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.

Free Garden Unit Study Download

Today, I am offering all my readers a free e-book: Developing Christian Character Through Gardening.   Just click to open, and feel free to share the link to this free resource with your friends!  I only ask that you link to this entry rather than directly to the download so I can get “paid” through the small amount of traffic that might generate!  Thanks! And while you are planning your garden, consider learning a little about the honeybee with Share the Buzz: A free lesson guide about honeybees!

Developing Christian Character Through(1)-min

When Jesus taught, he often used object lessons drawn from the everyday experiences of His audience: drawing water from a well, making bread, a wedding celebration, the harvest, etc. These experiences were an integral part of the culture of Jesus’ day, giving His listeners practical examples of the spiritual principles He was teaching. Today, however, even such simple tasks as making bread or sowing seeds can be as foreign to children as the spiritual lessons they were intended to illustrate.

This unit focuses on how Christian character is developed through studying the parable of the sower. Children are given an opportunity to help plant a garden and tend it through the harvest, while the parent takes time to draw spiritual applications from the work being done, “here a little, there a little.” (Isaiah 28:10) Although the foundation of this lesson rests on the parable of the sower found in Mark chapter 4, take some time before each session in the garden to reflect on what you will be doing and an appropriate verse to guide your children toward a more spiritual discussion.

Let me know what you think, and enjoy gardening with your children!

Reading Breakthrough, or Victory of the Bribe

I never would have guessed that Mig the Pig’s Big Book would be both our downfall and our breakthrough.  I never would have guessed that a little word like “gig” could bring a lesson to a standstill.  And that “stopped”–oh, that vile, malicious little word–I never would have guessed that it could cause such trauma to my six year old.

And I never, ever, ever would have guessed that I would stoop so low as to bribe my son to read.

Bear slides into the chair next to me, looking suspiciously at the book I have laid out on the table.  I chose it for our first formal reading lesson in our new house because he has been pouring over it for days.  He drops his shoulders and sighs as he realizes what is going on, but I let it slide.

“How do you spell pig?” I ask by way of an introduction.

We are beginning a unit on farm animals that will last them the rest of their schooling as we slowly transform our lives here on this property.

“Pig”, he repeats.  “/P/-/I/-/G/,” he makes each sound distinctly.  “D-O-X-O-T-O-L-O-B!” he spells, triumphantly.

You’re silly, I say, tickling him.  He falls out of his chair laughing.

OK, OK.  It is P-I-G.  P-I-G. P-I-G!

He gets back in his chair, still smiling as he reads, Mig the Pig’s Big Book.  Just like that, fluently and with no prompting.  I’m impressed.  Not only has he not forgotten what we have learned so far, he seems to be gaining some confidence and is reading words rather than sounding out each and every letter.

That all came to a screeching halt when Mig had to go and take a ride in her gig.  He looked at the word in disbelief, refused to try to read it, argued with the book even.  I rested my head between my forefingers for a moment, breathing deeply, willing myself to not get frustrated.  To not let my frustration show.

Deep breath.  1-2-3.  Another deep breath.  Suddenly, I realize his problem is not the word itself.  I cover the picture with my arms and ask him to read the word.

“Gig,” he say with disgust.  “It says gig, but that’s stupid.”

“Why is it stupid?”

“Because it is a chariot, not a gig!”

I try not to laugh and reassure him that the little cart can be called a gig.  He recovers, if ever so slightly, and moves on until we get to “stopped.”

There, all sanity ends and he throws himself on the floor.  He moves to his bed letting out a soul wrenching cry of despair.  Dramatic, that’s all I can say, and the poor guy can hardly catch his breath.

And this is the problem we have with reading.  He shows all the signs of being ready to read.  He knows his letters, their sounds, loves word games, sounds out words, asks how words are spelled continuously.  He loves word windows and word family strips.  He inhales pattern books.  He likes the familiar, the predictable, the comfortable.  But he has a low tolerance for frustration and he falls apart as soon as he is pushed the slightest bit outside his comfort zone.

But he likes lists and charts and order and little boxes to check, too.  He likes simple, straightforward goals that are easy to accomplish and come with clear rewards.  He loved the Pizza Hut Book It program we were involved in for a whole month before my husband inadvertently threw away all the coupons.

So when the tears finally subsided, we made a chart.  He loved it’s neat rows of boxes even before I told him what it was for.  Especially his name at the top and the boxes that were big enough for him to write something in.

I told him he could put ten cents in each of those boxes if he did his reading without tears or complaints.

“Ten whole cents?!  I’m going to be rich!”

“You can’t fuss, or whine.”

“Can we start now?”

And he took the book with a smile.  Enthusiasm, even. He read well, if a bit falteringly.   He wrote ten cents down in the little box and beamed.  Then he went and got another book and sounded out a couple of words, just to show me he could.

So, yeah.  I totally caved.  I’m paying off my son for a little cooperation during reading time.  But you know what he told his father today?

“Daddy, I can’t wait for my next reading lesson. I just can’t wait!”

Instilling a love of reading is probably one of my top goals for education.  And if it costs me sixty cents a week, well, I guess I’ll swallow my pride and go with it.

Because he just can’t wait for his next reading lesson.

And someday, the reading will get easier and he will be able to satisfy his voracious appetite for knowledge in the pages of those books.  I’ll worry about how to stop paying him later.

An encounter with owls

Four children stand in the walkway, huddled together against the cold.  Two came out without a jacket.  One didn’t bother with shoes.  It’s hovering just above freezing.  They stand silently, listening.  It is a rare moment of quiet.

What do they sound like, Mommy? [Whoo whowhowho Whooo]

“Whoo whowhowho Whooo,” I call back. Partially to let Bug know what she is listening for, partially in hopes the owl will answer.  The sun hasn’t set yet, but they’ve been calling to each other since I came out to lock up the chickens.

Are they in our woods?  {Whoo whowhowho Whooo}

No, I whisper back.  I point to the treeline where the calls are coming from.

Will it eat me?  {Whoo whowhowho Whooo}

Her timing is impeccable.

Bear starts to giggle.  I have no idea why. {Whoo whowhowho Whooo} I raise my eyebrows at him, ask him if he wants to go inside.

Silence is his answer.

They all answer with silence.  A minute of total silence as they strain their ears.  Bug and Bear look off into the woods, as if hoping to see something.  Mouse stares at the ground, concentrating only on listening.  L.E.Fant stares at me.

Another minute goes by.  A dog barks in the distance.

Another minute.  The setting sun is beginning to turn the sky a fiery red.

Are the coyotes coming out, yet, mommy? {Whoo whowhowho Whooo}

Shhh, I answer reassuringly.  Hunter is right here.  He’ll let us know if any come this way.

Another minute.  They are straining their ears, standing on tiptoe.  And finally, echoing through the silence of sunset:

Whoo whowhowho Whooo Who Who Whooo, calls a Great Horned Owl.

Their faces light up.

Whoo whowhowho Whooo Who Who Whooo, answers the prospective mate.

I don’t have to ask if they heard, their eyes are beaming with excitement.

“It is breeding season for the Great Horned Owl,” I tell them as we go inside to warm up.  “They will lay their eggs in an open nest at the top of a tree while there is still snow on the ground.”

“Won’t the babies get cold?”

“The owlets have their mommy and daddy to keep them warm and to feed them.  Mommy will stay on the nest and brood them, while daddy hunts for food.  That’s why we have to take extra special care to lock up our chickens.  They would love a nice juicy chicken for dinner.”

The children giggle. I tell them about the Great Horned Owl’s range, its habitat, how it uses the nest of other birds or even squirrels to raise its young.  I tell them how I once “talked” to an owl for twenty minutes before it flew in for a closer look.  Suddenly, there was a huge owl perched on a telephone pole, looking menacingly down at me and I wanted to know what I had been saying all that time.

Apparently, I was neither threatening its territory, nor particularly attractive in owl terms for it flew off almost immediately.  But it was the closest I had ever come to a wild Great Horned Owl, and it left an impression on me.

The children’s questions taper off as they get absorbed in other tasks.  I tell them the owls will likely continue to call for some time, while they lay eggs and rear their young.  Owl calls can be heard for miles, I say, but they don’t sound that far away.

If we keep listening, maybe we’ll get to hear their babies.  I’ve never heard a baby owl before.

They smile, and go on with their play.

More on the Great Horned Owl if you are interested.  Now is a great time to take children out to try to listen for them because they will be calling frequently until they have bred.

Finding my way home

Today, I don’t have to go anywhere.  We may go to the library because I promised the children we would this week and this week is running out of days.  But I don’t have to, I don’t even particularly want to, and I’m relishing the ability to just be home.

It is a new feeling for me. For some time, the mere thought of staying home for days at a time led to restlessness and a vague sense of being trapped.  I could only straighten the same rooms, mediate the same squabbles, fold the same laundry, wash the same dishes so many times before going stir crazy.

I tried not to go into town unnecessarily.  We were, after all, doing our best to save wherever we could.  But having something to do away from home was a relief.  I even looked forward to grocery shopping, especially on the rare occasion my husband was home and agreed to take the children while I “picked up a few things.”

Like my sanity.

Living here is a little different.  Part of that is because it is still new, but there’s more.  The chickens keep me occupied throughout the day, I have several light remodeling projects and I’m in the midst of planning for a sizable garden as well as a small flock of geese.  I have enough work to fill each day, but it is a different kind of work than  just continually cleaning and moving around the same things in the endlessly tedious task of maintaining our stuff.  It feels more productive because I am building and creating something new while laying a basic groundwork for our future here.

Interestingly, even my ever-present pile of laundry seems less daunting and the continual picking up behind small children less tedious.

And for the first time since leaving the workforce, I truly want to be here at home.