Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Chicken pickin'

I think it's past time for an update from the Mucky Boots chickie front. Not only do we have the sixteen Black Australorp chicks (now ten weeks old, I think - I can never keep track), we now have eighteen Buff Orpington and eighteen Welsummer chicks, all hatched right here. In case you're keeping track, that's 52 chicks. Wowza.

First the Australorps. They are now living in the coop, in a separate enclosure from Hector and the Hens but hanging out when them during the day. We continue to have trouble with our local racoons and eagles, so when one of us isn't around the teenagers are confined to the chicken yard, lounging on the roost...

... but when Kim makes an appearance they stop whatever they're doing and run to her.

It took only a couple of days to teach them how to come when called and how to put themselves to bed, in the right enclosure, at night. The other day an eagle flew low over the area where they free range and they all bolted immediately for the coop, unlike some of the grown ups who stayed outside to see what was going on. They are easily the sweetest, smartest and best behaved bunch of chicks we have ever had.

Which leads us to the babies Buffs, easily the worst bunch of troublemakers we have had. More about that later. 

Here are the Baby Bunch at a few days old. The Welsummers are another heritage breed, smaller than the Buffs and the Australorps. They lay a large, terra-cotta coloured egg, and are known for their appearance on the Kellogg's Corn Flakes box. Holy moley, are they cute, racing stripes and all.

Kim built a new brooder box for the Baby Bunch, since we've never had so many chicks at once before. It's huge, about four feet by six feet, and cleverly made of plywood panels zip-tied together so it's easy to break down and store once we're finished with it. (Yes, you really can construct anything with duct tape and zip ties...).

Kim has been experimenting with a new watering system - she's fed up with rambunctious chicks flicking litter into the regular waterers, so she bought some nipples from a local dealer and used some PVC pipe (note the zip-ties) and a big jug on an elevated stand to gravity feed the water. It works like a hamster waterer: the chicks jiggle the nipple with their beaks and a few drops of water come out. They took to it like a charm.

The Baby Bunch are now three weeks old, and are already spending the day in the chicken tractor eating bugs and grass. We love the Welsummers: they're curious and calm and beautiful to boot.

The Buffs - they're another story. About a week ago Kim noticed one of the Buffs had a bloody tail and realized there was some feather picking going on. With chicks this usually arises when the tail feathers start to come in - the quill part is blood-rich and looks darker than the surrounding skin or downy fluff, and as any chicken farmer knows, the sight of blood can throw an otherwise civilized chicken flock into a cannibalistic blood frenzy. Fortunately Kim was right there when the frenzy started, and she was able to whisk the victim to safety. But as she continued to watch she realized the feather picking was more widespread, and so  the Mucky Boots Anti-Pick Campaign was launched.

Feather picking is something you want to nip in the bud as fast as you can. Not only can the chicks do serious damage to each other, it can be a habit that, once established, is very hard to break. So all other projects came to a screeching halt while Kim got on the case.

After a few phone calls and some internet research Kim went to our local farm store and bought some Stop Pick, which is a cayenne-based ointment you dab onto the areas being picked. The red colour attracts the attention of the pickers, but one taste is supposed to discourage them from continuing. And it worked, sort of. The frenzy definitely stopped, but the picking didn't entirely cease.

For the next few days Kim was parked beside the brooder, watching to see who the culprits were and then banding them, so she could keep track. She alternately separated the chicks being picked and the pickers, trying to see which worked best, and finally settled on keeping the pickers away from the rest of the flock. But they needed to be separated from each other, too, and she didn't have enough small cages. So she built some, using plastic tubbies, hardware cloth and (you guessed it) zip ties.

And the Mucky Boots Solitary Confinement Reform School for Pickin' Chickens was born.

There are currently four residents - all Buffs of course - and the problem appears to have ceased. Kim has also switched to a red light bulb in the brooder (to camouflage pick-worthy areas) and has attached pockets made of half-inch hardware cloth to the sides of the brooder that she fills with kale and other greens, to give the chicks something to pick and pull at other than each other. And she made the decision to get the chicks out into the tractor sooner than she might have otherwise, to keep them distracted and busy and make sure they're too tired at the end of the day to resort to bad behaviour. Can you tell she used to be a teacher?

We have never had this problem before, and this is the fifth or sixth batch of chicks we have brooded under similar conditions. Our best guess was that we gave them too much light (by way of the heat lamps that stayed on all night), which was part of the reason Kim switched to a red bulb (and why we spent an hour tacking tar paper over all the windows of the workshop to block the light, causing our neighbours to wonder if we were launching a grow op). Fortunately the weather is warm enough now that the workshop is warm enough through the night for the partially-feathered chicks, so even the red bulb gets turned off for nine hours of dark sleeping time.

And how have the Welsummers done through all this drama? They have minded their own business, committing nary a pick themselves.

Postscript: Kim wanted me to say that it's not all the Buffs causing problems, just four of them. Four troublesome chicks giving their hatch mates a bad name. But if there's anyone who can help them along the reform path back to the sweet and amusing Buff breed we know, it's Kim.


Alison said...

Who knew of the dramas preteen chickens could cause?? Hey, maybe those four will turn out to be irritatingly aggressive roosters, and you can pluck their tail feathers...on the way to the freezer.

Now I have to go Google Welsummers!

~Kim at Golden Pines~ said...

Hello Miriam!! Its been so long since I stopped by, and I'm so sorry for that!! But I find this post so fascinating!! I love how you and Kim creatively solve the problems that arise with your flock and your fun humor in dealing with them and your problem children! I'm thinking there has to be a book in this somewhere, or at the very least an article! :-)

Lindsey at NW Backyard Veggies said...

Because, in fact, you CAN solve any problem with duct tape and zip ties.

Maybe I should alert our House of Representatives of this fact? B/C they can't seem to fix any damn thing...


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