Archive for August, 2014

Rebuilding The Flock Part 2

Friday, August 29th, 2014

When we left off last week, I had ordered new chicks, and my mother was going to take care of them for a couple of weeks until their Marek’s vaccines had kicked in. I had forwarded her the email about new chick care, and was waiting for her to read the part about “pasting up,” also known as when their tiny butts get clogged with tiny poops. She did get there, and seemed less than thrilled about this prospect, but on the other hand, didn’t really dwell on this part, because she felt pretty overwhelmed by the whole email. I assured her that like most sets of instructions, it seemed like a lot, but wasn’t so bad when you actually got into it. It boils down to: keep them warm, make sure they have food and water, and check their butts for the first week or so. She calmed down, and shifted back to being excited about the chicks arriving. I did get the occasional text message with a question, but this was more out of wanting to do a good job with the chicks, rather than “oh no what have I done?” This was a good sign.


Usually with more swearing and sad faces.

Then, the chicks arrived. As soon as she opened the box and saw them, it was all over. She was no longer worried, she was thrilled to death over how cute these things were. The question texts turned into texts about how adorable they were and how much she loved them. Another convert to the chicken side had arrived! My father apparently had yet to come around to them, but it didn’t really matter because my mother was so into them.

When I first got my original batch of chicks, I didn’t have a coop. I managed to build one, but not without a large amount of stress during the whole process. My parents learned from this experience, and ordered one online. Of course, they were only getting three chickens, which gives you many more affordable options than I had when I started with six. More than five chickens puts you in a whole different coop bracket, and it gets expensive. Maybe this was why my mom was being relatively relaxed about everything. They had the coop issue sorted out. They even have a dog kennel to put the coop in, and use as a large run. A little hardware cloth on that, and they’ve got a pretty secure chicken space.

dog jail

Formerly dog jail.

My father did slowly begin to start coming around to the chickens, though he wouldn’t admit it. Since they were keeping three of the chicks, and I had three chickens that I referred to as the Mandrell sisters, he wanted to give theirs a blanket name like that. He was leaning towards the Andrews Sisters, though he admitted it wasn’t as catchy as the Mandrell Sisters. If you’re going to name your chickens, this can be a good way to go, since it still gives you a tiny bit of emotional distance. You’ve still named them, which means you’re attached to them one way or another, but a general, catch-all name keeps you from getting too attached. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. The important thing was that if he was thinking of names, that meant he must be coming around to the idea of keeping chickens. After all, if he hated them, why would he bother to give them names? Unless it was the kind of thing people tend to do to identify anonymous people they always see and dislike, like “creepy thong guy,” “leg disease lady,” or “that smelly guy on the train with the big bag of equally smelly garbage who in spite of it all seems to have a job he goes to every day.” This didn’t feel like that, unless my father secretly had a vendetta against the Andrews Sisters. He was getting there, but still gave me a line of, “I don’t think this a good idea. I don’t know why your mother is doing this,” when I was visiting.

andrews sisters

All packed into the same nesting box.

Almost two weeks had passed, and so it was almost time for me to take my half of the chicks home. But I hit a snag. I could only get out to my parents’s house on a weekend, and the closest weekend to the two week quarantine period was slighty earlier than two whole weeks. How exact was the two week window of the Marek’s vaccine? Did a few days make a difference? Would they be fine, or should I wait? Now who was worrying needlessly?

(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: Fourteen Days by the Blue Ridge Highballers)

Rebuilding The Flock

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

(Part 1 of 3).

Having lost two chickens this Spring, and realizing that my surviving chickens are two years old and nearing the end of their egg-laying days, it seemed like maybe it was time to expand the flock a little. The old guard is free to continue to mooch off me until the end of their days, but I’ve gotten used to having a constant supply of fresh eggs on hand. If that’s going to keep happening, we have to get some new birds on the scene. With Boss Chicken in her own enclosure due to her inability to totally use her legs, and the two recent deaths, I knew I could fit three more hens in the coop comfortably.

room to let

Not to be confused with “Room Toilet.”

Why Boss Chicken can’t use her legs is something to consider, however. About 7 months into her life she went from being an almost rooster-like aggressor to the sweetest chicken you’d ever met, who also just happened to have a really hard time walking. What brought about this change? That’s the real mystery here. The first thought is that it’s Marek’s Disease, which is a horrible disease and can kill a chicken, but there are also mild cases, where it only maims them. The thing about Marek’s is that there’s no way to know if this is it without her being dead. They can look for it in a necropsy, but that’s the only way to know, and she’s still kicking, so to speak. We keep her in a rabbit hutch, otherwise the other chickens will peck her mercilessly. She was kind of a tyrant in her day, and perhaps this is payback. Or you know, she can’t just fight back or run away like you’re supposed to. The guy who sold us the rabbit hutch had had a chicken with a similar story, and they believed that their hen had had a stroke. So I suppose that’s a possibility too, but again, no way to know.

crystal ball

Scrying techniques are of no help in diagnosis.

Not knowing if it’s Marek’s is a big problem for getting new chicks. They would be susceptible to the virus, and there’s a good chance it would be worse than Boss Chicken’s experience. The feed store I got the current flock from can get you chicks that have been vaccinated against Marek’s, but they ship to the store mixed in with all the others, so that’s no help. You can vaccinate them yourself, but the vaccine takes two weeks to kick in, and in all likelihood the virus is everywhere in our house. I found a mail order hatchery that would vaccinate the chicks and mail them to you, but again, that two week window of vulnerability was going to be a problem. I couldn’t keep them outside for two weeks, since they need to be kept warm, and also, everything in the world that wants to eat them lives outside. I was stuck.


All you can eat, if all you can eat is three.

But then I had an idea. My mother had been very intrigued by my chicken dealings. She’d been saying she’d like to try it at some point. This was some point. Why not try it now? I brought this up with her, and probably way over-explained the reasons why I needed to have these chicks sent to someone else’s house. She seemed mildly into it, but non-committal. I kept checking the availability dates of the breeds I was interested in online, and they seemed to be selling out quickly. I would press for a solid answer, so I could set a date, but then there there were vacations and work schedules to work around, which took out a bunch of possible days, further complicating getting the breed I was hoping to get.

After a couple of weeks of nagging, I got a solid “yes” out of her, but she mentioned that my father was not excited about this idea. This is a man who once brought home a lop-eared rabbit with a broken leg he found in the street, and would adopt all the dogs if he could. All the dogs. Why was he being difficult about chickens? Nobody knows, but we decided to ignore him. I’d go ahead and order six chicks to make the minimum order, then I would keep three, and my mother would keep three.

all the dogs

How do you undo this choice?

When I went to place my order, I hit a snag. There were only three chicks of the kind that I wanted left. I had done a bunch of research and picked Silver Laced Wyandottes because they seemed perfect for our part of the world, and they were really pretty. But now I needed three more chicks that would ship on the same day. I started frantically looking for birds available on the date I needed, and then cross-referenced that with reviews online. Yes, people review chicken breeds online. This should really surprise no one. I finally found ones that looked cool, could deal with New England winters, and allegedly even were good winter layers. Eggs get scarce in winter, so this is a good trait. All in all, even with the vaccine added in, the price wasn’t so bad. Then I moved to the part of checkout where they add in the shipping. Now it was bad, but that’s overnight shipping for you. I had gotten a lot of other people involved in this, so there was no turning back.

I completed my order, and forwarded the email from the hatchery on baby chick care to my mother. Then I read it. It mentioned how sometimes chicks’ butts get plugged up with poop when they’re little. It’s called “pasting up,” and it can kill them. I had forgotten about this. Did I mention my mother likes to worry? She was already worried, and that was before the possibility of breaking up doodoo plugs had been introduced. I sat and waited for her to reach that part of the email.

paste you up

An early version of Dress You Up was about Madonna’s experiences with baby chicks.

(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: Homestyle Mandolin by Lucas Gonze)

Egg Peritonitis and Prolapsed Vents

Friday, August 15th, 2014

It was a beautiful Spring day, and if there’s one thing that makes beautiful Spring days better, it’s having a bunch of chickens running around in the yard while you’re out enjoying the weather. So I let the chickens out, and called it a party. Things were going pretty good until I looked over and saw that Suzy Creamcheese was standing stock still over by our big prickerbush. I immediately looked up at the sky, since when the chickens freeze it often means there’s a hawk nearby. But the sky was clear, and the other chickens were running around like goobers. I went over to see what was wrong, and when I got really close, she finally ran a little bit towards the coop. Then I saw that something seemed to be stuck to her butt. I figured she was freaked out that a poop had stuck to her and didn’t know what to do. I grabbed her, and upon closer inspection, it became clear that this wasn’t a stuck poop issue, it was unmistakably a prolapsed vent.

nice day

It all started nicely enough.

The vent is what some people might just call the chicken’s butt. It’s where the eggs and the poop come out. A prolapsed vent is when part of the butt itself also comes out. It’s not something you hope to see, but here I was looking at it, and I knew I had to act quickly. I brought her right inside and put her in a dog crate with puppy training pads on the floor, because wood chips can get stuck to the prolapse and only make things worse. I covered the crate with a sheet so she wouldn’t move around too much, and started looking up what to do.

There are many different substances you can put on the prolapse, but whichever one you choose, the treatment always ends with you having to push the prolapse back inside. Luckily, I had a box of rubber gloves on hand, so this would only be slightly less gross than I had expected. I picked honey as my first substance to put on the prolapse. Honey is antiseptic, and we also had a lot of it, so that made it an easy choice. I rubbed the honey on, and gently tucked the beast back inside. It popped right back out. I tried this several times, and each time it popped back out, so I left it alone for a while. Later that night I tried again, but with the same results.


Attempt #1

The next day, I moved on to Bag Balm as my substance. I donned a rubber glove, smeared some balm on the prolapse, gently tucked it back in, and it popped right back out again. I decided to leave it alone and see how things were when I got home from work. I tried the tuck again, but with the same results. I knew a lot hinged on this thing staying inside, but I just could not get it to do it. I emailed a woman I know who knows a lot about chickens, and resolved to go buy hemorrhoid cream, the last of the things people said to smear on a prolapse. There was some thinking that since it shrinks hemorrhoids, it can help shrink the tissue in a prolapse, which will help it stay inside. I had my doubts that this was true, but I was willing to try anything. I went to a store with automated check outs so no one needed to see my purchase.

I heard back from my friend, and she didn’t think things looked good if the prolapse wouldn’t stay in. She said if it was her chicken she would consider culling it. This was the first time in my chicken experiment that someone suggested killing the chicken and I thought they had a point. I resolved to try the hemorrhoid cream and take it from there.

hemorrhoid cream

Dr. Embarrassment’s new label.

I think you probably see where this is going. The hemorrhoid cream didn’t work any better or worse than any of it. I called the vet and told them I had a chicken with a prolapsed vent, and I thought she might need to be put down, but I wanted to talk to the vet before doing so. They got me in that night.

The vet was very helpful. He told me the various steps he could take, but without knowing if there were other factors involved, he couldn’t say how good an idea any of them were. He asked me about her health lately, and suddenly a lot of things began to come together. Suzy Creamcheese had molted twice over the winter, but based on a question I asked on the internet, it seemed like that could have been due to numerous Polar Vortices we had experienced. She had also been laying the eggs without shells, which I talked about in the “chicken finger” episode. The vet felt that these were not signs of a well chicken. I pointed out that she had totally perked up since we were there, and he pointed out that this was a defense mechanism, since he was a new person so she had to keep up appearances. And then as we talked, she rested her head on the side of the box she was in and closed her eyes. “That’s not something she should be doing,” he said. “I don’t think this chicken is well at all.” I agreed, and decided it was time to let Suzy Creamcheese go. She had been dealing with the prolapse for several days, and who knows what else. We said our goodbyes, and the vet took her away.

Suzy Creamcheese

My last photo of Suzy, right before they took her away.

The next day the vet called me and let me know I had absolutely made the right decision. She had been suffering from egg peritonitis, which happens when egg yolk gets into the abdomen from the reproductive system and causes an infection of sorts. This will kill a chicken, and there is no way to really know it’s happening, and no treatment. Instead, you see things like I saw with the winter molting – unusual behaviors that might be chalked up to something else. It was a relief to know I had done the right thing, but it didn’t make me feel any better about it. Suzy had been one of my favorites and now she was gone. I wished I could have caught this sooner so she didn’t suffer, but there wasn’t any way to know this was happening. I did the best I could with the tools I had. I suppose that’s all you can do.

(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: Old Strange by The Black Twig Pickers and Steve Gunn)


Chickens Not Eating In The Winter!?!

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Winter took so long to end this year that I hesitate to bring it up at all, but I had a number of odd things happen with the chickens this winter and I feel I should address at least one of them. I also had a number of odd things happen with myself every time more snow was forecast, but I found lying on the floor in a ball and rocking back and forth eventually took care of most of them. (It wasn’t so helpful with shoveling the walk.) I suppose I should feel as though I ran a marathon or did some other endurance feat. It was a test of sheer will, and I made it through. And this was with having to go out to check on the chickens several times a day. If I could have just stayed inside the whole time, I might have had a much easier go of it.

snow house

Not that inaccurate a portrayal of last winter.

Something that started to alarm me back in the early stages of winter was how infrequently I needed to fill the chickens’ feeder. Usually they clean it out every couple of days, and in the winter they need to eat more in order to stay warm, so they should clean it out faster. But they weren’t even making much of a dent in it at all. I was finding that I would only have to add more food once a week, and even then not as much as I had expected to.

chicken feeder

Saves on feed, I guess.

A cold snap hit (the first Polar Vortex, if you recall) and I started to worry. It was so cold that they tended to not even come out of the coop. I can’t say I blame them. My down jacket barely kept me warm at that point, and even though theirs was built in, it probably only did about as much. Huddling together in a small room out of the wind seemed like a good idea, both for the chickens and the people I take the train with. But if the chickens already weren’t eating enough, if it was too cold to go out to the feeder, they really weren’t going to get the food they needed. Staying warm takes a lot of energy, and that means food. I had to do something.

Nude jacket

Might as well be nude.

I started with an old cat bowl I had, that has been repurposed for the occasional chicken project. I filled it with chicken feed, then added some water and a splash of apple cider vinegar. Once it had gotten good and soggy, I’d mix in a big spoonful of yogurt. They really like yogurt, and I give it to them to ward off certain disgusting illnesses anyway, so I figured I ought to work it in there somehow. Then I put it out in the run and waited to see what happened.

the bowl lies

Don’t always believe the bowl.

They stuck their heads out, and seeing that there was still snow outside, they began to think twice about coming out. I know that feeling all too well. They saw the bowl of mash on the ground, and I could see the gears turning. Here was new food of some sort, but on the other hand, it’s cold! Eventually they came out and pecked a little at the food, and I felt I had finally succeeded at getting them to eat. Until I came home and there really wasn’t much eaten out of the bowl at all.


Can you spot the differences?

I had to go to the feed store anyway, and when I was there, the old guy who knows everything was working. I told him my birds didn’t want to eat, and I wasn’t sure if it was just because of the cold. He asked me some questions to determine if any of them were sick, or had been freaked out by anything lately, but everyone seemed in good health and as far as I knew about as calm as chickens get. He thought about it a little, and finally said, “You know, I don’t know either. Sounds like you’re doing everything right.” I then explained the trick with the mash I’d tried, which got the person in line behind me real fired up. “Ooooh, I know someone who spoils their chickens!” and then everyone in the store starting prancing around yelling “ooh la la” and calling me “the mayor of fancy town.” Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I was accused of spoiling them. It’s a fine line between spoiling and letting them starve to death, if you ask me.


Population me.

I ended up leaving with some chicken scratch and black oil sunflower seeds to help give my chickens the energy they needed. The sunflower seeds are very high in protein, so that seemed promising. After leaving a pile of both of these things out for them, they decided the cold could get bent, and they charged out to fight over these new amazing treats. Eventually they started eating the feed again too. Maybe everyone just likes a change of pace now and again. Like that long winter. That was fine, but let’s have a bunch of short ones now so I don’t stop appreciating polar vortices.


(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: Sally In The Garden Sifting Sand by Black Twig Pickers and Steve Gunn)

Losing My First Chicken

Friday, August 1st, 2014


I knew from the beginning that sooner or later at least one of my chickens was going to die. I mean, they all will eventually, but I fully expected at least one of the baby chicks to not make it to adulthood, and even though I managed to keep them alive that long, I knew it couldn’t last. I was right. In early Spring we lost a Mandrell Sister.


The days were getting longer, and more light means more eggs. I was beginning to suspect that more eggs also meant more broody time, which is when they want to sit on an egg until it hatches. One morning I opened the coop door to put more wood chips in and one of the Mandrell Sisters was hanging out in the nesting bucket. I was willing to allow that there was a slight chance that she was actually laying an egg at that hour, but we’re talking about 5:15 in the morning, and total darkness, so I was really leaning towards it being broodiness. I even heard someone make the weird broody noise, and since she was in the bucket, I assumed it was her. I was willing to let her hang out there all day, though. If she was still there when I got home, I’d put her in the bird cage I use to snap the chickens out of broodiness.

broody chicken

They call it “The Broody Buster.”

I got home, and I could see that everyone was out in the run as I approached, so I chalked it up to a false alarm, or maybe she actually had been ready to lay an egg that early. I am barely capable of opening my eyes and breathing at that hour, so more power to her, I thought. The next morning when I left, they were all out eating in the run, so I figured I had totally misread the situation.

That night I came home and there was one less chicken in the run than I expected. Now I figured that either she had gotten broody again and it took her a few tries to really get it working, or someone was laying an egg much later than I expected. I opened the coop expecting to find a chicken in the bucket, but instead I found her laying on the floor of the coop, lifeless.

I picked her up and brought her to the steps. We still had about a foot of rock solid snow on the ground, so even if I could get through the snow, the ground was still probably frozen solid, and if it wasn’t there are so many rocks it’s incredibly difficult to dig deep enough to plant a shrub, much less keep a body safe from varmints.

layers of snow and dirt

Geological map of the yard.

I texted my wife about what to do, and she suggested calling the vet. Turns out they will cremate a small body for $25. I bagged her up and had to drag my son away from his video game, which he was not happy about, but when I explained what was happening he seemed to think it was important. We had a short talk about how things that are alive also die, and it was sad that the Mandrell sister died, but it was all part of life. Then we drove to the vet and dropped off the body. I assumed that for $25 I wasn’t going to be getting any ashes back, so I wouldn’t get a chance to sprinkle her remains under the trees they all like to forage under. This is probably fine, since this raised the possibility of the others accidentally eating part of her, and I’d like to avoid that sort of activity.

Don't eat remains.

Do not mix.

The next morning my son asked if the Mandrell Sister wasn’t dead anymore. We explained that once you’re dead, that’s it, but she had a good life. He said he was sad, and we said we were too. You know what? It’s o.k. to be sad when a chicken dies. They may not be around as long as other pets, and they may leave without warning, but that doesn’t make them any less valued as companions. Go out there and love your chickens while you can, people.

RIP, Mandrell Sister



(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, music bed: Piano Soundtrack 1 by gurdonark)

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