Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Bird in the Hand is Worth Bryan in the Bush

It was a big week for chickenhood  this week. The chickens were set free into the wild and  officially became free range chickens.  We opened up the door in the coop to the outside world and sat in the grass watching that opening like it was Sunday night programming on HBO.  We sat waiting for chickens to come pouring out of that coop and down the ramp.  They did not.  We sat and waited and watched.  And the chickens just sat at the opening of the coop and stared right back at us. I suggested that we go in the coop and flush them out, but Dr. Dolittle said that the chickens had to come out on their own free will so they could find their way back in.  And while I question most of Bryan's animal husbandry theories, I don't have enough knowledge on the subject matter to argue. So we just sat in the grass with Annabelle waiting for the chickens to decide to come outside.

We tried to coax then out with bread, but those chickens were not coming outside for anything.  Bryan was the first of us to cave and got up and retrieved one of our little Buff Orpington ladies and brought her outside.  She immediately ran underneath the coop and sat there.  Eventually she came out the other side of the coop where Bryan was waiting to pick her up and place her on his shoulder, where she remained for the next hour making Bryan look like some kind of landlocked pale pirate.   I was disappointed they didn't all come outside, but they quickly learned what treasures were hiding in the grass and over the weekend they all came outside on their own.  What was amazing to me about this was that they just know what to do.

Bryan and I had many discussions about whether or not to fence in an area for the chickens.  We want our chickens to have the run of the property for a number of reasons: It's better for the chickens health (their beaks, natural instincts, scratching, etc), they eat insects, and they also will be lot cheaper to feed if they are allowed to forage all day.  And while we never really made an official decision not to fence in an area for them, lack of time sort of won that battle and we just left the coop door open one day.   One of the first problems we noticed is that one of the cats just sat perched near the ramp waiting for a chicken to fall into his mouth. Now when it comes to the dangers our chickens face  Bryan and I disagree on how to handle such situations; Bryan subscribes to the Wyle E. Coyote school of thought and believes the chickens will learn to fend for themselves and outsmart the cats, whereas I am more of a Foghorn Leghorn believer "I say-I say now hold on heah just a minute.."  But as usual Bryan was right. The cats do a lot of watching and occasionally pouncing but the chickens are a lot faster than one would think, and it seems like harmless play as opposed to ruthless hunting.

That is not to say that our arrangement has been without incident. On the chickens' first full day outside, it just so happens Milton and Bernie were left outside too.  On that particular afternoon Bryan received a call from our nanny who comes once a week to inform him that she heard chickens screaming and saw that Milton not only had one in his mouth, but had scattered the chickens out to the fields.  Bryan and I were devastated that our chicken ownership was going to be so short-lived and that we screwed up so badly.  But sure enough, when we came home all those chickens had returned back to surrounding area of the coop.

A note here on the quantified statement of "all those chickens."  It is very difficult, in my estimation, to count 38 chickens.  So when a statement such as "all those chickens came home" is made,  it is more of a general statement that should be interpreted as "most of" or "a lot" of or "I think all those."  We will revisit more on this topic as we proceed.

So when we got home we sat in the grass with Annabelle and fed the chickens bread and just watched them run around near the chicken coop.  I never thought I would find the chickens to be so entertaining.  It's become a nightly ritual to come home and sit in the grass and play with the chickens.   There are too many to name, and it is probably better that we don't since we know some are being raised for meat, but it is amazing how quickly they become like pets.  

On the night the chickens were out for the first time all day, and Milton scattered them to all corners of the planet, Bryan and I went out together at dark expecting to have to chase the chickens back into the coop, but amazingly enough when we go to the coop they chickens were all inside and tucked in for the night already.  We looked underneath the coop, and the areas nearby and sure enough all those chickens were perched happily inside.  I continue to be astounded at this behavior.  So we closed up the door and came inside.  Of course once we got inside Milton sat at the back door whining and carrying on like a jackass, which is not at all uncommon.  I ignored him as long as I could but he was really bothered by whatever was going on outside so we let him out because it's easier than listening to him carry on.

On this particular occasion though letting him out proved to be both a smart decision and a stupid decision at the same time.  Milton took off like a rocket into the yard and then we heard a squawk and saw feathers fly.  Bryan ran out side barefoot screaming at Milton, and I was not far behind him. As it turns out, one of our poor little Black Star roosters didn't every make it back to the coop after the first Milton incident, and didn't get locked up for the night. We had to round up the rooster and put him away with his brothers and sisters.  And for those of you who are thinking "How hard can that be?" I assure you, it is not easy. 

I stood by and watched as Bryan chased the rooster around the bush he was hiding in, and each time he got anywhere near an arms reach from this bird, Milton would freak out and chase him away again.  Milton is once again lucky to have seen another day.  Bryan continued to sneak around the bush and I finally offered to come around the other side of the bush to flush the rooster out into his direction (this, my friends, is called strategy) but once again, Milton beat me to it, causing the rooster to fly up into the air, back down and then forcing him to run full chickenspeed to the house and underneath the deck. So Bryan, barefoot and on gravel and with his 6'4" frame folded essentially in half,  ran under the deck to catch the rooster.  I was highly amused at this point and noticing that the more amused I become the more crabby bryan became. He of course caught the rooster, after bumping his head, and returned him safely to his home. I knew he'd catch him, maybe that's why I was able to find the humor in a grown man running barefoot in the yard in the dark to catch a rooster.  And to be quite fair to Milton, he had the right idea. He let us know the rooster was outside and also let us know he wasn't where he belonged, he even ran over to the rooster to let his know where he's just that last part he struggles with, the not eating the rooster part.  And who can blame him? 

I am almost embarrassed to admit that I get excited to come home and see the chickens now. One day this week when we pulled in the driveway I didn't see the chickens out pecking in the grass or hanging out under the coop as they had been and I was not only disappointed but a little worried. But then when Annabelle and I got in front of the coop all of the chickens came out to greet us one by one! I couldn't believe it.  Annabelle and I sat in the grass and all those chickens came down their little ramp and crowded around us. Obviously they had grown quite accustomed to us feeding them bread, it's pretty evident that's what they were after.  But there was something very enjoyable about all these pretty birds parading around us and saying hello.  Eventually though they were starting to get a little demandng. They would peck at my fingers, shoes, and even Annabelle's toes. And while it's a little pinchy, they're not too viscous. 
So as summer approaches and Annabelle is almost eight months old, I recognize how my life continues to evolve out here.  Each day this week when Annabelle and I got home we didn't even go inside, we just went to the coop and sat in the grass and watched the chickens peck and scratch and do chickeney things.  And every night after we put Annabelle to bed Bryan and grab a beer and walk hand-in-hand outside to lock up the coop.  As we were walking down to the coop the other night I commented to Bryan how much I enjoyed doing that each night...he was quick to point out that it will not be nearly as fun come January.  Bryan is a very smart man. 

Tonight I noticed the chickens were up on the concrete slab near the shed which will be very unpopular should that continue, so be prepared for the chicken honeymoon to be over if they start to forage where chickens are not welcome.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Croc of...

I am trying to figure out why so much time is passing between posts.  Perhaps it is because my evenings are simply filled to capacity with super fun activities. For example tonight as I was typing I had to stop and watch Annabelle watch an ant.  She was on the floor playing with her toys and we spotted an ant scurrying across the floor.  Bryan and I had to stop everything to see how this would turn out.  Would she it? Would she be afraid of it?  Would she care?  She did in fact see it and she got her little pinching fingers going ready to grab and squeeze...and potentially eat it.  Basically this activity boiled down to us staring at Annabelle and Annabelle staring at an ant.  And please reserve your comments about why there is an ant crawling on my living room floor. We just got rid of the Box Elder bugs, I have no energy left for ants.

And the other night we attempted to give Annabelle Cheerios which mainly consisted of lining up 4 Cheerios on the tray of her high chair and staring at her.  She'll eat them if we feed them to her, and she is able to pick them up one at a time, she just doesn't seem to understand that the Cheerios are food. But yet this same baby will pick up small pieces of gravel or dog hair and eat them.  And if you are going to give me grief about having gravel and dog hair on my floor, please see my comment above regarding ants.

And just last night I had to pause the tv and end a phone conversation so I could watch Bryan feed cole slaw to Annabelle, which she loved and happily ate.  So as you can see, I am very very busy. 

So lets get down to business. The chickens. The chickens are getting a little nuts and we are patiently waiting for Bryan's busy season to wind down so he can complete the outside run.  They are going to eat us out of house and home if we do not let them out to forage soon.  We have access to to a fair amount of free bread so the chickens get bread along with their chicken feed each day and night as a special treat.
As you can see, they really like it. 

I'm finding these chickens are doing very little or my self-esteem.  I try to participate in chicken ownership and give the chickens bread as often as I can, but they don't come pluck the bread right from my hand as they do for Bryan.  Living with Bryan is like living with Dr. Doolittle, minus the PHD, clean hands, veterinarian's salary, and madcap misadventures.  Actually...I take that back, Bryan is FULL of madcap misadventures.  But Bryan is a friend of all animals and they seem to be drawn to him. I keep telling myself not to take it personally, but no matter what logic tries to tell me I'm still pissed the chickens won't eat the bread from my hands. 

When I told Bryan about my hurt feelings and disappointment, he questioned my approach and technique.  I explained to Bryan that I walk into the coop and say "here chick, chick, chick" and toss pieces of bread.  Bryan said that's my problem, the chickens don't like talking.  So in addition to taking it as a personal attack that the chickens won't eat bread out of my hands, I also am paranoid that once the chickens are outside they will not come back in at night when I call them because they will not respond to my patented "chick chick chick" call, and because apparently I am really lame in the chicken world.  Apparently I lack the finesse required for feeding bread to a hungry chicken.
I also have become a bit skittish with regard to holding the chickens.  On more than one occasion Bryan has threatened to place 2 chickens in a burlap sack and place it over my head and tie it shut as some sort of aversion therapy.  But lets be honest, catching a chicken to pick up and hold is nearly impossible at this point and it is also a humiliating task.  It's humiliating even if no one is watching.  It is a humbling game of running around in small circles and flailing your arms and making large sweeping grasps at air.  It rarely results in actually catching a chicken. 

So when Bryan catches a chicken and gives it to me to hold, I make a lot of squealing noises.  The 12 big chickens are big, and like real full size chickens now, and not as enjoyable to hold as I envisioned.  There is a great deal of wing flapping and their feet are now at the point where they feel gross in my hands.  Chicken feet are cold and rubbery feeling and quite frankly... freak me out.  And there is the very serious safety risk they pose. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens provides roughly 3 pages on the proper way to catch and handle a chicken. I will not bore you with all the details, especially considering I have yet to master any of the techniques covered in the book.  But Storey's Guide cautions:  "A frightened chicken will try to get free by flapping its wings and paddling its feet and may slice you with a claw.SLICE.  This is their word, not mine and is therefore serious business.  I asked Bryan if we could get shoes for our chickens to wear and he said no. I feel it necessary to point out that people put shoes on those creepy mini-ponies and Shetland Ponies. When I conveyed these very serious issues (both humiliation and safety related issues) to my mother on the phone she asked why I need to hold and pet the chickens and I didn't have an answer for her.  She also went on to tell me how many Italians cook and eat chicken feet, or at the very least put them in the sauce.  So fellow Italians, talk to me in a few weeks and see where we're at with butchering chickens, I may have some feet for you.

Our 12 big chickens are getting really big, and their personalities are not quite as endearing as the "babies."  And in recent reading I discovered that a fryer chicken is about a 7 week old chicken, so some tough decisions are going to have to be made soon.  Though we cannot for the life of us tell the gender of the 12 big chickens apart.  It is very easy to pick out the roosters from our batch of Black Sex Links, the problem is...the Black Sex Links (which bryan now exclusively refers to as Black Stars because he's sick of my sexter talk) are so pretty and sweet, I don't want to eat any of those roosters. And for those of my friends who are animal lovers and do not approve of eating our lovely roosters please consider all the chickens butchered and sold in the world for just a moment. I fed our chickens cantaloupe and lettuce this week. They each have a nesting box, and perches.  They get fresh air daily.  These chickens have a very good life under our care.

Regardless of personal beliefs on eating birds you raise yourself, I did consent to raising a few of these chickens for meat, but now I don't want to eat the nice ones.  I have no problems butchering the 12 big chickens because they are much less friendly, but we don't know which are the hens and which are the roosters, and we want to keep our hens.  Internally this raises a lot of questions for me about what kind of person I am deep down as it seems I take issue with eating the sweet, docile, adorable Black Stars but will happily eat the chickens that are flighty and a little bit mean.  These chickens are teaching me quite a bit about myself.

So as we all learn and grow with the chickens I will leave you with some parting wisdom.
Important lessons on appropriate behavior in the chicken coop:
  1. Absolutely NO flip flops in the chicken coop.  You will be very sorry.
  2. Conversely, it is ill-advised to wear a quality shoe costing more than $14 into the chicken coop. Crocs (purchased on sale) are an ideal coop shoe as they are made of rubber and can be hosed off frequently.  The only downside of Crocs in the coop is they have holes in them, which carries many risks. At the very least you will be picking straw out from between your toes. Please refer to exhibit A.
  3. No matter how much you think they might, chickens do not like to wear your hat.
  4. It is best to keep your mouth closed in the coop.
  5.  Chickens spook very easy. So if a chicken decides to "fly" i.e. jump from a perch to the coop floor and looks as though she might fly directly into your face which causes you scream "Oh my gosh! Holy Shit!" It will frighten all the chickens causing them to make chicken noises and move very fast as a group to the other side of the coop.  See lesson #4.
    Exhibit A
    (elapsed time in coop: 5 minutes)


**As of press time the chickens are eating bread directly from my hands. It seems if they get hungry enough they will give me the time of day.  I will starve the chickens into loving me!

He's standing on poor Flat Stanley, but it's such a  great picture of how beautiful our little Black Star roosters are, I had to share it.