Teflon Coated Light Bulbs Deadly to Chickens

Something I never would have thought of: Teflon coated light bulbs are toxic to chickens. In the letters section of this month’s issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine is the story of a woman who lost a flock of nineteen chickens after they succumbed to fumes put off by a GE Rough Service Worklight that was in the coop. When the bulbs heat up they release fumes that are deadly to chickens and other birds. According to the McMurray Hatchery website, birds are particularly vulnerable to airborne toxins. I can’t help but wonder about the effect of these fumes on humans too. Several years ago, Dupont was unsuccessfully sued over the toxicity of Teflon in cookware.

Sylvania, apparently, has a warning label on their Teflon coated bulbs, “WARNING: This product contains PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene–”Teflon” is a brand name). When heated, it creates fumes potentially fatal to confined birds.” GE does not have a warning label.

I let the ladies take the winter off of laying and it never dips below 40ºF here so we do not have a light bulb in our coop. But for those of you who do, make sure you don’t use one of these shatter resistant, Teflon coated bulbs.

See also the McMurray Hatchery warning on shatter resistant bulbs.

Lego-Robot Chickens

In response to our Monday post on clicker training chickens, Root Simple pal and fellow Master Food Preserver Diane Trunk posted a video on our Facebook page. Diane explains,

Here’s a link to a silly video of our trained chickens. My son trained them to come running in response to a beep. The beep signaled that a lego-robot box (you’ll see) was going to open, and the hens would get their favorite treat: string cheese. Alas, these hens are no longer with us. Our new ladies don’t care about string cheese, or even Lego robots.

Clicker Training Chickens

Our new pullets aren’t as used to being handled as were our last flock of hens. And because they don’t come when called, they can’t leave the chicken run to wander the yard.

So I’m working on training them. I know I could do more, but for now all I’m doing is taking special treats to them once a day and feeding them while making my chicken call (cheeck-cheeck-cheeck). They’re beginning to associate me and the call with treats. This doesn’t mean they trust me yet, but at least they have started making greeting noises when they see me. I hunker down in the run with the treats and hold very still. I put the treats close to me and make them come near to get them. The boldest one will sometimes take a treat from my hand.

This may work eventually. Or I could step up my game. Do you know that chickens can be clicker trained? My dog trainer friend tells me that in dog training seminars, trainers are often taught clicker training (a form of positive reinforcement) with chickens instead of dogs. This is because chickens are 100% food motivated and learn fast. Also, using hens takes away the potential mind games that occur between dog and trainer. Free of that distraction, the trainer learns the correct rhythm for training. It’s pure stimulus-response–reward.

Here’s a video of a chick learning the basics. You can find others of this sort on Youtube:

You might be able to find a chicken training seminar in your area, probably under the banner of dog training. With the rise of urban chicken-pets I think there is opportunity to be had in offering classes for would be chicken trainers. Googling around, I found this one in Lake Oswego, Oregon which is booked months in advance.

Have you trained your chickens to do anything?

The Sacred Chickens of Ancient Rome

I stumbled on an odd historical anecdote last week: the use, by the ancient Romans, of sacred chickens as a form of divination. From the Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert:

Sacred chickens were chickens raised by priests in Roman times, and which were used for making auguries. Nothing significant was undertaken in the Senate or in the armies, without omens being drawn from the sacred chickens. The most common method of drawing these omens consisted in examining the manner in which the chickens dealt with grain that was presented to them. If they ate it avidly while stamping their feet and scattering it here and there, the augury was favorable; if they refused to eat and drink, the omen was bad and the undertaking for which it was consulted was abandoned. When there was a need to render this sort of divination favorable, the chickens were left in a cage for a certain amount of time without eating; after that the priests opened the cage and threw their feed to them.

I had hoped to be the first blogger to break the sacred chicken story, but a blogger named Elektra Tig beat me to it, telling the tale of a naval battle involving some sea-bound sacred chickens who delivered an unwanted prophesy. The naval commander, Publius Claudius Pulcher, refused to take no for an answer and had the sacred chickens tossed overboard saying, “Let them drink, since they won’t eat.”

Elektra Tig also found a drawing of a sacred chicken coop just in case some of you are looking for coopatecture inspiration:

Maybe some of us urban homesteader types can put together a flock of sacred chickens for the US senate. By Jove, it would probably work better than whatever means of projection they are currently using.

Update: Michael Pigneguy left a link on Facebook to a Smithsonian article with the following chicken divination anecdote:

A chicken bred for the demands of American supermarket shoppers presumably has lost whatever magical powers the breed once possessed. Western aid workers discovered this in Mali during a failed attempt to replace the scrawny native birds with imported Rhode Island Reds. According to tradition, the villagers divine the future by cutting the throat of a hen and then waiting to see in which direction the dying bird falls—left or right indicates a favorable response to the diviner’s question; straight forward means “no.” But the Rhode Island Red, weighted down by its disproportionately large breast, always fell straight forward, signifying nothing meaningful except the imminence of dinner.

Google Sketchup as an Urban Homesteading Tool

I just completed a new chicken run, greatly assisted by an amazing and free 3d design program: Trimble SketchUp (formerly Google SketchUp). While it takes some time to learn (I’m still learning!), this program helped me visualize the chicken run as well as estimate the amount of materials I’d need to buy. Here’s how I used it to create the run:

Previous runs either did not work (chickens squeezed out and flew over) or were hideously ugly. I resolved to design a run that was both aesthetically pleasing and practical. Inspired by A-Frame cabins of the 60s Kelly and I came up with this idea:

I took my A-Frame plans to a friend, John Zapf, who runs Zapf Architectural Renderings. He took some time out, literally, from rendering multi-million dollar buildings to help with my lowly chicken run project. He could see a few problems with the A-Frame idea immediately–wasted space on the side towards the fence, and a lack of continuity between the shape of the chicken coop’s roof and the new run. Taking out pen and paper (sometimes the quicker option!) he sketched out  a much better design:

I took John’s sketch and entered it into Sketchup:

Being the low-tech bumpkin that I am, once I completed the run I was excited to see how much the real thing looked like the rendering.

SketchUp has some powerful features. There’s a library of objects other people have already drawn for you that you can download for free. For instance, the fence and tree (the exact same species of tree in my backyard, by the way) were both in the SketchUp library. And, amazingly, you can drop your model into Google Maps and even figure out the shadow patterns it will cast in the course of a year.

I’d strongly recommend going through the tutorial videos before trying to use SketchUp (I didn’t do this and wasted a lot of time initially).

And thanks to John Zapf and Anne Hars for your help!

Our New Chickens

When I put out the call to you, our readers, to name the ideal urban chicken I got a call from my friend Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. He said something like, “Duh, the Barnevelder, of course!” Craig and his partner Gary Jackemuk have an ambitions breeding program to take the Barnevelder from show chicken back to farm chicken. So far the results are impressive.

I took this as a message that I should fix my run and get ready for some new chickens. This weekend, I picked up four new pullets from Winnetka Farms, all crosses between a Barnevelder and an Americauna. I call them “Winnetkavelders.”

The Barnevelder, according to Craig and Gary, are a great dual purpose breed that is both heat and cold tolerant. They also take well to confinement.

The “Winnetkavelders” that now live at the root simple compound have an unusual characteristic. At least one of the pullets is laying an olive green egg:

Hmm. This color may not display correctly. Basically, the green-ish egg they lay is exactly the color of a cocktail olive. Not one of those fancy (and suspiciously) bright green olives, but the true drab olive you’ll find in your typical dive bar martini olive. (No offense to the hens! We’re just talking color here.) Yesterday we were joking with a friend that we should paint red pimento spots on the end.

This is the result of crossing the blue/green egg color of the Americauna with the dark brown of the Barnevelder. Another of the Winnetkavelders is laying an amazing dark brown egg like a purebred Barnevelder and a third is laying a green/olive egg with brown spots. They’ve been very productive and are taking well to their new surroundings.

A big thanks to Craig and Gary!

Vital Farms: Pasture Raised, Organic Eggs at Whole Foods

Image from the Vital Farms blog.

Over the weekend I attended the Natural Products Expo West, a massive health food industry convention. Yes, indeed, Fabio was in attendance selling some sort of powdered supplement and I may have seen Ziggy Marley packing up his own bottles of “Coco’Mon” coconut oil. Such are the indignities one encounters on the downward arc of a career in reggae music or romance book cover modeling.

Out of the nearly 2,000 exhibitors of, frankly, health food store junk food, one stood out: Vital Farms, purveyors of eggs from pasture raised hens. The overwhelming majority of eggs in this country are laid by chickens crammed into small cages or, arguably worse, crammed into big sheds.  “Free range,” “cage free” and “organic,” mean absolutely nothing. What makes Vital Farms different is that the eggs they sell were laid by chickens who live outside, during the day, on pasture. Their spokesperson offered to let me tour the farms they contract with, something that, I doubt, any of the big egg producers would offer.

The Cornocopia Institute gives them a “five egg (exemplary)” rating, citing their rotational grazing methods, abstinence from the practice of beak trimming and year round outdoor access for the hens. Vital Farms contracts with several farms in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia. Their eggs are available nationwide at Whole Foods and they have expanded into meat chickens.

Now, hopefully, I can recover from the spectral celebrity hallucinations induced by downing hundreds of free samples of things like pro-biotic frozen pizza (I’m not making this up) and caveman power bars. Perhaps a pasture raised egg omelet will wipe away my açaí berry hangover.

Thanks to Dale Benson for suggesting attending this event and for driving, spending a half hour finding a parking space and pointing out Ziggy Marley or someone who resembled Ziggy Marley packing up those bottles of coconut oil.

Help Us Find the Ideal Urban Chicken Breed

Townes Van Zandt with chicken

We are in the market for new hens and lately it has occurred to us that the best breed criteria for our situation is not a breed which lays most frequently, but a breed which maintains its egg production as it matures–even if that means that it doesn’t produce as many eggs per week as a typical high production hen.

Does that make sense? Because Erik is such a soft touch, we have to maintain a nursing home for hens. It would be great if our ladies would continue to contribute eggs into their dotage. It is less important that they are daily producers in their youth, because the two of us can’t eat that many eggs.

This is not what hens are bred for–I understand that. Laying hens are bred to give as much as they can for two years, after which they are usually culled. Long term laying isn’t much of a consideration. But I thought this trait might be more apparent in some of the heritage breeds.

Let me know if you have an old hen still laying, and what kind of hen she is.

Erik adds this: In The One-Straw Revolution Masanobu Fukuoka mentions he has just such a hen–but he doesn’t go on to tell us the name. Anyone know about Fukuoka’s chickens?

Is This Egg Good?

From left: Very Fresh • Pretty Fresh • Bad • Cat

When you’re wondering about the age of an egg, put it in glass of water.

Really fresh eggs lie on the bottom the glass, flat. These are the eggs you want for poaching and other dishes where the egg is the star.

If one end bobs up a bit, as does the middle egg above, the egg is older, but still good. The upward tilt can be more extreme than it is in this picture. In fact, the egg can even stand up straight, just so long as it is still sitting on the bottom of the glass. The egg in picture above is just a tiny bit past absolutely fresh, but still very suitable for egg dishes. If it were standing up a little more, I’d use it for baking or hard boiling. Indeed, older eggs are best for hard boiling, because fresh eggs are impossible to peel.

What you don’t want to see is a floating egg. A floating egg is a bad egg. (Like a witch!) Old eggs float because the mass inside the egg decreases–dries out–over time, making it lighter. I personally don’t trust any floating egg, but I do know that other people draw a distinction between eggs that float low and eggs that float high, and only discard the high floaters. And I honor their courage.