Beating boredom in the coop

Keeping chickens occupied in the winter can be a tough task.

Warm months delight chickens that are fortunate enough to have the run of a yard. There are bugs to chase and devour tasty earthworms to scratch up under fallen leaves, tender grass to snack on, and interesting places to explore.

That changes with winter’s frigid confinement. Chickens shun snow while enduring the cold months indoors. Rather than dining on summer’s diverse outdoor banquet their winter diet is limited to nutritious but unexciting commercial crumbles or pelletized feed. They have no wondrous places to explore while being cooped up with their peers.

It’s unknown if chickens get bored, but they respond with gusto when people add diversity to their winter lives. That usually means treats and snacks to vary the diet.

Although commercial feed is an important mainstay for winter chickens, ambitious owners sprout grain to give their flock a winter treat of greenery. Table scraps also add diet variety but be careful as wet soggy foods can dampen the coop litter and create odor.

Among the best table scraps for indoor feeding are small amounts of salad greens, pumpkin and squash seeds, and bits of vegetables, popcorn, and almost any other food that’s relatively dry. Only put in as much as the birds can clean up in a few minutes.

Chickens love a snack of scratch grain or cracked corn, but only a few handfuls daily are all a small flock should have. Too much grain causes chicken obesity! A NatureWise Scratch Block of compressed grain sold at feed stores and left in the coop helps to provide exercise and diversion as the birds gradually peck the blocks apart.

Perhaps the most important help a flock owner can give birds is space. Cramming hens together in winter guarantees squabbling, pecking, and other social problems. Four square feet of floor space per birds is an absolute minimum. The more room the better, and a coop that has an array of perches and roosts at different heights and angles gives the hens a place to exercise, while adding three dimensions to a coop.

If your birds are all cooped up this winter (pun intended), consider giving them a distraction from winter boredom in the form of a special treat – and make sure there is enough room in the coop to help combat cabin fever!

Predator-proofing your coop and run

In a recent article we wrote about how to identify predators that harm your flock. Now that you’ve identified your potential predator or predators, you can begin fixing the weak links in and around the coop and run.

First, let’s establish some basic ground rules to keep your flock safe:

  • No outside roosting at night. Your flock is most vulnerable in the dark.
  • Train your birds to come back to the coop every night. This may be natural for most chickens, but if your flock fails to return to the roost, simply keep them in the coop with no access to the run for at least a week. It shows the birds that this is their ‘home’. When doing so, make sure the temperature inside the coop does not exceed 70 degrees (F).
  • Secure the coop. Do this by building it off the ground about 12 inches. This discourages skunks, snakes and rats from hiding under the coop and stealing your precious eggs.
  • Keep the coop enclosed in a poultry run with poultry wire, electric netting, or wire mesh. Consider also covering the top with poultry netting.

Mesh fencing material is optimal material. Small (½ inch by ½ inch) mesh  will deter creatures and snakes.
Electric fencing can be used for dogs, raccoons or coyotes.
Hardware cloth can be buried under the fence around the perimeter of your chicken run to prevent digging predators.

  •  A coop nightlight that stays on after dark will help keep your chickens safe. Chickens do need time for rest, though, so make sure the light is not shining directly into the coop, or opt for motion detector lights outside the coop.
  • Having a watchful eye, such as a chicken-friendly dog or protective rooster, can also keep your girls safe — and alert you to potential predators.
  • Secure feed. Feed/food scraps attract predators, encouraging them to break into the run. Making sure no feed is left in that area will help prevent pests such as mice and rats. It’s best to store feed in a sturdy, metal garbage can with a tight-fitting lid, which will also help keep out moisture.

Finally, never underestimate the unpredictability of a hungry wild animal. Protect your flock, but never put yourself in physical danger.

Predator ID

Opossum takes up residence in a nest box

Nothing is more disheartening then having your flock attacked by a predator, and chickens seem to be a menu favorite for most wild and domestic creatures. Chickens are also more susceptible to attack since they’re smaller in size and weight compared to other flock animals. Knowing how to protect your girls begins with identifying who is doing the attacking.

  • Missing birds:  Coyotes, dogs, foxes and birds of prey (like hawks), will take chickens during the day, however, owls will strike at night. Domestic dogs will usually not eat the bird; they more often attack as a form of sport, leaving the body in close proximity to the attack. If it’s not molting season, scattered feathers can be a sure sign of a panic-stricken bird and potential predation.
  • Missing limbs: Raccoons are known for their intelligence, hand skills and claws. If your birds are not kept in a mesh-style pen, raccoons can reach in and pull off limbs.
  • Missing eggs: Skunk, rats, opossums, cats, snakes and birds of prey target unprotected nests. Look for egg shells in the surrounding area where the hens typically nest. If you know eggs are missing, but cannot find any shells, a stealthy snake might be getting into the nest and swallowing them whole.
  • Birds with gashes near the cloaca: Weasels and their relatives kill for food, but unfortunately, also for fun. Look for scattered or bloody feathers. They tend to bite at the vent region, pulling out the intestines. You may find some birds still alive, but severely injured from an aggressive weasel attack.
  • Birds found dead in closed corners: Birds are known to huddle together when trying to avoid predators that are in close proximity. The weight of the flock is enough to suffocate or crush the birds below. If this is found in your flock, look for signs above, as the predator may still be lurking nearby.

Once you determine what predator is threatening your flock it’s time to take steps to prevent further attacks, including securing your birds and reinforcing your coop.

Raising Thanksgiving Dinner

No meal is as traditional as Thanksgiving’s turkey dinner. Cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens all evolved and were domesticated in the Old World and were brought to North America, but not the turkey.  It was domesticated during prehistory in Central and South America.  Spanish explorers quickly learned to enjoy delicious turkey meat and shipped live birds back to Europe, where they quickly spread through the continent and beyond.

Turkey is a popular commercial meat in the United States. The average American eats just over 16 pounds of turkey per year, but very few people raise turkeys in their backyard.

If you do decide to raise turkeys with your chickens, realize they are very different and most experienced poultry growers recommend housing them separately.  For example turkeys are susceptible to diseases that chickens carry, but that chickens themselves are resistant to. Turkeys also require more space and a large yard or open area is recommended.

Many chicken breeds, such as Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and Orpingtons are true dual purpose birds that lay abundant eggs and get meaty enough to make tasty chicken stew.   This is not the case with turkeys. They are strictly meat birds with an average hen turkey laying only around 80 to 100 eggs per year, compared to 200 to 250 or more for many chicken breeds.   

There are many distinct turkey breeds ranging from the wild birds roaming woodlands to the white, broad-breasted types used for commercial production.  There are many beautiful ornamental or heritage breeds to choose from, with feather colors ranging from buff to gray to the bronze hues of wild birds.

Anyone interested in raising a few turkeys for delicious roasting should stick with heritage breeds or ornamental varieties.   Heritage breeds grow more slowly but can mate naturally and are better foragers.  Plan on feeding them for 4-6 months before they will be ready for the table. Each turkey will require four to five pounds of feed per week.

Start your turkeys on a high protein diet (like Country Feeds Gamebird Starter)  in June or July, protect them from predators and the weather, feed them well, and expect to have large and tasty turkeys for your Thanksgiving dinner. Their meat is simply delicious.

How To Switch Feeds

Feed transitions should happen gradually.

Well, you and the girls made it through another molt. The pinfeathers have emerged, and your hens are no longer walking around like they are embarrassed to be seen (and you’re no longer embarrassed when the neighbors do catch a glimpse). What now? If you have been feeding Nutrena Feather Fixer feed, you have the choice to continue to feed it year round for maximum feather quality. You should certainly continue feeding this product at least until all new feathers are fully grown in. At this point if you decide to go back to a layer feed there are a few things you should keep in mind as you make the change.

Form is important. Chickens eat more by sight than by smell or taste. That is why it can be difficult to switch your birds from pellets to crumbles and vice versa – they aren’t familiar with the shape and/or size of the feed.

Take your time. With any feed switch, you should do it gradually over time. A week to 10 days is recommended for a seamless transition.

How to make the switch:

1. Start with your current feed as the main part of the diet. As you start the transition, begin with 80% current ration and 20% new ration.

2. Gradually increase the amount of new ration vs. the old each day until your old feed is totally replaced.

3. If you notice the birds going off feed at any point in the process, take an extra day or two and slow the transition down.

4. You should always limit how much scratch and treats you feed. This is especially important during a feed transition. If your birds are filling up on goodies, they won’t feel the need to learn to eat a new feed. Keep scratch and treats at no more than 10 – 15% of the total diet.

5. Keep in mind that you still want to provide grit and oyster shell free choice while you are switching your ration.

6. Plenty of fresh, clean water is necessary all the time; during a feed transition keeping your birds well hydrated will make the process easier by helping to stimulate appetite and aid in reducing stress.

Tips to help protect your flock from disease

A serious problem looms as increasing numbers of families keep a few chickens in their yards.  Small flocks isolated from other chickens are usually healthy. Diseases have a hard time moving from one remote flock to another…unless pathogens catch a ride on a human or new bird.

Check new birds carefully for parasites.

Homeowners with just a few chickens often want to add new birds of a different breed.  A friend may need to sell or give away their chickens. Chicken swaps on weekends are becoming increasingly common, as is adopting orphaned birds.

Introducing a new chicken into your flock is risky and may bring with it diseases or parasites that can quickly ravage a healthy flock. Commercial chicken farmers keep their flocks isolated from outside birds and people who have may been in contact with chickens. In contrast, owners of small backyard flocks often welcome others to see their birds and bring orphaned birds into their flock.

The best way to avoid importing diseases or parasites is to buy chicks from a reputable source, keep them isolated from other chickens, and resist the temptation to bring in new birds. However, if adding a new chicken to the flock is necessary minimize the risk by taking prudent precaution.

Be certain the new bird comes from a healthy flock with no sick birds. Visit the flock in advance to make sure it is sanitary and all birds appear healthy. But be aware that chickens can look healthy yet carry diseases.

Pathogens can hitchhike on clothing or shoes.  So, after visiting someone else’s chickens but before checking your own birds put on fresh clean clothes. Shoes can transport diseases clinging to the soles in bits of soil or manure. To kill them brush off dirt and dip shoes in a bleach solution before visiting healthy birds.

Always make sure an outside bird is parasite free before introducing it into the flock. Many chickens harbor mites or lice. Gently but firmly hold the bird and part the downy feathers near the vent or under the wings. If lice are spotted scurrying away from the light don’t take that bird or any other from its flock home.

Quarantine any new bird before introducing it to the flock. Keep it as far away from the flock as possible, preferably in a separate building, for at least a month.  Carefully watch the newcomer for disease symptoms. If it remains healthy for a month it’s probably safe to introduce it to the flock.

A Halloween Treat for Hens

‘Tis the season of treats – and while we don’t recommend fun-sized candy bars for your birds, the truth is that every once in a while a flock of hard working hens needs a diversion and snack. One treat your chickens will enjoy is a humble and inexpensive bale of straw or hay.

Put a bale in the chicken run and get ready for hen enthusiasm as they gleefully tear it apart. Each bale holds thousands of tiny tasty tidbits hidden amid grass stems. Insects, seeds, and bits of dry green leaves are devoured as chickens quickly convert the rectangular bale into a horizontal mass of vegetation. Leaving the strings intact (or just clipping one and not both) will help ensure your hens don’t act like grade school kids and overeat this “candy”.

Chickens readily attack either hay or straw bales.The former are usually more expensive and may hold more snacks, but straw bales are sometimes easier to find in suburban and urban areas where they are sold for decorations and mulch. Straw and hay bales are often sold in garden and farm supply stores. Prior to Halloween many grocery stores sell them as decorations, but usually with a healthy mark up.They may sell them inexpensively, or even give them away, the day after Halloween.

Not only is a bale a good treat, but your hens need something to do, especially during long winter days when there’s no greenery to scratch in or bugs to chase and snack on. Nothing relieves hen boredom or offers more interesting winter exercise better than tearing apart a bale.

Winter thaws sometimes turn chicken runs into gooey mud, but having an inch or two of fresh straw on the ground insulates the soil, keeping it frozen and reducing mud.  When the ground finally thaws the straw absorbs moisture and offers a better walking surface than gooey mud. By mid-summer the straw will have completely rotted into soil organic matter, leaving only happy chicken memories of tearing the bale apart and finding delicious treats hidden in the stems.