Archive for December, 2014

Happy Boxing Day!

Friday, December 26th, 2014

My present to you is a video of a chicken sneezing.

(Click the speaker in the bottom right of the video if you’re not getting the sound. You want the sound, trust me.)

Holiday break!

Friday, December 19th, 2014

Hi everyone,

I had planned on taking a short break during the holidays, and it looks like I’m starting a week earlier than originally planned.  I’ll still be posting something each Friday, just not a full Too Many Chickens! Those will return January 9th. In the meantime, enjoy a classic bit of Sesame Street “chickenery.”


Happy holidays,


The Recurring Winter and Chickens Question

Friday, December 12th, 2014

Did you know that winter happens every year? There’s a fun science fact for you. I’ll even throw in a bonus fact. Every year when winter comes, people start asking me what I do with my chickens in the wintertime. It’s as dependable as the seasons themselves, but requires less snow shoveling to deal with. (Some of you may accuse me of shoveling other things, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time). I’m not annoyed by this, as clearly I enjoy talking about chickens, and I’m happy to share my tricks with people who show an interest.

chicken trick

Not actual chicken trick. Do not attempt without cape.

So then, what are these tricks I speak of? Well, there really aren’t any to speak of. For the most part, keeping chickens in the winter isn’t a whole lot different than keeping them the rest of the year. You feed them, make sure they have water and shelter, and try to keep varmints from eating them. A key thing is to have made sure that the chickens you got were a good match for the climate you live in. There are breeds that can deal with the cold, and breeds that can’t. Likewise, there are ones that can deal with heat, and ones that can’t. So, if anything, if you’ve done your research before you got your chickens, you’re most of the way there.

california chicken

I wish they all could be California birds (provided I lived in California).

Where it gets a little confusing is the need in the winter to keep the birds out of drafts, but to make sure the coop has adequate ventilation. Moisture in the coop is bad at any time of year. It can cause respiratory issues, but when it gets below freezing, that moisture in the air is what’s going to freeze to the exposed parts of the chicken, like their combs. When I built my coop, I read a helpful bit of advice. It said “consider how much ventilation you think your coop needs, and then double that.” What I’ve done is to put vents in each upper corner of two sides of the coop, using heating vent covers to try to minimize drafts. I then made sure the roost sat directly between these, so no one would be right in front of the air flow. I’m sure there are windy nights where a breeze can still get in there, but if they’re not directly in it, they should be good. Also, given my skills at building things, there are spots where parts of the coop come together that are less than airtight. I originally was going to seal them, until I learned about the ventilation rule, and suddenly, my flaws as a craftsman became strengths. These gaps are near the ceiling, so again, nothing will be hitting them directly, but air can move in and out. People sometimes ask if on cold mornings I see steam coming out of the coop. If I did, I would panic. That would be a sign that there is way too much moisture in there. I haven’t ever seen this in my coop, so I think I’ve done ventilation right.

steamed chickens

No steamed chickens.

A different moisture issue is what to do about their water when it’s below freezing. You can get all sorts of electric water warming devices, but there’s no electricity near my coop, and running an extension cord from the house out to there is generally considered a bad idea. I have seen people who’ve made battery powered heaters using cookie tins and car headlamps, but I’m not sure I’m quite that skilled. I can eat the cookies in the tin, but my electronics abilities might make this more frustrating than useful. I’ve ended up doing two things. One is to put apple cider vinegar in the water. I do this anyway, since it’s good for them, but it also lowers the freezing point of the water a little bit. Then I bought a device that’s meant to keep pet beds warm, but is easily adapted to chickens by just putting it under the water. It looks like a fat frisbee, and it’s as wide as the base of my small waterer. Each morning I microwave it, and then I supposedly get up to 8 hours of warmth. I’m sure it’s somewhat less when you place it out in the elements, but it keeps the water unfrozen for long enough. If it’s extremely cold out, chances are they won’t even leave the coop for water anyway. Last year during the polar vortices they didn’t, and still lived to tell the tale. If they do end up getting thirsty because the water froze, they’ve learned to come right out and drink up first thing in the morning before it happens again.


disk o' heat

Not to be confused with Disco Heat, which is a surprisingly good record.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before in various posts, I just make sure they’re getting enough protein when it’s cold. Keeping warm takes energy, so they can load up on scratch or black oil sunflower seeds, and burn it off just by staying warm. It’s a pretty good workout routine.

chicken workout

Molting To The Oldies

You have to remember that these are animals that are basically wearing down coats. They are probably much warmer than I am when I go out in my pajamas every morning to let them out. That’s no excuse to slack, but keeping a few key points in mind, winter can be pretty manageable for chickens. For me, not so much. I’m still not over last year.


(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: That Moaning Saxophone Rag by Six Brown Brothers)

We Need To Talk About Boss Chicken

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Those of you who are regular listeners and readers know about Boss Chicken. For those of you who aren’t, or are just forgetful, let me give you a crash course. Boss Chicken was my first alpha hen, who we really worried might be a rooster until she started laying eggs. She was that aggressive, and had been since she was a week old, when we got her. She and the late Suzy Creamcheese had a real rivalry going for a time, which involved a lot of chest bumping, and basically Boss Chicken being up in Suzy Creamcheese’s business at every turn. I suppose you don’t get to be called Boss Chicken without having to constantly remind people why that’s your name. But one morning I went out and found that Boss Chicken had spent the night under the coop, in temperatures in the teens. “What’s up with that?” I asked. The chicken didn’t answer, but when she tried to walk, I figured it out. Her legs no longer seemed to work properly, so she obviously could not have gone up the ramp into the coop. The vet said it could be Marek’s Disease, a potentially deadly affliction that can affect the legs, and can be fatal. There’s no way of knowing though, until you do a necropsy, which you need a dead chicken for, and she was still very much alive. I later met another chicken enthusiast who described a chicken with similar issues, and he was under the impression that his bird had had a stroke. So I suppose that’s a possibility too. Whatever the cause, she got way less aggressive, and since she couldn’t move quickly, we had to keep her separate from the rest of the chickens. You’ve heard of the pecking order, right? It involves real pecking. Gruesome “Planet of the Chickens”-style pecking. Suzy Creamcheese now rose to power, and in order to assert her position, pecked Boss Chicken bloody the first time they met post-injury, and so Boss Chicken now lives in a nice rabbit hutch. She can see the others, but at a safe distance.

chicken fight

A tense peace.

Since Boss Chicken lives by herself, she doesn’t get the benefit of clumping together with other chickens on cold nights. Her hutch keeps her out of the wind, which is very important, but I often worry that on really cold nights, how cold is too cold? Minnesotans and Canadians often post online about how cold it gets where they are and their chickens are fine. But that’s usually a flock, not a lone chicken. And I am a worrier. So is one chicken capable of withstanding extreme temperatures? Is this a test I’m willing to undertake?

america's test chicken

My new reality show.

As we entered our first cold snap of the Fall, this was on my mind. Some people wonder, “when is a good time to turn on the heat?” I wonder about when a good time to bring Boss Chicken inside is. I have a dog crate in our storage area that I put her in during inclement weather. I had almost made up my mind over the summer that she would be fine alone all winter, as long as I gave her plenty of wood chips to nest in. And then I noticed that she had a few bald spots on her wing bones, sort of what amounts to a chicken’s elbow. This is probably because when she walks, it’s so wobbly that she has to balance with her wings. The skin looks fine, and not irritated, but some of the feathers have worn off. So now I had to consider if the bare skin could take the cold. My sense was that this was risky.

chicken elbow

You can’t get this map at rest stops.

Then a weather forecast called for nights to get into the twenties. This could have been the big test, except I couldn’t help but notice that the rabbit hutch was looking more feathery than usual. Of course she had also started molting right as the cold front came in. I’ve had other chickens molt in very cold weather, but they had the rest of the chickens to act as blankets to make up for their lost feathers. It seemed like I had to bring her in now, except that molting can make it painful for chickens to be touched, and obviously, I had to touch her to get her inside. I looked at the forecast again. It was going to hit the teens in a few nights. I apologized for any discomfort I was about to cause her, and carried her inside, leaving a pretty large trail of feathers behind me.

feather trail

Now I can find my way back to the coop.

This may seem like a lot of unnecessary worrying, but Boss Chicken is a special case for me. Even when she was a terror, she was my favorite, because she had such a big personality. Now she’s ill, or at least damaged in some unknowable way, and her days could very well be numbered (though sometimes I suspect she’s lived this long, she may outlive everyone). If something happened to her and it was my fault and preventable, I would be devastated. I’m going to play it safe. If it warms up, I’ll bring her back out. But for now, she can enjoy her tropical vacation to our unheated storage room. Some chickens have all the luck.

chicken crate

Swanky digs.


(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: Amorosa by Orquestra Internationale)


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