Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Jackdaw

Many years ago, my Dad used to walk the dog, a lemon Labrador named Jason, every morning in Windsor Great Park. Most mornings, Jason would chase the odd squirrel, or just run after sticks. One morning he found a baby Jackdaw with a broken wing; the bird was alive but would not be for much longer, so Dad took it home, set its wing, and fed it warm milk mashed into bread and hard-boiled egg. To his and Mum’s great surprise, the jackdaw thrived, grew stronger and bigger every day. He was very friendly, even towards me although I was only home at weekends from college. Jacko (my parents were not very imaginative when it came to naming animals!) would sit on Dad’s shoulder while he worked in the shed-cum-office, kept Dad company when he was digging in the garden (hoping for a worm to appear no doubt), and hopped into the kitchen to beg scraps from Mum. He was a thorough house-bird, and came and went through the patio doors at will. At night he slept in the aviary in the back garden, with zebra finches and lovebirds; by day, he came and went where he pleased.

His broken wing had mended well; after a few months he took to flying up onto the shed roof and then swooping down onto the lawn; if I happened to be sunbathing on the lawn, I was targetted! Jacko was very chatty, into everything, curious and very intelligent. He got to be quite famous, and had his picture (sitting on Dad’s shoulder, of course) in the local newspaper.

One day, when he must have been nearly a year old, he disappeared for some hours. He flew off to survey the surrounding area, but returned before nightfall, and hopped back into the aviary. These sorties became more frequent, and he stayed away for longer each time, until eventually he did not return one evening at all. Mum and Dad worried that he had been caught by a cat, or hit by a car; they worried that they had made him too tame, and that he could not fend for himself in the wild. Jacko returned a few days later, still full of beans, and eager to be fed. One day, he flew off in the morning and did not come back for a week or more, but when he did he brought another Jackdaw with him, a female. She was not prepared to come down onto the lawn like Jacko; she stayed on the shed roof but she ate the food Mum threw up there for her. Jacko was still as friendly as ever, sat on Dad’s shoulder and fed from his hand. Eventually, the two jackdaws flew off, probably to the Great Park where there was a colony of jackdaws. They visited several times more that year, sometimes Jacko came on his own, sometimes he brought several others with him, but eventually he did not return, and although flocks of jackdaws would fly over the house and garden from time to time, none showed any special interest in Mum and Dad’s garden.

It seems that Jacko had been successfully integrated into the wild after living with humans for over a year. Perhaps his great grandchildren still fly over the house and garden before swooping back to roost in the Park.

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The Best Things in Life Aren’t Things

Few words this week, just pictures of the things I value.

Sailing into the sunset

Sunsets at home

Happy Chickens

New life

Family - our nephew Jake

Homegrown Harvest

Homemade Bread

Warmth on a cold day

The comfort of knitting

Walking with my beloved

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Forget Me Not

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Ethel was Poorly

Just to warn you, this is not a sad tale of loss, but one with a very happy ending. I am posting it in the hope that it will help others who have a poorly hen, and want to help her get better. Second warning: it contains pictures of chicken poo. Sorry!

I first noticed Ethel was not herself one Wednesday morning in February; I had gone to let the hens out before going off to work, and Ethel was very reluctant to leave the house. I tried to entice her with some of her favourite sunflower seeds, but she showed no interest, and just stood in a hunched manner looking depressed, with her comb completely flopped over onto one side almost covering her eye. I was late for work, so had to hope that she would regain her appetite during the day. She was in the nestbox huddled up to Gracie that evening when I returned, so I left her as she seemed comfortable. The next morning she was the same, but this time she refused to leave the house. Again, I had to leave for work, there was no one I could leave her with, so I had to hope that she would still be there when I got home. Thankfully, she was huddled in the nest box again, so I extricated her and took her into the warmth of the kitchen, where I fashioned a cardboard box into a nestbox for her. I tried to get her to eat and drink, but she took only a little water and went to sleep. I was due to work from home the next day, so I was able to look after her, but she showed no sign of wanting to eat or drink. When she suddenly produced what looked like lightly whisked egg from her rear end, onto the kitchen floor, I became very alarmed and consulted Twitter trying to seek the cause. I was referred to a fascinating page full of pictures of chicken poo – what it should look like, and what it should not. Chicken poo is a very valuable tool in diagnosing the health or otherwise of your hen, and it is well worth becoming familiar with their droppings. Ethel’s continued to be runny-egg like, with small lumps of bright green semi-digested grass. I gave her a gentle examination of her stomach and vent areas; she did not have any lumps around her rear, I had a quick feel up her vent but could not detect a stuck egg. Her crop was completely empty and her stomach felt pretty flat too, so she had not eaten in some days, poor girl. Continue reading

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Operation Flock-Merge

Since last October, we have had two flocks of hens, the main flock consisting of the Black Rocks, Bluebelles, Warrens (joined by Mabel the tail-biter at Christmas) in the large house and run, and the rescue flock in the small house and run. With chicks rapidly growing, we knew we would have to merge the flocks so that we could free up the smaller house for the growers. I was not very happy about this, as Gracie Ginger Ether and Doris formed a nice gentle group, with few arguments and no pecking order; I was doubtful that they would be happy in with the main flock which had a strict hierarchical structure.

Pecking order in a flock of hens is no laughing matter. Betty established herself as chief hen when she was about 18 months old, Hetty defers to her and occasionally gets pecked but mostly keeps the two Bluebelles in order. Bluebelle Polly is the guardian of the coop at dusk, patrolling the perch and pecking at a lowlier hen who deigns to hop up onto it; Bluebelle Molly keeps the Warrens, Dolly and Lily, in order. Lily was bottom of the pecking order for a long time, and was cowed and subdued around the other hens, but when we introduced Mabel at Christmas, Lily suddenly had someone to peck, and she has grown in confidence. Mabel is a wiley bird, though. She is submissive and deferential around the larger older hens, but is not completely browbeaten by Lily; and whenever the two flocks were let out to roam, Mabel gravitated towards her old flock because she knew that they were still her inferiors. I never quite understood why, when we removed Mabel, the smaller flock did not then produce a new leader; perhaps they were all so relieved at Mabel’s departure that they decided that they did not need one! But why do they not stand up to her now?

The two flocks have known each other and mixed without too much trouble for months. They are let out together each afternoon but they tend to each have their favourite spots in the garden so can largely keep out of each others way. If they meet over a handful of seeds, the smaller flock will defer to the larger to avoid trouble, although Ginger has been getting a little bolder lately. I worry that once they are all in the same house and pen that there will not be enough places they can get away from the “big” girls and will end up huddled unhappily in a corner. The house is more than big enough for all eleven hens, in fact it could house 20 although we might have to add another nest box and perch for them to be completely comfortable. Continue reading

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Rhubarb Jam and Lovage Wine

We had a productive weekend; as well as finishing the chicks’ new, bigger, pen, we also had time to rack off our latest batch of Turbocider, make jam, and set another demijohn of wine going. Both the jam and the wine were made from largely free ingredients.

Rhubarb and Ginger Jam

I love Rhubarb and Ginger Jam; it was a particular favourite of my Mum’s. I remember going on a shopping trip to Reading with her when I was about 10, and the only thing we came back with was a large jar of the said preserve – but she didn’t feel that the trip had been wasted! The rhubarb I used was growing in the front garden border of my Dad’s bungalow; there are a mass of rhubarb plants there producing lots of good thick stems. I acquired 1.8Kg of stems last week, we had a jar of crystallised ginger in the cupboard and plenty of sugar, so I dug out a recipe from Maggie Mayhew’s Jams Jellies & Marmalades and set to work.

Ingredients:

1Kg  rhubarb cut into short lengths

1kg  sugar

25g  fresh root ginger, bruised

115g crystallised ginger cut into small pieces

50g  candied orange peel

Method:

1. put the rhubarb chunks in a glass bowl layered with all of the sugar and leave overnight (this really brings out the juice in the fruit)

2. next day, scrape the fruit and sugar into a preserving pan, tie the bruised ginger root in a muslin bag and hang in the fruit in the pan

3. cook gently for 30 minutes, or until the fruit has softened

4.put jars and lids in the oven at about 100C to sterilise them

5. remove the root ginger from the pan, and add the orange peel and crystallised ginger to the rhubarb

6. bring the mixture to the boil and cook over a high heat until setting point is reached (I use a plate pre-cooled in the freezer, drop a little of the jam onto the plate and see if, after a minute or two, the jam stops moving on the plate; if it doesn’t, cook the mixture for a little longer and retest)

7. one setting point has been reached, fill the sterilised jars with jam (I find a jam funnel is a good investment, save blobs of jam all over your work surface!)

8. leave to cool and then enjoy on toast, as a sauce over cake, even as a cake filling

Lovage Wine

Lovage is a beautiful, stately plant, but can easily get out of hand if it is happy in its position. I grew mine from seed some years ago, it was ridiculously easy and before long I was thrusting my many spare plants on neighbours and friends. The three plants I kept for myself went into the herb border. The warm April combined with a bit of rain made the plants shoot up from nothing to over six feet in less than a month. That is a lot of herb to try to use up, and I needed a recipe that would require a lot of lovage, so I thought of wine. Coming by a recipe for the said wine, however, was not easy. There are some lovely food recipes on Old Fashioned Living but they use only minuscule amounts. I came across the suggestion that lovage could be used as a substitute for parsley in a Parsley Wine recipe, so out came CJJ Berry’s First Steps in Winemaking and there was a suitable recipe.

Ingredients:

500g fresh lovage leaves (stems are OK too in moderation)

1.75Kg sugar

2 oranges, thinly peeled and juiced

2 lemons, thinly peeled and juiced

1 tsp grape tannin (for its preserving qualities)

4.5 litres water

packet of yeast

1 tsp yeast nutrient (I used a champagne yeast but any white wine yeast will do)

Method:

1. boil lovage with the orange and lemon peal in all of the water for 20 minutes

2. put the sugar into a large bowl and strain the lovage water over the sugar, stirring well to dissolve the sugar

3. when lukewarm add the citrus juices, grape tannin, nutrient and yeast, stir and cover

4. leave to stand for 24 hours, then pour into a demijohn and insert an airlock

5. leave in a warm place until fermentation has finished and the wine has cleared

6. rack off into bottles and leave for a few months before (hopefully) enjoying!

I will let you know in six months or so how it turns out!

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Ginger’s Tale

I was born in an enormous warm box with hundreds of other chicks, so I never saw my mummy. When only a few hours old we were shoved hither and thither, put on a moving belt, jostled together, picked up, put down; I didn’t know if I was coming or going! Thankfully it didn’t last for long, and we were soon put into a big brooding area, but there were thousands of us so we didn’t have much space and lots of fights broke out, pecking of feathers and general nastiness. If one of my companions happened to die, we had to suffer the body lying there festering before a human removed it. Humans were around a fair bit, injecting us with drugs, making sure there was food and water. I can’t complain, they did feed us well since they wanted us to grow up as soon as possible, but it was hard living in such confinement with so many other birds. When I was just 7 days old, they chopped off the end of my beak, supposedly so I would not peck other birds, but it didn’t really stop me, I was just like everyone else, looking out for number one. I don’t really want to dwell on that time, it was not a pleasant experience.

Until I was 16 weeks old, I was kept in what was called a growing pen; again we did not have a lot of room each, about 20 of us lived in a square metre of floor space. Imagine 20 small hens standing on something less than the average family dining table, and you will get an idea of how much space we had. More fighting, more feather pulling, it was never a dull moment. We were moved about quite a bit so we did not get to form attachments to any one flock. Eventually, we were moved into a large airy barn, rather nicer than the wire-caged factories we had been kept in. It seemed large at first, but then I realised that there were thousands of hens, all looking strangely like me, on the floor of the barn and perched on the many perches. I never learned to count, so I don’t know how many of us girls were in that barn, but suffice it to say that the floor was a brown heaving mass as far as the eye could see. It was not possible to move about very easily, there were so many hens. There was soft litter on the floor, but this was soon covered in poo, and was so clogged that you couldn’t really dustbathe in it. Continue reading

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Hatching Times

The natural progression from buying hens, or rescuing them from a short life of toil and inhumane treatment, is to think of hatching some yourself. Given my obsession, it is understandable that I should think this is the next logical step. None of our hybrid hens had been broody in over three years, ever since Letty died, in fact, so we would have to do it the artificial way. Naturally, I discussed it with Paul, and he was rather doubtful about the whole enterprise, but supported me. I researched available incubators and took advice from Twitter friends – thanks @ChickenStreet and @oshea76 for the useful pointers. I was particularly impressed with @oshea76’s homemade incubator/brooder, and would have like to try my hand at building that, but in the end I decided that I needed an automatic incubator as I was still at work and would not be around to turn the eggs 5 or 6 times a day as required for hens eggs.

Having decided on the type of incubator, I had to decide on a make; both Brinsea and RCom had been recommended, but I eventually plumped for a Brinsea Mini Advance starter pack, which gave me an electric hen and a candler as well as a 7-egg incubator. Next, the breed of chicken I wanted to raise; this was very easy – Cream Legbar. I had tried on more than one occasion to buy point of lay birds of this breed, but they are not easy to come by, probably because they lay such beautiful blue and pale olive eggs. Again, Twitter came to the rescue, and put me in touch with @chez_ally, who breeds Cream Legbar and Barnvelder. She had fertile eggs available, so I placed an order for the incubator and the eggs, and sat back to wait for the joyous arrival. Continue reading

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Rescuing Hens

When I first thought I would like to keep some hens (so many years ago now) I had considered taking in rescue hens. Knowing I was a bit soft around animals, my friend Richard said I would probably find it very distressing to see how poorly feathered and generally unsure of their surroundings they would be, and advised that I started with hens bought from a breeder. I could then take in rescue hens when I was a bit more used to hen keeping. I thought this was a sensible idea, and so we started with three black rocks in 2007. By the time we had been keeping hens for a few years, and had our ups and downs health-wise with one or two of them, I felt better able to cope with problematic chickens, and so I registered my interest with the British Hen Welfare Trust. The Yorkshire collection centre had only just stared rescuing, and so I had to wait a while, but eventually, in late September I got the call that hens would be available the following weekend. I was a bit worried that the date was only a week before our holiday and also so close to the start of the bad weather in our part of Yorkshire, but it was either take them then or wait until next Spring, and I am not reknowned for my patience once I have decided I want something!

On 2nd October 2010, a beautiful sunny and warm Saturday, we drove up to a small village near York, and there we found a shed full of ex-barn hens, rescued from an egg producer in Scotland only a couple of days before, waiting for people to collect them and give them a home.

Our six hens were selected and popped into the cardboard boxes we had brought along, filled with straw for a more comfortable ride. I didn’t really get to see them before the boxes were closed, and they did not get to see us or where we were taking them. They were very subdued, not chattering much, on the hour’s drive home, and when we arrived we carefully carried them into the old pen and opened the boxes. I can truthfully say it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. These poor scrawny little bundles of feathers looked up from their cardboard boxes with wonder and bemusement at the sky and the sun. I carefully lifted each one out of their boxes and put them on the grass, and they looked at the grass wondering what on earth it was for! They all had semi-naked necks, very naked bottoms, huge distended pale combs, and stumpy ragged tails. Almost immediately, one of the hens took an experimentary bite of a blade of grass, and soon the others followed suit. I hoped they were going to like it here!

The first night they found their way into the house but they did not perch, instead they crammed themselves into the two nestboxes; they were so thin, and could easily fit four into the larger nestbox. For several days they were reluctant to come out into the pen, and spent a lot of time just sitting in a nest box or on the floor of the henhouse. I kept a close eye on them and tried to encourage them out onto the grass whenever I could, but one was particularly reluctant and I was worried that she was not eating. The others seemed to be eating well although they were not used to the Ex-Batts Crumb I had bought for them. We were due to fly off on holiday in the early ours of Friday morning, so I had less than a week to get to know them. I tried to handle them and reassure them, but they were understandably rather wary of me, and I don’t feel I really got to know their characters in that week, certainly not enough to be able to assign names to them! Paul’s Mum and Dad were coming to house and chicken sit for us while we were away, so I wrote copious instructions about feeding and watering the hens as they had never done it before; we have wonderful neighbours who have looked after the hens in the past and provided great backup this time too.

We arrived home around 4am the following Saturday and fell straight into bed, so we did not know that one of the rescue hens had died that morning until we got up around midday. Our kind neighbour had come to let the chickens out that morning, not knowing we were in fact home but fast asleep, and had found her dead in the nestbox. By the time we were up and realised what had happened, our neighbour had already disposed of her body, so I never got to say goodbye to the poor little hen nor know exactly what killed her, but I suspect the sudden change of circumstances, unfamiliar food and surroundings, and stress had caused her to stop eating and fade away. I like to think that she had at least one day in the sunshine before she died.

The remaining five hens were eating well and very alert and active. When we let them out of the pen to roam they were understandably reluctant to go too far from the pen gate, and frequently shot back inside, especially if one of the established hens came near. Ginger, however, had a little fire in her, and one day marched straight up to Lily and picked a fight! She also had a go at Betty, the chief chicken, which was pretty brave since Betty was more than twice her size! Their characters gradually revealed themselves as they became more confident.  Ginger is a feisty little one, still scrawny and with a persistently untidy tail and red raw bottom; she was a slightly different shade of brown from the others, burnt umber more than burnt sienna, and always the first to rush over to me if she thought I might be carrying a treat! She had and still has a large distended comb, although it is not now as big as the day we brought her home, and is much pinker; she is bright and active, always jumping up onto something; she is so far the only rescue hen to get the hang of going up (and down) the 9 steep steps to our upper garden, she jumps up onto our garden table if there is the hint that there may be food to be had, and has even jumped up onto our kitchen table and the much higher work surface. She is indomitable, and will try anything, it seems!

Mabel was always going to be the boss of this flock; she was a pale goldy brown and as her feathers developed her back took on pale pencilling on some of the feathers. She has a rather patrician-looking beak, with the flopped-over comb coming right down onto the beak. She would peck at the newly emerging feathers of the other hens, and not surprisingly she feathered up the fastest. In fact by Christmas she was almost completely covered, unlike the others who still looked very scruffy; and since she was still pulling out their feathers and generally harassing them, we decided that we had to separate her from them, to give them a chance to improve too. So Mabel was transferred to the big girl’s house. She was not happy to begin with, as Lily became her Nemesis, chasing her away from the food, and preventing her from going to bed at night. She adapted to the steps up to the pophole remarkably quickly, taking them two at a time. She was last to go to bed each evening, waiting until the others had settled and she could make a dash to the nest box. She often had to share a nest box with one of the other hens, as occasionally the Bluebelles preferred nesting to perching, and one night in the depths of the cold snap, I found her snuggled in one box with both Bluebelles! She continued to thrive, did not let Lily and Dolly get her down, and was always first at my feet in the morning for a handful of sunflower seed treats. She has perfected the standing jump, probably learned from Dolly who was also very good at leaping two feet in the air up to my hand to encourage me to part with more seeds. Mabel, though, would actually grab a portion of my finger or thumb and hang onto it as she descended back to earth! When the two flocks meet free-ranging in the afternoons, she still chases Ginger or Doris and makes a grab for a feather, but she is gradually learning not to do this. She does hang out with her “old” flock members more than with the big girls, even though she has now spent longer living in the big house than with the other rescue hens.

Doris‘s comb has strunk enormously since her first days with us. She has a sweet nature, but seems to be quite happy in her own company, trotting off on her own to investigate the boggy parts of the field for insects and grubs. She has an endearing skew-wiff beek, with the lower part extending a long way past the upper part. She does have some difficulty picking up individual seeds because of this, but she seems to thrive so I don’t think it can be much of a problem to her. She is always the last to go to bed, wanting to extend her time outside as long as possible, and who can blame her!

Gracie‘s comb has also shrunk back to a normal size and she has turned into a lovely hen, slow and gentle. She also has thrived and has become quite a large hen, larger than the others by a long way, but never barging the others out of the way to get to food. She seems to have a caring nature, and when Ethel was very poorly, Gracie would stay with Ethel as she wandered slowly around the garden, and did not let her be on her own or get separated. She also takes the pecks of others in her stride, keeps out of the way of the older girls, and generally shows a passive face to the world. She is also the only one of the four remaining in the old house to try out the perch as a place to sleep, and when the weather was warm has taken to perching at night on her own; perhaps due to her size and the nestbox feeling a bit claustrophobic and warm, she finds the airy perch more comfortable. Gracie has not laid any eggs to my knowledge, although I suspect that she has laid the “lash” we found in the nestbox one day. It looked and felt like a rubber egg, and when cut open seemed to contain lots of smaller eggs.

Ethel was for a long time a real worry to us. She was always a bit slow of movement, hanging back when the more boisterous Ginger and Doris were gobbling seed from my hand. In early February 2011 she became very ill, but I will write at length about this another time. She is another of the hens that did not shrink their comb once they had been released, and it is now a bright red colour slightly flopped over to one side. She is still slow moving and generally placid, and spends a lot of time walking alongside Gracie as they free-range around the garden. She has plumped up a lot since she was ill. She has not laid any eggs, and probably never will now, but that is OK she deserves a happy retirement from the daily grind!

So those are our five rescue hens: Ginger, Mabel, Doris, Gracie and Ethel. The last picture here is of Gracie having a dust bath in the herb border; it looks like she is enjoying it!Gracie dustbathing in the herb border

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