Straw is something I always have to have on hand. Either for lining the chicken coop and nesting boxes or for mulch somewhere in the garden. But since I don’t have a barn (or anything even remotely like that!) it’s hard to find a good spot to store the large bales (which at their smallest are about 2’x2’x4′). The solution I’ve come up with is keeping partial bales in waterproof plastic tubs outside in the garden and then stowing a full bale right under the chicken coop. It’s a good dry location and a whole bale fits underneath with just a couple inches clearance on top.
On Friday I was adding another layer of straw to my potato towers (which I realize I haven’t even written about here—subject for a future post) and had finished up the loose straw in my plastic tubs. So I walked back to my chicken coop and bent down to pull off some straw from the end of the bale underneath. As I separated off a section of straw, I was startled by an egg rolling off with it. What? I crouched lower so that I could see the whole top of the bale and was shocked to discover a large pile of eggs right in the middle! What a funny surprise.
I have no idea how my chickens were managing to squish themselves between the bottom of the coop and the top of the bale, but I guess it must have made a cozy adjunct nest. Unfortunately I don’t know when they started doing this or how old the eggs are so sadly I didn’t feel comfortable eating them. But throwing away a dozen organic eggs was a depressing thought. Then I had an idea–every year my kids love dyeing eggs but no one ever wants to eat dozens of hard boiled eggs afterwards. Why not just dye these before tossing?
At first I thought about blowing out the insides and coloring the shells only, but I realized this would be too delicate an operation for the kids. So I decided to hardboil them, let the kids dye them and then toss them out. Since the process of art (and life) is the continual cycle of creation and destruction, this seemed an appropriate solution. And if you’ve never dyed brown (or blue-green) eggs, the beautiful deep jewel-tone colors they become put the traditional bright pastel colored (white dyed) eggs to shame.
What a beautiful and surprising moment I had in the chicken coop this evening! As I've mentioned before, over the past few weeks I've had the sense that a couple of the pullets were getting ready to start laying. Especially "Monday" and "Tuesday" who are now 25 and 24 weeks old respectively and have recently started to seem more hen-like (I just stopped myself from writing "womanly"). Pullets can start laying any time after 21 weeks but with some breeds it can be much longer. So even though I've been eagerly awaiting our first egg, I haven't really gotten into the habit of checking for them yet.
I was out of town for a few days this week, so this morning when I returned I spent a little more time than usual checking on things in the coop. Without really thinking much about it I took a peak into the nesting boxes. To my surprise, I found the straw displaced in a nest-like way and could definitely tell that someone had been sitting in them. A first! I knew this was a sign that someone was getting laying urges but I still assumed it would be awhile before I'd see an actual egg.
Then this evening right before I started dinner I went out to make sure the chickens still had plenty of clean water. As I was leaving the coop I had the impulse to check the nesting boxes again, mostly to see if there had been any more signs of activity. And wow…there was a small but beautiful egg sitting there!
It's funny, but even after all the anticipation and effort that's gone into achieving precisely this result, it was still somehow a bit of a shock. For a brief moment, I honestly had the sensation of, "Wait, what's that doing there?" and the feeling that it was almost some kind of trick. I think part of that reaction is just my inner city-girl, but another part is my profound amazement and appreciation of the many miracles of nature. So beautiful!
Of course we fried it up immediately as a little pre-dinner snack. It was everything I imagined it would be–a vibrant orange yolk and full of flavor. Silly as it might be, I'm still feeling a little incredulous that our chickens are actually going to keep making these for us almost every day. It's hard for me to just take that for granted. Simple pleasures give me great delight!
I’m posting this (deliberately misleading-ly titled!) photo solely because I haven’t been giving the pullets much press as of late. There just hasn’t been much to say since I’ve worked out the details of their diet (here and here) and they are not laying yet (though I suspect Tuesday, the Plymouth Rock is getting very close.)
This past weekend I made my first big batch of pesto from the garden (for the recipe, see my pesto post from last summer) and gave all the basil stalks (with the small leaves I couldn’t bother to pull) to the girls. I was fantasizing about how wonderful their eggs would taste if I could get them eating basil all the time. Unfortunately it wasn’t a big hit. They pecked at it a bit and did eat some, but not the way they do other greens. Maybe I need to add some Italian chicken breeds (like the Ancona) to the flock!
Last February my friend Carla wrote a post on her blog Local Forage about the amazing nutritional benefits of purslane. I love to forage for wild edibles like this but I also like growing new things in the garden. So last spring I ordered purslane seeds online (I found them at Sand Mountain Herbs and Territorial Seed) and planted them in my lettuce beds. I ended up with a vigorous crop for most of the summer and was happy to share a big bag of it with Carla (which we ended up eating as an impromptu picnic salad during a show at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.)
Since then I've learned why this plant grows wild; it's really a very hardy weed. This year I didn't sow a single seed and it's now growing vigorously all over my yard. At this point I have so much I haven't quite known what to do with it all. Even though purslane is a tasty (and very nutritious) plant, there's only so much I can eat or share with friends. But today (in an incredibly delayed thought process) it finally dawned on me that I should feed it to the chickens. Doh!
A couple months ago I wrote about starting my "poultry garden" with several plants that would be beneficial for the chickens. I followed this up a few weeks later by also planting rue. I'm not sure why the purslane never crossed my mind. It will be a healthy treat for the pullets now but once they start laying it should be even more beneficial. It's not only the richest source of Omega-3 fatty acids of any green,
leafy vegetable but it's also high in magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, and iron. That's got to result in better tasting eggs!
I tossed an armfull in the run this morning and the girls devoured it. They've been decimating my chard so this is good news all the way around. Hooray! Apparently purslane was Gandhi's favorite food, and now that it's performing so many useful functions in my garden I'm really starting to understand why.
A few weeks ago I finally got the my chicken run and chicken coop ready so the pullets could move outside full-time. But then the weather turned unexpectedly cold and rainy–definitely not an ideal time to transition them from their cozy brooder. (Unless of course you are a normal farmer, not an over-sensitive, over-protective chicken momma!) Being the latter, I’ve been waiting patiently for the weather to warm up.
Yesterday we had a very warm day (77F) so I decided to let the girls brave their first night outside. Of course I had a host of neurotic worries–would they be too cold? (Nights have still been in the low 40s) Would the full moon bring out particularly aggressive/crafty behavior in nearby predators? (coyotes etc.) But I assured myself that the run was secure and that the pullets could always huddle together for warmth.
Needless to say, they were fine. More than fine actually, they seem to really be enjoying their new home. It’s so great to see all their innate behaviors coming out. I could stand out there and watch them for hours–pecking, chasing each other, taking dirt baths. They are hilarious. I need to take some video soon.
(Note: I had the coop (not the run) made by Wes at Be Creative Wood Works. I think he did a great job for a reasonable price.)
It’s been a busy few days around here. Yesterday we brought home the final two members of our flock–a Buff Orpington (now named “Thursday”) and an Ameraucana (our girl “Friday”). The baby chicks are always very cute but the Ameraucana’s markings really make me laugh. She has a wide brown stripe all the way down the center of her head and back, flanked on each side by a thin black stripe and then a thin white stripe. The overall effect, especially when seen from above, is that she looks very much like a chipmunk! I’m not sure I can think of anything much cuter than a chick crossed with a chipmunk.
This past weekend was full of more beautiful sunny days–perfect for an outside construction project with the boys. So on Sunday we started the day with a trip to the hardware store and plans to make a
portable chicken run.
As soon as the pullets (the technical term for a hen less than a year old) are old enough to move outdoors they’ll have a proper coop and a run, and then free-range when I’m working in the garden. But for now (when they’re young and just having daytime visits to the outdoors) we need to protect them from hawks and other predators. And later when they can free-range more safely I’ll still occasionally want some way to contain them to certain parts of the yard (so they don’t eat new seedlings etc.)
I had a vision of what I wanted the portable run to look like and was lucky enough to find a detailed how-to for building just what I had in mind on Mother Earth News.
Even though it would have been fun to design on my own it was incredibly helpful to have the quantities and dimensions all worked out in advance. (Thank you Troy Griepentrog!) There were so many times during the building process when I imagined the trouble I would undoubtedly have gotten myself into without Troy’s plan (like not basing the framing dimensions on a standard width of chicken wire.) The only real change I made to the original plan was
substituting 2 x 2s for the 2 x 4s that were called for. Even though
this compromised the structural integrity of the run, I really needed
it to be light enough (it barely is even now) for me to lift and move
around on my own.
The best part of having the step-by-step guide though was that it allowed me to relax and be able to focus on guiding the kids to do as much as they could. Having them involved was a lot of fun and a great learning opportunity on so many levels–visualization, design, use of materials, measuring, adding, spatial thinking, physics etc. Except for the sawing and drilling (which I did) they were really able to help with quite a lot of the building. Because they were so involved it really held their attention from start to finish. And when we were done they clearly felt a huge sense of accomplishment. An extra bonus to the whole project.
I’m very happy with how it turned out and its already getting a lot of use–not just by the chicks but also by the boys who like to play in it too!
I really love the intersection and overlap between my various interests–like the connection between gardening and cooking or cooking and parenting or…(the list goes on.) But now with the introduction of chickens into my life, I’ve realized there’s yet another hybrid zone of interest I can cultivate–the cross between gardening and chickens. Last week I started thinking, “I wonder what plants I should specifically grow that the chickens would like to eat.”
Thanks to the joy of the Internet, a quick search resulted in a great article in Acres USA magazine about plants for poultry (download PDF version here). I learned a lot of interesting facts–like nasturtium (which I’ve grown for the edible flowers) also being an antiseptic, vermifuge (de-wormer) and insect repellent. But the most interesting discovery was about stinging nettles.
I’ve always been intrigued by nettles because there are so many delicious pasta recipes calling for them yet they are not exactly commmonplace in the produce section. And now to discover that they are excellent feed for poultry–not only because they are a preventative against worms, because moreso because they stimulate and increase egg production–wow. That’s all I needed to read before I was immediately tracking down someplace to buy the seed.
Most of the organic seed companies I usually order from have a pretty diverse and wide-ranging selection but stinging nettle still isn’t on the radar for most of them. I ended up tracking it down at Sand Mountain Herbs in Alabama. Yesterday when my order arrived I was delighted to find the seeds in plain brown envelopes with handwritten growing instructions from the owner, Larry Chandler. It was so refreshing to see the absence of “branding” and the evidence of someone actually having taken the time (and care) to personally write information out longhand. It really made my day.
Now I can’t wait to plant all these new items for my “poultry garden.” And of course I’m also thinking about all the future meals and recipes (for humans!) revolving around nettles. Though I realize the one area where it would be best if my interests didn’t overlap is between the stinging nettles and my children. Ouch!
At the risk of seeming like I’ve turned this blog into an “all chicken, all the time” format, I have to update on the latest (much happier) developments with our Gallus gallus domesticus. Yesterday we brought home the third chick for our flock, a little black Australorp. In keeping with the convention they established, the boys named her Wednesday. She is very cute and seems to be doing well healthwise. It’s fun to watch her establishing her place with the two bigger chicks.
Tuesday is getting her white adult feathers now which makes her look like she is sporting angel wings.
Meanwhile Monday is going through an “awkward” (that’s the kind word, the more apt description might better be “ugly”) phase as her feathers are coming in in funny clumps and patches. But since today was unseasonably warm (80F!) I brought her outside for her very first stroll in the garden. She had a great time pecking around. (The same could not be said for Tuesday and Wednesday who were left inside peeping incessantly at alarming decibels for the return of their friend.) I can’t wait until they will all be able to be my little free-range garden companions.
After yesterday’s sad turn of events with the baby chicks, I started to really question my chicken-raising dreams. I tend to get swept up by the romance and beauty of ideas–in this case, the notion of enjoying these wonderful creatures who would also provide us with fresh eggs right in our backyard. While I also see the realism behind the romance (all the work involved etc.), I don’t tend to focus on or prepare myself for the really dark possibilities–like baby chicks dying right in your hands.
Since I’ve been dealing with a lot of loss in my personal life, I started to think that maybe this wasn’t such a good time to be inviting the potential for even more grieving. But as strong (and in many ways, reasonable) as this self-protective urge was, my larger belief system was ultimately stronger. Given the opportunity, I always have to say “yes” to the adventure of life. Even though being open and vulnerable to all of what life brings can at times be brutally painful, I wouldn’t want to trade it for being closed down and shut off.
With that in mind, I forced myself to get back on up to the farm supply store and get a new chick. Unfortunately they had sold out of the Barred Rocks and wouldn’t be getting any more this season. So my dream of having one in my flock (at least for now) died with “Tuesday.” But they did have White Rocks, the next best thing.
When I brought her home, the boys wanted to name her Tuesday in honor of the hen we lost. So now we have a “new Tuesday.” She is the quintessential little yellow “Easter” chick. While we all still feel very sad about the death of the original Tuesday, we are happy to have this new sweet addition to our family and to being open to everything yet to come.