Goodbye Girls…

Goldfinger (black with gold highlights) the rooster with his charges.

Goldfinger (black with gold highlights) the rooster with his charges.

It was a cold day in December (in many ways) when my friends came to take the chickens away to their farm in the next county. They are good folks, so when I called them at Highgate Farms up in Marshall to ask if they could add my girls to their egg flock, they said yes right away. We all thought it would ease the transition if the hens arrived at their new home while the resident girls were asleep. So down the mountain just after dusk came Melissa and John in their beautiful old bio-diesel Mercedes.

I had already said my tearful goodbyes and tried to remain calm. I collected Mattie, Buffy, Flopsy and Mopsy one by one from the perch where they slept peacefully and deposited them into carrier boxes for the ride to their new home. Collecting Opal, the tree-sleeping Sumatra hen was another story, but with a little help from a ladder they were all in the trunk of the car and heading off into the night. I can’t say thanks to John and Melissa enough times for providing them with a good home. It makes me feel a tiny bit better; but just a tiny bit. IMG_2123

I’ll keep the why part of the story short since it’s all negative and we don’t want to dwell on it. Suffice it to say, we have a neighbor who is not neighborly, the kind you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. And that’s all you’ll hear about that.

Buffy checks out the harvest. She's not a fan of kale or cabbage but love tomatoes and cucumbers.

Buffy checks out the harvest. She’s not a fan of kale or cabbage but love tomatoes and cucumbers.

The sadness I feel has surprised me. Even after a month, I miss my girls and our rituals terribly. I still expect them to be clamoring for their afternoon treats when I open the door. As my sister said, I cried lots of big fat chicken tears! But don’t worry, I haven’t given up chickens for good. We still have the hen palace and all the gear that goes with it. One day we’ll move farther out into the country and have 10 acres or more; a place where people and chickens can have a little freedom!

Large, medium and small eggs laid by Ruby, Mattie and Baby respectively.

Large, medium and small eggs laid by Ruby, Mattie and Baby respectively.

That dream is down the road a ways, but I’ll keep you posted. It’s good to have something to look forward to while I’m driving to the winter tailgate market to BUY EGGS THAT COME FROM CHICKENS I’VE NEVER EVEN MET!

Thanks for listening to my sad story. I’ll be back soon with a recipe to cheer us all up. This picture should help too!

iPhoto Library




Falling feathers and Failing Hens

It’s been a eggy summer. Is eggy a word? Even if it’s not, I’m going to use it. It seems perfect for describing life with eight or nine hens who laid daily all summer.  Luckily we, and our friends and family, love free-range eggs. We’ve eaten popovers, deviled eggs, spoon bread, egg bread, egg salad, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, omelette suppers, eggs on tortillas, French vinaigrette with an egg yolk in it and just about any other eggy thing you can think of. Why, you might ask, do we need so many chickens when we don’t sell eggs?  There are several reasons: laying falls off in fall and winter, laying drops as hens age and, sadly, chickens don’t last forever.


Eggs on tortillas with salty-lemonyyogurt and capers (inspired by Heidi Swanson at

Eggs cooked on tortillas with salty-lemony yogurt and fried capers (from Heidi Swanson ). A great lunch or light dinner.

Not so much in their first year, but in the fall of a hen’s second year, it molts. Feathers fall out like crazy and the hen will look absolutely pitiful. It’s easy to think you’ve got a sick chicken on your hands, but that’s not the case. They just don’t look good with big naked pink spots! Mattie is our oldest hen at 18 months. I hate to say anything negative about the sweet girl but she’s been looking rough. Bald patches on her underside and back, thinning tail feathers, etc. I even stole her from the perch one night and weighed her to make sure she was okay. This involves putting the sleeping chicken into a shopping bag with handles, hanging said bag from my husband’s portable fishing scale and returning the bird to the perch before it wakes up and freaks out. It’s even more amusing when you learn that I do this late at night in my pajamas, a sweatshirt, an LL Bean cap with headlights built into it and rubber gardening clogs. It’s not a glamorous life. Her weight was fine. She’d just lost so many feathers that she looked very small. Her laying has fallen from daily to five eggs a week since she’s using her protein sources to make feathers. We see the new pin feathers now so I’m reassured that she’ll return to her former gorgeousness soon.

Mattie in the garden, pre-molt.

Mattie in the garden, pre-molt. i won”t humiliate her by sharing a photo where she has bald spots!

Three of our other girls, all less than a year old so not molting very much, are still laying daily. As the days shorten, this will change. The amount of daylight directs how often hens lay. It’s been our experience that every other day in winter is the norm. You can put artificial lights in the coop to keep the eggs coming, but we like the natural method and think the girls deserve some time off in winter for good behavior. When the days lengthen in the spring, things will pick up again. In most cases, egg laying reduces each year after a hen’s first big molt, so Mattie might not be a 7-egg-a-week girl any more even in summer. I’ll have to report back on that. And then there’s Opal, our 1/2 Sumatra hen who lays her eggs in the woods where we can never find them. Her mom did the same thing.

I think I mentioned that chickens don’t last forever. Free-range birds love the lifestyle and lay eggs that are healthier for us, but they are exposed to danger every day. It’s sad but true and we’ve experienced lots of loss this summer. Ruby, one of our older girls, took to sleeping in a tree with our two Sumatra chickens. They’re the ones that don’t like to be cooped up. We tried every kind of bribe but couldn’t get her to bed down in the coop. The Sumatra’s are black and invisible at night but Ruby was gold with some white feathers so you could easily spot her on all but the darkest nights. Sure enough, she was plucked from a branch during the night never to be seen again. We suspect an owl carried her off since there was no sign of a struggle. We lost two hens to a dog. Two others died of natural causes and finally to end the sad part of this post, Goldfinger, our sexy rooster, had to go back to the farm where we bought him. He was an excellent rooster, but crowed often, all day long, at a high decibel level. The farm was glad to have him back since he was a pure-bred and good for breeding. We miss each of them and their sweet, quirky ways.

Goldfinger (black with gold highlights) the rooster with his charges.

Goldfinger (black with gold highlights) the rooster with his charges.

While we still had noisy Goldfinger (GF), he performed a most heroic deed. We were outside at dusk and GF started going nuts; squawking frantically and herding the hens to a safe corner of the back patio up against the house. He then ran into the edge of the woods shrieking and returned with the last hen, herding her rapidly to the others. Roosters are great protectors so we’d seen this behavior before when dogs entered the yard or hawks flew to0 low for comfort (chicken comfort), but this time we couldn’t see any kind of predator. GF continued to raise a ruckus and finally we strolled away. As we looked back, a big black bear ran out of the woods and crossed the yard to another patch of woods — right where the chickens would have been! Guess GF smelled that bear a mile away! We miss that rooster and will always remember how he saved our girls.

The current flock consists of Opal,  the 1/2 Sumatra who safely sleeps in a tree; molting Mattie, a black and white Barred Rock; Buffy the beautiful golden Buff Orpington and Flopsy and Beatrix who are Golden Comets. They are co-existing happily in the garden and wood edge enjoying all the wonderful seeds that fall brings. As a flock they lay three to four eggs a day and are darn proud of it! They each announce when they lay by chattering and cawing loudly as they exit the coop. Those sounds are music to my ears!IMG_3475


Peach Crisp and Signs of Fall

The sunflower heads were so heavy with seed this summer they couldn't stay upright. Now they're dried out and ready to become chicken treats!

The sunflower heads were so heavy with seed this summer they couldn’t stay upright. Now they’re dried out and ready to become chicken treats!

We had a wet summer this year with much less sun than usual. The 60 inches of rain that had fallen by the end of August was too much for some of our flowers and vegetables. Others flourished in the cool moist air. We had a bumper crop of rabbits and wild turkeys and the bears who wandered through our yard looked awfully fat and happy.

All PostsIMG_2978Some folks complained about the lack of heat, but I didn’t miss it. The last three summers were unusually hot and dry so so a gentler summer was overdue. It’s reminded me of childhood visits to the mountains. We’d drive up from Raleigh in the un-air-conditioned heat of summer, the kind of heat that shimmered on the streets and sidewalks and made your legs stick to the car seat, into the cool highland air. Wearing sweaters and sweatshirts was a treat. It was magical visiting Mount Mitchell back in the 60s when there was snow on the ground in July and we shivered in our shorts and sweatshirts! I’m happy to have weather that takes me back to those days.


Fall sedum and asters.

Fall started sneaking in at the end of August. September has brought lovely sleeping weather with most nights in the 50s. Our family gathered around a bonfire Saturday night under a clear starry sky and sweaters and even a down throw made their way to the circle. Sedum and asters are in full bloom and the hens are joyfully feasting on dried sunflower heads. Turn up your volume for the full effect of the hen video. There’s a bumper crop  of local apples and we’re still getting peaches from South Carolina.What an excellent overlap!  I’m thinking about another batch of peach preserves since the peaches aren’t long for this world. My sister and I had a great time making our first batch ever  earlier this summer.

Peaches and apples are both ripe right now!

Peaches and apples are both ripe right now!

But in the short-term, there are six large, ripe peaches lined up on the screened porch railing so a crisp is in order. I’ve worked at a friends bakery for the last month to learn more about baking, especially yeast breads. In addition to batards, boules and focaccia, we made pies and granola. The granola makes a perfect topping for fruit crisp. I don’t use a strict recipe, just peel and slice the peaches, toss them with cinnamon, nutmeg, almond extract (optional but really good),  a bit of lemon zest and juice, a pinch of salt and a scant handful of flour to help it all thicken. Toss to evenly coat the peaches. I use my hands, but a spoon works too. Taste to see whether you need to add salt or sugar and let it sit for half an hour or so to develop the juices. While that’s going on, make the crisp topping. Combine a few handfuls of granola or oats with a couple of tablespoons of softened butter, a few tablespoons of brown sugar and a pinch of salt. Mix thoroughly with your hands or a fork and taste. If it’s really dry, add a tablespoon of butter or a splash of olive oil and mix again. It should taste good!

Pour the juicy peach mixture into a Pyrex rectangular or square baker or a pie pan (or two if you have lots of peaches). Crumble the topping over the peaches and bake at 375 for about forty-five minutes. Make sure it’s good and bubbly when you pull it from the oven. Serve within an hour or two if you like it crispy. It’s good plain or with a dollop of yogurt, whipped cream or ice cream. The neat thing about a crisp is that it’s hard to mess up. You can make a thick layer of fruit and a thin layer of topping or vice versa. You can make it really sweet or not too. Just don’t forget the pinches of salt.  They really liven things up. You can substitute berries or apples for the peaches if that’s what you have. I make crisps with lots oats/granola because I can’t get enough of that crispy topping. It won’t be crispy the next day unless you re-crisp it in a low oven, but it’s a great breakfast anyway!

Sliced freestone peaches.

Sliced freestone peaches.

Granola, butter and brown sugar topping.

Granola, butter and brown sugar topping.

Peach crisp with greek yogurt on top.

Peach crisp with greek yogurt.

Update from the hen-house: I know you’re dying to make a peach crisp this very minute, s0 I’ll make it quick! Paul installed a solar-powered, Pullet-shut Automatic Chicken Door on the coop that will open at dawn and close after dark when the girls have put themselves to bed. It even gives a second chance to any stragglers by reopening for a minute. I know it’s slothful, but not heading out to the coop at 7 a.m. on a 15-degree morning sounds pretty good. Mostly it makes things a lot easier when we travel and have chicken sitters. Although the hens were a little agitated during the construction, they calmed down once their house was back in order. I don’t think they’ll even notice the special door, but the humans love it!

I’ll still go out to say goodnight to them. I like to think they’d miss me if I didn’t.



Why Chickens?

Every once in a while someone asks me, “Why chickens?”.  The quick answer is why not, but of course there is more.  Eighteen months ago, I got very sick and nearly died. After I got better, I realized just how unpredictable life is and decided to start doing things I wanted to do instead of waiting.  Like going to Italy, playing more music, writing a blog, and raising chickens to name just a few.

I heard a woman on NPR talking about chickens, how much fun they are and how easy it is to raise them and have your very own eggs.  I’d always liked chickens and had bought local eggs for years, so the story caught my attention. The woman was Jenna Woginrich and that’s where my chicken saga begins.

Ruby loves drinking from the bird bath.
Ruby loves drinking from the bird bath.

My birthday was coming up in June of 2012. My darling husband, Paul, asked what I wanted and I said a coop and chickens.  He even put the coop from a kit together for me. Overall it’s been a great experience. It’s cost more than I expected, but no more than any other really good, long-term hobby that requires an investment.  But you do have to get used to tragedy.  The avian vet (part of that unexpected cost) says that chicken are synonymous with tragedy and she’s right.  There is almost no way to protect your flock completely from predators and disease. It’s just part of the deal.  I started with four pullets, hand-raised five chicks this spring, bought assorted additional pullets last year and this. In one year I’ve lost six to tragedy, given four away to start my sister’s flock and ended up with eight.  And I love it.  I’m sad when I lose one but I steel myself and move on. Losing a chicken is not as hard as losing a house pet. I’ve talked to other people who have chickens and they all agree. You have prepare yourself and keep going.

Mattie and Dovey (rear) patrolling the garden.

Mattie and Dovey (rear) patrolling the garden.

Another trial is that the chickens dig up our gardens. It’s natural for them to scratch and dig for bugs and worms. They do so daily and they know no boundaries. They can throw mulch in the air like high-powered machines! It’s fun to watch the antics, but not to sweep the front walk for the hundredth time.  We’re seeing less mulch throwing this year, thank goodness. They also uproot very small plants so it’s hard to starts plants outdoors without a fenced garden. I learned this after they dug up one small stock plant 10 days in a row. I replanted it 10 times, but alas, it died. They will propel themselves into the air until they have swiped every blueberry from every bush. These are the times that try a woman’s soul! Solution? Waist-high raised beds for lettuces and herbs, buying bigger plants and using bird netting to drape the blueberries. Problem solved (Mostly).

Ruby and Mattie share a pear.

Ruby and Mattie share a pear.

I’ve had three of the girls, Ruby, Baby and Mattie, for almost a year now. Ruby survived a bout with coccidiosis, an evil parasite. I kept her isolated in a plastic tub/hospital room with food, water and gave her medicine through an eye dropper. The tub was in the sun in winter. She took full advantage of the spa treatment and recovered beautifully. Baby has survived a year of sleeping in a tree, exposed to predators and the elements. She’s a Sumatra and doesn’t like coop confinement unless she’s got chicks. No tragedy for her yet, but one of her offspring disappeared from my sister’s week after only one week there. That was surely a predator tragedy. Mattie survived having ALL her tail feathers removed by a neighbor’s dog. Do you know how close that is to being eaten alive?  She missed a day of laying, but was back to work in 48 hours. The feathers grew back. These girls are tough!

The girls play queen of the mountain, running each other on and off just for fun.

Lil’ Mattie and Buffy on a garden boulder.

There are endless positives.  First, the eggs.  Our chickens are free-range and eat lots of insects, worms, grass and clover in addition to the food we supply.  Because of this, their eggs are better for us, containing more vitamins A, D and E, beta carotene and omega-3 and much less cholesterol and saturated fat than cage-raised eggs.  The beta carotene makes the yolks a beautifully bright yellow-orange color.

What about the blood pressure effect? Paul and I both think there is something soothing about chickens. We rock on the front porch, listen to them coo and cluck in the garden and feel our stress float away. Sometimes they come up on the porch to visit, or hop up on the garden boulders to talk to us. They follow the lawn mower nabbing bugs that pop up in its wake and sun bathe while lying on their sides with their wings spread. They make us laugh when they jump two feet in the air to grab flying insects and eat clover with a family of rabbits every afternoon. What could be nicer than having eight clucking chickens at your heels while you weed or cut flowers? As a bonus, they keep the area clear of ticks!

Ruby and Mattie check out the strawberry patch.

Ruby and Mattie check out the strawberry patch.

We marvel at their personalities. Ruby and Mattie are best friends and do everything together. They only separate when one heads to the coop to lay. They aren’t afraid of people and will gladly eat out of your hand. Raisins and leftover cat food are Ruby’s favorite treat, while Mattie prefers dried mealworms. Baby is a loner but hangs out with her daughter Opal when she wants company. They sleep in a tree together. Baby lays her eggs in various places; the coop, the wood edge, the potting bench and the wheel barrow. After finding eggs on top of the potting bench under our second story screened porch, I put a cardboard box there as a nest for her. She used it for a month and then moved on. I’ve yet to find where she’s laying now, but will keep looking. If I’m outside after she lays, I will hear her triumphant calls and may discover her secret.

Baby's nestbox on the potting bench

Baby’s nest box on the potting bench


Mattie laying in the wine box

Baby laying in the wine box.

One perfect eggin the winebox.

One perfect egg in the wine box.

Lil’ Mattie and Buffy are almost four months old. They are buddies and enjoy eating out of hand. They turn their noses up at the girls who arrived a month after them and have recently decided that they love, love, love bananas. That leaves Dovey and Number Eight. They are americaunas and run as a pair.  We thought we heard Dovey practicing a crow the other morning, but we haven’t seen any rooster-like behavior so aren’t convinced yet.  Number Eight has developed a limp this week. She’s spending more time resting but runs as fast as the others when she needs to. We hope she’ll get better and start laying lovely green or blue eggs soon. We can’t see anything wrong with her leg but there may be a trip to the vet in her future. Dovey and Eight are a little skittish but have eaten from my hand a couple of times. They are fruit-lovers too and always want a fair share of the bananas and raisins. Right now they are at the bottom of the pecking order, but everything will change if Dovey is a rooster!

Baby and Oal in the forground and Buffy and Mattie in the birdbath.

Baby and Opal in the foreground and Buffy and Lil’ Mattie in the bird bath.



In spite of the pecking order, the girls move about the yard as a flock and are mostly nice to each other. I can see them out the kitchen window grazing with the rabbits while our cat sits close by. She watches their every move but doesn’t harm them and seems happy to observe from a few feet away.  Every day, I collect eggs and thank the girls for laying them, clean the coop, serve the girls kitchen scraps and treats and on occasion, sing to them.  I love the routine and the happy sounds that come from a contented flock. They’re good listeners.

And that’s the long answer to “Why chickens?”.

Ceci observing rabbits and chickens.

Ceci observing rabbits and chickens. In case you’re wondering. Ceci is Italian for little chickpea and pronounced Chechi.




Size Matters – Egg Size that is

With so many people raising their own hens or buying eggs directly from farmers, determining egg size is a handy skill. If you’re breaking a few into a frying pan for breakfast, it doesn’t really matter, but for cookies, cakes and other baked goods, it does. Eggs effect stucture, leavening, texture, taste and even shelf life. In recipes, assume eggs are large eggs unless otherwise noted.

Eggs are graded in two unrelated ways; by weight  (small, medium, large, extra-large and jumbo) and by quality (AA, A, B). Let’s start with weight. In the old days, lots of folks had egg scales on their farms or in their kitchens. Then along came supermarket eggs and lots of scales went off to Goodwill or wherever good little egg scales go when no one needs them anymore.  I use a small digital food scale in my kitchen but the old scales (like this one from Google Images) are very cool.

etsy egg scaleil_fullxfull.231170167

Supermarket eggs are measured by the dozen. Each egg doesn’t need to be right on the money, the dozen just have to average out.  Likewise, when you’re weighing eggs at home for baking, just get as close as you can. For more egg information than you ever knew you wanted, look to the American Egg Board.  This link will get you to the section on weights and grades, egg parts, etc.  Here are the weights (in ounces) and size grade of single eggs as set by the USDA.

Small =  1.5     Medium = 1.75     Large = 2     Extra-Large = 2.25     Jumbo = 2.5

Large, medium and small eggs laid by Ruby, Mattie and Baby respectively.

Large, medium and small eggs laid by Ruby, Mattie and Baby respectively.

My chickens lay a variety of egg sizes but I’m proud to say their eggs are mostly AA (sometimes an A slips in).  Here are highlights from what the Egg Board says about an AA egg: It spreads a moderate amount when broken, has a reasonably thick white that stands fairly high, has a clean strong shell and finally, a yolk that is firm, round and stands high. They go on to describe lesser eggs and point out that while AAs are desirable for frying and poaching, AA, A and B are fine for baking and other cooking. They don’t even mention C, D or F eggs and I’m not sure I want to know.

So there you have it. Size does matter, and now you’ll know just how many eggs to use.  Happy baking!


The Great Chicken Transfer

A couple of weeks ago, the chicks I raised were ready for life with the big chickens. There’s some timing involved with a new coop, transferring a flock and getting everyone settled.

The hand-raised chicks couldn’t move from their home in the garage to our small coop because it was already at capacity with 3 adult hens and three teenagers. We were waiting for our new, bigger coop to arrive so that two teenagers and two of the garage chicks could go with the little coop to said sister, Mary.

The new chicken palace framed by mountains in the distance and my straw bale garden. You'll hear more about that soon!

The new chicken palace framed by mountains in the distance and my straw bale garden. You’ll hear more about that soon!

While we waited those last few days for coop delivery, the garage became noisy; the gang of four was ready for new quarters. At my sister’s place, farther out in the country, they set up a pen that would attach to the small coop. The youngsters would spend days in the pen to allow them to settle in and get bigger while Mary’s cats adjusted to living with birds. The bigger the bird, the less interested the cats are.

Finally the day arrived. Our coop, complete with wheels and a pen, came rolling up the road on a flatbed truck. It was a sight to see and it is a palace! We positioned it in the yard, set up the pen and hid the old coop in the garage to avoid any confusion.

Ruby, our golden comet hen, circling the new coop.

Ruby, our golden comet hen, circling the new coop.

Using dried mealworms and lots of raisins, we lured all eleven chickens into the new coop. They inspected it thoroughly, clucking and cooing as they went in and out of the doors and  each of the six nest boxes. I put an egg in one of the boxes to let them know where to lay theirs. Chickens are very open to suggestion. The transition was smooth and just before dark, everybody lined up and walked up the ramp to their new home. I am always amazed that chickens put themselves to bed every night without being told.

photo-1The next morning they tumbled out of the coop door ready for breakfast. The three one-year olds visited the nest box with the decoy egg and one after the other, laid perfect eggs of their own. Mary’s husband, John, arrived with his trailer and we loaded the old coop and gear. That night, we plucked four young chickens from their perches while they slept and magically transported them to the old coop at its new location. They never knew what hit them.

So everybody is happy! To read more about how her flock is settling in, check out Mary’s blog at



Periwinkle Raised Beds

It finally feels like spring is really here. Just a few days after all that snow, the wind stopped and the sun came out big time.  You can pretty much see the grass growing. Paul ordered parts to tune up the miniature John Deere and that’s a true sign!

photo (11)He also built new raised beds that I painted periwinkle blue. They are waist height so we should have fewer weeds and no bending! The heirloom, cool weather plant starts are already in and seeds are germinating in the garage for planting after our frost date.

I learned the hard way not to let the warm days fool me. One year we yielded to temptation and planted on the first of May; guess what, a hard frost on May 9th. I may have uttered an inappropriate word or two as I replaced all those frozen plants. The old folks around here say not to plant tender things until after Mother’s Day and I’m taking their advice!

The four-week chicks have graduated from the laundry room to the garage. They’ve outgrown their large plastic tub and live in a huge box courtesy of the new book shelf in my office.  Paul made a frame with hardware cloth for the top to contain the flying chicks. They are light and have big wings so can really fly!

photo (12)They spent their first afternoon in the yard and loved it; started scratching and pecking immediately. A frenzy ensued when I tossed a few earth worms into the pen. I’m always amazed that they know what to do without having a mom.

Baby with her eight-week old flock. That upright tail is a classic characteristic of her breed, Sumatra.

Baby with her eight-week old flock. That upright tail is a classic characteristic of her breed, Sumatra.

The 8-week olds look like real chickens now and are spending a little less time with their Mom, Baby. Baby is a Sumatra, a breed from Indonesia that likes the woods and jungle and doesn’t like containment. Before she had chicks, she slept in a tree. Now she sleeps in a nest box in the coop with her wings over all three even though they are pretty darn big. The four of them spend a good bit of time in the woods, coming home at night to sleep with the flock.

We anxiously await the arrival of our new, larger chicken coop and expect it within a week.  Independence approaches for all the chicks and they’ll need perching space inside at night. In the meantime they own half the garage. We’re thrilled to have the laundry room back and look forward to reclaiming the garage too!