Sunday, May 29, 2011

Profiles in Poultry

(Note: I have know idea why you might be seeing suspect spellings highlighted in yellow on this post...strange.)

Okay, so this is the post where I go off the deep end and you, dear reader, begin to understand just how much I like our chickens.

Dear reader, I sure do like our chickens.

As of today they are approximately nine weeks old, which means they're on the verge of officially graduating from being identified as "chicks" and will soon be more appropriately referred to as "pullets" or "cockerels." They are still a good two to four months from laying their first eggs (for those built with the required features).

An aside: I confess that I usually just call them "chickens." Or more specifically, "the chickens." As in: I'm going to go let the chickens out," or "Has anyone put the chickens in the coop tonight?"

The past two months we have raised these 11 chickens from wee chicks to their current, prepubescent selves. In that time they have shown their amazing chicken instinct and learned how to scratch, fly, eat worms, roost and roll in a dust bath all on their own. They also all have very distinct personalities and now that we have a good handle on individual distinctions and names we present to you the current occupants of the Rational Living coop.

The Black Stars

The Black Stars represent two of the six sex-linked chicks we purchased. Sex-linked chicks are hybrid of two standard breeds that can be sexed (that means you can identify their gender, get your head out of the gutter!) shortly after they hatch. Black Stars are the offspring of a Rhode Island Red male and a Barred Plymouth Rock female. Because of this, all our Black Stars (and other sex-linked chicks) were guaranteed hens. Our two Black Stars are Feather and Ms. Thang.

"You lookin' at me?"

Feather is a sweet, fairly friendly bird and is Sissy's pet (that really is the best way to describe the relationship).

Ms. Thang
...Because your conscience in cricket form is too easy to step on.

Ms. Thang distinguished herself at an early age as the feisty one that leaps into danger (or pecks at your hand) while others hide in the corner. She is very suspicious of humans and seems to be constantly watching and judging us. She's your conscience in chicken form and she is a very good candidate for Alpha Hen. We can tell the two Black Stars apart by the fact that Ms. Thang has deep-black feet with a near-white center toe and a mostly black (rather than pink) comb.

Speckled Sussexes

Helen and Holly, our two Speckled Sussexes, aren't technically sex-linked, but they were known females when we purchased them. They are both sweet, curious and patient birds that seem to have a genuine interest in human activities. Both were named by Eowyn, who is awfully sweet on them.

Sweet and spotty!

Holly was named after Eowyn's teacher this year, who is a sweet, wonderful lady. Holly the teacher has lots of freckles, and Holly the chicken has lots of white spots.

She has yet to make the sign for "water."

Helen was named after Helen Keller, one of Eowyn's inspirations. In the early days of chick handling Helen was less than compliant and reminded Eowyn of Helen Keller's behavior at the time of Anne Sullivan's arrival. Luckily, Helen has settled down nicely and loves to be in the companionship of humans. In fact, she's usually the first one to greet us when we approach the coop. Helen as fewer white spots than Holly.

Amber Star

The Amber Stars are the last of our sex-linked chicks.

All of the nervous energy makes for a blurry photo. Just like with Sasquatch.

In the early days of having the chicks there was one yellow chick that really liked to peck. Peck the box. Peck the water dish. Peck the box again. Peck the food dish. Peck the box. Repeat ad nauseum. That's Pecky-pecky, whose name is a nice homage to Ramona Quimby's cat, Picky-picky. Pecky-pecky has a lot of nervous energy.

Tipsy really likes the camera and knows how to work it.

Tipsy rounds out our sex-linked chicks. Poor Tipsy was not in good shape when she came to the Rational Living household. At that time she was the same size as her box-mates, but had difficulty putting any weight on her right foot. As a result, she spent much of her time leaning against the edges of the cardboard pen and had difficulty getting enough food and water. During the first two weeks she was handled frequently as we helped feed her and made sure she had assisted trips to the waterer. When she tried walking in open space on her own she looked like a drunken sailor, hence the origin of her name.

There were a few days during that early period when we honestly didn't know if Tipsy would make it - she was listless and had labored breathing. But over time her leg healed (it's still not clear if she hatched with a splayed foot or if something happened when the store employee scooped her up for our purchase). Eventually she turned a corner, but because of her early troubles she is a bit of a runt; at this time Tipsy is still only two-thirds the size of her counterpart, Pecky-pecky. Because of this she looks a little small for her feathers and may never produce eggs. We're okay with that last part; she's a lap chicken and enjoys being feed by hand. And we are happy to oblige.

You didn't think that I was joking about that "lap chicken" comment, did you?

Buff Brahmas

The Buff Brahmas were our most mysterious chick purchases. Scooped from a bin vaguely labeled as "feathered breeds," they were a straight-run of (at the time) unknown breed. For those who don't know, a straight run is when you get an unsexed assortment of chicks; in your straight run you could theoretically have all roosters, a mix of roosters and hens, or all hens.

In their second week with us these straight-run chicks began developing feathers on their feet. At first I thought they must be Cochins, which was the only breed of chickens I knew of that had feathered feet. As they continued to develop it became clear that their appearance was not matching up with any Cochin breeds, so I did some further Googling and determined that they were, in fact, Buff Brahmas.

In the past month it has also become quite clear that at least two of the Brahmas are roosters, at least one is a hen, and the other...well...the other...hmmm....

Mr. Fancy Pants, Esq.

Mr. Fancy Pants is a young rooster (technically, they're cockerels until they turn one year of age) and has the most splendid display of feathered feet of any of the Brahmas. While researching what breed the mysterious four might be Sissy commented that the heavily feathered feet and legs look like pants - but not just any pants, fancy pants. Hence, a name was born.

He's business casual when he wears a necktie.

Dockers is the second confirmed rooster among the Brahmas. He, too, has feathered feet, but not to the same extravagant level as Mr. Fancy Pants. Hence, he's a Dockers kinda guy (you know, Dockers are nice enough to wear to work but they wouldn't do for formal occasions). Dockers was originally the subservient rooster - he was about the same size as Mr. Fancy Pants and would back down after challenging him to a game of "Who's the Baddest Bad-Ass in the Coop." Over the past few weeks, though, things have changed. Dockers is now noticeably bigger than Mr. Fancy Pants and has a larger, redder comb and wattles. The power has shifted.

She denies all rumors of being smuggled in carpet.

Cleopatra, or Cleo, is the confirmed hen of the Brahmas. She's a quite, timid soul that, along with Tipsy, is often at the edges of the flock. She's has to put up with a lot of male posturing and displays of machismo among her Brahma brothers, which reminded me a lot of Cleopatra putting up with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony (can you tell what I've been reading?).

It's Pat!

The fourth Brahama, well, ummm, we have yet to determine it's gender. It's slightly larger than Cleopatra, but not as large as Dockers or Mr. Fancy Pants. It has a small comb, but it is bright red, rather than pink like Cleopatra's. Is it a he or she? Clearly, it's Pat!

Cornish Rock

Cornish Rocks are a hybrid chicken, a type of meat bird that grows about twice as fast as the above mentioned breeds. They are one of the most commonly used birds in the factory-farmed meat industry. Because of their high rate of growth these birds often experience organ failure and infections due to weakened immune systems. Combine that with over-populated chicken houses and less-than-ethical practices and most Cornish Rocks in this country have a miserable, abbreviated life.

Because of all these issues I had no intention of getting a meat bird, but when I was purchasing the chicks there was a constant peeping from a lonely little Cornish Rock chick. It was the sole occupant of it's bin. I'm a sucker. Yep, you know what happened.

Rock Star
She's the Janis Joplin of the coop.

Rock Star is a behemoth of a bird; she is at least 1/3 larger than her same-aged peers. She got that way because these birds are literally breed to eat all the time. There have been times that we've had to physically separate her from the food because she has overstuffed herself to the point of ill health. Because she's so large her legs have a hard time supporting her when she walks. So, she spends a significant amount of time on the side lines until she summons up the strength to the feeder. She eats because she is unhappy, and she's unhappy because she eats.

Raising Rock Star has been an eye-opening experience. We have provided her with the best care we could manage and still she is on the edge of suffering. I can only imagine how much worse off Cornish Rocks raised in factory chicken houses must be. She really does earn her name; the life of a rock star is to live fast and die young. Because of this learning experience, even Eowyn has mostly stopped eating chicken in restaurants (we won't buy chicken at the grocery store because of these and other problems with factory-raised chickens).

Ultimately, we will have to do the deed with Rock Star. She will be our first experience in home-butchered poultry. Until then, she's buying time sitting in her favorite spot - roosting in the entryway to the coop yard.

Of course, that means she's blocking the entrance of the coop for all the other chickens.


--Rational Mama

Friday, May 27, 2011

Spider-man + Strawberry Shortcake = Nom Nom

(Apologies for the gap in posting...that's what happens when life gets too crazy and your camera memory is full and once you just suck it up and finally buy a new memory chip for the camera because you're not going to get around to printing all those old pics the camera battery completely dies and you have no idea which unpacked box holds the charger...)

So what do you get when you cross one of Marvel comics' leading men, an early 80's children's cartoon, and a symbol of the 1960's Pan-Indian movement? You get this:

One part Spider-man, one part dream catcher, three parts awesome.
(Thanks to the lovely L.P. for the photo!)

One of the really cool things we acquired with the new house is a strawberry patch located between the house and the chicken coop. It is approximately six feet by nine feet in dimension.

I've been interested in growing strawberries before, but we never had enough space to devote to this spreading perennial. So this spring was my first journey into strawberries wrangling, and I admit that my berry knowledge is pretty slim. I had read about problems with birds stealing ripe fruit, so I asked my country-wise coworker if netting was the solution. She replied that netting could be a nuisance because it must be removed and reinstalled every time you pick berries and the netting can become clogged with soggy leaves. She recommended a stick-and-string method that sounded like a cross between Spider-man and a dream-catcher gone wrong.

On a nice April afternoon Sissy and I headed out to the strawberry patch with 30 sticks (each approximately 10 inches long) and two spools of white utility string. We evenly space the sticks around the patch and then began wrapping the string around the sticks as we crisscrossed over the patch. According to my coworker, birds won't bother the strawberries because of the risk of getting their wings stuck in the strings. But, unlike netting, the strings don't have to be removed to pick the berries.

The above photo is of the patch approximately 1 1/2 weeks after we busted out our mad macrame skills.

The girls were concerned that the plants would grow up and over the string, thus voiding any protection from the Spidey-catcher-thingy. I was hopeful that since the plants were putting on fruit when we made the string structure that they would focus their energy on growing fruit, rather than growing taller plants.

Here's what the patch looks like today:

Can't you just feel the three parts awesome?

It's a bit more overgrown than I expected, but has it worked? The first ripened strawberries started glowing red a little over a week ago and I have not yet observed any birds in the strawberry patch, so that's very encouraging. Every few days we go out and pick the strawberries and up until a few days ago we'd only be getting a small handful each time.

But recently we started getting this:

My hands are really the size of Canadian loonies, so those are some giant strawberries. Or not.

That's on overflowing bowl of fresh, pesticide-free, locally-grown strawberries! We've been getting a heaping bowlful every few days this week. Of course, picking the strawberries in Spider-man's dream-catcher is a bit of a masochistic game of Twister, and I'm quite thankful that our nearest neighbors are far enough away so as to not enjoy a front row seat to that dance.

I've been trying to walk the line between having enough fresh strawberries to eat and packing some away in the freezer for a future batch of jam.

Oh, and a few of the strawberries have had small critter-bites out of them...most likely from our own Mickey Mouse that isn't thwarted by String City. Those strawberries, however, are given to the chickens so nothing is wasted.

In the meantime, I'm dreaming of which strawberry jam I'll make when we have enough strawberries. Last year's delicious strawberry-ginger jam? Or something else?

Do you have a favorite strawberry jam recipe?

--Rational Mama



We're still here. Apologies for the delay between posts, but the last month has been a doozy.

There's many things to update you on: strawberries, chickens, the garden, car accidents and gas-guzzling rental cars, missing dogs and more. I hope to start chipping away at this list shortly.

Thanks for your patience!

--Rational Mama

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Summer, Post-Rationing

Summer in the plains is officially here.

Today temperature was flirting with 90 degrees, and that's not the heat index. With the muggy air conditions the "feel" of the temperature was definitely in the mid-90s. It brings back memories of last year...

Last year at this time we were sweating it out, literally, as part of our rationing experiment. Trying to stay true to the period, we vowed to do our best to not run the air-conditioner in our house or cars all summer long. This meant frequent cooling showers, lots of fans, and lost sleep due to sticky sheets and misery. Eventually we caved in late June which, surprisingly, was the energy-efficient thing to do.

But this year, we are not rationing (well, unless you call reducing the square footage of your house in half rationing). And tonight near bedtime it was absolutely miserable in the house; temperature near 86 degrees and humidity level over 60%.

So friends, the air-conditioner is now on. And in all honesty it feels really, really wonderful.

--Rational Mama

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Punchline

So, the previous post asked, "Why did the turkey cross the road?"

(If you haven't read that post go do that quickly, because this one will be much more interesting if you do. Okay, did it? Carry on.)

Apparently, this is why:

Trust me, there's six of 'em in there.

TMOTH was walking in the back half-acre one afternoon last week and startled a solo turkey hen out of the tall grass. This is most likely the solitary turkey hen I saw in the back half-acre the previous week, spending a good portion of her morning playing Near/Far with the red wagon. Upon further inspection ("Geez, that's weird - a turkey bedded down in the middle of the afternoon...") TMOTH found the above clutch of eggs. There were six eggs at that time and we were a little concerned that she (now dubbed "Gertrude") wouldn't come back.

A quick Internet search explained that a turkey hen will continue laying eggs/leave the nest unprotected until she has laid all her eggs. At that point she pops a squat and stays close for the twenty-some days it takes for the eggs to mature completely.

If you Google "pop a squat turkey" this is the first image that comes up. I don't even know where to start...

Since the typical clutch size for wild turkeys is 10 to 12 eggs, we hoped that Gertrude would come back. So we waited, and waited, and waited.

We never saw her return, but each day there was another egg added to the nest. The last positive count we had was nine eggs, and it seems that in the last two days she has settled down to stay in the nest, which means the count could easily be a total of 11 or 12 eggs. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, we're not going anywhere in the back-half acre for the next month. Maybe if we're good stewards we'll get to see some poults (the proper term for a baby turkey) before the end of May.

This is just what baby velociraptors looked like...except they're lacking the front claws, big eyes, and hunting pack.

Oh, and we still haven't seen Elsie, Hazel and Clarice lately. Maybe they've found their own nesting places?

--Rational Mama