Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Phyllis has gone broody (and we've all gone mad)

It’s been a long time since the chickens’ last blog entry. There wasn’t a lot to miss, except maybe for those two months when they went on strike. I regret that we didn’t post photos of Phyllis and Millie looking really haggard and ugly with half their feathers gone. “Molting” tends to happen once a year, and it means they stop laying and lose feathers. We really weren’t too happy about the loss of eggs during that time.

Flo, to her credit, slowed down egg production a bit over the winter but never stopped laying. She’s lucky she’s such a good layer because otherwise she’s kind of a pain in the ass. She’s taken to eating the tail feathers of the other two. Gross. We bought some bright purple, menthol-scented Rooster Booster Pick-No-More Lotion that “controls cannibalism.” But we only had the energy to catch Millie and apply it once.

What finally prompted me to resume the blog was Phyllis’s latest antics. It seems our big fluffy yellow gal has “gone broody.” If it sounds like some sort of Victorian ailment, it is. She’s taken to her nest and simply won’t hear of anything else. Mother Nature, even without a rooster on the premises, occasionally convinces a hen that she must become a mother. So now we have one wildly hormonal, angry chicken.

This, my friends, is exactly what having your feathers ruffled looks like.

This all started, appropriately enough, on Mother’s Day. Phyllis doesn’t want to eat, drink, or do anything but sit on her nest. Every morning we grab her and plop her on the ground to the sound of shrill shriek. She stays flopped on the ground as if she’s forgotten how to use her legs, until eventually, some cracked corn tossed nearby reminds her she can get up. Then we have to leave for work and put them back in the coop, and she goes immediately back to her nest.

Like I said, this is one angry chicken we're dealing with here.

We tried three full days of Broodiness Deprogramming over the weekend by locking them out of their coop, and I can’t say it did much. True, Phyllis did spend most of her days scratching, eating, and doing other normal stuff, but she also expressed her displeasure every chance she got. One day she spent 15 full minutes squawking at the top of her lungs. Bock-bock-bock-bock-AAHHHHH! I got so desperate to shut her up that I started chasing her around the yard to scare her. I looked like a raving lunatic, but at least it snapped her out of it.

Other than making sure she gets up to drink, eat, and poo once in a while, I think we’re stuck until this runs its course. But it’s not just Phyllis we need to worry about. When the girls were locked out of their house over the weekend, I went in the chicken run to clean things up and Millie jumped me from behind. She hadn’t had a chance to get into the nest to lay her egg earlier, and it was past time. So, I had one hen cursing at me in the yard and another clinging to my back and flapping wildly in a desperate attempt at gaining entry. It was basically a gang attack. It really wasn’t one of the more dignified moments of my life.

Oh, and another thing: this all means that Phyllis has stopped laying yet again.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

No Way, Snow Day

The hens met their first snow the other day. We had a rather atypical storm, for Seattle, of a few inches. Even more unusual was the fact that the temperature remained below freezing for a few days, so it didn’t melt off right away.

I awoke last Saturday all excited to see the chickens have their first snowy experience. I was imagining hens frolicking and gleefully kicking up white powder.

I should preface this by saying that on a normal morning, if I take too long to get the chicken door open, I’m met with loud squawks and thumping from inside the coop. Once I open the door, the hens practically push me down to get out.

So, I jumped out of bed, put on some boots, grabbed the camera, and went outside. I flung open the chicken door as fast as I could. And what I got was this.

Then they went back to bed. A while later they ventured out onto their porch for another look.

They eventually made it this far.

An hour after that, Sarah got tired of them being so, well, chicken. So she took some leftover French toast and tossed it on the ground. They peered at it from their porch with interest, but couldn’t figure out a way to get to it without touching the unfamiliar white stuff. Millie, clearly bored but still unwilling to get on the ground, later flew over to a branch we stuck in the corner of their fence some months ago but that I’ve never seen her use.

An hour or so later, Sarah couldn’t take it anymore. She caught Flo peering from the porch and she grabbed her and flung her on the ground. Flo was so surprised that she didn’t even kick up a fuss, and then she was pretty happy to find herself face-to-face with the French toast. The other girls, seeing that Flo had ingeniously figured out how to eat the French toast without being killed by the snow, quickly followed her down to the ground.

We got another, much bigger storm today. The city is shut down, and it’s been actively snowing almost all day. We’ve been working at the kitchen table with a really good view of the chicken coop. Other than the occasional tuft of yellow near the door of the coop, we have not had any chicken sightings.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Autumnal fun

We have a fairly substantial apple tree in the yard, so autumn is all about raking leaves and cleaning up apples. This year I've had a lot of "help" from the hens. (I’d also like to give a shout-out to the squirrel or whatever rodent it is that is eating up a good number of the fallen apples.)

Turns out the chickens' gangly, taloned feet are ideally suited to raking leaves. Unfortunately, their tiny, food-obsessed brains are not ideally suited to raking leaves into neat piles.

So, here's how it goes. I rake the leaves into small piles, like this.

The chickens, who treat me as sort of the big chicken on campus, see me raking and think it's a pretty good idea. I'm always coming up with the best treats (bowls of rice, stale cereal, seeds, mushy blueberries, etc.), so in their minds, wherever I'm scratching around must be the best place to find the good stuff. Shortly after I finish raking a pile together, the hens go at it, like this.

I think I know how my parents must have felt every fall when we would "help" them rake the leaves into giant piles, only to fly into them at top speed and redistribute them throughout the yard. But hey, I guess we were cute and funny, and so are the hens.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Late night peep show

When it comes to animals and how they work, chickens are a pretty basic model. They like food and dirt. Daylight = awake. Darkness = asleep. Unfortunately, their egg-makers are also controlled by daylight. So as the days get shorter up here around the 48th parallel, which I think also goes through places like Maine and Mongolia, we’re getting fewer eggs per capita (hey, “capita” means “heads” in Latin, so it still applies even if they’re chicken heads). We’re, uh, also just getting fewer eggs overall.

After extensive Internet research to verify that this practice is in no way harmful to the chickens, we decided to artificially extend their daylight hours by having a light bulb turn on inside their coop just as the sun is setting. Every morning I put a portable, rechargeable battery pack outside with a timer to a bulb inside their coop, and the bulb turns on for a couple of hours.

There is one pretty hilarious problem with this brilliant solution, which is the aforementioned “basic model” issue. For our chickens, I will add a couple more equations. Daylight = outside. Darkness = inside. Put all of the equations together, and you get a cluster of confused cluckers.

The first day we turned the light bulb on, the girls went inside when the sun set, as they always do. But when they got inside, they discovered that it was daylight. So, they turned around and went outside. But when they got outside, they discovered that it was dark. So, they turned around and went inside. I think you see where I’m going with this.

This pacing and milling around in the doorway of the coop lasted no less than 15 minutes that first day. We’re not here most days when the bulb turns on, but yesterday, a good week or so after we first introduced the bulb, there was still some general confusion during this transition for at least five minutes.

Of course we have no way of tapping into the minds of our hens, but it certainly seems as though they are understimulated once they decide to stay inside their brightly lit coop. First, they eat their chicken feed and probably take a few swigs of water (we can see a little bit of this activity through the chicken door). Eventually, they end up on their perches, where they all preen together. And then they look really, really bored.

Fortunately, the windows of the coop only face us and our neighbors, so only our immediate neighbors have to wonder what the hell it is the crazy ladies are doing providing electric lighting for their poultry.

The good news is that egg production is up.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Happy Chickens?

You have never seen happiness, until you have seen a chicken taking a dirt bath. They make low clucking noises as they flop to and fro with their eyes rolled up into their heads. (Have you ever scratched a cat [or dog I guess] behind the ears in the "good" spot? That's the look.) Even when we go outside and drop a favored treat on the ground- the hens won't even see it if they are all hopped up on dirt...

It really is not difficult to make a chicken happy- they just need to roll in dirt, and scratch. That's pretty much it. This brings me to a more uncomfortable subject... although we have pet chickens that are the coolest, funniest animals ever, -we are not vegetarians. In fact, we do eat chicken. This horrifies our cute little artist/vegan neighbors- but the fact of the matter is that I have a very hard time staying healthy and active (not to mention growing my wrist bone back) without some protein.

Now I'm not going to shock and traumatize anyone with what really goes on in the commercial chicken industry- but I will tell you that there are no animal cruelty laws for chickens (there are for every other commercial animals). And I will say that the reality of life for a commercially raised chicken, is ugly. Really ugly. We intentionally ignore where our food comes from because it is traumatic,, and I think that is a bit irresponsible. Just because chickens are food animals, do they really deserve to live painful, joy-free existences just because American farming is dedicated to keeping KFC & McDonalds in business?

Of course, because I grew up with chickens and know what friendly goofy animals they are, I have been buying free range organic eggs/meat since I started shopping for myself, (it started with a concern for hormone and antibiotic injections, but then I learned a little more).

Lorraine agreed to this policy immediately, even though financially, it was not always the easiest choice. Of course, now that we have chickens ourselves, Lorraine has taken it a step further, and has figured out where to buy chicken that is not only free range organic, but a breed that is able to walk on its own, and is allowed to graze (and roll in the dirt). Check it out: http://www.skagitriverranch.com/pages/where.htm

It's is a local farm- and they sell their pastured eggs/meat at nearly every farmers market in Seattle, as well as at many grocery stores. I just don't think that it is foolish or sentimental to appreciate where your food comes from. Not to mention the well known fact that well-treated grazing animals taste WAY better than the alternative. Americans in particular it seems, are simply far too skilled at ignoring unpleasant truths in favor of convenience and comfort...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Getting eggy

As we had hoped when we embarked on our chicken adventure, we are now swimming in eggs. Pinky brown eggs, orangey brown eggs, green eggs, bluish eggs...so many eggs.

The different colors and shapes make it easy for us to know who's been laying, and we are keeping a tally. Flo is our most reliable. She was the first to lay and she rarely misses a day, except for when she lays a double-yolker. The girls always skip the day after laying a double-yolker, and I don't blame them. Those eggs are huge, and it can't be a comfortable process getting one of those out the hatch.

Flo's eggs are the lighter, orangey brown ones and they're small and skinny. Phyllis's are a bit darker, pinkish, and very plump (no surprise there). Millie's range from sage green to bluish green. Perhaps it depends her diet of the day? And surprisingly, her eggs are as large as Phyllis's despite the fact that she is really a rather slender hen.

They're all delicious. I love how deep orange the yolks are, and when you crack them, they are very three-dimensional because they are so fresh. All of the grass, bugs, seeds, and other free-range items the girls eat give the eggs a very rich texture and flavor. I like eating them just straight-up fried, but they even lend a nice fluffiness and yellow hue to Sarah's baked goods.

We've been giving them out to the neighbors, and the grandmas on both sides seemed very appreciative. Grumpy Grandma's son was around today and he told me that Chinese people are very fond of fresh eggs and attribute healthful properties to them. Makes sense to me.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Chicken booty

I apologize for the delay since the last update. Our chicken ladies have really matured over the past couple of months and we owe their fans some photos.

To start, our little Phyllis has become quite the impressive chicken. Even the two elderly Chinese women who live on both sides of us have managed to pull together some English to comment, “BIIIIG chicken,” while pointing at Phyllis and motioning that she is very fat.

Indeed, Phyllis has junk in her trunk. Baby got back. A coworker recommended renaming her JLo.

Her front is also quite plump and attractive.

The other hens are looking healthy and mature as well, though not as large as Phyllis. Millie is kind of tall and lanky, but she has developed terrific cheek feathers (“muffs”) and a little bit of beard.

Flo is very pretty, especially in bright sunlight, but didn’t quite develop as much golden lacing as we thought she would. She is, however, our most reliable egg layer. I’ll provide a more detailed egg update once I remember to take some photos of them.

The chickens’ latest adventures involve two new additions to the yard: a wild bird feeder we’ve been filling and a giant hawk that likes to perch on the chicken coop and drool as she watches the ladies. It is entirely possible that the arrival of the second is directly related to the first, so we may decide that we have to remove the bird feeder.

On the fun side, now when we open up the coop, the hens practically push us down to get out and run to the ground under the bird feeder, where they scramble to find lots of seeds the wild birds have dropped. I’ll try to get pictures of this sometime.

On the not-so-fun side, the hawk, who we believe to be a Cooper’s Hawk, has come around a few times and is very big and very scary. Fortunately, the chickens actually seem to have some instincts, and when they see her, they freak out, try to run for cover, and holler loudly. This alerts us (we only let the chickens run around the yard when we’re home) and we run out of the house and chase her off. I doubt we’ll ever get pictures of her because whenever she comes around, we’re too busy trying to keep her from killing the girls.

This a photo I found of what she looks like. Yikes!