Monday, February 27, 2012

Norwegian Jaerhons and Chicken Math

Norwegian chicks? Ya, you betcha.
As I write this, there are two little Norwegian Jaerhon chicks peeping and hopping around in my downstairs bathtub. We weren't planning to get more chickens, but between L's persistence and my own hen-hoarding tendencies, it just happened.

My husband's family is Norwegian, and L has always loved all things Norwegian. She's read Norse Mythology, loved the stories of her Norwegian ancestors, and (when she was very little with white-blond hair) told people she had "Viking Princess hair."

So it wasn't surprising that she kept asking when we could get Norwegian Jaerhon chickens. Never having heard of this particular breed (and pretty sure we weren't going to find Jaerhon chicks in the big galvanized tubs at the local feed store) I did a little reading about them.

Pronounced "yarehahn," the word Jaerhon means "yard hen," or "yard bird." They are the only true Norwegian breed of chicken (don'tcha know), having originated there around 1920 or a little earlier. They aren't an American Poultry Association recognized breed, and have only been in the US since about 1998. They are small hens--a little bigger than Bantams--but are said to lay regular sized, white eggs. According to Wikipedia's scant info about the breed, they "can wear themselves out by laying lots of large white eggs." They are cold-hardy and good foragers, but can be flighty.

There are so many interesting, beautiful breeds of chicken. I've been wanting a Lavender Orpington, and would love a true Ameraucana (layers of blue-green eggs). But Jaerhons were intriguing, and they looked like pretty little hens.

They are small, I reasoned. 

Knowing that we already have seven hens, I began to use what's called "Chicken Math." This is my kind of math--one based on flexibility and subjective criteria rather than cold, unyielding numbers.

Here's how Chicken Math works: We have Violet, Mable, and Thelma and Louise. Those are the four big girls. But Pearl, Oreo, and Clover are small Bantam-sized girls. You count each of them as a half-chicken. Then again, Oreo and Clover are getting older and may not be laying much, as far as egg production. They're more in the pet category, right? So they are actually one-quarter chicken. So really, we have five chickens, if you add up our fractional chickens. And since Jaerhons are small, they are like Bantams, and would just count as half-chickens.

You can't just introduce one new chicken, because it would get picked on, but a pair of newcomers tend to blend into the flock better. Since two Jaerhons = one big hen, that works out beautifully, doesn't it? So we'd really just have the equivalent of six big hens. That's pretty manageable.

I did a little search on Craigslist. It just so happened that someone who keeps Jaerhons up in the mountains, on the Western Slope of Colorado (six or more hours away) was living in Denver with her mother for the winter, and she'd brought her chickens with her. And she had chicks available. How lucky is that!?

Oddly, K did not really understand the luck part of it, or the chicken math, for that matter. In fact, he seemed to imply that this was not really a good thing, and that I might have some sort of addiction. I knew his sister, who has a flock of her own, would be interested in hearing about Jaerhons. "Did you tell her you found a dealer?" K asked. Again, an addict reference. I sensed that he was less than enthusiastic.

In the end, he made the girls (and me) promise that this would be it. The flock would grow to a population of no more than nine. Or, well, six, if you do the math correctly. And that is how, at 8:00 last night, K found himself inventing a contraption for the tub that would hold the chick waterer, and rigging up a more secure cover for the little fliers. I don't know where his hesitation comes in.

Postscript: As I blogged in a later post, the Jaerhons ended up being GREAT fliers, and went to live in the country with my sister-in-law, where their aeronautical feats wouldn't land them in the neighbor's yards. She reports that they are, as promised, great egg layers, and that in spite of being small hens, their eggs are the same size as (sometimes larger than) the eggs produced by her large fowl.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Best Buds

Sister, sisters...
You never see one of them without the other one. I can't help laughing at the two Australorp pullets -- the youngest in the coop. We got them from someone nearby when they were just about 8 weeks old. They have always been pretty skittish, and justifiably so as they weren't handled as much as our other chicks. They aren't laying yet, but they should be getting close.

They are highly suspicious of me because I have, on occasion, actually picked them up. This, they think, is beyond the pale and really not done. They protest loudly, and it sounds as if they think I've selected one of them as a soup ingredient. When I put the offended biddy down, she runs for her BFF, and they both glare at me.

They do not go anywhere separately. If you look for one Australorp, the other is always there. One runs across the yard, and the other is close on her scaly heels. They roost together at night, and siesta together during the day.

Their names have not settled on them yet. Poppy, Prudence, Betty, Minnie, Onyx, and Henrietta have all been floated out there, and none seem to really fit. It may sound strange, but some names really fit chicken personalities, and you just can't give a hen a name that doesn't ring true.

I think they need names that go together, since they are such bosom buddies. Ava and Zsa Zsa, Mary Kate and Ashley, or maybe Laverne and Shirley.

Yesterday, M had an appointment, and I had to herd them all into the run since I was going to be gone awhile, and I wanted them to be safely contained. They'd been outside most of the morning enjoying the spring-like temps, and were not really inclined to be cooped up. I tossed some curly lettuce into the run, and all of them except Clover and Australorp #1 went charging in. I cornered Clover and scooped her up, putting her in with her sisters. But Australorp #1 suddenly realized she was Outside By Herself.

If she'd had a cartoon bubble over her head that told me what she was thinking, it would have looked like this:


She turned and ran, wings akimbo, black feathers waving, legs moving as fast as they could go. I tried to follow her calmly, in a non-threatening fashion, thinking I'd corner her and then pick her up. She ran like a fugitive. Zigged, zagged, squawked, flapped, hopped, and panicked. I cornered her more than once, and she dodged just out of reach.

Meanwhile, Australorp #2 and the rest of the hens were watching from the run. I could not tell if they were entertained, unconcerned, or rooting for one or the other of us, because I was running around my yard like a pinball. From a distance, no one would have seen Australorp #1, just me running in halting zig-zags around my backyard. I do recall aiming a colorful invective at her at one point.

Finally, I was able to grab her. She squawked indignantly, and I opened the run door and scooted her inside. She ran to Australorp #2 to tell her all about it. They both looked at me with disdain.

Since then Australorp #1 has steered clear of me, as I am obviously a Predator and must be avoided at all costs. This morning I brought her some of last night's leftover cornbread as a peace offering. Can chickens scowl? Because that was the look she gave me. She did take the cornbread, but only after I moved a fair and safe distance away. I tried to make nice with her, but she'll take more time to win over. And once she starts laying, she should calm down just a little. But in the meantime, she's my little fugitive pullet.

Maybe I should call them Thelma and Louise...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Homemade Yogurt

I have never been a big fan of yogurt. I'll eat it, knowing that those live cultures are good for me, but it's not my treat of choice. Then I started making yogurt myself, and I find that homemade yogurt is so much better--it's milder, lighter, and somehow more satisfying than store-bought yogurt.

I started making yogurt because my husband and the girls eat so much of it (and the chickens love it, too), and I'd heard it was really easy to make at home. My friend Jenna makes it often, and she inspired me to try it myself.

When you consider that a half-gallon of organic milk is around $2, and makes a little more than four pints of yogurt, that's a pretty good savings. Not only that, I know exactly what's in it, and where it came from.

To sweeten, we stir in some homemade jam, or honey with a splash of vanilla. It's a great way to use up jelly or preserves that didn't gel completely. K likes to put it over his cereal or oatmeal, and the girls love it over fresh, sweetened strawberries.

The process is pretty simple--just make sure you start it when you won't need your oven for eight or more hours. I make it in the evening around 8 pm and leave it in the oven overnight. I've seen several different methods (some make it in a slowcooker, or you can buy a yogurt maker), but here's how I make it:

You'll need:
  • 1/2 gallon of milk (I use 2 percent or nonfat; I've used whole milk as a treat from time to time).
  • About 2 T. of plain, nonfat yogurt to use as starter (I use an organic Greek yogurt --just make sure there's nothing in it besides milk and active cultures). You can use homemade yogurt for starter, but I've found that I can only do that one or two times, before going back to a small store-bought container to build it back up. I have made it with as little as 2 tsp., and find that the more starter I used doesn't mean thicker yogurt. In fact, a heavy dose of starter seems to make the resulting yogurt thinner and a little grainier.
  • Candy thermometer or other cooking thermometer.

Pour 1/2 gallon of milk  into a large saucepan or soup pot.

Heat slowly to about 170F, or 180F.

While it's warming, I fill five pint jars with hot water to warm them, set out lids/bands (I reuse them each week), turn on the light in the oven, and pull out a roaster. I fill the roaster with about 2 inches of hot water, and set it in the oven with the lid on it. You don't have to use pint jars -- you can use a large glass bowl if you prefer. I like having them in jars so that I can fit things in the refrigerator more easily.

Once the milk has hit about 170F, let it cool until it's about 110F.

Take out about 1/2 c. of warm milk, and whisk it in a small bowl with the plain yogurt. Then pour that mixture back into the pot with the rest of the milk. Stir to mix. Pour water out of waiting jars. Divide milk among five warm jars, tighten lids, then place each in the roaster/water bath in the oven. Replace the lid, close the oven door, and leave the oven light on. This will keep it to just about the right temperature while the yogurt starts to form.

Leave overnight, or about 8 hours, resisting the temptation to check on it.

It will firm up more in the refrigerator. If you want it to be really thick and creamy, like Greek yogurt, strain it through cheesecloth for several hours. The liquid whey will sink to the bottom, leaving a really thick, wonderful yogurt behind.

Homemade yogurt will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator, but we haven't really tested that timeline--ours gets gobbled up in less than a week.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Foiled Again

Well camouflaged....
I kept thinking we should have more eggs. Violet has been the only steady layer the last few months. But Mabel started laying a few weeks ago, and the two little Bantams and Pearl lay occasionally. The Australorps are not to point-of-lay, yet. Two to three eggs a day shouldn't be an unreasonable expectation.

Mabel: "What eggs?"
Violet has delivered a few to the front door recently. Yesterday I saw one sitting on the loveseat, newly deposited, and went out to say hi to Violet. I sat down on the wicker loveseat, and she hopped up and visited me for a few minutes. We had a brief conversation, she examined the rings on my fingers, then hopped down and headed around the side of the house. In order to get to the front door she had soldiered through the 6 to 8 inches of snow that remain on the ground. The coop would have been much closer for her than the loveseat on the front porch, but she felt compelled to bring her eggs to the door, apparently.

So I knew she was laying steadily. And I can usually tell Clover's eggs from Oreo's. They are both small Bantam eggs, but for some reason, Clover's have been bumpy ever since the chicken heist.

But there just weren't many eggs showing up in the coop. So I shouldn't have been so surprised to find a hidden stash of eggs this morning.

I noticed Mabel has been hanging out in a narrow space between the garage and a long aluminum ladder that is leaning on its side against the building. It doesn't really look like there's enough space for a hen there.

Today, I went out to take them some clean water, and saw Mabel poke her head out from between the rungs, watching me. I went over to see what she was up to, and happened to glance a little more closely at the dark ground space beside her. Last fall's leaves had gathered behind the ladder and against the wall, so they were camouflaged, but I caught a glimpse of an egg. And then another.

Mabel watched me for a moment then kind of sidled her way past me and over to the coop. There was an air of innocence in the way she looked around, as if she was pretending she knew nothing about that clutch of eggs. I went back inside to get a container and came out to see how many hidden eggs were there.

The one on top was warm. I looked pointedly at Mabel. The rest--16 in all--had been frozen, and were cracked and damaged from the cold. Some were clearly Bantam eggs. All were brown, so Pearl was cleared, since her eggs are white.

I tossed the 15 frozen eggs in the trash, and slipped the fresh one into the fridge, along with one that had been properly laid in the coop nesting box.

I'm not sure why they are finding places other than the nesting box to lay their eggs. I think I'll see if we can modify to coop nesting boxes to be more enclosed, since enclosure seems to be an enticement, and their nesting boxes in the coop are somewhat open.

But finding them tucked away behind the ladder has me wondering what creative place they'll find next. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Poultry Snow Palace

Clover standing on her tiptoes trying to see past the snow.
After weeks of unseasonably warm, dry weather, we woke to about a foot of snow on Friday morning. The night before, I'd given the ladies fresh water, topped off their feed, and left them a bowl of yogurt and some applesauce. I knew they'd be in no hurry to come out the next morning with snow on the ground, and figured I'd buy a little time on a snowy morning before forging a path to the coop and run.

As it turned out, it was a snow day for M&L. After it warmed up a little bit, they went outside to let the hens out and had plans to build a snow fort. But somehow that plan evolved with the influence of the chickens.

At first, none of the hens really wanted to come out. But then I saw Mabel take a flying leap from the run, apparently thinking she'd get over that white stuff and into the garden. She didn't anticipate that the snow was everywhere. It was an impressive flight for a heavy chicken, and she landed in the foot deep snow like a rock. This seemed to shock, then puzzle her. She sat there, immobilized. I watched as she looked around trying to figure her way out of the mess, then M rescued her and put her back in the run.

In the meantime, Clover had waddled out the run door and was walking back and forth along the shoveled path. This was definitely a case of a chicken wanting to get to the other side. She stood as tall as her bowling ball-shaped self could get, trying to see a way through or over the snow. The Australorps stood tentatively inside the run, looking out with concern. Pearl was happily eating the grain and kale I'd tossed out, and Oreo and Violet, having seen as much snow as they cared to see, were roosting on the high perches in the coop where it was warm and dry.

I gathered a couple of eggs, and headed back in. A little while later I looked out to see that the girls had shoveled out the snow then piled a bunch of pine shavings on one area. A network of shoveled paths led to and from the opening, and the hens were strolling in various places along the path. When one of them had the urge to run and flap wings, they did so by following the path in its curves around the bird bath and through the garden. They did not stray from the maze of paths. The two Australorps wandered in circles in the center of the shavings as if they were gossiping ladies out for a walk in the park.

M&L were busily building up walls. I saw L place Pearl on top of the berm. Pearl, having a strong sense of decorum and self preservation, hopped back to the safety of the path. L busily  appeared to be creating steps for the chickens to climb up and down. Eventually, they had created a number of "rooms", corridors, and stairsteps in the heavy white snow.

I looked over at our neighbor's snow. Her yard was covered with a pristine glistening white blanket that looked like icing on a cake--not the slightest footprint marred its surface. I wondered if she looked over at our yard and pondered the expansive Poultry Palace that had appeared.