Posts tagged backyard chickens

Flipper:1 Hawk:0

When you catch the ear-piercing screech of a mama hen and the panicked flaps of her chicks, you stop whatever it is you are doing and go into rescue mode. With our free-ranging flock, we have witnessed our share of tragedy due to raptors but we have also been on-hand to tend to and mend the near-misses.

We have eight young chicks wandering around the Queendom these days. Two are lucky enough to have been hatched out by Zorro, an experienced mama hen who takes her mothering role very seriously. This is her third brood and many of our other girls were raised under her wing. Flipper and Pilot are just four weeks old but already gaining confidence and leaving Zorro’s side for short stints.

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Flipper in the front, Pilot in the back.

While FM and I were both in the outdoor coop yesterday, there was the above-mentioned screech from Zorro – a long, grating, fear-filled cry – and then the sound of wild flapping. In the time it took to turn our heads towards the noise, a hawk was already gaining altitude and flying away across the property. FM had seen the hawk for just an instant and was fairly certain that it didn’t have anything in its talons. We stepped out to see the damage and instantly saw that one of Zorro’s chicks was missing. Pilot had scooted under a salmonberry bush and had quickly reunited with Zorro but Flipper was nowhere to be seen.

We both started searching for a tell-tale cluster of downy feathers out on the drive. Then our eyes went up to the trees, searching for a feasting hawk who would be casting aside its prey’s feathers. We know that a hawk will land on a nearby branch to eat newly-caught prey before it manages to wiggle free. We wandered to the back of the field, looking for any signs of movement in the thick forest beyond our fence line. Nothing.

Even if we find her, we won’t be able to save her.

Turning back towards the scene, we began looking in all the favourite hiding places – in the woodshed, behind the wheelbarrow, under the garden tool shelf, under a different bush, behind the old stump. But reality started to settle in when we saw Zorro standing tall near the porch, scanning the yard and processing what had just happened. She seemed bewildered and devastated, if you’ll allow me artistic licence on her feelings. One moment, Flipper was there; the next, she was gone. A life erased, just like that.

For a brief instant, our hope rekindled as we all heard a familiar cheep cheep from across the yard. As we hustled over toward the sound, we realized it was just one of the penned-up meat birds chattering.

It was too much to hope for.

A long while had passed – probably close to 30 minutes – and, after having considered every option, we both had returned to our weekend tasks with heavy hearts. Then, something caught my eye and I looked over to see Flipper quietly hustling across the drive, over to her mum. Hidden alone, way beyond the compost bin, she had outfoxed the hawk – and us. Zorro dropped her stoic stance and welcomed Flipper home with clucks that promised fresh shoots and grubs. Flipper chest-bumped her sister and then jumped up to perch on a tree branch.

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Both Pilot and Flipper love to roost in the pine tree beside the porch

FM and I were awash with relief. There is something so precious about a little chick. In her short month of life, we have already become attached and we look forward to years of watching her on Chicken TV, as in:

Let’s go out on the porch and watch an hour of Chicken TV.

This whole episode (of Chicken TV) makes me wonder how often this kind of close-call happens. For us, this was the first attempted predator attack for young Pilot and Flipper. But what do we know? This could be happening once a week or even daily. Our lives are busy with work and play. This flock is busy with daily adventure and survival. Flipper and Pilot are being taught by the best and have proven to be fast learners – which is great since their lives depend on it here in the Queendom.

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But life in the Queendom is pretty good, too. Here, Zorro takes in a sun beam with white-chinned Flipper by her side and preening Pilot beyond.

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One Tough Chick

We lost Sprout this week. As I came out onto the front porch for my regular morning coffee and chick visit, I could hear a chorus of begawking coming from inside the coop. I found her dead on the coop floor, exactly in the spot where she has been choosing to sleep lately. It seems that she passed pretty peacefully, tucked in beside the nest boxes. I picked her up and found that her feet were cool to the touch but she still had some residual warmth deep under her thick feathers next to her skin. It was a sad discovery but not a surprise to either of us.

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When Sprout was just a month old, she mysteriously escaped a hawk attack within the coop and spent the night alone under the porch in -5° C temperatures. We had assumed that she had been taken and killed until the next morning when she emerged, looking for food. Toughness, learned early.

Sprout has been ill for a long time – more than 2 years according to my journal. Back in December 2016, we first noticed her distended, watery belly which caused her pain when palpated. We initially treated her as if egg-bound but ruled it out after a gentle vent probe. But she did have a solid mass, deep in her abdomen, that sat against the left abdominal wall. She was able to poop, eat, snooze, preen and forage but she sometimes gasped for breath or her comb would turn a purply colour.

A few months later, we decided that we were brave enough to drain her ascites belly. We took 2/3 cup of amber liquid out of her with a syringe. She bounced back but we knew that we were only dealing with a symptom of something much more serious. Her voice had changed and she kind of squeaked instead of chattered and her open-beak gasping became her signature pose. I don’t know how many times I wrote in my journal that she would die soon.

So, why didn’t we cull her or put her out of her misery, you may ask. We are prepared to do this to a much-loved bird (although it pains us both deeply) but we were waiting for her to have a downward turn. Every morning, she was the first one out of the coop, ready to get out into the fresh air and forage with the young chicks. And often she was the last one in at night, waiting until all the young’uns were inside and accounted for before she hit the roost. If this behaviour had changed, we would have stepped up and done the deed.

She was tough to the end. She didn’t let her sickness hold her back. She was a caring mother hen, raising two clutches of chicks herself and being a surrogate mother to many other little ones.

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Sprout was an amazing mother hen. Here she is, in healthier days, with Zorro and Zelda.

She died at 4.5 years old, a month after her BFF Speedy was killed by a hawk. Perhaps she couldn’t carry on without her old nest-mate buddy. She was ill, had trouble breathing and probably in pain for a long time but she had a deep resilience and kept us fooled.

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Ever curious and beautiful.

[Warning: necropsy details ahead]

FM bravely opened Sprout up to see if her illness was visible. Indeed, it was. She had two huge masses in her lower abdomen. The astonishing one was a heavy white mass, the size of a softball. It was made up of layers upon layers of dense, white tissue and had egg material in the center, complete with softened shell around a yolk. For those chicken keepers out there, it resembled a hard, internal, lash egg, which I understand to be a result of oviduct cancer. We have had only one lash egg, a number of years ago, which may have been hers. The other mass is a mystery to us and our best guess is an enormous, enlarged spleen.

Upon seeing her insides, it was obvious that these two masses had filled up her abdomen, reducing her lung capacity substantially. I also suspect that she may have occasionally manifested as egg-bound or as egg-peritonitis because the tumours may have caused a temporary bowel obstruction.

We suspected cancer way back in 2016 and it turns out that we were probably right. The mild relief is that it isn’t contagious and the rest of the flock will carry on.

It has been a tough six months here on the Queendom. We have lost five hens since August, one to a hawk but the rest to unknown illnesses. Chicken-keeping is tough on this old chick.

 

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Another Close Call

With bald eagles and sharp-shinned hawks making regular passes over the Queendom these days, our rooster, Stryper, has a heavy workload. He tirelessly leads, follows and gathers the girls together, ever watching the sky and assessing the level of danger. At the end of the day, when he finally roosts for the night, he is the first to sleep, exhausted by his task.

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Stryper is the most attentive rooster we have had. He chatters away all day and the girls love what he is dishing out.

Some of our older girls ignore his constant pestering and choose to wander in the other direction. They are probably content that the new young beauties hold his attention so fixedly. But everything has a cost.

Today, FM found a pile of gray feathers in a shed bay, behind the snowblower. He had noticed that the flock was hunkered down, out of view, under the front porch when he arrived home so he went back to see who was there and who was missing. We currently have six gray hens and it turns out that beautiful Ash was missing.

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What a beauty Ash is. She looks like a Robin Red-Breast with her rusty highlights.

Ash is an experienced hen – probably five years old – who growls at the slightest danger and continues growling long afterwards to remind the others to be careful. She also loves a snuggle and spends time each day with her sickly mum, Sprout.

With headlamps on, FM and I headed over to the pile of feathers and began searching.

Feathers everywhere – even a thick pile under this wire shelf. She was found under the right hand shelf. Afterwards I collected them all and could easily have stuffed a pillow.

Expecting to find a lifeless body, I was elated to find her bright eyes looking at me. She was flattened down under the gardening shelf, between a bag of grass seed and another of peat moss. She was totally invisible. In fact, FM had just searched this same area ten minutes earlier with no luck. She seems relieved to have been found and easily came into my arms but was still on high alert to danger.

We carried her back into the house and checked her over for injuries. Most of the feathers on her back are broken off at the base and she has a scratch which cut through the thin skin between her wings. One of her claws is broken, deeply split and bleeding. She is missing most of the feathers on her belly and on her left leg.

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She just looks fluffy from this angle but you can see that the outer feathers from her leg are all gone. Those downy under-feathers are covering up her bare-naked patches.

But, she is alert, has all her internal organs intact and hungrily devoured some pear and hemp seeds. She must have put up the fight of her life before finding safety under the garden shelf. She is now back in with coop, probably telling horror stories of her getaway to the young chicks.

After losing precious Speedy to a bald eagle last month and after finding Gandalf hunkered down in a similar hiding spot six weeks ago, we are keenly aware that losing hens to birds of prey can happen any day. I’m just glad that today wasn’t that day.

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Ash and her only chick, Ace, about 2 years ago. Ace was never kicked out of the nest and now, a few years later, they still hang out together.

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DIY Vet – A Broken Toe

Just like any chicken-keeper with a backyard flock, medical issues come and go on a fairly regular basis. In the seven years that we have kept chickens, we have dealt with roundworm outbreaks, respiratory issues, impacted crop, bumblefoot, possible wry neck, eagle attack, internal laying and a few other unknown, undiagnosed problems. We have only taken a chicken to the vet once, figuring out all the other issues through ‘Dr. Google’ or common sense. We have lost a number of girls to medical problems over those years but we have also helped others survive and thrive.

Chickens are stoic in their pain and discomfort and, despite all my efforts at chicken whispering, they rarely tell me the root of their problems. It takes keen observation of their unique chicken-alities so that you can quickly notice a change in behaviour or physical wellness. The word on the street is that once a hen shows weakness, it is too late to help.

Benedict is our top hen despite her 6.5 years.

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Me and Ben have a special bond. She comes to me most mornings for a snuggle, a chat and a game of beak (which she invented)

She is boss of the coop and boss of the Queendom. She is usually one of the first out in the morning and contentedly ignores our rooster to forage where she chooses. So, last week, when I found her sitting on the coop floor, it struck me as odd but I wrote it off as weather-related since we had 20 cm of fresh snow on the ground and it was still snowing. A day later, she was still sitting on the coop floor and again the following day.

Finally on day 3, I went to pick her up and was shocked to see that her foot was bright green at the base of the middle toe and that toe was dangling loosely. I carried her into the house where FM and I analysed it more carefully.

Strangest bruise I have ever seen, but apparently normal.

A quick internet search taught me that chicken bruises are bright green and typically show up 2 days after an injury. It appears that there is a break somewhere in her middle toe, probably the bone closest to the foot. I found a website which discussed helping wild birds (mostly songbirds) who have injured their wings, feet or legs. It suggested making a whole foot splint out of pipe-cleaners or popsicle sticks and vet wrap. Somewhere else, I found a suggestion to use a styrofoam meat tray as the splint.

With a bit of creative ingenuity and a very patient bird, I managed to cut a splint for the one toe out of a foam tray. I made it fit the whole base of her foot and extend the length of the injured toe, ending before her claw. I made sure the splint had smooth edges, and I wrapped it with gauze.

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The Chicken Kit his always at the ready and has all sorts of supplies for every eventuality

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Her middle toe is about the same length as my finger.

With Benedict laying on her side against a pile of towels, I used vet wrap to fix the splint in place. With one piece of vet wrap, I wrapped the toe onto the splint and used a second piece of wrap to fix the splint around the base of her toe, her foot pad and her thumb. I finished off with electrical tape just to keep the vet wrap edges from peeling up. The electrical tape doesn’t touch her skin.

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Here is the only photo I took of the splinting (one week later). Her middle toe is splinted straight but her three other toes are all able to flex and bend. She’s always flipping me the bird.

One week later, the splint is still on and in place. Benedict has not left the coop but has progressed from hopping on one foot to gently putting weight on her injured foot and limping from the food to the water and her favourite sleeping spots. Last night, she even hopped up onto a roost bar for the night!

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She has managed to get up and down from the roost over the past couple of days and is pretty adept at limping around the coop. I imagine it will be a solid three weeks before she free-ranges again.

Most forums I found suggest keeping an injured hen separate from the flock until she can fend for herself but I didn’t do this with Benedict. She doesn’t bear confinement well, calling and crying whenever left alone in the ICU dog crate, and would probably injure herself further in trying to escape. Also, since she is the Alpha, no one would dare mess with her. So far, this has proven true.

We still don’t know what could have broken her toe. Nothing in the coop was out of place – no signs of a struggle. Perhaps the ‘snow day’ caused some crazy cooped-up chicken antics in the coop. Their lips are sealed.

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Not Safe With Me

As soon as I laid eyes on her, I knew her name – Trooper.

Trooper came to my attention via a hobby farm facebook group that I follow. Someone had spotted a lone chicken in the A&W parking lot in town, took her photo and posted it on facebook. The person who posted the photo left the chicken there and commented that the hen had been around that area for a couple of weeks. Presumably abandoned, this little red hen had somehow survived a brutal three-day pre-winter storm and had been living on french fries that staff and customers had left for her. The day after the facebook post, the custodian at my school (a fellow crazy chicken lady) came in to work saying that her daughter had gone over to the A&W, found the lost hen sitting between two cars, easily scooped her up and brought her home. Trooper was ragged, ravenously hungry and very, very tired.

Due to ridiculous city limit rules against chicken keeping, Juanita could not keep Trooper but she kept her long enough to bring this friendly, little hen back into good health. During her week-long stay at Spa Juanita, Trooper experienced the luxuries of sitting by the fireside, snacking on scratch and cheese and being endlessly cuddled. It quickly became apparent that she was very used to being handled by people. As she recovered from her survivalist adventure, she grew more chatty and curious.

From the parking lot to the palace, Trooper enjoys every luxury at Spa Juanita.

From the parking lot to the palace, Trooper makes an easy transition to luxury at Spa Juanita.

After a few daily reports about Trooper’s progress at Spa Juanita, I succumbed to the gentle pressure to add Trooper to our small flock. I was initially resistant to take her on as I know too well the issues with introducing an outsider into a flock. But, in the end, I figured that being the lowest on the pecking order in our charmed flock was far better than living in an A&W parking lot, watching customers eat your deep-fried kindred.

On Tuesday, we scheduled the pass-off. Juanita brought Trooper to the school in a dog-sized cage and I finally got to meet her. I, of course, fell in love at once.

For me, it was love at first scoop. For her, ... only time will tell.

For me, it was love at first scoop. For her, … only time will tell.

I drove her home and placed her cage on the front porch so that she could have a look around and our flock could check her out. Waffles, our rooster, was instantly enamored with the addition of a red-head to his harem and danced around her cage over and over.

Waffles poses with his newest love and then continues his song and dance.

Waffles poses with his newest love and then continues his song and dance.

Benedict predictably did her bossy, top-hen routine of flaring up, leaping at her and doing some territorial pecking.

Benedict, in full flare, letting Trooper know who is the alpha-hen around here. Trooper, with chin held high, is willing to stand up and challenge Ben's authority.

Benedict, in full flare, lets Trooper know who is the alpha-hen around here. Trooper, with chin held high, is willing to stand up and challenge Ben’s authority.

When the flock had put themselves to bed, I brought Trooper, cage and all, into the computer room for the night. Once alone inside, Trooper became very vocal so FM and I brought her into the kitchen and let her explore for a little while.

Here, Trooper and FM are having a get-to-know-you chat in the living room. Honestly, it is a rare occasion for our chickens to get invited into the house.

Here, Trooper and FM are having a get-to-know-you chat in the living room. (Honestly, it is a rare occasion for our chickens to get invited into the house)

On Wednesday, Trooper’s cage was set up on the porch again, allowing everyone to sniff, chat and look at the new lady. Late that night, after all the hens had tucked in for the night, we took Trooper out of her cage and into the coop. We placed her on the roost right beside Waffles. The word on the street is that if a chicken wakes up inside a coop, she will understand that this is home and will be able to orient herself in her new area. No one seemed to notice her arrival and, as we left, she was looking through the darkness, trying to get her bearings.

On Thursday, I checked on her before leaving for work. She was still inside the indoor coop although the exterior door opening onto our five acres was open. She had flown to a high roost and was squawking away with the others. I made sure she knew where the food and water was and then I left. At some point on Thursday, Trooper was confident enough to leave the coop and free-range with the others.

But her lucky days ended later that day when a predator came through. Although I am certain that Waffles would have sounded his alarm, Trooper didn’t know where to hide or perhaps the other hens didn’t allow her under the porch. She must have made a mad run for cover but didn’t find any. When I arrived home after work, the first thing I saw was her rusty-red feathers strewn over the driveway and her lifeless body on the shop doorstep. I cannot believe that she was killed on her first real day with us.

The devastation I feel for this little hen is enormous. I truly thought that we were offering her a better life here at the Queendom. It seems inconceivable that she was able to survive alone in the city for a fortnight but was immediately killed upon joining our flock. Sheesh. I suppose that the first day or two in a new place are really the most dangerous for livestock. My one wish is that I had waited until the weekend before letting her out. Perhaps then we would have spotted the predator in action (although we still could have been too late to save her).

Before this, it had been over two years since we lost a chicken to a predator. We regularly see bald eagles, sharp-shinned hawk and owls at the Queendom and over the past three months we saw three raccoon, a mink and evidence of bear but they have all thankfully left us alone – until now. Sadly her body was completely intact – just her neck was eaten. The jury is out on what animal took her life.

Aw, dear Trooper, we tried our best.

Aw, dear Trooper, we tried our best.

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A New Sheriff

We hatched Skana, our black beauty, just over two years ago.

Skana was a beauty - deep black and silver gray with some bronze in his saddle feathers. Although he was a Heinz 57 chicken, he may have had some Australorp in his genes

Skana was a beauty – deep black and silver-gray with some bronze in his saddle feathers. Although he was a Heinz 57 chicken, he may have had some Australorp in his genes

As a chick, he won our affections over his three brood brothers and attained the seat of honour and privilege within our small flock. He continued to hold his throne despite the efforts of four subsequent male offspring. We admired his rise up to alpha-chicken and appreciated how calm he was. Skana was bliss compared to our first roo, Roo – gentle with the hens, tolerant of us, excellent as an early-warning system. No hen was lost, hurt or killed during his reign.

Skana

Doing what he does best.

But, it seems to me that roosters wear out after a time. Skana had an awful crow (“scream-a-doodle-doo” like nails on a chalkboard) and, as time went on, he crowed more and more often. But more than the crowing, the true issue was the aggression. In recent months, my arms were regularly ripped up and scratched by his beak just from offering him scratch or other treats.  He had begun to chase after me too. So, with some pained consideration and discussions, we decided to fire him and get a new sheriff.

Waffles and Pancake came as a twin brother package, donated by FM’s co-worker. She had three young roos and three young hens and, from the treading marks on the hens, there was some nasty competition going on as they all reached sexual maturity. She gave us the two beautiful Lavender Orpington boys who we integrated into our flock of 11 hens.

Quickly dubbed "The Matrix Twins", Pancake and Waffles are Lavendar Orpingtons whose thick silver feathers shine an iridescent purple.

Quickly dubbed “The Matrix Twins”, Pancake and Waffles are Lavender Orpingtons whose thick silver feathers shine an iridescent purple.

Within a day or two, we could see that Pancake was going to be a problem. He was both extremely noisy and quite aggressive towards us. Waffles seemed to be the slower and dimmer of the pair, bamfoozled by the endless beauties that strutted by him at every turn. We gave them more time to settle in, thinking that Pancake was simply stressed out by the new surroundings. In the end, Waffles made the cut and Pancake ended up in the freezer.

Waffles has settled in nicely with our flock. He is remarkably quiet, crowing only a couple of times each morning and very occasionally otherwise. His crow is unusual, kind of like an old jalopy horn. He doesn’t mind being scooped up and can easily be removed from any situation. He will even contentedly sit on my lap and snooze.

But there are concerns with Waffles and we don’t know what is wrong. He seems to be bent to the left, as if he is perpetually looking over his shoulder.

Waffles' bent body makes him run and walk in semi-circle and often bumps into things like porch posts and furniture.

Waffles’ bent body makes him run and walk in semi-circle and he often bumps into things like porch posts and furniture.

sigh.

We can straighten his neck and stretch his neck longer but his body always curves back to his quadimodo posture. His left wing hangs down, almost untucked, and when he flaps, it does not fully unfurl. His head is often down, almost touching the ground, even though he is neither eating nor sleeping.

Sleeping on the job, Waffles is fighting some unknown illness. This head-sown, sleepy position is fairly typical.

Sleeping on the job, Waffles is fighting some unknown illness. This head-down, sleepy position is fairly typical.

He is ‘listless’, sleepy and often falls asleep standing up. Sometimes when I scoop him up, he burps or releases air in a strange way.

But despite these issues, he keeps an eye out for danger (sort of), makes the appropriate roostery sounds and gives all the girls a good chase now and then. We have real concerns for his health since we quite like this new sheriff and we don’t want him to wear out too soon.

Waffles may be the new alpha-chicken but he has no idea how to deal with the marauding band of ducks who are always on his tail. (Look carefully - there is a young buck beside the stump)

Waffles may be the new alpha-chicken but he has no idea how to deal with the marauding band of ducks who are always on his tail. (Look carefully – there is a young buck beside the stump)

 

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