Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dealing with a Drinking Problem

Vanessa and Henemoa (front) are with Amelia, Alice
and Victoria (obscured) at the freshly refilled drink
dispenser. Vanessa is tilting her head back to swallow.
One of the many things I’ve read about chickens is that they Will Not Drink Dirty Water. Numerous websites, including the SPCA’s, link this with the commandment, “Thou shalt have plenty of fresh, clean water available for the chooks at all times.”

Chooks are certainly great drinkers, especially when the weather warms. They’ll cluster around the water dispenser like blokes around the beer before six o’clock closing at the Public Bar. God forbid that there be an even slightly inadequate quantity of the wet stuff.

In my experience, chickens are far from picky about the purity of their vittles and drink, but particularly enjoy helping themselves from a natural platter. It’s much more fun to scratch and peck at the ground for food than to eat nutritionally formulated pellets out of a receptacle that’s raised, hygienically, off the ground.

Alice the Australorp (above)
goes for drops spilt by others,
while Emmeline drinks from
underneath the dispenser
Likewise, in my backyard they’ll bypass the plastic water dispenser to help themselves to the miniature mud-pond in a large leaf; hoover up (before the earth can absorb it) any dirty dregs I’ve tipped out; delicately sip the dew that rests in the chickenwire on a damp new day; even drink up the drops from the underside of the dispenser. I try not to give them such choices but hens are crafty and, like necessity, they are mothers of invention.

My last flock, I’m ashamed to say, had a water bucket that cultivated algae of an interesting hue (it also drowned the occasional sparrow). Those chooks drank dirty water more often than not — i.e. when it was the only sort I made available — and I think it’s no coincidence that their poop was far less impressive in appearance than what my present pets produce. 

Manure may not make a chicken as “manners maketh man”, but it can indicate its health. My last lot squirted out ... well, I won’t go into details. They’re dead, and it was a long time ago.

I’ve learned a lot about hens since then. I am conscious now that just as in wartime “careless talk costs lives”, so (at any time) dirty water spreads disease
How to Care for Your Poultry, the excellent book jointly authored by New Zealand Lifestyle Block magazine’s editor and hen expert, tells me so. It has no fewer than five index references to water requirements, and the number-one question in the poultry management chapter relates to water: “Would you drink the water in your hen house?” it asks, pointing the finger as severely as the military man in the recruitment poster that reads, “Your country needs YOU.”

Thus motivated, I declare war on Bertie Germ in my backyard, scrubbing out the chickens’ water dispensers and refilling them about once a day. I’d be reluctant to drink from the dispenser when the girls have just been scratching up a storm and flinging dirt everywhere, but on the whole I can answer the good book’s question in the affirmative. The present contingent in my coop have clean water “on tap”, and that’s what they drink (unless they can get what’s fallen from the sky, or mucky stuff they find on the ground). 

Victoria the Araucana, like most hens, isnt big on beak
hygiene. Here she gets down and dirty in a search
for worms and other delicacies.
As a result of this, and of better treatment all round, they give me ...yes, lovely eggs, but also large droppings of the correct colouring and consistency. One such deposit, gently steaming like a Christmas pudding, is beautiful to behold; a multitude is manure from heaven.

The attention I devote to chicken poop may be similar to, but more insightful than, that of doctors to King George’s porphyria-blighted (blue) emissions in the Royal Chamber Pot, some 200 years ago. Or perhaps I am the poultry equivalent of the Plunket nurse who analyses everything about her charges, even their excrement.

I see myself channelling the Plunket Society’s famous founder, Dr Sir Frederic Truby King, to help the hens and save the eggs. I try to administer food as the doctor ordered, at about the same time every day. Fortunately I don’t expect of my hens the perfectly timed bowel motions that he specified for human babies, or I might require committal to the modern equivalent of another institution in which King had a leading role — the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. Chooks follow the call of nature rather than any clock: they just poop and poop and poop, and there’s no stopping them.

Am I over-conscientious? I don’t think so. Many things can harm a chicken. Looking at what it’s chucked out its rubbish chute gives me the opportunity to see warning signs and act on them before it’s too late.
How to Care for Your Poultry describes droppings, healthy and otherwise. Paying attention to these beats the post-mortem examination on which the book also advises readers under the heading “CSI Henhouse”. The latter involves poring over the poor creature’s entrails like a holy man, but one informed by science — anatomy, physiology, pathology.

The first half-dozen eggs this
spring once everyone began laying.
On the matter of water, one day this week I was a Bad Hen Mother. I left too many hours between refills. Luckily, it isn’t high summer and the girls didn’t conk out; they simply clustered around the replenished supplies for longer than usual, and with greater enthusiasm. Whether my neglect has disrupted their laying cycle, a fragile thing, remains to be seen.

Last Words on Water
- keep it clean, and keep it coming;
- chickens need to be able to drink often;
- lack of water kills more quickly than lack of food;
- double the quantity of water is needed in summer;
- laying hens drink twice as much as non-layers;
- by providing food and water in more than one place at a time, you can
outsmart the pecking order and enable each hen to get her share.


  1. One of the (many) fun things I remember about visiting my maternal grandparents (they had a poultry farm) was we got to "water the chooks" every day - a fun activity in itself, involving hoses & containers; but also *funny*: we also sometimes got to water the garden, but that was different, & it was a joke that appealed every time ...

    1. Your clever grandparents, getting you to do their chores! Mind you, when you're little, hoses and water ARE fun.