chickenasaurus rex

i find it interesting how many people i meet who are deathly afraid of the average hen. at first i was perplexed, but the longer i know chickens (and now ducks), the less i am chagrined at the monkeybrain twitch that causes people to read “poultry” as “thunderlizard” and do without, thank you very much indeed.

i feel, in fairness to chickens, that i need to preface my scathing takedown of their species by pointing out that my flock, roosters included, are a peaceable bunch. if i put a chair out in the yard in fine weather, i am sure to have a hen or two perched happily on my knee within a few minutes making cheerful chuckling sounds and wiping their beaks companionably on the knee of my trousers. i’ve had very few interflock battles, even with a couple of chronically pathetic denizens who could easily be pecked to death but haven’t been yet.

that said? chickens have absolutely been known to peck each other to death. when the late, great felicity came barreling out of the woods at us that fateful evening several years ago that led to chicken-keeping as a hobby, she was a bloody mess, pecked seven ways to sunday. she’d clearly come from a warlike flock, perhaps too tightly packed into too small a space. maybe just a bunch of bitches. it happens. after pecking a flock-member to death, these vicious birds have then been known to eat the corpse. apparently, chickens taste just like chicken?

i also have one hen, now one of the aforementioned pathetics, who was terrifying in her heyday. she would gouge at hands to get rings, or sometimes just for the sheer pleasure of hand-gouging. she would go broody often and violently, protecting even pretend, invisible eggs with her hand-gouging specialty. i’ve lost a fair bit of blood that way.

several years ago, we had a large bird of prey swoop in and try to leave with my blind barred rock, gloria. fortunately for gloria, she is a fat, fat hen and the predator wasn’t able to carry her off. also fortunately for gloria, one of her flock came barging in and fought the predator away. by the time i got to the partridge rock that had saved the day, her head and neck were covered in blood and i thought she’d probably gotten her death blow in that battle. minutes later, having washed off all the blood, i couldn’t find a mark on her. i don’t think any of that blood was hers at all. i dubbed her “falcon biter” and my admiration for her as an individual went way up. she died suddenly early last fall and a few weeks ago, i found a welsummer hen dead and half devoured under our birdfeeders with only some large wing tracks in the snow to tell the tale.

i was horrified recently at the systematic stalking and killing of my silkies by my two young ducks until a coworker shared some grisly stories of rotten, awful ducks just as bad as mine. velociducktors.

chickens just don’t stop to think. i’ve seen signs that they do actually think (falcon biter’s heroic self-sacrifice aside, i have three black australorps who know that human + shovel = worms for all and mob me every time i move a shovel), but they don’t stop to do it. it starts when they’re little fluffers in the brooder, picking up a tiny twig of peat moss and running madly, squeaking, as if to say “i have a thing! a thing! a thing! i have a thing!” and then realizing too late that all that running and squeaking has revved up the rest of the brood which is now intent on having a thing, too. that thing. now. the thing-chick will often drop the thing and pick up another thing (a non-thing, in this case) and then let another chick take the non-thing, leaving the thing-chick free to go back and get the real thing. ingenious and incredibly stupid all at once.

sadly, i’m not sure that ducks think even on the fly. at least, mine don’t. now that the silkies are safely away (which doesn’t keep the ducks from lurking on the other side of the wire and quacking loudly just to make the silkies jump), they’re quite good birds, timid and loudish and generally pretty dumb. the appeal of ducks is their doofus-y charm, i think.

poultry move quickly, look too closely, and have pointy bits on front and underneath. they’re always on the lookout for food and i suppose it’s easy to see how some people fear that the food found might be them should that beady eye stop where they are standing.

perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him
perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him

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.


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.