Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why Did the Turkey Cross the Road?

Have you ever seen a wild turkey in the flesh before? It's a sight that will leave you speechless in mid-sentence. They're sooo prehistoric looking, with their long necks, big eyes, and neck-waggling shuffle. Looking at a wild turkey I have no doubts that modern birds and dinosaurs have a common ancestor.

This is just what a velociraptor looked like...except it's lacking the front claws, big eyes, and hunting pack.

What I didn't know was just how darn entertaining wild turkeys could be.

Several times a week a member of the Rational Living household will spot at least one wild turkey at the new homestead. In the mornings we frequently see them wandering up from the south, following the dry creek that forms the western part of our property. They then cut across our grounds to the northeast corner and continue their journeys elsewhere.

Our regular visitors are typically either a trio of hens or a solitary hen. It is great fun to run a commentary, a la MST3K, of their antics. To do this I recommend using soft English accents, similar to your favorite Masterpiece Theatre viewings. After all, animals are funnier when they have English accents. Also, I'm pretty sure that deep down inside all the hens are prim and proper ladies that would, if acceptable in avian circles, wear conservative hats and carry modest hand bags (if they had hands). Keep all this in mind.

What all the fashionable wild turkey hens will be carrying this fall.
And they definitely won't be talking about this turkey purse (I learn something new every day).

Last week the trio of hens, lined up in single file, were walking along the edge of the back half-acre when two of them ducked under the barbed-wire fence and headed east towards other pastures. The last one in the row? It was as if she was daydreaming and didn't realize the others had left. She just kept walking straight north, parallel to the barbed-wire fence, bobbing her neck in oblivion. Once the two east-bound hens were about 20 feet from the fence they stopped and had a little conversation (at least that's what it looked like).

"Oh dear, Hazel. Elsie's missing again."
"She probably kept walking to the north. Poor thing, she'd find her way to Minnesota if we didn't keep her on track."
"I suppose one of us should go get her."
"Yes, Clarice. One of us should go get her."
"Well, if you're not going to volunteer I suppose I'll run after her."

And with that one of the hens hurriedly shuffled west, slid under the fence, and headed north where she joined up with the daydreamer.

"Elsie, dear?"
"Yes? Did you notice the wild rose bushes up ahead, too, Clarice? Aren't they beautiful?"
"No, dear. We need to be heading east now."
"Oh. Really?"
"Yes, dear. Let's duck under the fence now, shall we?"
"But where is Hazel?"

"She's waiting for us on the other side of the fence."

"How did she get there already? Really, one must not be hasty!"

Elsie and Clarice both headed east, ducking under the fence and rejoined with Hazel.

On a different day, late in the morning, I spotted a solitary turkey hen in the back half-acre. She was walking north along the western border when she abruptly turned south and waddled straight to where the broken red wagon rested near the chicken manure. She spent a good minute surveying the scene: "Ah wagon, manure...clearly someone was hauling manure and had an accident." After a minute she quickly headed in a different direction, ready to be on with her business.

But once she was about 15 feet from the wagon she stretched her wings, spun around, and ran back to the wagon. Again she looked the place over. "Oh dear, I never even thought to look for chickens! There could be an injured chicken needing assistance!" After a minute of looking soothed her worries, the hen pulled herself away to leave.

Again, after about 15 feet of travel, she suddenly turned and ran back to the wagon. "Of course there aren't any chickens...chickens couldn't pull this wagon! I must look and make sure there isn't an injured human needing assistance!" The hen looked around the wagon again, head held both high and low for full perspective. After a minute of looking ruled out any humans with wagon-related injuries, she turned to head away.

Once 15 feet away the hen changed course and headed back to the wagon. And looked. And then left only to repeat the cycle again. And again. In all, she repeated this pattern at least eight times.

"Maybe if I go away and come back the magical number of times the mystic Indian maiden will appear and I can pull her red wagon across the sky like Freyja's cats pulling her golden chariot towards Valhalla."

I'm not sure if she wanted to determine if the wagon could be fixed ("Oh dear, the wheel completely separated from the axle...tsk, tsk"), if she was suffering from short-term memory loss ("Could it be? Another pretty red wagon!"), or if she was enjoying the best game of near/far ever ("The wagon is near...the wagon is far!"). I nearly choked on my tea, laughing as I watched from the kitchen window. Determined to take a picture, I grabbed the camera and headed outside. By the time I reached the back half-acre she was gone.

Who knew that turkeys could be so entertaining? I'm definitely looking forward to the next episode.

--Rational Mama

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pretty Pretty

When we first moved into the new house the trees had yet to bloom and show their true colors.

Initially, I thought the smallish, twisted tree just outside the bathroom window was a redbud, like its neighbor.

I was wrong.

Such pretty pink blossoms!

--Rational Mama

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Friends, I can pinpoint the exact moment I decided I wanted to someday have my own small flock of chickens.

It was way back in the late summer of 1996. TMOTH and I, fresh newlyweds (we married young and there wasn't even a shotgun involved) took advantage of a nice morning by riding our bikes up and down the hills of central and east Lawrence. Or rather, coasting down and huffing and puffing up the hills of central and east Lawrence. Eventually, we found ourselves at the property of my then academic advisor, who owned a decent two acre spread at the junction of where "town" and "country" met. My advisor showed us around his old farmhouse and garden and introduced us to his small flock of chickens.

My recollection is that there were a dozen hens of various breeds, frolicking and clucking happily in the large fenced yard surrounding the coop. It was clear that each and every hen had her own personality, and their proud owner gestured and described their behaviors and antics as they came our way. The birds were so pretty and quirky and I immediately fell in love.

It was that night, as we settled down into our small, married student housing apartment, that I first spoke to TMOTH about wanting chickens someday. We had already established dreams a small homestead, so chickens fit quite well into that plan. But that plan was sooooo far out it was hard to believe that "someday" would ever actually happen.

Fifteen years later, friends, I finally have chickens.

After acquiring a ready chicken coop in the move to the new house we were initially on the fence as to how to approach the chicken issue. Just for eggs, or meat, too? Chicks or pullets? Small flock or large flock? Rooster or no rooster?

Recognizing that we have so much to accomplish to complete even basic tasks before seasonal deadlines (prepare the garden, clean and repair the coop, etc.) we decided that whatever approach we took this year we would NOT do a big straight run order for the production of meat. We still weren't sure, however, if we wanted to dedicate ourselves to the raising of chicks, or if we'd just try to snag a few pullets off of Craigslist.

And then, the day of the first big coop cleaning, the girls and I went to one of the local farm supply stores...and they had chicks.

Dammit if chicks aren't so cute.

After cooing and handling and talking for a good while the girls and I left the store with an understanding that later in the week (when a new shipment of dual purpose chicks came in) we'd head back and buy around 10 chicks for our own flock. We'd consider keeping one rooster, but any extra roosters and possibly up to five other chicks would eventually become dinner.

But then the next day I stopped at another local farm supply store for chick supplies and they had plenty of chicks. In fact, they were expecting another shipment of chicks the next day, and so were needing to sell some of their dual purpose chicks.

I'm such a sucker.

Bird's eye view of the chicks at one week of age.

I came home with six sex-linked laying standards (guaranteed hens), four straight-run "feathered" variety dual purpose chicks and one Cornish Rock (straight run). For those counting, that's 11 total birds, with six guaranteed hens and five possible roosters.

Wait, maybe this is also technically a bird's eye view...

The addition of a Cornish Rock was a bit of a surprise, since I don't like the possibly unethical growth-rate of it and similarly-bred "meat" birds. But it was the only one left in it's tank...and I'm a sucker.

So now several times a day we're checking on the chicks in the basement (it's still too cold to move them out to the coop, which still needs work anyway). We change their pine bedding every other day and have to freshen their water several times a day, as it is apparently great fun to stuff the waterer with pine bedding. It's amazing how quickly even the dual purpose chicks grow, and almost concerning how quickly the Cornish Rock is growing. They each have their own personalities, and most of them have acquired names via the girls.

The chicks at two weeks of age. Keep an eye on that black one perched on the food - she's watching...always watching...

As a homestead-experienced co-worker summed up, "It sounds like you have pets, not chickens." That may be true for the time being, but things may change as the chicks become more independent and roosters start to defend their territory. Eventually, a spare rooster having a bad day becomes dinner.

In the meantime, we better get hustling on the coop since the days will be warming and these little peepers can be awfully loud (especially at night). We'll be putting up new roosts, rehabbing nests boxes and getting the pine bedding ready for the deep litter method.

Let the chicken fun begin!

--Rational Mama

Friday, April 15, 2011

It's a Dirty Job: Cleaning Out the Chicken Coop

Lately, the sun has been shining and daytime temperatures have gotten well into "shorts weather," as the girls refer to it. We've been listening to the woodpecker pecking away at a new nest opening and at night (and sometimes during the day) we could hear frogs chirping down in the dry creek. Clearly, spring was here, which could only mean one thing...
It was time to clean out the chicken coop in preparation for our own chickens.
Grade A spiderwebs, no?

I knew this wouldn't exactly be an easy task, since, based on the accumulated..."debris" the coop it appeared that the previous owner postponed the last scheduled cleaning of the coop in anticipation of his own move. Now we were stuck with an overdue coop and when I mentioned cleaning it to TMOTH he said, "Have fun with that."

Whatever, the girls were excited about getting chickens so I knew they would help me. Right?

In light of the thriving population of mice inhabiting the coop (and the possibility of hantavirus) I decided safety was the best approach and declared that anyone helping with the coop clean-out would need to wear a long sleeve shirt, long pants, a handkerchief over their hair, washable shoes, eye protection, work gloves and a disposable face mask. I take contactable zoonotic pulmonary viruses seriously.
Ready for hantavirus...and Ebolavirus, just in case.

Unfortunately, I chose the warmest morning in nearly six months to undertake this project, which meant once I announced that today was THE day for the project the girls were no longer interested in helping me and instead decided the rope swing was feeling neglected.

Funny that I should feel like the Little Red Hen while cleaning the coop, no?
Today is a good day to shovel.

Anyway, I started by using a broom to sweep down the copious amounts of spider webs (and dust) and then moved on to the shoveling. I began shoveling next to the coop door, and the loads had a certain satisfying cleaving pattern. Based on how quickly that section went I was sure I'd be done in no time.

Of course, since I'm new to chickens it never really occurred to me that the worst part would be under the roosts. By the time I got back there I was melting and the goggles were fogging up (not to mention, the claustrophobia was kicking in). Unlike the area near the door, under the roosts was a good five-to-six inch moist and smelly layer waiting for me. Ugh.

Suddenly the shovel loads were not quite as satisfying.

I had been placing my shovel loads into our old plastic wagon, which straddled the coop door. We don't yet have a wheel barrow so this was the next best thing. Unfortunately, I filled the first load so heavily that the wagon's bulging sides lodged the wagon in the door frame. So...I had to squat (nearly putting my face in the wagon contents) to lift the load up and over the door threshold.

Don't overfill your wagon or wheelbarrow, people. Lesson learned.

My plan was to dump the wagon contents in a corner of the back half-acre, since the manure was still too "hot" to add directly to a garden. Unfortunately, the path required for that plan meant that I would have to pull the 100+ pound wagon of manure uphills several hundred feet.

Change of plans.

I decided to dump the wagon contents at a closer corner of the back half-acre which would require uphill pulling only after the wagon had been emptied. Genius! Well, genius except for the part where I forgot to get my foot out of the way before switching directions.

After getting the first load dumped (and being thoroughly drenched in sweat and dust by now) I decided that my goal to finish emptying the coop that day may not happen. Instead, I resolved myself to get at least three wagon loads out.

And three loads it was because after the dumping the third load I realized that a wagon wheel had broken. Sometimes the universe helps you stick to your plans.
Wagon broken. Watch out for the cholera.

A week later (and on a much cooler day) I finished up the worst of the coop cleaning. Now we just have to hose everything down, replace the roosts and get bedding, feeders and waterers installed.

And, of course, get chickens. Which we may or may not already have...because sometimes I'm not a very patient person.

--Rational Mama

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Zen (Hay)Fever

I just took my first spin on mowing the back yard, which is just under an acre. I used the riding lawn mower (the first time I've used such equipment), and after a few learning hiccups everything fell in to place.

With the pretty sunset and pleasant breeze (and noise canceling headphones) it was actually quite a pleasant activity.

It was kinda like doing one of those Zen sand garden thingies. But louder. And with gasoline.

And with little bits of grass going up your nose and in your eyes.

Can't wait to do it again.

--Rational Mama

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Schnauzer Action!


Who needs a mouser when you have a miniature schnauzer?
The bad-ass skull-and-crossbones sweater intimidates the mice.

It's what Schnau-Dog has been bred for, and he's definitely game. Now that he's figured out that there are mice in the coop, he struts past it, on guard, ready to pounce.

And he's already earned his keep, if you know what I mean.

--Rational Mama

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Carnival Appliances

Remember the appliance rules of the rationing project?

We're still kinda following them.

When we moved in to the new house we needed to purchase a refrigerator and a riding lawn mower. Our budget was tight and we hated the idea of purchasing new items when gently used options were available at a reduced cost.

So we headed to the local used appliance store. Okay, "used appliance store" doesn't do this place justice. Those of you in T-town know what I mean. Back in the olden days (you know, before "T.J. Hooker"), this place used to be a local carnival, with rides and refreshments and toothless barkers offering to guess your weight (why, oh why, so people pay for something like that?). But then times changed and local carnivals went the way of, well, "T.J. Hooker" and the place shut down.

And then it reopened as the most bizarre flea market type store in northeast Kansas. Seriously, the creepy smiling clowns are still on the side of the building and the toothless barkers are now inside, smoking their cigarettes and asking if they can help you find something. Chances are, if you need something you can find a used version here. Ashtray? Yup. Jig-saw? You can chose from 20 on the shelf. Coffee table? Some of them already have coffee stains! Life-sized R2D2 cooler? Got it! (Damn, I need to get back and get that...).

There are some great finds, but there's plenty of...well...junk. Some of the furniture looks like it needs a hefty dose of duct tape and glue and I am still freaked out at the thought of buying a used mattress (damn you, incessant national media stories on bed bugs). But you can't help but look, and look, and look. Oh, and try not to step on one of the cats that roam the store.

Outside, sprawling in front of the store and across a good section of the parking lot, is a six-foot chain-link fence that encloses most of the lawn and garden equipment: weed-eaters, birdbaths, wheelbarrows, lawn mowers, shovels, lawn chairs, window panes, storm get the idea. There we found a 16.5 horsepower, 42" deck riding lawnmower with low hours for a price less than what was available on Craigslist.

Inside, in the back of the store, there are several rows of appliances. Now, since we moved the oven from the old house, I wanted a white fridge to match. Unfortunately, all of the white refrigerators they had were scary - severely dented doors, peeling paint and inside shadows reminiscent of a Zuul, the Gatekeeper of Gozer possession. So, I went with a cream-colored Kenmore model slightly bigger than our previous fridge. The best part? It was about 1/3 the cost of a new model with similar bells and whistles.

Now, TMOTH and I both agreed that once finances settle down from all the new house purchases we'd like to replace the refrigerator with a newer, white, Energy-Star rated refrigerator. But in the meantime, we'll be all anti-Martha and take pride in our used, totally mismatched appliances.

Coordinated kitchens are soooo least, they are for the next year.

--Rational Mama

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mouser Wanted!

Yeah, so remember those mole holes I wrote about?

Apparently, not all of them are for moles.

We've known since we moved in that there is a bit of a mouse problem in the chicken coop. The previous owner didn't clean out the coop for quite some time (duuuuude, like, a really really long time) and so the floor is a solid mixture of chicken poop and grain. This, apparently, is some sort of mice heaven. A few weeks ago TMOTH quietly sat in the coop for five minutes and he swears he saw 17 separate mice. Ugh.

I assume that once we clean out the coop and acquire our own chickens that the mice will move on and seek other avenues, as their food source will be significantly reduced and the chickens themselves will deter the mice. So, in the meantime, there's been a bit of a truce.

But yesterday I was walking behind the coop and apparently interrupted some sort of mouse convention, as a good half-dozen fled from the holes in the grass to the coop. Say what?

Oh dear, the mice aren't just in the coop...they're in the lawn. Which means they could move into the house and/or the garden.

Oh dear...

--Rational Mama

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Spread...and A Little Help Needed

Hello, readers! Ready for the tour of the new place?

The general description of the new spread is that it is a backwards-L-shaped lot, encompassing 2.58 acres which host a small house, detached double garage, potting shed and chicken coop. This land, north of the Kansas River, was once under several hundred feet of ice during the Quaternary glacial period (we've found several exposed Sioux quartzite stones on the property, deposited by said glacier).

The acreage is divided roughly into three sections, which we generally refer to as the yard, the west acre, and the back half-acre (we need to work on some creative names, huh?)

"The Yard"

The yard is roughly an acre in size and is bordered on the south by the road which serves as our entrance to the property. There is a modest front lawn between the road and the house where a nice, large sycamore dominates the view.
The House

Just to the west of the house is a detached two-car garage with a small workshop area. On the west side of the garage is a trio of walnut trees and the large oak tree that supports the rope swing.

The back lawn sprawls out north behind the house and garage and is dotted with cedar and redbud trees (and mole holes).
The back yard, as viewed from the back door of the house.

A small potting shed sits halfway between the house and the chicken coop, which is sheltered by a mulberry tree.
The chicken coop.

To the east of the chicken coop is the established garden area, which is roughly 25 feet by 12 feet. In general, the yard has a gentle slope down towards the west acre.

View of the backyard from the north (looking back towards the house and garage). The garden is in the foreground.

"West Acre"
The west acre is an expanse of pasture that slopes downhill towards the western border of the property, which is a dry creek. There are more walnut trees and saplings in the dry creek (along with some frogs).
The west acre. The row of trees in the middle of the picture marks the location of the dry creek.

The dry creek becomes a wet creek when the watershed pond just barely north of our property fills with water. We hope to turn a significant portion of the west acre into space for blackberries and apple trees.

"Back Half-Acre"
The back half-acre is another pasture zone that is completely fenced in four-wire barbed wire and accessible by two gates. It sits directly north of the yard.
The back half-acre, as viewed from the eastern border. The clump of trees on the right marks the location of the watershed pond.
(The blue tarp is for a gardening project)

The back half-acre, like rest of the property, slopes gently towards the west and the dry creek. There is a small lean-to shed in the northwest corner (just beyond which is the watershed pond mentioned above). TMOTH has big plans to sculpt and mold this area into a series of raised-bed gardens spots with paths and benches.

"The Name"
Most folks who have a small homestead come up with some sweet and/or clever name for their property. We've tried, but not generated any tag or title that we all really love. "Dry Creek Acres?" Boring. "Glacier Hills?" Hmm... "Victory Acres?" Pulls in the rationing project but sounds like Amy Winehouse's next stop.

So, dear readers...any name suggestions for the property?

--Rational Mama

Saturday, April 2, 2011


One of the promises TMOTH made to the girls when discussing the move was to install a rope swing on the giant oak tree just south of the garage.

Never was there a better use of $35.

So simple, so retro. On these nice warm days they practically live on that thing.

--Rational Mama