. Ah, the joys of chicken-keeping! After inspection of the hen-house and all visible chicken poo round the garden, I was pretty certain she didn’t have worms and I couldn’t see any blood in any of it, so perhaps a bacterial infection? The answer, in the short-term seemed to be natural yoghurt. So I made a mix of layers’ mash, warm water and live yoghurt (which I make myself). This turned out to be very popular with chickens!

I went back to cleaning the hen-house in the drizzle… scrubbing all the bits with soapy water, rinsing with clean water, drying the floors and perch and then putting it all back together with a generous dusting of diatomaceous earth in the places where red mites hang out. Finally I filled the nesting boxes with shredded paper ( great security measure… what thief is going to steal your personal details when they have been shredded and then covered in chicken poo?).

That seemed to be all I could do for Gytha at that stage, so I went back to editing and intermittently fretting. Mr S-o-h was away overnight so I fretted on my own.

In the morning I inspected the area under the perch – not much poo, no blood. Gytha was quite perky. I gave them some more food with natural yoghurt and I went back to editing. After lunch, I decided to wash Gytha’s rear end, feeling that it would be better if she was clean. So, I filled a bowl with warm water and caught my chicken. I reckoned that the best place to try this operation was in the greenhouse, as she then couldn’t escape and it’s nice and warm in there. So, I inverted my chicken to see how messy she was and found her vent distended and blocked with a yellowish mass. I rinsed her off and dislodged some of the mass, but wasn’t sure how rough I could be with her in getting it out. The smell suggested to me that what I was seeing was rotten egg. Back to the interweb. My word, there are many sites about chicken keeping and a whole range of suggestions of how to deal with ‘bunged up’ chickens. The most sensible thing would have been to take her to the vet, but Mr S-o-h had the car and the bus ride takes 45 minutes each way… not a sensible option with a sick chicken, I felt.

So, first I tried introducing some oil (sunflower) into her vent with a syringe. This did not seem to have any effect, but I sat in the garden and watched her for half an hour to see if the lubrication would help her to pass anything. Nothing happened.

Finally (after the vets had closed) Mr S-o-h arrived home. Now there were two of us we could try the next suggestion – soak her in warm water for half an hour (yes, 30 minutes) to make her vent muscles relax in the hope that she would, with a big push, be able to pass the mass of rotten egg. We filled a bowl, Mr S-o-h collected Gytha off her perch and I sat on the kitchen floor holding her in the water. It was much easier than I had expected… there was a bit of a struggle, but the water was nice and warm and I held her firmly… and held her… and held her… my word the minutes pass slowly when you are sitting on the kitchen floor holding a chicken in a bowl of water. She fell asleep – my hands started to seize up. I considered the possibility of opening a chicken spa… and dismissed it. Finally I lifted her out, we wrapped her in a towel, then transferred her into a cat carrying box with a hot water bottle underneath. We left her with a bowl of water in the dark.

We looked for a result half an hour later – nothing.
We looked for a result another half hour later – nothing.
We looked for a result before we went to bed – nothing.
We got up this morning and took her to the vets.

We have a lovely vet – he’s not the nearest, but we have been going to him for years. He knows our names, what we do, where we used to work, that Mr S-o-h has been writing a book. We have never had to take a chicken to him before.

To ensure that we got the most out of our trip we took on of the dogs to be vaccinated too. According to the vet’s computer this particular dog was dead, but he resurrected her, so that was ok. He gave her the vaccinations and then came the chicken… I don’t think he sees many chickens, but he wasn’t fazed. He inserted his finger into her vent (I clearly could have been much rougher with her, and wish I had) and dislodged a mass of egg and other stuff. The diagnosis? A soft egg had become stuck and had rotted, plus she had developed an abscess. Poor Gytha.

We are home now – with antibiotics to be given in liquid form twice a day  and a new syringe to wash out her insides from the rear with warm salt water (our vet is very keen on salt water). We administered the first dose of antibiotics, straight down her through from a tiny syringe, when we got home and it turned out to be remarkably easy – although she may have worked out what we’re up to now and dose number two may be more of a challenge. The flushing out of her vent is going to wait until tomorrow – I think she’s experienced enough invasion for today. She’s had a meal of natural yoghurt mixed with mash and some dried meal worms and we wait to see if she recovers.

I’d better get back to work now, otherwise I won’t be able to afford the vet’s bills!

Chickens in more healthy times

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