Monday, March 26, 2012

Chicken Therapy

Holding Gertie, last summer
Move over dogs and dolphins and horses... chickens are the new therapy animal.

I'd heard about people taking chickens into rehab programs and senior living centers. In fact, here's an article about hens visiting a senior center. For many seniors, chickens bring back childhood memories.

Yesterday, I watched my 13-year-old daughter laughing at the chickens and I experienced a revelation: Chickens are great therapy for the teenage years. Not just for the teenager, but for the teenager's parents, too.

Chickens offer respite to parents of teens because chickens are always happy to see you. There's no drama about what their chicken friends will think about their hair or nails. They will eat whatever you give them, happily, and they cannot roll their eyes. And chickens can't wait to get going in the morning. They need no alarm clock.

On the other hand, adolescent girls need chickens because they don't ask if your bed is made, if your clothes are put away, or if your teeth are brushed. They don't care if you left your homework at home. They are always happy to see you no matter what your nails or hair look like. (Although, if your nails are berry colored, they will notice and admire them.) They will make you laugh from your heart.

Watching M watch the chickens yesterday was like peeling back a layer of 13-year-old bravado and ambivalence, and finding beneath it the little girl who first melted my heart like chocolate in August. All day long, she'd been in a bit of a funk (though she'd tell me no one uses that word anymore). No matter what subject I brought up, she pointed out that I was so two decades ago. She grimaced when I suggested something she could do. She complained that she couldn't find anything to wear, but scowled when I suggested she clean her room so that she could find something to wear.

As an alternative to that suggestion, she went outside and began to visit with the hens. They bustled around busily in the garden, dusted themselves and checked to see what she'd brought them.

When she was a toddler, she liked to play the hostess, and would get every visitor water (she once politely asked my mother-in-law and sister-in-law if they wanted a beer at 10 a.m. We still laugh about that). And there she was, echoes of that little girl, getting extra water for the hens, checking on her rabbit, scattering chicken scratch, and laughing. She picked up Thelma and talked to her, set her down gently and scooped up Mabel. She laughed with L, set up an elaborate chicken pen for the chicks to get some outdoor time, and just relaxed.

With chickens, there's no need to be anybody but who you really are.

It was a glimpse of the person I know she is--caring, loving, funny. I don't get to see that glimpse all that often, but when I do, it gives me a moment of reassurance and helps me relax a little about being the parent of a teenager.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Flock Update

Little Miss No Name, with her new tuft of tail feathers and the beginnings of shoulder feathers.
My focus lately has been on getting seeds in flats, and knocking out a few work projects, but as time ticks forward, the flock changes little by little.

Thelma, one of the Australorps, has started laying. I was standing outside putting potting soil in flats (it's been unseasonably warm here) and could hear a hen scratching away in the nesting box. I looked over and could see that Mabel and Violet, my two daily-layers, were both in the yard, and the only hen missing was Thelma. She was making a general fuss about being in the coop, and true to form, was being a bit of a drama queen about all of it. Finally, yesterday, she produced a small brown egg.

Oreo, the Silver Laced Wyandotte Bantam, is normally fairly standoffish and not particularly interested in me, but lately, she's been my little shadow when I'm outside. As I was filling flats, she was hanging out next to me thinking about scratching in the tray of soil. That wasn't working, so I went in and got some raw oatmeal, and set out a little bowl for her. She made happy little sounds as she ate. I don't know what's gotten into her. She hasn't laid an egg for a week or more (she's an older hen), but she seems to feel fine otherwise.

Mabel has been channeling her inner-raptor. She and Violet, um, split (literally) a mouse the other day. I'm not sure who caught it, but they both wanted it and played out a grisly spectacle in front of M the other day. Mutual of Omaha in the backyard. When we picked Mabel out, she'd been isolated from the big flock because they were pulling her tail feathers out and picking on her. She seems to have outgrown her passive ways. The other day, our big fluffy cat, MuShu, who terrorizes dogs and thinks he's the king of the house, was rolling happily in the dust. Mabel spied him, sped toward him, and pecked him. He jumped straight in the air, then slunk off in the most undignified way.

Violet, having celebrated her first birthday (hatchday?) appears to be moulting. This is something chickens do once a year, and they slow or stop laying during a moult. A good layer will generally lose a lot of feathers quickly, and resume laying quickly. Poor layers don't lose a lot of feathers, and they are slow to lay eggs again. She's lost feathers around her neck (looks like she's been plucked). Next she'll probably lose from her saddle, breast and body, then from the wings and finally from the tail. Right now her body feathers have taken on a dingy, brown edge to them. Hopefully, she'll be done moulting in 4-6 weeks.

Pearl, Clover, and Louise are pretty much status quo. Pearl lays the occasional egg, Clover, the little old lady of the bunch, hasn't laid in awhile, and Louise is the only hen who hasn't laid yet. They have all been happily enjoying the warm weather, dusting themselves under the spruce and nibbling at weed and grass shoots that are appearing.

Inside, the Norwegian Jaerhons (Lotte and Inga) have gotten quite big. I could probably introduce them to the big hens, but don't want to leave Little Miss No Name all by herself. She's been getting bigger, starting to get her shoulder feathers and little tail feathers, but not quite big enough to run with the big girls yet. She's very happy to have mastered the art of hopping and flying enough to roost with the Jaerhons on their little perch in the bathtub. We have gone through many name possibilities for her, but no one seems able to agree. I think the latest choices were Dandelion and Princess Layer.

So that's the latest on the girls. Speaking of... I better get out and let them out of the coop. They're probably wondering where I am this morning, tapping their scaly toes impatiently at the coop door. We are ALL glad spring seems to be here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Postcards from the Coop

Several years ago--before we had our own flock in the backyard--I started collecting postcards illustrated with chickens. Most date from about 1908-1913. They are tucked in with Easter decorations, and I pull them out every spring and stack them in a basket on our dining room sideboard. I've not yet figured out a creative way to display them, so they sit there by the door as if they just arrived in today's mail. They're of the same era as our house, and I like both the nostalgic images and the sentiments expressed on them.

This was a time when hens in a backyard were probably more common than not, and definitely not the novelty our little urban flock is. I always wonder why the sender chose a postcard depicting chickens, over the rabbits and eggs and flowers that decorated other Easter postcards of the time. I like to think it was an affection for chickens.

I feel some guilty pleasure in reading the messages on back.

Usually the messages are simply "How are you?" or "Happy Easter". They are like split-second time travel, quick scrawled messages that remind me of pre-electronic text messages. Not much room to write, just a quick reminder or message:

"Maurice -- Can't tell yet what time I will be home. Not before the 9 o'clock train anyway -- but sometime to-morrow night. Bertha"

Dear Effie -- Say, I am waiting for a letter saying when you are coming to stay with us. I am going to stay at home now for Stanton hired Elmert Ruch. Grandma R is awful bad don't think she will last long. Bobby Kerry is getting better. Ota. 

Dear Augusta -- How are you all. We are all quite well. Only a bad cold. Am sorry I did not write sooner. I tho't sure it was your turn to write or else I would of wrote. Etta 

To Mildred in New York: Wishing you a happy Easter. --Mother. Don't forget my pocketbook.

Dear Brother Emil -- I thought I would drop you a note to let you know the price of that house. They want $2,000 cash because they have got to sell it cash because the people want their money and it has to be divided between them. Miss Sutter and I got in Fort Wayne all OK. We had some trip. Ha. Ha. - Clarence

Hello Joe-- I received your card last week and am anxious to know what "smart remark" you will make about this card. Doubtless you are very hard to please, but I will try to send some cards to please you. Write soon. E

Hello Gertrude -- Guess who? Look under the stamp. O you kid I'll get you yet. PDQ.  And beneath the still barely affixed stamp, the sender wrote, "String Rubber."

They make me nostalgic for a time when correspondence was deliberate and conscious and chickens roamed a backyard or a small farm as part of the fabric of everyday life.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Foundling

I came home last week to find a small box on a table on the front porch, right next to the door. It was about 45 degrees out, and I'd been gone an hour or two.

I opened it to find this baby chick:

She was cold, and so little. I quickly took her inside, to where the Jaerhons are in the bathtub, and put her under the heat light.

She started peeping really loudly. Lotte and Olga stopped and cocked their heads at exactly the same angle and the same expression.

I have no idea how long she'd been on the porch. It couldn't have been too long, I don't think. And I have no idea who put her there. Our coop is pretty noticeable, and the chickens are, too, when they are out and about, so I can only assume that someone had taken home a cute baby chick not realizing the work involved in caring for them, and saw that we had chickens.

She's doing well so far. She tries to keep up with the two big girls in the tub, poor thing. They pretty much run her over (they are about four times as big as her). But they do settle down to sleep together, and she seems relieved to be part of their group. Not sure what kind she is. The girls think she's an Easter Egger (she'll lay blueish eggs) or she could be a Welsummer.

Names have been flying, but so far, nothing seems to fit her small self. I wanted to name her Annie (as in Little Orphan Annie) but that was nixed. M suggested Princess Layer (she has little tufts on her cheeks that M seemed to think were reminiscent of Princess Leia's cinnamon-bun hairdo.) K thought maybe Amelia (like Amelia Earhart, for her goggles). We'll see. For now, she's just "sweetie".

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lessons from Henny Penny

Lotte, one of the Jaerhons, takes her worry cues from me.
There are some days where I can take my time with the chickens in the morning. I let them out into the yard, toss them some scratch (because they are standing around expectantly), tidy up their coop, change their water and check their food, then visit with them. I'll pick up random windblown debris from the yard, look to see if the lilacs are budding yet, and chat with Mabel while she follows me around with her inquiring clucks. It gives me a pause to gather my thoughts and my plans for the day, to ground myself after the rush of getting the girls off to school.

But yesterday morning, I was waiting for a phone call for a project I'm working on, and that meant a hurried and very business-like trip to the coop. First, I made a hurried check on the young chicks in the bathroom breeder. Then I ran out to the coop: Chickens out, fed, watered, then back to the house.

They scattered to get out of my way, squawked a bit more, and went from being a happy flock to being a bit on edge--my edginess translated to "be afraid, be very afraid" to them. In their hen minds, they assumed I was acting like Henny Penny because the sky was falling.

That crazy morning turned into a hectic afternoon. Instead of visiting with the girls when they got home from school, I rushed L over to a friend's house, took M to a physical therapy appointment, then rushed home and picked up something at my mother-in-law's house, before throwing on exercise clothes and rushing out the door to strength ball class. By 7 pm, I was on my way back to the house, picked up the girls, stopped at the grocery store, then headed to a 7:30 4H meeting.

I felt boxed in and edgy, and they bickered and sniped in the car on the way home. When we got home at 8:30, I hadn't eaten dinner, hadn't tucked in the hens, hadn't said hello to K, and hadn't had time to hear the girls--to really listen to what their day was like.

I grouchily told them to hurry upstairs and get ready for bed, then grabbed a quick bite to eat while venting the day's frustrations on K.

But once things slowed down and I was able to take a deep breath, I saw that I'd been flying around as mad as a wet hen. It reminded me of the hens' reactions that morning--how my hurried worries caused them to worry. Likewise, my busy chaos had bubbled over and become the girls' busy chaos, and they became as grouchy and flustered as me.

The sky was not falling, and I needed to quit acting like it.

I knew I needed to stop, take a deep breath, ignore the messy house and the emails and the next plotted point on the schedule, and go catch up with M&L... to just be with them in an unpressured, unscheduled way.

I realize that some days will be like that. There will be quiet, relaxing days, and there will be crazy-making scattered days. But I tend to forget that if I meet scattered with flustered and frustrated exasperation, it will only escalate and rub off on the girls.

I thanked K for listening and for putting the hens in the coop, then went upstairs to tuck the girls in and reclaim some calm. I shooed Henny Penny away, took a deep breath, and entered the upstairs friction with as much calm as I could muster. "The sky," I said to them, "is not falling."

Their blank looks made me laugh. And my laugh made them relax. It's funny how something as untouchable as a mood can create a visible reaction--in hens and in humans.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sowing Spring

Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage sprouts sown two weeks ago.
Yesterday it was 71F out, and the hens were happily sunning and dusting themselves. Today, it's gray and gloomy and the mercury has topped out at 28F. It's a good day to stay inside and invoke the first whispers of spring with a bit of soil and seeds.

I have two different varieties of cabbage to try this year. One of them--Early Jersey Wakefield--is a pointy heirloom variety of cabbage. I planted a couple of rows in a flat two weeks ago. Today I'm adding Copenhagen Market, an early-1900s heirloom cabbage variety from Denmark. Hopefully that will spread out my cabbage harvest just a bit. I'll set aside seeds to plant outside in late summer, as well, for a fall harvest.

I also received a free packet of Red Romaine lettuce seeds from Baker Creek Heirlooms, so I'm adding a few rows of lettuce to the flat in my kitchen. I don't usually start lettuce indoors--those easy-to-wilt leaves seems sensitive to transplanting--but I want to set some out early this year and am hoping for early home-grown salads.

I mixed together organic potting soil with vermiculite, a combination I've not tried before. It's light and loamy, and carries an earthy scent that is a prelude to crisp lettuce and fragrant tomato seedlings. This peaty scent comes ahead of true spring, and I relish it for its promise. (L likes the earthy scent too. She kept going over to the newly planted flat, breathing deeply and saying, "Oh that smells so good!") That rich soil scent takes me back to my grandfather's garden, in the back corner of his yard, just behind a huge spruce that sheltered skittering rabbits.

There in my kitchen, I pull the flat out from under the light, where the first couple of rows of cabbage have sprouted. I slip in plant markers, then wiggle the point of a knitting needle just enough to make about 12 divots in the mix. Then I carefully tip the seed packet toward my palm and use tweezers to pick out seeds one at a time and drop them into their prepared dark cradles.

It is amazing to me that a tiny sphere as miniscule and unassuming as a grain of sand contains the blueprints and material to provide a nice jaunty cabbage for coleslaw or pigs-in-blankets.

I tuck the seeds in gently and set the flat on the shelf back under the lights. Because it's a cool-weather crop, I'm opting not to use my heat mats beneath the flat. I want to see if the germination rate is better without it, and will use this flat only for my cooler weather crops and for seeds that don't need heat to germinate.

Next up after cabbages: Aswad eggplant and three varieties of peppers on the 15th. I normally start most of my tomatoes on March 15 each year along with the peppers and eggplants, but last year they were way too big, too fast, and I ended up having to place them in the garden a little early simply because of space issues. Even with Wall-o-Waters they seemed to struggle, and this year I'm planning to set tomatoes out a week after the average last day of frost (May 15). I'll put black plastic down on the soil to make sure it's toasty warm before I set my heat loving plants out.

No worries for my cabbages, though. They'll go outside in about a month to enjoy some cool weather. But that means we'll need to do some chicken-proofing on the garden beds within the next few weeks.

My flats planted and under lights, I sort through my seeds to feed my yearning for spring, then I head outside to let the hens out of the coop for the day. To them, it will seem winter has returned, but I know spring has started in my kitchen, and it won't be too much longer before it will be starting in the garden, too.