Monday, November 14, 2011

Chicken coop renovations will keep the peace

Last winter five of my chickens ganged up on Mooey, and pecked out all of her back feathers.
One reason was because the coop was damp and wet. My son Ian and husband Bob renovated the coop to have yet one more door -- to collect eggs without tracking snow or water into the coop. See video at left. Now there's a human door, two chicken doors and an egg-collecting door. They did this last spring, and I've been enjoying the egg-collecting door all summer.
I'm looking forward to using the egg-collecting door this winter as the weather gets colder and the snow flies.  Although Mooey's plight has created a very interesting true bullying story that I share with students from K to 12 in elementary, middle and high schools. Kids relate to Mooey's plight, her position at the bottom of the pecking order and even to her becoming a bully when I brought four new chickens into the flock.

She became a brutal bully, and has pecked out the comb of two chickens, and drawn blood. It's very gory. Only look at the picture below if you can bear it. Mooey lacks empathy. She does to other chickens what was done to her, and worse and meaner. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The tiniest teachers: how babies teach empathy

Mooey the bullied chicken is my ambassador of empathy for kids of all ages. One of my favorite parts of spending the day in a middle or high school is when word gets out that there's a live chicken in Ms. Gonzales' class. Groups of kids gather outside of the door to confirm, "Mrs. Gonzales, is there really a live chicken in here?!" and "Mrs. Gonzales, can I come into your class this period?"

Something about Mooey evokes empathy. Students feel sorry for her because she was the target of bullying. It galls me that she became a bully -- a much more brutal bully than those who pecked on her. I ask the kids, "Do you feel more compassion for Mooey as a target or as a bully?" The audience is always split.

I feel more empathy for her as a bully. Empathy is the key word here. How to get kids to develop empathy is a challenge because empathy must be experienced in order to learn it. Canadian educator Mary Gordon founded a program in 1996 called Roots of Empathy. A community member brings an infant into an elementary classroom several times over the year to help children identify and think about their own feelings and thoughts, and what other people might feel.

According to research, the program works. See more at this post, sponsored by Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.  More than 12,000 Canadian schools have hosted the program and it's starting to immigrate to the USA.

Chickens and babies can open the door to our hearts in ways that big humans don't. It all boils down to empathy -- the ability to understand how others may feel.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Students remember how I make them feel

I just read feedback from middle school students in Worcester where I delivered "Fowl Behavior and What it Teaches us  about Empathy" and some of them made me cry.

From an eighth grade girl:
"I really liked that it taught us about how a victim of a bully could become a bully. It also taught me how to try to talk to the special ed kids because some of them may not even have friends.  It also taught me that if I am a bystander, I should help and to empathy for others."
"I felt sorry for you when you were in school, but I think you're really smart on how you used this to teach us something. And I think this would improve lots of kids so don't stop doing this because you're a great person."

Wow. Coming from an eighth grader that means a lot to me.

This one got me, too, from a seventh grade girl.
"I like how the program talked about being bullied and I knew how it felt. I really like it but it did make me tear (up)."

I share with them how it felt to be on the receiving end of different types of bullying. It's really hard for me to revisit that feeling and time in my life. However, the better I am able to go back in time, the more effectively I connect with the students. The more I do it, the easier it gets.

The worst part of being bullied was feeling alone and being socially ostracized because I was different  I empathize with children, tweens and teens who have been a victim of bullying, and anyone who is treated differently because they look different or are differently-abled.

If sharing my story and Mooey's story makes a difference in the intense world of school, then I feel good because being bullied is lonesome and full of dread.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mooey goes from victim to being a bully

Mooey started as a victim of bullying in the hen house during the long cold winter when the other chickens pecked out her back feathers out of stress and discomfort.

This summer, I added five new chickens to the flock -- four pullets who are four months old (like teenagers), and a one-year-old hen. Mooey has made it her business to bully the new young chickens, even though she has been victim herself.

This picture was taken after the bleeding stopped. When my husband found Henrietta, her head was bloodied from the pecking and she had flown the coop. The photo with a bloody head is too gruesome to show. I set up a "sick bay" for Henrietta adjacent to the chicken yard with food and water. She evaded capture an spent a night and a day AWOL.

The next day Henrietta stayed in her separate pen and I managed to catch her and put her in a small travel crate for the night. The other two nights she roosted in Bob's outdoor lumber shed. On the third day, she tried to push through the door to rejoin the flock, so I let her back in. The hell you know is better than solitary confinement for social animals like chickens and humans.

Mooey has become a regular threat in the barnyard. I delivered some stale breakfast cereal yesterday -- a real treat for the birds. When I gave the young birds a separate helping, Harriet flew away in terror. She was bleeding and panicked.

Notice the bit of blood around her comb from brutal bullying. From what I've seen in the barnyard, Mooey is the ringleader of the attacks. She makes it her business to peck at the younger chickens for no good reason.
The environment has become so caustic in the barnyard that I'm considering starting over with a new flock of chickens.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Yes- there's really a live chicken at school today!

Students at Nashua North High School hear about Mooey.
No one can anticipate what Mooey will do during the presentation. 

It has been an exciting week presenting Mooey, the bullied chicken, and stories about how the pecking order of backyard chickens relates to instinct and intellect.

Students and teachers at Nashua North High School in New Hampshire, Washington Elementary in Lowell, Mass., Samoset Middle School in Leominster, Mass., and Greater Lowell Vo-Tech listened, participated and shared their stories about what it's like to be a victim of bullying.

It's always heart-breaking to hear students and teachers describe what it's like to be singled out because they're different, new or gifted. Like the red spot on Mooey's back, the impact of being bullying can last a long time.

Students at Samoset Middle School offered to revise my rap about the reasons why kids get bullied. They can only improve upon my rhyming. I can't wait to see the results and record their performance of the rap.

By next fall I'll have a set of follow-up activities and discussion questions for every grade. Mooey continues to amaze me at her ability to capture the attention of students and staff. One of the most fun aspects is that students elsewhere in the building hear about what's going on, stick their head in the door, and ask, "Is there really a live chicken in here?"

She leaves a memorable message about how the pecking order relates to how kids treat each other in their school community.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mooey opens doors to connect with kids of all ages

The preschoolers lasted about 20 minutes for the presentation.
Last week Mooey amazed me with her ability to connect to students at Cheshire Barn Preschool and Ayer High School. There's something about an animal, especially a hurt animal, that brings out compassion.

Both the preschool and high school students "got" the link between the pecking order of chickens and how humans exclude and mistreat each other. Some of the preschoolers were afraid of Mooey, which surprised me.
The kids enjoyed singing Down by the Bay, Where the Watermelons Grow with custom lyrics such as: Did you ever see a boy grab somebody's toy? Did you ever see a girl get hit and do nothing to stop it? Did you ever see a chicken take a lickin?

I created some more lyrics: Did you ever:
See a bear who didn't play fair?
See a whale mock someone who reads Braille?
Have a friend you didn't defend?
See a queen say something mean?
Mooey gets a little excited at Ayer High School.

The high school students didn't sing Down by the Bay, but they did engage in an animated discussion about raising chickens and why Mooey got bullied.

Their answers aligned with the typical reasons kids get bullied. Perhaps Mooey:
1. Wasn't assertive.
2. Looked different from the other chickens.
3. Something was wrong with her.
4. She acted annoyingly.
5. Was weaker/smaller than the other chickens.

It got them thinking and talking about the reasons for bullying and how to use their intellect instead of their instinct. The funniest moment in the program was when I put up the slide from my high school yearbook that shows how I look different from everyone else and someone said, "Which one are you?" Everyone laughed because the answer is obvious. The ninth-graders paid attention and participated. They were very interested in my stories about getting bullied in middle and high school. On the evaluation they wrote that it was a different angle than the usual lectures on bullying, bully awareness and bully prevention.

I'm looking forward to my next visit to a school or camp. June will be a long month for schools in Maine,  Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire because of the many snow days this winter that we'll have to pay the price for. Right now the program is being piloted, so there's no charge.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Composting is easy and organic

When I visit schools, I'm amazed at how many children don't know what compost is.

This photo is compost from our bucket. Coffee grounds in the middle are surrounded by tea bags, pineapple, cantaloupe, onion banana and grapefruit peel, a lettuce leaf and egg shells.

At the top left is dog hair. At the top right is a bite of leftover whole-grain pancake. I forgot to include one my chickens' all time favorite compost ingredient: Dandelion weeds. They LOVE weeds and grass. It motivates me to pull dandelions for them.

You can start your own compost pile. It's easy. Just start putting in vegetable and fruit leftovers along with yard waste.Avoid meat products, although I break that rule because my chickens adore leftovers and few wild predators are attracted to my compost because of our location.

Give composting a try. You don't need any fancy equipment. For small yards it's nice to have barrels to contain the compost.

My chickens enjoy ravaging the compost pile. And they do it in the pecking order -- the highest ranking bird gets at it first, followed by rank. See this video for a demonstration.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Chicks are cute, but are they worth the extra work?

Little kids and baby chicks go together like bacon & eggs.
My friend Denali is raising two dozen chicks who are growing rapidly. She must monitor their temperature, water, environment and food several times a day and keep them separate from her flock of older hens.

If full-grown hens do not raise the chicks, they may go so far as to cannibalize young chicks. They can't help it -- it's instinctive.

It's fun to visit her her chicks and see their growth, but I'm happy to buy pullets, adolescent chickens about 6 months old who are ready to lay or crow depending on their gender.

Pullets can be had for about $10, roughly the cost of feeding them for the first six months. I've already raised four children. Maybe in a few years I'll be ready to take on the responsibility and work of raising newly hatched chicks.

Chicken friends are essential to backyard chicken keepers because you help each other with knowledge,  chicken care and by adopting each others' excess birds. I've inherited several birds that way -- once they're mature enough to join my flock's pecking order.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Raccoon in the neighborhood

A raccoon is the ultimate bully who will murder, decapitate and ravage a whole flock for sport. On Saturday night at dusk Bob spotted a fat raccoon ambling around our neighbor's yard. We banged pots to scare it away but it seemed oblivious as it eventually climbed a tree to escape the threat.

"Maybe it's tame," Bob said. I immediately went to the coop, chased two stragglers into the coop, and closed it for safety. Because we our house is surrounded by water on two sides and there are several dogs in the vicinity, we have never had a problem with predators. However, there are MANY predators of chickens, so it's a constant threat.

The next day I couldn't find Houdini - the bird taking feed from my hand. She is prone to escaping the coop and exploring. I figured she had flown the coop sometime during the day and the raccoon had gotten her.

This morning, Houdini was back home when I let the hens out for the morning compost feast. Maybe I can't count. Maybe she sneaked back in and I didn't realize it. Either way, Houdini continues to elude predators.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Who will be the next flock leader?

I found Delaware, left, dead on the floor of the coop yesterday morning. She had been acting funny. I checked her to see if she had a clogged vent, but felt nothing. 

Delaware was a Delaware breed. Because I'm from that small state that's famous for poultry, I named her Delaware, then re-named her Susannah, Del-Sue for short. I chose her because Delawares are a cross-breed of New Hampshire Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks known for prolific egg production and being meaty, too. A heavy breed, she laid about four eggs a week.

More importantly, Del-Sue was known as the self-appointed flock leader. At left, she is the only bird with enough pluck to stick her neck out [there are SO MANY chicken-related sayings in our language] on a snowy day to investigate one their favorite treats -- a cantaloupe rind.

That was typical of Del-Sue -- to take risks, investigate, state an opinion by loud clucking, insisting on first dibs on everything, and taking lead in bullying hens lower on the pecking order.

I'm waiting to see who takes over Del-Sue's position at the top of the pecking order.

Her death will  inspire me to obtain two more pullets -- hens who are six months old and ready to lay -- to replace her and some of the other aging hens. After 18 to 24 months, hens are not as productive and cost more in feed than they produce in eggs. So they must be humanely disposed of, i.e., butchered and stewed.Old layers are a bit tough but make excellent stock.

Some people say not to name your food. I disagree. I can have a good relationship with my pets who produce eggs so willingly, and appreciate the nourishment they give us, even in death.

I laid Del-Sue to rest in the woods, covered by leaves and dirt, where nature will re-absorb her. Thanks for your life, spunk and eggs, Del/Sue.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Spring Chickens aren't for everyone

That's Muffin on the left, a black sex-linked hen that I purchased for $10 when she was 6 months old, called a pullet, about ready to lay eggs. I let Tom Doherty of Westford manage the fertilization, hatching  and raising of chicks from birth to pullet.

I bought Muffin and her sister Mooey for $10 each to add to my flock, for about the cost of the feed to raise them for six months.

By purchasing Muffin and Mooey as pullets, I didn't have to fret over the nest temperature and watch their welfare. It's a commitment to raise them from chicks that requires time and knowledge, which I'm lacking.

If you're thinking of becoming a backyard chicken keeper, know that you don't have to raise spring chickens. It's much easier to adopt pullets at 6 months old, enjoy a good laying cycle of 18 to 24 months, and then butcher or give them away.

Yes the baby chicks are adorable, but I like having layers. There is nothing like going outside and finding eggs in the nest laid by my chickens. They are so fresh and delicious.

Monday, March 28, 2011

One of the world's oldest professions

This drawing is from the 14th century -- more than 600 years ago. No one is sure when people started domesticating animals and plants. Scientists theorize that farming started as far back as 9,000 BC. It makes sense because people have to eat, and chickens generously provide an eggcellent, abundant, and versatile nourishment.

Keeping chickens reminds me that I'm connected to my food, the Earth, and to my ancestors who struggled to survive against much worse conditions than me in the space age with medical and dental care, antibiotics, electricity and a very good diet.

Some modern conveniences now threaten our health, such as too many antibiotics in our food chain, over-reliance on fossil fuels and driving, which leads to poorer health because our bodies do not get the physical exercise they need.

My small flock chickens remind me that I'm connected to my ancestors, some food I eat, the weather, natural instincts, predators in the animal kingdom, and eating and pooping -- which chickens do in abundance.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bullies in the Barnyard

I spent Saturday morning with my friend Ruth on her 5-acre farm looking for examples of the pecking order. She has at least 50 hens and four roosters. I give credit to wildlife photographers. They have to keep the camera running at all times because the action happens unexpectedly and it can't be scripted.

I was hoping for examples of roosters bullying hens, and I caught the goats bullying each other. It is very instinctive for animals and humans, unfortunately, to pick on the weakest. This goat has been sick and the other goats can sense that she is weaker.

Animal instinct, what animals teach us about bullying, the pecking order, and bully prevention and awareness are covered in my new presentation for students - "Rulers of The Roost: What animals teach us about getting along."

Take a look at this video.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cleaning the coop -- a dirty job but someone has to do it

Bob is dumping the delicious compost into the garden bed.

Bob moves compost from the bin to the wheelbarrow.

These fresh clean wood shavings shavings feel great.
A good cleaning of the coop was long overdue after the long snowy winter. The hens spilled a gallon of water and dampened the bedding about a month ago. It was so cold and snowy I didn't get around to cleaning it up until yesterday and felt guilty about it.

In addition to moving the old wet bedding filled with manure, I vacuumed the hardware cloth on the openings and swept away the cobwebs to keep the air clean. Hens are sensitive to their environment. They like it clean, dry and smelling sweet.

Last month, my son Ian's renovations to the coop layout and doors for humans and egg collecting reduced the moisture that tracks in. The coop stays dryer because I don't have to go in very often. Thank you farmer Ian. The hens thank you.

My next adjustment to the interior is to re-arrange the roost and create a droppings board underneath to minimize the cleaning. A young person told me at the beginning of my chicken journey, "Chickens are basically crapping machines." He was right! The manure does make for a hearty garden and local food right from my backyard.

Becoming a chicken keeper has required a huge learning curve. I'm continuing my egg-ducation by reading more about chicken care. The delicious eggs make it all worthwhile. Even cleaning the stinky coop.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The hanging cabbage to prevent bullying

One of my challenges as a backyard chicken keeper is a lack of background knowledge. I grew up in a city where we purchased eggs from the A & P. I never saw anyone or helped anyone care for chickens. This kind of innate knowledge is useful and lacking.

I'm in a foreign country where everything is new and the learning curve steep. However, I can learn from books, other chicken keepers and experience. While creating my school presentations on "Rules & Rulers of the Roost: What chickens teach us about getting along," I've checked out from the library a dozen books on chicken keeping, including many picture books for children, which are highly informative.

One of the books suggested hanging a cabbage for the birds to peck on instead of each other, because they might be bored. It's raining again here in Massachusetts. The books say that chickens lack a gland to oil their feathers to keep them dry, so they hate rain and snow because they're not protected from it.

The chickens are all cooped up -- with a new toy. The swinging cabbage. They refused to peck at it while I was standing there in the rain with my camera. That's okay. I like the picture just the way it is.

They're teaching me how to take care of them and prevent bullying, perhaps. I'm afraid bullying is part of their nature. You can see the red spot on the black sex-linked hen, Mooey, right behind the cabbage. Hopefully the cabbage will give her a respite. After less than 24 hours, the head of cabbage is more than half gone.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Winter days and chicken keeping

Spending the $100 on the water heater and watering can (below) was a good investment this winter with all of the freezing temperatures. I wonder if the birds object to drinking warm water.

The hens tipped over the water can sometime in the past 24 hours, so I started the day by cleaning up wet shavings mixed with chicken manure before breakfast, then disinfecting the water container.

The birds sometimes tip over the water to protest  something. Not sure what they're mad about except the continued warm weather that freezes their beloved compost pile at left.
There aren't many bugs to eat this time of year. The hens are still laying quite well thanks to the light installed in the coop. And they're continuing to bully poor Mooey -- see the bare spot on her back, above. Speckle, top right, has also been victimized by the bullying.

My school presentation "Rules and Rulers of the Roost" is taking form. I'm getting lots of photos and creating ways for the students to solve problems and answer questions on barnyard bullying. I'm looking forward to hearing their solutions.

Animals have a lot to teach us about bullying. Establishing a pecking order lets every chicken know her place.

I don't like how they peck on poor Mooey. One explanation could be that they're stressed by being cooped up during the long winter. They choose to stay cooped up on snow days, like yesterday when it snowed four inches. They hate to go outside in snow and rain. Unlike water fowl, chickens lack a way to make oil to make the water roll off their feathers.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Coop renovations by Farmer Ian

When I was growing up, farmers were considered kind of backwards, like the hayseeds wearing overalls on Hee Haw.

My son Ian, 26, the organic farmer, has taught me otherwise. Farmers are problem-solvers and fix-its who care about the earth and animals. We would be very hungry without farmers.

After Ian took care of my small flock of backyard chickens when I was in St. John Virgin Islands for a week, he announced, "We have to make some changes in the chicken coop so you don't have to go inside of the coop every day."

When backyard chicken keepers go in the coop to refill the water and feed, and to gather eggs, we bring in snow and bring out chicken manure on boots.

Chickens like to stay dry, especially when it's cold outside. Humans don't like chicken manure in boots.

Ian and I rearranged everything: the nesting boxes, the electrical outlet, a roosting perch, the locations of the feed and water, and installed a new egg door. All of the renovations are egg-cellent. It took about an hour for three of us. Bob got involved in installing the egg collection door.

Now we have four doors -- one for humans, two for chickens [one is a fire exit :-) ], and one to collect eggs -- thanks to my smart, problem-solving farmer son. I like the convenience and clean boots. The chickens like to be dry.

Note to self: building a chicken coop requires lots of hinges and doors of all sizes.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"All cooped up" and "The pecking order"

Raising chickens has taught me a lot about animals and human behavior, and the etymology of words.
Birds and people get stressed from being all cooped up because of cold weather. Like humans, birds take it out on whomever is most convenient. They target weaker birds and pick on them to relieve the stress and establish a pecking order.

Witness "Negro Dos" (Blackie Two) above. The other five birds have pecked off her tail feathers out of frustration, boredom and instinct.

Did you know that state law requires that chickens can only be sold in groups of six because chickens are social creatures. They need a group of at least three to be happy. The law also prevents one or two birds being sold at Easter as a living toy that may be neglected and abused.

Chickens know how to abuse each other. I'm not sure that it's good. It is natural instinct to establish a social order. Someone has to be in charge. And unfortunately, someone has to be on the bottom. Bullying is an unfortunate fact of the animal kingdom.

We humans have the intellect to be aware of bullying, educate each other and make different decisions. We can learn from "being all cooped up" and "the pecking order." I wish my chickens could.

Monday, February 7, 2011

There are reasons for the chicken to cross the road

Cars, trucks and people stopped for this hen and her chicks in the center of Cruz Bay in St. John US Virgin Islands. She had the sense to cross just in front of the crosswalk.

The reason she's crossing the road is, um, to forage for more bugs, scraps and food on the other side. And for a different view. It's fun to explore.

I ate more factory-processed meat on my one-week vacation in St. John/US Virgin Islands, than I have in months.

These birds remind me of my own backyard chicken flock who RUN out the door when I open it every morning. They LOVE it outside.

Chickens who are raised with one square foot of cage, piled on top of each other, with beaks cut off, have a completely different life than the birds above, who live more naturally.

Of course, when roosters started crowing outside of our hotel room at 4 am, I had a different opinion of free-range chickens. However, when we previously lived next door to roosters, we became inured to the crowing. I just didn't hear it.

I was so cock-a-doodle deaf that one day a friend came over and stopped mid-sentence, "Is that a rooster crowing?!"

I said, "What rooster?" I had heard nothing. Like the chickens in the photo who can navigate in a town with vehicles, we adapt to our surroundings. We prefer the best surroundings possible.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Big decisions using chicken brains

That's Delaware, the bossiest hen in the coop, mulling over whether she ought to get her feet cold and snowy for the opportunity to snack on one of her favorite treats - cantaloupe from the compost pile.

Eventually, she declined and stayed in the coop. The next day, she was tired of being all cooped up and ventured out to the bigger compost pile, finally. Everyone else followed her, of course, because she does the thinking for them.

When the hens stay inside because of the weather, they eat more feed and less compost, and get the hen house dirtier, which costs the farmer more because she has to buy more bedding to keep it cleaner in there.

Animal husbandry is harder and more expensive than it looks at first glance.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The coop now has water and electricity

The silver water dispenser and heater below it represent an investment of $99. I have to clean out the water dispenser once a week and have electricity for the heating element- which was 60 bucks.

Last winter I toughed it out by taking out water twice a day and breaking the ice. I didn't have electricity last year. It's so convenient to have the heated water. I don't have to worry so much. It keeps them inside more, which is a downside.

It took me an hour or two to run the extension cord from the garage out to the coop. I had to drill some holes and figure out how to loop it in. Then I installed a florescent light on a timer to increase winter production. The light works! It goes on every morning at 3 am and fools them into thinking it's summer. Egg production is back up.

It's convenient to have the electricity because I could install the water heater. Now they are thoroughly modern with electricity and water - not running water, yet.

It's not "chicken feed" to keep chickens. In the winter, they eat less compost because they hate the snow, so they eat more chicken feed. The heater and water dispenser cost the equivalent of at least 33 dozen eggs.

My son Ian, the organic farmer, is always encouraging me to use organic feed, instead of the genetically modified feed. Organic feed costs at least double the $13 a bag for standard feed. This farming is expensive -- especially the luxuries like water and electricity. I haven't seen how much the light increased my electric bill.