Welcome to Chicken Lady at Locust Lane

Here you’ll find all manner of information about raising chickens, ducks geese, and a dozen other poultry favorites. The wisdom and woes of a small Midwest farm, what to do with garlic mustard, and where to look for the free popcorn at Rural King are here as well. Post your questions in the comments section and Chicken Lady will share her twenty years of knowledge about the feathered world of Locust Lane.

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The grass is not really greener

Chickens in the grass — these Alaskans also get the sort of feed that Chicken Lady recommends for fat and egg-full hens.
Dear Chicken Lady, I’ve been getting grass fed beef from a friend and it is wonderful. In our local Rural King the other day, while I was munching on my free popcorn, I saw to my great delight a chicken lawn house big enough for 4 chickens. It’s got a little enclosed area for them to lay their eggs and sleep in at night and then a screen porch kind of where they can go out and eat grass and scratch in the dirt. So I am excited about grass fed chickens and want to know if they need a certain kind of grass or is my regular yard okay? Won’t their eggs taste delicious with all those fresh greens? Sincerely, Green Acres Is The Place For Me
Dear Green Acres, I saw those little chicken paradises. You can move them around so the birds don’t kill all the grass in the spot where they are and they will be perfect for the small back yard. The reality is that the grass will probably not last too long even if you move them daily for 4 scratching hens move a lot of dirt. Yes, your chickens will eat grass or many kinds of weeds, especially dandelions, but they cannot live on grass alone. Our chickens that are running loose in the yard spend far more time scratching around in the dead leaves or the manure piles than they do out nibbling on delicate green shoots of grass. Throw handfuls of grass into the pens of your birds that don’t roam free and they will devour it with great gusto. Do that several days in a row, and pretty soon they may take a nibble or two but will ignore most of it. They like a varied diet of a good bug or grub plus grains as well as grass to thrive.
You are what you eat is how the saying goes and that applies to your chickens. In the spring when the first greens are the dead nettle and other mints the chickens will prune them for you but the eggs will have a strange smell and taste as odd. A good balanced broiler or layer feed should be your basic feed and then let the birds supplement with what bugs and greens they find tasty.
A few melon rinds for treats.
I got to wondering how much of what the bird eats ends up affecting us. Our dogs eat bird food, bird poop, bird eggs and their own dog food made of what else but poultry by products. We cook up old eggs, extra eggs, incubator eggs that weren’t fertile to feed to the birds for a bit of extra protein and I gave lots of eggs to the dogs as well. All those poultry products caused one poor dog to scratch non-stop and so to put an end to it I looked for a food for dogs with sensitive skin. After a bit of research, I read that she should eat food with no grain or grain-fed meats in it (which also cuts out venison as our wild deer get much of their sustenance from corn left in the fields after harvest). Even rice and oats are out which left us with a food made from sweet potatoes and fish, which worked. The itching has stopped and the fact that she still sneaks some bird food and droppings every now and then seems to be all right.
If grain-fed meat affects dogs with grain allergies would it not have the same effect on humans? Surely there would be some research to study that and so I set out on Google scholar, searching for a scholarly paper that was understandable and covered such issues. Not only could I not find much, but some of the authors I found couldn’t find much either. There are lots of forums and blogs discussing food allergies in people with accounts of how wonderful the victims of such allergies felt when they cut out grain fed beef and ate only grass fed beef. Or how they felt better after eating only free range chicken eggs and no more store bought eggs. Some people were allergic to chicken but found a source of free range chicken they could eat. Soy is an allergen for some people who felt they could eat chicken only if it was on a soy-free diet. There are reports that children allergic to corn products are also allergic to corn-fed meat. I could find no studies that showed what the chicken ate would affect people, only that thorough cooking was important and that contamination or components of chicken feed could be a possible source of problems for the consumer.
Chickens need protein in their diet and there are a variety of sources for it. A few years back we looked into finding a mill that would custom mix our feed. We couldn’t find one close enough but learned that the feedmills can’t have meat scraps sitting around anymore to use as a feed additive because of mad cow disease. Fishmeal was a recommended protein but there no are affordable sources for it around here. To up the protein of the feed, soy has been substituted for the meat proteins so chickens now consume a lot of soy. That is still not the best for the chickens and the loss of the meat proteins in feed has been suspected as a reason for lower fertility in breeder’s flocks.
Fishmeal as a protein supplement in chicken feed is available to the Spanish chicken lover and a study was done to look at problems with allergies to chicken meat. Fish can be contaminated with a nematode parasite that ends up in the protein providing fishmeal. After blood tests for the specific allergen, the allergic reaction to chicken might have been due to allergens from nematodes in the fishmeal making it through the digestive barrier of the bird and surviving the cooking process, reminding us of the problems with the mad cow prions, proteins we could eat that are not destroyed by cooking either.
Perhaps studies being done on genetically modified foods will help us understand more about how what our future dinner eats affects us. The controversy over genetically modified food products has no clear results that one can point to and say they are good or bad. Genetically modified chicken eggs are being worked on now because on a global scale, egg allergies are second only to allergies to cow’s milk. Produce a hypoallergenic egg and you can hatch out chickens who will lay more hypoallergenic eggs to use not only as food but in the production of vaccines. “We are not producing genetically modified chickens as part of this research, we are simply modifying the proteins within the egg whites to produce chickens which lay allergy-free eggs,” claims one of the researchers, Adjunct Professor Tim Doran. In the world of the genetically modified, the egg will clearly come before the chicken.
We here at Locust Lane envision a future where we will customize your chicken to your food allergies. Chickens fed on blueberries and worms only? Give us 10 weeks or so and your order will be ready. Soy-free chicken fed on garlic mustard and ant eggs for the locavore fanatic’s dinner? No problem. Of course, they might be pretty scrawny chickens but oh, they will be tasty. While you are waiting for those genetically modified chicken eggs to become available, try our duck eggs. We have friends who love them; they can’t eat chicken eggs but duck eggs are quite digestible. Sincerely, Chicken Lady
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Home alone: Advice for bird-sitters and those who hire them

Out the door (pheasant at Locust Lane).
Dear Chicken Lady,  How do you ever manage to leave the farm? Isn’t there a lot to do to get ready? We’re hoping to take off for a few days and I’m afraid I’ll forget something important. Any last minute advice? Sincerely, Itching To Get Away
Dear Itching,  It’s true, we don’t leave often and we don’t leave for long, but once in a while you gotta get away. You are asking the right professional for advice since the novice chicken farmer who leaves on vacation almost always makes the clean underwear mistake. Remember your mother always said to be sure when leaving the house to have clean underwear with no holes (in case you end up in the hospital of course)? The fledgling chicken farmer applies that philosophy to the rest of trip preparation. All those odds and ends you have been putting off until tomorrow you will try to get done so everything appears spotless with cages all cleaned and water dishes all scrubbed. There is no way you can get everything caught up and if you try, you’ll be as frazzled as a hen in a pen with lots of men.
That said, there are some things you do want to accomplish to help that paraprofessional you have coming to your aid. The door latch that keeps popping open and you have to chase the escaped birds back in on a regular basis? Your bird sitter won’t know who goes back in the pen or who runs free so it must be fixed before you leave. Have a few clean empty pens with feed and water dishes if birds need to be separated or isolated since it is spring and love is in the air. You are guaranteed to have some duck drakes fighting with one ending up needing a place to recover, or roosters that need separating.
That hen running loose in the barn who hasn’t been seen for 21 days will reappear with 10 or 15 adorable chicks so you need extra feed and water dishes for them. Mark the cage of the rooster who is nice to you but not so nice to strangers and show your apprentice how to feed the ornery fellow without unpleasant consequences. (I like to put that kind of bird in a cage I can open from the top as they are less likely to attack something coming at them from above.) Set out extra light bulbs, show the helper where the fuse box is, and leave extra food for the cat since a possum will probably show up to eat whatever you had out for the kitties.
Opossum waiting for the kittens to be fed.

If something can go wrong, it most likely will so you try to cover all possibilities. Temperatures below freezing? Have an extra hose handy since an inexperienced helper may not get the hose drained completely and it will be unusable until they haul it and thaw it in the barn. Leave them a roll of duct tape, some wire and wire cutters, and phone numbers for everyone you know that they might need help from.

I am always afraid our helper will forget a bird pen or two so we mark each door with fowl inside with some bright colored duct tape and make out a detailed list (with extra copies) of every poultry perch that they need to check. Since we feed different birds different feeds, label the feed containers, and label the pens for how much to feed the occupants. We had a helpful relative take care of the birds once and he felt if a little feed is good, a lot is better which while we know that is not so, your helper may not. Be sure to have plenty of feed on hand so you don’t have to run to the store the minute you get home for more if your helper turns out to be the “more is better” kinda person.
Go ahead and pick up empty feed sacks, toss out old eggs, throw away the tarp the geese chewed up and put out fresh straw while you are going around double checking everything and you will feel wonderful about all you got done. If the head honcho decides he wants to build a new pen at the last minute and get everything done that he hasn’t finished in the past year just let him have fun and you go get a good night’s sleep.
The worst disaster that happened while we were gone was a result of visiting opossums who killed two pekin duck hens every night while we were gone from the pen where we had all our breeding hens. We were left with one old one who laid no fertile eggs that year and it was a few years before we were able to find some good enough to replace those we lost. The poor guy helping out was very sorry but there was not much he could have done. He closed the birds up every night but apparently the possum was in the cage before he put the girls in. He did say the ducks didn’t seem to want to go in but managed to pen them up anyway where they met their doom. One possum met his end when he sauntered into the trap we set when we got home and a few more joined him soon after.
Most importantly, impress on your eager helpers how much you love those birds and how sad you are to leave them. Let them know they are privileged to be able to spend so much time caring for them and if they do a good job you may let them come again. Also be prepared to pay well, for once they have spent a few days slipping and sliding in the mud, their joy in the job may be in short supply. It seems that telling them it is good agility training has little positive effect.
Then, in the final hour before you leave, throw a few things for yourself in a bag, grab some extra chocolate and go have fun. If you forget your toothbrush, pick one up on your trip and don’t feel bad that you put all your energy into getting the birds ready before you left. Bruce Schimmel said “The little furry buggers are just deep, deep wells you throw all your emotions into.” Substitute feathered for furry and you have described yourself well.  Sincerely, Chicken Lady
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Chicken Lady answers: Bath time for birds

Dear Chicken Lady, Why are my chickens getting in their feed bowls and knocking all the feed out? It’s really annoying and a waste of feed. Don’t they mind that they are making such a mess? Sincerely,  Distressed that they Messed

Dear  Messed and Distressed,  Winter can be tough on the birds as dry dirt to take a bath in is in short supply right now. A warm winter combined with precipitation means mud around here, lots of mud. Desperate chickens resort to desperate measures which means taking a bath in the food bowl if possible. After all, especially if you feed a finely ground mash for feed, you have lots of fine powder that as the bird sifts it through its feathers will clog the breathing pores of whatever bugs are along for the ride which leaves them gasping for air and easy to shake off when your chicken shakes, causing dust, bugs, and bug eggs to go flying through the air.
Out in the bird pens the ducks and geese are perfectly happy with a mud puddle. If there are a few inches of water in it they will splash away and not mind the mud one bit. If there are no mud puddles they sometimes try to take a bath in the snow which never seems quite satisfactory. Birds also clean their feathers with a good preening, pulling each individual feather through their beak and oiling by rubbing their beaks in oil from a gland at the base of their tails. This waterproofs the feathers, knocks off a few bugs and keeps the bird’s bill from getting scaly and dry.
Geese in a muddy snow puddle.
We humans have a long history of bathing, with the first soap factory found in Babylonian ruins from 2800 B.C. The bathhouse was a popular place for the Romans and other cultures, but in the European countries epidemics and diseases were spread via them and lead poisoning from the lead lined viaducts of the Romans may have contributed to health problems attributed to the baths. By the late 16th century bathing became suspect as a proper behavior. Churches complained about illegitimate children created during encounters and cleanliness was considered sensuous and sexual. Spiritual purity was shown by your lack of personal preening, showing you were not self absorbed or vain. Dirt was also considered protection from germs that numerous plagues had spread through England and Europe killing off large parts of the population. Body odor was considered to be a good thing, but if it got too bad it could always be dispelled by a bit of snuff to clear your nose. Powders and perfumes, wigs and layers of clothes hid the dirt and smell.
Unlike our chicken friends, the dirt and powders did not kill pests such as lice, and lack of bathing did not prevent the plague. The English in the early 1800’s found water was not part of the problem, rather part of the solution and became leaders in bathroom technology as they tried to provide the average homeowner with clean water.
While imitating the bathing preferences of our poultry such as coating oneself in dust or splashing in mud [aside from carefully-designed spas where one can properly luxuriate in the experience] have lost favor in our quest for personal hygiene, the birds continued to contribute to the pursuit of cleanliness in various other ways. Early soap makers would float an egg in the lye solution that was needed to make soap from the animal fats they collected to determine if it was at correct strength. And when looking for a source of animal fat to collect for soap, the pleasantly plump Christmas goose or duck was always a good place to start.
I respect the birds in their quest for cleanliness. While no birds that I have ever heard of can be potty trained, the wild birds who raise their young in a nest keep the babies clean by eating the droppings of the babies which are well endowed with partially digested food items rich in protein and no bacteria until the babies get older. Once the bacteria starts to build up in the droppings the parents will carry them away from the nest to drop them. Grackles have gotten a bad reputation because they normally nested by water and dropped the fecal sack in the moving water which carried it away from the nest. Now that they have become urbanized, they drop those fecal sacks in your swimming pool or bird baths.
If you don’t want your birds taking baths in the feed, provide them with an alternative or change the type of feeder you use so they can’t get into it. Saucers that you can buy to put under your houseplants make great bird baths when filled with some sand if you can find any that isn’t frozen solid. Some people use diatom powder for their birds to bathe in but that is not only bad for the bugs’ lungs but for your birds lungs as well. Respect the fastidious fowl in their quest for purging their bodily pests. Sincerely, Chicken Lady
Guinea hens in a summer dust bath.
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Beautiful winter at Locust Lane

Chicken Lady has been capturing the essence of a winter day at Locust Lane with the geese and the trees.



Trees + Geese.
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Windows for Chickens

Chicken Lady
Dear Chicken Lady, So we’re building a chicken coop and have some old windows we want to use in it. Will they be safe to use or will the chickens crash into them and break them, leaving sharp slivers of glass to be cleaned up? I mean, surely the chickens would like a nice view and some sunlight coming in wouldn’t they? Sincerely, Let the Light Shine In
Dear Let It Shine, Chickens are not noted for their sharp vision, unlike the birds of prey or even the pigeons who have been described as a pair of eyes with wings. We’ll save the discussion of whether or not a chicken would like a window to gaze out of for a later discussion and go straight to the use of glass in a chicken coop. Our coop has old house windows that have held up to conditions for the almost 20 years it has been around. Of course, they have a sturdy wire screen in front of them so when they are open the birds can’t fly out and predators can’t come in. They are high enough off the ground that birds who fight wouldn’t normally crash into them either. Having windows that open is a luxury option so a far simpler way to let the light in is a sheet of something clear or translucent covering a hole in the wall. Now some will tell you to use only safety glass or plexiglass and others will say “It’s a chicken coop, don’t lose sleep over it.”
We have sheets of safety glass that we use to cover pens that would get little light otherwise that have also lasted for years, and some that have not done so well. They are tempered glass, that shatters in to smaller rounded pieces rather than the sharp slivers that regular window glass breaks into. When they have broken, we have shoveled up the broken pieces, dirt and all in fear that the birds would peck at it, swallow it and die from interior lacerations, a fear that few chickens are smart enough to lose any sleep over. After all that work, we noticed an old pen that hadn’t been used in a while had it’s glass ceiling shatter and the pieces had sifted down into the dirt below. It has been one of the birds’ favorite dust bath spots as it is always dry, with the birds taking baths and probably pecking at the pieces of glass for several years with never any unusual problems stemming from it.
Broken glass is not a good way to kill anyone, chicken or human contrary to popular folklore. The pieces of glass if eaten by the birds are probably ground smooth by the other rocks the chickens keep in their crop to grind food. Even people aren’t easily killed by eating glass. If you could get someone to eat sharp shards of glass, they may do some damage which would send you to a doctor for treatment but we tend to not enjoy eating hard gritty things like ground glass and would not easily be persuaded to include them in our diet.
There are kinds of glass that might to too sharp and hard for even a chicken’s crop to handle. Pyrex cookware is formulated to very hard and resistant to shattering. There are two kinds of tempered glass, the common cookware we use being made with a soda lime composition and the older and more thermally strong variety made with borosilicate glass. The soda lime glass is stronger if you drop it while the borosilicate can take thermal shock better. When they do break watch out for they shatter into thousands of tiny incredibly sharp slivers of glass. These pieces of glass are so sharp that when John was in school, slicing up tissue to look at under the microscope they used glass shards to get thin translucent slices of tissue.
Borosilicate glass is used for all sorts of things from aquarium heaters to lenses for telescopes. The glass for the telescope mirror at the California Institute of Technology was cast in a block that took a year to cool before they were able to work it. It is used in dental cartridges, pre-fill syringes, for the thermal insulation tiles on the Space Shuttle and lenses for high quality flashlights. Specialized marijuana and tobacco pipes use it as well as glass guitar slides. The glass beads so popular at the craft shows are most likely borosilicate glass and those High-Intensity Discharge lamps in our barn also have the borosilicate glass.
The law of unintended consequences was noticed when Pyrex cookware switched from the borosilicate formula to the soda lime glass. The switch was for several reasons, among them cost and environmental concerns but caused great consternation among crack cocaine producers. The production of crack requires heating cocaine and water to a high temperature and then cooling it rapidly. Once the switch to lime soda glass was made the crack producers could no longer buy their glassware at the local Dollar store but were forced to resort to stealing vials and beakers from labs who still used the more thermal shock resistant borosilicate containers.
To answer your question, go ahead an recycle those old windows which are far more likely to get broken by some klutzy accident you have than a chicken crashing through it. We clean up broken light bulbs from the brooding cages, find broken glass surfacing in the garden from bottles tossed out long before we ever moved to the farm and have never lost a bird to the broken glass that we know of. Sincerely, Chicken Lady
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Frost, feathers, and apple vinegar

Feather donors

With our first frost I am cleaning up all the feather projects  that are spread out in the sunroom so the house plants can come in. I also need to get the final coat of finish on a new kitchen table made from some cherry trees that we had cut into boards. Sometime back a pipeline was put in through the back of our property which meant big trees had to come down. John found a guy with a portable sawmill who cut the logs into boards that had been drying in our barn. We’ll have a history lesson for our kitchen table now made from trees that were not that much older than I am. They grew on a sand dune brought in by glaciers, provided food for countless insects, molds and fungi, birds, deer and raccoons. Their fruit seeded new trees to replace them, and some of the wood they produced that wasn’t worth planking heated our house during our yearly ice age that some call winter around here.

A friend of the kids wants some wild and crazy feathers for her hair when she gets married so we are having fun learning how to burn feathers (soak them in bleach) and trying new dye colors. The guinea hens have donated their polka dot feathers, the phoenix molted some long hackles and sickle feathers, the turkeys dropped some elegant fluff and tail feathers; even the big uglies, the malays have some worthwhile feathers to collect.

Folks, the moon is waning so this is the time to remove warts by rubbing them with a chicken gizzard. Bury the gizzard in the middle of a dirt road once you have rubbed the warts with it. Also this time of year if you aren’t fast enough, the rotten apples will be piling up under your apple trees (unless your geese are eating them as fast as they fall) so collect them before they are bad to make a few gallons of cider. Forget drinking the stuff, let it sit until you have vinegar which is full of acetic acids, mineral salts and amino acids which you then feed to your chickens. Chickens don’t care much for sweets, but a little vinegar in their drinking water (4 tsp./gallon) is tolerated and improves their digestive tract health, increases egg production, kills bacteria, and can double as a cleanser for the coop while helping to repel flies and ants. For a extra super clean, scrub dirty surfaces with a baking soda paste and then spray with vinegar.

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Mice in the trees at Locust Lane

Mouse in a tree at Locust Lane

November 21, 2010 

Dear Chicken Lady,  I hope you don’t think this is a stupid question but are mice afraid of heights? I don’t know who else to ask and this is very important to me. Sincerely, Afraid of Heights but More Afraid of Mice
Dear Fraidy, 
 No problem, I have been assured more than once that I excel at stupid questions. And this is far from stupid as any assiduous chicken farmer knows. It is bad enough to know that any misstep could result in a wayward mouse running up your leg let alone worrying about them dropping out of trees onto your head. [As Chicken Lady’s readers know, you really have to worry about the earthworms falling out of the trees. That should be enough.] I lay awake at night myself wondering if the young studs of the mouse world are planning to prove their manhood defending their territory. Do they dare each other through some kind of hazing ritual to run over your feet, scurry down an arm, skydive down your neck? The world of farming abounds in such hazardous deeds.

The dogs continue their quest to uncover every mouse hole that appears. Not every hole will be productive so they carefully sniff out the ones most likely to produce a nest of tender, hairless mouse kits. A summer of warm weather and plentiful food has resulted in all the mice nests overflowing with young who are now crowded out of their summer homes and must move on. Despite all members of Locust Lane putting forth their best efforts with chickens catching them, the cat leaving hers at our door, poison set out, traps everywhere; still they leave their calling cards, a trail of jettisoned droppings in empty feed bowls, in the water dishes, everywhere. So the trees are a definite possibility for the mice to scale in search of new homes.

One of my current fields of study while I stand around waiting for the ducks’ bathwater to fill has been to study the decline and disintegration of dead trees around the pens. The bugs get to work first, attacking the new growth just under the bark of the deceased timber. Poke a hole in the bark and you can see the insides crumble away as you prod at them. The worms evidently love this stuff and squirm their way heavenward as they chow down the decaying delicacies. I believe the mice come next, excavating runs in this softened wood, going higher and higher as the ground level real estate fills up. The trees seem to decay from the ground up with the tops of the trees being the last to go. As you look for holes you will see they are mostly not above eye level but there are a few up there and whether they are made by mouse or bird I couldn’t say.

I can verify that there are mice in those holes right around eye level through close observation. You know how it feels when you think you are being watched? Well, out in the bird pens there are lots of eyes on you, some of those belonging to the mice. I spotted a pink nose just below a pair of beady black eyes today. Thinking I might as well take a picture I pulled out my trusty camera., turned it on, selected the correct setting, set the macro focus, got into the perfect position, focused, and with a flash and a shutter snap the mouse disappeared. Patience is essential in the photography business and a pink nose finally reappeared as the camera refocused on a different opening. For quite a while the mouse hid just out of sight with only his 3 inches of tail dangling out. Figuring he needed motivation I tickled his tail with a handy pine needle with no results. Assuming that my ability to grab a slimy worm and pull it out of the ground could be easily adapted to mousing, I grabbed the tail and gently held it hoping that would get the little fellow to turn around to see what had him by the tail, but not a muscle twitch was felt.

Faced with the dilemma of whether to pull the mouse out or let go, and uncertain about what to do with a mouse dangling by the tail, I recalled a time when I was once chastised for disposing of a dead chicken without performing an autopsy. At the time the theory was advanced that one of our big Malay roosters had choked to death on a mouse. My response at the time to the big cheese in charge of poultry operations was a “You’re thinking I will do what?!? “ So revenge was considered but secretly grateful for one less chicken, the mouse was set free, after one fuzzy picture of a nose, and some insect eggs that were sharing the mouse’s habitat.

Odds are the mice are not up too far about your head and have no desire to jump on you, but it is something to be aware of. Don’t stand under trees in a thunder storm if you are afraid of lightning, and don’t stand under a dead tree with sawdust piles around the bottom of it if you are worried about mice dropping from the sky. And if you want a picture of those mice poking their heads out of the tree trunk, ask Santa for a motion sensor you can hook your camera and tripod to because life is short and other jobs await your attention. Sincerely, Chicken Lady

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