Rosie the Rooster(er), or And Then There Were Three

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Rosie the Riveter: The iconic manifestation of female strength and perseverance. That’s what we thought our Buff Orpington Rosie was. From day one when she pecked my hand while I wrestled her out of her carrying box, Rosie ruled the roost—literally. She was always bigger than the other girls, but we just thought she was all feather and no fight.

Then Rosie began chasing the other hens with spread wings and occasionally jumping on top of them. Hmm, feisty. She must just be establishing herself as the Mother Hen, the alpha. That’s a thing in backyard flocks, right?

Then the other day, Rosie crowed. Shit.

This is Rosie …

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… the rooster.

As first-time flock tenders, we overlooked many obvious signs, like her (I mean his. I’m having trouble switching pronouns.) behavior and the overdeveloped crop. After some research, Buff Orpingtons actually do have larger crops, and are generally bigger than lighter-bodied breeds. Also, both males and females begin to crow at about twelve weeks. Apparently the determining factor is the feathers. Look at Rosie’s hackle feathers, the ones at the back of the neck. They are shiny and pointed. If this was a hen, the hackles would be soft and rounded. The other indication is the saddle feathers in front of the tail—also pointed. Eventually cockerels develop that big swooshy tail, but sadly, we cannot wait that long.

Our beloved backyard bully, our Rosie, is returning to the farm today, marking our second chicken tragedy, and we are not replacing this one. We now have a flock of three. I must say, Alistair is taking this second chicken rejection pretty well. He wasn’t as attached to Rosie since we never pet or held him, and he (nailed it.) rarely ate from our hands. It really will be more peaceful without our big-boned Buff, but regardless of personality, we are giving up a part of our little family flock. I want to make it clear that we are not giving Rosie up by choice. Chicken sex is not a deal breaker to us personally. We are just not legally allowed to keep cockerels in the city.

And so it is goodbye, Rosie the Rooster(er). You will be missed.

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Container Gardening 101: What I’ve Learned So Far

Though this has been a cold spring with temps hovering around 60°, we have managed to be outside most days working on various yard projects and being generally very productive and homesteady. From fire pits to porch swings, raised vegetable beds to decorative shrubbery, our little farm is coming together, and I have learned many things I should not do. Actually I have learned five things:

  1. Never garden in a thong. Squatting for long periods of time, followed by shoveling dirt and wrestling serpentine garden hoses between beds can only lead to one thing: chafage.
  2. Relegate one pair of shoes to yard work and chicken-poop stomping. Shoes I do not recommend for this job: expensive and trendy Hunter Wellington boots, Dansko clogs that you’ve spent years molding perfectly to your feet, flip flops (for obvious reasons), or running sneakers with all those special bumps and grooves on the soles.
  3. Don’t plant anything underneath your hose reel. You will watch it die a slow, quiet death by water torture because you bought a cheap hose.
  4. Seeds will not germinate in mulch. Turns out they prefer actual soil. Also air.
  5. Don’t even try to reseed your lawn where young children and chickens roam.

While we were focused on the chickens, the garden beds looked like this:

_DSC0481Nate chose untreated 10-foot 2×8 pine boards for the beds held together with metal brackets on the inside corners and wooden stakes on the long outside edges to prevent sagging. He ordered four cubic yards of a soil and organic compost mixture from a local sand and gravel company, which he painstakingly sifted through a handmade sieve made from one-by boards and an old screen. Figuring one cubic yard per 3×10-foot bed, he filled all four beds, one barrel, and the chicken run with dirt, so of course we still have a gigantic pile of dirt in our driveway. Although we keep it covered with a tarp most of the time, it has become mud with the spring rain, then Alistair’s personal “King of the Hill” dirt mound, and finally we are now literally giving it away to neighbors. But at least the beds now look more like this:

_DSC0504 I have taken succession planting to a whole new level, staggering the planting of different beds and beginning some plants from starts and some directly from seed. I am pretending that this is a conscious and well-thought-out choice rather than a result of laziness and a complete gamble. I got some beautiful starts from Winslow Farm and put them in one bed about two weeks ago along with the few (ten or so) seedlings we managed to start inside ourselves. So one bed contains red and green cabbage (below), and Red Russian and Dinosaur kale from Winslow, as well as early carrots, cilantro, broccoli, Chioggia beets, and slicing cucumbers grown in our bathroom window.

_DSC0508I also planted some seeds and starts in this big barrel for decorative and edible container garden art, all of which are growing like gangbusters. I planted the rest of the kale from Winslow in here, as well as a basil start from the farmers’ market, our own cilantro, and arugula and salad mix from seed.

_DSC0485 I attribute the rapid growth to the fair balance of sun and rain we have enjoyed this spring, as well as this magical plant crack:

_DSC0473This is a kick-ass organic fertilizer I have added to all my soil, and I am pretty sure it is equal parts nitrogen and fairy dust. I have used it three different ways, all of which appear to be at least marginally successful. For the starts, which are planted directly in their soil blocks, I sprinkled some fertilizer directly into the hole in the soil/compost combo and put the soil block on top of it. I did the same thing with the smaller seedlings, but with smaller holes and less fertilizer in each hole. For plants I started from seed, I mixed the fertilizer in with the soil and then just tamped the seeds about 1/4 inch down into the compound. I can not tell you what part fertilizer I used to what part soil, nor how much compost is in the soil to begin with, for that matter, making this all very unscientific indeed. Finally, I mulched around the seedlings with this:

bag-fundy-newI left the seeds and smaller seedlings unmulched for now, but plan to add it once they are about three inches tall and thinned out. Only mulching part of your beds makes them look like this:

IMG_20140515_175153_909Clearly there is little rhyme or reason to where in the beds things are planted. Had I continued my consultation with Stacey at Backyard Harvest, I am sure she would have laid out a lovely plan for me based on the angle of the sun for larger plants casting shadows on smaller ones, taking into consideration what plants grow best from seed and when during the growing season they should be planted. She knows which plants prefer colder soil and which plants need room or need thinning. I considered exactly none of that. We did, however, manage to put trellises on the ends of three beds for the vining plants (bush beans, sugar snap peas, and cucumbers).

IMG_20140515_175254_880Despite my best efforts, we have many happy plants in various stages of growth, and I’ve even got the neighbor girls helping me water. Now if only I can remember to wear appropriate footwear and undergarments, I can totally nail this gardening thing.

May

IMG_20140515_175428_374“Withstanding the cold develops vigor for the relaxing days of spring and summer. Besides, in this matter as in many others, it is evident that nature abhors a quitter.” –Arthur C. Crandall

Blu-Kote: The Magic of Gentian Violet

Any nursing mamas out there ever spread gentian violet on their nipples for thrush? Turned your breasts a deep shade of purple, right? Yeah. Meet little Lady Bluebutt:

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Check out Millie eyeing that colorful rump? Obviously the Blu-Kote arrived today, which I had to trick poor Lady into letting me apply. I got a handful of mealworms and she ate them right out of my hand! This is a first and a sign that she is starting to trust us … so I betrayed that trust and deftly sprayed her behind. Now she won’t come near me. However, Mavis ate from my hand as well, so that’s a start. I’ll get back on Lady’s good side (NOT her back side at the moment) just as soon as she stops eating herself.

This is Blu-Kote, which is made with gentian violet, as well as other anti-fungal and antibiotic ingredients:

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This is the warning label on the back:

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W.T.F.?

Chicken Hypochondria and Life Lessons

It’s only been three days, and I have already suspected our small flock of pecking and cannibalism, mites, Marek’s Disease, and botulism—all of which have been in my head. However, my anxiety is not without merit.

When our flock arrived on Saturday the Araucana, or Easter Egger, Flora, was immediately our favorite. She was gentle and sweet. She would let us hold and pet her, not either run away squawking or flap her wings in our faces like her more extroverted pen mates. Well, it turns out there was a reason for her docility. I noticed right away that she seemed more lethargic than the other hens, sat down a lot, and seemed to move with a slow, unsteady gait. Her condition worsened over the next two days to the point where she could only waddle a few steps before falling, once down the ramp from the coop to the run, and then sit with her legs splayed. She wouldn’t eat or drink, even though I gave her a food and water bowl within reach. When we tried to pick her up she would spread her wings and use that momentum to hobble out of reach, and then flop to the ground, immobile. It was difficult to watch.

I did some research, and she had symptoms of Marek’s disease, a deadly virus that causes paralysis and death, so I isolated her from the other hens, just in case. I called the farmer, who said all his chicks had been innoculated against Marek’s, but suggested I contact the state vet’s office. It turns out that Maine has a poultry technician whose job it is to answer just these types of inquiries. Tom Nelson was both kind and helpful, but honest. While he said it did not sound like Marek’s since she wasn’t fully paralyzed and had been vaccinated against the disease, he said it sounded terminal, and the best course of action would be to return her to the farm, where should would most certainly be euthanized, and get a new hen.

This sounded like cold and removed advice to me at first, and then I realized that, while we had already grown attached to Flora, we had only had her for three days, and the farmer should just exchange her for a healthy bird. Not only did the farmer consent to this, but he did some research himself, and it turns out that Araucanas, a true South American breed, were cross bred to create Easter Eggers, and in this breeding, a genetic neurological condition was born, and most likely, Flora had it. So we brought her back, and got this one instead. Meet Millie:Image

She’s the one with the beard.

I am wracked with chicken mommy guilt about this decision. Upon even further research on my part, I discovered that these conditions are sometimes caused by vitamin deficiencies, and are completely curable. On the other hand, I couldn’t take that chance. If she was contagious, all I had was a hastily constructed shelter for her, in which should would have to remain until she either improved or died, and I didn’t want to watch that demise. She would also either be ostracized from the flock upon reintroduction if she recovered, or bullied and pecked on if she was still weak and we allowed her to re-assimilate. Marek’s is really only determined in necropsy, and we don’t have the time to wait for that diagnosis.  The farmer did ask us if we wanted to keep her and try to rehabilitate her. We said no. It wasn’t worth the risk.

We have been honest with Alistair throughout this process. We told her Flora was sick and would most likely have to return to the farm. He was upset, but didn’t ask a lot of questions. He pet her head and whispered through her pen that he wanted her to get better. He actually fell asleep on the way to the farm for the exchange and missed his chance to say goodbye to Flora and meet our new hen, which he initially wanted to call Flora Two. When we got home, he woke up, and I asked him if he wanted to meet our new girl. He said yes, and that he wanted to name her Millie. Done. However, since then, he has seemed less interested in the chickens, like he’s afraid if he gets too attached, one might leave again. He didn’t even tell his classmates at school about them.

I am happy to report that Millie seems much healthier and has assimilated well into the flock. She is a little fireball with a voracious appetite. We are still grieving for Flora, but love Millie already. Alistair got to pet her tonight, and formally welcome her home.

Also tonight, though, Nate noticed some bloody tail feathers on Lady, the Red Sexlink. This could mean a number of things, including pecking and cannibalism, though none of our hens has seemed particularly aggressive or determinedly alpha yet. Just in case, though, all three of us went into the run, gloved and armed with wound salve, to examine not only Lady, but the other three hens. Alistair guarded the door to prevent escape, particularly Mavis’s (She’s not black and white for nothing …), while Nate caught the hens and I checked their rumps and wings. All of them have healthy follicles, some with fewer feathers (Millie’s whole back is basically bald), but none with scaly or scabby patches. Lady did have a small patch of bloody follicles, which she most likely did to herself with her beak because new feathers itch. In the absence of Blu Kote, which is recommended for antibiotic and anti-fungal wound treatment, as well as a deterrent to further pecking, we used Neosporin and talc, which seemed to annoy but not hurt her. Hopefully this is a one-time occurrence and not an epidemic. If it IS pecking among the flock, then it is most likely caused by boredom, being confined to the run all day (mobile run is under construction), so I bought them a toy today, and we are putting up a roost in the run tomorrow. I also bought some spray to treat and prevent mites, just in case.

And Alistair has learned his first lesson in loss. Yes, his acquaintance with Flora was brief, but she was one of his first pets, and this is how it turned out. He has still been relatively quiet about it all, but seems to be warming up to Millie. I am hoping for another favorite.

Picking up Chicks: The Journey from Farm to Coop

 

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They’re heeee-eeeere. Meet the ladies of the Fifth-Acre Farm flock: Rosie, Mavis, Flora, and Lady—ten weeks old and full of flight and feather.

Alistair and I went to Plowshares Farm to pick up our pullets today. We got one each of four different breeds and unwillingly and ungracefully transported them in Staples folding file boxes from Gorham to Portland. It’s incredible how personalities already begin to emerge from the depths of such small confines.

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Rosie, the Buff Orpington, is clearly the alpha. She began pecking the box, flapping her wings, and sticking her beak through the holes in the box in a vain, but determined attempt at escape from the first minute we trapped her. She was the only one who wouldn’t let me pick her up to remove her from the box when we got home to the coop. She nipped my palm and got herself out. She is totally in charge. The other hens look to her for guidance, and one even cowers under her wing and belly.

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This is Flora, the wee coward. She is the Araucana, or Easter Egger, and the calmest and most gentle of the lot. She is either Rosie’s adopted daughter or her bitch. It’s only been a day, so we can’t figure the relationship out yet. From the moment Flora was placed in the box, she cowered in the corner and peeped miserably. She hasn’t left Rosie’s side since she arrived. She has a bald spot on her back, probably from new feathers, but she picks at it, and sits down a lot. We are going to have to watch her either for mites of being pecked by bolder hens. But, despite her reserve, she is the only one who lets us hold her. She peeps when we pet her head, and is sweet and trusting.

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This is Lady, the Red Sexlink Hermione Granger of the flock. So far she has excelled at everything, including getting her head out the top of the box on the way home. She was the first to figure out the ramp from the coop to the run, and the first to try the feeder and water fountain. She is brave and clever.

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And finally we have Mavis. She is the Barred Rock, and a bruiser. She bolted the minute I took her out of the box, and she shouldered the run door open twice already. This lady is the most mysterious. She is clearly strong and brave, but I am unsure of her place in the flock so far.

This has already been quite an adventure. There’s nothing like having the only chickens on the block to meet your neighbors. We had several visitors today, many of whom held or petted Flora, and all of whom left with chicken poop on their shoes.

The run is secure. Nate worked by moonlight to put the finishing touches on the ramp last night, and I scattered hay, mealworm casings, sunflower seeds, and grit around it to make it appealing to its new inhabitants. He also hung the feeder and waterer, while I scattered pine shavings on the floor, hay in the nest boxes, and named the coop: The Re-Coop, in honor of its reclaimed materials and future egg production …

And now our four new tenants spend their first night in their new home. I am confident that we’ve done everything we can to make them comfortable and safe. Of course, it took Nate “The Chicken Whisperer” to get them so. Being ten weeks old, new to both this place and the world, they could not figure out how to get from the run to the coop, so I had to move their water and food to the run. They were perfectly happy foraging, but I was worried about the lack of water. They spent all day in the run, and then I tried picking them up and putting them back through the pop hole. Yeah. That attempt ended with one hen cowering under the ramp (guess who?), one flapping and flying against the wire, and exactly none of them actually inside the coop. Then along came the gentle giant in gloves who picked them all up and lovingly placed them inside the coop, where they picked their respective resting places and settled in for the night. Who knew my husband had this latent talent?

We have survived day one of chicken ownership, and tomorrow is Mother’s Day. My stepmother sent me a card reminding me that I am now not only a mother to a young boy, but to four young pullets. I am clearly to be celebrated for my nurturing and maternal love:

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