Warming winter treats for your chickens

With winter on its way we thought we’d share last year’s post on warming winter treats for chickens. Remember, when the weather gets cold the extra calories in treats will help keep your hens warm and happy.

Chicken treats - mealworms

Chickens love mealworms!

Anyone who has seen chickens knows how much they love scratching around for tasty morsels but when winter comes your chooks might have trouble finding enough food to keep them occupied.

But have no fear, there are plenty of tempting treats you can give your chickens in addition to their usual food that will keep them entertained, not to mention warm, right through until spring.

Here are some of our favourite titbits for chickens in the winter:

A brilliant breakfast!

Breakfast isn’t the most important meal of the day just for humans – chickens also feel the benefit of a healthy, filling breakfast. Try mixing a small handful of porridge oats, a large portion of their usual pellets, and some warm water to make a nutritious warm mash.

Winter weight gain!

Just like people chickens tend eat more fatty foods in the winter so keep foods like bacon rind and fatty meat trimmings for your chooks to peck at.

In moderation fatty scraps are a good source of protein and will help your flock keep at a healthy weight when it gets cold. Another good source of protein is mealworms which you can find at the majority of pet shops.

chickens eating corn

Corn keeps your warm!

Corn keeps you warm!

As well as feeding a warm mash at breakfast time you can also feed your chickens a small amount of corn before shutting them up for the night. A handful of corn will fill them up and keep them warm overnight which can be especially useful when the temperature really drops.

Try it “on the cob”, canned, raw, and cooked until you find your flocks’ favourite!

One of your five a day!

With the grass and plants gone for the winter it’s important to make sure your hens still get enough fruit and veg to keep them healthy.

You can also turn feeding time into a form of entertainment by hanging veg such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower in their chicken run. Not only will they get important nutrients they’ll also have fun pecking at the veg all day.

A word about water…

Although this post is about winter food for chickens poultry keepers often find that they have a harder job keeping their chickens hydrated, rather than full, during the winter.

Try wrapping the water drinker in bubble wrap, insulating foam, or felt to stop it freezing overnight. You can also add slightly warm water to the drinker in the morning to keep it from freezing during the day.

Some poultry keepers also remove the water at night and replace it when they let their flock out in the morning. Many chicken keepers report that their chickens don’t drink at night so this might be the answer if you can’t find a way of preventing the water from freezing.

Stay tuned this afternoon to see a brilliant warm mash recipe from our friends at Hedgerow Henporium!

Image source: Backyardchickens.com

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Learn to “speak chicken” – understanding flock behaviour part 2

flock of chickensLast week we looked at how chickens decide their pecking order, form friendships, and operate as a group on a day to day basis. We also learnt that chickens can communicate both verbally and non-verbally. In fact, chickens have over 24 verbal communications, it’s not all about clucking!

Chickens are social animals and prefer to have friends to spend their time with so it’s best to start off with at least three chickens when you’re creating a new flock. You can learn more about how chickens conduct their lives by watching this documentary The Private Lives of Chickens.

Here’s more about the benefits of being in a flock:

Safety in numbers

Living in a group means that there are more eyes to look out for a tasty treat, or more importantly, danger.

When one of the flock spots something they think is a threat they’ll start making a noise that the other members of the group will pick up. Although experts don’t really know why the group starts making such a loud noise but we can assume that the noise is intended to frighten the predator away.

Cockerels are the best example of one member of the flock protecting the rest and when a threat is spotted he’ll make a growling or loud screeching sound to warn his hens.

“Food’s over here!”

You’ll also hear your chickens getting pretty noisy when they find something delicious and want to let the rest of the group know there’s juicy plant or tasty looking bug to eat.

Cockerels telling their hens about food are more common but you’ll also see this behaviour in an all hen flock.

“Hello ladies…”

If you do have a cockerel in your flock then you’ll hear his mating call on a fairly regular basis and you’ll witness the “dance” that goes with it.

Cockerels combine verbal and non-verbal communications in an attempt to impress their hens and get them accept his amorous advances. You’ll see your cockerel drop one wing and spread it out to signal that he wants to mate. He’ll also puff the rest of his feathers up and perform a shuffling dance with his feet.

If the hen accepts his proposal she’ll squat and let him mount. If, on the other hand, she doesn’t like the look of his dance she’ll screech, cluck, and usually run away.

Bedtime

Dusk is another good time to hear the verbal communications in your flock as the cockerel or dominant hen will usher the rest back to the chicken house. Low clucking sounds will tell the rest of the flock that it’s time for bed and they should settle down for the night.

Next week we’re getting in the kitchen and showing you great ways to use up all of those delicious eggs and how to correctly freeze them.

Breed of the Week – Cochin

cochin_chickenThe Cochin breed of chicken originated in China in the 1850’s and was originally known as the Shanghai or Cochin-China chicken. Their name comes from an original Chinese word meaning “nine jin yellow”. “Jin” is a Chinese unit of measurement and perhaps referred to their large size or their plentiful plumage.

It is believed that they were bred for their feathers that were then used to fill duvets. They were later imported to Britain and America in the mid-19th century. The first birds to be imported to Britain were gifted to Queen Victoria perhaps explaining why they gained such popularity in Great Britain.

The birds that went to America were the subject of considerable development and a bantam breed, named the Pekin bantam, was created. However, this breed should not be confused with the true Pekin bantam.

Cochin’s are friendly, docile, and tend to be submissive when kept in mixed breed groups. Their laid back nature does tend to make them lazy and they have been known to suffer from metabolism and heart problems.

They prefer to be kept on shorter grass and although they are one of the larger breeds of chicken they don’t require a lot of space to roam.

They’re a favourite with show producers, breeders, and hobby keepers a like because of their friendly nature and attractive appearance.

Here’s more about the Cochin breed:

Cochin Factsheet

Name: Cochin (originally known as the Shanghai or Cochin-China)

Type: Large fowl and bantam

Weight: Heavy – usually 8lbs+ and have cock birds have been known to reach 12lbs

Popularity: Very common both as show birds and pets

Purpose: Ornamental

Eggs: Medium sized, brown eggs. Hens lay roughly 2 per week

Physical features: Large, rounded body, yellow legs, red earlobes, reddish eyes. Very fluffy plumage with feathers covering the legs and feet.

Colours: There are a wide variety of colours available in the modern Cochin. Recognised varieties include: Black, Buff, Partridge, White, Barred, Brown Red, Golden Laced, Mottled, Silver Laced, Birchen, Blue, Columbian, and Red.

Other characteristics: Although Cochin hens aren’t prolific layers they do make good broodies and protective mothers. They are easy to tame, cope with being kept in enclosures well, and are quieter than other breeds.

As the Cochin is a larger breed of chicken care will need to be taken when considering which chicken house to buy. They’ll need stronger perches, large nest boxes, and a wider door.

Their environment in wet weather will also need to be considered as their feathery feet can be damaged or become caked in mud when it rains. Some chicken keepers opt to house them in wood chip runs to prevent the feathers becoming damaged.

Learn to “speak chicken” – understanding flock behaviour

free_range_chicken_flockAnyone who has spent any time watching a flock of chickens’ behaviour will know they communicate both in a verbal and non-verbal way. Chickens are very sociable birds who enjoy the company of their feathered friends. This is why it is recommended that you have at least three chickens to start a group.

Just like all social animals this means that they form a hierarchy to maintain structure and order within their group – this known as the “pecking order”. Chickens establish this natural order between themselves, usually after a few scuffles, and any new birds to the group will have to spend time finding their own place in the pecking order.

But there’s slightly more to it than that, and anyway, what do chickens actually talk about?

Developing a flock

As we’ve said, three chickens is usually the number suggested if you’re new to chicken keeping and want to know how many you should have. Increasing the number to five or six will create a strong, established group.

However many birds you keep will develop their own pecking order within a few days of being together. This hierarchy will change whenever a bird is added or removed from the group.

The pecking order will be established through verbal communications such as growling and screeching at other birds. It will also be established through on-verbal communication such as jumping, pecking, and chasing other birds.

This behaviour will continue until one bird gives up and submits to the challenging bird. The challenger will then be of a higher rank and may become the “alpha” member of the flock.

How to tell who’s the boss

The pecking order will affect every aspect of your flock’s lives from feeding and drinking to sleeping and dust bathing. The pecking order will probably be most obvious at meal times when the dominant bird will eat first and only when they are done will the lower ranking birds be allowed to eat.

At bedtime you’ll notice that the higher ranking birds take the top perches in the chicken house and may push lower ranking birds to perches closer to the bottom of the coop.

Friends for life

Chickens form long lasting friendships and will mourn the loss of a friend if they die or are taken away. They may be quieter than usual and search their enclosure, run, or garden daily for some time after their friend’s loss. They may also refuse to leave the spot where they last saw their friend.

If a chicken’s friend is returned to the group they will recognise them and the bond will return immediately. This can be useful in helping the returning bird re-establish their place in the pecking order.

Problems in the flock

Although it is rare you will sometimes come across a hen that is being picked on by the rest of the flock. This may result in lost feathers and wounds. Free range flocks are less likely to exhibit this behaviour as there is enough room for chickens to avoid disputes.

Providing plenty of space, multiple feeding/drinking stations, and a variety of perches can reduce the risk of bullying happening but in the most severe cases either main abuser or the victim will have to be removed from the flock.

Next week we’ll be looking at other types of chicken communication and understanding the benefits of being in a flock.

Breed of the Week – Rhode Island Red

rhodeislandredThe Rhode Island Red, as the name suggests, was first developed in the US state of Rhode Island in the 1890s. The people of Rhode Island were so impressed with the bird that it became, and still is, the state bird of Rhode Island. A monument was erected in 1925 in Adamsville, where the bird was first bred, in honour of this hardy, friendly breed.

Originally bred as a dual purpose bird it was a popular choice for farmers, small holders, and hobby chicken keepers a like. Rhode Island Red hens are exceptional layers, capable of producing an egg everyday if they’re happy and healthy.

The breed arrived in the UK in 1903 and quickly gained popularity among chicken keepers. The Rhode Island Red could be considered one of the best known chicken breeds in the world. Despite this however, in recent years the breed has become less popular and is now classified as “recovering” by The Livestock Conservancy.

Over the years the Rhode Island Red has been extensively crossed with other breeds, such as the Sussex, to produce many of the modern hybrid chickens we see today including the Warren.

Here’s more about the Rhode Island Red:

Rhode Island Red Factsheet

Name: Rhode Island Red (shortened to “RIR” in chicken keeping circles)

Type: Large fowl

Weight: Classed as a heavy breed although they remain active in comparison to other breeds in this category

Popularity: Increasing in popularity again thanks to small time chicken keepers

Purpose: Dual purpose – although more commonly used for eggs/as pets

Eggs: Medium/large light brown eggs

Physical features: Red feathers – ranging from light to dark, glossy bronze. Yellow legs, red earlobes and eyes.

Colours: As the name suggests the Rhode Island Red is always red. Generally birds are rust coloured but variations can occur from maroon to bordering on reddish black.

Other characteristics: Rhode Island Reds are extremely cold hardy and hardy in general, as well as being friendly, docile, and active. They enjoy foraging and make a great bird to free range.

They are fantastic pets, ideal for families, and are described as intelligent by fellow chicken keepers.

Although a hardy breed of chicken can live happily with more basis accommodation we still recommend having a chicken house that is safe, secure, and practical. Comfortable nest boxes are a must for a breed like the Rhode Island Red as they spend so much time in them!

How to bathe your chicken

Whether it’s for a show or just to keep them clean bathing a chicken for the first time can seem daunting. Here’s our quick guide, with videos, to giving your chicken a bath.

Photo credit: Community Chickens

Photo credit: Community Chickens

If you’re only keeping chickens as pets chances are you won’t need to bathe your flock on a regular basis. In fact, you might not even need to bathe your chickens at all.

However, sometimes a chicken can end up in a sticky situation or look a bit dirtier than usual and you might want to give them a quick freshen up. Other times when you might need to bathe a chicken when a bird is injured and you need to clean their wounds, when a bird is sick and unable to maintain its own hygiene, or when a hen is suffering from fly strike, a prolapsed vent, or is egg bound.

Here’s our step by step guide to bathing a chicken…

You’ll need:

  • A bath, sink, or large washing bowl
  • Several towels
  • A non-slip mat/extra towel to stop the bird slipping
  • Baby shampoo
  • A jug/large cup for rinsing
  • Nail brush if you’re cleaning feet
  • A hairdryer
  • An apron – this is a job where you’re going to get wet!

It’s important to never use harsh chemicals when washing a chicken as this will strip the natural oils from the feathers and can cause permanent damage.

Also be sure never to leave the bird unattended and ensure that its head stays above the water at all times. Some chicken keepers report that their birds enjoy a bath so much they fall asleep so it might be harder than you think to keep their head up!

If at all possible choose a warm, sunny day to bathe your chicken – obviously if there is injury or illness this might not be possible. Be prepared to use two tubs, or drain and refill your bath/sink, as you’ll need clean water to rinse the bird after washing.

A step by step guide to washing your chicken

  1. Fill your washing container with lukewarm water. Water deep enough to come half way up their legs is the safest amount. Add a few drops of baby shampoo to the water. 
  2. Place your chicken in the container. Expect flapping and you’ll need to hold the wings gently and prevent any escape attempts.
  3. Gently dunk your hen in and out of the water. Use your hand to “scoop” water over them until they are wet through. Be careful not to scrub or rub as you might damage the feathers.
  4. Carefully scrub the feet and legs with the nail brush to remove any dirt or poo.
  5. If the vent feathers, or any other feathers, are matted with poo you might need to let the feathers soak. Do not pull the feathers as you may tear the skin in the process.
  6. Lift the bird out of the “washing tub” and transfer it to the “rinsing tub”. If you are refilling the bath or sink wrap the chicken in a towel to keep them warm whilst you do this.
  7. Again, gently dunk your hen in and out of the water to remove most of the baby shampoo. Then use the jug/cup to pour clean water over the hen to remove the rest.
  8. Lift your chicken out of the container and hold them above it until most of the water has dripped off.
  9. Use a dry towel and gently pat/press the water out of the feathers. Remember to dry under each wing and don’t rub as you will damage the feathers.
  10. If you’re using a hairdryer keep your hand between the chicken and the dryer at all times to test the temperature. If it’s hot enough to burn your hand, it’s hot enough to burn your chicken!

Giving your chicken a bath is an excellent opportunity to check for lice/mites and to treat them with powder once they’re dry if you spot any parasites.

It’s also a good idea to clean your chicken house before putting your hens back so they’ll stay clean for as long as possible.

You can find an instructional video on chicken bathing from The Hen Cam here.

If you’re thinking of showing your chickens and you need to bathe them in preparation Sam Cromwell from Heavenly Feathered Farms has a great video showing them bathing their Polish for a show.

Breed of the Week – Sussex

Last week we looked at the Sebright Bantam that’s pretty but not very practical. This week we’re looking at a breed that’s both beautiful and bountiful!

A Light Sussex hen

A Light Sussex hen

The Sussex breed of chicken was first developed during Roman times as a table bird and has since spread across the world both as a utility breed and as pets and exhibition birds.

The breed appeared around 43 AD, making them one of the oldest known breeds of chicken, and quickly became a dual-purpose breed because of their good egg production.

The Sussex chicken was influential in the poultry industry and a Sussex breed club was formed in 1903. Those who keep the Sussex as a meat bird have found that the chicken is more like the Heritage meats produced in the past than the modern broiler chicken.

Although eggs are usually cream to light brown in colour some Light Sussex hens have been producing olive green eggs, however green egg laying Sussex hens are extremely rare.

The Coronation variety of Sussex was created for the coronation of King George VIII in 1936 but is now the rarest variety of the Sussex breed. The variety is making a comeback in Australia.

Here’s more about the Sussex breed:

Sussex Factsheet                                      

Name: Sussex

Type: Large fowl and bantam

Weight: Large fowl – cock: 4.1kg hen: 3.2kg

Bantam – cock: 1.5kg hen: 1.1kg

Popularity: Popular both as pets and as dual-purpose birds

Purpose: Dual-purpose – eggs and meat

Eggs: Large cream to light brown eggs. Hens produce roughly 240 to 260 eggs per year.

Physical features: Medium sized single comb, red earlobes, white skin and legs.

Colours: There are eight recognised colours found in both the large fowl and bantam varieties: Light, Buff, Silver, Red, White, Speckled, Buff Columbian, Coronation.

Other characteristics: Sussex chickens are an alert, hardy and docile breed, making good pets and are easily tamed. They are happy to free range or be kept in a run or enclosure. They do go broody in the warmer months and make good mothers.

Sussex chickens are good foragers, so your garden may be at risk if your hens get peckish! They don’t usually require any special care and will be happy as long as they have a robust, practical chicken house.

Next week we’re looking at the Rhode Island Red, another hardy, docile breed.