Today, I had two visitors here from the University of California Extension Service: Dr. Richard Blatchford, and his assistant, Margaret. There's plenty of research about large chicken productions, but not a lot regarding small backyard flocks - so that is their focus. They spent close to two hours in my garden and I learned so much from them!
First Richard and Margaret suited up in booties and coveralls, to protect my chickens from the other poultry they'd seen earlier today. Next, they weighed each chicken and inspected them for mites, lice, lesions, injuries, etc. Then, they took the measurements of our coop. Throughout the entire process, I was able to ask questions about husbandry and the pecking order and hot weather and bringing in new chickens etc. I had a lot of questions! And Richard and Margaret were so patient and answered every single one, and then some.
First, the good news - all five of our chickens are quite healthy - no parasites, no weight issues, no injuries or lesions, no diseases. Many of them are getting pecked, but none of them so badly that they are in danger of being hurt. This all relieved me very much.
I watched in wonder as Richard handled the birds, firmly but gently, and they were instantly calm in his arms. He inspected every inch of them and they let him. Turns out a few of our birds are molting right now, or just beginning a molt, so there were a lot of flying feathers, but the whole process went very smoothly.
I was reassured that keeping the birds in the coop is just fine, as they have plenty of room. The pecking order problems are likely exacerbated by their confinement, but some of that would happen anyway. Richard told me that letting our chickens free-range would end with a decimated garden (as suspected), plus, chickens can jump without using their wings easily to six feet (!) so even if we clipped their wings, they could cause problems in our neighbor's gardens. Also chickens carry salmonella, so there is a possibility that if they roamed our garden, our produce (which we of course eat) could be contaminated. It's a small possibility, but everything Richard said helped bolster my decision to keep the chickens confined to their roomy coop.
I was told that it's unlikely that it would ever be cold enough here to harm my birds, but that the heat can be a problem; however our chickens had enough shade (which I was wondering about) and Richard was not worried. It IS ok to mist chickens, or even dunk them in cool water, he said, as long as they have time to dry out before nighttime. This can be done if they seem under extreme heat stress (which is indicated by panting AND spreading out their wings). Luckily our cool nights (which we tend to get all but the hottest part of summer) help in that regard quite a bit.
I learned that my habit of giving them sunflower seeds is like giving them candy, and that they should be used very sparingly, as well as anything like 'scratch.' Garden scraps and peelings are ok, although in small amounts (too much greenery causes them to have a sort of water imbalance, causing diarrhea). A little every afternoon sounded ok. No dairy of any kind, so our practice of giving them leftover yogurt isn't good either. (Apparently birds have not evolved to be able to eat dairy.) And a little fish is ok, but a lot will make the eggs taste fishy.
We talked about whether or not to cull old birds from the flock (Richard did not give any opinion, but he did say that many of the chicken keepers he's visited do this). A very common age for a chicken to reach is 10 years old, and they stop laying after 3, so you can see why this is a common question. Richard also gave me his tips for bringing new birds into the flock - which should be done extremely cautiously and with a long getting-to-know-you period. We also discussed whether chickens are racist (he didn't deny that it often looked that way).
Both Richard and Margaret said I should be using a dedicated pair of shoes when I go in the coop, and not to use those elsewhere in the yard or house. They also stressed washing hands before and after visiting the coop (I always do after, but don't always remember to do it beforehand). If there are a lot of people visiting, like a farm tour, they thought I should have a little dish of antiseptic for folks to step in, before entering the yard.
Margaret confirmed that you shouldn't wash the eggshells unless you absolutely have to, and then right before eating them (I honestly never wash them), and that it's ok to leave fresh eggs out on the counter for up to two weeks, though refrigerating them just after collecting them is fine too.
The way UC extensions work is that our agents are there to help us. Richard stressed that this goes for all backyard chicken keepers in California (and if you're in another state, there is a land-grant college with a similar system in place for you, too). I asked if I could share these resources on the blog and Richard's answer was an emphatic 'yes.' So here they are.
And here's what he checked the chickens for:
If you have a backyard chicken flock in California, I highly recommend being a part of this study. This is the way an awful lot of science progresses - someone decides to do a study, they get willing participants, and then the results are published, and everyone gets smarter. Just call the number listed for Richard above - they'll set up a time to come meet you at your house.
Here's to Happy Hens!