Rats!

Rats (excl.) Slang. (an exclamation of disappointment, disgust, or disbelief.)

Rats, rodents, vermin, plague-mongers, bane of my existence. Those of us who keep livestock(and some who just want to grow veggies) loathe these fur-covered, feed-thieving, disease vectors, and they(and their cousin, the mouse) have been known to harrie even the most seasoned exterminators and determined farmers. They eat crops, decimate seedlings, kill chicks, and carry a number of parasites and diseases. And they are infamously difficult to get rid of once they’ve found you vulnerable in any way.

I’ve struggled plenty with what seems like an ever increasing number of rats and I am praying for a wet and cold winter to bring them back down to a manageable population. In the mean time I have tried just about everything to get rid of them. I’ll give you the pros and cons of my experience with various methods I tried and there are a few at the bottom of the article which are still on the roster.

 

Methods I have tried:

 

1. Classic snap-traps

PROS: Cheap, natural materials(wood and steel), non-toxic, minimal environmental impact.

CONS: They didn’t catch a single rat and all the bait was cleaned off each night, however I have heard from others who had great success

CONCLUSION: conditional recommendation

 

2. Glue Traps

PROS: cheap, non-toxic, pre-baited, easy to set in small spaces

CONS: They didn’t catch any rats, but they did catch my dog. Otto tried to eat the peanuts off of it and it got stuck to his face, which he then tried to scratch off, so it stuck to his paw. He was covered in sticky goop and panicked.

CONCLUSION: Would not recommend

 

3. Tomcat II Refillable Bait Station

PROS: pet, chicken, and child-safe, low risk of secondary toxicity (bromethalin)http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/rodenticides.pdf

CONS: risk of poisoning to other animals, possible secondary toxicity to raptors and chickens, rats were not very interested in the bait station blocks caused inconsistent results

CONCLUSION: Results Mixed, conditional recommendations

 

4. Tomcat II modified bait in homemade bait station (mixed bromethalin pellets with chicken food in a bowl under a crate with weight on top)

PROS: rats very interested, effectively killed 1-6 rats per day

CONS: risk of poisoning to pets and livestock, possible risk of secondary toxicity to raptors and chickens, must be refilled daily and removed before letting out pets and chickens

CONCLUSION: Good results, conditional recommendation

 

5. Coyote Pee – 33-day dispensers

PROS: non-toxic, low environmental impact, supports zoos and rescues, natural deterrent, so far this seems effective in my chicken run

CONS: expensive, may attract coyotes, smelly, may aggravate pet dogs

CONCLUSION: Deterred rats for only a few days, would not recommend

 

6. Plaster ‘Grapes’ (made from plaster, oil, and peanut butter)

PROS: non-toxic, low environmental impact, easy to make, cheap

CONS: slow death for rats

CONCLUSION: unquantifiable results, no harm if ineffective, recommended

 

Other methods I have not tried:

Hire the Mongrel Hoard, a team of human and canine ratting experts who work with you in your property for several hours to eradicate rats. Rate is $75 and a 6-pack of beer, but he doesn’t recommend his service in urban areas since rats usually travel between smaller properties.

Some people also claim that barn-cats can be very effective with rats, however this is a heavily debated topic as others believe that cats will only go after mice and have no interest in rats. Unfortunately, with three people who are severely allergic to cats in our house, it isn’t a method I can test.

I have also been told that Havahart humane animal traps are very effective at catching rats. The downside of course is that you then have to dispatch those rats yourself.

 

Obviously prevention is the best way to go about controlling rats, and any deterrent measures should go hand in hand with removing the attractants like accessible feed, produce, and places to hide. And don’t make my mistake. If you find a nest of adorable baby rats, don’t leave them for the elements. Momma-rat will come collect them and raise them up to terrorize you for your mercy. If you must, find them a home, but whatever you do, don’t just let them go because you’re too much of a bleeding-heart to kill fuzzy babies. You’ll regret it. I certainly do.

 

Is there a method that I have not listed which works for you?

Please share it in the comments!

Happy World Egg Day!

Today marks the 18th annual World Egg Day! It is only of the few obscure holidays that is truly celebrated worldwide with festivals, feasts, contests, and commemorations.

IMG_1438.JPG
Consider donating $20 to Heifer International to provide a family in need with a starter flock of chickens, ducks, or geese. These flocks offer a stable source of healthy protein to families and can provide enough eggs for a family to sell to others.

IMG_1439.JPG
Share this image and one of your own eggs to promote egg awareness!

The Song and Dance of Sexing Chicks

As I mentioned last week, we have a living room full of chicks right now. When hatching chicks at home, we get what is called a straight run. This means the chicks are always about 50% each of male and female. It is extremely rare that an urban homesteader like myself can keep one rooster, much less many, so figuring out the sex of your chicks can be important to prevent accidental heartbreak after getting attached to a little cockerel(sexually immature male chicken).

Sexing home-hatched chicks is something of an imperfect science. Very few people are well trained enough to accurately vent-sex day old chicks the way that hatcheries do, and the skill is one which is perfected by much practice and apprenticeship. An amateur can do serious harm to fragile chicks by trying to do vent sexing without proper training so most of us hobby-hatchers have to rely on less accurate but also less invasive methods.

The most common method is feather-sexing. This is done by looking at two chicks of the same age and comparing the feather development. Some breeds which are called Fast-Feathering Breeds can be sexed by this method as early as 24hrs after hatch by comparing the wing coverts, while all other breeds can be compared 3-5 weeks after hatch.

Take for example these two, Katsu(Left) and Frankie(Right). Look at the feathers on their head and neck. Katsu is still fluffy, with lots of chick down on his head, while Frankie’s head is feathering out all smooth.

Left: Katsu/Cockerel Right: Frankie/Pullet

Left: Katsu/Cockerel
Right: Frankie/Pullet

Another method of sexing, which is best used in conjunction with feather-sexing, is comb sexing. I found some great photos on BackyardChickens.com which helped me a lot. The whole point of this hatch was for me to continue the genetic line of My dearly departed rooster, Cinnamon, and his mate Ginger who has found a happy home with Kitty Sharkey of the Havenscourt Homestead.

Thanks to BYC use Steph5253 for allowing me to use this image! Left: d’Uccle Bantam Cockerel. Right: d’Uccle Bantam Pullet

As you can clearly see in the photo above, the young cockerel on the Left has a much larger and redder comb than the young pullet on the Right whose comb is very small and almost the same color as her skin. I hatched two d’Uccle chicks myself and was hoping desperately that they were both pullets so I wouldn’t have to part with either one. It was especially important to me not only because of their parentage, but also because the two chicks were Bento, the first chick to hatch in my incubator, and Bonsai, the chick who couldn’t hatch alone. I had to carefully and with surgical precision remove the shell by hand to save her. Naturally I had a strong bond with these two because of the circumstances and parting with them would be very sad.

Bonsai, named such because she is the little runt, is my favorite chick from this hatch.

Bonsai, named such because she is the little runt, is my favorite chick from this hatch.

Now compare the photo of Bonsai to the sample photo above. Do you see what I see? PULLETS! PULLETS ALL AROUND! Huzzah! According to Steph5253’s tutorial photos, both of my d’uccles are little pullets and I musn’t fear losing them to the stew-pot or BBQ.

Some other chicks were so lucky. If you look back to the photo of Katsu and Frankie, this sexing method confirms what feather-sexing had already told us. Katsu is a cockerel. I will be trying to rehome him, but if that doesn’t work out, he will be culled respectfully and humanely at around 3-4 months of age.

Another chick of ours, Lilo is also most likely going to grow up to be a rooster. Lilo is my mother’s favorite of the chicks and it has been very hard for her, coming to terms with her favorite little fluffball growing up to be an unwanted alarm clock. She was so upset that I went on a mission to find out how to keep him quiet.

We aren't completely certain the Lilo is a Cockerel but with that red comb, it's likely.

We aren’t completely certain the Lilo is a Cockerel but with that red comb, it’s likely.

First I looked into Caponizing, but found out that while caponized roosters crow less often, it doesn’t stop it entirely and I fear that our grumpy neighbors still wouldn’t tolerate it on occasoion. So I set out again and hit the forums in search of a solution. A few came up, including the tube of a childrens sock over their throat, but results seemed mixed because figuring out the right sizing isn’t always easy. Then I stumbled across this wonderful product the other day! The No-Crow Rooster Collar works by the same principal as the childrens sock, putting light pressure on the neck of the rooster to keep them from making a full sound, but these collars are adjustable and come in several sizes. I have secretly ordered one and plan to surpise my mother with it as soon as it arrives. Check out this convincing video from the My Pet Chicken website.

Chicken Math and the Story of How I Ended Up With 18 Chickens

A little over a year ago I was given a pair of bantams by a friend who couldn’t keep the cockerel. They were a beautiful pair of Mille Fleur D’Uccle bantams. We used to have chickens when I was a kid, but the coop was pretty run down. These bantams were never going to lay much and we had gotten hooked on the idea that maybe we could raise chickens for eggs. With me working at a feed store, that seemed the natural next step. So I signed up to get three chicks in the next order. Three layers seemed perfect for a four person household that didnt go through a lot of eggs.

My little cousin Lotte collects Eggs for the first time.

My little cousin Lotte collects Eggs for the first time.

On chick day I went in and discovered that there were two more chicks that hadn’t been claimed so I went home with 5 instead of three. No big deal. Especially since one of the turned out to be a rooster a few months later. Before we even knew he was a roo, he had been dubbed with the prophetic name, Dinner. That’s just what became of him since we already had a rooster we loved.

Shortly thereafter, a friend had to give up his elderly hens because he was moving. Thus 6 became 10 because free chickens don’t count, right?

Lilo

Of those four new ones, two were bullies to my bantams so they went right back out! but it turned out soon after that I had been mistaken and it was actually two other ones that were bullying my little ones. Meanwhile my mother had discovered the existence of black orpingtons and was totally in love so as I reduced my flock yet again, I started a search and found someone who had one, along with some other special breeds I was in love with. We intended to get three birds from her, but there was a discount if we get four! So four it was. Back to 10 birds again.

Black Orpingtons have the most beautiful soft iridescent feathers.

Black Orpingtons have the most beautiful soft iridescent feathers.

Life was grand and the flock was noisey. We got complaints about the rooster crowing so we were finally and tragically forced to get rid of the little man who started off our grand chicken adventure. We were heartbroken and to salve our wounded hearts, we put fertile eggs into an incubator in hopes that his progeny would live on in our flock. We decided to make room for them and culled our flock down to 4 again, but 21 days is a long time to wait and in that time I arranged for 4 pullets from a friend who is a show bantam breeder. Two cochins and two silkies to keep my one bullied bantam company.

My new fawn Old English Game Bantam looks almost like a little dove.

My new fawn Old English Game Bantam looks almost like a little dove.

7 little ones hatched! Hurrah! A couple weeks later my pullets are ready for pickup and I head out to his coop-yard. I fall in love left and right and 4 becomes 7.

 

So heres the math:

2 free birds + 3 chicks= 7

7 – 1 rooster=10

10 -2 bullies= 6

6 + 1 orpington= 10

10 – 1 rooster= 11

11 + 4 bantams= 18 chickens in my flock!

 

I think that makes me officially chicken crazy.

Kip loves to sit on her brood-momma's, Georgie's,  back.

Kip loves to sit on her brood-momma’s, Georgie’s, back, and Georgie loves my lap!

Poultry Parasite Purge

Tis the season for skin parasites and for me that’s also a time to panic. The dry summer season is when all skin parasites really boom in population including lice, ticks, fleas and mites. My dogs are long suffering and allergic to many flea meds but we manage to keep their unwanted passengers under control by hook or by crook. My chickens are a different story.

Here’s the thing to know about me: I’m a veritable font of chicken knowledge, but I’m really bad at implementing all of that wisdom in my own coop. I didn’t do any of the preventative treatments that I frequently recommend to customers at the feed store and I took a couple days to check on my chickens when they started shedding feathers like crazy so I ended up with a major pest problem and had to scurry to relieve my hens of their itchy creepy crawlies. 

 

Mites vs. Lice: What is the difference?

Mites and lice are two of the most common skin parasites that chickens get. Both cause irritation which will often cause chickens to scratch and pull out their feathers, and preventative treatment is similar for both.

Red Mites are mostly nocturnal and feed on the chickens’ blood, similar to fleas on your cat or dog. These can actually kill your chickens and carry fowl pox, poultry cholera, and New Castle Disease. Preventative treatment is crucial as they have long lifespans and can survive for extended periods, up to a year, without feeding on your flock. Usually recommended treatment schedule is every 4 months if no infection is apparent (though I personally recommend no more than 3 months between preventative treatments) and every 5-7 days if it is. Treatment can include diatomaceous earth powdering, permethrin/pyrethrum spray or powder, or PYthon Dust for more drastic intervention (more on all these below). Holistic remedies call for pungent oils and herbs such as mint, tea tree, lemon-eucalyptus, and fleabane as well as sticky herbs like Elecampane and fresh Tobacco to trap them. Tobacco also has the added benefit of nicotine being a insecticide and smoking tobacco can be added to their dust baths and nesting boxes to kill buggies and deter breeding.

Common Poultry Lice, though more benign than mites, are still a blight and cause extreme stress to your birds, often affecting laying and fertility. There are a couple other types of lice but these are the most frequent culprits and prefer the areas around the vent and rump. Chicken lice feed mainly on feathers and dead skin, but will also bite the skin of chickens and leave itchy irritated areas especially around the vent and under the wings. At first glance they almost look like little off-white or yellow maggots but closer inspection shows that they have legs and tiny pincers. Some birds that are better at grooming can keep lice in check but hot weather and other stressors including overcrowding, poor nutrition, and pecking, can overwhelm even the best groomed birds in a flock. Because lice transmit through contact with infected birds as well as dropped feathers, they can overwhelm a flock very quickly. As with mites, cleaning out the coop and treating the area as well as the chickens is critical to controlling this pest. Ensure that no feathers are left behind as these can continue to feed the lice and reinfect your flock even when treatment has been successful. Direct treatments for lice are very pretty much identical to those for mites but added is the treatment for nits, the egg clusters which adhere to feathers. These can be coated in vaseline or coconut oil to suffocate developing lice and prevent them from hatching.

 

Why do my chickens have parasites?

You may wonder how these pests get into your coop and run. The answer is often in the form of other critters. Wild birds carry many of the same pests and diseases that affect chickens, and they are attracted to your chickens by the sweet lure of easy feed. Putting feed in less outwardly accessible areas can reduce the number of wild birds coming into contact with your flock, but probably won’t eliminate it entirely so even a well secured flock should be treated several times each year to prevent parasite infections. Another common visitor is rodents. Mice and rats, while unaffected by mites and lice themselves can carry infected materials into your run. Rats also carry numerous other diseases so rat-proofing your chicken area is very important. I have been struggling with this myself this year, and while I know I have reduced the population of rats here and there, they are also growing fat on my chicken feed and continue to reproduce.

 

What do you recommend?

Before I continue, I would like to make clear that these recommendations are made purely on my own. I am not endorsing these products because of anything other than their efficacy in my experience and those in my community.

 

For Mites and Lice:

PYthon Dust

This is an extremely potent insecticide and has a wide range of applications for controlling livestock pests. Though it is recommended for large livestock, it is also effective for chickens though should be used in moderation and only for extreme infections.

 

Prozap Garden and Poultry Dust

This is a preventative treatment containing Permethrin, a synthetic form of pyrethrum, the insecticide found in chrysanthemums. Prozap can be used to treat low level infection when they are detected early, but once the infection is bad, you may want to use something stronger, like PYthon. This stuff also works as an excellent preventative treatment and can be used every 6-12 weeks to keep pesky parasites from bothering yourbirds.

 

Diatomaceous Earth (a.k.a. DE)

This is a fine mineral powder made from ground fossil crustaceans called diatoms. The mineral structure is such that it cuts the waxy coating that protects insects and dehydrates them. It will also dry out any eggs it comes into contact with. There is some controversy though, as some people feel that the fine dust poses risks to the chickens’ respiratory health. Personally, I am happy to add this to dust baths, nest boxes and run as a preventative and mild treatment for parasites both external and internal. DE is easily obtained as food-grade and is totally organic, making a great choice for small farmers concerned about chemical exposure. Many health food stores carry this in their cosmetics section while Hardware stores usually have it in their garden section.

 

Permethrin and Pyrethrum sprays

These are widely available by many different names. They can cause some skin irritation when used as a topical remedy, but make a great disinfectant for coop cleaning. Some are also available with herbal additives like eucalyptus, mint, and lemon oils which also act as valuable pest deterrants. When shopping for these insecticidal sprays make sure to find one that is pet and/or child-safe so you know the solvents and additives won’t harm you birds.

 

Vaseline

The is a household item that can prove exceptionally good at reducing louse populations. Nits, the egg clusters attached to the feather bases can be generously slathered in petroleum jelly which chokes the eggs and prevents them from hatching. This is especially handy around sensitive areas that lice and mites attach such as around the vent, ears, eyes, and wattles.

 

Nesting Box Blend from Treats for Chickens

Add a small handful of this blend of wonderful smelling herbs to discourage mites and lice from setting up shop. It also keeps down the smell of poo in the coop between cleanings. Try to find it in the bulk section of your local feed stores. it tends to be much fresher and affordable this way. You can also consider mixing up your own batch of dry herbs including mint, lavender, bay leaf, calendula, chamomile, and catnip among others.

 

Pennyroyal

This plant has been valued for millenia for its strong minty smell and insect repellant abilities. It is however toxic(liver necrosis even in small doses) and should never be left for chickens to eat. I have a plant in my garden from which I pick sprigs to put into the bottom of their nesting boxes under the straw. I don’t recommend using it anywhere else in their coop for risk of ingestion and it should be grown out of reach of pets and children. Pennyroyal oil is also sometimes available but because of its concentration and risk of skin contact,  it poses even greater risk than the fresh or dried leaves. Pennyroyal is an old remedy and a good one but we have advanced enough now to understand the dangers too.

 

My treatment regimen is completed and I think I’ve got these suckers under control. I may decide to give them one last round of PYthon on Monday to be certain that I won’t be seeing lice and mites again because there are chicks in my living room, and pullets finishing at my breeder’s farm in Gilroy that will be joining the big birds in the next couple weeks.

 

Helpful link:

http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2012/08/poultry-lice-and-mites-identification.html

Shrooms in Bloom

Almost a year ago, I took a class from the Mushroom Maestros, Patty and Ray, in which we learned all about cultivating edible mushrooms at home. The class focused on simple to grow everyday edibles including oyster mushrooms and king stropharia. It was actually the third time I had taken a workshop from them because they proved to include new info each time and I always got to go home with a kit to grow something. This workshop focused on not just the growing of the mushrooms themselves, but also on the propagation of mycelia and production of inoculation spawn.20140813-135410-50050075.jpg

The first two times, my kits proved prolific, often producing three or four full flushes of fruit before petering out. The third class took a different focus, so instead of coming home with a straw-based kit for fruiting out on (like the one pictured above), I headed home with several jars of fresh mycelial spawn and rye pucks for propagating mycelium on my own time.

20140813-135618-50178126.jpg

I few weeks later, when my spawn had fully grown out, it happened to rain, soaking the strawbale we were supposed to use as chicken bedding. Without much thought, I used a pick-axe to gouge a couple holes in the bale and stuffed it with oyster mushroom spawn. It being the late fall, I had assumed it would rain again, giving the mycelium the moisture it needed to run, but to my chagrin, we saw instead the driest winter California has had in over 150 years. Nothing ever came of that inoculated bale and being well into the summer I just assumed it had dried out too much for the mycelium and that other more drought tolerant molds had outcompeted it.

So, of course it was to my delighted surprise that I was greeted by a big flush of fresh oysters growing out around my corn and kale when I went to water the bed the other day! I had used the bale to create a small hugelkultur bed by digging a bale shaped hole, dropping it in, and covering it with the native clay soil and a few bags of freecycled chicken manure compost.

20140813-135520-50120144.jpg

I’m an enthusiast, but certainly no mycology expert so I’m only guessing here, but I think the boost of nutrients from the manure must have given the mycelium what it needed to finally fruit out. I know that many mushrooms, including oyster mushrooms like to grow off manure, but generally oysters prefer wood. One of the flushes came out around a stake that had been supporting bird netting, and I made sure to leave the moldering wood in the ground when I cut out the mushrooms. One of the others encapsulated a robust little kale plant while the some appeared to fruit simply from exposed straw.

Suffice to say I’m thrilled to have such a bounty come from what I thought was a dead end project repurposed for veggies. I’m hoping to add some wood chips or logs to this bed in the fall in order to encourage the continuation of mycelial growth in my garden.

20140813-135548-50148437.jpg