Monday, December 19, 2011

Chicken Run!

Have you ever seen a chicken run? I don’t mean the animated flick, but an ACTUAL chicken running full-bore? Picture a body-builder on Venice Beach. All buffed up, with that muscle-bound “jock” walk. Then picture that silhouette, but with feathers! That’s the profile of a Brahma chicken. Brahmas are big, gentle chickens who strut about as if they own the barnyard. Our Brahma cockerel kinda resembles that giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters”! Watching them walk about is a hoot, as they stalk around looking all “large & in charge”!! 8-)

"Marshmallow Man"
My post today builds on my previous post on “Jungle Chickens”. We were forced to “exile” our big fighting breed cockerel “Big Red” from the henhouse because he was a bully. Big Red is quite large, & he knows it. After our Brahma cockerel was killed, we exiled both Big Red & Big White (I know, creative names, huh?) to the great outdoors. We figured our hens would be thrilled to lose a couple of roosters. But we underestimated the magnetism of Big Red.

There is a rip in the netting over our chicken yard that can no longer be repaired. It has been repaired so many times that there simply is not enough net left to repair! Since we had reached the point where the chickens wouldn’t be going outside due to the cold, we left the net alone & planned to replace it after the henhouse door was closed for the winter. Problem is, we didn’t reckon on the determination of those darned hens! Next thing we know, a couple of hens have “broken out” to be with Big Red!

Plotting Hens!!
Here’s the dilemma: while my sis & I are working our full-time jobs, our hens have all day long to figure out how to “force” the henhouse door leading to the chicken yard. Chickens aren’t very bright, but they ARE persistent, & they have the advantage of unlimited time in which to work their covert machinations! Last year, they pecked at their wooden door until they wore it down so far that the bottom broke off, & out they ran into the snow-covered yard! This time, we arrived home in darkness only to find a chorus line of hens, spotlighted by our headlights, running loose in the yard.

There is no electricity out on our 4-acre yard where the “Jungle Chickens” now live, so it is virtually impossible to capture them in the dark. Our naive chickens have no experience with predators, so they don’t understand that they must fly up into trees or find other secure perches in order to remain safe. The end result has usually been that our “problem roosters” disappear, but now our egg-producing hens are at risk too! The only good thing is that Big Red is a large rooster, & he will fight to keep those hens safe! Fortunately, they decided to roost in some of our old barrels, where they could all share body heat & remain under cover.

We thought that Red had only seduced a couple of the hens away from the henhouse, but last Friday we discovered that 2 of our BEST hens had followed his siren song -- our Buff Orpington (creatively named “Buff”) & our ONLY Brahma hen (named “Honeychile”)! I spent a good chunk of Sunday afternoon trying to catch these 2 hens to get them back into the safety of the henhouse. So you could say that I know A LOT about chickens running!

Mariah, the Aussie Queen
Herding dogs aren’t a lot of use with chickens, although they’re AWESOME with sheep! Herding drive is a modified prey drive, & a dog’s prey drive is almost always “activated” when a chicken flaps her wings. So it is usually not safe to use a herding dog to herd chickens. My sis had an awesome chicken herding dog, Tucker, but he died 2 years ago. Currently, we don’t have a dog we can trust with the chickens.

If you don’t have another person or a dog to help you “herd” an escaped chicken back into the henhouse, one of the best tools you can use is a landing net. Yes, I said “landing net” -- as in the kind you use to land salmon or trout while fishing! These nets are the perfect tool to drop over a chicken, flip them up into the net, & then carefully remove them from the net to place them back in the henhouse. Chickens have very strong claws with long nails, but most landing nets are very strong, especially if you purchase one intended for larger fish like salmon. I always look for landing nets at garage sales, so that I don’t have to purchase a brand new one when my current one dies. You can also use a blanket or a beach towel & throw it over the chicken, but both of these tools have the disadvantage of being opaque, making it tough to grasp the chicken firmly. Truly, the best tool out there is a landing net.

I thought I had it handled. I would go out with the net, capture the hens, & put them back into the henhouse. I’ve done this so many times that it seemed like a no-brainer, but I didn’t consider one small detail. I currently have this little neurological issue that has paralyzed half of my face. Due to this, my eye runs with tears whenever I am outside in the cold, blurring my vision. Add to this, chickens can RUN! And boy, do they ever run when you try to net them! I’ve netted chickens many times, but this time I just COULD NOT get the net OVER the hen! One blurry eye equals NO distance perception, so every time I dropped that darned net, it landed just short of the hen! I was especially frustrated by little Honeychile, who seemed determined to run away from me! She looked like a little white bodybuilder hightailing it outta there! Aargh! The end result after 3 hours of work is that I didn’t catch a SINGLE one. Oh, except for Big Red, who I caught THREE times!

Mixed-Breed Rooster (NOT Big Red!)
Apparently Red isn’t scared of me or the net! This should come as no surprise, since Big Red runs straight at the front of my van every single morning when I’m leaving for work! For a chicken, Red is pretty brave, so I dropped the net over him, picked him up, & put him back on the ground again. After the third time, I lifted him up into my arms & carried him around the yard for a while. I thought it was a good idea to see how his development was progressing, & it is always good to do some work taming your roosters. You don’t want your roosters getting so territorial that they attack you & everyone else who visits your yard!

From holding him, I determined that Red is still a cockerel & doesn’t have the leg spikes of a rooster quite yet. So it’s pretty safe to say that Red didn’t kill our Brahma cockerel, since roosters usually kill with their spikes. In fact, I discovered that Big Red is actually quite tame. He allowed me cuddle him & ruffle his hackles (neck feathers), & even let me handle his feet & check his spikes. I carried him all over the yard, & the only time he squawked was when I put him face to face with our lead sheep, Carmel.

Even though I didn’t catch a SINGLE hen, I still consider the afternoon a partial success. If we can keep Big Red reasonably tame, & he survives life as a Jungle Chicken, perhaps we can co-exist with him living on the “big yard”. In fact, I think I’m genuinely starting to like him.   

So.... That's the story of my latest chicken run! Hopefully it brought a smile to your face. I'm still aching all over from chasing chickens all over creation! But I still say that the worst day chasing chickens is better than the best day locked inside an office! Have a great day!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rooster Games

Well, the time has arrived! The jousting, the hopping, the dancing. No, I’m not talking about the Reindeer Games of “Rudolph” fame. I’m talking about the dominance games between our adolescent roosters!
            As the sheep settle down for their “long winter’s nap”, easily adapting to hand-fed corn & bales of hay, sleeping is the furthest thing from our young roosters’ minds! Instead, they’re jousting, clawing, & “beaking” each other mercilessly, because “chicken coop” season has arrived!!


 They all look so innocent when they’re babies, and we certainly never set out to have more than seven roosters! The problem is, chicks are notoriously hard to “sex”, so many baby “pullets” (e.g., hens) actually turn out to be roosters! Chicken “equipment” is all on the INSIDE, so there’s no easy way to “flip & check” like you can with a rabbit or dog. Like it or not, mistakes are made, even by the most experienced “chicken sexers”. Unfortunately, this means that several of our “pullets” have begun crowing in the past few weeks!

We THOUGHT we had just three roosters: our beautiful Salmon Faverolles rooster named Magnum, and two young Brahma cockerels (juvenile roosters). Life was good. Then, surprise, surprise! Suddenly we began to see hackle feathers & saddle feathers growing around the necks & right above the tails of some of our juvenile “pullets”, which are sure signs of a rooster! Egad! Our “pullets” were actually cockerels! JUST what we needed!

Salmon Faverolles Rooster ["Magnum"]

Too many roosters do not a peaceful henhouse make! The plain truth is, “chicken romance” is rather unpleasant for the hen, & too many roosters in the henhouse can wreak real havoc! Since we’d like to keep our hens happy, so that they continue laying eggs in the winter, it’s up to us to keep “rooster randiness” to a minimum.

Until now, Magnum has ruled the henhouse fairly gently, the hens have all been happy, and no other bird challenged him. Our Brahma cockerels are of a breed known for its large size and gentleness, so we didn’t fear for Magnum’s safety. We thought we had done a good job selecting hens & roosters. Until last month, when the “camouflaged cockerels” started crowing, with each one trying to outdo the next!

Brahma
 Then we realized that three of the cockerels were growing alarmingly large. One rooster in particular is HUGE, & we now see that he is actually one of the fighting breeds. A fighting rooster in a henhouse is REALLY not good! Mature roosters of the fighting breeds grow long, curved, vicious SPIKES on the insides of their legs, and they use those spikes to stab & gouge each other. This enormous rooster is going to grow huge spikes, & this will be a terrible risk to Magnum & the other roosters! It was at this point that we began to consider turning some of these young roosters into Christmas dinners.

Fighting roosters (not ours!)
I’ve seen my share of aggressive roosters. There are some roosters who try to “bluff” their way out of a situation by flaring their hackles & fluffing up & trying to “walk tall”, but they deflate like a party balloon when challenged. Grasping them around the neck with my hand stops their bad behavior right away & reminds them of their place in the world. Brahmas are like that.

Polish Rooster (like Rusty)
One of the most beautiful & aggressive roosters I’ve ever owned was Rusty, an enormous Golden Polish (crested) rooster. He was just plain MEAN! He was so large that he had to live in a medium-sized dog kennel, because no other cage was large enough. He was also highly aggressive. I wanted to keep him for breeding, but he grew so aggressive that I couldn’t. He seriously wanted to KILL me. After he attacked me for the umpteenth time, putting a 4-inch gash down the side of my hand, Rusty went to the “processing center”. He was too much of a risk. You just don’t mess with truly aggressive roosters. It isn’t worth the risk to you, the other chickens, or other livestock.
 
Unfortunately, in our current situation, we were too late for one of our gentle Brahma cockerels, who we found dead last week. We were heartbroken, since we had searched far & wide for our Brahma pullets & cockerels. That was the final straw -- we had reached the end of our patience. Time for the problem roosters to “go jungle"!

 In the past, some of our roosters and hens have escaped from the henhouse and evaded capture. Although it is safer for them to stay in the henhouse, some of them have adapted quite well to “life on the outside”. Others were never heard from again, since chickens aren’t as bright as the local foxes, cats, and hawks that have removed them from the gene pool. We began to use the phrase “going jungle” for this “striking out into the great unknown” behavior. Over time, we’ve established the policy that disruptive roosters must “go jungle” if they’re unsettling the henhouse too much or getting too aggressive. In our current case, we have now removed two roosters from the henhouse. There is a third rooster who is also growing “too big for his boots” & may be moved outside. This isn’t an easy decision to make, knowing that these roosters must survive a Michigan winter. But the welfare of our other chickens is a higher priority.

Keeping livestock is always a balancing act, & it isn’t just with the chickens. Five of our ewes are beating up on our sixth ewe, OB. Our job is to intervene in this situation as humanely as possible, while still making it clear to the other sheep that bullying OB is not acceptable. So, when the sheep are grained, I hand-feed OB with extra corn. If another sheep shoves OB, I smack the other ewe on her hindquarter with my livestock whip. It startles, rather than stings, & reminds her that I want her to stop her current behavior.

Every day is different here at Waggin’TailsStation, but it’s still one of the best places on earth to be. Wishing you all a great day!





[our thanks to www.feathersite.com for the great pix!] 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wintering at Waggin' Tails Station

Sooooooo... No denying that Waggin’ Tails Station has been on hiatus for a while. Our apologies, but some medical issues over the past few months required some re-evaluation of our workload. We weren’t sure whether we would be forced to move from our small farm to a new location. That issue has now been laid to rest, at least for a while, so it’s time to bring Waggin’TailsStation back up to speed!


          Seeing as mid-Michigan just saw its first major snow of 2011, this seems a good time to talk about wintering over your livestock...

          If you break it down to basics, the requirements for livestock are the same as those for us humans! Food, water, & shelter are all essential. But providing these things for livestock can present some challenges, both financial & logistical.



          Consider water, for example, in the frozen winter months here in Michigan. During the summer, we utilize a simple hose system by which we keep chicken waterers & the sheep tank filled with fresh water. This same system allows us to scrub out the waterers & tank periodically, then refill, in order to avoid any bacterial growth.
          However, this hose system is useless during the winter months. In fact, if the hoses aren’t cleared of water before the first freeze, the water in them will freeze, expand, & split the hoses! So we pull the hoses at the first freeze, & store them for the winter. But then, what’s a person to do to water the chickens & fill the sheep tank?
          That’s when we REALLY go back to basics, using gallon jugs or 5-gallon buckets to carry water out to the livestock. It’s much more labor-intensive than the summer system, but is the only solution to our situation at this time.
          In order to keep our chicken waterers from freezing, we use metal waterers with heaters that are specially designed for the purpose. We also use a floating tank heater in the sheep tank. This heater floats freely around the tank, so that the surface of the tank doesn’t freeze. Of course, the use of these devices causes an increase in electrical costs during winter months, which is another challenge altogether!

          Shelter is less of an issue, especially with the chickens. The henhouse door to the chicken yard is closed & insulated in order to preserve warmth, & a supplemental heat lamp is added when needed. Our chickens snuggle together when they are cold, which has occasionally resulted in “sudden chicken death”. This happens because chickens aren’t very bright, so sometimes the chicken at the bottom of the pile is smothered by all of the others. To avoid the occasional chicken catastrophe, we do our best to keep the henhouse warm enough. Our chickens are pretty comfortable at temperatures over 40 degrees Farenheit. Even in winter, if the day is warm enough & we are not working, we will open the door out to the chicken yard so that the chickens can get outside & roam around a bit. Even with chickens, too much togetherness is NOT a good thing!
          When setting up a wintering system for the chickens, something else to consider is a way to keep the roosters from tormenting the hens too much while they’re all confined inside. “Chicken love” is not a very nice thing from the hen’s point of view. Roosters tend to be larger than hens & are far more aggressive as well, so being confined together can wreak havoc on the hens. For this reason, many chicken wranglers “process” their extra roosters before the winter begins, eliminating part of the problem. For those hens confined with the remaining roosters, we set up a shelter that the hens can access but the roosters cannot. We use ½ of a plastic dog kennel for our hens. Our roosters are too large to get thru the doorway, but most of the hens are not. In fact, in the spring & summer, many of our roosting hens (e.g., sitting on eggs) like to “hide” in this shelter while setting on their eggs.
          For our small herd of sheep, an aluminum pig house does the trick, with a wall added at one end as a windbreak. All 6 of the sheep can enter this enclosure, & their body heat is shared within the small space, keeping them all warm. Of course, there are occasionally squabbles regarding the space limitations, but our dominant sheep Carmel seems to keep all the others in check. The sheep share a large fenced area during the winter months, & we occasionally let them out onto the “big yard” if the day is warm & the snow isn’t very deep.

          When it comes to diet, we make some changes over the summer months. Although this might sound a bit macabre to the uninitiated, we will occasionally scramble eggs to give to our chickens during the winter months. The extra fat & protein in their diet helps them to create “internal combustion”. It is an unfortunate fact that chickens become cannibals when one of their own number dies, so they are totally OK with eating the eggs of their own species. I realize it seems a bit macabre to humans, but it is the most cost-efficient way to upgrade their diet in the winter months. In addition, we know that the food source is uncontaminated, since our chickens are all disease-free in a closed flock.
          We also increase the amount of owner-fed foods, such as breads & veggies from our refrigerator. Chickens will eat virtually anything, & their diet becomes more limited in the winter when they cannot forage for bugs or other goodies. They are willing to eat veggies that are slightly past their “good date” in human eyes. The most amusing thing I’ve ever seen is the way our chickens go insane when we give them an old watermelon that has been cut in half! By the time they’re done, only the thinnest shell of the watermelon remains, they are all covered in pink, & are very happy!
          For our sheep, the winter diet is also changed. During the summer, they are very efficient lawn mowers of our “big yard” & get enough vegetation in that way. But in the winter, they require more “owner supplementation”, so we put up a good supply of hay to carry them thru the winter months. We also increase their corn intake, provide a mineral block, & add in little treats such as cut-up apples or other fruit.

          So as you can see, there are some things to be considered if you decide to “winter over” livestock in Michigan. And we have some of the simpler species to winter over. As the saying goes, chickens and sheep are “easy keepers”. But folks with horses, cows, or other animals have other issues that they must consider.
          There is no doubt that there is a bit of extra labor involved during the winter months, particularly in making sure that water sources are available. But the contentment of having sheep come to you to eat corn from your hand, or having chickens come to your lap to roost in the henhouse, far outweigh the extra labor, at least in our eyes.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Female of Substance!


 

On to another of our sheepies. This is O.B. “O.B.”, otherwise known as “Old Biddy” [at least, it’s the family-friendly name we quickly came up with after calling her a less polite name a few times!].

O.B. is a couple of years younger than Carmel, whose age we now estimate at 10+ (after doing more research). So figure that O.B. is approximately 8 or so. She is one of the two “Grand Dames” of our small herd.

O.B. is a purebred Black-bellied Barbados sheep. She is a hair sheep, so most folks think she’s a goat. She grows very little wool, & scrubs it off against the fences each spring. She’s more of an “easy keeper” because she doesn’t knock down the fences like Carmel or “Baaaah” at us constantly when we’re out working in the yard [to Carmel, “Baaah” means “Feed me!”].


On the other hand, altho Carmel is reasonably tame & will come up to be petted & eat corn from our hands, O.B. is FAR less cooperative. In fact, you could probably describe her as stubborn [very!], which is what caused the “R-rated” version of her name in the first place!

O.B. regularly challenges our dogs when they are in the herding ring. Tonka, who was never much of a herder to begin with, assists me in “graining the sheep” (i.e., giving them corn) by holding them off of the feeder while I fill it. Even with his brain damage, he can perform this simple task, & it gives him something that is just HIS to do with “Mom”. O.B. constantly challenges Tonka & tries to head-butt him. Fortunately, Tonka is also assertive with her, & puts his head right thru the fence to bark & nip at her. She knows not to get too close to those sharp, white teeth!

O.B. is not one of those sheep that you would put out with an inexperienced dog. Sheeps’ hooves are very sharp, & I have heard some pretty bad stories. Mariah’s littermate Dooley was badly injured when he was attacked by several butt-headed sheep who cut him up quite seriously before another dog could be brought to move them off of him. Dooley required a ton of vet care afterward, & never herded sheep again!

So we use one of our experienced dogs on O.B., kick her butt a few times [we call these our “Come to Jesus” meetings around here!] & then let the less experienced pups work her once she’s been reminded of her role in the universe (prey, not predator). Grudgingly, she will submit, but I know she plots rebellion in her heart!

Which brings up the topic of managing sheep like O.B., & the use of stock whips & stock sticks. Most stock sticks are about 5 feet long & made of fiberglass. They are usually white, with a black tip & a black handle. Contrary to popular belief, the handler DOES NOT whack the contrary sheep with this! Rather, this stick is used to guide the working dog as they move the sheep.

A stock whip, on the other hand, is a very flexible whip of approximately 6 feet, with a long piece of knotted nylon string at the tip. This is usually not used on the stubborn sheep either! However, sheep move VERY quickly when they hear the unique & distinct whistle of that piece of nylon string when the handler whips the ground near the sheep, indicating that the sheep are to move NOW! Occasionally, in order to protect a dog or handler, this tool is used to swat the back of a sheep, but NEVER to “whip” them. I have also used the tip to tap on a sheep’s nose when they are trying to force their way into the feeder before I have finished filling it, endangering my hands [being bit by a sheep is no picnic!].

Over the years, as the composition of our small herd has changed, O.B. has become somewhat ostracized. I’m not sure why this has happened, but it is clear to my eyes when I watch the sheep together in their pasture. Since sheep are herd animals, they always remain somewhat close together. So O.B. still remains close to the rest of the herd, but it is very clear that she is on the fringe of the group. We watch to ensure that she is getting proper access to food & water as well as access to the shelter in case of a storm. As someone who lived on the fringe myself during my teen years, I empathize with O.B., so I do what I can to make things as good as possible for her. Even in the animal world, cliques occur in sheep, pecking orders in chickens, etc. I can’t change that, but I can still care for O.B. as much as she will allow.


 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gettin' CHILLY in here!!


This little guy is Frosty. Frosty is a 4-year-old blue merle Shetland Sheepdog, & he is definitely the life of the party! Also known as “Meeeeeeester Frooooost” or “The FROST-i-nator!”, Frosty came to Waggin’ Tails Station in February of 2009, to be a companion to Tonka. Frosty came from Michigan Sheltie Rescue, & we initially adopted him because he seemed ideal to train as a “seizure alert dog” to notify us if Tonka had a seizure. We also wanted a companion for Tonka, since Tonka’s seizures required us to pull him out of dog agility, a sport he loved. We hoped that a new little buddy would lift Tonka’s spirits, as well as alerting us if a seizure started.

It soon became clear that our instincts had been right on-target, & Tonka & Frosty are now "Partners in Crime"! Although Tonka is twice Frosty’s size, he is careful not to injure his little buddy when they play. And play they do! Games of FangFace & Chase are just two of the playtime activities. They are crated next to each other, & sleep in their crates at night. Most of Tonka’s seizures come at night, so between Frosty’s presence & the always-on baby monitor, we are able to listen for Tonka & intervene if he has seizures.

Frosty is also ideal as a therapy dog, with his friendly, loving nature & small size (20 lbs). He loves to meet people, & has made fast friends everywhere he visits. We intend to get his full certification, & then start his volunteer work. He visited an adult day care center a couple of times, & charmed the entire staff & students there.

Although quite small in size, Frosty makes up for it with his HUGE personality. He is the quintessential Party Boy, & loves to romp & play with the other dogs in the house. As a former stud dog, he flirts with every “girl” he meets, including dominant bitch Mariah, who rules her pack with an “iron paw”. For Frosty, she relaxes for a few minutes & plays.

We have many other plans for Mr. Frost as well! He has a very strong herding drive, & wants those sheepies very badly. Since Frosty wants to herd those sheepies so badly, we decided to get him a haircut so that he wouldn't overheat with that MONSTER coat of his! Here is our little tornado in his new 'do. Now, he can REALLY be The Frostinator!



One of the best things about Frosty is that he is such a great “advertisement on feet” for rescued Shetland Sheepdogs. He is outgoing & friendly, but also protective of his pack, his people, & his property. With his happy outlook on life, he is undoubtedly “the bubbles in our champagne” as we go thru day to day life! We hope he will be with us for many years to come!


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Chicken Hunt!


No, it’s not something like a snipe hunt. 8-) Rather, we went looking for some new chickens over the weekend! And found some!

At the Station, we have quite a few cluckers. But over time, the numbers have dwindled a bit. Chickens can die for many reasons, including predators (Red-tailed Hawks, Weasels, Foxes, or Raccoons), old age, or simply dying for no apparent reason. Chickens aren’t all that bright, & sometimes they’ll sleep on top of each other, which occasionally smothers the bird on the bottom. Unfortunately, that means that sometimes we’ll walk out & find that one of our special birds has literally bit the dust. Due to this “sudden unexplained death” issue, we've had to learn not to get too attached to a chicken.

We lost our last rooster a couple of months ago. Pavarotti could crow like nobody’s business! His crow was substantial, several ululations long & wonderful to hear. Obviously, with such a marvelous crow, “Pavarotti” was the only suitable name! He was a Black-breasted Red Phoenix rooster like this one, not very big, but the spikes on his ankles were INTIMIDATING! As a 4H display rooster, his tail was once over 3 feet long, altho it shortened during his life in the henhouse. A Phoenix is one of the “fighting” breeds that were bred by Chinese emperors, but Pav had been raised by a young man in 4H, so he was gentle with us & with the kids who visited the Station. He loved to be held & petted, & died of peaceful old age. He joins Dinner, our departed Brahma rooster, & Romeo, our departed Silkie rooster, in our hearts & memories.

Most hens prefer to have at least one rooster around. Not only do they father chicks, but most roosters will die to defend their hens. We decided to go to a bird & small animal swap last Saturday, sponsored by the Michigan Bird & Game Breeders Association. This group usually sponsors excellent swaps & sales. If you’ve never been to such a sale, it’s definitely something to see! You get to see the absolute BEGINNING of the food chain, down to day-old chicks or even fertilized eggs! On this visit, we saw a variety of birds, from canaries to turkeys to geese to rare Chinese Golden Pheasants. We also saw rabbits, goats, lambs, alpaca, ferrets, chinchilla, & small dogs. Something for everybody!

We were specifically looking for Brahma chickens, which are large, gentle, & wonderful to have in a henhouse. Brahma roosters are both huge & mellow, like the one in the pic. My previous rooster, Dinner, was a gentle giant in our henhouse until a predator invaded. Dinner died defending his hens. Since then, we have tried to purchase more Brahmas, with no success. Fortunately, our “Brahma drought” ended on Saturday when we found a Brahma breeder at the sale & were able to purchase 5 younglings! Altho it is difficult to tell a chicken’s sex until they are a bit older, we hope we have gotten 2 cockerels (young roosters) & 3 pullets (young hens).

We also found 3 Cochins, such as those shown in this pic. Cochins are another Oriental breed that is known for its gentleness. One thing you might not know is that there are some Chicken breeds that have feathered feet. For the most part, the feather-footed breeds tend to be larger & gentler. Both Brahmas and Cochins are feather-footed. Cochins look like big, round, fluffy balls of feathers. Brahmas look like the bigger, “ripped” older brothers & sisters of the Cochins. Although mellow birds, Brahmas are the enforcers, due to their large size. Cochins are the gentle younger siblings.

There is also a type of chicken called a frizzle, seen here. For want of a better description, frizzles look as if their feathers were put on backward. Instead of curving close to their bodies, a frizzle’s feathers curve out & away. I suspect it originally appeared as a defect in chicken coops, & occasionally shows up in chicks bred from non-frizzle hens. But, as is often the case with unusual things, an enterprising farmer or two decided to breed their chickens specifically for the frizzle appearance. Now, frizzles are quite commonplace in chickendom. Once we were assured that being a frizzle IS NOT painful to the chicken, we purchased 2 Cochin frizzles to add to our flock. We also purchased a couple of Americauna hens, who lay colored eggs (they’re called Easter Eggers).

Finally, we decided to add one adult rooster to our flock, since our Brahmas are juveniles. He is a Salmon Faverolle rooster, like the one shown here. We have named him "Magnum" after Thomas Magnum, PI (e.g., Tom Selleck). Magnum is tall & handsome, & the hens seem to be quite happy with his presence. We are hoping that Magnum will provide stability to our flock. Since the Brahma cockerels are still growing up, they will most likely not challenge Magnum when they are older.

Altho I would certainly be happy with a chicken coop full of Brahmas & Cochins, my sis likes to add a bit of variety to the Station’s flock. So we also have Black Astralorps, Silver-Laced Wyandottes, and Buff Orpingtons. In the past, we had crested Polish, Sultans, Marans, and other breeds. There is a tremendous variety in chickendom, with the result being that someone interested in having a couple of chickens can find pretty much whatever they want.


If you decide to have chickens and your zoning allows, I suggest adding a rooster to your coop. He will keep your hens happier, & there is nothing like hearing the crow of your rooster while you’re working outside during the day. One warning: roosters don’t just crow in the morning – they crow all day long, stopping only when the sun goes down. So if you’re not prepared for that (or your neighbors aren’t), you should probably only keep hens.

Keeping chickens is a bit of work, but it is also great fun to watch the chickens in the yard as they peck for bugs & give themselves dust baths. It may be something that you might consider if your zoning allows it!

For more information on specific chicken breeds, this is the best website I’ve ever found. I’ve consulted this site countless times when making decisions about breed selection, care, or medical needs: http://www.feathersite.com. 


 
Thanks to www.feathersite.com for the awesome pix in today's post!!!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Here Comes the Truck!


This handsome dog is Tonka, our 8-year-old black tri Australian Shepherd. Tonka has been with us since he was 9 weeks old, and possesses the mellowness that his adopted mom Mariah lacks.


 Tonka was a big puppy, and has grown into a beautiful, mature dog. He is muscled, with a dark, glossy coat. Like most Australian Shepherds, he is very intelligent, & also very devoted. We’ve never had to worry whether Tonka would run off. He prefers to be close to his people. In fact, I’ve sometimes thought that he would be most happy if he was surgically grafted to us!


Tonka was a healthy 5-year-old when, to our dismay, he had his first seizure. Within 6 months, he had sustained brain damage from a series of very intense seizures over a 16-hour period. When he came home from the vet’s, he didn’t recognize any of us. He had also forgotten all of his commands. Most of all, he seemed to have no impulse control, & would jump up onto tables or counters right in front of us to steal food.

The owner of Tonka’s sire had contacted me the previous year because another pup in Tonka’s litter had started having seizures. Then we heard of another. When Tonka also started seizing, we knew that there must be a genetic problem with all of the pups. Of Tonka’s litter of 7 puppies, 3 had idiopathic epilepsy, and the other 2 have been euthanized because their seizures were so violent.

Tonka is not the same dog that he was. That was something we needed to accept. It was hard at first, because he had been such an intelligent companion. But the seizures & the brain damage changed his personality. Although still a loving dog, he jumps up on tables & counters right in front of us to forage for food. We have learned to modify our lifestyle to deal with that. More difficult to manage is that he screams when one of us leaves the room, or when he is hungry, or when he thinks it’s time to get up (sometimes at 4:30 or 5:00 am!). A 50-lb Aussie can make A LOT of noise when he’s unhappy!!

We had planned to start training Tonka for dog agility competition before his seizures began. For his own safety, those plans were curtailed. But our commitment to Tonka is very strong, & we work hard to give him as full a life as possible. Although he must be confined when we are out of the house (he destroys the house trying to find treats for himself), he has a huge yard to run in with the other dogs.


Tonka has completely lost his herding drive, but still has a special job of holding our sheep off of their corn feeder while I fill it with corn. He knows this is his job, & he works at it diligently, even sticking his head thru the fence to bark & snap at the sheep if they come too close. He is a big cuddler, so we make sure to spend time cuddling with him. He loves to run up & down the stairs at our vacation home up north, & will do it 20 or more time a day. 

Tonka remains a gentle, loving & valued member here at Waggin’ Tails Station, & we hope he will be with us for years to come.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Let's Shake It Up A Bit


Just to add some variety, let's introduce you to some of the sheep. This is Carmel, our dominant ewe. She is an older ewe (6+), & she rules her small herd with an iron hoof! Our herd is small when compared to many hobby farms. But, in our case, we got the sheep for our herding dogs, rather than for fleece, milk, or mutton.

That's why Carmel looks sorta like a goat, rather than a sheep. She is a hair sheep (vs a fleece sheep), specifically, a Katahdin-Dorper cross. Hair sheep don't overheat as quickly as fleece sheep when a dog is herding them. So, when training new dogs, it pays to have "dog-broke" hair sheep. Normally, our sheep live a life of luxury, but occasionally they're called on to "pay their way" by being herded around the round pen by experienced or novice herding dogs.

As you can see in the shot, Carmel is looking pretty raggedy right now, because even a hair sheep can put on some fleece in the winter. But it comes out quickly in the spring, because Miss Carmel has a nasty habit of rubbing it off on our fences, & sometimes taking down a fence post in the process!


One of the more annoying things about sheep is that they don't pose very well for pictures. In Carmel's case, she is more interesting in eating than posing for the camera. I guess I need to become a more ingenious photographer, if I ever hope to get a decent head shot. I either get shots with her head down, or when she's running straight at me to get corn.

Truth be told, having a 100+ lb sheep running straight at you can be pretty daunting! Sorta like looking dead in the eye of a miniature freight train! Carmel has been known to climb up our gate with her front feet & stare straight into the windshield of a visiting vehicle! I guess that's one way to let visitors know we have sheep! Dogs can be trained, but our Carmel is an independent sort, & where she leads, the other sheep follow, which can create problems.

Like the time that Carmel breached the fence & led the small flock straight out into the swamp! Previously, we lost a couple of sheep in the swamp (LONG story), & they were never seen again. Although we searched for weeks, we never found them, & we suspect local coyotes had a great banquet of them. So when Carmel led our flock into the "deadly swamp", we were pretty darned agitated about it!

My sis, Miss Type A, took her Aussie Tucker out into the swamp with her as she attempted to herd them back into the fenced pasture. But Miss Carmel wasn't havin' none of that! She wanted to explore! Most likely, she was searching for a handsome ram, since it was "that time of the year".

After trying for over 2 hours to get them back into the pasture, with my sister & Tucker limp with exhaustion, I suddenly found inspiration! I quickly went on-line & downloaded a sound file of a herd of sheep from down in New Zealand. Then, I aimed my computer speakers out the window & played that sound file full blast out into the swamp!

Leave it to Carmel to follow the sound of a ram!! Our herd is composed solely of ewes, so she was really missin' some romance! Once they heard that baaaaaaa-ing, those silly sheep came running back into the pasture so fast that we were almost trampled! Then we were running full tilt to close all of the miscellaneous gates that had been standing open, so that they wouldn't run right back OUT again, searching for the mysterious ram!



Having sheep is ALWAYS an adventure! If it isn't about a ram, it's about FOOD! And they always want the grass on the OTHER side of the fence, so they'll knock down a fencepost or push through a weak spot in the fence to get to it. Or they want the flowers in the planting strip, so they knock down the fence & gobble them all up. Or they want the corn in the corn barrel, so they chew through the bungee cord holding it closed, & gorge themselves on corn.

For a city kid, I've learned a lot from my sheep. I love having them around, because there is something so peaceful about them. I enjoy the simple labor of giving them hay or corn or water or treats. I love the simplicity of their lives, especially compared to my complicated one. In the evenings, my favorite time of day, I love to walk out to see my "girls". Most of them will come within reach & allow me to scratch their heads or eye ridges.

So I might complain about Carmel, but I really treasure her. She is quite tame, & has been known to come right into the dog yard & up onto the porch looking for treats. One time, she tried to climb into my sister's SUV. She might be a character, but she's OUR character, & a valued & indispensable resident here at Waggin' Tails Station!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pretty Little Angel Eyes



This lovely girl is Angel. Angel is a 10-year-old Smooth Collie. She is a pure-bred Collie like Lassie, but with short hair. Some people like to call Smooth Collies “Wash & Wear” Collies!

Angel came to us when she was 4 months old. It was clear from the beginning that she was a very special dog. I suppose the best way to describe her is to say that, even with her petite little body (she only weighs 40-45 lbs), she is packed with personality plus!

Altho Jet & Mariah are herding nuts, & virtually obsess about the sheep, we learned early on that Angel was not so inclined. You could call her the UN-herding dog of the house. We tried her in the training pen a couple of times, with very gentle sheep, but when her trainer smacked the ground with the herding stick, Angel was outta there! No stick whacking for her! Whatever spark of herding drive she possessed went >>POOF!<< that day, & never resurfaced.

Even tho she doesn’t herd the sheep, there is still plenty for Angel to do here at Waggin’ Tails Station. For example, she is our “Nurse Dog”. Now that Jet is deaf due to old age, Angel considers it her calling to be aware of Jet’s location at all times. When I call them to come in the house, Angel tracks him down & torments him until he heads for the door. She’s also something of an Enforcer. If one of the younger dogs gets too rambunctious, you’ll hear Angel let out a sharp bark, & next thing you know, that pup is flat on the ground with Angel’s paw on top of his head! She’s a great “mom” for our younger generation of pups & doesn’t tolerate any bratty behavior! If the younger dogs are playing too roughly, we can count on Angel to break it up & calm everything down.


A few years back, a foster dog that someone had brought to the house leapt out from under a chair & bit a little girl who was running past. Four punctures later, her screams were resounding throughout the neighborhood, & we were rushing her up to the house to check her injuries.

As the little girl sat crying in the bathroom while we did first aid, Angel peeked her long Collie nose in the door. For the next half hour, the little girl wrapped her arms around Angel’s neck & cried as her bites were cleaned & bandaged. Angel would reach up & lick the girl’s face every few moments, as if reminding the girl that she was there & everything would be OK. Angel knew that she was needed, & she knew what to do. Even after the tears were past, Angel stayed glued to the little girl’s side for the rest of the day, happy to be dragged around the yard on a leash held by that small fist.


Because she is so friendly & outgoing, Angel isn’t much of a guard dog. She has always eagerly approached any stranger visiting the Station. She considers it her calling to be the official greeter of the household. In fact, if someone were to break into the house (they would have to be crazy with 10 dogs!), it would be Angel who would help them carry their booty out! {{“Can I help you with that?”}} She would helpfully offer to open the doors for them, even! Such a sweet friendly girl, but definitely not the Sentinel of the family! Fortunately, we have Aussies who are more than able for the job!

About 4 years ago, Angel’s eyes were attacked by a very rare auto-immune infection, which had apparently lain dormant for most of her life. By the time we realized what was happening, she had lost much of her eyesight. Now, combined with the cataracts that come with old age, Angel is virtually blind, altho she is still able to see light & shadow.

Even with her limited sight, you’d never know it! She is a bit more timid these days, but she runs through the house & plays with the other dogs as if she is sighted. She is a tremendous example to us, because she continues to enjoy her life & doesn’t let her disability get her down. We should all be so positive in our outlook!



Monday, June 6, 2011

Meet Miss Mariah Marie!



 This intriguing face belongs to Mariah, our 11-year-old blue merle Australian Shepherd. I’ve always felt as if the random colors in Mariah’s coat look more like a crazy quilt than a dog’s hair. And “crazy” aptly describes this girl for the first few years of her life.

You see, Mariah wants to be Empress of the world. She doesn’t just want to be Queen, she wants to be a deity! This little 32-lb girl has the focus & drive of an Olympic athlete! And woe be the sheep who challenges her!

Mariah came to us at 3 months old. Oh, she was cute & cuddly at that age, but that just lulled me into a sense of complacency. That’s when she struck! Out of nowhere, Miss Cute & Cuddly became “Little Miss Mudpuppy” or “Sabretooth” or “Destructo-Dog”! Those are just 3 of her many nicknames!

I blame myself. I had always owned Collies & Shetland Sheepdogs, and was totally unprepared for the intensity of a high-drive Australian Shepherd. What no one ever warned me was that dogs like Mariah NEVER TURN OFF unless they’re dead asleep!


Her eyes are a unique greenish-yellow color. But behind them, a super-intense mind is always calculating how to overthrow the government! I remember one occasion where I was very sick. When I would get up from the couch, Mariah would jump up into my seat, & she wouldn’t want to move when I came back! Or I would get a glass of juice & set it down & leave for a moment, & she would drink the entire glass! No simple rebellion from this dog -- this was a coup!!

I had to learn to be firmer with Mariah than I’d ever been with any of my previous dogs. She required constant vigilance when she was younger, as I learned to manage her very intense Aussie temperament without crushing her spirit. Now, at 11 years old, she still requires some observation, because she will sneak up onto my bed or steal my food at a moment’s notice!
 


At about 4, she suddenly began to settle down & made it her life's goal to become my ideal companion (I know, lull them into a sense of complacency...). She is the benevolent, but no-nonsense, pack leader of my 5 dogs. She tolerates no rebellion from the other dogs, but she also loves to invite them to play with an Aussie smile & her wiggly butt.

She became a tremendous herding dog, altho our sheep tremble at the sight of her! About 2 years ago, she injured her cranial cruciate ligament, so we pulled her out of the herding ring for good. She’ll always walk with a limp, so it’s not safe to use her to work sheep any longer. But sometimes, just for the fun of it, we trot her out to the sheep pen & put the fear of God into those silly sheep! When a dog has a personality like Mariah’s, it doesn’t take much to keep them in line.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, she became my best friend. It's hard to look into her 11-year-old eyes & know that someday in the future she'll be gone. So I just concentrate on enjoying our time today, & watch my back in case she decides to stage another coup!



Friday, June 3, 2011

Meet Jet, our Border Collie!



This is Jet, our Border Collie (BC). On the other hand, you could just as easily call him The Sheep-i-nator!

Jet came to us after he was live-trapped by the local Animal Control, because he was feral & kept killing chickens at local farms. NOT very popular with the farmers! We were Jet’s last hope before being euthanized.

When Jet joined us, it quickly became clear that he was a Hunter Extraordinaire! He stalked the squirrels & bunnies outside of our fence regularly. At the time, my house had a significant mouse problem due to pipe chases in the slab foundation. It was not uncommon for Jet to stalk, kill, & bring me mice regularly. Gee, thanks, Jet!

The biggest surprise about Jet was his HUGE herding drive! Now, unless you own herding dogs, you probably don’t realize that a herding drive is a modified prey drive that has been bred into these dogs for hundreds of years. As demonstrated by his hobby of killing chickens, Jet clearly has an intense prey drive. And most BCs have some level of herding drive, but Jet’s is GINORMOUS!! 

One look at those sheep of ours, & he dropped immediately into that slinking crouch so characteristic of BCs. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Babe” [a “must-see” for herding fans!], Jet’s herding movement matches Rex’s, the lead BC, as well as his attitude toward those silly sheep. That first day, “step by step, inch by inch” he drew closer & closer to the sheep, while they got more & more freaked out about this new threat approaching them. Finally, he pounced, & the sheep went WILD! 

To put it bluntly, Jet kicked some major sheep butt that day, & they learned to live in fear of the big, black BC.

We were so impressed that we tried Jet out on some other sheep in another pasture. His ability was so powerful that he couldn’t work the sheep in the same pasture or they’d run off in terror. Jet had to move into the next adjoining pasture in order to work the sheep! That’s how POWERFUL his herding ability is! Later, we learned that Jet had been a fully trained herding dog & goose dog (to clear golf courses & airports) in his previous life. But it was with us that Jet found his true forever home, as well as a chance to exercise his TRUE calling – knocking some manners into those silly sheep!

We have a couple of very stubborn ewes. One even earned the name “O.B.” because her true name is “Ya Ole B****!” Obviously, since we are also 4-H leaders, we needed something a bit more child-friendly, so "O.B." was born. Stubborn as they are, those ole ewes have never tried to cross Jet again since that very first day. In fact, they live in terror of having Jet even come near the sheep pen. 

Jet is now about 14, the Old Man of the household. But if he is walked out by the sheep pen on leash, those sheep still run as fast as they can to the other end of their pen. Anywhere away from the BC! 

Quite literally, Jet rules!


Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Beginning


I suppose you could say that it’s all my sister’s fault! As the younger sister of a very assertive older sister, some folks would consider me a follower. So it’s always been pretty easy to blame all of the unusual challenges of our lives on my older sister. She holds a challenging executive job, and is a very Type A personality. If she was a cop, she’d carry a 44-Magnum and growl “Make my day!” to all of the perps she collared. To say the least, she’s something (in a GOOD way)!

It all started when Miss Type A herself decided to adopt a Shetland Sheepdog (also known as a Sheltie) puppy. Spenser was an adorable, fuzzy puppy who grew into a gorgeous, outgoing social butterfly sort of dog. He gladly followed Sis as she trained him in dog obedience and agility, collecting titles of achievement like other women collect shoes. Spenser was always willing to try something new, especially if it involved food! He showed us the amazing drive and spirit that is so representative of herding dogs.

After Spenser came Lester, a gentle rescued Sheltie. It was in Lester that we first saw the power of the herding drive. One day we were playing with the dogs in some woods near a horse paddock. Suddenly, Lester bolted toward the paddock and squeezed past the electric fence! We were terrified that the horses would kick and injure him. Next thing you know, that 30-lb dog had all of those big horses gathered into the corner of the rectangular paddock! It was amazing! Then Lester just popped right back out of the paddock, trotted over and panted up at us with his special doggy smile, “See! It’s not so tough, Mom!”

And that’s how Waggin’ Tails Station was born! Currently, we have a total of 10 dogs in our sprawling hacienda: 1 Border Collie (Jet), 1 Smooth Collie (Angel), 3 Australian Shepherds (Mariah, Tonka, and Annie), 4 Shelties (Connor, Cody, Shannon, and Frosty), and 1 Corgi-Jack Russell Terrier mix (Gizmo - DON’T ask). I’ll introduce you to each of them in following posts.

So c’mon along! As they say in the old movies, “We’re in for a bumpy ride!”