Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Fine Feathered Friends

A few weeks ago, I had an urgent email from a neighbor: "my chickens are sick, could you come take a look?" I could and did, without any certainty I could be much help, but I seem to be the neighborhood "go to" person for animal calls of all sorts. Kittens arrive in cardboard boxes, strange beasts must be pulled from backyard pools after dark, snakes show up on the doorstep in jars or must be rescued from netting. I have to uphold this sacred trust.

Chickens in Fall, or All About Moulting
But the thing was, her three chickens looked better than some of mine. One hen had feathers of a certain dullness, but I saw no sign of illness or the mites she suspected. (You can test for mites by picking the bird up to see if little flakes of pepper jump off on you.) They were pretty normal for older hens in fall. Older is relative to commercial chickens, who rarely reach the age of two, for hens; not even close to that for cocks.

When I took this picture early yesterday, I noticed there's not much sun in the chicken yard at this time of day/year. John Denver fans, the girls just love 'sunshine on my shoulders,' and these two pullets* crowded close to the gate, where the first morning rays are found, to warm their feathers.

* Pullet is to hen as heifer is to cow, or filly is to nag, as maiden is to mother, as virgin is to... well, you get the drift. These two are (or were) pullets, or spring chickens of this year. One or more of these new girls has started laying, so they're gradually reaching the status of "hen." Because all of the older hens have stopped for the season, we're out of fresh eggs, and we can't wait! Pullet eggs, by the way, are smaller than "regular" eggs: Apparently it takes a while for them to get the machinery working at full capacity.

"Notice, please, how sleek and lovely we are as we strut about the yard."

Even the older gals are looking pretty good now, but a few weeks ago (10/17), I caught poor Goldie here looking downright pathetic. She seemed embarrassed, kept trying to hide behind something, more camera-shy than usual. Her back was almost completely bare, and new quills stuck out all over. Believe it or not, this is normal.

Why chickens should decide to moult when it's already getting cold is beyond me. Seems like it would just make chilly times worse. Presumably, with winter coming, those new feathers will do a better job of insulating them than the old beat-up plumage would. Still, it's a slow process; they don't lose all the feathers at once, although piles of worn feathers drifting around the chicken yard can make you think so. Here's Goldie in progress (11/5), with her new body feathers about halfway regrown.

Note also that Goldie's comb has faded to a pale pink, a sign that she's not in peak condition (partly her age); her resources are going into feathers, which are, after all, almost pure protein. That means no protein left over for those nutritious little bundles we enjoy for breakfast. (Here's a Barred Plymouth Rock in great shape, with bright comb, for comparison.)

Slow as it is, moulting in these pampered hens is speeded up, I think, compared to that of wild birds. Getting caught without primaries or tail feathers would be dangerous! Most wild birds seem to have a moulting process that is much more subtle. I understand birders see birds in moulting mode routinely, so maybe I'm just not watching close enough. I only notice when an eagle or raven flies overhead, missing a prominent wing- or tail-feather.

As it turns out, moulting is triggered by the shorter day length of autumn. In Australia, the onset of moulting is in about March, vs. our September. However, off-season moults are reported by chicken folk fairly regularly, and partial moults can occur whenever chickens are stressed. The stress factor enables egg producers to time and synchronize moulting by applying mild stress to get the whole process over with all at once. (Goldie is looking fine now, though still pale and, I'm sure, not laying.)

More on moulting, from the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries.

Egg laying, by the way, uses the same trigger but in the opposite direction, and will pick up noticeably here as early as February. In case you were wondering why eggs are more closely associated with Easter than with Thanksgiving.

Hanging with my Peeps

The chickens are wary and camera-shy, but only to an extent. At least they're used to me, and to the arrival of fresh food on a fairly regular basis. This little guy, who has been hanging out with them quite a bit lately, has captured our hearts, but is a real challenge to capture with the camera. His penchant for hiding under shrubbery adds to the poor quality of these shots. Can you find him in the photo below? When the Handy Helper and I first saw him, back in late September I think, I thought he might be an immature chukar.

That proved wrong when the Darling Husband reached for the bird book the next time he showed up. Bobwhite Quail. A total surprise! Here he is perched in a honeysuckle bush (11/15), very unusual for him.

Hadn't seen him in a few days, and began to worry. This morning (12/1), while I was carrying a teakettle of hot water out to the girls, he ran by. I, naturally, didn't have a camera at hand. It was the second time I've been close to him without fences, shrubs, and camera between. But I went back for the latter, and when I returned with food, there he was, sipping the newly warmed water! At last a clear, if not focused, shot, taken as one of the Ameraucanas looked on.

He ran off, under his favorite shrub, while I loaded the feeders. As soon as I was safely inside, he was out running around again, sampling chicken crumbles and scratch.

Update 12/5/10: Seems I've delayed this post just long enough! Yesterday the Husband captured this shot under a lilac bush—a new location in the backyard. Mr. Quail quickly returned to the chickens.

This morning the Husband fed the girls, and Mr. Quail (we're on a first name basis now, starting to call him "Bob") ran off to, get this, perch in a nearby ash tree. Photo op!! As you will recall, DH is a much better photographer than I, and is using a better camera. I've put DH's five shots into a mini-slideshow below. What a little cutie he is, all fluffed up on his stub this chilly morning! (Guess perching isn't so unusual after all.)

I think he's decided to stick around...


Watcher said...

Interesting post. Thanks for the pullet/egg-schedule info. You got me thinking about how little I know about chickens, so I poked around a bit to get the basics. I had no idea their commercial-farm life-spans were so short!

Sally said...

Thanks, W... glad you were inspired. Yeah, it's sad, especially as they're such neat birds, and can live 8-10 years if not, you know... Fabulous critters for behavior observations!