The Romance of Owning Chickens

Paul

For years, decades actually, I wanted a small flock of chickens.  I dreamed of  them do their chicken thing – foraging, interacting with one another, hanging out in the backyard, producing beautiful eggs for my breakfast.  It was another step towards producing my own food.  I didn’t come into this unaware of the realities of farming.  I had spent my childhood and teenage years surrounded by farm animals – horses, cows, goats, sheep and chickens.  I was familiar with the smells and maintenance involved.

What I wasn’t prepared for was this –

Ice

Ice, practically having to move on my hands and knees to get to the coop.

From the shed door

Snow – every. single. day.

Poop

And chicken poop, the quantity can boggle the mind.  Even better when it is frozen into the box and you have to use a putty knife to clean it.

Eggs

But this is what it’s all about – fresh and delicious.  Found in my backyard.

140915 Coop in Garden

Soon enough things will look like this again and all of us will be much happier.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

141027 F0x (16)

As I sat and drank my afternoon cup of coffee I looked over the garden, down into the back forty and Mr. Fox was sitting in the center of the field.

My sister lost two more of her chickens last week so I’ve been paying closer attention.  My rooster just started to crow on Saturday and I told him the whole idea was to be quiet and not announce to the wild world around him that he was there.  He didn’t listen.

The first thing I thought was I need to clean that .22 but I grabbed my camera instead.

Walking out to one of my gardens I sat on the bench facing the field and watched.  The sun was gloriously warm and Mr. Fox was just sitting, eyes shut, soaking it in.  After a few minutes he decided to try to catch himself a snack and this is one of the shots I took.

As I watched him through that long lens I thought about the idea of looking through the sight of a rifle and how I felt about that.  I understand the need and desire to protect your birds but he was so beautiful.  He appeared to be just enjoying a sunny fall day.  I’m not sure I could kill him just because he was in the back field.

I have to tell you though the gun will be cleaned and will be positioned at the ready for the day my birds begin to disappear.  It’s a fine line between an amazing wild animal and a chicken killing predator.

 

Chicken Moving Day

140915 Coop in Garden

Yesterday was moving day for the coop and chickens.  The vegetable garden is pretty much done although there is a lot of stuff still in there, overgrown and rotting.  The fall chill is in the air and it was time to begin the fall to winter preps.  The coop had been over by the garage with the fencing including a huge old apple tree surrounded by jewelweed.  The chickens loved it there although they had pretty much cleaned the area of vegetation.  I figured the garden would be a great spot for them to clean up and fertilize at the same time.

Moving the coop is always stressful.  It is so heavy that the tractor will only lift if off of the ground by about a foot.  We managed to get it over to the garden.  I then moved the fence.  I let the chickens roam around thinking they would be easy to move with some sweet little snack.  I was wrong.  They spent the majority of the day around the apple tree and although I coaxed them over more than once they had no interest in going near the strange spot their coop was in.

They finally left the tree area at the end of the day and wandered over to the garden but had no interest in going into their new area.  I got out the big guns – a pumpkin spice english muffin.  The rooster and hen happily went into the garden fence but the other 9 hens were nowhere to be seen.  It was getting a little late in the day and I was getting a little nervous.  I called and called and finally saw their little heads coming up over the bank to the back forty on the other side of the yard.  Apparently they had gone on a little adventure.  Seven more into the enclosure.

When the head count was done Bill and I had to search for the last two.  They were snuggled in among some rocks over the bank and were not going anywhere so I had Bill flush them out.  They ran for the coop, one of them tangling herself in the fencing (they still think they are small enough to go through it).  Once all enclosed they discovered what a wonderland the garden is.  Bugs, seeds, berries, a veritable smorgasbord for chickens.  They stayed out until dark which is unusual, they usually go in at dusk.

About nine o’clock Bill went out to lock the shed door and heard a chicken clucking over by the apple tree – an escapee.  He held the flashlight and ran interference until I finally caught her and put her in the coop.  I did another head count and all were there on their roost.  Finally all was right with the world – at least mine.

How We See

Amanda's hands and chick

My chicks are a month old now and a far cry from the cute, fuzzy little creatures they were in the first week.  The day after I arrived daughter Amanda spent some time in the room with the chicks and I took this photograph of her hands holding one of them.  It was around nine at night, maybe later and the chicks were sleepy and welcomed the warmth of her hands.

When I loaded the photo onto the computer and opened it in Photoshop it looked nothing like this.  In fact I had no idea it would turn into one of my recent favorites until I began to play with it.  All of the photographs I took of people holding chicks had to be converted to b&w because of the red heat lamp in use over the chicks enclosure. A big part of it was having a cooperative subject and I attribute that to Amanda having spent the last 28 years being photographed – a lot. She waited, holding that chick until I went into the house and got the camera.  And it was a one on one situation.  After some cropping and playing with levels this it turned into something I love.  It speaks to me of the kindness and tenderness that is Amanda, and I would recognize those hands anywhere.

The next day I took this photo.

140705 Andy holding chick (2)Nothing like the one the day before.  The quality of the material to begin was not as good but wow, I have to say I love this almost as much.  This was manipulated almost as much, didn’t end up with the same result – but look at that face.  This is my grandson in his first chicken experience.  After a little coaxing he reluctantly held that chick. Not the same hands, not the same feel but something that really captured the experience for me.

Photography for me, when it’s good, is most often times a happy accident.  The first image more so than the second.  They were totally different experiences.  The hands were something I saw, captured and manipulated into something I see as beautiful.  I worked towards that image in every aspect – it just so happens it turned out better than I had envisioned.  The second was a capture of a moment and his face really gives away his uncertainty with the situation. It feels like he was just holding that chick just for the camera, otherwise he might have been just as happy to leave it quite alone (or watch but not touch).

These are the times that I truly appreciate digital photography.  I never would have achieved these images if I had been using film – I probably could have but it would have entailed hours of frustration in a darkroom and then I seriously doubt they would have turned out this way.  These took a few minutes and some mouse clicks to make it happen.  Minutes later I’m sharing them with family and friends.

It’s all still pretty amazing to me.  I do think photography has been diminished in some ways because of it.  Photographers used to be artists and technicians, you had to know your craft.  Technology has made us old film photographers obsolete, we can now reminisce about standing in a darkroom for hours trying to achieve our vision.  In the same breath I can say it has set us free – we can envision what we want, capture it and make it our own with the click of a few buttons.  The one thing that has not changed for us is how we see.

 

 

The Coop – Some Thoughts

Coop Finished

I finished the coop today. This journey began June 18 so it took a little over a month to complete.  I have to say that I am pleased with how it came out and the chickens really love their new home.  They aren’t old enough to go outdoors yet but the ladder is ready when they are.

Building this taught me a lot of things, some of them about building.  The huge lesson I learned is that I can’t do everything myself.  I physically just can’t do it.  I was pretty disappointed to find that out.  For some reason I thought I could have this pretty much done in a couple of weeks – I’ve built things before.  I didn’t take into consideration the weight of a sheet of plywood and how high I was going to have to lift it.  I want you to know that I can barely drag one across the floor.

Bill was here to help on weekends and had a 12 day vacation where this was THE project. For the most part it was much more enjoyable having help build it and I admire Bill’s ability to just tackle anything.   It wouldn’t have been quite as pressing if I had actually waited to get the chicks until AFTER the coop was build.  I didn’t expect them to be escaping their initial enclosure at 2 weeks old, they grow fast!  As it was they were moved into it before any trim was done.

Building a shelter is one of those things that has been on my bucket list forever.  I always thought it would be a cabin in the back forty (and that could happen at some point).  Getting chickens was really just an excuse to build their shelter.  I had been looking at coop plans for a really long time and this one popped up into a search just a month or so before coming to Rowe permanently.  Yeah, I could have built just some little shack of unpainted plywood that I moved from place to place but I wanted something that looked good, something that spoke to the whole whimsy of having birds in the first place.  One would think having chickens is serious business but it really isn’t.  At some point their egg production may be important to me but for now I’m just watching my once fuzzy little chicks rapidly grow into adult hens. The coop provides them with as much protection as I can get from a building and it looks good in the landscape.

Coop in Evening

I took this photo the first night the chicks spent out in the coop – they had been in a room off of the shed up until that point.  Their heat lamp is glowing nicely inside and they were all settled into their cozy wood chips with water and food.  I worried though, was I sending them out there too soon?  Later that night I woke up to the sound of foxes in the back forty, I got up and looked out my bedroom window to see their snug little home with the glowing red lamp.  For now they are as safe as they can be.

They Are Never Safe

Chickens Poster1

There are times of the year and in certain locations that there is very little you can do to protect your flock of chickens other than sit on your deck with a shotgun.  The other half of last year’s flock was killed today while in what we thought was a secure coop – closed in.  Cement foundation, wired windows, new door.  Once the carnage is cleaned up the forensics will begin, maybe.  Having to deal with your hens being killed by something two years in a row is too much really.  Makes you never want to raise a chicken again.

Half a Flock

Bird Bowl

 

 

Many people think of farming in a magical, dreamy way.  How wonderful it would be picking your veggies from your perfectly weeded garden, herbs by the back door.  Going out in the morning to throw some feed to your flock of chickens then gathering their still warm eggs to make your breakfast omelet.  Now that the snow is going or gone and the weather is warming it’s easy to think about how wonderful it would be to live such a bucolic life.  Sometimes I dream about that while sitting at my computer at work listening to the air and vehicle traffic that surrounds me.

The reality of farming slapped me in the face yesterday when sister Sue called, crying, to ask me to come down and kill two injured hens.  Some predator had killed half of her flock while she was running a road race.  Let’s preface this by saying other than mosquitoes I have never killed a thing in my life – ever.  I got off of the phone, told Bill who just looked at me with a look that said “absolutely NO way”.  Bill handed me my gun case and I drove the quarter mile it is to my sister’s saying a little prayer to give me strength to do this.  When I got there dead bodies were everywhere it seemed.  Poor Sue cried and cried, she loves her “ladies”.  She said the two wounded were in the coop (they had been placed there by two well meaning neighbors).  I told her to just go in the house and I would take care of it.  I was relieved to see Big Jim, her rooster had made it through the attack although he obviously was missing some feathers.  He also tried to attack me as I approached the wounded hens.  I brought them outdoors, closed the coop door and shot the two of them (I honestly don’t think they would have lasted the rest of the afternoon, but no animal should suffer like that).  I put their bodies over the stonewall, down the bank.  Then I went up on the hill to pick up another dead hen so Sue wouldn’t have to do it.  This was sad, sad, sad.  I went back into the coop to take inventory of who was left – of 26 hens she had 13 left plus the rooster.

I went into the house and said I needed a cup of tea.  Sue was telling me that the chickens were scattered all over the place.  In trees, down in the center of town, for all we knew there were still some out there.  The back of her house has a bank of windows that overlook a large field, a road and another large field.  We looked out the windows and down by the road a lone Buff Orpington was wandering about.  Sue put on her boots and went down and caught her.  That’s a picture I think I may always remember, my sister walking up the hill with that hen under her arm.

Once the hen was safely with her flock we talked about how the rest of the hens just go about living their little lives like nothing had happened.  We were wishing that we could do the same.

What you can do with a little flour and fresh eggs

Chickens

My sister has quite the flock of chickens that are just beginning to lay eggs (note the rooster in the back over seeing his girls).  Last week she brought up some eggs and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do with the motherload of eggs like she will be seeing in the coming weeks.  You see, she has 26 very healthy hens.  That’s a lot of eggs.  Once they are all laying it could be up to 2 dozen a DAY.  Hmmmm, what to do with that wonderful fresh egg bounty?

Make omelets, quiche, pudding, angelfood cake?  Fry them, scramble them, poach them – aahh, Eggs Benedict.  Eat them at every meal, sell them, give them away.  The list goes on but how about something a little different?

Saturday I decided to try something new.  I’d been thinking about it for a long time.  Pasta, specifically ravioli, I was determined to make my own.  I scoured the internet and watched way too much Diners, Driveins and Dives in preparation for this new gastronomic adventure.  I bought a pasta machine and ravioli mold (all very on sale) as well as a bag of Perfect Pasta Flour from King Arthur.  Then she brought up those eggs and I was ready.

After all of that prep I ended up using the recipe on the bag of flour (how can you go wrong with a recipe from King Arthur Flour?).  Three cups of flour, four large eggs, very little water.  Sue’s eggs are small so I used 5 eggs. Put it all into the mixer with the dough hook and let it mix.  Well, for a couple minutes anyway.  The dough is so dense that it really requires hand kneading, so I divided it in half and did so.  Let it rest for 30 minutes then shape into anything you want.

Now I have to tell you that this didn’t really look like it was going to make much pasta – I had 4 dozen meatballs just waiting to be turned into filling. Sister Sue wanted to be part of this adventure and entered the kitchen in time to help – good thing because this is a 2 man job (they don’t tell you that anywhere). I started rolling out the dough a little at a time and was AMAZED at how pliable a dough this is.  Stretches like crazy, does not fall apart.  After the first dozen raviolis were made we decided to cut the meatballs in half since the first batch looked more like Chinese dumplings instead of the intended Italian pasta.  Perfection!

We made 3 dozen raviolis.  I also have a pasta cutter attachment with the pasta machine so we made linguini and then spaghetti.  I had no where to dry it so we made piles to freeze.  We had a delicious meal with a homemade sauce and put everything else in the freezer.  It takes only 4 minutes to cook fresh linguine, the ravioli took 5 minutes and was amazingly good.

The question remains, what are we going to do with all of those eggs because this is what we made with only 5!

Pasta