Archive for May, 2013

When Chickens Eat Their Own Eggs

Friday, May 31st, 2013

(Broadcast 5/31/13)

I’ve talked a bit before about how I’ve fed my chickens their own eggs. You can scramble them up, and the chickens go nuts for it. It’s a nice way to get them nutrition and cut down on the ever growing pile of eggs on the counter. The key part is that you scramble them. If the chickens make the connection that the eggs they lay in the coop contain food, then you may have a problem on your hands. I have had an episode or two with this sort of egg eater, and I’m trying to work it out.

drawing of chicken

Artist’s rendition of crime scene

The first incident happened when I went to clean the coop. The chickens like to watch me do this for some reason. I assume it’s that they feel superiority over me because I am touching their poop. You know what chickens? Everyone feels superior to me, so you’re not special. Anyway, once I’ve cleared out the smelly stuff and put in new bedding, I usually toss some treats in there so they scratch around in the shavings and mix up any poop that’s still in there. Their excitement is probably due to the expectation of treats. I’m sure it’s not that they enjoy my sparkling conversation.


Hey, Housekeeping’s here!

One day, when I opened the back door to get cleaning, there was an egg in the shavings, and a chicken in the coop. The chicken ran over to the egg, pecked it, it broke, and she began to chow down on the goodies within. I grabbed the broken egg as fast as I could and tossed it in the compost, but I was a little alarmed. “Why would she do that right in front of me?” I thought. I posted on a messageboard what had happened, and within five minutes the first “you have to kill that bird” response came in. I seem to get these a lot. I don’t think I’d have any chickens left if I listened to them all. I understand that if this is your livelihood, you don’t want a chicken eating the profits. But I’m an experimenter, and I wanted to figure out why this happened. This was just the first time, and while maybe this was the start of a bad habit, maybe it wasn’t. I wanted to see if it happened again. I began to suspect that maybe the excitement over treats had something to do with it. Maybe the chicken saw the egg, thought it was a treat, and acted accordingly. I posed this to the forum, but no one had any input on it. “Kill it,” they said again.

A clue that stood out to me was that the egg in question was one of the pale, flimsy ones that sometimes appear. I’m not sure which one of them is doing it, but someone lays very thin shelled eggs now and again. Maybe every couple of weeks. I give them calcium, but sometimes this still happens. I thought that maybe the chicken happened to peck at the egg just to see what was up, and it was thin, so it broke, and “oh hey candy!” I decided to not bring this up with the “kill that chicken” set, but this was the theory I went with.

pale, long egg

Weird egg on left.

Over the course of the next several months, I found two more eggs that had been cracked open. Neither had been entirely eaten. Both were pale, thin eggs. I felt my theories were being borne out, but at the same time, I was a little worried that they might move on to eating the other eggs after a while. There is the chance that one egg eater will teach the others the skill, and then you’ve got trouble. I looked up how to handle this end of it, and chose my method.

Chickens apparently don’t like mustard. If you blow an egg out of the shell, and then fill the shell with mustard, Lady Eats-Eggs-A-Lot will come along, try to eat the egg, get a mouthful of mustard, and that’s the end of that. The problem was that since this was only happening with one type of egg – the pale, weird variety – I wanted to use that type of egg to do this. I actually had to take back an egg I had given my parents in order to get the right kind. They don’t happen that often. I went to fill it up with spicy brown mustard, but we had two bottles that weren’t that full, and didn’t help much. So I supplemented that with yellow mustard, which we had a lot of, because apparently no one likes yellow mustard. Then, for a tiny bit of perverse irony, I put a shot of rooster sauce in there, even though people say chickens can’t taste hot sauce. Just let me have my fun, people.


Gravity was no help.

I taped up both ends of the egg to slow leakage, and put it in the coop. Not even duct tape would stick that well to the egg, but I did my best. The chicken I suspect of being the egg eater, a Mandrell Sister, was the first on the scene. She approached the egg, and rolled it back towards herself a couple of times. Chickens sometimes scoot the eggs along the floor with their chins. I guess when you don’t have hands you have to make do. She then began to tap it a little, as if to test the strength. Then she found the tape, pulled it off, and “oh hey candy!” She got a mouthful of mustard, did a little head twitch that seemed to indicate that she didn’t like it, but went back for more anyway. By now others had shown up, and a couple gave it a taste. I figured I’d let them all in on the idea that egg eating is wrong. They all had more than one serving, even though they twitched after every bite. I decided I might be making it worse by letting them continue to feast, so I took the egg away, and hoped they got the message.

taped up egg

This totally looks like a normal egg.

The big thing I took away from this was that the first chicken seemed to be doing some sort of quality control on the egg. She tapped it a bunch, and with these pale eggs, the shell is pretty weak. I’m now thinking that the eggs that have gotten eaten, or at least cracked open, can’t withstand a gentle peck, and that’s why they broke. I don’t know if they do this to reject bad eggs, or if they just like pecking the eggs. I don’t think the eating is habitual, at least not yet. As I keep saying, those eggs are few and far between, and sometimes they’re tougher than others. I gave the chickens the mustard test, so we’ll see how it goes. We got a weird egg on Tuesday, but it was in one piece. Meanwhile, no necks will be wrung over this. I just want to understand, man.


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Chickens – Nature’s Compost Piles

Friday, May 24th, 2013

(Broadcast 5/24/2013)

Now that Spring is here, everything has begun to bloom. If you have allergies, you probably noticed this already. My wife and I usually get excited when the weather finally gets nice, go outside, and get so thoroughly attacked by mosquitoes that we wonder why we ever leave the house. But with a little homemade insect repellent (witch hazel and lemon eucalyptus oil) it gets better, and so I can sit outside and take in all of Nature’s glory. For better or for worse, Nature’s glory contains weeds. It used to be that I would just mow them, or ignore them altogether. I don’t take pride in having a pristine lawn, and mowing the lawn actually tends to fill me with existential dread. Oddly enough, weeding doesn’t bother me as much. I actually kind of like it, even though it’s very time consuming. I’ve heard that the hand motions used in weeding are hard wired to some sort of evolutionary rewards center, which is why gardening is so enjoyable. It gets us in touch with our inner chimp. Just keep the dung throwing to a minimum, please.

Did somebody say "dung throwing?"

Did somebody say “dung throwing?”

Aside from any sorts of feelings of getting back in touch with our primacy, weeding is also a good way to supplement your chickens’ diet. We actually get so many weeds that we even have too many for the chickens. Luckily, we also have a compost heap for the overload. I found when they were baby chicks that they loved dandelion greens, but those seem to be pretty popular across many species, save for the homo perfectlawnicus. I’d pull them out, rip them into tiny pieces, and watch those goobers go nuts for greens. It also helps give them variety in their diet, which improves egg flavor. Everyone wins. I’ve read that if you pick the weeds and give them to the chickens, rather than letting the chickens pick the weeds on their own, there is some risk of the weed getting stuck in the chickens’ crops. The crop is where they store their food right after eating, before it heads to the stomach. If things aren’t torn into pieces, there may be a bit of a digestive traffic jam. Like people, you need to take sensible bites. What I usually do is either toss a pile into the run, where they rip them to shreds in a frenzy, or I poke them through the hardware cloth, and again, in the competition for the weeds, they rip them into smaller chunks. The chickens don’t seem so interested in eating the weeds on their own, so I have to do the work of pulling them out, and then do what I can to insure clear crops.

Lawn perfectionists quake with fear.

Lawn perfectionists quake with fear.

Weeds aren’t the only plants chickens like to eat. I have heard chickens referred to as “living compost piles,” as they’ll eat all sorts of vegetable scraps. I prefer to call them “Nature’s compost piles,” since that doesn’t really make any sense, and that’s how I roll. But when the farmer’s markets start opening and I find myself buying more kale than I can handle, it’s nice to know I can give the extra to the chickens as a treat. We’re growing our own kale this year, so I suspect even more excess than usual may find its way into the run. Most vegetable scraps can be fed to chickens as long as they’re raw and oil free. There are a few that are off-limits, so it’s not a bad idea to check online to be sure something is o.k. before tossing it into chicken town. Green potato peels can be bad, as well as the leaves of tomato plants. The list goes on, so be safe, rather than sorry. (Here’s a good list of acceptable treats and things to avoid.)

toxic symbol

Be sure not to poison your birds by accident.

I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell you the one crop chickens excel at eating. As you know, every summer our nation squirms in the grip of what has come to be known as “The Zucchini Problem.” Our gardens, homes, and workplaces sag under the weight of this most prolific of green beasts, and friendships can be strained by being overly generous in an attempt to be free of the surplus. My friends, the chicken is here to help. Last summer, my coworker brought in a crop of zucchinis that were the size of human legs. I brought one home out of politeness, but had absolutely no idea what I would do with it, save for possibly beating an intruder to death. I thought to myself, “well, maybe I’ll cut a hunk off and give it to the chickens.” You may have heard stories about piranhas skeletonizing a cow in seconds. I can assure you that in this part of the world, the chicken is the piranha and the zucchini is the cow. Chickens will skeletonize a zucchini in record time, and act as though they want more, even if it was a small green blimp like the one I had. We do need to be cautious of overfeeding, so let’s not go nuts with our extra veggies. Think of them as treats, and we’re all set. But woe be to the inexperienced zucchini who innocently wanders into the chicken run.

The real green monster

The real green monster


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Chicken Backsliding

Friday, May 17th, 2013

(Broadcast 5/17/2013)

When we first started letting the chickens out in the yard, it was sometimes kind of a headache getting them back into the coop. It’s not really a surprise that given the choice of the great outdoors or a confined run, they’re going to choose the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the great outdoors is also fairly fraught with peril, if you’re a chicken, so we like to get them back into a safe area once chicken recess is over. You can’t really explain to them the different things that would like to eat them if they don’t go inside. Well, you can try, but they don’t listen. It’s a little like having an argument on the internet, just that the other person isn’t fighting back by blaming everything on Obama. Maybe it’s more like arguing with a feathery wall. However one chooses to describe it, the end result is that nothing changes no matter how persuasive you are. I went through all this trouble of making them a nice coop, and this is how they thank me. I have had some successes in the past year with getting them back in with less effort, but lately we’re slipping back into the bad old days.

chickens running away from me

Run away!

        When they were young, it was very difficult to get them back into the coop. They could possibly run off in any direction if I approached, which always made me think they would run off in the opposite direction from whatever direction I needed to them go in. I began to approach them with my arms out wide, in the hopes that I would make myself appear larger. This is actually what you’re supposed to do if you’ve encountered a mountain lion, but I was putting a new spin on it. I could sort of direct them as a group this way, and at least get them in the general vicinity of the run. If I was lucky, I could get a few into the run, close the door, and then go after individuals. Have you ever chased a chicken? If you have, you know how stupid you feel doing it, and how hard it is to catch them. This is why in Rocky II, Burgess Meredith says of a chicken, “If you can catch this thing, you can catch greased lightning!” The easiest thing to do was corner them, then grab them and put them back. This is assuming they didn’t put up too much of a fight. I’ve had times where I held them close, only to get thrashed to bits when they made a break for it. My arms began to be monuments to the power of chicken claws. I needed a change.

chicken tattoos

Chicken tattoos

The change came in the form of “The Chicken Stick,” which is the long wooden rod from our closet. We put in a whole new system for hanging stuff, so we didn’t need it, but it’s about 8 feet long and seemed useful to me. That was a good hunch. I took it outside, and used it to steer the chickens in many different directions without even having to get too close to them. I am the shepherd of the chickens and now I had the correct accessory. It also made me feel a little like a ninja or wizard. How could I lose? Well, when the neighbors saw me following around a bunch of chickens with a giant stick while talking to them. “The guy next door was totally watching you out there,” my wife told me one day, somewhat deflating my feelings of success. But I stuck with it. I could steer them between the open door and the stick, and funnel them all right into the run easily.

the chicken stick!

The Chicken Stick!

        This was until I discovered mealworms. The mealworm revolutionized the chicken re-cooping process. Once they got a taste of these, if they so much as heard the bag crinkle in my pocket, they would stay so close to me I would trip over them. A few times they heard it right at the beginning of recess, and it killed the free ranging. They knew I had better stuff than what they’d find in the undergrowth, and it was less work. I stuck to bringing the bag out only when it was time to go back in, and then they’d run right into the coop without a fuss.

mealworm chicken treat

Don’t believe his lies. He does smell nutty, though.

        Until they started not to. Lately they have grown tired of this mealworm ruse, and they’ll follow me with the bag, but they won’t go in the run. When I do get them in there through some means, they fight over the worms, so those haven’t lost their charms. It seems to be me that’s lost charm. My guess is that everyone likes sticking it to The Man, and I am The Man in this scenario. They’ve apparently had it with me, and despite my gifts, they’re going to give me a hard time about everything. I don’t know how our relationship deteriorated to this point. Until we start counseling, I’ll have to use a combination of the Chicken Stick and treats until they find a way to rebel against that. It’s going to be a constant struggle, but I swear I will win out over these chickens.

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Chicken Disappointments

Friday, May 10th, 2013

(Broadcast 5/10/2013)

I know I like to come on here each week and act like having chickens is totally cool, and that’s because, frankly, it is. When we got chickens I didn’t really know what to expect, and I figured there would be parts of it that were kind of a drag, but I have enjoyed it far more than I expected to. I even prefer cleaning the coop to cleaning the litter box (though, if you knew our cats and the butt crimes they commit, you’d understand why.) But I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture of what chicken keeping is like. There are a few disappointments I’ve had so far, and so I thought I’d share them in the spirit of openness.

The first thing that people with chickens were always saying was to keep them away from your garden. “They’ll eat all your plants!” they said in horrified tones. I had already encased my garden in fencing prior to chickening thanks to the huge number of pesky rabbits that seem to live in our yard. They were hot-pepper-on-the-ground resistant, so I sucked it up and got some chicken wire. It’s not pretty, but it allowed some vegetables to make it to maturity last year. This year when the weeds started popping up in the yard, I figured this was the chickens’ big chance to do their thing. I know they like these weeds, since I have often plucked them and tossed them into the run, and a fight breaks out over who will eat them first. Come on out in the yard, chickens! There’s plenty for all! Plenty of weeds popping out of the ground, sure, but how many of those weeds are pulled up and being brought to their feathery highnesses? I apparently have created some real dandies who insist that their weeds be brought to them. They’ll scratch up the yard like crazy looking for bugs or worms, and every so often they’ll eat some leaves from a nearby pricker bush, but all those dandelions? No interest, unless they’re already out of the ground and presented to them. I’m hoping they’ll come around as the season progresses, otherwise I’m going to have to trade them all in for a goat, and I think goats will have a hard time laying their eggs in the buckets I’ve provided for nesting.


Get ’em while they’re fresh, ladies!

Fresh eggs are a high point for keeping chickens. I had some random eggs at a restaurant recently and I thought they had slipped me scrambled cardboard. I had a feeling I would be let down, and I was right, but pancakes just don’t fill me up, so I gave their eggs a shot. I’m totally spoiled by how great our eggs are. I may have to start bringing my own on the few occasions I go out for breakfast. That’s acceptable, right? The one way these eggs fail is that fresh eggs are terrible for making hard boiled eggs. You might not think that’s a big deal, but I like bringing a couple of hard boiled eggs in my lunch as snacks, since they are good and filling. The problem is, since our eggs are usually no more than two weeks old, they just don’t do it right. They’re hard to peel like you wouldn’t believe. I had two this week that by the time I got all the shell off, there was really only the yolk left. Everything else had stuck to tiny shell bits. I’ve tried different methods of preparing them, but the sticky shells almost always get me. I finally found a website saying your eggs had to be at least a month old to work well with hard boiling. We eat them too fast, I suppose. I’ll allow the slight chance that maybe I just suck at boiling eggs, but I think there’s something to this “old egg” business. I can live with something else in my lunch, if I have to.

fresh eggs

Those are freshness lines, and I needed stink lines.

A final disappointment has to do with my Miracle Broody Hen cure. I had a hen go broody a while back, and I managed to snap her out of it in a day by isolating her in a bird cage. It was great. I now have one that is like a broody yo-yo. She gets broody, I put her in the cage, she snaps out of it, so I put her back with the rest of the chickens in the morning, and by evening she’s broody again. For most of the day she’s fine, but for some reason going to bed and seeing those nesting buckets sets something off, and she’s back into it. It’s like gambling addiction for chickens. It’s more annoying than anything, and this is really a problem with this specific chicken, not chickens in general, so maybe this doesn’t count.

broody hen in solitary

Chicken solitary

These aren’t really horror stories I’m relating here. It’s more a series of bummers, and not even a very long series. My disappointments are themselves pretty disappointing. We’re coming up on a year of having the chickens, and I’m sure in the years to come there’ll be more let downs, but right now I’m not about to go seeking them out. I dig raising chickens, and I aim to keep it that way.



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Boss Chicken’s New Digs

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

(Broadcast 5/3/2013)

When I left off last week, we were going to try to get Boss Chicken back in the good graces of the rest of the flock. We had to separate her in the winter due to a mystery illness that affected the use of her legs. The vet thought it might be Marek’s, but since the flock had already been exposed and Boss Chicken was lonely after months of quarantine, we recently started putting her crate into the run to reacquaint everyone. Things were fine, as long as we left her in the crate. This wasn’t ideal though, since the crate took up space, and the other chickens had started to roost on it, which meant they were pooping down on Boss Chicken. I don’t allow this sort of hazing, so I knew something had to change. On Saturday, we let everyone out in the yard to see if familiarity bred contempt, or acceptance. For a while, they all ignored each other. Boss Chicken did her thing, and the others did their respective things. The Mandrell Sisters, our Buff Orpingtons that I can’t tell apart, seemed to be the most accepting. They would wander around in Boss Chicken’s vicinity without batting an eyelash, if chickens have those. Suzy Creamcheese, who is the new alpha chicken, and therefore the one I was worried about, seemed fine with pretending Boss Chicken wasn’t around. This was an improvement, I suppose. Ignorance is preferable to belligerence, especially if you’re on the receiving end of that belligerence.

Make it rain.

Make it rain.

But just when it was looking up, everything went downhill. Without warning, Suzy Creamcheese was at it again, pecking away at Boss Chicken’s comb. We broke it up, applied Bag Balm to the injuries, and decided it was time to get a rabbit hutch for Boss Chicken. She seemed fine, and spent some time in Collin’s lap, though no eggs were produced during her time there. I assume this is because she too was upset about not being let back into the chicken clique. She did take her lumps without complaint, though, really making it seem like some sort of pledging ritual. Or, perhaps more accurately, like she was unable to defend herself.

Sunday morning we found a hutch for sale a couple of towns over that even offered free delivery. We made an appointment to go see it, and on the way over I was plotting ways to get the price down by substituting eggs for money. So when we arrived and saw the seller’s gigantic chicken coop, I felt as if I was the one who had been pecked in the head. We got talking about his chickens, and he suffered from Too Many Chickens! of his own. They had three left of their original batch, and had just gotten 8 chicks. “Here we are getting three eggs a day, which is perfect,” he said, “and now look how many we’ll be getting when the chicks grow up. What did we do?”

rabbit hutch

Where’s Starsky?

We liked the hutch and said we’d take it. Collin then informed the seller that we actually were going to use it for a chicken instead of a rabbit. He got a knowing look on his face. “We didn’t use it for rabbits, either,” he said. Our shameful chicken secrets were out in the open now. We explained what Boss Chicken’s story was, and he said this was very similar to one of his chickens, which had had a stroke. She lost the ability to walk, and would get picked on by the others, so they put her in the hutch, and she was happy. Until they let her out and a hawk got her, which can happen when you can’t run away. But it meant the hutch was available, and we took it.

This also gave us some insight into Boss Chicken’s condition. I had never even considered a stroke as a possibility, but it makes sense in terms of what may have happened to her. She doesn’t have the cloudy eyes that’s typical of Marek’s, and the other chickens have been unaffected. My thought is that maybe she was such a Type A chicken that a stroke was the result of that lifestyle. And the reason she has become so friendly now is because of either not wanting to return to her old ways, or brain damage. Not that nice people are brain damaged, but it was a big change for her.

chicken using water bottle


We’ve got her set up in her new home facing the other chickens so she shouldn’t be as lonely as she was in the house. She still wants to be with someone, so Collin thought out loud about getting a bunny to keep her company in there. It is a rabbit hutch after all. Of course, that was the moment our son decided to actually pay attention to what we were saying, and he may be holding us to this idea. We’ll see. If nothing else, we’ll be starting a collection of animals who produce the best fertilizers you can get. We may run out of spots to fertilize, but I can just bring piles of poop into work to give away, right? Why is it o.k. with zucchini, but not this?

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