Saturday, August 21, 2010

Big Birds

At eleven days the chickens all use the entire cage. I can't figure out what the signal is, but once in a while, a dozen or more will congregate at the water as though they just remembered it was there. Once sated, the pullets break into small groups or pairs to sit comfortably. The males relax too, often lying  on one side and stretching the upward leg and foot as far as possible. Do they experience growing pains? The males' rest is often interrupted though. If a male stands up, another is quick to meet him head on, even bumping the breast of the male that dared suggest superiority by standing over the others.
Sadly, most of this display is lost on the pullets. They show no interest in the males. Maybe they don't want to encourage the behavior--or maybe it is fitting for the female to remain coy, detached from the strife among her many suitors.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Chickens go through a lot of water--or a lot of water goes through them. It stands to reason, especially for layers, since an egg is mostly liquid, but broilers drink a lot too. I remember reading somewhere that layers who want for water more than so many hours may stop laying abruptly and if the want is longer, they may quit laying for good. I let my broilers run out of water one hot day last summer. Creatures of habit, they drank from the dry bowl as though there was water, raising their heads occasionally to swallow, but there was nothing but air rolling down their extended gullets. I quickly filled the bucket and thanked my lucky stars that none had died. After all, it had been dry only a few hours. The next morning, two big cockerels lay dead in the pen, victims of stress no doubt.
The point is that chickens must never want for water. A chicken that has wanted for water is a time bomb. It may survive the initial stress, but it will always be compromised and is not likely to perform satisfactorily, and if there's anything worse than a broiler dead at 4 pounds it's a broiler dead at 5 or 6 pounds.
The old theory that dinosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles has been overturned. According to prevailing thought on the subject, chickens (along with other birds) are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs. You can't watch chickens dusting themselves without thinking about dinosaurs. The abrupt extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago continues to perplex scientists to this day. Some think a meteor or other extraterrestrial object may have struck the earth and put so much debris in the air that the sun was blocked and all plant life died, subsequently killing all the plant eaters. But not everybody is convinced. Even if plant life was disrupted, much of it survived the event or it wouldn't be here today. Other creatures survived too, including some small mouse-like mammals that evolved, eventually, to Homo Sapiens.  In the short term, meat eaters like T-Rex might have survived by eating the dead and dying, but they were driven to extinction too.
Could it be that the catastrophic event put so much dust into the atmosphere that Earth's temperature plummeted for a short period--just long enough to drive the surface temperature down far enough to freeze fresh water on the entire surface--kind of a nuclear winter? If so, sea creatures would likely survive,  in the deep, along with burrowing creatures that could wring enough moisture from the earth to survive, and plant life would begin again to flourish as the dust settled, just as dormant plants re-awaken in the spring. Hunger might have been an issue for some creatures, but creatures that required lots of water on a regular basis would have died out quickly, possibly within days, long before the food ran out. Carnivores, omnivores, herbivores, would have suffered equally at a frozen lakeside--especially those with a low tolerance for water deprivation. I wonder if they went through the motions of drinking to the very end.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

All the chickens are in tractors now. 17 went in Tuesday, 17 Wednesday morning, and 17 Wednesday evening. I think the earliest to be put on grass have a developmental head start--even if it's only 24 hours. Come to think of it, 24 hours is a fairly large fraction of a seven-day-old's life. Anyway, an air of sophistication surrounds the birds with the head start, whether congregated about the water or lounging in the grass, while the later birds move about timidly and remain huddled as they were in the brooder when they rest. For all I know, the difference may disappear in a few days, as all the chickens acclimate to their new, permanent living quarters. But here is something worth noting. The difference in behavior is really the difference between living in the crowded, uninteresting brooder--hay bale walls with loose hay litter on the floor--and living in the wide open, natural world on a pasture of grass, replete with all sorts of insects and their larvae to scratch to the surface.

Chickens inherit the inclination to scratch the ground. Even at one or two days, the chicks scratched at new litter when I added it, looking for interesting foodstuff, but they knew (or learned) also when not to scratch. Once the litter was fouled--and it doesn't take long--all scratching stopped. I suspect that scratching must pay off early in a chick's development if if it id to be adopted as a common behavior, especially when a full ration is available on demand. Chickens raised in confinement probably lose the desire to scratch eventually. Maybe they revert to brooder behavior: eating and drinking with nothing stimulating them to do what chickens do--work for a living.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gender Issues

At one week, the chicks are already behaving according to their gender. The pullets pose like Mom's white porcelain casserole dish, and the cockerels dart toward one another, wings flapping, heads low, as though jousting. I suppose they have to start sometime. Sexual maturity is only three months away. Actually these birds will never live to see anything much beyond the onset of puberty. The pullets will never lay an egg, and the cockerels will never learn to crow.

Their behaviors are genetically induced, of course. Following Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene theory, male replicators (individuals) are most likely to reproduce successfully (that is, put viable offspring on the ground to pass on genes) by competing with other males for the right to mate with the greatest number of females. Females, on the other hand, maximize their reproductive capability by nurturing two or three broods per year. She doesn't have to compete. For her, it's like being lost in the forest: if she just sits still and remains calm, somebody, some male will find her.

From the beginning, the female makes the larger investment in the potential offspring: eggs are the largest cells in the female body, and they are relatively rare, while the sperm cells are the smallest cells in the male body and they are very plentiful. Even before the fertilized egg is laid, the female has made a greater contribution to chick's viability than the male--who is busy maximizing his reproductive capability elsewhere.

Of course, the same genes that make influence sexual behavior influence the physical health of replicators. Natural selection favors individuals in the best, most robust shape of their lives at or near the onset of sexual maturity. When it comes to chickens, so do I. In the week before slaughter, a few of the cockerels' voices will have begun to change. Though there is nothing, and will be nothing, to crow about, they will have attempted a croaking, cracking crow.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Raising broilers is a solitary endeavor--at least it can be. But after three years of trial and error there comes a time when a man (or a woman) must lift him/her self from the desultory tasks associated with poultry management to confer with others on the same or a similar journey. I bought 50 chicks one week ago today. It's my second brood of 50 this summer. I like the late brood because the weather is warm and warm weather means a shorter brooding period and a shorter brooding period means my chicks will be on pasture earlier--before they forget how to forage and scratch for food. One to two-week-old chicks are eager to do what
their ancestors did, work for their living. Three-week-old birds, however have largely given up on any idea of feeding themselves and are content to sit in front of a feeder day in and day out. Both chicks will grow nice and plump, but the workin' bird ingests innumerable minerals and vitamins from its varied diet of grass and legumes that confined or otherwise non-grazing birds simply don't have access to. Woe betide the cricket that attempts to cross eighty square feet of workin' bird pasture. Chickens have keen eyesight, and even at one week old they don't miss much.