Friday, September 18, 2009

Chickens of the Earth

One of the things that rounds out our ecosystem is chickens.  They eat anything left that we don't.  Then, with a very well rounded diet, chicken poop feeds the garden.

It seems easy, right?  Nature taking care of itself.  Another case of the big circle of life working very well without the hand of humankind to manipulate it.

Years ago though, when we first got chickens, we fed them grain.  When you first start doing something, you have to just do what people tell you to do because really, you don't have a clue.

In our second year of chickenhood, we found out that our one child, who had been mysteriously ill for three years, had a fairly major gluten sensitivity issue.  So was one of my questions, 7(?) years ago when we decided to switch to a fairly grain free household (including the animals because exposure was still making the children sick), was:  What food, from the earth (not a factory but the earth) is toxic for chickens.

It was bizarre how I could find lists of what was toxic for dogs, cats, etc. but not much for chickens.

Everyone I asked just said, "Well, they eat grain."

And when I would ask, "Well, what did they eat before people started locking them up and just feeding them grain?"

And they would act puzzled when I would state, "My chickens like meat the best. I know because I've watched them hunt for toads and fight over who got the toad in the end.  They must eat other stuff.  What else would that be?"

Even seasoned chicken people would say, "Chickens eat meat?..."

Even the Ministry of Agriculture and Food said, "Chickens eat meat?..."


No one seemed to know what chickens *really* eat.  I got lists from a couple of different sources but knew that they were wrong because by the time I found them, I had been feeding our chickens everything we were eating for a couple of years.  (all our scraps, leftovers from the fridge that we didn't want anymore, etc.)

So, we had to think about what they would eat in the wild... and do a lot of trial and error.

Now, they don't get a whole lump of any one kind of food... so if something is toxic, they don't get enough of it to bring on any outward symptoms.  That said, everything went into the chicken pot that used to be the compost pot.

If the children didn't eat the grapes fast enough, I put them in the 'chicken pot' and they'd get thrown out with all the rest (some grapes would be quite good, while others were not but I didn't have time to pick through them). So they've had loads of full grapes with no issues over the years.  And it seems to me that grapes would be a natural food for almost any bird.

I would limit raisins because of the chemicals that can be used in drying them these days but I would think that in the wild, they'd eat some of those too.  Our guys have eaten them on occasion without issue (my kids liked to share their snacks with the chickens) but because of the sulphites, I've always told the children not to feed too many.

My final thoughts on grapes... if they can swallow a whole toad and break it down, I didn't even think to worry about whole grapes.

One exception was raw potato peels and tomato greens because of the solanine.  If I thought there was too much, I'd pull some and throw them in the garden.  The problem was, we free range our chickens during the day and they'd just go over and eat them anyway.  So I stopped being so picky.

We had a dog who would also vomit if he was given any potato and after doing some reading up on them, I'm not convinced they're all that healthy for humans either (lots of joint pain issues associated with them).  So now potatoes, in our house, are treats and we don't peel them, so the animals only get extremely small bits and pieces now... not enough to seem to do anything to anyone.


We've had one fatality in the last 7 years that I SUSPECT was due to food.  My young daughter decided to give her young silkies (house chickens at the time because we felt it was too cool outside for them yet) the left over bacon and hashbrowns from breakfast.

(What are you doing? I said, that food is too expensive for those chickens and we could've put it in the salad at dinner tonight!  And I like reheated hashbrowns, so she had just dumped MY lunch in with the chickens.)

Sadly, within about 20 minutes, the biggest one with a tendency to gorge, died.  The other three, though they ate some, seemed perfectly fine.  Obviously my daughter felt just horrid! (These were her first silkies, her very special chickens and she was so proud of them.)

So even still, I'm not completely sure if it was what they were fed.  Nevertheless, the rule is now that bacon and hashbrowns don't go to animals (bacon is a treat in our house even for the humans because of the price, so regardless, I don't want the animals eating it).  And over the years I've become a very lazy cook so we don't peel our potatoes anymore... plus we limit our own intake so there just aren't enough around to make anyone sick.

Chocolate (all leftover chocolate) in our house, is to go to the Mom (me).  So though I've heard it's bad for dogs and it might have been on one of the lists for chickens, they just don't get to eat it in our house.  And the kids know that if chocolate gets 'wasted' on animals, Mom will have a screaming hissy fit. :O

We do supplement with sunflower seeds when scraps from the kitchen seem low.  I also supplement with cooked rice.

The most interesting thing was that when we took out raw grain from their diet, their water consumption was cut in half.  They just didn't seem to need all that water anymore.


One more tip.  If you use a tub big enough for watering, put some goldfish in it.  It gives the chickens something to play with and since they never seem able to catch all the fish, you'll never have mosquito larvae that survive.

Again, the big circle... it just works.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Introduction and Table of Contents

I was a city girl my whole life. Well, except for when I went to visit my grandparents in the arid part of South Africa where there was no power, not enough water to bathe or have a shower every day, an outhouse, sheep, cattle, chickens, dogs, cats, goats and killer huge grasshoppers loading with stinkbombs they'd shoot at you.

Sigh... it made me grow up and want to live more in synch with the planet.

The only thing is... this city girl's got a LOT to learn!

Chickens of the Earth
Natural Chick Hatching

Natural Chick Hatching

Somewhat akin to natural child birth, natural chick hatching is when the mother brings forth the baby in her own way, of her own accord.

We've been attempting this for 3 years with no success. Lots of laying going on but no sitting.

This year, one of our hens, Iggy, sat.

She has been sitting for almost a month, hardly moving from the back corner of the coop. She looks surprisingly good for not taking very good care of herself for so long.

Then, the first chick hatched and I, as the omniscient human, thought I should take over... and it all went awry from there:

I had several concerns about her location.  It was in a back corner of the coop where:

1) She and the chicks would have to go around a corner and down a ramp to get outside.  Fine for her but this meant that the chicks would not see daylight for some weeks as they'd be too small to traverse the steep ramp.

2) The rooster or other hens would attempt to harm the chick. 

3) Iggy would have to expend precious energy to defend her chick.  Historically I've often had to rescue chicks from a full grown chicken.  This is initially why we built the temporary chick cage in the first place.

4) The pen is enclosed to keep predators out.  This means that on the days when we go out or the hawks are flying, we don't let the chickens out to free range.  The means that they have, over time, scratched up any greenery in the pen.  I thought that it would be better if Iggy and the chick(s?) had immediate access to fresh grass, etc.

5) She's so far inside that she doesn't have access to the wide range of food that she would if I put her in the chick pen that is placed on open fresh grass.

And so I began my human planning.

I thought that an old plastic bin tipped on it's side, inside the temporary check pen would be great because it would provide a good wind barrier.

I cut a hole in a bin lid so that she wouldn't be hit by the wind from any direction.  I also thought that the sun would keep the bin so nice and warm that Iggy would have more breaks and be able to walk around outside while the eggs stayed inside, all nice and "cozy".

So I put some wood shavings in the bin and very carefully transferred all the eggs to the bin, trying not to change the position of them.  (To anyone who doesn't know, a chicken arranges and rearranges eggs all day long and does not stop until she feels that they are each in exactly the proper position.)

I even made sure to lift her up and make sure the eggs right under the middle of her, would end up in the middle when I put her in the bin.  As I took the middle eggs out from under her, she began to roll the edge eggs underneath her.  Of course, this resulted in some human confusion on my part.  Nevertheless, I continued putting the rest of the eggs in the bin and finally but Iggy on top of them.  I closed up the bin and brought the whole thing out to the temporary chick pen.

I must mention here that as I was transferring all these eggs, I was surprised at how very cool it was in the coop where she was sitting.  Being a dark, back corner, I was surprised she had even hatched one egg successfully.  Of course, the coop IS a wooden structure that is INSIDE a garage that is COVERED from exposure to the sun by a couple of very large maple trees.

But we all know that the books say that there must be constant warmth for eggs in order for them to hatch.  And to keep chicks alive, you stand a better chance if you put them in almost sauna-like conditions.  We've seen this happen with our purchased incubator chicks over the years.  The hotter the room we keep them in, the more likely it is that they survive.

I felt sure that Iggy would be much happier in this hot, grassy environment I was moving her to.

Well, within 24 hours she was pushing her chick out the door and had cracked open two of her eggs, showing that the chicks had died within.  She was also leaving her eggs all over the place and not arranging them as precisely  and closely together, as I was used to seeing her do.

Next thing I knew, she was outside the bin, with her feathers all fluffed, flapping like there was a predator in the pen.

I ran over and could see nothing amiss.  So I put her back in and then,  looking at her, realized that her wattles were no longer red and puffy.  They were now shriveled and white-ish.  She was PANTING!  It's hard to make a chicken pant.

She had been doing fine in the cool, draft free coop but was now overheated and dehydrated.  AND I had put her in the horrible position of having to push her chick out and get out herself.  I had created a homeless family!

So, I took the lid off and, realizing that it was still too hot with the sun beating down on the plastic container, I spread a double bed cover over the top of the cage.

I went out every half hour to make sure she was drinking and within a couple of hours her wattles were red an puffy again.  During this time, she had rearranged her eggs so that they were all close together and easily within her reach once again.

Once, when I went out, the chick was at the edge of the bin, peeping.  I was happy to witness Izzy push aside a couple of eggs that were blocking the chick's path to her and then stand up so that the chick could climb under her.  She then pull the two eggs back underneath her as well.

A few hours later, in the tremendous heat of the evening sun, it was still lovely and cool in the bin but getting a bit drafty.  Izzy let us know about her unhappiness by clucking loudly.  So, we put the lid back on and now, with the bed cover remaining over the cage, the bin is much closer to the coop environment and Izzy is resting beautifully again with her eggs and her chick.

It's our last hope that because she has not cracked open all the eggs, they are still viable.