Cast and Crew

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I Did It!

I am officially an Apprentice Beekeeper! I took my test this morning and carried it into Beez Neez, got it scored, and got congratulated by Jim, store owner and regular member and officer of the NWDBA (Northwest District Beekeepers Association). Let the hive plans begin!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

No Feathers, No Eggs

It's been a sad time around the urban farm lately. Egg production has never been this low, even when the girls first started laying. We feel lucky to get one egg per day, and that egg is most certainly coming from Portien. Who is Portien, you ask? She would be either Portia or Ellen, one of the Hamburgs. We honestly cannot tell them apart anymore. They are most frequently observed as a high speed flash of polka-dotted-black-on-white streaking through the yard or darting into the coop. Let me back up a bit in the storyline.

When we first decided to raise chickens, I began researching which breeds of chicken to purchase. I knew I wanted heritage breeds. I knew I wanted friendly chickens that would be easy to handle. I also knew I wanted three different breeds, two chicks of each. I hoped this would leave us with at least one of each type after any fatalities or problems in young chickenhood. I was nothing if not realistic. I was also, as it turned out, a bit misguided in my breed selections. How do you choose when there are so many varieties of hens? How do you narrow down the many types you'd like to raise into just three options? I struggled with my wants and needs, I studied pictures of hens and chicks for weeks, and I finally decided on the three we would eventually order.


Golden Campines

Silver Speckled Hamburgs

The list of runner ups included Delawares, Brahmas, Sussex, and Welsummers, two of which ended up in our second batch of chicks early this year. Basing your decision on a website description of breeds is tough. As many of you probably know, breed characteristics come second to the many unique qualities of an individual. It's great to say that Dominiques are friendly birds, but you don't know how your birds will behave until you have them in your coop. I also feel that how you raise and handle your birds plays a large role in their later interactions with you and others. That said, our decision to bring in two Hamburgs was not the best, nor was it based on accurate information.

I told you they were molting.

The cons of Hamburgs:

Hamburgs are one of the most notoriously flighty birds you will encounter. They do not like to be handled. They will avoid being caught at all costs. And, for those of you who've been reading this blog for any length of time may recall, they can fly very well. Catching Portia or Ellen is a skill that has taken a lot of time to develop. I am grateful for one thing: they are bird brains.

Hamburgs don't like to be confined. This is great if you have plenty of room to let them wander, but city chickens usually equal confinement to a coop for much of the day. Once they're out, you're best to just let them find their way home at sunset.

Ellen (or Portia) stares longingly at the loaf of bread. Good luck, skinny bird.

That flightiness I mentioned before necessitates wing clipping every year. This is a valuable skill, and I'm glad to have learned it, but it prevents you from being able to show your birds at events, which is one of the main reasons people choose to keep Hamburgs. They are truly beautiful animals.

Our Hamburgs suck at foraging. I swear. You can tell by the color of their egg yolks. Portia and Ellen's eggs are the lightest in color of all the eggs we collect from our hens. The Dominiques lay the darkest yolks.

The pros of Hamburgs (or, What This Post is Really About):

This bird is sometimes called the Dutch Everyday Layer, and they got that name for good reason. They will honestly lay six eggs a week, unfailingly. In fact, as I mentioned above, they are currently our only source of eggs. We can't tell the difference between Portia's and Ellen's eggs (and, yes, we can tell all the other girls' eggs apart), but there is almost always a lovely, shiny, slightly creamy colored egg in the nest box. Sometimes that egg lands in the compost bin or behind a thorny thistle we forgot to pull up, but these girls are the most reliable layers you will ever meet.

If you do choose to let your Hamburgs out (which we do, due to the afore-mentioned wing clipping), they stand a better chance of escaping potential attacks from predators than the rest of the flock. As I said before, they're impossible to catch. This can be helpful if you have neighborhood racoons, opossums, cats, dogs, etc.

Why aren't the rest of our ladies laying? Molting. And when I say molting, I cannot emphasize enough how bad these chickens look. After plucking dear little Rusty earlier this year, I am reminded of that event every time I see Raquel. She looks like she's nearly ready for the stew pot. Molting is tough on a hen. The protein required to grow all those feathers back makes her moody and hungry all the time, and her body can't keep producing eggs when it's stressed like that. I've heard loads of methods to speed the process up, but I think this is one ailment that only time can heal. Meanwhile, we haven't given out surplus eggs all month (because we haven't had any). The neighbors have been worried. My breakfasts have been boring. Baking makes us worry that we might have to (*gasp*) buy eggs on the open market. Those chickens aren't the only ones stressing in this family.

Dear God, that is one awful-looking chicken. Poor Raquel! She's already half plucked!

On the bright side, Ursula has grown her tail back, her feathers are looking lustrous and full-volume again, and I think she may be contemplating laying once more. Also, *someone* has been doing a lot of nesting in the upper coop. The wood chips are routinely scattered into drifts, and little hollows have been made in corners. Could Winnie or Dark Meat be thinking about laying?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Return of the Punchcumber

You might not remember. It was a long time ago now.

And I think we all conveniently forgot, too, because they got so orange and looked so much like pumpkins.

But can you see that green tint? It's not the camera (though our camera is due for an upgrade).

When I cut into them, the kitchen began to smell like fresh cucumber. I roasted them anyway. One hour in the oven with a tray of water beneath. They're waiting for me in the fridge. I need to scoop out their insides and take a taste. But seriously, what do you make out of a punchcumber?

At least the girls were happy to get the sloppy, seedy insides for a snack. They might get more than that!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hangin' in the Coop

Your favorite personalities are back! In their video premiere, Ingrid, Dark Meat, and Winnie are the stars.

Since the summer has flown by, I'm sure you're all amazed to see how big and fluffy the babies have gotten. No eggs yet, but we've gotten a lot of laughs watching them flap, flop, and get pecked by the big girls. Is it really fall already?

Okay, okay, I'm obsessed with my new iPhone. But seriously, shooting video from your phone while you're tossing veggie scraps to chickens is AWESOME. You should try it. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Neighbors?

Okay, he's hard to see, but he's there. He's staring at me. And his brother is hiding behind him. Two adolescent racoons have taken up residence in our neighbor's wood pile. I'm torn between thinking they're cute and fearing for our chickens' welfare.

As the neighbor and I discussed this dilemma, we began to wonder what right we had in considering "removal" of these two critters. After all, racoons and other animals are simply a part of urban life. In fact, you're far more likely to see a racoon in the city or suburbs than out on a hiking trail. My block is their block. My yard is their yard. My garden and my neighbors' trash are their sources of food, and our structures have become their homes.

How do you protect your flock and still find the capacity to respect nature's need for wildness?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Busy Bee Plans

Last Saturday I took a class on beginning beekeeping. I had a great time. Washington State University runs all of the agricultural programs in the state, and, together with the Washington State Beekeepers Association, provides opportunities for people to take classes in varying levels of beekeeping skill. Becoming an Apprentice Beekeeper requires one eight hour class or a series of five two hour classes in which you learn the basics of bee entomology, hive culture, honey and comb collection, pest and disease management, and the bee geek language. At the end you take a test. A score of 80% in each section is required to pass. Here in western Washington, there are a number of different club chapters that put these classes on throughout the year. Mine was sponsored by the Northwest District Beekeepers Association, which mainly serves Snohomish County. Our teacher was Jim, owner of the Beez Neez Apiary and Supply in downtown Snohomish.

Have any of you taken one of these classes? Do you raise honey bees? My class was pretty intense. There's a lot to cover in just eight hours, and it's tough to get all your questions answered in that span of time. Below are some of the things I learned that seemed most interesting or most important for our first venture into the world of honey.

Jim from Beez Neez placing a frame of bees, comb, and brood into his new display hive. This hive will sit in his store throughout the year so that people can come in and watch the bees through the glass. They're connected to the outside world by a clear plastic pipe on the left side of the hive box, which feeds into a second tube in the side of the building. When Jim finished, he rolled the hive back into the store.

  • Bees regulate the temperature in their hive. How do they do this? A group of individual bees will sit at the bottom entrance of the hive and flap their little wings like mad. This pushes cool air up into the hive and gets the hot air moving out. In the winter they can keep the core of the hive at about 87 degrees. It may be chilly outside, but the bees inside huddle into a clump to keep warm. For this reason, it's really important not to open your hive unless it's over 50 degrees out. And you shouldn't try to inspect brood comb (where the little babies are growing) unless it's at least 60 degrees.
  • Bees don't function as individuals. I can think of lots of Star Trek themes that fit this very well. Rather than consider their own needs, the bees will function as a unit, doing whatever will benefit the hive most. Therefore it makes sense that much of a bee's life is sacrificial. A sting to protect the colony ends their life. Mating ends a drone's life. It seems cruel to us, but it's natural for bees to operate this way.
  • A varied diet is a balanced diet. Bees need to collect many colors of pollen to get the protein and vitamins they need to thrive. When commercial beekeepers use their colonies to pollinate crops like sunflowers, the bees end up with severe nutrient defficiencies. Most bees will find what they need on their own, and you can check what kind of pollen they're getting into with a pollen collector. Some people will even pay big bucks for bee pollen!
  • When laying eggs, the queen bee can decide the gender of her offspring. If she lays a fertile egg, it will become a female. All unfertilized eggs become drone males. How about that.
  • Propolis, or bee glue, is one of the key ingredients in the varnish on a Stradivarius violin. It will also stain your clothes if you're not careful.

You can't imagine just how much info got crammed into my little brain. I still need to take my test and mail it in for my Apprentice certificate, but there's time. Hive and bee orders don't need to happen until early in the year, so now is the time to plan. What kind of hive should we try? Traditional Langstroth or something more like a top bar hive? One hive or two? And, most importantly, where do we put our hive(s)? We still haven't firmly decided to start keeping bees in the spring, but taking this class really helped me understand the work, patience, and determination we'll need to be successful.

And I love honey.

Maybe that's motivation enough.

Are you curious about bees? Check out this link from WSU, or contact your local agricultural extension office for more help. Find an issue of Bee Culture Magazine at your local library. Even the New York Times likes to write about bees! Keeping bees in the city represents some unique challenges, so please comment or email us with your questions, suggestions, ideas, and experiences.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I Heart Pumpkin

It's that time of year. October has arrived, there's a crisp edge to the air in the afternoons, mornings are foggy, and pumpkins abound!

They start out small, flanked by tendrils and bright yellow blossoms. Their skins are green and striped, delicate and impressionable. Some start out yellow. Some are fat, some are squat, some are lumpy, but they're all bound to be the highlight of autumn to come.

The growing season for pumpkins is pretty much over, even though we have a very mild climate in the Pacific Northwest. Leaves will be covered with powdery mildew, vines will shrivel and dry, and exposure to sunlight will turn pumpkin rinds orange. We've cut ours back and harvested all but the last two. Several have already found homes on neighbors' porches and front steps, but the rest will stay on as decorations, snacks, and chicken treats.

Photo courtesy of Charlesbridge.

So, now that you know what our pumpkin patch provides, let me continue to profess my love for punchkins. I love their bright orange glow on drizzly mornings. I love watching them darken after being cut and propped up on the porch railing. I love carving them and scooping out their guts. It's slippery and messy and disgusting and the most fun you can have late at night in your kitchen the week before Halloween. I love roasting (and eating) the seeds. Did I mention I love the seeds? They're plump and smooth, and the thick border that runs around their little almond-shaped border reminds me of old book bindings. I love pumpkin pies (and I hold the record in my family for most pumpkin pie consumed in a 24 hour period, a memorable trophy from the Year of Pies at Papadon's house one Thanksgiving). I love pumpkin flavored foods. Too much. Pumpkin scones are perhaps my favorite naughty treat. I even love pumpkin shaped candy corn. But the plants are where the affair begins. The sight of the first pumpkin sprouts in late spring and early summer gives me a thrill. Will they run wild and grow a string of little pumpkins on the path? Or will they devote themselves to one or two monstrous specimens? I love the disarray and abandon with which they conquer the yard. Pumpkins know no boundaries, nor do they respect a hefty pruning. Yep. I love punchkins.

It's been mistaken more than once that my favorite holiday is Halloween, which it is not. I remain faithful to Thanksgiving, a holiday devoted to food. I do like Halloween, however, and I always feel a nagging regret when work or other responsibilities get in the way of pumpkin carving, cookie making, candy eating, and the annual neighborhood candy bowl party (complete with bonfires, pop-up tents to keep out the rain, tons of food, loads of candy, and more than a few cans and bottles of brew). There are plenty of people who get into Halloween way more than I do, despite my affinity for bats, strings of candy corn lights, and those little paper ghosties people hang in their trees. I'm sorry if it disappoints, but my heart will always be in the pumpkin patch first.

Hungry for more pumpkin fun? Check out Small Measure, Pumpkin Muffins and How to Roast a Whole Pumpkin over at Veggie Venture, and more muffins at Farmgirl Fare.


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