Monday, February 23, 2015

Chicken friends and a band of brothers

Recently, I've found that I have friends and I have "chicken friends." There is something about having chickens in common that creates a different type of friendship. Not many people can understand your sorrow when a pet chicken dies ("it's just a bird, right?"), your joy when chicks hatch ("are they friendly?"), and your love of finding a new feed store ("but you live in the city..."). Robin is my first "chicken friend" and always up for adventure. Robin keeps her finger on the pulse of a lot of things around Atlanta. When she read on our local Backyard Chickens Meetup that 4 roosters had been abandoned by a local school, she sent out an email to our "Fowl Friends" group. I'm good at organizing people and processing how to get things accomplished. So together, we made a great team! My "organizing" involved drafting my 10 year old son, Reese, to help. We heard that the roosters were friendly, so in our naiveté, we headed out thinking that we would just round them up, put them in the crate, and head home. Fortunately, I had the good sense to pack a net...
Our "selfie" as we head off...
A view of the school
When we still thought this would be easy...
Apparently this private elementary school had closed in December blindsiding the teachers and families with only 3 days notice of the closing. The administrators just abandoned the school's flock leaving them without food, water, or shelter. I am indignant over the treatment of the chickens, but I am outraged how the school treated the families. We saw evidence of the school's attempts to go "green"- rain barrels, compost piles, gardens, and the chicken coop. And you could see the community's anger with the broken windows, destruction of property, and curses spray painted on the walls. The level of anger towards the school is well-placed.

We arrived at the abandoned school and sure enough, there were 4 roosters wandering around. Kristi, a wonderfully kind neighbor, wandered up and offered to help us. She lived nearby and had heard the roosters crowing. She had heard the school dismantled the coop before they closed but was astounded when she realized they left behind the chickens. Kristi initiated the Meetup post that was the reason we were there. We started trying to herd the chickens out of the tangled sticker bushes and quickly caught the first one with the net. And then the chickens got smart...

Here, I must interject the obvious. Yes, it is much easier to catch chickens at night when they roost. But this location was not safe at night and we didn't have any evening volunteers. Plus, they were supposed to be generally tame... so we should just be able to pick them up, right? After catching the first rooster, we were on a high! We forged ahead with the others. The woods were a huge problem with trying to swing the net, and the chickens didn't realize apparently that we were trying to "rescue" them. We decided to flush the others out across the driveway to the building. The problem with chickens, though, is that they fit through locked fences. And we don't. And they hop over fences and climb trees. Eventually, Robin's son Charlie and husband joined us. And we caught a second chicken with the net an hour later, and the first chicken escaped. Seriously.

I don't think the coop was actually dismantled...
After 3 and half hours and thanks to Charlie's willingness to crawl on his stomach under a prickly juniper bush, we had 3 chickens. I can't describe our frustration and exhaustion as we tried over and over to capture these tricky birds. In case you wondered, chickens DO fly- when you least expect it. With no sign of the other one, we headed home for the night. That night, Robin and I stressed over the 4th bird knowing that he no longer had his flock and was alone. Yes, it was just a rooster, but it was an example of someone else's cruelty. I think Robin and I each felt that we could set a small part of the world right if we were able to rescue this last bird.
Abandoned gardens

In the morning, Kristi saw the 4th bird. I dragged my husband, 2 other kids, and Reese to the school to try to find the bird. No luck. Later in the afternoon, Robin met us up there again. We searched and searched without success. I wished out loud that we had brought one of the roosters to crow and call to his friend. Always full of good ideas, Robin whipped out her phone, "We can play rooster sounds from our phones!!" Can you imagine how we looked wandering around playing rooster sounds from YouTube?! But I saw movement in a tree! We found the last rooster hiding and were able to capture it quickly. Success!! We dropped off fresh eggs to our new "chicken friend" Kristi and headed home.

Another obvious question is now what? You can't put a bunch of roosters together in a coop, can you?  We have several places interested in these beautiful birds (and not for coq au vin), but in the meantime, they are in our smaller coop. I was worried about putting them all together in one space and whether they would fight. Because roosters fight and that's why you keep only one, right? But when I went to close the coop last night, all 4 were huddled up together, just like a band of brothers. These birds survived together and deserve another shot at life. They are very sweet roosters allowing the kids to pick them up and hold them.
Right after capture
All 4 together with our hens gazing lovingly at them
I'm glad you came back for me!
I'm glad to have my "chicken friends" and love the adventure of rescuing these birds. But I hope this won't become a common occurrence. In closing the school, the administration "forgot" about the chickens. To me, this is appalling. Raising chickens as a commitment- you need to research the level of time required before bringing those precious baby chicks home. It's not a minor hobby and leaving tamed animals to fend for themselves is an abominable cruelty. When we got there, we saw beautiful pale green eggs scattered along the front steps, in corners, and in the bushes of the administration building. We realized the hens had been abandoned as well. Hens are easily picked off by predators, and we found a pile of feathers where one was killed. These were pets- chickens raised by children that lived in a coop. They weren't raised on a farm or in the wild where they learned to fend for themselves. I had one friend comment that they were "free-ranging" and could be something else's dinner. I guess that's true, but it seems cruel and unnecessary. There are so many resources in and around Atlanta for finding chickens homes that these poor birds didn't need to be abandoned.

English, Reese, Kristi, Robin, and Charlie

Could Robin be a more fashionable rescuer?

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Egg Tree

We all have different holiday traditions- some traditions (naturally) and some that are a bit odd or different.  We try to embrace the unexpected and appreciate the beauty nature brings us.  This can range from our 4 year old cutting off all the mum blooms so she could shred them and spread them around the garden to "artful" array of dead leaves some child put in a vase.

Our chickens give us such lovely eggs every day (except when they are molting, of course)- sage green from our black Ameraucana, blue from our rumpless Araucana, pink from our mixed chickens, and many other shades of green.  We did get new chickens this summer and one recently laid a white egg.    The white egg was shocking to us because we haven't seen a white egg in years!  I hated to just throw away some of these gorgeous eggs so...  we made an egg tree for the holidays.

Yep, an egg tree.  A bit unusual and different.  We like that in our house.  Being the crafty sort, my mom used to make these spectacular egg ornaments when I was little.  She'd blow out an egg, carefully crack the shell away on one side, and create a precious diorama in the eggs.  I remember the velvet and ribbon she'd place in and around the egg and the tiny wooden figure in their new home.  I wish I had time to decorate the eggs, but I don't.  Instead, I just blew the insides out (and fried them up!) and stuck an ornament hanger in the top hole.  And the egg tree was born!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Tragedy and miracles

     If you've read some of my past posts, tragedies seem to follow chickens.  I don't know if we just have bad luck with chickens or if their lives are fraught with misfortune.  But we turned an unfortunate accident into the happy miracle of life.  In the past, I've posted about our beautiful rooster, Blobby, who was a Blue Laced Red Wyandotte. He was a very friendly, tame bird and a favorite of our children. Late one Sunday afternoon this spring, Blobby met his untimely end when a roost in the coop fell on him and broke his neck.  Yes, the roost killed the rooster.  Truly, only at our house could such an ironic tragedy occur!  My husband was outside working on our new expanded run when he saw a hen hop on the roost branch causing it to fall on poor Blobby.  The end was quick for him, but then we faced having to tell our children that their favorite bird was gone.

   The kids were very sad until our oldest perked up and said, "We have to hatch these eggs- they're fertilized!  It's the only way we can have Blobby live on." Our oldest does not know the facts of life yet, so I was curious what "fertilized" meant to him.  Apparently in our son's world, the chickens stand near each other and shake their tail feathers at each other which "fertilizes" the egg.  "Yep, that's exactly how it happens!" I said.  Well, why not hatch some chicks, we thought.  We had two broody hens just waiting to sit on some eggs.  We had fertilized eggs. And with our rooster now dead, the worry of having another rooster develop no longer mattered.  Plus, we were down to 9 chickens from our previous high of 24 chickens.

     I read online that eggs are fertilized for up to 10 days, but you want to time "hatch day" within a day or two.  So we collected 4 eggs two days in a row and placed them under our broody hen, Oreo, who is a black Ameraucana.  Oreo is actually our last remaining chicken from the batch of chicks our son's kindergarten class hatched.  How did I know Oreo was broody?
1.  Broody chickens rip out their breast feathers so her skin will keep eggs warm.  Check.
2.  Broodies refuse to get out of the nesting box despite repeated tries of tossing her in the run.  Yep, runs right back to the nesting box.
3.  They start squawking if a person gets near, hunker down in the box, and will peck if you try to remove them.  Ouch! Definitely, a broody chicken.

     Broody chickens are great if you want to hatch chicks, but they are a pain if you don't.  They hog the nesting box and make it difficult for other chickens to lay.  Egg production goes down when you have a broody chicken.  When you have 3 broody chickens, you might as well give up on eggs for a while.  Oreo was quickly joined in her nesting adventure by Snitch, our Splash Blue Laced Red Wyandotte.  We marked the eggs with a C (our son's idea- for Chick, natch) so we could keep them separate from the fresh eggs we collected each day.  The last thing you want to do is crack open a partially developed egg by accident...

     Oreo and Snitch sat on the eggs diligently for days. On the evening of the 20th day, an egg had cracks around it.  I reached in to pick it up -and it chirped!  The chirping egg was an amazing, beautiful experience about the miracle of life- and it meant chicks were coming!!  The next morning, we all gathered around the broody hens but saw no chicks.  We picked the hens up and found a precious, little chick hiding under her mommy!

     That afternoon (on the 21st day), two more eggs were cracked and the chicks followed the next morning.  The rest of the eggs never hatched.  Had I remembered to candle them (hold them in front of a light at night), I would have seen that they weren't fertilized.  But our 3 new chicks were exciting to see and hold! 

     I like to say that our chicks come from a very modern family.  The eggs were from two of our Ameraucana chickens and our Dominique/Rhode Island Red mix.  So they were hatched by two mommies who adopted each of them.  Seeing how nature works in taking care of young was an amazing and humbling lesson.  We never did anything to help the moms other than provide them a safe space (a huge dog crate) for them to raise the chicks for a few days away from the rest of the flock.  The mommies never let another chicken get anywhere near their babies.  They kept them warm, clucked for them to learn to eat and drink, and taught them to hunt and peck.  The chicks are now almost full-grown -we aren't sure if one is a rooster yet... but maybe an egg will surprise us soon!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

It's way too early to garden...

I was on the phone with a friend the other day when I mentioned I needed to get back to gardening. "Gardening? It's way too early to plant anything right now!" Ah, but that is not the case. One of the fantastic things we've learned in our 2 years of chickens and gardens is that vegetables grow every month of the year! Here is our garden in February:

We've got broccoli and broccoli romanesco (gorgeous green cauliflower) in the first photo, lettuces (Little Gem, Romaine, Oakleaf Red, and other varieties) in the second, and parsley and carrots in the third (plus a little cover crop for the chickens).  We also have kohlrabi, bok choy "Toy Choy", spinach, radishes, arugula, and lettuces.  Did I mention lettuces? Because lettuce grows like a weed.  I'm not sure I can ever buy it again in the grocery store.  We can't keep up the the masses of lettuce growing in our garden beds.

I've always thought of gardening as being about fresh tomatoes, zucchini, and basil.  But, wow!  There is so much more that is easy to grow.  Granted, we live in Atlanta which is Zone 7b, but gardening can happen throughout the year all over the country. There are wonderful crops like carrots, beets, and lettuces that are sweeter and better when they ripen in cool weather.  Our vegetables have to stand on their own little seed-feet, too, because we don't have a sprinkler system or regular watering method- way too much effort and expense -or I'm just too lazy. 

Gardening in the winter is definitely a learning experience. We planted many seeds like broccoli in November 2011 which was too late.  Right when the broccoli started to sprout the following spring, it bolted to seed in the warm weather.  My dreams of fresh broccoli went right to the chickens. This year, we planted the winter garden in August 2012 to gain a few more months of cool. 

Carrots are incredibly easy to grow. Stick the seeds in the ground and you're set.  We've had purple dragon, yellowstone, and royal chantenay carrots (seeds from It's a great feeling to have nothing for dinner, run out to the garden, yank a few things out of the ground, and there's you go!  Plus, the kids like helping and actually eat what they grow (most of the time- no one is eating radishes or bok choy but me).  These are fabulously flavorful carrots that you can't get at Publix or Whole Foods...

In January, we planted a second round of seeds- beets, more carrots, lettuces, and potatoes.  The lettuces turned bitter and the chickens got happy.  They cluck when I go to the garden and pluck leaves. The radishes turned to wood and the chickens were thrilled with all the delights thrown into the coop.  It's one of the complete circles that I love- throw the leaves/scraps/bitter plants to the chickens who eat them and turn them into fertilizer.  And bless my husband who hauls that "fertilizer" out of the coop!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A tough day for chickens

As I pulled up this blog today, I couldn't believe it has been over a year since I have last posted. But then again, yes, I can believe it. Raising chickens has been incredibly rewarding for our family, but also VERY time-consuming.   I've decided to expand this blog a bit to include more of the changes the chickens have brought to our lives, our awareness of food, and our attempts to homestead.  Or be urban farmers...

But today, we had yet another chicken tragedy that I think deserves mention.  We've had so many challenges in keeping these poor, sweet creatures alive.  We've given them a safe coop, build an expanded run (because free-ranging was quickly ending our chicken experiment), and tried so hard to keep our pets safe.  We even got two dogs to help protect the chickens which is another reason why finding time to write a blog has become a challenge.  Here are Moxie and Max:

After our last tragedy with a raccoon, I researched guardian dogs who can protect flocks.  While building an outer run protected the chickens from certain predators, it left them vulnerable to others- like raccoons.  Apparently there are only two breeds of dogs who are good at protecting livestock- the Great Pyrenees and the Rhodesian Ridgeback.  Fortunately, Atlanta has a wonderful Great Pyrenees Rescue group and these two delightful creatures came to live with us last February and March after being rescued from shelters in Alabama.  I didn't realize that much training is needed to help them learn not to attack the chickens, but we didn't have any fatalities and all seem to coexist.

Today, the dogs were inside my studio when I heard great commotion and clucking from the coop.  I looked out the window and saw Blobby, our lone rooster, walking back and forth inside the run.  I wrongly concluded all was well.  Here is a photo of Blobby, a Blue Laced Red Wyandotte:

Our nine year old often goes and checks on the chickens when he gets home from school.  He came running inside in a panic telling me about the hawk sitting on the run.  We rushed outside to see the hawk on a low branch above the coop.  And Moxie's guardian instinct kicked in.  She immediately sensed the danger and ran to the hawk, barking her deep, echoing bark.  Of course, Max, our non-instinct driven dog, thought she was barking at the neighbor's dogs and proceeded to bark at them.  Moxie was different, though.  She was trying to jump up a tree at the hawk who had moved to a higher branch.  My heart sunk as I noticed his crop (if that's what hawks have) looked full.  Moxie kept barking and the hawk flew off.  Our son was in tears though as he said, "Georgina's hurt".  Nope, Georgina's head was gone.  Here is what he found:

After comforting my son, we took a look around to see what had happened.  The windstorm had blown down part of the soft wire fence.  The hawk climbed in and chased down a chicken, tore it to shreds, and terrified all the other birds.  The boldness of the hawk was astounding.  Most often (at least in my experience with hawks -see previous post), hawks dive-bomb their victims.  To just hop into the run is incredibly fearless and bold.  But it triggered an amazing reaction in Moxie.  Instantly, she realized what she was supposed to do as a guardian dog.  And it isn't to gently pin a chicken down with her paw and pull a feather out...

We moved the dead chicken into the garage to wait for burial (it was too cold outside).  Moxie sat beside the dead chicken and wouldn't leave her side.  Chickens and dogs have been such an amazing learning experience for us and for our children.  Sad, oftentimes, but when is life ever perfect and happy? Actually, life is pretty happy when chickens follow you around a garden and big, fluffy dogs lick you and think you're great :) 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Photos of the roosters

My husband and I often think of the same thing at the same time- we just don't often communicate this! As I was hitting "Publish Post", he sent me some of his wonderful images of the chickens.  I thought I'd share them with you as an homage to our beautiful roosters.  It is amazing to see how gorgeous these birds have become. Gorgeous, you might say? A chicken? Yes, they are so pleasing to the eye and relaxing to watch.  Although, it has been difficult to explain the mating process to our children...
"Oh, they are just playing hopscotch, sweetie."
"But they aren't jumping over," points our our 7 year old."
"Yes, they just haven't quite learned how to play yet," was my quick quip.
Let's see how long he buys that story! 
Fuzzball, one of our Mille Fleur D'Uccles
Butterscotch, our Easter Egger. The Flock
Cinnamon posing.
Cinnamon in his full glory!
Butterscotch with his magnificent plumage.

Our roosters move tomorrow

I haven't posted in a while -it's a busy time of year, but it's also been kind of sad with the chickens.  We lost another chicken last week.  Holly was one of our favorites and it was very upsetting to find her headless in our new run extension. Our best guess is she got too close to the fencing and a raccoon/possum/fox snagged her through the fence and chased her inside.  It was the morning and we hadn't staked down the fencing yet- that was our afternoon project but we were too late.

Tomorrow, we are taking 4 of our favorite chickens to live with Mr. Tony who has 30 acres and lots of room for 4 roosters.  We love our roosters but we are happy they have another place to go with reassurances from Mr. Tony that he won't eat them (our 7 year old's main question).  Incredibly, out of the 7 chicks that were hatched in the kindergarten, FIVE have turned into roosters!  What are the odds?  Clearly I didn't do a good job trying to figure out the girls from the boys.  In fact, I just need to do the OPPOSITE of whatever I did last May!  But that is fodder for another posting.

We are fortunate that this past spring Mr. Tony offered to take the roosters. They have been our most personable birds but as their testosterone has kicked in, their personalities have changed.  Our 2 boys have been very gentle with the chickens but they are boys. They love to pick them up and pet them, but the chickens don't understand the love in their little hearts. Typically, the boys back the chickens into a corner to pick them up. This was all good and fine until the rooster-instinct kicked in a few weeks ago and the roosters decided they had to protect their little flock. Cinnamon (to the left),the Bantam Mille Fleur D'Uccle (a miniature chicken) has been chasing our middle son (5 years old) around for weeks.  We found this rather humorous because our son would just bend down, scoop him up, and pet him for a while.  Cinnamon was trying to be so ferocious but a miniature chicken can't help but being cute.  They are less than a foot tall reared up to crow.

But when Midnight became protective, that was a different story. In one of those rare moment "I told you so", Midnight decided he had had enough of our older son picking up his hens. I was in the house and heard screams as this chicken chased my son around and around and around our driveway. Midnight is probably 2 feet tall and terrified our poor son. While it was a good lesson to be gentle with the chickens, our 7 year old was now too afraid to go in the backyard. As he is in charge of opening the run in the mornings, this wasn't a good development.

So it is with a heavy heart tomorrow that we are taking our 4 roosters to live somewhere else.  Our boys are at least reassured that they can visit Mr. Tony and the roosters in the future.  As I explained, it is better than them being on our dinner table...