let kids watch beauty and the beast

The great chicken experiment

I trudge out to the mailbox, slopping through mud in my husband’s snow boots thinking I really need to buy myself some shoes suited to our new life. Hunter greets the mailman’s jeep with barking and prancing, ready for the race to the treeline where he always stops, satisfied that he has yet again driven off the intruder.

A bill, a postcard, The Penny Press and. . .oh happy day. . .Orscheln’s flyer.  The local feed store has quickly become my favorite local hangout. I lament all the days wasted wandering WalMart during AWANAs when I could have just as easily visited the feed store across the street.  But that was then, before we had five acres, before we had chickens even.

Then, WalMart defined my world in a strange sense.  Today, Orscheln’s does. But as we research and plan and dream, I sense something else on the horizon. Something that doesn’t have a name, or a logo or a weekly flyer. But more on that later.

I toss the mail on the counter, reserving Orscheln’s flyer to look through over breakfast. I open it up and what should I see in bold green print but “Chicks Are Here!”

Up until this very minute, I had intended on getting our next batch of chickens from a hatchery.  Up until this very minute, I had been frustrated by the minimum orders required by hatcheries or the use of roosters as packing peanuts.  I didn’t need 25 birds, but it looked like ordering from a hatchery was going to provide me with 25 birds, whether I paid for them all or not.

At this very minute, I realize that the feed store really was a better option for us right now.

To no one in particular, I announce that I am going to be at the feed store at 8:45, fifteen minutes before they open.

Why, mommy?

It’s Chick Days.

My husband rolls his eyes. The children leap with excitement. They know what Chick Days are. That’s where they got the four hens we currently have. But we got those at the tail end of the yearly event and pretty much got what was left over. This year would be different. This year, we would get first choice because this year we would be sitting in the parking lot when the doors open.

Yeah, I’m a little weird like that.

Less than 24 hours later and ten minutes before Orscheln’s officially opens, Bear, Bug and I are heading back to the chicks, led by the sound of their peeping. They dart back and forth, trying to look at them all at once. I concentrate on one bin: Plymouth Rock, straight run.

This year, in addition to layers, we are adding on a rooster. A rooster to guard the flock. A rooster to strut about the property. A rooster to crow in the wee hours of the morning and remind us of just how beautiful each and every morning is. A rooster for fertile eggs.

So I ponder the Plymouth Rock, straight run bin.  Straight run means they’re unsexed.  In theory, half of them should be male. How many would I need to guarantee I got at least one rooster? What would I do with a second or even a third?

Someone arrives to help us and I ask somewhat stupidly,

Theoretically, half of these are males, right? So theoretically, if I get five, we should end up with two or three roosters?

He smiles, not sure how to answer the obvious. I smile back, understanding the dilemma I’ve put him in. “It’s ok,” I try to say with that smile. “I’m just thinking out loud.”

Happy with my statistics, I ask for five.

Bear begins to squeal as he recognizes the little Rhode Island Red pullets.

Diego! Diego! They’re just like Diego!

That was the breed he selected last year. He carries her around the property, showing her everything and teaching her to be an explorer like her namesake.

I ask for one of those.

Bear then moves to the Americaunas, fascinated by their many colors.

Are these leghorns? he asks.

No, they’re Americaunas.

Bear and Bug light up simultaneously.

Oh, canwecanwe?!  They lay blue and green eggs, mom! Canwecanwe?!

I ask for four of those.

I look at the Plymouth Rock pullets. Unsure why, I am suddenly drawn to these, a breed I’ve never paid any particular attention to, a breed that has never made it on either my “must check out” or “must avoid” list. A new thought is forming in my mind. I already have five.

I ask for two more.

I ask what is crossed to make a production red. The young man guesses Rhode Island Red and…and, well, something else. “Maybe leghorn?” he ventures. Still, my attention has fallen on them for more than a brief moment.

I ask for one.

Will that be everything?

No, not quite.

Not quite. The new idea, not yet fully formed, needs a point of comparison. Cornish crosses are the standard for meat birds. Ready for slaughter at just six weeks, they present minimal investment in time though they tend to camp out at the feeder, moving only for a drink. They grow so fast, their little legs are known to break under the rapidly increasing weight.

I ask for five.

And now for the comparison.

On their third day with us, you can see that the Cornish Cross  is starting to show just a little more size than the Plymouth Rock. It feels firmer and more meaty, as well. This is where I discover that our small scale is broken so I can’t do an official weight comparison, but we’ll remedy that over the weekend.

Stay tuned to watch these guys grow toward our dinner table, complete with recipes for how they are eventually served!  Also, if you are interested in raising your own chicks, stay tuned for some rare weekend posting as I discuss the why and how of beginning a small backyard flock.

let kids watch beauty and the beast

Adjusting to a new life rhythm

One of the most thought-provoking things I have read in a long time comes from young Sam Gribley of My Side of the Mountain.  Surviving in the Catskill Mountains by hunting and gathering, he muses about how you don’t really notice the weather until you live in it.  Even then, long before this move, before our chickens, before my first real garden, I began thinking how irrelevant the weather has become in modern life.

Some of it is because of technology.  The light bulb has decreased our dependence on the sun, heat and air conditioning has allowed us to regulate our immediate environment despite what nature has in store for us, and the local news has relieved us of the need for learning to read the wind and the clouds.

Some of it is because of our changing economy.  My grandfather was a farmer and to the day he died he stayed up to watch the weather and then went to bed.  An agricultural society depends on the sun and the rain for its daily survival.  We notice droughts when the city imposes water restrictions and we are no longer allowed to water the lawn or wash our cars.  We notice floods when neighborhoods are evacuated.  But for the most part, awareness of the year’s rainfall remains on the periphery of our knowledge, something stored away for small talk in the checkout aisle but rarely personal or meaningful.

The sun itself has lost its significance, for we now schedule our days by the ticking of a clock rather than the rising and setting of the sun.  Surrounded by technology telling us the time, we no longer need to look at the sky to see that it is getting late.

When we moved out here, I knew we were in for many changes.  That the very rhythm of our lives would be altered.  Our work would no longer fall neatly into a planned schedule, looking much the same from day to day, week to week, month to month.  Instead, spring would bring planting and (hopefully) kidding.  Summer would bring weeding and fertilizing and fresh pasture for the animals.  Fall would bring the harvest.  And winter would bring some rest and time for all that we just couldn’t get to earlier in the year.

Now, however, I am aware of the approaching dusk.  I watch the sky as the sun sinks lower on the horizon.  The afternoon turns to early evening, the shadows lengthen and it does not matter what I am doing, it is time to prepare for the coming of night.  Dishes will be left, dinner held, games paused because we are now in a race with the sun.  Before the light changes, before the color of the sky deepens and before the sky is painted with fire, I must catch the cat, bring in the dogs and lock up the chickens.  The coming of night brings not only the close of day, but danger as well.

Coyotes are foremost on my mind, for ours seem bold.  They are a threat to the chickens, the dogs, the cat and even the children.  But we also have bobcats, cougars, foxes and a seemingly endless list of animals that would love to prey on our chickens.  And almost all of them are called out of their sleep by the setting of the sun.

Driving home from Lincoln, I realize I misjudged how long the various errands would take.  I pull into the drive with an odd sense of urgency as I give instructions to get the children and shopping in as quickly as possible.  The last rays of the sun disappear behind the trees as I scoop up the cat on the way back from the chicken coop.  Hunter turns and strains against the leash, looking back across the cornfield toward the treeline that marks the river.  A low growl catches in his throat and I turn to look.  The trees look ominous.  Like a dark hole cut out of a blackening sky.

I quicken my step toward the house.  Hunter comes along, but his ears are erect, his tail held high.  He is on full alert, staring into the enveloping darkness.  I don’t know what he perceives, but I trust his senses and appreciate his presence.

Inside, I turn the lock, release the dog and smile at the children.  We’re home.  We’re safe.  We’re in for the night.

let kids watch beauty and the beast

The joy of morning chores

The sun is barely breaking over the trees in the east and I’m standing in front of the coop, just watching. Watching the sun rise. Watching the dogs wrestle. Watching the chickens dart back and forth, eating our leftovers from the night before. They never just sit still and eat what is in front of them. Their little heads bob, this way and that. I used to think they were picking out their favorite bits, for they certainly do have their favorite morsels, but they behave the same way when the treats are all the same.

So now I know they’re just chickens and that’s just what chickens do.

The birds are relatively quiet. There is a call now and again. A jay squawks in the treeline. A bird I have not yet identified hides in a bush behind me and makes its “peep, prrreeep.” An entire murder of crows rises from the trees down by the river and flies silently overhead, just beginning to disperse on the other side of our property. I wonder for a moment if they are the reason I have not seen any hawks. And I am a little surprised at just how quiet the morning is.

Still, I just stand there. I’m not really sure how long it has been since I opened the coop door, but not the dogs are just standing in front of me, watching and waiting. They’ve already licked the bowl we use to store our leftovers clean, but they don’t know what to do next until I move. If I walk the property, they will romp off that direction. If I head toward the house, they will be waiting at the door when I get there.

Still, I just stand there. I’m not really thinking about anything. The chickens are almost finished with the tuna fish I pulled out of the back of the refrigerator and are moving on to the carrot peelings from the carrots I put in my husband’s cooler for his trip to Ravenna. The sleet turns to snow and I look up at the sky, asking the dogs if they think we really will get five inches.

I’m soaked, and decide it is probably time to get back to the house. It’s warm inside and the children are just beginning to wake, greeting me in their pajamas with sleep still in their eyes.

Where were you, mommy?

Just feeding the chickens.

let kids watch beauty and the beast

Late night visitors, or The attack of the coyotes

A little after midnight, both dogs leap at the window, growling furiously.  For a moment, I think Hunter (the lab mix) is going to go right through the glass.  I run to the kitchen to open the door and let them out before even checking to see what they are so upset about.

Wait.  Back up a bit.  It’s Friday evening and I come home to discover the chickens missing.  I look around with the flashlight and see no evidence of predators and start looking around the coop, in bushes and in trees.

Here, chickee chickee.  Here, chickee chickee.

Two appear from under the coop which I quickly catch and lock inside.  Kneeling down with a flashlight, I can see the feet of the other two, but they aren’t budging.

Do you know how many things there are out here that would love chicken for dinner?

Reasoning with them doesn’t work.  Even as I list the predators for them.

Weasels, mink, raccoons, foxes, dogs, coyotes, bobcats, cougars . . . and you know, I’m not so sure that the tracks all over around this coop aren’t bobcat.  You may have taken over her old home, you know.

They coo at my voice, but refuse to move.  I give up on catching them, but not on getting them through the night alive.  So I bring the dogs down and walk them around the coop several times.  The plan is to let the dogs out every time they bark, following with a flashlight.  They’re pretty much allowed out anytime they want, anyway, but now the stakes are a little higher.  We’ve only been here for a week, and all evidence suggests that the wild things that lived here before us have not yet ceded their territory.

Fast forward several hours.  They’ve already been out twice, chasing who knows what.  Maybe just barking for the pure joy of it for all I know, but if there is any chance of them getting to the chickens before something that would actually do them harm, I don’t mind.  Hunter is lunging at the window and I’m grabbing my jacket as my daughter says,

There’s something out there, mom.  I see something like a dog.

The dogs race to the door and push past me as they round the corner and take on the intruder at a full run.  Make that intruders.  Hunter is immediately on the heels of one coyote, chasing him across the road, across a cornfield, across another road and I finally lose him in a line of trees.  Copper is doing his best to keep up as the rest of the pack disperses.

Yes, pack.  A whole pack of coyotes (at least ten by my daughter’s count) had been lounging in my front yard only moments before.  Mouse watched them lope up to the yard, not twenty feet from the window.  Some sat and stared back at her, some sniffed around, some even lay down.  None were in the least concerned about us or the dogs lunging at the window.

Until they were released.

I heard Copper’s trail call every few minutes, each time further off in the distance.  I grew concerned at just how far they were running.  And while Hunter may give a single coyote a bit of a challenge, he is no match for a pack.  Not to mention the little beagle.  When would the coyotes decide they were on their own turf and ready to fight for it?  Once I could no longer hear the barking, my anxiety grew.  These coyotes were bold, unlike the ones I am familiar with from other places we have lived.  If it weren’t for the night time yipping, I’d never have known any were present at all.

But this pack was lounging in my yard, in the open and nowhere near cover.  When my daughter looked at them through the window, they just looked back.

Finally, Hunter comes trotting up our road, tail held high as he keeps pausing and looking behind him.  He is significantly faster than Copper, but he rarely goes far without him.  Copper, however, doesn’t appear.  Hunter trots to the top of the hill, turns and waits.  I haven’t heard Copper’s bugle in some time, but Hunter begins to prance and lowers his head in a play bow.  Out from behind a snow drift comes those flopping little beagle ears and both dogs bound to me, overwhelming me with affection.

They are keyed up, and unharmed.  They bear no evidence of anything but a hard run.  But they are excited.  Copper comes in with an energy that seems to set everything around him abuzz.  For the rest of the night, he alerts to everything, even the sound of the heater kicking on.  He is tracker dog extraordinaire.  After all, that little beagle just took on a pack of coyotes and won.

And the chickens made it through the night.  And I . . . well . . . I awoke with a little greater appreciation for the role of the family dog out here where he has a job to do, as well as for the wild things all around us.  There are all kinds of things I know are out here, passing through our property on their nightly hunts.  I know it even without the tell tale tracks in the snow.  But it is different to know something, or even to see evidence of something, than it is to see it for yourself, to confront it and to drive it back.

I think about them sometimes during the day, the coyotes which contribute to significant livestock losses out here, as well as the cougars which seem almost a thing of myth.  Everyone talks about them, and sightings, though rarely confirmed, occupy more than a few conversations over coffee.  Then one gets hit on I-80 in Gretna and you know.  You know. It isn’t just talk, like a rural version of the urban legend.  Because there is no way mountain lions are strolling along I-80 if they are not experiencing population pressure out here.

Sometimes the hair on the back of my neck goes up in the evening as I lock up the chickens.  It is almost as if I can feel something watching me from just beyond the shadows.  Hunter’s low growl as he presses himself protectively against my leg and watches the hedge on the property line makes me hold my feed bucket a little more like a weapon, but I stop to stare into the darkness.  Because these wild things that lurk in the shadows were as much a part of why I wanted to move out here as the ability to raise the chickens and goats I will have to work so diligently to protect from them.