Cast and Crew

Monday, May 31, 2010

Growing Up is Hard to Do

The babies are now around ten weeks old. Can I still call them babies? They've grown very fast, and they're really starting to look like pullets. So what's the next step? When you have two flocks, integration is always on your mind. Lots of discussion posts and blogs will tell you to keep the birds separated, to introduce them slowly, and to intervene if the pecking gets too vicious. That's all great, but these are city birds in a small yard. Here are a few ways to maximize your success.

  • Let your chicks grow up in safety. We moved our brooder box into its own corner of the yard (literally a small corner; ours is only 6 feet by 10 feet, and it's wedged between the garage and the fence). The kids had grass and dirt, netting overhead to protect them from predators, and a mesh door to see the other chickens when they were out roaming.
  • Introduce everyone in open space. We let all the chickens out in the backyard (again, our backyard is not big by any means). They're distracted by open space and grass to eat, and there's lots of room to run away if a fight breaks out. Added benefit - an open yard is tough to claim in a turf war.
  • Move the chicks into their new home at night. Darkness is a signal for chickens to sleep. It's an easy time to catch, move, and poke fun at your girls. When they wake up, all the chickens are in the new space together. Side note - this is not as unsettling as a human waking up in a new home with strangers in the bed beside them. Chickens don't think about things as deeply as we do.
  • Distract the combined flock. This can be as simple as throwing in scratch (a mixture of corn and other grains fed as a treat), veggie scraps (particularly big things like whole heads of cabbage), or a new layer of straw, which always gives chickens a fun time scratching.
  • Make sure there's plenty of food and water for everybody. Possessiveness over food is common, so more feeders equals more opportunity for eats. Keep an eye on the younger birds, and make sure they're eating and drinking.
  • Chill out. Seriously. They're chickens. Expect pecking. This is a normal way for them to establish dominance. If you get one hen really attacking another, you may need to intervene. Otherwise, you should see an improvement in about a week.

Last night was the big night for our kids. We snuck into the brooder box, grabbed tails, dragged them out, and split up the family. Three went across the street into the new coop Donnie had just finished that day. I'll snap a few pictures of it and its inhabitants in a few weeks. The other three got thrown into the big girls' coop. Things were tense this morning. There were arguments over food, and Winnie and Rusty had a very bad landing when they emerged from the upper coop into the run. It takes time to learn how to climb ladders. To ease the hostilities, I harvested some of the half-eaten cabbages from the front yard and threw them in. You can clearly see the big girls on one side...

... and the next generation on the other. All of this reminds me of the first day of high school. The big kids are really big, and you feel tiny as a freshman. Then someone slams you into a locker and steals your lunch money.

It's pretty tough not to fall victim to my motherly instincts. I want to keep the little ones safe, and I hate to see Ursula and Raquel picking on Winnie (she has so far received at least two very sharp pecks to her back). Rusty is having some extreme self-confidence issues, and Dark Meat seems lost without her sister, Light Meat. I do understand, however, that they'll work all of these problems out in their own ways.

What was high school like for you?

Update - If you thought this post was cool here, just check it out now on the Urban Farm Hub. You can find posts from the City Chicken Farm at UFH on Fridays.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Gender Identity Issues

Alright, I'll admit it. We have been in denial. The concept has flickered across our brains since the end of our first week with the babies, but neither of us wanted to say it. So, instead, we went with what sounded "reasonable" in the moment.

"She's such a big girl!"

"She must be a week or two older than the other two Sussex."

"Look at that healthy comb and those wattles! She's gonna start laying before they get out of their brooder!"

You can sense what's coming, because your judgement isn't clouded by adoration or affection. In all honesty, we really liked Milla. She was sweet and curious, didn't mind being held any more than the others, and her feathering was second to none. I was really looking forward to having her around for a long time.

Last Friday, I came home from work to a disturbing sound in the backyard. It was coming from the brooder box. I stopped and listened, certain that one of the babies was in distress or dying. "Booor-kle!" I stepped closer. "Booor-kle!" It sounded like an accordion being run over by a car. I peeked into the brooder and watched Milla puff out her chest, open her beak, and borkle. I went from 10% convinced she was a rooster to 98% convinced. Aimee didn't believe me until she heard it on Sunday morning. "Booor-kle!" New roosters don't really get their voice for a while. Think of it like puberty in human boys. Milla was just learning how to crow. It will get worse.

"What do we call her.... er.... him, now?" Aimee asked. I shrugged and began suggesting similar names: Milo, Milton, Milos, Malcolm. We are still calling her Milla. Her. Milla. It hasn't sunk in completely. What to do with a rooster in the city? Everett municipal code, like so many urban chicken codes in other cities, prohibits keeping roosters, and it's for good reason. Contrary to city logic, roosters do not crow exclusively at sunrise. They'll wake you up any time they feel like crowing, especially if you're tired, it's late, or you have an important college paper due the next day. In addition to those lovely aspects, roosters defend their flocks from enemies. You might be one. Google "rooster" and you'll be inundated with tales of rooster attacks and wounds that are physical and emotional. Adult males grow a spur on their legs. It's a little like a long toenail, but it's sharp like a scythe. They will defend themselves and their hens to the death. (I am inwardly denying that these characteristics could ever be demonstrated by sweet, shy Milla. Of course she would grow up to be a nice rooster!) If you can't keep him, what will you do with him? Some folks hand their unwanted roos off to unsuspecting caretakers, others post ads on Craigslist and don't ask questions about what will happen to the little boy after the exchange takes place. By the way, eating roosters is common in lots of countries. We just don't realize it happens in the US, because we're really out of touch with the source of our food. Aimee and I have already discussed raising meat birds in a year or two. It looks like we get our chance early. Yes, that's right. Milla is going to be a barbecued bird sooner than later.

Stay tuned for more on the dilemmas of raising and roasting pets.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I'd Like to Thank the Academy...

Many of you, like me, have a long list of blog postings to peruse through the day. Who needs work when you can read about goats, chickens, donkeys, bees, and all the other goodies associated with farm life in the cities and the 'burbs? A couple of my favorite bloggers have recently awarded me, and I'd like to thank them for extending their attention my way.

Thoughts from a yodeling goatherder is a refreshing and quirky read. She presented me with the following award.

Mommypants! is one of those mothers who does it all. She presented me with this!

All this attention is likely to go to my head! The rules for each of these awards is a little different, but I'm going to combine them. I'll be including ten things about me (that you might not know unless you've spent more than ten seconds in my general vicinity), and passing these awards on to a few other blogs I deem worthy. Ready?

1. My parents deliberated over my name upon my birth. Dad was all for Astra, Mom liked Tellsie. Yeah. The kids in the third grade couldn't possibly have made fun of either of those... On the bright side, my grandparents on my mother's side wanted me to be named... wait for it..... Chitty. Our fine four-fendered friend. Yeah, I got lucky with the name Robin.

2. I know every lyric in every song and moment of the following musicals, and I can distort them for use in other situtaions, like singing about the dogs being hungry or the bus being late.

Phantom of the Opera
Les Miserables
3. My last name comes from the brand of guitar I play. Seriously. Taylors are fine, fine instruments, by the way.

4. As a kid I was in a professional children's choir in Indiana. Yep. I can actually sing. My mom was an opera singer, in fact. I hear tell kids ruined her chance at fame and fortune.

5. I have a 68 inch long tattoo. It spans the length of my arms and back when my arms are outstretched. The entire thing is a segment of lyrics from a Patty Griffin song, and the last word, my favorite, is "disgrace." I get a lot of questions about it, so I can say with accuracy that I am very well read.

6. I had to travel 5000 miles one way to meet the girl of my dreams, and I'd do it all over again (but I'd rather not repeat the long distance phone bills).

7. I have one of the best collections of juvenille and children's fiction you can find. My favorite is Time Stops for No Mouse by Michael Hoeye. Hermux rocks.

8. I can parallel park our Subaru Outback Wagon in one shot.

9. This July marks my 17th year of living in Washington state. My parents and I moved here when I was a sophomore in high school.

10. My brother and his wife life in Greenville, South Carolina. I haven't seen them in nine years.

I'll be passing along the Versatile Blogger award to:

Adventures in urban homesteading

The Itty Bitty Farm in the City

Whispering Acres

And the Sugar Doll goes to:

Come by chance

Two Chicks and a Hen

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Risks and Rewards

Someday we'll have a real farm with acreage, fences, rolling hills, maybe even some orchards and wild forest. It might even be at the corner of Field Road and Farm to Market Road (which has got to be the perfect place for a dream farm, right?). My daydreams are filled with images of red barns and ambling chicken coops, wire spools for the goats to play on, jars of freshly made honey in the pantry, and walking the perimeter of our property with the dogs off-leash. Daydreams are great. They never contain problems, storms, pests, or failures that bring on heartache. I could hold onto that mental image of the ideal farm, or I could face the reality that an agricultural life is going to be a balance of good and bad outcomes.

Last Monday we had a wind storm. It bent the stems of tomato plants and blueberry bushes, it slaughtered tiny lettuce transplants, and it was impossible for my mind to be anywhere but there, even though I had plenty of non-farm things to deal with. I get about twenty minutes between the end of work and the beginning of college classes three nights a week. I sneak in a quick dinner most nights, but there are other things to be done: dogs need to wee, eggs need to be collected, baby chicks need to be fed and watered. On Monday I stared out the front window at the ruined raised beds that used to be filled with produce-to-be, and I felt like crying. There was no time to rescue them, and the storm was still in full swing. Aimee propped them up with sturdier stakes that night, but I doubt they'll recover.

This is the first year we're really dedicating ourselves to growing as much of our own food as we're able, and it's been exciting up until now. That storm made it feel scary, and I found myself wishing we'd planted more. This is food security at its most revealing level. How does a farmer survive when disaster strikes? How do you make it through winter if your potato crop is stricken with blight? It's becoming obvious to me that farming is part science, part math, part faith (and part luck). Nature is going to take her share, whether you plan for it or not. Likewise, you don't gain without risking.

I've been debating whether to put the chicks outside, but something keeps nagging me to let them enjoy the brooder box a while longer. It seems a tough balance between safety and freedom, and I don't know where to draw that line. Am I over-protective? Probably. Are they in danger of getting hurt by being crowded now that they've grown so big? Absolutely. But if something happens in the wide world of outdoor living, I'll feel terrible. The compromise-in-action is this: we redesigned the brooder box with a mesh ceiling and a re-purposed set of cupboard doors (remnants of the same batch that supplied the main coop with its own doors). Potato Corner, one of the completely unused sections of the backyard, was already defined by two sections of fence and an outer wall of the garage. We created a fourth side out of more scrap materials, which now gives us a "playpen" for the little ones. (Why is it Potato Corner? A little batch of volunteer potatoes sprouted up there in our first summer in this house. They're gone now, but the name stuck.) After stringing poultry netting over the top of the area, our new nursery is complete. The babies have enjoyed their turf quite a bit already, and Nature hasn't been cruel.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Six Piece Bucket

There are a lot of adventures to be had when you're a baby chicken. Brooder box cleaning day could just be your chance to get out and see the real world. How do you transport six lively chicks from their brooder box to a grassy playpen? Stuff 'em in a bucket! The real trick is to keep them confined enough that they can't flap their wings. Flapping = escape.

The chicks are now about five and six weeks old. Can you believe how big they are? This weekend was their first real taste of the outdoor life. It was cloudy and breezy, but they toughed it out. We've created a little "playpen" area for them to explore in. It's got grass, weeds, flowers, and lots of dirt to scratch in.

Look at little Dark Meat! (We seriously need a better name for her and her sister, so don't hesitate to offer suggestions.) Still the smallest, Dark Meat is getting less shy and more bold with each passing day. Her feathering is beautiful.

You can really see the big girl feathers filling in on Light Meat's chest. She's nearly doubled in size just in the last week.

One of the two nameless Sussex discovered the roosting pole right around the same time Winnie saw it. They hung out there for a good long while. Roosting has become one of the favorite things to do lately. I've got a small dowel rod in their brooder box, but it's getting so much use that it may break any day now! It really wasn't meant for such chunky babies.

Winnie is queen of the roost. Don't even try to push her off.

Exploring is fun, but we like to stick together. When the wind blows, we puff up our feathers to stay warm. Huddling is an instinctual behavior in baby chicks. There's strength in numbers, you know. Even adult chickens prefer to be in a group, which is why they're always seen as a flock. If you take your young chicks out for some sunshine and grass, watch for this feather ruffling business. It's a sign that they're cold and may need to go back in their warm brooder box. We try to limit their outside time to 20 and 30 minute episodes.

Just like that first bunch of weeds we tossed into their brooder box, being outside is new and a little intimidating. They mostly huddled and explored a very small area, but they'll learn to run and flap soon enough.

Springtime may be chilly, but Dark Meat's feathers and fluff are downy soft! She sat with me for a few minutes to shelter from the wind. Everyone went back in the bucket and home to a clean brooder box at the end of a great adventure.


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