3 February 2014

Chickens - homesteading in the urban backyard

We have seven chickens left. The last of our old girls died late last year and now, even though we miss those old characters, we've started building up our flock again so we'll have plenty of eggs. Kate at Beautiful Chickens has some girls ready for us and as soon as the chicken house renovations are complete, we'll pick them up. I can hardly wait.

At the moment we have Lucy, an Old English game hen, she is our oldest chicken. She came to us when Shane and Sarndra moved from the country to the city and couldn't take their chooks with them. Lucy arrived with a flock of older chicks she'd hatched, many of them roosters, and now she's the only one left. Lucy is blind now so we've been hand-feeding her and moving her around the yard so she stays in the shade. Hanno puts her in a nest at night and gets her out every morning. He feeds her bread and milk with chicken pellets and greens thrown in for good measure. When Jamie is here, he hits the side of Lucy's metal bowl with a spoon so she knows where her food is.

This is Lucy.

Her Royal Chookness, Lulubelle.

Sitting on the recycled timbers going into their new home, Annie, Fiona, Blue Bell and Nora.

Blue Bell.

The others are Lulubelle, the Plymouth Rock chicken I was holding in my Women's Weekly article a couple of years ago. Lulubelle is still laying and keeps the other chooks in hand (or wing). We have Fiona, our crazy Araucana who lays the most beautiful light blue eggs and Annie, a New Hampshire. Today, we discovered that Annie and Fiona have been hiding a nest of six eggs and taking it in turns to sit on them. Hanno had a tree felled a couple of weeks ago and the top of the tree was still in the chicken run. It was in the cool darkness of all those leaves where they made their nest and we only discovered their secret when I saw Annie go in and Fiona shoot out of the branches. Late summer is often the time when chickens go broody and want to sit on eggs instead of have you take them. Fiona is quite aggressive when she's protecting her eggs and if you have a hen like this, it might serve you well to wear gardening gloves when you take the eggs from the nest.

There isn't much you can do if your chickens go broody. It's part of the natural behaviour of pure breed chooks. Even Lomans and Isa Browns occasionally go broody although most of them don't, the tendency to reproduce has been bred out of them over the years.  If you do have a broody the only thing you can do is to get them out of the nest whenever you see them in there, or lock them out of the nest area. We tend to let out girls sit on the nest for a short time and hope they snap out of it. Most of the time, they do.

Cora, blue laced Barnevelder.
The crazy princess Fiona.

Cora again.

The other chickens are two blue lace Barnevelders - Cora and Nora and a blue Australorp - Blue Bell. Nora has been laying for a couple of weeks but Cora has only just started laying and her eggs are still small. This is quite normal for a newly laying chicken - small eggs, sometimes they don't have a shell and sometimes they are double yolkers. All that sorts itself out when their hormones settle, then we look forward to about five eggs a week from each girl. The only non-layer is Lucy but she's raised chicks in the past so she's done her duty. 

We're getting to the end of summer now. We helped our chooks get through the very hot weather by having an extra water container on hand. Chickens will die without fresh water. They also like to stand in water  during hot weather so if you have a wide open bowl or a bin lid, upside-down, fill it with water so they can go there to cool down. It's also a good idea to have blocks of ice in the freezer for the very hot days. Just throw one into their bucket when the day starts getting hot and it will encourage the chickens to stay hydrated because they love drinking cool water.

This is the view looking from the front of the chicken coop over towards the back of our yard. The trees provide shade during the summer, then the pecan loses its leaves in winter giving the chooks much needed sunlight during the colder weather.

In the next couple of weeks we'll have to start looking for signs of mites and fleas. These often present in autumn. We use Diatomaceous Earth (DE) here. If we see the chooks pecking at their feathers or preening a lot, it generally means they have mites. We cover them in DE, especially under wings, around their comb and wattles and under the tail. This generally fixes things in a few days.  When the girls moult, which they usually do in autumn, it's a good idea to have a good clean out of the chicken house and nests - sweep up everything that's been laying around and put it on the compost heap. If you have one, use a pressure hose to clean the coop, if not, a hose will do. Don't forget the nests and roosts. When it's all completely dry, add straw or hay to the nests and floor, then throw a few cups of DE around the coop and in the straw and nests. That should keep things in check and the chickens comfortable for a few months.

Just one more tip. A few people have asked about worming chickens. It's not recommended to worm chooks any more - it's another chemical they can do without. A crushed garlic clove once a month in all the water containers - leave it there for three days then give plain fresh water again.  If you notice foamy diarrhoea and your chickens look thin and sick, they might have worms and you should treat them. You'll also have to clean out the coop again and replace all the straw.

This young chap is a native bush turkey. They roam freely in and out of the rainforest and often irritate gardeners by scratching through gardens. This fellow visits a couple of times a day, has a feed of pellets, wanders around with the girls for a while, then leaves again.

We couldn't do without our hens. In the past couple of weeks during the summer heat, and with two of our girls broody, we've only been getting about three or four eggs a week. When we have times like that it shows me how much we rely on our little ladies and their eggs.  Hanno went to the organic farmers market on Saturday and even though we could have bought eggs there, they're never as good as ours. I bet you find the same with your girls too. Nothing is as good as fresh eggs from your own back yard.  How many chickens do you have now?

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