Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How do you know when a chook is crook?

My last post played out some poultry drama, concluding with a touch of the All’s Well that Ends Wells. Since then, however, Act II has begun. This is turning out to be more soap opera than Shakespeare, only instead of Neighbours with Kylie and Jason or Meerkat Manor with its matriarch, Flower, we have the backyard theatre and chickens.

Amelia, drinking alone.
Amelia the New Hampshire has resumed her slow moult, as if rebelling against life in general. Moults out of season indicate stress, and Amelia might be likened to the lady (it’s always a lady) who retreats to the chaise longue with a malaise as vague as the vapours.

I have no doubt that it’s real. Vanessa the Leghorn has been harassing Amelia more often, and the latter’s vehicular emissions are different, though only someone well acquainted would notice. Her comb is a bit flat (Comb Collapse Disorder?) and she drinks vast quantities of water. 

Emmeline spies –
and tries – my toggle.
Toggle or Not Toggle?
A couple of days ago, Emmeline the Light Sussex seemed to be going off her food again, taking no interest in the pellets that are a laying chook’s staple diet. I remembered the vet’s advice – ‘she needs fibre’ – and tossed her a gone-to-seed Chinese green vege, which she devoured with gusto.

For afters, she decided to try the toggles on the cuffs of my trousers, tugging at the elastic – something she does every time I wear that particular pair. Later, hours after everybody else, she was at the chooketeria, feeding happily on pellets at last.

Not a crook chook, despite appearances: Vanessa is
taking a dustbath.
If I wasn’t experienced in hen husbandry I might worry about the health of Vanessa, as shown here: sprawled in the dirt (some of which has found its way on top); reluctant or unable to get up; feathers dishevelled, eyes closed. She’s having a dustbath, however, and it’s entirely natural behaviour.

Death Rattle, Hen Hernia, or ... ? 
Then there’s Victoria the Araucana. Sometimes her breathing sounds awful – like a death rattle, I imagine – and three times now one of her distinctive green eggs has emerged with a small smear of blood, a testament to her herculean efforts to produce it. Sometimes when she’s standing on the nest, partway to delivering, she huffs and puffs and strains like an Olympic weightlifter aiming for a new personal best.

The death rattle doesn’t concern me much because I suspect she arrived with it in 2010, and she was already a year old by then. However, I worry about the eggs. They’re small, but so is she. Laying one may, one day, be the end of her. At the very least, she’s a candidate for hen hernia – a prolapse. I don’t fancy my chances of successfully stuffing bits of Victoria back where they’re meant to go.

One of Victoria’s best is
tucked in the back, at right.

Late yesterday afternoon when I went out to the chicken run, Victoria was on the nest again, apparently absorbed in laying another egg, and panting a bit. This was unusual, because the girls usually get this business over and done with earlier in the day.

After 6pm I went out again to feed them, and she was still there – so Carol and I studied the instructions on egg-bound hens, just in case. Between courses of dinner (ours), I checked again: no change, though the other hens had given up and gone to bed.

Latex and Lube

Out came the vaseline petroleum jelly that I had bought around 20 years ago for similar circumstances. It couldn’t have gone off, could it? Probing our medicine cabinet more deeply I also found a latex glove, two of whose fingers had gone west. (Note to self: must buy more latex.)

I won’t go into details about what Carol and I then proceeded to do with Victoria and the vaseline out there in the chicken run but I will admit that I lacked expertise, and referred to the instruction book several times. At one point I thought I was on target, only to find that my hand was snuggled under her wing.

After administering a bit more of this treatment, we put Victoria on the ground and she tucked into a late tea. She then joined the other chooks on the roost, and I spread an extra-thick layer of sawdust underneath to create a nice soft landing in case her egg decided to present itself. Already she was making a gentle, regular chook, chook, chook sound, and I wondered what the next day might bring.

Victoria, all fluffed up and nowhere to go.
She returned to the nest shortly after agreeing,
reluctantly, to appear.
This morning there was no egg, but I had my answer: Victoria was glued to the nest again, and when I picked her up she emitted a shrill little cry. Far from being crook, she’s broody, as the sounds on the roost had suggested.

In the time I’ve known Victoria this is her second instance of broodiness; the first was only two months ago. Perhaps her chook chook chook is actually the ticking of the biological clock as henopause draws nigh, and she hopes to hatch a brood before then.

NZ & Aust. colloq. (of a person) unwell; injured. – New Zealand Oxford Dictionary.
An antonym is ‘a box of birds’ (fine or happy), which the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms says is also a New Zealand and Australian coinage.

All that remains of Emmelines
delicious green vege.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Poultry Drama

There’s been drama in the chicken coop over the last few weeks, and I’m not talking about a Christmas pageant.

Two of Amelias finest.
Red-headed Amelia’s Been Blue
It began with feathers. Amelia the New Hampshire Red began shedding some of hers, unseasonably, and it seemed mildly alarming that the larger ones from wings and tail were among the first to go. 

She hadn’t produced any eggs since her minuscule achievements of a few months back, and she’d been looking miserable: solitary, bunched up, off her food, frequently going for a lie-down ...all classic signs of Crook Chook Syndrome.*

So we went to the vet, who noted that when he placed her in the usual position for an internal examination, her comb turned blue — cyanotic. This is not supposed to happen.

My vet, for whom birds are a speciality, deduced that something was impeding Amelia’s air sacs (not altogether surprising, as at the end of winter she’d suffered a more acute respiratory problem, though antibiotics had appeared to fix it). Her egg-laying career was over, he suggested, and her future uncertain. We discussed surgery. Given the cost and invasive nature of such intervention, plus the likely prognosis, I opted instead for a course of different antibiotics.

An Outbreak of Maternity
Then Alice the Australorp went broody, which means she was determined to incubate eggs until they hatched. That would be no sweat if
a) the other chooks were cool with it
b) Alice kept right on laying
c) the eggs she was sitting on might hatch.

Alice, even more bouffant than usual,
looks for a way in to
the chalet de poulet.
This beautiful black hen will readily go broody (unlike Victoria the Araucana, who submitted for the first time in November, and Vanessa the Leghorn, who hasn’t a maternal bone in her body). She takes some days to ‘go under’, and exhibits behaviour I haven’t seen in my other broodies: her feathers are always bouffant but at such times her hackles (neck feathers) really rise, and she’s been known to engage in an odd little foot-stamping routine as she prepares to hog the nest.

I always feel ambivalent about discouraging broodiness — it’s natural after all — but I do it anyway. So for most of Alice’s second day I shut her in the palais de poulet (spacious but nest-free), then let her out once the other girls had finished laying, at which point I bricked up the chalet de poulet (nesting house). 

She didn’t like this much but in three days I’d won her over. A couple of weeks after that she rejoined the egg assembly line.

Christmas Comes to Chickendom
At Christmas, the hens had unusual treats:
various leftovers we biffed into the pen. They had a present, too a chooketaria, the next best thing to a fully staffed caff for the workers.

Victoria takes first peck.
A chooketaria is a feeder that protects the contents from rats and sparrows because it opens only when something as heavy as a chicken stands on a step. The self-service arrangement also means, as the very generous givers pointed out, that we can leave the girls to their own devices for a night and a day.

We christened the feeder with sausage rolls left over from Christmas. Victoria was first to step up to the plate. By far the smallest of the flock, she’s also my best forager, and after grabbing a roll in her beak, she deftly flicked it out of the feeder and devoured it on the ground. Admittedly, we’d made things easy by setting the feeder to training mode (a simple matter of tightening the screws slightly) so that the ‘door’ was always open.

Emmeline lost these feathers in
two or three days (the eggcup
relative size). Below
the hen herself, partly plucked.
A Moult Moltissimo
Between Christmas and New Year, Emmeline the Light Sussex upstaged Amelia by undergoing a major moult of her own, and it was more
comprehensive than the official one she did last autumn. It was almost heart-breaking to discover more bits of Emmeline lying in the dirt, or floating on the breeze, every time I went out to the chook run.

I took to collecting every dropped feather (except those that had been trampled or pooped on). This, I felt, somehow reduced her public humiliation — but really I yearned to be able to glue them all back on.

Wanting to rule out a recurrence of whatever had laid Amelia low, on the 31st of December I made another trip to the vet. He agreed that Emmy looked “pretty miserable” and did some tests, for which my hen thoughtfully deposited a sample on the spot.

After microscopic examination, the vet concluded there was no need for quarantine, and no parasites were present. This hen needed feeding up, however: her crop was empty and the bacteria in her poop indicated that things weren’t moving fast enough, if at all. She was like, he said, a “stagnant pond”. The answer wasn’t a burst of protein, which I suggested to make up for the feather loss, but fibre to get her going.

New Year Resolutions
I bit back an indignant “I feed them HEAPS!” and resolved to try harder. So I set aside my worst fears (which resulted in
a real party pooper several end-of-year discussions about how to humanely kill a chook), and thus far I have: 

Vanessa (foreground)
prepares to tuck in to
some greens

reduced the intensity of the chooketaria training schedule
-  cooled the weather down and dried up the humidity (well, okay, I can
t take credit for that)
-  searched through composting weeds and leaf litter for worms, slaters, centipedes, earwigs and hoppers for the girls to hoover up
-  cut back on overripe fruit and Christmas leftovers
-  increased servings of good greenery, filling my vet’s prescription
-  minimised wandering willie (Tradescantia) servings, apparently delicious but full of water and presumably not nutritious
-  made the floor of the run more interesting for the flock by digging up bits of it and adding leaves from elsewhere on the section
-  regularly slipped extra feed to Amelia, so she could get her share while lurking low in the pecking order

-  resolved to buy just one pack of layers’ pellets at a time, as How to Care for Your Poultry reminds me that chickens turn their beaks up at long-stored feed. 

These methods have not been used scientifically — I didn’t want to risk death and destruction with an experiment that changed only one factor at a time — but something seems to have worked. Emmeline is growing new feathers and seems fine. Even Amelia has improved (enough, one day, to peck rather than be pecked), though the vet and I agree that what ails her will probably linger on.

My poultry priorities for early 2013 now seem clear: unless I suddenly go free-range, which would create other complications, I’ll be slaving over a hot garden, foraging for my flock. The chickens, no doubt, have other plans to hatch.

* Crook Chook Syndrome, as described in How to Care for Your Poultry, is not a specific disease but an illness that is unidentifiable, at least initially. Treatment is as general as the symptoms.

Amelia, resting.