Clucking Mayhem – chicken introductions, poultry politics and a bit on the side

I’m blogging from the garden right now, because I’m on hen watch. For the last four hours, my three new hens, and three existing birds, have been free ranging together.  After just over a week of living in adjoining but separate runs, I’m hoping this is the next stage in getting them to co-exist happily as a group of six.

Gertie and Midge

Mixing groups of hens is difficult.  Yes, they look sweet and innocent, don’t they?  But hens’ social structures are complex, and established and enforced by drawing blood (or worse!) if necessary.  That pecking order you’ve heard thrown about as a metaphor?  Well, it’s real.  And nasty.  It’s at times like this that you don’t get to forget than hens really are little dinosaurs at heart.  Genuine pint-sized feathery little T-Rexes.  Next time you get to spend some time watching hens, have a look in their faintly-reptilian eyes and tell me it isn’t so!

Home advantage is a big thing, so I expect the new girls to come off worse, and end up at the bottom of the new pecking order.  It’s more complicated than it might be, though, because Agnes and Doris are adult hens – the same age as Flora from the original trio.  To be honest, I was expecting the whole thing to degenerate into an explosion of swearing and flying feathers as soon as the six were out together.  It didn’t, much to my surprise!

My existing three, as far as I can tell, are ranked with Gertie (the white hen) at the top of the pile, Mabel the Isa Brown in the middle, and speckeldy-grey Flora at the bottom of the stack.  Flora was introduced to the flock last year, and got a bit of a nasty kicking in the process, mostly from Mabel who seemed to declare herself ‘enforcer’.  She still gets the sharp end of Mabel and Gertie’s short temper sometimes, particularly when there’s a tasty morsel or two they don’t want to share.

Midge and DorisThe new girls have established with Agnes, the Welsummer (and biggest of the bunch) at the top, Doris the small but adult Legbar in the middle, and Midge, the New Hampshire Red pullet at the bottom.  Agnes flexes her muscles, on occasion, though things have settled nicely.  Midge and Doris are pretty much inseparable, but Doris does occasionally remind Midge who’s in charge.

What’s really interesting to me at the moment is that Gertie and Agnes seem to have settled on what can only be described as an armed truce.  Neither has taken beak or claw to the other (well, if you ingnore Gertie pitching Agnes out of her favorite dust bath – Gertie is *very* protective of her dust bath), and they’ve been very much in each others strike range without hackles up or much in the way of posturing.  Agnes seems to have yielded subtly – she will give over to Gertie, but only just as much as necessary.  I don’t know what Gertie’s secret is, she just seems to exude natural authority!  It gets odder still.  Agnes seems to have established above Mabel (who runs for cover when she sees Agnes coming) but below Flora (who has a similar effect on the otherwise unflappable Agnes).  No doubt this is going to take some sorting out down the line, since I’m not sure pecking orders permit loops!

Flora is a fascinating character.  I suspect it’s the same cycle of abuse that’s described in humans.  She was the hen who reacted most violently to the arrival of the newcomers last week – lunging at them through the bars and even drawing blood on Agnes’ comb on the first day.  She’s declared herself ‘enforcer’ this time around, and thrown herself into the role with gusto, lunging straight at Agnes the first opportunity she got, landing on her back and really viciously pulling out neck feathers.  I’m not surprised Agnes is afraid of her!

Flora's bitThere’s a substantive difference between Flora’s attacks and those of the other bids.  The other hens will peck, will grab and pull feathers, even fly at each other feet first, but generally speaking, just enough to make their point.  Flora’s attacks are really aggressive, no-holds barred, with malice aforethought.  It became clear over the first half hour or so that if left to her own devices, Flora was going to injure one or more of the new birds, possibly seriously, so we decided to catch her and fit her with a bumper bit.

Bumper bit & pliersThis is a little plastic device which sits with a pair of prongs in the nostrils (a bit like the earpieces of a stethoscope), and has a flat bar across the mouth between the top and bottom beak and a ‘bumper’ type bar which wraps outside the mouth around the front of the beak.  By stopping the upper and lower beak coming together normally, it’s designed to prevent feather and skin pulling, and the ‘roll-bar’ in front of the point of the beak should stop her using this as a sharp weapon!

Flora wearing her bitIt’s the first time I’ve used a bit and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly.  While Flora can drink, and eat with the bit in, it does restrict her choices.  She can munch down on pellets and corn just as well as always, but grazing and preening are more difficult. Immediately after it was fitted, she was obviously aware of it and rather unhappy, she rubbed her beak on the floor and scratched at it with her feet.  But she’s settled with it now, and is foraging around the garden normally.

It hasn’t entirely disarmed her (or improved her temper!) – she’s still throwing her weight around – but the damage she’s able to inflict has been greatly reduced, as has the general level of anxiety amongst the other bids.  I’m hoping we can restrict the use of the bit to the shortest period of time we can – ideally a few days to a week or so – though we’ll have to see how the rest of the politics settle down.

Doris and Midge are going to be at the bottom of the new pecking order, but apart from the initial attacks from Flora, and the odd ‘establishment peck’ from the other hens, seem to have been mostly left alone for now.  I’ll be watching these two with particular concern when we house the girls this evening, as they may well get a rougher time when they haven’t got so many options for getting out of the way.

All the hens have been in and out of the open, now combined houses-and-runs.  Gertie seems particularly entranced by the new contraption-house!  We have two feeding stations and three drinkers in place at the moment to reduce unpleasantries associated with competition for resources.  The second house will be staying for now, as an option for any hens who don’t fancy running the gauntlet of the main coop!

Agnes enjoys a dust bath

Over all, mostly so far I’m startled by how well things have gone today.  It’s been a huge improvement on the last set of introductions – but then I learned a lot from that experience! I don’t for a minute believe that things will continue to go this smoothly, but it’s a really nice place to be starting from!

Stay tuned, folks, as the ‘clucking mayhem’ continues!

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Getting Clucky – welcome the new hens!

Three of my hens!I’ve kept hens for about three years now.  Until this week I still had three of my original four hybrid hens, but sadly on Monday Spot, my beautiful Rhode Rock (the black hen in this trio), passed away.  This was sad in itself, but also left me with three hens, one of whom (Gertie) hasn’t laid for some time, and the other two (Mabel, and younger hen Flora who came into the flock as a pullet last year) are moulting and won’t lay me anything for a few weeks at best – at worst they won’t think about it again until the days start to lengthen again.

Since my first four pullets came into lay, I haven’t bought a single box of commercial eggs (admittedly hen-keeping neighbours and colleagues have provided the occasional half dozen when my needs have exceeded my supply!).  So, I had an egg supply problem, and one that I didn’t want to solve by going back to retail eggs.  We thought about this for a while, and decided it was time to bring in a few more hens.

This wasn’t a decision we made lightly – last year, after losing Hazel, the first of my four original girls, we introduced two new pullets to our flock. The process was hugely stressful – hens can be vicious creatures, and it’s when when they turn nasty that you really see them for the tiny little feathered dinosaurs they are!  Flora and Daisy eventually settled well, but the introduction process was ghastly (and at times, brutal).  Sadly, we then lost Daisy tragically young last Christmas.

Dave welcomes the new girlsOn Thursday, I drove a 200 mile round trip to see a chicken supplier, Chris at Poultry Park in Newent, who I knew from our previous life in Gloucestershire.  I came home with three traditional breed birds – two hens, a Cream Legbar (Legbars lay blue eggs) and a Welsummer, both a year old and ‘retired’ breeding birds, and an 18 week old New Hampshire Red pullet.  Dave, our collie, was immediately intrigued by the new arrivals, and came very sweetly to say hello!

The new girlsThe new girls have moved into a run extension at the bottom of the old girls’ run.  The idea is to allow them some time to get used to the sight, sound, and smell of each other before introducing them to the same living space.  I tried the ‘short, sharp shock’ introduction approach last time, and wished I hadn’t, so it’s slowly-slowly this time.

The existing trio of hens were not impressed by the arrival of the new three girls, and Thursday afternoon was a chorus of sometimes angry chickeny-shouting in the garden.

First 'contraption' temporary hen-houseTheir first night, the new hens roosted in a ‘contraption’ of a henhouse we put together from an old cardboard box, a hedgerow stick, and a tarpaulin.  Necessity is the mother of invention, or so they say!  Anyway, the New Hampshire pullet (now called Midge) didn’t appreciate our efforts and decided to sleep out on the roof rather than inside the house with the other two!

Egg of brightest blueOn her very first afternoon with us, the Cream Legbar (now named Dorris) laid us an egg.  This egg.  A *blue* egg.  I’ve *always* coveted a hen that lays blue eggs.

If only it were all that simple, of course.  There’s a lot to do, yet, before the new girls can be settled in nicely with the existing trio.

New, improved 'contraption 2'On Friday evening, I got home to find my lovely husband half-way through building a new contraption out of the remains of an old laminate-chipboard office desk. I would have taken photographs, but it was getting late and we had to get the job done!  The new house is a huge improvement, much more robust and seems appreciated by all three girls, who are happily sleeping and (in the case of the adult hens) laying eggs inside it.

The three new girls are new to each other, too, of course – and with two of them being adult hens, there’s been some politics to work out.  Agnes, the Welsummer, is the biggest of the batch, and has decided to assert her authority.  This was all getting a bit nasty on Friday and by Saturday Dorris and Midge were looking a bit cowed, hiding away in the house with Agnes strutting about outside, or worse, guarding the pop-hole to the henhouse.

We resorted to applying some anti-peck spray to the neck and shoulder feathers of the two smaller hens.  They’ve also had several spells of free ranging time this weekend, and whether it’s that, or the slight re-arrangements we’ve also made to the space and the feeding arrangements, or just time passing, relationships seem a bit better and less stressed. By this evening with everyone was out in the run, eating and drinking and scratching around together and only occasional outbreaks of pecking-order politics.  Gertie, Mabel and Flora seem less on edge and more settled back in their normal daily routine, too. They’re even giving the odd egg!

Egg skelter

All seems relatively settled for now, and with Agnes also laying some gorgeous chocolate-brown eggs, after three years of hen keeping, finally, I’ve got the egg basket (well, egg-skelter) of my long-held dreams.  Yes, I know they all taste the same, but aren’t they beautiful?

I expect the next few weeks to involve more than their usual share of stresses and difficult moments – never a dull moment with pets and livestock!  I’ll keep you posted!

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Gosh, an award!

A very long time ago (goodness, back in March!) I got an unexpected blog comment from The Bead Den Craftivities awarding me this beauty –

It’s taken me forever to do anything about it, for which I can only apologise!  The rules of the award are quite simple, and require me to do the following –

First – and most importantly – to thank the person who awarded it to me.  So, thank you so very much to The Bead Den – and do go back and read the nomination post here, since it contains links to lots and lots of other worthwhile things.  The rest of the blog is also great, of course, and well worth your attention!

Second – to tell you all seven things about me you probably didn’t know.  This was hard (and the main thing to be honest that’s slowed me down these almost-two-months!). So here goes nothing!

  1. I’m a master mariner’s granddaughter.  Mostly this means I’m good at tying knots, and seem to have inherited a genetic resistance to motion sickness!  Once upon a time I could do semaphore and morse code, too, but I’ve forgotten how.
  2. I learned to love real ale aged 19 (university has a lot to answer for!).  Ten years later, aged 29, I started to brew my own.
  3. Three of my hens!I have four hens – Gertie, Mabel, Flora, and Spot.  I can heartily endorse back-yard hen keeping, which is a source of great joy (and fantastic eggs!).  Hens make wonderful pets.
  4. I have a 2.1 in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge.  This has no bearing whatsoever on my day job!
  5. I love learning new things, which tends to mean I acquire a new hobby at least once a year – much to my husband’s distress, as he points out (quite rightly!) that there’s no room in our small cottage for any more of my ‘stuff’.   When the hobby turns out to produce something he can eat or drink, he’s a bit more easily mollified!
  6. I have no formal training in cooking, sewing, brewing, curing, butchery, horticulture, photography, writing (beyond GCSE English!), chandlery, or really any of the other skills in this blog – I do have a habit of thinking ‘how hard can it be?’ and just giving things a try!  I have to remind myself from time to time that the other key question is ‘what could possibly go wrong??’.
  7. I adore the information, inspiration, and new perspectives which I get from fellow bloggers, and it’s great to think that in a small way I can contribute to that rich community!  [Ok, perhaps this doesn’t really qualify as ‘surprisng’ but I was really struggling for number 7!]

Third – to nominate seven more bloggers for this wonderful (and pretty, isn’t it?) award.  There’s no obligation here, folks, if you’ve been given this award before, I’m sorry to bother you again, and if you have better things to do, that’s just dandy!  But without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my seven nominees (along with a quick note about why I think their blogs are so great, and always look forward new posts) –

From Belly to Bacon – charcuterie, what more is there to say?

Very Berry Handmade – amazing fabrics, designs & sewing inspiration

The Rowdy Chowgirl – great food, and fermentation – just what every girl needs!

Into Mind – fashion & clothing customisation

Domestic Diva, M.D. – fabulous anecdotes & comfort food

Happiness Stan Lives Here – lots of red-meat based solid grub

Conker & Indigo Recipes – great food & photos

Finally, I have to go and comment on all their blogs to let them know they’ve won (and with apologies for the, um, kreativ spelling) – I hope they’re suitably psyched, or at least not too irritated with me!

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A little egg-centricity – all about the chicken and the egg

Nothing beats a really fresh free range egg.  For breakfast, fried or poached, boiled or scrambled, or for lunch in an omelette, a really fresh egg – preferably laid this morning – is head and shoulders above any other egg you’ve ever tasted.  You can see the difference straight away, even before you crack it – the shell may well be a bit grubby, and a slightly funny shape, an unexpected or uneven colour.  When you crack it open, the egg white is firm and ‘sits up’ in the pan, and the yolk is a deep orange, and bigger than you expected – if beaten, the raw egg is a rich dark yellow, rather than off-white.  In your mouth the yolk is velvety and rich, creamy and almost sweet with a luxuriant almost-custard quality and the white is firm but never rubbery – a million miles away from the flaccid anaemic and tasteless output of battery cages and the supermarket supply chain.

Fresh egg

It’s a sad fact that in the supermarket dominated, urban West, most people have probably never tasted a really good, fresh egg.  We think of eggs as being uniform, sized and graded, cheap and frankly, dull.  But they’re a natural product, and they vary – in size, colour and shape – and from the very firmest, freshest example, to the end of their storage life when the egg white is watery and the best of the flavour is gone.

I said nothing beats a very fresh egg, but of course that depends what you’re doing with it. If you want to beat the egg and use it to help with raising – in baking, or a soufflé – or you want hard boiled eggs peeled for a Salade Niçoise, then the very freshest eggs aren’t for you.  The egg white – the albumen – is actually in two parts.  The outer albumen is quite watery, you can see it spread out in the pan in the photo above.  The inner albumen is much more firm in a very fresh egg (but in an egg which has been stored for some time you probably won’t be able to see a distinction between the two).  In a very fresh egg this inner albumen has too much structure and tends to want to hold together, which doesn’t allow the batter to rise properly.  Furthermore, if you hard boil a really fresh egg and then remove the shell, the outer albumen will come away with the shell, which is a waste and makes for a scruffy-looking boiled egg.  Eggs about a week old are best for baking and hard boiling – realistically you won’t get eggs much fresher than this from the supermarket, though.

Egg storage

These are my eggs, and three things are obvious – first the range of shapes and sizes, secondly that they’re in some sort of wire device (it’s called an Egg Skelter, and I wouldn’t be without it) and not in the fridge, and thirdly that, frankly, they’re a bit grubby!

The size variability is something that you have to make adjustments for with ungraded eggs.  My approach is to weigh them and then adjust according to standard size references.  The Lion Egg Scheme people have a size guide here.

Fresh eggs will keep safely at room temperature for 3 weeks (it’s no coincidence that this is the length of time they have to stay ‘fresh’ under a warm hen if being hatched!), but if you do put them in the fridge, then you need to leave them there.  If eggs are removed from refrigeration, moisture condenses on the outside of the shell and can then be drawn through into the inside of the egg by osmosis, potentially pulling pathogens from outside the shell into the egg itself and increasing the risk of food poisoning.  My eggs don’t sit around for anything like three weeks (if I have a glut I know plenty of people who are happy to help me deal with it!) so storage at room temperature is ideal.  Better still, the egg skelter enforces first-in-first-out use, which is trickier with other storage systems.

So you’d think washing the dirt from the outside of the egg would be a good idea, right?  In fact dissolving these contaminants in water, and disrupting the outside surface of the shell, also increase the risk of pathogen entry.  Much better to leave grubby eggs as they are, and rub off any loose dirt and mud from the surface just before use.  Egg washing is not permitted in the production chain for commercial shell eggs in the UK, on a risk assessment basis, though it is common practice in other countries including the US (they tend to wash in a chlorine solution – because bleach is what you want in your eggs!).  This goes some way to explaining the obsession with clean eggs in intensive production systems – and the resulting battery cages (improved, but not yet gone), as ‘dirty’ eggs are downgraded.

I’ve kept hens for two and a half years now.  I wasn’t expecting get as attached to them as I have, they’re fascinating animals.  Funny feathery little dinosaur-descendants they certainly are, they’re inquisitive, social (and not always sociable!) little creatures.  Only when you’ve watched hens scratch around for bugs, enjoy a bit of a flap and a wing stretch, and then settle down into a well-earned and apparently thoroughly indulgent dust bath, can you really start to understand how inhumane intensive cost-led egg production systems are.  This is Gertie, by the way, my ‘top hen’, being a bit confused by her first sight of snow, and wondering what I’m doing with that camera.

Outdoor hen

You may not be able to keep your own poultry, but if only for the sake of your palate (never mind the quality of life of the poor intensive egg-producing bird) it’s worth seeking out the best and freshest outdoor reared eggs you can find – farmers markets and farm shops are a great place to start – or ask around, you may be surprised to find a colleague keeps backyard hens, and if you’re really super nice to them, they may be prepared to share! Then, enjoy your wonderful, freshest eggs, with the best home cured bacon for the most amazing breakfast fry-up you’ve ever tasted.

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