I can't tell you how many times I heard that raising chickens is "ssssooooo easy!" Pshaw! I had an amazing array of challenges thrown at me in my first foray into fowl-dom, but still enjoy them thoroughly & honestly don't think I'll ever again live without keeping birds! I have learned a lot, and will start sharing lessons with you occasionally through my blog, "Words of a Wild Woman." We will also be hosting a seminar at Mystic Mountain next season that will teach you the ins & outs, tips & tricks to raising happy, healthy birds.
The summer of 2013 was the first time I ever decided to tackle keeping a flock of my own. I got several birds from each of two or three different sources, totaling eight hens in all.
This was Lesson #1: whoever arrived in the coop first thinks it's THEIRS & can get quite territorial...introducing new birds to an established flock can require a bit of supervision. The "Takeaway" is that somebody is always gonna fill the position at the bottom of the totem pole. Chickens have their Pecking Order, & to a large degree you'll have to let them sort it out.
Lesson #2: I found out that different breeds have different temperaments AND different egg production levels. Deciding what you want birds FOR is an important first step in choosing the breed that's right for you AND whether you want to start with chicks or purchase older birds that are already laying.
Lesson #3 was the WORST: About halfway through the summer I noticed that my birds seemed to be tormented. Upon close inspection I discovered that my girls had MITES! Nasty little hard-shelled crabs, basically, these little buggers crawl around at lightning speed in the dark, moist area around a chicken's "vent." They cause a great deal of itchiness, which drives the hens to pluck out their own feathers in frustration. The mites lay egg sacs that are like pebbles of concrete at the base of feather shafts. We don't yet have internet at the homestead, so I could not research what course of action to take until my next trip to town. I consulted with several bird-ladies next time I hit civilization, & looked all over the worldwide web for some solution that would bring my girls relief. Everything I found tended to lean towards toxic chemicals, which goes against everything I believe in & am striving for. I actually went as far as to order a chemical product through Amazon, but continued my search until the last possible moment. Just before it was time to head back out to the homestead, I came across a WONDERFUL resource: www.BackyardChickens.com . This website is for all things fowl-related & includes a public forum for discussion & sharing of personal experiences. I waded through several pages of discussion before discovering that some folks had found success in ridding their flock of mites by using natural products, so I scrambled around town to gather the few items I did not already have in my supplies at home.
We first dipped each bird in a large stockpot of Apple Cider Vinegar...the acidity of the vinegar understandably irritated the mites, AND the birds skin, reddening it instantaneously. The girls naturally did not groove on being forced into the liquid, which we had warmed slightly beforehand so as not to be SO much of a shock. Right after the ACV dousing, we took a new, clean paintbrush, dipped it into a combination of warmed coconut oil, with several drops of oregano oil & Tea Tree Oil mixed in, & we brushed this concoction liberally on the affected area. Both of these oils have antiseptic & antibacterial properties, PLUS the oil coated the feather shafts & egg sacs, effectively suffocating the mites & their egg. Within a couple days there were no further signs of mites scrambling around on the hens' skin & the egg sacs became crumbly & could be pinched/picked off! I was SO glad to have found an eco-friendly solution to a disgusting problem, & was so grateful I hadn't felt compelled to follow the advice of a local lady who'd told me I'd have to kill all my birds, burn down the coop, scorch the earth in the run, then dig up the soil & burn IT, then pressure wash our backhoe!! Sheesh! There is almost ALWAYS a better remedy if only you have the patience & the access to resources to find it!! In order to prevent another infestation there are steps I have or will soon take... First is to caulk all cracks inside their henhouse so that mites don't have a place to hide. Paint the walls, ceilings & floors with a couple good coats of a no-VOC paint that will fill in any tiny crevices. Sprinkle diatomaceous earth in the areas that the hens use to dust bathe (fossilized creatures whose hard exoskeletons are pulverized, making sharp edges that are scathing to the tiny mites), & occasionally spread marigold & calendula blossoms in the litter to create a scent that mites can't stand. Now I know, & my flock is safe...hope yours always will be, too!