Did you know that if you water chickens with a watering can, they grow faster? Of course you didn’t! And of course they don’t!
We have house sat for friends with poultry numerous times -it was on one of these occasions that we acquired the late lamented Dick van Duck- so we knew that there are potential problems if the weather gets too hot for chickens, the most serious being that they could die.
The winter here in Fuente Amarga was so cold that we thought we might lose them to the cold, and there was talk of knitting them hats and scarves. Now, however, we have a very different problem. You might say the polar opposite.
When chickens are too hot, they spread their wings away from their bodies and gape. The sight of them on the Chicken Feed, shuffling uncomfortably about in the coop, beaks wide open, panting slightly, had us very concerned several times. This was when the night temperature was lower than now, but we did not have much ventilation for them.
Apparently, a chicken’s body generates about ten watts of heat an hour, so you would only need to keep a hundred chickens to heat a small sitting room to a comfortable but stinky degree. Combine their heat generating super- powers with a confined space, and it was easy to see why they were suffering.
Rosemary rigged up a fan for them and Geoff spent a morning drilling holes in the coop walls. The chickens did not show a great deal of gratitude, but the body language in the coop improved, and for a while they could be seen peacefully sleeping, heads tucked under their wings and obviously more comfortable.
The hope was that we would be able to move over to the new house, and have a well-ventilated and insulated chicken palace ready for them in the grounds, before the heat of July and August set in. This was always going to be a tad optimistic, and did not allow for summer coming early.
Fifty-two degrees in Seville!
Heatwave set to strike the Iberian peninsula!
Chickens to die in their thousands!
One of the above was not an actual headline, but it should have been.
Rosemary expressed concern from the frozen wastes of Manchester, and we expressed it here. We cannot install air conditioning down in Camp Chicken, and the tarpaulin affords some shade, but does not stop the oppressive heat. The coop is secure against predators, but only when the door is closed, so the heat at night was a serious concern.
We filled bowls and buckets of water, as well as the usual drinking water containers and dotted them around the chicken enclosure. The chickens like to paddle a little, so we hoped they would take a dip when they were feeling hot.
We had not allowed for their toweringly abysmal intellectual capabilities. They huddled miserably in a dusty corner and watched while the water evaporated. The garden did a fair impression of a blast furnace. The stillness of the air was punctuated by the quiet sizzling of the sap evaporating in the rapidly dying wild flowers, and the desiccated rustling of falling leaves.
A beetle gasped microscopically as his tiny feet developed blisters from walking on the hard-baked clay of the garden. Ants poked their heads out of holes and thought better of coming out. It was hot.
I had read somewhere that dunking chickens in a bucket of water could save them from heat prostration, and Rosemary had discussed it on chicken keeping forums – yes, there are some – so I decided I had better swing into action.
Cordelia was easy to dunk. During her recent brush with death, she discovered that I was a ministering angel, adept at massaging engorged crops and syringe feeding olive oil. She has been noticeably tamer since then, and is often eager for a cuddle, while the others are more stand-offish.
I grabbed her firmly, holding her body between my hands, with her wings pinned to her sides.
“Come on, Cordelia, it’s time for a dunking.”
I am fairly sure that the ladies don’t have the brains to understand what I say to them, but they do seem to respond to tone of voice, so I was calm and reassuring. Think compassionate nurse wielding a large syringe and saying “Just a little prick,” and you will have a close approximation.
It was the work of a moment to stuff Cordelia into the tub of water I had waiting. I basted her with water with one hand, while steadying her with the other, and then picked her up and ducked her head under the water. She was surprisingly unruffled by the experience, and walked away shaking herself a little, but not gaping or panting at all.
Celestine was less amenable, but still submitted with fairly good grace. As long as the immersion was done smoothly and swiftly, all seemed to be well.
Bebe and Cecille were reluctant. Cordelia and Celestine were warbling “Come on in, it’s lovely!” or the equivalent, but the babies took a little convincing before I could catch them and dunk them. I was developing a technique: catch in two hands, plonk into the tub, push them down to a sort of crouch, and splash water over their backs, push their fronts down and splash their chests, and then pick them up and dunk their head briefly.
I left Parmesina and Doodle Doo for last. They are developing embryonic power couple tendencies, with stroppy diva over and undertones.
Parmesina was furious and did not care who knew. I dunked her anyway, muttering “You will thank me for this in the end, you know.” She struggled so much that I had no free hand to baste her with the water. I had to content myself with pushing her body low into the water and then ducking her head and neck into the bucket. Doodle Doo was even worse.
The effect of the dunking was impressive and immediate. Their wings stayed by their sides, and the gaping and panting completely stopped. I left the six of them quietly walking around, picking at the ground and preening.
I had an appointment in town, so I asked Geoff to keep an eye on them, and dunk them again in an hour or so. Geoff has not had as close contact with the chickens as Rosemary and I, so I wondered how he would get on. I forgot to check the temperature display on the Farmacia thermometer, but locals were muttering about it being an oven, so I deduced it was very hot. I have since heard it was the hottest May day on record since 1912.
When I returned home, Geoff was chuckling about his foray into the world of chicken dunking.
“I tried watering them with the watering can, but they weren’t having any of it,” he explained. I wished I had CCTV down in Camp Chicken.
“Then I thought I had better dunk them, but I couldn’t catch them, and I thought chasing them in this heat was probably counter-productive.” I had to agree on that one.
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“I’ve filled up loads of buckets and bowls so they can have a paddle if they want to.”
I went to have a look over the railing. The babies were standing about in a corner, looking fairly content and relaxed, while the ladies were at the other end of the enclosure, scratching about in the dust in a desultory fashion. I decided to leave them to it.
I dunked them all again before I shut them in the coop for the night. It felt a little like giving a baby a soothing bath to calm him down at bedtime.
At about one thirty this morning, I was chatting with Rosemary on the computer, and we got onto the subject of the chickens. I flipped on the web cam to check on them.
Doodle Doo was standing on the perch with his neck stretched, wings raised and beak gaping. Parmesina was shuffling about panting and the others were all showing signs of distress.
Grabbing the torch from behind the kitchen door, I crept down the stairs to the garden. The thermometer read an uncomfortable thirty-four degrees. No wonder the poor chickens were looking miserable!
The ability to carry a large bowl of water with a torch tucked under your armpit, while dodging thistles and potholes is a handy skill at such a time.
I opened the coop door and peered into the fusty, chicken scented gloom. Quietly concerned chuntering ensued, as the chickens blinked against the light of the torch.
Should you wish to try your hand at chicken dunking, I suggest you make your first attempt in the dark. The inconvenience of groping about by torchlight is more than offset by the docility the darkness engenders in the chickens. A mere ten minutes later, all six were re-settling themselves on the perches as I upended the wire run against the coop door. I hoped the wire would be secure against any local foxes.
“I reckon they will be safer like that than being locked in and risking dying of heat,” I explained to Rosemary when I reported back.
It seems to have worked. This morning the chickens are scratching about contentedly, none the worse for their disturbed night. I, on the other hand, am feeling somewhat jaded. I am planning to install air-conditioning in their new hen house, so I can avoid any further nocturnal chicken laundering exploits.