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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April 24: Save the Date!

Marshmallow-PeepHey, all you Fairbanks Peeps:  April 24th, 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM, there will be a mini-workshop on chickens at the Tanana District Extension office.  I will be joined by Steve Davila, manager of Alaska Feed Store.  He will talk about keeping and butchering meat birds, and about heritage breeds; I will cover egg layers for beginners, and keeping a laying flock healthy and laying through the long Alaska winter.

I’ll be sending out another notice closer to the event; just wanted to give Fairbanks folks a heads up – calendars fill up quickly in the spring months.

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The Chickens See Their Shadows….

Six more weeks of winter?

Six more weeks of winter?

Today the thermometer hit above 32 degrees F for the first time since late December.   Although the flock ventured out during that warm spell, they were unimpressed by the pallid, wispy daylight we had back then.   Not so today.

The sun not only was  bright, it packed heat.  After I popped open the little hatch, the two Langshans were the first to poke their heads out.  It didn’t take but minutes for the rest to storm the door.  Yin the Langshan quickly found her old favorite perch (on the hatch door, you can just see her legs in the photo), and the rest crowded out to feel the sun for the first time since October.

These all are first-year chickens, so this winter was their first extended confinement.  The other six hens inside couldn’t be bothered, they have been through five to  six winters, and they know very well this is but the first tease of spring.  Like a bunch of Florida retirees playing bridge while the youngsters head to the beach on a chilly spring day, the winter veterans stayed put inside the coop foraging in the old straw, while the newbies squinted in the unfamiliar glare of Old Sol.

The snow, which in October caused them great discomfiture, barely registers now after five months of being stuck in a 6 x 6 x 8 cubicle.  By tomorrow, they will probably have managed to resurrect the dust pit that is right outside the coop door under cover.  It was definitely a happy bunch of chickens this afternoon, and it took a lot of coaxing to get them back inside for the evening.

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Crisis in the Coop?

I suspect I have an egg-eater in my coop.  Lately, my egg production seems to be down from the usual six  to about four a day.  This alone wasn’t enough  to tip me off to a bird with a possible  predilection for eggs. It’s late February and my hens have been confined to a small space now for several months.  I’d expect anyone, including birds, to be stir crazy by this point in the winter and certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see a temporary reduction  in egg production.

The possible guilty party?

The  guilty party?

But this morning when I did my usual coop check,  a furtive motion by one of my young barred rocks caught my eye.  She was thoroughly engaged with finishing off some tidbit – it looked suspiciously like an egg shell to me, but by the time I cornered her – she had swallowed the evidence.

The coop is on notice: egg-eating will  not be tolerated, and the offender, should she be identifed, will be punished.

Egg-eating is one of the most heinous offenses a bird can level against its flock owner.  Like all bad habits, it often develops out of boredom, and similarly, once started by one bird, can rapidly spread to others.  Many flock owners, especially those that have small commercial laying flocks, have a zero tolerance policy. Once the egg-eater(s) is identified, it’s culled.

For those flock owners who prefer to try a less draconian approach, it is possible to stop the egg-eating, but it takes vigilance and rapid response before the habit spreads through the whole flock.  As with the other really obnoxious bad chicken habits of cannibalism and feather-picking, beak-trimming is your answer to egg-eating.  You can beak trim your entire flock (laborious and not recommended) but generally it is sufficient to just beak trim the egg-eaters.

To do this, the culprit(s) must be identified, so start visiting your flock frequently and watch their behavior. Once  you have one or two suspects, segregate them from the flock for a few days and see if your egg numbers increase.  You can also skip the segregation part and just beak trim them immediately.

Beak-trimming needs to be done properly, otherwise a bird may not be able to eat properly. Many commercial poultry operations routinely beak trim chicks using an automatic beak-trimming machine.  When done at a young age, the beak does not regrow.  However, in  a situation such as the one here, where a fully-grown chicken is being trimmed to correct a pecking habit, the aim is to just remove a very small portion (less  than an 1/8th of an inch) of the upper beak.  This makes the beak trim temporary, and the upper beak will grow out again.  If you choose to attempt beak-trimming, refer to a poultry book for illustrations and instructions before doing so.

Obviously beak-trimming is not for the faint of heart, so the best solution to egg-eating is prevention.  Collect eggs often: two to three times a day. Keep nest boxes clean and comfy with good nesting materials to encourage hens to lay in the boxes and not on the floor.  For some reason this year, I have a couple of first-year hens that occasionally lay eggs on the coop floor – where they freeze and break; if I do now have an egg-eater, I think this is how she discovered eggs are tasty treats.     If you feed your chickens their old egg shells (which is really not necessary given the vitamin and nutrition balance of commercial layer feed), make sure the shells are completely pulverized and do not resemble an egg shell.

Lastly, young birds are more prone to this habit than older ones.  It often surfaces as the days get longer, and it is easy to imagine that it is more likely to occur in Alaskan flocks towards the end of a long winter after birds have been confined for several months.  Providing distractions, like hanging a head of iceberg lettuce, to keep birds occupied and engaged in constructive rather than destructive pecking, may help as well.

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He could have been a contender…

…but for the frost bite.  Since we haven’t yet put winter’s  cold temperatures  behind us (this morning it was a chilly -20 outside of this Goldstream coop), my mind is still on keeping the birds warm and protected.  And as I mentioned in the previous post, if you are planning to  show a bird at your local state fair (a thought that crossed my mind as my young rooster matured), you  definitely don’t want to  risk the possibility of  frost bite.

Compare these before and after pictures to see why.

Before:  The comb has the kind of well-developed spikes important in judging.

Before: His comb and wattles are well-formed and straight – important attributes in poultry trials.

After:  His comb has lost all of its handsome spikes.

After: His comb has lost most  of its handsome spikes, and his wattles are notched from frost bite.

Roo Paul is a red-sex link, and as he matured, he sprouted the most handsome, near- perfect comb and wattle set I had ever had in my coop.  Although I keep birds for eggs and because I like chickens, last fall I began to entertain the notion that I might enter Roo Paul next summer at the Tanana Valley State Fair.

And that notion is as far as I am getting with this particular rooster, now that he suffered frost bite.  Overall, other than about a week of what I am sure was a painful, itchy comb, his health was not impaired.  However, since the conformation of  comb and wattles is a significant part of poultry judging, Roo Paul’s potential as a show bird, was well,  nipped in the comb.

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Dealing with Frostbite

Large-combed and wattled roosters, and some hens, are at particular risk for frostbite.  Even if you have confined your birds to their coop for the winter, unless the coop is uniformly kept above freezing (an expensive proposition in Alaska), your birds may still be susceptible to frostbite on their combs, wattles, and in some cases, feet.

Moisture is a significant factor in causing frostbite in chickens.  In south-central Alaska, where winters are damper, it is more common in flocks than in the significantly colder but drier climate of Interior Alaska.  If, during the winter months your chickens are confined,   your coop builds up excessive moisture you may also encounter problems with frostbit birds.  The most common cause of a too-damp winter coop is a lack of adequate ventilation and air flow, but other causes are poorly-cured bedding (such as straw or wood chips), and leaking or carelessly-filled waterers.

Roo Paul's handsome but large comb shows the effects of frostbite

Roo Paul’s handsome but large comb shows the effects of frostbite

What to Look For

Throughout the winter, combs, wattles and feed should be routinely checked for signs of frostbite.  The small black specks often observed on combs are usually the result of a bird enacting its pecking order on its coop mate.  In contrast, serious frost bite generally takes one of two forms (and both may occur, as in the picture above):

  1. Comb spikes turn black; when manipulated, they feel hard and are no longer pliable.
  2. Comb and wattle surfaces are blistered; most often this looks like buffy, pale patches that frequently are oozing.

If either of these occur on a chicken’s wattles, comb or feet, immediate action must be taken to prevent further damage and infection.  Check the temperature in your coop ensuring that all areas that the affected bird(s) moves in (floor, roost, nest boxes) are above freezing.  If your coop feels damp, muck out and replace all bedding, and double check waterers to make sure there is no leakage.

Frost Bite Treatment

Once frostbite occurs, there is nothing to do for the affected areas except to keep them clean to prevent infection. A mild topical antibiotic ointment can be applied to the frostbite.  Vitamin E oil is also good as it helps soothe the pain and encourages skin regeneration.  Blackened comb tips will eventually fall off and will not re-generate, therefore, if you have chickens that you plan to show, it is best to prevent frostbite from occurring in the first place.


If you live in a cold climate, the best prevention is to choose breeds that have small wattles and combs close to their heads, such as Wynadottes, Americanas and Barred Rocks.  If you do end up with a large crested bird, such as the rooster featured here, make sure the bird is kept inside as soon as external temperatures drop to ~25F and make sure the coop is warm and dry throughout the winter.

For feet, chickens that roost on perches are more at risk for frostbite.  Therefore, having flat, elevated roosting areas forces chickens to essentially “nest”: keeping their feet flat and covered with their thick breast feathers.  It is also important to make sure that the places where they sleep are elevated, since floors are the coldest and draftiest parts of a coop.

It is a good idea to have a nightlight in the coop. When it gets dark instantly (as when the coop timer shuts off the light) chickens tend to hunker down and sleep right where they are, even if they are on the floor.  A nightlight therefore provides sufficient light for  birds that happen to be on the floor when the light goes off  to find their way to the warmer roosts.

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This Wyandotte hen adopted   and protected these newly introduced pullets.

This Wyandotte hen adopted and protected these newly introduced pullets.

This is a new blog/website for people who have a small backyard flock, and those who have been thinking about getting birds, especially for eggs, but aren’t sure what they are about to  get into.  With the growing local food movement, home flocks are increasingly popular, and Alaska is no exception.  I often find that people begin with the idea of acquiring chickens to have fresh eggs or meat, but in short order, find themselves surprisingly entertained and satisfied with having a flock. Some (including this author) even get quite attached to their chickens, and discover that having them around is peaceful and grounding – maybe because for so many of us, family farms are in our heritage.   At any rate, whether you raise chickens as a source of healthy, local meat, keep them for fresh eggs, or have a couple because your children begged you for those Easter chicks, I hope that you find this site useful.  I welcome contributions, photos and questions.  This is a growing site, and more will be added as time and interest allows.

And in the interest of full disclosure: I am a complete softy when it comes to my chickens. Although I keep hens for eggs, I am also inadvertently running a chicken rest home. About five years into keeping laying hens, I realized  I lacked  the moxie to cull my old, non-productive hens.  How long could they possibly live?  I thought not so long at all, so I let them stay on.  In fact as I have found over time, hens and even the odd rooster can and often do live eight to ten years.  More on that in subsequent posts…

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