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...