Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ready for Chickens? Read This First!

Lovelace, one of our first hens--a Gold Laced Wyandotte
Chickens are great.  What other pet makes you breakfast every single day?  But like all pets, keeping them is a big responsibility.  Appropriate housing plus a run, or a roomy, portable coop that can be moved to fresh grass each day is of utmost importance--and that housing must be completely predator proof.  Fresh water and high-quality food need to be provided each day, in containers that can be kept clean and are durable enough to withstand outdoor weather and use. You need to know a little about common illnesses of backyard flocks, and the symptoms and cures associated with them.  You have to be prepared to scoop poop, disinfect items that get unexpectedly, terribly dirty (like when my son dropped his lunchbox into fresh chicken poo as we fed them one morning--it had to be cleaned up properly, like it or not!) and change out shavings regularly so that your flock's coop is comfortable, dry, and odor-free.

Winter 2011--over 1' of snow in the chicken yard
You have to be willing to go out on a snowy morning like the one shown in the picture to the left, and break frozen water or take out hot water to melt the block of ice their water has become. You have to know how to worm a chicken and be woman (or man) enough to do it.  We know all this, even if we don't know the exact details--if you are considering taking on livestock, and that's what chickens are, you have to be ready for the daily needs of the animals you plan to raise.

But what about the particular things about chickens you may not be aware of?  Keep this in mind as you consider raising backyard birds.

For starters, you have to keep to their schedule.Unless they are free-ranging, and find their own homes in trees or on roofs at night (and you accept the inherently predictable losses to predators that will occur in your flock over time), your chickens need to be out of their coop soon after sunrise, but certainly by 7:30 am or so.  If you sleep in, they are likely to fight in the "cooped up" space, and while they aren't potty trained, they prefer to poop outside the coop--as long as you make sure they can do so by the time they are fully awake and ready to go!
Rain or shine, cold or warm, the birds need food

And chickens are early to bed.  They need to be on their roost by dusk, when they get a little confused and passive.  If they can't get into the coop at dusk, or if they go in by themselves but you aren't there to lock them in securely, they really can't or won't fly away from a predator...and everything likes to eat chicken, even in the city.  Predators include raccoons, skunks, feral cats, and dogs, not to mention birds of prey! Chickens MUST be locked up tight in a predator-proof coop at dusk, every night.  If you keep chickens, you learn to mirror their schedule, like farming people the world over.  If you find yourself delayed at dusk, or have an engagement you can't miss, it's imperative that you have someone else take responsibility for cooping your flock--I find it is pretty easy to find such a friend, especially if I plan in advance to leave that day's eggs for them to gather and keep in trade.  Alternately, you can invest in an automatic (motorized) door--but make sure you check it so that an unexpected glitch doesn't leave your birds unprotected!

There is so much to consider as you contemplate getting chickens.  Truthfully, our family was able to transition to being home most nights by dark pretty easily, since we also have young children that need to be home for supper and bedtime.  We live in an artists' community, and finding a regular friend to help out with putting up the chickens wasn't too difficult, as the coop is right next to the community garden.  And there have been many times, especially in the wintertime when it gets dark so early, that we have waited until dusk to put the birds up--and THEN gone out for the evening.

Being aware that--like having children--adding livestock means your life WILL change makes this transition easier.  The advantages to keeping birds are so bountiful that the small sacrifices seem worthwhile.  The joy on a child's face as they gather eggs for the first time, or see a chick working to get out of a shell...the awareness that you are feeding your family as local and as healthy as possible...the security and pride one feels from producing some of your own food...the relaxation and entertainment a small flock of birds provides as they go about their business, foraging, working out their hierarchies, raising their babies...these benefits far outweigh the challenges.  But still, you should be prepared--keeping chickens is enjoyable work, but it is work.

Olive Eggers--For Green Eggs and Ham!

Olive eggs from my Olive Eggers, bred by me--with two white eggs for comparison.

UPDATE:  My Olive Eggers are laying olive eggs!  This picture (above) shows what colors they are producing, and read more about where we are now in the Olive Egger project here.

 I don't just raise backyard birds; I breed chickens.  My first priority as a breeder is the critically endangered Black Java breed, which I'll post separately about, but I've really gotten my teeth into an exciting, fun breeding project this last year.  It's for a new line of birds--Olive Eggers--and my ultimate goal is to have eggs that are the darker and more vibrant shades of green in the picture to the right, in the second row. (Please note: the pictures to the left, showing both dark brown and olive eggs are those I found by googling "olive eggs" to share a sense of this project with you, and they reflect my goals with regard to olive eggs, not my current eggs. It was pictures like this--of what was possible--that got me excited about breeding for olive eggs! Pictures of MY olive EGGS can be seen at the top of the page.)

The basic genetics, without boring everyone to death or getting beyond my own understanding, goes like this.  A chicken carries egg color on multiple gene locations   A bird can carry blue egg genes or brown egg genes, or BOTH. When they carry neither, they lay white eggs.  When they carry only a few brown genes, they lay light brown eggs.  More brown genes = darker brown eggs.  When they carry only blue genes they lay blue eggs.  When they carry copies of both, they lay some shade of green egg.  To get dark or vibrant olive green, you need one dark dark brown and one bright bright blue gene carrying parent.

Only a few breeds of birds lay a true blue egg--Ameracaunas and Auracanas are the main ones, both of which are fairly unusual and can only be acquired from a breeder, as hatcheries do not carry them, no matter what they say.  Easter Eggers are a mixed breed, and the term EE indicates a bird whose ancestry passed down to them at least one copy of a blue egg gene and which has a pea comb and lays, usually, an egg in the blue-green color range.  In these birds, which usually lay a minty green or sea green egg, it is fairly unusual to find a blue egg, though focused breeding of the bluest-egg-laying EEs can provide a reliably bluish egg--but even then, they are still EEs.  Egg color does not make for a breed, after all--heredity does.  Hatcheries refuse to stop labeling their EEs as Auracanas/Americanas, and so many many folks are understandably confused about the difference!  Interested? Read more about all that here: EEs vs AAs.

Many many birds have copies of the brown egg gene.  French Coppered Black Marans (FCBMs) lay the darkest egg of any breed, as seen in the pic to the left.

What happens when you take the bluest egg you can find, like the one in the middle of this picture, and the darkest brown egg you can find, like those chocolate brown beauties surrounding it, and cross the parents?  You may get a deep or vibrant green egg, from mixed breed birds called Olive Eggers.  The deep green or true olive is above and to the left of the blue egg; the vibrant jade green egg is below and to the left of the blue egg).  Once you get green eggs like this, breeding strategy consists of  taking the greenest of these olive eggs and breeding the hens that lay them back to dark brown egg roosters, and French Coppered Black Marans roos are the best.

I am so excited to see what color eggs I will get from this batch of hens, who are bred from very blue-egg laying EEs crossed with FCBMs and from pure FCBM hens crossed with a pure Ameraucana rooster.  My best FCBMs lay a huge speckled dark brown egg, which means that my eggs may also be olive and speckled--an amazing, beautiful combination!  A few of the birds in this hatch will lay or carry genes for plain brown or khaki eggs too--in cases where their (heterozygous) EE mothers carry only one copy of the blue gene, a few of their offspring will revert back to brown eggs, but this should be a small percentage.

Are you interested in raising chickens that may lay dark brown, blue, blue-green, or olive eggs?  I will have chicks available in mid April that should lay eggs that span the spectrum of these tones.  Let me know if you'd like to reserve some!  They start at $4 each as day old birds, and their price increases $1 each week to $8 at 5 weeks, when they are ready to live outside.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thoughts on Roosters

Malcolm, a gentlemanly Black Java
Well, I've put it off as long as I can.  One thing about raising chickens, and hatching your own chickens, is the that the rooster problem has to be dealt with at some point.  I'd be dishonest to say there aren't challenges to keeping chickens--just like any other animals--and it's best to have a plan going in so one isn't taken by surprise.  If one lives in town where there are rules about having only hens, it's especially important.  If one is keeping a flock with several hens, having a rooster can be of great benefit, especially if the hens don't have a peaceful coexistence or if one lives in the country where birds may range to forage, increasing their chances of predation by a hawk or other carnivore--we all know how tasty chicken is.  Roosters at their best are brave, selfless, generous protectors and patriarchs, treating hens and chicks with gentleness and care. A good rooster, like our Black Java Malcolm, is a joy to observe, leading his hens, and clucking sweetly and intently to them when he finds food he thinks they will enjoy.  He picks up bits and drops them in front of the hens, only taking one out of every ten or so bites for himself, a kind of offering that illustrates the best characteristics of a good Roo.  If a nest is left with eggs in it for long, he will actually sit in it, calling loudly to a mother, any mother, to come take care of the untended potential offspring.  And he is able to cover the hens (a nice euphemism for mating that I tend to use, like many chicken breeders) quickly and with a minimum of worry or stress to the hens, unlike some Roos.  His best quality is his grace at sharing his flock with me.  He is not afraid of me, but beither is he aggressive.  He has never given me any cause to worry about what he may do next, no matter what I am doing with the hens. This is the kind of Roo one is happy to keep.
Malcolm leading his ladies on a foraging run

But not all Roos are like Malcolm, and not everyone can keep Roosters good or bad.  One can always try to use Craigslist to try to find them a new home, but the truth is that most Roos end up as chicken dinner.  If you have the heart for it, young Roos make for good eating--they are tender and delicious, no matter how bad they may have been alive.  Today was the day we needed to downsize, after putting it off for a while.  I raised 6 Black Javas recently and 4 were roosters, only one of which was of sufficient quality to consider adding to my breeding program.  And I had one beautiful Roo that has gotten aggressive of late, treating the other rooster and the hens in his flock badly.  So today my husband and son reduced our flock size by 4.  Although culling birds for any reason is not a happy event, it can be done humanely and quickly, reducing stress to both the bird and question and the rest of the flock.  There is a great deal of advice online about how to do this, so I won't belabor the point here.  The bright spot in the experience is that I know we have created a more peaceful and natural environment for our birds (whose natural hierarchy includes only one or two Roos for 3-10 hens), and we have some VERY local, free-ranged, compassionately raised, sustainably harvested meat in the freezer, and we'll practice gratitude as we consume it over the next days and weeks.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Children and Chickens

Letting children hatch eggs and then raise chickens is a great way to teach some basic life science concepts, and hatching and raising chickens gives hands-on experience with an enjoyable, exciting life skill.

If we hope to raise children who are willing and able to be good stewards of the flora and fauna in our world, we have to be willing and able to provide opportunities where they can do so at a young age. The process of hatching eggs teaches patience during the incubation period, a great time to offer lessons on how the embryos are developing in the egg and the requirements for life in the avian world. Seeing the chicks actually hatch is an amazing experience for children, who delight in seeing the eggs that have been static for so long suddenly bursting with life. The mammoth struggle of the chicks to get out of their shells is awe-inspiring, and as children root for them to persevere they often empathize with compassion and respect. Hatching chicks that they then have a hand in raising creates a bond and a naturally-arising sense of pride and competency as the birds grow.

Keeping a small flock and gathering eggs daily helps children understand the natural life cycle and increases their awareness and enjoyment of sustainable, family-centered flock raising.  Children feel excited to "hunt and gather" their own breakfast egg from the coop, and they especially enjoy sharing "their" chickens and eggs with friends who visit.  As they grow older, raising chickens provides a chance for them to practice their budding entrepreneurial skills--selling eggs, for example.  Youth can show birds in local county fairs and get involved with 4-H. deepening their experience and understanding of animal stewardship and flock management.

Finally, keeping chickens with your children's help involves them intimately in the work and responsibility of keeping something alive.  It introduces them to a sense of our human connection to other living things and the interdependent web of existence that we all share.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Schoolyard Chickens Project

So excited to share this new project I'm doing at the local Montessori School where my child attends.Yesterday I "set" 24 eggs in an incubator in the Elementary classroom, and they'll get to experience chicks hatching in three weeks. Projected hatch date is April 13, though we'll likely have chicks born from the 11th-14th.

The eggs shown above include dark brown speckled eggs from French Coppered Black Marans, prized not only for laying the darkest eggs of any breed, but also for its broodiness--hens still retain the instinct to sit on their own eggs and hatch them. They also make excellent mothers. Shown here is Juniper, a beautiful FCBM who wanted to keep the eggs she was sitting on when I came to collect on this day.

Here is what she was sitting on--one of her own eggs and three more from her flockmates.

The blue eggs shown in the pictures come from my Easter Eggers and those of a local friend.  EEs are a breed that is not purebred but is one of my favorites nonetheless. Sometimes referred to as Ameracaunas mistakenly, these funny birds have great personalities and are among the most prolific of egg layers. They have a wide variation in colors and types but they all tend to be smaller than FCBMs and do not tend toward broodiness.  Here is one variation of EE--this roo, Ronald, fathered about half of the chicks we will be hatching out.