Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Newcomer to the Coop

Wilson in his hutch.
Friday we brought home a new addition to the chicken compound: Wilson, a 2-year-old English angora rabbit who will be M's 4H project.

Yes, that's a rabbit. Kind of resembles Tom Hank's famous volleyball co-star.

We settled his coop in the back of the chicken run, where he'll be sheltered (and locked up at night) and will be able to watch the chickens for entertainment. So now the chicken run is also a rabbit run.

English angoras are prized for their warm, soft fiber.
English angoras actually originated in Ankara, Turkey, and they're one of the oldest domesticated rabbit breeds. They range from 4 to 7 lbs., but I think Wilson has that beat. We'll have to weigh him and see where he tips the scales. Originally called "Angora Woolies," these rabbits are raised for their luxurious wool. You can pluck, brush, or shear Angoras, and they shed about every four months.

I've not tried spinning angora yet, but it's said to be eight times warmer than sheep wool. I've heard that some spinners can sit at their wheel with the rabbit on their lap, plucking and spinning efficiently. Looking at Wilson, it's hard for me not to think, "Mmm. Yarn."

What the chickens think when they look at Wilson, I'm not sure. Wilson is big. Bigger than a cat, but similar. And they know the cats are easily chased. Violet stared him down like a predator, but he is oblivious. (Omnivorous, the chickens will chase mice. Last summer, Gertie caught and ate one in short order, much to L's shock.)

M and L were outside most of the day yesterday, visiting with the chickens and with Wilson. I looked out the window, and all of the hens, even the teenage Australorps, Betty and Poppy, were outside roaming the yard and exploring the garden. The snow had finally melted, and it was a happy hen scene.

A little while later, M came running in to tell me that Mabel fluffed up her hackles and spread out her (still growing) tail in warning to the large fluff ball that suddenly showed up in her world. Wilson paid her no mind.

I went out to see this bird-bunny interaction myself. M was holding Wilson after brushing him.

Mabel was happily pecking and scratching, with Poppy and Betty standing there behind her like slightly nervous sidekicks. M put Wilson on the ground about 10 feet in front of the hens. He reminded me of the Stay Puft Marshmallow monster in Ghostbusters. Benign, big, and unreal.

I don't think he could see the chickens in front of him with the mop on his head, and he hopped fast, straight toward them. The Australorps scattered as fast as their little scaly feet would carry them, wings spread. Mabel stared, unbelieving, and considered holding her ground for a split second. Then she clucked a combination of indignant and panicked bock bock bocks, threw up her wings, turned, and ran for her life. It was a little undignified.

Wilson was unaware that he'd caused a flurry. He continued hopping happily around the yard. Mabel eyed him from a distance, then turned and chased a pigeon as if to soothe her wounded pride.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Siren Song of Seed Catalogs

Check out the story behind Landreth's at
This year, seed catalogs began arriving before Christmas. I used to wait until January for their green presence in our snowy mailbox, but these have arrived early, harbingers of a season that seems distant in the shadow of my Christmas tree. I put them aside in a stack with a sense of anticipation, looking forward to having time to go through them once the holidays are over.

I love reading seed catalogs. The wind can be blowing snow sideways across my window, and icicles can be hanging from the eaves, but when I'm reading seed catalogs, I've taken a mini vacation to summer. There are juicy tomatoes, deep purple eggplants, and jaunty cabbages. I'm imagining my garden, and where I'll put the beans and the beets, the tomatoes and the tomatilloes.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, "Aside from the garden of Eden, man's great temptation took place when he first received his seed catalog."


My favorite catalog cover so far this year--Shumway's.
Every year, I start out resolute, thinking, "Just the basic stuff this year. Last year I tried too many varieties." And so I pick up a catalog, pen in hand, and begin my list in earnest. And I start out choosing just one pole bean variety, and then a dry bean. But by the time I reach the C's I read prose like, "a rare variety worth trying" or "perfect for pickling" or "no garden should be without..."

I'm lost. I've gone from a well-ordered list to madly scribbling in margins of the catalog, making little stars or symbols to remind me that this tomato is one I really want to try. I have lost all practical, rational sense, and am thinking about trying corn. Again. (I've tried corn, and it wasn't pretty. I cross it off.) But maybe this will be the year I hit my stride with cantaloupe. My resolute self reminds me that I have a small yard, and no room for the space hogs. A crazy gardener pops onto my shoulder, waves her pitchfork enthusiastically and says, "Yes, but what if you tried growing the cantaloupe on a trellis! Vertically! Think what else you could fit in that space!" I banish resolute self and add cantaloupe with a flourish.

It does not help that I also find myself thinking things like... "The chickens really love blueberries. Maybe I need to plant blueberries." Or... "I wonder if they'd like beet greens?" Suddenly, I'm taking my chickens' interests into account when choosing varieties.

This is not the direction I intended to go. I sit back and look at my list of seeds. Too long by half. There are still four catalogs sitting there, waiting. I'll go through them all, eventually, along with the others that are yet to arrive. My list will shrink and grow several more times before I settle on 2012's varieties.

In the meantime, we'll have snows and thaws, the chickens (even the new girls) will all be laying, and my moisture-laden garden soil will begin to warm. Garden catalog surfing will have carried me through January and February into a restless March, when instead of seed catalogs folded into my mailbox, I'll be greeted by the more tangible promise of seed packets. It'll be like Christmas all over again.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pearl's first egg

Pearl's first egg.
I thought maybe Pearl was getting close to laying her first egg. I noticed her fussing around in the nesting box a few days ago, scratching and fluffing busily. Then, when I went to pick her up, she squatted down, wings slightly akimbo. That's a sure sign of a laying hen--a submissive posture meant for a rooster.

This morning, there it was, in a random spot among the shavings on the floor of the coop (did it surprise her?)--a tiny egg. Really tiny. Pearl sized, in fact. It is not that much bigger than a quarter, more like a dove's egg than a chicken egg.

M&L were excited. Pearl is the first of the four new girls to lay. She wasn't exactly chosen for her egg laying potential. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most productive egg layers, d'Uccles rate a 3, and that's fine. She brings more than eggs to the coop.

Belgian d'Uccle chickens are small--they are true Bantams that don't have a full-size counterpart in the big chicken world. (Many breeds of chickens can be found in pint-sized "bantam" sizes, but Belgian d'Uccles are all Bantam sized.) The breed originated in (no surprise) Belgium, in a small municipality called "Uccle" in the 1890s.

d'Uccles are known for being very calm, sweet birds, and Pearl fits that description well. I've never seen her peck at or boss another bird, but no one seems to boss her around either. When the two new baby Australorps showed up in the coop, she cuddled up to them in a motherly way, like the Welcome Wagon hen. She has feathers down to her toes, and stiff feathers on the back of her hocks called "vulture hocks"--which does not sound at all girly and delicate, but she carries it off elegantly. Her cheeks are fluffy, giving her the appearance of a beard. d'Uccles come in several colors, and Pearl is called a Porcelain Belgian d'Uccle. 

L wants to blow out Pearl's first egg to wash it and save it. We seem to be creating a chicken shrine of sorts. L has placed feathers in a small silver-laced glass creamer in the curio. There are Lacey's, Gertie's, Paprika's and Marigold's feathers, soft reminders of birds we lost. She added one of Mabel's feathers the other day, and will want to place Pearl's first egg(shell) there as well.

It's beginning to look like an ornithologist's specimen display. But I like it, her treasury of delicate gatherings from the coop.

Mabel should be next in line, and then Betty and Poppy (who probably won't be laying until February or later). By spring, we should be back up to four to five eggs daily.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Cookies

A coconut forest.
This year, I wanted to add a new cookie to our Christmas repertoire. M made buckeyes (peanut butter dipped in chocolate) and we still had a fair amount of melted chocolate left. I didn't want to throw it away.

I pulled down a cookbook. The plastic binder is losing its grip on some of the pages. It's the "Historical Mackinac Island Cookbook," circa 1975. K and I met on the island, and it is a book I open with memories attached.

I flipped to the cookie section (I'm surprised it doesn't just automatically fall open to that section, as well thumbed as it is) and started reading. Some of the contributors' names are familiar to me, some of the recipes are cookies I've tried from women I've never met. And then I spied one that seemed like a good possibility: Coconut Cones.

I had all the ingredients on hand. Basically, it's a coconut mixture rolled into 1-inch cones, then dipped in chocolate. It was contributed by Betty Brown, who noted at the end of the recipe, "They are marvelous."

Perfect! And a little embellishment would take them from "Coconut cone" to "Christmas conifer".

First, I just made them white, cloaked them in chocolate, dropped a few small silver dragees on them, then sifted a blizzard of confectioner's sugar over them. Halfway through, I decided to add some green food coloring to the coconut, melt some white chocolate, and decorate them. And they taste like a homemade Mounds chocolate candy.

Here's the recipe:

Coconut Conifers
1/4 c. butter
2 1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
3 c. coconut
4 T. evaporated milk
Semi-sweet chocolate, melted (We used 12 oz. choc chips melted with 3/4 slab of paraffin to make it slightly thinner and smoother.)

Melt the butter until just lightly brown. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Butter your hands for easier handling. Roll coconut mixture into 1- to 1.5-inch cones. Set upright on waxed paper that has been sifted lightly with confectioner's sugar. Allow to cool, or refrigerate to allow cones to become firm. Dip in chocolate and return to wax paper, or spoon small amounts of chocolate over the top of the cone. Decorate with colored sugar, silver dragees, and sifted powdered sugar.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In case you wondered...

L is getting ready to start her poultry project in 4H. Pearl is her chicken of choice, and for Christmas (shhh!) I picked up a book for her on showing a chicken in 4H. It's been sitting here waiting for me to wrap it, and I got a little sidetracked reading it. She'll need to know the parts of the chicken, and will have to master holding Pearl in certain ways for showmanship.

Good thing Pearl can't read. She has no idea what's in store for her this summer.

I know L will have to bathe Pearl before showing her, and wondered how you bathe a chicken.

I found myself laughing as I watched this video, and had to share it:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ruffled Feathers

Mabel on her favorite perch.
There were a few ruffled feathers in the coop last night.

It was a warmish day--in the 40s--and K was taking advantage of the mild temperatures to add some insulation to the coop walls, between the studs. Then he covered the insulation batts with beadboard panels. This meant that he was in the coop, hammering and measuring.

This was not the usual routine, and it caused a flurry of chicken consternation.

The run door was open, so the Big Girls ran out into the yard, and Pearl and Mabel were exploring along with them for the first time. I watched Mabel bossily chase away some pigeons, making herself big and important. Then the neighbor's dog scared her and she ran for the coop. Two seconds later she reappeared, on the run, with Violet on her tail. Betty and Poppy were happy to just stay in the run and sun themselves, but Mabel and Pearl were busily dusting and scratching and pecking while trying to avoid the attention of the Big Girls.

I watched them for awhile, finding their busyness entertaining. Oreo, M's little Bantam, clearly needed to lay an egg. She was trying to hop up to the back of the coop where we used to leave the nesting box doors open. She squatted down a little as if gathering herself for the leap, then lost confidence, then readied herself to jump, then gave up. Those doors were closed and she fussed and hemmed and hawed back and forth, wanting to go in and use a nesting box, but unhappy that K was in there making noise and moving around in her coop. She finally seemed to give up trying to get in through the backdoor, and would rush into the run, only to reappear moments later in a huff.

I watched her do this several times, then went back to what I was doing. A little while later, K came in. "Had to take a break," he said. Oreo had finally lost patience with him. She'd tried to jump up in front of him--or on him--as if to say, "Can you see me now?!" He decided to let her lay her egg in peace, and she looked decidedly more content when I saw her wandering in the yard an hour or so later.

Toward dinnertime, as the light faded, I went out to close them all in for the night. K and L had gone over to see the horses. L is planning to show Butters in 4H this year, and wanted to work on showmanship practice, so they'd been gone a while.

I walked into the run, and all seven hens were milling around, confused. It was as if they didn't want to go into the coop, but their usual routine is to be in the coop, up on their roosts before dark. I thought that was odd, and stepped into the small space to see if there was something in there that shouldn't be. I didn't notice anything unusual, but the girls still weren't following me in.

They looked worried. No... not so much worried as annoyed and concerned. I looked in the coop again. And then I finally realized what the problem was. When K was putting the beadboard up, he had taken their roosts down. Not a single place for the girls to perch for the night.

I regarded them with understanding, but I wasn't sure how he'd put them up, or what his plans were, so I couldn't help them. "Sorry girls," I said. "He'll be home soon."

I couldn't convince them to go inside the coop, so I left them in the run, making sure to lock it. They seemed so vulnerable out there in the dark. But even though the coop would be safer, it was as if they were standing at the door to some other chickens' coop by mistake and couldn't figure out where theirs had gone. Their reaction reminded me of the premise for the book, "Who Moved My Cheese?"

K returned home about 15 minutes later, and I told him there were seven unhappy chickens waiting for him to put their house back in order. He quickly reassembled their roosts. There they were, like little old ladies with their hands on their hips and feet tapping as they waited. Fortunately, it didn't take long. With an air of relief, they hopped back into the coop, and on to their roosts, with their world back on its secure axis. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

From Hens to Hems

It's a balmy 34 degrees this morning, the big girls are busily exploring the yard where the snow has finally melted. Before I left them, Betty and Poppy were roosting contentedly in the sun outside the coop door, Pearl was having some yogurt, and Mabel, Miss Curiosity, was pecking at and eating some foam insulation (why?). I removed it, and she looked at me as if I'd taken a toy away, then hopped out of the coop and went to work finding the quinoa I'd scattered in the run.

Pants with potential.
Harmony. Life is good in the coop right now. But there's not much for me to do outside, and I felt a little like a mom whose preschoolers have jumped into play at daycare: like a fifth wheel. I headed back into the house.

Although I've been writing heavily on the "Coop" side of this blog, I decided that today would be a good day to wander over to the "Cottage" side. My knitting, sewing, baking, and painting have been largely ignored lately. But, this is the time of year where I feel compelled to finish UFOs (unfinished objects) before the new year arrives. Out with the old, in with the new, and all that.
A leg with potential.

One project that has been sitting in the "to do" stack since last spring: Giving a pair of pants a new purpose in life. I'd found them at our local Habitat for Humanity Re-Store. They were really nice wide-legged linen pants with an embellished hem, and they were languishing away because of what looked like a bleach stain high on one leg.

For the bargain price of $1.50, I took them home and cut them up.

Since we're on the subject of pants, I should mention here that I am a seat-of-my-pants sewer. Apologies to any real sewers out there (Amy, I hope you're not reading my blog today). I get a little impatient with patterns, precision, and measuring. This is why I don't sew clothes. But... repurposing, I like that. In this case most of the sewing and measuring has been done. All I have to do is redirect the item a little bit. And I am pretty good with scissors and straight line seams.

So. I had a bare pillow form that was, in another life, wrapped in flannel as a camp pillow. But it had been stored away, unused. So I pulled it out, stuffed it in a pant leg, and Bob's your uncle, a pillowcase is born. I just had to cut the leg off and stitch it closed.

VoilĂ . From UFO to cute pillowcase. In minutes. Here it is:
A pillow with potential.

Except, now I'm looking at it and thinking it's a bit plain, n'est pas?  I think it needs a little embroidery. Maybe. Just a bit in one corner? Back to being a UFO in a flash.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hen Zen

Pearl, soaking in the sun.
My hens are well-versed in the art of Zen. To them, every day is a good day--they eat, they rest, they tidy their feathers and scratch the earth optimistically.

This is not to suggest that they sit on their roosts meditating. But they definitely live in the moment.

I've always wanted to freelance and have time to write, so pursuing that goal has been a positive change. But even positive changes bring along grasping shadows. Doubt and worry, in my case. I worry about my daughters, or my family; worries about a difficult neighbor or expensive repairs.

This, I know, is human. Am I doing what I'm meant to be doing? Why am I not more disciplined about exercise? I worry that I’m doing a less than stellar job as a mom, or that I tend toward narrowminded-ness even when I strive to be the opposite. I worry about the state of the world, the depth of poverty, the people who need to be fed physically and emotionally. I worry. My faith falters, my human anxieties grow.

I’ve been reading a book by Alice Walker called “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories.” In it, she writes to her chickens, addressing them as “My Feathered Mysteries.”

She writes with such clarity:

“Sometimes, sitting on my green stool and lulled by your complete indifference to the consequences of your natural behaviors, I wish we were more like you. More relaxed with our breasts and bellies and our feathers (of whatever sort) and our heights and weights and how we toss our heads back to drink water…
            “You seem so clear about who you are. So certain that you are just right as you are, that for all your intelligence and maybe in spite of it, you never seem to need a second opinion.”

And that strikes a chord with me. I go to the coop wrapped up in myself, with my doubts about who I am, who I should be, how I should be... my worries about a thousand small things. Seeking the second opinions of those around me. Am I doing OK? I carry along the perplexities of life and spirit. And there they are, completely at home with their feathered selves, no doubts about the way they were made, what they are meant to do, how they are meant to be.

They just are

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Front Door Delivery

Violet's new nesting box.
Over Thanksgiving, while my parents and sister were visiting, Violet picked a new nesting spot: The cushy loveseat on the front porch.

My parents would arrive in the morning and there would be a freshly laid egg waiting. Violet was just like the milkman, delivering breakfast to the front door.

Sometimes, she'd appear on the porch and jump onto the swing instead of the loveseat. There she'd sit. If someone walked outside or on the porch, she'd gather herself up in a huff and hurry off as if to say "I really can't lay under these conditions."

But eventually, she'd wander back, hop onto the swing or loveseat, wiggle around, scratch at the fabric, settle down and sit. Then she'd stand up, turn around, scratch, wiggle herself down, and try to get comfortable. Occasionally, she'd reach out with her beak and peck at some imaginary something, or the seat cushion itself.

One day, it was extremely windy. I had the new girls in the coop, separated from the big girls, and Violet muttered unhappily at me when I went out to put something away in an outbuilding. I knew she wanted in to the nesting box. I let her into the coop, and she marched in. Then seeing the new girls, she stopped. If a chicken can purse her lips, that's what she did. She then scattered them out of the way, pecked at Mabel, and hopped in the nesting box. But she just wasn't happy.

Five minutes later she was standing at the run door wanting out. I think I must have spent half my morning letting her in and out, in and out, and decided that a job as a chicken butler wasn't really working out for me (I can't leave the coop door open, because the small birds aren't ready to free range). So I let her back out and went inside.

I was downstairs when I heard a racket on the front porch. A rattling sound. I peeked out, thinking she'd be on the loveseat. Instead, she was inside the nearly empty recycling bin, scratching and trying to find a roosty spot on top of the cereal boxes that were in there. She was sheltered from the wind, at least. A little while later, I saw her in the backyard, finally content. I checked the recycling bin, and there was her egg.

She and I both will be glad when our two mini flocks are fully integrated into one again.

Sub Zero Chickens

Typical teenagers--they don't think it's that cold.
It is below zero outside. It's like a whole body brain freeze. And the chickens live in an unheated coop, so I've been worrying about them. I've been half expecting to see little poultrysicles frozen to their roosts when I open the coop door.

Instead, I'm greeted by their clucks and peeps. They are fluffed up, doing their imitations of Stay Puft marshmallow hens. We have a heat lamp on in one corner, and the coop is well insulated, but I don't think it's doing much good. The water freezes quickly, even under the heat lamp. I've been changing it frequently, filling it with warm water that quickly cools off.

Last night I was >this< close to suggesting we bring them inside. Instead, I sat down and began to Google "how cold is TOO cold for chickens?"

Oreo ventures outside.
I became reassured as I read. is a lifeline for new chicken owners, and there I learned that even at -20, chickens are fine. There are chickens in Canada, you know, I reassured myself. Person after person posted on the forum that it was below zero in their coop, and their chickens were fine. One said hers had the choice of an insulated coop or their outside run, and they chose to sleep outside. Perhaps this reinforces the small chicken brain theory (though I think chickens are smart) but it tells me that they are a lot tougher than I think they are.

I've been imagining how I'd feel in a cold coop, but then I don't have layers of downy feathers from head to toe. (Thankfully.) In fact, many chicken keepers believe a heat lamp will keep their birds from acclimating completely. (Ok, ok. Even so, I'm not ready to go there yet... I've just relaxed about bringing them inside, so give me a little while to think about the idea of no amber light for them.)

This morning I took out kale and cottage cheese (for a little fat), along with a bowl of warm pumpkin puree. I really ought to be eating like my chickens do--I'd be much healthier. They were fine. Happy to see me. I left the coop door open and they hurried outside. Poppy and Betty Boop were wing-to-wing in the nesting box, but then hurried over to see what I'd brought. Pearl and Mabel were in their usual high roost, also wing-to-wing and fluffed up like puffer fish. Violet, Clover, and Oreo, hurried out to see if I'd left anything in the run for them. What's a little sub-zero weather?

All was well. I locked the run door, and hurried back inside where, being human, I stood on the heater vent and marveled at how chickens are engineered.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Poultry Peace

Mabel and Pearl
I should have known better. It was four days before Thanksgiving, and I thought I'd venture out to pick up some groceries, and a few things to prepare for house guests. I reasoned that it was a Monday morning, and it shouldn't be too busy.

It was a zoo. The grocery store was packed. I fought my way to the brussels sprouts, only to find three small shriveled brussels sprouts rolling pitifully in the bin. At the cheese counter, I merged my way to the brie, grabbed a chunk of smoked gouda on my way out, and escaped to the meat section.

An hour later, I reached the checkout stand feeling as if I'd run a gauntlet. "You survived!" commented the clerk. I laughed. "No bruises even!" But my head hurt. I don't do well in crowds.

Poppy and Betty Boop
I loaded up the car, crept out of the packed parking lot, and headed for Bed(lam) Bath and Beyond. There I jousted for parking spaces, avoided a near fender bender with someone who was on her cell phone, and a stopped for fabric at the fabric store.

Traffic was crazy. One last errand--I stopped at my favorite farm/ranch and outdoor store for scratch grains, and then I was done. I just wanted to get home. No doubt, the driver who followed me closely half the way home was just wanting to get home, or somewhere, quickly too.

I was grouchy and feeling pushed around by the time I pulled up in front of the house and unloaded my car. Still on edge, I carried the scratch grains back to the shop where we keep the chicken feed. I passed the coop on the way. Violet, Oreo, and Clover, secured in the run, were happy to see me. In that moment of clucked greeting, my heart rate began to slow, and I let them out, feeling appreciated.

The four teenage pullets were in the coop, and after checking their feed I sat and watched them for a while. 

I've introduced Mabel the Speckled Sussex (she was named Pippa, Cocoa, and Ruby, before the name Mabel just seemed to settle on her); and Pearl, the glamorous Porcelain Belgian d'Uccle. But we've also added two black Australorps who came from a nearby farm. They'll be big black hens, and good layers. Their eyes are as dark and deep. They stick together, the two new kids.

M named hers Poppy and the other chick is named Betty Boop. I think of Betty Boop as my friend Katie's hen. Katie was as sad as I was when we lost the four hens last month, and we brought Betty Boop home in her honor. Betty Boop was the name drawn from four names in a hat (Onyx, Prudence, Minnie, and Betty.) 

They peep and preen, stretching their wings, checking out the chopped lettuce I'd brought for them. With the big girls not there to chase them away, they're leisurely in their movements. Mabel is extremely curious about everything, and the bravest of the four. She often watches me with a cocked head as if trying to read my mind. I like her very much. Her tail feathers are still stubby, but sometimes she makes herself tall when she's feeling worried. Pearl is kind, and I watch her wiggle up next to the two little Australorps and the three of them settled down for a nap. Betty pecks at a stray piece of chicken feed on Pearl's back.

The quiet of the coop settles around me. I realize my shoulders are tight and my jaw has been clenched from my foray into retail chaos. And Christmas shopping hadn't even begun yet.
There is something extremely calming and relaxing about watching chickens. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but it's a balm after my morning spent merging in and out of traffic, grocery aisles, and parking lots.

After awhile, I leave the four young hens to their coop, and watch as Violet rushes up to say hello, then returns to her work. The world has slowed down to a more palatable pace.

As the holiday season begins its mad rush toward Christmas, I make it a point to stop in and watch the hens each day. I take them warm oatmeal, or a handful of green kale. They are simple and easy to please. There's no anger or judgment, no rudeness, and it soothes me to be with them. There is peace in their simplicity, and I am grateful.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Under the Weather

Clover, back in the roost with her friends.
Clover spent a little time in the bird hospital (aka, bathtub) this week.

On Tuesday morning, I went out to let the three big girls out of the coop. Violet and Oreo bustled by in their usual speedy fashion. Clover just sat in a puffed up round ball of feathers on the roost under the light. She looked miserable.

I let her be while I did my usual chicken chores: refilled water, adding apple cider vinegar and vitamins; scattered scratch for the big girls; refilled feed containers as needed. Violet and Oreo were busily scratching and pecking. Clover was still roosting, her eyes half closed.

I regarded her with concern, and Oreo came back in, looked at Clover, then wandered around in the coop a little aimlessly like a worried relative. The two of them had come to us as a pair, and they'd been together a long time.

I picked Clover up and put her outside by the lilac bush, near the scratch, to see if she'd perk up. Thirty minutes later, Oreo was hovering, but Clover hadn't moved an inch. 

She definitely wasn't moving around like she normally would. I decided I needed to isolate Clover in case she was sick. I went inside and set up a spot in the downstairs tub with food, water with vinegar and electrolytes, and bedding, then went out and gathered up my little patient.

As I walked into the house with her, I felt for her crop, high along the top of her breast bone. It seemed firm, and felt like it had food in it. A good sign, I thought. She didn't feel thin. But she sure seemed uncomfortable. I wondered if she could be egg bound -- a potentially life-threatening situation where an egg is basically stuck.

Clover hasn't laid an egg in three weeks, but she's been moulting, and was stressed by the chicken heist, and as an older hen and a Bantam, decreased egg production this time of year seemed fairly normal. It was pretty cold out, and I knew bringing her into the warm house might help. A warm bath would be a next step if she was egg bound, but I was uncertain. I massaged the area around her vent, checked her for other symptoms, and told her to feel better. Keeping her isolated would also help me know if she'd eaten or if all other systems were go.

When I settled her in the tub she seemed confused, but I closed the door, and left her in the mostly dark room for awhile. I popped in and checked on her several times over the next few hours, and she hadn't moved--she was still just standing in the same spot.

I chided myself for not quarantining our new birds when we brought them home nearly four weeks ago. They were kept separate during the day, but were sharing the coop at night, and I was worried that Clover had picked up some sort of disease. And it was my fault. I'd never make that mistake again, but that didn't help me feel any better in the moment.

I stood in the bathroom for a little longer, watching her.

And then I heard it: a soft thunk on the shavings. She looked at me. I looked behind her. There was a small egg. It was oddly colored on one end, and sandpapery rough. I was relieved. Maybe not as much as she was.

She remained in the tub for the rest of the day, just so I could keep an eye on her, but by late afternoon, it seemed pretty clear that she was feeling much better. She was moving around, scratching, clucking and eating. I carried her outside and put her in the run with Oreo and Violet. Oreo clucked over her, and Clover moved happily around the run.

It's been four days now, and she's her usual self, looking like a fluffy bowling ball, pecking and scratching, making nests in the leaves and muttering happily around the yard. No one else has shown any signs of problems, so I'm chalking it up to a slow egg, but I'm keeping a close eye on the others.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Visitor

Violet makes herself at home on the front porch.
I was sitting upstairs at my computer, where I'd been for a couple of hours, working. I heard a knock on the front door. We have an old house, and sometimes people aren't quite sure what to do with the old Victorian doorbell (you twist it). So they usually knock on the glass storm door.

I went downstairs. Glancing out the old beveled glass window in the door, I didn't see anyone waiting. I wondered if someone had knocked and left something on the porch, and looked down through the glass. There was Violet, standing there looking up at me. Then I realized Violet had tapped on the glass door with her beak. She was my visitor.

I went outside to talk to her. She had been on the porch earlier, fluffing herself up on the porch swing, but this time she seemed to want something. She hurried off the porch, then stopped and looked at me again. So I headed around the house and she followed at my heels, trotting along in a business-like hurry beside me. It was gusty outside, and I'd checked on the Big Girls and the Small Girls early in the morning, letting Violet, Oreo, and Clover out to free range in the yard, but keeping Pearl and Cocoa in the coop. This meant closing the run door, but I'd put food and water out in the yard for the Big Girls.

I fiddled around a bit, picking up a few small branches that had blown into the yard, greeting Oreo and Clover, and checking their food and water. Violet regarded me expectantly. I didn't bring treats. Remembering that I had some fading lettuce in the fridge, I went back inside, and came out to find Violet waiting again on the doorstep.

She happily took the lettuce, but something told me that was still not what she wanted. Intead of wandering away to scratch and work in the yard, she stayed with me. I crossed over to the coop, unlocked the run door, and watched her hurry by. Pearl and Cocoa scattered out of her way, and she bustled over to the nesting box.

Ah. OK. Since the chicken theft, Oreo and Clover have not laid a single egg. But Violet has been laying an egg every morning, like clockwork, before I let her out. This morning I thought maybe one of the girls or K had already gotten her egg, and hadn't realized she'd be in need of the nesting box.

I left her to her laying, and went back to my work. But every time I thought about her pecking at the door, like a neighbor who'd come knocking to borrow a cup of sugar, it made me laugh. It was hen humor that I'd been sorely missing over the last few weeks.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Two New Girls

Pearl is very photogenic, with dark orange eyes.
They're the new kids on the block: two little pullets that are at that gawky adolescent stage. We brought home Pearl (a Porcelain Belgian D'Uccle, chosen by L) and Cocoa (a speckled sussex) on Thursday, but committed a poultry faux pas. I didn't think about it at the time, but we should have quarantined them in a separate area for a couple of weeks before putting them in with Violet, Oreo, and Clover. It wasn't until after I'd put them in the coop for the first night that I read that we should have waited, and so we'll hold our breath for a couple of weeks and hope they haven't introduced any germs to the other girls.

We waited to make introductions until dark, having heard that newcomers may be accepted more readily if they show up in the coop in the middle of the night. Oreo was perched on the highest roost, and Pearl, small as she is, gathered up her courage and burst up to roost in a flurry of feathers.

Cocoa (we tried to avoid photographing her embarrassing purple parts).
She landed squarely on top of Oreo's head, tipped back, clung to Oreo and tilted forward. Caught by surprise, the larger bird staggered back and forth, trying to keep her balance and compensate for her passenger without falling off the roost. Pearl struggled as well, gaining purchase on Oreo's back, then turning so that the double-decker chickens were face-forward and tipping precariously to one side. Oreo's expression went from stunned, to horrified, to disgusted. She was not impressed with this youngster's etiquette.

They all eventually settled in, disgruntled older hens and uneasy new pullets roosting at opposite ends of the three perches, looking like a bunch of awkward teenagers at a school dance trying to avoid eye contact.

The next morning, I hurried out to let the big girls out of the coop at first light. I opened the door, and they all looked at me from the same spots they'd occupied the night before. Violet, Oreo, and Clover hurried out, and I put food and water outside for them, closing the run so that the two pullets would have the day in the run and coop. We'll keep them separated during the day for awhile, helping them settle in.

Cocoa had been pecked pretty heavily before we got her, and she came to us with about one tail feather, the rest having been pretty efficiently removed by bigger chickens and those that were higher in the pecking order. She has a bright purple rear end--gentian violet painted over her bare skin to prevent other hens from pecking her naked self. Poor thing. But if those tail feathers are allowed to grow back in, I think she'll be a pretty hen.

Pearl--K calls her L's designer chicken--looks an awful lot like a pigeon with feathered legs and fuzzy cheeks. She's very pretty, and it will be fun to see her mature.

Both girls seem to be settling in. There have been some carefully placed pecks to remind them of their place, but so far, so good.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Moving Forward

Oreo, Violet, and Clover
It has not been an easy few days. M and I decided to walk around with fliers, talking to neighbors and asking people to keep a look out for the hens. I keep thinking that if it was a prank, the thieves may have just left them somewhere to fend for themselves. This is the darkest road my imagination wanders down because then I worry about them even more. The idea that someone took them because they were hungry is in some ways is easier to accept.

Still.... I keep thinking that I'll see Gertie there by the back gate, looking for a way in. And maybe, just maybe, someone has them safely corralled in their yard, not knowing where they belong. We'll keep checking in with the humane society.

As M and I were walking to pass out fliers, M said, "It would almost be easier if some predator had eaten them. Then we'd know." That's how I feel, too.

Violet is now the big girl of the bunch, and dutifully laying her egg-a-day. She is noticeably more skittish about being picked up. Neither Bantams have laid an egg in the last few days, but they are older girls. When I go out to let them out of their coop, and open the door, I feel like the absence of the four hens is a tangible thing. Like the empty spaces are vibrant around the three hens that remain.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer," By Novella Carpenter. It's a great book, and I enjoy her blog, Ghost Town Farm. In it she writes about her experiences with her urban farm in the city of Oakland, California. When I read about the loss of one of her turkeys to an accident with junk yard dogs, and the loss of her flock to predators, I was pretty impressed by her resilience. Like generations of farmers before her, she mourned her losses, then started again--whether it was with her ducks or her honeybees.

At the time I was reading about it, I couldn't imagine how that would feel.

But now, in this moment, I realize there's not much left to do but to move forward. Cluck Cottage has now become Coop Knox. We've added locks to the coop and run door, and have motion sensor lights in three locations. I still don't feel entirely safe. I glance out at the locked run all the time, mentally checking to see that the run door is still closed. I'm beginning to think I need a surveillance camera in the coop just so I can reassure myself that the three little hens are still there.

Adding locks and security may not completely ensure that the hens will be safe, but it is a concrete step to take, and a promise that there will be more hens--whether the lost girls come home again or not. I'm still very sad, but I also know that I wouldn't not have chickens in order to avoid the sorrow of losing them. 

We let our little flock out into the yard, and find comfort in the way that they continue. Chickens may not grieve, but they sure do live in the moment, not looking backward with regret nor forward with fear, but enjoying exactly what is taking place now: some nice scratch grains, sunshine on their backs, and the pleasures of a late fall day.

Friday, November 4, 2011

And Then There Were Three

Lacy, our Golden Laced Wyandotte, was one of four hens taken.
It appears that four of our hens were stolen. Gertrude, Marigold, Lacy, and Paprika are gone.
            I’m not exactly sure what time they were taken. It had been a busy day yesterday, so we decided to run out and grab a quick bite for dinner. It was getting dark, and the ladies were all headed into the coop, so we herded them in, closed the coop door, then latched the run door, and left them for the evening as usual.
            We were gone a couple of hours, and were busy getting the girls ready for bed, when K let the dogs out for the night, and we heard a cluck—which meant a chicken was out. And I knew they were supposed to be tucked in.
            I ran downstairs, and K ran out to the coop to find the backyard gate (the one leading to the back alley), the run door, and the coop door all wide open. Only Oreo was in the coop.
            After dark, chickens can’t see well. If left outside, they will hunker down and ride the night out where they are, because they can’t move. Once in the coop, they won't move from their roost until daylight. I ran for a flashlight, all the while wondering what could have happened. I knew the coop door and run were securely closed when we left for dinner. I was certain of it.
            While K headed out to look for them, I checked around and under things. I found Clover half wedged but OK under the coop steps, picked her up, and put her on the roost with Oreo. The two little Bantams were fine.
            I must have walked the yard four or five times, then the alley, garage, and front yard several times, before heading back past the patio. I heard a rustling under a privet bush, and shone my light to see Violet peering at me, then making a run for the coop in the light from the porch and my flashlight. I put her safely in the coop.
            But it became pretty clear that someone (who likely saw us leave) had probably entered through the alley, grabbed the four biggest (and therefore meatiest) hens (probably tried to grab Violet, but she got away and hid in the yard), and disappeared with them. No predator would have opened the gates and doors, and there would have been a flurry of feathers to mark the event. I know they were all safely buttoned up for the night.
            The girls were full of whys. Why would someone do that? They worried that whoever took them might not have carried them nicely, might have hurt them… I don’t think it seemed real to them that someone could have stolen them for food, and that they wouldn’t see them again.
            It was a long night, and once the girls finally fell asleep, after many tears and questions, it was 3 a.m., and I couldn’t sleep. I sat downstairs and read, trying to stop my imagination from filling in details that we would never likely know.
            I had worried that we would lose them to predators—raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, even dogs—but that a human predator would take them hadn’t occurred to me.
            This morning, I watched it grow light, hoping to see a fluffy yellow hen standing at the gate, or walking along the alley. But the yard feels bare and empty. Violet and the two Bantams are warm in the coop, but I feel convinced that the other four are gone for good. I’m picking up locks today. I called the police, and walked the scene of the crime with an officer who knew as well as I did that there was really no way to know where they went. He felt certain someone took them for their meat.
            He said it was the first time in our small town that a theft of chickens—or a theft of an animal of any kind—had been reported since the 40s. He suggested a motion sensor light, and said they’d have extra patrols go by in the wee hours just to keep an eye on things.           
            All good preventative measures, and appreciated, but small comfort in the face of the loss of four beloved hens.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Planting Tulips with Violet

Violet helps sort bulbs for planting.
The last of my bulbs—tulips, allium, and crocus—arrived today, and not a moment too soon. This morning, I could see gray, heavy-laden clouds rolling across the mountains. We’re anticipating about 5 to 8 inches of snow, just as last week’s snow has mostly disappeared, leaving trees looking battered and bare.
            I hurried to get some work done in the morning so I could get outside before the weather blew in. Hard to believe it was 70 yesterday. I looked at the thermometer, which read around 40.
            As I let the hens out of their run, I noticed Paprika and Marigold were both sitting side by side in the same nesting box. Why they have to use the same box, when there are two other boxes, is something only a chicken brain understands.
            Everyone else ran past me in a big hurry. I was late letting them out. No time to say hello/goodbye we’re late, we’re late, we’re late. The thought popped into my mind as they bustled past me, and I tried to place it. Was it the white rabbit, in Alice in Wonderland? Were there chickens in Wonderland?
            My plan was to dig up one bed completely, setting the top 5 inches of soil in the wheelbarrow. I’d lay down bonemeal, then place the bulbs in strategically, and then cover everything back up.
            I was not figuring in the chicken factor when I made this plan.
            As soon as I started digging, Violet was practically on top of my shovel. So I let her dig around and went to a different part of the bed. She hurried over to where I was and started digging where I was digging.
            We continued this way for a while, in each others’ way. Then I went over to the patio table to figure out how to layout the bed. Five seconds later, Violet was perching next to me on a chair, then on the table investigating my Chai tea (steadily growing cold) and my bulbs. She began moving them around with her beak, which wasn’t particularly helpful when I was trying to keep them grouped by type. She pecked the allium bulbs and I shooed her. I received an indignant cluck.
            As I began to carry bulbs to the bed, Paprika had attempted to horn in on Violet’s worm supply. Violet bossily chased her away, making Paprika squawk and flatten out apologetically. Violet, satisfied and imperious, returned to her work, which was mostly moving the bulbs I’d placed out of the way so she could get to worms.
            I have a feeling that next spring, the bulbs will not bloom nearly as organized as I thought I planted them. I carefully covered them with soil, then a layer of leaves for mulch. I used the broom the brush the leaves off the edging and tidy up.
            Then I stood back to admire how the bed looked all tucked in for winter. Violet was not thinking along the same lines, hopped into the bed, and began scratching the leaves away to get to the newly raked soil. “Who put these blasted leaves in the way?!” she seemed to say.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Snow Day

Bock, Bock, Whaaaa???!!!
This morning, the hens were their usual impatient selves hurrying to get out of the coop and off to work in the yard. Usually, they stampede out as fast as they can.

The first snow of the season.
I opened the coop door and they ran for it. Then they stopped. Confused, circling slowly. There was... white stuff... on the ground. EVERYWHERE. And it was cold on their delicate scaly feet. They turned, disappointed, and hopped back into the coop, milling around in confusion. What had happened?

The weather forecast was for anywhere from 4 to 10 inches of heavy snow by noon today. The old tree above the coop, which glittered yesterday with sunny yellow leaves, bent precariously. Limbs and branches littered the yards and the streets, traffic lights were dark, and we were without power early in the morning.

It wasn't until after I got everyone up and moving for school that I checked the list of closings and found our school district among them. The girls were happy for an unexpected snow day, but I had been wondering what the chickens would think of snow.

They were not impressed. I filled their waterer with warm water, set out a bowl of still-warm leftover oatmeal and a crumbled fresh scone, and closed them back in the coop with their amber heat light.

The snow will be melted by tomorrow, when they'll happily find their little world restored to normalcy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Poulet Roulette

From the secret cache.
We were in the middle of a school project late last night. L was building a log cabin in the dining room. I was hunting up more glue sticks, wondering how, in the old days, I made it through school projects without them. L headed outside with the flashlight in search of more sticks for her log cabin.

She'd been gone a little while when I heard her knock on the door. She was grinning ear to ear. "Look what I found, mom!" There, in the fold of her jacket, were eight brown eggs. Eight. I was puzzled. I'd checked the nesting boxes several times during the day, finding only two eggs.

Lately, it seems like there have been fewer eggs than there should be. They're young hens, I reasoned. They aren't going to be up to full speed yet.

But it just seemed like someone was holding out on me. I had looked under some bushes, checked Marigold's nest behind the fading morning glories, peered behind the ornamental grass at Paprika's favored spot, and around the back of the peonies where they'd hollowed out a nest. No eggs.

As I beat the bushes, I knew they were watching me. If they could have walked around whistling innocently they would have.

It appears, however, that the game is up. The chickens have come home to roost. The writing is on the wall. The ladies' secret has been revealed.

"Where did you find those?" I asked her.

"On the ground, next to the compost bin." She was proud of her find.

I couldn't think of one time I'd seen a hen over in that area. I regarded the eggs. Did they all come from the same hen? That would mean some of them were probably two weeks old. But they were slightly different shades...which I reasoned might mean that they came from several hens, and could just be a few days old.

L and I laughed softly together. Sneaky little biddies I thought with affection. I looked back at the eggs, not sure I was up for a game of Poulet Roulette. I decided to put them in a bowl in the fridge until morning, when I'd have more time to check their freshness with the "will-they-sink-or-will-they-float" test.

Eggs have a thin, impermeable coating (called the "bloom") that keeps them fresh--it keeps bacteria out, and prevents the contents inside from evaporating. But how long is too long? Online I read that commercial eggs, sold in the grocery store, generally will keep for three to four weeks after the sell-by date. But I was pretty sure grocery store eggs were washed with some fairly harsh detergents, then resealed with mineral oil.

This morning, after filling a bowl with water, I carefully placed them in one by one. None of them floated (if they lay horizontal, they're fresh), though one or two tipped slightly upward, telling me those were probably a week or so old. Some people argue that yard eggs that aren't soiled or cracked can remain fresh without refrigeration for two to three weeks. Even so...we always place our eggs in the refrigerator the day they are laid.

Except for these covertly-laid eggs, that is.

Since they fell within the "still good" range, I decided to hard-boil them, since we already had about 18 eggs in the fridge, and boiled eggs make a quick high-protein snack or meal. I cleaned them off with a rough sponge, rinsed them with warm water (safer than using cold water to rinse eggs), and let them boil away on the stove.

Then I went outside to let the chickens out for the day. I wondered if they'd notice their cache had been raided? But chickens are determined creatures. I know that I may have won this small battle, but realized that they were probably out there scouting for a new nest as I was putting eight cooled, boiled eggs in the refrigerator.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A brood of her own

Proud papa, Cluck Norris
A few weeks ago I blogged about Cluck Norris, the rooster formerly known as Cadbury. Discovered to be a cockerel instead of hen, he was exiled to the country, where he is the happy lone rooster in a flock of 10 hens.

He settled into the flock, showing off and proud of his big feathered self. Turns out he's been busy. My sister-in-law called a few days ago to let us know that her black Australorp hatched out three chicks. (An Australorp is an Australian orpington breed that is valued as a laying hen.)

When we got our chicks, they were among a big shipment of chicks at the feed store. Their little egg-shaped selves looked just like the rest of the fuzzy herd under the red heat light--mama-less peeps sending up a chorus of chirps. These little chicks had been sexed, meaning that we had an 80 to 90 percent chance that we were getting hens-to-be instead of roosters. (So Cluck Norris was in the 10 to 20 percent.)

We kept our chicks in the bathtub under a warm, amber light until they grew enough feathers to face the spring temperatures, then out to the coop they went. But Cluck Norris's three chicks were lucky enough to be hatched out by a hen.

We headed over to my sister-in-law's to meet the newcomers the other day. Walking into the hen house, we saw that the Australorp was settled down in a large, black water trough, with straw, food and water, but no amber heat light--she was the heat source, after all. The girls approached with anticipation, expecting to see the chicks scooting around. But there was just a black hen, making little cooing sounds. "Where are they?" the girls asked, a little concerned.

Australorp hen with one of the three new peeps.
Then M said, "Look! One's under there!" she pointed to the front of the hen, and sure enough a small orange beak was poking out just under the hen's feathers.

They waited for a little bit, hoping to see the three chicks emerge. When the hen got up, fanning first one wing, then the other in a stretch, her babies popped up, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, running around alongside the hen like little feathered bumper cars.

After a short excursion to her water and food, the hen watched the girls while making mother sounds to her chicks and occasionally prodding them into good behavior. She seemed happy and content, and reminded me of the story of Jemima Puddle Duck. "Do you remember we used to read that story?" I asked the girls. "Is she the duck who wanted to raise her babies and the farmer's wife kept taking her eggs? And then she met a fox?"

"That's the one," I said. The poor misguided Jemima was, as Beatrix Potter wrote, "a simpleton," and her story remains with me after many bedtime readings. Jemima, desperate to lay her eggs somewhere the farmer's wife could not get them, meets a fox, who shows her to a soft, lovely nest in his own abode, and invites her to raise her babies there. Of course, the gentleman fox had his own agenda, and lucky for Jemima, a wise farm collie runs the fox off, and rescues Jemima (alas, the collie's pups ate her eggs). Jemima was escorted home in humiliation, but eventually, she did raise her own little brood.

Miss Potter's portrayals of farm animals and woodland creatures always appealed to me. She clearly loved the animals that populated her life, and knew them well. I think it is the Jemima Puddle Duck story that makes me feel just a little like a thief when I gather eggs. It never fails that the chickens are following me (I might have a treat, you know) and they always seem to watch me take their eggs from the nesting boxes. I feel the need to somehow apologize for this and thank them--something I hope my neighbors don't witness because I do look a little silly.

Of course, their eggs aren't fertile because we have no rooster. But seeing this fluffy black hen happily corralling her little brood makes me smile. All that egg production, and finally rewarded with these three little fuzzy chicks.

As we watch her gather them back beneath her wings, we put the wire netting over the top of the trough to keep the little family safe, then head out the door to leave them to the quiet. Outside, Cluck Norris is strutting around proudly with his hens, crowing here and there to remind everyone that he is the rooster. No wonder farm animals provided Miss Potter with plenty of material for her pen and her watercolors.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Marigold in the Comfrey, with Clover behind her.
Garlic, ready to be broken up for planting.
This year, we won the weed battle. Or rather, our hens did. No one told me how effective my chickens would be at weed management. But as I'm clearing fall beds, and prepping for bulb planting, I'm impressed. The area beneath the raspberries has always been a challenge to keep up with. Madcap harebells popped up every spring and summer between raspberry canes, waving merry purple trumpets as reminders of my ineffectiveness as a weeder. Then there was the bindweed. Impossible, nasty, twiney stuff.

Spring usually starts with me optimistically weeding the beds, confident I can keep up. But by July, I feel like Lucy in the candy factory--the one where she can't keep up with the candies on the conveyor belt (maybe I'm dating myself). By August, the heat beats me back inside and I have raised the white flag of surrender.

This year though, the hens had the run of the backyard and eventually the garden. They fastidiously cleared the weeds by the tomatoes and quince tree. Their scratching and snacking under the raspberries meant that the harebells didn't stand a chance. Granted, they did trample the sweet woodruff into a straggly mess. And my huechera (coral bells) and a delphinium disappeared. But they left most of the veggies (even the lettuce!) alone.

The side yard and front yard, however, have not been under their management. This weekend, I decided to pull up the beans and plant the narrow bed on the side of the house in garlic. Without thinking, I left the gate between the backyard and sideyard open as I headed to the garage to get a small shovel. Five minutes later, I returned to find seven happy hens toiling away with clucks and scratches and feathers in a fluff. No doubt they'd noticed my less than stellar efforts with the weeds all summer, and were happy to get in there at last and set things right.

I started to dig up the bed on one end. At first, the hens flounced away indignantly. I was in their way. But as soon as turned over a shovel full of dirt, they descended on it like bargain shoppers at the clearance rack. I continued my way down the bed, and they followed along behind me. I had to break up the heavy clay clods, but with their digging and scratching for bugs and worms, they had the bed nicely loosened (and fertilized in a few places).

I settled down to plant garlic, 1 inch deep, 4 inches apart. They continued to busily work on the soil, but eventually marched off to work on the perennial bed. Every once in awhile, one of them would meander back over to me in a supervisory way. Patting the last of the soil in place, I stood back to admire my work, then looked around. By the perennials, cedar mulch had been tossed over the garden paths, across the front walk, and onto the steps. Marigold was standing on the front porch admiring her reflection on the glass of the storm door. The rest of the hens were roosting beneath the Blue Knight spirea, fluffed out over the cool and newly weeded soil.

My garden was relatively weed free, chemical free, and I was backache free--and in fact, those weeds were consumed and turned into eggs. They are good organic gardeners, my hens.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Homespun warmth

Several years ago I picked up a moss-and-stone hued braid of wool roving. It was from the fleece of a Bluefaced Leicester ewe, soft spirals shorn, cleaned, carded and dyed...tamed and ready to spin.

I'd been playing around with my drop spindle but this was my first big bunch of roving. The colors drew me in--ranging from celadon to olive, gray blue to stone.

I worked on it on camping trips, sitting around the fire with K and the girls, drafting the thick roving into narrow pencil widths, twisting the spindle rhythmically to the crackling sap that sent sparks skyward. It went with me on long drives to the east coast, K driving while I spun and navigated, balancing my iPhone/GPS map on my lap, and my spindle occupying both hands. A juxtaposition of old tools and new.

The resulting yarn was not consistently one weight, as it should be. It definitely runs the range of weights, from lace to chunky. Kind of a spinning sampler, I rationalized. I chose to leave it as a single, rather than plying it double for a more balanced yarn. I rolled it into a center-pull ball and waited for inspiration, which left it sitting for a couple of years.

I found a pattern for a scarf knitted with handspun yarn, perfectly designed to compliment an uneven twist. Perhaps it will look like I spun thick-thin yarn on purpose? The stitch pattern was simple: Knit two, knit one into the back of the next stitch, then purl one. Repeated over an odd number of stitches, it created a ribbed look, with enough texture to please, but not so much that the yarn got lost.

The scarf-to-be went with me to dentist appointments, dance classes, tutoring appointments, and camping. On car trips and as a rhythmic background for family movie nights. Finally, while M was dancing in a class the other night, I reached the end of the yarn.

I wove the ends in and regarded it. I still liked the colors, and BFL is a very soft, mellow wool. The uneven spinning is easy to see, and far from perfect, but it's like a double weave of the past: I spun it lightly to the spindle while the girls celebrated crossing the Tennessee border on a trip east, then passed the same fibers a second time with knitting needles, while shoulder to shoulder with the girls on the couch, watching the Nancy Drew movie.

It is a good feeling to hold a finished project, a useful item that had been organized out of lengths of wool furnished by one roman-nosed cream-colored ewe. But the journey (and time) from roving to scarf makes this project's weight warmer by degrees.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Grapes and Grasshoppers and Yogurt, Oh My

Violet. "What? Do I still have some yogurt on my beak?"
Gertie, right, wondering if Lacey would mind if she took care of that yogurt drip.
People tell me their chickens will eat anything. "Hang a cabbage up and watch them go crazy," said one friend. But my hens sort of peck at cabbages with half-hearted interest.

Grapes, however, can cause squawks and shrill "Mine! Mine!" clucks. Feathers fly when I toss out a handful of the round fruits. Blueberries are met with the same frenzied excitement.

Broccoli? Cockeyed disdain.

Tomatoes? Cornbread leftovers? Peaches? A feathered frenzy.

Lettuce? Disgruntled disappointment. "Oh, we thought you had food."

Yogurt? Messy, but good. They smack their beaks together, surface for air, wipe their beaks on the ground, then go back for more.

The other day I had several leftover lasagna noodles. I cut them into long narrow strips with a pair of scissors and took them out. Lacey picked the first one up, and before I could toss another out, they were all off to the races, chasing Lacey in a chorus of clucks, as she tried to flee with... well, she had no idea what it was, she just knew she had to keep it away from everyone else.

But, far eclipsing any kitchen treat I could bring them: grasshoppers. I tried very hard to get a photo of them hunting grasshoppers. But the hens move so quickly and unpredictably, and eat them so quickly, that all I get are photos of blurry feathers or fuzzy faces. They wait expectantly, a grasshopper appears, and they dart toward it. Then they stop, watch, run again. One of them catches the ill-fated creature and swallows it whole. It's like watching chickens playing tag.

Ick. To be honest, I have always had a grasshopper phobia. Those sticky, stem-like, hinged legs are Hitchcockian. The other day, I saw one on the tomatoes. I could not bring myself to touch it. Several days before, I'd tried to herd a grasshopper toward a chicken's attention as the grasshopper sprang hither and yon. That didn't work. It hopped right in front of Violet and she was so busy looking at me to see if I was holding something good that the grasshopper nearly bounced off of her and disappeared. She never saw it. So when I saw the grasshopper on the tomato, I grabbed the nearest chicken--Gertie, of course--and held her up to it, her yellow feet hanging down like landing gear.

She hung there in my hands, and cocked an eye at me as if to say, "Uh, OK." She didn't see it. I touched her beak to it. She didn't move, wondering why I'd picked her up and was holding her in the air sticking her head in a plant. And then, all the sudden, the light went on. Before I knew it she'd nabbed that crunchy leggy insect. I put her down and she ran off with it, happily gulping it down.

From an evolutionary standpoint, that probably wasn't fair to the grasshopper. He was camouflaged and hiding high on the plant as the rules of survival dictated. One didn't count on a hen hovering in the air four feet off the ground. Gertie, however, wasted no time on pondering the complexities of the food chain. She was off busily looking for another snack.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Apple Tart

How autumn tastes.
My recipe box is a memory box of sorts. When I'm sorting through it for recipes, I'll come across one in my mother's hand, or one in my friend Molly's familiar script. Or I'll find a recipe I copied from someone else, and it will send my mind back to that time and place. A potluck at work, a baby shower, a dinner with friends. Holiday meals and traditions. Everyday favorites that bring back memories of simple weeknight family dinners.

Shared recipes are memory fragments that one can recreate--like conjuring an item from a photograph and rendering it into reality.

One of my favorite recipes came from my friends, Kathy and Terry. It's a fruit tart recipe that has never failed me, no matter what type of fruit I've tried. Kathy made it for K and I when we had dinner at their house one time. We had returned from a trip to England and were sharing photos and stories over a delicious meal. They are both accomplished cooks, and the tart Kathy made was memorable.

I had a handful of leftover apples from my applesauce making. I have made cherry tarts, huckleberry tarts, peach tarts, and plum tarts from this recipe. I think peach and plum are my favorite, but I haven't tried an apple tart with this recipe.

But it's a perfect fall day, and an apple dessert will spice it nicely. I'll include Kathy's recipe below. The only small change I made (because of the tartness of the apples) was to take about 1/4 cup of apple jelly, heated to melt. I added a 1/2 tsp. of vanilla to the jelly, then glazed the tops of the apples with the mixture, followed by the crumb topping.

Fruit Tart
 1 1/2 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. butter or margarine
1 egg yolk
2 T. milk

Mix dry ingredients. Cut butter into dry ingredients. Beat egg and milk together, and blend into flour mixture. Press into 11" tart pan with removable bottom.

Lay on approx 4 c. sliced and pitted fruit.

Sprinkle on crumb topping which is made by mixing together:
1/3 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar (or 1/3 c. brown sugar)
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon (nutmeg w/peaches or nectarines)
1/4 c. butter

Bake at 375 for about 45 minutes until crust is brown and fruit is tender. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Feeding the Neighborhood

K and I were both working in the backyard when suddenly, a corncob fell from the sky and landed at my feet after nearly hitting me on the head. I looked at K suspiciously, but he was innocently busy on the other side of the yard, completely unaware. I looked up through the ash tree above me, and saw a squirrel scurrying along the branches. He'd dropped the cob, much like my children drop their socks, anticipating that someone would come along and take care of clean up.

Birds on the run door, waiting for scratch grains.
The cob was picked clean with surgical precision. I'd made a batch of corn relish, but there was still plenty left on the cob so I'd dropped a few in the yard for the chickens. The hens were doing a pretty good job on them, but apparently the squirrels had claimed a few cobs and carried them to the treetops. I tossed the cob into the compost bin and considered that we were inadvertently feeding the squirrel population. And others.

We've had a big increase in bird traffic. I scatter scratch grains out for the chickens, and have seen small flocks of birds clustered on the ground after the hens have had their fill. At one point, on a warm day, there were so many birds in the bird bath that it looked like the wave pool at Water World.

Pigeons have been congregating on the coop roof and cupola. And I've seen a few squirrels hurrying by like fluffy-tailed looters with tidbits that the chickens have left. I've seen a few mice, which I assume is a change that pleases the neighborhood cats, who've also increased their visits to our yard.

Often, I see dozens of sparrows inside the chicken run. Some line up socially on the roost we'd put up for the hens. Others gossip noisily along the frame and perched on the coop door. When they see me they fly up in a whirling cloud--reminding me of the aviary at the zoo. Some are small enough to squeeze themselves through the chicken wire, but when I disturb them, most of them shoot arrow-like out the front door of the run, roost in the tree above, and watch me. Once I leave, they return to their perches, resuming conversation.

An interest in having fresh eggs has turned into an illustration of the food chain. I've noticed my neighbor's cat taking delight in the sudden smorgasbord of birds at her disposal. But the birds won't be the only ones drawn in by scraps and snacks. I really don't want to draw in skunks and raccoons (though they seem to be kept at a distance because we have dogs). And I don't want to attract bigger birds--who may find the chicken scratch a whole lot less interesting than the chickens themselves. 
Five impatient hens, wondering why I'm not letting them out right away.

So, while Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom is entertaining at times, we're taking a more measured approach to feeding the chickens. Instead of tossing scratch grains in the garden for them, I toss them in their (closed) run, and I give them a little less. They clean it up almost completely before I let them out to free range. Tasty treats are given in moderation so that no scraps get left behind, and bigger items--like corn cobs and melon slices--get placed in the run with the door closed, then cleaned up and covered in the compost.

It does mean that they spend more of the morning in their run. But that's not all bad. In fact, it's actually had a positive effect. Most of them lay their eggs in the morning... which might mean our free-spirit-lay-my-eggs-in-the-great-outdoors Marigold may decide the nesting box is an acceptable place to lay an egg. One can only hope.