Fowl Language

Chickens have their own language for letting you know what they are thinking and feeling. It’s not limited to their “Bok-boks” and coos and cackles. They speak their minds with their bodies: the color and appearance of their combs and wattles, whether or not they are laying, the appearance of their plumage will tell you volumes.

Our chickens spent the winter telling us how hacked off they were with us, and understandably so. They suffered a triple whammy starting back in the late fall, when we switched their feed. They had been on Purina Layena pellets all their lives, but as organic feed became increasingly available and cheaper, we decided to make the switch. And that was our first mistake–not that we made the switch,  but that we made it too abruptly. One day the were happily crunching away on their Layena pellets, the next they were dubiously poking their beaks into what must have felt and tasted like sand. The organic feed is quite powdery with whole bits of corn and other grains. We should have introduced it gradually, mixing in an increasing ratio over several weeks. But we didn’t–and that was the first whammy.

The second whammy was just winter itself. We went from a gentle autumn to a brutal chill practically overnight. And while chickens have ways of keeping themselves and each other warm (they’re pretty much individually wrapped in down comforters), that kind of radical shift is no fun, especially combined with the shortened daylight hours.

Whammy number three was a mass molt that started in the fall and cycled through every chicken. Those down comforters? Considerably thinned. Losing all your feathers and growing new ones is a miserable affair anyway. Losing all your feathers and growing new ones in the cold when the food you like is gone—just gone—is grounds for revolt.

And revolt they did. We stopped getting eggs in late October. They spilled the new feed out of the feeder and scattered it all over the floor, refusing to eat it. Every time I walked back to the coop I was greeted by an angry chorus of chants for justice and democracy and decent grub (grubs, actually, would be great).

We backtracked a little and mixed in some pellet feed, hoping to ameliorate the situation. They ate it begrudgingly, but still no eggs. Neighbor Bill concocted some kind of chicken gourmet treat of all the people foods they adore–grits, cheese, greens–and served it on a giant platter. I gave them cat food. Still—nothing.

Finally, last week the pall began to lift. The molting seems to have passed, the days are getting longer, and we’re getting a few warm, sunny days here and there. And the egg production is beginning to bump up at last. I’m not sure yet whether we’ll stick with the organic feed, but if we get as many eggs as we did with the Layena, then it looks pretty good.

Here are a few questions that have come my way in the past few months from fellow urban flockkeepers:

Q: We got a couple of mixed breed hens last weekend. The woman I got them from was just feeding them a little corn feed because they were open range and mostly eating insects. I started feeding them the Layena crumbles and am still giving them a little bit of the corn feed. One of the eggs was really thin yesterday and then today there was only one and it was almost mushy.

They need calcium in their diet. Their bodies use it to form the shells. Give the feed time to work its way into their systems, but you can also supplement their diet with calcium rich foods. We give ours a container of cottage cheese from time to time. Lots of seed and feeds also carry crushed oyster shells which you can mix into their feed.

Q: I would like to buy some adult laying hens to start my flock. What is a good source to find them?

If you are a resident of Georgia, you are entitled to a free (I recently learned that the state now charges a fee, which is disappointing!) subscription to the Farmer’s and Consumer’s Market Bulletin, now in its 94th year of publication! The ads are a great way to find chicks and hens, plus fun facts about Georgia agriculture. Also, chickens are more and more frequently showing up on Craigslist.

Q:  My neighbor thinks one of her chickens has an egg stuck. She says it hasn’t laid for at least 2 days and is standing still a lot. She also said she thinks it is in some discomfort/pain. I think she is feeling a bit unsure of how to proceed with “greasing the vent.” Do you have any advice for her?

Yes, it sounds like she might be egg bound. Another sign is that she’s kind of holding her butt down towards the ground. The most common remedy is to get yourself a very good but thin rubber glove, douse your finger with mineral oil (or ky jelly or olive oil–you get the drift), and lubricate around and up inside her vent. The best way to get a good hold of the bird to do this is to hold her like a football under your arm with her butt toward you. Push your finger up, and you should be able to feel the egg. But be careful not to break the egg. If the egg is right at the top of the vent, it should slip out. If not, you can try a warm bath. Water should be warmer than the chx body temp, and you need to hold her lower half down in there for 20 minutes (it really needs to be that long). The idea here is that it relaxes her muscles a bit, helping the egg along. It all sounds gross, I know, but we do what we must for our girls!

Q: Help! Our sweet little pullet Lola started crowing like a rooster!

And that’s probably because Lola (aptly named, thank you, Kinks!) is a rooster. This is an all-too-common problem for city chicken keepers. Roosters are loud, and they are loud early in the morning. In densely populated urban settings, this can make for a rude awakening, so to speak. Some roosters can also be aggressive toward people in their role as flock protector. Again, Craigslist is great for this. Place an ad and see if you can find someone to take that rooster off your hands. The Atlanta Backyard Poultry Meetup Group message board is another useful way to find a home for him. Let your experience, though, be a cautionary tale for others: when you acquire your baby chicks, make sure that they are sexed—this just means someone has gone to the trouble of separating the baby hens from baby roosters—if you want to keep the neighbors happy. Bribing them with fresh eggs also helps!

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10 Comments

Filed under Flockkeeping

10 responses to “Fowl Language

  1. Great post! I love that your chickens are so good at communicating their thoughts to you. I hope that they will be happy again soon, and that their egg production returns to normal! We have tossed around the idea of raising a couple of hens. It sounds as if I have a lot of reading to do before making the decision. By the way, great photos! They are beautiful birds!

  2. d017

    Does Beth’s song have bearing? Might a bit of extra light make your flock a bit happier? The warmth of a bright light bulb late in the day, extending the “daylight” a bit is what her song (and really, the book the information came from) talks about.

  3. Beth’s song does have bearing–especially the part about “too much light” making the eggshells thin. We have a light on a timer inside the coop set to give about 10 hours of artificial light to our chickens. That aids production to a point, but with other factors (temperature, diet), it’s ineffective. And with any more light than that, their bodies are unable to produce the requisite calcium for the eggshells. Plus, it confuses them. Light and darkness are important signals to them: sunrise means it’s safe to get up, move about, start looking for food; sunset means it’s time to find shelter, settle in, be still. Chickens have bad eyesight in the dark, so moving indoors and staying put is an important defense measure. If the light stays on inside the coop for too long, they will stay outside, where it is dark, making them vulnerable to predators, weather, etc.

  4. Tamara J.

    Love this post! Thanks much. I love the protest movement in the coop.

  5. Pingback: Update on bird life | Joined the Farmy

  6. Mike

    Lola may be a hen. Some hens may be louder than standard hens when there isn’t a rooster around. Sort of a dominant hen.

    • Lola did indeed end up being a rooster, but I’ve seen what you are talking about. We have a hen—our oldest, smallest one—who from time to time feels the need to reassert her dominance over the flock. She will stop laying, start crowing like a rooster, and actually mount the other hens! Then once she feels like she’s back where she needs to be in the pecking order, she’ll settle down and start laying again. I think of her as “transhender.”

  7. Love your blog! Just tried to get my free subscription to the Farmer’s and Consumer’s Market Bulletin, and they charge for it now. Just in case you want to edit out “free”

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