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 www.101cookbooks.com).

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

 

Morning Ruckus!

A big ruckus in the yard this morning brought me running.  I thought I heard a dog barking and that rarely bodes well for free range hens!  Boy, was I wrong.  The barking was coming from Ruby, our golden comet hen.  She was loudly defending her breakfast against attack by an aggressive crow.  I arrived just in time to see the crow back away and take off.  Three cheers for Ruby!

Meet Ruby the heart-breaker.
Meet Ruby the heart-breaker. She’s a great layer and was born with that crooked tail. She prides herself on being an individual. The flattened stokes asters in the background are a favorite spot for Ruby to take an afternoon nap in summer. 

Here’s another Ruby story.  We’d had her for a few months when we realized that one of our “hens” was a rooster.  Before the rooster matured, Ruby was all mine.  She hung out with me when I was in the garden and did a little subservience dance when she wanted me to pick her up.  She’d flatten herself a bit, lower her head and stomp her feet. I’d pick her up and we’d visit until she was ready to join the flock again.  Both of us enjoyed this daily ritual.

Then Big Bird, the rooster, grew up and started looking like a real man.  Right after that, Ruby dumped me.  She started dancing for Big Bird and I was persona non grata.  Our cuddling days were over.  If I needed to pick her up to check her for mites or anything else, I had to pluck her off her roost in the coop under cover of darkness.  I was broken-hearted but glad to see her so happy with her fellow.

Since Big Bird passed away a few weeks ago, Ruby has come back to me.  Sometimes she dances for me twice a day!  It’s like old times.  I guess some girls just need an alpha figure in their lives.  I’m enjoying our chat sessions, but I know they are fleeting.  We’ll get a new rooster this spring and once again Ruby will tolerate me only because I happen to show up each morning with the organic feed and dried mealworms that she loves.  She’ll eat out of my hand if I bring a special afternoon snack, like a banana or peach, but there won’t be any cuddles.

I am already steeling myself for the blow.  Maybe one of the chicks we are hand-raising will value me the way Ruby used to.  A girl can dream, can’t she?

The Good and the Bad…

Paul napping with the chicks.

Paul napping with the chicks.

One of the tough things about keeping free range chickens is that you lose one now and then.  It’s heartbreaking, but part of keeping a flock. For that matter, predators get to chickens in pens too.  Last week, a dog made away with our gorgeous rooster, Big Bird.  He was a handsome guy with an excellent disposition who took great care of his girls.  In fact, we think he lost his life trying to protect Mattie, our barred rock hen.  She lost a clump of tail feathers but is otherwise unharmed.  My husband Paul who once told me he might not really be a chicken person (I think the picture above dispels that myth), misses Big Bird’s crowing and wants another roo. I miss Big too. He was our first rooster so we will remember him fondly.

Click on this link to see Big Bird in action:  BigBirdCrows

We’ll need to find a new man for our hens soon.  We don’t want to hatch eggs, but the girls miss their protector. They mooned around the coop for a day or two but are out foraging again now. The pickings will be good this spring since about ten percent of the female chicks that chicken lovers are buying now will turn out to be roosters.

Now some good news.  Even if you’re not a chicken person, you may have noticed signs at hardware and feed stores recently saying CHICKS ARE HERE!  And so they are.  I was at Southern States Farm Co-op fetching supplies soon after we lost Big and there were 10 huge blue tubs, each containing hundreds of day old chicks.  I tried to resist, picked up one, put it back. Did it again.

Then I may have blacked out because the next thing I knew I was cruising home with chicks, a brooder lamp and a sack of starter feed in the back of the Subaru. I won’t believe you if you tell me you can resist these little puff-balls!iPhoto Library

They don’t live in the bowl.  I just wanted to contain them for the photo session since they can escape in a matter of seconds.  I think this lovely bowl, crafted by our friends at Mangum Pottery in Weaverville, shows the chicks off beautifully. They live in the laundry room in a plastic tub. There’s a brooder light to keep them warm since they don’t have mother hen to do the job. Paul built a wood framed screen that fits over the tub to keep our frustrated cat out of the picture.  Her name is Ceci (it’s Italian for chick pea).  She is a love, but instinct takes over when she sees little birds right in her own home. We’ll move them to the garage soon and once again, Ceci will rule the roost.

The princess on her throne.

The princess on her throne.