The Terrible Coop Catastrophe!

With the end of January came frigid temperatures dipping below zero at night and warming to a mere 13 degrees during the day with wind chills in the negatives. As mentioned in Part 2, the chicken coop had originally been constructed for use as a hunting shack, so it was NOT meant to house chickens year around in northern Michigan. The wood on the walls had begun shrinking so large cracks formed between the slats and around the door frame. Luckily, we insulated the north wall where the nesting boxes were and the holes caulked in the fall remained intact, but BRRRRR! My girls were getting a big taste of what Michigan winters were like.

At least the two coop warmers were keeping the space at a balmy 12 degrees when outside temps were at zero, and the girls weren’t getting blasted by wind after propping a board over the hole opening to the pen. Offering them warm mash or chicken scratch daily to keep their metabolism burning hot seemed the only solution to keeping their little chicken bodies warm other than bringing them inside or knitting them hats and sweaters.

As it turned out, fretting over my darlings getting frostbit combs was the least of my worries.

I first noticed Etta James missing tailfeathers and seeing some with her distinct coloration in one of the laying boxes. At the time I didn’t think much of it because… birds lose feathers.

Then on one of those freezing cold evenings when the air froze your breath as well as the moisture inside of your nose holes, I went over to do my evening check on the girls and prop the board up in front of the pen opening. There for all the world to see was Etta James’ naked butt on the roost looking right at me. If you picture one of those plucked and bagged whole chickens you can buy at the grocery store, you’ll know exactly what I was looking at that freezing cold night.

Now I’m really freaking out… Etta James was NAKED!

At least she was wedged up nice and tight between the fluffy, Buff Orpingtons (Katie and Abbey) to keep her warm, but I didn’t think it would be long and she would die from exposure if I didn’t do something for her soon.

I first thought Etta was molting, so I ordered her some chicken dresses. Picturing her strutting around wearing a cute chicken dress made me smile, but would it be enough to keep her warm being the material wouldn’t be covering her naked underside? Thinking that I would have to bring her to work with me until her feathers grew in, I started looking for chicken diapers too.

As I shopped, a couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that something else was wrong, so I started reading more about the molt and what to expect. That’s when I discovered that chickens NEVER molt before 18 months old. Etta James is only 8 months, so what the heck was going on?!

Digging further, I found mites, lice, and other bugs run rampant in chicken coops during the winter if you don’t stay on top of treating for them. Honestly, I figured the freezing cold would kill any bugs, but nope… that isn’t the way it goes, and I should have been treating the coop with all natural, diatomaceous earth weekly all along.

I was the WORST Chicken Mom, EVER!

Not only was Etta James showing signs of POULTRY LICE, Katie and Abbie (the Buff Orpingtons) were too! And the reason Etta had a naked undercarriage was she treated herself by plucking out all the affected feathers. Upon closer inspection, I realized she had picked herself raw on her belly! Luckily, the gal at Tractor Supply insisted I purchase an antiseptic wound care spray to have on hand, so I used it painting Etta James’ belly all blue.

Painting Etta James’ belly blue wasn’t going to be enough to keep her warm, so I had to come up with a fast plan to keep her from freezing to death. And at the rate things were going, I would most likely have a whole coop full of naked chickens soon as they probably all had bugs. The answer was easy. They had to be moved inside. This would eliminate their exposure to the cold and from further infestation from the coop itself.

Setting up a makeshift pen inside the heated garage for them, I got the girls moved into their cozy new space that very night. But after cramming them all in the pen they used as chicks and seeing it was way too small, I knew this wouldn’t work either.

All night I tossed and turned worrying about my girls. Here they were crammed in a tiny pen under a blue tarp with no light and the slightest noise would set them off to flying around, crashing into the walls. Someone could break a wing, or worse… break their neck!

The next morning proved they made it through the night okay and being I had to go to work, there was no help for it. They would have to deal with their close quarters until I could do something different. What mattered most was Etta James was out of the cold.

By early afternoon, I couldn’t stand it any longer. It was time to go home and make a larger space for the girls, and with my husband’s help and materials we had already on hand, my chickens got the Taj Mahal of chicken coops!

Letting them out of their confinement was like watching a child seeing a pile of Christmas presents under the tree on Christmas morning. They came out tentatively at first, but then eagerly roamed around inspecting every inch of the space. It was only minutes after they came out of their little enclosure that they began rearranging the wood chips, scratching and flinging them in piles, all clucking happily in wonderment.

Seeing they were all fine and happily investigating their new space, I could sleep easy knowing they were now warm, safe, and calm. I couldn’t wait to see them the next morning to check how their night went.

When I came through the door it was dead silent.

I thought, “Uh oh…”

Walking back to their enclosure, I spotted the girls still roosting since I didn’t have a light timer waking them up anymore. Seeing me, a few offered contented clucks but all remained resting on their perches, so I snuck back out to let them sleep. Later, I went to check on them and found they had buried all the food and water dispensers under piles of wood shavings, and someone had laid an egg in the middle of the room rather than in the box I left for them.

Okay… so they weren’t completely happy yet. Raising the food and water containers on top of cement blocks and stacking a bunch of nesting boxes in a dark corner, I watched as the alpha and beta diligently checked all the nesting boxes to determine their favorite and pecking anyone that got in the way of the job at hand. By that afternoon I received 7 eggs! Surely, they were all feeling happier now.

After the move into the heated garage I needed to get back to Tractor Supply and determine what else they needed to get through the bug issue. Luckily, my favorite chicken lady was working the day I showed up asking for help with chicken lice. She set me up with a shaker of Garden and Poultry Dust, and a bag of Diatomaceous Earth to sprinkle in the nesting boxes, mix with the wood shavings, and add to a dust bath of sand and wood ash.

The Poultry Dust needed to be applied directly to all the birds, and since their undercarriages were the most affected area, the chicken lady advised hanging the birds upside-down by their feet in order to get a good coating of the powder within their feathers.

Talk about STRESS! My poor ladies were a squawking, powdered mess after I got done with them.

Thinking the one-time application would do the trick, it wasn’t until three weeks had gone by that I noticed Abbey-bird had ripped all the feathers off her back and bottom. Looking raw and bloodied, I got the blue spray back out and doused her good in order to help the wounds heal, as well as keep the other birds from killing her! Yes… they do that to any bleeding poultry in the fold.

Kicking myself for depending solely on the advice of one person rather than researching the strategy required to rid chickens of poultry lice, I started all over again… clean out the coop and nesting boxes. Put fresh litter and Diatomaceous Earth throughout the area including the nesting boxes and flip all the girls upside down and powder the shit out of them to kill any live lice crawling around on their behinds.

As researched, this process would need to be done every week for 3 weeks consecutively to kill the nits after they hatch.

After finishing week 3 of the process, I’m feeling a little gun shy about giving them a break. Especially since spotting Katie-bird’s bare-naked legs and lily-white buttocks prancing around the enclosure. Top it off, my girls are stressed right out laying only 3-4 eggs every other day rather than their daily 7-8 eggs. WILL THIS EVER END?!

At least they are enjoying their dust bath. The problem is everything in the garage is covered in dust. EVERYTHING! Even me just from walking into the place.

For spring, we have replaced an old shed that we plan to revamp into their new coop. This one will be thoroughly insulated and designed for the least amount of heat loss. Being an 8’x10’ coop, the area will also offer the girls plenty of space to get away from each other through the long winter months next year.

In the meantime, I am beefing up the protein snacks and offering extra vitamins to promote fluffy feather production.

We are all looking forward to spring when the girls can get back outside and enjoy some fresh air! Hopefully they will all have grown their feathers back by then!

Thanks so much for reading!

Until next time…

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If you would like to read the Crazy Chicken Chronicles in order, here are some handy links:

The Crazy Chicken Chronicles at the 44th Parallel, Part 1

The Crazy Chicken Chronicles at the 44th Parallel, Part 2

The Crazy Chicken Chronicles at the 44th Parallel, Part 3

The Crazy Chicken Chronicles at the 44th Parallel, Part 4

The Crazy Chicken Chronicles at the 44th Parallel, Part 5

Click Here to Read Other Past Stories

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