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.