Wednesday, 26 December 2012

A surprise present

We were all ready for Christmas, everything was in place. We had logs for the wood burner, Christmas dinner prepped (shh, don't tell the girls we had chicken). The presents were all wrapped and the tree was decorated with fairy lights and baubles. We'd been to church three times in the previous two days - with the Christmas Day service still to come! And that's when we found the surprise...

Joe went out to see to the chickens on Christmas Day morning, and came back looking a little shocked and quite smug.

As regular readers of this blog will know, we got our girls 4.5 months ago, at which point they were 15 weeks old. As they reached point of lay the weather turned particularly cold and as such we have failed to get a single egg from them. Our Christmas miracle, therefore, is very simple. Our first egg.

Update: We found a second on Boxing Day, we could get used to this :)

Monday, 24 December 2012

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

An icy day

Winter has definitely arrived in Wales. Some parts of the country have had snow - we haven't been that (un)lucky yet. We have had an abundance of frosty mornings though.

My understanding is that chickens aren't too bothered by temperatures around freezing. They'll live in areas that drop to -20 centigrade (certainly not something we have here). They'll happily huddle together at night for warmth and don't seem bothered by frozen ground in the day. There are just one or two little things that we have to be careful about while the weather is like this.

The main problem is that their water container has a tendency to freeze over. Some days this just means cracking the ring of ice around the bottom and flicking it out so that the fresh water from inside can flow out again. Other days the ice has been more widespread and has meant we've been bringing the whole thing in and sitting it under a warm tap in order to get it all back to normal again.

Another cold weather thing we've been thinking about is a change to their food. When topping up our supplies of pellets for the girls, we noticed they were on multi-buy with mash. As far as I know pellets and mash are exactly the same food - its just that one sort has been formed into pellets to make it easier to handle. You can treat them the same and feed either as dry food, but you can also mix the mash with water for a porridge-like consistency. Several other chicken bloggers have said they make up warm mash on particularly cold mornings and we thought that sounded like a good but potentially messy idea. As yet we haven't found time to give it a go though. Maybe as we're home more over the Christmas holidays we'll give it a try - I'll let you know how we get on.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Corn, glorious corn!

Photo courtesy of: yeagleya
I was spending some time with the hens last week, giving them a treat of some mixed corn. After a while, I decided that I should spend some time specifically with Pepper to continue training her to be handled. I caught her with relatively little fuss and was settling her onto my knee when I turned to look at the rest of the pen. I was shocked, though not really surprised, at what I saw.

Lemon and Fizzy both had their heads in the corn pot, eating as fast as they could. I'd not clipped the lid shut, and these mischievous hens are always ready to take advantage of such a situation!

They have recently become a lot more aware of the fact that corn doesn't just fall from the sky, but always comes from the same pot. Fizzy has taken to jumping up and pecking at the pot as I climb into their run - her way of saying "please, please, some of that please" (and yes, I do mean jumping). She will also now squawk at you until you give her the treat she can see - she really is becoming very demanding.

This also helped considerably when Lemon was wandering the garden recently. A quick rattle of the tin and she came running over to see what was on offer. Unfortunately Joe was attempting to photograph her escape at the time and ended up with some rather blurred chicken photos, oops!

In other news, after two weeks of limping, Pepper seems to be back to her old self again. The limp never slowed her down particularly, but it does seem to have gone away of its own accord *sighs with relief*.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Theres a chicken in my bath!

Yesterday we were late home, and as such forgot to check on our feathered friends before bed. It turns out that this was a mistake. This morning we discovered that Lemon had escaped their pen and was wandering the lawn. Given how wet she was we suspect that the escape had happened yesterday, goodness knows how we'd have got on if we'd discovered this in the dark! It turns out that some of the netting used as a roof to their run was loose which would allow a chicken to fly over.

She was swiftly caught and returned to the others, yet as the day went on the rain continued to come down. Due to their habit of refusing to shelter all four of them were looking fairly wet, but Lemon looked particularly bedraggled and cold. In the end we took pity on her and brought her inside to have a chance to warm up after a night of being outside. Pepper was also brought in to keep her company. This was the result:

 We had great fun listening to the noises the pair of them made while drying off, preening and generally standing around in the bath. A whole plethora of clucks, squawks and what can only be described as purrs.

After a couple of hours we guiltily put them back out in the rain, but at least now it was their choice to be cold and wet rather than our lack of care and attention!

Photos courtesy of Joe

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A little bit of Pepper

Pepper has an issue. To be more specific: Pepper has a limp. We've checked her foot, and her leg. We've poked and prodded her to see when she reacts, and she doesn't. We've watched her behaviour and she seems to be herself; she's eating happily, squabbling with the others over any treats and running around like normal. Yet she is definitely reluctant to put weight on her right leg. We're leaving her for the time being to see if she can sort herself out, but it's worrying to see her hobbling so much.

One advantage of this is that we've been spending more time with her and she seems to be responding well to regular handling. I've said before that we'd had some problems as we've tried to tame our hens, but Pepper is now in no hurry to get away from us. She seems to be happy to spend time sitting on my knee once placed there, and I even persuaded her to voluntarily climb on to my leg the other day (with the help of a handful of corn of course). This makes me happy!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Home, Sweet Home

I recently realised that I hadn't yet given you a tour of our chicken accommodation. When we bought our hens we went looking for a multi-purpose hen house. Our checklist included a secure area with roosts and nest boxes, something easy to clean and an outside area - preferably offering some shelter - that would be big enough for the hens to spend short periods of time in when needed. We decided a sussex coop, or something like it, would suit our needs best and promptly ordered one from the friendly people at To treat the coop for outside use we attacked it with some blue paint too.

Our plan to keep the girls in the permanent part of the run for the first few days was foiled when we realised our feeder took up about half the available space! Fortunately, to supplement the coop we'd bought a large roll of fine mesh chicken wire with which to construct any sort of run we liked. We quickly assembled a small run to start with, that has since been expanded considerably.

Our girls are currently in a temporary position helping us to weed and fertilise an area that we'd like to use for veg and seem happy with the run we've made out of mesh, sticks and fruit netting.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Theres one in every family

When I started this blog I promised you the ups and the downs of chicken keeping. So far the experience has been mainly a positive one, and if you'd like to maintain this illusion then you might want to skip this post!

As with all pets, hens sometimes need some T.L.C. To cut a long story short, Fizzy seems to have an issue with cleanliness around her bottom. This doesn't seem to be an uncommon problem and everyone has a different suggestion as to the cause. It could be a sign of illness (usually due to diarrhoea - not a problem here) or mites or lice (no signs that we can see). It could also be because the hen is sleeping on the floor rather than on a perch (if any of ours are guilty of this it would be Pepper), or just because they have lots of fluffy feathers. As Fizzy is an Orpington (a classically fluffy breed), we think that general fluff might be the problem. Fortunately Lemon (also a very fluffy hen) has avoided this so far - one bird at a time is quite enough!

The first time this happened we kept an eye on her for a while to see if it would improve, but made a final decision that we would need to step in one sunny Saturday while the girls were all free ranging in the garden. Twenty minutes of chaos later we had four very flustered hens and one very unhappy Fizzy! Having caught her, we covered her with a towel to keep her calm, and carefully cleaned everything with a bowl of warm water and a lot of patience. Fizzy was well rewarded with grapes and everything went back to normal.

Six weeks later and we're back where we started - but a little wiser this time. We plucked Fizzy from the coop with a lot less fuss and took her inside as the weather is now much colder. Having cleaned everything again we also trimmed the feathers in that region. We checked for any signs as to why this is happening, but can't see anything, so we have to assume that it might just be a perpetual problem.

I have heard rumour that this sort of thing can improve as they get older, and that other chickens in the flock will help with grooming hard to reach areas. Until such time though I think we'll have to try to maintain a preventative approach and keep things well-trimmed. This certainly wasn't something I bargained on when getting chickens!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Eat your greens!

As the weather gets colder, wetter and windier, the amount of greenery available for our chickens to eat and play in has reduced considerably. They've been starting to look bored. I'd heard that a good way to keep chickens occupied is to hang up a cabbage in the run that can swing freely for them to peck at. One Tesco Basics cabbage, some screws, wire, string and sticks later and Joe had set up a contraption to do just that.

Unfortunately, it turns out that we have fussy hens. On our return from holiday the cabbage was untouched and being resolutely ignored by the girls. A few torn-off bits that we'd tried to encourage them with were still sitting on the mud. All in all, an unmitigated failure!

In an attempt to see if the swinging food idea would work, we removed the cabbage and replaced it with an apple. We know the girls love apple - in fact they will wolf down any fruit. It took them a day or two to work it out, but once they did they loved it. It provided us with great amusement to see them bobbing their heads back and forth in an attempt to judge the movement of the fruit before making a jab. All four of them were crowded around it making the apple twist and swing - hopefully they were enjoying it as much as we were! It should have been only a matter of time before one of them got an apple to the face - but it turns out they are better at ducking than I gave them credit for. In no time at all the apple was demolished.

The following day we were amazed to see that they were starting to peck at the cabbage. In a fit of laziness we had left the whole cabbage on the run floor, and slowly each bird was giving it a go and finding it wasn't so bad after all. We hung it up again and this time they're going for it, although with less enthusiasm than the apple caused. Typical!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A day in the life...

Our chickens have quickly adapted to a routine that makes them nice and easy to care for. An average day goes something like this:

7.30 Open up the coop
Our girls don't do lie ins. If we're a little later than this they start to get grumpy. As we open up the coop door all four come tumbling down the ramp, normally led by Fizzy, and charge across the run to see what the day holds.

They then have some breakfast and will take turns at the feeder and water dispenser before rummaging through the ground for additional treats. This also seems to be the best time of day to go berserk.   They prance and flap, jump and twist, chase each other a bit and generally lark around. Maybe I should try it one day.

The majority of the day
They seem to spend most of the day engaged in a few typical activities. To name but a few: scratching the earth looking for bugs, pecking at whatever they can find, sitting in the sun, rain, or whatever the heavens have in store for us that day, wallowing in dry dusty bits of earth, eating, drinking and flapping at each other. Its a hard life.

17.00 Corn time
We always try and spend time with them when we finish work (how long this lasts is probably weather dependant), and in an attempt to tame them we generally bribe them with handfuls of mixed corn which they go mad for. The consequence of this is whenever we're in sight they'll come running over to see what we're up to, whether we're heading their way or not - just in case there's some corn to be had!

18.30 Bed time
A little bit more scratching around and then its bed time. Once the day starts to turn a bit gloomy they all check the perimeter of the run for possible roosts and then hop into the coop and snuggle down for the night. How civilised!

18.35 More corn?
Once we've spotted that they've all gone to bed one of us will pop out to shut the coop door. Fizzy, in her infinite wisdom, hears us coming and is straight out of the coop again to see what we're up to and check if there is anything tasty on offer. Sometimes this is followed by a mass exodus and we suddenly have a run full of chickens again. Typical.

18.40 Bed time. Again. 
We go back inside, and a couple of minutes later they've all gone to bed. This time we creep out and successfully shut the coop door.

And that's about all there is to it. Simple!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

An egg, an egg, my kingdom for an egg!

I'm sure you are all wondering why I have yet to mention eggs on this blog. A little unusual for a blog about keeping chickens I'll grant you. The girls are now 24 weeks old. They could have started laying at anything from 20 weeks old. Could.

This means that for the last month we have been watching and waiting for our first egg. Every sign of unusual behaviour has had us hoping. There was the night when Pepper decided that instead of going to bed she was going to walk round in circles clucking. Surely that is a sign of a hen about to lay her first egg? Apparently not. All our waiting and hoping has been in vain, and to date we have had no eggs. You heard me; no eggs.

Instead they have decided to moult. This in itself is confusing. An adult bird will moult fully once a year during the autumn - but not in its first year, so ours shouldn't be doing that this time. The other option is that this is the last of the partial moults they are supposed to do before they reach adulthood. They should be too old for this but it seems to be more likely than the first option as none of them have lost large quantities of feathers on this pass.

Whatever the reason for the moult, no hen will lay while she is trying to regrow feathers so it seems we'll have to wait a little longer. We have one more problem though; most hens will reduce laying a lot over the winter months with some stopping all together. Our hopes for eggs before spring are therefore seeming more and more far-fetched.

Pepper seems to have finished moulting for now, having regrown all of her beautiful tail feathers so maybe she will soon grace us with an egg or two. Or maybe she'll decide that the weather has been too miserable and she can't be bothered... we'll have to wait and see!

To the chicken keepers among you... has anyone else had a spring chicken not lay before its first winter? 

Monday, 8 October 2012

The rain, rain, rain, came down, down down...

Autumn has come, summer has gone;
the wind howls and the rain pours.
Still the hens sit outside.

It's dark, it's gloomy,
the ground has turned to mud.
Still the hens sit outside.

Bedraggled and wet,
feathers ruffled in every direction.
Still the hens sit outside.

We watch from a distance,
from the warmth of the house.
And still the hens sit outside.

Anyone else wonder at animals that can spend the day in a torrential downpour and act as if nothing has happened?

Monday, 1 October 2012

Clearing the Deck

When we got our chickens we had not long moved house. Our new place has a good-sized garden which had once had some shape, but had been neglected. We have lots of ideas for this space, some easy, others less so. For the time being we've made a hit list of areas we want to give life to sooner rather than later. One of these is a space that was once used as a child's play area; time and inattention however, meant that when we moved in we nicknamed it The Meadow.

A meadow is a lovely place I'm sure, but it went straight to the top of our list for working on. A series of beds we thought, some for flowers, some for vegetables. Perfect. First, however we needed to remove the grass and weeds. This is where the chickens come in.

We pulled up what remained of the membrane that had once held back the greenery and then set the girls loose on half of the area. They've loved it. In a matter of a month they have reduced it to some bare earth and a few dry stalks. Chickens: 1; meadow: 0. Once they were starting to look bored we moved them to the other half of the area and watched them tuck in with gusto to the delights of grass and dandelion leaves. I don't think that section is going to last long either.

Then came our turn to put in some hard work, marking out the first two beds, digging them up and filling them with earth.

Now all that's left is to decide what to plant. What are your favourites? Any pretty flower or tasty vegetable suggestions welcome!

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Taming of the Hen

Me making friends with our four hens
What is the best way to tame a chicken? They can be flighty and scared of sudden movements. And slow movements. And, well, any motion at all. Our girls are no different. I have seen them panic at passing house sparrows.

We wanted our hens to be pets as much as we wanted egg-producers, which is just as well as they have yet to lay an egg! Watching them from a distance is good fun, but we want to be able to interact with them properly too.

Bribery. As far as I can tell, bribery is the answer. To be more specific, food is easily the quickest way to a chicken's heart. We enter their run each day armed with a pot of mixed corn. A small scattering to get them interested, and then start keeping the corn close to us in an attempt to persuade them closer. We are even more popular on the days we present them with a grape each. Fizzy and Pepper quickly learnt to accept offerings straight from our hands, and even Frog lately has gained enough confidence to join them. Sadly, Lemon keeps her distance a little, but we try to throw her some corn while the others are distracted to make sure she gets her share.

Our real aim however, was to tame them enough to be picked up. Plenty of other chicken keepers will testify to their girls loving cuddles. So, after a couple of weeks, we started a routine of catching each of them on a daily basis, and rewarding them with food. Panic and mayhem followed. Pepper and Frog seemed the most calm while being held, but after only two days all four would barely leave their coop if we were in the run with them. Not even for corn. We gave up. We had no desire to turn them against us, and this tactic was clearly not working.

It didn't take long of just sitting in with them quietly for the girls to regain their former enthusiasm for all things edible. Did we give up too soon, I wonder? What do you think? Will it get better? 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Food for all? The return of the chickens

By jove, I think they've got it!

I'm sure you're all wondering about the outcome of our feeder training program. Five days after Fizzy mastered the art of eating from the rat-proof feeder, she was still the only one. She could have helped the others to master the feeder, but no, that's not Fizzy's style. Instead, she continued to try to confirm her position near the top of the pecking order by dominating the feeder. If any of the other girls went to eat, there Fizzy would go too. The result being that if any other chicken started to get the hang of the moving platform Fizzy would put them off further investigation.

In order to force the situation we added a kink to our run wall; the feeder was surrounded on three sides. No more reaching in from the side now! This certainly changed the group dynamics and within 24 hours we spotted all four birds eating together - all stood on the platform. Frog quickly gathered courage after this change-over. Like Fizzy, she could no longer reach the food without standing on the platform and she was spotted using the feeder without any help just a couple of days after the move. Lemon, whether  by design or accident, was also seen standing on the platform to eat (albeit with one foot still on the ground) at about the same time. We hadn't yet seen Pepper use the feeder properly, but she was eating heartily while the others were holding the platform still so we declared a success and removed the training bolts completely.

Fizzy, again, didn't seem phased by this at all (she does seem to have the brains - or maybe the brawn - of the flock). The platform sits at about her chest height now, but a run and a jump and up she goes. The others may take a little longer, but with Fizzy able to open the lid for them all we won't be having any hungry chickens yet. All in all, a successful training program.

What do you think we should get them to learn next?

The End

Update: Another week or so passes and Fizzy is still the only one who can open it properly. Lemon sort of does so without realising she is at which point Frog or Pepper will see the food and pile in, inadvertently standing on the platform and holding it open. We may have been a little premature shutting it completely, but no ones going hungry yet so we have decided to persevere. Chickens aren't known for their huge brains after all...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Pecking Order

The pecking order for chickens is exactly as it sounds. The hen at the top is allowed to peck and bully all of the others, the next hen down is allowed to peck and bully all except the top hen. This continues all the way down to the poor little thing at the bottom who is bullied and pecked by every other hen in the flock. The books all say that when a group of hens is first put together they'll take a week, or maybe two, to work out their pecking order. Then they'll all get on fairly amiably, knowing their place, until something happens to throw everything up in the air.

Of our brood, I'd say that Pepper seems to be top dog (is that an appropriate expression?!), with Fizzy next in line. Frog and Lemon are bringing up the rear. However, our girls seem to be of the opinion that the pecking order needs to be reasserted first thing each morning. Maybe they're all a bit tetchy before they've had breakfast. Take this morning for example.

They all came flying out of the coop as normal. Frog decided that it was her turn to be a bully. So far she has seemed to be a fairly placid gentle hen so she'd clearly got off the perch the wrong side today. She had her sights set on Lemon, so wherever Lemon went, Frog went too. If Lemon went to the feeder, Frog would be there to chase her away. If Lemon was pottering around minding her own business, Frog would flap her way over and attempt a short sharp peck causing Lemon to move along. The funniest bit about watching all this is that Lemon is our biggest bird, and Frog the smallest. Apparently size has no effect on matters of the pecking order.

However, Frog only has permission to behave like this towards Lemon. At one point she crossed Pepper's path instead, and had the same treatment dished out to her. Justice.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Food for all? Fizzy strikes back.

Last week I started to tell you the story of training the hens to use the feeder. Frustratingly, they had all learnt how to avoid stepping on the platform but still get to the food. The drama continues...

While they were eating they seemed to forget about that big bad platform and would step on to it, causing the dreaded movement. Over several days, the distance they fled from it got shorter and shorter. Fizzy seemed least scared and soon learnt that if she didn't run away, but just lifted her foot, she could continued eating. Still not quite what we were after but definitely progress.

Four days after we moved the training screws we had a mini celebration. Fizzy was happily eating while stood square in the middle of the platform - she'd done it! One down, three to go. The others were still quite jumpy. Pepper and Lemon's longer necks gave them an advantage. They were finding it more comfortable to reach from the side than the smaller two, and therefore were a lot less motivated to try to get closer. We hoped that more time would be enough to do the trick.

Maybe Fizzy could show the others how it is done? Maybe...

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Food for all?

One of our worries about introducing livestock into our garden was which pests we might also be inviting in. We decided from the start we would make a stand against such things, and ordered a rat-proof feeder for our girls.

The premise is simple: the feeder comes with a lid. When a hen approaches the feeder they stand on a platform, this in turn uses a series of levers to open the lid which reveals the food and allows the hen to eat. Even our two bantams should be much heavier than a large rat (a team of large rats might be a different issue - but we would cross that bridge if we ever came to it!).

The manufacturers advise a training schedule for the hens which initially involves holding the lid completely open with some screws so that the chickens learn where to find their food. This was nice and simple, and the chickens thought so too. After a few days they would charge out of the coop each morning and go straight to the feeder for breakfast. On to stage two - and this is where the fun starts!

We moved the screws a little bit lower. The lid is still mostly open, they can still see the food, they can still get to the food, but now when they step on the platform it will move. Not much, maybe a centimetre or two,but enough. This clearly was plenty... the first hen to give it a go jumped a mile! Each one tried it in turn and lots of flapping, the occasional squawk, and plenty of practice running away commenced.

Yet, as the day continued, hunger and necessity kicked in and our clever little girls learnt that if they stand to one side of the platform and stretched their necks enough then they could still eat without any unnecessary panic. Clever? Yes. Useful? No.

Patience was clearly going to be required. To be continued...

Friday, 31 August 2012

It starts

First the rat-proof feeder, then a flat-pack coop. Slowly, piece by piece, the plans came together. There was painting to be done, and food to be bought; equipment to assemble and a run to set up.

Then it arrived.
The day finally came.

We collected our chicks and brought them home, popped them in the coop and walked away. They seemed a little shocked at the removal from what they knew, but we hoped that would not last long.

The next morning we opened the door and retreated to watch for who would be brave enough to explore this new world first.

A head appeared,
and then a foot.
A shadow in the doorway -
who would it be?

As the hen made a first attempt at the ramp, the sunlight caught a golden sheen and there was Lemon, leading the way. The other three soon followed and tucked into the grass with great gusto. We breathed a sigh of relief - so far, so good. They had survived the journey and may yet come to enjoy the life of a suburban hen.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012


Over many years and countless conversations, my husband and I have been intrigued by the idea of keeping chickens in our back garden. The time is now right for us to change these day-dreams into a reality and so I want to introduce you to the four new girls in our lives:

Pepper, our light Sussex

Lemon, our gold laced Orpington

Frog, our chocolate Wyandotte bantam

Fizzy, our silver laced Orpington bantam

My intention is to keep you updated about the ins and outs, ups and downs and general mayhem that will undoubtedly ensue as we learn what it means to be urban chicken keepers. Watch this space!