Monday, March 10, 2014

Dear visitors and friends,

When I first started leading programs at Historic Wagner Farm, talking about our flock of chickens during our Moving About the Farm program gave me the most trouble. Filling that 15 minutes on chickens was excruciating for me. So... I picked my daughter’s brain for information since she had worked at the Farm for a couple of years. She was a great help, but I felt I needed more “stuff” to talk about.

I began observing the chickens and formulating questions that I would pose to Joyce and Frank, the two experienced programmers at the Farm. When I began to feel like a pest, I started researching on my own. I have to say, though my favorite animals are the horses, I have found chickens to be fascinating. Here are some of the questions I've asked and the interesting things I've learned(at least to me):

What is the purpose of the red parts on a chicken's head?
Chickens have a red, fleshy crest on the top of their heads called a comb, and a fleshy part hanging below their beaks called a wattle. Though wattles and combs are often associated as a rooster trait, hens also have them.

Chickens have wattles and combs for two main reasons. First, combs are used to attract potential mates. Second, these parts of the chicken serve as a cooling system. Blood circulates through the comb and wattle where it can easily release heat to the surrounding air. So they operate the way a radiator in a car operates.

Why is the ground sunken and uneven in the hen yard?
The fenced area outside of the hen house is called the "run". While it may look like chickens are pecking and digging in the yard for food, this isn't what they are usually doing.

Chickens clean themselves by taking dust/dirt baths. They dig in the run and dust themselves with dirt, then shake themselves to work the dust down to the skin where it will absorb old oil and discourage lice and mites. Then they shake themselves off and begin to use their beaks to arrange their feathers and to spread fresh oil from a gland at the base of their tail.

Of course, if they find a worm or insect while digging in the run, they eagerly eat it!

Why do the chickens lose their feathers?
Chickens shed their old feathers and grow new ones. When a chicken loses its feathers it's called "molting". Adult chickens molt about once a year, between laying periods. The whole process of molting can take 6 weeks or longer.

Interested in learning more about chickens? Stay tuned for future letters from me, or stop by the Farm and ask one of our volunteers or staff members a few questions!