Life On Gabriola Island

A Chicken Keeper’s Snowy Holiday: 2

My last post of 2021 was titled A Chicken Keeper’s Snowy Holiday: 2021 Ends With A Bang. Déjà vu, it’s happened all over again, like a flashback or bad dream.

I had, literally, just wrapped up my post about a frustrating couple of weeks dealing with the aftermath of snow and wind gusts when we were hit with another storm system. Folks say that Canadians talk a lot about the weather. Maybe that’s true, but I assumed it’s commonplace where people actually have to deal with the fallout of various weather systems.

I live on a small ferry dependent island off the west coast of Canada. I’ve been here exactly 22 years and in that time, particularly the last five years we’ve seen greater vacillations in our normal patterns: hotter, drier summers; more, or sometimes, less rain; colder winters with windstorms and snow. We can no longer predict what is ‘normal’ and brace ourselves for each new season and what it might bring. Last autumn was unusually warm and dry which I thoroughly enjoyed, but waited for the other shoe to drop knowing that a harsh winter was predicted.

Three weeks ago, a rather short-lived snow and windstorm sent my small community of 4500 people into chaos when we lost electricity, cable, landline phone and internet services for days. We recovered from that event which was quickly followed by another snowfall, different from the first. This time, although there was far more snow, it was light and dry and not accompanied by winds. That’s the dreaded combination that brings trees and power lines down. Mercifully we didn’t lose our electrical power.

Day 1: -6C/21F  It was Monday, six days before Christmas and I was at work, but decided to head home early with bags of groceries and 45 lbs of chicken feed in my car. I left my vehicle at the roadside and made several trips to the house, slogging down my driveway, which was covered with snow. It’s roughly 300 paces long and I made three round trips before calling it a day. The chicken feed would have to wait until I could drive right up to my coop to unload it. At 61, I’m past the stage where I wanted to attempt that feat.

My partner had been diligently tending my flock in my absence: carrying out fresh water, and knocking snow off the netting and tarps. As soon as I got home I did more of the same. My birds can deal with rain or cold, but detest snow and won’t venture out unless forced to. The problem is their water is kept in the run and dehydration could be an issue so keeping their water topped up in freezing conditions is a constant task.

The good news was I found three eggs in the main coop and another three from the teenagers, which was the best daily total since late September. Between the shorter days and molting, most of my hens packed in egg production for a well-deserved rest.

The bad news was I had issues with my automatic door on my main coop opening and closing at the times I wanted. I fiddled with the set up, holding the instruction manual, cursing under my breath, while my fingers froze. I’m happy to report I managed to figure out the problem and everything worked properly. (Full disclosure: I am impatient with technology and don’t always read the instructions fully before attempting to put something together).

Day 2: Every time I looked out the window more snow was falling. This was supposed to be my last day at work before 13 days off, but there was no way I was going to get there. Our local bus was cancelled and the ferry was delayed due to staff shortages because of the storm. As soon as I got the woodstove going I bundled up to deal with my birds. I brought out more water and food, and knocked more snow off the tarps. I was thankful that it was the fluffy stuff that slid off easily. I wasn’t thankful for the sheer amount of it, although conceded that it was pretty and brought stillness outside. No cars, no generators, no noise. We were snug in our homes, but trapped by the snow.

I alternated between wearing my pyjama bottoms and my jeans, each time getting snowy and wet and having to dry them by the woodstove. I discovered, rather belatedly that the elastic waistband in my pjs wasn’t quite up to snuff; each time I moved or walked my bottoms slid a little further down. With no free hands I just had to live with it and was glad no one was there as witness.

I tried to tempt my birds to venture out into the big pen by shoveling a path from the coop and then, under two covered areas. I tossed some food on the ground as an added incentive. A few of brave ones did make it out. I had to laugh because one after another they crouched at the gate and I could just imagine them counting 1, 2, 3, ready, set, go before they flew out. The funny part was every one of them landed in a pile of snow instead of the nicely clearly area. So much for chicken eye-wing-feet coordination.

Another highlight: although there were no eggs from the main coop my girls in the back laid six. They were all born in May, but I’m not sure which ones are laying or not. Although most of the 13 came from blue or green eggs, so far it looks like I only have three coloured egg layers.

Day 3: Daytime high -5C/23F. More getting up, lighting the fire and heading out with food and water for my flock. I was amazed that despite their inactivity, having spent most of the last couple of days hunched up in the coop they were eating like wolverines. I topped up their food several times. They had given up leaving the small run so I didn’t bother leaving food beyond where it could easily be reached.

Our neighbours were supposed to come for dinner, but had to cancel due to illness. We ate egg salad sandwiches while watching Netflix.

It seems pointless trying to keep the house clean when each time we (dog included) came inside we left a trail of melting snow and puddles on the floor.

Day 4: The temperature dipped to -10C/14F the night before, which meant the compacted snow turned to crunchy ice. The roads were clear for driving, but treacherous if you were walking. There was no wind, the trees were still, the air crisp.

I volunteer with our local food recovery program. The social service agency picks up unsold produce, dairy, baked good and non-perishables daily from our main grocery store, then sorts them into three categories: people food, animal food and compost. The former goes to the food bank, soup socials, the school lunch program and to seniors’ groups. I pick up produce on the weekends and divide all kinds of fruits, veggies, sprouts and tofu between other chicken keepers and me. Each year, when the agency is closed I do the pick up over the holidays. This was the first day. I checked the cooler and there were 25 totes! My hatchback can fit 12. I squeezed in what I could and dropped it off at a hobby farm that has alpacas, mini horses, goats and chickens. I usually take the totes home to hose out and return them but left them there until my driveway was clear and my hose had thawed.

I mostly take things destined for my birds, but the bonus today was two boxes of baked goods. I left most of it at the farm, but did snag some organic bagels, cheese bread and a carrot cake for us, and a tote of sprouts, cherry tomatoes, and salad mixes for the flock. The long walk down my driveway determined how much I wanted to carry. That, and the fact that the subzero temperatures were freezing whatever they didn’t eat right away. No point taking more than they could use.

I headed out to the coops at 2pm. The teenagers, who have a large tarped and protected area, stayed outside for the day, but the main flock hunkered down in the coop, out of sheer disgust. If chickens could talk there’d be a lot of “WTF?!”

The forecast was dismal: 5-10cms/2”-4” of snow expected overnight, followed by ice pellets and freezing rain. I made sure there was no snow left on my tarps and netting or it was likely to freeze and the weight could bring them down. Driving conditions would be iffy and the trees, laden with snow, might start to come down. There’s nothing worse than being trapped at home without power, TV or internet services. I crossed my fingers and waited, hoping for the best-case scenario.

We’d been expecting family to come visit on Christmas for two nights and had been watching the forecast trying to figure out if it was even feasible. At this point, we threw in the towel knowing that the highway conditions would be icy and there’d be no way that our driveway would be accessible, even though it was three days away.

Five eggs from the teenagers, two of them are blue. No complaints here.

Day 5: I’m someone who likes to shower and dress first thing in the morning. You’ll never catch me lounging in my pyjamas at noon, but here I am, in and out of pjs and jeans, back and forth between the coops and the house. Even with the woodstove going I wear my robe when working on my computer upstairs. The time seems to drag on and I forget what day it is and that Christmas is just around the corner.  The forecast is for rising temperatures and rain starting tomorrow, Christmas Eve, so there may be no white stuff after all.

It snowed a little overnight, not much, but enough to add to the foot high pile. The freezing rain and ice pellets never materialized.

I checked both coops and all seemed well. On my second round I dug out a path to encourage the main coop birds to stretch their legs. Very few of them took me up on my offer. One of my hens had rales – it sounded like she was honking when she breathed. Chickens don’t get ‘colds’ from being cold, but low temperatures are a stressor that can trigger underlying issues. The same goes for being cooped up for days. Chickens don’t fare well with boredom and overcrowding. I try hard to make their lives as simple and easy as possible to avoid them getting sick.

On my third time out I found one of the teenaged hens lying on her side. At first I thought she was dust bathing (they have access to loose soil under their coop), but it quickly became apparent that she was ill. I scooped her up and took her into the house. She’s my blue egg layer that started laying at a record early age for my flock – just 4½ months old. I gave her a once over: her crop was empty and her keel felt sharp, both signs that she’d not been eating enough for awhile. Fluffy feathers can easily hide signs of weight loss.

She was able to move both legs, but couldn’t curl her toes on one side, classic signs of sciatic nerve paralysis associated with Marek’s Disease. Maybe it wasn’t but it has been a threat that looms over me. I lost several birds to Marek’s in 2020, then none the following year, then just two last year. It’s a virus that mostly affects young birds 7-9 weeks old or around sexual maturity which makes my teenagers prime candidates.

I set her up in a sick bay near the woodstove; she was weak and not very responsive. I could see her breathing and felt she was actively dying. I swaddled her in a towel and propped her on my computer desk not wanted her to die alone. After a bit she was fidgety so I returned her to the crate. Within minutes I heard scrabbling from downstairs. It sounded like she’d had a seizure. My 11 year old poodle thought someone was knocking at the door and practically broke a hip flying down the stairs to investigate. My hen was still alive, but barely. A second seizure took her moments later. I was amazed how fast she passed and will get a necropsy to find out her cause of death. I’ll be forced to freeze her since it’s the holidays and the lab won’t be open.

I went to bed feeling sad about the loss of one of my birds and relieved to hear soft rain on my metal roof.

Day 6: We have finally turned a corner. It rained throughout the night and most of the day. You can imagine the slushy mess left behind, but the overnight temperature of 7C/45F is well above freezing so all that precipitation will be gone in a few days. My driveway is still a mess; I opted to walk it, but tomorrow I’ll bring the food recovery totes and chicken feed home.

My birds were out and about, happy to have more freedom. Everyone looks healthy so whatever my young hen had doesn’t appear to be contagious.

More good news: This is the first year I’ve had rats living in my coop. I won’t poison them, but have had success with snap traps. I caught this one and put it out for our resident ravens, which I know can eat eggs and kill chickens but my flock is well protected. Not only are the ravens welcome on my property, they serve to keep hawks away. They’ve learned to fly by their dish several times a day to see if we’ve left anything interesting out for them. The rat was a much appreciated winter snack for them.

Day 7: I feel quite virtuous today. There were 14 crates of various kinds of milk, yoghurt, juice and cream donated to the food recovery program. I managed to find homes for some of it, but I think the majority will end up in the landfill. The staff forgot to put the produce in the outside cooler so I was a bit miffed to find nothing there, but I imagine it’ll be waiting for me tomorrow.

My main coop was getting a bit stinky since the flock barely went outside for five days. I was concerned that the accumulation of poop could lead to the build up of ammonia which can cause damage to chicken eyes and respiratory systems. I haven’t cleaned my house all week but their coop got a deep clean. By the time I was finished with chores I tossed my clothes in the laundry, which was warranted, given that I’ve been wearing them for days.

The rain continued. I got my car down the driveway. The chicken feed got unloaded. I trapped another rat. All in all, that was a good day for a chicken keeper.

Day 8: Despite most of the province being under a weather advisory which included wind, snow and freezing rain it appears we dodged a bullet and have returned to our normal weather pattern. The snow melted in record time, aided by the significant rain and balmy temperatures. I even heard a couple of tree frogs croaking in the forest.

My flock is also back to normal, happy they no longer feel the need to be confined to the coop. Everyone seems healthy (including the hen with rales). My holiday, thus far, has been a bit of bust. I’m glad I’m no longer a kid anticipating the celebratory events at this time of year. I’m thankful that things could have been worse and hope we’re moving towards more reasonable weather.

Since 2018 we have endured three Christmas seasons that have been hit by wind and snowstorms. We’ve set records for cold temperatures and overall snowfall. Frankly, I’m over it. Sadly, this appears to be our new normal. I’m really hoping that this type of post doesn’t become my annual tradition in which I document our challenges, frustrations and a wrench in our holiday plans.

4 comments on “A Chicken Keeper’s Snowy Holiday: 2

  1. I enjoyed reading this. My flock of 16 is in sunny California 5 miles from the coast

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Helen Hepworth

    Such a joy to read how the rest of the world copes with snow. I’m in the U.K. and although we’ve had some cold snaps it’s never as cold as Canada! Hats off (inside of course) to you for coping. Your girls will thank you for it. Well, inside their feather heads they might! You may not see it on their faces. Hope Santa bought you a new pair of P.J. bottoms! Nobody wants frozen parts!!!
    Take care and keep those stories coming.
    Many thanks Helen. Suffolk. U.K.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mary Gelezunas

    I enjoyed reading about your winter activities. You take great care of your feathery ones. So sorry for the loss of your teenage hen.

    Liked by 1 person

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