error: spring not found

this intrepid blogger, hereinafter dubbed mud maiden, has just returned from a two week family vacation to california. while i was gone, the three or four feet of snow melted, leaving behind the muddy brown landscape of early vermont spring, an endless carpet of matted soggy brown grass, earthy squishiness, and manure that takes a creative mind to bear. occasionally, the monochrome of mud and dog turds is broken by a daffodil or a faded wrapper or the sodden once-mighty limb of a pine tree that was dislodged by winter snow and is still stubbornly green, but mostly it’s brown, brown, brown. it’s incredible to me, every year, how many things were left out last fall, how many papery bits blew in on the cold winds, and how wind, air, and water can uproot fence posts, knock over plant pots in winter storage, and seep into every groove and crevice. it’s a bloody mess out there. it’s also chilly and damp with skies the color of wet wood ash that makes me think fondly and yearningly of the warm desert i just left.

the two ducks and half my flock of hens were rehomed a few weeks before i left. my newly-wee flock of chicken remainders, all old hens and young roosters, is free ranging again, raking through a winter’s worth of hulls under the bird feeders for whole seeds that the wild birds missed. they’re scraping around in the pastures for dropped oats and early bugs. they’re picking daintily around the edges of cold puddles for grass shoots and gulps of snowmelt. the roosters battle daily to see who can be the biggest jerk. too many roosters. i have had to go on a hunt of an evening to find old, blind bob, who flees the warlike overtures of the two young silkie cocks and is always under a different bush at dusk. previous attempts at separating him from the flock for his own good (even with a hen or two for company) have resulted in a sad and sullen bob, so i have been humoring him and letting him spend his days in hiding, knowing that some evening i wouldn’t be able to find the old guy and some oily predator would find him in the night instead. because my heart bleeds, after the third or fourth night of digging around in the dark looking for a lump of sleeping rooster under every bush and on every rock, i put up a new pen and bunged him and a big pathetic yellow hen in there. evening chicken chores are much easier now and bob and goldberry seem content for now.

the goats are shedding great sheets of precious cashmere that’s too dirty for me to bother harvesting this year. i was gone while it was still clean and close and now it’s just dirty, ragged yarns of fiber blowing in the wind. the birds in this neighborhood will have luxurious nest linings this year and, truth be told, i have been unable to find the motivation to clean and spin what i harvested last year and the year before that anyway. i tend to like the idea of spinning more than the actual spinning, especially with fiddly little fibers like cashmere. too much bother.

my ponies are rummaging like pigs through the soil for grass roots in the winter pasture, which is all eroded mud and fallen pine branches. there’s a summer full of brush burning waiting for me out there which will have to wait until there’s enough grass on the summer pastures to shuffle the horses. that is a month or more away, so they’ll be skipping and tripping on trees, boughs, and branches for a while yet. perhaps the worst of the blackfly season will be done by then and working outside will be more humane. and maybe the incessant winds will die back for the summer and make burning possible. it feels like the wind has been blowing sharp and cold for six months.

there’s raking to be done and general clean up, too, from a rough winter of “good enough”: the compost pile was completely snowed in, so there’s three or four coop cleanings piled as close to the composter as i could get it (not close enough). the failed garden from last year is deep in old weeds and tough sod and will need to be machine tilled this year instead of turned by hand. my horse shed is a disaster of empty grain bags. this is all very dispiriting.

normally, spring is the time when i turn optimistic and start planning for the mad scramble before fall. this year, the whole dance just depresses me. send some sunshine, mother. i won’t make it long without.

animals amok!

it has been rifle season, so of course the horses have been getting out and wandering in the woods. this is courtesy of soni, who is undaunted by the electric fence and has been breaking it on a corner twice a day, every day for three days. they all go to the shed, help themselves to a bale of hay, eat up the goats’ hay, rummage around in the empty grain dishes, dig around on the lawn a bit, then toddle off into the forest, the better to be mistaken for deer. i guess the two leopard appaloosas probably wouldn’t be mistaken for anything but horses, but every fall it seems like someone shoots someone else’s horse during deer season and i’m frankly at a loss to see how anyone could think a horse is a deer, regardless of colour. other than having four legs, they really look nothing alike. i feel certain it’s a question of shoot first, ask questions later.

i finally gave up trying to keep soni in and have been letting him roam loose. this means he’s not breaking the three others out of their pasture, but it means he’s helping himself to free-choice hay (probably not a bad thing with his difficulty keeping weight) and has his nose all up in my business whenever i go out to do anything. i was transporting a dead hen the other evening and i finally had to lead soni beside me by his halter because he wouldn’t stop standing in front of me to check out the bird corpse.

the good news (for both us and for soni), is that soni is going to go spend the next half year with a lonely young morgan gelding who lost his elderly herd. soni’s a great choice for a companion horse and J, the soon-to-be lessee, is going to do some work with him under saddle. depending on how things work out for the lessee, there’s always the chance that soni will end up with her more long-term, but i’d just like to see him in a small herd where he doesn’t get poked, harassed, and bullied for food for a while. and it would be great if my other three would stay in their pasture for several days in a row, rather than several hours. oy.

we’re still fostering oakland, which ain’t no thang except that every once in a great while, someone leaves the door ajar or loses a grip on his leash and then it’s a half hour or so of “oh crap”. a few weeks ago when he got loose, he caught one of my newly re-feathered hens and pulled most of her feathers out. between my mom and i, we managed to catch him before he killed her, but only just. the day before thanksgiving, he pulled the leash out of my hand and went frolicking through the pasture, barking and gamboling and dragging the leash under the hooves of the horses. qohqoh, my appy gelding, finally put a stop to this nonsense with a sharp kick to the offending dog which, fortunately, didn’t break any dog parts but has kept oakland studiously uninterested in horses ever since. because, like the horses, this seems to be the weekend of roaming oakland and he’s been loose twice in as many days. the rescue has gotten no inquiries and the few that we’ve gotten independently haven’t panned out. he’s such a great little dog; it’s really a shame.

my little texas a&m quail (we call her gail) is living upstairs from charlotte, the fierce bad rabbit, in a rabbit hutch in our basement. the day after i brought her home, she commenced moulting and hasn’t laid an egg since. probably being in the basement isn’t going to kickstart her back to laying eggs, but they’re such comically tiny things that i’m not too concerned about it. the same co-worker who brought me gail has three bobwhites looking for a home, too, so my poultry herd is about to expand. someday i’ll have a fancy barn with a fancy semi-detached poultry coop where i can have different species in mini-habitats. in the meantime, as my hens grow older and die, i am steadily replacing them and filling up my little coop with odd birds that don’t pay for their own room and board. the ducks drink (or splash) all the water out of the fount every day, which triples my chores (in winter, i generally fill the chicken water every three or four days) between water hauling and mucking. next summer, i vow to create a proper duck house and yard so that they aren’t happily undoing all my neat chicken arrangements all winter.

the cats have cabin fever, except for mimi who expects someone to stand at the door to open it whenever she has a fancy to go out or come in. there’s a screaming cat fight downstairs at least once each evening and chuzzy, the incorrigible creature, has his paws in everything they fit in. he has lost the cap to the toothpaste tube, knocked down my mother’s magnifying glass (and not broken it) twice, and has a steady flow of pipe cleaner people and toy mice that have to be policed so that oakland doesn’t ingest them.

basically, the animals have taken over and are driving us insane. only five more months ‘til spring?

make way for ducklings

it’s been really wet in the northeast US this year, to the extent that i never actually got my garden planted in the spring. we have clay to clay/loam soil which is prone to compaction and it just plain never dried out enough for me to turn all the soil. the things planted in raised beds (tomatoes, peppers, and radishes) rotted in the ground. two-thirds of my pea vines likewise withered and died from the wet before making peas. this means the grand sum of my garden this year will be last fall’s garlic plus a few early spears of asparagus. we’ll get a couplefew pints of blueberries from our bushes and hopefully a few quarts of blackberries from the wild and thorny blackberry patch down the driveway, but this lack of summer produce is amazingly depressing. i don’t even know who i am any more if i can’t sojourn off to the garden for a dirty little snack of carrot or bean.

whether or not i was influenced by the rain and the spongy ground or not, i procured five possibly-fertile pekin duck eggs from a coworker near the beginning of june. i had  broody silkie (like, what else is new?) and i was tired of watching her sit on an empty nest with that birdy look of complete determination. in vain! in vain! as goes murphy’s law, as soon as i gave her a nest full of eggs to sit on, she stopped setting. fearing i would lose the viability of the eggs and not really having anything to lose, i snaffled another silkie hen as she walked past me one evening and bunged her into the brooding cage. by next morning, she’d set up shop on the nest. talk about going broody at the drop of a hat….

she did a good job. about a week before projected hatching, a stink started to come up from the nest. the next day, she had dumped one of the eggs out of the nest and onto the floor of the cage, mercifully without breaking it. i tucked that one deep into the compost heap and let her finish doing her thing.

on 3 july, i took a peek under the hen and found a duck pipping. by the end of the day, three ducklings had pipped out.

Image

by the end of the following day, the hen had broken the last egg (an alarmingly stinky dud) and started trying to raise ducks…

she has only been partially successful.

she’s not a fantastic mamabird anyway. last year, she brooded some silkie eggs and got three out of four, but would frequently wander off and leave her biddies or flee from danger without taking them along. she does, at least, tell them when she’s found something good to eat or there’s something possibly dangerous. her limited skills don’t really work with ducklings, who don’t speak chicken. i had to show them how to eat and drink and, of course, swim. as a result, i had a trio of very happy, clownish ducklings now who weren’t really sure if they were ducks, chickens, or people.

ducklings2 week four

ducklings week four

i went to lock them up one night and all four were snuggled up in the corner, the hen with one tiny, defeathered wing slung over the necks of each of two of the ducklings. about as warm as a scarf! good thing they’ve got lots of down right off the bat.

anyway, i’m not really sure about ducks. they’re extremely comical to watch, but i no longer think that chickens are messy since i have ducks. i’ve been researching duck house and pen construction like mad, trying to fiture out how to build something that will drain, drain, drain. they certainly can’t live in the chicken coop, where the brooder pen is currently standing water under the shavings every evening. i was talking idly about selling them, but my daughters forbid it. i mentioned that the person who has to do duck chores gets to make duck decisions and lo! when i went out to begin chores last night, the duck pen had been cleaned and bedded and they’d been watered, too. my spawn are amazingly averse to exerting themselves in any way that doesn’t involve personal payoff (classic geminis, those two) so maybe my plan should be to threaten duck sale often enough that i get an occasional reprieve from scraping up wet shavings….

one duckling left last week to go be a companion to a lonely pekin drake. the new owner is looking forward to having a pair, but i fear she will have to invest in an incubator (or silkie hen) before she gets her own ducklings. i have my own too-closely-related pair (hard to know whether they’re siblings or cousins or what) and time will tell if i can conquer the duck mess or it will conquer me.

musical dogs

willow is still with us. like the old codger in monty python and the holy grail, she’s stubbornly “not dead yet” and every time i think it’s time to load her on the plague cart, she decides it’s a fine time to go for a walk (and she does), followed by days of badness, inability to even get up by herself, followed by another walk.

in the meantime, we adopted a sparky little mongrel from a local all-breed rescue. his name is oakland (a name he arrived bearing and that we’ve been too indecisive to change) and he seems to be mostly boxer with a smattering of other breeds.

oakland

he and lola have become inseparable, joined at the teeth, two glossy black rockets of doggy joy. incorporating him into the family has been fairly easy: he’s an amenable little fellow and not unintelligent, although his natural prey drive is a little more robust than a labrador’s. he doesn’t seem to be trying to catch and kill, just chase and catch, but this is annoying to the cats and dangerous to the chickens and rabbit. the cats are incurably disgusted and the chickens have been relegated to a small outdoor yard during the day instead of being able to roam far and wide. the rabbit gets out to kick up her aging heels when oakland is in his crate, either at night or when we’re all away from home. it’s kind of sad for the hens, but i must admit that the flower beds are looking better than they have in years and it’s rather nice to go tromping around the property barefoot without dodging chicken poos. the girls are getting weeds and dirt clods and bundles of grass several times a day in addition to kitchen scraps. the compost pile is suffering, stinking more than it ought since it’s not being stirred and picked regularly by a herd of hens, but, all-in-all, the new arrangement is working out to almost everyone’s satisfaction.

oakland is a very nice little dog, very sweet and affectionate and mostly quite gentle, not as bumptious and roughneck as lola. he’s as well-mannered as you’d expect a six-month-old pup to be. he has responded well to clicker training, although i’m not as dedicated to it as i should be. with my work, kids in two spring sports, gardening, and the rest of the menagerie to tend, i often just want to spend the brief rest period in the evening petting on the puppy rather than schooling him. he’s very submissive. in some respects, he’s a little too timid. he is sometimes fearful to the point of being paranoid and he has snapped at one visitor already because he was afraid. we’re working on socializing him, bringing him places with us (although his carsickness makes only short trips possible). he’s very good on these outings, very friendly and laid-back. it appears that his fearfulness at home might stem from some territorial tendencies. he’s also afraid of the vacuum cleaner, the goats, the bathtub, and the lawnmower.

he came from a southern shelter, was found wandering with another puppy at two months old. he and his sibling were picked up and put into the shelter system. his sibling was attacked and killed by another shelter dog; oakland has scars on his legs and face, but survived. nevertheless, he adores dogs. he’s pretty gentle with old willow and when he meets other dogs on outings or at the vet, he is immediately animated, but respectful and submissive.

and so we’re in a holding pattern, which is nice for now.

three dog night
three dog night

soni: the horse that no one wanted

about ten years ago, i started to collect horses.

okay, that’s not precisely true.

we worked with a rescue organization out of long island, NY and adopted two PMU foals, rosie and qohqoh. after several months of working with these unhandled baby horses, we arranged to adopt q0hq0h’s mother, dana, and a retired ranch horse. the former was pregnant, the latter didn’t work out for us. we swapped the one that didn’t pan out for a true neglect rescue out of queens, NY, an aged appaloosa mare named blondie who was featured on the t.v. program animal precinct. so what was one more when the rescue organization got in touch a year later and asked if we would foster a PMU yearling for a bit, since they had too many coming from north dakota and no place to keep them all? of course we said yes. we had our own yearling already (morgan) and i planned to work with the new horse a bit, geld him, and then let the two youngsters be pasture mates. blondie had passed away peacefully earlier that spring and we felt like we had an “opening”.

the rescue sent him with the hauler they’d sent before with blondie. he warned us that this yearling was a handful, that he’d taken an age to get onto the trailer. as horses always do after a big lead-up like that, the colt backed calmly off the trailer and into the paddock without anyone getting dead. the hauler left and we took a long look at our new guest, who was an absolute scarecrow. a yearling, the only time he’d probably been handled was to be branded as a weanling and coggins tested before shipping. he was thin and lanky with a great ugly scar on one leg. registered AQHA, his papers listed him as a mare, but he was all boy from the first day and clearly had some thoroughbred in his background. his bay roan coat is a color that looks dull and moth-eaten at the best of times, but this was not the best of times for this guy.

there was a recuperating warmblood living at our barn at the time, a big chestnut named john henry who had foundered in all four hooves. he was in rough shape, his hooves were a mess, and he spent a lot of time lying down. he was in the foaling stall, two stalls with the wall between pulled down. we put the colt, soni, into the little stall next door so they could both have some company. they did get to be good friends and, with all the frustrations inherent in trying to make a year-old stallion show some sign of having manners, it wasn’t until the day that a fence went awry and i walked into the barn to find soni standing quietly in john henry’s stall, just hanging out and being a kind little soul, that i realized this guy might have a real future. he could have (and by all standards of horse behavior, probably should have) killed john henry that day, but he didn’t. he just went in to hang out with his helpless, disabled friend.

at some point in our training journey, the rescue organization told us to just keep soni. they were going through a difficult phase, one that would become even more difficult when the owner lost her husband (and primary vet).

this news came as a bit of a shock to us. we were going through some difficult times ourselves (which would become progressively more difficult over time, too) and had just discovered that soni was cryptorchid, which means that his testicles hadn’t descended and there was no way to know if they would. he would have to be kept separate from most of our other horses until his testicles dropped or we found a way to make the necessary surgery happen.

zans soni dee

it was almost two years before we were able to geld soni. during that time, we’d moved our horses to our home, which was nice because we didn’t have to leave home to do chores twice a day, but we didn’t really have the facilities to keep a stallion. he went to be companion to john henry for a while, then came back home to be cooped up in a roundpen, eating hay and not really getting to be a horse. when his second testicle dropped, it was a blessing. we called the vet at once and got him snipped (i do have photos; i won’t share [you’re glad about this]), went through the aftercare process, and turned him out with the herd a month or so later, only to discover he was so submissive and non-food aggressive that he didn’t get enough to eat when he was with the herd. we tried lots of different configurations (and were hindered by the fact that he is a five star escape artist and would often just let himself into another pasture), but were finally forced to pasture him separately again so that he would keep his weight.

we were talking with our neighbors one day and learned that they were actively looking for a couple of horses. we offered rosie and soni on indefinite free leases and they agreed. they contracted with a trainer, who came and picked them up for 90 days of training under saddle. while soni was in training, he got the worst case of rain rot my vet had ever seen and my vet is long campaigner. i suggested that he’d probably seen worse and he said, unequivocally, not even close. he and rosie went from training to their lease home and the lessees worked pretty tirelessly on that guy to get his hide cleared up. he came through the infection just fine, but over the course of the next eight months or so, he started to engage in behaviors that felt unsafe to them, so they finally asked if they could bring him back.

we met them halfway and walked him home, about a mile for each of us. walking him that mile was exhausting. he was a world-class jerk, pulling, striking, crowding, rearing, and just generally doing anything that could make walking a horse a real chore. he was in great physical condition, but he was out of control mentally. i cut his grain ration by about 80% and turned him out without expectations for a couple of months to unwind. he did calm down, but i just couldn’t find the kind-hearted gelding i knew was in there somewhere. working with him was so upsetting; he’d do everything wrong one day and everything right the next, only to do everything wrong again the day after that. there was a major disconnect in his head and it was awful to see.

i was still struggling with him when my mother found an ad on craigslist from someone looking for a project horse. the advertiser lived a state away, but drove over with a friend one weekend afternoon to check out soni and decided that she’d like to have a go with him. she started him on the ground, worked with him under saddle, and thought he might turn out to be a really great trail horse for her mother. she had her non-horse-y boyfriend riding him a bit. she brought him to horse shows with her regular horse, got him used to a lot of different stimuli, and we thought that soni had finally found a forever home. about a year after taking him, she asked him to lope and he bucked her off. her foot got caught in the stirrup and she was dragged. she had no confidence in soni any more and asked us to take him back. he was home again the following weekend.

the difference now, though, was that he’d gotten confidence and with that confidence, his kindness had returned. he came back in top physical and mental condition. he was so calm and quiet that the kids could move safely around him, something i’d never allowed in the past. he tore himself open badly on a gate last winter and spent most of it recuperating. he was the perfect patient. he’s a really great guy.

the hard part is: no one wants him. he’s the best horse i’ve got as far as training and potential and, honestly? i don’t even really want him. i love him, i love working with him, but he’s hard to know. he’s hard to be really, truthfully fond of because as kind and gentle and brave and sensible as he is, he hasn’t really got much personality. that, of course, is why he keeps coming back. you could work through a horse with a bad attitude if you were just nuts over him otherwise. you could relearn trust after being dragged if his soul just spoke to yours. but it’s really hard to want to do those things when the horse is sort of nondescript in the personality department. it’s much easier to give up, find someone with a little more sparkle to be your riding partner.

well, i’m a stubborn bint and i’ll never give up on him. i expect he’ll be coming and going (or maybe just staying) in my backyard forever. and i’m okay with that.

morgan & soni

gratuitous chicken pictures: a chronological slideshow from the department of backstory

while putting together an earlier post, i had to go to my all-but-defunct photobucket account and i found a lot of pictures there that i’d forgotten about entirely. they’re pictures that i posted long ago on a private journal, so friends and family have likely seen them before. for everyone else, this is exactly like those vacation slide shows that your boring aunt and uncle show at family gatherings, only with no interesting tourist crap and landmarks and people you’re related to, just chickens.

felicity, week one

chicken numero uno. felicity was at least two years old (she was moulting) when she meandered through our backyard one evening at chore time and she’s been with us for four and a half years, which makes her a very old lady indeed. here, she’s living in a rabbit cage while i sit on a bale of hay trying to figure out what on earth to do with this frickin’ chicken. that dish to the right is a water dish, mostly filled with rock because she’d try to roost on it and knock it over. rocks are right up there in my arsenal with duct tape and baling twine. (and zip ties.)

modified calf hutch coop

thankfully, i had these two calf hutches on loan from a good friend. i stopped by her house one day and asked if i could modify one to keep a chicken in it and she didn’t mind. i built a door with scrap lumber and hardware cloth, then covered the other openings with hardware cloth held on with plastic zip ties. (while i generally hate using plastic anything, i’m completely addicted to zip ties.) the result was a small, warm, airy coop that was reasonable easy to move daily and was predator resistant. suitable for daytime.

early milk crate nest box

felicity was moulting when she arrived, but i took an old milk crate and turned it on its side with some waste hay in it and put it in the hutch anyway. and then there were eggs! (i don’t even eat eggs, btw. i photograph them from time to time and sell them to other people in order to have money to feed the hens. they’re mostly self-sufficient that way.)

old shed before renovation

after finishing the calf hutch coop and deciding that i needed all the chickens!, i started taking a long look at the ugly little gambrel-style shed that lived in the backyard, full of junk. this photo was taken after two days of hauling out that junk. chicken coop? challenge accepted.

original door

look, there’s still junk in there yet. this is the old door. it was big and warped slightly and drafty and ridiculous. the roof of this shed was recycled by the original builder, so it was totally full of nail holes and floppy around the edges. i used spray foam insulation to fill in the gaps and silicone caulk (hahahaha [sorry, i’m, like, twelve]) to fill in the nail holes. there were approximately a googol of them.

meanwhile, mail!

in addition to entry-level carpentry and heading up the plant pot relocation program, i was ordering chicks on the internet (in a non-escort service kind of way). getting a box through the US postal service containing live animals is probably the most fun box ever. unfortunately, the 6:30 am call from a crabby postal worker, screaming at you about how it stinks mitigates the fun a little bit. for the record, it didn’t smell that bad.

first birds: 3 rhode island reds, 3 black australorps, 3 (4) barred rocks, 3 partridge rocks, and 3 buff orps.

using my usual MO, i researched every available breed of chicken for weeks and decided to start with five heavy laying/dual purpose breeds that claimed to be cold hardy and good to excellent layers. i ordered fifteen birds and got what chicken folks call a “packing peanut”, an extra chick. peanuts are usually roosters, but all four of my barred rocks were hens. it was one of the rhode island reds that turned out to be a rooster. of all breeds, RIRs have the worst reputation for crabby roosters and i was not thrilled that the sexing error happened with this breed, but at this point in time, they’re all just little balls of fluff and i’m blissfully unaware of the red rooster in the mix. i vowed to name one of the BRs “peanut” and unloaded them into the brooder.

rubbermaid tote, converted to brooder with hardware cloth and zip ties

speaking of zip ties… the rubbermaid brooder is the best thing ever. this is an absolutely enormous one with wheels on one end. i cut out the top with a box knife, poked some holes around the edge with an awl, cut a piece of hardware cloth to size, and zip tied it on with the rough side of the hardware cloth on the inside. the brooder light (heat lamp) can go directly over the wire, outside the brooder, and lowered or raised to change the temperature in the brooder.

rubbermaid brooder and peat moss substrate

i also used my awl to poke a hole for a perch that was designed to clip to a parrot cage. i ended up taking it out for the first two weeks because i’d underestimated how floppy and, well, infant-y chicks would be. it became a Thing later though.

a lot of people use newspaper under their chicks, but i decided to try peat moss after reading one or two good things about it online. turns out, it’s basically my favourite chicken-keeping tool ever and i use it in my coop to this day. it’s organic material, so it’s non-binding if ingested, is a great, natural footing for ground-dwelling birds like chickens, devours wetness and odor, and makes a darn good dust bath to boot. for chicks, it has great little sticks (you can see them in the picture) which they can pick up and then run around like crazy things, screaming and flapping and trying to keep everyone else from taking it away. is toys.

warm days out in the calf hutch coop (with a couple of kids [you can see the barred rock on the knee in the background])
poor felicity had to make way for ducklings every day in fine weather. she’d go grumpily back to her rabbit cage and the sixteen rascals would go out to pick in the grass under the calf hutch coop. i believe really strongly in raising chicks in as close to natural conditions as humanly possible, so even if they could only go out for half an hour because of the air temperature, they went out every day.

bob the cockerel and peanut the pullet (plus another barred rock) spending some quality time with yours truly.

i spent completely asinine amounts of time with that first flock of chickies. with the exception of the partridge rocks, which were and are practically feral, most of the chicks were very friendly and would cheerfully roost on my arms. this pair above were absolutely pesty. you can see young bob’s little rooster comb already in this picture. peanut, who passed away earlier this year, was coming to hop up on my knee until the day she died. i’m pretty sure she thought she was people.

too big for the brooder

like all babies, these grew up too fast. in more ways than one, because i still hadn’t finished turning my storage shed into a chicken coop and these birds were getting crowded in the old rubbermaid.

the coop is finished (except for the new door); ALL materials are recycled from elsewhere except some of the chicken wire.

finally. the ceiling insulation is still exposed to this day and i’d like to get that covered or at least tacked up in the spring. the red door is the interior door, a donation from another old shed that got torn down. the final door on our coop is a pink steel door that once belonged to our neighbour’s front entrance. their house was broken into and the door pried open, so they replaced it. i picked up the old one on the side of the road (free sign, ahoy!) and installed it later that summer with the help of my uncle.

the final milk crate nest boxes (still ticking along nicely four years later)

a small piece of wood to keep the hay from falling out was key, so i took some scrap wood, cut it to size, and screwed it to the milk crates on the inside lip. the boxes are then hung in the coop from hooks. they can be quickly and easily taken down and disassembled as needed.

an early roost

i had to move the girls into the coop before i had things like roosts in place, so i made a quick and dirty one out of a pine branch and some lumber scraps with decking screws holding them together.

the final version roost: two 2x4s and a ramp with cleats

this, however, works so much better. these run the length of one side of the coop and can hold upward of 35 birds. the 2x4s are strong, relatively easy to keep clean, and provide a stable base for large hens. also, the benefit of using 2x4s instead of smaller dimension lumber in my climate is that in winter, the birds’ feet are tucked in underneath their entire bodies and frostbite of toes becomes impossible. not that i’ve ever let it be cold enough in there to frost anyone anyway. between that pink fuffy insulation you saw above and weatherstripping around the window, i also run a heat lamp at night when it gets below freezing. this all makes me wonder why i didn’t just get the un-hardy mediterranean breeds i wanted for aesthetic reasons.

the window is installed with lots and lots and lots of help from a carpenter friend

this window came from the same shed as the interior door. i was nervous about building new studs, etc. so a friend helped me install this. he also had a better saw than mine.

the first eggs: one of them is a “fairy egg” (tiny with no yolk)

these first eggs came around the december holidays. it’s amazing how smug you can feel for merely finding an egg that someone else did all the work in making and laying.

... next spring
… next spring

and then i realized i had a “problem” as they say right before an intervention. that hatchery catalog is like crack. this batch was three gold-laced wyandottes, six blue bantam silkies (blue is one of those funny genetic colours; the babies are 33.3‾% blue, splash, and black), and three welsummers. the latter three were replacements for a bad hatch of columbian wyandottes. what a fortuitous bad hatch, because these birds are incredibly good layers. i know this because they lay dark brown eggs, which sets them apart. they moult hard, then they lay like crazy all year.

silkies are pretty high strung, right?
silkies are pretty high strung, right? (that one is sleeping, not dead. sometimes hard to tell with chicks.)
silkie pullets
silkie pullets

i ordered five silkie hens and one silkie rooster. inevitably, i got four hens and two roosters. the hatchery had very kindly included two blue, two splash, and two black chicks. oddly, both the blue ones were roosters.

how one keeps occupied in winter with no television. (yes, it's a bird-feeder. yes, those are birds. but no.)
how one keeps occupied in winter with no television. (yes, it’s a bird-feeder. yes, those are birds. no, it’s not okay.)

free-ranging is fun in all seasons. in the past, my birds haven’t generally gone out in the snow (their choice, not mine). i’m not sure what these ladies were doing out that day, but if there’s anything smarter in the chicken world than australorps’ and partridge rocks, i don’t want to know about it. i certainly don’t want one in my coop.

life is good (subtitle: clogging up the driveway)
life is good (subtitle: clogging up the driveway with cat)
grass
life is really good in the grass, even for grouchy buffies.

 

the grisly death of an innocent squash

the thing about chickens is that they’re basically very small dinosaurs. whatever thing you definitely don’t want your chickens to do, that’s what they’ll do, by definition. they can not be trained, they can not be redirected. they do not recognize your “rules”. they have a pretty simple lizard brain that, apart from a few minor signals (BIG BIRD DANGER! LAY EGG NOW! MAKE NOISE!), basically has one massive, overriding mission: PUT FOOD IN!

one of the thing that my egg customers invariably say to me after a month or so of buying eggs from me is “gosh, i’ve never seen such yellow yolks!” indeed, i’m extremely proud of those yellow yolks, which indicate a robust and healthy avian diet, but they come at the terrible price of pretty much every single thing i attempt to plant.

as ground-dwelling birds, the chicken’s main food-gathering technique is digdigscratchscratch. this offers up a number of food options: seeds can be knocked off grass stems or unearthed from the soil; burrowing bugs are disturbed and gobbled up; worms are tricked to the surface for a quick, dirty slurp; and grasses can be fluffed for optimal end-biting. alternately, anything in the path of the chicken’s talon is destined for failure. bulbs and corms are uncovered, tender sprouts are smashed, and anything edible is quickly gobbled. woe to fruit of any sort. small fruits like berries are eaten whole. large fruits like eggplants are punctured, gutted, and made into wee eggplant-skin canoes, which are left to rot. it seems like, eventually, all things come under the blades of the lawnmower, eggplant-skin canoes and all.

i’ve managed to keep those glorious yellow free-range yolks and a simultaneous garden only with the interference of a hideous garden fence, green plastic and flappy in all the wrong places. two years ago, i fenced the garden proper and then hid the rest of my produce out of the range of chickens, out on the edge of my winter horse pasture where the ground had never been worked. my pumpkins and squashes weren’t eaten by chickens that year, but they weren’t eaten by me, either, as they were so meagre and measily that they weren’t worth harvesting. actually, they were eaten by chickens that year, in a sanctioned feed rather than stripped sneakily and messily from the vine. this is the same fate that meets cucumbers and zucchini that turn into baseball bats in the long, hot days of august. it’s how i keep from having to pick up slimy green tomatoes that got frosted before they ripened. the chickens are a roving, many-faced composter, doing the same work outdoors that the dogs do in: picking up anything that gets dropped, left, or unsupervised for too long.

last week, my cousin offered me a pumpkin that had been doing ornamental duty for about a month in the room next door to my office. it was a dignified squash, upright and blazingly orange. she wondered if my horses would munch it and i didn’t think that they would, but i did think i knew who might:

this will take them a few weeks to pulverize. i’ll check in from time to time to document the dinosaur damage.

Week 1:

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Week 3:

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Week 5

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