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Brrrr….

First week of the new year, and first day of -30 so far this winter.  Really, nothing to gripe about, but if it’s weather and Alaskans are talking about it – well, more times than not, there will be complaints, comments, and reminiscences about the Big Ice Storm of ’10 (or whatever  the latest weather event d’jour is)   rather than just a mere acknowledgement that yes, like everywhere else on the globe, we have weather.

With the arrival  of the first true cold day of this winter this morning, the chickens went onto a 24-7 heat lamp.  This winter I have been trying something new.  Early in the fall, I decided to be a bit less stingy with the electricity and give the girls (and Gandolf the Rooster) more heat regardless of outside temperature.  For all of my other chicken-keeping years – the heat lamp didn’t go on until zero to -10 degrees F. This meant that most times, the coop was pretty chilly: about 35 to 40 at perch-level, definitely in the 20s at the far reaches.  Previously,  if a heat lamp was on when it was 20 degrees above zero – well in my view that  was like leaving the front door open with the heater going full blast: a needless waste of energy.    I also had a  (half-baked) notion  that if I kept the coop relatively cool/cold in its far reaches, it would  slow down decomposition of droppings and generally help in keeping eye-watering ammonia fumes at bay. I had also heard (through the coop rumor-mill) that turning on/off heat lamps repeatedly when the bulb was cold would lead to faster bulb demise.

Wrong on all accounts.  By putting the heat lamp on a timer, and having it come on four  times throughout a 24-hour period even  when we hit close to 32 degrees,  the coop stayed much, much drier.  There was less frost build-up and the troublesome problem of condensation seeping down the walls (which always plagued the coop in outdoor temperatures above 32) never materialized during our Christmas chinook.  This in turn led to not only happier chickens (and warmer chickens) but because there was less moisture, the bedding stayed fresher longer and the droppings did not decompose as rapidly.  Clean-up of the coop is also much easier – because nothing is frozen to the walls or the boards in the far reaches.  I also was surprised at how small an impact there was on my monthly electric bill.  For sure, there was an increase, but I estimate it to be about 10$.  And of this writing, the bulb is still going strong  even though it’s well over a year old.

On a closing note – apologies to all for being AWOL for a considerable period of time.  Other work got in the way of the  enjoyable task of writing about chickens.   The home flock is still going strong – with at least three hens pushing 10.  Yes.  I know.  Most do not keep their layers around into their dotage.  Perhaps it is just because it’s sort of interesting to see how long these girls will live when they are safe from predators and get three squares a day.

Update on the P-hammock

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P-hammock: 6 days after installation

Hens: 1, Owner:  0

Today, the P-hammock (as I have come to refer to it) came down.  It’s a great idea that my chickens roundly gave the middle toe to.

Every morning for the past week when I opened the coop door, I hoped to see the usual 4 or 5 birds that have occupied that portion of the roost without fail for the past five years neatly lined up with their rear ends properly aligned.

Instead, what I had every morning were  a dozen birds (even those on the roost not covered by the P-hammock) lined up with their heads cocked over their backs – tails pointing away from the wall and into the coop – giving me the stink eye.  It might be tempting from this to assume that this is just the way my chickens have always roosted and I placed the sling on the wrong side of the perch.

Nope.   All generations of the birds I have kept in this coop for 10 years have always roosted facing into the coop.  Never ever did they roost facing the wall.  To really appreciate the ability of the chicken to transmit its approval (or disapproval in this case) of a change in its environment, the new alignment of all of my chickens means that every single one of them flew up or jumped up from the ramp below, which is against the wall,  and then turned around on the perch to settle into looking at the wall…. an acrobatic maneuver that has certainly never been the norm in this coop.

Oh, occasionally in the last week I have caught my one hen, Goldie, sitting over the hammock and depositing a token dropping, but in general, the chickens have spoken.  More frequent mucking out of the litter will continue to be the order of the coop – no new-fangled ideas like P-hammocks.

On a less silly note – really the problem is that  the way I have my coop set up, it’s not conducive to effective use of a  hanging net or screen under a roost.  A careful examination of the pics that Linda D provided on the Chicken Wire shows that those perches are lower, and have the screen set up so that it doesn’t matter which way the birds orient (or so it seems from the pics).    My coop has restricted access for the birds to reach the perch, which is quite high off the ground (to maximize them being at the warmest parts of the coop in winter) and it is a long piece of willow that spans the whole coop horizontally.  I think because of the height and the way the birds access this, their main roost, the screen was just too visible to them, and they could not (would not) overcome their suspicions of such an odd thing hanging in their coop.

It’s always worth a try, though, to take an idea that works in one coop and see if it works in yours.  Or not.

 

What we have here is a failure to innovate!

The thaw has arrived.  Or perhaps it is a faux thaw, as often happens.  But real or just a tease, the past week’s temperatures have been warm, the snow is melting and the sun is back.   As every Alaskan knows, or at least those that don’t live on entirely south-facing slopes,  it’s that dreaded time of year when one’s house is flooded with sunlight. Dreaded because now there is no ignoring the wood ash, dust, dog (or cat) hair, and other flotsam and jetsam that  accumulated during those dark winter days. Then the house   looked “quaint & cosy”, now it looks like something  that could be featured on  A&E’s Hoarders. Strong daylight has a way of doing that.

Sun!

Sun!

So, the past couple of weeks have been a flurry of spring cleaning, and before the energy dissipated, or I got fed up with the whole regime of dust cloths, mops, brooms and the like, I decided to tackle the hen house – not only to give it its customary spring muck-out, but to start on the long list of improvements I plan to do this summer (of which you will undoubtedly hear more about as the spring progresses).

Chief among these was to try the “poop hammock” that was recently posted on the Chicken Wire by Linda D.  This is  a piece of screen,  made taut with some wire, slung under the main roost to catch droppings.  She  uses hooks on one side so the screen sling can easily be detached and emptied of its contents into a bucket.

This seemed like   an easy (brilliant actually) way to reduce the stench and amount of mucking out required by confined birds throughout a long winter. So this morning, preparatory to cleaning out the coop, I spent a good two hours rigging up an experimental poop hammock. Because of the way my coop is configured, and because the birds generally reach the roost by launching off their nest box ramp, I decided to try a hammock under just one half of the roost  – figuring that catching and removing half the droppings was better than none.

So it was with great excitement that I made my evening trip to the hen house – eager to see just how well this contraption was working, imagining several of my hens tidily lined up in their customary spots on the roost, neatly depositing their droppings into the hammock.

The poop hammock, seen at right, is given the thumbs down by the entire flock

The poop hammock, seen at right, is given the thumbs down by the entire flock

Except, not. What I failed to factor into all of this is the chicken’s great ability to immediately recognize something that is not kosher in its environs* and to not only treat it with the greatest suspicion, but to avoid it all together – even in a 6 x 6 coop.

So much for innovation.


* chickens really are smart – and it is not just those of us who are slightly nutty over their flocks who think so.  Scientific American recently published an article about the intelligence of chickens: Brainy Bird, by Smith, Carolynn & Zielinski, Sarah,
in Scientific American. Feb 2014, Vol. 310 Issue 2, p60-65.

Welcome to the Chicken Wire

I’ve added a new tab:  the Chicken Wire.  It contains a link which takes you  to a private Wiki that I have set up for  questions, discussions and information. Anyone who joins can edit, post, and upload files and photos.

I started this because there is a lot of good information and a lot of experienced backyard flock owners in Alaska and elsewhere, and, as I have found, I don’t have the time to post as much as I would like to.  I get a lot of questions from people about chickens, and often, the answers I give them come from other people that have  more experience or are cleverer in solving problems with backyard flocks than me.  So, to share the wealth, the Chicken Wire was hatched.

Because it is private, it does require signing up and creating a username and password (and then of course, remembering same).  However, the benefits to having a private wiki are obvious; it will save us all from having to wade through countless postings about viagra, and that certain individual in a far away country that needs just a couple hundred dollars to make it back home.

Hope you will join the collaborative chicken chat – and despite the cute alliteration, it’s a forum that is open to all things poultry.

Breath of Fresh Air

Airing the hen house on a warm January morning, Fairbanks

Airing the hen house on a warm January morning, Fairbanks

Thanks to the Lower 48 taking on our Polar Vortex- winter here in Fairbanks has been perfect: mostly warm, with plenty of snow for skiing and other winter recreating.  It’s been good for chickens too.  Maybe not for outside frolicking as mine don’t really care for the snow, and they haven’t reached that level of coop-fever that drives them out into the snowy yard.  That will happen in early March, but it has more to do with sun angle and warmth than with them being thoroughly fed up with being inside.

But even if your chickens won’t venture outside right now, mild temperatures are great for regular henhouse airings.    If yours is anything like mine, by January there is a definite funk built up inside as a result of a number of birds living, eating and yes, doing what chickens do, pooping in a small space.  When it’s 30 below, that funk  sort of crystallizes into  an inert, non-smelly frost in the far corners and near the floor of the henhouse.  But with temperatures regularly above zero, and in many cases flirting with the high 20s and 30s…I have  moisture running down the walls, and my deep litter method has to be changed a lot more frequently as the straw and manure mixture starts cooking.

While warm winter weather can produce these not-so-good interior conditions, even with a vent (I will sometimes spend a little electricity when I don’t need to and turn on the heat lamp for a few hours to help dry out the henhouse), it also allows you to air out your henhouse and give your chickens some welcome fresh air.

If you are conscientious about keeping your small coop door free of litter and ice (I am not) you may be able to regularly open the hen door for additional air circulation.  I used to do this, but quickly tired of the regular chore of chipping and banging the door open.  A fellow flock owner, who is much more experienced in keeping all sorts of poultry (chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys) here in Fairbanks than I am  passed on to me her tip: she opens her main door and hangs an old quilt over the door on warm days.  Of course, “warm” is a personal definition for both flock owner and the involved poultry, but generally, if it is 20 degrees or warmer, this would be a good thing to do for your coop and its inhabitants.

Another option, the lazy-person’s (which is the one I use), is simply to partially open the door for a couple of hours. While opening the small coop door does give additional fresh air, it doesn’t allow for as much air circulation and much-needed air exchange as having the larger door open for a period of time.

If you are a first-time flock owner in a northern climate, do begin opening your little coop door on warm sunny winter days in late winter – at some point your chickens will decide the sun is at the right angle and they will begin spending some portion of their days outside.  Be sure to sweep/shovel an area clear of snow as they are not too keen on being in it.

Tumoltuous!

In the past couple of weeks, my chicken house looks like several chickens have spontaneously combusted… it’s a cloud of feathers.   But every chicken is, luckily, accounted for.  It’s just my Easter-egger going through a late-season molt.  Though I know a change in the photoperiod can trigger molt –  and most definitely our near-complete absence of light in the winter  qualifies  – I am always bemused when a chicken starts going nude in the middle of the coldest time to do so.  It reminds me of when I used to run dogs, and some of my team would  blow their coats in January. You just stand there among the fur piles (or in this case, feathers) and think: “Really? What are you thinking?”

Despite the coop being a  chilly 40 degrees at this time of year, Cinnamon doesn’t seem to be bothered by it; she’s had no problems with frost bite, eats heartily and is now growing out  a new wardrobe. It  is my (admittedly) unscientific observation that Americanas and Easter-eggers seem to go through a more thorough all-over body molt than do some other breeds.  I don’t often have Americanas in my flock – most of my birds are Rocks, Wynadottes, Orpingtons, Cochins  and Langshans.  They seem to take their molting less seriously, molting more in rotating patches than undergoing a near total  de-feathering.

A neighbor's Easter Egger in full molt

A neighbor’s Easter Egger in full molt

I often get questions from poultry newbies experiencing the first molts of their new flock.  A full-on molt (such as the one pictured at the right) often alarms  a new flock owner – who may assume that  that their chickens have some sort of parasite or disease that is causing such severe feather loss.    While parasites can be a cause of patchy feather loss,  there are two things to keep in mind when confronted with birds that  seemingly overnight, have transformed from fluffy handsome henny-penny chickens to bald, goose-pimpled, scrawny things.

First, do inspect your birds.  If parasites like lice or mites are to blame, you will be able to see them scurrying around on the skin, and/or your chickens will be picking and scratching.  Second, if you haven’t been touring coops or been around other flocks, and your birds haven’t been troubled with external parasites, it is not very likely that your previously healthy and pest-free flock will suddenly become infested, especially in an Alaskan winter.

New feathers in various growth stages, Langshan hen

New feathers in various growth stages, Langshan hen

Keep an eye out for new feather emergence to seal the deal that it is a molt they are experiencing. New feather growth first looks like the chicken’s skin has been peppered with buckshot, but very quickly you will be able to see the feather shafts, at which point your chicken will look a bit porcupine-esque.    Usually you will see feathers in all stages of development, as modeled by Wah the Langshan.

Survey says….

….99.9999999999% of chickens in Alaska hate winter.

Gandalf the Rooster registered his disgust today at approximately 1:30 PM when he burst out of the sealed lower coop door and gave a thoroughly peeved-off crow. I was alerted to the chicken escape (into potentially frostbite-inducing temperatures) by the fact that his crow no longer sounded as muffled as it normally does in winter when he is sounding off from inside the hen house.
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Sure enough, when I went outside to investigate I found Gandalf and his number one lady hen tentatively making their way down the ramp.

A chicken with the initiative to open  the little coop door is a first for me.  It’s not exactly rocket science, and any sled dog worth its biscuit in a similar situation would have figured out how to tap the door open, as it is not secured with latches or hasps.  But in 10 years of chicken habitation of this particular house, not one chicken has ever tried its luck at effecting its escape –   not even the late Stew Paul, a rooster who refused confinement to the detriment of his comb and wattles.

Number One Lady Hen quickly tired of the chill and retreated back inside, but Gandalf hung around outside a bit longer…letting off steam and giving anyone who would listen an earful over the indignities of being sequestered in a small, rather smelly box-like building for weeks and months on end.

Survey results also show that Alaskan chickens, like most Alaskans, would rather spend the winter in Hawaii.

Getting the Flock Ready for Winter

A clean coop is a good way to start the winter

A clean coop is a good way to start the winter

Yup.  It has happened again.  Summer screamed by, and all of the things I meant to do relative to the flock (relocate the manure pile, enlarge the pen, add a new gate) didn’t get done.  Now it is a mad scramble to get all of the pre-winter preparations done:    top off  the wood pile, pick low-bush, stock the freezer with moose and ducks (if you are a hunting sort) winterize the car, and clean up the yard.

If you decided last spring to maintain a small flock of laying hens, then your fall chores will include preparing your coop for winter.  Now is the perfect time to do some henhouse cleaning, not to white-glove standards but enough to keep your birds healthy through the long winter ahead.  It’s also a good idea to  set up all of your  lights, water heaters and heat lamps ahead of when the light disappears and the mercury drops well below freezing and stays there.

The following is my fall checklist for my coop, which is home to a dozen birds.  It usually takes me two hours to complete.  When I clean inside the henhouse, I wear a dust mask (the inexpensive white ones sold in hardware stores)  to avoid inhaling the dust from litter and droppings.

Why a dust mask is essential!

Why a dust mask is essential!

1)    Muck out the outside pen to extend its life and mitigate smells next spring thaw.  If you do not free-range your chickens, your flock has been spending most of its outdoor time in this enclosure, so droppings, food remains and used litter build up. I generally use a pitchfork to take off several inches, focusing on the areas beneath perches. This is also rich compost material (let it age at least two years before application). Every few years (this is one of them), I truck in a load of sand and spread it over the pen to a depth of several inches.  You can also use pea gravel, but sand is cheaper; it also compacts well and I like it because it keeps the old muck from migrating back to the top.

2)    Clean all roosts and ramps with a wire brush.  A metal spackle knife is useful to remove   dried-on chicken manure. If you are particularly energetic and own a pressure washer, you can remove roosts and ramps and give them a serious cleaning with relatively little effort.  Note bene: it is particularly important to do this in a way so as not to be in the path of the pressure washer spray, and to make sure you have put the items well away from anything you dont want covered in wet chicken poop.  Do not pressure wash inside your coop – it will take forever to dry.

3)    Wash down the inside of the henhouse with a dilute bleach solution (1 capful to 1 gallon water; for chickens,  more bleach is NOT better and may be harmful).  This both disinfects and removes accumulated dust.

4)    Remove all litter from henhouse, especially in nest boxes, and sweep it out thoroughly. Replace with clean litter.  Make sure all litter – whether straw or wood shavings – is dry when added to the henhouse.

5)    Move feeders  and waterers inside the henhouse. If you heat your henhouse solely with a heat lamp, it is advisable to use a thermostatically-controlled water heater under your chicken waterer  to ensure the water stays thawed even during extreme cold spells.

6)    Check heat lamp and bulb, make sure they are operative, and clean both the fixture and bulb of accumulated dust.

7)    Set up an additional light source (a 40 or 60-watt bulb is sufficient), with timer, and begin giving chickens two to three hours of light in the evenings, depending on the number  and orientation of  windows in your henhouse.   The amount of artificial light you give your chickens will steadily increase (up to 14 hours) as our natural daylight decreases.

8)     Finally, leave your small coop door open until your chickens no longer go outside. Then close it to conserve heat and to prevent chills.

If this is your first season with laying hens, expect some upheaval in flock dynamics as the weather cools and the chickens spend more time indoors. First-year pullets born in spring generally start laying about October or November.  However, the onset of egg-laying may be delayed due to the rapidly-declining temperatures and natural daylight here in Interior, as well as  the increased confinement.  Making sure your flock has at least 14 hours of light throughout the late fall and winter will help keep pullets laying well through an Alaskan winter.

The New Roo on the Block

Gandalf

Gandalf

With the ending of the  state fair (where he took third – despite his very crooked toes), and his debut as a 4-H exhibit, Mr Roo,  Stew’s replacement, Gandalf, arrived.  Raised and handled by kids with a fondness for the Hobbit, Gandalf is mostly what his predecessor was not – even tempered and gentle.  A Wynadotte /Americana cross, he is a handsome fella with black iridescent tail feathers, and a lace wing saddle and neck feathers; he is also the perfect arctic chicken with his compact rose comb.

Gandalf arrived a couple of Saturdays ago, and made the hen flock his own with a minimum of fuss.  His crate sat for some time in the middle of the chicken yard with the birds at stalemate.  Neither the rooster nor the hens were going to make the first move, although Wah the Langshan, the most gregarious of the girls, did circle it at far remove.  Eventually Gandalf took matters in wing  and emerged to explore his new surroundings.  In his previous coop, he had been at the mercy of a much more aggressive rooster, as evidenced by his heavily scabbed comb.

Emerging from the crate

Emerging from the crate

So one can only image the relief and surge of excitement that he must have felt when he realized he had a flock of hens to call his own. The girls, on the other hand, weren’t so keen on the idea.  With Mrs. Dot, the dominant hen, running interference, the rest of the flock took to the coop – where they rocked the walls with their cackling.

Mrs. Dot allowed him entrance only after she delivered to him the fowl’s equivalent of a good boxing of the ears:  a reptilian flaring of neck feathers and  a series of chest butts.  Truly, as a Wynadotte with a nearly white front and black leg, back and tail plumage, who brooks no bad behavior from anybody, bird or otherwise,  Mrs Dot bears an unsettling resemblance to a crotchety old housekeeper in a third-rate Downton Abbey-esque potboiler.

With her role as the coop enforcer established, Gandalf was finally given room to explore the rest of his new home.  The hens – after clustering and cackling, and cackling and clustering, soon settled down to the new state of affairs.

And I quite happily returned to the enjoyment of hearing a rooster calling in my flock, without having to be on my guard for a sudden and unprovoked rooster attack.

The girls aren't so sure about the new guy...

The girls aren’t so sure about the new guy…