Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Hen Pecked

Believe it or not, chickens are tempestuous, often violent little creatures. We like to think they live quietly all day long, pecking the ground for specks of food, laying on nests, providing us our daily eggs in return for food, shelter and water. The truth is, unless they have enough protein in their diet, roomy quarters and something to do, chickens get annoyed and take it out on one another. Feather picking is a common problem, and can occur either during the day or at night, in the event a picker is roosted beneath a pickee on the roost. (They can also pick toes.) They will peck away at blood on a sister chicken until the victim is mortally wounded. And we've heard what roosters will do...it doesn't take much to get two boys to brawl, thus the gruesome popularity of the sport in some countries (although outfitting the fighters with knives isn't natural).

My flock has ample room, a good diet of 16% layer pellets, grit and oyster shell, and I try to keep them entertained and occupied with long grass or vegetable scraps several times per week. However, one little Easter Egger hen has been picked on since before she came to live at our house, and the picking continues. She came to use with a bald spots on her back and the back of her neck. She had started to regrow her neck feathers and some back feathers, but when we introduced four new hens to the flock to boost egg production a few weeks ago, the picking resumed. I can now see a couple tiny bald spots forming on the back of her neck, and her nubby new back feathers are gone. She doesn't appear to be bloody, which is good, but her skin is an angry red in a couple spots.

I've read some suggestions on how to stop this feather picking, and I've tried the least aggressive first, which was the purchase of a powder called AviaCharge2000 (nice name, huh?) from Murray McMurray Hatchery. This stuff is dark and full of enzymes and vitamins that supposedly boost health and help prevent picking. Well, it's stinky and after two weeks I'm not noticing a difference. I have two first aid options for the pickee: I can try spraying her bare skin with Blu-Kote to see if that helps disguise her skin and promote healing, or I can make her a "saddle" of duct tape or fabric to wear around the coop. The latter would hide the bare skin, allowing (supposedly) the feathers to regrow. In the case of the duct tape saddle, I've read the tape will stick to the feathers but not her dusty skin, allowing new feathers to grow underneath, and revealing a fresh frock when the saddle is either removed by or falls off of the hen. Both of the latter options will require me catching her, and she's quite elusive. I can also try separating her from flock to allow time for the feathers to regrow, but I don't really have a secure space to do that in.

The thing is, this little hen is the timid sort, likely living her days at the very bottom of the 11-hen totem pole. I check on the hens in the coop twice a day, and she rarely comes in to see me, preferring to stay outside in the run, away from the others. When I throw grass in, she runs away and then tentatively pecks the outside fringes, darting this way and that when the others' voice or peck their displeasure at her presence.

I'd like to spend more time outside the run observing the flock. Often times if a picker can be identified, the solution is to cull (i.e. sell or kill and eat) it. I do notice one Red Star hen who has a legs and beak more yellow in color than the others', and I know I have at least one hen who's not laying, therefore not earning her keep. (Fun fact: the yellow in egg yolks is colored by beta carotene, primarily from the beaks and legs of chickens (not sure how that works for the gray-legged varieties). Grass is also a great source of beta carotene, and explains why free range chicken eggs are often have brighter colored yolks. One way to tell a producer from a non-producer is by comparing the color of their beaks and legs.)

So, what am I to do? I suspect a lead picker, but I'm not sure. I know their diets are adequate. I'd like to be able to let them out to free range, but that's not practical at this time as we'd need to catch them one by one and clip the flight feathers on one wing to prevent flying, plus the paddock fence isn't chicken proof. I know who the pickee is, and she looks pathetic and acts like a Nervous Ninny. I don't necessarily want to cull a chicken at this point, but I will if it's the last straw. I think for now I'll pursue either the messy Blu-Kote option, or the more chic but challenging duct tape saddle for her back, and see if that helps. I'd like to see if Paul will build me a slightly larger outdoor run, one that would offer a bit more room, some untrodden ground (and maybe even a maintenance entrance for me that doesn't involve sliding through a computer-monitor-sized opening on my belly - not fun in the mud, and who really wants to lie belly down where chicken feet have walked?). Someone suggested bird toys, like mirrors and bells, and I'm a bit curious how that might work. Then again, they're chickens, not macaws, and chickens have lived in captivity sans plastic bird toys for eons.

Let's all pray for chicken peace.


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