Natural Chicken Keeping

When Chickens Become Hedgehogs

Leigh Schlling Edwards

A brood of hedgehogs

Photo by Sue Strantz

I currently own a lovely flock of nearly 60 hedgehogs. I’m fairly certain they used to be chickens, but in the last few weeks a bizarre metamorphosis has occurred, leaving my birds spiny and odd-looking. In fact every year about this time my yard starts to look like there was a major pillow fight. Closer inspection would suggest the pillows lost!

The Pillows Lost

My once shiny, fluffy poultry begin to resemble walking rags. An overabundance of eggs dwindles to just a few each day. Strange objects start to appear in the nest boxes – eggs with ridges, fragile shells or even no shells at all. It’s like a chicken-zombie apocalypse!

Walking Rags

In the early to mid-fall of each year, chickens over the age of about 9 months will go through a molt at which time the old, ragged feathers they have worn for the last 12 months are shed and are replaced by healthy new feathers. This is nature’s way of providing birds with good protection against the elements before the colder weather sets in (usually) so those of us who keep poultry don’t find a coop full of hensicles after the first hard freeze. Of course every year there seems to be at least one poor hen that didn’t get the annual molting memo and suddenly goes 90% bald two days before the temperatures drop down to -3 Fahrenheit (like the one pictured above residing in a cage in a warm bathroom with some little “friends”).

So – let’s talk about the care and feeding of your hedgehogs chickens …


Growing new feathers takes lots of energy. The best way to help your flock is to make sure they have plenty of protein. Consider switching their feed to one that contains at least 20% protein until they have finished their molt. You can also supplement their diets with cat food, pelleted fish food or other products rich in meat proteins. If you are a hunter, remember that your chickens will enjoy all the parts of the deer/elk/turkey/etc that you don’t want. (Your little chicken zombies would love some brains … and hearts, and livers and unidentifiable innards!)

Reduction in Production:

During this time your hens will lay fewer eggs … or none at all. Before you send them to the stew pot, understand that most hens start laying again once they have recovered from their molt. Sure – some hens are lifetime freeloaders who don’t care to work in exchange for room and board, but depending on age (younger than 4 years) and breed (heritage breeds tend to lay for many years as opposed to production breeds which lay well for only 18 – 24 months), freeloader hens tend to be the exception and not the rule. (Remember that while the left wing and right wing may suggest different things about such a hen, both wings belong to the same bird … and taste the same once in the pot.)

If your hens are still laying, the eggs may be odd. You may get eggs with ridged shells or no shells at all. You could get teeny-tiny eggs (also known as “wind eggs” or “fart eggs”) and hens may even start eating their own eggs or their friends' eggs as they search for ways to consume more protein. Collect eggs regularly or put ceramic eggs in the nests to discourage egg eating during this time.

Chick Check:

Molting time is a great time to give your birds a once-over. With fewer feathers and less overall fluff, it is easier to find mites or lice that may have taken up residence on your birds. It is also easier to tell if your birds are of a good weight or need either a diet or deworming. The best time to catch and handle your birds is after they go to roost. Wait until dusk and take a flashlight and a helper. Check the birds one by one and then put them back on the roost. Wood ash is great for treating external parasites and ground up pumpkin seeds can be fed to your flock as a natural dewormer.

Feather Growth:

Pin Feathers

If you have chickens with bare spots, you will first notice a pimple-like bump developing, signaling the growth of a new feather. As the sheath of the feather lengthens it will appear to be a different color than the rest of the fully-grown feathers due to the blood supply in the shaft during development.

Pin Feathers 1

If a pin feather becomes damaged or broken, it can bleed quite a bit. The best thing to do if this happens is to use needle-nose pliers to gently pull out the pin feather at the base which will allow the bleeding to stop much sooner at the skin level. A new pin feather will develop and grow in the following weeks.

Pin feathers 2

Feather Sheath

As the blood supply recedes from the growing feather, a tuft will appear at the top of the sheath.


The feather sheath acts as a protective covering for the developing feather. As the feather barbules develop, the sheath flakes off, exposing the newly grown feather. During this time, your birds may appear to have horrific dandruff. No need to grab the Head & Shoulders shampoo – the flakey residue from the sheath will fall off as your chicken preens or takes a dust bath.

Feather Sheath 1

And Finally:

A few weeks after the molt begins, your birds will look better than ever. The filthy, dull, frayed feathers will be replaced with healthy, shiny, new feathers. Some birds may even appear larger than they did before molting because any broken or shredded feathers will be replaced with thick, full ones and down will be more abundant going into the cold months.


Swedish Flower Cock bird before and during a molt

Snoleopard Grew

Swedish Flower Hen before and after a molt - note how much larger she looks!

Most birds do finish their molt before the temperatures get harsh, and even those that don’t tend to do just fine as temperatures drop. If you have a bird go through an extreme molt during extreme temperature drops, then use your judgment. More than a few chicken keepers have snuck a hedgehog into a guest bathroom without their family’s knowledge.

Happy molting!

Response to CNN Factory Farm Abuse Story

On Saturday, March 15, 2014, CNN published an opinion piece by Jane Velez-Mitchell titled, Factory Meat, Cruel and Bad for Us.  While I am no fan of chickens living in battery cages or ruminant animals living in unnatural confinement, I am also not a fan of the misleading nature of Velez-Mitchell’s article.

Throughout her piece, Velez-Mitchell makes a number of points to back up her theory that “America's most intractable problems all double back to our collective mistreatment of animals.”

Rather predictably, Velez-Mitchell jumps right in with a quote by the Humane Society’s vice president Paul Shapiro stating that "Animal abuse is the norm in the meat industry. Many standard practices in animal agribusiness are so cruel that they're just out of step with mainstream American values about how animals ought to be treated."

Those are some pretty harsh words, and the allegations are based upon finding a number of instances of abuse at various factory farms. From the Humane Society’s web site: “In 2007, there were 20 reported neglect cases involving cows and eight involving pigs, down from 33 cow neglect cases and 11 pig neglect cases in 2006, and 26 cow neglect cases and nine pig neglect cases in 2005.” (Source)

The Humane Society’s report does not state how many individual animals were involved in these abuse and neglect cases, but to be fair we will assume it was abuse or neglect that may have affected the entire herd on the farm(s) implicated. There were approximately 89.3 million cattle between 935,000 farms and ranches in 2013 (according to numbers provided by and the USDA).

So – to state these numbers in a different way, there were 20 reported cases of abuse or neglect among those 935,000 farms and ranches. According to my calculator, that is one reported case of abuse or neglect for every 46,750 cattle ranches and farms.

In comparison, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that “For FFY 2012, 51 states reported 678,810 (unique count) victims of child abuse and neglect.” (Source)

Reports found on indicate there were approximately 73.7 million children in the U.S. during that year. (Source)

Now, I’m no math whiz … but even with my math skills it seems pretty clear that we treat our cattle better than we do our children on average in the U.S.

The next strike against factory meat and dairy farms, according to Velez-Mitchell, is the U.S. obesity crisis. She writes,The rise of obesity has paralleled the rise of fast food, laden with meat and dairy products: burgers and shakes.”  Velez-Mitchell seems to completely ignore the difference between fresh meat and dairy products and those sold at fast food restaurants. She then goes on to push the benefits of a plant-based diet. The differences between fresh meat/dairy and fast food burgers and shakes are comparable to the differences between apples and apple pie. Apples don’t make people fat, but add to them wheat flour, lard and tons of sugar and suddenly those apples become a heart attack in a pie tin. And let’s not overlook the fact that French fries (potatoes) are also plant based, but arguably still a contributor to our obesity crisis.

Apparently the U.S. health care crisis can also be blamed upon meat and dairy product. The article states, “Eating too much meat and dairy products, combined with excessive intake of sugars and starch, plays a big role in these medical issues.”

Eating too much of anything isn’t a good thing. And while the hope of the author may have been that the reader might quickly skim over the “excessive intake of sugars and starch” part, this is the very part that needs the spotlight placed upon it. In fact, a recent study by the CDC found that excessive sugar intake may be the biggest contributing factor to not only our obesity issue, but also our country’s issue with heart disease and type 2 diabetes. (Source)

The truth of the matter is that a diet of fruits, vegetables and plenty of lean meat (both red meat and white) and fish helps reduce cholesterol and the risks of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Because of the obesity and health care crisis, the article goes on to blame the meat and dairy industries for the US deficit… and it gets worse. Now natural disasters and weather anomalies can be attributed to these industries to because of the methane emissions of the animals.

US Greenhouse Gas Contributors


OK – let’s face it. Scientific studies have shown that the methane emissions from ruminant livestock do make up about 23% of the overall greenhouse gasses created by the U.S. Add to that an additional 9% from manure management, and we can attribute the livestock industry with the creation of 32% of all greenhouse gasses. (Yes – scientists have actually studied cow flatulence…) But – do you know what accounts for 41% of our greenhouse gasses? Natural gas and petroleum systems and coal mining.

The deforestation of the rainforests for the purposes of creating pastureland for cattle is another factor cited … she doesn’t mention the fact that a large percent of the deforestation can be attributed crop farming, wildfires and the cultivation of timber. (We can’t blame it all on the cattle!)

The article makes no mention of the 8.4 million acres of U.S. land that has been affected by coal mining or the nearly 40 million acres of U.S. land currently under lease for oil and gas production.

Velez-Mitchell wraps up the article by contending that World hunger could be eliminated if all the produce fed to cows, chickens and pigs raised for human consumption was distributed directly to hungry humans.” This statement leads me to wonder if she knows that cattle are often fed fermented chicken droppings among other things. Or that the commercially marketed feeds for cattle, pigs and chickens are often made up of grains generally not fit for human consumption.

And one more point about a completely vegan diet … considering how grains, fruits and vegetables are propagated and grown these days (think GMOs, insecticides and a focus on the bottom line instead of the health values of these foods), I worry about the effects of these things on our health and longevity. What will we know about these farming methods in 50 years that we don’t know now? And what will the long-term effects be?

Once again – I am not a fan of keeping animals in unnatural and uncomfortable settings, nor am I a fan of excessive use of antibiotics and hormones in these animals. This is why I do as much as I can to grow my own food and buy pasture-raised meats. Instead of accusing and finger pointing, what if the answers lie in getting back to the way nature intended things to be? What if we pushed to have more animals raised in a fashion more in line with the way they were meant to live? What if humans quit eating exorbitant amounts of sugars, chemicals and GMOs? And what if we all came to the understanding that there is no ONE answer to all that ails us. It took a long time for us to get ourselves into this mess – and it is going to take a long time to get out of it.

We Donated a Chicken to Science and Now We Have a Trick Chicken in the Yard

Leigh Schlling EdwardsMy daughter likes science ... in theory. She enjoys the experiments in class and blowing stuff up, but those darn test grades just proved a bit out of reach. She needed a way to boost her grades, and Penny, our Production Red hen, was just the chicken to help her.

Up until she was donated to science, Penny was just your average Production Red hen. She spent her time chasing bugs, hunting lizards and faithfully laying an egg a day. Then life changed when she was brought into the house once or twice a day for training sessions. As far as Penny was concerned, she was brought into the people house and had the opportunity to earn unlimited scratch ... her favorite!! This suited her just fine, thank you!

Penny - Lizard's Bane

It didn't take Penny long to figure out exactly what was expected from her. In the first training session, my daughter had her pecking a picture of a star for a reward ... you know - because Penny is a star! In just a few sessions, Penny would pick out that star no matter how many other options there were - including options that looked like bugs or worms ... YUM!

Penny attending to the work of being a chicken

Then one day Penny was put into a pet carrier and taken to school. While most chickens might have completely freaked out, Penny acted like she did this kind of thing every day. Eventually she was allowed out of the carrier and found herself standing on a lab table in front of a class of children along with numerous teachers and other staff members who had heard there was going to be a chicken at school. (The heck with Mary's little lamb! This chicken is one amazing mother clucker!)

Unfortunately I was too tied up handling cards and props to get a video of the amazing performance, but we reenacted the whole thing for your viewing pleasure!

Click HERE to see Penny's amazing intelligence... and appetite...

After her performance, Penny was lovingly lugged about the class so that all the kids could shower her with adoration and praise. Queen Penny seemed to enjoy the entire process.

And yes – my kid got her first A+ in science!

Super Simple Flourless Egg Bread

Believe it or not - it's just made from eggs, herbs and spices! Yum!

Leigh Schlling EdwardsAbout two years ago I found out that I could no longer eat any gluten/wheat products. The news hit me about the same way as if someone had said I was not allowed to breathe air ever again. I mean ... are you kidding me?? Can life as we know it possibly continue at a table devoid of gluten?

As if suddenly going completely gluten free in my 40s wasn't hard enough, I soon came to realize that gluten-free (GF) bread loaves cost roughly four times what a regular loaf of bread costs at the store ... but they are about one-third the size, have the consistency of drywall and the flavor of cardboard.

*This is just my opinion from personal experience, and may not represent all store-purchased loaves of gluten free bread.

Because my family doesn't have that kind of extra dough to spend on a barely palatable loaf of bread (sorry – don’t punch me for attempting to rise to the occasion with bad puns), I looked into the possibility of making my own GF bread.

You know, when you make a basic loaf of regular bread, the main ingredient is all-purpose flour. Apparently if you wish to make an edible loaf of GF bread, you first need to possess a veritable arsenal of no less than five different types of odd and unusual flours: soy flour, white rice flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, garbanzo bean flour, millet flour, brown rice flour, xanthan gum … (what the heck is xanthan gum???) ... and our local country grocery store doesn’t stock these items … and, in fact, had never even heard of most of them. The only place I could locate many of the necessary ingredients was online ... and to purchase all the ingredients and have them shipped would cost ... about 10 times what it would cost to bake a normal loaf of bread.

So … I got creative. And I mean, crazy chicken lady creative!

So here is what I came up with. Is it real bread? NO. Will it satisfy a craving or help make a sandwich? YES.

And best yet, the ingredients can be modified to make anything from sandwich bread to garlic bread to gingerbread!

7 Fresh Eggs at room temperatureSandwich Bread Ingredients:

7 farm fresh eggs at room temperature

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 cup sugar (or the equivalent of your favorite sweetener)

Dash of salt

1/4 teaspoon caramel-flavored extract, optional

1/4 cup oat bran, optional (but it does give it a more bread-like texture)

Egg whites


1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Separate eggs.

3. Combine egg whites, cream of tartar, salt and sugar.

4. Using a mixer, beat on High until stiff peaks form.

Beaten egg whites with stiff peaks forming.

5. Mix in caramel extract and oat bran.

Caramel ExtractOat Bran

6. Briefly mix in egg yolks (don’t beat for more than 10 seconds – just get them mixed in a bit).

Add egg yolks.

7. Put mixture into a greased 8x8-inch square pan, a 9x5-inch loaf pan, or the equivalent.


8. Bake at 350 F for 35 minutes or until flaky and golden brown on top. (You may need to experiment with what bake times work best for your oven. If it is too moist and "eggy" inside, cook your next loaf for an extra 5 minutes.)

Loaf of egg bread.

9. Because of the lighter texture and consistency, I have found that slicing the loaf like a hamburger bun works best. (Yields 2 servings.) Fill with your favorite sandwich fillings and EAT!

For variations, mix in the following ingredients when you mix in the oat bran:


2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

2/3 cup sugar (total)

Gingerbread ingredients.

Garlic Bread:

1 tablespoon ground garlic powder

1 teaspoon ground onion powder

1 teaspooon salt (or to taste)

And get creative!

See? Egg art! (That's really kind of pretty!)

Get creative! Egg art!And when I get really creative...

blue vortex 

"Watch out, Ma! It's a swirling vortex of doom! And I think it just ate Big Bird!"

Oh, wait ... I guess I didn't mean that kind of creative. *sheepish grin* (My internal artist just ran amok.)

What I mean is, with this recipe, the possible variations are almost as endless as a swirling vortex of eggy delight. Try different herbs, spices and flavors. Just avoid things like fruit purees that may take all the fluff out of the egg whites.

Because the eggs are light, things like blueberries will sink to the bottom – but this will create a neat layered appearance.

Please let me know if you try this and what you think! I'd love to hear what creative and tasty combinations you come up with so I can try it too!


Natural Chicken Keeping Blog

Keeping Chickens Healthy in the Cold Weather

Leigh Schlling EdwardsIt’s cold – and I do mean COLD in many areas of the United States and Canada right now, and over and over again people are asking about what measures need to be taken to protect their chickens though this arctic insanity.

The answer I give over and over is simply, “not too much.”

Cold feet !

As humans we tend to humanize our critters, saying to ourselves, “If it’s too cold for me, it must be too cold for my _______ (insert type of livestock here).” Too often we fail to note the massive physical differences and coping styles of our furry or feathery wards, and ourselves.

Put quite frankly, as homo sapiens we are physically one of the most bizarre and unlikely protectorates of the animal kingdom. While other animals have been granted a wide array of survival skills, instincts and automatic seasonal wardrobe changes, our own biggest asset is intelligence. And as great as intelligence is, intelligence alone does little to keep us warm in a hostile environment.

So – what do you need to do for your chickens? The following advice is for flocks of fully feathered, mature and healthy birds:

1. Ventilation. Ventilation is of utmost importance when the temperatures drop into the “Oh sweet Mary and Joseph it’s COLD,” range. Do NOT close up all the windows and vents – you need to leave something open.

Open vents in this cold? Have I lost my marbles?

Yes – I believe my last marble was lost some time ago by my children, but that has little to do with this particular blog post.

The reason ventilation is so important is to avoid frostbite. Yes – avoid frostbite. You see, any living critter that breathes will release moisture into the air and if that moisture can not escape, it becomes a problem.

A visual example of this is the defrost setting in your car or truck. On a cold or wet day, what happens if you forget to put the defrost setting on? Your windshield fogs up. This is caused when the heat and moisture you are emitting when you breathe condenses on the colder surface of the windshield.

Same thing happens in your barn or chicken coop. Think of those windows or vents under the eaves as your coop’s defroster. These vents allow the moisture to escape. If the moisture can’t escape, it will condense on the warm, exposed comb and wattles of your chickens … and freeze there. This causes frostbite.

Frostbite = Bad. Ventilation = Good.

Rooster in the snow

2. Dodge the draft. You want your ventilation to be above the level of your birds because moisture rises. You want to let the moisture escape, but you do not want open windows or vents at the same level as your birds. This is the wind chill factor thing at play. When it is frigid outside, that wind just intensifies the “oh-my-land-I’m-miserably-uncomfortable” factor in a big way.

If your birds are housed in a structure with a lot of gaps in the walls, consider creating a wind-block at roost level by stapling or nailing up some empty feed bags, tarps or plastic on the inside walls of the coop. Don’t worry too much about the areas below or above where your birds roost, but make sure the roost area itself is well protected from drafts.

Icy chicken wire

3. Water. You need to find a way to provide your flock with water a few times a day. In the coldest climates this may mean bringing fresh water out to your flock at least two or three times each day. Other methods include wrapping heat tape around a waterer, chicken-size freeze-resistant solar water troughs, heated dog bowls, and so-on. If you choose to use electricity in or around your coop, I can not stress enough that precautions need to be taken to avoid a fire hazard!

One note I need to add on the water thing is that if the temperatures will be in the negative digits, be sure your birds can’t step or fall into the water. Water can flash-freeze on a bird’s extremities and cause instant frostbite in these temperatures. You can help avoid this kind of situation by placing rocks in the bottom of the water dish. This will serve two purposes; it will prevent birds from getting into the water, and the rocks will also help maintain heat in a heated bowl.

Hens finding treats in the snow


So what about young, ill or frail birds?
Obviously the very young, very old and the infirm flock members will be at the highest risk of succumbing to the cold.

Do not rely on a heat lamp in the barn to keep sensitive birds or chicks warm enough in sub-zero temperatures. First, heat lamps are the No. 1 cause of coop fires. It is very risky to have a heat lamp in areas filled with dust and flammable bedding materials.

Second, with temperatures going well below zero, a heat lamp will not be able to create an ambient temperature high enough to keep young chicks or frail birds warm enough. Chicks especially need to be relocated to a room that has its own heat source or that is capable of maintaining a high enough ambient temperature to prevent hypothermia.

That said, chicks under a broody hen should be OK as long as they can not accidentally become separated from mom – say by falling out of a raised nest box.

Chick under a broody hen.And … that’s pretty much it. As a chicken keeper, do what you can to protect them from frostbite, drafts, dehydration and fire, and from there – well, just understand they are very well equipped to manage in cold temperatures. Chickens have been around for thousands of years, and in that time it has been necessary for them to acclimate to all kinds of weather extremes.

Lastly, understand chickens that are prone to heart failure are more likely to die during extreme cold snaps. If you take the above precautions and still find that a bird has passed away on an extremely cold night, it’s not your fault. It was just a matter of time for that particular bird.

And with that, stay intelligent and keep your human selves warm this week!

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This Season, Don't Forget Your Chickens!

Leigh Schlling Edwards‘Tis the season, and we all know what that means! It means Black Friday is always spent tracking down and bringing home…

… that perfect trophy buck! And in my case it means spending the rest of the day explaining to my youngest child that I am not, in fact, skinning one of Santa’s reindeer.

Oh – what? You thought I was going to say “Black Friday Shopping?” OK – we can call it “deer shopping” if that’s your thing…

For us, deer hunting is one of the primary ways we feed our family through the winter months (and spring, summer and fall if we do really well). We also supplement our diets by raising chickens for both eggs and meat.

Have you ever thought about how deer hunting and chicken keeping could be partnered in the perfect symbiotic relationship? OK – neither had I until I got into an online discussion with some other chicken-keeping friends about boosting meat protein in the diets of our flocks. And that’s when the “why didn’t I think of that” suggestion was brought up of keeping most of the deer organs you would normally discard while field dressing a deer. 

Hunting is somewhat of a family tradition. My father was born and raised in Wyoming, and his mother taught him all there was to know about hunting deer and elk. Like most parents passing on important knowledge, she taught him about field dressing … and now here I come, the 40-something whippersnapper that I am, hollering about not leaving all those wonderful organs behind!

Personally I toss the intestines, though there are plenty of other uses for those too. But as for the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver … well if you’re not going to eat them, your chickens certainly will! And to top it off, it’s good for them. These organs (especially the liver and kidneys) are rich in vitamins A, B and iron. If left to their own devices, nearly 80 percent of a chicken’s diet is made up of bugs. Chickens will also happily hunt lizards, field mice and other forms of meat protein to supplement their diets.

It’s important to know that most commercial chicken feeds have no meat protein in them at all – they are heavily regulated by the FDA concerning ruminant meat protein … but that’s fodder for a whole different article there! Unfortunately, this vegetarian diet is not the most natural diet for chickens.

So – we bring the hearts, kidneys, livers and a few other choice pieces home and, once I have processed the rest of the deer, I toss these things as well as the tongues, testes and brains into the meat grinder and create treats that my chickens will fight over!

chicken treat
Manual meat grinder with chicken treat

When you grind these organs, expect the result to be a bit watery and mushy. Sort of a pungent, gelatinous ooze of vitamin-rich goodness. But don’t discard the liquid. It will help these treats freeze together nicely. (Expect young children … and perhaps some old children … to wrinkle their noses at the livery smell … and then offer them some for a good laugh!)

For easy, serving-size treats, I use a muffin pan and cut tin foil into squares to use as liners … but if you’ve got your Martha Stewart on, you can use decorative cupcake liners to create a lovely ambiance and accent the succulent, hacked up innards you will soon be serving your poultry. (Let’s just call it “pâté,” shall we?)

chicken treat
DIY frozen protein-rich chicken treats in a muffin tin

I use an old ladle to fill each place in the muffin pan. Then I loosely cover the whole thing with a sheet of tinfoil or parchment paper and precariously balance the muffin pan in the chest freezer atop the rest of my packaged venison meant for human consumption.

Once frozen, I remove the mini pâtés from the muffin pan and put them in a freezer bag or other freezer-safe container. In this form, they will stay fresh for quite some time.

I serve these to my chickens twice a week, and I use about one pâté for every 10 birds. The treats are usually gone in an hour or so, and I notice the chickens aren’t as interested in the regular chicken feed the days I serve pâté.

So … next time you field dress a deer, remember – don’t leave all that FREE chicken food behind!

chicken treat
Hen and rooster enjoying a DIY, protein-rich chicken treat