Everybody likes chicken dinner

Way back in 2007 when it looked like chicken keeping was going to become illegal in Chicago I became a sort of spokesperson to local press. I was interviewed on the local public television news program, and was also interviewed for print articles in some major newspapers. I’m OK with the fact that my 15 minutes of fame are well over now, but when I do still occasionally get interviewed about keeping chickens in Chicago my favorite pithy tagline is “Everybody likes chicken dinner” by way of warning people about predators.

While I’ve dealt with raccoons and raptors regularly enough that they no longer surprise me, a couple of weeks ago I had to deal with an unusual predator: a mink.

To put the attack into perspective I first have to note another event that happened recently. The same neighbor who discovered my little rooster in the woods, found another chicken in the neighborhood recently. (This guy’s ability to spot chickens is phenomenal.) The poor chicken refugee had actually been placed in a box and dumped in the alley behind my house. The chicken found its way out of the box and hid behind another neighbor’s trash can, which is where the keen-eyed neighbor spotted it.

When dealing with an unknown bird, it’s never a good idea to mix it into your flock right away, so I placed the bird in a separate coop I keep around to quarantine or isolate chickens. The coop is one of my original Eglus, which are handy little coops that are quite safe for chicken keeping…if you close and lock the coop door at night.

On this particular night about two weeks ago the weather had been very pleasant and I had the windows open. At about 2 AM, I was woken by a chicken alarm call. I dashed outside in my PJs and some sandals, grabbing the keys to the coop as I ran. There’s a street light not far from my yard, so as I approached the coops I could take in a disturbing sight: the refugee chicken laying very still in the Eglu run, accompanied by lots of scattered feathers; a hen standing in the run of the big coop crying the alarm, and my little rooster laying very still on the bottom of the run next to her.

I unlocked the full-sized door to the run and flung it open, then stood there trying to figure out what had taken down two chickens and was causing the hen such panic. As I started to enter the run area, I saw something dark moving around under the ramp up to the roosting area. It had a body like a weasel, but a black pelt that gleamed in the low light. I screamed and stepped back out of the run. I needed that thing to get out of the run as quickly as possible, and it had moved in a direction away from me (thank goodness!) and closer to another exit. I quickly unlocked and opened the side exit the critter had moved towards, then dashed back to the house for a flashlight and to rouse B and the dog for back up.

By the time I got back outside with the flashlight, trailing B and Hannah dog, the critter was gone. The distressed hen had dashed out of the run and retreated towards the safety of the house, while the other three hens remained inside the roosting area. I grabbed a long stick and started probing around the run to make sure the thing was truly gone. At first I was too frightened of it to step into the run for a good look with the flashlight, but I finally managed to do so.

It was definitely gone, so my next task was to figure out how it had gotten in. There are several doors and entrances on my coop/run combo, but every single one was padlocked shut for the night. I probed around on the coop floor and found the likely entry point: a small depression in the floor of the coop. The critter had dug its way into the coop.

My coop is skirted with 1/2-inch hardware all the way around the outside…except for one small section. There’s a built-in feed storage area and when the coop was raised into place we lined that storage area with 1/2-inch hardware cloth. Stupid me to think that lining the area and skirting the area would accomplish the same thing. For two years the coop has withstood night-time predators like raccoons, but it wasn’t enough protection from a vicious mink who was OK with doing a little digging to get some tasty chicken.

I hastily added some heavy concrete pavers around the vulnerable area, retrieved the frightened hen and put her in the roosting area, and then turned to the grisly task of dealing with the dead. Except the rooster wasn’t dead! When I went to move him, he stood up and walked a few steps before pausing. His head and neck were covered in blood and he was unsteady, but he was alive! 🙂

The refugee chicken was not so lucky. I tried to turn the body so I could figure out how it had been killed. I couldn’t see any marks on it. Then I finally maneuvered it to a better angle and shined the flashlight on it. The head was completely missing. I found it the next day inside the coop. Apparently mink and weasel are known for decapitating chickens and leaving the bodies behind. They kill for blood and sport.

I went back to bed because there wasn’t much more I could do at that time of night. I only slept lightly, though, and decided about an hour later to go back outside to check on the situation. I found the rooster sitting in the run. He didn’t have enough energy to go up the ramp into the roosting area. I didn’t want to leave him there, so I brought him into the house to clean him up and assess the damages.

Chickens don’t actually have a lot of blood in their bodies and he had lost quite a bit. When the mink had entered the coop, Little Roo (that’s what we call him since he’s a bantam rooster) had taken his role as protector of the flock very seriously and engaged with it. The mink had bitten up Little Roo’s head and neck and apparently stunned him, which is why he was laying on the ground when I arrived outside.

I rinsed off blood and soil that had caked onto the side of his head, then I placed Little Roo in the dog crate in the basement with some water and covered the crate with a blanket. After about two more hours of sleep I had to get up and get ready to go to the office. As much as I would have liked to stay home that day, I had a very important meeting and was not going to be able to re-schedule it. I scrambled an egg for Little Roo and gave it to him to eat with some leftover cooked grains, then left for the day.

When I arrived home that evening, my first order of business was to bury the decapitated chicken. Then I had to address the deficiency in the coop security. I did NOT want to be woken up again in the middle of the night because of a predator attack. With B’s help, we added more 1/2-inch hardware cloth skirting to the area lacking it. I also walked around the entire coop/run, looking for any other areas that seemed susceptible and testing how well the wire was attached to the frame. Everything else was fine.

While I was working on the coop, I had several neighbors stop by to ask what had happened. Everyone was worried about Little Roo, who has apparently become a neighborhood favorite. One would think that a creature that starts making noise as early as 4:30 AM would not be so beloved, but apparently my neighbors admire his moxie.

Meanwhile, Little Roo was still resting in the quiet and calm of the basement. He seemed weak and wasn’t eating or drinking very much which worried me. By the time I had finished all the outdoor chores, it was nearly dark outside and past the time when the avian vet office was closed. But the very next day I was telecommuting and so I called the vet’s office and got a time slot to bring Little Roo in.

Yes, I am a softie when it comes to my chickens. I just couldn’t stand to see this brave little rooster die when it seemed like it would be easy enough to get him examined and perhaps even patched up.

I had to leave him over the weekend so he could get fluids and injections of vitamins and antibiotics, but he was ready to come home on the following Monday. I kept him in the basement isolation area for a few more days before returning him to his “ladies.” He promptly chased them all down and pecked them to re-establish his place at the top of the flock. Then everyone settled down and continued with life as usual.

My coop appears to be secure now since it’s been nearly two weeks with no attacks. And while Little Roo still doesn’t have his crow back to normal, the flock has been restored to a stable place.

As for the refugee chicken, while I feel bad that it’s life was ended so traumatically it wasn’t long for this world anyway. It was not a laying breed and was instead what is unofficially called a “meat chicken;” a breed commonly found shrink-wrapped in plastic in supermarket coolers across the world. These breeds often develop health problems if a do-gooder tries to keep them alive past their usual life span of about 8-12 weeks. I was planning to take it to the live poultry butcher so it was going to wind up someone’s dinner one way or the other. Too bad the mink beat me to it.

Chicken health update

It’s been rough for everyone in the household the past few months. I haven’t felt up to writing lately because we’ve been dealing with so much sickness and death for several months now. (No, none of chickens are dead…yet…I’m referring to the death of B’s father, which will take much time to process.)

The chickens seem to have recovered from the respiratory illness. Every once in a while I’ll hear one of the Speckled Sussex hens sneeze, but their breathing is normal and they are doing OK in the cold weather. Not that they much enjoy the cold and snow. My first flock was resistant to walking in snow, too, but they were easily lured out of their coop and run with some treats.

This flock is much more hesitant to walk in the snow and they seem to prefer staying inside. We’ve had very little snow again this winter, but two days ago there was a storm that passed through and dropped about two inches. I have an old shade that I secured around part of the coop/run to keep out blowing snow, but it didn’t seem to do much good in this past storm. I can see the coop from my kitchen window and noticed that the chickens were still inside on their roosts several hours after sunrise. That’s highly unusual, especially since they have no food or water in there. B and I went out to shovel and clear snow and I found that I had to clear some of the blown snow off the ground in the run and throw down some cracked corn before the chickens would venture out. Now that’s some impressive stubbornness on their part!

Although they are now clear of the respiratory infection, though, we have another health complication that has emerged. It appears that the chickens have Favus. I noticed a couple of weeks ago that the tips of Little Roo’s comb were black. I suspected frostbite since it is not uncommon for roosters — who typically have much larger combs than hens — get a bit of frostbite in the winter. About a week later the comb was still looking the same and his wattles were also looking crusty. A few of the hens’ combs were looking a bit yellow, too.

I’m a bit slow on the uptake at times, and it didn’t occur to me until a few days ago that maybe there was something else going on here. It makes sense that they would have a fungal infection after their little bodies were subjected to two weeks of antibiotics. Any woman can attest to the fact that oral antibiotics can cause imbalances in other areas of the body (ahem) that leads one off to the pharmacy in search of miconazole.

//Mini-rant digression//Gender inequality is everywhere and very visibile in the pharmacy aisles! Miconazole — which is used to treat yeast infections in women — is so super expensive at the pharmacy that they have it locked up in a cabinet near the pharmacy desk. However, there are several topical anti-fungals to be found at nearly half of the cost a few aisles away in the foot care section. Tolnaftate and clotrimazole are both used to treat the fungal infection commonly called athlete’s foot, a condition usually associated with men. Grrrr!//rant off//

I’ve only been treating the chickens for a day with the clotrimazole cream and I’m hoping to see some improvement by the end of the week. Catching each chicken so I can rub ointment into their combs and wattles is really no fun at this time of year, but I just can’t stand to see them in this condition.

Yesterday I looked all the hens over very carefully and I can’t find any signs of mites or external parasites, which is good. I am worried about one of the New Hampshire Red hens, though. She is still molting and her new feathers are coming in very slowly. In addition, her abdomen under her vent is swollen and red. I think this is the same hen I brought to the vet just before I left on vacation last fall because I noticed she had lost a lot of feathers around her vent and her skin looked very red. She is definitely the same hen that I had to leave at the vet’s office last month for nebulizer treatments. He noticed the fluid in her abdomen and thought that would make it harder for her to get better without some special treatment. (I have a hard time telling the New Hampshire Red hens apart, but I bought some color-coded chicken “bracelets” at the feed store last month, which is helping immensely.)

Looking into the matter further, I suspect she has what is called ascites. This can a problem in broiler or meat chickens which are so fast growing that their hearts and livers simply can’t keep up. Apparently it is not unknown in laying hens, either. I’m not going to start draining fluid out this hen, so I’m thinking she will need to be put down sooner or later. She can’t be eaten so it’s no use taking her to the live poultry butcher, but with the ground being frozen now she can’t be buried, either. Since she is still getting around normally at this point, I’m not going to do anything until the ground thaws or she starts acting distressed. If necessary I could put her down and stick her in the big freezer so I can bury her later, but that is unpleasant to think about.

Quite honestly, I’m feeling like this flock is doomed and they all need to be put down. It’s totally Little Roo’s fault, too. He is sweet to watch with the ladies because he takes such good care of them, but he is obviously the source of the disease that started us down this whole roller coaster ride of health issues. (No, he didn’t cause the ascites in one hen, but all the stress of the illness isn’t helping her over-burdened heart and liver.) My last flock did not have any health issues like this and they were kept under very similar conditions.

Now that I’m getting perhaps two eggs a week from them, I’m tempted to just butcher the entire flock and turn them into soup. For now, I’ll keep treating them for the Favus and proceeding as normal. But I’m not ruling out the soup option just yet, either.

Sickness in the flock

My chickens are sick. When you’re keeping animals, sooner or later one will get sick or injured. So far, three of my six chickens are exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory infection.

When I noticed the first hen shake her head and cough about a week ago, I dismissed it as her simply clearing her throat of the greens she had just gorged on. But my smallest hen, Jane, wasn’t shaking her head and coughing to clear her throat; that was the first real sign that something was very wrong.

About this time I also noticed Jane was trying to sleep in a nest box at night. The chickens always hop up to their roosting bars at night. When I found Jane in the nest box, I nudged her along and she eventually joined her flock mates. Again, this should have been a clue to me.

Last Sunday afternoon B and ran a bunch of errands getting groceries and so forth and returned home around dusk. Before we unloaded the car, I stepped over to the coop to shut the chickens up for the night. When I opened the door to the hen-house, I heard raspy, bubbly breathing from one of the hens sitting on a roosting bar. Uh, oh.

But it wasn’t Jane that was breathing so roughly, it was one of the New Hampshire Red hens. (These three look so much alike I am severely challenged in telling who is who, so I really haven’t named them.) I knew I had to separate the hen from the flock immediately and isolate her. Respiratory diseases are highly contagious in birds and can have some serious consequences.

I have two different places to keep chickens that need to be separated from the flock: one is in an Eglu coop/run in the backyard; the second is in my basement. I have a medium-sized dog crate that can hold two hens and provide them enough room to stretch and move around. Since it is winter and sick hens need to be given extra warmth, I had to bring the raspy hen into the basement.

It actually took me two attempts to get the right hen. (As I said, the New Hampshire Reds look nearly identical!) Between the time that I left the coop to set up the basement isolation area and the time I returned the hens had moved around a bit on the roosting bars and I couldn’t figure out who was who. (It was also dark which didn’t help.) I grabbed what I thought was the correct hen, took her to the basement and popped her in the crate. Then I left her alone for a bit.

I checked that hen about three times in an hour, listening closely to her breathing. I realized I had the wrong hen, so I went back out to the coop to find the right one. When I opened the hen-house this time, I realized I was hearing two raspy, congested breathers: a New Hampshire Red, and little Jane. *sigh*

A couple of trips in and out of the house resulted in two hens crankily squatting in the dog crate. They had food, water, and I covered the crate with a sheet and blanket  to keep out drafts and block out any stray light. I checked them a couple more times before I went to bed, and had a moment of true panic when I spotted a splat of red on the bars of the crate, and another on the floor in front of it. “Oh no! The New Hampshire hen is coughing blood!,” I thought.

As I was drifting off to sleep I realized that I had given the hens some leftover beets that day, and it was very likely the red spots were not blood, but a bit of beet remains still in her crop that she had coughed up. All night long I heard this hen cough loudly every hour or two.

I was glad to see that she was still upright and OK the next morning, as was Jane. And the red stains were still there, exactly the same intensity as they had been Sunday night, so they definitely weren’t blood. (Which, of course, would have dried to a rusty red over night and not stayed vibrantly red as movies and crime shows suggest.) I was able to secure a morning appointment at the avian veterinarian and transported the hens there in the fancy carrier I usually use for them: a large cardboard box lined with newspaper.

The vet was most worried about the New Hampshire Red hen; her breathing was worse than Jane’s, and she was retaining fluid in her abdomen, too. He said that he wanted to keep her in hospital for a day and give her two nebulizer treatments, and possibly a shot of Lasix. He thought it possible the fluid retention pointed to some cardiac complications brought on by the respiratory infection. Little Jane was in better shape and could be sent home with some oral antibiotics after she got a few shots.

Right about here is where you, dear reader, may be asking, “Why are you taking chickens to a vet?!” Or perhaps you don’t ask that question exactly but wonder why I am treating chickens instead of just putting them down.  Those are fair questions.

I had this internal debate with myself as soon as I realized I had a sick hen or two. I came up with three possible approaches.

  1. Let the disease run it’s course through the flock unabated; the weakest ones would die, yet some are bound to survive.
  2. Immediately kill any bird that is clearly ill.
  3. Provide the same level of treatment and care that I would to a pet dog or cat that has a treatable illness.

I decided to choose option three because I thought it was the most humane. Actually, I think either option two or three would be humane, but I can’t say that I’m competent in killing quickly and cleanly. Frankly, while I’ve watched a few YouTube videos on home slaughter, I don’t trust that I could do it myself successfully on my first try. (And even thought I use the word slaughter here, I would definitely *not* use a sick bird for food in any way.)

My main concern now is to get the sick birds well and continue to monitor the rest of the flock closely. I left the New Hampshire Red (hastily named “Bertha” for the sake of easier communication with the vet’s office) in hospital for the day, and that has stretched into two more. However, that’s my limit. Tomorrow I go to the vet’s office to bring her home or have her euthanized if it’s determined she likely won’t get better.

Jane came home with me on Monday and is showing steady improvement. She’s eating, drinking, and her breathing is much less labored. Today she was even grooming herself, which is a very good sign. Unfortunately I had to pull yet another hen with bubbly breathing from the flock and isolate her in the crate with Jane. If I do bring Bertha home tomorrow I’ll need to move to my back up plan for arranging the basement isolation ward, since the crate is too small for three hens.

There’s valuable learning in this episode for me and others in the Chicago chicken-keeping community, so I’ve been sharing my experiences on our message board. I asked the vet how my hens could have gotten this infection. I have a “closed flock” and haven’t added any new birds since last spring when Little Roo was rescued from the woods. I asked him if it was possible that the infection came from a wild bird or if the chickens could have been carrying the disease silently.

Either of those scenarios are possibilities, and there are many more since these infections may also be carried on clothing, shoes, and equipment. I visit the coop often wearing the same shoes that I’ve worn walking around on errands, and the chickens are often allowed to roam the entire yard, getting in contact with all sorts of urban wildlife.

Stress is also a factor in an outbreak like this. It’s winter and the cold weather is stressful on the birds. Also, they’re molting so their bodies are under stress from that, too. I don’t know exactly what disease they have, but I’ll ask the vet more tomorrow when I bring in the next sick bird and consult on what to do with Bertha. These two diseases are possibilities, but there are more:

Avian Infectious Bronchitis

Mycoplasmosis gallisepticum

Both are fairly scary as they are permanent; if a flock can be confirmed to have either of these diseases, they are considered carriers for life. It’s not tragic for me as I tend to keep flocks that are “all in and all out,” meaning I don’t add to the flock piecemeal and get rid of the old birds before I start with new birds all at once. But for someone who is breeding chickens, either of these diseases is devastating as they must cull (kill) *all* of their birds, disinfect the coops and equipment, and wait a few weeks before getting new birds.

This is a sobering lesson to any chicken keepers. Be prepared to deal with a situation like this on all levels: have an area of your home or property that can used for isolating sick birds, and have the savings to pay the vet bills if you decide to use a vet. Some people choose to treat their birds on their own, but I’d prefer to leave that to an expert.

I guess the one bright side to this is that I’ve learned how to pill a chicken and found it much easier than making a dog or cat take their meds.

Drive By Blogging

Some quick, odds and ends updates.

  • Yesterday I had to call the complimentary road side assistance number to get my car started. I guess the other day when I went out to check on the mileage so I could blog about the car, I must have not turned the car off properly and that drained the battery; not the hybrid battery, just the 12V one that powers accessories and so forth. The car was still in the garage and I got the car started in plenty of time to run the only time sensitive errand I had (picking up a friend from the hospital). I have no idea what I did wrong to drain the battery, but at least I can say the road side assistance offered as part of the Toyota certified program was very prompt and helpful. The guy liked my chickens and was actually quite envious of my little rooster.
  • Speaking of the chickens, the winter decline in egg laying has started. Yesterday B told me we got two eggs, and the day before that it was only one. I should hopefully still get half a dozen eggs a week since there are five hens, but there are no guarantees.
  • The chickens are also molting, so they are looking rather ragged. At least they aren’t looking as bad as this chicken. Yes, that’s a real, non-Photoshopped image of a chicken going through a horrific molt. You can see more of little Kung Fu Henny in this post, and some updated lyrics praising her bravery here.
  • “Little roo” (a.k.a. Rory the rooster) is very cantankerous whenever we open up the coop to let the chickens out for their afternoon stroll. He apparently thinks we are after his ladies. I guess it’s understandable since in the past few months I’ve temporarily removed a hen or two about four times so they could be taken to various chicken-promotion venues, chicken-keeping classes, the vet, etc. I hope he calms down a bit since we are tired of him acting like an asshole and flogging our legs.
  • I’ve lost weight over the past few months. Yay! I have no idea how much weight since I don’t have a scale at home and rarely weigh myself at the gym. I know I’ve lost weight, though, since my clothes are much more loose, I had to buy new bras in a smaller size, and I was able to fit into some suits that I haven’t been able to wear in at least a year. 🙂 I’ll probably write more about this in another post since there are a lot of points I could expand upon.
  • I spent nearly $900 last month getting my heat to work properly. I made a stupid mistake letting the handy man move a pipe that is part of the radiant heat system for the first floor of the house. It took four visits by the heating service to properly identify the problem and fix it since there were so many variables in play. The heat works really well now, though, and I’ve learned another valuable lesson about boilers and radiant heat. Too bad these lessons usually result in me spending a lot of money.

Hot, hot, hot

Summer didn’t officially start until a couple of weeks ago, but it’s already been brutally hot. Last Thursday we had a heat index of 110 F and a city-wide heat advisory. These heat advisories started being issued after the 1995 heat wave that was deadly to over 700 Chicago residents. At that time I was living in an apartment with no air conditioning and spent most of my evenings in a cool tub of water or laying prostrate in front of a window fan. I was young, healthy, and unafraid to open my windows, unlike most of the people who died. But ever since that time the city has issued these heat advisories and prompted people to check on their elderly and infirm neighbors, leave their stifling apartments for air-conditioned city facilities, or call our non-emergency number of 311 to arrange for city employees to visit or transport people who need well-being checks.

In addition to the heat, its been very dry. We are in drought and while the extreme heat has brought it’s share of storm activity, most of the rain has been missing my area of the city. Two nights ago we got a very good shower that provided close to an inch of rain according to my rain gauge. That’s the first shower we’ve had in at least two weeks. I’ve been watering the raised beds full of veggies at least every other day and setting the sprinkler up to water the front and back yard ornamentals about once a week. It’s times like this that I mentally kick myself for not putting the soaker hoses back in place after I took them up nearly two years ago. My ornamentals are all well-established and tough perennials, though, so they are doing OK with the limited rain.

I did make one bone-headed mistake early last week. I set up the sprinkler to water the ornamentals behind the house one evening after work. I started it about 7 PM and then went back into the house to prepare and eat dinner and do my normal week-night things. I meant to turn the sprinkler off after about an hour, but I completely forgot about it. At roughly 1 AM the next morning, I woke up and realized I had left the sprinkler on, so I dashed outside to turn it off. The plants really enjoyed that watering, at least, and this was one of those times I was extremely grateful that older houses like mine in Chicago do not have water meters.

The chickens have been doing very well, too, and for that I’m grateful. According to the posts on the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts Google Group, two of our local chicken keepers lost hens due to the extreme heat last Thursday. My chickens get a lot of shade and I’ve put out an extra two-gallon water fount for them ever since it started getting really hot. Several weeks ago I also reconfigured the roosts inside their coop to allow for them to spread out more at night and have enough room to cock their wings to dissipate body heat. They also have a roosting bar in the attached, secure run so they could hang out there at night if they want. I’m very impressed that their egg production has stayed so high despite the heat. Most days I get four eggs a day from the five hens. Truly amazing.

“Little roo,” as I call the rescued bantam rooster, is firmly integrated into the flock. It only took him a couple of weeks of getting to know the hens before he started jumping them, but the ladies seem to have him in hand. It was actually a bit funny to watch since he is so much smaller than the hens; this seems to be one of those situations where size *does* matter, so I don’t think there will be any fertile eggs coming from the hens, despite his best attempts. With the extreme heat, I’ve seen almost none of this activity on his part, so maybe he’s giving up for now. His crow has changed lately, too. For the past week he’s sounded almost as if he has a sore throat!

He’s wary of me, and also a bit touchy if it seems like I have “intentions” towards his ladies. When the flock is let out to wander the yard, he’s pecked me on the foot a couple of times and thrown himself at the back of my legs a few times, too. I’ve taken to giving him plenty of room and being firm, but kind when he shows any aggression to me. I’ve managed to catch him a few times, hold him firmly, and stroke his neck. He calms down right away when held and the neck stroking makes him almost purr.

A pair of young squirrels are now living in the big maple behind the house. Hannah dog has been getting quite a workout chasing them along the fence and in the yard. The squirrels are still learning their own limits and one day last week Hannah actually caught one on the ground. I immediately called out to her and she dropped it. The little squirrel hid in among some plants, while Hannah moved away. I routed it with a broom and it scampered to the tree and up to safety, so it was unharmed.

Despite all the fun we have with Hannah’s squirrel obsession, I don’t want her to actually kill a squirrel, and I was happy she was so attentive to my call. There’s more to write about Hannah dog and how we’ve been relating over the past several months, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

Today is a lazy Sunday, or as lazy as I usually let them get. I have to drop off the overflowing recycling (this household produces only one 13-gallon bag of trash every 2-3 weeks, but the recycling is 2-3 times that much! how I wish for a blue cart!) and neaten the house. The dining room table is piled with stuff that needs putting away, but I also want to sit in the cool air conditioning and do some knitting. And since the day will be too hot to take Hannah dog out for a walk (she overheats easily, maybe due to her dark coloring), we’ll have to fit in some indoor play time, as well.

So I am off to enjoy my day! I’d love to read comments from my few readers about what you’ve been up to and how you spend your weekends.

Rooster introduction

I’ve finally taken the plunge and introduced the little rescue rooster to the hens.

Standard advice is to quarantine a new bird about a month before introducing it to your flock. I kept the rooster in a separate coop for only about 10 days before introducing him to the hens. I decided to take the chance because I had seen no signs of any illness or problems: his feathers and plumage were in very good condition, he had no discharge from his eyes or nostrils, and his droppings were normal and showed no signs of worms.

B took a video of this initial introduction. I think the rooster (we’re calling him Rory after the neighbor who suggested we rescue him) is a bit overwhelmed with the hens here.

Yesterday afternoon I took the final step of integrating him with the flock. I let him roam the yard with the hens and then put them all to bed in the main coop. There’s still a bit of adjusting to do, but they’ll all work it out.

Rough week

This has been one of the roughest weeks I’ve been through in a while. Maybe it had to happen to balance out all the good stuff and satisfaction I had been feeling. You name it, I’ve experienced it within the last week: mayhem, illness, injury, and death.

Mayhem: My dog, Hannah, got skunked in the pre-dawn last Sunday. This was the same day I was expecting friends and other visitors to my house for the Windy City Coop Tour, so I was pretty distressed. Not as much as Hannah dog, though. She suffered a direct hit to the face and I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to have skunk vitriol sprayed into eyes and mouth. When Hannah finally approached me after the attack, her eyes were red and watering and her mouth was foaming as she tried desperately to get the acrid substance out of her mouth. I never got a close look at the skunk, but from the size of the tail I saw it must have been pretty large.

So I started my Sunday by washing my dog (outside!) and trying to dissipate the odor in the yard. Of course the attack took place right near the chicken coops, so the smell was quite strong in that area. I was so glad that I had prepped extensively the day before. If I hadn’t made the food and put everything in order in advance then I doubt I would have been able to accomplish that in addition to cleaning up the dog. I made Hannah stay outside until late in the afternoon, but she still has some skunk odor about her.

Illness: It’s no wonder that I started feeling achy and tired during the work day on Tuesday. I skipped my knitting group Tuesday night and instead stayed home to rest. There was still leftover soup from Sunday, at least. (It was minestrone not chicken noodle, but hot and satisfying nonetheless). I spent the rest of the week at home, attending critical work meetings and providing guidance to my team via telecommuting. But I also spent a good portion of my day resting and drinking hot tea. Several days later, I’m still not feeling 100%, but I am feeling improved.

Injury: One of my chickens, Honey, got herself stuck under the fence on Thursday afternoon and is quite badly injured. I was convalescing on the couch when I heard a knock on door; a kindly neighbor notified me about Honey, as she had seen her while walking the dog. I had to pry off part of the cedar fence to release Honey, and once I got a look at her injuries I bundled her up and took her to the avian vet. She had a puncture in her neck (from a fence nail, perhaps), but the worst injury was to her left wing. I could see that she had a laceration along the shoulder, but when I picked her up yesterday the vet told me it had been much worse than he had thought at first glance, too. The laceration was extensive and left exposed bone, a dangling nerve, and an exposed artery. If she had wiggled just a bit more, she would have nicked the artery and bled to death.

I’m not going to disclose how much I’ve spent on her treatment because I’m a bit embarrassed. And the total cost is on its way up as I had to take her back to the vet just this morning and leave her for more treatment. She had been in fairly good shape last night but this morning she was very subdued, not eating or drinking, and had started contorting her body in an odd way every five minutes or so. We’ll see what the doctor says when he sees her this afternoon, but she’s there for the weekend now…unless something worse happens to her.

Death: My aunt died on Thursday morning. I’m sure part of the reason I’m throwing money at the problem of my injured chicken is that I just don’t want to deal with another death right now, even the death of a pet I’ve only had for a little over a month. I got to visit with my aunt over the Independence Day holiday when she was still in very good shape. Back then she was walking, talking, and up to taking a long car trip with her twin sister to visit her far-flung nieces and nephews.

I saw her again the last weekend in August (the same week I got Honey and the other chickens, by the way). For that visit I drove to visit her as she was bedridden and tired easily, although still up for short visits throughout the day. My sister and I had lunch with her and then had another short visit in the afternoon after my aunt had a chance to rest for a bit. We knew the end was coming and I knew that was likely the last time I’d see her.

My aunt enjoyed her life and her end most likely came completely painlessly. But when we grieve, it’s not because we regret their sickness and pain. It’s because we regret the loss of their presence in our lives and the possibility of sharing time with them ever again.

A new flock!

It’s been hard to sit and write lately because there are so many pressing things going on. I work very full days, I volunteer once or twice a month, I grow and cook food, and I have a house and yard to keep up by myself.

But as busy as my outside-of-work commitments make me, I really love them. One “hobby” that I’ve really missed over the past several months is keeping chickens. Last fall I decided to take a break from having a home flock. It was nice having time to reassess my coop and run set up, and to make some much-needed changes to it. It was also a good winter to take a break from tending a flock; I don’t know how I would have been able to tend to the hens in their Eglu coops when the blizzard rolled through this year. But I missed the amusing antics of chickens in the yard, not to mention the high quality eggs.

Here I’ll confess something that may shock the more frugal folks who occasionally read this blog: when I buy eggs, I typically pay nearly $7 a dozen. Really. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get some eggs for less than that at the farmers market, but I haven’t been making it to the markets very often this year due to my other commitments (work, volunteering, etc.). So when I have to buy eggs at a store, I buy them at Whole Foods where I can get a brand called Vital Farms. These are the closest thing to backyard eggs I’ve found at a major grocery store and I will gladly pay the extra money for many reasons.

I first became interested in keeping hens because of their usefulness to my first big hobby: gardening. They eat weeds and bugs, and they produce excellent fertilizer for the garden in return. Oh, and they give you tasty eggs. Win/win/win! But to me there are also ethical reasons for not buying standard store eggs. The hens that lay those cheap eggs are treated horribly, and the eggs themselves are bland and tasteless. Once I got my first hens, I also found out how fun they are. They have distinct personalities and are amusing and calming to watch.

So that’s what I was doing tonight after I stopped working, and just before the sun set: relaxing by watching my new flock of little hens. I opened up their coop door to let them roam the big yard and watched them busily scratch, peck, stretch their wings, and explore, all while making soothing peeps and clucks.

Below are the oldest of the little hens.

Honey, the mystery pullet

Honey, the mystery pullet

Honey is about five weeks old and is my favorite. She was an “impulse buy” because I hadn’t planned on getting six chickens, but she was cute and lonely sitting by herself at the store. She was obviously hand raised as a pet because she likes to sit on my arm and be held. Technically I didn’t buy her, and the store owner gave her to me since she knew I’d provide Honey a good home. But she still was a big impulse acquisition and so far I’m glad I gave in.

Emma and Jane, Speckled Sussex pullets

Emma and Jane, Speckled Sussex pullets

Emma is in the foreground and Jane is in the background. Both are a breed originally from England called Speckled Sussex, so they’re named after Jane Austen characters. They’re about eight weeks old now. Emma is the bossiest and I think she has established herself as top of the pecking order for now. She isn’t really red; that’s just the way the light was striking her feathers at the time.

Jane, a Speckled Sussex pullet

Jane, a Speckled Sussex pullet

Here’s another photo of Jane. It’s very hard to take photos of chickens since they are almost constantly moving. This was a rare time when she was standing still for a few seconds.

In addition to these lovely young hens, I have three more chicks that are about one week old living in a brooder set up in my basement. No photos of them yet, but I’m sure to get some soon.

For now the pullets are outside in my one remaining Eglu coop, which is plenty large enough for such small chickens. By winter I’ll have everyone snug in the new coop, which is nearly ready for them. All that remains to do is installing the raccoon-proof locks (slide bolts with padlocks! Yes, those ‘coons are smart little beasts!)

My new chicken coop

My new chicken coop

Cycling to work

I rode my bike to work today. This is what it was like.

I left just after 6 AM. The morning was still cool. If I had walked to the train, I likely would have worn a cardigan, but since I was riding and would get warm from exertion I just wore a t-shirt with a pair of cropped pants. Safety is important to me, so I wear a helmet and a bright yellow vest just like the construction workers wear.

The first two miles are easy and familiar. I rode this way just last week to visit a friend at her apartment. Traffic is light, but I remain alert to cars parked next to the bike lane; I wouldn’t want to get doored. There are other cyclists that pass me, but at this point of the ride there are only a few about. The ones I see are decked out in true cycling gear, riding bikes with thin tires and pedals made for those special shoes. They are all men.

I stop at the complicated intersection of Elston, Damen, and Fullerton. I realize I am at the halfway point of my ride and I’m glad because I am tired. This is the first time I’ve cycled to work in about a year and I’m not conditioned to it. I have also had no breakfast and no coffee.

The road is rough for the next mile and I try to steer around the ruts and holes without moving too far out of my lane. When I stop at lights, I drink deeply from my water bottle.

There are cyclists who don’t want to stop at signs and lights. As they approach stop signs they don’t even pause; at red lights they jostle and slip through the intersection if there is the slightest pause in traffic. I stop at every light and wait for it to turn green. I slow and pause at stop signs, not taking the right of way as the other cyclists do. But then again I need these rests to drink and to slow my breathing. It occurs to me that these other cyclists are likely 15 years younger than me.

As I merge onto Milwaukee Avenue I encounter many more cyclists. They are all young and coming from the Chicago’s equivalent to Brooklyn: the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square neighborhoods. They’re dressed in the uniform of the young and hip: jeans, graphic t-shirts, and messenger bags. They are riding street bikes that either are vintage 1980s or have been made to look like them. Many of them are not wearing helmets.

Riding Milwaukee up and over the Kennedy Expressway I gear down lower and lower. I am struggling, but I make it. At the Des Plaines Avenue bridge I get off my bike and walk for a block. I am too fatigued to attempt the steep ascent and the lane change just after the crest so I can turn left onto Fulton. But I’m back on my bike again after a few minutes and ready to finish the journey.

The last mile must be taken leisurely as I negotiate around buses and pedestrian traffic. Pedestrians are a challenge for cyclists. They apparently see us as less of threat than cars and are more likely to step out in front of us; they have more faith in my ability to brake quickly than I do.

At my office building at last I park in the bike room, unhitch my trunk bag and panniers and head up to the gym to shower. I am red-faced and sweaty, but I have a schedule to keep. I’m in my office less than 30 minutes later with some breakfast and coffee.

I work through the day.

When it is time to leave I change back into my riding clothes in the rest room. There is no rush now because I have plenty of time to get where I am going next. I begin to back track my route: Adams, Canal, Lake, Des Plaines. I make it up and over the Des Plaines bridge this time and time the light perfectly. I get a delicious whiff of chocolate from the Blommer Chocolate Factory.

As I get to the intersection of Milwaukee and Grand I’m surrounded by a pack of fellow cyclists. We all pause for an ambulance, although one fellow has to stop short quickly since he wasn’t paying close attention to the sirens and lights.

At Elston I turn off and leave behind most of the cycle pack. This stretch before Division is calm and has light traffic. I recall seeing a guy a few years ago slowly cycling along here as he conducted a conference call on his blue tooth headset.

I get caught at the light at Division and am again surrounded by men in sporty cycling gear. They don’t want to put their feet down so they jostle and balance. But the light is long and they eventually concede to gravity. Once the light changes they jack rabbit ahead and I have the road to myself again.

This time when I reach Damen I turn. I’m not going straight home, and this is a good route to my destination. I head north up and over the river, gearing down and moving slowly. This is the last big bridge I must cross and I’m grateful. North of Diversey, it’s a delight to cycle Damen on a warm afternoon. The street is lined with trees and three-story housing which blocks the sun and casts cooling shadows. I dawdle along for several blocks, crossing Belmont and Addison with ease.

Up ahead is a very dangerous intersection, though. Cyclists have been killed here and accidents occur frequently. Where Damen, Lincoln and Irving Park come together there is a CDOT safety brigade out in force. They are dressed in fluorescent yellow t-shirts and clutch pamphlets in their hands. I get off my bike and walk it through the confusing confluence. One of the CDOT people asks me “Did they warn you to be safe?” I guess he is referring to the other CDOT folk stationed where I started crossing. “I know this is a dangerous intersection,” I say, “I’d rather walk my bike here.”

I’m now on Lincoln and continue to pedal north and west. Then I reach my destination where I spend a couple of hours happily visiting and knitting. I eat a sandwich from my pack and drink lots of water. When I emerge later it is full dark. I mount my removable lights on the front and back of the bike: a clear headlight beam for the front, and a blinky red light for the back. I get on my bike and resume my ride.

Rather than get caught up in the busyness on Western Avenue, I use Wilson to cross it. I pedal past Waters Elementary and its bountiful gardens to Rockwell, where I turn north again, cross the el tracks, and pick up the bike lane on Lawrence just east of the river. One more bridge to cross, but it is not very demanding here where river traffic is limited to canoes and kayaks.

At Kedzie I encounter a bus. Buses are good, bikes are good, but making both of them share a lane is not good. I avoid playing leap-frog with the bus as long as possible, but at Kimball it is still loading passengers when the light turns green. I wait a minute, then decide that I need to pass the bus. I pull abreast of it just as it begins to rumble through the intersection. Now I’m forced to race and my leg muscles are burning. It finally falls back at a stop, but not for long.

I continue pushing myself hard. I must not get stuck behind this very full bus or I will forced to either stop every time it does or make a quick foray into the car lane at each stop. At Pulaski it seems like I’m ahead, and so it remains until I finally turn off Lawrence back onto Elston. My hamstrings, quads, and glutes are nearly quivering from the strain.

I’m on the home stretch now, and there is no chance I’ll encounter a bus on Elston. Traffic is light and I easily maneuver through the small spot of construction and the last light before I turn onto my street and pull up to the garage through the alley.

My dog greets me as I enter the house. I think she likes licking the sweat off my face, but I feel filthy and hot. I take a cool shower, pour myself a glass of whiskey, and pull out my laptop to write. I’ve cycled about 20 miles in total and it’s been a good day.

Big change

I’m officially chicken-less now.

I didn’t lose my remaining 2 hens to a predator or to injury, illness or disease. I simply decided that I needed to take a break in chicken-tending for the winter. For the past 3 years, my mornings and evenings have been bracketed by tending to my chickens. Every morning meant early rising to open the coop, top off the feeder, and change their water. Every evening meant closing up the coop and — if I hadn’t found the opportunity earlier in the day — collecting eggs.

Lately the eggs have been few and far between and I’ve been thinking of what my next steps should be: getting more hens or taking a break. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’d really like to rebuild my coop set-up before getting more chickens, so I took the hens to a “retirement home.” They’re now living with my mom’s flock out in the country, and hopefully they’ll enjoy their winter with all those other avian companions.

I was telling one of my friends about this momentous change and she said “How can we call you Chicken Linda if you have no chickens?” Well, I don’t really have an answer to that.