Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Update on Dolley

This morning, after about 15 hours without food overnight, Dolley's crop was about half the size it was last night--a little smaller than a golf ball, and squishy. So it seems like she does have something in there she can't digest, but some food is getting down. I'm hoping she ate some kind of weed that is just hard to break down, and that it'll get gradually better.

Here she is having some plain yogurt. The idea is to get some healthy active cultures in her digestive tract to help her with digestion. Plus, she loves yogurt. Posted by Picasa

The other chickens all love yogurt, too. Posted by Picasa

Monday, February 27, 2006

Sour crop? Impacted crop? Nothing at all?

Dolley's developed this monster crop lately (for you non-poultry types, the crop is an organ just under the skin on the chicken's chest where food goes for the first stage of digestion), and we're not sure if it's impacted or what. It's sort of soft and squishy, but always big--larger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball. She's also making this swallowing move like she's trying to get something down.

She could have eaten some long strands of grass that she can't digest. She could have eaten some string or whatever other odd thing a chicken might turn up in the garden--a bit of plastic, a rubber band, who knows. It's possible that she's got a little infection. We've been watching her for a week and it hasn't gotten better or worse, but it seems like we should take some action.

First step was to remove their food when they went to bed tonight. That way, we can check her in the morning when the crop should, in theory, be empty. That'll give us an idea of what might be stuck in there.

Actually, I take that back. The first step was to try to smell her breath. This is tricky--it's not easy to get a hen to open her beak for you, much less to get your nose in there before she snaps it shut again. The idea is that if she has a sour crop (old, nasty food stuck in the crop that she can't digest because of a blockage), we'd be able to smell it.

To tell you the truth, I don't know what a hen's breath is supposed to smell like, but we didn't smell anything.

Then, after we check out her empty crop in the morning, we can try feeding her yogurt, which contains healthy cultures that might help her digest some of this stuff.

All the options after that are a little weird. You can force some mineral oil down their beaks to lubricate things. You can force a "flush" of water and Epson salts, which might loosen things up, then turn the bird upside down (as in, beak down towards the ground), massage the crop, and try to get her to spit it up.

Yeah, you heard me. Induce chicken vomiting.

Another alternative is to perform surgery. I'm not kidding, real poultry farmers actually do this sort of thing. You make a little slit in the skin where the crop is and squeeze the stuff out. Apparently this is not terribly painful for the chicken (how do they know that?) and the skin heals up without stitches.

I'm not sure I'd survive that procedure, even if all I had to do was hold the chicken still while Scott made the cut. So let's hope it doesn't come to that. And by the way, if you're reading this because you need advice about how to treat your chicken's crop, please visit The Coop and talk to some experts. Don't take my word for it.

Further reading and illustrations on crop issues: Sour crop Blog 1976design.com

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Looks like we've got a rat in the chicken coop. Actually, not in the coop itself, but in the other half of the shed where we keep the food. (the coop has wire mesh, concrete floors, and other barriers to keep critters out.) This alleged rat actually chewed through a plastic pitcher to get at the scratch. We'll have to keep it in a glass jar or something...and I'm wondering how long it will be before it chews through the plastic storage tub we've got their regular food in. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Rare as hens' teeth? Don't count on it!

Turns out maybe chickens could have teeth, after all.
Scientists have discovered a mutant chicken with a full set of crocodile-like chompers. The mutant chick, called Talpid, also had severe limb defects and died before hatching. It was discovered 50 years ago, but no one had ever examined its mouth until now.

The researchers recently created more Talpids by tweaking the genes of normal chickens to grow teeth. "What we discovered were teeth similar to those of crocodiles—not surprising as birds are the closest living relatives of the reptile," said Mark Ferguson of the University of Manchester."

By making a few changes to the expression of certain molecules in the pathway, the researchers were able to induce tooth growth in normal developing chickens. These teeth also looked like reptilian teeth and shared many of the same genetic traits, supporting the scientists' hypothesis. None of these chickens were allowed to hatch.

What would a chicken do with a tooth? Chickens do have remarkably few tools at their disposal--a beak and a set of claws, that's it. I guess they'd figure out a way to put teeth to use. They do seem to feel that they should have more resources than they do--when I am out digging in the garden, they stand around looking at my shovel with great interest, as if they're thinking, "We have to use our toes for that, but she has a tool!"

LiveScience.com - Surprise: Chickens Can Grow Teeth

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Now All I Need is a Title

We take a break from our regularly scheduled chicken programming for a special announcement:

I need some help choosing a title for my next book. It's just four or five little words--you wouldn't think it would be so hard, but my editor and I have been taxing our poor little brains for weeks now and we still haven't settled on the perfect title.

So now I've set up an online survey and I'd really appreciate it if you'd go take the survey and encourage your friends to do the same. You won't have to log in or provide any personal information.

Amy's Next Book: The Survey

If you have more ideas than what the survey can handle, feel free to post a comment or send me an e-mail.

By the way, I'd like to thank the author Po Bronson for the inspiration for this survey. He went through a similar process with the cover design for his last book, Why Do I Love These People?.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Teaching Chickens Tricks

Scott has been teaching the chickens a trick. The trick is simply that they fly up to his arm to get a piece of bread. Dolley and Bess picked up on it right away (Bess in particular needs no encouragement to fly up to your arms or shoulders), but Eleanor can't seem to get airborne and Abigail would simply prefer the bread to be handed to her, thank you very much.

The problem is getting the girls to only do the trick on command. As it is, anytime they see Scott, they fly up and demand their bread. Another problem is getting them to actually hop back down after the trick is over. As far as they're concerned, they could spend the entire afternoon like this. Chickens don't really grasp the concept of doing something only once. Posted by Picasa

Two hens are better than one. Posted by Picasa

Eleanor would like to do the trick, but she can't seem to get off the ground. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Hawaiian Hens

This just in from my friend Marty, who had the nerve to go vacation on a tropical island in the middle of winter (without me):

Did you know there are wild chickens all over this island? Literally, all
over the island.

The chickens in this photo closed in on us like a pack of hungry wolves
while we were eating lunch at Secret Falls on the Wailua River. As we were
about to leave, one of the roosters announced some new additions to the family.
We approached to see a hen leaving three eggs in this little nest between some

If I were a chicken, I'd want to live here too.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Meet Another Chicken Blogger

Sign of the Shovel writes about chickens, composting, and more at her blog. Today's topics:

The noise a full-grown hen will make. "Now that my hens are laying, they are braying. A classic BRAW-brap-brap-brap-BRAW that can be heard all the way down the street. "

Yeah, I hear you. My girls love to announce the arrival of the first egg of the day, and sometimes they just like to announce whatever's just flown into their silly little heads. Fortunately, they don't start until well after daybreak, but there have been mornings when I've left my toasty bed a bit earlier than I would have liked to go let them out. I don't want the neighbors to complain, although if they ever did, we'd have a serious talk about the decibel levels of the dogs on our street, most of whom don't wait until sunrise to begin their orations.

And: "Thanks to the birds, the backyard composting operation is starting to become slightly earnest for an urban yard...I clean out the chicken coop completely every other week, generating three wheelbarrows full of straw and chicken droppings every time."

Now, tell me, chicken people: what's your litter management system? I'm a believer in the deep litter method, which I devoted about five minutes to studying before adopting it. There's probably a more sophisticated way to do this, but my process is:

Use pine shavings as litter. Nice and clean, smells good, slow to break down.

Rake it around regularly. Add fresh regularly. Don't shovel it out much.

Over time, the litter accumulates and the droppings break down by themselves.

From time to time--maybe once a month, maybe once every couple of months--I scoop out a few wheelbarrows full and take it to the compost pile. I scoop out anything that's wet (a little rain can seep in between the boards of my coop, and hens can get sneezy from the mold) and anything that's very manure-intensive. But in general, I just keep a nice deep layer that breaks down constantly, and I add more pine shavings often.

The old litter, as I said, goes on the compost pile, where it gets mixed with chipped garden waste and dried leaves. The kitchen scraps get fed to the worms or the chickens. The chickens love to dig around in the compost pile looking for worms and bugs, so it continues to get worked over once it's left the coop.

Of course, I only have four hens, not a dozen. But this works for me.