Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Chicken Room

In the very short time that the chicks were in the dog crate they grew. And grew. It seems almost as if they had been eating spinach or exposed to gamma rays because, wow, they got huge in a very short time. After a brief (and loud) discussion about the future of chickens in our closet, we resolved to converting the teenager room in the basement into a chicken room.

When the realtor took us on our first tour of this house, the odd little finished room in the basement was sold as "perfect for teens." Maybe teens who are trolls or something from that 70s movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. It's damp and chilly and kind of creepy. There are no windows and the closet has an odd hole in the back that looks like an escape hatch for scary things that live in the walls (see Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.) Teenagers may be damp and cool and kind of creepy at times, but they still need daylight. The former owners told us that the teen who inhabited the room before they moved in used the windows outside the odd little room to come and go at night. This had us more worried about teens that do not belong to us coming and going at night than the future teens that will. The former teen room still boasts a faint pencil scrawl of "I hate my life" on the wall. We are very happy that this room is now dedicated to a much more positive use. Hopefully from now on it will be referred to as the chicken room and we can put the "teen room" to rest.

Louise, looking more like a rooster daily.



The chicks are enjoying their freedom. They run at each other, puff up their chests to show off, and generally get a lot more exercise than if they were cooped up in the dog crate all day.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Round two on seedlings

We had some early success with our seedlings. Our flat trays of sprouts were so green and healthy looking that we figured we could transplant the little guys into peat pots. It made sense that the seedlings would need a bit more space. Over the last couple of weeks we've had vibrant green shoots lining every windowsill in the house. Unfortunately, that early progress our seedlings took had a turn for the worse. A high number of seedlings did not survive the change over. Our guess is that we simply moved the seedlings too early. We're also thinking the lack of sunny days in March didn't help.




We should have enough time to start again. This time as well as the starter trays, we've used some of the peat pots to start seeds in and added a full spectrum light to help things along.


 Heck, you can't kill it by transplanting if you don't move it right?

Bloodlust in the barnyard...

We went to feed the chickens yesterday and discovered that Goldfeather had been attacked! The poor thing had the majority of the feathers on the left side of her jaw plucked off and a little blood was drawn. We seemed to have come in just after the initial incident since there was a bit of blood spatter visible on the nesting box. We did what any modern wannabe farmer would do, ran to the internet and researched chicken attacks.

An injured Goldfeather



There are so many poultry resources out there and very few are consistent in their advice. Some say that this is a regular event in chicken world and a consequence of working out a pecking order. Others insist that this behavior is a result of boredom or lack of protein in their diet. One thing that they all agree on is that if a chicken starts to bleed - look out. Mild mannered chickens are easily transformed into crazed cannibals, tearing furiously at the injured bird. It's sort of a cross between the Birds and Night of the Living Dead.

It's hard to imagine Ginger and MaryAnne feasting on their feathered friend but evidently it is not that uncommon.

So what do you do when your birds turn on one another?

Some sites say remove the bird that is being picked on, others say take out the aggressor. Each has its drawbacks. If you take out the picked on bird it is guaranteeing that when that bird is reintroduced to the flock it will be at the bottom of the pecking order. We might be back at square one. Taking out the aggressor sounded good, but we couldn't figure out who was being the bully.

We opted to experiment. Some sites mentioned boredom so we added another perch and something new: bugs. No, we don't let bugs go in the cage, but we gave them a few mealworms (the lizard's food) and watched. We had the happiest, most excited, busy chickens around.

Percy feeding bugs to the birds



We got Goldfeather cleaned up, but left her with her friends and there have been no further signs of abuse (knock on wood.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chicks are Messy

The chicks out grew their brooder. We knew it was only a matter of time when we entered the closet to find half of the chickens perched on the side of the large bin they were living in. It took us a little while to figure out where and how to keep them. It's still a month away before they can live outside - not that their coop is even close to being done.

We originally intended to keep them in the basement but it's been feeling a little damp down there after the torrential rains of late. We decided they would have to stay in the closet a little longer. But what to keep them in?

We improvised with an unused dog crate that has been sitting in the basement. Here it is:



We thought the crate was a clever idea because it has a tray in the bottom that slides out for easy cleaning... We didn't account for all the crap, quiet literally, that the chicks throw around. We'll have to build some kind of barrier to keep the debris in the cage. On the positive side, they love sitting on their new roosting stick and have more room to move around.

Goldfeather



Thelma sleeping



Louise is starting to look like a rooster to us




What a difference a couple of weeks makes

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Digging Hurts: A Moment of Crisis

We spent the bulk of the weekend tearing out huge chunks of the lawn. Saturday was one of those picture perfect days, high seventies, dry as anything and the sounds and smells of spring rippled through the air. We built on the work that had been done earlier and by the end of Sunday had nine beds dug and the sod covering the future flower bed carved. The sod was much easier to lift than anticipated and that had us smiling since a worst case scenario had us rent a sod lifter for $200. Yay. Money saved! As an added bonus, due to the beautiful weather, we made contact with people who were out walking in our neighborhood. They were all smiles seeing us in the yard getting all earthy and making "improvements" to our tiny lot. It was great. For those few moments we were so sure that we are on the right track, doing something that others may see as interesting and accept as a lawn alternative. Most passers by even overlooked the smell that was last year's compost - a revolting sludge of nutritiousness that formed on the bottom of a Rubbermaid bin full of leaves.

Then there was a pause in all the activity.

Doubts settled in.




Are we over extending ourselves?

We started the experiment with one adult collecting on a decent severance package and job hunting, while the other worked a taxing eight hours with added hours to follow through after work. The fantasy of the garden, chickens and eventual food was a fantastic way to carry us through the dark, frigid months until spring. Spring is here, the lawn is shattered and there is a moment of crisis at hand. Steady employment beckons and, starting soon, we will be down to late arrivals from work, cranky kids, and weekends committed to gardening and the cosmetic surgery our yard is in desperate need of.

Sounds like a lot of work.

Do we need to have the dirt tested?

I was chatting via email with a friend back in Brooklyn who told me that someone who went to school with my brother had put himself and the local food movement to the test. Manny Howard wrote about his urban farming experiment for New York Magazine. You can read his very enlightening and entertaining article here. Howard sets himself up with the improbable task of growing all the food he needs to feed himself for one month. He's a great writer and makes the most of all the drama and friction that his situation throws at him. I don't know if there could be a better recommendation to read his article than to be able to tell friends you read the original piece before the movie came out. From what I hear, Howard has nabbed a movie deal from his experience. Fittingly, his book My Empire of Dirt will be released at the end of April.

Even with all the drama in his article, one thing continues to haunt me: he had his soil tested.

Huh.

We bought a soil testing kit from Home Depot to tell us how our dirt stood up in the soil ph wars. Do we need more loam? Lime? These questions seem inadequate now. You see, Howard sent out a sample of his soil to smart people using sophisticated equipment and they found high levels of all kinds of crazy poisons that might qualify his yard for a Superfund site. We never considered that there might be things like lead or other toxins lurking in our dirt and eventually our food.

Our house was built in 1889 and has been renovated several times since. Who knows if a previous owner chucked all the lead painted, asbestos coated whatever to use as fill before trucking in dirt for a yard? We took samples to send out to U Mass, a land grant college. They are there to help people the average person with things like whether there are heavy metals in your future vegetable garden.

Do we wait?

We're down to our last week with an available adult for any kind of manual labor Monday through Friday. It is also only the second week that the yard has been workable. If we don't do it now, we won't be on schedule to get the seeds out that need to be planted into beds. We'll also be stuck with all these seedlings that are lining every flat surface by a window. Waiting will also give us a chance to heal. Did we mention that digging up plots of sod, hauling dirt, and pounding in wood hurts the post 40, generally inactive body?

Despite the initial setbacks, real or imagined, we think we're going to keep at it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Thelma, Louise and the Post-Feminist Chick


THELMA

Yes, the adults got to name these two, but we're going to wait a little while before showing the kids this film.

The plan was to keep four chickens and give two away. A colleague at work showed minor interest in the two up for grabs and that developed into a definite "yes" in our minds. "Phew, the chicks have somewhere to live!" Sadly, he was cut back on a second job and the expense of building a coop was too much to bear at this time. We poked around half-heatedly looking for a home for the two girls but, as I was afraid, they began to grow on us and soon had names. Once you name an animal, getting rid of it is near impossible.


LOUISE

Originally, we (the adults) wanted to give the four girls the kids' great-grandmothers' names; Tilly, Miriam, Margaret and Mildred. We were convinced they were great names for any young chick. But we were out voted by the boys. We ended up with Lizzie, Goldfeather ( Goldie for short), Ginger, MaryAnne, Thelma and Louise.

Ginger and MaryAnne certainly are not a common part of our kids' generation where Drake and Josh and ICarly dominate the just below and tween world. Call us crazy, but the kids don't have access to much tv and, for the moment, will take our recommendations for stuff to watch on the computer. They have been fed a diet of reruns full of actors long gone.

When it came to names Wednesday and Morticia didn't quite flow, Lilly and Marilyn would have been nice, but Ginger and MaryAnne had a ring to it even if the characters they stem from are representations of gross stereotypes and embody tragic views of femininity. Our boys are terrific with the silliness these shows present to them. As our 7 year old boy "Billy" said the other day after seeing a woman act weak and ask for help, "That's so crazy since everyone knows that girls are stronger than boys." To put this in context, the girls had just won a pull up contest at recess. It's a modern world and each generation is becoming more open to equality all around. We can only hope that this is still the case when they move beyond our influence and into adolescence.

Obviously, the adults preferred to embrace our girls as post-feminist chicks. Sure we could have gone with any number of modern female icons who broke barriers or challenged the status quo for women; HIlary, Madonna, Naomi (Klein), Susan (Faludi), to name a few. Still, Thelma and Louise represent something deeper about chicks in America. Thelma and Louise are the tragic "every woman." The unsung fight against the grey barriers that acknowledge women are equal but perpetuate (sometimes) unintentional, unenlightened, or just plain unchallenged views that women are somehow something to be controlled. The tragedy is not lost on us that just like Thelma and Louise from the film, our girls are doomed to live forever in a cage (though a very nice one.) Hopefully, as chickens this will be a much more agreeable environment and they will not make the same dramatic choice about their future.

It may be ironic that Ginger, our bold potential rooster, is also the first to fly the brooder. She perches on its wall as we enter and brazenly chirps hello with nary a hip swagger or flirtatious wink. I have been told since my last post by those who know, it is just as often the young rooster who is the most shy and quiet. "You can't tell a rooster until it crows." That is sound advice too for kids growing up in a world where gender shouldn't matter until it matters.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ginger or the Professor?



We've been wondering what we'd do if one of the chicks turns into a he rather than a she. You see, I've been getting a strange vibe from Ginger lately. She's a pretty chicken with a terrific set of yellow, symmetrical eyebrows. She looks as if she has been preparing for a movie scene. She has a lot of personality too. While the other chicks run off, peeping in excitement any time there is a new sound or movement, Ginger sticks her head up to find out what's going on. Even after she suffers the indignity of our sloppy photo shoots, she's happy to let me pet her or comes running over to find out what's next.




According to The Chook Shed, there are a variety of ways to "sex" a chick, none of which are 100%. This is what the hatcheries do before shipping chicks off for sale. These methods range from looking at the color or length of a chick's legs to noticing feather colors. To top it off, the methods used don't work for every breed. Behavior is also an indicator of gender in chickens. It's the rooster's job to look out for the flock, therefore he's less frightened, more alert and often more sociable with humans. This realization is disappointing because we really enjoy Ginger and we don't like the obvious options of what to do if one of the chicks turns out to be a Chuck.

During a recent conversation about chickens, a friend mentioned keeping a chicken as a house pet. We're pretty open to animals and our menagerie includes a turtle, snake, lizard, hermit crabs and ants along with the standard dog and cats. But a house chicken would take us to a whole new level of crazy. Do people really keep chickens in the house? With a simple google search we discovered that, yes, while crazy, more and more people are indeed keeping chickens in their houses. But how in the world would you deal with all that poop indoors? Another quick search showed where crazy gets you: the chicken diaper. Not only are chicken diapers for sale, but there are multiple sites that show the step by step process of making them.

So if Ginger does indeed turn into the Professor, or Gilligan for that matter, it seems we have more options than we originally thought.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The magical stereo receiver seed starter

We started some seeds last Saturday -February 27th using a mix of seed starters we bought at the store. After reading various articles on starting seeds, we decided to try an experiment.  Many sites recommend placing seed trays on the top of the refrigerator because of the heat it gives off. We placed one mini-greenhouse starter on top of the fridge and the other one on the top of our stereo receiver. We figured if the refrigerator was good, the receiver in front of the window would be great. Okay, it wasn't a true experiment since we had different seeds in different starters but most of the seed germination guidelines are about the same.

The receiver is in the lead......

From Recently Updated







We figure the combination of heat and sun from the window really accelerated the germination. The lettuce, beets, broccoli and brussel sprouts all germinated in a few days and pushed to a few inches within a week. The red peppers and chili peppers have not germinated yet.

On the top of the refrigerator we have three types of tomatoes and various herbs. The tomatoes and dill germinated in about 6 days and are now starting to sprout up a little. We will move them to a sunny location this week.

It looks as though we will need to transfer many of these to larger pots sooner then we expected.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What in the world do you do with chicks?

We've been quite popular in the few days since the chicks arrived. People are dropping by to see where, how and why we have six birds living in our closet. Actually the brooder, the enclosure we keep them in, is in the closet. So, no, the chicks are not fending for themselves amongst the shoes. Our research has shown that this would not be wise. The things that chicks need most are not all that different from babies of other species. Warmth, food and water are key, but they also need to be protected from predators and drafts as well as be socialized to be part of the family.

Since we only have a half dozen birds, we were able to keep our brooder relatively small.

Here it is:



We used a 110 liter plastic tub to keep the chicks safe and draft free. The bottom of the tub is covered in aspen shavings which they love to scratch around in. We were advised against our original plan to use a 100 watt bulb in a reflective lamp since the chicks need a basking spot of 95 degrees. We were upsold a 250 watt red bulb and a clamp lamp that has a fire guard in case it tumbles into the brooder. The red bulb is more expensive but less stressful to the animals since it needs to be left on for 24 hours. This also allows the chicks to have a sense of natural light change from the nearby window.

We wasted $4 on a cheapie thermometer to keep track of the brooder temperature. A better investment is a digital thermometer you can find at a pet store in the reptile supply section. This will run you anywhere from $4 - $10 but it won't leak, pop, or shatter.

We also purchased a small waterer ($3) and a metal feed tray ($7) and chicken starter food. There is a debate about whether or not to go organic with the chicken starter. Chicks are susceptible to illness and the non-organic feed has medicine that protects them from coccidiosis, a parasite that they can pick up from eating others' poop. Since the first thing a new born chick does is eat another chick's poop, we weren't ready to debate and bought the medicated feed.

Was medicated feed necessary? Probably not, but being new to this we decided to play the safe side. They don't seem to be complaining.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The chickens have landed

They're here!

We headed off to the Danvers Agway on Thursday to pick up our chicks. It turned out to be a good move. In the three hours since they had the chicks in stock, most of the Ameraucana chicks had been sold. We bought four of these chicks and two Gold Lace Wyandottes. Our oldest boy, "Percy," has been researching chickens and had his heart set on a Plymouth Rock. Unfortunately the farm store didn't have any in their shipment. He went with the Wyandottes after the very knowledgeable young woman at the store assured him they are great layers with very attractive plumage.




So what's the deal with the Ameraucana?

We decided on Ameraucana chicks after my cousin, who has been raising chickens, recommended them as friendly and attractive birds. She gushed over the unique color of their eggs and the beauty of their large, dark yoke. We got some great advice when we mentioned that we were looking for Ameraucanas to a sales guy at the Dodge Grain Co. in Salem, NH, (yes, we do visit a lot of agricultural stores.) He was thrilled to tell us of his own positive experiences raising them and the looks on people's faces when he showed them round, blue eggs.

They do make very pretty chicks with stripes and blocks of rich color. As you can see above, dark stripes around their eyes make them look like they're wearing makeup.