The first snows have fallen in New Hampshire, and I'm feeling nostalgic. I'm pulling out some old friends, chapters from my first book, one of those books that was best left on the shelf and categorized as a learning experience. Bits of it are solid, most of it is training ground. I will be posting my favorite chunks this month, starting with a piece befitting this cold winter morning in New Hampshire.
I’ve been dreaming about little hats for frostbitten rooster combs. I think my brain combined my son Finn’s desire to learn how to knit (his friend Ellie can knit, and he’s jealous) with my quest to find a cure for my rooster Dewey’s case of frostbite. If I knit small hats, would they stay in place with tiny strings or would he Dewey able to untie the knots with his knobbly talons? Do I have to knit them in the shape of his comb or would a simple dome work? Would wool be too itchy on his comb? Maybe polar fleece instead…
New Hampshire is in the death grip of an Alberta Clipper, and the temperature has only made it above zero a couple of times this week. I noted on Friday that the temperature on the thermometer outside my office at Crossroads Academy was registering -22 or -23 at nine in the morning. I have a heat lamp on the chickens but even with that supplemental heat source, Dewey is suffering from a rather unsightly case of frostbite on his comb and wattles. The tips of his comb are black and there is a big white blister on the top of it yesterday. His Ladies are fine; they sleep with their heads tucked into their back feathers, but Dewey can’t possibly shove all of his rather impressive and ostentatious ornamentation under the warmth of his plumage. He does suffer for his beauty.
I have filled their coop with shavings and an abundance of straw in order to give them warm nests, but they huddle together on the roost just below the heat lamp. They like to keep their feet tucked up in their belly feathers and only come down from their perch to eat, drink, and lay. The laying has been infrequent this past week due to the stress of the cold. Chickens don’t lay well when it’s too warm or too hot, and my biddies clearly think it's too cold for their embryonic chicks to be lying around the frigid coop floor.
The chickens would prefer to stay in all winter long, but I force them outside into the sun when the days warm up a little. There are about three feet of snow on the ground right now, so I shoveled a large run for them and rotated the dirty litter in their coop outside, which just happens to be on top of my raised kitchen gardens. My chickens hate the feel of snow under their feet and simply refuse to go outside unless I spread something on the ground. Even with the shavings to insulate their tender feet, they stand, flamingo-style, on one leg or the other, obviously disgusted by the chilly and inferior footing. Nevertheless, their natural urges soon take over, and they quickly get down to the business of scavenging. They peck about in the litter and wipe their beaks on the ground like a proper Victorian women dabbing their lips with napkins at tea. Once my ladies have been shooed out the door, I empty a bale of fresh pine shavings in to the coop and the smell instantly takes me back to the horse barns of my youth. The only smell I love more than shavings is that of fresh straw, and the nesting boxes always get a nicely fluffed layer on top, just for good measure.
The chickens seem to enjoy being out in the sunshine. They stretch their legs behind them, like sprinters on starting blocks, shake and rearrange their feathers, and Dewey takes advantage of the extra room to maneuver by mating with all of the hens in less than an hour – always striving for a personal best, it seems. He usually mates with each of the hens at least once a day, but never in such rapid succession. It’s amazing what sunlight and fresh air can do for the libido.
Unfortunately, the recent frigid temperatures have kept them inside on even the warmest days. Egg production is way down, their water freezes in less than an hour, and the chickens are literally climbing the walls. I caught Dewey roosting high up in the rafters of the garage this morning. I have been filling their trough with hot water in the morning and afternoon – I like to think of it as chicken teatime – and they seem to like that. They gather around the hot bowl like women receiving a steam facial at the spa.
My new cold alleviation strategy involves warm breakfasts. No, wait, it’s not crazy – stick with me for a minute. I was up at Farm-Way in Bradford, VT, for shavings, layer pellets, Bag Balm, and a new pair of insulated Carhartt work overalls the other day, and I ran into my neighbor, who also keeps a flock of layers. As soon as we got the pleasantries out of the way, the conversation immediately went all poultry. She boasted that her coop is insulated, but in order to keep her hens warm, hydrated, and laying, she makes them a hot corn mash every morning before they begin to lay. She claims it keeps egg production up to reasonable levels. I’m on day two of steaming hot, coop-service porridge breakfasts, and while I have not seen an increase in egg production yet, I’m giving it some time before I pass judgment.
The Bag Balm I mentioned is also for the chickens. I read that a daily massage with Vaseline or Bag Balm can do wonders for a frostbitten comb. The massage helps stimulate the circulation and a protective layer of petroleum jelly and lanolin helps protect their combs from the cold. The poultry books and magazines made it sound matter-of-fact – just massage the rooster’s comb with the ointment. Simple. But if you have ever met a rooster, let alone my rooster Dewey - you know that capturing, holding, massaging…all of these elements are much easier said than done. I was able to capture him because he was in the coop, but he’s strong, and he hates being held.
I try to hold a rooster cuddling session once a week or so in order to get him used to the practice. As soon as a rooster’s spurs begin to grow, at around eight weeks, the countdown to an oncoming surge of testosterone begins. Just about the time the spurs – bony, sharp protrusions off the back of the legs – get to full size, a rooster’s body ramps up testosterone production to full volume. This surge can trigger hostility and dangerous displays of dominance, and, not coincidentally, this is when most roosters get the axe. I’ve told my kids that Dewey gets to stay as long as he remains docile, but the minute he launches himself at a the kids or the dog with his spiky spurs, his tenure in our flock is over. I figure that if I hold him once in a while, I can teach him who is boss and stave off any aspirations he may have for world domination.
So back to chicken massage. I managed to catch Dewey, and held him tightly while my city-slicker husband Tim scooped big gobs of Bag Balm out of the tin. He mashed it around in his fingers and smeared it on Dewey’s huge, waxy comb. The cold made the Bag Balm solidify, so big globs solidified on the blackened, frostbitten tips of his comb. In an effort be gentle while he massaged what must be very painful lesions, Tim was tentative, and I suppose he failed to inspire the rooster’s confidence. Dewey struggled fiercely, mortified by this indignity, and in his thrashing, bits of the petroleum glop went flying everywhere. His eyes rolled up into his head and his pink, pointy tongue jutted out of his open beak. Tim did the best he could with the stiff, sticky balm, and I tossed Dewey out into the sunshine with his hens. He shook his gloppy head and rubbed it on the ground. Straw and feathers stuck to the goo, and when he lifted his head back up again, straw stuck out from his head in every direction, a feather adhered to his wattles, and layer pellets dangled from his big white earlobes like gaudy costume jewelry. Oh, the indignity. His hens helped him return to normalcy by pecking the debris from his face. In under an hour, the hens had removed all but the tiniest globs of balm from his face, and he was feeling himself again. He even made the rounds and inseminated the entire flock in an attempt to restore order to his world.
His comb looks better this morning, and the thermometer is reading temperatures just above zero. I hear we may actually hit the upper twenties by afternoob. My friend Jim, a farmer down in Massachusetts, noted that spring is just around the corner in an email this morning. I pointed out that it’s still January, and the official planting date in my neck of the woods is Mother’s Day, 114 days from now. Apparently, his definition of “just around the corner” is a little more optimistic than mine – even in the relatively temperate climate of his zone 5 valley, he’s a good 65 days away from what could remotely be called Spring.
We got another four inches of snow yesterday, so I will head out and rotate the old shavings to the backyard run and open up another fresh bale of shavings in the coop. But first, I have to deliver their breakfast of hot corn mash with raisins and kitchen scraps. In return for my efforts on their behalf, I can expect a big fat tip. Over easy, with a dash of salt.