Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Chickens: Down One, Up Three

My family started our first backyard chicken flock almost three years ago. As I’ve mentioned before on previous blogs, the first day-old chicks arrived via US Mail from the Meyer Hatchery in Ohio. We began with 10 chicks, four of which were Easter Eggers (layers of blue-green eggs, often referred to as Ameraucanas or Araucanas). The other six were Silver Spangled Hamburgs. Of our original birds, we now have just four left; one Hamburg chick died during the first week, three Hamburgs were sold, one Easter Egger we lost to the hawk last fall, and just recently we lost another Easter Egger.

Our First Chicks
Foster, our almost white Easter Egger, was found dead in the coop by my husband Jay this past weekend. This is the first hen we’ve lost to natural causes as opposed to flying predators. The only explanation I can offer is that Foster had not laid an egg in about a year (Foster used to lay a paler, rounder green egg so I knew which were hers) and had recently been hanging out in the nesting box, a behavior she’s never exhibited before. Her feathers looked fantastic and healthy, and she had no outward signs of illness. She just died. Of course, there had to be some underlying cause like heart or kidney failure for Foster’s death, but since we didn’t have a necropsy done, I don’t know for sure. If the rest of the flock seemed sick, I’d probably be contacting UCONN for testing. I’ve heard of chickens just expiring and the other extreme of life spans up to 15 years.

Foster (white hen) sharing pasta with her first flock-mates
I was away at a cat show when Jay called to tell me about Foster’s death. Since he ties his own fishing flies, often using feathers as material, I asked him if he was going to use any of Foster’s white feathers. No, he couldn’t bring himself to scalp or pluck a bird he knew as a pet for three years. Jay used to hunt, a sport he had to give up when I moved in, so dissecting a dead animal doesn’t make him queasy. However, pet chickens have an elevated status over wild animals. I’ll always remember Foster as the one who was easy to identify from the moment she arrived, as she was the only all-yellow chick in our first batch. Faye and Flo, our remaining Easter Eggers, look very similar, distinguished only by Faye’s darker head.

Baby Foster
Although we are down one hen, we had, coincidentally, attended a small poultry show a couple of weeks ago. My intention was to get a young adult Black Copper Maran pullet because of their ability to lay a chocolate brown egg. Many poultry exhibitors were selling chickens outside the show area, but all that I saw were either small breed pairs or baby chicks. Chicks are more difficult in the beginning as they require heat lamps, special starter feed, frequent monitoring, an indoor cage and age-appropriate companionship for the first five to six weeks. Females normally begin laying eggs at around five months.

If I got one Maran chick, I’d have to get her a buddy. So we ended up with three chicks, bringing our flock total to 17. All of the new babies are deemed to be female by the breeder and have been named by daughter Kelsey. “Nestle” is our Maran.  Nestle's buddies are “Lemon Meringue”, a cross between a Lemon Cuckoo Orpington (yellow striped) and a Jubilee Orpington (multi-colored), and “Narnia”, a Buff Orpington (standard buff color). The new chicks are about 2 weeks apart in age and the smaller ones tend to rest under the bigger Lemon Merinque who plays Mama hen.  Lemon Merique's sire is a 14-pound rooster, so I'm curious to see how large she'll become.

New Additions
I love having chickens that all look different and lay different colors and sizes of eggs. Nestle should start laying her dark chocolate eggs in the late fall and add even more variety to our egg collection.