5 Tips to Help Your Backyard Chickens Get Outside In Winter

Plus Boredom Busters for Days they Don’t Want To Venture Outside the Chicken Coop



I’m always asked what I do with my backyard chickens in the winter. The truth is, they like to get outside and explore in pretty much any weather and it’s always good for them to get some fresh air.

First, it’s important to understand that chickens are equipped to handle cold weather. In fact, it can be easier to withstand than hot weather. As you know, backyard chickens have thousands of feathers and they’re there for a reason. Underneath their outer feathers, chickens have a downy layer of soft feathers. When it’s cold, they fluff those feathers to trap warm air underneath and they’re able to stay cozy.

Really the biggest danger chickens have to worry about is their extremities. We’ll talk about combs and wattles later, but let’s address their exposed legs and feet. Chickens do have an adaptation called rete mirable or "wonderful net" that helps regulate the temperature in the legs and feet by exchanging hot blood from the heart with the veins carrying cold blood to the feet and legs. This keeps them pretty safe unless they are allowed prolonged exposure to extreme cold and wet conditions.

Protect Those Combs and Wattles

While they may be pretty, the combs and wattles on roosters become a liability in winter. And many breeds, like leghorns, also have huge combs and wattles that are susceptible to frostbite. So I like to cover them with a layer of petroleum jelly for extra protection and I check often to reapply and look for signs of damage.

I also like to raise my waterers a bit during cold weather to help my roosters keep their wattles from dangling in their water. It’s unavoidable, but I try to minimize it because roosters can often suffer great damage as their wet wattles hang down and freeze.

Limit the Cold Air Entering the Coop

I know lots of chicken owners that do exactly what I do; they open their big coop door during the day and let their chickens free range. But on cold days, this may not be a wise choice. So on those days, I open the small chicken door that leads to my run. The run has a big door where the chickens can exit to the wide outdoors and the keeps the main coop warmer.

Cover The Run

We have a brand new run this year with a proper roof. This will keep out snow this winter and allow my backyard chickens to have a place free of snow to roam. In years past when it didn't have a roof, I’ve put a tarp over the run and I’ve even used old political yard signs. Whatever it takes to make a dry enclosed area!


Keep Snow Off the Lawn

While a dry run is great, my backyard chickens are used to roaming. So, I give them wide patches of lawn that are free of snow. Here’s how I accomplish this task. I take anything I can find like an old baby pool and pieces of plywood and lay them down before the snow starts. Once it's done snowing and time for my chickens to go outside, I reach under the snow and lift up the boards. Voila! Fresh grass and a dry place to scratch!

Shovel Pathways in the Yard

If the snow gets too deep, it can be impossible to lift all the boards and baby pools I’ve placed on the lawn. And that’s when I get out the shovel, for my chickens and for me. I try to make paths for me to move around easily and make paths to sheltered spots like our deck. That way my chickens don’t have to wander aimlessly. They can go to a safe spot that’s free of snow. I've found chickens are smart and they diligently follow those paths.

Boredom Busters

If your flock is voluntarily staying inside more during the inclement weather, it's easy to keep them occupied; an essential to preventing bad behavior.


Give Them a Flock Block 

The major chicken food companies all have their version of a flock block. It looks a little like a salt or mineral block you'd put out on the farm, only this block is stuffed with all kinds of goodies that chickens love. I buy a block at the feed store and put it in the coop. To keep it clean and out of the bedding, I sit it on a big flower pot saucer and then let the chickens peck away. They love it!

Hang A Cabbage

I like to buy an extra cabbage or two at the grocery. I drill a hole through the center and then string it from the ceiling of my coop. The trick is to put the cabbage high, but not too high. The chickens love the fresh greens and spend tons of time hopping up and down to grab pieces of the cabbage. It's hilarious to watch and a great activity for the chickens.


Spread The Straw 

Straw is a great insulator because it has hollow shafts that trap warm air. Spreading a thick layer on the floor of the coop can do wonders for keeping chickens warm. But why spread it yourself. Simply throw the bale into the coop and break it up into large blocks around the coop. Your chickens will do the spreading and have a ball doing it. Plus they may find some leftover seeds as a bonus.

No matter what methods you choose, it's possible to let your chickens roam during the winter. They'll be happier for it and so will you.

Published in 2014

The Leghorn: A Great White Egg Laying Chicken Breed

Who doesn’t know Foghorn Leghorn? This cartoon rooster single handedly made Leghorn chickens a household name. But aside from cartoon fame, Leghorns are famous among backyard chicken owners for being a reliable and prolific white egg laying chicken breed.

I have had two types of Leghorns; the Pearl White and the Single Comb Brown. Although they are in the same breed family there are some distinct differences between the two.


Egg Laying 


Single Comb Brown– At least 3 per week

White – At least 4 per week

Color 


Single Comb Brown – A beautiful brown color with black penciling, an orange-brown breast, darker brown wings and a large floppy comb.

White – All white with a large floppy comb.

Temperament 


Single Comb Brown – Active and skittish

White – Active and skittish


Assessment 

I enjoy having Leghorns in my backyard chicken flock. The White Leghorns are slightly better at egg laying but really not enough to make a big difference. I do have to say the White Leghorns started laying a bit earlier than the Brown Leghorns.

There is a substantial size difference between the two types; the Brown Leghorns are much bigger. As an example, I can hold the White Leghorns upside-down in one hand. I cannot do this with the Brown Leghorns.

I know the hatcheries classify this breed as active and skittish and this definitely applies to my Brown Leghorns. But, I found my White Leghorns to be very personable, easy going and downright docile, hence the upside down hand trick mentioned above.

Both breeds love to fly if you don't clip their wings. Ours can often be found grazing somewhere outside of the fenced yard. I don’t clip their wings because I want them to be able to escape predators.

Leghorns as a family, originated in the Mediterranean as an egg-laying species. They can develop spurs as they grow older and this is the case with one of my Brown Leghorns. Although well suited for warmer climates, my Leghorns do well in winter. During the cold months, I am mindful of their big, floppy combs and I make sure to cover them generously with Vaseline to prevent frostbite. 

Overall, Leghorns are a great addition to a backyard flock!

Does Chicken Egg Color Affect Taste?

This is a question I had when I first started raising backyard chickens and it's one I get a lot when people see our green eggs. I also hear people say they really like brown eggs better. And even seasoned chicken keepers will say some of their chickens lay eggs that taste more creamy and better than others.They associate egg taste with shell color. But do eggs with different colored shells taste different? The real answer to this question is no. Egg shell color has nothing to do with taste.

How Are Chicken Eggs Formed?

Step 1

Egg formation takes around a day and starts with ovulation where the yolk (or oocyte) is produced by a hen's ovary.

Step 2

The yolk is then released into the oviduct where it can be fertilized if you've got a rooster. The egg formation process continues whether the egg is fertilized or not.

Step 3

The yolk moves down the oviduct where it is covered by the vitelline membrane, structural fibers (or chalazae) and egg white (or albumen). As the egg is moving, it's spinning and the chalazae twist and anchor the yolk to the white; one on each side of the egg.

Step 4

The eggshell, which is made of calcite, is formed around the egg. This is the last step in the egg formation before it is laid. 

No matter the egg color, all eggs go through this same process.

How Is Chicken Egg Color Applied?


I think this is the most interesting part of the process. All eggs start out white because they are formed of calcite which is a crystallized form of calcium carbonate. If you've got a white egg laying chicken breed like leghorns in your flock, then nothing else happens and the egg stays white.

chicken-egg-color

If you have brown egg laying chicken breeds in your flock like Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons Barred Rocks or Austrolorps, then the process continues. The brown color or pigment is laid fairly late in shell formation and does not penetrate through the shell. That's why the inside of a brown egg is white.

chicken-egg-color

If you have green or blue egg laying chicken breeds like Ameraucanas or Olive Eggers, the process is even more interesting. Blue pigment is applied fairly early in the process and sinks through the entire shell. If you've got a blue egg layer, then the process is done at this point. If you've got a green egg layer, then there's one more step. Brown pigment is actually applied after the blue pigment. It's late in the process so it doesn't sink through the egg shell, but it does mix with the blue on the surface to create green.

chicken-egg-color
Ameraucana sitting on nest of green eggs.

What Makes Eggs Taste Different?


I do agree that some eggs taste different. But, it really has nothing to do with the shell color. Egg taste depends on so many factors. Are your backyard chickens allowed to free range and get as many bugs,small animals and greens as they can find? If so, their eggs yolks are going to be more colorful and taste more creamy than eggs from a bird that's only been allowed to eat commercial feed. Just what are your chickens eating when they free range? Some foods do affect the taste of an egg. Also, how fresh are your eggs? If they're going right from your coop's nest to the frying pan, they're going to have a lot more flavor than something that's been in a refrigerator for a few weeks. 

So, next time you hear someone say they like one egg color more than another, you'll know the reality behind that egg color

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Wildlife Wednesdays - Sea Turtles; An Egg Layer of a Different Kind

Normally I like to explore common backyard wildlife. But I was recently lucky enough to meet a loggerhead sea turtle as she laid her eggs. For me, this was the treat of a lifetime. And I had to share!
This all started when I was a child. I was fascinated by turtles. It didn’t matter the species, I loved them all. I diligently kept a turtle log, recording the scientific data of all the turtles I found. I had a wonderful science teacher who encouraged my love of nature and allowed me to bring turtles into class to show everyone. She even allowed me to collect everyone’s pennies and dimes to scrape enough money together for our class to join a sea turtle rescue.
Fast forward to 2015, and I’m still just as excited every time I find a turtle. So, I recently visited the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island with my family. This wonderful facility handles turtle triage up and down the East coast. The center in itself is a treat. The displays are beautiful and informative. Each visitor gets to follow the trek of a turtle through its life finding out where it goes once it’s hatched and beyond. You can see the rehabilitating sea turtles in their tanks and even observe a feeding.


During nesting season, the center offers nighttime hikes to; hopefully, see the females as they come ashore to lay their eggs. Nothing’s guaranteed, but I decided to seize the day and booked my family.
We started at the center for a short video then drove to the beach, which was completely dark, since no lights are allowed. The guides radioed to the beach turtle patrol to see if there were any spottings. I held my breath, because while nest numbers are up this year, there hadn’t been any sightings for the last week. A voice came over the radio confirming a loggerhead was just coming ashore. They gave us the location and we all took off at rapid speed.
Once we got there, we could see the beach patrol scientists were with the turtle, but we couldn’t get close. We had to wait until she started to lay her eggs. At that point the turtles go into a trance-like state and it’s safe to get closer. When I first saw her, I was instantly amazed. She was huge! I had seen loggerheads in aquariums, but nothing compared to on land. The scientists estimated she was over 250 pounds.
It turns out our turtle was Felyse and the beach patrol was already familiar with her. Our nest was number 102 and Felyse was becoming a frequent visitor. She was the turtle who laid the first nest of the 2015 season on Jekyll Island and this was her fourth nest of the year. Felyse was originally tagged on Jekyll Island in 2011 while laying one of her five nests that year.

As a backyard chicken owner, I was amazed by this egg laying process. The sea turtle process was so different. Loggerheads don’t start laying until they’re 30 years old and they don’t lay every year. They take a few years off between laying years. Around March, the females mate with the males at sea. The eggs then start to collect in the turtle. Once enough are collected, about 75 to 150, the females crawl ashore to lay. They go back to sea and more eggs start to collect. It’s different with each turtle, the average is three nests a season laid during two week intervals. And, interestingly, hatchlings in the same nest can be from different fathers.


Once Felyse was done laying, she covered her nest and then we lined the way as she slowly crawled back to the ocean. The turtles get tired during this process, so there’s a lot of starting and stopping. As the waves covered Felyse, I couldn’t help but think how relieved she probably was to be weightless again and swimming. And, I sent her my best wishes. With so many things that could go wrong, from predation to pollution, I wondered if Felyse would ever be back to visit again. I certainly hope so!


As for her eggs, the hatchlings start to emerge about 57 days after being laid. That means Felyse’s eggs will hatch sometime between mid-August and September. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center does have a nest watcher program where you can sponsor a specific nest. I’ve sponsored Felyse’s nest and I can’t wait until they send pictures of her hatchlings! Then, her story will be complete and I’ll hope that 30 years from now, some of Felyse’s offspring are lucky enough to return to Jekyll Island and start the whole process over again.

You can find this and many of my other posts at Countryside.


New Chickens In A Minute Video Page

Please feel free to check out my new Chickens In A Minute Video page that you'll see above just under my blog's title. This is a great resource that I hope you'll bookmark and use time and time again.

The Chickens In A Minute video series is something I've been working on with Backyard Poultry Magazine. I've narrated all of these videos and written many of them. They are designed for new and veteran chicken owners alike and answer many common questions about day-to-day chicken keeping.

As more videos are produced, I'll add them to the page, so you'll never miss a thing!


Happy Fourth Of July!

Have a wonderful Fourth of July! (FYI - This was one of our White Leghorns. What a beauty!)


Four Pre-Made Chicken Coop Options

If you’ve got a backyard flock, or are just starting one, chicken coops are usually top of mind. We’ve had a flock for years and we had to build our coop from scratch since we live on a hill and the entrance to our backyard is limited. So we couldn’t move a pre-made chicken coop into our yard. But I’m always looking at coops wherever I find them. I love to see all the features and styles. And the pre-made coops are usually very pretty and so easy!

I recently visited a farm store and had a blast checking out their selection. Looking at them through a veteran chicken keeper’s eyes, I wanted to share my finds and my thoughts.



Elevated Coop
This is a hugely popular type of coop. You can find them easily on the internet, in catalogs and usually stores that cater to farm folks.
Pros – This coop has built-in nest boxes that are easy to access and clean from the outside of the coop. The coop in the picture has a moveable ramp can be lowered and raised from inside the main door. These coops have good windows for ventilation and a small footprint.
Cons – These types of coops are not easily expandable. You can’t walk into coop so if you need to get a chicken out of the coop or look at your chickens closely; you’ll have to fit into a small space. I was able to climb in and move around, but my husband was not. You do need to build a run to give your flock safe outside access.

Walk-In Coop

This coop does not sit high off the ground and features a small front porch.
Pros – This coop has built-in nest boxes and good windows for ventilation. You can easily walk into the coop for cleaning and to access your chickens. Like the elevated coop, it requires only a small footprint.
Cons – This type of coop is not easily expandable. You’ll need to build a run for safe outdoor access.


Combined Coop And Run

As you can see from the picture, these were offered in small and super small versions and can be found on the internet, in catalogs and in farm stores. Some have run expansions so you can give your chickens more room to roam.
Pros – The pictured coops have wheels so they can be moved to different locations. These coops are small and are easy to clean. These coops offer a small footprint so they’re perfect for more urban lots.
Cons – These coops don’t accommodate many chickens.

Chicken Tractor

This isn’t really a coop, but it is something that allows chickens to safely graze throughout the day. It is lightweight and has wheels so it can be easily moved. There is a section where the chickens can get out of bad weather. This doesn’t accommodate many chickens but can be a perfect complement to the combined coop and run.

Whatever coop you build or buy, be sure to keep in mind the limitations of your land, the size of your flock, proper predator proofing, ease of use and good ventilation. If you meet all these requirements, both you and your chickens will be happy. 


Bird Feeder Fridays

Our bird feeder was a hive of activity all winter. We were lucky enough not to have any squirrels. Then, this squirrel found us. And he has really enjoyed our feeder! On this day, he had eaten so much that he could hardly move. I had to take pictures looking through our living room door and our screened-in porch, so I didn't scare him. But they definitely tell the story of a full squirrel who was wishing he didn't eat those last few mouthfuls!



How To Care For A Shamrock Plant

Last St. Patrick's Day I treated my kids to some shamrock plants from our local grocery. The kids were thrilled, put them in their rooms and probably weren't the best at watering them. Fast forward to summer break and the once beautiful shamrocks weren't looking so great; they were turning brown and wilting. So, I watered the plants and put them outside on our back deck where they would receive filtered, not-too-harsh sun. I was hoping to revive the plants or let them die quietly.


Amazingly, they didn't die. Instead they revived and turned into lush houseplants that have bloomed ever since. What I didn't know at the time is that shamrock plants are actually bulbs and not shamrocks at all but a member of the Oxalis or wood sorrel family. The original lack of water sent the bulbs into a dormant stage. And once a little TLC resumed, the plants were back in business.


Here are a few tips if you do buy a shamrock plant to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
  • Don't give your plant too much water. Let the top few inches of soil dry out and then water carefully so you don't harm the delicate stems. I water my plants from the bottom.
  • At night, shamrock plants will close their leaves. Don't worry, your plant will perk up in the morning.
  • I keep my shamrock plants in bright filtered light. They sit in an east-facing window through the winter and on the deck just outside that window in the summer.
  • If your plants start to turn brown and look horrible, give the bulbs some time to rest and rejuvenate. This is usually done in the summer by stopping water and letting the plants die back for a few weeks.
  • Don't stress over giving your plants a rest. They will let you know what they need. Some people grow these plants for years and never give them a rest.
  • Shamrock plants do well in basic household humidity. 
  • From time to time, shamrock plants can be repotted in a high quality potting soil.
  • You can remove spent flowers by snipping them. However, I never remove my flowers and my plants just keep flowering over and over.

This is now one of my favorite houseplants. It's easy and it re-blooms constantly. So, grab a shamrock plant for St. Patrick's Day. It just may bring you a little luck o' the Irish!

Rooster Eating At The Bird Feeder

A few weeks ago I showed pictures of our brown leghorns, who love to fly, eating at our bird feeder. Now that the snow's gone, I found Hank our rooster, feasting at the feeder too. Those leghorns are definitely teaching him some bad tricks!




Chicken Ban Inspires Historic Egg Carton

I've had chickens for a number of years. I’ve even sold some eggs along the way. But never once did I wonder about the history of the egg carton. That changed during a trip to a local antique mall. Hidden in a corner and stuffed on a shelf was a metal carton with an imprint on the front that said “2 Dozen Eggs.” I knew this was a good find and snatched it up.

chicken-ban-inspires-historic-egg-carton

After some research, I found that my egg carton is around 100 years old and is the by-product of early city livestock ordinances.

It all started in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1913. Ordinances were passed that banned livestock, including backyard chickens, in the city for public health reasons.  At the same time, similar ordinances were being passed throughout the country.

They say necessity is the mother of all inventions. People still needed fresh eggs and farmers had an abundance of them. Inventor Stuart Ellis came up with the solution to connect farmers and city folk. He created a metal box that contained rows of cardboard bent into the shape of an egg and supported at the top and bottom with metal edging. Eggs were placed with the large end down with tissue paper under and above.


chicken-ban-inspires-historic-egg-carton

The top of the metal carton had a rectangular cut out for the receiver’s address. Inside were elaborate instructions on how to pack the eggs. These instructions were double-sided and had a place to write the receiver’s address on each side. To me, this is one of the first instances of reduce, reuse and recycle. The egg buyer could send the empty carton back to the farmer with the flip of a sheet and vice versa. Pretty efficient!

chicken-ban-inspires-historic-egg-carton

Through my research, I found all kinds of advertisements from the 1920s in seed magazines and early poultry magazines selling these crates which held up to six dozen eggs and started at 85 cents each. They took advantage of the Parcel Post that now allowed people to send crates, and not just letters, directly to each other.

chicken-ban-inspires-historic-egg-carton

Unfortunately for Stuart Ellis, his invention was eventually replaced by other designs. Not many remain today to tell the story of why and how the humble egg carton came into being. So I’ll keep mine on my shelf, tell my kids about this fascinating story and count it as a part of America’s rich history in farming, manufacturing and invention.

You can find this post and many of my other posts at Backyard Poultry

Geese And Gulls By The Frozen Ohio River

I couldn't resist a few pictures from my recent visit to our frozen Ohio River. These geese and gulls are permanent residents who decided to haul out on the shore. Of course, friendly locals were feeding them. So the birds were pretty happy with their circumstances.







Ice And Barges On The Ohio River

I was driving back to my house this morning after running some errands and found this barge making its way up the Ohio River. With temps overnight at -8 degrees, the river has frozen over in large parts. Releasing water from the dams and continual barge traffic is keeping the river open. But, you can see it's slow going as these barges have to break through ice. Although my view was cold, the beauty of nature and winter was quite a treat!





Bird Feeder Friday

The weather has been awful here this week, so no pictures of my chickens to share today. They've been staying warm and dry as we've had tons of snow and temperatures in the double digit negatives. But, along with the nasty weather comes beauty as my feeders have been full of colorful jewels. So enjoy these charming characters!

A Blue Jay awaits a turn at the feeder. 

This Blue Jay's a little curious.

A Red Bellied Woodpecker in the surrounding trees.

This Rufus-Sided Towhee is getting a treat!

The Ohio National; A Living Poultry Catalog

With chick season starting, many of us are planning new additions to our flocks. So, here's a look at The Ohio National, America's largest annual poultry show. I recently toured the show and wrote this post for Backyard Poultry Magazine. I thought it may give you some inspiration when ordering chicks!

As we pulled into the parking lot of the Voinovich Building on the Ohio State Fairgrounds in Columbus, it was evident things were under way. People were wandering the parking lot with turkeys and chickens tucked under their arms. Some were haggling as birds were being sold right out of the backs of cars. I immediately knew this would be quite an experience, and I wasn’t wrong.

I have to admit, the first thing you notice inside is the smell and the haze of dust. It’s not that anything was unclean; it’s just that thousands of animals are occupying the same place all with bedding and lots of poop.



Once you get a sense of place, the usual poultry show sights are everywhere, just at The Ohio National, it’s all on a large scale. Hundreds of shiny trophies line tables, judges are meticulously sizing up birds in closed aisles, kids are anxiously working with judges and participants are eagerly prepping their birds and taking glamour shots.

From there, The Ohio National is like a hatchery catalog on steroids. If you’re wondering what breed of bird to choose, they are all there in real time. It’s funny to walk with a catalog and compare the pictures to real life. Then, there are the exotic species that you don’t find in your standard catalogs. I was taken by the varieties of fancy pigeons some with curly feathers on their backs, others with feathered feet, some with almost no beak and others that stand tall like game birds. The call ducks were terribly cute and with so many color choices, I don’t know how you’d pick. Bantam chickens, which are often considered the Easter eggs of the chicken world, were out in force. It was cage after cage of bantams each more beautiful than the next. In an adjoining building, African Geese wowed us with their antics and honking. And meat ducks, which I had never seen before, were aplenty.








On the market side, there was a swap meet area where people were selling their birds. While my kids wanted one of everything and I constantly thwarted their requests, we were all a little put off by the more rough conditions that existed in this area. I just hope that all those animals found good homes and that their new owners quarantined them before adding them to existing flocks.

Overall, if you’re in the area, I’d say The Ohio National is worth a visit. For me, I was used to the friendly confines of 4-H and FFA at local fairs. This was different; this was serious business for the competitors. And, frankly, the sheer size of this event and splendor of the birds is something to behold.



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