Tag Archives: chickens

The Blessing

Three goats lay in the hay on the barn floor, chewing their cud, while nine hens cluck around them.

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The hens love the barn in the winter for the light from the clear plastic roof, and I’m watching them while the Bearded One is over checking the rat traps on top of the chicken coop.

LaLa chews side-to-side with his back molars.  I can see the clean white row of front bottom teeth and then he stops, pauses … as if he’s heard something.  He swallows, and a lump the size of an egg travels down his throat.  Leah flaps and pecks the hay.  LaLa ignores her, burps up another wad of hay which I watch travel up his neck, and then he starts chewing, side-to-side, again.

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Leah is at the end of her moult, and is less scraggly than she has been.  So is Sweet Tart.  Moulting hens don’t lay, but I am pondering the fact that none of our hens is laying.  We had a tiny fraction of our usual eggs in September and no eggs for the entire month of October.

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Hens need fourteen hours of light to lay eggs, and right now, in mid-October, on the 47th Northern Parallel (that’s north of Toronto and Montreal, Canada), we have about ten.  Plus the sun is low in the sky and blocked half that time by surrounding forest.

So we’ve started extending their light exposure by leaving a light bulb on for a couple of hours at both ends of the day — as we did last year with success.  They seem to just sleep right through the added light.  We hope to get the gals laying again soon.

I know I could drive into Gig Harbor and get a dozen eggs, but my seeming snobbery about the wonderfulness of our own home-grown eggs has become considerable.

Eggs aren’t essential, for heaven’s sake.  I love to bake cakes and cookies, and the Bearded One likes eggs for breakfast once a week or so.  We are mainly oatmeal folk now, to the Bearded One’s slow acceptance over time.  Still, we’ve had so many fresh beautiful eggs these past two years, we’re a bit spoiled.

“Please start laying again, Ladies,” I say.

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The Bearded One is over in the aviary (the chicken coop is inside the aviary) up on a ladder and shouts good news from the site of the rat traps — no birds, no rats, no rat droppings — and then he gets buzzed by a bird coming down the ladder and yells, “Whoa!  There’s a blue jay in here!”

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Garfield has noticed this also and as I approach, I see him climbing the corner post of the aviary.  A small Stellar’s Jay — powerfully, vividly blue with a black head — flutters around Garfield’s pole, panicking, even though Garfield can’t get to her.  The jay gets caught in the chicken wire reinforcement about halfway up the wall of wire and is flapping hard but making no progress.  Birds usually get into and out of the aviary with no trouble.  This bird seems young.

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“Get some gloves first!” shouts the Bearded One. Garfield has leaped up onto the wire just below the ever-more panicked bird.  She must be stuck.  I run back to the barn for the gloves, because wild birds and bare hands aren’t a good mix, and when I return, Garfield is like a horror movie showing against the aviary wall, glaring at the jay, vocalizing furiously.  The bird is wild now.  A bluejay tornado.

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I reach up and down between the overlapped layers of fencing and pull the bird out, sacrificing some underbelly fluff and feathers.  I don’t know if her wings or legs have been hurt.

Garfield has made his way back along the edge of the aviary, so I walk the other direction to the gate post.  I set the jay on the top of the post and let go.

Immediately she flaps hard and flies off to the northeast, the same direction as the trapped owl I released back in the spring.  Both times it feels like a blessing on this place flown in from deep in the forest.  I gasp with relief that she’s not hurt, with the thrill of touching her small body, and with the sight of her escape.  No more cats for her. I smile.

As if on cue, seven hens in a tight bunch come marching around the main gate and into the aviary all at once.  Straight into the chicken coop.  Maybe we’ll see some eggs tonight.

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Time to Come In

It’s 7:45pm and very dusky and the Bearded One went for a walk an hour ago, seems like.  We work later and later these spring days, but he’s usually in by now.

Our dinner, fish and rice, is out of the oven and I just put a kefir cheesecake in fifteen minutes ago.  The house is beginning to smell sweet and custardy. I fed Ruby a couple of hours ago.  She hardly goes on the evening walk with him anymore, staying put and pretending to sleep.  She’s 12.

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I’m not a worrier, really.  The Bearded One is very careful.  He has survived in the Alaska bush.  We have safety protocols for our toothbrushes.  He can imagine the most outlandish possible catastrophes as only an experienced lawyer can.  So I’m not really worried, more just curious what has delayed him.

I step out onto the deck.  It takes a minute for my newly-bifocaled eyes to adjust to the dark as well as to the distance in the backyard.  It’s extra dark because of the new moon this week.  Venus is out, and I can’t read the temperature in the hoophouse any more.  I whistle.  Our standard “Where are you?” whistle.

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It is immediately returned, and I turn to locate the Bearded One clear in the back corner of the yard by the apple tree.  His hands have been in his pockets, and he’s been looking up, studying, but now he steps back and waves.

“Comin’!” he shouts, shoves his hands back into his pockets and starts the trek in.  Past all the tender young vulnerable baby plants in the gardens.

Past the new no-dig potato garden — layers of newspaper, compost, minerals and straw — we put together late last week, and I’m hoping is free of last year’s scab.

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Past the onion and garlic garden I planted just this afternoon, all just watered.  The ink is barely dry on the stakes identifying their date of birth.

When I was planting the little round onion sets, the Bearded One worked on the lower pasture goat toy, and we both listened from our side of the forest to the sheer intensity of the distant neighbor children — 5 years, 7 years, or 9 years of concentrated life — and their visiting friends whoop and scream.  An indignant 5-year-old voice, clearly reporting to an adult, rang out, “HE TRIED TO CUT OFF MY HEAD!”  The Bearded One and I looked at each other and both laughed.  We lost our heads years ago.

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Now the Bearded One opens the hoophouse, which is full of inch-tall, cool weather seedlings — radishes, broccoli, turnips, cabbage, kale and fava beans.  Every day and evening he patrols for slugs.  This morning he removed one trailblazing slug on the inside, halfway up the plastic.  I lined the beds with Diatomaceous Earth, the fossil flour that theoretically they can’t cross without dying later on.

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There’s a dark truth to spring, I think.  Young things everywhere are in jeopardy.  We try to protect them, but slugs get in.  And so do chickens.

The sweet pea teepee is still surrounded by a chicken wire fence initially installed to keep a temporary backyard chicken out of the slender, infant peas.  We adopted the young Amerucana Sweet Tart and for a month, while she healed from a dog wound, she roosted at one end of the hoophouse and had the run of the backyard.  It was quite idyllic.

Until she got through the hoophouse partition — I left it ajar — and scratched around in the seed beds, wiping out a section of turnips and broccoli.

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That night we put her up in the coop with the nine other hens and she has integrated beautifully.

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Now the sweet pea teepee chicken wire keeps Garfield out.

The Bearded One closes the hoophouse door and crosses the small lawn, which needs mowing again, but it rained all weekend.  It’s full-fledged dark when I open the deck gate and meet him.

“The apple tree,” I say, and smile.

“Every branch is in a different stage,” he says, serious and enchanted as a toddler.  “Some just barely budding, others goin’ gangbusters, leafin’ out.”

“Yep.”  I hug him, and hustle him safely inside.

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