This newsletter is for the birds!!! Seriously!!!
We passed the autumnal equinox a shy month ago… Birds of all kinds – domestic and wild – respond to changing daylengths (as does every other living creature!). Why is this important? There’s a real dearth of activity at many a feeder right now. Lots of people have come through the store asking if others have had the same problem of low activity – and the answer is yes! The next question is why…Migration is well underway – check the flights of geese and the disappearance of our favorite hummingbirds and other summer birds. The blue jays have reappeared. Some of the bigger flocks are starting to spin up before they depart for points south. There are also a LOT less birds overall than there used to be. Just like the insects, the bird populations are falling. If you get curious about migration, check out this website - And check out this one if you’re curious about the pressure on our local birds.
There’s also the greatest level of natural foods available in the autumn – but – no worries!!! The birds will be back. And – a quick reminder – the bears have not entered hibernation yet. We’re WAY TOO WARM!!!!! So, your feeders are at risk unless you’ve got them hung very well or you have electric fencing around your feeding area. If you go the electric fence route, make sure you bait the hot wires with raw bacon. Bears can’t resist the bacon, and they’ll get stung by the electric surge. A very good lesson to send them on their way (works for beehives too!!). When your birds do settle into feeding again, we have all kinds of seed mixes and really cool suet blocks ready to tempt them back to your feeders.
Now on to domestic birds – see – it really is a newsletter about birds!
The other major group of questions coming through the store surround the whole issue of chickens coming in to winter.
This is the first thing that people notice along with a linked drop in egg production. Adult birds will normally molt once a year. This usually occurs in autumn when daylight hours are getting shorter, but may vary depending on the time of year the bird started laying. It allows the birds to relax from egg production, stabilize physical resources and grow new feathers to help with winter’s demands. Clean, well-ordered feathers are critical for managing cold weather.
This feather loss first happens when the birds are around 18 months old and occurs annually. You should expect about 8 weeks of feather loss and regrowth, but it could take up to 16 weeks for some birds. The onset and length of molt looks different for each bird and is also affected by the health of the birds themselves. Protein is the key nutrient in a flock’s diet during molt. Feathers are made of 80-85 percent protein. Now is the time to add meal worms, crickets or even scrambled eggs. You can also step back in bird time and use chick starter feed (20% protein) for a couple of months to help the new feathers come in smoothly and then transition them back to layer feed (layer feed always has higher calcium to support eggshell production and has 18% protein).
Chickens do their best egg laying work when they’re exposed to around 15+ hours of light. That means that early September sunsets tell the birds to stop laying and prepare for winter. This is especially true for free range birds or birds left outside until sunset. Light plays a huge factor in egg production. Winter days are much shorter than 15 hours, so extra lighting is needed if you want to keep the hens laying well. We have our birds on a simple timer with a heat lamp loaded with a 25-watt bulb – no heat – and not so much light but light enough to help with winter lay. You’ll still loose egg production in the depth of winter when the hens need all of their energy to keep warm and heating the coop is generally NOT a great idea. Chickens and ducks are quite able to handle our normal winter temps as long as they’re fed, watered and out of the wind.
Free Range Birds and Feeding:
If possible, we all like to free range our birds. The eggs are significantly better tasting and better for us. The birds are happier. And the birds can do a secondary job of managing pests in the gardens (our ducks are real slug hunters!!) Free range chickens do forage on their own but, unless your yard is very atypical, there is not enough nutrition to be had without supplementation. This means you need to feed your birds well, even if they’re on free range! Use the feeds dictated by the age and activity of your birds. The standard rate for laying birds is ½ lb of layer balanced feed per day per bird and you should aim to keep that level going. Several people have found that their birds are “light” when they stop and really check out the birds by actual feel (known as assessing body condition). PLEASE feed accurately for the health and success of your flock!
On a related note, but connected to mammals… we do the same thing with our goats. They get their minerals and grain even if we’re ranging them. The ranging makes for great milk, but the girls always, always clean up their minerals when they’ve been browsing for several days in a row.
One last thought:
A hen or duck (or any other female bird) only has a certain number of eggs for her lifespan. That number is determined by genetics and early care, but once set is set. Winter lay means that your hen or duck will use up those eggs sooner (in terms of eggs/year) and will reach a point where there are no more eggs sooner than those girls allowed to rest over the winter. Winter rest will give the birds a greater chance of recovery, but will leave you without fresh eggs. It’s also possible to raise young hens for the winter lay, letting the older hens rest and keeping that rotation going, but that’s a much more complex management structure. There’s no right or wrong – it’s seasonality!!! All you need is an understanding of the basic biology of domestic birds so you can choose the management style that works best for you and your flock.
Now a brief note on the upcoming Hugelkulture (HK) workshop, November 4th, 10am-2pm. We’ll be working with all kinds of “leftover” materials to create a very stable kind of gardening bed. These beds are free form and protect production from both flood (this year) and drought (last year). Call the store, 978-632-0991 for more information or to reserve a spot.