Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Health Food for Chickens: Muscadine Grapes?

Having lived in "the country" for a very limited part of my life, I still playing catch up on learning about sustainable living.  My wife and I took our first shot at a garden this year, with very mixed results.  We did wind up with many meals of bush beans and potatoes, but for the most part, we could have made a ton of dandelion wine.

We live, we learn.

Which is why I am always jazzed to get a freebie.  While corralling a few younger chicks away from what we call the "zone of certain death" behind our storage barn, we noticed that they were being drawn back there by an abundance of dark, round berries which had fallen to the ground.  This discovery took place just before Hurricane Irene's arrival, and when pausing for a moment to take a closer look, we were also surprised to hear what sounded like hail with each gust of increasing wind.  As our eyes moved upward into the trees, we realized that the vines for these berries were entwined around many of the larger trees - some traveling as high as thirty feet.

As I mentioned before, I'm not chicken-fried by nature, so I can be a bit of a Nervous Nellie when it comes to wild berries.  Picking one, and taking a sniff, a very familiar scent wafted into my nose - that of...a grape!  I know that many reading this are unimpressed, but "free" five-year-to-mature vines are on my cool list, and I was thrilled.  Even more so, as I began to look more closely into the trees to see just how abundant these fruits were.

How does this relate to chickens, you may ask?

Well, obviously, when stumbling upon a metric crap-load of grapes, your first thought should be "how can I make these into wine?".  Researching this variety a bit, I've identified them as "Muscadine" grapes (again, sorry for those out there who screaming "duh" at me right now...).  While there are a number of great recipes for Muscadine wine, almost all of them are consistent about one thing - the skin for this variety is thick and tough, and you will have quite a bit left over as waste, or "pomace".  There have been studies from The University of Florida however, that have shown that chickens which have been fed this pomace have experienced a boost to their immune systems when it was added as a supplement to their diet.  Their resistance to bacteria was bolstered, and mortality rates from necrotic enteritis were reduced. 

So, a toast to random country treasures, and drunken chickens!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Our Craigslist Refugees

Most of us know that buying off of craigslist is fraught with peril.  You know that you're in extra-special trouble, however, when the words "the people in the apartment next to me are gettin' mad" come out of the mouth of someone who is trying to sell you a chicken.

Our "refugees" Lady Katherine
and Lady Elizabeth
This very thing happened to us during one of our recent flock expansions.  Thinking that it might be entertaining to have a couple of Marans, for the richly flavored eggs they produce, I somehow wound up poking through ads on craigslist.  "Blue Splash Marans, laying now!" caught my eye as I scanned the ads, and so I gave the number listed a call.  What followed was a surreal conversation in which I learned that the seller was breeding chickens in between working a job in another state.  He was experiencing some issues with his neighbors, however, mostly due to the roos he was keeping.  It seemed that their crowing was carrying through the wall into the apartment next to him.  Welcome to my surreality.

Realizing that we might not be completely tuned in on the ubiquity of the urban chicken movement, we rolled the dice, and agreed to meet at a nearby 7-11 to exchange money for what must be two very urbane Marans hens.  It was about twenty seconds into our meeting that the tone shifted from "purchase" to "rescue".  Shoved into a cage barely large enough for one bird, the two poor things stared at us with an expression that was the chicken equivalent of "Get us out of here, this guy has no idea what he's doing!".

Both of the birds had obviously been used for breeding well more often than they should have.  Each had red, raw saddles from where the roo had mounted them, and were covered in filthy grey-white feathers.  They were jittery (as chickens go), and did not seem too excited about the notion of being handled.  This may explain the need for gloves and a rough nature when our genetic engineer of a breeder transferred them to our cage.

When we asked about their laying habits, we were shown a ziplock full of fairly decently colored brown eggs (about a 4-5 on the scale), and told that they were laid just this morning.  Our suspicions turned out to be true when Katherine laid her first egg a few days later.  Still referred to as "The Leather Egg", it looked more like a reptilian creation than an avian one.  If either of these birds were capable of producing what we were shown, with all the stress they looked to have been subjected to, then I would be willing to eat that leather egg with a side of toast.

Over time, however, both birds began to calm down and enjoy their new homes.  After about a month, we were getting a nicely colored egg from Katherine, delivered on a fairly regular schedule.  It would be a bit longer before Elizabeth began to produce eggs with shells that could handle the laying process, and she's still a bit hit and miss.  Because we've moved into the realm of crazy chicken people in flock size tho, we're ok with that.

Our first "proper" eggs
Even if they had not laid a single egg, what we get from knowing that they will not face the potential of eviction, rent-increases, and poor parking, (not to mention that whole easing of suffering thing), would have been a two-way street.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Breed Spotlight: Belgian D'Uccle

This breed finds its origin in the Belgian municipality of Uccle, and is yet another favorite of ours due to their sweet temperament.

Oreo, our Mottled D'Uccle (We miss you!)
D'Uccles color variants can range in appearance from "millefleur" ("millions of flowers" - a pattern of a cappuccino brown feathers, which are tipped in black followed by white), to a blueish color referred to as "porcelain" , as well as a black and white "mottled" variant.

D'Uccles are true bantams, meaning there is no "super-sized" version.  Females are generally not aggressive, and while I have noted in my reading that males can be, we have yet to experience this.  Hens from this breed will lay fairly small eggs with a pink or creme tint, to the average tune of about 120 per year.

One of our first "from chick" experiences, was with Oreo (pictured right), and we fell in love from the very beginning.  Many evenings we were greeted by an absurd looking chicken, rocking back and forth as he ran toward us in welcome.  Wonderful with our children, each of our D'uccles have been tame and calm while being held.

Much like Polish, this breed has a few extra challenges brought about by their unusual plumage.  Their beards should be checked regularly for lice and mites, and they should be kept out of muddy enclosures due to their feathered legs.

Yet another recommended addition to your backyard flock!

Breed Spotlight: Polish

Polish (or Poland) chickens are one of the most attractive breeds in my opinion, although, I must confess that my favorite hen Cordon may have me a bit enamored.  Actually originating from the Netherlands, Polish hens derive their name from their polled, or dome-shaped head, and not the country of the same name.

Cordon, our Golden Laced Polish
Our own Polish hen and roo have and sweet temperament, and I've not yet run into a more casual and pleasant breed.  Even our roo, Bleu, could be classified as "friendly" were it not for his tendency to freak out and scurry around when surprised.  Which he is by, well, everything.

Polish birds are the ideal size for an urban chicken flock.  They average about five to six pounds, and the hens are moderate layers, with an average output of 150 white eggs per year.  We've been told that they are great layers in the winter months when other breed's slow their production.  There are many different variants, such as sliver and golden laced, as well as a frizzled variation.                                        

There are a few things to remember about this breed - mostly common sense items related to their unique look:

Bleu the Silver Laced Roo

  The giant Q-tip on their head does restrict vision.  If
  you are free ranging these birds, they will need to be
  in a flock with other breeds who are able to see past
  their own toes and will warn them about predators.

  Their poms will make  them miserable when wet, so
  they need to have access to protection from rain and

  You'll need to keep an eye out for mite and lice
  infection in their...you guessed it...pom.

Finally, as noted with Bleu, make sure that you give them plenty of warning that you're near, lest they think that you appeared out of nowhere to eat them.

If you're looking for a great bird to add to a flock, I cannot speak highly enough of this breed.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Backyard Chickens - Is it for me?

Three birds should have been enough.
Ringo, Lily, and Nugget

I remember thinking that we might one day go as high as seven, but that would start to toe the "crazy chicken person" line.  Just the egg volume alone should have kept us in check - what were we going to do with a dozen eggs per week?

Raising chickens can be a bit like collecting.  Once you get a unique breed, your  quest to add to your collection begins.  "These Polish are beautiful", and "I just love our little D'Uccle!".  "Hey hon, there's a sale on Lakenvelders, and OH...Wyandottes too!".  I fear the State Fair.

Tip one - if you're in it for the money, don't be.  Keeping chickens can be very rewarding in many ways, but unless you're running a full fledged farm, don't expect to make much money.  Even selling a few dozen "farm fresh organic" eggs is not really going to cover the cost of food and time.  Breeding can be lucrative, but let's face it; unless you've stepped over that line I mentioned above, you're not looking to setup incubators in your spare room.  The value you get from chickens most likely will not be monetary.

Tip two - chickens can become pets.  At most, I was thinking that our birds would be fun to watch run around and look for things to eat.  I never envisioned sitting on my porch rocker, with a bird nestled up against my side while I pet her back feathers.  Chickens have a way of making you start to view them as a pet.  This is not a bad thing, but do keep one thing in mind when this happens - these pets are much like the cartoons of yore. To most other animals, they are walking meals, complete with steam coming off of them.  It's easy to get attached, but at the end of the day, you have to be more pragmatic about it than you would be with a dog or a cat.

Tip three - Kids love chickens, and it's a great way to let them have some responsibility.  Checking for eggs in the evening is now a regular affair, as is filling waterers and food holders.  It's a great way to introduce the idea of a j-o-b, hidden under some soft feathers.  Kids and chickens are well suited for each other, because each have the attention span of a gnat.  Unlike a dog, who will chase after you, nudging you to keep petting them, chicken will pretty much be ok if you just up and walk away.

Tip four - Chickens can be easy or complex, depending on what you want.  A few 2x4s, some plywood, some chicken-wire  and you're set.  Your coops don't need to be mansions, they just need to cover the basics:   protection from wind, a place to lay and roost, regular water and food, and something that you can keep somewhat clean.  How you deliver these needs can span a very wide spectrum.  Before you order the megalochickenhaven for a mere $299 (plus $499 shipping), be sure to check craigslist for a bargain.  On the other hand, you may find yourself going a bit overboard...

Tip five - Chicken health and wellness will be a do-it-yourself affair, unless you happen to know an exotics vet that does pro-bono work.  Illnesses such as Fowl Pox, Coccidiosis, Marek's, Newcastle Disease, and a whole host of others can have you up at night with worry.  Our advice?  Don't.  Keep your coops and brooders clean, ensure plenty of fresh food and water, and know major symptoms such as blood in the stool or lack of coordination that can key you into when quarantine is needed.   Realize that you are going to lose a bird at some point, no matter how good you are, and find your zen place with that.  They are not quite like dogs and cats, but you do still miss them.

Tip six - Water.  Water, water, water, water.  Chickens hate to be without food, but lack of fresh water is the  fastest way to weaken them and open them up to disease and illness.

Is keeping chickens hard work?  It has its spikes, but for the most part, not at all.  The joy that you get from happy birds who leave you little presents each day, and come waddling toward you each evening like they haven't seen you for years, far outweighs the amount of effort required to keep them.