Saturday, January 27, 2018

Chickens - Gateway Livestock

You know that YouTube video that came out in 2013 about chickens being the gateway livestock?  Well, about that.  Our adventure into raising a few suburban hens did take us down an unexpected path.  We have since moved from our home in Utah and purchased 20 acres of land where we can have hens, goats, sheep, and dogs -- as well as plenty of room for a garden.  In moving, we found a loving family who adopted our hens.  But, we learned a few things about raising hens that we wish we knew before we started.

When I was starting to raise a few little chicks, I tried to research the lifespan of my hens.  I found minimal information.  I learned that for the typical farmer, once a hen stopped laying eggs, she became soup.  So there wasn't a lot of research on how long one breed lives compared to another.  However, there was a lot of information on how fast one breed matures enough to butcher.

Well, my hens were pets.  They were named and loved and I wanted them to live to the ripe old age of ... hmmm.  I really didn't know.  Year one, I lost Daisy.  My sweet egg song singing white heritage hen.  We aren't quite sure what happened.  My children went to check for eggs, and there she was.  I spoke to "real" farmers in the area.  We had some guesses.  I lacked experience to know what happened.  Although I read blogs and books, I missed something.  This is when reality set in.  My naivete could result in the loss of a life of a little hen.  I was determined to do better.

Nonetheless, loss is inevitable when raising animals.  It is something I need to become more comfortable with.

Pecking Order
When Mary then became blind in one eye, I provided her with the best medical care I could.  I took her to not only our local farm vet, but to the only avian vet in our area.  She lived indoors with us while her injury healed.  However, I underestimated the brutality she would experience as she returned to the pecking order.  We tried several methods.  Nonetheless, she started to separate herself from the brood.  She quit eating.  We would check in with her several times a day.  Every night, my husband and I would hold her, and feed her by hand, and then lift her onto the roosting bars.  We took her to the vet who could not find anything beyond a little bit of arthritis in one leg.  What we did not see was that the top hen was being violent.  Ultimately, Mary died from an injury from Jessie, the top hen.

In building our chicken area for the new property, we will have a chicken "hospital" area built.  This will be an area where we can separate sick hens from the brood, but keep them visible to the other chickens.  We are hopeful that if the hen stays within the sight of her group, that reintegration will be easier.  Fingers crossed.

The more animals one has, the more difficult it is to go on vacation.  A network needs to be developed.  I don't yet have a network in Arizona to tend my animals.  Having someone watch a dog or a cat while on vacation is one thing -- someone to milk a goat or tend to a chicken with a messy bottom is something altogether different.


There is a sense of responsibility that comes with raising animals.  The entire quality of their lives depends on me.  Unlike my children, when the animals I raise reach adulthood, they do not get to explore the world on their own.  I need to plan for a place for my hens to run, areas for dirt baths, grass to scratch up, and shade from trees and bushes.  In Arizona, it also means constructing structures that will keep them safe from snakes, coyotes, and predator birds.

I'll keep you up to date on the adventure.  From the suburbs to rural America -- wish me luck.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Our Wonderful World

“After all,” Anne had said to Marilla once, “I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

That earthy smell.  The snow is melting, the ground is muddy, but that earthy smell beckons me into the forgotten winter garden.  Hitching up my dress clothes from work, I trod the squishy earth to say hello to the daffodils, grape hyacinths, and cherry blossoms.  They are old friends who visit every spring. 

My husband laughs as he catches me squatting with my camera -- my purse and work files precariously perched.  Dinner's ready.  We both have been working long hours - but tomorrow is Saturday.  So, we move a little slower and take the time to look. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Easy Recipe for Salt Dough Ornaments

As a kid, we had a wonderful Christmas tree.  Each year, my father would cut a fresh tree from our property and bring it into the house. The tree was draped in colorful lights, packages of silver tinsel, and a combination of decades of handmade ornaments.  With the oddball assortment of macaroni-framed pictures, paper chains, or walnuts housing baby Jesus (labeled Christmas in a nutshell), the tree was more quirky than Department-store beautiful.  In other words, it was perfect.

We would swarm around our parents who kept guard over the ornaments.  We each had a favorite, and it was important to find it before another sibling could hang it on the tree.

My sister would look for the "Harold Angel" ornament.  This was a stuffed fabric ornament of an angel cat from one of those pre-printed fabric panels sold in the early 1980's.  The ornament was not much to look at -- but it came with a story.  You see, we had a big, grumpy cat named Harold.  He was anything but angelic.  The idea of him with a halo and angel wings made us all laugh.  Once my sister found the ornament, she'd break into song:  "Hark the Harold angels sing..."

My favorite was made by my father.  When I was in elementary school we had a family activity of making Christmas ornaments from salt dough.  My dad made an ornament of my mother holding me while I was holding my doll.  My mother's hair was made from dough pushed through a garlic press. The homemade ornament lasted for several decades until the fragile spaghetti-like hair started to break.  Split ends were disastrous!

Over this Thanksgiving, I sat down with my kids and we made salt dough ornaments together for the first time.  Hours passed as we laughed at our creations.  I hope you enjoy making the ornaments as much as we did.


2 cups flour
1 cup salt
1 cup water

Mix with hands.  Knead on flat, unfloured surface.  No flour is needed on the kneading surface if the dough is of the right consistency.  If it sticks -- add more flour to the dough.  Roll dough out to 1/4" thick.  Use cookie cutters to make shapes.  Poke a hole in the dough to allow for a ribbon for hanging the final ornament.  Bake at 150 degrees Fahrenheit for 3-4 hours on a non-stick baking sheet. Turn ornaments over one time at about 2 hours.  Cool.  Ornaments are now ready to paint with acrylics.

Our dogs are represented in the fun.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Backyard Chickens - Our First Egg!

 We went out to do the morning "farm chores" in our suburban backyard.  I was checking on my chicken's feed and water when I saw it.  There, in a straw-filled nesting box sat a perfectly-shaped small brown egg.  Our first egg.  I was so happy to see that one of my little pullets had gone through this rite of passage.

Since I had only two hens in the outdoor coop since Mary's injury -- the owner to this egg had to be either Queen Mary or Lady Edith.  I asked them both.  They were too dignified to answer such a personal question over their morning scratch grains. 

So, who do you think laid the first egg?  Are you team Mary or team Edith?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Chicken Injury Update: Queen Mary on the Mend

When our top hen Mary had her eye injured we first put her in a dog crate in our home to serve as a chicken hospital.  This seemed like the rational next step.  However, I now understand that far before the chicken hospital I had begun to gently slip from the world of rational behavior. Yes.  I had developed chicken-caregiver neurosis. 

The symptoms started small.  I just wanted to build a cute coop.  But, then it proceeded into conversations I started having with my pullets.  "Why yes, Edith.  You do have lovely feathers.  Don't listen to Daisy."  Those passing by would overhear the one-sided conversations.  It was reminiscent of those humble souls on the subway who have moved from the world of neurosis to psychosis.  However, I maintained that my feet remained firmly on the ground.  I wasn't living in the great chicken coop in the sky -- just dreaming of it.

But, Mary's chicken injury has brought about a whole new level of neurotic manifestations.  I could no longer deny my condition.  My husband came home to finding me sobbing on the back porch with Mary wrapped in a baby blanket that I had used when my daughter was an infant.  He knew what I needed.  He brought me Kleenex and told me what a wonderful bird Mary was.  He even showed patience as I slept in a cot near Mary for the next several nights.

When the vet informed me that Mary was blind in her right eye -- the crocodile tears turned into ugly crying.  A passing vet and assistant came out to comfort me.  The vet softly said, "chickens are under-rated as pets."  I blurted out, "I know!  I raise chickens because I love chickens -- I don't even like eggs!"


Mary now appears healthy with the exception of being blind in one eye.  We will do a final check-up to rule out the need of surgery this week.  However, she still lives in our home as we are having issues reintegrating her into her brood.  When we took her to free-range the remaining three pullets chased and pecked at her.  So, at the last vet appointment (where I proudly didn't shed a single tear) I asked the vet how to work through issues of the remaining chickens seeking to injure Mary.  (For those unfamiliar with the pecking order, chickens can be brutal to injured hens or pullets.  Sometimes they will even kill the injured bird.)

My vet recommended removing another chicken out of the brood to be with Mary in the house.  "To have a friend?" I sincerely asked.  The look the vet gave me for my question confirmed that I still live in a chicken dream world.  "No," he answered.  He went to explain that removing a healthy (but not top or aggressive) bird will disorient the remaining birds.  So, when Mary comes back to the brood, all of the aggressive attention will not be focused just on her.

So, we removed Edith.  Edith had been a particularly sweet hen until Mary's injury.  After Mary's injury, even she began to chase and peck at Mary.  However, once we separated Edith from the group the two hens are now snuggling with each other at night and there is no unusual aggression between these two birds.

Yes.  You heard right. I now have two chickens living in my home.  I had to purchase something bigger than the dog-crate which fit only one.  I now have them both in a Graco play pen.  When I take them to free-range outside, the other hens now chase both chickens.  Jessie tends to chase Mary.  Daisy tends to chase Edith.  I will continue to work on building the relationships between my chickens. 

Chicken brutality is something I don't like to focus on.  They live based on instinct and survival.  There is a safety in the pecking order. 

Although Queen Mary appears to be healing fine, it may take me a while to work through my own neurosis.  Instead of focusing my attention on the realities of chicken pecking order, I'm going to go back to my happy chicken place by finding stylish (yet functional!) chicken diaper patterns.  Until my brood is once again peaceably united, I'm sure I can find some cute fabric to accentuate both Edith's and Mary's lovely feathers.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Our First Chicken Injury

We scarcely know how much of our pleasure and interest in life comes to us through our eyes until we have to do without them; and part of that pleasure is that the eyes can choose where to look.  But the ears can't choose where to listen.       -- Ursula K. Le Guin 

Last Friday I learned that our hen Lady Mary is now blind in her right eye.  Chickens see different distances from each eye.  So, she has been limited in her overall ability to see. 

What happened?

I assumed she had debris in her eye from dust-bathing on a particularly windy day.  But, hens are good at hiding injuries and illness.  It's a skill called masking.  It helps them not appear weak for any predators who might want chicken for dinner.  However, based on the extent of the eye damage, our avian veterinarian indicated it was more likely a puncture wound from being pecked or clawed by one of the other hens.  Although we had been providing her with antibiotic drops from our general vet -- we were unable to save her sight.  We are still determining whether or not eye surgery is needed to remove the damaged eye.

What next?

Until next Friday, we continue to treat her eye with steroid and antibiotic drops.  She's been in a dog crate recovering in our home.  We have supervised free-range time to try to keep her brood remembering who she is.  Meanwhile, we have to watch out for the hens who want to peck at her injuries. 

We'll keep you updated on how our Mary is doing.  We told her she has now been promoted to the title of Queen.  She is an amazing little bird.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Make a Wish

If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean-buyer.
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire, for we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!  Come in!
-- Shel Silverstein
I am a wisher.  I wish on an assortment of items ranging from the first star of the evening to fallen eyelashes.  I've blown my share birthday candles and dandelion seeds -- both with reckless abandon.  I don't even worry about the extra years or the resulting yellow flowers. 
I contemplate what I would do if a magic fish arrived at my house to grant me three wishes.   Whether my wishes come from a flamboyant blond genie or a fish, I need to be prepared.  I avoid wishing on monkeys' paws, though.  That's just common sense.  I do believe a touch a pragmatism to be helpful from time to time.
I believe in two kinds of magic:  good and bad.  The bad kind of magic compels me to jump over sidewalk cracks, avoid walking under ladders, or spilling salt.  The good kind of magic turns caterpillars into butterflies or a seed into a flower faster than I can say bippity-boppity-boo!
I believe in luck.  The kind of luck that sends me searching the meadows for a four-leaf clover.  (Tearing the leaf of a three-leaf clover to make it look sort of like a four-leaf clover doesn't have the same results.  True story.)  Shiny pennies.  Tootsie roll wrappers with stars.  Fortune cookies. 
And I dream.  I unapologetically dream.   Come join me.