An Araucana Egg

Our Araucana hen, the lowest hen in the pecking order of our backyard flock, took a bit longer to start laying. Yesterday we got our first egg with the distinctive blueish green hue Araucanas are known for.

And once we get over the nasty flu we’ve picked up (not the bird flu!), we’ll get back to regular postings and some big changes to the blog.

Do Hens Make Noise?

Yes, indeed hens make noise. Far less than a rooster, but when it comes time to lay an egg you often get the stereotypical hen vocalization, technically known as “cackling,” which goes something like, “cluck, cluck, cluck, CLUCKAAAAAWWWWK!” Thankfully this only happens around laying time, which for our three productive hens is no more than once a day, and usually at a respectable time between around 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Some of our club hopping neighbors may get an early than wanted wake-up call, but so far nobody has complained.

Being naive first time chicken owners, the first time we heard this sound caught us by surprise. We suspected that it’s the result of discomfort from squeezing out an egg, or some wonder of selective breeding, a way to announce to the poultry farmer, “Hey, time to collect an egg!” In fact, research presented by University of Sheffield animal scientists Tommaso Pizzari and Tim R. Birkhead, in an article entitled “For whom does the hen cackle? The function of postoviposition cackling,” posit that cacking is a way for hens to get the message out to nearby roosters that they ain’t in the mood. As Pizzari and Brikhead put it, “One function of postoviposition cackling may thus be to avoid the costs of sexual harassment by signalling to males a particularly unsuitable time for fertilization.” This contradicts earlier theories that cacking was, in fact, an invitation to boogie.

For those who’ve never heard it, we’re pleased to present the postoviposition cackling sounds of one of our barred rock hens. Towards the end of the track you’ll hear the usual soft clucking. For the DJs out there, please feel free to use for mashups, mixes and Quinceañeras:

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2008 . . . a year of luxury

2008 began with the sort of absurd juxtaposition we’ve come to expect from life in Los Angeles–loading 25 pounds of chicken feed into a $70,000 Jaguar (not our car for those keeping score). It was all part of a combination run to the feed store for chicken supplies and trip to the Getty Villa to scope out their Roman herb garden and ancient tchatzhahs.

The reason to hit the feed store was a return of schoolyard bully behavior from our pushy Rhode Island Red hen. We bought a bottle of Rooster Booster Pick-No-More Lotion™ to keep her from pecking the araucana hen. Thankfully the lotion, combined with a few other measures we’ll post about, seems to have stopped the problem. The lotion has lessened the amount and severity of the pecking and turned the araucana’s butt into a matted tarry mess. Mission accomplished!

While at the feed store we also picked up a copy of The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow. It’s a detailed guide to preventing and treating chicken diseases and problems. We’re new to poultry and, in just an hour of reading, have learned a lot from this book. It’s a must have for anyone thinking about getting chickens. Thanks to info in the book and our microscope, we’re looking forward to a year of DIY chicken fecal examinations and turning those parasite egg counts into a drinking game.

We’ll inaugurate a new year of posts with an entertaining excerpt from The Chicken Health Handbook,

Spontaneous sex change is a phenomenon whereby an old hen develops the characteristics of a cock, perhaps because an infected ovary has caused hormonal changes. The hen’s comb grows larger, she molts into male plumage, and she may crow or mount other hens. If the infection is successfully cured before the next molt, the “cock” will lay eggs. This phenomenon was once considered witchcraft, the most famous case being a “cock” named Basel who was burned at the stake in 1474 for laying eggs.”

Chicken Guantanamo

So you want your own backyard hens? Some time ago Homegrown Revolution reader Toby asked about what it takes to keep chickens. While we’re far from being experts we thought we’d share what we’ve learned so far and welcome comments and suggestions from poultry keeping readers to add to and amend our advice. In our opinion the first step in keeping a backyard flock is to figure out where you’re going to house them.

We’ll get into more detail over the next few months, but for now we thought a few pictures might help explain what we’ve come up with. The two main purposes of chicken housing are to protect them from predators and to protect your garden from destruction by your chickens. The more room and foraging area your chickens have the happier they will be. Give them access to your whole yard however, and they will munch and scratch down every plant they find edible behaving, as the Petaluma Urban Homesteaders put it, “like a pack of delinquent teenagers”.

Our chicken housing consists of three zones. Zone one is the hen house–that aluminum structure on the right in the photo above. It contains a roost for the chickens to sleep on at night and a nesting box for the hens to lay their eggs in.

Zone two is a secure run covered in 1/2 inch hardware cloth–the area left of and below the aluminium sided hen house. We used hardware cloth because chicken wire will not prevent raccoons from reaching in and eating a chicken through the fence (we can’t help but admire the fact that chicken wire isn’t really good for keeping chickens). And as our doberman has been known to tree large families of raccoons, we took no chances and ran the hardware cloth across the entire bottom of the run buried a foot underground to keep these critters from burrowing underneath. The run also gives our hens access to dirt as well as a way for us not to have to be around to lock them up in the hen house when it gets dark.
Zone three is a mobile structure made of PVC pipe covered with bird netting and butted up against the coop and secure run so that the hens can move between all three zones. We used to let the hens free range around the yard, but a recent near miss with a hawk, the general devastation of our herb bed, and chicken poo all over the back porch where they took to roosting on lazy afternoons, convinced us to restrict their movements at least while unsupervised. This PVC structure can be shifted around a bit to let the hens work different parts of our small backyard. It will keep out hawks but it’s not raccoon proof, so the girls must be back in zone two’s more secure run (nicknamed “chicken Guantanamo”) when it starts to get dark or we’re not around.

The PVC structure replaces a more permanent enlarged run we built out of scrap wood we found under the 101 freeway. As you can see from the photo below, this structure was an aesthetic disaster, with all the appeal of a dirty mid-town mini mall. We took one look at it after it was complete and decided to demolish it the next day. If only all those mini mall developers in the 80s would have come to the same conclusion.
We’ll describe our hen house, run and “zone three” in more detail once we know everything works out. So far, we’ve got eggs and no raccoon, skunk, owl or hawk casualties. For those looking for detailed plans check out Judy Pangman’s book Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock. We loosely based our coop and run on one of the designs in Pangman’s book. Stay tuned for more details including our ongoing attempt to stay one step ahead of those bad-assed LA raccoons.

Breaking News

Today at approximately 11:50 AM, after a morning of god-awful screeching, our Rhode Island Red, Stewpot–who is in the foreground of the picture above–laid her first egg–that is, our very first homestead egg.

Go Stewpot!

Of course this event would happen when Mr. Homestead is out of town & in possession of the camera. The lay site was a difficult to access cranny behind the coop. It may not have been photograph-able anyway, but I will report that the egg was deposited quite attractively in a shallow bowl of yellow and brown leaves. I got it while it was still warm, having come out to see what this most recent and particularly loud round of screeching was all about. Stewpot walked away from her egg with nary a look back. The egg was amazing in the hand–warm and heavy and almost pulsing with life.

To mark this historic day, I did what I could to record the blessed egg: I scanned it alongside a Trader Joe’s grade A brown for comparison, which resulted in the mysterious, murky image you see below.

Stewpot’s egg is smaller than the commerical egg, but it is her first. Her egg looks the same color at first, but close up it is covered with tiny brown speckles, whereas the Joe’s egg is more monotone.