Monday, January 17, 2011

"Quacking in the Rain....

....just quacking in the rain.  What a glorious feeling.  I'm happy again." 
rain dancing Flora- American Buff Goose
Okay. I don't know of times when the ducks and geese aren't happy.  They do seem deliriously so when we experience wet, blustery conditions; classic Pacific Northwest winter weather.  
don't think we'll be going out there...thank you very much
There are the chickens hunched and looking less than pleased (except for the Polish, who have such poor peripheral vision that they don't seem to see that it's raining.  They just run around like it's business as usual, looking like pathetic rag dolls once they get saturated).  Then there are the ducks and geese.  They run around, cavorting; flapping their wings and singing their waterfowl songs--really whooping it up.  
whoo hoooooo!
While the chooks may have the largest share of my affection, I keep the waterfowl mostly for this reason of joyful exhibitions as I tend to get blue on these dismally grey, short days.  I find it challenging to feel bad when I watch the ducks and geese enjoying themselves with such abandon.  Of course, getting delicious, rich ducks eggs isn't  detracting from the delight in keeping them either....
Lyle with Jacline
We specifically keep Indian Runner Ducks because we like their size, disposition, and their conformation.  Watching a duck stand upright and run around as if gravity is pulling it forward, never gets old-- mobile bowling pins.  We have 5 crested Runners in our flock that don't stand quite as upright, but do look appealing with their little "tams".  One is a drake called Lyle, for Lyle Lovett-- his ladies are the Lovetts.  The Runners are great layers, with some laying pale shamrock green tinted eggs.  Thomas was keen to have ducks, and as he so patiently puts up with my poultry obsession, anything I can do to get the man hooked I am game for.  I did raise a pair of East Indies Ducks (an iridescent black feathered, bantam duck) last spring with a few Runners.  Those bantam ducks seemed to think they were Runners and would perch upright on their toes and run as fast as they could until they figured out that they could just fly over the flock's heads to land at their destination ahead of everybody.  Pretty, bloody hilarious.    
The ducks are pretty easy to keep; good foragers- though they scarf down a lot of food.  They eat slugs and snails with relish.  Much of what I read expresses what a  mess they will make of the yard.  While they do dabble, I find them gentler on plants.  If they have plenty of space, they do negligible damage to the landscape.  Their droppings just seem to dissolve away in their pastured run.  I do fill a rubber basin for them daily (it holds about 20 gallons) for head dunking and bathing.  Ducks need to cleanse their eyes and sinuses due to how they feed.  A large, metal stock tank (that is 2'x2'x4') gets topped up as needed and refilled with completely fresh water weekly for swimming.  
I spy with my little eye...
The waterfowl must be corralled into their night quarters at dark.  If I call out, "bedtime" they will run towards their house and often start heading in, but if was up to them they would rather just hang out in the weather.  While they are hardy enough for that, our pen is very large, with big trees growing in it.  The trees are wonderful for shade in summer but their presence makes it near impossible to roof/net in their run. This puts all the run's inhabits at the mercy of owls or other enterprising predators (like raccoons climbing over the fence) if we do not close them in for the night.  I could run a radio, keeping these critters at bay, and might do this when I find a sturdy, weather proof one and if I decide I can reconcile myself to the ambient chatter cutting through the country quiet.  I hear Nite Guards- are effective too.  Haven't tried them yet.... 
Since they don't put themselves to bed like the chickens, people seem to think that waterfowl are not as bright.  They don't seem to be as adept at problem solving as the chickens, but they do exhibit a sense of humour.  I often see a duck sneak up on a chicken, goose them on the backside (no pun intended), and waddle away while quacking their heads off as if they are laughing.
take me out of here now please.....
Right now I have one of our ducks, Trout indoors in our utility room as a couple of weeks ago her right ankle was swollen up to the size of a golf ball causing her to limp.  It is not bumble foot, or a fracture (it's been thoroughly checked), but obviously she suffered some form of trauma.  She has been getting warm foot soaks with epsom salts, garlic and probiotics in her food, and I have been rubbing arnica cream into the webbing of her foot as there is a lot of vascularity there (which allows the cream to be absorbed.  The scales on her legs are just too thick).  Her swelling has slowly been going down and her ankle is now the size of a hazelnut.  While participating in this healing regimen, she now is attuned to my schedule.  If I sleep past dawn, she starts her quacking "wake-up" alarm, as if to say, "You better get in here and start feeding all your animals".  If I call out to her, she will quiet down but start quacking again in five minutes, just like my snooze alarm.  She also gives me vocal reminders if she hasn't received her twice daily baths at the accustomed hours, or when she is through with her sink soaking and wants to be returned to her hospital bed- a sheep stock tank.  She has me at her command.  Seems pretty clever to me.
Within our waterfowl flock, we have a pair of American Buff Geese.  Their husbandry needs are the same as the ducks though they tend to graze more; dabble less.  They are docile and calm, not too noisy, but as goslings, were extremely gregarious.  They would constantly groom anyone who held them and would nibble on pant legs if they were within reach.  The ducklings I raised with them are the friendliest ones in our flock from this social influence.  As goslings they were a startling neon chartreuse/gold colour.  Now mature, they are a soft, elegant buff hue as their name implies.  They are less tame than they were as wee ones, but Flora, the female, doesn't begrudge me the occasional cuddle.  She will nestle limply in my arms with her head forcefully pressed into my shoulder or in the crook of my elbow as if her skull is too heavy to lift.  Nothing quite like holding an armload of floppy goose.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seramas & Their Mama

Seramas aka Sri Ramas- One of my favourite and one of the most charismatic breeds in all of chickendom.  They are a relatively new breed believed to be created from a mix of Silkies, Japanese, and Malaysian bantams about 40 years ago.  They were developed for apartment living; purported to outnumber cats and dogs as domestic pets in their native country.  Serama are also considered to be the tiniest/lightest breed- weighing less than 450 grams; ideally less than 350. (My Modern Games, and the Old English Games that live at Pistils Nursery are physically smaller than the Seramas that reside both at the nursery, and the ones that live at my farm.  I haven't weighed any of them, so don't know who's lighter!)  They were first imported into this country in 2001 by two different pioneering individuals, KJ Theodore of Illinois (a woman), and Jerry Schexnayder of Louisiana.  I hatched my first Seramas in 2009 from fertile eggs I received from McCallum's Flock-  They have a shorter incubation period than most chickens- 18-19 days as opposed to 21.  While they hail originally from Malaysia, they are hardy outdoors in the northwest Oregon climate.
example from:
will you rub my tummy?
These birds are usually incredibly friendly, with lively dispositions and amazing posture, with tails nearly touching the backs of their heads, and wings carried forward.  This gives them a sassy little strut.  One of my clients carries a Serama about with her as an ersatz lapdog.  Hazel the chicken, sports a harness and leash!  Guinevere, a Serama hen who resides at Pistils, often amazes visitors with her insistence on flying up to a shelf about 5 feet off the ground and nestling into a cover crop bag where she lays her wee, creamy coloured egg.  Lancelot, who now lives at my farm (so he won't mate with Guinevere, since they are likely related as they came from the same source as fertile eggs), loves to lay on his back in the crook of my arm while I rub his belly.  He often falls asleep that way.

One of the many traits I enjoy about this breed is their precociousness as hatchlings.  These tiny chicks which are not much bigger than a quarter (25 cents) practically jump out of their egg, marching about almost immediately with a seemingly acute awareness of their surroundings.  In contrast, Penedesencas seem dopey and exhausted by the effort of freeing themselves from their shells.
Serama egg w/an enthusiast
Right now, I have seven hatchlings that are due to be weaned from their mother in a few weeks.  They hatched at the end of November from fertile eggs I acquired from  (Great person to deal with by the way.)  Five of the seven exhibit frizzling; two at least, are cockerels.  One started crowing today.  I will have to record the tiny squeaky crow, because it is odd sounding and utterly adorable.  Their mother is a devoted grey Silkie, Noni who incubated them. They all reside in a metal sheep stock tank in my utility room.  Though they have their mother to keep them warm, I have one of my trusty ceramic heat emitters (with a moderate heat output) clamped to the far end of the tank to provide more warmth if needed.  I also play classical music on the radio 24/7 as I believe it is soothing and acclimates the birds to the sound of human voices.  Grassy divots get added to their environment to give them something to explore, a source for greens, and hopefully some bugs to devour.
room for one more under there?
Noni, the foster mom, came to me last summer from some friends.  She was a sorry little mess.  This poor hen was infested with lice,  and scaly leg mites. After a good bath, I administered one my favourite remedies- lavender oil, both topically on her feet, as well as a few drops orally.  Lavender oil is one of the most useful in my arsenal of herbal treatments as lavender is a powerful antibacterial, anthelmintic, and antiseptic, as well as emotionally calming.  After a couple of weeks of treatment, she fully recovered and looked like a healthy Silkie should.  Like most Silkies, she is a fantastic mama.  She gently takes greens and treats- like wheat bread, from my hands, breaks them into smaller pieces, and feeds them to her chicks with her beak.  She always puts herself between me and her young ones if she is suspicious of my activities, like trying to take photos or cleaning out their brooder.  Noni is constantly singing to them and cuddling different ones.

These are MY babies...
will a harness effect my curls?
I will be keeping some of these chicks for my breeding program, but anticipate there will be a few extras available.  Maybe lap chickens will become a trend....

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Birds of a Different Feather & Winter Weather

While we have pretty moderate winters here in Portland, there are some days when I can't use the hose for tending to my flock's needs.  Today wasn't one of them, but upon awakening this morning, there was a furry, icy patina on everything; the beautiful type of frost that glitters in the light.  The ground was hard and the watering vessels had a skin of ice.

I get a lot of inquiries about poultry and winter hardiness.  In all my research, various studies report most chickens breeds are adapted to go down to 18 degrees fahrenheit.  This includes most breeds from SE Asia.  Some breeds from Northern Europe have the capacity to handle 12 degrees with aplomb-- notably the Hedemora from Sweden.  Cold is easier for chickens to take than extreme heat.  Feathers provide great insulation.  (Think down jackets, duvets, etc.)  Different species of birds as well as different breeds do have different weight/density of plumage.  Clues to winter hardiness amongst chickens is often evidenced in the size of their combs.  Most breeds with small, flat combs, i.e. pea combs, walnut combs, etc., tend to be hardier in cold.  (Though Norway's official chicken, the Jaerhon, has a rather sizeable comb and yet hails from a cold clime.) Feathered feet, and 'hard' feathering can also help with lower temperatures.

Frizzled plumage can cause a lower resistance to winter weather.  Frizzling is genetic and is when feathers grow in upside down causing a curly appearance. Due to this, there is not a great abundance of down.  About half a dozen breeds of chickens have this gene-- Ameraucanas, Cochins, Japanese, Plymouth Rocks, Polish, Sumatras, and Seramas.  People thought it looked nifty, so they bred for this quality.  I will elaborate about this trait in future postings.  Some members of my flock are frizzles....
Sultan - Sumatra rooster
Buntie - Polish Tolbunt

While we have the ability to withstand some chilly temperatures-- it doesn't mean that most humans enjoy being cold.  With wanting to keep my birds happy & healthy, I do put heat in my coop when we hit the below freezing days.  I use ceramic heat emitters, which function just like a heat bulb, but they do not create light.  (I will not rant right now about people who introduce light to induce egg laying during winter months. I think it's a unkind practice.)  I also use a really STRONG clamp and a good quality cord as I have been told too many tales of coops burning down with their inhabitants.  Sleeping restfully can only happen when I am not stressed about my birds incinerating.

The antique book, "Poultry Architecture" by George B. Fiske and published in 1902, did have the results of a West Virginia experiment station with two poultry houses built exactly alike, but with one well insulated. They used the same breeds that were the same age and both groups of fowl were fed exactly alike.  The birds in the warmer house laid nearly 25% more eggs.  However, I also think the warmth is most important for my roosters with large combs.  The girls sleep with their heads tucked under their wing, the guys don't and can get frostbitten on those exposed crowns.

Adding extras to food & water is also helpful when it's chilly.  A sprinkle of cayenne pepper in the food is a great tonic and gently warming.  I fill all my waterers with hot water in the morning and add a teaspoon of blackstrap molasses per gallon.  The water cools off pretty fast but doesn't seem to freeze up before it is all consumed (and refilled if necessary).  Molasses is full of minerals; a good source of iron and aids with calcium absorption.  It is a great energizer. Lance, my Serama rooster runs right over and inspects that water thoroughly as if he's checking to make sure it's in there.  He always shows a lot more interest in the molasses water than the plain.  Serving food warm seems enjoyable for the flock.  Sunflower seeds are a beneficial treat, as they are fattening yet healthful.
Is that molasses in there?

The ducks & geese seem to show no effect with the lower temperatures.  They adore the wet weather and their antics always cheer me when I'm blue from all the grey skies.  The guineas also seem to be pretty indifferent to the cold and less effected than the chickens by the damp.  They all share the same food & water as the chooks (an Aussie/New Zealand word for chicken) since they all inhabit the same enormous run.  The waterfowl get extra basins for bathing.
adorable knit hen legs
Certain individuals in my flock approach me daily to be held and petted.  I am always amazed that no matter how cold it may be, their legs usually feel warm.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Going to the Birds

How does a person get here?  Namely this city bred woman who now rises daily at dawn and rushes home at dusk as often as possible to attend to a multitude of ornithological beings?  Though I have had to privilege to oversee a flock of Rhode Island Reds when my partner and I resided briefly in New Zealand a few years back, it all came about to ease a commute.  (I also used to help with the penguin flock at the San Francisco Zoo, but that's another story...)

My romantic partner is a winemaker by trade and his commute from our floating home in Portland was exhausting.  When a friend offered to rent us the extra farm house on his vineyard estate that would effectively cut his commute in half we jumped at it.  I thought I would come and go between the country house and the city house as I work and study in town, but with all the space I kind of jumped in full bore with my "visions of farm animals dancing in my head".  As I work part-time with a wonderful plant nursery that supports urban homesteading and was the first to sell chicks to backyard flock keepers in Portland proper, I realized that I didn't have to just admire the chicks, I could start raising my own.  A couple of years before we lived on the farm, I had organized a "Pullet Days" with a valley farmer to sell 'started' pullets (birds that are ready to be outside) at the nursery.  It was a huge hit and gave me the idea that with our country spread, I could do the same.
Newly hatched Seramas & White Faced Black Spanish

Pistils Nursery receives almost one hundred different breeds/varieties of chickens during their chick season and I wanted as much first hand experience with as many breeds as possible since most of the birds we sold I only had exposure to during the first days/weeks of their lives.  Though I did have the benefit of knowing a half a dozen adult birds as there has always been a mixed breed flock of bantams and the occasional standard breed living there.  My focus for raising started pullets was on breeds I fancy, especially rare breeds, with a few more common companionable breeds thrown in.  Silkies are hard for me to resist; and most folks love Ameraucanas.  Some breeds I acquired were so rare I had to hatch them from fertile eggs I purchased from far flung farms.  I think it is of vital importance to take up the mantle of preserving rare breeds. They in existence due to the manipulations of  us humans to achieve a variety of agricultural goals from egg production to disease resistance.  I feel strongly that it is the responsibility of our species to honour the efforts of others   in creating these creatures-- as well as respect for the creatures themselves- to provide a varied genetic resource.  Heritage and rare breeds are infinitely interesting historically, and often staggeringly beautiful.

Elgin the Belgian & Gideon - Blue Mille Fleur OEG

Juanita - Blue Splash Andalusian + Amelia - Welsummer

We have names too....
As Thomas, my partner, says, "Chickens are the gateway poultry".  With this in mind, I think it's a natural progression to raise other poultry species.  Ducks for eggs and amusement.  Geese for hopefully deterring errant dogs.  Guinea Fowl for developing as free ranging, pest removing flocks for vineyard properties.  Though admittedly, all the birds are amusing on the whole.  They also aid in developing non-attachment to treasured plants, over arching ambitions, as well as sometimes to the feathered ones themselves.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Blogging along with a Frog and 2 Dogs

Happy New Year!
Earl the Silkie who knows his name...
Blogging.  Something I used to originally think of as rather self-indulgent & annoying (much like people who are speaking on their cell phones in public bathroom stalls or clothing boutiques' changing rooms)-ICK!  However, after discovering blogs I found to be inspiring ( and/or instructive (, my initial resistance has been relaxed.  After many people requesting I put together a blog about the adventures of raising -predominantly- rare breed poultry and doing it naturally, here is the initial foray.  Though I suspect they may have been so bored about my endless yakking on about my flock and their capers, that the discreet reaction to end this topic was, "Say, why don't you write a blog?"

Why is it blogging along with a frog and 2 dogs?  Well yesterday, while out hiking with the dogs, my sweetheart and I came across a frog in mid-jump frozen on the surface of a pond.  It had leaped right out there onto the ice slick surface and now was stuck in that position, frozen in time.  I think it sums up a blog entry pretty well......  Incidentally we did try thawing it out to see if it would resuscitate, but no luck.  It sure is pretty though.

At present I have 55 chickens (17 breeds- Bantam: Lavender Ameraucana,  Araucana,  Barnevelder, Modern Game, Frizzled Polish, Seramas (some frizzled), Showgirl, Silkies; Large Fowl: Brabanters, Jaerhons, Black Copper, Blue Copper, Cuckoo, & Wheaten Marans, Partridge & Wheaten Penedesenca, Polish Tolbunt (w/frizzling), Barred Plymouth Rock, Frizzled Sumatra, Welsummer, and some Welsummer/Penedesenca + Marans/Penedesenca crosses), 20 Indian Runner Ducks (some of them crested), 14 Guinea Fowl, a pair of American Buff Geese, a pair of Mini Rex Rabbits, and 2 nutty Shar Peis.  I have raised over 65 breeds of poultry from at least a chick (if not a hatching egg) to adults.  Due to this experience, I teach classes/consult and my exposure to predators and health problems is  fairly extensive.  I have found nifty tricks to deal with a lot of these issues, but am still at a loss about those folks who just let their dogs out in rural farm country...???  
As we are in the initial days of the New Year, I thought I would share some pictures about the advent of a new life-- an egg hatching from last year.  This is a Partridge Penedesenca rooster-- Patrizio by name-  that recently was the victim of one of those irresponsible dog owners.  This is in memory of you Mr. P.  You certainly were one cute little tot.   Penedesencas are a rare breed from Catalonia that almost disappeared in the eighties and was revived by a passionate Spaniard.  The hens lay deep, dark terracotta coloured eggs that are almost cylindrical in shape.  They are famous for their carnation comb-- extra lobes on the rear of the comb that stick out a bit like airplane wings and have very elegant lines.  Yes, I admit, I am kind of a breed conservation nut.....