An Early Christmas Present


So, what’s the big deal about the eggs in the pic to the left? Why bother to post an image of a nearly-full egg carton of eggs on a blog about layers?  Well, because these are eggs from a 10-year old Easter-egger, Goldie, and a 7-year old Langshan, who earned the descriptive name of “Whah” for the peculiar little cluck she greets me with every morning.

Despite Interior Alaska being full on into the long, dark winter days, Goldie, after years! of not laying, started up again at the end of October, and she hasn’t stopped yet.  As of this posting, she has laid close to two dozen eggs – (averaging about 4 a week) and Whah, although not quite as prolific, lays about 2 a week.  Suddenly, after being eggless for a number of years, and resigning myself to buying fresh eggs at a local feed store (still way, way cheaper than keeping a backyard flock, but not quite as much fun), I have eggs again.

Of course, I don’t expect the egg-run to last.  Goldie is, after all, quite the elderly hen, and perhaps this is her last hurrah before stepping off the mortal coil.  None-the-less, it’s delightful to once again go out in the morning and find a pretty blue egg in the nest box.  It makes me even think about going back to keeping layers, as right now my flock consists of old birds in retirement:  Goldie, Whah, Old Hen (who is 12) and Gandalf, a roo of about 6.

For the moment, though, I have stopped expecting to see one of the oldsters keeled over when I visit the coop first thing in the AM, and now have been slipping into the habit of discovering one or two eggs.

It feels a little bit like a gift from Goldie for all of the years of keeping her and her flock mates safe, warm, and well fed.  And who knows, maybe it will spur me into the decision to get a few new layer chicks this spring!

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More than just eggs

When someone new to chickens decides to get their own flock, it is usually images of fresh eggs and cozily clucking hens that dance before their eyes, not poop-splattered walls patterned after Jackson Pollock. The first hint that chickens produce so much more than just eggs usually hits right from the start, when the new flock-keeper brings home the box of cute little yellow flufflets.  How many among us remember committing that first and terrible neophyte mistake – stashing the  new brooder  in a back bedroom?  And who among flock owners has not wondered how something so small could smell so awful?

img_0151Never doubt the power of raw chicken poop to drive off people and make enemies of your friends – it has even been employed as a city management tool.  In 2013, the city of Abbotsford BC gained some unwelcome notoriety when it spread chicken manure throughout a homeless encampment in an effort to disperse long-term homeless residents.  When both citizens and the targeted homeless called foul – the city government was forced to apologize and presumably also to clean up the mess.  And as any  Alaskan backyard flock owner knows, after dealing with a coop through the long, long winter, raw chicken manure can be eye-wateringly strong.

Therefore, no matter the size of your flock, managing chicken manure not only makes for healthier birds, it makes for better relationships with neighbors.  The proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors” might be recast for backyard fowl owners, both large and small, as “Good manure management makes good  neighbors”.

For their size, chickens are awesome manure manufacturers, and like all birds, indiscriminate  about where they poop. An average layer produces two cubic feet of manure/year.  Some small flock owners are so conscientious that with gloved hands they remove daily droppings from litter.  But let’s be frank – chicken-coop detailing is not going to be done by the vast majority of us.  Another alternative is the chicken diaper, which can be found in a wide variety of prints, plaids, and holiday-themed motifs. As with poop, never underestimate the raw power of American entrepreneurs to market to emerging trends. Not a serious manure management tool, chicken diapers are for those – you know who you are – who can’t bear to leave their pet chicken outside in some tiny coop, and instead bring Henny Penny inside to lounge alongside Fido.

Diapers and hand-detailing aside, what is a flock-owner to do with all of that manure, plus the feathers, nest material and other litter mixed in with it?  Chicken manure is an excellent source of nutrients and minerals for gardens and home landscapes. Compared to other animal manures, it is higher in nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and calcium, and with proper management and application can reduce or eliminate the need for other fertilizers. However, as  with any  animal waste used for garden compost – there are a few important caveats to bear in mind.

img_0153It is important to compost or age chicken manure for two reasons:  to reduce the number of pathogens potentially harmful to humans, and to “cool” the manure.  Chicken manure, because of its high nitrogen content, is the hottest of manures; if not aged or composted before application, fresh chicken manure will burn, even kill, young or tender plants.  Like all manures, safe handling includes wearing gloves, making sure the pile is not easily accessible to children, pets and other livestock, and treating it before use.  Composting, when done properly, creates high enough temperatures to kill pathogens. Aging does not kill  pathogens, but inhibits reproduction through unfavorable conditions, leading to an eventual die-off of pathogens over time.  To that end, it is important that if using the aging method, sufficient time is given for this to occur. It also bears noting that a healthy flock will produce relatively healthier manure – so sound flock husbandry (keeping your birds clean, uncrowded, well fed and unstressed) is also part of sound, safe manure management and usage.

While the Alaska Cooperative Extension does not have a publication specifically for chicken manure, there are many excellent, accurate and free publications available digitally; for visual learners, there are even YouTube videos. People with good attention to detail can compost chicken manure as any other organic material and if done with the proper mixture of greens and browns, turned and tended conscientiously, chicken manure can be ready and safe for application within 10 to 12 weeks after composting.  Aging (just letting it sit in a pile) can take at least a year in temperate climates, and probably, to be on the safe side, two years in Interior Alaska.  However, this is a perfectly acceptable approach to converting poop to soil amendment – provided you have enough space such that the pile is not the first sight or smell your neighbors encounter when picking up the morning newspaper.

Some recommended resources for the process of composting/aging/applying chicken manure:

University of Idaho Extension: Composting and using backyard poultry waste in the home garden,

University of Nevada, Cooperative Extension: Using Chicken Manure Safely in Home Gardens and Landscapes,

Seattle Tilth:  Composting Chicken Manure,

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Ground truthed!

Proof of the theorem of the Absolute of Chicken-themed Gift Receiving.


Christmas 2016



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Tis the season for receiving…

…chicken-themed presents.  How many amongst us hobbyist flock-keepers have received such gifts  for birthdays, holidays or just because? I think it is safe to say that nearly all of us have – from friends or family who just couldn’t resist that cute little ___________ (fill in the blank with your poultry gift of choice).

Personally, I love all of the chicken gifts I have received since I started keeping layers over a decade ago.  Chickens have sprung out of gift boxes and wrapping paper adorning  all sorts of items – both practical and whimsical.  There are the  the pot holders and kitchen towels covered in chickens, the white and black hen salt and pepper shakers, the mug with the chicken on it, and the chicken what-not that simply sits on the shelf.  I have chicken wall hangings, numerous stuffed chickens along with one lone stuffed duck, hand-crocheted chicken doilies, and a chicken that lays jelly-bean eggs.

There is the rooster stained-glass rondel, hand-drawn chickens, chicken fridge magnets,   several  chicken tree ornaments,  and – my favorite – a  clock in the shape of a flying chicken.

In recent years, keeping chickens has increased in popularity – as has, it seems, chickens as a decorative motif, and thus as sources of poultry-related gifting.  Or perhaps the sighting and gifting of chicken tchotchkes is the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon   in action: friends and  family  are a titch more preternaturally  aware of chickens because someone they are close to  keeps chickens.  That is why, even though chicken-laden objects  are plentiful in my house and office, I enjoy and cherish every odd one of them:  they are mementos and reminders of the  times  my friends and family thought of  me as they picked out that chicken timer/mug/potholder/pillow/rug/tea kettle/basket.




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Merry Christmas wishes…


….from our flock to yours!

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How long do chickens live?

This is a question that I am frequently asked, and a flippant answer might well be: as long as the flock keeper decides they should live.

Many people  think that chickens are short-lived,  and in our modern, factory-farming approach to eggs and chickens, they are:   the average layer is culled at three years when her egg-laying naturally begins to taper off, and many layers may be culled as soon as their first molt occurs.

For people who prefer a less-utilitarian approach to their layers – backyard chickens can live for a decade or more.  The average is about 8 to 10 years for a chicken that is healthy and kept safe from predators, although there are reports of pet chickens living well into their teens. Possibly one of the most famous long-lived birds of our modern era of backyard flocks was Victoria, a crotchety black rock hen, which according to an article in the Daily Mail in 2013, laid two eggs at 17.

Consideration of layer longevity cannot be divorced from the other question of how many eggs can a chicken lay? After all, the primary reason for keeping layers is to have a steady supply of fresh eggs.  Like humans, hens are born with a specific number of eggs.  How many they actually will lay over their lifetime is tied to their health, lighting and diet.  Generally, during  her first two years, a hen will lay about 200 eggs a year; starting in year three, egg production declines by 1/3 to 1/2 of her first year egg production.

Hen with her chicks

Black Langshan hen with chicks, Lugu Hu, Yunnan Province

The amount of light (natural daylight is always better, but not always realistic in Alaska) that a hen is exposed to affects her laying schedule.  Again, like humans, the low-light days of winter signal to hens that it is time to slow down.  Many flock-owners, commercial and backyard, maintain a steady supply of eggs through fall and winter by exposing their layers to long hours of artificial light (>12 hours).  While this will keep most hens laying, it does not give their bodies the natural downtime needed to recover from the heavier schedule of egg-laying during spring and summer months.  This may lead to earlier mortality and somewhat increased chances of disease susceptibility, however, this does not militate against the practice for flock-owners seeking to maximize egg production  through the steady replacement of two to three-year old birds with new young ones.

In over 14  years of having a backyard flock, I have always kept my chickens through their natural life cycle, and currently have four elderly, but spry, birds – all of whom are 10 or older. As an additional, admittedly unscientifically-based plug for the benefits of keeping older birds, I have never had any of the terrible bad habits (cannibalism, feather-picking) that can plague backyard flocks.  I believe this is because an all-ages, diversified flock (including a rooster) is more in keeping with the natural flock habits of chickens – which, like sled dogs, prefer hierarchal groups. It is my oldest hen, who at 11 is really the flock head – she keeps all of the other ladies and rooster in line.  Although it is not a philosophy for everyone, it can be beneficial in effect to keep the older hens around, even after their peak egg production has stopped.

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An Unusual Weather Event


Warm enough in Fairbanks on January 11 that the chickens are out and dusting.

Now that is warm!

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