Tag Archives: meat chickens

Weasel Wipeout

The dead Cornish chick lies wedged at the bottom of the gate, the bite on its neck as deep and bloody as the cut I was planning to make in just five weeks.  Weasels only want the blood.

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Three more dead chicks lay against the  fencing to my right, forty more are scattered here and there, a hillside of horror.

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It’s late Saturday morning.  I let 57 healthy 2-1/2 week old chicks out of their overnight coops several hours ago.  And then the Bearded One returned from his morning walk and found me here in the kitchen frying our next-to-last chicken from last year.  “Oh my darling, you know that meat birds are not pets,” the Bearded One says, catching and holding my eyes with his.  And then, “Because weasels got ’em all.”

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Blood drains from my face and then my whole head as I register the massacre.  I must make meaning of this, but I’m racing up the hill.  My soul is already searching, but the event is still happening.  I can’t make meaning on the fly, though I keep trying.

We find four survivors huddled in the far corner of the pen, and a fifth shows up later, while I silently dig the mass grave and the Bearded One gathers the little corpses in a wheelbarrow.

“We didn’t keep them safe,” I say.  The Bearded One parks the loaded wheelbarrow near the three-foot deep pit and says, “Sorry, Meat Birds.”

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“Let’s count them as we go,” I say.  I’m surprised and comforted by the simple ceremony, how the enormity builds until I cry.  One…TwoThree…FourFiveSix….Fifteen….Twenty-ThreeTwenty-Four Twenty-Five…Thirty-Six…Thirty-SevenThirty-Eight…Forty-OneForty-TwoForty-Three…and finally, Fifty-Two.  We fill the grave in and resolve to do better.

The Bearded One calls Momma Goose and Brooklyn Man, our neighbors and poultry mentors.  We ordered the Cornish chicks with them last month.  They have 59 identical birds in their non-weasel-proof coop.  Brooklyn Man is horrified.  Another neighbor got wiped out precisely this way a few weeks ago.  He says that they’ve never lost any birds to weasels.  He knows that weasels can not only climb and dig and get through a one-inch hole, but they can also cross the road to his place.  His chicks are doomed.

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So we make plans to move his chicks to our aviary that evening.  We’ll do the work and split the birds with him.  The aviary isn’t Fort Knox, but it’s dig-proof (cement trench all the way around), there’s doubled chicken wire on super tall walls, plus goats patrol the perimeter.  Our layers have been safe in there for almost two years.

Cornish fryers and grown layers would fight if they were housed together.  So for now, the layers will be fine shut out of the aviary until we harvest the meat birds on August 2.

As he backs out the tractor and trailer to move Brooklyn Man’s chicks, in broad daylight, the Bearded One sees one of the supposedly nocturnal weasels loping across the tractor trail — long and dark and about the size of a stretched-out squirrel.  We see them on the road once in a while.

It’s the hottest weekend of the summer so far, up to 90F, and sweat drips into my glasses as I move Brooklyn Man’s feeders and waterers into the aviary.  The Bearded One catches dozens of chicks and then hauls them to our place.

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The transfer takes a couple of hours and we are exhausted when it’s all over.  “I’ve reached full kaput,” says the Bearded One.  The house is an inferno, and before I go to bed, I look outside and ask the wounded Barred Owl I removed from the aviary last week to please eat the weasels.

Sunday is blissfully uneventful.  Only Maybelline and Kimber, two of our bossiest layers, are out of sorts, furious about not having access to the aviary and their old nest boxes.  They pace the aviary perimeter while the meat birds mock them, dust bathing and stretching their drumsticks in the sunray.

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All is relatively well for two nights and half of Monday.

And then the Bearded One hurries back to the kitchen after just finishing lunch — “Six or seven meat chicks are dead,” he says. “Weasels again.  I think it just happened.  I heard a loud squawk.  I left Ruby up top guarding the place.”

We move fast, I’m in the lead, and I see a dead chick by the aviary door, a deja vu of Saturday at the meat bird pen on the other side of the property.  There are five more dead, but all the rest are still alive.

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“You caught them in the act,” I say, and the Bearded One agrees.  He gathers the bodies.  “They’re still warm and loose,” he says.

I look up and around.  “You know the weasels are watching us,” I say.

“There’s no safe place on this property,” he says, “except inside the house.”

“I’m entering the anger stage,” I say.

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We decide that we have to move the chicks back to Brooklyn Man’s.  At least they’ll make it through the afternoon.  The weasels haven’t discovered his place yet.  They’ll be back here the minute we leave.

I babysit the chicks while the Bearded One calls Brooklyn Man at work, and then we spend the afternoon catching and transporting 58 chicks back to the hopefully weasel-free zone.

At least for now.  Any place is safer than here.  We quarantine the aviary to clean it up for the layers, all of which we now wonder if we’ll lose.  That’s how weasels are.

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Meat Bird Harvest

I can hear it breathe — the yellow beak is wide open.  I coo, smooth the glossy white wings, and hold the plump breast to my chest until it calms, which happens surprisingly fast. I ignore the ever-present dried poop that clings to each fluffy tush. “Good chicken,” I say — no names, no separate identities — and place it, long yellow toes first, gently into the trailer.

It takes both of us to catch all 26 grown Cornish Rock chickens, the Bearded One herding them with a broom and me snatching them, even though it’s late afternoon and they’ve been fasting all day. Momma Goose called and said let’s do it this evening. It’s cool, her husband wants to help and he has to work tomorrow. We were ready for this possibility, since they were getting the rental equipment today.

One of the last chickens poops on me as I carry it to the trailer. Poor thing, it’s so scared.

“You’ll feel better if you change,” says the Bearded One as he closes the wire top of the trailer and climbs into the tractor seat.

I agree, although these are my cutest pants, dang. I walk down the hill scolding myself for my shallow vanity in the face of impending death. I focus once again on the life and death power I have over these animals.

“Goats,” I stop and say to Sage, Pearl, and LaLa. “You laying chickens over there,” I call out toward the aviary. “You animals are not leaving. This is good-bye to the meat birds only.” They all are quiet and listening.

And then I drive the truck with the rest of the supplies — plastic wrap, Pam cooking spray, firewood, leather gloves, rubber gloves, ziplock baggies, the big white knife and two paring knives — down the road to Momma Goose’s farm.

I see their green open pasture, the busy house with feral kittens and small dogs and many objects d’art up on the left, the row of poultry houses and pens on the right, and two enormous old-growth stumps in a fire pit at the very back of the property.

Beyond the last pen but still thirty feet from the fire I see the Bearded One, our chicken trailer, and Momma Goose’s husband, Brooklyn Man. He’s from Brooklyn, New York and told Momma Goose when they met that he didn’t “do” dogs, as in live with them.  Now they have four in the house. He’s a big man with a big laugh and a big heart.

Momma Goose herself waves to me from her bright red Adirondack chair perched on the hill below the house.  “Hey!” she calls out and points with her cigarette.  “Just drive right on down!”

Jonah, their Twenty-Something son, unloads the rental equipment and listens to the radio of his small pick-up truck.  Led Zeppelin. The only other music I remember from the day was Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and that was halfway through the job when I was jogging from the butchering table with a finished bird, rinsed and ready for the cold water chest.  I sang along.

I park the truck, and as I approach I hear Brooklyn Man marveling at the size and health of our chickens.  We used expensive feed. They plan to shift to it. “The feathers are thick and shiny,” he says.  “They’re HUGE,” says Momma Goose, who’s got an apron on like I do. “They’ll be four to six pounds dressed.”

Each bird cost us about $10 to raise, counting the initial cost and eleven 50-pound sacks of feed.

Momma Goose says that it was either the food we bought or our large pen or both, but we done good. I feel proud, but the chickens are thirsty, I can tell. Their mouths are all open.  Time to get to work.

The Bearded One and I watched two YouTube videos the night before of a very cute, very gentle and respectful Amish country farmer demonstrating his company Featherman’s three machines — killing cones, scalder, and plucker. The set costs around $6,500 retail, so small farmers just rent it from counties for $20 per day.

Jonah attaches a propane tank to the square metal scalder and the Bearded One and Brooklyn Man fill it with water through a garden hose attached to their home’s hot water heater. Much faster. I unload firewood from the truck and haul it to the pit in order to burn the intestines, heads, feet, and feathers. Then I spray Pam over every inch of the killing cones — metal megaphones on a turnstile — to make cleanup of the blood easier.

The Bearded One attaches another hose to the plucker, which is a big whirling tub with rubber fingers. Momma Goose fills two coolers with icy water and sets up the tables for butchering and wrapping. At the end, everything has to be super clean.

Five stations ready. Set.

I fetch the first bird, and it honks and flaps wildly. I hold it close until it calms, whisper my gratitude for its sacrifice, then carry it to the cone.  Head first, down it goes, its head sticking out the bottom, its yellow feet sticking up.  It is surprisingly quiet. Not all of them will be. There are 8 cones and Momma Goose and I fill them all.

Jonah pulls the first head down as far as it can go, cuts the throat and artery and dark red blood begins to drain. The bird’s mouth stays open as it dies, which takes a few minutes, although its eyes cloud in seconds.  The Bearded One watches carefully because he is to dispatch all the rest of the birds. One of the great advantages of doing this with a group of friends is that you don’t have to do every job yourself.

When there is no more movement or blood draining, I take that first bird out by its legs and dunk it in the 150 degree water of the scalder.  Swish, swish, back and forth, feathers begin to loosen, but unbelievably the poop on the derriere remains. The bird is heavy to handle after this point.

Too long in the scalder and the skin can tear or even cook some of the flesh. Too short a time and the feathers stay in.  The test is whether the feathers under the wing pull out easily or not. Two 10-second dunks usually does it.

Then to the plucker, where the dead chicken starts to look like a gag rubber chicken. The poopy feathers finally come out and flow out the bottom of the plucker into a bucket for the fire.

I carry the first plucked bird to the butchering table.  With a big sharp knife, I find the leg/foot joint and cut off the feet.  Then I cut off the head, keeping the neck.  Now it looks like a store-bought bird except for gutting, which I do with a smaller knife. I cut a semi-circle at the rear end, then cut below the anus as Jonah gently shows me.  I reach into the warm carcass and pull out the innards, saving aside the smooth dark liver and nut of a heart for stock.  Jonah approves my work, I rinse the cavity and skin of blood with the nearby hose, and then carry the bird to the ice water where it must completely cool before I wrap it with plastic.

The five of us process 24 birds in just under an hour and a half. It is constant movement. We leave two back to see how big they get in the next two weeks, when we’ll harvest them with Momma Goose’s birds on August 25.

We help clean up (a large chore…) and are home with a cooler full of chickens by 8:30pm when it’s getting dark.  I carry buckets of birds into the freezer while the Bearded One parks the tractor and puts the lone two live meat birds back in their coop.

“We did it,” I say, as we both strip and head for a hot shower, hoping to wash off at least one layer of exhaustion.

“I’ve never raised and processed meat birds with anyone else,” the Bearded One says and smiles.

“I’m still processing.”

“Me, too.”

All Chook Up

It is 9pm and just barely light, bedtime for the 26 meat birds.  The Bearded One goes up to their pen and ushers them into the coop for the night with a broom.  Even from the comfort of my computer chair with a cup of tea and Garfield in my lap — I have morning chicken duty — I hear them squawk and honk and complain.  They do not just go to bed in a neat row on a roost like the layers even when it’s dark.

After the Bearded One corals them all into the coop and closes the top, he rakes the peat moss to cover the copious chicken poop.  I sip my tea and pat my cat and read about my Australian friend’s efforts to fertilize her crummy silty soil with chook poo, which is Australian for chicken poop.

“What are the contents of chook poo?” I asked the Bearded One this afternoon when I started my research.

“Sweetie, poop is a base element,” he replied.  We’ve been making chook poo jokes ever since.  What else can you do?

It was stinking badly enough yesterday that we both got a whiff of it out on the road, so we added 6 more bales of peat moss today to make our deep litter method of poop management work with this many chickens.

The hauling mechanism. Six bales of peat moss at $12/each.

A thin layer of peat moss has worked well with our layers, but there are only 10 of them, five are banties, and they run around the whole pasture pooping all day.  The meat birds sit a lot, they don’t scratch around much at all, and it’s hard to keep all their poop buried in the composting peat moss.

The meat birds help disperse the bales.

Twenty-six Cornish Rock broilers each produce 2 pounds of poop a week.  They’re 7 weeks old now, and the plan is to harvest them on August 25 with our neighbor Momma Goose.  Three-and-a-half weeks to go.  That’s 182 more pounds of poop between now and then.  At least it composts well.  Then the smell disappears completely.

Chook poo does make excellent fertilizer, but it’s too “hot” with nitrogen (1.8%), phosphate (1.5%), and potash (0.8%) to put directly on a garden without letting it compost with hay and dead plants for at least a month.  But with our cool summer this year, the composting takes longer.  It’s been cloudy all week.

“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” the Bearded One sang to me this afternoon when I complained about the forever cold weather, “Only poop when she’s away.”

Gardening has been a trial this year.  It’s a combination of worn-out soil (it takes only a couple of years to leech) and no heat.  The whole country is burning up but we’re still running the space heater in the kitchen.  The Bearded One wears a heavy flannel shirt to split wood.  The corn is barely knee-high the first week of August.  The beans are scarce and wimpy.  What’s the point?

The struggling corn, pumpkin and bean garden.

The broccoli and cabbage are lush and delicious.

So are the berries, onions and potatoes.  Note to self:  Stick to vegetables that grow well in a cool climate.

The potato, cabbage, broccoli and onion garden. Raspberries, boysenberries and marionberries against the back fence.

He cleans his boots with the hose and a brush, but they still reek, so he leaves them in the enclosed entry porch aka the cat condo overnight.  The meat birds are tucked in for the evening once again.

Finally, he comes in the front door.  I come downstairs to get more tea.

“They were scattered all over the freaking place,” he says, “the usual thugs flapping to a hiding place behind the coop.”  I smile and kiss him.  “Poor sweet baby,” I say.

He opens the fridge and reaches for a Coke, which is beside the Tupperware which still holds the precious rubber egg that I can’t quite bring myself to throw away yet.  He ignores the egg and pops open a can of his favorite nectar of the gods.

He drinks deeply and says, “I’m all chook up.”

Moving Day

I’m standing in the middle of the brooder with 29 shrieking Cornish Broiler chicks.  The Bearded One stands outside the brooder with an open cat carrier.  The 3-week-old chicks have outgrown the brooder and it’s time to move them up the hill to their new pen and its 2 new coops.

I release each chick into the cat carrier and the Bearded One guards the door as panicked chicks try furiously to escape.  We’ll do this for 5 chicks at a time, six trips in all, carrying the carrier out of the hut, down the deck stairs, past the gardens and through the gate, up the hill, turning left at the barn and then left again into the meat bird pen.  We’ve already made this circuit umpteen times, in preparation.  I’m not exhausted and irritated yet, but I can feel it coming on.  That hill will get you eventually.

“Where’s Garfield?” asks the Bearded One.

Lurking under the stairs.  Waiting for us to depart with the first load of chicks, hoping that we leave the hut door open so he can visit the remaining birds.

I climb out of the brooder and notice the thick layer of chicken poop on the bottom of my boots, which is now all over the deck and stairs as I tromp after the cat.  The Bearded One does many things, but picking up a cat is rarely one of them.

“You little killer you,” I say as I pick up my kitty, breathe in his fur and ask him for the power to be sweet to the Bearded One who I’m starting to growl at, and deposit him into the house.  The cat, that is.

There have been so many preparations for this event, so many meticulous efforts to make it work, that I’m wearing down.  The Bearded One is all about carefully thought-out procedures; I want to just jump in and figure it out as I go.  He fusses over the sealing ring on the new waterer forever.  I fetch olive oil to coat the ring so the waterer will shut down when it’s supposed to.  Another trip down and back up the hill.

He fiddles with the feeders and the best available trash can to move to the coop to hold the sacks of feed.  If he says, “Not quite yet,” one more time, I just might go postal.

I’m back in the brooder, which smells heavily of ammonia after 3 weeks of accumulated poop from 32 original chicks.  Three have died since they arrived at 2 days old on June 14 — no signs of illness.  “We can’t interpret much from the bodies,” was the Bearded One’s response when I insisted he look at each dead chick as I discovered it.  I was saddened.  He surmised the dead chicks flew into the side of the brooder and broke their necks.  From watching them, that’s probably right.

Several chicks are clearly roosters.  They’re bigger, are all leg and thigh, and run and flap at each other to thump chests.  All of these meat bird chicks are as big as some of our year-old banties.  I snatch one and right away feel its warm, plump, pebbly poultry skin.  It weighs about as much as two oranges.  Its head is still covered with yellow fuzz, but the rest of him is mottled with scruffy white feathers and raw, pimply pink skin.  He looks like the adolescent that he is.

We keep increasing the number of chicks per load — from 5 to 7 to 8 to 9 = 29.  One from the last load races back out and falls down into the brooder, but no harm is done.  I insist on carrying the first load up, but my injured hamstring (from the day I used extremely poor judgment and raced the hen Leah up the hill trying to close the upper pasture gate before she followed me in with the whole flock following her) starts hurting and the Bearded One carries the other 3 loads.

Finally they are all in the two new coops running around in the peat moss and huddling under the 100 watt ceramic bulbs.

One of the Bearded One’s preparations was to run an electric cord from the barn, through 2-inch PVC conduit 8 feet in the air (away from the goats’ playful and curious horns) across to the meat bird coops to power these bulbs since we’re still in the low 40s at night.

After lunch on this already long day, the Bearded One cleans the hut — 3 wheelbarrow loads — of wood-pellet litter and hay to the compost…

…and I transplant 3-week-old corn plants and pumpkin plants from the hoop house into the former strawberry garden.

I watch as he carefully cleans my boots with the hose and my heart softens.

“Are we best friends?” I ask him as we head out on a walk together after everything’s done.

“You are my true companion,” he says and reaches for my hand.

Chicken Guilt

I look like I’ve been squatting over seedlings in the sun all day — dirty fingernails, red neck, and a bit of a limp.  We’re headed out on our evening walk with Ruby, and right away two unknown cars are coming slowly down our mile-long dead-end dirt road.  We sit Ruby and wave at the cars as they pass.

I hope I don’t look too seedy.  The road looks great, though.  We just filled the potholes and have been clipping back the encroaching salal — which the goats love.  The passing cars are newish and clean and I peg them as realtors.

One of the biggest houses on our road is up for sale.  The sign went in this week.  It calls our road “a quiet country lane,” which is true even with the barking dogs and crowing roosters and a couple of four-wheelers that roar by on beautiful days.  We are a motley crew, all colors and ages and politics, and like most neighborhoods, we work at getting along.  Except on beautiful spring evenings like this, when it comes easy.

We wait for the road dust to settle.  “Oh,” says the Bearded One, “I saw Momma Goose this morning on the road.”

We’re walking again and the air is soft and fragrant with cottonwood, the evening birds twittering.  I prompt the conversation.  “Uh,” I say, “so what did you talk about?”

“Chicken guilt.”

I laugh and know exactly what he’s talking about.  He’s just so succinct.  I have O.D.’d us both this week — Omnivore’s Dilemma‘d us, that is — on the question of killing sentient creatures because I want something to eat.  And raising them solely for that purpose.  And buying chicks that have been vigorously and unnaturally bred to grow big and meaty fast.

“She says to tell you she’s with you.  Jonah does the killing, not her.  She says the whole thing only works as a big family or neighborhood production, with everyone helping, doing whatever part they can.”

Which is what Michael Pollan says, too, in his chapter on slaughter.  He writes that slaughtering animals every day of the week is dehumanizing, and that to manage our moral dilemma we should process poultry with other people, having conversation, working carefully and humanely.

Our 30 all white, straight run (mixed pullets and cockerels) Cornish Rock chicks will arrive on June 16 and will live out their 8 weeks of life on the ground, growing very fast, and by the end, eating two 50 pound sacks of feed every week.  I want their lives to be good.  I also want to eat chicken soup.

Here are some Cornish broilers at http://www.fastgrowtheweeds.com, shown here with the blogger's kind permission.

The Bearded One is designing the coops to be movable for cleanliness purposes, and he’s tripled the size of the pen from our first plan.  There will be plenty of scratching and pecking space.

Looking down the hill from the upper goat and chicken pasture, past the barn on the left. The Bearded One is in the middle of the planned meat chicken pen, which will extend down toward the hoophouse. He's using a 10'x20' piece of leftover hoophouse plastic to cover half of the upper pen area.

“Car,” I say.  Ruby is snuffling in the blackberries by the side of the road and takes her sweet time coming.  The husband of Momma Goose pulls up in his little red car.  He is a big man who works as a jailhouse guard and has seen it all.  “How’s it goin’?” he says with a smile.

I tell him everything, as if he’s a priest and I’m in confession.  I ask him if he knows that the use of growth hormones on chickens has been illegal in the U.S. since the 1950s?  That it’s the breeding that’s responsible for the fast growth.  It galls me, I say, that chicken marketing screams “No Hormones” to draw attention away from the antibiotics and miserable conditions of factory farms.

“It’s what made America great,” the Bearded One chimes in, and Momma Goose’s husband laughs.

“Hey, a guy at work saw me reading the blog and he sees your drawings and says, ‘Is that a GOAT?'”

The Bearded One and Momma Goose’s husband hoot and holler at that.  The stick goats have an audience.  I laugh, too, but am really thinking about how cool it is that he shares a neighbor’s blog with other guards.

We are in the home stretch of our walk — just three more realtors or lookers waved at — when Hansel and Gretel come racing down the road toward us on their bikes.  Batman is still further up the hill, sitting atop his dad’s shoulders, who rides his bike behind the kids.  We sit Ruby and wave.

Hansel stops and Gretel almost rear ends him.  They are breathless, their cheeks are pink and Gretel’s hair swirls as she laughs in the face of the near crash.  They can hardly say hi they are breathing so hard.

Then Batman and his dad sail on by, waving, Batman shouting, “BYE BYE!!”

We laugh and yell out to Batman’s dad, “Watch out for the realtors!”

The Case of the Eggzact Eggcount

It’s 7:30 pm and the Bearded One has just put the chickens to bed.  He counts 10 hens that have finally settled down on the top roost, collects the day’s eggs from the five nest boxes, closes the coop doors and then unties and locks shut the little chicken door of the aviary.

“Only 3 eggs,” he tells me when he returns to the house.

“Impossible!” I say ungraciously.  I’m in the kitchen doing dishes and am stunned.  The usual is between 6 and 9.  “I heard the hens all day when I was weeding.  Everything sounded normal.”

The Bearded One heard them, too.  In fact, he had to dunk Stevie twice for broodiness.  He is becoming a broodiness expert.  He says there are two types of broody hens — one looks bored but will cut you with a switch blade, the other you could put a fireworks sparkler beside and she wouldn’t notice it.  That’s how it usually is with our hens.  Stevie doesn’t move.

“Maybe it’s related to the broodiness,” he says.  “They’re hogging the most desirable nest boxes.”

“Maybe,” I say.  “But where are the other eggs then?”  Do healthy layers just stop laying if they can’t get the exact spot they want?  How to solve the riddle…

I study the April calendar on the side of the refrigerator.  There it is, colored in yellow crayon on the Daily Egg Chart our farmsitting neighbor children gave us last week upon our return.  That Thursday was a meager 3-Egg Day, the first full day we were gone.  The hens could have been upset.

Before that, the last 3-Egg Day was when Blackie was killed on March 30.  Another upsetting day.  It makes some sense to me that their systems would shut down with stressful days, but what was so stressful today?

I was weeding, the Bearded One working on the new meat chicken pen.  It’s just 2 more months before 30 2-day-old Cornish Broiler chicks arrive in the U.S. mail from the hatchery in Texas, without a mother, and needful first of a warm brooder, and then a pen and coop to live out their 8 weeks of life before we turn them into meat.

We go to bed with the mystery unsolved.  I dream uncomfortably of boxes and fence boundaries and weeding vast acres of gardens, turning them into little neighborhoods of vegetables, and neat little domesticated developments with pens for poor chickens and goats to live out their lives in the service of humans.

The next morning, the sky is blue and I feel better as I always do in the morning.  I am no slave-driver.  I am a nurturing caretaker, a farmer.  I admire the weeded beds, the clean dark soil ready for rows of potatoes and strawberry starts and my 2-month old cabbage and broccoli seedlings.

From the barn, a view of the root cellar, lower pasture, 2 weeded circle gardens, and the end of the hoophouse.

I do the morning opening of the aviary doors and duck and cover as the hens fly down, and that’s when I notice 4 eggs on the ground underneath the spindly huckleberry bush.

“Look at that!” I say to the 3 goats, who watch me closely every morning.  The eggs are nestled together, but vulnerable.

The goats bahhhh, I tuck the eggs into my coat pockets, walk to the barn and feed the goats their 2/3 cup dry cob each in their 3 separate bowls, and then return to the house, the mystery solved.

“Eggs could be anywhere in either pasture?” the Bearded One asks.

I tell him that I don’t know, but I am going to find out.  I spend the next hour on the Internet connecting with the farmletting cyber community and discover that hens, especially free-range birds like ours, prefer to lay an egg in a safe, known cubbyhole and then get on with their day.

But if there is a huffy, broody hen in the favored box intimidating the others, or two broodies stuffed into one box, there are arguments and ultimately eggs laid on the floor.  Which is bad because of cracks, dirty eggs, and broken ones which can even trigger egg eating by the birds — a really serious problem.

Sometimes a dominant hen will harass and hector another hen who’s already nesting at a desirable spot.  Both Ameraucanas, our biggest birds and the ones who lay the blue/green eggs, will pace around screaming bloody murder at an interloper, stick their heads into the box or crawl right in and take over.

Maybe this causes the chastened chickens to seek out a little peace and quiet under a huckleberry bush.  Once one egg is laid, it’s suddenly a trendy new spot.

“You were right,” I tell the Bearded One.  “It’s broodiness plus plain old nesting competition.  It has nothing to do with us leaving.  And yes, there could be eggs in the pastures, but I don’t think so.  They like the aviary too much.  One thing we can try is moving eggs into some of the less favored nests, to prompt the subordinate hens.”

The Bearded One is listening, but he is also examining the 4 cold eggs that spent the night on the ground.  Two are green.  “Green eggs must be green because of evolution,” he says.  “Easier to hide in the grass.”

Genius sleuthing.  Case cracked.  And for breakfast?  Green eggs, of course.

* * * * *

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Hentelligence

“Get a pencil,” our neighbor Momma Goose says.  “Write this down.”  We’re on the phone, and I rush to the kitchen table and my paper piles — including garden plans, stacks of last year’s seed packets, and the name of a generator man our new pressure tank installer heavily advised me to write down.

One of the reasons Momma Goose called was to ask for our old metal water pressure tank.  She teaches a welding class where they turn the tanks into smokers, and we’re saving it for her.  Since our old chiropractor neighbor Doc Singer died a few years ago, Momma Goose is the smartest person on the road, no question.  A skilled country woman.  Hentelligence incarnate.

“Okay,” I say and write down the names of two poultry hatcheries I’m to google later on.  We’re going in on a meat bird order with her and two other families.  Our 30 chicks will arrive in June, and we’ll start buying feed by the ton, apparently, also split by the other families.  “Cornish broilers,” she says.  “They’ll be ‘straight run’ — boys and girls, not sexed.  It’s cheaper.”  I write down everything she says, then head up to the barn to tell the Bearded One all I’ve learned.

He’s working on a new chicken roost “ladder” for the coop — his third design.  The first one was too short, the second too tall and wide.  The current problems are pecking the Styrofoam off the wall, and poop falling on the wall.  The new roost will be tall and a foot skinnier (giving us more room to check for eggs…) except for the top rung where the chickens sleep, which will span almost the entire length of the coop, but still be a foot and a half from the wall.

The Bearded One is making the new roost out of young trees he cut down after the goats stripped off lots of the bark for a quick snack.

He laid the trees across two saw horses and enlisted the goat’s help in stripping the bark completely.  They do a brilliant job.

I admire all the work and then break the news.  “We can’t put the meat chicks in the aviary with the hens,” I say.  “They’ll fight and peck each other.  We need another pen and a nighttime sleeping structure.”

I continue to talk but the Bearded One, I can see, is thinking, planning, scanning the farmlet for possible sites.  I am talking about how much chicken we eat — one a week — and we have a freezer now.  We will raise these birds for meat, neither naming nor taming them since we will be harvesting them after just 6-8 weeks.  We will do this processing ourselves with Momma Goose’s guidance.  We’ll put 25 birds in the freezer, then do it again in September or October, and have a year’s supply.  This is my plan.  There’s so much to learn, and I know zip.

We watch as our young hens explore the laying nests, lining up on the perch like women at intermission when all five boxes are occupied.  They take turns.  They shuffle the straw around.  They hollow out a space and then sit for a while.  Then they do it again.  There have been 14 eggs laid since Feb 6.

The Bearded One brought in Stevie’s first egg this week.  He had removed it right after she left a nest, so he knew it was hers.  It was small and had a smear of blood on it.  We both felt the poignancy, the design, the intelligence and beauty.

Suddenly, there’s a ruckus in the aviary.  Dusty has been in the favored corner box long enough, it seems, and Blackie has just about had it.  They talk.  I rush in to see if Dusty laid her first egg.  I lift the nest box lid slowly.  No.  Blackie must have interrupted.  The mysteries of Eggology.  Maybe the young hens are a little baffled, too, I think, and return to the house and my lists and notes and seed studies.

An hour later the Bearded One sticks his head in the back door and holds out what we take to be Dusty’s first egg.  It is perfect — tan and smooth and clean.  I whoop and we both smile big. The Bearded One’s boots aren’t clean, he says, so I get up to take the egg.

“Oh,” he adds as he hands the egg to me, “if you get the chance, will you write ‘hose swivel’ on the Ace list?”

“Okay.”  I can write it down, add the note to my growing nest of knowledge, and then — well, just sit on it.