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.

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The New Roo on the Block



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…

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The Mark of a Roo

This morning, as I was weeding the garden for chicken treats, I realized the main reason I keep laying hens is likely  more for the rooster crowing than even for the hens themselves;  some years ago I made peace with the fact that, not being much of an egg consumer, it’s definitely not for the eggs.    Today, for the first time in many years, my yard was silent.  There was no 4 AM crow to incorporate into my dreams, as so often happens in the summer, and no crow to greet me when I came out to feed the dogs and chickens.  Roo Paul was gone – taken away yesterday by the Rooster Remover, because yes, I am too chicken s**t to dispatch  problem birds myself.

I am a total  rooster booster.  But even as such, I  have limits.  Roo Paul crossed them a few weeks ago when suddenly and without warning he decided to establish a pecking order with  me.  Since I was wearing jeans, his  first two body slams merely resulted in him getting thoroughly whacked with the broom.  As Mr. Broom seemed to have reestablished the pecking order in my favor, I gave the matter no further thought (and had no further trouble) until the weather hit 90 and I started wearing shorts to do yard chores.

Two good punctures and a bruise, compliments of Roo Paul

Two good punctures and a bruise, compliments of Roo Paul

To the right is a visual of what happens when in fact the pecking order is still at issue within a rooster’s mind.  I had a bruise the size of a chicken body for a couple of weeks, not to mention two  fairly deep punctures on my calf; these were from his claws (talons?) not from his spurs  which, thankfully, had yet to grow out.  But it was the issue of those soon to be very long and very sharp spurs that was foremost in my mind as I mulled:  “Should he stay or should he go?”

Aggressive (or overly protective) roosters are a dilemma that can arise anytime one decides to have a mixed flock.  For flocks that are free-ranged a lot, or where there are no  small children or other visitors, a flock owner may want a protective rooster; it is hard to fault a bird for doing what it is genetically programmed to do: protect his hens.  In my case, while I was willing to deal with a certain amount of back talk from my rooster,  my chicken yard has a lot of visitors and alternate caretakers, including children.  Having a feisty rooster capable of puncturing legs was not an option.

Since I am admittedly a soft touch with all of my birds, I gave Roo Paul a month to clean up his act.  We had some negative reinforcement interactions consisting of a spray bottle (then a more powerful squirt gun), as well as the dreaded broom.  I found that if I distracted  appeased the rooster with treats  he would leave me alone.  But if I turned my back, he would frill his neck feathers and prepare to attack – most particularly if I wore shorts.

And it was that deviousness – his clear distinction between jeans and bare legs – that yesterday led me to summon the Rooster Remover  (a friend and fellow flock owner who is happy to take and consume  unwanted roosters).

So, Roo Paul is gone and I can move about freely again amongst my hens.  It’s never a decision I make easily but it is one I realize I will encounter from time to time if I want to have a rooster with my flock.

Some breeds are just more aggressive than others.  Roo Paul was a red-sex link: crossed with a Rhode Island Red.  The last rooster that I was forced to condemn (because it would stalk and nail me in the hen house when collecting eggs) was also smart, devious and hard-hitting, and….a Rhode Island Red. Maybe it is just been my bad luck with Rhode Island Reds, but for sure, I won’t ever take a rooster if it has even a whiff of Rhode Island Red in its breeding.

In about a month, I will be getting a new rooster – this one a cross of a Wynadotte and an Americana – both breeds that are generally calm, placid and not highly assertive.  In the meantime, while all of the females in the yard  are breathing a sigh of relief (the hens also experiencing a lot of pecking and harassment from Roo Paul), it’s eerily quiet.  Even though there is always the risk of a rooster passing the limit of “decent” behavior, for me their crowing is what makes a backyard flock a backyard flock…

(and apologies for the lack of regular postings: summer is time when we are often off contract from the University, as well as – it goes without saying – a time to be outdoors and not inside typing away on a computer)

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Really-  this is enough snow

While Roo Paul enjoys being King of the Snow Pile, he thinks it is really time for it to stop snowing in Fairbanks!

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New Page: Urban Chickens

In response to a lot of questions I receive about whether or not backyard flocks are allowed in the major urban areas of Alaska, I have added a page summarizing zoning regulating the keeping (or not) of backyard flocks in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. This information can be found at Urban Chickens under the “Before you start” tab.

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Natal Attraction

Just-hatched chicks

Just-hatched chicks

Although I have always had a rooster, hatching chicks from   my own flock never struck me as a practicable  option, largely because my hens rarely go broody (just twice in twelve years) and going the incubator route just seemed  a bit too mechanical.

Maybe even a little Dr. Strangelove-ian, because, after all, the reason we even have to consider using incubators is because poultry breeders have bred out just about all of the traits that keep a chicken from being anything but a super egg-laying machine. In other words, all eggs, all the time. No time to sit on a nest and brood a clutch of eggs.

Thus to some extent, my studied indifference to using an incubator to replenish my flock was  in no small part a silent (and admittedly ineffectual) protest of this manipulation for commercial gain.  Irrational? Absolutely.

But not nearly as irrational as the reaction I had today when my friend emailed me that five of the 12 fertilized eggs I had given her to incubate had hatched. “That’s my Roo!” was the first thought that popped into my head, quickly followed by a peculiar sort of elation that the eggs had turned out to be viable, and that my little flock was, well, actually reproducing instead of just producing.

And this led me in turn to mull over once again what our cultural tendency to measure value through its rate of return on investment  costs us in the long run.   Flock reproduction really shouldn’t have to be a planned event, such as this one.  Not that long ago, backyard flocks reproduced willy nilly: there were eggs to eat, new chicks to replenish the flock, older hens and extra roosters to eat.  But somewhere along the line – from our grandparent’s time to now – the natural occurrence of flock self-sustainability has been eroded to a point of near-disappearance.

That this hatch is an orchestrated  event this spring, rather something which happens in its own course and with natural regularity (as it does in other parts of the world with less manipulated breeds) emphasizes this point.

Like all birds, chickens molt to replace their feathers, and sit on eggs to incubate, hatch and propagate their species. Because these biological phenomena remove a hen from egg production for the duration of the event, these are increasingly seen as highly undesirable traits in laying hens – especially broodiness, which can remove a hen from egg production for several months.

While some breeds are more likely to be broody, especially among heritage breeds, many of our most popular and hardy egg layers no longer have sufficient inclination to hatch their own. Thus, we have ended up with many chicken breeds  dependent upon human intervention for successful reproduction. This  is  a biological kluge that should make us nervous and cause us to question the wisdom of valuing layers only in terms of their maximum egg output.

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A Wilder Side of Chickens

100 Chickens Temple, Zhongdian, China

100 Chickens Temple, Zhongdian, China

Once found, 100 Chickens Temple proved to be something of an understatement; it was more like Hundreds of  Chickens Temple.    I had hunted for days for the pathway up to the tiny temple I could see above  Old  Town.  It was easy enough to navigate to Zhongdian’s  main temple, the Lahki, with its massive golden prayer wheel, but despite directions in broken English, Chicken Hill was proving elusive.  As  these things often turn out – the trail ended up being not 350 feet from where I was staying, discreetly marked by a weathered and hand-lettered sign.

And so, one Sunday, along with dozens of others, I threaded my way up the steep dirt trail, past stalls of incense and juniper, to 100 Chickens Temple.

No bacon-on-the-hoof at Ringha Temple

No bacon-on-the-hoof at Ringha Temple, Yunnan Province

Because Buddhism frowns upon the harming of sentient beings, temples, especially those on the edge of town or near farms, tend to be refuges for all manner of domestic creatures: chickens, goats, pigs, and the ubiquitous temple dogs. Once an animal wanders into the temple precinct, it won’t be harmed or killed – at least not by a human.

No, the chickens on Chicken Hill had no one to fear but   themselves.  Here was the wild side of  our domesticated Henny Pennys laid bare.

As I joined the Sunday throng executing the prescribed circumambulations of the temple, I noticed, on the second time around, a Chinese gentleman intently watching  a thrashing spot in the weeds.  Close inspection revealed it to be a mass of writhing, attacking chickens of all colors and sizes.  There were roughly a dozen chickens dog-piling a fellow unfortunate.  This was no mere establishment of the pecking order.  It was full-blown poultricide –  a peck to the death.

This was an aspect of chickens that I had never really seen in my flock.  My concerns over the  hierarchical pecking  I had dealt with from time to time seemed  rather  misplaced as I observed  just how lethal a chicken beak can be.  It is one thing to read about cannibalism in a poultry book – it is quite another to see chickens revert back to their jungle fowl roots.  I suppose those who have seen cock fighting would be less impressed than I was, but what caught my attention was that this was not rooster fighting rooster.  This was simply a weaker chicken being taken out by a posse.

After my third circuit I decided that, unlike my fellow chicken-observer, I was too squeamish to watch this to its final denouement.  Steering clear of the path circling the temple, I wandered around the temple grounds.  Through the thick smoke from the chortens and wafting from bundles of incense stuck among tree roots, chickens could be seen everywhere.  They were roosting in trees, scratching in the dirt, scattering under the feet of the circumambulators, nesting under bushes. Chickens were more plentiful and more dominant than people.  The only thing more numerous than chickens were the prayer flags  strung in the trees filling the air with a monotonous thrumming  as the winds swept through from the Himalayan foothills.

Temple chicken at rest

Temple chicken at rest

One of the better aspects of traveling in a place where there is little to no common language is that one is not distracted by the pursuit of brochures, signage or informants to provide context and history to what one observes.  There probably was a reason why this small temple was overrun by chickens, but it wasn’t going to be something I could find out with my limited Chinese.  By the time I met up with a Tibetan who spoke English – the how and why of 100 Chickens Temple no longer seemed to matter and so I never asked.

For me,  Chicken Hill is a place where chickens no longer managed for their meat or eggs are a heck of a lot closer to their wild ancestors.  It didn’t take much imagination to see the jungle fowl within the silhouette of a hen, or with a bit more of a squint, one of those smallish, lithe and vicious reptiles – like the velociraptor stars of Jurassic Park.

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