Archive for January 2012

Kid Friendly Breeds

One of our customers asked the question of which breed is best with kids.  My response below was in relation to the breeds we have in stock:

Of the birds we have coming in, the only breed that can tend toward being high strung is the hybrid, Red Star. (Though we have a few and they are good birds as well.)  The Ameracaunas are by far the friendliest.  Next would be the Buff Orpingtons.  Black Autralorps and the New Hampshires would be my next choice.  Barred Plymouth Rocks are also a very docile breed.

Most important with any of these breeds is spending time with them, particularly when they are young.  They will imprint on you and your family and will become great pets, with the benefit of eggs.

Generally speaking, most of the heritage breeds are very docile and friendly.  Remember the natural selection process.  Most heritage breeds were developed as working birds on a farm.  They were free ranging birds, or if they were in a coop and run, most often, the kids had the task of going in to gather eggs.  On a subsistence farm, if a bird is not nice, they tended to get selected out of the flock to the dinner table.  Thus, the genetics of the heritage breeds today tend to be very good around people.

 

Poultry Professor

Introducing New Chickens to your Flock

One of the most common questions I get is how to integrate new birds into an existing flock.

 

The short answer to this question is: Add your new birds and let them work everything out.  They almost always do.  The long answer is much more complicated.  The flock strategies to introducing new birds have the goals of reducing stress on the existing flock, the new birds and the owners.

 

Chickens are both flocking birds, and territorial.  They instinctively understand that they are more likely to survive and thrive if they work together.  However, within a flock, there is always a hierarchy from top to bottom bird.  Chickens put together into a flock will work out this order by challenging each other.  Whenever you see one of these challenges, two birds will square off and raise up as high as they can over the other bird.  They will start pecking at the other until one manages to peck the other on top of the head.  The more dominant bird will win the challenge by getting hold of the other on the head, until the other ducks and runs showing submission.  This is where the term “pecking order” comes from.  These challenges are continuous in an established flock, however, once the pecking order is established, they are less frequent and less severe.

 

Whenever a new bird is introduced to an existing flock, two things occur simultaneously.  First, the flock recognizes a possible threat to their territory.  Secondly, the top birds recognize a potential threat to the order of hierarchy.  Nobody in the flock knows where the new bird stands and it causes tension until the order is worked out and peace is reestablished.

 

There’s the background.  Now the questions to answer: First, how old is the established flock.  And how large is the flock.  If the birds are full grown, then you want the new chicks to have some size on them before they have to fend for themselves.  I always recommend a minimum of 10 to 12 weeks of age.  They have to be strong enough and fast enough to get away from the adult birds.  Also, adding multiple birds always helps the new birds get established faster.  I have always found that adding one bird to a flock is more brutal on that bird.  If there are several new faces, the negative attention gets spread around.  If your flock is younger (6 months old or less) then the hormones haven’t fully kicked in and they will be less aggressive.  Also, they haven’t gained their full size, so the pecking is less severe.

 

Next question is are your birds in a coop and run, or are they free ranged.  In a coop and run, the birds are captive, so they have no choice but to deal with the new birds.  In a free range situation the existing flock will keep the new birds well away from the area.  In an enclosed environment, introduce your new birds in the late afternoon.  Everyone is winding down at this point.  They’re thinking of filling their crop and going to bed.  Dealing with new birds isn’t top priority. In a free range situation, penning the new birds up near the coop will keep them in the established flock’s range, yet give them a barrier to protect them.  (This also works within a coop and run.  Existing birds get a chance to get to know new birds without pecking.) After everyone has gone to roost, put the new birds in the coop on the roost with everyone else.

 

Regardless of the strategy, you will likely have to physically move the new birds into the coop each evening.  With this, you are dealing as much with the new bird’s comfort with the environment as with the established birds accepting the new bird.  Once it’s dark outside, the birds won’t move from where you put them.

 

Some final points:  Really, the only thing you need to be on the lookout for is blood.  Occasionally, with the pecking, a new bird will get pricked.  If you see a bird bleeding, get them away from the other birds and quarantine them until they’ve healed.  The sight of blood draws the attention of chickens and causes them to peck.  Other than making sure there is no blood and making sure your birds are roosted every night, the best thing you can do is let them be.  If you can ignore them for a few days, you’ll notice in less than a week, everyone is getting along as if the new birds have always been part of the flock.

Why Chickens

As a new “blogger” with a new blog, I thought it might be wise to describe how I came to be involved with all things poultry.  It all actually started way back when I was a teenager.  I don’t know why, but I have always been drawn to the idea that I wanted to be able to provide for myself.  One of my favorite teenage memories was of going out in the marshes near our house with a cast net.  I spent a day by myself in a borrowed  john boat catching shrimp, fish and clams.  I brought my booty home and cooked dinner for my family from food “I” had provided.  What a sense of satisfaction.

This may be why I have been drawn to agriculture. (Farmers may universally claim they are poor, but you can be sure, they will always eat.)  I tried to talk my parents into allowing me to get chickens for our backyard.  Despite my plans and assurances of keeping them clean, they refused.  Urban backyard chickens had not caught on in the ’70’s. So, I contented myself by raising rabbits.

In college at NCSU, I started as a Biology major.  During my freshman year, I volunteered as a lab tech in of the cell biologists labs on campus.  In my second semester, I was taking an honors discussion class, when our moderator, Dr. John Brake, found out I was working for free in another lab.  He offered to pay me if I worked for him.  As you can guess, he is a poultry science professor.  He convinced me to declare a double major.  During the course of my time at NCSU, I worked with several of his graduate students.  He gave me a grant to work on the design for a biopsy tool to aid our research without having to sacrifice birds.  I also worked summers at the research farms.  All this was great experience, but in the end, I decided that industry production was not for me.

Fast forward 20 years.  My full time gig is in the pharma industry.  It has been good to us and has kept me involved with the science that I love.  About 5 years ago, my family moved to the country.  Remembering my teenage dream of having chickens, I got a family flock of 5 birds.  My son took to them (he was 11 at the time.) So much so that he started asking about careers in poultry science.  I took him down to the university to look at the research facilities and to meet some of my old professors.

In due course, he asked me if he could start a business selling eggs.  Thinking it would be a great learning opportunity, I guided him on getting started.  What grew from this simple idea 4 years ago, has now become Little Birdie Chicken Farm and Hatchery.

I have found myself growing with him as we develop his business together.  Calling on my connections with the University Poultry Department as well as the Veterinary School I have found myself more and more immersed in the subject.  This blog is an outgrowth of the numerous people who look to us for advice and information as they begin or grow their own backyard flocks.

I welcome any questions, as well as comments.  I truly believe backyard flocks are one of the keys for the average American to gain a sense of independence and be able to start producing locally themselves.