Caring for Blind Chickens

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SamPetunias.Jazelle

Sam is my 10 year old rescue rooster who has been blind for the last 3 years.

Blindness can be the beginning of a new life. Sam was adopted from the local Humane Society along with his brother, Isan in 2006. Isan began developing visual problems early and went blind in 2011. Both boys had several vet visits including to an eye specialist (who generously donated her time!) Cataracts were ruled out along with other various ailments. After blood work showed that they had a genetic condition which compromised their immune systems the condition was blamed on an infection caused possibly by a virus. Isan eventually developed respiratory problems and passed away in 2014.

Sam had once held the top position in the chicken yard hierarchy. Once his eyesight was gone he was no longer respected by the other birds and he was unable to protect himself. Chickens are considered prey animals and generally hide any ailments as a survival strategy. Eyesight is essential for chickens to stay safe, find food and water and to socialize. Sam had lost this ability, so like his brother before him I made the decision to have him become a House Chicken. Since then Sam has thrived indoors and even his vet is amazed at his longevity. Here are a few suggestions should you find yourself in a similar situation with your bird:

#1) Create a Space. I purchased a pet carrier that was roomy enough for Sam to move freely, stretch and crow but small enough that he would feel secure and able to find his food and water easily. The dishes snap onto the door of the carrier so I was able to adjust the height to fit his needs. The trays also cannot be knocked over and he knows exactly where to find them. Straw is used as bedding and is changed daily. I had considered the option of “chicken pants” which many people use successfully  for indoor birds but decided against them as a safety issue. Wandering about the house blindly could be hazardous for Sam.

#2) Create a Routine. All creatures (including us humans) feel secure with a predictable routine which indicates normalcy and security. With Sam I try to create a certain rhythm so things happen at the same time of day. Whether it is feeding him or taking him out for a stretch, his internal clock can depend on these events. Routine can become boring even for chickens so I try to add some surprises into his day to keep things interesting such as including a new ingredient in his food tray or giving him a bath (he loves the blow-drying part).

#3) Provide Healthy Food. I have put Sam on a healthy diet to which I credit his robustness. One third of his food is commercial poultry pellets with a sprinkling of Poultry Conditioner (which is high in vitamins). I add a layer of raw sunflower seeds (good source of protein, calcium, iron and fiber). On top of that I put his greens cut into beak-size pieces (kale, parsley, broccoli and sometimes brussels sprouts, cucumber and cabbage). I also add a few dry cranberries, blueberries (antioxidants) and apple then sprinkle with sesame or flax seeds (omega-3s). This is pretty much how I eat (vegetarian, sans the Poultry Chow of course!) and setting aside a small portion for him is no big deal. Luckily Sam has a great appetite and always cleans his plate!

#4) Give Touch Therapy. All beings thrive with love and attention. Sam’s blindness has also decreased his physical mobility so massaging him around his wing and leg joints helps to stimulate blood flow to the muscles. He especially enjoys belly rubs! Petting and holding your blind bird is another way of reassuring them that all is safe and secure.

#5) Allow Fresh Air & Sunshine.  Sam’s indoor carrier is next to a window where he continues get fresh air and sunlight. It allows him to hear and vocally connect with the other chickens (he still competes in crowing contests with his rooster buddies). I also have a small outdoor enclosure for Sam and in nice weather put him out when I am at home to keep an eye on him. This enables him to socialize with the resident flock without the risk of any of them hurting him. An easy outdoor enclosure can be created with portable pet fencing and aviary netting or tarp clipped over the top (shown below).

The main point is that blindness doesn’t have to mean the end of quality of life for your bird. As with any disability adjustments can be made to provide continued enjoyment of life for all involved!

SamRexPortableFence.Jazelle

Portable pet fencing provides an easy way for Sam to socialize in a safe environment.

-Singing Luna 3/7/2016

Seed for thought: With proper care chickens can live from 15-20 years!

Volunteering to Help Birds is a Rewarding Experience

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A rescued hen is held with gentle hands.

A rescued hen is held in gentle hands.

Animal Place is a sanctuary located in Grass Valley California which gives shelter and care to rescued farmed animals. Rescue Ranch, their sister property in Vacaville California, recently received 1500 hens from an egg production facility and saved them from the usual fate of slaughter. About 15 volunteers showed up on a sunny Saturday morning to help with hen health checks. When the hens arrive at Rescue Ranch they are able for the first time to touch the earth, experience the warm sunshine and move about freely as normal chickens. Each has spent the entire portion of their short lives in dirty, crowded and terrifying conditions… until now.

Volunteers begin to quietly round up the hens.

Volunteers begin to quietly round up the hens.

On this day we were assisting with a phase two health check. During phase one, when the hens first arrive, they are individually checked for injuries and illness. Volunteers trim their toenails which often grow unusually long due to confinement. Some of the birds have broken bones, lacerations and injuries related to brutal handling and transport. Most birds have visible feather loss and are crawling with mites from their inability to move around naturally and dust bathe. All the hens have amputated beaks, a painful procedure which impairs their ability to eat and drink. There are no male chickens present because all of them were separated from the females at the hatchery and killed as day-old chicks. The hens are emotionally fragile from their trauma and physically weak from the constant egg laying which saps their bodies of much needed calcium and nutrients.

The hens receive a dose of medication.

Hens receive a dose of medication from the wonderful Rescue Ranch staff and volunteers.

We assisted with phase two by gently collecting the hens and passing them off to Rescue Ranch staff for medication. Then the birds were released into the barnyard where they could enjoy socializing with their sisters out under the shady trees. Afterwards all of us volunteers celebrated by cleaning the barns!

The hens enjoy hanging out at the feeders.

The hens enjoy hanging out at the feeders.

Once the hens are strong enough they are put up for adoption by Rescue Ranch and also through some of the local humane societies. If you can provide a safe forever home to some of these girls (which they truly deserve after all they have been through!) please contact Animal Place through henrescuers.org. I also recommend volunteering which is a deeply rewarding experience. To hold a bird who has never been treated gently and feel her body relax trustfully in your arms is a sweet gift indeed.

-Singing Luna 8/25/2015

Seed for thought: Consider how our consumer choices impact the lives of animals!


This YouTube video is from a hen rescue in Canada. The rescuers were so devoted it appears that they prepared their living room (!) to keep the hens in during their recovery. Please Note: although the video shows chickens being carried by their feet this is not a recommended way to carry birds.

Sanctuary Resident Roosters: Cedric and Sebastian

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Cedric and Sebastian are two roosters who enjoy spending time together. (Photo:©Skyfeather Studio

Roosters can bond with each other as buddies and enjoy spending time together.

Cedric and Sebastian are two of Roostersong Sanctuary’s longtime residents. They were adopted from the Marin Humane Society in 2006 and recently celebrated their 8th Hatch-day! Originally from a larger group of socialized mixed-gender birds, they decided to become best buddies shortly after arriving at Roostersong.

Socializing new chickens into an existing flock is possible if one has patience and takes the time to observe the interaction between birds. Chickens develop complex social groups and use their own basic form of logical reasoning to understand where they might fit into a flock’s hierarchy. Roosters may buddy-up to gain a higher ranking within the flock. These rooster teams might choose to mate with hens when the opportunity presents itself but will mainly keep company with each other.

Cedric and Sebastian partake in daily chicken activities with the general flock but also go off on their own to forage for food. They take dirt baths together, protect each other and have their own special coop in the Chicken Resort. Both have mellowed with age and have sweet, quirky personalities. It is a sad truth that most animals are youngsters when they are slaughtered. We rarely have the benefit of knowing them as seasoned adults and lose out on experiencing their unique elder-wisdom which can only come with years lived.

Cedric eyes his Hatchday gift.

Cedric eyes his Hatch-day snack dispenser wondering why there is a picture of a dog on his box!

Feathered proprietors of the famous Buk Buk Bed and Breakfast Inn at Roostersong Sanctuary. (Photo: ©Skyfeather Studio)

Feathered proprietors of the famous “Buk Buk” Bed and Breakfast Inn at Roostersong Sanctuary where meals are always a delicious vegetarian fare.

-Singing Luna 9/27/2014

Seed for thought: Consider adopting a rooster from your local shelter or Humane Society!


Three Myths About Roosters

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Roosters can live quite harmoniously with each other. There are four roosters in this photograph.

There are a total of four roosters shown in this photo… and yes, they are all friends! (can you spot them?).

Myth #1: If you put two roosters together they will fight to the death.

Historically cockfighting has helped to fuel this myth by creating a grossly artificial situation where birds are cruelly trained to become aggressive. Roosters are drugged to dull the pain of injury and forced to wear razors attached to their legs ensuring a bloody and violent death. Many animals including humans will naturally fight with each other if they do not have their basic needs met: food, water, shelter (or territory), and safety. If we live in an environment where we feel safe and comfortable then we are much more inclined to engage in friendly socialization. Just like humans, chickens need to have the proper amount of space to be emotionally healthy. Roosters may initially fight to prove hierarchy but will generally defer to the stronger bird before any serious injury results. Roosters who are raised together as chicks will determine hierarchy early so it is advantageous not to split them up. Often in situations where there are multiple males, roosters will pair off as buddies, being perfectly content to live the “hen-less” life. Contrary to popular belief it is quite possible to introduce adult roosters into an established flock by using certain socialization techniques (to be covered in a future post). It is our responsibility as caregivers to make sure that everyone in the flock is well cared for and also to monitor any aggressive behavior as soon as it materializes.

Myth #2:  The presence of a rooster is necessary for a hen to lay an egg.

A hen will lay her egg whether or not a rooster is around however, roosters help to maintain a natural and beneficial dynamic within a chicken community. A rooster is essential for the fertilization of an egg. Fertilization occurs within the body of the female. A rooster will display a mating dance for the hen and she will indicate receptivity by squatting down next to him. He will then mount and deposit his sperm into the opening beneath her tail.  If the hen chooses to nest and “set” on the fertilized egg a chick will form and hatch 21 days later. Though roosters are not necessary for the formation of eggs, they are an important asset for providing safety and protection of a flock. For instance when hens are out foraging a rooster will keep watch and give a distinct call to indicate danger. The type of sound will even indicate whether the predator is approaching on land or is airborne. Roosters are very courageous and have been known to fight off attackers many times larger than themselves. If a rooster finds food he will first call his family over to partake in the feast. It is well known that chicks will begin a dialog with their mothers while still inside the egg but recent studies have shown that they can also recognize vocalizations of the roosters and other members of their flock before hatching, which contributes to the bonding of the flock overall.

Myth #3: Roosters crow only at sunrise.

All animals have sophisticated methods of communication which humans have only barely begun to understand. A rooster’s crow is his way of communicating his presence territorially and also to announce his well-being. Throughout the day a rooster may crow in triumph after he has mated with a hen or after he has discovered food for his flock. If he hears noise in the middle of the night he may crow to warn that a predator might be near. A rooster’s song usually consists of four distinct notes or sections. Each individual rooster’s crow is unique and identifiable so it alerts the entire flock to who is located where (crowing is the GPS of the chicken world!). Keeping multiple roosters does not necessarily mean there will be a great increase in crowing. Roosters who are kept within a flock and not separated from each other tend to sing less often because they can visually locate the other males. Often the lower ranked males will not sing as often as the lead male. Roosters will also crow at sunrise, their eyesight being so sensitive to light that they can detect the faintest glow of dawn long before we humans can. If you wish to delay their singing in the morning you can do so by keeping them indoors in a dark quiet area until the desired rising time.

“A good rooster crows everywhere”- Sicilian Proverb

Roosters have very distinct personalities and are an asset to your flock.

Roosters have very distinct personalities and also can be quite affectionate.

-Singing Luna 6/28/2014

Seed for thought: What other myths about chickens should be debunked?

May 4th is Respect for Chickens Day!

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Watch as Lucy the hen chooses the Queen of Hearts card from an ever-growing choice of playing cards. She is even able to distinguish face cards of the queen of hearts from the king of spades!

Although humanity has lived with chickens for hundreds of years we, the so-called “smart ones”, know little of their intelligence. In watching the video one must keep in mind how different a chicken’s eyesight is from humans. Chickens can see by using either both eyes together (like binoculars) or by using each eye to view separate images with no visual information overlap (monocular vision). Their natural world is three-dimensional one, yet notice how quickly Lucy is able to distinguish subtle differences between the many two-dimensional objects even though they have visually flat graphic images. Human beings are also motivated by food (that’s why we trudge off to work at our jobs every day, right?) but I wonder if a two-year old human child could match Lucy’s ability even if multiple lollipops were given as a reward!

Consider these other chicken intelligence facts*:

  • Chickens can recognize up to 96 other individual chickens.
  • Chicks show an ability to add and subtract and can distinguish between large and small groups of objects.
  • Chickens have around 24 unique and complex vocalizations to communicate with others of their kind.
  • It takes eight months for a human baby to understand that objects moved behind a visual barrier are still there, chicks are able to do this at one week old.
  • Hens have shown an ability to sense time by being taught to peck a computer screen after a fixed time period.

Historically humans have degraded other humans and animals as a means of disconnecting from acts of cruelty and justifying oppression. We call chickens “dumb, bird-brained, stupid, feather-brained” and degrade them in images, popular culture and the media. In many cultures throughout history chickens have been honored in art and literature as positive symbols of courage, fertility, new beginnings, good fortune, beauty, and self-confidence.  Today they deserve our respect for the complex and interesting beings that they are!

*Fact source and for more in-depth information: “The Chicken, A Natural History” general editor Dr. Joseph Barber

Video source and credit from Addison Geary’s YouTube channel: Conditioning a chicken to distinguish the Queen of Hearts from other playing cards by employing both classical and operant conditioning. Thanks to Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS for “The Art & Science of Animal Behavior” & “Chicken Tricks: Chicken Pecks Queen of Hearts.” video.

Chick Training YouTube video by Lotti

This little chick can differentiate between three same size red and green and orange color chips even when the placements are changed:

 Seed for Thought: Does our own motivation to see chickens only as food keep us ignorant of  knowing their true potential?

 

Chicken Coop Makeover

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This handmade shed was repurposed into a coop by adding a small chicken-size door.

Before makeover: This handmade shed was repurposed into a coop by adding a small chicken-size door.

Time to spruce up the old coop! This ex-shed came with a large walk-in door which made it easy for cleaning and a window covered with chicken wire which works great for ventilation. The smaller door was added later to make it chicken friendly. Both doors can be shut and secured against any predators when necessary. The exterior paint was two years old and starting to crack from the weather so it needed some updating. I started the project by hosing and scrubbing down the exterior of the coop with water and letting it air-dry during a warm afternoon. I decided to give it a cheerful tropical-style makeover…

A fresh coat of paint, colorful accents and a few decorative elements can do wonders for an ordinary chicken house!

After makeover: A fresh coat of paint, colorful accents and a few decorative elements can transform an ordinary chicken house!

I started painting with a warm ivory base color using a brush (a roller probably would have been faster but I enjoy the process of brush painting). You can often find small cans of quality paint for free at the local paint recycling center and sometimes paint stores will sell their customer-reject colors at reduced prices. I began layering swashes of color over the ivory by giving broad strokes of lemon yellow, magenta, and cornflower blue. The lime green was acrylic craft paint (also found at the recycling center). I used a dry brush technique to pick up the weathered texture of the wood….

Decorative elements add a whimsical feel to the coop.

Decorative elements add a whimsical accent to the coop.

This cut-metal gecko was purchased at a discount variety store (it was cheap even though it was handmade and fair trade!). You can find interesting art pieces to decorate your coop at thrift stores and yard sales. I’ve found some interesting items left on the sidewalk with “free” signs attached. Even ordinary things such as tools, colorful kitchen decor, recycled shingles or children’s toys can be painted and attached to your coop exterior to give it added personality.

Chicken safety note: Always make sure any decor you use is securely attached so it can’t fall on anyone (chickens). I generally place elements high enough on the coop where they can’t be pecked or become a hazard. Use lead-free, water base paint and have your chickens entertain themselves in another part of the yard while working with any open cans of paint and wet surfaces (I distracted mine by giving them a little tropical party with leftover fruit and greens!).

-Singing Luna 3/1/2014

Seed for Thought: What are some simple improvements you can make on your coop?

Annabella, a Hen with a Joy for Life

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Annabella arrived at Roostersong Sanctuary in December 2008 with her four sisters.

Annabella arrived at Roostersong Sanctuary in December 2008 with her four sisters.

Annabella was one of five factory farm hens adopted from the Humane Society in December of 2008. When I first brought the girls home to Roostersong Sanctuary they were a bedraggled bunch with patches of bare skin, scabbed combs and missing tails. I could not imagine what they must have been through before their rescue. Although they received good veterinary care before I adopted them they continued to have health issues related to their stressful early lives and one by one I lost four to reproductive organ failure (a common ailment with factory raised hens). The fifth hen, Annabella seemed determined to survive and she thrived with a vibrancy that was truly inspiring. Annabella loved to run and fly and I enjoyed witnessing her exuberance (she had a strange skipping motion when she ran due to her years of living crammed into a battery cage). It took a few years before she was comfortable being touched and I was so honored when she finally allowed me to hold her and stroke her feathers! She lived long enough to become friends with my recent factory rescue hens and in the evening they would be roosting together side by side in the coop. I have known and lost many birds over the years but this one did not make me sad. She had five extra years under our care and she lived them to the fullest. During her time with us I watched her blossom and gain trust. She taught me a lot about the resilience of the spirit and of finding the courage to rise above the limitations that are initially given us.

Annabella, fully feathered, enjoying the spring grass in 2009.

Annabella, fully feathered, enjoying the spring grass in 2009.

-Singing Luna 1/12/2013

Seed for thought: What is your earliest memory of feeling compassion toward someone?

Chicken Spa!

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Chicken Spa (©Jazelle/Skyfeather Studio)

Every so often it is a good idea to schedule a Chicken Spa day. The hens will thank you and so will those macho rooster boys. Following are the three components that I generally use:

1. Nail Care – Chickens have three toes in the front of their feet and one in the back (except the Silkie breed has five toes!). Chickens generally don’t need to have their nails clipped if they are given enough room to roam and scratch about the yard. This activity will serve as a natural nail file for your birds. As a chicken ages and gets less active she may need help with a trim now and then.

These dog nail clippers can be purchased at a pet supply store.

These dog nail clippers can be purchased at a pet supply store and work well for trimming chickens toenails.

It is best to have a helper who can hold your bird so you can position the clippers accurately around the end of the nail. There is a vein and nerves in the quick of the nail so you want to make sure to avoid cutting into the quick. With light-colored nails you can usually see the darkened area of the vein. Birds with darker feet and nails are not as easy but sometimes holding the nail up to a light will show the end of the vein. I would suggest trimming conservatively the first time until you feel comfortable with the process.

This hen was rescued from a factory farm and lived most of her life in a wire cage. This can cause the nails to grow to an unhealthy length that can impede walking.

This hen was rescued from a factory farm and lived most of her life in a wire cage which caused her nails to grow to an unhealthy length. This can lead to problems with walking.

You will know the nails are too long if they begin to curl at the ends. I would start by trimming off just the tip of the nail. This may be all that your bird needs to free up her natural movement so that she can take over regular maintenance herself by scratching and filing her nails on the ground. If you do accidentally nip the quick, apply pressure to the end of the nail for a minute or so to stop any bleeding (immediately administer a chicken treat to the beak area!). Nail trimming is also a good way to get your bird used to being handled and also enables you to check for any other possible health issues at the same time such as leg mites and bumble foot.

Chickens love to dust bathe as a social activity. Flipping the dirt through their feathers also has health benefits.

Chickens love to dust bathe as a social activity. Flipping the dirt through their feathers also has health benefits for them.

2. Dust Bath – Chickens love to get down into a pile of loose dirt and sift it into their feathers. They appear to be so blissful when “bathing” it makes me want to come back as a chicken just to experience this happy place of being. I provide a bin in the chicken yard filled with organic soil purchased from the local recycling center. Mixing in a little sand helps keeps the dirt loose. I find that my flock enjoys bathing together as a social activity and they often preen each other while engaged in their “puppy pile”. It also gives them the opportunity to peck gravel bits up for their crops. Chickens have oil glands in their skin which help keep their feathers healthy and shiny. The dirt particles are said to help soak up the old oil which then can be dislodged during preening. Adding some fresh rosemary, lavender and/or catnip to the dirt may also help discourage feather mites and ticks. And lucky for you, the fact that your resident chickens prefer dirt to water bathing also means they will not be expecting you to hang out the monogrammed towels afterward!

At the "Hapi-Chik Lodge" it's always Spa Day! (Photo:©Skyfeather Studio)

At the “Hapi-Chik Lodge” it’s always Spa Day! (Photo:©Skyfeather Studio)

3. Massage – That’s right, are you surprised? Many creatures thrive with gentle touch and chickens are no exception. I find that massage is very calming for my birds and also inspires their trust in me for being handled. Start with holding a hen (or rooster) on your lap and making small circular movements around the crop and chest area. If they are comfortable with this move into the lower chest area and up into the indentation where the legs connect with the body. This seems to be a particularly receptive area for chickens and I can feel them melt into my hand at this point. Continue up underneath the wing and if your bird is calm enough she’ll allow you to knead the thin area of skin and muscle where her wings attach. None of my chickens respond well to having their necks massaged but they will sometimes enjoy the area around their comb (because they can’t reach it themselves?). There also seems to be a sweet spot on their face just below the eyes, where rubbing gently in a small circle with a fingertip will get them to close a blissful lid. Massage helps aid circulation and is an opportunity to spend quality time getting to know your bird. Experiment to see if you can tell what they like and don’t like. I have one little roo who follows me around until I pick him up to give him his regular wing-shoulder rub!

Here are some other sites which go into more depth on nail trimming:

http://ultimatefowl.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/199/

http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/trimming-your-chickens-nails-beaks-spurs-tutorial

-Singing Luna 12/21/2013

Seed for Thought: What makes your chickens happy?

Rooster Duties

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Roosters are valuable guardians of the flock and will courageously keep predators away. (Photo:©Jazelle)

Roosters are valuable guardians of the flock and will courageously keep predators away.

Chickens enjoy social interaction much like humans. Roosters contribute to an important natural social structure in the flock and perform certain “duties” which they take very seriously. Roosters will keep an instinctual eye out for predators and make a distinctive alarm call when danger is near. Contrary to the stereotype, they are also quite courageous in confronting creatures much larger and stronger than themselves to protect their flock. I have observed roosters escorting hens around the yard, finding food for them and partaking in communal dust baths. I have also noticed that a rooster will “attend” a hen when she goes into the nest to lay an egg. I am not exactly sure what transpires during this quiet interaction between the two, but he will stand attentively alongside the nest until the egg is laid. When the egg arrives he will jubilantly announce the event followed by the entire flock joining in the chorus.

Roosters have a certain call they give to tell the hens that they have found food.

Roosters have a certain call they give to tell hens that they have found food. Often they will stand aside and act as a look-out while the hen eats.

Roosters will keep a hen company while she is on the nest laying her egg. (Photo: "Zak & Zinnia", ©Skyfeather Studio)

Roosters will keep a hen company while she is laying her egg.

-Singing Luna 12/10/2013

Seed for Thought: What valuable rooster behaviors have you observed in your flock?