Monday, March 31, 2014

the scent of almonds

First, I have to tell you that I so appreciate all your notes and comments on my chicken adventure (or chicken mess, in a less optimistic reading)! It's a less lonesome journey when you know someone is laughing at the sidelines. You're reminded that life can be a pretty funny business.

Now, onto the topic at hand: a second warm day, though not nearly as magnificent as Sunday. The clouds are with us almost from the beginning.


Only by evening do the skies clear, but by then it is too late: I've sold my soul to an Ed expedition, almost entirely indoors. But that's a later story. Let me scoot back to the beginning of the day:

I get up with a deeply felt gratitude for the freshly erected chicken pen (remember: there is the small little house -- that's the coop -- and around it, there is now a 12 x 18 foot movable fence, creating a pen for the chickens in the hours that I want to ignore them). The cold cold days that were with us the day the chickens arrived chilled me enough so that I now have a hacking cough and though I can hardly complain -- I'm not really sick -- I do note that I also have a painfully blocked ear and so spending time with chickens is about the last thing on my wish list, even on this unusually warm day. In fact, after I clean the coop and let them out into the pen, I crawl back into bed and fall asleep.


Later in the morning, I am almost my old self again. A nurse friend suggests some mineral oil and a cotton swab for the ear. I look around my cabinets. No mineral oil, but I do have a bottle of almond oil from days when I did my moonlighting stint at L'Occitane. And so I float through this day on a cloud of almond blossoms tossed around by the day's warm breezes. How lovely is that!

At breakfast...


...we do talk about the chickens. A funny thing has happened in the course of the week. I've become much more "what the hell" about the birds. They are, as I write, roaming the greater yard somewhere. What the hell. Others let their chickens roam, without fencing, even as they live in the suburbs. Why am I so jittery about it?! So I let them roam now, darting only an occasional glance to make sure they are not destroying my flower beds. Peck away, birds! Clear out the pests, the creeping charlie, stir up things in the soil! But none of this hole digging in my flowers. Save that for the wood chipped courtyard.


And if I once thought about mimicking the ideas of the chicken lecturer (who got us hooked at least on the idea of chickens) -- putting out, as she does, sprigs of lavender into their roosting area, presumably to send the chicks adrift on some voyage of fragrant ecstasy, now, after nearly a week of chickens, I look the birds in the eye and say -- kids, be glad you have a foster home with a meticulous chicken keeper who, instead of clearing your droppings twice a week, reaches in and polishes up your quarters twice a day.  Springs of lavender? You gotta be kidding! You're spoiled enough.

Ed, on the other hand, continues to spin and improvise and he comes up with improvements and structural alterations constantly, all day long.
We could put up additional fencing and create a series of pens. I could build... And so on.

We are different that way, he and I. If I spin about anything at all, it is not about the structural integrity of their play areas, but rather, on their psychological development. I know chickens have a far greater intelligence than our grandparents or even parents allowed for. So I want to treat them with that in mind. When Lexie pecks at us, I want to reason with her. Show her a better way to communicate. Swoop her in my arms and hold her until she settles.

The literature is completely not with me on this. She wants to dominate, I read. Peck her back or else she'll terrorize you. 

Well now, I don't have a beak, but I understand the message here: I am thinking like a human, not like a chicken. Rap her on the head, kick her in the gut. It's the only way to get her to stop trying to assert herself against the human form.

My reaction is twofold: good! someone else speaks the chicken tongue and has an explanation and a solution for me. But on the other hand -- kick a chicken in the stomach? Is it like the old advice columns that would tell us to leave our infants crying so that they'd toughen up? (I hated that message and pretty much ignored it.) I mean, in two years, will they call a chicken head-rapper "cruel," rather than "one who speaks the chicken language?"

Besides, Lexie is the scrawny one. She is already pushed aside by the two big girls. They are so dominant that when she digs in her own sweet pile of dirt and they come over, she steps aside and lets them have it, leaving nothing for herself. (Okay, she's got Oreo, but still, she is the shrimp in this brood of four.) So how can you push away a scrawny brat?

But after a week of swooping up and cradling, I see that Lexie is not only not improving, but she is getting worse. I'm reinforcing her nipping! She runs over when she sees me, dances around my feet and starts to peck away: shoes, socks, anything within reach. I pick her up with a hug and tell her she is the most wonderful scrawny little chicken in the world. I let her down, she nips some more.

So today I try a gentle nudge instead. No, that's wrong. She thinks I'm engaging her and that it is an easy battle -- one that she can win. I try a firmer nudge (some would call it a kick) that sends her flying. The nipping stops. She walks off and concentrates on improving the landscaping at the farmete.


And with Lexie otherwise occupied, I spend time with the other two girls. These are chicks who have had a lot of human contact in the first year of life (I have finally a clarification here: the whole brood is just short of a year old). But I've ignored them thus far, concentrating on the scrawny she-devil herself. So I reach out to the big hens, Butter and Whitney and I think how easy it would be if the entire flock was as calm as these two girls are. But of course, this is the challenge of taking in foster chicks: they come with their life's issues. You are their mentor now. You must do well by all of them.


In the afternoon, Ed and I are to take the pickup to Farm and Fleet. If you're not from Wisconsin (or Iowa or Illinois -- and I know that most Ocean readers are not from these states) then you wont know much about this place. Ed worships it in quite the same way I would worship a sustainable/organic/concerned food store. I want that food store to do the homework for me as to which producer/farmer/fishery does the best job at keeping us healthy and as kind to the planet as we humans are capable of being. Ed wants his store to do the research on which fencing, tools --  oh, the list is so long! -- are the most durable, economical, worth owning. Farm and Fleet is, for him, that store.

I have become Ed's shopping buddy for these outings and let me tell you, they can stretch over a very long block of time as he looks and compares. After, he is always in his most adoring mood, mumbling sweet things like -- I had such a good time with you today, gorgeous! -- as if we'd gone on a special date to Madison's finest restaurant.

We're to pick up discounted snow fencing and chicken wire. Screws, two by twos, a brush to clean the coop net floor. And mud clogs for me. (Return those frou frou boots to Zappos -- he tells me. You need the real stuff from Farm and Fleet.)

And so here we are, with a list yay long, ready to go, except that the truck engine wont start.
I say -- it's the battery. (That's because in my limited world, dead cars can only have dead batteries.)
He says -- it can't be. I just recharged it.
He fiddles. He puts on cables. Eventually it starts.
Are we going to get stuck somewhere?
He grins, as if relishing the adventure of it all.

First stop, Menard's. Another construction materials chain. No good builder, I'm told, shops here. But, we need to compare. We look, we get back in the truck. And again it wont start, only this time, there isn't a friendly car next to ours, ready to help us jump the battery. Which seems very lifeless.
Should you maybe get a new battery? I ask this because it is now obvious that we have a fully dead one.
Not here, he says, horrified. We need to get to Farm and Fleet. Do you know how to pop the clutch?
So funny. Do I know how to pop the clutch!
What's that?
You bump-start the car by popping the clutch. I'll push, you pop... no, never mind -- if you've not done it before, it wont work.
I'll push the truck then... Gales of laughter from Ed on that one.

I sit there feeling completely worthless. And a sorry state of womanhood, too, what with my most torn up jacket and the old winter cap pulled snugly over my plugged up with cotton ear even though it is a whopping 65F outside.  I sit back behind the cracked windshield and watch as he does a one-man stunt of pushing the truck, jumping in, pumping the clutch, releasing the pedal and rolling forward as the engine rumbles to life -- all this in between the parked cars of Menard's parking lot.

Ed can be very impressive.

Evening at the farmette. Around us, the call of the sandhill crane is now ever present.


And I see that to the east, the truck farmers are, for the first time, starting to tend to the fields.


There is a restlessness in the air that comes with that gusting warm breeze. I let the chickens out of the pen, against my better judgment. I know it will be murderously difficult to get them back in on such a night, but they are so happy to be foraging on this warmest day of the year (and I must note that tomorrow, we jump back down to reality). I relax. In fact, I take my laptop to the porch for the first time this year and I type bits of this post there, watching the chicks move daintily between buds of emerging flowers.


Of course, the chickens come up to the porch door and stare at me, trying hard to figure out this next life's puzzle for them: how is it that I am now in a cage and they are out?

Ponder away, dear ones. Someday I'll be better able to understand you and you'll be better able to understand me, but in the meantime, we're having a pretty damn good time of it, don't you think?

Sunday, March 30, 2014


It was, as promised, a magnificent day -- the best of the year so far, here, in the Upper Midwest. Lexie the wee hen has been vocalizing and she is so obscenely loud that you have no doubt she is singing with joy. By comparison, Butter settles in at my feet quietly and does a modest amount of self cleaning. A girl after my own heart because, of course, at the farmette, Sunday is farmhouse cleaning day.

But before we even get there, we let the brood out, just after sunrise, right into their new little pen. They like it. They don't like it. They're okay with it. They're puzzled. How about the wider world out there? Isn't that ours as well? We ignore them and go about our house chores.

Even though, over breakfast, the discussion quickly shifts again to the chickens.


Is the pen a good place for them? Ed says -- we should have enclosed a rose bush. They like rose bushes. It's boring in that pen. Next time we have to include some distractions.
I mean, we're like the parents whose personal life ended the day the first kid popped into the world.

In the late morning, we go outside to work in the yard and of course, this is when we're happy to let the chickens roam freely.  And they do.


But here's an emerging pattern: whereas the bigger girls settle in to do their pecking and dirt scratching, Lexie runs up to you and squawks and pecks. We can't quite figure out what she wants. She will peck on your shoe, your hand, anything to let you know that she is there.


Ed settles in to make adjustments to the fencing, the gate and, too, he installs an electric plug in the coop, so that when we want to plug in the water dish or, next winter, a heating lamp, it'll be an easy chore. Me, I turn to yard clean up: branch trimming. Rosebush pruning. Raking. Strawberry patch repair. We work together, but on our separate tasks and I am in my bubble of yard bliss, content as can b, until I hear Ed proclaim with total conviction -- she's going to be the first one to wind up in the frier

It seems that Lexie has climbed into his lap and is clamoring for his full attention. So who's the boss here anyway??


I remove Lexie and try have a heart to heart with her, but the young -- they're so spirited and quick moving that it's hard to get them still enough for a lecture.

In the afternoon, we leave the chickens in the pen (yes, but will they all be there when we get back? The "what ifs" are endless!). It's time to enjoy the sunshine, to get moving again -- in other words, to go on a spring hike at Indian Lake County Park. My older girl, Ed and I.

And it is at once brilliant and beautiful...


...but at the same time, slippery and muddy. Really muddy. But oh, that warm air! To think that we are at the edge of the freshest, most hope filled and inspired season!  Truly the heart swells.


At home, the chickens survived in the pen without us! No one flew away, no hawk flew in. They clamor now to come out into the wider world of rosebushes and compost piles and we open the gate and let them do just that. But come dusk, it's time to put them in the coop for the night. My daughter and her husband are at the farmette and they laugh hard as they watch me chase Whitney and Butter in circles. Dinner would have been very late if my son-in-law hadn't stepped in to help me herd the last of the brood into the coop.


We eat a supper of favorite daughter foods. Ed looks at his plate and recoils. Chicken? That could be Lexie on your plate.
We almost had a whole meal without bringing up chickens. Almost.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

tomatoes more chicken stories

Long into the night, Ed searches the Internet for fencing solutions for our foster chicks. Movable. Any enclosure has to be movable. But the chickens need space! Should we put in posts? Not in our clay soil! By August, that dirt is hard as cement! We watch endless youtube videos. We read pages and pages of comments on what does or does not work (and when I am dozing off already, Ed reads some more). Finally, we decide to invest in a very large dog pen -- on sale on Craigslist. It's made of chain-link panels (movable!) and it's big enough (we think!) to keep our hens happy.

But the person selling it is far south of us. Nearly an hour's drive. No matter: Saturday dawns to be a beautiful day! An outing would be just fine.




Early, just after the sun rise, we let the guys out of the coop -- and they are in a hurry to be out! -- and we are reminded how adorable they can be. Morning is their good time. And it's our good time too. They're refreshed, we're refreshed.  They're happy to be foraging and curious about our movements around the courtyard.

I hesitate about leaving them out while we eat breakfast, but Ed convinces me we can eat and watch from the kitchen window. We do that.


And except for one panicked moment (where are they?? I don't see them!), we manage a meal inside without a major chicken mishap.

Outside again, we tend to small farmette chores.  And again, it is such a good stretch of time! The chickens scratch, peck, move around freely and when they tire, they rest under the rose bushes. But mostly they don't tire. They follow us like bandits, watching, as if to learn our steps, as if we could open doors for them, as if we were the holders of keys to life's more interesting rewards.

All the while, Oreo never lets down his guard. Well, except when Ed goes off to get some compost soil. Oreo wants to follow for some private guy time.


Because it is a beautiful, sunny day (42F is indeed heavenly when the sun is out), we decide to launch our great tomato seed planting project. I'm noting it down this year in my planting files: March 28, seeds go into soil cups.

Well now, we have company. Compost soil? Interesting! Anything there for us?



At first we're all smiles and playful pats on their curious heads. After a while, we're wishing the kids would go out and play away from the picnic table and leave us to our work. Lexie, the petite hen, is predictably, the biggest troublemaker. When she wants your attention, she will peck at you until you deliver. You can't push her away. She pecks harder then. You fare better if you swoop her up, pat her head for a minute or two and release her in another spot in the garden. Your hope is that she'll be distracted. Sometimes she is, other times, she is right back at your side, hammering for whatever it is her sweet little chicken head imagines is an appropriate reward for a chicken. The bigger girls don't have any patience for Lexie's intrusiveness. We're more sympathetic, all the while thinking -- by this afternoon, we can put them inside a big pen!

Oreo crows. All will be right again.

But I have to admit, tomato seed planting is a bit crazy this year. If I thought I would be more organized with it, I was wrong. The chickens, the arrival of Isis, protecting him from them and them from him (so far, no one has declared war -- they all just stare at each other) -- all this is hard when you're counting seeds and labeling each planted cup.


I tell Ed -- it could well be that packet X went into cup labeled as Y.
He laughs. What does it matter? Orderly planting has never been a top priority for him.

But, we make progress. 60 cups planted, 30 to go.

And now it is time to drive the pickup truck south for our chain link panels. And it's as if all the quirky pieces of our foster chicken experiment at last begin to fall into place. The panels are enormous, but easy to lift. True, the connector pieces are missing, an we're sent to a different household at the other end of the earth, but in the end we have everything we need to build a contained, free range space for our brood.

You may wonder -- is it free range when there is a fence around them? What is free range anyway? Possibly you'd be surprised to know that there is no regulatory explanation to help you out: no consistency, no agreement, no definition at all. If a farmer wants to stamp "free range" on her carton of eggs, she may do so, even if the birds spend only five crowded minutes in some outdoor space -- dirt, grass, concrete, it hardly matters. It's different in Europe where the rules are precise: give each bird at least 4 square meters of space at all times or wipe that free range label off your egg. Oh, that Europe! Always regulating everyone to death! Can't just let the marketplace function of its own accord like we do!

We're home now. It's late -- the afternoon shadows are long and it's harder to find a warm sunny spot in the farmette courtyard. We let the chickens out (and oh, are they anxious to get out of that coop!). They keep an eye on us, but they're happy, too, to fan out into the warmer grasses beyond the courtyard.


I finish planting the tomatoes (96 containers, 1 - 2 seeds each!), Ed begin work on building a base for the coop and then, finally we get to setting up the chain link panels. We position the coop inside the cordoned space. It's not the most beautiful sight in the world, but it makes us so very happy to be done with it. (We have a better location for it for later in the season. For now, we want them close to the farmhouse.)


We shake our heads with amazement: how lucky to have found this set up on Craigslist at one tenth the regular cost of fencing! How delightful it will be to get up in the morning and let them out and then roll back for a few more minutes of sleep if that's our inclination! We put the pen under trees -- safe from most hawks, safe from daytime predators (we hope).

The sun has nearly disappeared by the time we put the last wrench and screwdriver away. The chickens squawk about going back into the coop (they must be locked in for the night to be safe from racoons) in much the same way that kids squawk when they don't truly understand what's good for them. I give Lexie a nice cradled hug after one of the brood pecks her hard on her little head. (That girl is a pest, but she surely bears a disproportionate share of grief at the hands of her buddies.) I close the coop, then latch the gate.

We have Chinese take-out for supper. Please, nothing chicken related. And tomorrow? Tomorrow I'm hoping to return to more sane routines.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

price of freedom


The reality is that if you truly want to free range (it's a verb! how about that!) your chickens, you're going to eventually lose a bird. Or two. It appears that every animal alive (this includes you and me) loves chicken meat. It's as if the kingdom of beasts is lined up in the fields to the north, to the east and up above, ready to attack if we let down our guard.

Now, chickens have their defense systems. One is the rooster himself, whose job it is to be alert to predators. He has his sexual privilege, but it does not come without work. Yesterday, Oreo herded the flock into the rosebushes to keep them safe from hawks.

Another defense is to fill your yard with bushes, picnic tables, sheltered areas for the hens to run to when a hawk appears. We have some of that. An overgrown yard -- yes, that's the farmette!

People also get dogs, and they put up scarecrows with shiny mirrors, and hoist up fake owls painted in pretty colors -- all to ward off hawks. We're not going to get dogs and delighted as I am to build a scarecrow, I think it's pointless.

Of course, you can also build fencing: from the sides and at the top. You don't then truly free range, but you come close to it.

We've resisted that. It's not cheap, and you have to maintain fencing, and, too, I want the chickens to roam in a variety of settings. Imagine letting them peck in our wild prairie! Our idea is that three acres offers plenty of space for four chicken to enjoy without fencing and destroying any one portion of the yard. And we do want to keep the chicks within sight of the farmhouse. We like to look at them. And have them see us when we're out and about.

Chicken girl and her mom are in agreement: we do the best we can to protect them, but if in their free roam we lose one to the brutal forces of nature -- so be it.

And oh, the rewards of happy chicks! To see them in the morning, clamoring to get out, but then changing their mind as they watch me clean the coop. What are you doing to my room?! -- Lexie asks as she pecks at my pooper scooper.


Butter reluctantly moves out. Then moves back in. Then out. Then in. The girl's nickname suits her well.

But here's an early complaint: this day is becoming too chicken-centered (and the blog post surely reflects that). Early, just after sun rise,  Ed rolls over in bed and mumbles -- the chicks probably want to go out... 
I stare at him and do a quick calculus as to the probability that he'll be the one opening the coop for them this morning. Zero. Out I go.

Within an hour, their coop is cleaned out, they've had a good spin around the yard, I've settled a few disagreements between them, they've explored a lot of new territory and now, just as I am about to herd them back in (because I want some non-chicken time), Chicken Girl shows up with her mom to take Oreo to the vet. That broken, twisted foot looks aggravated. Chicken Girl has a saintly mother who is willing to spend $70 (they are a family of modest means) on the vet to examine Oreo's issues with his leg. They count it as exotic animal, so they charge extra... she sighs.

Without Oreo, I feel I need to stay outside and watch the skies for hawks. (Oreo merely has to listen. He can hear the whistle of a hungry bird instantly.) And so after breakfast...


...I stay outdoors (and it is still so chilly outside!) and watch the hens play. And I see that without Oreo, Lexie is a lonely girl. She comes and pecks on my glove to get my attention. She tries to follow the two big girls, but they shoo her off. I have a sudden fear that Oreo will never come back.  I mean, if he requires treatment, is anyone really going to spend money on it? Already, the $70 vet visit would have been enough to buy 30 rooster replacements.

I try to teach the hens good manners (meaning I yell at them when they misbehave). But there is a pecking order in this world and while I count for something, I am not in control of their habits.

(Butter is having a bad hair day)

The skies are gray. There should have been sunshine. No sunshine. We're all looking forward to Sunday because everyone is promising a warm and sunny day then. Watch it be snatched from us at the last minute! This has not been a great weather week.The ground is half frozen half mud. Sunshine would be so welcome!

(digging side by side)

Two hours after Oreo was taken away, I decide I need to go about my Friday chores which include the weekly grocery shopping. Into the coop they all go. Manipulated by some nice, fresh mealy worms.

And in my absence, Chicken Girl brings Oreo back and leaves a note telling me that the vet says he is fine. Yes, the broken foot can be fixed with pins. Cost: $1500-$2000. The recommendation is to let it go. Indeed!

And now the flock is whole again and I let them out and I spend not a small amount of time watching them destroy pieces of my flower bed and, on a happier note -- chew away on the creeping charlie.

Welcome home, Oreo. The girls and I are happy to have your back!


I missed the guy. Well, I trust him now to look after the flock. In I go to get some writing work done. oh! Not so fast. They follow me to the farmhouse. And stare inside, wondering how it is that I just disappeared.


I go out. I try to herd them to the coop. No go. I go inside and shut my eyes for a few seconds and tell myself that when I open them, my vision will encompass everything and anything that does not have feathers.

But here's the thing: the chickens are forcing me to not be in a hurry. To shake off the constant nagging feeling that, even in my retirement, I must be productive.  They stand in my way and tell me -- watch us scratch at the dirt! And I do. And the minutes pass and that's okay.


And then all hell breaks loose.

Where did I leave off? Oh yes: I go inside and close my eyes... Still, I set up my laptop so that I can face the yard. Occasionally I look up.

On one such occasion, I see only Lexie. What the hell? I go outside. No sign of the other three. Did I miss a hawk attack??? No hawk I ever heard off would go after a rooster. A racoon? Coyote?

A forlorn Lexie runs up to me. Talk, girl! Where are you buds? Nothing. Ed!!!!!!!!

We hunt the property.

Well now, they aren't on our three acres. They wandered under the wooden fence that separates us from our insanely proper neighbor. His is a small patch of land -- and he is as proper about tending to it as can be. In fact, the reason there is a six foot wooden fence (the one the two hens and Oreo went under) between our neighbor and Ed is because at some early point in time, the neighbor got tired of looking at the unkempt farmette. This was before I moved in and before we fixed up the old farmhouse and I planted flower beds, but still, I have to admit that even now we are sort of lackadaisical about stuff. Leaves fall, we don't rake. Weeds take over certain portions of land, we ignore them.

It is indeed the good fortune of Oreo, Whitey and Butter that our neighbor did not take out his gun and make chicken pie for dinner. I think the dozen eggs we took over a few days back molified him for one boundary crossing. But if they crossed once, they will cross again.

Freedom is suddenly very much under fire for our little flock. Because no one ever mentioned to me the fact that you really cannot free range (!) chickens without any enclosure whatsoever. Even if you have three acres for them. When we are outside, they stay near us. When we disappear, they roam.

I really do not want to spend even more time tending to our beautiful, intelligent foster chicks. 

So we get busy searching for fencing solutions -- something we can build and put up quickly. Something that we can move. Erect, take down. Erect, take down.

Oreo crows. I smile. Our foster chicks will have more freedom soon. And so will I.

For supper? Well, a first: scrambled eggs made entirely from loot recovered from my girls in the back yard.


Each day they deliver: Whitney and Butter give two huge eggs, Lexie pops out a little one, but with the most deeply orange yolk on the planet. Quite good! -- Ed announces. No, not biased. Not biased at all.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

March showers

When you still have patches of snow on your flower bed, you're glad when the rain comes down. May it wash away all traces of winter!

When you have chickens in a coop and rain outside, your gladness is going to be tempered by the reality of tending to the birds in the rain.

That's okay. Hardy peasant stock. Out I go. And it's not even raining hard now. And while I don't fully love the thermometer reading (35F), I appreciate the fact that it's above freezing.

Oreo if crowing. Does this mean he's come to terms with his polygamous leanings? Are they all friends now?

Not so fast. Two hens upstairs, Oreo and Lexie downstairs. Well okay. Let me free them for a bit while I clean out the coop.

(lexie seems to be asking -- love me still?)

Here's another reality check: four chickens leave twice as much in droppings as two chickens. And so if you are a fastidious coop maintainer (I am that), you're going to spend twice as long tiding their rooms.

(the foursome)

For a minute, I feel like the maid in a small country bed and breakfast. The gang's out and about having a good time and I'm neatening up their quarters. But the feeling passes. I try not to think about doing this in the dead of winter. And I try to block Ed's words that cats are easier. After all, the chickens didn't wake me ten times in the middle of the night. You listening, Isis?

Chores done. Let me spend some time with the brood. Get the two newbies used to me.

They are indeed on better terms with each other. No one is fighting, biting, scratching. They stick close to the coop. I'm thinking -- nice! It's good to see them enjoying this wet spring day.

Okay, I'm hungry for my breakfast. Let's get them inside so that I can put them out of my mind for a while. Keep them safely ensconced in their shelter. Butter is already snuggled in her tidied bed. That girl appreciates good maid service. I can tell.

Oreo and Lexie aren't hard to shoo inside. They know me, I know their ways, in they go.

Then there's Whitey. I was told -- shake that bag of mealy worms and she'll come running! I shake the bag. She runs up. I lean down toward her, she runs away. I scatter worms all the way to the coop door. But I can't keep it open. the others will come out. And again, she runs away by the time I get near her.

Ed watches from the farmhouse as I chase Whitey around the yard. I admit it -- I'm having that second day remorse that comes whenever you introduce something new into your life. First day's exciting, second day, you wonder what craziness possessed you to do this. Third day things settle down. Right?

I chase her to the back of the silo. Round and round we go until she finds an old truck topper and scurries under it. That's it. She won. I can't get under that thing. Even though I remind her that a predator will have no problem crawling in after her. She ignores me.

I have no choice but to leave the coop door open and wait for her to come back to her home on her own terms.

Of course, in the meantime, the other three decide to stroll out again. I turn my back on the whole lot of them and go in to fix breakfast.


Ed tells me that I need to let go a little. That I should be able to let them roam, if that's their inclination. That I cannot spend all my free time fretting about chickens.

We watch them from the kitchen window. At least they're staying by the coop. So far, our neighbor hasn't come back with a squawking chicken under his arm.

The rain comes down. Isis retires for his day-long nap upstairs, Ed goes down to the sheep shed to work on whatever project grabs his attention there at the moment. And I see that Oreo, Lexie and Whitey are following him there. (Butter is roosting in the coop. What can I say.) Oreo peers inside the sheep shed window, as if to tell Ed -- well now, that's an interesting place. Want to invite me in?



I smile from the warmth of the kitchen table at the farmhouse.

And when I do go outside, I see that the chickens are getting quite wet. They're not thrilled with this and are easier to pick up and thrust back into the coop. Door latched. Exhale. I go back to my work at the farmhouse.


In the afternoon, I let them out again. Easy. Let them be. They are used to each other...


...and they know their coop. They're laying eggs, too!

I leave them alone and go inside to drink a good, warm cup of tea. As I throw a casual glance at them, I see that the rooster is standing on alert. What? Does he miss me? I smile.

And then I quit smiling. I see up in the sky three large hawks, circling, coming closer and closer to the ground and I know as sure as anything that they are after my birds (how quickly we become possessive!). And the rooster knows it too and he sends a distress call to the hens who stand frozen in the rose bushes. 

I'm out of the house in a flash. The hawk sees me, makes a final swoop and goes away. So do his buddies. That was today. Will they be back tomorrow? Almost certainly. Will Oreo and Ocean author defend the brood?

Sigh... this foster chick care is stressful.


I store the three eggs from the coop and reheat chili for supper. 

And in the evening, the rains stop and Ed and I stroll outdoors again. We open the coop to let the chickens out. We watch them forage and scratch and it is just such a good evening to be out with your brood and I'm thinking -- I'm lucky to have these guys here. Lexie looks up at me expectantly, always curious to see if I have some tricks up my sleeve. I rub her back and then step away. She rejoins her buds and they peck and scratch until we herd them into the coop for the night.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

hen and rooster

Yes, the rooster does crow. Not in the morning (so far as I can tell), but at midday. With closed windows, you can barely hear it, but he does like to vocalize for a few minutes at a time. Ed reaches into the fridge and takes a carton of eggs out to gift to our one and only one (thank goodness) neighbor. By way of introducing him to our new hobby. As if he needs an introduction! Yes, Oreo does occasionally like to sing.

But it's not Oreo who wakes us in the morning. It's Isis. Farm animals! You'd think they'd learn to sleep in.

After an early breakfast, a sunny, lovely breakfast of freshly baked granola...


... we go outside to check on "our" birds.

It's still cool now (after a low of 12F overnight) and so we really do not want to linger outdoors, but we get drawn in by their antics. Ed picks up Oreo so that I can inspect the rooster's bent-out-of-shape foot. And this prompts Ed to remark -- Hey, I've never held a chicken before. It is a singular moment.

After yesterday's excessive worry over every chick movement, today is more relaxing. For the most part, the whole project turns out to be not hard at all (once you are certain you have created a space for them that cannot be torn apart by predators -- which is a bigger headache than you might think).

Our two (so far) chickens are curious about their surroundings.


Very quickly they learn that there is a farmhouse and that I can let myself into it and leave them stranded. They want to understand how I do it.


May they never find out.

Though still a bit skittish, they are, over all friendly. When a friend stops by and stretches out in the sunshine, Lexie is right there to check him out.


Still, there are the question marks. A big one for me -- what will Isis say? He ignores them when they're in the coop, but he stares with his intense gaze when Ed parades him on his shoulder to the sheep shed. I want to tell Isis that "coexist" is a nice word to incorporate into a feline vocabulary, but I know that he has his own way of viewing the world. We'll see if they will, in fact, become part of the background for him, no more threatening than the robins that are pecking away at the dirt all around us. Let's hope.

As for eggs -- well, Lexie finally gave us one and it was a wee egg. Like a test: do you love me only for the size of my eggs? We did eat it within 24 hours, because they say a fresh egg is like heaven on earth. I proclaim it to be fine indeed. Ed says it tastes like... an egg.


Toward evening, Whitney and Butter arrive and all hell breaks loose.

With three hens in the coop, Oreo turns feisty with his beak (so many women! get me out of here!). The two new girls, heretofore friendly and coddled, felt forsaken. Thrown down a dungeon. Lexie, adored girlfriend of gentle Oreo, feels betrayed.

We open the coop doors to let the whole lot of them out so they'd regain their composure.

(the two new girls)

This is when Isis decides to come out for a stroll.

You could see it in his eyes -- the "what the hell is going on here?" look. Then the circling, trying to decide: should I pounce? Am I outnumbered?

I steer him away, into the farmhouse. Ed works on getting the chickens back in the coop. A diplomatic solution to a tricky realignment of powers.


Chicken Girl and her mom help us rearrange the coop. Oreo downstairs, hens up above. (Everyone is happy that Oreo cannot navigate the ramp.) We throw in grain, feed, pebbles, mealy worms -- you name it, they got it. Ed wraps the sides of the coop in sleeping bags to keep Oreo warm. Lexie refuses to leave his side. The new girls are enjoying the upstairs sleeping quarters while the two miserable oldtimers are huddled downstairs, on the rough floor.

What will tomorrow bring?

For supper, we have eggs.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

foster chicks

Late last night I say to Ed -- I hear the wind gusting. Outside, snow is beginning a swirly dance. I put on my warmest jacket and go out. Lexie, the white hen, is huddled in the corner of the coop. Oreo is upstairs in the hut. Oh my, they need help. I crawl in and pick up the old girl and throw her in with the rooster. Keep warm, you guys, keep warm tonight!

[For the uninitiated, chickens can take this kind of cold. It's only when it drops below zero that you have to bring out the heating lamps. Still, even now you have to plug in the water dish to keep the water from freezing. We find that out the next morning as Lexie skates on top of a frozen water dish.]

The next morning I wake up not to the crowing of a rooster, but to a silent, cold, cold morning.


I look out the window. I see Lexie! She made her way down to the coop's feeding stations. That old girl has got the smarts alright!

Oreo hasn't budged. It's not entirely trauma or laziness. We find out a few details about our foster chicks: they're not as young or trouble free as we thought. They're almost two years old. That's chicken middle age as far as egg production goes. And Oreo comes with a damaged foot. A toddler stepped on it when he was a wee rooster and it is now a bit twisted. Rather than strutting, he limps. He may have trouble going up and down the coop ramp.


Chicken Girl's mama comes over to see how we fared last night. The wind is raw right now but we let the two birds out for their first run of the farmette.


They're not trained yet... she mumbles.
What does that mean? -- Ed asks.
They don't know how to return to the coop. The others -- shake the mealy worms at them and they'll come running!
We spend the next ten minutes in the bitter cold chasing Lexie and Oreo to get them back inside.

Only then do Ed and I sit down to breakfast. No, not to eggs. Even though the Chicken Girl has gifted us with yet another dozen eggs. In gratitude for having us take on her somewhat older, injured, untrained chickens. At the moment we have some 30 free range eggs in the fridge and we haven't even begun picking our own. Should there be any.

Yes, note the other signs of chicken love. Wooden chicks, roosters on cups -- I mean, this was meant to be.


And still, I'm glad we're just fostering. Learning.

We have already picked up this bit of wisdom: raising free range birds is way more expensive than buying a dozen of the most organic, most free range, most gold plated eggs you could imagine. The coop came with the birds. But in order to preserve control over what they eat, I offered to pay for their feed.

We drive to the Chicken House in Paoli to talk to the chicken lecturer who lead us down this path to begin with. It doesn't take long to convince me that good feed is a must. As for mealy worms?
She winces: I wouldn't give my hens those worms packaged, well, in places where they may be contaminated. I would raise my own. $8 later I have my box of 150 live mealy worms.


What do I feed the worms? I ask.
Apple, she tells me with a sweet smile.
So now I am in the business of feeding four chickens and 150 mealy worms.

Then, too, there is the issue of letting the chickens out. I am confident I can hustle them back into the coop. But I am not confident that I can just let them be while I go about my business. Lexie likes to roam. So does this mean that I have to watch her constantly? Wait a minute here, that's about the same as having a toddler at the farmette, only these guys don't use diapers and they seem not to nap.


Still, as I wait for the Chicken Girl and her mom to stop by in the evening to bring the remaining two hens -- Whitney and Butter (I abbreviate names when they exceed two syllables), I think -- it's good to have some hens at the farmette. This place is too big and too beautiful to hog all to yourself.


Chickens under the great willow -- they look like they belong here.