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So You Want to Raise Backyard Chickens: 1 of a 5 Part Series

So, how do I go about this, you ask? Well if you’re like me you read everything you can get your hands on, check the internet and dive head first into something figuring you’ll just troubleshoot along the way.  However, there is some planning to optimize your chicken experiences that will make life easier.  So, lets start at the beginning.  How do I get the chickens?

Chickens Stories from Our Nest

A Surprise Visit from Peanut, Well Sort of…

I have a good friend whom I have grown even closer to because of our love for chickens. She helped Peanut for a week before he was rehomed.  I was afraid that he was going to be too disruptive with his cock-a-doodle dooing every 5 minutes.  Once he figured out how to do this, he was non-stop!  I was sure my neighbors were going to complain.

My friend agreed to take him.  She lives in a wooded area of Cape Cod and has a large flock.  She has two roosters and about 10 hens.  So, Peanut went to Camp Chicken at her house.  He stayed about 2 weeks and loved the attention from the new girls.    He was never formally introduced to the flock and remained partitioned off from the rest.  They could however talk and see each other through the chicken wire.  Her Buff Orpington, Fuzzy,  really took a liking to him.  Dusky, her Silkie Rooster mix, did not care for Peanut.  One day, Peanut escaped from his enclosure.  He was loose in the large run with all the other chickens.  All of the hens retreated except for Fuzzy.  They had made a love connection!   Upon my friend’s discovery of this escape, she said Dusky was standing by the entrance to the hen house and crowing, as if to say, “Stay away from my girls!”   Who knows how long this chaos lasted?

Once Peanut was returned to his enclosure he remained at Chicken Camp for a few more days.  We took him to his new home on the farm and that was it, or so I thought….

Little did I know, my dearest friend had taken some photos.  Yesterday, I drove up the drive and saw two little squares folded in tissue wrap.  She had made Peanut t-shirts for the kids!  It has been about 2 weeks now since rehoming him.  My eyes welled up with tears at seeing these adorable shirts and Peanut in all his glory.  It was nice to see him again, even if it was on a t-shirt.

Chickens Stories from Our Nest

Chicken Bonding

I never thought that the chickens would also extend into my social life.  I cannot tell you how many times I have been able to break the ice, warm a chill to a room and create new friendships based upon my chickens.

Talking about the chickens always surprises people.  “Really, you have chickens?” “Where do you keep them?”  So many of these types of questions are always fun.  People are always taken back by the fact that I have chickens in my backyard.  “Oh they’re so dirty.”  Well, not really.  I am not on a farm with a pig sty in the back.  They are more like keeping a rabbit, somewhere between a cat and a dog.  Their area is realtively clean with minor maintainance. If you have any odors, there is a problem somewhere or it just rained like crazy and everything is soaked.  The birds themselves are clean too.  They do a great job at preening their feathers and the only time they needed help from me was when they had pasty butts as chicks!

It is also terrific to meet someone with chickens too.  All types of people keep chickens from the highest class imaginable to the immigrant population raising the birds for the table.  Chickens reach everyone.  I am surprised when people respond that they too have chickens.  Conversations just seem to flow from there, much like comparing and bragging about your own children.  People compare breeds, personalities, techniques and even consult each other about problems.

A few times now I have arranged a playdate for my kids at a new friend’s house.  After spending sometime there, I hear what I think is a rooster.  I ask, “Do you have chickens?”  and they say YES!!  Like most people, I do not suspect it.  The coop and run are not in plain view.  Sure enough though, upon further exploration either tucked back behind some large rhodedendrons or in a corner niche to the side is the coop and run.

Discovering and exploring a coop set-up that is not your own is sometimes like a kid in a candy store.  I love to see how other people do things.  What are their issues?  What are their successes?  How are their birds laying?  Where do they lay?  Sometimes the coops are rustic created out of an old dog house and sometimes I feel like I am entering a chicken Taj Mahal.

However, my favorite times are when the FedEx or UPS guys come to deliver a package and get a kick out of the chickens.  I love their surprise and how the regular drivers always inquire about the girls and pay them a quick visit before they leave.

Perfect strangers are becoming friends over one common bond…the chicken.

Chickens Coop Care Health Issues

Fossils for Chickens?!

Diatomaceous Earth!  Diatomaceous Earth or DE is really a miracle worker. What exactly is it?   DE consists of fossilized microscopic hard-shelled algae called diatoms. It comes in a very fine powder and can be a real preventative as well as curative for many chicken ailments.The most important thing when you want to use DE with your chickens is that you purchase FOOD GRADE DE.  The great thing about DE is that it gets rid of unwanted pests naturally.  It is an organic technique that has been utilized by farmers for quite some time.  DE works by a process called desiccation.  It’s sharp microscopic edges cut into the bugs’ outer body skeletons and causes them to dehydrate.  DE kills ticks, fleas, mites, digestive worms and keeps pests away from food and out of the coop.  It also provides a wide array of trace minerals to your chicken’s diet. You can add up to 2% of their feed.

Studies have shown chickens fed DE have an increase the amount of eggs, decreases the mortality rate, keeps mites away, helps to dry up droppings, helps with flies and decrease worm loads in the GI tract. It also found that hens fed DE in their diets laid eggs with more albumin and yolk . I also love that my hens are getting the valuable trace minerals. In the feed, it keeps insects from spoiling the feed too.

In the newly cleaned coop I sprinkle it into the corners, edges, in the nesting boxes and onto the floor prior to adding a fresh new layer of bedding.  We never have had a pest problem inside the coop and we live in a very wooded area! This product as been a terrific addition to my backyard chicken experience.  I love that something easy and natural is so beneficial.

As a word of precaution, DE should only be used in well ventilated areas and should be avoided getting it into your eyes, nose and throat. As you research DE, you will surely come across literature that discusses the health risks associated with accidental inhalation. The condition is called Silicosis. Silicosis is a medical condition of the lung that occurs with regular repeated inhalation over a period of many years. Silicosis can also be caused from the use of sand (silica dust) in the coop and run. So please take precautions when using sand or DE.

Update 6/11/2013: Please click here to read an article that I wrote for Community Chickens on DE- chock full of even more information, including precautions that you should take if using DE with your flock.


References:

Poult Sci. 2011 Jul;90(7):1416-26. doi: 10.3382/ps.2010-01256.
Effect of diatomaceous earth on parasite load, egg production, and egg quality of free-range organic laying hens. Bennett DC1, Yee A, Rhee YJ, Cheng KM.

RESULTS OF THE USE OF CODEX FOOD-GRADE DIATOMACEOUS EARTH WITH POULTRY, C.S. Mangen, DVM, San Diego, California

Chickens

Book Review: Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens

Rating:  *****

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Demerow, a 438 page book, should be considered, in my opinion, the chicken keeper’s bible.  It is packed with so much information in this newest fourth edition.  It is terrific for beginners as well as advanced chicken keepers. 

Various areas covered include breed selection, shelter selection, chicken maintainance, layer management, eggs, chick care, meat raising and preparation (Not for me, I could never eat my girls!), and showing your chickens.

The strongest areas of the book in my opinion are the sections on predators and predator prevention, chick care, set-up directions for new chicken owners and breed selection. 

The health care area gives broad overviews but does not go into many details including diagnosis and treatment.  I wish that there was more information here.  The lack of information about health care may possibly be because the author has another book The Chicken Health Handbook.  I personally have not seen this handbook but I am considering purchasing it. 

Last winter, I think I read about 7 different books on raising chickens prior to the chicks’ arrival.  All of them included the same bits and pieces about chicken raising.  However, this book had the most topics included that anyone wanting to know something about chickens could go to.  This book is a great starting off point and I highly recommend it.

Chickens Health Issues

Dealing with a Sick Chicken

Every morning when I let the girls out, I always watch them for a few minutes.  Mostly to make sure everyone is feeling good, happy and acting themselves.  I pick each of them up almost on a daily basis.  Just to check-in.  About 2 months ago, Tilly was not acting her normal self.

Tilly seemed sad.  Her head and tail were both down.  She was sluggish and not pecking at the ground like everyone else.  I continued to watch her for a few days and she became worse.  She started sneezing, breathing like she had something stuck in her throat and had a runny nose.  Tilly was definitely ill and not getting better.  I became worried for a few reasons.  First, she was our head hen.  We like her in that order.  She keeps the girls calm and when she free ranges, she never goes too far away from the coop.  Second, she was just a baby.  She had so much more life to live.  Third,  we were raising them entirely organically.  This meant no medications.  Fourth, she was a beloved pet.

Initally I read all my chicken references on hand.  The diagnosis was still unclear.  Cape Cod being small and rather rural, I was unsure that I could even locate a veterinarian with chicken experience.  After making a few phone calls, I was able to reach a vet that does treat birds and has started to spread over into the realm of chickens.  She was about a half hour away.

I caught Tilly, and put her in a Pampers box.  She was quiet the entire way.  While checking in and waiting in the waiting room, she only wanted to be held in my lap.  She nuzzled into my arm and closed her eyes.  This was not my Tilly.  Finally, we saw the vet.  After her exam, it was not entirely clear as to what was going on.  Therefore, the vet decided to deworm the entire flock and give Tilly an antibiotic for a respiratory infection.

Tilly was on the antibiotic for 5 days.  By day 4 she seemed to be getting better.  Afterwards though, I noticed that her crop became rather enlarged, soft and squishy.  After extensive internet research, I figured out that Tilly developed a sour crop from the antibiotics she was on for her respiratory infection.  I subsequently treated her with Nystatin for 10 days.

Tilly’s crop was distended for about 1 month.  It has since then made a full recovery.  This is the point at which I started giving the chickens the weekly yogurt and adding apple cider vinegar to their water supply.  I feel that both are adding to the overall digestive health of our chickens.

What about raising the chickens entirely organically?  Well sometimes life takes those unexpected turns for the worse.  If I hadn’t given her the antibiotics which did violate organic chicken raising, then we would not have Tilly.  The antibiotics saved Tilly for that I am sure.  We still have our chickens on an organic feed.  So our eggs will have an organic component.  I’m just glad that Tilly is still with us.

Chickens Health Issues

Yogurt Mondays!

Did you know that chickens love yogurt??  It is such a fabulous food for them.  I feed them plain organic yogurt with live and active cultures. ( It is important that they don’t get any extra sugar.)  When they see me coming you should see the commotion.  It is crazy!  There is so much yogurt flinging and they get it everywhere.  Some of the added benefits of adding yogurt to your chicken’s diet include calcium for egg laying, promotion of a healthy digestive system and assisting in the balance of the “good” gut bacteria.  Next time when your girls seem bored…try some yogurt.

Chickens Stories from Our Nest

Beautiful Fall Sunday

 

Our 2 black silkies
We went out to the Wellfleet Oyster Festival today.  We took some pictures along the way by the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary in Wellfleet.
Before I left today, I put a pumpkin in the girls run.  Here are some pictures of the girls exploring the pumpkin.  So far they have only eaten through the top.  I can’t wait to see what they do when they get to the seeds!  I think we all enjoyed the weather today, especially the chickens.  It has been getting so cold in the mornings and at night.  That reminds me…I need to get moving with the winterization before my top choices sell out.

 

Feathers peering and pecking at the pumpkin

 

 

Tilly, Oyster Cracker and Sunshine

 

Blackfish Creek Marsh

Chickens Stories from Our Nest

Do they understand me?

I really do believe so.  Before I had chickens, I wasn’t really sure how smart they were.  I thought that they were cute and all and had come to the conclusion that would be enough for me to start raising them.   All the girls seem smart.  Tilly knows her name.  When they are free ranging outside and I do not see them immediately, I just have to call her name and she comes out from where she is.  It is so adorable because as head hen, wherever Tilly goes, the others follow.  They all run to me so fast.  Sometimes giddy in fact.  But contrary to belief, they are not looking for food, they are sometimes just looking for love.

Yep,  my chickens love to be loved.  They each take their turns.  Depending on their personalities, some like to be held and snuggled like little babies and some just love a good stroking of their sides, back and underbellies.  You may even think that I am crazy, but I love the way they smell too.  They smell warm, sweet and comforting.  Next time you are with your girls, give them a smell.  I promise it will warm your heart.

The girls also recognize their favorite treats.  I can put many different ones inside of the run but they always like broccoli, grapes and strawberries the best.  At first, I thought that it was the red coloring of the strawberry that they were attracted to but the other treats proved me wrong.

The girls also can spot danger.  Oyster Cracker always serves as the lookout.  When she sees something out of the corner of her eye, she lets out almost a low growl of a dog.  The chickens stand perfectly still and stop whatever they are doing.  I can pick them up easily when they are doing this because they are just like lawn statues.

They have their own language.  I am trying to decode it but they all understand it.  Some of their favorite chicken lines express happiness, I found something, don’t do that to me, come here, follow me, where are you,  let’s snuggle.

I believe that some of these things are born into them and they just being chickens know how to do these things, but I truly do believe that they experience emotions, have a pretty high level of intelligence and have social rules and orders.

Chickens Stories from Our Nest

Home Sweet Home

So, as I am sure many of you have searched and searched for the perfect coop for your girls.  I did too!  I spent months searching and deciding whether I should order plans, concoct one from various designs to build or just order something.

Initially, I ordered a small coop from http://www.mypetchicken.com/.  However, it was soon apparent that it was rapidly being out grown.  I also found that I had to replace the cheaply made hardware if I was going to protect the chickens from any predators.  This first coop is now used as a nursery as well as a place to quarantine anyone who doesn’t feel well or is injured from the rest of the flock.

It took me about 3 months of intensive searching to find ultimately what I believe to be the perfect chicken coop.  A man named Dan Cohen from Michigan has a company online called
www.greenchickencoop.com

He makes the coops from scratch with really great sturdy materials.  The coop itself is really terrific.  It takes only 5 minutes to clean out.   The floor inside has industrial grade linoleum that makes even the most caked on doo doo scrape right off!  When the eggs come, the handy little door opens to reveal 3 nest boxes.  I added the extra windows in the front with plexiglass slide-outs in warm weather and a small plexiglass vent on the side.  Dan truly was extremely thoughtful in creating this home for the girls.

The run comes in 3’x 6′ sections.  You can order them seperately.  I ordered 3 sections to create a 6’x9′ run.  Just perfect for 6-8 standard size breeds.  All the screening on both the coop and the run are 1/2 inch hardware cloth as well.  Often during the middle of a beautiful day, I find the girls lounging in their house.  They love it.

The area where we live on Cape Cod is known for predators.  We have racoons, foxes, coyotes, fisher cats, oppossum and owls.  I purchased additional hardware cloth and dug a 12″ trench around the run.  I buried the wire around the entire run and folded the top into the run area as well.  I hope this will be enough protection.  Time will tell.