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.