pul·lus   [puhl-uhs]
–noun, plural pul·li  [puhl-ahy]
a young bird; a chick.
1765–75; < NL, L: from pullulāre to sprout

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chapter 5: Tammy is NOT in love: The Pecking Order

It's been a while since I last posted and much has changed in the henhouse. Shortly after my last post, the chicks were moved from the brooder into Tammy's pen along with a head of organic cabbage that was supposed to bewitch them into instantly evolving beyond their hierarchical tendencies—specifically, foregoing establishment of a pecking order. However, chickens are not yet ready to do away with their pecking orders, something that has probably been an innate part of their social structure for multiple millennia, for Tammy was more interested in pecking Lemonhead (and the rest of the chicks), than the head of the cabbage. That attempt at flock-building was quickly abandoned to ensure the safety of the chicks.

Round two lasted a bit more than a week and consisted of all the chickens living in separate sections of the same pen—Tammy in one area and the chicks safely in the other. Despite the screen that separated them, each evening I found several of the chicks' feathers lining Tammy's digs. Strangely, I'd also find treats that I put solidly in Tammy's territory in the chicks' side of the pen. I imagined Tammy dangled those treats in front of the chicks to entice them within striking distance.

Finally, in the middle of a balmy autumn night, Tammy and the chicks were moved from the divided pen into their new coop together. After a few squawks, they all settled peacefully in for the night.

Then came morning, and havoc ensued. Sweet Tammy turned into a monster. Time with the chicks as neighbors had not quelled any of her bloodlust for the spot at the top of the pecking order. For days she effectively kept the chicks imprisoned within the henhouse, guarding the ramp that led into the run and attacking each time a chick dared to question her authority. Sometimes the chicks would all barge out at once but that did not deter her.

As stressful as it was to watch, after putting second food and water dishes in the henhouse for the chicks, we did only that—watched. We watched Tammy tear out feathers, clamp down heartily on wings with her beak, and peck at any part of the chicks she could get her beak on. We watched Tammy simultaneously hoard all the meal worms and grasshoppers that we put in the coop as a treat for all the chickens. We watched Tammy hold the chicks at bay as she gobbled up all the tasty food scraps we put in the coop.

As difficult as it was, we adhered to the "No blood, no intervention" rule and after a week it began to pay off. Tammy continues to hold her place at the top even though the chicks are now at least three times her size. Waffles is a strong second. Holyfield is third and I think Lemonhead and Dot are fourth and fifth, respectively. I'm not quite sure about those last two spots in the order, which is indicative of the relatively mild manner of all the chickens at this point. None seem particularly put upon at this point or beaten down to door mat status. Though I still see Tammy clamp down on a wing every now and then, she is so firmly ensconced at the top that her mere presence, as tiny as it is, is enough to keep the rest of the chicks in line.

So yes, Virginia, there is a pecking order, also know as the "peck order". It was first noted by a Norwegian zoologist by the name of Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe in 1921 after he observed what he called Hackordnung, or a "dominance hierarchy" in chicken flocks. And as is their way with democracy, chickens turn their beaks up at feminism as well. If there is a rooster in the flock, he will be the dominant chicken.

Though no one seems to know the reason for the pecking order in chicken social structures, theories include that its existence eliminates social stresses in the flock once each chicken knows where he or she falls within the pecking order, that it prevents chickens from wasting precious energy fighting with other flock members once the pecking order is established, that it ensures the traits of the most fit chickens are passed along to future generations, and that it creates a more cohesive society that is better able to defend against external threats.

Each of those reasons alone is enough to support the existence of the pecking order, though the more I get to know chickens, the more I believe there is something more going on than humans will know for a long time, if ever. And even if there is no reason for the pecking order at all, humans have little room to judge given the complex tax systems, and other cumbersome structures, we live by.

Moral of the story:  Don't dismiss to the bottom of the pecking order what you don't understand.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Chapter 4: The Perils of Cuteness (also known as "Hey Kids, Let's Learn About the Chicken's Crop!")

 Tammy the Chicken accessorizing her comb with (and eating) a matching watermelon rind--smashing!

Yesterday was the chicks' fourth week birthday, and today is the 28th day that I've had them. I have been well aware that I have been neglecting Tammy (their soon to be coop-mate and the chicken responsible for my newfound love of chickens) since I've had the chicks. Despite my awareness, I have not pulled myself away from taking photographs of the chicks, writing about the chicks, talking incessantly about the chicks or asking my dog where the chicks are, to make sure Tammy has her free-range time. I mean, the chicks are just so f#*%@>& cute, after all!

Whereas Tammy is beautiful, elegant and seemingly both extraterrestrial and prehistoric. Those were a few of my observations as I watched her yesterday evening strutting around the roof deck, eating the cantaloupe and scratch I had brought her to try to make up for my inattention over the last month. And, in addition to all of those things, she was lumpy! A large lump that I hadn't noticed before protruded from the right side of her breast. There goes that falling sky again!

Maybe her feathers were just out of whack on that part of her body, I thought. But the more she walked around, the more it became apparent that there was a large mass in her breast area. She didn't seem to be in pain. She was eating food and small stones heartily. When she asked to go back into her pen by crowing and clucking softly, like she always does when the sun begins to set, I picked her up and felt the lump. Though not rock hard, it was substantial. Definitely not ruffled feathers. At least not hers.

Thinking in human terms (which, I am learning is usually not useful when it comes to chickens, as theirs is a very different world), I worried that she had been developing a painful and life-threatening tumor while I had been overloading on the cuteness of the chicks these past few weeks. Back in her pen she went, and onto the internet I went. A search of "lump on chicken's breast right side" provided a wealth of information on the wonder's of the chicken digestive system, and the crop in particular.

A chicken's crop is similar to a chipmunk's cheeks, or the extra fuel tank on some trucks. It is a place where food the chicken takes in by beak is held until it later moves through the rest of the digestive system.

It's believed that the crop developed in chickens and other birds so that they could quickly stock up on food in open areas, where they were more vulnerable to predators. Upon filling their crops, they could move to a safer area, to allow the digestive process to continue at a more leisurely pace.

The crop can become impacted if a chicken eats too quickly and too much, which is more likely to happen if food is withheld from a bird for an extended period of time, or if a chicken eats long and fibrous plant material that gets bound up within the crop and cannot pass through to the rest of the digestive system. Therefore, chickens should always have access to food and, if allowed to free range, should not be allowed to range in areas where the grass has recently been mowed.  Chickens can safely eat growing grass because they pluck small, easily digestible pieces from it; however, chickens are more likely to ingest full blades of mowed grass, which can get bound up in their crops.

This morning, the lump on Tammy's right side had subsided to the extent of barely being noticeable, and this evening it was again large and full of feed. So, the sky has not fallen and lodged itself in the right side of Tammy's chest. But if one day it does, and she or one of the chicks has an impacted crop, I will know what measures to take to remedy it (which I will not go into here, as there are instructions on what to do readily available online by others far more knowledgeable in these matters; just search "impacted crop"). Though, I do urge chicken enthusiasts to learn more about a chicken's anatomy here so you might avoid the sort of unnecessary worry I experienced over Tammy's crop functioning normally. Despite the many typos, the information is very thorough.

Moral of the Story No. 4:  Cute is only fuzz deep and a few weeks long; true love is lumpy and requires attention.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Chapter 3: Chickenstein (also known as The Post-Modern Prometheus)

It is day 20 here on the farm (also known as my bathroom where the brooder holding the ten chicks is located). The chicks' food intake has more than tripled in the last two days. I have certainly noticed their steady growth over these past couple of weeks; however, this increased consumption has put me back into "Got to keep the sky propped up somehow" mode.

You see, my supply of starter feed is precariously low at this point and, though more is being delivered tomorrow, I fear that by the time it arrives I will have run plumb out and the chicks, like the eagle that made a continual meal of Prometheus's liver, will have turned on me. Plus, there is that over-active imagination of mine, which is charged with thoughts of opening the bathroom door tomorrow morning to be greeted by ten chicks that have surpassed me in height and are cheeping death threats at me in three human languages, as well as their own poultry patois.

I suppose it was all "I'm going to get me some of that Zeus-fire" of me (also known as "cocky" in chicken-inspired speak) to think that I could raise eight more chickens than originally planned without incident. All that cuteness had to come at some cost.

And so, it is a tense night here on the farm. (Insert sound of thunder here.) What will tomorrow morning bring? A pummeling by hungry pullets that have tripled in size overnight? A frantic run to Belmont Feed & Seed? Or some new way to enjoy this adventure, despite my missteps along the way?

Moral of the Story: Don't just count your chickens after they hatch. Multiply that number by the number of pounds on the bag of feed you're using for the appropriate timeframe—then double!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chapter 2: Growing Pains Me

The chicks turned 2 weeks old yesterday. Save for one of the Buff Orpington's two-hour recovery from the chicks' travels via U.S. Postal Service to my house, they have all been healthy, hearty and growing robustly.

However, this morning one of the Buff Orpingtons (possibly the star of Interlude No. 1—there are two of them that I cannot tell apart) began to act as though ill. She would not stop pecking at the feathers underneath her wings, which seemed quite sparse by the time I took notice of her behavior. She would occasionally stop to burrow into the bedding (which is why I think it may have been the star of Interlude No. 1).

Soon the other chicks were pecking at her feathers, as well. The sky was falling fast. And my heart was sinking right along with it. I thought about going to work and hoping for the best. I was late due to a migraine I had earlier in the morning. Then I thought about coming home to a dead chick in the brooder. That was like a lead acorn against my already-aching head.

I set up a separate box in which to isolate the sick chick, checking on her periodically as I ran around wondering how much time until the sky had completely crashed down around me. Things seemed to be getting worse. She burrowed into the bedding behind the water dish, which is a very tight space. Was she going there to die? Did chickens do that? Or was she trying to hide from the onslaught of the other chicks? And why is all of her feathering looking so sparse? Could the other chicks have pecked her that much in the few minutes I'd been gone?

Off I went to finish setting up a separate place for her. Once done, I went in to get her—only to find that all of the chicks were now doing what the "sick chick" had been doing. What was going on? Lemonhead seemed to be the worst off. She seemed to have difficulty walking, and looked like she was wet.

It was time to "talk to the king", meaning search the internet, of course. I searched "feather pecking chicks", "chick obsessively preening" "chickens sick chick" "chickens chick illnesses", "chicken burrowing in bedding" and a few other odd combinations of words that brought up various chicken, porn and "girly" websites. None of the chicken websites offered information on what I was witnessing. Neither did any of the porn websites.

Back to the brooder I went, bracing myself for the worst. And found that the sky, as well as the chicks, had been restored to their former selves. The sun, singing "What a Wonderful World" and backed by an orchestra of fair weather cumulus clouds, hung solidly in a firmly blue sky. And the chicks were all fluffy again and back to playing the game they came up with a couple of days ago (inelegantly named "Snatch-the-Random-Pine-Shaving-From-the-Beak-of-the-Chick-Running-Around-With-A-Random-Pine-Shaving-In-Her-Beak").

I have been noticing the lessening of fluff in many of them over the last several days, and new, harder feathers have been coming in but those few moments of strife this morning seemed to signal a more profound growth spurt. This evening they all look bigger, shaggier, ganglier—not as cute as they were, but certainly more beautiful in their way.

Moral of the Story:  Chicks growing bigger (hence closer to the sky) does not equal the falling of the sky.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Interlude No. 1: Cleaning or Dreaming?

This is the first indication I have seen of any of the chicks practicing taking a dust bath, though this Buff Orpington chick seemed more intent on making a nest to sleep in, as she slept in the "hole" she dug for herself for a while after I stopped recording this video, despite all the traffic around her.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Chapter 1: Of Pullets and Parables

Our tale begins one recent summer day on the northwest side of Chicago. An industrious woman, one Chick Little, sits on the stoop of her building. Having spent the last two months caring for Tammy (a bantam rescue hen of unknown lineage), and researching breeds that might be suitable companions for Tammy, our heroine not-so-patiently awaits the postal worker who will bring her choices—one Buff Orpington and one Silver-Laced Wyandotte. Each of these breeds is known for its docility, sociable nature and tolerance of confinement (especially important when living on the roof of a garage in the middle of a city with a couple of million other inhabitants).

The sun is shining. Birds are singing. Children skip merrily down the street. Squirrels are washing Ms. Little's car. Finally, the mailman arrives and hands Chick the cardboard box that contains her new charges—along with EIGHT of their closest friends.

Though Ms. Little repeatedly requested of the hatchery that they only send two chicks due to space limitations (as sending additional chicks for warmth is a common occurrence), and the hatchery repeatedly assured Chick that her two chicks would be accompanied only by a heat pack and each other, a mistake was made. Or the eight extras were more abundant than heat packs on shipping day.

So instead of two bottoms being checked for pasting up, ten were checked. (No pasting up!) Ten beaks were dipped into the water dish to ensure they knew where to go to get a much-needed drink. And ten chicks were placed into the large cardboard box that was hurriedly put in place of the aquarium that would have been a perfect brooder for two chicks but, due to its small size, would have been a feather-pecking disaster for ten.

Moral No. 1:  The sky is falling indeed. And apparently it's made of chicks—really, really cute chicks.