Friday, January 11, 2013

A Poultry Drama

There’s been drama in the chicken coop over the last few weeks, and I’m not talking about a Christmas pageant.

Two of Amelias finest.
Red-headed Amelia’s Been Blue
It began with feathers. Amelia the New Hampshire Red began shedding some of hers, unseasonably, and it seemed mildly alarming that the larger ones from wings and tail were among the first to go. 

She hadn’t produced any eggs since her minuscule achievements of a few months back, and she’d been looking miserable: solitary, bunched up, off her food, frequently going for a lie-down ...all classic signs of Crook Chook Syndrome.*

So we went to the vet, who noted that when he placed her in the usual position for an internal examination, her comb turned blue — cyanotic. This is not supposed to happen.

My vet, for whom birds are a speciality, deduced that something was impeding Amelia’s air sacs (not altogether surprising, as at the end of winter she’d suffered a more acute respiratory problem, though antibiotics had appeared to fix it). Her egg-laying career was over, he suggested, and her future uncertain. We discussed surgery. Given the cost and invasive nature of such intervention, plus the likely prognosis, I opted instead for a course of different antibiotics.

An Outbreak of Maternity
Then Alice the Australorp went broody, which means she was determined to incubate eggs until they hatched. That would be no sweat if
a) the other chooks were cool with it
b) Alice kept right on laying
c) the eggs she was sitting on might hatch.

Alice, even more bouffant than usual,
looks for a way in to
the chalet de poulet.
This beautiful black hen will readily go broody (unlike Victoria the Araucana, who submitted for the first time in November, and Vanessa the Leghorn, who hasn’t a maternal bone in her body). She takes some days to ‘go under’, and exhibits behaviour I haven’t seen in my other broodies: her feathers are always bouffant but at such times her hackles (neck feathers) really rise, and she’s been known to engage in an odd little foot-stamping routine as she prepares to hog the nest.

I always feel ambivalent about discouraging broodiness — it’s natural after all — but I do it anyway. So for most of Alice’s second day I shut her in the palais de poulet (spacious but nest-free), then let her out once the other girls had finished laying, at which point I bricked up the chalet de poulet (nesting house). 

She didn’t like this much but in three days I’d won her over. A couple of weeks after that she rejoined the egg assembly line.

Christmas Comes to Chickendom
At Christmas, the hens had unusual treats:
various leftovers we biffed into the pen. They had a present, too a chooketaria, the next best thing to a fully staffed caff for the workers.

Victoria takes first peck.
A chooketaria is a feeder that protects the contents from rats and sparrows because it opens only when something as heavy as a chicken stands on a step. The self-service arrangement also means, as the very generous givers pointed out, that we can leave the girls to their own devices for a night and a day.

We christened the feeder with sausage rolls left over from Christmas. Victoria was first to step up to the plate. By far the smallest of the flock, she’s also my best forager, and after grabbing a roll in her beak, she deftly flicked it out of the feeder and devoured it on the ground. Admittedly, we’d made things easy by setting the feeder to training mode (a simple matter of tightening the screws slightly) so that the ‘door’ was always open.

Emmeline lost these feathers in
two or three days (the eggcup
relative size). Below
the hen herself, partly plucked.
A Moult Moltissimo
Between Christmas and New Year, Emmeline the Light Sussex upstaged Amelia by undergoing a major moult of her own, and it was more
comprehensive than the official one she did last autumn. It was almost heart-breaking to discover more bits of Emmeline lying in the dirt, or floating on the breeze, every time I went out to the chook run.

I took to collecting every dropped feather (except those that had been trampled or pooped on). This, I felt, somehow reduced her public humiliation — but really I yearned to be able to glue them all back on.

Wanting to rule out a recurrence of whatever had laid Amelia low, on the 31st of December I made another trip to the vet. He agreed that Emmy looked “pretty miserable” and did some tests, for which my hen thoughtfully deposited a sample on the spot.

After microscopic examination, the vet concluded there was no need for quarantine, and no parasites were present. This hen needed feeding up, however: her crop was empty and the bacteria in her poop indicated that things weren’t moving fast enough, if at all. She was like, he said, a “stagnant pond”. The answer wasn’t a burst of protein, which I suggested to make up for the feather loss, but fibre to get her going.

New Year Resolutions
I bit back an indignant “I feed them HEAPS!” and resolved to try harder. So I set aside my worst fears (which resulted in
a real party pooper several end-of-year discussions about how to humanely kill a chook), and thus far I have: 

Vanessa (foreground)
prepares to tuck in to
some greens

reduced the intensity of the chooketaria training schedule
-  cooled the weather down and dried up the humidity (well, okay, I can
t take credit for that)
-  searched through composting weeds and leaf litter for worms, slaters, centipedes, earwigs and hoppers for the girls to hoover up
-  cut back on overripe fruit and Christmas leftovers
-  increased servings of good greenery, filling my vet’s prescription
-  minimised wandering willie (Tradescantia) servings, apparently delicious but full of water and presumably not nutritious
-  made the floor of the run more interesting for the flock by digging up bits of it and adding leaves from elsewhere on the section
-  regularly slipped extra feed to Amelia, so she could get her share while lurking low in the pecking order

-  resolved to buy just one pack of layers’ pellets at a time, as How to Care for Your Poultry reminds me that chickens turn their beaks up at long-stored feed. 

These methods have not been used scientifically — I didn’t want to risk death and destruction with an experiment that changed only one factor at a time — but something seems to have worked. Emmeline is growing new feathers and seems fine. Even Amelia has improved (enough, one day, to peck rather than be pecked), though the vet and I agree that what ails her will probably linger on.

My poultry priorities for early 2013 now seem clear: unless I suddenly go free-range, which would create other complications, I’ll be slaving over a hot garden, foraging for my flock. The chickens, no doubt, have other plans to hatch.

* Crook Chook Syndrome, as described in How to Care for Your Poultry, is not a specific disease but an illness that is unidentifiable, at least initially. Treatment is as general as the symptoms.

Amelia, resting.

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