Sunday, November 28, 2010


We have been keeping chickens on our suburban block since Feb 2009, which is not all that long, but long enough to have a few tales to tell. In that time we have had 7 animals, and sadly only 3 are still alive today. This is the story so far.

It started with me building a cage for them under our deck, which gives a huge secure run of over 10 meters. One end of it is always dry, and this is where I put their laying station and coop. Initially there was one door in, but a little later I put another door at the other end, which allowed them to easily free-range in the small back garden we have. 

We started with 2 "Light Sussex" birds, both around a year old. We called them Henny and Becky. The light part of the breed name is due to them being mostly white, as for weight, they are solid birds. Henny is on the right, for what it's worth (click for larger image).

Becky was the leader, and was tough but very fair - caring even. She spoke with a soft cooing, and was very easy to like. I say spoke because in my experience, all chicken communicate - but have their own unique sounds. Henny, at the time, was very timid, and kept her distance where possible.

Things were going well, so we decided to increase the flock to 4, by adding two more light sussex birds. We found some going reasonably cheap, and I drove to a parking lot in the middle of nowhere to pick them up. We called these two Max and Shelly.

Unfortunately, this is where some trouble started. The two new birds were younger, at about 12 weeks, and almost as soon as we got them home they got sick with "Bird Pox", which is not a big deal for an older bird but very rough on the younger two. We were also still very green at chicken maintenance, and this was also quite rough on us. It also happened to coincide with a long rainy period, where it was miserable for everyone. The two younger birds got progressively worse over the course of a week or so, and despite reassurance from the internet research that it would all be good, it wasn't. We were hand feeding the birds, giving them medicine and it all wasn't working. Their heads were swollen with sores, and their eyes covered over. They could not see to eat.

Shelly died. Max was renamed Plucky, as she really tried hard to live on, and showed a real sense of spirit. Going through the ordeal together we were willing her on, and formed quite a bond with this little being. She did, in fact, survive the Pox but a few weeks later we noticed a slight cloud in one eye. This appeared in the other eye, and we suspected she was slowly going blind. While she could still see to eat, she continued to grow and although identification is difficult, I believe we even got one or two eggs from her. One day though, about 6 months later, it was clear she could not see enough to eat, and was starting to waste away. She is the only bird I have had put down, it was the only humane thing to do. I can't kill a chook myself (not a pet anyway) so I took her to a vet. Really, we should have eaten her, but I doubt any of us would have eaten a bite if she was dinner.

One morning, unexpectedly, Becky was found dead in the Coop, near the door. A close examination of her showed no signs of problems - in fact, apart from being stone dead she was in perfect health! At around this time there was an unwanted visitor into the chook house - a possum. It was eating the chicken food. It took me a long time to work out exactly how it was getting in to the pen, as I had made the wire go all the way to the roof. I believe what happened is that the possum, in the morning, decided to take refuge in the coop and trapped poor Becky, who simply died of shock. It was a sad day, and there was wailing from the kids for some time.

From then on, Henny was the leader and we saw another side to her. She started out being quite vicious, but has since mellowed quite a bit. She still doesn't take any crap from anyone, and will peck someone out of the way if they don't get the message early. She's stopped being frightened of me, in fact, quite likes being around me.

The flock was getting a bit lean again, and as chooks are social animals you don't want to risk having just one. So I decided to go and get some more birds. We researched breeds and decided to get a different kind this time - the Australian bird the Australorp. They are all black birds with a beetle green sheen to them - very striking. But a funny thing happened when I was at the chook farm. I wanted to get three chickens. They also had white leghorn crosses, and Rhode Island Reds. I decided to come home with one of each breed, much to the exasperation of my better half. These new birds were named Lily (white leghorn), Mabel (Australop) and Artemis (from a book, Artemis Fowl - the Rhode Island Red). I did insist that all three get a jab for Bird Pox, which was not a standard procedure.

These young chooks were the three amigos, and I separated the henhouse so that they could see the other chooks though the barrier and get used to each other. Then I made a small hole so the small birds could go in with the bigger ones, and come back to safety if they wished. After a scuffle or two, this worked, and before long these birds were a flock. It took about a fortnight.

One issue we have with the location of the hen run is that it does get hot down there. Despite being in the shade, 40+ degree days are really nasty. To add to this, the air conditioning compressor is located near their run, and when it's very hot we want to put this on, which blows HOT air around outside. The solution is to have an A-frame cage in the garage, and on days that are going to get really hot we moved the birds into the cool area and they just had to chill out there. It was on one such day that the Rhode Island Red, Artemis, suffered more than the others and passed away. We think that in the tighter constraints of the A-frame she might have not been able to get to the water easily. She was a quirky chook, and again, sorely missed.

Since that time, and touch wood, we have had a lot more success, and have developed a routine that seems to work for everyone. Each morning a bowl of food is prepared for the birds (usually a slice of bread, some lettuce chopped up, and perhaps some leftovers, mixed with a little sunflower seeds and scratch mix). They always have dry food, softened dry food (ie wet in a bowl) and three sources of fresh water, including a huge water bell. The girls have been laying eggs for us most days, and we have not had to buy too many in the last year or so. Mabel took the longest to produce eggs, and hers have a slight mauve tint to them. She's a really sweet hen, so soft and gentle. Lily is a dumb blonde, and I don't think I would get another leghorn - except for the fact that she is by far the most reliable layer in the flock. The only thing I don't like about the Light Sussex is that sometimes they get "dirty" bum feathers, which need some trimming to keep clean.

Mabel recently went broody - she just wanted to stubbornly sit on her nest and do nothing else. This caused some issues, firstly that the laying station was occupied and the other hens had to find somewhere else to lay their eggs. She goes into a trance, and will even sit on an empty nest. I have to pick her up and put her down in front of food for her to snap out of it, for a while, so that she eats and drinks before clucking her way back onto the nest. I tried to separate her, but really, she got quite distressed and I didn't like to see her like that. We have not had any eggs from her for a while, and she's lost a lot of weight, but I'm hoping she'll snap out of it soon. They say it's a compliment to your chicken keeping abilities if a bird is happy enough to go into this state, and I hope this is true.

One thing that I have learnt is that each bird has it's own personality and character. They all like a routine, but perversely, they will change at least one thing per day! That may be the sleeping arrangements, the place they lay eggs, the number of eggs, what they eat, something. It's become somewhat of a joke that I come back from visiting the hens and say as I walk in the door "well, that was different!". "What now!?", everyone yells. This makes owning chickens fun, in my opinion, you never quite know what's going to happen next. It's work too, there is no doubt about that, and it's also somewhat costly, but it's worth it. They make good pets, are friendly, and entertain. When I go down of a morning with their food and Henny runs to the door to greet me, it cracks me up every time. The eggs are very special, not just because they are as fresh as is possible, and organic, and delicious, but because you have had a major part in caring for the creature that provided it. It's proof that it's all working, and it's good for them and it's good for you - you can taste it!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mad Skillz - Part 2

It's been a while since I wrote Part 1, where I discussed spinning and knitting. Since then, or perhaps in parallel, I have obtained a bunch of other skills. Nothing here on it's own is much to talk about, but in total I think you will see that it's got a direction and purpose.

Chickens - This deserves a post all on it's own, and I think I will do this one day - the story of the chickens, but not here and now. Rearing chickens is a skill, of that there is no doubt, and in some ways a chore. You need to understand them at least a little, to make them happy, safe and secure. There is daily feeding and watering. The chicken mind is quite something, and they all have very distinct personalities. When they are happy and healthy, the eggs are extreme in their deliciousness. Any cakes or dishes made with them are fantastic. I really like chilling out with my chooks. We have 3 chooks at present -- Henny (an original), Mabel and Lily. "Three egg" days are the best days you can have.

Rat Catcher - Whatever chickens like to eat, rats like to eat too. So if you keep chickens, at some point, you will also be dealing with rats (and if you leave that too long, in Australia, snakes!). So, I have also been trapping rats, killing and burying them - about 30 or so to date. The traps I use are cages, which capture them live. I then drop them into a bucket of water, and they are dead in a minute or so, doesn't take long. When I first did this, my heart was racing, and now it doesn't skip a beat. I guess I've learnt how to kill, and you could argue that this is not a good thing. One good side effect of this rat disposal is that we no longer have the pitter patter of tiny feet in our roof, which was disturbing our sleep and leaving droppings everywhere. I check each animal I catch to make sure it's not a native marsupial, if I ever get one of those I'll let it free. We have also caught a few "rats with wings", the annoying birds (not sure of the breed) that come and steal the seed too. I let them go - but perhaps I shouldn't.

Bees -  Similar to keeping chickens, but not really the same, are Bees. I like Bees a lot, and we inherited a bee hive from our next door neighbour when he moved. We have had the hive about a year now, but I have not opened it since moving it. Before they left we had a harvest and got 30 jars of the most delicious honey I have ever had. I managed to score 6 jars, which was a lot really. When I have some time, and it's not too hot or windy, I'll suit up and take a peek. I hope the hive is healthy, as there was some evidence of hive beetle present. Fingers crossed.

Knives - Well, if you read my other posts you'll see I have quite an interest there. I won't go into details now, other than to say my collection now spans about 40 folding knives. I think I'm near the end of my accumulation though!

Knife Sharpening -  When you own a knife, one metric on how good it is, is how sharp it is. When you get a knife that you really like and it's blunt as a butter knife, then the issue of sharpening is raised. My early sharpening efforts were pretty poor. I got a diamond stone off eBay with 4 grit strengths. The problem is that it tended to chip the edge in my hands, and produce otherwise uneven results. The standard kitchen sharpener is made to fix a rolled edge, not really sharpen. And the hand held ones with the disks inside seemed too dinky for me, like sharpening for dummies. After some time brewing on this issue I bit the bullet and purchased a Lansky sharpening kit, which has the ability to control the angle that the sharpening is happening. It takes some time, but I am a lot more confident of the results.

Knife Making - Again, there is a recent post that goes into this in a lot more detail, so I won't go over it all again, but making knives is a skill. It's one I enjoyed learning, but do not see that I will be putting into practice a great deal. It takes a lot of equipment, for a start, and time.

Knife Accessories - So once you have made your knife you need to store it, and the question of a sheath comes up. I scored some free leather scraps, and managed to make two sheaths for my made knives. They are really just blade covers, using paracord in the stitching, but they came out alright. I added a plastic lining on the inside so that the leather would not get cut. The results are quite amateur, but the whole point was to learn about the art, not to produce a masterpiece. Using the parachord I have also made lanyards, and a Cobra bracelet. Youtube is an amazing resource for learning quick little skills like this, and there is no shortage of people online who are great at teaching you if you want to learn.

Vegi Patch - Gardening is no big deal, but on our land it has some challenges. One thing I have done is compost the chicken litter and poo, and this makes for some great organic fertiliser. In truth, the vegi patch is a bit of a failure, mostly for it's location, but the current plot has some beans, lettuce, pumpkin and parsley. Elsewhere in the garden we have a lemon, mandarin and rosemary bush. It's not much, but it's better than nothing and I take a huge amount of pride and joy in eating anything that our land manages to bear. It always tastes great, even if it's only a mouthful or so!

So, I think that's everything! I'm not sure what's next in the long search for happiness, but I'm pleased with the things I have done so far.