Backyard Chickens, Chicken Behaviors, Chicken Health

A Dusty Chicken is a Clean Chicken

Chickens have a natural way of keeping their feathers clean, healthy, and free of pests: dust baths! Rolling around in the dirt is a fun, social and preventative health measure that is important for all chickens.

Dust Bathing Social Bathing Dirt Bath

Description

Watching your chickens take a dust bath can be highly entertaining. They scratch at the dirt, making sure the spot is just right. Next they plop down in the wallow, wings flapping and legs kicking, working to cover all of their feathers with dirt and dust. Once sufficiently covered, the chicken will stand and shake out her feathers, leaving a cloud of dust behind, and proceed to preen her feathers. Seeing a dust bath for the first time may be alarming for humans, as chickens can lie very still in a shallow hole or their quick and repetitive movements can be mistaken for a seizure. Chickens like to take dust baths a few times a week, all year long.

Health Benefits

Dust baths are more than just fun and relaxing for your chickens, they are a natural preventative health measure for your birds. The dust absorbs the buildup of excess oil that parasites feed on, such as lice and mites. It helps diminish the population of any existing external parasites by smothering and suffocating them. Lastly, the preening that follows a dust bath helps to remove those pests. When given ample space, dust bathing is a social activity where multiple chickens will bathe together at once. In limited space, the pecking order determines who gets to bathe first.

Natural Bathing Areas

Chickens with room to roam will find themselves a spot to take a dust bath. Dry, cool places with loose soil or dirt are prime locations. Loose soil makes it easier for chickens to dig a small hole to roll around in. Keep an eye out for holes that are dug in dry areas where both you and your chickens have access, as they can be a tripping hazard. An open spot in your garden can be a tempting place to make a dust bath, but you can help prevent this by providing a specific dust bathing space for them in an area that works better for you.

Creating a Bathing Area for Your Chickens

If your chickens are confined to a smaller area, it is a good idea to provide them with a space to use for dust bathing. Most importantly, choose a place that is kept sheltered and dry. You can build a space modeled similarly to a children’s sandbox or raised planting bed, or repurpose something as simple as a large cat litter box, an old tire, a plastic swimming pool, or a storage container. Fill the area with dirt, dry soil, plain potting compost, mulch, sand, wood ash, or a mix of what you have on hand. You can also add beneficial herbs or food grade diatomaceous earth (DE) to their dust baths, but do your research before adding any foreign elements.

Let’s keep our chickens healthy and happy… and dusty!

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Backyard Chickens, Chicken Behaviors

Tips for Integrating Chickens

No matter how sweet, fun-loving, and friendly Lucy and Ethel are with you and with each other, as soon as you add new chickens to their perfect little flock, they will probably transform in front of your very eyes to bullies! The shock of this transformation in conjunction with your concern for the wellbeing of the new little girls may very well put you over the edge. If you’re not familiar with this behavior, we wrote last week about The PeckingOrder so you can understand what on Mother Nature’s good green earth is going on. The most important things to do are: 1) supervise, and 2) have a back-up plan. However, the more you interfere with the pecking order, the longer it will take to finish. Understandably, everyone is looking for ways to make this transition easier! Let’s put to rest a couple of myths about integrating chickens.

Myth #1: If you put your chickens in at night, they will wake up and just accept each other. Here’s the problem with this myth: the need for the pecking order does not go away just because they wake up snuggling. What’s really happening? Chickens wake up as early as 3:30 or 4:00am. You don’t arise until 6:00am or later, meaning your chickens have had hours to duke it out while you’re snoozing away; so the worst is already behind them by the time you greet them with your morning cup of Joe. The benefit of this is that the worst part of the pecking order is watching it. In all likelihood, they’re all going to be fine whether you referee or not. But if you’re not careful with the number and size of the new chickens in comparison to your flock, there’s a small possibility someone might be hurt or worse.

 

Myth #2: If you take one chicken out and put another in its place, they will never know, right? Wrong! Chickens are much smarter than some humans give them credit for. In a homogenous flock of chickens that all look alike, they can tell the difference between each other even when you cannot. Although you might luck out with a mild pecking order transition, this is no indication that they didn’t notice the sneaky swap, or that this creates a mild transition every time.

 

So, what can you do that will effectively minimize the bullying and possible harm to the chickens?

 

Trick #1: Create safety in numbers. The more chickens you add at a time, the more the pecking must be dispersed amongst the newcomers. Adding two new chickens to four established hens creates a two on one pecking ratio; whereas adding four chickens takes their advantage down to a one to one ratio. More chickens running around creates more confusion, and less of an ability to corner and bully one new baby girl.

 

Trick #2: Create safety with size. Adding chicks that are just ready to go into the coop will be more difficult than adding chickens that have some height and girth to them. If you put a few big girls into the flock, they can stand up for themselves better than a tiny chick who has just been weaned off of heat lamps.

 

Trick #3: Create a separate space where they can see each other, but not touch for at least the first day. Whether you string up some chicken wire across a portion of the coop or run, or put a large dog kennel in the coop for the new chickens, the barrier will protect the new chickens immensely. Established hens will still come over to peck, kick, and bully the new chickens, but will be able to physically hurt them. After most of their aggression has been taken out on the wire, and the new chickens get the point, integrating them should go fairly smoothly. If you’re adding very young chicks, or a small number of chickens to a larger flock, you may choose to keep them in chick protective services longer than a day.

 

Trick #4: Give them lots of treats to chase and munch on. Although this trick might not last for long, chickens would rather chase tasty treats than each other. Tossing out meal worms or sunflower seeds to the established chickens might just keep them pecking around for long enough to let the little girls relax a bit. It will also give the new girls an opportunity to let the established hens eat first, signaling their submission before the pecking ensues.

Backyard Chickens, Chicken Behaviors, Pecking Order

The Pecking Order: Why Becky head-butted Sophie?

It’s exceptionally difficult for humans to watch the transitional period of the pecking order in a group of chickens. This must be primarily because we love our pets and want them to get along; but also because we would never greet a new friend by head-butting them, forcing them to stand in the corner of the room, or taking their lunch. But chickens can’t say, “Hi, I’m Becky. Let me show you around!” So instead they use dominance to create a social hierarchy that establishes how the flock operates: who is the boss, where the cool kids hang out, who is dismissed for lunch first, and so on.

If the flock contains a rooster, he will generally make his way to the top of the pecking order as he matures. Without a rooster, a dominant hen will establish her place at the top of the pecking order and function much like the dominant rooster. The chicken at the top of the pecking order is charged with protecting the flock. They will keep an eye to the sky and to their surroundings and make a sound to warn the flock of incoming predators or unknown objects. In the case of a shortage of food, a rooster will often prove chivalrous enough to find food for the hens, and allow them to eat what’s available before he eats anything. A dominant hen on the other hand, may lay claim to the last morsels of food if resources are running low. Those at the bottom of the pecking order are mostly required to stay out of the way of more dominant chickens, and are often bullied away from the feed and water until the dominant chickens are finished.

 

Changing the makeup of the flock – adding new chickens, removing chickens, or mixing different flocks – causes uproar in the pecking order. A new order must be established by pecking, bullying, and fighting. New chickens in the flock will mostly end up at the bottom of the order as the established chickens peck at them. When a chicken stops looking at a dominant chicken, keeps its head low, or moves to a different area, they are signaling that they accept their less dominant position in the pecking order. Although the majority of the bullying and fighting happens immediately, it can take around two weeks for the flock to truly finalize their pecking order.

 

Chickens simply intend to show dominance to establish their place in the pecking order, but some chickens are stronger and rougher than others. Although it doesn’t happen often, a chicken will occasionally get injured by a larger or more aggressive hen. If a chicken is injured during the squabble and her wound bleeds, it can cause other chickens to peck at the injury. The saddest thing about the nature of chickens is learning they are cannibals. A bleeding chicken may be pecked to death if it is not separated from the rest of the chickens and treated. For this reason, it is always best to supervise when adding new chickens to your flock. If you’re looking for some tricks to make it easier on you and the new chicks, check out our article on Tips forIntegrating Chickens.

 

If your chicken is wounded, check out our ChickenFirst Aid! But first, get that chicken out of the coop. You can apply a topical antiseptic called Blu-Kote that also acts as a dye to cover up the color of blood. Be careful not to get this on your hands, clothes, or furniture as it stains! You can also use a triple antibiotic such as Neosporin to help the wound heal quickly – just make sure it does not contain “Added Pain Relief”.

 

Remember that the hardest thing about the pecking order is watching it. Most of the time, the order is established smoothly without any injuries. And if someone does get bullied a bit much, you might notice they’re simply more inclined to be loved on by their human mamas and papas, which you will surely enjoy. Just have a back-up plan ready in case things do head south: a spare dog kennel, a separate coop, or simply dividing the coop to create a safe space for injured or bullied chickens will work perfectly.

Backyard Chickens, Broody Chickens, Chicken Behaviors, Chicken Health, WWOOF USA

Brood sounds a lot like Rude… Coincidence? I think not.

“To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object, which it is to her.” –William James

 

… and that creature is me. Not to say that I don’t think eggs are a wonderful thing, because let’s be honest, I wouldn’t be working on a chicken farm if I didn’t. For me, eggs are an essential part of breakfast and baking cakes… but not much else. However, I’m not the one who squeezes an egg out of my body almost 260 days a year.

 

            Before laying an egg a hen will experience an increase in hormones, which usually returns to normal after the egg is laid. If the hormone level remains high, you may find yourself with a broody hen. This hen will do what she can to protect the eggs that she just forced out of her little chicken body. Broody hens will puff up their feathers, make terrifying noises, peck at you (which actually does hurt), and rip out their breast feathers in order to keep the eggs warm. She will not leave the nesting box except to eat, drink, and go potty once each day. Where as this is annoying for someone trying to collect eggs, the hens are just doing what their hormone crazed bodies are telling them to do. 

 

            Hens will often find a dark and private location to attempt to hatch their eggs. A larger hen will be able to incubate around 10 medium sized eggs, whereas a normal sized hen can incubate around 5. While this fact may fill your head with heartwarming scenes of baby chicks running around your backyard, unless the hen has had “relations” with a rooster, the eggs that she intends to hatch will be infertile. So if you want your hen to keep producing your morning eggs, there are ways to manage this. To get your hen to stop sitting on her nest of eggs:

 

  • Collect eggs daily, as many times as possible.
  • Remove the hen from the nest when you collect the eggs.
  • Close off access to the coop and nesting boxes during the day.
  • Separate the broody hen from the rest of the chickens for a few days and place it in a wire-bottom cage with only fresh food and water.

On the other hand, if your hen has had “relations” with a rooster these eggs could

actually become the cute little baby chicks you imagined. It will take a hen 21 days to hatch the fertile eggs. The hen should be kept in a safe place and have food and water nearby. And 3 weeks later… baby chicks!

 

Broody Mother & Chicks

Buff Orpington Mother Hen

 

Eggs are wonderful. Chickens are wonderful. Broodiness is not… but it’s better to have a broody chicken than no chicken at all.

By: Kristen Kelly

WWOOFer 

WWOOF-USA | Dare 2 Dream Farms

Backyard Chickens, Chicken Behaviors, Chicken Health

Helping your Hens Molt Gracefully

Every year at about this time, panic sets in for our new clients as they notice concerning changes in their hens between feather loss and egg production loss. It’s excellent to hear that chicken moms and dads are aware of the changes taking place in their flock. And when they happen, it’s a good idea to give a quick health check up to the girls. But if its late summer or fall, and you see a combo of egg production changes and feather loss, you can rest assured that it’s just their yearly molt. Here are a few things you should know to help them molt gracefully.

 

DESCRIPTION

 

Molting is usually an annual occurrence in which both roosters and hens lose all their old, worn-out feathers and regrow new ones to prepare for colder winter weather. During a molt, hens require more nutrients and energy to regrow feathers, and in order to reserve these resources, they will either slow, or stop laying eggs. If hens do happen to continue laying eggs while molting, you can expect to see soft-shelled eggs because of the strain on their resources, so don’t be alarmed. 

 

Molting and Pin Feathers

Molting takes a period of weeks or months as it progresses through different parts of the body. When nearing a molt, feathers lose their sheen and become very dull looking. The progressive design of a molt helps to prevent a chicken from being barren of feathers as the weather begins to cool, although sometimes it is occasionally unsuccessful. The process of molting then begins with the feathers on the head, followed in order by the neck, back, breast, stern, thighs, wings, and finally the tail. Good layers begin to molt later in the year and finish more quickly, taking only 2-3 months. Poor layers start molting earlier, usually before September, and take much longer (up to 6 months) to finish.

 

FOCUS ON A HIGH PROTEIN DIET

 

Feathers are made up of 85% protein, so during a molt, a chicken’s need for dietary protein increases. Make sure to feed molting chickens a higher protein layer feed (16-18% protein). It’s also a good idea to limit treating hens with scratch; and instead, supplement with high protein treats such as:

 

  • Seeds (especially Black Oil Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds) 
  • Sprouted grains, such as alfalfa 
  • Mealworms and Earthworms 
  • Raw meat or fish (not chicken) 

 

Although you may read that feeding your chickens scrambled or hard-boiled eggs will help with protein, we don’t recommend it as it’s possible to instigate egg eating, a nightmare behavior in which chickens lay eggs and turn around to eat them because of their flavor and their high protein and calcium content. As always, Apple Cider Vinegar is a great health supplement when added to their water. It is packed with vitamins and minerals and acts as a natural health booster that can help chickens keep their energy up to get through a molt much easier.

 

PIN FEATHERS AND FEATHER PECKING

 

The new feathers that begin to grow in are called pin feathers. The blood seen in pin feathers is normal, and is used to nourish growth. However the blood in pin feathers can incite feather picking in a flock, especially because they’re all in high need of protein which is found in feathers. Keep stress levels particularly low this time of year, and keep an eye out for cannibalism. Tips for keeping stress levels low in a molting flock:

 

Move slowly around your hens.

Don’t introduce too much change at once. (Adding new birds, coop construction, introducing light, or locking them in the coop for longer periods than normal can incite bad behavior.)

Leave out treats for them to scratch and peck through for entertainment (pumpkins are readily available at this time of year and are a great low calorie, vitamin packed treat).

 

A GOOD TIME FOR DEWORMING

 

If you like to deworm your flock once a year, this is a great time to deworm your flock. While using a dewormer, eggs can’t be eaten, so it makes sense to deworm when there are fewer eggs to throw away. Additionally, this ensures they’re getting 100% of the nutrients they need for the molt from their diet, rather than being robbed by a mess of roundworms.

 

EFFECTS OF MOLTING

 

After molting, at the beginning of the next laying cycle, feed efficiency is improved, eggs are larger, and egg quality is better than it was at the end of the last laying cycle. Each passing year, though, production decreases overall so hens naturally won’t produce as well as they once did, and egg quality declines faster.

 

MOLTING CONTESTS FOR COMIC RELIEF

 

For pictures of really terrible molts, for assurance or entertainment, you can browse through the Backyard Chickens Molt Competition. Here are the links for this year’s competition as well as a couple years before: 20132012, and 2011. We all need someone who smiles at us when we’re having a bad hair day.

Chicken Behaviors, Roosters

Is a Roo Right for You?

 

buff orpington rooster
A Buff Orpington rooster keeps a watchful eye over his hens

Nothing says “farm” quite like the quintessential crow of a rooster in the early morning. These stunning creatures are not only visually appealing with their gorgeous feathering, but also act as the first line of defense between predators and the rest of your flock. A rooster is essential if you’re planning on hatching chicks; but even if that is not the case, these birds provide a range of benefits to almost any flock:

Food Call: When a rooster happens upon a tasty morsel, such as a table scrap or something found while foraging, he will alert the rest of the flock with a repetitive call or even pick up the food and offer it to a nearby hen. This behavior, known as tid-bitting, is a manifestation of the rooster’s natural protective instinct to put his hen’s welfare before his own.

Protection: Roosters will alert the flock to airborne or land-based predators and fend them off if necessary. When the end of the day draws near, a rooster will also help corral the hens back towards the coop. Rooster owner, Matthew of Virginia posted the following testimony to his rooster’s usefulness on the forums at BackyardChickens.com

Without my roo I would be out several hens even with two border collies and two guard geese roaming. When a hawk swoops I hear him give his warning and the hens scatter. The geese and the dogs don’t look up! I haven’t lost any chickens to a hawk and I think it has a lot to do with the rooster.

Social Hierarchy: It is a natural behavior for social birds like chickens to establish a social hierarchy to help maintain order within the flock. This pecking order dictates many behaviors such as who mates with who and which hens get the best roosting spots and scraps of food. Because of his strength and masculine authority, it is natural for a rooster to take on the alpha role. This helps prevent disruption in the flock by establishing a firm pecking order. Without a rooster, hens will compete amongst themselves for the alpha spot which diminishes peace and stability within the flock. (The Field Guide to Chickens, Pam Percy)

Hatching Eggs: If you are looking to hatch chicks of your own, you will need a rooster to fertilize the eggs. Chicks will hatch after approximately 21 days of incubation. Conversely, you may also choose to sell your fertilized eggs which can fetch twice the price of regular eggs. Roosters are sexually mature at 25 weeks and will mate throughout the year anywhere from 10-30 times per day. To avoid excessive mating and stress on your hens, it is recommended that you have 8-10 hens per rooster.