Not again. Please, not again.

Don’t panic; no one died and no one’s missing. It’s just…

AAAAUUUUGGGGHHHH!!!!!

Those of you who are long-time readers may remember the Trials of Trixie. Trixie, our last remaining Buff Orpington, mysteriously ceased normal laying last March, to produce only the occasional fart egg. For ten months. Ten. MONTHS.

Now, were she an older hen, I could write this off to a well-deserved retirement. But Trixie, at that time, was a new layer, 11 months old, dead smack in the middle of her laying prime. I tried to account for this with all manner of explanations: the stress of the dog attack, nutritional issues, pecking order issues, but, as the months went on, it became clear that this was a permanent condition. Unless…

Unless, when Trixie had her first-ever molt this past fall, her eggmaker might reset. It was a long, long, long shot, but it was all I had. Chicken Debbie, presented with this idea, raised her eyebrows, blew out a doubtful sigh, and said, “Well…maybe.” I knew she was only humouring me.

But it worked! Lo and behold, chickeneers, it worked! For almost two glorious months, Trixie has produced gorgeous, huge eggs on a regular basis. I became complacent.

And, then…this:

photo

Oh, chickeneers, I canna stand it. Yes, that is Trixie’s contribution to the daily ration, at right, with Dorothy’s lovely speckled, snowglobe XL, at left, for comparison.

Please, pleeeeease don’t tell me this is the way it is with Trixie, that she lays beautifully for the first two months of the year and then…ten months off.

Because, if so…that’s some union she has.

The state of the molt. The bitter end.

I can’t believe it’s the end of January and we’re still talking about this. This is brutal.

That said, things are looking up!

Abby: Still Absent With Leave. Poor thing, molting through this awful cold snap. I know she’s molting because I see the feathers everywhere, she’s looking a bit ragged, and her comb is pale and shrunken, but it’s not a disastrous molt. If it were, I would seriously have had to consider knitting her a little chicken poncho. Absolutely not expecting eggs from her anytime soon. And that’s…okay.

Coraline, Maisie & Trixie: Churning out enormous eggs now, about 4 per week each. No complaints here! Trixie, now that she’s laying after a 10-month hiatus, is still the loudest chicken ever made. Damn, girl.

Tallulah & Alexia: Both back in action, as of yesterday! Very exciting.

Haley & Hermione: Dude. Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot??!! Haley, you’re slightly off the hook as you did come back from molt and are now re-retired due to cold/dark/stress/whatever. You get a little more time. Hermione. I love you. I do. You know I do. But it’s been four (4!!) full months since I last had an Hermione egg. This is unacceptable. Both these Production-My-Ass Reds are really testing my patience.

That said, The egg supply is beginning to flow once more. Dorothy and Scarlet lay regularly; Jezebel and Delilah less frequently. Alice has been squatting lately and nested today, so maybe she’s getting ready to lay again. Mae lays about three eggs a week.

And, Marilyn? Another month and she’ll be the 40-week-old virgin…

I have the best friends in the world.

I have just received something by email that made me happy cry and sad cry, all together. My gorgeous, magnificent Gail, who is a seriously talented artist, sent me this, quite out of the blue:

buffy in her dress 001

Now, Gail, does not create to order, and her art tends toward the deliciously demented. That this heart-wrenching homage to Buffy would have flowed out of her pen is testament, indeed. I can think of no greater memorial.

(Wondering why Buffy is in a dress?)

With her permission, I decided to share it with you. My beautiful Buffy. I still miss her. I only wish Gail could have met her.

Know thine enemy. Buffy edition.

The day I lost Buffy was the hardest chickeneering day yet, here at Heedley’s Hens, and there have been some doozies. The manner in which she was killed was so very ugly, if there could be such a thing as an unugly violent death. Armed with the assurances of a neighbour that her hens had been killed in a similar manner by a local feral cat, I felt fairly confident in assigning blame to said cat, recognising him from his territorial spats with our boys.

A visit to Agway today to return alfalfa pellets with which my girls would have nothing to do (man, I almost sprained myself on that one) brought insight from Chicken Debbie, the hub of all things chicken in this area. You see, Debbie had spoken to the masculine half of the same neighbour from which I had my feral cat intel. They lost more chickens.

They lost more chickens (the number is uncertain) from inside their run, which has no roof, recently enough that there had been snow on the ground at the time. This places this second attack after Buffy’s death.

He asked Debbie if it might have been the work of an aerial predator, to which she replied, no, they wouldn’t maul the chicken’s neck and head and leave it there. Just not their m.o. The man looked perplexed. Was it not the cat again, Debbie asked? That’s the weird thing, he replied…there were no prints in the snow.

A light went off for Debbie, an awful light. It was a weasel. Debbie knows a little something about weasels; her girls are fully enclosed at all times because Debbie once lost half her flock in a single weasel attack.

A weasel wouldn’t leave prints in the snow, explained Debbie, because it would burrow under the snow to sneak up on the hens. A weasel would destroy several hens at a go, and a weasel would chew just the neck of the hen, because that is the easiest access to the greatest flow of blood.

Which is precisely how Buffy died. Debbie asked where Buffy died. Right in front of the barn, to the left of the doors, I replied. Is there any brush there? Indeed, there is a persistent vine precisely there, one I’ve wanted gone for some time. If you look closely enough at the barn in the Heedley’s Hens masthead, you even see it.

Debbie nodded solemnly. That’s how they do it. They lie in wait, covertly.

And that must be how Buffy died. The day I found the girls huddled in the coop nesting boxes, shortly after her death, must have been another close call. That the flow of eggs has slowed almost to a stop is hardly remarkable.

And, yes, the regular patrolling of our two black cats might be the very thing keeping it at bay. I know it’s cold boys, but…OUT!! Go guard the chickens.

It goes without saying that the brush will be dispensed with post haste. That Buffy’s death need not have happened is a bitter, bitter pill to swallow, and I am punishing myself tonight. Debbie was not optimistic about catching this killer; apparently weasels don’t fall for Hav-A-Heart traps or poison, and foot snares might catch any number of local animals. Anyone with workable suggestions on exterminating weasels will have my undivided attention.

For those of you who feel that free ranging is just too dangerous, I’d like to point out that I have lost one chicken to this predator, to my neighbour’s five-ish. That’s the thing about enclosing your hens. If your coop and run really are Fort Knox, you’re golden. If there is the slightest weakness, however (and a weasel can enter through an opening the size of a quarter), your girls are trapped. I may have lost Buffy, but my other girls were able to get away. This is a scenario we’ve seen here before.

I miss Buffy like crazy, but I’m not giving up free ranging. Not yet, anyway.

Bestill my heart!

This blog is a bit of a soap opera. If you’re not in from the very beginning, there are things you’re just not going to get. Sorry about that. It’s how we roll here.

To get the full impact of today’s news, for example, you’ll have to be a long-time reader. If it seems like much ado about nothing, I understand. So…drumroll, please:

Trixie laid an egg.

I KNOW. I stood there, staring at it for a full five minutes before I allowed myself to believe it. I hadn’t seen one in so long, I had to really strain my memory.

For those of you shaking your heads in bewilderment, Trixie, who is 21 months old, and in the theoretical prime of her laying life, has not laid a proper egg in over ten months. MONTHS, people. Oh, she’s squatted, and nested, and cried about her lack of fecundity, and she’s laid about a dozen fart eggs over the course of those ten months. But not a single “real” egg.

Why? No one knows. I have a broken chicken. HAD a broken chicken.

I had all but given her up as a permanent freeloader, but I had one, lonely, forlorn hope: that after her first molt, her eggmaker might reset. It was a long shot, a very long shot, but I clung to it.

When the 1.0 hens began to molt, one by one, breed by breed, I waited. Trixie was the last, save Abby, to molt. Her blond feathers came back in gorgeously, and she began to squat. She even began to nest and cry loudly about nesting, but I was not fooled; I’d jumped at those cues all last summer, and for naught. Trixie had always tried, and tried hard. She just always left the nest empty. I could tell she was upset about it, too. Really. it was impossible to be angry with her about it. I found myself consoling her.

This morning, in the midst a distressing dry run, egg-wise, it was a genuine pleasure to hear Trixie and Coraline yell at Scarlet for taking up The Hideaway. At last, I thought, some healthy laying competition. I may get some eggs today.

I returned to the nest an hour later expecting a Scarlet or a Coraline egg, or to find the two of them yelling at a nesting Trixie, who, in her determination to produce, can take up the nest for the better part of a day. The egg I found was too oblong to be a Coraline (her eggs are very nearly spherical), and too light in colour to be a Scarlet. I stared. I considered. I scoffed. I considered again.

A Trixie egg. A veritable Trixie egg. And an extra large, to boot. I am PLOTZING, people.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go open it, to see if the Anti-Christ is inside…

The state of the molt. Just kill me already edition.

I’m at the end of my rope, gentle reader. It’s freaking January. Yes, the days are still short, but this has been going on since late September, and we are now into month four. I could almost handle that if it weren’t for the tease. Let’s review:

Abby: Abby just stopped laying a couple of weeks ago, powering through November and December while the others were sipping Mai Tais, and so is exempt from this rant. You take a month off, girl; you’re amazing. You get good and rested so you can broody mama my Blue Copper Marans babies come spring, m’kay?

Coraline: Is laying every other morning, which I find perfectly acceptable for a mature girl in January. Carry on, Coraline. Well done.

Tallulah, Trixie: Still nothing. Now, Trixie is into month ten of not laying, and she did molt very late. Her new feathers are in, but her comb is still pale. She has been squatting for me lately, though; a pleasant surprise. I am hoping all hope is not yet lost. Tallulah, on the other hand, is starting to piss me off. She has a gorgeous new coat of gleaming white feathers and is looking terribly posh. Her comb is big and red. But does she lay? No. Does she try? No. Does she even squat? No, she treats me like a sex offender. My patience with Tallulah grows short.

Haley, Maisie, Hermione, Alexia: Here’s where the tease comes in, and it hurts. Each of these girls has molted, grown new feathers, returned to a full, red comb, squatted, laid…and then stopped. I had about a dozen eggs each from Haley and Maisie, nice and regular, for a while. Hermione had two night eggs, which really got my dark brown egg hopes up, and Alexia laid one egg in The Baby Box (a large…from Alexia). And, then…crickets. Nothing for weeks.

Is it the shorter days? Quite possibly. This is my first winter with mature hens, so I’m learning. Are they hiding them? If it were just Hermione, I’d be ripping the barn apart, but…all of them?! It seems unlikely. Have they been stressed? Ah. That.

The day Buffy was killed, I found the other fifteen girls huddled in the coop, most of them hiding inside the nesting boxes. I found them in a similar condition a few days later, although I was unable to identify a threat or any damage or injury. It’s possible.

Well, it’s a good thing you have 2.0, I can hear you say. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? First year hens power through. First-year hens keep your egg supply going through the winter. This is why we want to get a few chicks each spring, right? Right??!!

I had zero eggs on Sunday. Actual zero. Zee. Roh. I had two before 9am yesterday, and thought, “Okay, that’s how it works; a bad laying day is followed by a really good one.” Those were the only two eggs I had all day. Mae is laying at the moment, thank dog.

Dorothy is now laying reliably, every other day, but Alice is MIA. What the hell, Alice?! I get occasional eggs from the bad girls.

Now, it’s possible I’ve been giving them too many treats, but that shouldn’t stop 2.0. I have looked and looked for stashes, and haven’t found any. I have wormed using cayenne pepper.

I’m sure it will resolve soon, but it’s all very frustrating in the meantime. Slackers.

The count.

Every chickeneer has a count. You know, the way you check to ensure all your babies are accounted for. It might be a simple “I have ten chickens, so I count to ten”, or it may be more detailed, as mine is. As I pointed out once to Stepdaughter the Elder, if you just do a straight count, and you’re missing someone, you won’t know who’s missing!

Your mileage, as always, may vary.

My technique is counting by breed. We started out with three chickens each of four breeds, and the count went (from lightest to darkest): 3 white, 3 blond, 3 red, 3 barred. Nice, even, rhythmic.

We lost Jack to gender, and the count changed, but it was bittersweet; I knew where he was and how he was doing. Then we lost Angelina to a fox the day after Hurricane Irene, and the count went to: 3 white, 2 blond, 2 red, 3 barred. And it stayed that way for a long time. I got used to it.

To those of you for to this seems silly, I can’t explain it. There is a deep satisfaction and relief, for me, in knowing that the count is right, that my girls are all okay, and I have fulfilled my job as their caretaker, at least for that day. There is the peace of knowing that no one has been left locked out of the coop for the night, terrified, or worse. We count. Right?

With the integration of this spring’s chicks, the count got a wee more complex (from oldest to youngest then lightest to darkest): 3 white, 2 blond, 2 red, 3 barred, 3 laced, 3 black, and (once we rehomed Gregory Peck) 2 Easter Eggers. And it was good.

And then, I lost Pip to heat and/or egg laying, and Gidget to a car accident. And the count changed again: 2 white, 2 blond, 2 red, 3 barred, 2 laced, 3 black, and 2 Easter Eggers. I was okay. This was part of the deal, and I always knew that. I still miss Pip’s cry for cuddles and Gidget’s squatting athletically for the chicken butt handshake, but…life went on.

And then, I lost Buffy. I’m sorry; I know I’m carrying on, but this one has changed everything for me. She was the one who never failed to run out to greet me, and ask, nay, demand, not just the chicken butt handshake, but a full body massage. If I was paying attention to someone else at roost time, she’d come forward on the roosts and insist I pay attention to her. She was a frequent guest in the house. She was my girl.

The tyranny of the count is this: I feel her absence all the more, because now, for the first time, there is a 1. Trixie is our last remaining Buff Orpington. And, so, the count goes: 2 white, 1 blond, 2 red, 3 barred, 2 laced, 3 black, and 2 Easter Eggers.

We haven’t caught that cat yet, but we’ve seen him around. I’m convinced the kill happened when it did because the cold weather has kept our cats inside; both Lucius and Oliver have been seen keeping this cat at bay, defending their turf. Knowing the chicken killer is still at large makes me nervous, frankly, about leaving my girls alone.

So, when I leave today, I’ll be putting our two black cats out.

Let’s recap, shall we? I’m putting the cats out. To defend the chickens.

I have guard cats, whether they know it or not.

Heedley’s Hens get bloody.

Time to don your deerstalkers, chickeneers, because I have a mystery. I returned from my mid-day errands today, and went to collect eggs, as is my wont. As I walked down the coop hallway, I saw this:

photo 1

Ummm. what? It’s quite a large puddle of blood, about three inches across. It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I flew into controlled panic mode. Did this blood belong to one of my chickens?

A few inches away was fairly clear evidence that a chicken had been at least near the puddle of blood:

photo 2

Hard to argue with that. This did nothing to reassure me, as one might imagine. I found a normal, clean Maisie egg in The Not The Tennis Racket Nest. I saw a small drop of blood leading into the coop (or out of it?!). Inspection of the nesting boxes revealed more fresh blood…

photo 3

…and an egg. Was the layer the bleeder? It would make sense. The egg was definitely Coraline’s (a good time to know your eggs on sight!); was Coraline wounded? There was no blood on the egg, which would seem to rule out laying trauma.

Still in controlled panic mode, I saw this small drop (about one inch) on the way out:

photo 4

Did the feather belong to the bleeder? There are so many feathers blowing around the barn, I couldn’t be sure.

I ran outside, sounding my call to arms: looklooklooklooklook!!! Yes, they’d be pissed when they ran over and found no treats. Hard cheese, old girls.

And run to me they did. I had a particular eye out for Coraline, but I was counting and checking as they arrived:

Two blonds, two reds, one white (where’s Alexia…oh, there she is). Two 2.1s. Three barreds. I checked out Abby and Maisie carefully, and Coraline seemed fine, too. Two laced. Two blacks…wait. One’s missing. That’s Jezebel. because she’s rid herself of her legband, the minx. There’s Scarlet. Where’s Delilah?!

Delilah came out from deep inside the wood, the last to arrive, with no limp or perceptible injury. Well…that’s everyone, then. The nice things about Light Brahmas is that it’s very easy to check for blood; neither Alexia nor Tallulah showed signs of a broken blood feather, which can make your coop look like an abattoir in no time flat.

I’m stumped. No one’s mortally wounded, of that I’m reasonably sure. I’ll go over them carefully at roost time, and see if anyone needs a night in the hospital. I hope everyone’s okay, because I’m pretty drained from losing Gidget…

UPDATE 5pm: Mystery solved!! Tricia the Great led me to the culprit…Coraline’s outer right toenail. It was definitely broken, although there was a short stub of nail remaining. It was covered with a coat of dried blood. I believe it clotted so quickly in large part because I use sand as my coop litter; a quick dip in fine sand is a marvelous coagulant.

No further action required, although I will be keeping my eye on it.

The state of the molt. Just say no edition.

We’re getting there.

Haley continues to lay enormous eggs which are taking on more of her customary lovely copper hue. Breaking news…Coraline is squatting for me and tried to nest yesterday! She still has some of her old, faded feathers mixed in with the pretty new ones, though. Does that mean she’s going to be half old feathers/half new for the next year?! Cuz…ew.

I’ve tried to get squats out of Tallulah and Hermione, but they’re not having it. Yet.

Here’s the thing. It’s December 10th, and still no sign of molt from either Abby or Buffy. They continue to lay (huge) eggs, every other day, and there is no evidence of undue feather loss. What the hey, chickeneers?! Do they get a pass? No naked for you?

I was pondering this mystery out loud at the breakfast table yesterday, when Stepdaughter the Elder tossed in this little gem of pre-pubescent wisdom: maybe they’re not molting because they were broody.

<facepalm>

Could she be right? Could this be the answer? The only two hens who went broody this past summer are the only two who show no signs of molt. This can’t just be a coincidence, right? Is this some piece of common chicken knowledge that has somehow eluded me?

I know, I know; it seems a stretch, but bear with me. Both these girls (especially Buffy) had a prolonged period of egg cessation already this year. Maybe their bodies don’t require another at this time. Or, maybe their molts will be greatly delayed because they were broody earlier.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

The state of the molt. Are we there yet?! edition.

Our first molt is proceeding apace here at Heedley’s Hens. Let’s check in with the girls, shall we?

As tempted as I am to build up suspense, I won’t bury the lede: Haley laid an egg!!! Yesterday morning, I went into the barn looking for eggs, and found this:

photo 2

I plotzed, I tell you. PLOTZED. Without any exaggeration, I tiptoed, backwards, away from the nest, so as to not disturb the minor miracle that was taking place.

Haley was the first of 1.0 to halt production and go through molt. Surely this was the beginning of the end of the Great Egg Drought of 2012?

Neither of those two eggs is hers, by the way; those were laid by 2.0 girls. Haley laid an egg so large, it not only went zooming past the top size of “extra large” on my egg scale (making it a jumbo), it did so with a resounding thunk. That’s right; first day back and Haley laid a thunk jumbo.

Now, that had to hurt. Pullets have skinny, worm-like poops, in keeping with the size of their vents. When they begin to lay, their poops become, well…egg sized. It is the same opening, after all. (Oh, you didn’t know that? Heh, heh. Suckahhhh.) I’ve noticed, as 1.0′s molt has progressed, that the poops I clean under their roost have been getting smaller and smaller, for the most part. Their vents, presumably, have been returning to their virgin states.

All this to say…a thunk jumbo the first day back?! Poor Haley!!!

I checked the calendar to see when all this began. It’s difficult to go by Haley, because she had been such an irregular layer for some time, so I went to the time when I began to miss eggs from her more reliable sister, Hermione: September 23. Ten weeks, from cessation of laying to resumption. From what I’ve read, this is about average.

But, wait! There’s more!!

Remember this?

Month 10 Haley Butt

Haley’s perennially naked, painfully-chapped butt? I had hoped molt would give her some relief and look, ma!

Gorgeous, fluffy bloomers. No holes!

photo 4

Hermione was right behind her, molt-wise, and has regrown her feathers quite nicely:

photo 5

She hasn’t yet squatted for me, so I think eggs are a ways off from her. Tallulah is also looking very glamourous in her new sparkling white feathers, but shows no sign of laying any time soon. Ditto Alexia, who has lovely new white feathers, but is still waiting for her black tail feathers to re-emerge.

Coraline is in a very interesting phase; her old feathers, faded and yellowed by exposure to sunlight, are a very different colour from her new feathers, which are pure black and white. I’d have taken a pic for you, but the camera would not have captured the subtlety, I’m quite sure. It’s interesting to be able to see which ones are outgoing and which are incoming.

I don’t know what to say about Maisie. She isn’t laying, but doesn’t seem to be molting, either. Just lazy? Totally possible.

And then, there’s Abby and Buffy, who aren’t molting and continue to lay very large eggs at a rate of one every other day. Tell me, experienced chickeneers: is it possible they may yet shut down and go through a full molt, now that we’re in December? Or is this it, and they will continue to lay as they have been? Is this as molty as they’re likely to get?

If you’ve been counting, you’ll know that there’s one 1.0 I haven’t discussed yet, our hard luck case of the week: Trixie. In the past few days, she has really fallen apart. These pics don’t do justice to the poor girl; the blond colouration seems to hide the worst of the damage, but she is so skinny. It’s amazing how much of the size of layers is their feathers; having lost as many as she has, Trixie looks likely to blow away:

photo 1

A close-up of her head gives some sign of the coming and going that’s taking place:

photo 3

So, she is definitely going through a discernible molt, which begs the question: will she ever lay again?!