Cast and Crew

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye, Norma Jean

Last night was very sad. We rushed home only to find that Norma Jean had passed away sometime during the day. I feared that very result, but the reality was no easier to deal with than the thoughts I'd been plagued with all day.

First, we felt guilty for not having done more. I should have called in sick to work. I should have boxed her up and taken her with me. I should have done something.

Then we felt hopeless. What went wrong? Why was she sick? What happened to that healthy girl?

And, of course, all of this brought about doubt. What are we doing trying to raise chickens? If the death of one animal is this painful, how will we manage having a farm full of animals? When it comes time to slaughter our own for meat, will we be capable?

Today is New Year's Eve. 2009 is ending, and another year beckons. I can't say that I'm in the mood for celebrating or making resolutions, but one thing is clear. Norma Jean will be greatly missed.

Norma Jean was hatched on Monday, August 3rd, 2009. She arrived a few days later, boxed with her five sisters, ready to begin a happy life as a city chicken. She grew faster than her fellow Golden Campine sister, Ingrid, being the first of all six of the girls to develop a beautiful single comb. Her tail was the tallest, her strut the most pronounced. She frequently wandered far afield, searching out new grass to eat and new dirt to scratch. Like her namesake, she was undeniably beautiful and charismatic, and she died far too young. Our urban farm will not be the same without her.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Amidst Much Celebration, Tragedy Lurks

We have collected three eggs so far, and Raquel shows no sign of slowing down just yet. Oddly enough, another chicken has drawn our attention for the day. Poor Norma Jean is in distress. We think she may be egg-bound.

For those of you unfamiliar with this terminology, allow me to explain. Chickens have one exit in their bodies. Don't spend too much time dwelling on this subject, just move forward with me. When girl chickens reach maturity and begin to lay, they are called pullets. Our girls are right about that age, which is evident with our sudden infatuation with egg collection. Pullets become hens at some mysterious date in the future. We'll wait until that time to go into more detail.

An egg-bound chicken is one which is trying to lay an egg, but the egg gets stuck in their "vent," that one, cursed exit. If you've ever raised animals, you'll know that a blockage in exits is typically lethal, especially when the animal is small or young. Norma Jean is both. I suppose she's grown to a decent size, but I still think of her as small. Most chickens who suffer from a stuck egg are lacking in calcium, which has to be given to all adult chickens as a supplement. Calcium is vital in forming the egg shell, but it's also necessary to keep their muscles strong enough to push that darned thing out! Remember the milk does a body good advertisements? They were all about strong bones and healthy muscles. Well, chickens are not so different from us in that respect.

You may suddenly be asking yourself, "Is that crazy urban farmer not feeding her chickens the right thing??" I'd like to hope that our chicken feed is adequate for our growing flock, but I'm always open to suggestions for improving their diet. Ready for a little more chicken education? There are roughly three kinds of chicken feed for your average egg-producing type of chicken. When you get teeny, tiny baby chicks, you start them out on "starter feed," which is specifically designed to help them grow big and healthy for the first four to five weeks of life. Next, they move on to "developer feed," which gives them everything they need until they begin laying eggs. Our girls are still eating developer feed. Once chickens begin to lay eggs, they graduate to "layer feed," which has additional calcium and a few other things adult chickens need. Too much calcium in younger birds can be harmful to their growth.

Back to Norma Jean. While I find it hard to believe that she is lacking in calcium, especially since she has yet to lay her first egg, I'm more than willing to supplement her feed to correct the problem. But do we have the problem pegged? Or is there something else going on?

Just before we left for work today, we went out to the coop to check for eggs. It's an obsession. I found Norma Jean laying in the straw in the covered part of the enclosure. She looked very tired and lethargic. Last night she had been nesting on a little hollow in the pine shavings in the coop. Everyone else was on their roosting pole (finally!!). I suspected that an egg (one of Raquel's) was under her, and I was right. Aimee brought it in this morning. When I entered the coop, she didn't run away. She was easy to pick up. That's a huge sign of something wrong. These birds are friendly but flighty. They like a good chase before a cuddle. Norma Jean was slightly limp in my hands. She was covered in poo on her backside. We rushed her into the house for an impromptu sponge bath, and we did the best we could to clean her up. She hardly fought back and mostly resigned herself to the entire process. Aimee re-fluffed her with the hair dryer, then we took her back out to the coop.

Now I'm sitting at work, completely distracted and incapable of getting anything done. It's a good thing my job isn't too demanding right now. I feel awful for what our little girl is going through, and I want nothing more than to rush home and check on her.

As a side note, I'd like to thank everyone over at the BackYardChickens Forum for all their help and wisdom. It's an invaluable tool for chicken lovers.

As you read this, I hope you'll pause and think good thoughts for Norma Jean. She'll be the first thing we tend to once we're home at the end of the day.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Best Christmas Present Ever

Aimee and I got home from the airport last night and got into bed just before midnight. Flights into the United States were heavily delayed due to a terrorist issue from Christmas Day, so every carry-on bag was being searched before passengers boarded their planes. That meant that our second flight, from Chicago to Seattle, was around an hour behind schedule. The pilot flew fast, though, and we made good time. The shuttle drove us home, we unpacked Aimee's precious stash of sausages and rashers, we loved on the pups, and our heads hit the pillow.

We both felt refreshed this morning, and I was incredibly happy to have slept in my own soft, comfy bed. We tended to a few things around the house, then took the dogs for their morning walkies. On our way out, we caught sight of the chickens. My, how they'd grown! Raquel and Ursula looked enormous, and the Campines, Norma Jean and Ingrid, have both filled and fluffed out more than expected. We came back and did (what we thought was) a full chicken inspection. I picked up Raquel, taking a moment to admire her recently developed comb and wattles, and we left the girls some lettuce and broccoli to help pass the cold day.

After running errands and coming home for lunch, I decided to let the girls out and clean up their coop. Things had gotten quite poopie in our absence, and keeping the coop clean and dry is the best way to avoid frost bite and cold. It seems a little contrary to mammalian wisdom, but chickens don't really need a *warm* coop to sleep in. In fact, they need plenty of fresh air, so closing the door to their coop is really only necessary on the coldest of nights. A large amount of the moisture in the air in their coop is created from their droppings and their breath, so keeping the coop clean and dry is a big priority. I got out the buckets and the shovel and set to work while the girls noshed on an apple core and some crusty bread heels. The nesting boxes I built are removable for cleaning, so I hauled them out, which revealed this in the far corner.

I trembled when I picked it up, terrified that I might break the shell. It was so tiny! The two eggs on either side of it in the picture below were from the grocery store earlier in the day. I figured a little perspective would help.

Alas, Raquel's recently developed comb must have been a sign. It was definitely one of the Dominiques', as the other two breeds lay white eggs.

I thought about dancing. I'm sure I was grinning ear to ear. It was tiny, and it was covered in chicken poo, but it was our first egg. What a way to end the year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Three Weeks of No Responsibilities

This is the final week of our vacation in Ireland, home of chips and beans, chips and sausages, chips and rashers.... You get the idea. Aimee is right at home, noshing on all her favourite foods that we can't get back in Washington State. (You may notice that some spellings are done in a different fashion. When in Ireland...) To date, I believe she has consumed three whole pigs, mainly in the form of Dunlavin sausages. Most dinners at home consist of chips, mashed potatoes, croquettes, roast potatoes, meat, gravy, and some sort of vegetable that most members of her family push aside for the dogs. I'm afraid that I may have to go nearly vegan once we're home to recover from consuming so much meat and rich food, but God I love it!!

I am also nearly stir crazy from doing absolutely nothing. Perhaps we'll go for a walk today to help pass a little time and get some fresh air, even if it is barely above freezing outside. The rest is doing us both good, I'm just not used to being so idle. Aimee is soaking it up like a sponge for fear that she won't get a day off in the whole month of January once she's back to work. She's got a good point.

Everything in Ireland really is green. Green grows on everything. It seeps into the cracks between stones, it slips up the sides of buildings, it even grows in the windows of cars left out in the rain for too long. This is my sixth time in the country, and I am still stunned at how green my vision goes after the first few days. In our first outing after recovering from jet lag, Aimee's mother took us into Kilkenny, a decent sized town not far from her family's home between Athy and Carlow in County Kildare. We walked through Kilkenny Castle and around the grounds, finding these lovely stones in the garden between the river and the castle.
The following week we departed for Cork, which is about as far south as you can go on the island. We stayed in Cork City, which is the second largest city in Ireland after Dublin. It reminded me very much of the streets of Dublin. There was plenty of shopping to do, and the little, bustling streets were lined with restaurants and pubs dishing out some of the best food we've had in a long time. We broke away from the main city for one morning to visit Blarney Castle, a short bus ride to the north. This is one of the better panoramic views of the castle and its grounds. There was more to do at Blarney than we realised, and none of it was boring. Little historic facts are posted throughout the grounds, many of them comical in their truth. And yes, we both kissed the Blarney Stone. I licked my lips immediately afterwards, and commented, "Hmm, tasty." The guy holding me by the waist to make sure I didn't fall a hundred feet to an untimely death responded in his thick Cork accent, "Tastes like chicken."
Upon our return to Cork around lunchtime, we dove into a pub for a fantastic carvery, then walked over to Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral. This was one of the many stained glass windows we saw. They were absolutely beautiful. Saint Fin Barre's is a protestant church in the heart of Cork City, and it is said to be the very place where the city was founded.
At its head rests a golden carving of the Resurrection Angel, but the sunset lit this side, which gave us a far better picture.
Sunset over the River Lee in Cork ended that lovely day of exploring. We took a bus out to Kinsale the following day, but it was a big disappointment. I'm sure it's a lovely destination in the summertime, but everything is shut down in the winter. It's one of those typical sleepy fishing towns on the coast. Kinsale has the reputation of the best gourmet food in Ireland, so I'm certain we'll go back on subsequent trips.

I miss the chickens and the dogs terribly, and my head is buzzing with all the things I need to do once we're home, but it sure is nice to get away from everything for a few weeks.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Feel the Cold in Your Bones

The overnight temperatures in Everett have been slightly below freezing all week, and they will continue to be very cold through early next week. This kind of crisp winter weather is nice in a lot of ways, even if it means I had to dig out the gloves for dog walkies this morning. The garden is put to bed....

The cold frame we built during the summer is keeping the chill from our ornamental grasses and slightly-larger-than-seedling-sized herbs....

And nature leaves us beautiful patterns in the frost...

Due to this cold snap, we have been closing the door on the chickens' living space. Their body heat is tremendous, but their appetite has them pecking at the door early in the morning. Today they received some very special strawberry tops and the end of my bowl of cheerios and milk. I was astonished at how thoroughly they polished everything off. Our vacation begins on Monday, so I will happily clean out the refrigerator and give the girls what little we cannot eat in the next two days. I wondered yesterday afternoon what things you can and cannot feed chickens, and I was very pleased to find this resource on the Backyard Chickens website. It is a humorous and detailed list of what chickens like and what they should not eat. A good read all around.

As the sun has been shining more this last week, the girls have been out and about in the yard, pecking at my newly planted grass, scratching in the compost, and completely demolishing the hydrangea that I'm not terribly fond of. When Aimee saw the carnage, she shouted for joy, which endeared me to her just that much more. When Aimee decides a plant must go, there is no mercy in her ways. During their long hours of free roaming, Ellen was slow, got backed into a corner, and the following photos were the result. I particularly enjoyed her close-ups, as her feathers are quite beautiful.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chicken Run

I've been thinking about Nick Park's well-known animated classic Chicken Run a lot lately. If you haven't seen it, go rent it ASAP. The chickens in that film conspire to escape their horrible living conditions, not unlike our own girls on a daily basis. The following is a run-down of a common day's events at the City Chicken Farm.

1. Wake up. Listen to the annoying scrabbling of dog toenails on the floors of their crates in the living room because I have yet to install the french doors which would divide the master bedroom from the rest of the main floor of the house, which would also allow peaceful sleeping-in on weekends, dogs be damned.
2. Stumble to the kitchen and set the tea kettle to boil.
3. Throw on a pair of mucky shoes and wander out into the backyard to dodge dog poo, soggy tennis balls, and whatever I may have forgotten to bring in from the previous day working in the yard.
4. Enter chicken coop and inspect quantity and quality of food and water available. This is not always a pretty inspection process as the girls are very good at roosting on top of the waterer and pooping into it with great vigor.
5. Open the door to the chicken condo and face the squawking accusations of sloth and apathy from six hungry hens.
6. Close the door to the coop behind yourself as you leave so as to keep the birds in their enclosure, else you will "pay the price."
7. Scrounge kitchen scraps from the early morning lunch prep and deposit them in the chickens' pen.
8. Leave for work and feel guilty about the chickens being confined all day long, despite bad weather and vicious neighborhood cats and racoons.
9. Come home, park the car, drop possessions in the house, then go back out to lock the girls up for the night. This is not as easy as it sounds. Six chickens of varying size, shape, and muscular strength all roost in a twelve-inch-wide doorway at the top of the ramp into the enclosure. They do not want to move. You are an intruder. You must be pecked. And flapped at.

This morning we had a little extra time before leaving for work. Aimee suggested I let the girls out for a little fresh foraging. I couldn't argue, especially since I frequently state how bad I feel that the chickens do not get much free range time. I went outside and opened the door to their enclosure, and they nearly ran over me to get outside. Their exuberance makes me smile. We went about our morning, casually watching them from the kitchen window, never thinking that it would be hard to get them back into the coop before we left for the day. Boy, were we wrong. I went out by myself first, thinking I could rustle them into their pen without assistance. Ha! They ran, they flapped, and when all else failed, they divided and conquered. Stupid human. Can't you catch a chicken?

Chickens 1
Humans 0

Aimee popped out the back door after a couple of minutes, asking if I needed help. My strangled cry of "YES!!!" was all she needed. The chase continued.

Chickens 2
Humans 0

*insert two boards of plywood, one yard waste bin, and ridiculous antics*

We finally chased everyone but Portia into the coop. She screamed like she was being debeaked when I finally caught her in the dead end I had built. I told her, mother hen to baby chick, that this was exactly what she deserved for nearly giving me a coronary episode yesterday. Pictures would have been the only way to truly describe the events, but, like a dope, I left the camera in the house while I was out doing yard work. I had let the girls out to roam, and they decided to follow me toward one of the gates. When I came back into the yard through that very same gate, I surprised them, and I had brought with me what they could later only describe as an enormous, venomous, deadly, purely evil SNAKE!!! Norma Jean and Portia took to the air to escape the horrible garden hose of doom, the former alighting on the fence between our yard and the neighbors', the latter finding herself atop the garden shed. Yes, that's right, Portia was standing on the roof of the garden shed. I froze, terrified that any movement from me could spook them both. Norma Jean came down first, flopping and flapping ineffectively amidst the branches of the lilac tree. Portia debated, wandered, pecked at the contents of the gutter, then did the same, landing not quite as graciously as her sister had. All in all, it was quite the adventure.

All of these trials have led me to believe that the chickens are plotting something, and that their actions both yesterday and today were merely tests, trials, if you will, to uncover our innate weaknesses as chicken farmers (aka captors). To borrow one of the best lines from the aforementioned film, "Those chickens are revolting!"

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An early Thanksgiving snack.

The girls started today with a lovely breakfast treat. Since our garden was so prolific this year, they have had the fortune of sampling some of the finer things we couldn't bring ourselves to finish. The last of the patty pan and flying saucer summer squash were devoured from the inside out just last week. They peck a hole in the skin and seek out the fleshy, sweet, juicy center and seeds. It's quite a project. Thinking that this talent for eating squash would translate to our overloaded supply of pumpkins, I tossed in a French Cinderella pumpkin a few days ago. They stared at it, they pecked gingerly, and then they walked away to find their bucket of feed. I watched, I waited, and today I finally went out with a sharp knife and cut the pumpkin down the center. Norma Jean was the first to see the perfect pumpkin seeds spilling out onto the hay. The rest was history.

Chickens also apparently have a "sweet beak." It's like a sweet tooth, but since hens don't have teeth... Their favorite treat by far is strawberry tops. Since the fresh berry season is over, this morning's strawberries will most likely be the last. In addition to strawberry tops and pumpkins, the girls have also recently devoured broccoli stems, beet greens, and some slightly undesirable lettuce. Outside time is now at a premium, and the girls anxiously await any chance to escape their enclosure and peck through the dirt and grass. They had just such an opportunity yesterday afternoon. I was burning lathe from the walls in the upstairs of our house (yes, burnin' down the house) in our old barbecue grill, so I could keep a watchful eye on the chickens as they made their way around the lawn. Ingrid soon found herself separated from the flock and sounded the most pathetic squawk I have ever heard. No one answered her, so it was up to me to herd her back to the coop. So much for flock loyalty, I guess.

I would let the girls run free more often if I could, and believe me, there is a lot of guilt about their confinement, but the reality of having chickens in the city boils down to the large number of alley cats in our neighborhood. My biggest fear is one of the girls getting killed by a local predator. There are times when I wish we had a rooster to keep the hens safe, but that's opening another can of worms I cannot abide.

Friday, November 13, 2009

An Afternoon of Sunshine

Yesterday was a rare treat for the Pacific Northwest in November. It was cold, but the sun was shining all day long. I skipped out early from work and went home to let the girls out for a little grass-pecking fun.

They get more bold with each outing. Originally they crowded under the lilac tree by the garden shed and flew back to the coop anytime someone got nervous. Norma Jean is the Magellan of the group, frequently wandering far from her feathered friends. Her explorations have convinced them all that foraging under the weeping maple tree is worth the exposure, especially now that most of its leaves have fallen and been raked into the compost bins.

The ground in front of the compost bins we built this summer originally held a brick patio. I'm guessing that the brick came from the original chimney in the house, most likely the part from the attic that would have protruded through the roof (which it obviously no longer does). Our house was remodeled in the 1980's, and that's probably when this little patio was put together. I removed it this summer, and it has been transformed into the path around the chicken coop. Yay for reusing! Where the patio had been, compost was spread and grass seed was planted. It recently sprouted, which brought great joy for a moment before I realized the girls were systematically consuming the whole patch of seedlings! Well, that's life with chickens, I suppose. I shoo them off, they wander back when I'm not looking. It's an agreement we can all live with. That grass had better be hardy stuff if it wants to live in this household.

This was also the first year of growing nearly everything from seed for the garden. While most of the annuals are in the compost pile after a productive summer, the front beds are loaded with onions for the winter and spring to come. In preparation for next year, I've begun a collection of herbs and ornamentals which will live in the garden shed once the cold weather really hits.

The Bunny Tails grass has been a favorite every time we've visited the nursery, so I bought some seeds, and look what we got! It's soft to the touch already, much like the downy fur behind a rabbit's ears. We also have a good collection of Elijah Blue Fescue, rosemary, sage, borage (which is an annual but seems to be defying our current weather!), and lavender. My goal is to have something green in the shed that I can visit when the days are grey and dreary. So far, so good.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Meet the Girls

The following pictures are from the end of the summer when the girls were about four weeks old. They're a lot bigger now, but it's harder to tell them apart since their adult feathers have come in. I'll post current photos of them in a day or two, or whenever they decide to hold still long enough to have their pictures taken!

This is Raquel(Welch). She was the biggest and friendliest from day one.

She is quite the looker.

This is Ursula (Andress). She has a beauty mark by her left eye. Ursula and Raquel are Dominiques.

Ellen (DeGeneres) refused to hold still.

Portia (di Rossi) knows she is gorgeous. Portia and Ellen are Silver Speckled Hamburgs.

Norma Jean (Marylin Monroe) looks a bit scrawny, but she has consistently outweighed her sister Ingrid by half a pound.

Ingrid (Bergman) is the runt, and we sometimes call her Napoleon. She has no idea that she is tiny. She and Norma Jean are Golden Campines.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Partly Cloudy withToo Much Rain

The sun is shining, but the clouds are rolling back in. My weather widget says we can expect rain through Sunday, and even then I don't expect things to get better. I guess it's just that time of year in the Pacific Northwest again. The girls, as you can expect, are less than pleased about the weather. They truly enjoy their outside time, and being confined to their enclosure is less than pleasing to them. Today they received a handful of strawberry tops, the last of the season. The patty pan squash are less appetizing, and the most recent one I left for them has been pecked at in an apathetic manner. Perhaps I am not the only one emotionally effected by the dreary grey days.

I built a "chicken ladder" for them a couple of weeks ago, and it appears to be unused so far. All the best chicken resources say that you need to provide your hens with a roosting pole inside their coop. My attempt has backfired. They still cluster right next to the door, waiting for me to open it in the morning, then push their way out and down to the food. I am convinced that they are not bright. Not bright, but definitely hungry. They are currently consuming food at an alarming rate. I can't blame them. It's been cold both day and night recently. I think I've been refilling the feeder every three or four days, adding in some three-way scratch to keep them happily pecking away. We are on our last bag of developer feed, and we may need one more 50 pound bag before they are old enough to lay. Going by the calendar, they should be six month old and ready to give us eggs by about MLK day, January 18, 2010. I am not, however, expecting to see eggs before late February, given the lack of daylight at that time of the year. A friend and co-enthusiast of urban chickens was in one of the classes I taught at work last week, and she suggested lighting the coop to promote more laying. While I've read about that option elsewhere, I'm concerned about reducing the hens' overall lifespan and laying ability. It just sounds so unnatural!!

Yesterday was also an information drop-in day at Everett Community College, where I will begin my quest for a BA in Environmental Planning and Policy. I met with the head of the department, and she gave me lots of useful information about this new degree program which is a blend of Western Washington University and the Huxley College of the Environment. I'll be starting my freshman year in January, and I only hope the math and English classes are as easy as I expect.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

We bought this house...

My name is Robin. My partner is Aimee. Two years ago we bought a house. Her name is Josephine. Josephine was built in 1912. She's holding up well for a girl of her age.

When we bought our house, our last thought was remodeling or changing things, but a home is a constant work in progress, which was one of our very first lessons in home ownership. That first year, around June of 2008, we were forced to do a complete, down-to-the-studs remodel of our upstairs bathroom. I now have a jetted tub, so life worked out well in the end. The remodel was the last in a long line of expenses, including (but hardly limited to) replacing the roof, installing functional gutters, and having a fence built around the property. It had been a long first eight months of home ownership.

Our second year with Josephine was a bit more under control. Her old, flaking paint, originally a pale green, was scraped off and replaced with a deep blue. The neighbor across the street loved it, proudly bringing over a can of Bud Light to describe how we had matched the colors on the can of her favorite beer, right down to the black and white stripe above a line of red. I think I managed to reply something like, "Oh." The front yard has been landscaped on one side, and the seasonal 'creek' we installed now channels water from the roof away from the foundation and our seasonal 'pool' in the basement. Aimee and I built six raised beds out of cedar posts and boards, and we collected more lettuce and green tomatoes than you can shake an organic stick at.

But our crowning achievement, as the girls out back will happily tell you, was the construction and subsequent occupancy of our chicken coop. Our girls were all hatched on Monday, August 3rd, 2009. They arrived in the mail two days later, peeping and ready to eat us out of house and home.

The girls are now comfortably established in their coop, and we eagerly await the day the our first egg will arrive.

The Beginning

After many trials and humorous events, our chickens have finally convinced us to create a place where the world could learn about their antics. They have requested that this blog be dedicated to them, regardless of the future animals which will inhabit our little urban farm. We'll see if I can accommodate their wishes.


Related Posts with Thumbnails