Wednesday, August 31, 2011


When we took our incidental rooster to live at my sister-in-law's (that's a whole different blog post) she offered us two of her little Bantam hens in exchange.

M&L stirred up the flock, feathers flew, and each emerged with a small, worried hen. M chose Oreo, the little Silver Laced Wyandotte. L brought home Clover, a tiny Barred Rock. They are Cochin Bantams, with fancy feathers decorating their feet and enough fluff behind that they look like little old ladies in fluffy peignoirs with fuzzy slippers.

Clover is always the last hen out of the coop in the morning. Everyone else is making a run for the scratch grains I've tossed out, and Clover is standing in the coop wondering where everyone went. Then, out she hops. I can usually tell if she's gotten separated from the rest of the girls. I'll be upstairs and I can hear Clover wandering around outside calling plaintively and with some confusion.

She gets carried around a lot. Tucked in L's arms, usually, where she'll be fed choice morsels of berries and tomatoes that she doesn't normally get if she's having to fend off the other chickens. They're quicker than she is, and sometimes she seems to be saying, "Oh, no, after you. Oh pardon me, you may have it."

Clover has had several adventures. Mostly involving the Dalmatian. There was the one time when he was let out and we thought all the hens were in the front yard. We came outside to find Clover feathers in one downy pile near the back porch. The Dalmatian was banished and sat with a very guilty look on his face. It was not a good moment. I dreaded finding a little hen body.  The girls were in tears, and L's friend LA was holding vigil with us.

We looked everywhere. Sorrowful comments memorialized Clover and her sterling qualities. And then LA found her. She had stuffed herself beneath the porch steps and appeared to be stuck. "She's ALIVE!" the girls yelled.

I pried away the lattice that surrounded the porch, and she bolted away, across the yard. L picked her up. "She's fine, she's fine!!' she called, clucking over the little hen. I held my breath, preparing for the worst. But she really did seem fine. Her feathers were a bit ruffled, and she had a story to tell the other hens, but she was fine.

We carefully put her in the coop. She'd had a run in with Kipper once before, and managed to fly right over the fence, and this time I'm betting she did a fair amount of wing flapping.

 Clover seemed to take it all in stride. I opened the coop door the next morning and she was, as usual, the last one out, taking her time, calling out from the coop, then happily wandering along, being doted on and offered choice morsels, laying a small egg every other day.

She's the only hen whose wings haven't been clipped. She just seems to get into a fix now and then, and I think she's used her wings to her advantage. 

Our neighbor's 4-year-old asked to pet a chicken, and of course Clover was offered up as the flock representative. "Can she fly?" he asked as he worked up the courage to pet her. Not as high as she'd like to sometimes, I thought.

"A little," I said.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Violet is our big barred rock hen, and she has a tendency to peck at things (especially sparkly, shiny things) as much for curiosity as for sustenance. She's a sleeker chicken than Gertie, without as many ruffles and tail feathers, and her grays and blacks blur together not in stripes but in "bars" that look airbrushed along their edges.

She's one of the noisier hens, constantly wandering about muttering, clucking at other hens or greeting me at a trot making chirpy, purred inquiries. Her interest in sparkly, shiny things means that she pecks at the rings on my finger, the hinges on the coop, the buckles on my shoes. When my sister-in-law, a fellow chicken enthusiast, picked her up, Violet had to check out her sparkly earrings repeatedly (and none too gently).

Miss Violet
Violet once sent me running for close-toed shoes. I've had a pedicure exactly one time, when my mom was visiting and we took the girls to get their nails done. I came home with strawberry-colored, sparkle-festooned toenails, and without thinking, wore sandals out to the backyard.

Violet approached me first to see if I had a treat, then she looked down, cocked her head in interest and eyed my toes. "Berries!" she seemed to say, and became determined to get them all before any other hens discovered what she was sure was a tasty treat. I had to head back into the house for more concealing footwear.

Normally, her peckish behavior doesn't bother me. But ever since she started laying, it's been a cause of consternation. At first I wasn't sure who was doing it, but I kept finding light brown/whitish eggs in the nesting box that had one pea-sized hole at the end. So the girls and I worked to keep the nesting box cleared as soon as an egg was laid, trying to figure out who was doing the pecking.

The evidence.
Violet, it appears, has turned her "curious pecking" on her own eggs in the most unhelpful manner, making the eggs unusable. And she's so quick. You don't want a hen to develop a taste for eggs, or you can end up with a growing problem of broken eggs. And while Violet hasn't been tasting her eggs (she doesn't break the inner membrane) she's heading in that direction.

Which has led to stalker behavior from me. If I notice Violet heading toward the coop and making pre-laying noises, I check the nesting box frequently, to the point where I often open the small door to find her in the box, and get a look of puzzled consternation, her privacy invaded.

Still, she manages to peck a hole in one before I get back out there.

So, I've been reading up on how to prevent this behavior. One source says to place hard "dummy" eggs in the nesting box so that if she pecks it, it will be uncomfortable and will discourage her from doing so again. Another said to cover an egg with petroleum jelly to make pecking the egg unpleasant. And still another suggested putting hot sauce within a hollow shell.

Another said to increase the hens' calcium by offering oyster shells, so we've added a pan of the white, crushed shells to their coop rations, since that was pretty simple (though I'd read elsewhere NOT to give oyster shells, which is why we weren't offering it... so I may have to research that a bit more).

And a suggestion to hang a shiny bauble in the coop to distract her might just work, given her interest in bling. If the number of people online asking how to keep chickens from pecking their eggs is any indicator, it seems to be a fairly common problem, anyhow.

Now, I'm off to see if we have any petroleum jelly. We'll see what Violet thinks of that.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In a Pickle

Corn relish, sweet chunk pickles, and bread and butter pickles.
The chickens have really been benefiting from my canning jag lately. Shelves full of jellies, jams, pickles, and relishes mean that the chickens get leftovers... past-their-prime strawberries, those few cucumbers that don't make the cut, or the cobs of corn that I've mostly scraped clean. No wonder they come running every time I open the door.

This week, it's been pickle-palooza at our house. Bread and butter pickles, spicy sweet pickles, and sweet chunks. 

Sweet Chunk Pickles, Day 4
Right now, there's a 2-gallon crock sitting on the counter with a batch of sweet chunks in process. It's a recipe that my husband's family introduced me to, handed down from his grandmother. They are just about the best sweet chunks I've ever had, and I've seen similar pickles called "Virginia Sweet Chunks." They tend to be passed slowly around the table at holidays, occasionally hanging up at my daughter's plate, where I have to remind her that pickles are a condiment, not a main dish.

If you're looking for quick pickles, these won't fit the bill--they take a full six days to make--but they are worth the extra time.

Sweet Chunk Pickles
Gather a little less than 2 gallons pickling cucumbers--about 20-30 depending on size (small cukes work best. The big ones go to the chickens!)
Day 1: Rub cucumbers with coarse salt to clean, then rinse. For crisper cucumbers, slice off blossom end of cucumber. Place whole cucumbers in a 2-gallon crock. Fill crock with enough boiling water to cover the tops of the cucumbers. Cover crock with plate.
Day 2: Drain, then refill with boiling water to cover. Keep plate in place as a lid.
Day 3: Drain, then refill with boiling water to cover. Keep plate in place as a lid.
Day 4: Drain and rinse cucumbers. Cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch slices, return to crock. Combine the following ingredients in a large pot:
1 qt. cider vinegar
8 c. sugar (we've reduced to 6 and find the pickles are still plenty sweet)
2 T. canning salt
1 T. whole cloves
2 T. pickling spice
2 sticks of cinnamon, broken into pieces
Bring to a boil, then pour syrup over sliced cucumbers and replace plate as lid.
Day 5: Drain syrup from crock into large pot, bring syrup to a boil, pour over cucumbers, replace lid.
Day 6: Place cucumbers and syrup in large pot, bring to a boil. Add several drops of green food coloring if desired. Fill sterilized, hot pint jars leaving about 1/2-inch head space, wipe rims, adjust lids, and tighten rings. Process in hot-water bath 10 minutes, remove from canner and allow to cool. Check to make sure jars have sealed. Be sure to follow safe canning practices and process for your altitude.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Poultry PMS

It started with Gertrude. We thought she'd be the first of the five young hens to lay. She was the biggest and the oldest, and the leader of the rooster-less flock.

One morning I noticed that she wasn't with the other girls. Their feathered busy-body selves were off scratching for bugs, eating weeds, and flattening themselves out for a nap on the cool earth under the raspberries. Gertie was on the other side of the yard, near the coop.

I watched her for a bit. She'd hop up on to the little landing by the hen door, wander around in the coop making deep, anxious errrrrr sounds that sounded a little like a squeaky wheel. Then she'd go into a nesting box and scratch around with discontent. Then she'd be back out in the yard. She was restless, cranky, and a little worried for no reason. She had poultry PMS.

Poor thing. Every time I went outside, she'd run to me with a panicked look and an Errrrrr that roughly translated meant something like "What the heck? Why do I feel like I should be in the coop?" If she could have wrung her wings, she would have. I gave her some leftover blueberries and she seemed happy for a minute. Then we were back to her whirring, anxious Errrrrr.

This went on for several days. The two older Bantams, who've been laying for awhile, seemed a little perturbed that she was fiddling around in the nesting boxes when they needed them. The other hens were oblivious.

Then her Errrrrr changed to more of a, well, crow. A "bock, bock, bock, bi-gock." And there, in the the nesting box, was a small, slightly off-shaped egg. She strutted around happily, and went back to scratching for bugs and eating weeds. One down, 799 more to go. (The average hen will lay about 800 eggs during their most productive years).

I headed back toward the house with the fruit of her labors, when Violet, the barred rock, hurried up to me. "Errrrrrrr?!" she said. She looked at me as if to say, "What the heck?!" Then she hopped into the coop and headed for the nesting box.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Back to School

Today was the first day of school for my daughters, and it was quiet in the house. And in the coop.

We brought the chicks home in April, during spring break, and by they time they were ready to go live in the coop, the girls were home from school for the summer.

What has been unexpected is how much time the girls spent outside with the chickens this year. They'd go out and check their food and water, look for eggs (the Bantam hens were already laying when we brought them home), and then sit on the glider and rock them.

Yep. They'd rock them. I'd look out and see my younger daughter sitting there, with Clover or Marigold or Violet on her lap, and she'd be singing and rocking her, back and forth, on the black glider in the back yard. Or just carrying the hens around, watching their antics, and laughing at them, occasionally putting them in a baby-doll stroller that they'd pulled out of storage in the garage, and wheeling them around the patio. The ladies didn't seem to mind, and it reminded me of something my sister-in-law said she'd heard: If you have a broody hen (one who wants to sit on her eggs and quits laying) some hens will feel better (and less broody) if they are carried around for awhile. Maybe they like the girls' company as much as the girls like theirs.

Who knew chickens could be so entertaining? Better than the TV, computer or iPhone. It was a side benefit of chicken ownership that we never expected.

But today, the chickens had a quiet day while the girls were in school. Until they got home, that is. Then M&L checked in with the ladies, and sat down for a quiet spell in the backyard, catching up on their chicken time before looking for a snack and getting back into the swing of homework.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

It was a dark and stormy night...

Hens, in the self-preservation part of their DNA, just know when it's time to head into the coop in the evening. It's usually just a little before it starts to get dark. I'll see them all migrating in that direction, and will watch them hop through the door one by one. When I head over to button things up and check on them before dark, they are up on their roosts, tail feathers pointing down, pressed against each other like sparrows on a telephone wire.

One evening, I had them in a different part of the backyard while I was working in the garden, and they didn't have their usual access to the coop. I hadn't noticed it was getting late, but finally looked up to see seven hens crowded around the gate looking anxiously at my tardy self. I headed over to let them through the gate, and Violet, our Barred Rock, literally jumped into my arms in a panic before I had the gate open. After that, I was pretty careful to be a little more punctual at tucking them in.

But sometimes, something comes up and I'm late. I'd been at a meeting, and we had a torrential downpour, complete with thunder and lightning. It eased up just a bit as I got home, but since my husband and daughters were home, I assumed they'd rounded up the ladies. I got busy, then suddenly looked up to notice it was very dark, and the rain had started up again. "Hey, did you close up the coop?" I asked my husband. When he said he hadn't--that the chickens were still in the garden when he got home--I hurried out to check on them.

I stepped into the coop, which doesn't have an interior light. I could see a row of hens on the high roost, and a few hens on the lower roost (usually where the two bantams hang out). But they were squeezed so tightly together that I wasn't able to count very well. I stepped inside and counted by touch. The hens made soft, indignant sounds as I felt each feathered body. Four on the high roost. Two on the low roost. That meant one was missing. I double checked to make sure I wasn't missing someone. Again I found six. I had a sick feeling in my stomach, thinking of weather and predators and one small hen out in a big storm, and ran back to the house for the flashlight. Back to the coop. Six hens fidgeted in the glare.

Oreo, the little Silver Laced Wyandotte Bantam hen, was missing. The rain was bucketing down, lightning was flashing across the coop windows, and thunder cracked. I headed out into the backyard, not even sure where to look. She could be anywhere. On a whim, I walked along the back of the coop, towards our open compost stacks. And there she was. Flattened out against the warm compost, absolutely sopping wet, a little black and white hen peering up at me miserably. I reached for her, tucked her up under my chin so the rain wouldn't hit her, and ran back to the coop.

I placed her carefully on the low roost next to Clover, the other little Bantam, and Violet, who has started hanging out with Clover lately. She wiggled her way closer to Clover. It was warm and dry in the coop. And now, counting seven sets of tail feathers, I felt relieved. I toweled her off a little bit (or tried to--she didn't seem to appreciate my mother-hen efforts) then left her to roost while the rain beat out on the roof and the lightening flashed. I think that she must have gotten scared and had flown into the bins, but then wasn't sure how to get out, and she was on the side of the coop where there wasn't a door. But now she was safe and warm with her friends, and I headed back in to my house, where the lights glowed brightly, and I whispered a little thank you that my hens were safe.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Close Calls

I am told that in the old days, if a dog got a chicken, said chicken would be tied around the dog's neck for days on smelly end, until the dog never again wanted anything to do with chickens. Thankfully (for all concerned), we've not had to resort to that with either of our dogs (Tybee, a Weimaraner, and Kipper, a Dalmatian). But we did have to spend some time with Kipper making it clear that the chickens were off limits.

When our hens were chicks, we raised them in our clawfoot tub in the downstairs bathroom. Their world was white walls, with the bright orange light from the heat lamp. It was a pretty safe place, except for the Dalmatian. Kipper took an interest in the chicks from the start. If one of us was in the room, he would go in and look at them like he couldn't believe his eyes, then come running out like it was too wonderful to bear. We had gotten him chickens! He could not wait to try one.

That, I told him, was not the right idea. Kipper loves his people, and his chuck-it ball, but Dalmatians were bred to chase small creatures from the paths of carriages, and no one said anything about not eating those creatures. Squirrels, cats, and birds... they crossed his path like feathered and furry temptations. But he listens to his people. Even if it goes against his nature.

Sometimes, though, it's just too much. One afternoon I went in to the bathroom with my younger daughter to clean up the tub and put new newspaper down for the chicks. They were messy birds. I transferred them to a large rubbermaid container on the floor. They had their big wing feathers and the feathers across their shoulders, so they weren't little, but they were probably several weeks from taking up residence in the coop.

I went to change their water in the kitchen sink, just outside the bathroom door. In that moment, chaos ensued. Kipper thought this might be a good time to pick out a chicken of his very own. My daughter screamed. The chickens sent up a cacophony of alarm. Kipper ran back out of the bathroom like his tail was on fire. A quick check, and conversation with L, and I learned that Kipper had picked up Gertie, the biggest, for a second before the hysteria made him drop the chicken and run.

The chicks were all huddled together in one corner of the container. I picked up Gertie and looked her over. She had a bruise on the skin of her wing, but nothing else that I could see. I sat with her for a minute, and apologized. She seemed mostly indignant, and a little scared, but from that day on, seemed to think I was a safety net. She survived, much to everyone's relief.

After that, we were much more careful to close the door, and Kipper has learned that he must not chase the chickens.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tales from the Coop

Some people find it hard to relate to my affection for my hens. And truth be told, until I became a chicken owner, I didn't really get it either. I thought it would be nice to have fresh eggs just steps from the back door. There was something bucolic... simple and homespun... about having chickens. But I wasn't prepared to take such pleasure in them.

Take Gertie for example. She's the biggest of the seven. A lovely golden Buff Orpington. Everytime I walk out the back door, she runs to greet me. She knows I often bring along a treat, but I like to think she has some affection for me. She hurries along, fluffy petticoats ruffling along in a froth behind her, intent on reaching me first. She stops, then eyes me, inquiring with that sideways speculation chickens so perfect. She is a prime example of the early bird getting the worm. The other day, I found a hugenormous green tomato cut worm feasting on my lovely Tappy's Heritage Heirloom tomato.

I hurried back into the house, uttering a phrase of apology to the universe and karma, because I surely meant that creature no ill will except I will not tolerate his presence in my garden. I will not have it. He was at least 5 inches long, fat with tomato leaves and a garden glutton if ever I saw one.

I grabbed my canning tongs, hurried back past the hens, into the garden, and up to that tomato plant. I plucked that juicy nasty morsel off my tomato plant and walked back through the gate where the hens were busily scratching and searching, and Gertie greeted me first, head cocked, rewarded when I presented her with the biggest green worm she'd ever seen. Steak, baby. She grabbed it and ran, the worm waving along like a flag to the other hens, and the race was on.

I didn't stay to watch them pick and peck the poor thing to pieces. I did feel a little guilty about that, but that's the risk you take when you eat my tomato plants. And so the plant I raised fed a green worm, who fed my hens, who will return the favor with nice, fresh eggs that will feed my family.

There is probably a reason Gertie is bigger than the others. As my husband says, Gertie is a sturdy girl.