Untimely broodiness – breaking the habit

In normal circumstances I welcome broody chickens with open arms (although given the manner of some of my broodies I mean that metaphorically as you would be lucky to get anywhere near them!) However during the late summer months, and in particular during July and August, it can be a real problem if you find a hen that drops.

Not only are these months amongst the hottest in the UK calendar that can make the hen house an uncomfortable environment for a sitting bird, they are when the breeding season is over for me and even if I have fertile eggs available I don’t want young chicks being reared by a hen so close to the weather turning for the year.

There are other reasons too why the broody is unwelcome at this time of year. Firstly it is when that nemesis of the poultry keeper, the Red Mite, is at its peak. You might not have a red mite problem but a broody sat on a nest in Red Mite season can be an absolute magnet for these and other external parasites that can all too easily knock a bird out of condition. If this happens earlier in the year then there’s usually ample time for the hen to recover and recondition, but in August the moult, and the winter, are just around the corner and the bird should be ranging, building up reserves for what’s coming rather than depleting energy stores wasting her time sitting around on an empty nest.

This is when you need to deploy the Broody Buster.

Physiologically, a hen is designed to brood eggs as part of their reproductive process and the cycle of brooding in chickens is approximately 21 days from the point when they first start to incubate to hatching. During this time she will rarely leave the nest other than to quickly feed and drink. Her preening, dust bathing and feather care will also be curtailed and she will lose weight, lose condition and potentially pick up external parasites.  If the eggs are fertile, and hatch successfully, the hen will leave the nest and care for her brood and also start to care for herself again. As such, the 21 day period is survivable for the hen and should not have any adverse impact on her long term health. However, if a hen is left to brood with no prospect of a successful hatch there is a significant risk she will remain broody for much longer than the 3 week period and in doing so damage her health (aside from it inducing other hens in the flock to become broody).

Brooding is primarily the desire to nest; incubating and hatching is secondary, shown by the fact a hen will brood fresh air if her internal switch is flicked. In order to break this behaviour it is necessary to place the hen in a non-nesting friendly place. The quarantine cage is an ideal piece of kit to use. First remove the plastic tray and place it on top of the cage as a roof (if the base is not removable then simply turn the cage upside down so the base now acts as a roof). Place the cage on two bricks in an exposed but shady outdoor position. Add food and water, and then place the hen in the cage. This can be done within the flock enclosure or away from the main group. The hen will protest and this is when a battle of wills takes place between the keeper and the hen. She will not like being unable to nest and will want to return to her favoured location. She will, however, settle. If, after a couple of days, her behaviour seems more normal (pre-broody) she can be returned to the flock. If she again becomes broody then repeat the process for a few days longer this time. Eventually she’ll lose the desire to nest, at least until the next time.

It might seem a little harsh but it can save a lot of heart ache and hard work.…. at least until the next time she growls at you from the nest box.

Chicken Nugget – Eclipse Plumage

In wild forms of the chicken such as the Red Jungle Fowl a moult can occur in two stages effectively giving the impression of two moults. It is particularly evident in the males. Firstly they will moult their brightly coloured body and head feathers replacing them with more subdued tones more akin to the females. This affords them a level of discretion and camouflage whilst they go through the vulnerable stage of moulting their wing feathers and primary flight feathers.

When these are moulted and not yet fully grown the birds ability to evade predation by short flight is compromised hence the ‘eclipse’ of their coloured plumage. Once the wing feathers have re-grown the second stage of the moult occurs where the temporary dull coloured feathers are replaced by the bright breeding plumage.

Moulting in this manner is more frequently seen in ducks where the drakes on a lake seem to disappear. They are in fact still present but hiding in more subdued female looking feathering.

A brief interlude….

example

I write, in fact looking back over the decade of magazine, newspaper and book contributions I seem to write quite a bit. I’m not sure quite how many words I’ve written but each piece always seems to be a relatively short or succinct journey. Even the book I was involved with last year was broken down into sections that at times it felt like I was penning a series for a magazine as opposed to writing a substantial chapter of a book.

Then there was the mini guide I did for Your Chickens, again it was a segmented delivery that could well have been run in a periodical publication. That’s the beauty I guess of feature writer or columnist versus that of being an author. In fact it’s not until you sit down with an idea, the idea you just pitched successfully to a publisher, that you realise the difference.

Why this little blogette? Well today I have sat in front of me the 40,000 word final draft manuscript of a book, this time though I’m the sole author and despite the invention of computers and word processing, I still feel a little like Samuel Johnson with the first ever Dictionary, wondering if I’ve covered all that I wanted to cover….

manuscript

Free Chicken Keeping Online Booklet

Booklet

If you subscribe to this blog, follow me on twitter or have bumped into me when I’m out and about then you might know I write for the poultry press & magazines. It was one of the magazines, namely Your Chickens,  that approached me recently about working with them to put together a mini pocket guide on keeping chickens. I’m pleased to say the final product is now available… and best of all it’s completely free!

 

Booklet2

 

Simply click on this link and you will be taken to the full online version where you can flick through the booklet at your leisure.

Hard copies are available however you’ll need to visit the Your Chickens stand at this years Pet Show at Stoneleigh to grab your copy 😉

 

Wing clipping in chickens

I often get asked about how and when to clip the wings of chickens. I usually answer with a question… “why do you want to clip your chickens wings”. Its not a requirement to clip their wings and only really needs doing if you have a bird or birds that persistently clear boundaries and head off to the neighbours garden, or your veg plot.

Some breeds of chicken are reasonable flyers over a short distance, others are very good jumpers, and in both cases the clipping of wings can help reduce the amount of lift they get from frantically flapping.

Points to note though, despite clipping some birds will potentially still manage to get sufficient lift or can jump powerfully enough to clear the boundary. Wing clipping is not therefore a fix-all and some sort of netting over the run might be required.

Wing clipping is simple enough, but far simpler if you have an extra pair of hands to hold the bird. All you need do is take a pair of scissors and cut off the primary feathers ON ONE WING ONLY! This will serve to unbalance the bird and hopefully reduce the height they can gain. The image below shows the cut line in red. Note when you are holding the wing, the primary feathers are not seen when the birds wing is closed, therefore cutting them doesn’t effect the look of the bird when it is at rest.

 In terms of when to cut them, do it when the feathers are fully grown and only do it on mature birds. Don’t cut the feathers whilst they are still growing.

The feathers of course will remain cut until the bird moults, at which point new primary feathers will grow. Once they are fully grown then you can clip them again but by that time the bird may have got out of the habit of ranging a bit too far!

 

Moulting… aka getting oven ready

Late summer, early autumn sees the onset of the annual moult for chickens. If you are a first time keeper this can appear rather alarming when first encountered especially in some breeds who seem to literally drop all their feathers overnight. This dramatic transformation into an oven ready bird can send the uninitiated keeper into a panic, but worry not, it’s a perfectly natural occurrence in poultry over one year old. Hens hatched during the spring of that year will not usually moult until the following autumn but for those in their second year or beyond there is the need to replace their weather worn feathers before the winter.

When a hen goes into moult it will inevitably stop laying transferring its energies into feather regrowth. In younger birds this moult can take around 6 weeks to complete where upon the hen may start to lay again however in older birds the moult can take a number of months to complete fully. The two birds in the image are from the very same hatch, the one on the left is half way through her moult, the one on the right has completed hers.

During the moult be sure to provide a good balanced diet, fresh water, greens and a vitamin supplement can help them through what is a rather stressful period. Also be sure to provide them with dry draught free places to shelter, with the loss of their ‘clothes’ the hen will be sure to appreciate the benefit.