The mystery of the pixie egg

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A few months ago, I came across a tiny egg. Now bantam eggs are small compared to the average hen’s egg (maybe about half the size) but this was a tinier than tiny egg. Was it laid by a quail? Or a leprechaun’s hen? Pictured above is the pixie egg next to a bantam egg. The bantam egg is half the size of a full-size egg so can you imagine how petite this one was? 

I had never seen the like.

Just to make sure no fairy chickens had infiltrated my hens’ coop  I looked for a rational explanation in my library.

And in Frances Bassom’s Chicken Breeds and Care, Frances reasoned why this may have happened.

She said, ‘When a hen is just starting out on her laying career, she occasionally lays very tiny ‘wind eggs’. They can frequently be as small as a marble and usually have no yolk’.

Why this happens is because of ‘a small leak of albumen into the oviduct’. A shell covers this albumen, thanks to the response of the ‘egg-producing mechanism’.

Once the chicken starts laying regularly, wind eggs are infrequent, concludes Frances.

So who was the culprit of this wind egg?

I reckon Ava, as, along with Mabel, she is the youngest of the girls and had previously only laid a few eggs before this cute but remarkable one appeared.

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And no, I never ate it.

 

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A little pear tree

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As I have earlier mentioned, plants and hens sometimes – often – don’t go together. Either the plants don’t like the chickens and end up poisoning them (Thankfully I think my bantams are too canny to eat poison, touch wood) or the hens like the plants – too much, unfortunately, as it can often be a case of a nibble here, a nibble there, and suddenly the greenery has vanished into thin air.

One solution is to get a fruit tree. The tree leaves should be too high for hungry hens to forage and a tree bearing fruit is always a useful plant for a garden.

So here’s a big welcome to Cosy Cottage’s conference pear tree.

No, Mabel, it’s not for you to eat.

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  • Facts of the Day 
  • 1. The conference is ‘reliable and self-fertile… It has long, pale green fruit.’
  • 2. Other varieties of pear are Jargonelle, Beurre Hardy and Marguerite Marillat.
  • 3. The pear’s ‘natural home is in the countries around the Mediterranean – it needs more warmth and sunshine than an apple tree’ if it is to fruit well.
  • Information courtesy of Growing Food by Anna Pavord

Now you see it… The case of the disappearing parsley

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Parsley is a delightful savoury  treat – for humans, guinea pigs and even for chickens. The girls had been proudly presenting me and my family with freshly laid eggs so it was my turn to treat them.  I bought three reasonably priced parsley plants in a supermarket and planted them in the side garden, otherwise known as Hen Garden.

The ladies headed straight for the herbs. In the space of less than two hours, the parsley was no longer to be seen. It had been eaten, trampled on, demolished and vandalised.

(I call them ladies but that sort of behaviour is not very ladylike really. Is it Dottie?).

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And it did make me think, my back garden is pretty much green with many plants (unfortunately many weeds and unidentifiable ones too) – Hen Corner in contrast is brown and barren except for a few lonely specimens such as an apple tree.

It wasn’t always such a forlorn desert.

Where has all the greenery gone?

Then I spotted Mabel gobbling up yet another leaf from one of the lucky plants still standing.

So that’s where they have disappeared to.

In Mabel’s belly.

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Mabel, pictured with Ava, looking for tasty greens to sample

Ava’s proud moment

 

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Little Ava

More than six months on, the new girls Little Ava and Mabel are settling in and contributing to their keep with an abundant supply of fresh eggs.

The first time Ava laid an egg was a morning of concern.

Now, most hens have a small comb on the top of their head when they’re not laying. But Ava, for some reason, has always prided herself with a vivid red comb. Much bigger and brighter than the other girls.

Okay.

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But then one morning I heard what sounded like a seagull in the garden. Crawk, the loud noise went.

I didn’t remember hearing anyone making that type of noise before.

I opened the coop door and saw Ava looking at me and making that raucous noise again.

Bright red comb. Squawk. Squawk… An unusual noise, unlike the other girls. Was it a squawk or a crow?

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Little Ava

Either she was going to lay her first egg or… What if she was actually a cockerel and they got it wrong at the farm?

I felt a tinge of foreboding. I had warmed to Ava and didn’t want her to go but if she was male, she might be too noisy for my neighbours…

Why would the farm get it wrong? The chickens were 12 and 14 weeks old when I adopted them, surely the farm would know.

Yet I had heard mistakes can be made…

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… And that female hens can turn into roosters.

Had I lived in the countryside, no problem, but unfortunately there were neighbours around who probably wouldn’t like a wake-up call at 5am every morning.

I brooded on this as young Ava went up into the indoor section and back down again. She seemed as confused as I was.

About 20 minutes later, I headed out again. It was nearly time to go to work and this matter must be left to one side for now.

Fortunately, events had reached a conclusion.

The result for the scarlet head, triumphant seagull sound and general confusion was that Little Ava had rather an eventual morning. She was proving she was definitely a lady with the egg she had just laid.

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Thank you Ava, I had never doubted you!

As for Mabel, she has proved to be a hard working member of the team, producing many delicious eggs. She is a little gutsy and always eager for an adventure. She will try to edge her way through the gate when I open it and I have often the need to tell her: “No, Mabel, you’re not going through the gate, stay in your own garden with your friends.”

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Facts of the Day

1. According to Andy Cawthorne, of Country Smallholding magazine, November 2016, ‘Hetty can become Henry overnight’ when ‘there is a part change of gender within a hen’. Thankfully – for those of us who have small gardens and neighbours nearby – this is not a regular happening.

2. A hen ‘will no longer lay eggs. Her comb and wattles will develop, her feathering and feather structure will become more male in appearance and she will even begin to crow’. She still is genetically a female though.

3. Andy says in his article that this phenomenon is caused by stress or illness and only occurs ‘in hens with one ovary’, the other remaining as a ‘regressed male gonad’ which can take over.

Meet the residents of Cosy Cottage

Here are the furry, feathered, finned and foliaged inhabitants of Cosy Cottage:

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Guinea pigs Loco and Blaze, pictured during their first ‘boar date’ in 2018

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Florence on top, Jemima, Dottie, Mabel and Ava on bottom

Chickens Florence, Jemima, Dottie, Mabel and Ava.

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Zebra Danios, pictured hiding behind the plants.

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Aloe veras
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Palm-style plant
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Peace lily, about 8 years old

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Regular visitors jack russells Teddy and Molly.

Children and pets

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My godchildren came to visit recently, aged two, four and eight years old. The first thing they wanted to see at Cosy Cottage? The residents of course!

The zebra danios were nonchalant as always, swimming in their water world, only paying attention when Honey, Noah and Wilfred fed them.

Although the guinea pigs and hens were a little startled at first, hearing the sound of loud young voices and the pattering of little feet, they became fond of them over the weekend.

Especially when it meant more treats!

Loco and Blaze met the youngsters and enjoyed being stroked, even Loco who sometimes makes a big fuss about being handled (we don’t eat guinea pigs here, Loco, you’re quite safe!). He is always happy to beg for parsley though!

There was much hilarity when Blaze pooed on Noah (big sister Honey couldn’t stop laughing!)

Loco then decided to do the same to Honey.

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Guinea pigs, so polite in company!

Noah helped me clean out the chicken coop, doing a much thorough job than I usually do!

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They helped with giving the chickens corn. Unfortunately the hens then thought it amusing to lead me – and the children – a merry dance and not head into the coop when it was time to go in.

I was expecting the hens to follow me in (bribed by corn, no less) straight into the coop, but no. They thought it would be a laugh to run around while me and the youngsters tried to herd them in.

Have you heard the phrase, ‘it was like herding cats’? I’m not saying it was as bad as that, but not far off either.

Never work with children or animals as they say in showbusiness!

It was a fun weekend for us all but I remain convinced the chickens were deliberately trying to show me up in front of the children and the five of them had a great laugh about it afterwards, especially Jemima!

🙂 🐹🐔🐟

Children and pets – top tips

1. Teach your child to be gentle around pets and other animals.

2. Pets are good for teaching responsibility. But don’t get a pet and assume your child will always look after it. They may get distracted with other interests as they get older. Make sure you want the pet too and are happy to look after it, if your child loses interest. 

3. Be logical when choosing a pet. It’s better to research and consider how much time, space, attention etc you can give a pet than get one on a whim and give it away the next month. As they say, a pet is for life, not just for Christmas. 🐈🐕🐹

 

Ladies who moult

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Poor Jemima! All summer she had the broody affliction which meant she didn’t want to leave her nest box in case her invisible (actually non-existent) eggs hatched. And when she finally snapped out of that, she started losing her feathers and became bedraggled and tatty looking. A poor specimen of her former, proud, snow-white plumage-covered glory.

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And then Florence started copying off her, losing her thick, soft plumage and becoming scrawny in appearance.

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(If you remember, Florence copied Jemima when she started brooding in the summer too. Is Jemima Florence’s role model?)

But panic not. It’s all part of the normal annual moulting process.

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Jemima looking scruffy while moulting

It’s in late summer/early autumn when birds begin to shed their feathers and grow new ones. Dottie went through her moult earlier this year, in September. Jemima and Florence are shedding their feathers in November. I don’t know when Mabel and Ava will go through the process for their first time.

For all hens, no eggs (or certainly very few) will be laid during this time – even from good layers such as hybrids.

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The advice for hen keepers is to make sure they have plenty of food as they will need good nutrition and protein to enable them to grow new feathers for the cold months ahead.

I pour a little apple cider vinegar into their water as a pick-me-up tonic as I saw it suggested in a book.

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Thankfully, nature has kindly given hens a helping hand during this process – the feathers are replaced slowly and this means chickens won’t lose too many feathers at once. A handy thing as it means they will still be able to fly out of danger (unless they’re a bantam, in which case it might be more a case of run out of danger!)

Facts of the Day

1. Young birds moult twice during their first six months of life.

2. A partial moult sometimes also occurs in the early part of the year, often just affecting the neck.

3. A young hen will take around 6 weeks to finish the process, it may be double that for older birds.

From Choosing & Raising Chickens, Jeremy Hobs on & Celia Lewis

 

Making friends (the chicken method)

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So it took two weeks for Mabel and Ava to meet and greet Florence, Jemima and Dottie through the fencing, first of their coop, then of the small run.

The first time Florence set eyes on the two new girls peering curiously out of the wire mesh, she launched herself aggressively onto their coop, flapping her wings.

Not what I expected from the once docile, sweet Flo.

Jemima did the same.

Not what I expected from the lazy, often broody Jemima.

And Dottie? Who was bossy and used to peck Florence when she was a youngster?

She ignored them.

To be fair, most of the time everyone ignored each other. There were curious glances but otherwise both groups of chickens got  used to the other gang being in the vicinity. As long as they were kept apart from fencing, that is.

After a week of ‘quarantine’, where Mabel and Ava got used to their new surroundings, they were allowed out in the small run. The older hens roamed free in the outer garden. I worried that the youngsters would try and sneak through the flimsy netting and (typical of my worst fears) get pecked and eaten by a three-strong gang of tough pekin bantams.

Well, maybe just the pecking although I have heard of cannibalism in chickens…

It went smoothly but, because of my concerns, I continued to keep close watch while they were out.

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They were often in full sight of the other chickens.

Then it was deemed time for them to wander the full length of the Hen Garden. I closed the other chickens in, and Dad and I cleared the garden of anything that could possibly be a danger. We also closed off any potential small areas of escape. I worried they would fly away, squeeze under a tiny hole or eat something they shouldn’t.

None of these things happened. They loved their new-found freedom.

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Then it was Meet and Greet Day. One by one, in the comfort of my living room, Ava and Mabel met Jemima, Florence and Dottie. All went well except Florence pecked Ava (where was the nice Flo?) and oddly, Mabel pecked Dottie.

Originally, they were all going to be introduced that night as I heard bedtime was the best time to introduce chickens. But after the two pecking incidents, I, well, ‘chickened out’ (!) Instead, every day for the next fortnight, all the chickens went out in their designated Hen Garden but slept in their respective coops at night.

At first, there was chasing by Jemima (well, at least it woke her from broodiness) and Florence. No harm done but it did make Mabel and Ava wary of the mean girls.

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There also seemed to be segregation, with one group at the top and the other at the bottom of their garden. And vice versa.

But gradually, over the fortnight, Mabel and Ava creeped over towards the group, little by little, step by step. Still a little chasing went on, usually by Jemima, and I caught Dottie peck Mabel (was this revenge?) but generally, they slowly, surely, accepted the two youngsters.

When Mabel and Ava wandered over to the older hens’ coop and pottered around, eating grain, there was an air of acceptance.

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I was nervous when the big moving in day arrived. At 5pm, when it was twilight, not dark for us humans but bedtime for chickens, Dad and I took out Ava and Mabel from their perches and placed them on the perch in their new home.

A couple of times I sneaked towards the coop, hovering by the door, waiting in anticipation for any noises.

All quiet on the chicken front.

The next morning, they were all as one. A little bit of bickering went on about corn (well, if you can’t argue about corn, what can you argue about?) but otherwise…

I left them in their coop, to their own devices, while I went for a walk. When I got back, I found Florence had laid an egg (good girl, Flo!) and she had been followed into the bedroom by Jemima, Dottie, Mabel and Ava.

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Florence on top, Jemima, Dottie, Mabel and Ava bottom

Over the last week, the once segregated groups have integrated into one, bigger group. It took patience, anti-pecking spray and nerves – and a few weeks – but it looks like Ava and Mabel have made themselves at home and made new friends at the same time.

Most importantly, they also learnt very quickly where they could beg for mealworms!

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Little Ava and Mabel

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Little Ava and Mabel

As regular readers will know, there are three feathered inhabitants of Cosy Cottage – Jemima, Florence and Dottie.

That is, until now.

When I first got the hens, I had been thinking of adopting between three and five but, out of caution, I ended up with three bantams. This was fine until Jemima and Florence both ended up being broody and Dottie was left out, looking as if she was Dottie-no-mates. Which she probably felt as well. At that point I started thinking, would it be a good idea to get another two?

Then Dottie became ill and I contemplated the horrid possibility of losing her. Then there would just be two and if anything happened to one of them, there would be a sole bantam wandering the garden, looking and feeling glum, no doubt.

There is a joke among chicken keepers called Chicken Maths where one and one hen will eventually end up… Well, whatever the chicken keeper chooses! Ultimately, the saying is that no matter how many hens you begin with, you will end up wanting more.

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Dottie and Florence meet Ava and Mabel

I didn’t think that I would feel like that as I was restricted for space, living in the suburbs. But the above issues this year did make me think…

And as summer turned into autumn, I realised that if I were to get any more, now was the time, rather than winter with the risk of bird flu, freezing nights and darker days.

So I returned to the birth place of Florence et al, and as luck would have it, the poultry farm had two colours remaining – black and black speckled. (Before you think I am vain or superficial, any colour would do but I liked the idea of telling the girls apart). Of course if I had one or more Jemima or Florence lookalikes, I would have bought leg rings so I could differentiate between them.

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Little Ava and Mabel

So Ava (nicknamed Little Ava) is 14 weeks old, all-black and the smaller of the two. Mabel is 12 weeks old, black speckled, has a much paler comb and is a larger lady. They are currently living in a CosyCoop, a cheaper version of the more famous plastic Eglu, and is actually where the older girls once lived for a week, when they first arrived a year ago.

Most of the time, the bantams have ignored the young girls as they free range around them. However, unfortunately both Jemima and Florence have been less than welcoming, trying to peck the young hens through the barrier.

To say I am dreading the integration process proper, where all hens will mix freely and reestablish their pecking order, is an understatement.

Wish us all luck!

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Jemima with Mabel
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Dottie and Florence meet Ava and Mabel

Facts of the Day

1. Introducing a new bird can upset the pecking order. It’s suggested two or more hens should be introduced at a time to minimise bullying.

2. The flock of established hens will resent newcomers until the pecking order is re-established.

3. Allowing the two groups to meet through wire mesh during the first introductions is a good idea.

Information courtesy of Mini Encyclopedia Chicken Breeds and Care by Frances Bassom

One year on… After the hen party

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It’s hard for me to believe but Florence, Jemima and Dottie first came to Cosy Cottage more than a year ago, in August last year. Here’s a few highlights… And lowlights… of what happened over the year:

February – August 2017 – Building the coop

 

August 2017 – The girls arrive for the hen party!

 

September 2017 – Florence grows up

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December 2017 – The new gate equals Freedom!

 

February/March 2018 – ‘Beast from the East’ brings snow to Britain… And Cosy Cottage

 

June 2018 – A mouse in their house

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Summer 2018 – Broody girls and a hot summer

 

July 2018 – Dottie’s illness and recovery

 

Now… I hope to have many more months and years with these delightful ladies. They may be slow on the egg department but they are all charming and make me smile when I see them first thing in the morning. And mealworms make them smile!

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