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.


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