Yellow and red are the colors today

grace kelly the buff orpington

Portrait of Grace Kelly the Buff Orpington.

Sometimes I go out back to take pictures of birds and chickens are the only birds I get.

lucy the rhode island red hen

Lucy the Rhode Island Red hen.

She’s the one that likes to chase our golden retriever.

daylily

Daylilies also allow a photographer to get close. They hold still long enough to have their picture taken.

Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind – listen to the birds. And don’t hate nobody. – Eubie Blake

Before your impulse purchase of cute fluffy baby chicks at the feed store, listen to the grownup hen

Hen greets the morning with a sweet warbling song. Not.

Technically, this sound is called cackling.

Translated from Chicken to English: “I laid an egg! I laid an egg!”

Sometimes this a lie. Or it is simply a repetition of what another hen said, passing along the boastful gossip. Sometimes there really is an egg, most often in an egg box in the coop. But this little Easter Egger hen lays her blue eggs here and there so we have to go on an Easter egg hunt to find them. One of the drawbacks to free ranging.

I like my hens, I like their eggs, but I do not really like this noise, especially on the earlier side of morning, especially when all four of them get going in chorus, and sometimes I go toss some corn or stale bread to distract and shut them up.

Root Simple: Do Hens Make Noise?

Being naive first time chicken owners, the first time we heard this sound caught us by surprise. We suspected that it’s the result of discomfort from squeezing out an egg, or some wonder of selective breeding, a way to announce to the poultry farmer, “Hey, time to collect an egg!” In fact, research presented by University of Sheffield animal scientists Tommaso Pizzari and Tim R. Birkhead, in an article entitled “For whom does the hen cackle? The function of postoviposition cackling,” posit that cacking is a way for hens to get the message out to nearby roosters that they ain’t in the mood. As Pizzari and Brikhead put it, “One function of postoviposition cackling may thus be to avoid the costs of sexual harassment by signalling to males a particularly unsuitable time for fertilization.” This contradicts earlier theories that cacking was, in fact, an invitation to boogie.

I have no rooster. I did once, by accident, but a rooster’s morning song is much, much more awful and so he went to live up the road where someone wanted him to supervise and inseminate her free ranging hens. You get eggs without a rooster. But the hens cackle no matter what.

Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she laid an asteroid.- Mark Twain

Feathers old and new

uglybird

Behold the molting hen, Gallus domesticus uglius.

Her feathers are loose and fall off everywhere, especially in the coop at night. You can see the prickly new pinfeathers growing in on her head and neck. She is cold, irritable, does not like to be touched. The photo above was taken on December 1.

barred rock

Here is a photo taken yesterday of the same hen, Marianne, a barred Plymouth rock. She has grown her tail back and her head and neck are covered now too. She will be the last of my four hens to complete the annual molt, which typically occurs in mid-to-late autumn.

The new feathers look really nice! A couple of my birds had been looking ratty and disheveled for months. Ella the Easter Egger especially had a lot of broken feathers.

ugly ella

Here is Ella in August, just a few scraggly tail feathers, messy broken feathers on her back and neck. Not very photogenic. Some it it may be a slow (months-long) molting process.

easter egger

Now (yesterday) look at her lovely new plumage.

Take a bow, Ella Fitzgerald. She is fatly feathered and fit for winter.

hen feathers

All birds molt.

A feather is a “dead” structure, somewhat analogous to hair or nails in humans. The hardness of a feather is caused by the formation of the protein keratin. Since feathers cannot heal themselves when damaged, they have to be completely replaced. The replacement of all or part of the feathers is called a molt. Molts produce feathers that match the age and sex of the bird, and sometimes the season.

Molting occurs in response to a mixture of hormonal changes brought about by seasonal changes. The entire process is complex and many questions remain regarding how the process is controlled.

None of my four hens are laying eggs right now, which is normal during molt and often in winter. They need more daylight (or artificial light) to stimulate laying.

rhode island red

Lucy the Rhode Island red, with shiny new feathers.

I prolonged laying their first year with light in the coop, but last year I let them have a break when they stopped laying during molt in December. They started again in early February, when daylight was over 10 hours rather than the 9 we get now (at the winter solstice).

hen butt

Fluffy butt is a characteristic of the Buff Orpington breed.

Grace Kelly has an abundance of perfect new feathers. She has always been a perfectly lovely looking bird (even during molting), and a good layer, but she is not especially friendly.

buff orpington after molting

She still has a few new pin feathers coming in around her neck. New feathers push out the old.

More on The Molt, from Hencam Blog

Molting is a messy, lengthy, disruptive event. Each chicken has about 8,500 feathers. Some birds will lose all of them, seemingly at once. It’s as if the hen is a cartoon character that sneezes and then finds herself embarrassingly naked. More often than not, it’s a patchy affair, with some bald spots and other areas looking raggedy. A few chickens never look scraggly and you can tell that they’re molting only by the evidence of their feathers on the ground. Like the leaves falling in autumn, the a flock doesn’t molt at the same time or pace. It can take a several months for everyone to lose their feathers and during that time the coop will look as if there’s been a pillow fight overnight. Every night.

I like feathers.

feather

Sometimes I pick them up and save them. Here is a feather from the barred rock, on the porch railing, with tiny snowflakes.

I brought a Ziplock bag full of chicken feathers to Thanksgiving and gave them to my 5-year-old niece who also likes feathers.

hens

Lucy and Grace.

Last spring I read a book that made me appreciate the beauty and function of bird feathers even more than I already did: Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, by author and biologist Thor Hanson.

Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. Yet their story has never been fully told.

In Feathers, biologist Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn through time and place. Applying the research of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers, and even art historians, Hanson asks: What are feathers? How did they evolve? What do they mean to us?

Engineers call feathers the most efficient insulating material ever discovered, and they are at the root of biology’s most enduring debate. They silence the flight of owls and keep penguins dry below the ice. They have decorated queens, jesters, and priests. And they have inked documents from the Constitution to the novels of Jane Austen.

Feathers is a captivating and beautiful exploration of this most enchanting object.

feathers

From the Scientific American review:

The complex structure, development and growth of feathers can, to paraphrase one expert on the subject, be seriously damaging to your mental health. Feathers are just crazy, almost certainly the most complex structures to ever grow out of any animal’s external surface.

Yet for all their marvellous complexity, for all the interest that people have displayed in their evolutionary origins and diversity, for all their role in bird behaviour and ecology, and for all their economic and cultural significance to humans, it doesn’t seem that any one book has ever been devoted to feathers and feathers alone. Thor Hanson’s 2011 Feathers is thus a rather significant book, and very nice it is too.

chicken

From The Guardian:

Feathers are the most complicated artefact fashioned by nature from a single substance: the protein keratin. That’s the stuff that nails, hair and horse’s hooves are made from. But a hair is simply a string of dead protein fibres squeezed from the follicle, like glue from a nozzle. Bird feather keratin is similarly extruded from a follicle, but it is structured so that the barbs radiating from the central quill are held together by tiny Velcro-like fasteners. All this has to be cast in a single process.

barred rock

I spy with my little eye…

chickens watermelon

I’m going to amaze you with this scientific chicken fact, as demonstrated by Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe the Buff Orpingtons as they pause from eating a wedge of watermelon to watch me approach.

Chickens use their right eyes for activities involving recognition and identification. “Oh, that’s Amy with her camera.”

buff orpingtons

They use their left eyes for depth perception and judging distance. “Amy is five feet away and coming closer.”

hens

Like many prey animals their eyes are on the sides of their heads so they have good peripheral vision but a limited range of binocular vision. (Thank you, Grace and Marilyn. Go back to your watermelon picnic on the lawn.)

I read this is in Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow. Excellent reading for the would-be or novice chicken keeper.

Hen friends

hens

Another in what could be a series: Chickens in Chairs.

These two hens are good friends. The majestic (fat) blonde, a Buff Orpington, is Number One in the pecking order; the petite, flighty Ameraucana/ Easter Egger ranks last of the five chickens ranging the backyard.

Marilyn Monroe regally tolerates Ella, expecting no challenge to her dominance. Ella stays close to Marilyn for protection and belonging.

And… maybe they just like each other.

Relax and stop hiding your eggs, Grace Kelly

My hens usually lay two or three eggs a day. Lately I have been getting one or two.

eggs

But I discovered that’s because one chicken has been hiding her eggs under the back deck behind a piece of wooden lattice leaning against the wall.

buff orpington

Here is the culprit: Grace Kelly the Buff Orpington.

She was always the hen that seemed most likely to go broody. When I had a rooster (named Caesar) she was his favorite. I suspect she decided she was going to hatch a clutch of eggs and fulfill her biological destiny – impossible, of course, since Caesar went to live on a nice little farm in the next town north of here.

Or else she just didn’t like the coop nest boxes anymore.

Yesterday I got, in the mail, a little treat for myself and my chickens: Chicken Nesting Box Herb Blend.

(Fresh Eggs Daily photo)

il_570xN.531371974_d1w0

This wonderful blend of aromatic culinary herbs and edible flowers in your chicken coop nesting boxes will act as a natural insecticide, rodent-repellent, stress reliever and laying stimulant for your chickens. And your coop will never smell better!

Basil – insecticide, antibacterial, aids in mucus membrane health
Chamomile – kills mites and lice, antiseptic, antibiotic, calming, relaxant, detoxifier
Lavender – stress reliever, aromatic, insecticide
Marigold (Calendula) – insecticide, antioxidant
Marjoram – laying stimulant, detoxifier, improves blood circulation
Peppermint – insecticide, rodent repellent
Red Raspberry Leaf – antioxidant, relaxant
Rose Petals – aromatic, antiseptic, antibacterial

Sprinkle liberally in your nesting boxes during regular cleanings or any time you wish. The herbs have wonderful health benefits so your chickens will thank you. As an added bonus, your coop will look and smell wonderful !

Will Grace Kelly be more inclined to spend time in a pretty-smelling nest box in the coop? Who knows. But I enjoyed sprinkling liberally and sniffing the nice smells.

When my daughter Anna saw me open the package and I told her what was in the muslin bags, she said: “That’s it. You ARE a witch.”

“No,” I said. “If I were a witch, I would be gathering and blending these herbs myself instead of ordering them from Etsy.”

More on Chicken Aromatherapy from Fresh Eggs Daily.

Some bird food is: birds

feathers

Hawk got a bird. Titmouse? Catbird? Not sure.

I was making dinner when I tuned in to some unusual bird sounds: the raucous calls bluejays make when they are mobbing some bigger bird they don’t like; and the noises my five chickens make when they are mildly (but not completely hysterically) freaking out about a perceived threat.

Out the back door and around the corner and I saw at wood’s edge (with harsh chorus of bluejays up in the trees) an odd sight.

Quick flash of a small, roundish hawk with a light underbelly taking off. Five chickens standing in a semi-circle out in the open on the grass a short distance from where the hawk had been, squawking in distress – but making no attempt to run off and hide. And a pile of gray and white feathers where the hawk had been.

chickens

I got a half piece of bread and the chickens followed me inside the little chicken yard that’s behind an electric fence. After I double-checked for a wounded or dead bird where the hawk had been (nothing but feathers) I looked and saw the chickens had gone all the way into the chicken run and were standing still in a protected corner.

Their PTSD lasted about 15 minutes then they wanted to go out and free range the yard again.

broad-winged hawk

Here is a Broad-winged Hawk that was hanging around our property for weeks late last summer. It never tried to eat a chicken and I got used to seeing and hearing it around.

For a couple of weeks I have heard the familiar high-pitched kee-ee not far away. I wonder if it’s the same hawk.

Early birds

Free-ranging chickens

7 a.m. The early birds dig the worms.

I have two Buff Orpingtons, a Barred Rock, a Rhode Island Red and (missing from this photo) an Easter Egger.

They are costing me almost nothing in layer pellets right now, because they free range all day and prefer foraged food to bought food.

blue flag iris

Wild blue flag iris are blooming around the pond now.

Morning walk with husband and dog (and with hens tagging along part of the way) out the gravel road to the pond, along the woodland trail to the big tree (Grandfather Pine) at the back of our property, then back around the pond.

Such a fine start to the day.

Breakfast was leftover Curried Chicken, a Jamaican breakfast recipe I got from Saveur magazine. And coffee from Birds & Beans!

Hens

The hens are two years old. Together, they lay an average of two or three eggs a day.

ChickenThe chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is a domesticated fowl, a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl. As one of the most common and widespread domestic animals, with a population of more than 24 billion in 2003, there are more chickens in the world than any other species of bird.

Today I will clean the coop.

I have been using a product for bedding that I like better than pine shavings. Koop Clean is a chopped blend of hay and straw with an added odor-neutralizing ingredient (a mineral called zeolite).

It was recommended to me by Terry, a Massachusetts “chicken blogger” who gives the best chicken-keeping advice I have ever read online. Read: Henblog.

Dandelion seed head

Dandelion seed head, make a wish.

I love these long days with so much daylight! Like my chickens, I am a daytime animal. I wake up at 5:45 a.m. too.

chickensklimt

Chickens on a Garden Path, Gustav Klimt, 1916

Woman in a White Dress

Woman in a White Dress, Henri Lebasque, 1923