Hens Gone Wild

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I mentioned a few days ago that my older chickens (the ones from Spring 2011) are coming out of their first molt. They didn’t look as bad as some — check out the 2012 Worst Molt Photo Contest on Backyard Chickens to see how pathetic a naked, molting chicken can be — but from the look of the run, you’d think they were having pillow fights 24/7. Their combs and wattles lost most of their color and shriveled up to about half their normal size, and of course, they stopped laying.

To me, the worst part of the molt is that regrowing feathers is a high-protein job, so for several weeks we were going through more feed than normal (about 100 pounds every 10 days) without getting any eggs in return. Still, it’s a short-term trade, and my girls work hard the rest of the year to earn their vacation. Some people recommend tossing them a handful or two of cat food each day during the molt, because it has about 30% protein versus the 16% in typical layer ration. I don’t do this, mostly because I’m pretty sure my cats would inflict bodily harm on me if they caught me trying to smuggle some of their food out of the house. Hemingway’s been on the streets for most of his life. He knows things.

The feeder in our run hangs half under the coop, but I had to construct a little roof for the unsheltered side to keep the rain out. This roof is approximately 8 inches wide and 18 inches long, and the hens consider it prime real estate. I’ve counted as many as six big-bodied Wyandottes and Buff Orps congregating there at a time, and yesterday they finally managed to break it loose and take it to the ground.  I had to repair it before the rain came overnight, so I took The Boy into the run with me.

He stood there and giggled while the hens gathered around his feet, pecking at his clothing and shoes and generally investigating him. Then, for whatever reason, he squatted down and put his hand right on a fresh pile of chicken poo. What followed was probably the biggest freak-out of his three-and-a-half years. It went something like this: “I HAVE CHICKEN POOP ON MY HAND! GET IT OFF, GET IT OFF, GET IT OFF!!!” This was accompanied by much dancing about and shaking of the offending extremity, while the chickens simply backed up to a safe distance and observed. Boy and hens all survived the crisis, but I do expect that said Boy will probably listen next time when I tell him not to touch the chicken poo.

Recently, I started worrying about the ratio of chickens to nest boxes in our big coop. The standard is at least one nest for every four hens, and I hadn’t even thought about it when we put more chickens in that coop. Then it occurred to me that of the four nest boxes we do have in there, two of them are totally shunned. No matter how many times I put straw or wood chips in those boxes, the girls scratch it all back out within 24 hours. Oddly, while they never disturb the bedding material in the other two nests, they do go back and forth as far as which one of the two they use. They’ll all lay in the right-hand nest for a few months and then suddenly and inexplicably switch to the left. I’ve found as many as three hens at a time in the same nest and others lined up waiting for one of them to finish while a perfectly good, empty nest sits a foot away. You know the old saying about leading a horse to water? Well, you can also give a hen the “correct” number of laying boxes to choose from, but you absolutely cannot make her understand that each box should only be used by four hens per day.

It’s like trying to explain to a three-year-old boy that when you touch chicken poo, the chicken poo touches you back.

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