Spring is here, and everyone is feeling fine. Agnetha survived the night and seems mightily improved, keeping up with the five other hens and soaking up the sun. She ate well, seemed alert, and although her crop looks rather enlarged in the photo below, it is much reduced and not full of the disgusting smelly liquid that gives sour crop its name.
A plaintive meow as I was taking that photo alerted me to the fact that Sally, our tabby, was on the roof of our outbuilding. She walked back and forth, cleaned her paws, looking over the side pretending she didn’t know how she would ever make it back to earth. When she had had enough dramatics, she hopped onto the pine tree branch that hangs over the roof (and needs to be removed), and was soon scrambling down the tree trunk. Not bad for a 14-year-old moggy.
I’m nursing my oldest hen, Agnetha, who seems to have sour crop, a yeast infection in the pouch where food is stored at the start of a hen’s digestive system. There seems to be ten million different methods on the internet for dealing with this condition, so colour me confused. I love being able to find information online, but, boy oh boy, there can be a lot to wade through.
Agnetha is a bit better today, but she is far from 100%, and this can be fatal. I live in St. Brigid’s parish, and Bridie has many patronages, including poultry keepers, so I have sent her my wish that she hold Aggie’s wing as her human tries to figure out what best to do. Bridie kept me safe when I was a milkmaid* and used to drive by her church on my way to and from the farm, so I expect she’ll do her best for Aggie.
I can’t help but think of the generations of women and men before me who would know exactly what to do, even people I knew well who kept hens but who are long gone. My mother doesn’t remember what they did for sour crop as she last kept hens about 78 years ago. For certain a sick hen back then didn’t spend the night in a dog crate in the laundry room being tempted with treats; it would likely more likely have had a date with the stew pot.
* I know, I know, I was officially a dairy farm worker, but who can resist having a job title that is mentioned in The Twelve Days of Christmas!?
I have had to wash my “barn” jacket after I put an egg in the pocket and then managed to squish it before I got it into the basket. I know better, but it was going to be there just for a second. A handful of slimy egg and broken shell is an unpleasant discovery, and it was -12C at the time, so it started to freeze on my hand. Yuck.
I told my mother what I had done, and said my first thought was what her grandmother, Eva, would have said if she had witnessed my folly. My mother said I would have been scolded, for an egg in February was a rare thing. Eggs were preserved in a solution called water glass in the fall, and were only used for baking over the winter. I don’t remember people preserving eggs, as by the time I was born in the mid-60s, most people had electricity and refrigerators, and mostly bought their eggs from a store.
I once visited a Second World War exhibition at a museum in Ipswich, England, and they had a section on food on the home front. Unfortunately, the egg preservation experiment hadn’t worked properly and we arrived just after they made that discovery, and the smell of rotten eggs was certainly evocative of another time.
I asked my mother if gathering the eggs was one of her chores as a child, and she said it wasn’t. The hens were Eva’s domain and she probably didn’t trust my mother to not drop the basket. Stuffing eggs in your pocket would have been bad form.
My mother said her chores were looking after her own bedroom, keeping her little brother out of trouble, and sometimes doing the dishes. On the day when The Family Herald arrived, Eva would read all afternoon so that when my mother came home from school, the dishes from the noon meal (called dinner, never lunch – lunch was a meal before bedtime!) would still be on the table waiting for her to wash them.
And how did you wash dishes in rural PEI in the 1920s? In an enamel dishpan at the kitchen table. You took the dishpan off a nail in the pantry, took it to the woodstove, and decanted hot water from the tank on the side of the stove. You would swish a bar of homemade soap in the water to make suds, wash and dry the dishes, and put most of the dishes back on the table for the next meal. The dirty dishwater would be poured down the sink in the pantry in winter, or perhaps out the back door onto a plant at other times. Nothing wasted, ever. Water was pumped by hand from a hand-dug well, so it was precious.
Those water conservation methods have passed down to me through my mother. I don’t use a dishpan every day, but have used a dishpan during very dry summers and poured the dishwater on flower beds. I will throw water from washing floors on the front porch to clean it off, or onto a flowerbed. I don’t have a dishwasher, so when running water to do dishes, I usually collect the cold water that comes first in a watering can for plants, a kettle, or in a jug.
And I moved from using liquid dish detergent back to swishing a bar of soap in the water a few years ago. I don’t see much difference, except for the lack of bubbles, which I have read come from chemicals added to make you feel like the cleaning part of the soap is working. I use a vegetable glycerine soap from Bulk Barn that has no wrapping and almost no scent, and my dishes seem clean enough. I sometimes add slivers of soap from the shower or sink to the glycerine soap in soap shaker I have.
Our hens spend a lot of time roaming around our yard in the summer, and the little plants that pop up in the vegetable garden are very tempting treats. Stern warnings and pleading has not deterred those little eating machines, so some sort of physical barrier was in order.
I found some rolls of page wire in our woods a few years ago and dug them out last month. There were four sections, all basically sunk into to the the ground and firmly attached with tree roots. My best guess is that the original fence was built some time in the 1930s and could have been taken down after the 1960 West Prince Forest Fire when what had been farm fields was allowed to grow up into the forest that surrounds us now. The wire is old and rusty, kind of brittle, but good enough for what I need. It was easy to find enough small spruce trees that had blown over in the woods to make the fence posts and so I’m now putting my rickety fence together.
The person who rolled up each length of fence made sure that it was well secured, the ends wound around to hold the roll together. I wonder who took the fence down and what they thought would happen to the page wire? I wonder what they would make of using page wire to keep hens out of a vegetable garden (I know the answer: it’s a dumb idea because chickens can go through page wire, which is really meant for cows and horses…I have a plan, though!).
The hooks all broke as I straightened them, but the fence is good enough, and I’m happy the wire is being used after decades of sitting and waiting for me to find a use for it.
Last week I found out just how much chickens LOVE hostas. For some reason they ignored them for the past four years, but this year have been nibbling the new shoots to the ground. I now have various pieces of chicken wire propped around what remains of the poor plants and will hope for the best.
Today while I was weeding and edging a flowerbed, older hens Anni-Frid and Agnetha stood by as ususal to eat any worms or insects I uncovered, but they also plucked the annoying black flies that encircled my head. I guess a few flat hostas in exchange for pest control is sort of worth it. Sort of.
All the cats I have known who have lived into their teens have developed sensitive stomachs (a delicate way to say they become barfy). I can confirm that elevating their food bowls somehow lessens this barfiness. I don’t know why this works, but it does, and is highly recommended by both humans and felines.
Also elevated this morning was a head of lettuce, a rare treat for our free-range hens who really are fed up with being cooped up.
In the spirit of elevated dining, I plan to eat my lunch on the roof.
All four of our hens are laying eggs now. The two new red pullets, Clemmie and Prue, took a while to get going, and their eggs are still small, but things are usually running like clockwork.
One day last week, Clemmie took off when Steven opened the run in the morning and ran to the house. I later only found three eggs in the two nesting boxes in the coop. I had seen Clemmie and Prue checking out the spirea next to our deck the day before, so I had a look there and found a beautiful little brown egg in a sweet little hole Clemmie had made in the soil.
This dash-and-drop went on for a few mornings, so yesterday I threw together a rustic/junky/steampunky outdoor nesting box. The wood came from our old shop floor, which the builders said I should burn but which I have recycled into many garden and chicken projects so far. The roof is the drain pan that used to sit under our ancient water pump for our cottage. The drain pipe had rusted out and left a little hole, so I dug into our bag of recycling and found the snazzy lid from a can of ADL/Dairy Isle evaporated milk (what my 96-year-old mother uses to make fudge, which she did for the Tyne Valley Oyster Festival canteen last week!). Nails and roofing screws were picked up by me from when our house was being built in 2002 and reroofed in 2015. Caulking leftover from repairing our shop siding.
Total cost = $0. And this morning, there was no 5:30 buck-buck-bucking from Clemmie, and she instead left her brown egg in her new box. The chicken books all say “One nesting box is enough for every four hens,” but Clemmie hasn’t gotten to that chapter in her handbook. Or she read the version with the footnote “*except when it isn’t.”
We got two new hens at the end of May, red ready-to-lay pullets. The two older hens welcomed them with lots of squawking and some feather pulling, but they are slowly getting used to each other.
On Tuesday morning, I found the first tiny egg in the dust bath the new gals had created in their section of the run, then another in the afternoon by their feeder. I decided to let the four of them run together all day on Wednesday after nearly three weeks of living next to each other.
Within a couple of hours of being together, the two new hens figured out from the older ones that the nesting boxes in the big coop are where you go when you get that feeling that you have to lay an egg. Without a handbook, wiki or support forum to consult, they figured it out, just like they did making their dust bath only minutes after leaving the cage they came home in. The older hens are still doing some chasing and yelling, but things have calmed down a lot.
Pullet eggs are about 2/3 the size of regular hens eggs. They will lay these small eggs for about a month as they grow to their full hen size.
Start small, follow your instincts, watch those with more experience, don’t be fancy, and find the right nest box. Good lessons learned from our new hens as I start a blog for the second time. I have a feeling this one might stick if I start small, so this is my pullet blog.