Let’s Just Talk About It – Mites, Lice, & Chickens

It’s the worst feeling ever… realizing that despite the fact you’re a clean-freak when it comes to your chickens, somehow they still ended up with lice or mites. No matter who you are or where you live, if you have chickens you will eventually be struck by these little pests. And honestly – it’s probably not your fault. Unless you’re able to stop all the wild neighborhood birds from visiting your property, or you can fully-guarantee there’s not one single mite in the straw bedding you purchased from the local farm supply, well then… it’s not your fault. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can get over the grossness of it all and deal with the issue at hand.

I remember the first time I noticed my flock roosting in the run one evening, rather than in their coop. It was a warm spring evening, so I really didn’t think much of it. I just picked them up and put them inside where they belong. But they did it again the next night… and the next five nights after that. Clearly something was amiss. With a sick stomach, I begrudgingly turned each hen upside down to check for any signs of mites. Nope – nothing. Everyone was clear. Whew! Then I checked the coop. Nope – that was all clear, too. So what the heck? I Googled for hours on end, and it seemed that every single thing I read circled back around to that behavior being attributed to mites. Long story short, I checked for mites again 3 days later, and found a few lice instead. They were there all along, I just wasn’t seeing them because there weren’t many of them to find. {I’m not going to include a bunch of photos in this post showing mite and lice infestations on chickens… there are plenty to be found on the internet with a quick search on Google.}

Drawing FinalAfter I finished my initial freak-out, I was able to calm down and begin research. I figured I should first identify what I actually was dealing with, so I could wage war effectively. I learned that the four most common culprits are Scaly Leg Mite, Northern Fowl Mites, Red Roost Mites, and Poultry Lice (or Louse). I Googled a ton, but then decided to call my two favorite local Farm Supply Stores here in Portland – Naomi’s Organic Farm Supply and The Urban Farm Store. Both are absolutely incredible resources, as they’ve seen it all. In addition, both are on-board with organic and pesticide-free care of chickens. Because of that, I can trust them. The owners of the Urban Farm Store (Robert & Hannah Litt) have also written a book I’m sure you’ve heard of: A Chicken in Every Yard. If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it.

Anyway, after about 100 questions (spurred from my internet research), both store owners (and major chicken gurus) agreed on Food-Grade Diatomaceous Earth and Neem Oil for treatment… all applied directly to the coop, birds, and run area. [However, let me clarify that DE (Diatomaceious Earth) should never be part of a chicken’s natural dust bath; you don’t want them breathing large quantities of that in, and we all know how chickens love to flop around in a giant dirt cloud during dust baths.] As preventative measures, DE and Wood Ash both were the top choices.

Let me first say that there are plenty of other options out there to deal with mites, but my criteria for solutions was the following: simple, effective, affordable, and safe.  I also wanted a treatment system that would work on all four of the culprits that I listed earlier. This combo handles the treatment off all three, and also works very well for prevention. I decided to play mad scientist and conduct an experiment. I gave half of my flock a bath using Neem Oil, and the other half had their backsides coated with a heavy dose of Diatomaceious Earth, worked through their feathers and down to the skin. The the coop and run were given a nice heavy coating of DE as well (see the last paragraph of this post for results). I’ll break down each product, one by one.

DE ImageDIATOMACEOUS EARTH (Food-Grade): Although you may have just purchased that new bag of DE, the product inside is very old. DE is made from microscopic, fossilized, hard-shelled algae that are called diatoms (hence the name).  In a nutshell, DE is able to kill fleas, ticks, mites, ants, and other similar pests by cutting into the outer-most shell (or protective layer).  This causes dehydration, and most pests will die in just a few hours. It’s important to remember that Diatomaceous Earth needs to be dry; it doesn’t work very well when wet. So, reapplication is needed if the area ends up becoming damp. Make sure your DE is food-grade. Why? Because everything that enters a hen’s system will pass through into the eggs we collect. Believe it or not, you can actually add DE to your flock’s feed. It does a few things: 1) provides trace minerals, 2) can be a worming preventative and/or treatment because it cuts into their skin, dehydrates, and kills them as described above, and 3) if you use it around the garden to combat ants, slugs, etc., you don’t need to worry if your hens eat some.  

Application to Chickens: When using DE, always make sure to wear a mask so that you’re not breathing it in. Put on a pair of plastic gloves, grab your chicken, flip it vent side up, and sprinkle DE a little at a time. After each “sprinkle,” work it down to the skin using your fingers. Do the same under each wing. I find it easiest to do this after the chickens are roosting for the evening. Take them down one by one, apply the DE, and set them back on the roost. It’s easier if you have someone helping. One of you holds the chicken so that the other has two hands to work the application. However, I’ve done it on my own, so either way works.  

DE Magnified
Diatomaceous Earth Magnified 7000x.

Application to Environment: Again, always wear a mask when working with DE. While the chickens can both “wear” it and even eat it, breathing it in is not good – for either of you. My favorite vessel for DE application is an empty Gatorade bottle with large nail holes poked all over the lid.  Shake it slowly for chicken application, or squeeze the bottle for a generous application to the coop and run floor. Food-grade DE also works well when sprinkled on your lawn to control fleas. When you need to shoot DE into the tight corners of the coop or down the end of roosting bars, I found the Pet Pistol Mini Duster incredibly helpful (buy it HERE). You can just stick the nozzle tip into a tight space, and blast in the DE.

NEEM OIL:  Neem Oil works by interrupting the life cycle of insects – it reduces the ability to reproduce. Neem Oil is not an immediate “death by application” solution; it takes time. Neem oil can also suffocate those little buggers running around on your chickens. When working with Neem Oil, it’s important that you are working with 100% oil.  There are many Neem oil products on the market which are meant for plant and garden applications, and they are often comprised of less than 1% pure oil – and 99% “other ingredients,” which are almost never listed. If the majority of the product is made of completely undisclosed ingredients, then it’s not safe for your chickens. If you’re going to apply something directly to their skin, make sure you know what it is. So to that end, work with 100% Neem Oil.

It can be applied and/or used in a few different ways. I did two things with it: First, I made a spray solution for the coop (1 teaspoon in a 20 ounce spray bottle). Secondly, I used it to create a pest-killing spa bath for the hens. I began by filling a 17 gallon galvanized tub with warm water. Next, mix 5 1/2 teaspoons of pure Neem Oil (ratio should be about 0.34 tsp for every gallon) with 1/4 cup of organic lavender dish soap. Mixing the oil with soap will help it dissolve into the water. You can also use this method for your spray bottle, too.

I then put each hen into the tub for about 8 minutes each, massaging her feathers and skin (you’re going to have to hold down the wings at the same time). Yes, they will flop around and try to fly out of the bath, but you’ll find a good method to keep them in. This bath is also good for softening up dried poop stuck to feathers – something that often occurs when mites or lice are present. Rub those spots between gloved fingers, and work that muck out of the feathers gently. When the bath was done, I pulled the hens out, set them down on a thick towel, and wiped them down as gently as possible. I did this on an 80 degree day, so I just let them all air dry in the yard- which happened very quickly. However, many people will use a hair dryer on each chicken before letting them back outside. If you go this route, make sure that you keep one bare hand under the air flow vent of the dryer so you can feel the temperature. You don’t want to burn the bird with air that’s too hot.

WOOD ASH: No, presto log ash does not count, nor does DuraFlame log ash. You need good ol’ fashioned REAL wood. Burn it outside in a fire pit or in your living room fireplace… but it all must be real wood ash.  Scoop it up into a paper bag and spread it in the chickens’ favorite dust bathing spots. Remember – this one is a preventative, not a treatment. But… it’s a great preventative. Wood ash is very abrasive to mites and lice, and so it works similarly to Diatomaceious Earth. It’s free, effective, and completely harmless.

TREATMENT RESULTS FROM MY FLOCK:  Well, both the Diatomaceious Earth and the Neem Oil worked! I made sure to re-apply DE to the hens 7 days after the initial application (as the previously-laid eggs will have hatched by then, restarting the cycle). That 7-day rule is incredibly important, otherwise those newly-hatched mites and lice will start the entire process over again by laying additional eggs. I will continue to use DE in and around my coop, being careful to ensure application will create a dust-cloud the hens might breathe in. The knowledge that those mites and lice are being killed by microscopic fossils (those found in Diatomaceous Earth) is a relief. It’s like they have ancient guardians! Now my hens are all back in business, free-ranging the back yard, pest-free.

Strutting Their StuffNow, all of that being said… we all know that if you have a severe and urgent infestation, then a more intrusive insecticide can be merited, especially if a chicken’s life is in danger. While it’s expensive, there is a very strong product that works via bacteria, rather than chemicals. It’s called Electo
r PSP (44% of mixture is Spinosad, which is a fermented product of the bacteria Saccharopolyspora). Eggs are completely safe to eat when treating with this product, which is a good sign that it really is a safe – but potent – product to use. Information can be found HERE, but make sure to search online for the best price. Better yet, find another chicken-keeper who may want to split the cost and the the bottle. I’ve found that the 8oz jug usually runs around $140.00 (OUCH, I know). But it works, in one application. Mixing 2 oz in 10 gallons water will give you about 5,000-10,000 square feet of coverage, depending on how generously you apply it.

I hope this article is helpful. Just take a deep breath… because every chicken owner will eventually deal with this. Catch it early and be diligent, and you can totally handle it. Promise!

Composting – Find What Works for You

Composting has intimidated me for years. It just seems so complicated – temperatures, ratios, potential rodent invasions, turning, finding the right type of composter or pile, and just knowing when it’s done and ready to use. There’s just so much to consider, and honestly, I only have so much time. I’m a low-maintenance kinda gal… if something takes a great deal of time and constant monitoring, then I tend to avoid it. That is the very reason I avoided the effort of composting: I figured it was way too much trouble, and I’d probably do it wrong anyway.

The first time I tried it, I bought one of those counter-top composting cans with a lid – roughly one gallon size. It was meant to sit on the countertop containing your food scraps until full, then to be transferred to your compost pile outside. The problem was that before it ever reached the halfway full point, I had fruit flies and all types of funny smells coming from that thing. The advertised “odor control through airflow” did nothing, and I just ended up getting rid of it and giving up…. for the next 2 years. During that 2 year span I built out my garden and started my flock of chickens. Those two things just SCREAM “Please Compost Now!!!” So, I decided I needed to find help… because I really wanted – no, needed – to compost the wealth of chicken poop, veggie scraps, and yard debris for the benefit of my garden. I went to the bookstore, and just ended up feeling overwhelmed.

Then while doing some internet research, I came across a resource that I didn’t even know existed: the “Ask an Expert” program through Oregon State University. OSU is an agriculturally-based college, and they have very strong extension programs for the community. You can get advice from an expert on a variety of topics from garden pests and soil testing to canning and livestock care. I completed the contact form, and within one day I received a call from one of the composting experts associated with the program. He was happy to answer nearly 45 minutes of questions… and was excited to share information and solutions with me. This guy really had a passion for composting, and was very gifted at breaking down the complicated pieces of the subject into explanations that I could understand easily.

Within a week, I had a new composting set up, one that works absolutely great… and most importantly, is incredibly low-maintenance. And now that I’m aware of the OSU “Ask an Expert” program, I’ve used it to help find answers to multiple questions. They are really great, and not just for Oregonians. My aunt in Georgia could contact them anytime, and they’d be happy to help her, too.

I wanted to show you the system I am currently using. One thing it’s taught me is that composting is much more forgiving than you’d think. I always forget to water down or turn the pile. I guarantee that I dump things in that aren’t the correct Brown-Green (Carbon to Nitrogen) ratio. Even so, this system has been slowly churning out compost effectively. So, here’s my system:

  1. A simple (but cute, of course) medium-sized green glass bowl that graces my counter top. It collects the day’s food scraps – everything from used coffee grounds to orange peels. Every evening when I go outside to shut the chicken coop door, this bowl comes with me.Kitchen Compost Bowl
  2. The contents of the green bowl are dumped into a 6 gallon feed can that resides on the back porch. It’s small, unassuming, and allows me to clean out the kitchen compost stash from the day without hiking all the way back to the main compost pile… because I know myself well enough to admit that’ll never happen on a daily basis.
  3. Then, there’s the big composter – the focal point of the whole operation. My nieces and nephews call it the alien spaceship; I’m sure you can figure out why. Pretty good resemblance, eh? Now, not everyone needs a huge container for their compost. usually an open pile will suffice just fine. In my area though, I know there are rats… and they love, love, love compost piles. To prevent that problem, I bought an enclosed composter and attached a layer of 1/4″ hardware cloth to the bottom. It works perfectly to keep the rats out – but unfortunately it also keeps the rain out (and compost piles need water). So, when I have the hose out that way to water plants, I water down the compost pile, too. It gets turned when I have time (and when I actually remember to do it). However- if you choose an open system and happen to have chickens, you’ll never have to turn it – they’ll do it for you.Thermostar 1000 Composter FINAL

This simple 3-part system has worked fine for me, because it fits my personality. That’s something that is often overlooked when someone tries to start the process of composting. You can’t do what has worked for your mom or your neighbor. You have to do what works for you. I know that I’m not going to trek from my kitchen all he way back to my main compost pile every day. That’s just never going to happen. So, the feed can on the back porch was the perfect solution; I walk by it every night on my way to the chicken coop. I also knew that if there’s an open bowl of food scraps sitting on the kitchen counter, I’d take care of it each evening. So, the trick is to find something you can stick with so that you’re set up for successful composting from the start.

In addition to the OSU program, I found a book that is hands-down the best I’ve ever read on the topic of composting. It’s simple, easy to understand, and presents multiple options on how you might implement a system of your own. It’s an older book from 2008, but is still the best I’ve found: “The Complete Compost Gardening Guide: Banner batches, grow heaps, comforter compost, and other amazing techniques for saving time and money, and … most flavorful, nutritous vegetables ever” by Deborah Martin and Barbara Pleasant. This is a great book to just have at home for constant reference. It addresses everything you could possibly encounter during this process. 

Don’t be intimidated by starting a composting process in your own backyard. If I can do it (quite imperfectly), then I’m sure anyone else can, too. Since you have to mow the lawn, make those grass clippings work for you. How about the ash from your fireplace or outdoor fire pit? Those are perfect for a compost pile. Do you have weeds, kitchen scraps, livestock poop (never dog or cat), or spent flowers from your garden? Throw them all in the pile. Below is a list of some of the more readily-available items you can – and cannot – compost, and which category they fit into. Like I said earlier, I don’t toss in the correct ratios, because I don’t have the time to keep track of everything that is dumped in. However, this chart helps me remember that if I dumped in an entire load of grass clippings (all nitrogen), I’d better find something from the carbon category to put in the composter, too.  THE FORMULA:  I’m sure you’ve often read about the all-important C/N (Carbon/Nitrogen) Ratio. It’s not complicated. Basically, all organic matter can be divided into one of two categories: First, the carbon-rich (brown stuff) and second, the nitrogen-rich (green stuff). Although nearly any combination of organic materials will eventually decompose, you want to try and find the correct C/N ratio in order to speed up the process. Commonly recommended is usually 25:1 (25 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen).Using the right mixture of “brown stuff” and “green stuff” when will encourage the compost pile to heat up and decompose efficiently. A Composting For Dummies article provided some good “recipes” to begin with:

  • Recipe #1: Four parts kitchen scraps from fruits and vegetables, 2 parts chicken or cow manure, 1 part shredded newspaper (black ink only), and 1 part shredded dry leaves.
  • Recipe #2: Two parts kitchen scraps, 1 part chicken manure, and 1 part shredded leaves.
  • Recipe #3: Two parts grass clippings, 1 part chicken manure, and 1 part shredded leaves.

You can tweak those recipes using substitutions from my composting guide, found below.

Download (PDF, 196KB)

Basically, the point of this article/post is to let you know that composting is easy. It may take a little bit of reading to get going, but not much. Composting is forgiving. Have you ever gone on a hike in early spring and noticed how the forest floor is composting all of the leaves from last fall? Nature decomposes organic material naturally, so just let it handle your compost pile. You’re really just an assistant to nature – keep adding stuff to the pile, and try to keep the ratios balanced. Mother Nature will do the rest!

It’s Here! The Chicken-Keeping Reference Dictionary!

Bottoms UpLately I have been reflecting on how many different chicken-related search terms I have typed into that all-powerful Google search bar. The journey from zero chickens to an entire flock requires some research, and it really makes things easier when you know what all of those words mean. Hackles? What on earth are those, and do I need them? And what is this “bloom” that everyone keeps talking about? I mean, really – we’ve all done it. Endless Googling.

So, I thought I’d compile a handy Chicken-Keeping Dictionary for anyone who needs it – or who is just simply curious. You can find a well-formatted PDF file to download HERE if you’d like it.


Bantam A breed of chicken that is about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of a standard-size breed.
Banty or Banties (pl.) Slang word for a bantam chicken.
Beak The hard, protruding portion of a bird’s mouth, consisting of an upper beak and a lower beak.
The group of feathers bunched under a chicken’s beak (example: Ameraucana).
Bedding Straw, wood shavings, shredded paper, or anything else scattered on the floor of a chicken coop to absorb moisture and manure.
Biddy An affectionate word for a hen that is over one year of age.
Billing Out Use of the beak to scoop feed out of a feeder onto the floor.
Blade The lower, smooth part of a single comb.
Bleaching The fading of color from the beak, shanks, and vent of a yellow-skinned laying hen.
Blood Spot A spot of blood found in an egg. Usually caused by a small blood vessel breading during the egg formation process.
Bloom or Cuticle The moist, protective coating on a freshly laid eggs that partially seals the pores of the egg shell to prevent penetration by bacteria (also called the cuticle).
Blowout Vent damage caused by laying an oversize egg.
Booted Having feathers on the shanks and toes.
Break up To discourage a hen from setting.
Breed 1. A group of chickens that share a distinctive body shape general features.
2. Pairing a rooster and hen for the purpose of obtaining fertile eggs.
Breeder A person who manages chickens, their breeding activity, fertilized eggs, and hatching activity.
Breeding True Two parents producing offspring carrying the traits of both parents. Hybrids or Crossbreeds usually do not breed true.
Broiler/Fryer A young, tender meat chicken.
Brood To care for a batch of chicks.
Brooder A heated and safe enclosure used to imitate the warmth and protection a mother hen gives her chicks.
Brooding Period The period in a young fowl’s life between hatching until they become fully feathered.
Broody A hen that is sitting on eggs with the intent of hatching them. They do not lay additional eggs during this time.
Candler A device which uses strong light to examine the contents of the egg without breaking it open.
Candling The act of using a candler (or other strong light source) to examine the contents of an intact egg.
Cannibalism The act of a chicken eating each other’s flesh or eggs.
Cape The narrow feathers between a chicken’s neck and back.
Chalaza Two white cords of tightly-spun egg white on each side of a yolk. These chords keep the yolk properly positioned within the egg shell.
Chick A newly hatched or very young chicken.
Chooks The Australian term for chickens. This term is also commonly used in the US when referring to a chicken that is part of a small backyard flock.
Chronic Respiratory Disease (CRD) A common disease of chickens that is characterized by sneezing and difficulty breathing. Commonly controlled with antibiotics usually administered in feed or drinking water.
Class A group of chicken breeds developed in a particular global region (example: American, Mediterranean, etc.).
Clean Legged Having no feathers growing down the shanks or feet.
Cloaca The chamber just inside the vent where the digestive, reproductive, and excretory tracts come together.
Cluck The sound/song a hen makes after laying an egg.
Clutch A group of either eggs or newly-hatched chicks.
Coccidiosis A parasitic intestinal infection. Often found when a flock’s living environment is damp and unclean.
Coccidiostat A drug used to keep chickens from getting coccidiosis.
Cockerel An immature male chicken.
Comb The red, fleshy growth on top of a chicken’s head. [See chart below for definition of specific comb types.]
Conformation A chicken’s body structure.
Contract Grower A farmer who raises chickens, under contract, for a broiler company.
Coop The house or cage in which a chicken lives.
Crest or TopKnot A puff of feathers on the heads of certain breeds (example: Silkie or Polish).  
Crop The part of a bird’s esophagus (food pipe) where the first part of digestion can occur. It’s located at the base of the neck, and you can see an exterior bulge when the crop contains food.
Crossbeed The offspring of parents from different breeds.
Crumbles A poultry feed that has been pelletized and then crushed. This is most commonly used for chicks and very young pullets.
Cuckoo An irregular barring pattern in feathers (example: Cuckoo Maran)
Cull To remove a bird from the flock because of productivity, age, health or personality issues.
Dam The mother of any given offspring.
De-Beak To remove a portion of a bird’s top beak to prevent cannibalism or self-pecking.
Down The layer of feathers found under the tough exterior feathers. Chicks are covered in 100% down until the exterior feathers come in.
Droppings Another word for chicken poop or manure.
Dub To surgically remove (or trim) the comb and wattles.
Dust Bath or Dusting The act of “splashing” around in soft soil to clean their feathers and discourage external parasites.
Egg Tooth or Chick Tooth A hard projection on a chick’s upper beak that enables it to break through the shell and hatch.
Embryo The developing chick inside a fertilized egg.
Exhibition or Ornamental Breed Breeds of chickens kept for their judging characteristics and/or beauty, rather than their ability to lay eggs or produce meat.
Feather Picking Activity of chickens picking or pulling at each other’s feathers that is often started from stress, aggression, or nutritional problems within a flock.
Feather-Legged Having feathers growing down the shanks of the legs (example: French Marans or Brahmas)
Fertile An egg that has been fertilized and is capable of producing a chick in the right conditions.
Finish The amount of fat beneath the skin of a meat bird.
Flight Feathers The large primary and secondary feathers of the wings.
Flock A group of chickens living together.
Forced Air Incubator A mechanical device for hatching fertile eggs that has a fan to circulate warm air.
Fount A water fountain or watering device for animals.
Fowl Domesticated birds that are raised for food.
Free range This term does not have a legal definition, but it typically refers to providing a flock with outdoor access to roam and forage.
Frizzle 1. Feathers that curl rather than lying flat.
2. A breed of chicken.
Germinal Disc The site in an egg yolk where fertilization has occurred.
Gizzard The part of a chicken’s digestive tract with thick muscular walls that crushes and grinds food.
Grade To sort eggs according to their interior and exterior qualities (example: Grade AA, Grade A, Grade B, etc.).
Grit Sand and small pebbles eaten by a chicken and used by its gizzard to grind up grain and plant fiber.
Grower Feed Feed that is used for chicks between 6 weeks of age until they begin laying eggs (at which point they switch to a “layer feed”).
Hackles Feathers found over the back of a chicken. They are pointed in males and rounded in females.
Hatch 1. The process by which a chick comes out of the egg.
2. A group of chicks that come out of their shells at roughly the same time.
Hatchability The percentage of fertilized eggs that hatch under incubation.
Helminthiasis Parasitic worm infestation.
Hen A mature female chicken.
Hen Feathered The characteristic of some breeds of chickens where the male has rounded feathers (rather than pointed) like those of a female.
Hock The knee joint of a bird.
Hybrid  A chicken of mixed breed. The offspring of a hen and rooster of different breeds.
Impaction A blockage of a part of the digestive tract, typically the crop or cloaca.
Incubate To maintain favorable conditions for hatching fertile eggs.
Incubation Period The time it takes for the egg to hatch, normally about 21 days.
Incubator A mechanical device for hatching fertile eggs.
Intensity of Lay The number of eggs a hen lays during a given time.
Lacing A border of color on a feather that is different from the web of the feather (example: a Gold-Laced Wyandotte).
Layer Feed Feed formulated with extra calcium for laying hens.
Litter or Bedding Material on the floor of a chicken coop with the purpose of absorbing moisture and manure (example: straw, wood shavings, or sand).
Marek’s Disease A viral disease common in chickens. Commonly prevented by a vaccination administered immediately after chicks hatch.
Mite A type of external parasite.
Molt or Moult The part of the hen’s reproductive cycle when she stops laying and loses her body feathers. This happens annually.
Mossy Indistinct, irregular, or messy-looking markings that break up or destroy the intended color pattern on feathers. Often occurs in cross breeds.
Mottled 1. Plumage where a percentage of feathers are tipped with white.
2. Discoloration of the egg yolk caused by damage to the yolk membrane.
Muff The tufts of feathers that stick out from the cheeks of a chicken. Usually if a bird has muffs, it also has a beard (example: Ameraucana, Salmon Faverolle). Muffs are sometimes called whiskers.
Nest Egg An artificial egg placed in a nest to encourage hens to lay there.
Nest Run Ungraded eggs.
Nesting Box A man-made place in a coop or run where a hen lays her eggs.
Newcastle Disease A viral respiratory disease common in chickens. Newcastle disease can spread very quickly within a flock. Commonly prevented with a series of vaccinations.
Non-Setter Hens that have little or no desire to incubate (sit on) eggs.
Oviduct The part of the female avian reproductive tract where the egg white (albumen), shell membranes, shell and bloom (cuticle) are added to form a complete egg.
Pasting Loose droppings sticking feathers around the vent area.
Pecking order The social rank of chickens.
Peep A casual term for a baby chick used by small flock owners.
Pen 1. A group of chickens entered into a show and judged together.
2. The outside area around a coop (also called a run).
Perch or Roost An area above the ground where birds will sit, primarily for sleeping.
Perosis Malformation of the hock joint.
Persistency of Lay The ability of a hen to lay steadily over a long period of time.
Pick Out Vent damage due to pecking by other chickens.
Pigmentation The color of a chicken’s beak, shanks, and vent.
Pin Feathers A newly developing feather on a bird.
Pip The hole a newly formed chick makes in its shell when it is ready to hatch.
Pipping The act of a chick breaking through the shell during the hatching process.
Plumage The total set of feathers covering a chicken.
Poultry Any domestic fowl raised for meat, eggs, feathers, work or entertainment.
Preen To straighten and clean feathers, typically with oil.
Preen Gland  or Oil Sac Large oil gland located at the base of the tail. Used by birds to preen or condition feathers.
Primaries The big, stiff feathers on the chicken’s wings that aid in flying.
Prolapse Vent damage, typically caused by laying a very large egg (sometimes referred to as a blowout).
Pullet Immature female chicken, not yet laying eggs.
Purebred Offspring from a hen and rooster of the same breed.
Ration The combination of all human-provided feed consumed by a chicken in a single day.
Roaster A meat-breed chicken raised to a size that makes them suitable for roasting.
Rooster or Cock An adult male chicken.
Rumpless A genetic trait in some chicken breeds that results in not having a tail.
Run An enclosed area outdoors that is connected to a coop and allows chickens to roam freely.
Saddle The part of a chicken’s back just before the tail.
Scales The small, hard, overlapping plates covering a chicken’s shanks and toes.
Scratch 1. The act of chickens scraping their claws against the ground to dig up or locate a food source (worms, bugs, etc.).
2. A treat given to chickens consisting of a variety of whole grains. Not used as a main food source.
Setting or Sitting A broody hen sitting on a clutch of eggs with the intention of hatching them.
Sex Feather A hackle, saddle, or tail feather that is rounded in a hen but usually pointed in a rooster (except in breeds that are hen feathered).
Sexed Chicks Day-old chicks that have been sorted into male and female groups.
Shank The part of a chicken’s leg between the foot and the hock.
Sickles The long, curved tail feathers of some roosters.
Sire Father of any given offspring.
Sire Family The group of offspring from one cock mated to two or more hens, including the parents.
Spent A hen who is no longer laying consistently.
Spike The round extension found at the end of a rose comb.
Spurs The sharp protrusions on a rooster’s shanks.
Stag A cockerel on the brink of sexual maturity, when his comb and spurs begin to develop.
Standard 1. A description of a chicken that fits the ideal characteristics of a particular breed, as specified by the American Standard of Perfection.
2. Reference to a large size breed as opposed to a bantam variety of the same breed.
Starter Feed or Chick Feed Pre-mixed commercial food for chicks who are between 1-day and 6-8 weeks old. They are also called “crumbles.”
Sternum or Keel Breastbone.
Straight Run A group of chicks that have not been sexed and have no distinguishing characteristics determining male or female.
Strain A group of chickens within one variety of breed which has been bred by one person (or a single company) for multiple generations.
Tin Hen Slang for an incubator.
Turn The act of turning incubated eggs to prevent the embryos from sticking to the shell membranes.
Vent The opening outside of the cloaca through which just about everything comes out of the bird. The digestive, excretory and reproductive tracts empty through the vent.
Wattles The flaps of skin under the chin of a chicken or turkey.
Web 1) The network of interlocking parts that give a feather its smooth appearance.
2) The portion of the foot in between the toes of some birds and water foul.
Zoning Laws & Regulations Laws regulating or restricting the use of land for a particular purpose, such as raising chickens. These laws and regulations vary from city to city.


Buttercup Comb Buttercup combs are reserved for the breed that carries its name. It has a very small single comb in the center, with larger ones on either side. It has evenly spaced points that looks like a crown on the bird’s head (example: Sicilian Buttercups).
Cushion Comb Somewhat similar to the rose comb, however it is rounded and smaller without any spikes or depressions (example: Chanteclers).
Pea Comb Medium-size comb that often has 3 rows of “peas” side by side (although sometimes there is only 1 row). The peas are little bumps, usually uniform in shape and size. As the bird matures the comb grows, sometimes losing its orderly appearance and becoming a large blob on its head (example: Ameraucanas, Araucanas, Brahmas).
Rose Comb A flat broad comb that is similar in shape to a rose petal (example: Wyandottes, Dominiques).
Single Comb The single comb is the most common. It is a simple straight row of 5-6 spikes beginning at the bird’s nostrils and sweeping backward (example: Barred Rock, Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds).
Strawberry Comb Strawberry combs are very similar to rose combs, except they form no point and are not as flat. They are raised higher and sometimes resemble strawberries, hence the name (example: Malays, Yokohamas).
V-Shaped Comb A comb consisting of two horn-like pieces that are joined at the comb base (example: Houdans, Polish, Sultans).
Walnut Comb Large, pitted, and round. They grow very large and can nearly cover the bird’s face (example: Silkies).

Comb Drawing (httpwww.adelaidechickensittingservice.com)


Barred Feathers Barred = striped. Birds with barred feathers can be used to create sex-linked offspring, meaning you can tell from hatch whether a chick is male or female (example: Barred Plymouth Rock, Creles).
Single-Laced Feathers Single-Laced feathers have a common solid color throughout the feather, but each feather is bordered with a contrasting single color – much like a decorative trim (example: Cochin, Wyandotte).
Double-Laced Feathers Double-Laced feathers have two cup-shaped lines of color across the feather: one along the edge and a second a bit further up the feather (example: Barnevelder).
Mottled Feathers Mottled feathers have a lack of pigment on the tip of the feather, followed by a black band and then the bird’s standard coloring (example: Houdans, Leghorns, Polish).
Penciled Feathers Penciled feathers have distinct lines (anywhere from 2-4) that follow the contours of the feather (example: Hamburghs).
Spangled Feathers Spangled feathers lack pigment in the center of the feather. These feathers give the appearance of spots on the bird (example: Hamburghs).
Solid Feathers Birds with solid feathers can be a variety of colors, but each feather is one solid color (example: Rhode Island Red).

 Feather Types

Image from www.backyardchickens.com

Planting Weekend!

This last weekend I had an appointment – one that I have been looking forward to for months: the invasion of my fabulous nieces and nephew, and the planting of my garden. I love that they are as excited about putting tomatoes in the ground as they are abut their video games and iPads (well, maybe that’s just in my head – but they were very excited!). I think we can all agree that most kids nowadays are rather disconnected from where food comes from, and the hard work that goes into growing it. My family is pretty blessed in the fact that the generations before mine always had gardens, and while raising us, they imparted a love for soil, seeds, and sunshine. I have the best childhood memories of planting my grandma’s garden with her, helping my mom weed her garden, and getting to eat the wonderful produce from both. My siblings and I enjoy passing that tradition down to our kids. Being a part of teaching them how to nurture something from seed all the way through harvest, including preserving after harvest, is something I truly cherish. It is a simple and fun mini-education to share with all of the children in our lives, and I feel we are doing them a dis-service when we do not. To that end, I get excited – nearly giddy – when I have the opportunity to share my love of small-scale farming with my family.

Girls with Hens FinalThe kids arrived Friday evening for a sleepover (chomping on popcorn grown here in Portland at 47th Avenue Farm), then Saturday morning pancakes and eggs (gathered from the coop by the kids the previous evening) fueled a day in the garden. We transplanted the seeds I started indoors earlier this year, and we also transplanted a few starts purchased at the local nursery. Then came the heirloom direct-sow seeds: beets, lettuce, spinach, carrots, peas, cucumbers, chives, leek, fennel, Aunt Molly’s cherries… the list goes on and on. We took breaks during the day to make sure the backyard chickens were given treats, held, and chased. We make sure the incredible cuteness of the chicks in the brooder was properly acknowledged (multiple times throughout the day) as well. My niece Sophia also made a “Tomato(e) Nursery” sign so that everyone would know where the baby tomato plants were located and could be very careful around them. We had a great time discussing which areas were best for which plants, considering sun and shade, and how they were all going to get enough water. The kids chose where to plant and I showed them which supplements to provide. It was fun explaining how both humans and tomatoes love Epsom salts. The blood meal sparked a great conversation: “Is it human blood, Auntie Kerry? That is just seriously gross!” (I corrected that assumption… despite my laughing.)

Trio of Photos Final

Each time they visit throughout the summer, they’ll be able to see how much their plants have grown. Sophia and Oliver will help me pick cucumbers and onions, and will turn them into the most amazing pickles using their great-great-grandmother’s recipe. Clara will help me pick tomatoes, basil, and onions… and that will become whatever type of pasta sauce she wants to preserve. I hope both my youngest and oldest nephews will come on over to help me harvest as well – I see mini blueberry pies in their future!

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.  – May Sarton

When I tilled the ground for my first garden years ago, I was meticulous in the planning. I made a book that charted out the garden, what I planted and where, and what day each seed or plant was covered in dirt. I recorded all supplements, sun/shade notes, and what varieties performed better than others. It was something to behold. However, since the kids in my family have begun helping, the garden has become much less organized (kids tend to do that). But to the surprise of my A-type personality… I enjoy it even more now. I still record certain pieces of information, but I love that my garden takes on the look and feel that happens naturally… one that is started by children, cared for my me, and enjoyed by all.

The weekend reminded me that sometimes we need to just stop and enjoy what is around us. Forget about the long to-do list you have. Sit on the porch swing with good cup of coffee and just watch your chickens for a while. Make your teenager troll around in the garden (begrudgingly at first, I’m sure) and realize how much he enjoys showing the smaller kids the “vast” knowledge he has of peas and carrots.  Let those kids get dirty, and don’t worry about the clean up. Find the chicken hide-outs. Debate which tomato is growing the fastest, and which will taste the best. Refill the bird feeders, and watch them fly in for a fresh sunflower seed. Just slow down and relax. Enjoy your family and your bit of land. I’m sure they’re both pretty darn amazing.

An Update on Dixie / Spotting Cockerels Early

Well, it turns out that my guess was accurate (quite unfortunately). Miss Dixie cannot keep her name, because “she” is a “he.” I’m so bummed, but such is the risk when you’re working with straight-run chicks. You usually never know which sex you’ll end up with. For those of you who missed the first post on this topic, you can see it HERE. My little cockerel is now 4 weeks old, and his comb and wattles nearly doubled in size just over the last 2 weeks. His legs are so long and thick that you’d think he’s twice his age. That little dude had to be the friendliest thing to ever roam my brooder – curious and playful with everyone. It’s funny how the personalities of chicks come out earlier than yo
u would think. Before I had my own flock of hens, I didn’t realize that they had any semblance of individual personality at all. Boy was I wrong. Each one is so different and unique, which is the main reason I am always so entertained as I watch them from my backyard swing with morning coffee in-hand.

Dixie is HandsomeI do have a silver lining though, one that I am very happy about! As I cannot have a rooster within the city limits of Portland OR, I have been preoccupied trying to find a new home for this little guy that I know is safe. I had a chat with the breeder from whom I bought Mr. Dixie, and she has a customer looking for a Marans cockerel to raise with her flock. She only wants one, and she wants the “right” one with a stellar personality. Dixie will definitely fit that bill. So to that end, I dropped my little boy back with the breeder, and his new caretaker picked him up the same day. I’m sure his name won’t be going with him, so maybe I’ll pass it on to my next Birchen Marans pullet.

My ability to spot a male from a straight run of chicks has greatly improved over the last month, that’s for sure. There are obvious signs when a chick reaches a few months of age, but I’m always on a mission to identify males earlier on – much earlier. While nothing is ever the 100% sure-fire way we hope for, simply keeping an eye on the following “measuring sticks” have worked for me, rather successfully:

  • BEHAVIOR: You can really glean a lot of information by just spending time watching your chicks. Behavior characteristics are displayed so early that it never ceases to amaze me. Males are less jumpy, and usually somewhat fearless. Of course any chick will “spook” when a giant hand is coming at it from above, but once the environment has settled down, you can see general behavior. For example, whenever I lower my hand into the brooder and leave it there for a bit, males are immediately curious about my gold ring and head over to peck at it. The hens usually do not make that move until the male has already approached it and deemed it safe.
  • POSTURE: This particular characteristic can show itself far earlier than the others, if you watch for it. Males can often have a very upright posture – I’d say almost cocky and confident. Sometimes he’ll be like this all day every day, and other times only when surprised or threatened.
  • COMB/WATTLES: People always say to watch comb development, but I have had more success watching wattle development. Combs can vary so widely between breeds, both in rate of development and size. Instead, I focus on wattles, as I have found two solid consistencies: 1) rooster wattles will always be larger than a hen’s when full-grown, and 2) that means those wattles will always develop faster in males. Every time I have ended up with a male chick in my brooder, his wattles are always double the size of any female (similar in age, of course).
  • FEATHERS: When chicks are young, you aren’t able to see the tell-tale hackle, saddle, or sickle feathers of a cockerel. However you can see the shape of the main body feathers. A pullet will have feathers with gently rounded tips, and a cockerel feather will be longer with more of a pointed tip. You can identify the difference right when they start feathering out.
  • LEGS/FEET: The legs and feet of male birds will nearly always be thicker and longer than those of a female. You can also keep an eye on their knees. If you think about it, you often do not see a hens knees as they’re walking around. Usually they’re buried somewhere in the fluffy feathers of their undercarriage. However with a male, you can not only see his knees, but usually at least an inch above those knees. Those males – they show off some leg!

All of these traits and markers vary between breeds, so you have to keep a watchful eye on everything at once. It helps immensely if you have a few birds from the same “hatch batch” for comparison’s sake, because trying to compare an Americana’s little pea comb with a Barred Rock’s big single comb just doesn’t work.  You can usually begin seeing any of the characteristics I mentioned above show themselves at around 3 weeks of age.

I try to stick with physical attributes and behavior, because both are easily observed. The old wives’ tales about how you can dangle a needle and thread over a chicks head (it supposedly moves side to side for a male and in a circular pattern for a female) is just not scientific or accurate. Others say you can hold a chick upside down (please… don’t try that) to see if the male rights himself and the female does not are – again – simply not consistent. They also leave too much to individual opinion.  So really, unless you’ve chosen an auto-sexing breed, you’ll just have to wait and see if that bird gives you an egg or instead decides to crow. But if you enjoy trying to “beat the game” and guess ahead-of-time, then hopefully you’re better prepared for the challenge after reading this post. Just remember, you have exactly a 50% change of being right every time. Lots of folks in Vegas would take those odds! Have fun!