An Eggstraordinary Week

The first one was magical.  I’d been waiting for five months and suddenly there it was. A little brown, nature-packaged meal of protein, riboflavin, selenium, phosphorus, and Vitamin B12 left in a tenderly prepared nest.  Finally, we’d gotten an egg.  I’m pretty sure that the chickens did not understand my excitement; my husband and son did though.  We scrambled it and divided it three ways and had a taste test comparing it to a store-bought egg.  I’d never had as fresh an egg, and I found its texture creamy, its color a golden yellow, and its flavor exquisite – I can’t quite come up with an egg-equivalent terminology such as is used in oenology, but it had a very satisfying finish.

Prepared chicken nest
Prepared chicken nest

Our first egg arrived on January 20, 2013.  As of this writing, we’ve received 23 eggs, gifts really, from our girls.  I am trying to imagine what it must be like to produce such a masterpiece – a magnum opus as Charlotte called her egg mass in Charlotte’s Web – and then to have it snatched.  Is this akin to a human having a baby snatched after the hard work of labor?  Or is it more akin to “merely” the removal of an egg, one of many, through a process that causes varying degrees of pain or discomfort for each individual human female?  These thoughts make me also wonder if it is painful for a chicken to lay an egg.  We can’t ever really know of course, but my girls do not squawk when laying or seem overly stressed.  In fact, the only time they seem stressed is when I bring them a treat, but do not let them out to roam.

Three eggs in one day!
Three eggs in one day!

So how impressive is a catch of 23 eggs in 19 days?  I was told that production would be erratic at first.  This makes sense; their young bodies are adjusting to producing the correct balance of hormones and nutrients required to create an egg.  Normal production means an egg every 24 to 36 hours.  If I assume that all three girls started laying around the same two-day period – because of their age, not because of any (now disputed) theories of pheromone synchronizing – then each hen laid more than 7 eggs in that 19 day period, or an egg every 2.5 days.  This is not a bad start at all to what is supposed to equilibrate to 5-7 eggs/bird/week.  Egg production looks even more promising if I look more carefully at the trend in the data from the first week through this last week.  It is then that I notice we’ve had an eggstraordinary week!

Here is the data I collected:

  1. During the first seven days, we received five eggs.
  2. During the first 11 days, we received nine eggs total.
  3. On 1/31/13 we had the first day with three eggs!
  4. In the last eight-day period (1/31/13 to 2/7/13) we received 14 eggs.

Based on Australorps’ laying history, each bird should produce 5 to 7 eggs/week during her prime.  Having three birds means we should receive 15-21 eggs/week.  So here is how my girls are trending:

  1. Looking at the whole period all together: 23 eggs in 19 days = 8.5 eggs/week.  But . . .
  2. Looking at the first eleven days: 9 eggs in 11 days = only 5.7 eggs/week.
  3. Looking at the last 8 days since the first day we received three eggs in a day: 14 eggs in 8 days = 12.3 eggs/week!

I did not think the girls would produce so regularly so quickly.  The data shows a trend toward the 15-21 eggs expected for their breed, and I expect to be netting 15-21 eggs/week very soon.  How eggstravagent!

Egg on right is our fresh egg
Egg on right is our fresh egg
Egg on right is fresh.  Notice extra layer of albumin and how yolk is more raised.
Egg on right is fresh. Notice extra layer of albumin and how yolk is more raised.

 

 

 

Little Kings

My field is alive with the sound of birdsong.  It has been every evening for months and I’ve just figured out what bird is creating this wondrous melody.  When I first heard it I was on my way out just as it was getting dark.  The whole field seemed in the middle of a symphony, with notes popping up everywhere, and I was mesmerized for several minutes.  I asked my friend, an expert birder, what species she thought it was.  Based on my pathetic attempts to describe the song (and probably things like the habitat I described and the time of year), she suggested a yellow-rumped warbler or the ruby-crowned kinglet.

I assumed it was a one time show, that the birds were migrating, but soon came to realize that I was hearing it every evening as I closed the chicken coop or was heading out for an evening engagement.  A good naturalist would have gone early to the show and waited patiently to catch a glimpse of the singers.  My excuse is I’m still a practicing naturalist that errors on the side of warmth and comfort perhaps a little too much.  The show always starts during my dinner prep/cocktail hour/might even be in my pajamas already time of day and I just never make it out to investigate.  I could also truthfully argue that I cannot see well at dusk making any attempt to sit in a cold field futile anyway.

Well, I serendipitously caught a glimpse of a kinglet out my window yesterday and now I am convinced that kinglets are the players in my symphony.  Going to Cornell Laboratory’s Ornithology site I can quickly confirm the sound that I hear: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Golden-crowned_Kinglet/lifehistory

But wait a minute.  My friend suggested the ruby-crowned kinglet, and the little guy I saw outside my window – which I immediately recognized as a kinglet from our days in Houston – was wearing a yellow crown.  And if my memory is correct, the golden crown had no orange tint to it, indicating that the kinglet was a queenlet, well, indicating I saw a female kinglet.

I listened to calls and songs from both species at the Cornell site and on my Peterson bird app.  Since, it is winter and not breeding season, I focused on the calls.  Birdsong is considered more complex and mostly done by males during courtship and mating.  Calls are made for alarm or to keep a flock in contact with its members.  Do they know that many members calling to each other creates a magical music show to the human hear?  I wonder what it sounds like to them.  I am almost convinced the call of the golden-crowned kinglet is the better match than the ruby-crowned kinglet, but I find the distinction between the birds’ sounds not discreet enough to be convinced.

If you read last week’s blog entry you will recall that I am fascinated with animals’ abilities to survive winter temperatures.  How does the kinglet, a mere six grams of flesh and feathers, survive the winter?  They are quite common in the extreme winters of the north.  I dug out and am thoroughly enjoying a book I bought years ago in Maine:  Winter World (2003) by Bernd Heinrich.  In it Heinrich gives an engaging account of how he tried to answer this very question.  Until his research, kinglets were thought to survive mainly on snow fleas in the winter.  Heinrich sampled the stomach content of several kinglets and found no snow fleas, but lots of caterpillars.  He was amazed because the birds had been foraging at the tops of trees in the winter.  How were they finding caterpillars, thought to overwinter in pupa form or underground?

Heinrich next spent several winters collecting insects from treetops in a very sophisticated manner, hitting them with a club and collecting the fallen insects.  He was amazed again; he found caterpillars.  The next part of his story amazes me.  He proceeded to collect and raise these frozen caterpillars in order to identify them.  He did not give up when failure struck: one year a spider ate all the happily growing larva; and another year a lone surviving caterpillar pupated and then drowned in the glass because of condensation that formed on the jar sitting on a sunny windowsill.  He did not quit, and in the third year he managed to raise to emergence a moth known as the one-spotted variant, Hypagyrtis unipunctata.  I am in as much awe in what Heinrich learned as I am in his diligence.  This is the beauty of science and the magic that drives all the men and women working on answering their own questions of wonderment.  You can read about Heinrich’s study here: http://birdnote.org/show/kinglets-winter  and here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1177500

As a scientist, albeit one with no where near the diligence – or cold tolerance – of Heinrich, I know that seeing one golden-crowned kinglet is not proof that there is a large group of them conducting a symphony every evening.  Unfortunately I will have to don some warm clothes, boots, and binoculars and situate myself out in the field to listen quietly, and hopefully get a glimpse of the players in my show.  I sure hope the show’s playing through March.

Baby It’s Cold Out There

Our first really cold spell of the season is upon us.  NOAA’s weather map this week showed a color I rarely see in “our neck of the woods”.  A light, almost translucent blue color that ominously matches my memory of Snow Miser’s long fingers in the 1974 Bass/Rankin stop-motion animation film A Year Without A Santa Claus.  Our neighbors to the northeast as well as Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio are also in this icy clutch of blue on the map, which represents a wind chill advisory.  It is only 9:00 am as I write and the chickens’ water, changed at 7 am, has already frozen solid.  I suspect I will be making several trips with fresh water today.  So, yes, baby, it’s cold out there.

I always marvel at how animals survive this kind of weather.  Of course, some hibernate, and some can stay underground (below four feet the temperature stays around 55° F).  What about the animals that must venture out to find food?  When I went out to get some wood off the porch, I heard the distinctive tapping of a woodpecker looking for food.  It took me a minute to find him, and in that minute my fingers, with gloves on, got painfully cold.   It was a pileated woodpecker.  Wow!  Out there looking for insects in the cold air, and in a manner that does not at all seem painless.  I prefer to catch my insects by hand!

Animals have numerous adaptations for surviving winter weather.  An adaptation can be behavioral, structural, or physiological.  And within the category of behavioral adaptations – at which we humans excel – the adaptation can be learned or instinctual.  For example, blinking is an instinctual behavior/response to something coming toward our eye.  Birds coming to our feeders, and especially the ones stealing cat food from my side porch, represent learned behavior.  In this latter example, the behavior is also quite brave as the cats’ food bowls are very close to the cats’ sleeping bins.  I guess the benefit – a high protein, easy food score – outweighs the risk of being caught by a cat.  And it seems they are right because my cats are older and rather lazy, though I still see Thingy bringing home mice occasionally from the lower field.

One of the best-known behavioral adaptations to winter weather (or food shortage) is migration.  While I think this behavior is amazing, and scientists are still learning about the cues animals use, it is the animals that stay behind and remain active that really amaze me.  It is much easier to imagine spending the winter somewhere warm, if not the onerous task of getting there, than it is to imagine spending the winter living in the subterranean or the subnivean zone and needing to venture out for food.  Of course, I can’t grow a thicker layer of fur, or lower my body temperature and metabolism.  I don’t need to change my skin or hair color to hide from predators in the snowy world.  And that’s not just because of climate change; I couldn’t do that even before the winters where I live started receiving less snow.

I have often read where people feel that science takes the wonder out of nature.  I emphatically disagree.  The more I learn about nature the more awestruck I become and the more questions I have.  Here are just a few wows I have learned recently:

Delayed fertilization in bats.  Copulation occurs in the late summer and early fall when the male bats are at their fittest, not in the spring when they would be at their weakest.  Fertilization occurs as soon as bats emerge from dormancy. It is thought that this gives bats an advantage to develop fully before the next cycle of dormancy.

Delayed implantation in bear, fisher, marten, river otter, mink, and long-tailed weasel.  The further development of a fertilized blastocyst is arrested until conditions are suitable for healthy development and birth.

Communal denning.  Snakes, squirrels, raccoons, and opossums are known to share dens with each other and with other species, sometimes even with other animals that would be a predator or prey under warmer conditions.

White winter hair not only acts to help camouflage, but also has more air spaces, therefore more insulative properties, because of the lack of melanin.

Snowshoe hares and weasels do not accumulate winter fat to stay warm.  The hares need to stay lightweight to help escape predators in the snow, even though those big feet are acting as snowshoes.  Weasels need to stay slim to enter the small tunnels of rodents, their main winter meal.  Weasels do not even keep a winter den, but rather eat in the den of the prey they have caught – nature’s example of a progressive dinner!

The adaptations I was already familiar with: variations of hibernation, torpor, and aestivation; and acquiring a thick layer of fat, are no less amazing to me.  In cold weather, heat becomes the currency of survival.  Humans are not the most efficient at creating and storing heat despite our numerous and arguably ingenious behavioral adaptations to survive in the cold.  The igloo is probably the most efficient dwelling we have ever created.  We cannot maintain our body temperature well without burning external sources of stored energy.  I cannot structurally or physiologically adapt to cold temperatures, nor can any of us. We have circumnavigated the evolutionary processes in place before we started wearing clothes and migrating all over the world, building huge shelters that are much harder to keep warm than an underground chipmunk burrow.  I do feel more comfortable in my den than I imagine I could in a chipmunk burrow for the winter.  But do we really understand all the social and ecological costs of our need for heat?  Because I worry about our consumption of energy, from both a global perspective and my family’s finances, I keep the thermostat on 54° F during the day and 60 ° F at night, and I keep the woodstove burning.  I add layers of wool instead of fat (well, maybe a little fat), and wander outside often to try to catch a glimpse of animals busily surviving the cold.  I think I even get a little warmth from the “magic” I find.

Coyote or dog scat?  Pirate has been coveting some deer parts he found so it could be dog.
Coyote or dog scat? Pirate has been coveting some deer parts he found so it could be dog.
I think this might be fox scat.
I think this might be fox scat.

 

Another point of view

After writing about perspective last week, I have been haunted by the notion that I did not consider all perspectives in the case of my killed chicken.  I don’t mean considering all the collective human perspectives on food procurement, but rather the perspective of a co-predator (if we choose to be omnivores), the hawk.

I am not mad at the hawk.  I believe the trite, but true explanation that it was just doing what it needs to do to survive.  If anything, I am mad at myself.  I knew the hawk was around.  I had seen it several times in the last few weeks.  I am usually cautious about when I let the chickens out, trying to be home at least, or better yet working in the yard.  But I was more cavalier that day, and choose to take a walk.  I wonder where the hawk was sitting, and watching, as I walked up the road putting too much distance between Halcyon and myself to be of any threat to its intentions.

If it thinks like we do, did it think today’s my lucky day?

Putting ourselves in others’ shoes is a good exercise, something we are hopefully taught at a young age when we have slighted another child or when we feel an injustice has happened to us.  Putting myself in the paws and claws of the species that live at Halcyon is one of my, perhaps futile, goals of this blog.  How could I possibly know what another animal is thinking?  In reality though, do we always know exactly what our friends and loved ones are thinking? We are not always right when we try on their shoes, but the effort is important.  All I can do is try to think like a hawk.

The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a large bird-of-prey.  It has a wingspan of 38-42 inches and can weigh up to four pounds.  Females are on the larger side of this range and males on the smaller side.  They are brown with a white chest and rust-colored tail.  They build their nests at the edge of a stream or field and prefer wooded habitat next to open areas.  Although, since it is distributed widely throughout the Americas, red-tailed hawks utilize a wide range of habitats.  Halcyon, albeit a small, piece of land in the midst of similar broken up parcels, is very good habitat for hawks.  We have a small wooded area, open fields, and a stream.  Throw in a few tall, dead black locust trees for perching and it is even better.  Add four large chickens contained in an open air space and it is downright perfect.  No wonder it was hanging around.  No wonder it was planning its kill.  Wouldn’t I want some easier prey if I were a large bird that needed to eat?

I am glad the hawk is here.  I wonder if it will stay nearby for the spring and find a mate.  What a gift I would be given if I were lucky enough to observe a mating ritual.  I try to imagine the thrill of soaring and falling through the air as hawks do together during their aerial courtship acrobatics.  Copulation usually occurs after these aerial antics. It does not take too much imagination to sense their whole courtship and mating to be much more exciting than the box turtle oh thank goodness I bumped into another member of my species, we better do this sex I wrote about last summer.

I have no reason to think the hawk that killed my chicken will leave because I stole its meal. We have plenty of small mammals available, and hawks have been here for years.  So while, I cannot really put myself in its shoes (talons), I think I can appreciate that Halcyon is a good place to live and hunt for wildlife. If I were a hawk, I would have tried for the big birds in the large, semi-trapped space too.

I had a friend reply to my post that I owed the hawk a meal since it had worked hard to procure my chicken.  It had spent time scoping out the territory and planning its move.  Perhaps.  I can certainly understand hard work.  I have worked hard in all my jobs, and lazy people easily frustrate me.  I worked hard to raise the chicks, my husband works hard to provide for our needs, and for the twice as expensive, non-GMO, soy-free layer feed that I buy – and the girls love.  Chris and I both worked hard to build their coop, adding its chore to our already busy summer days.  I admire those that work hard, and so I admire the hawk.  But she was my chicken, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I owed her to anyone or anything.

Chicken Matters

It was not a dark and stormy night, giving me any sense of foreboding.  It was not even a bright sunny morning, creating a need to change up the plans.  It was just a normal day, a little on the gray side perhaps, but normal.  Get some writing done, get some work done, let the chickens out for a few hours, take a walk, get the chickens in, make dinner, enjoy family, etc.  This was a typical normal day.  Normal days flow by nicely, too quickly perhaps, but nicely just the same.  Until that is, I went to take a shower and looked, as I always do, out the bay window at my girls.  A large, beautiful hawk had landed in my garden.  No! A large, beautiful hawk was standing on one of my chickens!  I reacted very quickly.  I think the scream was something like, “A hawk got one of the chickens!” as I raced downstairs and out to the garden.  I did not even take time to put shoes on, which is unusual if you know how hard it is for me to walk around without shoes.  As I got to the garden gate, the hawk took off, my chicken in its talons for a second, and then he dropped her and was gone.

Her neck was cut and bleeding and feathers were already torn from her shoulder.  There were so many feathers lying about. Were the other girls OK?  Chris and Mauri had joined me by now.  Chris found one chicken in the coop and I spotted the last two under a chair in the corner of the garden.  I gently returned them to the coop and locked them in.

deadchickenIMG_7251

With misty eyes, I stared at this chicken, which had been so alive just a short time ago, recalling how her antics made me laugh, how she clucked and chased after her sisters.  I think our conversation went something like this:

Me:  We should bury her.

Chris:  The dogs might dig her up.

Mauri: Bury her in the garden.

Me:  I need shoes.  I’ll get the shovel.

Shovel in hand, shoes on feet, I returned to the kill site.  Chris said to me, “We should eat her.  It would be a waste not to.”

There was a brief Google search via iPad to find out if one could eat a hawk-killed chicken, but all we found was that it was illegal to eat a chicken hawk.  This provided a little comic relief, but the question hung in the air, should we eat her?

Many people have asked me if we are going to eat the chickens.  People have strong feelings about this.  These feelings range across a spectrum from no way to it’s the only way.  And within those sentiments are various reasons for or against:  “I couldn’t eat a pet; I’d become a vegetarian before I’d kill an animal; I’ve done it before and I just don’t like the messy process; it’s not a big deal, I used to help my grandmother; and, I want to know where my food is coming from.”

I am not here to judge anyone’s decision about this.  I have thought a lot about it and I personally admire the camp that wants to know where their food comes from.  This camp cares for the animal while it is alive and does not take its death lightly.  While I did not plan on eating my chickens – I want their eggs for many years – I do dream of raising goats for brush control and meat.  If I could not process and eat this chicken, how would I ever handle a goat?  In other words, did I have the guts to do this?

So I found myself saying, “OK, if you help me.”

I had watched a You-tube video on killing and processing chickens once because I was curious.  A suburban girl before moving to Halcyon, I had no real sense of how it was done.  So I knew the scalding and removing of feathers came before the evisceration.  I removed the feathers and Chris gutted her, while Mauri read instructions from the iPad.  I imagined experienced farmers shaking their heads at our lack of skill and knowledge.  Seriously, you had to look it up on your iPad?  But I think we did pretty well for the first time.  When we were done she looked like a chicken I would buy at our local butcher’s shop with her pale creamy skin and cold, headless body.  Only a few broken feathers, stuck in their follicles, reminded me of the warm, black-feathered body she was earlier that day.

processedchickenIMG_7258

And I thought:  I didn’t actually kill her.  This was easier because of that.  Do I thank the hawk for this initiation?

While my nice, normal day had certainly been interrupted, I would not call my chicken’s death a nightmare – for me at least.  I was sad about it.  I am sad about it.  However, a couple of weeks ago I was reminded how quickly the flow of normal days, of normal life, can become real nightmares when I received a call from Mauri.  She was calling from the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. While traveling home for winter break with two other students, they were hit by two tractor-trailers – it was the fault of the first truck driver who did not stop.  It does not matter the details now, except to say that it was a serious accident, one that could have resulted in serious injury or death.  What matters is that she suffered only some understandable emotional trauma and a stiff neck, which is responding nicely to exercises.  What matters is three college students are alive and well and went home to their families.

Her accident gave me a perspective reset.  All the things I had wanted to do for the holidays that I did not get to, that might make me crabby, did not matter.  All that mud the dogs keep bringing in does not matter.  There are constant reminders all over our house of renovations still needed.  They do not matter.  Even our lagging energy over the holidays because of catching the flu on top of a stomach virus does not matter.  The holidays are a perfect time to not take family and friends for granted.  That’s what holidays are about.  They are not about how perfectly our house is decorated, or if all the meals are perfect.

And so, yes, I am sad about my chicken.  I will think of her every time I see the other three.  I will wonder if they miss her.  I will think about how we ate her flesh, about how her body grew from a one-day old chick to the large bird she was five months later.  I will think about how much I loved her living in my garden.  I may always get a little misty-eyed.  I am realizing that perspectives also range along a spectrum.  How do I think about my chicken when my daughter’s accident is still so present in my mind?  Yet, I can’t just lump the loss of my chicken with my dog’s muddy paw prints. So where does my chicken fall on this perspective spectrum?  I’m not sure.  But I just can’t bring myself to say it doesn’t matter.

feathersIMG_7254

In Praise of Small Things

December 5th was World Soil Day.  This does not mean a chance to reflect on any particular messes in our lives, but rather the substrate just outside our doors that is vital to our survival.  Soil is composed of minerals, water, air, and bacteria.  We would not say that soil itself is alive, but it is full of life and without that life we would not have all the wonderful plant diversity that sustains all other life on the planet.  When I taught about natural resources to fourth graders I distinguished between renewable and nonrenewable resources and I explained that both forests (as opposed to trees) and soil are nonrenewable resources.  Yes, we can compost, and generate some soil from the decomposition of our food and yard wastes in just a year or even a season, but this is small scale.  The soil lost from flooding and deforestation can take hundreds of years to renew, and still may not harbor the same soil bacterial community needed to “replace” the original forest.  This bacterial community can take even longer to return to its original composition.  So many microscopic organisms impact our lives and yet we barely pay attention to them.  How often do you think about your friendly gut compatriots?  I hope World Soil Day can educate and influence more people to at least be aware of our soil and its need for our care.

Another ecological system that is probably thought of more readily is stream ecology.  People love to play in streams, fish, or just listen to the sound of the water.  And of course, streams and rivers are a source of drinking water.  For that reason (and others just as important) streams need to stay clean.  There is a community of small insects that can indicate water quality to us.  They are visible to the naked eye; hence they are macro not micro.  They are insects; hence they are invertebrates.  And we could add that they are bottom dwellers of the streambed, hence they are benthic.  If we put all these terms together, we get their official name:  benthic macro invertebrates.  These insects are much easier to collect and observe than soil bacteria, but I wonder still how many people know about them.

I am a citizen water monitor for Save Our Streams.  Our local Rockbridge County group is called the Maury River Monitors.  Certified monitors are assigned a stream in the county that they sample four times a year.  Sampling involves placing a net in a riffle and rubbing the rocks and disturbing the streambed in front of the net to allow the capture of the macro invertebrates living in the riffle area.  The critters are counted at the family level so that a monitor just needs to learn to distinguish mayflies from stoneflies, hellgrammites from fish flies, dragonflies from damselflies, etc., not how to distinguish between species of say mayflies, which requires much more skill and usually a microscope.  The data is entered into the VA Save Our Streams website – http://www.vasos.org/  – and available to the VA DEQ if there is a pollution concern.

Mayfly larvae

So why do we do this?  Well, certain macro invertebrates will only thrive in clean, well-oxygenated streams and are therefore considered pollution intolerant.  Examples of intolerant macro invertebrates are stoneflies, mayflies, and gilled snails.  Other macro invertebrates, such as black fly larvae, midges, and lunged snails have adaptations that allow them to survive in polluted waters.   By looking at the ratios of tolerant to intolerant critters, and insects to non-insects, we can generate a score that indicates overall health of the stream.

Kids always seem to gravitate to the crayfish in a net sample.  Something about those big claws and the chance of getting pinched really fascinates them.  They also tend to like water pennies.  Water pennies tickle when they crawl across your hand and remind me of a tiny prehistoric version of a horseshoe crab.  Another critter with a wow factor is the hellgrammite.  Kids who have fished before recognize hellgrammites right away.   Hellgrammites are large and fierce looking with pinchers rumored to cause some pain.  I wouldn’t know. They are one organism, which I will not pick up with my fingers.  Well, ok, I use tweezers on the crayfish too!

Hellgrammite larvae-adults are called Dobson flies

I have done countless stream samplings with kids.  They are always excited, rarely squeamish, and they readily start to identify the critters after a few examples.  I think it has to do with a chance to get in the water.  Water play is fun.   In the process they are introduced to a world they may not have known existed – a world that is readily available in any stream – or should be if we take care of the watershed.  There are so-called dead streams in parts of Virginia because there is no macro invertebrate life, and therefore no fish life.

Soil is integral to stream health.  As part of the watershed, any substance that is dumped on our soils has the potential to drain to a stream.  Since it was World Soil Day in our late fall, but the southern hemisphere’s late spring, more people besides soil scientists in the southern hemisphere were perhaps aware of the day.  Maybe if there was a World Soil Day during the spring season for the northern hemisphere its message could reach more people as we wake up our gardens or make mud pies with our kids.  Maybe if we just spent more time awakening our inner child by playing in the soil or water, we wouldn’t need a special day to remind us of these valuable resources right in our own backyards.  Happy soil health to you all!

Caddisfly case

Something to Crow About

It was wonderful to have my daughter Mauri home from college for Thanksgiving, to hear of new friends, new ideas, and new opportunities.  After she left, it really hit me.  She’s ‘flown the coop’ – I have a new appreciation for chicken-related phrases these days.  Seriously though, she is ‘tasting’ the world.  She is learning, and growing.  While I suspect, and hope, she will do this all her life, now is the time she should be throwing her whole heart and soul into the process. I think she is, and I think I am ready for this change, as much as I will miss her regular physical presence in my life.  Human parents have a long time to get ready for this stage.  Some will mourn the empty nest longer than others, but I hope to embrace the changes as gracefully as possible; they’re going to happen anyway.

Animal parents, when they parent at all, have much less time to get ready for the maturation of their offspring.  I suppose, though, since all the stages of development proceed at a faster rate than human development, the animal parent is ‘ready’ for the dispersal of their babies, just as we humans are for our children.  But what if the mother is used to a gradual realization of this inevitable stage – 18 years in my case – and the child is ready much, much earlier?  Say at 4 months of age?  Yes, today, shockingly, my baby girls have flown the coop!

I believe raising free-range chickens to be the best option for the health of chicken, but for two reasons we did not want this option.  First, we did not want to find chicken poop just any old place, though this is probably not a big problem with just four birds.  Second, we were concerned for their safety. My dogs are the main concern, but also hawks during the day, and numerous crepuscular neighbors that would be happy to drop by if I was too late in shutting the girls in for the night.  Another option, a larger stationary coop, was undesirable because we do not like the dusty bald patches of ground that are inevitable in such a set up.  I also want my birds to eat insects since they are omnivores.  So for these reasons, I have a moveable coop located within my 3500 square foot garden.

I move the coop weekly to give the girls fresh grass and access to insects.  I also let them out whenever I am in the garden or working nearby.  I was getting frustrated about this as recently as two weeks ago because they just seemed too timid to spend much time outside of the coop.  I worried they were ‘too chicken’.  On one hand, I was happy they felt comfortable in their coop, but on the other hand, I wanted them foraging in the garden, removing pests, and fertilizing as they go about their wanderings.

Coop with door open for girls to ‘free-range’.

Well, Monday my baby chicks suddenly became teenagers.  I let them out as usual, but I went back inside, keeping the dogs in with me.  I checked on them twice in the first hour, expecting to close them back in the coop, but each time they were out and about.  One time they were checking out my compost and the other time they were sunning in a mulch patch.  They seemed quite content.

Suddenly two hours had gone by and I decided to get them back under cover.  They were not out in the garden, which meant, I thought, they were upstairs in the true coop part of their mobile home.  As I placed the door back in place, I was talking to them as I usually do, and I was greeted with silence, not ‘a peep out of the kids’.  I had a brief moment of panic when I realized they were not upstairs, but there was no sign of an attack in the garden.  Then I heard them.  Outside the garden!  They had walked right through the six-inch square openings of the fence.  They really had flown the coop and decided to explore beyond the world I’d created for them.  They were quite literally tasting their world, and not willing to be cajoled home.

I tried.  I made cooing sounds and I shook their feed, but they just went about their business of ground investigation under the forsythia.  Damn their independence!  I was their mother and they should come when they are called.  In the end I resorted to picking each one up and placing them in the coop, shutting the door, and heading for the next one.  The last two engaged me in a comical chase around the coop (chickens are fast), and I was grateful no one was around to see me.  I’m ‘no spring chicken’ and I was getting ‘madder than a wet hen’.  Well, not really, but I was getting frustrated.  As I got the last one in and scolded them, I was already devising plans to reinforce the perimeter of the garden.

Getting ‘cocky’

The next day I added what chicken wire we had to the side of the fence where they had escaped, figuring that was where they would try first.  I would need to buy more wire later to finish the job.  Then I let them out.  This seemed to work nicely for an hour, so I decided to take a walk, leaving the dogs inside the house just in case.  When I returned, there were no chickens in the garden and I smugly went to the coop to shut it up.  Alas, I had ‘counted my chickens before they hatched’.  No one was home.  This time I found them outside the fence, on the other side of the garden.  Wanting desperately to be smarter than a chicken, I resisted the impulse to try and catch them again.  I went in to get a shower, hopeful they’d come home at dusk.

I have a great view of the garden from the upstairs bathroom of my house.  An hour later I watched with parental pride as each of my chickens – chicks just a mere 3 months ago – paced back and forth along the fence looking for a square opening they liked before stepping through the fence back to the safe side.  They scampered to their home readily.  Once it was dark I shut the outside door and the walkway to the upstairs.  My girls were safe for the night.  I am happy they seem to be developing normally: foraging, taking dust baths, getting exercise, and knowing to come home at dusk.  I might just end up with free-range chickens after all.  Now that’s ‘something to crow about’!

Who me?