Going For Gold

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After losing most of my Silkies in the great poultry slaughters of 2017, I was left with a pair of buff chicks. These are descended from the first buff hen I bred a few years earlier. Buffs have always been my favourite colour of Silkie, but I hadn’t been able to get very many, so I had previously concentrated on blacks and blues.

Most Silkies in Australia are not bantams at all, they are in fact a standard breed. Bantam Silkies are rare in Australia and you would know if you saw one because they are tiny.

In their pure state, all Silkies are white, and the best birds you will find are bred entirely from white stock. In order to introduce colour, white Silkies were bred with other breeds, mostly Pekins, to get the range of colours we are used to seeing in Silkies today. But since white is recessive, it will pop up in a population even after generations of breeding for colour.

Of course when you contaminate the gene pool by adding in colour, you then have to work hard to get the important Silkie characteristics back into your birds. Things like proper pillow or button combs, black or very dark faces, 5th toes and of course Silkie feathering. Silkie feathering is also recessive, so your first generation of crossbred birds will all have regular feathers, so to get the Silkie feathering back and retain the colour you have to breed first-cross birds together and from there start selecting for Silkie feathering and fancy colours.

In Australia we have been breeding coloured Silkies for many years, so there are a lot of birds to choose from with Silkie feathering, fun colours and varying degrees of authentic Silkie characteristics.

All of this makes them quite interesting and fun to breed.

I started working towards my ideal of buff Silkies with a clear gold colour, good Silkie characteristics including dark faces and five toes, good vision (eyes not obscured by their fluffy heads), with good fertility. Bonus traits will be maintenance of good body condition (Silkies tend to run a bit skinny), and laying for longer before going broody.

My foundation birds are Prince Harry the rooster and Citrine the hen. I also purchased Fanta, an unrelated hen.

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Prince Harry – a nice looking little bird with good colour and no breed faults, but he is kind of aggressive which is not ideal.

citrine and chicks

Citrine with her current chicks. Note the white chick – we have had one white chick in each of the three hatches this season. Citrine is a robust hen and good mother, with no breed faults.

fanta and chicks

Fanta with her current clutch. She has lovely feathering and a nice dark face, but I keep having to trim the feathers around her face so she can see. She is also quite flighty.

Too many feathers around the face can obscure a bird’s vision, and while this is not a problem in exhibition stock it is a definite handicap for farmyard birds in mixed flocks. The feathers make it difficult for them to find food, find each other, find safety and avoid bigger, bossy birds. Birds who are feather blind tend to be thinner because they are less efficient at free ranging. They run into things and freak out when anything touches them. It does make them easier to catch because they can’t see you sneaking up behind them, but this also means they are more likely to be taken by predators.

Our oldest chicks are almost mature and they show a good contrast of good and bad. Normally I might keep one chick from a clutch and either sell or eat the others (hence why I want birds who are easy to fatten).

Rose and Redboy are the two I’ll be retaining from this group.

rose full

Rose is a classic fluffball with excellent Silkie feathering.

rose face

She has a nice dark face and button comb and an upright pompom.

redboy full

Redboy has a bit of excess feathering in front of his eyes, but he has good feathering and a great deep red colour.

redboy face

He has a classic pillow comb and dark features.

redboy face side

Check out those excellent blue earlobes!

redboy foot

Nice neat 5th toe and lots of feathers on the middle toe. His toes are straight and his feet are strong.

The other real plus that Redboy has is a great temperament. He is not at all aggressive and he is relaxed to handle, making trimming his face feathers less of an issue.

The younger chicks are still to young to sex, but their other characteristics are becoming visible.

This little one has a nice flat comb, but a look at its feet shows an extra toe. Most chickens have four toes – three main ones at the front and a smaller one at the back. Silkies’ fifth toe is due to polydactyly, a genetic condition which gives extra digits. In line-bred birds you can get even more toes, and while some breeders don’t mind this, I prefer to select away from it.

silky chick face

This is a healthy six-week-old chick with a nice button comb. Still too young to tell the sex, but if it is a pullet she will make a nice little backyard bird.

silky chick toes

Note the extra toe visible, coming off to the right of what should be the last toe. This will not affect this bird adversely, but it’s not something I want to perpetuate in my flock.

If you want a bad example, check out this guy. He is from the same hatch as Rose and Redboy and shows how even full siblings whose parents are also full siblings can inherit very different genes.

This bird has excellent Silkie feathering, despite not being the colour I was after, and he is a good size, but look at that upright comb – a complete no-no in Silkie breeding.

white rooster

I’m always happy to rehome pullets with breed faults because at the end of the day a chicken is a chicken and no matter what colour she is she still lays eggs and can lead a productive life. I won’t pass on a faulty rooster, however, because I feel that I have some responsibility to the breed and I’m not keen to send faulty roosters out into the world to produce more faulty birds. Fortunately, Silkies taste like chicken, which is why birds that are easy to fatten are important to the process. I can’t keep them all, and I certainly won’t breed them all, but in the end they all contribute in one way or another.

 

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Restocking

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When you get used to having 30+ birds in your flock, being brought back down to less than ten is quite a shock. In some ways there is relief at having less beaks to feed and less birds underfoot. It solved the ongoing problem of ducks bathing in the back troughs. But it also puts gaps in the group, and this absence of birds and the gaps it creates lead to new problems.

I was left with no mature rooster, no drake and no gander. And four flighty Muscovy hens, very keen to sit on eggs. At entirely the wrong time of year for purchasing a new drake. Most breeders either had their main working drakes who they did not want to part with, or recently hatched boys a long way off being able to work. I advertised a few times, scoured the poultry sales pages, and nothing came up. Meanwhile I was having to evict cranky Muscovy hens from beautifully crafted nests to save them the bother of sitting on eggs that would never hatch.

While Debussy the gander was not particularly aggressive as far as ganders go, his presence did lead to Agnes the goose displaying a dogged determination to create a nest, lay some eggs in it and defend it, which was a nuisance. But without her mate, Agnes was clearly lonely, and took up attempting to mate with the Muscovy ducks, who were unfortunately happy to let her. A goose has a serrated beak, and a longer neck than a duck. Agnes’ misplaced breeding instincts led to ducks being bitten around the head by that serrated beak. They lost skin and feathers, and one duck nearly lost her eye.

I tried keeping the goose separate from the ducks, but the ducks would fly into the pen with the goose. I had decided to replace the gander with another female goose to avoid the problems associated with a breeding pair of geese, and as my poor ducks were repeatedly mauled, this became more and more urgent. Again, wrong time of year, most female geese were sat on eggs or raising goslings, and I could not find any for sale.

We took a trailer load of goats the Bendigo Show, where Titania was awarded Champion goatling and received a cash prize. After the judging was completed, we went for a walk around the show and wandered into a shed full of poultry accessories and various birds for sale, including a pen of young female geese. So that is the story of how Titania the goat bought a goose.

I selected a bird, and after a bit of a fuss where a couple of bantam pullets escaped and had to be retrieved from under tables of bird cages, Matt carried our new goose to the goat trailer, where she traveled home in the kid cage. Gertrude, aka Gertie Goose, soon became friends with Agnes and within a few days the duck maulings ceased and my goose quota was back in balance.

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Matt carrying Gertrude through the Bendigo Showgrounds.

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Agnes and Gertrude

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Don’t mess with Gertie Goose.

After some months of asking around and searching sale pages, I finally stumbled on a Muscovy drake. I was willing to travel up to 90 minutes to buy one, so insistent were my ducks that it was hatching season, but in the end I only had to travel to the next town. I picked up a scruffy two-year-old drake from a fairly large flock. He had no name, so in keeping with the M names for Muscovies, I named him Murray.

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Murray the Muscovy

I have heard repeatedly that Muscovy drakes are aggressive, and always thought I had hit the jackpot with my old drake Muscles, who had been hand raised and was a wonderfully friendly bird. But after a little over a month, Murray has proven also to be quiet and friendly, and while he is not quite confident to eat out of my hand, he does follow me quite closely to make sure I am bringing the food and to see if I have anything edible about my person.

Once Murray had arrived, my black and white duck Moana was quick to set herself up with a nest and start putting eggs in it. I had to take the first few because it takes about a week for a duck to lay fertile eggs once you introduce a drake to the flock, and she ended up sitting on only two. They have both hatched, and are perfect. I have another duck sat on 13 eggs, tucked securely behind several pieces of wire mesh, and these are due to hatch in about a fortnight.

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Murray’s first ducklings, hatched by Moana.

But from loss there can also be opportunities. Through pure chance, I was left with only a pair of related buff Silkies. I have always wanted to breed buff Silkies, but only ever had the occasional one pop up in a clutch. So with no mature rooster, Prince Harry the buff Silkie was allowed to grow up into the position of boss chook. I bought an unrelated buff hen, which gave me a buff trio consisting of Prince Harry, his sister Citrine, and the new hen Fanta. Citrine soon got to laying, and I let her sit on six eggs, of which five were fertile and hatched. Of those chicks four were buff (the other is white), and it looks like I will have two buff pullets to run on. This gives me a fairly stable little family of buff Silkies to breed on with.

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Prince Harry

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New girl Fanta, with her epic pompom.

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Citrine with some of her chicks.

I also picked up a couple more red laying hens to back up old Josie whose eggs have poor shell quality these days and don’t make it back to the house without breaking. One hen, Summer, lays an egg every day in a well-concealed abandoned duck nest. The other hen, Sandy, is suspected of stashing her eggs out behind the shed somewhere and while we found one nest a little while ago, I have not been able to find where she is laying now.

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Sandy’s nest is in there… somewhere.

There is one vacancy I would still like to fill, and that is a friend for dear old Ramona the Silver Appleyard, whose sister was killed. Ramona is going on six years old and is currently our only quacky duck. She doesn’t fit in with the Muscovies, and doesn’t fit in with the geese. Although she does seem quite happy, I hope to find her a quacky duck friend.

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Ramona Appleyard, all alone in the middle of the flock.

Me and You and a Dog Named Boo…

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It began with Rohan stating ‘um… there’s not enough poultry in there’.

When you round up the same flock of 30-odd birds every day you get a sense of how many there should be, even before you employ the head count. Being nine birds short is pretty obvious.

We found one of the missing birds. At least, we found her body. One Pekin duck confirmed dead. Five Silkies, one Hyline, two Pekin ducks and a Muscovy missing, one Muscovy refusing to come off the dam. Ten birds gone in broad daylight. They call it ‘dispersal’, when young foxes leave their family home and go looking for their own territory. Young foxes lack the life experience to be cautious and leave their hunting to night time.

Six days later it came back. Four more birds dead. The boys spotted the geese wandering in the front yard and went to investigate. The geese had flown out of the farmyard to safety, most of the ducks had fled down the paddock, but poor Muscles my beloved tame Muscovy drake, too heavy to fly and still recovering from his fight with the gander, was killed. Also killed was my last Rhode Island Red hen, my evergreen little bantam Australorp and my senior Silkie hen.

I felt completely helpless. In the two and a half years since we moved to the new house, we had only lost a couple of birds, and those were ones who ventured to the far reaches of the property. The foxlight and the night pen kept the majority safe from predators. A killer that struck during the day was a whole new ball game.

We built a pen for the remaining three Silkies and one Hyline layer in the house yard out of an trampoline frame and a 1000lt water container. We planned a new chook yard within the house yard that the dogs could patrol. And then the killing stopped for a while. I moved the chickens back to the farmyard.

When I came home one afternoon to find that not only had the rest of my Pekins been killed, but also my large 6yo gander, I began to despair. A 6yo gander would put up a much bigger fight than a newborn Anglo Nubian kid, and my young does were due to kid in a few weeks. I was desperate to keep not only my birds but also my new kids safe.

We had talked about getting a Maremma before Rufus the barn cat came along, but decided that a large dog was not compatible with the cat. I had more recently asked about Maremmas and cats on a livestock guardian dog discussion group, and been assured that cats and LGDs could and often did live happily together.

I got on Facebook to see if any dogs were available nearby and by pure chance found pups for sale locally. A couple of messages and a phone call and I had bought a Maremma pup. He would come home the next day.

Boo was an unbearably cute white fluffball. He took to the goats straight away. He is not allowed out with them unsupervised yet, but he has the makings of a good livestock guardian. Most importantly, we have not lost a single bird to predators since he arrived.

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Boo just after he arrived.

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Breakfast time, day 2.

Boo is now about six months old, and parks his front paws squarely in my chest when he greets me. He loves to go down the paddock, roll about in the grass, and curl up with his goats. He is also fond of chasing goat kids at times, so he is still kept restrained unless there is someone to watch him and tell him off if he gets too rough. But his guarding instinct is clearly evident in the way he responds to strangers and the way the goats will all seek shelter and huddle together when Boo makes his Big Dog Bark.

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Boo at nearly 6 months.

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#maremmaselfie

Boo 3

He is slightly bonded to his humans too.

I have started to restock my poultry. I was left with four Muscovy hens, one red layer, two buff Silkies, one of my Silver Appleyard ducks and a goose. Down from a mixed flock of 30 birds. I have added a couple of red laying hens, as well as another buff Silkie pullet, and another goose to keep poor lonely Agnes company. I still need another Muscovy drake. My older Silkie hen is currently sat on six eggs, so hopefully we’ll have a few more Silkies before too long.

The cat was originally unimpressed with the big fluffy pup in his farmyard, but he has grown used to Boo and is no longer bothered by him. They are not quite friends, but they have an understanding.

It takes at least 12 months for a Maremma to be settled and reliable around stock, and by the time I raise him on premium large breed puppy food and make sure his parasite treatments are kept up to date, it would probably have been cheaper to build a poultry fortress within the house yard. But I like for my birds to be able to free range, and my goats are beginning to rely on the presence of their protector. He is very different to regular dogs and takes up a lot of my time, but I should be able to rely on him for at least ten years of service once he matures, and I love an organic solution to a problem. Most of all, Boo is a wonderful member of the community, with an important part to play, and we all love having him here.

 

The Man-Birds of Elcarim Farm

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Watching my poor gander moping around the yard, waiting for his partner Pie to hatch their babies gave me the idea for this post. Xander and Pie are first-time parents, but this being my fifth year hatching geese, I have seen how ganders get through the incubation period.

First, you need to latch onto the closest large, white bird in the farmyard. My original gander, Clyde, would spend the incubation period following a couple of large white hens around, pretending he was one of them. He would graze in the paddock with them and rest in the driveway with them. They, in turn, would look at him funny sometimes, but mostly ignore him. Xander has taken up swimming with Derek the Pekin drake and his two lady friends.

But a lot of the time, the lonely gander will park himself near the nest and watch. At dinner time, Xander calls out to Pie to let her know that it is time to come out and eat. Pie will cover up her eggs and venture out into the pen. Sometimes they go for a quick swim together or graze for a little while.

Xander the gander

Xander the gander

When the goslings hatch, Xander will become their fierce defender. He will hiss and chase a lot. At people. At the goats. At the car. At anything that comes too close to his little family. And he will keep this up until yellow fluff and stubby wings give way to the great long flight feathers that geese are known for.

Russell Crow

Russell Crow

This rather stern looking fellow is Russell Crow, the Rhode Island Red rooster. And he is a lot more laid-back than his appearance suggests. He is actually a complete gentleman, except for when he jumps up to try to take the feed scoop from my hand while I’m shutting the gate. He is a leader, but a fair one, keeping his family together as they wander around the farm.

For a big rooster he is not especially noisy or argumentative. He crows about an hour before sunrise, but he is not one of those insecure sorts who will crow all day and night.

Malcolm, with his girls

Malcolm, with his girls

Malcolm came with the name ‘Dennis’ which I wasn’t inclined to keep. I don’t remember what the meaningful name I first chose for him was, the first name that always came out of my mouth was Malcolm, so it stuck. It kind of suits him.

He is another fairly chilled-out rooster. He was hand raised by his previous owner, so will run up to you in case you have food. He doesn’t argue with Russell, the two of them really keep to their own kind and leave each other alone. He is a fairly worthy replacement for my old black Silkie boy Brewster. I hope that once my Silkie girls lay, young Malcolm can pass on his easy going nature to some cute, fluffy babies.

Drakes

Drakes

Second from the left in this photo is Derek. Derek is a Pekin drake, and got his name because he is a bit McDreamy. He came from the RSPCA at Burwood, where my friend Kerrie volunteers once a fortnight. My two ducks took to him straight away, and escorted him to the dam the day after he arrived. Watching this lovely bird, who had spent many weeks in a concrete pen, take to the water for the first time was absolutely heart-warming. Derek is a real sweetheart who has fitted neatly into the mixed flock.

The green-headed, claret-breasted fellow on the right in this photo is Ringo. Named for his ‘Beatle-green’ head and the ring of white around his neck. Ringo is a Silver Appleyard who fancies himself as a bit of a ladies’ man. His wife Mildred is never far away from him, and their daughters tag along. He also has eyes for Derek’s girls, especially Roberta.

I am hoping for a few hatches of ducklings this year, which will be a team effort. Obviously the ducks have to lay the eggs, and the drakes have to put the ducklings in them (to put it delicately). But Pekins and Appleyards are known for being poor sitters, so the plan is for the Silkies or the red hens to hatch and raise the ducklings. If that eventuates I am sure that will be a post in itself.