Friday, March 21, 2014

Spring Has Sprung

It's been a few weeks since I posted and somehow during that time, Spring has arrived.  I know - I hear that we're expecting a storm in a few days too but, even so - spring is in the air!

Since this is my first spring with the Ladies - I am discovering a few things I don't enjoy about spring and chicken keeping.  The sun is rising earlier and earlier every day.  While normally that's a good thing, it also means that the Ladies are up earlier and earlier every day.  It seems my body is already trained to wake up with the sun (groan!) with "Time to feed the chickens!" ringing in my ears.  Ah the mornings of deepest darkest winter when the Ladies and I got to sleep in a bit.

JiJi is still the sleepyhead - last out of the coop in the AM

Another negative - the run is an absolute mess.  With all the melting snow, it gets pretty muddy in there.  Mind you the Ladies don't seem to mind but I'm looking forward to everything drying out.  Collecting eggs with muddy chicken prints on them isn't quite as enjoyable as gathering a bunch of beautiful clean eggs!  It does help that the Ladies need to walk through the sand in the coop.  It's a little like a sand pedicure.  But the coop is small and it would probably help if they walked a few blocks in the sand before going into the nest box.  I wonder if they could be convinced to use a door mat...

Bella just might learn to wipe her feet

In general though, Spring is good.  The Ladies got the memo from Mother Nature and are laying eggs like there is no tomorrow!  We get 4-5 eggs a day from 5 Ladies.  Not so shabby!  I'm still not completely sure which egg is from which Lady but I know they are all doing their part.  So no one needs to get carted off to Chicken Jail!

Safe from Chicken Jail

The Ladies are also feeling a little frisky (is that an appropriate adjective for chickens?).  They are ready to be out.  They want greens.  If I'm not careful when I open the run to fill up the water, they make a break for it.  And once out they settle down quite contentedly, scratching at any areas where the snow has melted to see if they can find any green sprouts. 

Checking for greens.

If I let them stay out for what they deem is a reasonable amount of time, they will gracefully allow me to herd them back into the run. And yes - everything about their body language says "No problem, dear, we were going in anyway."  If the field trip is too short, they make it a little more difficult for me.  Particularly Luna and Ebony who we probably should have named Thelma and Louise!  The other day when I opened the nest box to collect eggs, Luna and Ebony were waiting for me and leapt out of the nest box.  I did inform them that it wasn't meant to be an exit.  I don't think they cared.  Hopefully they don't plot a major escape.

The Great Nest Box Break

Another plus.  Although it is earlier than I'd like, when I go out to do my chores in the morning, I am treated to a chorus of greetings from all the neighborhood birds.  The Ladies certainly have a lot to say in the morning but so do the robins and cardinals and chickadees.  The air is a tad warmer.  And if I'm lucky I get treated to a pretty pink sunrise. 

Still I'm looking forward to late spring so things get a little easier in terms of taking care of the Ladies.  It will be nice to not worry about the water freezing, or eggs freezing, or snow collapsing the run.  And of course I have projects!  I read about landscaping the run and think I will plants some climbing roses to decorate the run.  The Ladies will like the shade, bugs, and rosehips that the roses will provide and I will like the view!

So not to rush but come on Summer!!!!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In Memoriam

Yesterday, we lost a member of our animal family.  Not one of the flock but our sweet Husky mix Blaze.  Throughout the day memories of Blaze would present themselves and I found myself worrying that I was going to forget some of his funny quirks.  They were begging to be written down.

Blaze didn't have an easy life before us.  A neighbor rescued him from a kill shelter down south only to find he had stage 4 Heartworm.  She treated him and he survived.  But then they discovered he had a rare (at least in the Northeast) form of cancer called Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor.  Yup - just like what it sounds like  - Doggie STD.  His behavior on the streets down south must have been a little questionable.  That was treated and cured also, only to come back a few years later.  Unfortunately our neighbor didn't have enough time for him so we took him in.  He came to us as a pretty shy guy.  It was clear he wanted to be loved but also that he didn't expect it.  Soon he was walking on a leash like a champ and relaxing enough with us to sleep on his back.  He continued to have separation anxiety up until the end but Prozac worked wonders. It made him a calmer, happier dog in general and even slowed down his prey drive enough so the cat could tolerate him.  I think we gave him a good four and a half years since he joined our family.

This was Blaze's version of helping build the chicken run!
My first lesson about Huskies was they don't hoover food like Labradors do.  Blaze was much pickier about his dog food and never was one to eat at regular times.  He almost always left food in his bowl.  But boy did he have his favorites!!!  Cat food!   Now really what is so appealing about cat food?  He would wait patiently (well sort of) outside the gated kitchen for the cat to finish and then promptly come get us to let him in for "clean up."  He loved carrots and raw zucchini.  But his all time favorite was pizza crust.  Whenever it was pizza night he would sit right by Emma because she never ate her crusts.  But lesson learned - don't give him a pizza crust and let him outside.  He immediately would bury any and all crusts under the front tree.  I'm still waiting for the tree to start growing pizzas.

Blaze loved to sit with people.  I don't think he ever knew he was a big dog.  He loved to sit on laps.  He was notorious with our daughters' friends.  If they sat on the living room floor - he took that as an invitation to sit in their laps no matter the age or size of the child.  It always ended up with the kids in fits of giggles.  I can't think of a single kid that came to our house who didn't like Blaze.  When I would sit on the front steps, he would either sit right next to me or one step down.  Butt on one step and front paws on the step below.  And he had been known to try to climb into Scott's lap in a chair.  Quite a feat if you are a 55 pound dog!

Once Blaze gained some confidence after being with us for a while, he found his voice.  It's funny that we never heard him the entire time he lived across the street.  When he found his voice - he used it!   But not to an obnoxious extent.  He would howl with passing fire engines and on occasion would literally howl at the moon.  He must have had a thing for performance because he would join in if people were doing anything in unison.  Singing Happy Birthday to Mimi on the phone - Blaze had to join in; the family being silly singing Jolly Mon from Jimmy Buffett - Blaze had to join in; visiting one of the girls' second grade classrooms where the kids read me a thank you they had written - Blaze had to join in.  And on occasion when he was feeling argumentative he would "back talk" us. 

Walks were serious business not to be disturbed by other dogs.  He walked beautifully on a leash and really liked to log on the miles.  He knew my various routes and often would try to prevent me from turn for home by trying to nudge me the other way.  It was a rare walk that he didn't get some sort of positive comments.  He was always polite with other people and dogs but really just wanted to get back to the task at hand.

I also learned that Huskies are escape artists and in fact we probably should have renamed him "Houdini".  We gave up on trying to crate train him as we were afraid he was going to hurt himself trying to get out.  He even ended up with an arrest record of sorts with the local police department after he broke out of our house while we were at work.  Of course he left the door wide open and the neighbors called the police.  Given that it wasn't clear whether someone broke in or he broke out, they stationed a car outside our house until we could get home.  Meanwhile, Blaze having finished his walkabout, sauntered home and the officer put him back on his rope.  He was quite happy to have the company of the officer!  Other times he would just let himself out and go visit the other neighborhood dogs.  Quite the man about town!

He was such a tolerant boy.  I can't think of anytime that he showed any irritation with any of us.  If he didn't like something he would get up and move. But that was pretty infrequent.  More often he just wanted to be part of the gang and would tolerate all sorts of things including photo shoots with a budding photographer who got her hands on Mom's camera.

Blaze didn't have too many bad habits.  The big one was that he was a digger.  We could have also renamed him "The Excavator".  He loved to dig.  There is an intricate network of dens under the front bushes that I am not looking forward to filling in once spring arrives.  That will seem very final.  But maybe I can finally replant my daffodils and tulips that were.... um... transplanted.  They can be a little memorial garden.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Blaze was how he thought he could sneak up on you to cuddle.  He was adept at slithering up onto the bed and lying as flat as possible so maybe no one would see him.  And if by chance someone saw him, it's a whole lot harder to get a pancake dog off a bed.  And plus those eyes....  "Me?  Don't I belong on the bed?  You looked like you wanted me up here."  Just loved that sweet dopey face!

It was the same thing with his two favorite chairs.  He and Scott had a long standing game of musical chairs.  As soon as Scott would get up and leave the room, Blaze would claim the chair, even if he had already warmed up his own!  And what a unique chair posture he had!

Rest well buddy!   I hope you have your own chair, someone to play musical chairs with and a place to dig big holes!

The Chicken Chick

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Blizzard Eggs

Last week we had some pretty tough weather.  We got about 18 inches of snow and a lot of high winds.  Thankfully there was no damage or power outages that affected us.  And the Ladies seemed truly unfazed by the weather.  I was out several times during the storm to shovel the driveway, check on the Ladies, top off their water, and check for eggs.  Each time I went out, they would meet me at the run door, telling me all the news.  And perhaps either because they were enjoying the weather or they just thought I deserved a special "Thank you" for taking such good care of them, every Lady gave me an egg on the second day of the storm!   Our first 5 egg day.  5 Blizzard Eggs!

Of course my first winter keeping chickens would be one of the hardest.  It's been unusually cold what with the Polar Vortex and all.  And while we haven't had many snow storms the ones we have had were decent snowfalls.  I've never been a winter person.  I'm not into winter sports and really don't enjoy shoveling or being cold.  Leave it to the Ladies to try to change my opinion of winter.  I've made a few new winter discoveries while I tend to the Ladies.

Three Ladies in a nest box stay quite toasty

Early morning seems warmer than the rest of the day.  I'm usually out by 7AM at the latest.  At first I worried that I was going to be unbearable cold during my chores, but whether it truly is warmer or not - I feel warmer.  Maybe my body just hasn't woken up enough to be cold.  Or maybe it's that usually the wind hasn't turned on for the day.  Whatever the reason, it was a pleasant surprise to me.  I no longer dread going out in the morning cold.

Good morning Ladies!
The Ladies really do not care if it's cold.  I know they schooled me on that earlier, but I still doubt them sometimes so it's helpful for them to remind me.  No matter how cold it is, they come out to see me first thing in the morning.  Later in the day if it's still really cold only some of them come out but I hear the others from inside the coop, reporting in that all is fine.  And in case I still don't believe them, all I have to do is pick one up and tuck my fingers under her feathers and it's instant warmth - definitely better than my gloves.  Don't get me wrong - I think they are anxious for spring just like the rest of us.  They want out of their run to scratch around in the grass.  They will come out in the snow but seem dismayed that there is no grass to eat.

Where's the grass?

This one I really can't explain.  Somehow the Ladies have made me more of a winter person.  Maybe they have some magic power as they also made me more of a morning person.  These days I don't mind going out to shovel.  I almost always start by shoveling a path to the coop - just to check in.  But then the driveway gets done!  And all of a sudden I'm noticing the beauty of a snowfall instead of complaining about it.  I've started snowshoeing (no we can't claim the Ladies had anything to do with that) and I'm enjoying it.  Somehow taking care of the Ladies has made me more aware and appreciative of nature.  I notice things I wasn't slowing down enough to notice before.  A good snowfall makes some pretty neat natural art!

The Chicken Chick

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Whose egg is whose?

The many shades of brown

Yesterday I went out to check on the Ladies.  I love doing that. It's become my "coffee break."  Sometimes I go out particularly to check for eggs, sometimes to check water level, sometimes just to say "Hi!"  Whatever the reason, I always check for eggs.  Yesterday two eggs were waiting for me in the nest box.  Each time it still gives me a smile to find an egg!  I got to wondering if it will ever get dull.  I kind of doubt it.  It's like getting a little gift several times of day.  Or the anticipation and reward of an Easter Egg hunt every day!

Each time I get an egg, I marvel at how perfect they are (even if they are different).  It really is pretty amazing how it happens.  But I won't give you a biology lesson.  Trust me to say there is a ton that goes on inside that little chicken to make an egg most days.  And if one of those things doesn't go quite right there is evidence.  You can end up with a soft shell egg, a huge egg, a tiny egg, an egg with shell blemishes, an egg with two yolks or with no yolk.  And I'm sure there are many other things I haven't heard about yet.  In addition to the joy of finding an egg - I also use it as a way of keeping an eye on how each of my Ladies are doing.  If the shells are soft it tells me I need to offer more calcium.  If I haven't gotten an egg from one of them in a while - I would worry that something else was going on.

Something different here!  Maybe a double yoke?

No biology lesson but a couple egg facts.  1.) When a chicken first starts laying, the eggs are usually small and then over a period of months they get larger until they reach their full potential size.  All of my Ladies should ultimately give us large or extra large eggs.  2.)  Different breeds lay different color eggs (brown, white, blue, green, pinkish).  All of my Ladies are brown layers.  But Wow!   There are a lot of shades of brown!  3.)  A hen's egg generally stays consistent in color, size, and shape once she reaches maturity.  Some of mine have just started so they haven't gotten the size thing down yet.

 Our first 3 egg day

My current obsession is to figure out which Lady is laying which egg.  But whose is whose is not an easy thing to figure out, I assure you.  Unless you happen to be standing there when one of the Ladies lays, it's kind of a matter of detective work.  I don't know about other people's chickens but mine seem to frown on not having privacy while they lay.

Of course I know Lacy's egg.  Since she was the only Lady laying this fall I learned hers very well.  Hers is a light tan.  And very typically egg shaped - wider at one end.  When she was the only one laying I was so excited to be getting eggs that I thought hers were unusually pretty.  Don't tell Lacy but now that I see the others, I think hers are the least unique.  But they are still beautiful in their evenness of color.

I'm certain I know Luna's egg.  She was the first of the younger Ladies who started showing signs that she was ready to lay.  So I'm guessing that first different colored egg was hers.  She's also a breed that will likely be my best layer and so far I get a lot of the eggs I think are hers.  Luna lays a dusty darker brownish, pink egg.  Her eggs also almost always have what look like little scrapes on them.  I'm honestly not sure whether they are scrapes from Luna moving around in the nest or just irregularities in the surface coloring of her eggs.  Her eggs are really round and fat - hardly narrower at one end!

No mistaking that this wasn't Lacy's egg!

Here's where the guess work begins.  I think JiJi was the next to lay as she seemed pretty close behind Luna.  The problem is we ended up with a bunch of frozen eggs right around this same time so it was hard to determine color.  The egg that I think is JiJi's is a pretty putty color with a hint of pink.  Similar to Lacy's but a little darker.  I think it would be easy to mistake for Lacy's if I didn't get two in one day. JiJi's egg is a fairly symmetric oval.   I also think JiJi is still working out her laying cycle.  Sometimes her egg is really small and other days normal.  Today it was HUGE!

Subtle color difference - Lacy's on left, JiJi's on right

Then comes Ebony.  But as I go on, I get less and less certain.  I think, Ebony was next.  The egg I think is hers is a orangey brown - sort of terracotta.  I'm not getting very many of these eggs yet so I'm not totally sure on shape.  One of these eggs came out with a kind of cool irregularity - a sunburst kind of shape imprinted into the side of the egg.  Even the irregular eggs are cool!

This last one I am totally uncertain of.  I'm not even sure if it is a different Lady's egg.  I've found a couple eggs that are the same color as JiJi's but have white freckles.  So far these generally seem to be very small so I'm thinking Bella must have just joined the others in giving me eggs.

I love the freckles!
I can't wait until our first 4 egg day!  Better yet - our first 5 egg day!
The Chicken Chick

Sunday, February 2, 2014

I've been schooled!

So in theory, I was all on board with not heating the coop or providing any artificial light to keep the Ladies laying through the dark days of winter.  It all made perfect sense to me.  People have been raising chickens in New England and other cold climates since before electric heat sources.  And I really don't think they were lighting fires in their barns and coops!  I did my homework and we got the right kind of cold hardy chickens.  So we should be all good.  Right?

Well when push came to shove I really second guessed myself.  And by "shove" I mean the Polar Vortex.  For the first round of intense cold, I was most worried about the severe temperature change (a drop of 50 degrees in 24 hours - 70 if you count the wind-chill).  After all - hadn't I read that the change could be more dangerous to My Ladies?  So we created the Polar Vortex Hotel and moved the Ladies into the garage.  They took up residence in our big dog crate with an extension built on with pen panels. 

They didn't like it!  They were bored and crabby and although Lacy was the only one laying at the time - it messed up her schedule.  She likes privacy for her egg laying.  The Polar Vortex Hotel did not have any private rooms available for Miss Lacy. So she escaped.  And all the others followed.  I'll probably find an egg stashed somewhere when we do our spring garage cleanout.  We rounded them back up and showed them back to their suite.  And they still didn't like it.  There were complaints and whining.  I can be a slow learner but I got it.  So I moved them back out to the coop before I thought it was warm enough.  Those were the happiest birds I've seen.  Miss Lacy rewarded my good decision by immediately going into the nest box and giving me an egg.  And low and behold a few of the others started laying!

Then Polar Vortex Round 2 came.  And what do I do?   Of course!  I reopen the Polar Vortex Hotel and give the Ladies the best suite available.  To say they were not amused is putting it mildly.  The complaining started immediately.  The first time it was really just Bella who complained - and frankly Bella complains about everything.  This time there were multiple escape attempts, finally resulting in them collapsing the "roof" of their extension.  Poor Luna and JiJi both ended up with cuts on their combs (combs bleed a lot by the way).  But that's what you get when you are having a raucous party and swinging from the feeder.

I gave up.  I evicted the ladies and moved them right back out to the coop.  It was still really cold.  But again I was rewarded by happy birds and eggs!   Luna has a little bit of frostbite on her comb.  But it's no worse than when she was in the garage.  And when it's really cold, most of the Ladies stay in the coop.  The difference is it's home and they have the freedom to go into the run - should they choose.  When it's particularly cold, they sleep in the nest boxes - three chickens in a one foot square box.  Quite a sight!  Generally you don't want them sleeping where they lay their eggs but I think they know what they're doing.  So I'll let them decide and just do a little extra cleaning in the morning.

Ok Ladies!   I get it.  No more Polar Vortex Hotel.  You hate it.  I know.  You are tough New England Ladies.  And you know what you need better than me.  No additional heat.  No additional light.  No unnecessary changes.  I'll let you call the shots as long as you keep rewarding my good behavior with eggs!

The Chicken Chick

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Me? A Crazy Chicken Lady??? Oh Yeah!

Recently someone was asking me about "The Ladies" and made the comment that I seem to have a connection with these chickens.  That got me thinking.

I never - in a million years kind of never - would have ever expected to have a little flock of chickens.  Even if you had asked me at this time last year, it wouldn't have even been on my radar.  I didn't grown up with chickens, or farm animals of any kind.  I definitely always had pets.  At times bunches of them.  Our standard when I was growing up was three cats and a dog.  At any given time you could throw in a parakeet, two hamsters, a mouse, or a fish.  I think tadpoles and grasshoppers made an appearance too.  But never Chickens!  There was even the time that my Mom and I raised a litter of wild bunnies until they were old enough to release.  I remember dropper feeding them at all hours of the night.  But never Chickens!  I went through the typical young girl phase of wanting a horse.  But never Chickens!

So what was the appeal for me about The Ladies?  I've had friends with chickens and have always been amused watching them.  But I still never considered becoming a backyard crazy lady!  What was it about taking care of my friend's chickens this summer that changed everything?  I wish it was something really deep.  But the best I can come up with was that it was Fun!  And sometimes in the craziness of life - working and parenting - I realize I sometimes (often) don't stop to have fun.  This started out as a job.  I had to take care of my friend's chickens.  It was a mandatory break and time for a laugh.

When my friend first offered me their old little coop, of course I said "No thank you!"  After all what did I know about Chickens?   And would it be Practical?  Would it be Responsible?  What would people think if I just brought Chickens into the neighborhood?  But then the wheels started turning.  I am a masterful rationalizer when I want to be.  And the rest was history.  Well except for all the research.  When I decide to do something - I make sure I know what I'm doing!

So what is my connection to The Ladies?  I think it is gratitude.  Their imminent arrival gave me special time with my daughters as we readied their new home.  I will treasure those memories.  The days of The Ladies being itty bitty chicks also came with lots of time with my daughters - marveling at their antics and growth.  Somewhere in there I was reminded how funny I truly find these creatures.  Once we moved them outside, they blessed me with the discovery of the peace of an early morning, and a reason to take a quick break from other demands to check in on them and laugh.  And honestly I love learning.  There has been much to learn - baby chick care, predator proofing, frostbite care.  The list could go on and on.  But that's just the requirements.  There's also learning about different breeds, genetics of coloring and many other things which I don't really need to know but find fascinating.

I still wonder what it is that is different about My Ladies from our dog or cat.  I love them too.  But they don't make me laugh in the same way.  So I guess maybe it all comes down to laughter.

How can you help but laugh at that face?
The Chicken Chick

Monday, January 13, 2014

Windchill, Frostbite, and Eggs! Oh My!

What an interesting few weeks it has been at the coop! 

The weather has been crazy with huge temperature changes.  In one 24 hour period we went from 52 to 5 degrees with a wind chill that made it feel like -20.  I have been on a crash course in chicken keeping in severe weather.  I have also discovered the need to be more aware of the weather.  Previously I just worried about what it was like when I had to go to the car or the kids needed to go to the bus stop.  Now I'm paying more attention to lows and highs and wind speeds and wind directions.  Add meteorology to the list of skills Chicken Keeping taps into!

So after learning that while the Ladies can manage the cold temperatures the sudden radical changes are not good, we instituted the Great Chicken Round Up!  We set up the big dog crate in the garage and brought them all in.  The garage stays pretty cold - stable at around 20 degrees but that was good so that they wouldn't get used to being too warm.  We brought them in right at roost time so it was just a matter of plucking them off the roost.  They were not amused!  With the exception of Lacy who just hopped up on a perch in the crate and went back to sleep, the other Ladies made a ruckus.  Bella was most vocal about her displeasure and alarm.  But let's face it.  Bella is always most vocal about her displeasure and alarm!  They spent a few days in the garage and it got us through the cold spell.  I should also say - I sure wasn't minding only having to go into the garage instead out to frigid temps to take care of them!

Even with all that, Luna got a touch of frostbite on her comb.  The very tips of her comb first turned yellowish and then grey.  Now the tips are whitish.  It doesn't seem to bother her in the slightest.  We've been coating her comb with Bag Balm and that seems to have prevented it from getting worse.  Now the Bag Balm.... that she minds!  Who knew a chicken could actually wipe things off their combs with their feet!  Now all the feathers on the top of her head are all greasy.  All she needs now is a little leather jacket and she can join a 50's sock hop!  I'm hoping the points of her comb don't fall off.

White tips and greasy head!

This weekend it warmed up to normal winter temps and the Ladies were beyond happy to be out in their coop and run.  They really don't seem to mind the weather at all.  Rain, snow, cold, wind - they are good.  Soon after moving them back out, I noticed Miss Luna squatting whenever I'd come near.  Apparently that is a sign that a first egg is imminent.  And yesterday our long wait and months of good chicken tending was rewarded.  Seems silly to be as excited as we all were, but since Luna is one of the ones we have raised from chickhood it does seem more exciting than when we brought Lacy home and started getting eggs immediately.

Luna at 1 week

I had been told to put a fake egg in the nest box so Luna would know where to lay.  I didn't have quick access to ceramic eggs so I raided our Easter supplies and found as neutral a plastic egg as I could find - bright yellow.  I filled it with sand and plunked it in the nest box.  I think chickens are smarter than people give them credit for.  Luna was not fooled.  She examined it and pecked it and rolled it around.  But when the time came she dug herself a little nest inside the coop (not in the nest boxes) and laid her big beautiful egg.  I found it first thing when I went to clean the coop.  Luna came running in.  I'm not sure whether she was coming to show me her egg or to warn me away from it.  Too slow Luna!!  I had already scooped it up so she spent a little time looking for it before getting on with her day. 

Today her egg was in the nest box snuggled right up against the bright yellow Easter egg!  Way to go Luna!  Now Jiji, Ebony, and Bella!   Get going.  No more freeloaders around here! Or off to Chicken Jail you go!

The Chicken Chick