Tuesday, October 13, 2009

No running around with its head cut off

Bruce is cutting the neck of a rooster while Denali is holding it still so the blood can drain into the can below. The birds squirmed for one to two minutes after the cut. One of them crowed and moved for what seemed like three minutes.

I took a turn cutting a head off two birds I have raised since June. I thanked them for their lives, took a deep breath and cut as fast and hard as I could with the sharpest knife.
I'll remember that moment of killing to eat for a long time. I'm usually so far removed from the source of my food.

Butchering in a group shared the workload and expertise. It was easier to do it together and learn by doing. Now I know how. I could do it in my backyard. We had a feast at the end of the day. The meat was tougher than I anticipated. Denali shared organic potatoes, beets, carrots and cucumbers from her garden and her homemade bread. It was delicious. I provided homemade peach and apple crisp with fruit from a nearby orchard. YUM!

Denali said chickens bred for meat are more tender. I'll cook the birds I brought home in a crock pot all day to soften them up.

To cut the neck of those chickens, I connected to a deep primal instinct to kill another living creature for survival. My birds had a much more humane life than chickens raised in commercial feeding operations. Someone else does my killing for me when I buy chicken in a store. It was a bit messy, but not as bloody as I anticipated.

Tomorrow-- de-feathering and gutting them.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Not one to follow the crowd

I'm not usually the one to be "the first" to do anything, unless it's counter to everyone else.

I had a baby and stayed home while most of my peers were dressing for success, climbing the career ladder and avoiding pregnancy and marriage.

When everyone else got perms in the 1980s, I kept my prairie grass -- straight and flaxen.

Now I have chickens and it seems it's the thing to do. Shocking! My urban friends out-and-out laugh at the idea and think I'm a bit odd. I used to think people who kept chickens were a bit odd.

People aware of the cutting edge, nod carefully and say, "A lot of people I know are getting chickens."

Chickens require regular attention -- less than keeping children, men and a dog, but more than fish, a car or growing a garden. (In the photo above, Denali, Mike & Bruce are defeathering a newly killed rooster during "processing."

One of my roosters, Houdini, takes after me -- avant-garde. When Bob opened up the crate to take him to get beheaded at butchering party at Denali's yesterday, he took off into the woods and disappeared. Houdini refused to follow the crowd and go docilely to his death.

Houdini survived the night probably by roosting high lup in a tree to avoid predators, and showed up at her hen house this morning.

"We tried chasing him with the dog and couldn't catch him. We're leaving for Maine in a few minutes," Denali said.

"Why doesn't he fly over the fence?" I said. Her run has no containment over the top.

"I don't know, Susan," Denali said patiently. "He wants to get in and is crowing like mad."

"Oh well. I don't want to come over. It's only a rooster. We were going to kill him anyway. I have other worries -- my car won't start. Just let him be. Would you put out some water for him?" I hung up.

Bob said, "We could go over and try and catch him."

"Emphasis on 'try.' There's no guarantee. And it will take at least an hour. He's not worth it," I said. I'm not one to put animals at the top of my priority list.

Denali left a message a few minutes later. "We caught him and he's in our pen. Call me later."

Roger allowed Denali and Bruce to catch Houdini. So much for independent thinking. Now what do I do with him? It's too much trouble to butcher just one rooster.

I guess I'll keep him for a few weeks, when I get around to picking him up, if he hasn't escaped from Denali's run in the meantime. Houdini likes to fly over the fence. Chickens are not the brightest birds.

Houdini was contrite when Bob opened the box to let him out into our run, the opposite of his dash to freedom the day before. In less than a minute, he re-established himself in the pecking order by going after Big Red.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Barnyard meanderings

The chickens gobble up slightly imperfect tomatoes, corn cobs with shreds of corn, and the rinds of cantaloupes and watermelons. They bolt into the compost area when they see me coming to the fence carrying the compost bucket.

If you're going to have chickens, it's worthwhile to have a few tomato plants because the chickens love tomatoes. They provide a recycling repository for the slightly imperfect tomatoes. I love f being part of a cycle where my waste is recycled a few steps away from where it was grown. They make weeding fun because weeds are like salad to them.

While the birds relish weeds, they rejected a bag of stale Trader Joe's whole grain hemp corn chips. Shocking. Maybe they needed some salsa.

Bob observed the two marans picking on Charlie Brown, the lowly bird at the bottom of the pecking order. Not much we can do, but let nature take its course.

When I brought a load of compost this morning, I tossed some goodies towards Charlie Brown, but her self-esteem is so low, she didn't think she was worthy of pecking away at an ear of corn.

Denali says to keep the birds busy so they don't pick on each other. I'm still learning what chores to give them. Maybe if they had more to do they'd leave Charlie Brown alone.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Silly little amusing chicken antics

We have composted for a long time. It has always been a chore.

Suddenly, with eager hens with access to the compost, I look forward to taking out the compost.

They dive right into it, especially watermelon rinds, leftover peach pulp and even weeds. They see me coming with the bucket and come over in earnest.

I didn't realize that I would enjoy watching bird behavior or get attached to them. I'm in this for eggs. I'm not a great animal lover. However, these birds are winning me over.

We have collected four eggs now, so a whole new attitude has hatched. Literally.

However, there are other perks to compensate for the regular care. Just watching them is relaxing and amusing. Red Star -- the odd ball -- has a lonely life as the outsider. Red Star is older, bigger and more experienced.

She has become a little aggressive, but she also teaches the younger six birds a thing or two. They had no idea what to do with the compost until Red Star came along. And she knows how and where to lay eggs -- which is more than I can say for the rest of the flock. They harass her -- maybe out of jealousy.

According to the web, Red Star chickens produce the most number of eggs for the least feed, and in "this economy," that's important. She produces, that's all I care about.

Then there's Houdini. She likes high places and was fond of escaping until I put netting over the pen. Today she perched on the fence between the chicken yard and the compost. It gives her a sense of accomplishment, I think.

I went to my friend Denali's Chalet Poulet -- it's really the Taj Ma Chicken. It's HUGE, about twice as big as my coop. She spent a small fortune on it and built it sturdier and neater than ours. Ours is "just a chicken coop.

The best part of her setup is that the birds can be viewed from her deck, with a glass of iced tea, with your feet up, a restful and entertaining treat. Nature is like a dose of Valium. Daydreaming about butchering counteracts that.

Denali wants to raise birds for meat so she's game to learn to slaughter them. I'm willing. Being self-sufficient is appealing and part of the back-to-nature movement that I've been swept up in. There are instructional videos online on how to slaughter. Someone else is doing it for me at the slaughterhouse and CAFOs -- commercial animal feeding operations. They don't even have the courtesy to consider themselves a "farm." On a farm, people look at the animals, appreciate them and name them -- even though they will be sacrificed for food.

Hurray for sacrifice.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Two eggs, sunny side up

My chicken adventure started in January with an idea, followed by months of thinking, planning and talking.

Next came the building phase. After the mental phase of talking myself in and out of keeping chickens, the building phase was the toughest. We built a shed with doors and pseudo-windows. It took time and money.

Then the coop was vacant for a few months until my hen friend Lori gave me some pullets -- birds a few months old -- that were not laying yet. They settled in, but I don't expect any eggs from them until October or November.

Then Lori dropped off Big Red -- a solitary hen a few months older than the rest of the gang -- in exchange for a rooster. My other six birds have been together since birth and bonded. Big Red is often on the outside of their clique. She's a bit of a bully. Big Red has been lonely and isolated.

Allegedly, Big Red is a "layer." Three weeks have passed and I was beginning to wonder if Big Red was transgendered or mistaken as a rooster. Hens are very susceptible to stress. It was taking her a while to find her place in the pecking order.

I placed golf balls in the laying nests as a hint. I checked the nests every few days for eggs. My hen friend Denali reported, "I got my first eggs!" I was green with envy. All I wanted was a few eggs for months of effort.

Last night, I grudgingly checked the nests again, with low expectations. It was a chore. Nest one had a golf ball and some chicken shit in it. Nest two, the same. Nest three, WAIT! Amid a little chicken shit were TWO BROWN EGGS!

I gathered them up, took them into the kitchen and called an emergency family meeting in the kitchen before dinner.

"Did either of you lay these two eggs?" I held them up victoriously to my husband and daughter Kristen. "Did either of you place these in the hen house to make my day?"

We whooped with celebration. Bob put on the frying pan and we ate them immediately.

Those two eggs were ALMOST worth the six-month wait! They were delicious. Today I gave the birds fresh water with a little more joy, a bit less resentment, and a great deal more anticipation and appreciation.

I love getting eggs from nests in my backyard!

Monday, July 27, 2009

The chickens have come before the egg

We've been on the chicken adventure for a few weeks now.

Many of my chicken illiterate friends (a group I have left!) have asked during the barnyard tour, "Do you have any eggs yet?"

"No," is the answer because our birds are pullets (one must learn chicken lingo). Pullets are only 4 months old and won't start laying until they're 6 months old. So that is a disappointment.

However, I might be getting a few eggs a week from a chicken trade. Chicken keepers are like soccer moms -- we share information and children and rides. It's good to know each other.

"I would like the dark rooster back for breeding," said Lori, the chicken mama who sold me my 7 original birds, including three roosters, to be butchered when they're mature at 6 months.

I can't remember what breed my chickens are, and don't really care, I agreed to the trade. Hens are imminently more valuable than roosters, who are loud and pretty much useless except to occasionally breed, for amusement (they like to dominate!) and to butcher and eat. Yes I intend to learn to butcher chickens. I already know how to eat them.

Lori violated chicken etiquette. She dropped off the hen into the yard while we weren't home, a major faux pas. New birds, particularly older birds, should be sneaked into the hen house at night, when allegedly, none of the other birds will notice.

Big Red, as we have named her, has been ostracized. She spent the first night roosting in Bob's lumber house because she was afraid to go into the hen house. By the time I got out after dark to check on them and shut the door, I couldn't find her. Bob found her in the morning. The next night, she joined the flock inside, but still separate.

I feel a little sorry for her. Having been a dash of salt in a bowl of pepper during high school, I feel compassionate for lonely creatures, who are excluded for whatever reason.

Big Red has not laid a single egg in her debut week. I need to put some golf balls in the egg-laying nests to give her the hint. Hopefully she will settle in and produce. Chickens are very susceptible to stress.

Maybe I'll play her some nice elevator music to relax. I just want a few fresh eggs for the several hundred dollar investment, to date! In this case, the chickens come before the egg. Gimme a few eggs!

It's shocking how many chicken allusions are in the English language, even though we don't raise chickens any more. I'm curious -- give me a few in the comment section.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The chickens have arrived - finally!

My chicken odyssey finally reached a climax: I GOT 8 CHICKENS on Sunday! My friend Lora had ordered 15 chickens and been delivered 30. She gave me eight that she didn't want that are three months old. The four hens will lay eggs in three months.

After talking, reading and researching, and chickening out more than once about getting chickens, I finally decided against getting chicks because of the work involved and fear that some would die on my watch because of negligence.

Some have already died. The night before I picked up the chickens, a fisher cat attacked the cage they were staying in and killed about eight. It was a bloodbath. The chickens stuck their neck outside of the wire cage and the fisher cat chomped it off for sport, according to my friend Ruth, on whose farm the chicks were living.

So I didn't get as many chicks as I anticipated. I'm going to get some more. One of my eight died unexpectedly, inexplicably. I'm not sure of the breeds of my birds, and don't really care. I can tell the roosters. They are amusing, assertive and aggressive. I guess the Y chromosome influences behavior in the animal kingdom. "And the hens love it," someone said.

Our dog Gonzo has taken quite an interest in the birds. She wants to sniff and nip them. That's her watching me with interest on the first day we adopted them .I made it clear to her that they belong to me and she is banished from the chicken coop and yard.

So much has happened since I got fed up waiting and took a hiatus from blogging. We had to build the coop and get permission from the town and decide when and how to get what kind of chickens.

In January when I embarked on this chicken adventure, I didn't expect it to take until July to get them. The un-named guy in Groton said, "Chickens are easier than children and dogs." He was right. They are very low maintenance. The hardest part about the whole advent was building the coop.

I'll catch you up on the coop details later. Gotta go feed the birds now.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Organic lawns are easier than you think

All drinking water in the USA contains traces of pesticides and herbicides – that we spread on our lawns regularly. Such poisons have been directly linked to ADD and ADHD.

These chemicals kill bugs by toying with their nervous systems. They’re endocrine disruptors – which means they interfere with the sexuality, nervous systems and mental abilities of living things – including us. These legal and liberally applied chemicals are lynching us.

Joann Bisetta of the Concord, MA Water Dept. and Frank Koll, owner of GreenScapes Lawn, an organic lawn service in Arlington, MA, know how to battle dandelions, grubs, acidic soil, and crabgrass using compost tea, corn gluten, hummus, a Weed Hound -Hound Dog dandelion picker, oatmeal, [yes oatmeal!] and milky spore.

When you stop using Scotts or Chem Lawn, anticipate that your lawn will get worse before it gets better because it is addicted to the drug, according to Frank.

It will require several years of natural lawn care to establish deep roots and healthier soil to support grass and some weeds. Once it’s in recovery, your lawn will become healthier and more rugged because it will be thicker and deeper roots.

“Ironically, after a few years of natural lawn care, customers don’t need me,” Frank said of his organic lawn treatments. The grass grows so strong and healthy, it doesn’t need chemical treatements. You will save money in the long run too. Even though organic fertilizer is somewhat more expensive initially, you can make your own compost tea. [http://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/deputate/airwaste/wm/recycle/Tea/tea1.htm]

Joann and Frank recommended a 5-step process:

1. Start with a standard soil test with organic matter -- $13, from UMass Extension, soil testing lab -- 413-545-2311, www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest.

2. Create an environment for healthy soil to crowd out the weeds. Use compost tea – made with compost in water – to fertilized a few times a month or season.

3. Grow the right kind of grass- Fescue is recommended in Mass. It’s more native than Kentucky Bluegrass. Don’t attempt to grow grass in the shade. It won’t happen! Come up with other garden plants for shady areas.

4. Grow grass at the right TIME. Feed and seed your lawn when forsythias come out in spring. Rake the dirt spots and sprinkle Fescue seeds in spring. Don’t expect an overnight transformation. In fall, fertilize generously with hummus and compost tea and put more seeds down.

5. Sharpen your lawn mower blade every 10 times and leave the grass 3 inches high to crowd out the weeds.

Changing our lawn care practice is part of the overall scheme of changing our paradigm about how we use energy and treat the earth. Organic lawn care can grow a healthier and safer lawn than when chemicals are used.

West Chester County, NY and some parts of Canada have outlawed chemical lawn fertilizers. The trend among golf courses is to go organic.

Make sure the “organic” brands of lawn care at garden stores really are organic and don’t have nitrates or urea. We need to get our state legislature to pass similar laws to ban those chemicals. Educate yourself and your neighbors on the benefits of organic lawn care.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Egg and I

Looking back with nostalgia to when time were simpler -- is usually with selective memory or false information. There have been multiple return-to-nature eras, glorifying farm life. Read "The Egg and I" by Betty MacDonald, and she will annihilate your nostalgia.

Her hilarious best-selling memoir was first published in 1945. She also wrote four Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle early readers for children, which are delightful. In 1945, America stood on the brink of crossroads of departing from slow-motion farm life sustainably anchored in the four seasons, to shooting fast-forward like a rocket towards electronic consumerism, founded on greed and economic growth -- that is impossible to sustain.

Betty makes light of farm life -- without electricity, central heat or running water. "I estimated that I carried a minimum of 16 buckets of water a day--16 ten-quart buckets or 160 quarts a day for about 360 days. Is it surprising that my hands were almost dragging on the ground and my shoulders sagged at the sight of anything wet? That I was tortured by mirages of gushing faucets and flushing toilets?"

Her distaste for the hardships of a rustic farm in Washington State extends to the chickens she and her husband raised. One chapter is titled, "I learn to hate even baby chickens.

"I learned to my sorrow that baby chickens are stupid; they smell; they have to be fed, watered and looked at, at least every three hours. Their sole idea in life is to jam themselves under the brooder and get killed; stuff their little boneheads so far into their drinking fountains they drown; drink cold water and die; get W.W.D.; coccidiosis or some other disease which means sudden death. The horrid little things pick out each other's eyes and peck each other's feet until they are bloody stumps."

Betty found gathering eggs, a task usually relegated to children on a farm, challenging. "Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Cooperation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic."

Luckily, most hens in the new millennium have had "broodiness" bred out of them. They don't realize their eggs are their offspring.
Roosters are still the same. The rooster pictured above is doing what he does best: dominating and intimidating.

"The rooster, now, is something else again. He doesn't give a damn if you take every egg in the place and play handball. He doesn't care if the chicken house is knee-deep in weasels and blood. He just flicks a speck from his lapel and continues to stroll around, stepping daintily over the lifeless but still warm body of a former mistress, his lustful eye appraising the leg and breast of another conquest."

Betty immersed me in her life with hilarious and heart-rendering descriptions of a hard life, dependent on nature. I kinda like modern amenities.

My chickens -- if they every arrive -- will be a hobby. My livelihood and next meal don't depend on them right now. Someday we'll finish building the chicken coop and yard for them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Honey bees prefer a low-stress lifestyle

The humble honey bee is in trouble. The mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder is wiping out bees by the droves.

Beginning in October 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. Einstein predicted humans would starve within four years without bees. An estimated 80 percent of our food depends on pollination by bees.

(The fantastic bee photo comes from Autan in Japan.) We're copious consumers of fruit in our home, so we're indebted to bees for their magnificent pollination skills.

Nature writer Rowan Jacobson documents the bee predicament in "Fruitless Fall: the Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis." Researchers cannot pinpoint ONE cause of the colony collapse disorder. So I like Rowan's analogy of the quandary of the beleaguered honey bees (page 138-139). It sums it up marvelously.

"You stagger off a coast-to-coast red-eye flight and chug a Pepsi for breakfast to revive. You hop in your rental car and head for your business meeting, but wouldn't you know it, the GPS is malfunctioning in the car and you get lost. You show up for the meeting late, edgy and shaking.

"You have to excuse yourself to hit the bathroom because you've got a stomach but and the antibiotics just aren't helping. Not to mention the fleas that seem to be leaping from the carpet into your socks. Halfway through the meeting a pest-control guy steps in and sprays the room with a white fog that makes you retch.

"You are useless throughout the meeting and don't make the sale you'd hoped to make. But you can't dwell on that because you have to head directly to another meeting. In fact, you have meetings all day, until late at night, and then you have to hop another red-eye home. No time to sit down and eat, so you wolf down a box of doughnuts as you drive.

"You're in bad shape. Not only are you constantly irritable because of the impossible schedule, but lack of sleep, a sugary diet, and chemical contamination are taxing your immune system.

"You'll probably get more illnesses, and your work performance will continue to suffer. When you finally make it home to your mate, you won't be terribly interested in romance, because you've got too much on your mind--such as the fact that your kids seem to have some sort of learning disabilities."

Most commercial bees are trucked around the country to work various harvests, including the "Almond Orgy" (credit to Rowan) in California, where 82 percent of the world's almonds are harvested -- super-intensive-mass-harvesting at its best -- or worst.

Almond growers contract to bring in 1.5 million full-strength hives to pollinate the crop. Beekeepers like the fast and seemingly easy cash. However, the dark cloud is the "brothel effect" (credit to Rowan): the bees can catch all kinds of communicable diseases.

The colony collapse disorder is another "canary in the flock of canaries in the coal mine" that we humans are ignoring while our ecosystem systemically weakens and sickens. Because pesticides are a contributing factor to the Colony Collapse Disorder, it has influenced me to start buying more organic produce.

My son Ian, the organic farmer said, my friends Brittany and Mark decided they could afford to buy organic produce if they gave up cable, about $60 a month. Me, too. Except I don't have cable. I can give up something else, for Lent, forever.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The last frog on earth?

"Did you see the special on PBS last night about frogs?" asked Mike, a painting contractor, when he saw a book on my kitchen counter about global warming.
"They're dying of a fungus that inhibits them from breathing through their skin. About 5 percent are immune, so workers incubate frog eggs of the resilient ones and hope they'll survive and reproduce," Mike said.
Of course, no one knows why. They do know that frogs are ONE of our "canaries in the coal mine." Are humans next?
"What do we have to do to start thinking and acting differently?" I asked Mike.
"Critical mass," he said.
"What have you done to green up your painting business?"
"I wish the paint manufacturers would take back the cans. No one will take them. They end up in landfills," Mike said.
"Why don't you initiate a movement to change that?"
"In my free time?" Mike said rhetorically.
All of those small steps add up to a healthier environment, but no one is willing to take a few extra minutes to initiate a movement to change our systems.
"Mike, do you have children?"
"Yes, two babies."
"Some people say they'll change for the sake of their children. Every other organism on Earth survives by leaving a clean environment for their DNA to reproduce."
"Not geese!" my husband interjected.
"They leave THEIR environment clean," I said.
"What can you do in your realm, Mike, so fairy tales isn't the only way your kids know about frogs?"
It gave him pause for thought -- which is the antecedent to changing behavior and critical mass.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Call me a flip-flopper. It's true. I'm having a hard time deciding what kind of chickens to get and when.

When I first embarked on this chicken adventURE, I thought I'd be part of a herd. Groton Local would make some key decisions and I'd comply: Pick up XX chickens of XX breed on XX date.

No such luck. Groton Local made their order without me. So I formed my own Hen Talk group and we've been researching, visiting chicken raising operations, reading, talking, and asking questions.

I FINALLY decided to buy 14-16 week pullets that would be ready to lay in a month or so. It would give me immediate gratification in the form of eggs -- my purpose in this adventure, and eliminate the nursery stage of caring for cute little chicks.

However, I called the Townsend chicken farm so I wouldn't have to get them mail-order from the Midwest, and found out they administer the chicks antibiotics.

Michael Pollan, a modern-day Cronus or Saturn [Greek and Roman Gods] of agriculture, reports that 70 percent of all antibiotics used in America are on CAFOS - Commercial Animal Feeding Operations. They don't qualify as farms -- they are factories. Without the antibiotics, the animals would not survive in such close quarters, and grow more slowly.

Put that piece of the puzzle together with MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria [Strep Throat] that infects 100,000 Americans a year and killed 19,000 in 2005. More people are dying of MRSA than AIDS.

Recent studies point to CAFOS as MRSA breeding grounds. MRSA also thrives in hospitals. For the full story, click on Michael Pollan link for his 2007 article in the NY Times Magazine.

Either way, I'm going organic, even if it means losing a few chicks to death and disease. One of the most common ways of sharing disease among chickens is if I visit other chicken keepers and track home their ailments on my shoes.

I'm going with a heritage or endangered breed, too, because of a Yahoo Group on Organic Chickens. After stern admonitions in the welcome-to-the-list-serve-rules, such as "Don't ask stupid questions," such as "What breed should I get?"

They say, "We will make one recommendation: choose a heritage breed" and help save a breed. OK, I've flip-flopped to a new plan. There are no rules!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fresh-Air Poultry Houses

This remarkable book, "Fresh Air Poultry Houses," by Prince T. Woods, M.D., has made a comeback since its original printing in 1924. Yes, 1924.

Readers can enjoy the humorous and archaic writing style while gleaning relevant information.

"Dank, dark and smelly" is a lethal combination, according to the book's introduction.

"If fresh air and sunshine, instead of being free to all, were delivered by meter and charged for at high rates, both would be in greater demand and much more appreciated," writes Prince.

(What parents name a son "Prince"? He is surely destined for greatness or a music career.)

"It is pretty well-known that when so-called un-civilized naked savages, who live in the open, are taught to wear clothes, live in closed houses and adopt other habits of civilized white men, they soon sicken and die of 'white man's diseases,' often of tuberculosis," writes Prince.

The wise doctor practices what he preaches. "Here in the variable climate of Eastern Massachusetts, often bleak, blustery and very cold in winter, my own family have used an open-air sleeping porch, with wire screen front, on the south side of our house, both summer and winter for the last ten years. The results have been entirely satisfactory and some of our neighbors have followed our example."

BRRR! Sleeping outside in the winter in Massachusetts? He's a bit crazy.

Prince provides a plethora of photos of open-air poultry houses and diagrams of how to build them. His missive convinced me to add extra ventilation, even though I've been warned that chickens are sensitive to drafts.

Raising chickens is a lot like raising children. There are many theories and practices, and ways to insure good health among children and chickens.

I do recall that every fall when we closed the windows of the house for winter, my children would get sick from breathing inside air. They didn't get TB, like the savages, but they did catch respiratory infections.

Prince would approve of the ventilation in my coop.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance

A good book is one that can't be put down. I couldn't stop reading Martin Gurdon's description of the antics, expressions, elegance, absurdity and atavism of keeping chickens in his "garden" in England.

It's edutainment -- he entertains and informs readers about the adventures of Psycho, Mrs. Brown, Satan, Wimpy and Bossy.

My hen-talk buddy Denali picked it up at the library and it's available online, too. Martin is a good storyteller and a better chicken keeper than I will ever be.

Martin views his birds as pets who produce eggs. I will view my birds egg producers who live in my chicken coop.He regularly took his birds to the veterinarian. My birds will live by the doctrine: survival of the fittest.

I've finally decided how and when to get birds. As soon as the coop is built and fence erected, I'm buying 15-week old Rhode Island Reds and Araucanas raised on a nearby family farm. They will produce eggs within a month. Rhode Island Reds are hearty and Araucanas produce green eggs.

Like spouses, there's no perfect breed. Some are heartier and easier to live with.
Getting them at 15 weeks eliminates the nursery stage. Chicks are cute, but my four children exhausted my broodiness.

Denali and Bernadette will adopt Speckled Sussex and Wyandotte chicks in June, by mail order, nurse them through infancy and wait 6 months for eggs. With a renewed interest in chicken keeping, there's a higher than usual demand for some breeds.

"You'll have chick envy when we get our babies," Denali said.
"You'll have egg envy when my birds start producing eggs," I said.

I'm psyched. Even psycho! My chicken advent is almost over. The adventURE is about to begin. Does anyone have thoughts on the breeds we've chosen?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Low Carbon Connections

People don't that get using less fuel means we're more connected to each other and our communities.

When I get chickens -- next week, I finally decided! -- I will get to know my neighbors better because I will sell them eggs and ask them to look in on the chickens when we're away.

That's Tom Doherty, a chicken farmer in Westford, MA, talking to Denali and Bernadette (holding Leila) about chickens. The three of us women get together for Hen Talk, to share information and plans for what kind of birds to get, when to get them and how to take care of them. There are dozens of decisions to make, and we're helping each other. It's fun.

At left are carpoolers. I made some wonderful friends by carpooling to work two to four days a week. I got to know people I never would have met through carpooling. They would make me laugh at 7 am and it insured that I almost always arrived at work in a good mood.

At my Unitarian church we have fun washing dishes together after a pot luck dinner for 10 or 100 people. [Unitarians aren't regular churches. We must think for ourselves. Unitarian Universalists accept all beliefs: aetheism, Buddism, Christian, Jew or Pagan.] By using china plates and real silverware, we generate less waste.

I belong to Ayer Local -- which is planning and taking action to transition when peak oil inevitability becomes a reality. We have fun together. I'm getting to know people in my neighborhood.

What are you doing that's local and sustainable that connects you to your community?

The truth about chickens and WHY CHANGE?

One the most refreshing things about young people is their honesty. During Sunday School, it was my job to shepherd a group of boys from 10 to 16 years old to figure out an Earth Day project that could be accomplished during a Sunday morning.

"What about raising chickens?" I asked. "Has anyone raised chickens?" Calvin, 15, scowled and shared his second-hand knowledge.

"They're stupid and they're a lot more work than you think. You give them fresh water and they poop in it immediately. They are stupid. They smell and they're dirty. You have to shovel out the poop from their coop to keep them clean. You have to take care of them a lot. My sister keeps them in our barn."

After the condemnation of chickens, it was hard to muster enthusiasm from the rest of the class. Like most Americans, they are so far removed from the experience of hunger, or from the intellectual possibility of peak oil and a social collapse, chickens are no more than an inconvenient pet.

The youths reflect the values of their elders -- chickens smell and they require regular care and feeding, which should be avoided and left to the CAFOs -- Confined Animal Feeding Operation.

I asked them what motivated people to take action. Calvin answered, "Our moral compass." I suggested fear, which they rejected. Money was also suggested as a motivation and similarly discarded.

The main reason people change is because everyone else changes. We are herd animals, we follow the trends. We do act out of fear of not fitting in and to save money.

What makes you change the way you've always done things? Why do you -- or do you not -- recycle, wear seat belts, not smoke in public?

BTW- they decided to either work on a community garden project or pickup litter in town in honor of Earth Day.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A new paradigm

My friends the Sheingolds allowed me to rescue this wall-mounted chicken nest contraption from their century-old barn. It hasn't been used in decades, so I'm happy to recycle it and install in my new coop.

Having grown up in the city and never raised chickens, I had no idea of the purpose of the wooden slats in front of the openings. Neither did Carol Sheingold or anyone in my family. I felt like I should know, but that kind of knowledge is fading away. Looking at the nesting boxes is kind of like looking at a typewriter or rotary telephone.

When I cleaned it, I realized the slats are on hinges, meant to be folded down for roosting. Now it's obvious. They double as a way to close off the bottom row of nests, if desired. My chicken education and adventURE continue.

Going public about my chickens adventUREhas all kinds of rewards. My optometrist said he gathered eggs on his uncle's chicken farm when he was 5 years old. He would have known what the mysterious slats were for.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Power of Community

I watched "The Power of Community" on Friday night at a public showing, about how Cuba re-organized its food production and transportation after losing losing half of its oil imports when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. Dubbed "The Special Time," food supplies dropped by 80 percent. There was no food available.

Without oil, the country coasted to a stop and changed how they grow food. Instead of big state-supported agriculture, they created a network of small organic farms using oxen to pull the plows.

"An ox won't work for eight hours. When it's tired, it just lays down," said an old farmer who taught new farmers how to train oxen to do the plowing. Oxen are better than tractors for the soil because they don't compress the dirt. Oxen also provide natural fertilizer. Today, 80 percent of Cuba's agriculture is still organic.

People started using bikes to get around and ate more vegetables and less meat. The country got healthier. The rate of diabetes, heart disease and stroke went down. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds! People got to know their neighbors and began living more locally, with more connection.

Cuba's "special period" is a look into the future of what will happen in a post-peak oil culture and oil costs $150, $300 or $500 a barrel. People act crazy when they're hungry. Maybe that's what we need to wake up to the coming post-oil era -- a little hunger-induced craziness.

Has anyone seen the movie? NetFlix doesn't have it. This movie's site -- http://www.powerofcommunity.org/cm/index.php -- lists public showings and distributes the movie.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New ideas are typically first ridiculed

That's a sculpture of a Delaware Blue Hen.
My city friends politely snickered at me last night when I mentioned I'm planning to adopting baby chickens in April to keep in my back yard.

"Why?" they said, trying to contain their mirth.

"So I can grow my own food and eat more locally," I answered seriously.

They sort-of understood that motivation.

Keeping chickens is so far outside of their paradigm, it was humorous to them. I can take it. I have my hen-talk group. We are creating a new "normal." We humans are a lot like chickens. We like to belong to our flock. We don't want to be the first to do something, for fear of ridicule.

I got the idea from a group of people --
Groton Local -- who endorsed it and offered support and guidance. It seemed normal and even cool to them. So I jumped on the group's train. It's easier to get on someone else's train than to build my own locomotive and engine house.

New ideas are typically first ridiculed before eventually being accepted as truth.

Twenty years ago, the notions of curbside recycling, banning smoking in restaurants or an African-American president would have been dismissed as ludicrous.

They're the new normal.

I can relate to my city friends. In the 1990s, I bought eggs from two neighbors who kept chickens in our apple-orchard-farm-town-turned-Boston-commuting-suburban. I thought they were a little fringe.

Their eggs were mighty fresh and delicious. My city friends will be clamouring for my home-raised, free-range eggs. And I'll get the last laugh.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Green Acres is the place to be

Farm life is noisy and smelly.

Roosters in particular, can be loud and unruly. Some areas prohibit chickens by zoning regulation.

"Be a good neighbor," said one of the chicken gurus at the chicken training on Sunday, so chicken ownership stays legal and accepted. In my town, chickens are considered pets. Still, pet owners have responsibilities.

One of the chicken coops on the tour smelled. I couldn't stay in there very long. It was a sunny, muddy, spring day, so most of the chickens were outside at the watering trough, left.

Most Westerners are disconnected from the production of food, which involves smell, sound, killing and dependence on the weather.

We're also disconnected from the rhythms of the earth. We protect ourselves from and complain about bad weather. I live in New England and love to ski, both cross-country and downhill. For optimum conditions and comfort, I watch the weather and respond to it.

This morning, I squeezed another day on my cross-country skiis before everything melts. I went out early before the sun melted the fresh snow. It was beautiful, pristine and quiet. I prefer going skiing outside of my back door instead of driving to the health club.

When we move away from the land and into cities, we're cut off from the rhythms of nature. Green Acres becomes a myth, a backwards, far-removed place with rustic noises, smells and barnyard animals. Small farms have been able to survive by becoming museums.

Maybe we need a TV show called Reality Farming?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Minimalist chicken keepers

Yesterday was Chicken 101: my hen trio visited chicken keepers and attended a free lecture [sponsor - Westford Farmer's Market]. The coop on the right was on the tour sponsored by Groton Local.

This is what I learned.

1. The chicken adventure is more fun with my "hen talk trio" -- me, Bernadette, and Denali. We help, laugh with and teach each other. A century ago, farm women got together for "hen talk." That's us.

2. We're trendy. About 70 people attended the chicken meeting, and some came a distance. Anybody who is "with it" eats organic and local, composts, and raises some vegetables and fowl. If you're really somebody, you've been doing all three "forever."

3. It's simple and frugal. The biggest challenges are building/buying the coop and choosing what variety of chickens to get.

"Make the coop so predators can't get in, it has no direct wind, and ventilation. Chickens will die from overheating sooner than they'll die from the cold," according to Tom Mahoney, who has been raising chickens since he was 5 years old. He's a regular chicken guru.

The coop can be made from recycled materials. It can be a retro-fitted garden shed. All the coop needs is a private place for laying eggs and roosts for sleeping. He really simplified it.

Tom recommended Rhode Island Reds, which can be bought for a buck or two each, which is chicken feed, so to speak.

4. Chickens don't need much attention, and they're entertaining. I asked one of the farmers on the Groton Local Tour, "How many chickens do you have?" She answered, "I don't know." That's my kind of chicken keeping. Laid back and low key.

They need to be checked once a day, sleep outside all winter, and don't like stress, which is simpler than a dog's needs. They do stupid things to make us laugh, especially roosters.

5. Chickens will help compost. Terry Golson, author of "The Farmstead Egg Cookbook," built her chicken run adjacent to the compost pile. Vegetable and fruit scraps first get heaped in a corner of the chicken yard, beside the compost pile. The chickens get first dibs, and they enjoy the pecking, then it's a short throw into the compost pile. That's my idea of a low-tech compost pile. Just toss it on.

Next step
The final decision is whether to get chicks or to buy the more mature pullets. I think it will be a more complete experience to raise them from the beginning. That's not saying I want to bond with them. The chicks at the lecture were mighty cute, so I'm leaning towards adoption at birth. Time to order the birds and build the coop!

Friday, March 6, 2009

We vote every time we buy something.

"I like to shop where the clerk says, 'Hi Bob,'" says Reliable Bob of Red Oak Renovations. (Disclaimer: he's my husband.) Bob shop almost daily for supplies when remodeling customers' kitchen and bathrooms.

Bob doesn't get "Hi Bobbed" at the big box stores.

When he shops at Moore's Lumber -- where the sign at right is posted, clerks say, "Hi Bob!" Moore's is convenient -- 2 miles away -- and has good service. The inventory is less than the box stores, but a smaller store is less overwhelming.

I'm in charge of the town's annual spring roadside trash pickup in April and needed to track down plastic bags for the effort.

Following the mantra of "We vote every time we buy something," I started my online search with "plastic bags + Massachusetts."

The first place I called in couldn't help, but he connected me to Kurt at Eastern Packaging in Lawrence.

Kurt donated two rolls of bags for the cleanup. I wonder if he would've done the same thing if I was in Oklahoma, not just down the road in Massachusetts.

Thanks, Kurt.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Biomimcry for my offspring

If you haven't seen "The 11th Hour," rent it immediately and watch it with a group. Watch the extra features that have in-depth interviews.

The people in the photo above are my family and friends -- the most important people on the planet to me.

Janine Benyus studies biomimicry -- a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.

This is what Janine said in "The 11th Hour." It relates to the photo and survival of the fittest.

Organisms have learned to take care of their environments so their offspring will survive the next 50 billion years.

Organisms manage to build soil, cleanse the air, filter water and exhale a cocktail of gases that is exactly what we need to breathe.

Life has managed to create conditions conducive to life. It's nothing special. It's part of the system.

They do it without the Environmental Protection Agency or lawyers or corporations.

Organisms create a place that will support offspring.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

One drop of water does not make an ocean

My dirty laundry is at right -- hankies and cloth napkins -- part of my campaign to reduce what I consume and throw away. The hankies and napkins will be used hundreds of times, compared to ONCE using paper products that have to be grown from trees, manufactured, shipped, stocked, bought, transported home, used and disposed of.

I picked up 20 dinner plates at the Transfer Station -- from a shed to leave and take excess household goods. I keep them in the garage for parties to avoid buying paper products.

I bike, carpool and use public transit when possible. Most of the light bulbs in our house are florescents. My husband, Reliable Bob of Red Oak Renovations has a green business plan. He attracts customers within a 30 minute drive from our home in Ayer, Massachusetts.

We've super-insulated our house and are investigating installing solar. I have a high-efficiency washing machine that uses 9 quarts of water instead of 36-gallons. I avoid using my dryer in favor of a drying rack. We have a small garden. I buy at the local farmer's market in summer. I'm getting chickens -- you can't get more local than that!

I'm only one person. We're only one household, one business. Do our solo actions make a difference?

I'll let Michael Quoist's poem provide an answer.

If each note of music were to say:
One note does not make a symphony
There would be no symphony.

If each word were to say
One word does not make a book
There would be no book.

If each drop of water were to say:
One drop does not make an ocean
There would be no ocean.

If each seed were to say:
One grain does not make a field of corn
There would be no harvest.

If each of us were to say:
One act of love cannot save mankind,
There would never be justice and peace on earth.
Begin now, why are you waiting?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Neither snow nor rain not heat nor gloom of night

What happens when it snows? What happens when I go away for the weekend? What happens if they get sick? During the advent before my chicken adventURE, I have time to fret over these questions.

It's snowing about a foot today. That's me at left, emptying the compost bin with Gonzo, who will hopefully evolve to be a chicken protector, not attacker. Photo by Reliable Bob.

The chicken coop will be attached to the brown out-building at the left. That's not very far to go in the snow. "The cold doesn't bother the chickens, but you have to protect them from drafts and provide fresh water daily," according to Doug, a fellow chicken keeper.

I can see why old New England farmhouses are connected to the barn. The buildings inbetween housed the outhouse, and the series of outbuildings provided a buffer and an enclosed path from house to barn throughout the winter.

It won't be that inconvenient or difficult to visit the chickens once a day during snowstorms and keep them cooped up and protected from drafts during the winter. It will be one more thing on my radar to manage. I'm anticipating that keeping chickens will be fun, interesting and productive.

Nowadays such a fuss is made over driving in snow. Perhaps it's because we can anticipate the storm coming. It only disrupts things for 24 hours, then it's over.

What if we all lived locally and didn't have super-long commutes on super-highways? What if we had chickens in our backyards and could collect some eggs for dinner and avoid the pre-storm trip to the grocery store?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

An extravagant coop on the Chicken AdvenTOUR

Bonnie's chicken coop reflects the well-kept suburban development she lives in -- see right. That's Bernadette getting Lila out of her car for the chicken advenTOUR. Bonnie painted the chicken coop, below, the same color as the house.

Bonnie's spent $800 on the new materials to construct the chicken building (coop seems too cheap a term for it) and fencing. which she buried to discourage predators.

I did like the setup.
I didn't like the price tag.
I liked how there are doors for humans and for chickens.

When humans can easily enter, it's easier to clean and maintain the coop.
Her coop is not on wheels.

Turns out that chickens like to scratch in the dirt. They even have special feed called "scratch" to give them something to scratch for. They're easily amused.

The chickens have room to roost on the bar. The slanted box on the left gives chickens a private place to hatch eggs. The silver can is a heated $40 water can, that Doug thinks can be replaced by pans of fresh water.

Hatching an egg is kind of like human love-making. Well-socialized chickens don't like to do it in public. They seek a safe, dark, covered nook to deposit their eggs.

AHA! The chickens have been fooled into thinking they had a safe, quiet, remote place to lay eggs. Bonnie built a waist-high hinged door to their love nest so she could easily rob the hen-house! THANKS for the tour, Bonnie.

Brilliant. My chicken coop will be convenient for humans to get the eggs and clean because I want this to be as easy as possible.

There are two upcoming chicken advenTOURs. During the information-gathering period, Bob and I are building a mental layout of our coop.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Live and let live

My friend Doug, the bike commuter, has a marvelous play yard for his chickens.

"They don't need heat, just protection from drafts," said Donna, Doug's wife.

They're laissez faire chicken owners -- an approach worth mimicking.

They disdain the fancy heated water container to prevent water from freezing in winter. It's sitting abandoned in his chicken yard.

"It got clogged and didn't work. So I just bring out a pan of fresh water in the morning when I feed them," Doug said.

Cool. Doug just saved me $40 on the fancy heated water basin. I like his kind of chicken farming. Basic. Doug used recycled construction materials for the chicken housing. The chickens didn't complain.

I can do this!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

New paradigm for the chicken adventURE

I've been finding people who have chickens and visiting their domiciles to develop a frame of reference about chickens. Seeing where they're housed helps us plan to build our chicken coop.

The rooster at right "rules the roost." We met him during a chicken tour at Doug's house. Doug shares my passion to bike to work.

The rooster is proving his dominance by stomping on the chicken at right. I've read that the main purpose to have a rooster is for entertainment. Because I don't need them to fertilize the eggs, they're superfluous.

Bob asked, "How do roosters fertilize eggs so eggs grow into chickens?" I don't know. This shows the shallowness of my chicken-raising knowledge. I don't need to know now, but what if my survival depended on it?

DOES ANYONE KNOW THE ANSWER to how roosters fertilize eggs?

My friends Bernadett and Denali are coming with me on the chicken adventURE. We decided to get Rhode Island Reds because they were the ONE "highly recommended"breed among the 44 Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis described in their book "Keeping Chickens."

The adoption date is April 16, after Denali gets back from a road trip. It gives Bernadett and me time to build a chicken coop. We have to order them. They will NOT be given antibiotics, but we do want them vaccinated. All of these decisions.

Denali said the breed is not too friendly. "We don't want to get attached to them as pets before we kill them."

It is like having a baby or getting a dog. All of the sudden we notice chicken coops and chicken owners so we can talk chicken with them.

We have determined that chickens are considered pets by town government, so we won't be breaking any laws by setting up our chicken operations.

The anticipation of the chicken advent is building. There are so many unknowns, which is why it's a great adventure. Bernadett reports, "I stayed up for three hours last night thinking and planning for my chickens."

Bob and I figured out where to build the chicken coop -- at the end of an existing out-building, downwind from the house. When the snow melts, we'll start construction. Bob thought the recommended 4 square per "heavy" bird was excessive. We'll see. The chicks will start out in a box in the workshop, where it's warm.

Doug gave us an old plastic watering and feeding device for the chicks. Our first shower gift.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hee Haw Culture

I’m a late baby-boomer, born in 1958. I grew up at the zenith of abandoning cities and plundering cheap farmland to build suburban tract homes and office parks.

My parents and grandparents were educated city dwellers – engineers, physicians, chemists and social workers.

There is no farm blood in my immediate lineage. It’s inevitable that I have farming ancestors because I can trace one branch of the family back to the Mayflower. Maybe I’m related to Dick Cheney, too, like Obama.

I never visited Grandma and Grandpa on a farm. By the time I came along mid-century, the USA was fully consumed with consumer culture. Americans abandoned farm life to fairy tales and CAFOs – Commercial Agricultural Feeding Operations, and industrialized farming using big machines, nitrogen fertilizer and migrant workers.

Children of farmers knew how much work it was to farm, and they headed to college and the cities. Their parents couldn’t afford it.

As the ultimate insult to insure the demise of the family farm, our culture relegated farmers as backwards hayseeds, memorializing them in the TV show “Hee Haw.”

So when my third child, Ian, announced, “I want to be an organic farmer,” the image came to mind of a slightly plump balding white guy in overalls speaking slowly in a southern draw -- Hee Haw.

I didn’t want my son to be Hee Haw. It contradicted my value system and lifelong socialization to be a consumer.

Simultaneously, the “localvore” movement took off. I read Michael Pollen’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable Miracle," and “Plenty,” by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, their one-year challenge to eat foods produced within 100 miles of their home. It was rough because there was no flour source nearby.

After a century-long exodus away from farm life, we're returning there again, like refugees. It's almost like going to a foreign country because it's so unfamiliar, but we're heading back to our agrarian roots.

This time, the code words are different – organic, local, sustainable, free range, community supported agriculture [CSA].

All my life’s a circle. To hell with the century of so-called progress. And it turns out my farmer son is doing what he loves to do -- surf -- and ride on the crest of the wave of organic and locally grown food.

It's about as far away from, and as close as he can get to Hee-Haw.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Raising chickens will give me hope

I've just read "The Unthinkable: Who Survives Disaster and Why" by Amanda Ripley. She writes about why people survive disasters -- and why they don't. 70 percent of people in the Trade Centers took their time to make a few calls and gather things from their desks before evacuating?

The book is fascinating and frightening. It shows we humans are more prone to care about what our peers think than taking action.

At the swank Beverly Hills Supper Club outside of Cincinnati on May 28, 1977, an electrical fire broke out. Of the 3,000 people gathered there tfor special events, 167 died, most in the Cabaret Room. Employees had to scream at people in the dark of other rooms: "Get the hell out!" get them to take action.

Walter Bailey, an 18-year-old busboy saved hundreds of lives because he didn't care what other people thought He told his supervisor, "There's a fire in the Zebra Room." The supervisor did nothing. Walter was going to find the club's owners, and found 70 people waiting to enter Walter led them to safety. He told his supervisor again, "We need to clear the room." The supervisor ignored him.

Thinking, "I'm going to lose my job," Walter went to the stage, took the microphone from the performers, and calmly pointed out the exits and announced, "I want everyone to leave the room calmly. There's a fire at the front of the building."

His action saved hundreds of lives. He violated social protocol and hierarchy because he saw danger and took action that he had no status to take.

Our society is headed towards danger, and we're like the patrons of the Beverly Hills Supper Club. We're too busy worrying about our 401Ks, what we're doing this weekend, and going to the mall than to worry about planning for life after peak oil.

The busboys -- climate scientists -- are yelling, "WAKE UP!" but we ignore them because it's too overwhemling. How would we get around without our personal polluters?

My chicken adventURE is giving me hope that I might be able to survive post-peak oil.

I can't do it alone. We all must go on a 12-step program to give up our energy addiction and re-design how we do business, build buildings, get around, grow and transport food, and create local community.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Like a chicken with its head cut off

“The worse part of killing chickens is the reflex reaction that causes them to flap and twitch a few minutes until after they’re dead,” writes Gail Damerow in my new bible, “A Guide to Raising Chickens.”

This thought has sustained me, “I’m raising eggs, not chickens. I will not be butchering chickens.”

I'm changing my approach. For the best investment, it’s practical to slaughter layers after 8-9 months. Because I'm planning a small backyard operation, I may learn to kill chickens to eat them.

The easiest way is to break its neck.

With Reliable Bob at my side and some coaching, I birthed four big babies, without anesthesia.

With Reliable Bob at my side and some coaching, I can raise and kill chickens. Raising children didn't end with killing them, although I came close.

Gail reviews killing methods with little emotion: hand, ax, knife, gun. The goal is to keep the meat tender by protecting chickens from stress and fear, by using proper technique.

There’s an intriguing art to killing chickens. I anticipate a satisfaction of raising a tender bird, butchering, cooking and eating it.That's self-sufficiency.

Our affluent society is so far removed from the realities of hunger from bad weather, crop failure, and animal illness, we have the luxury of disdaining the act of killing to eat.

The 12-year-old son of a friend, call him Jim, has been pining to raise chickens. His mother suggested he warm up to it by being a farm hand to my small flock -- when it arrives.

We interrupted his playtime to chat about it. He cradled a plastic gun during our conversation.

“Yeah, my mom said I could have chickens. This is cool,” Jim said, holding the gun casually, like a banana.

“You can keep one or two of your own chickens with my flock,” I offered.

“Sure, okay,” Jim said.

“Jim, will you be able to help kill them?” I asked, as he walked up the stairs, with his plastic gun.

“Oh, no! I could never do that. I can raise them, but I can’t kill them,” Jim said, pointing his gun upstairs.

Hmmm. How ironic. Jim will play with his plastic gun for hours and “kill” his friend over and over, but kill for a meal?

“Do you eat meat, Jim?”


“Then someone else is doing your killing for you.”

No reply.

Gail Damerow prefers to kill the chickens with the bullet of a .22 gun “because it’s fast and clean.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Like a mother hen

Our descendants are going to ask, "What were you thinking, why didn't you act?" according to a talking head on Leonardo DiCaprio's movie "11th Hour" about climate change and impending environmental catastrophe. The trailer will give you a taste of the movie.

The trouble is that our society is built around cars, planes and things that go. It's overwhelming to start changing, and we must start to change, even and create a tipping point and make energy conservation COOL.

I've read that people will change their behavior for the sake of their children. This gives me some hope. Especially because mothers feel so protective about our little chicks. We will do anything to insure their survival.

Which brings me back to my chicken adventURE and self-education. My chicken guru, Gail Damerow , writes: “The loving keeper may coax out more eggs; the neglectful keeper will get fewer."

More love, more eggs. Just like motherhood. Givers gain.

I can calm the mounting overwhelm when I remember providing 24-hour care to four infants and successfully raising them to adulthood is harder than my chicken adventURE.

"Think about all of the diseases our children could get and didn't," my friend Denali reminded me. Chickens have a LONG list of potential maladies -- physical, dietary, predatory, social and psychological. They can easily get stressed out.

Keen observation [like I used to do for my babies] insures optimum chicken health, Gail writes. “You’ll readily spot problems in the making if you become fully familiar with these characteristics,” Gail writes. She really knows these birds.

Appearance – “Healthy chickens look perky and alert.”

Activities – “Healthy chickens peck, scratch, dust, preen or meander almost constantly.”

Sounds – “Well chickens ‘talk’ and ‘sing’ throughout the day.”

A loving caregiver observes the scent, weight, food consumption and excrement of their flock.

Attentive mothers do all that. And the stakes are lower. Much lower.

If my chickens die because of my incompetence, I will not go to prison for chicken endangerment. The only law I have to abide by is not being cruel. I can manage that.

[PHOTO: My friend Denali is hanging out her laundry on a circular moving clotheslines. The clothespins are in the lovely shoulder bag, recycled from a thrift store, of course.]

Monday, February 16, 2009

Excited and scared

En route from Massachusetts to Delaware – the Blue Hen State – and where I grew up, I read aloud to hubby, Gail Damerow’s excellent book, “A guide to raising chickens.” I got it from the library. Note to self: Buy a copy on http://www.half.com/, an excellent source for used books.

Gail covers everything – feed, housing, disease, bird personality, economics, record keeping, egg production, butchering, molting. I’m learning a new vocabulary.

Pullet -- female less than 1 year old
hackles – cape feathers [don’t get them up!]
Clutch or a setting -- a batch of eggs hatched together; and all the eggs laid by a hen before she starts a new laying cycle
Brood – a hen that covers eggs to warm and hatch them. Some hens lack this maternal instinct.

Too much reading and I feel overwhelmed by my lack of knowledge.

I grew up in a city. Our backyard had a basketball hoop, volleyball net, swing set and playhouse. We grew a few tomatoes for diversion, not sustenance. The grape arbor attracted bees and looked cool. A crab apple tree came down to make room for the basketball hoop.

Food came from the A & P and occasional farm stand in summer. Once a year, we picked apples at an orchard about a half-hour away in the country. We had no pets. Nine children occupied all of my parents resources.

The one thing we had in our backyard that chickens like was DUST where our constant activity had worn down the grass. The only place I have ever seen baby chicks hatch was at the Museum of Science in Boston, with my children. That's ironic. Chickens in a museum. That's how far removed we are from our agrarian roots.

I'm immigrating to a foreign country where I have to learn the language, eating habits and culture of something for which I have zero references or knowledge, other than quiche, scrambled eggs and meringue.

Some of the sayings are familiar and I’m finding out their literal meanings – pecking order, don’t get your hackles up, nesting, run around like a chicken with your head cut off, chicken out, chicken feed.

In the advent preparing for my new birds, it’s like a pregnancy or the time before Christmas.

I’m getting ready psychologically, educating myself, and will be altering my house for the new critters. I’m also thinking, “I’m crazy! I don’t need another hobby.”

But it feels right. Merry Chicken Advent.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gross things escaping

When my son's girlfriend Jackie is not studying for her PH.D in physics, she worries about composting.

She wrote. "Do you have any suggestions for a compost bin? I think I have to use worms since I do not have a yard and no grass clippings and I do not want those gross things to escape."

"Gross worms" are near the top of the "essential to gardening" list, just below bees. Worms eat their body weight daily in compost and dirt.

Casey, also 20-something, is interested in composting in her city apartment. Santa delivered her a composting machine -- about the size of a hard drive. She blogged about it.

"Mom, it wakes me up in the middle of the night," Casey said. "It goes off about every four hours."

Casey and Jackie touch on a bigger topic: how do we create a system for composting?

In the back of Casey's 1925-era apartment building is a round 3-gallon bin, buried so only the metal flip-top lid shows, intended for city dwellers to deposit their kitchen scraps. Once upon a time, a pig farmer would collect the food waste and recycle them to pigs. It's a way of life that might be sprouting out of the compost pile with peak oil hovering.

Both women live alone in a bigger community and don't generate a huge amount of compost.
How about thinking bigger -- and connecting to the community?

What if Jackie asked her condo association in Ann Arbor, Michigan to consider creating a compost pile -- that can be as simple as a hole in the ground on the edge of the property. Grass clippings treated with traditional lawn fertilizer is not welcome if the compost is intended for a garden. The condo association could buy and take care of a worm composter.

What if we all had a system to recycle fruit and vegetable waste [NO ANIMAL PRODUCTS ] back into the soil without much help from us or the worms. The photo above is my very low maintenance compost pile. Collect it in the kitchen, carry it 50 steps to the yard, throw it on and forget it. We barely stir it and the worms arrive naturally.

What if Casey inquired about neighborhood community gardens to donate her compost?

Both initiatives require connecting to community, an essential ingredient to survival in the new millennium. Reading about predictions about Peak Oil and the demise of society is enough to scare me into meeting my neighbors and becoming a chicken keeper.

I like that both Jackie and Casey CARE about composting, have changed their thinking about waste, and are taking action. That's progress.

The new thinking and action must become contagious and communal. Buy a worm composter for the condo complex and connect to a community garden, which connects us to the earth and each other. That's a concept worth recycling.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

One small step to dry my undies, one giant leap for the planet

The drying rack is in. At right, I'm tightening the clamps at the end of the super-strong stainless steel cable -- which is about 10 times stronger than necessary, but it was on hand and using it kept it out of the solid waste stream. There is no away in thrown away.

I used it to dry some towels from washing the dog. FANTASTIC! It's silly to be excited about something so simple, however, it will make the mundane task of drying laundry more convenient. It's not a huge energy saver, but it's the point that I'm setting up a system to use less energy.

I read more about chickens and their social instincts. Chickens invented "pecking order" and they implement it. I must have more than three chickens, otherwise they are like humans and gang up -- two-on-one.

According to Jeremy Hobson, "The pecking order starts with the 'top bird' and extends down to the youngest and weakest, which survive as best they can. The top bird is usually an old hen, although sometimes it is the most aggressive bird."

The chickens will provide a source of food, work AND amusement. Laughter contributes to a long life, so that will be a bonus.

It's nesting time! These birds must have a place to live. My brother Stephen, an inveterate cheapskate and fan of Craig's List, suggested I start looking there for a free or reduced price coop. If we can't find the right hen house or one to modify, we'll have to build our own.

In addition to the chicken books, I'm reading "Peak Everything" by Richard Heinberg. He starts off with the obligatory graphs showing rise of population and global temperature, and the fall of oil production and civilization. It's tough going.

The Boston Globe published a story Feb. 9 -- "Climate Change Takes a Mental Toll."

"Last year, an anxious, depressed 17-year-old boy was admitted to the psychiatric unit at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne [Australia]. He was refusing to drink water. Worried about drought related to climate change, the young man was convinced that if he drank, millions of people would die. The Australian doctors wrote the case up as the first known instance of "climate change delusion."

"Robert Salo, the psychiatrist who runs the inpatient unit where the boy was treated, has now seen several more patients with psychosis or anxiety disorders focused on climate change, as well as children who are having nightmares about global-warming-related natural disasters."

I can relate. My defense against depression and hopelessness is to:
  • Build a drying rack
  • Prepare to adopt chickens
  • Bike/walk/carpool/take public transit
  • Eat less meat
  • THINK differently about how I use energy
  • Take action with others to change thinking to change behavior on energy consumption

Which is why I like The "Transitional Town Handbook" by Rob Hopkins. He optimistically lays the case [with required catastrophic graphs] AND provides a road map for how to transition from a culture dependent on cheap oil, to a post-peak society.

We have to start NOW to smoothly transition to a local economy, sustainable energy sources and a following a new [old] way of life in villages.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Chicken advent[ure] 2 -- rolling coop plans?

Son Ian, an organic farmer and surfer, emails from his winter home in the Bahamas, "I'm going to be building a rolling chicken coop when I get back to the farm [That's him working a concession during the Tomato Fest at Red Fire, Farm in Grandby, MA]. And I'll probably be helping to take care of them Patrick, the chicken guy, says his chickens are particular about their feed, and he drives to Sudbury to get it."
That's 73 miles! My chickens will have to eat the same way my four children did: from what's put in front of them, or scrounge for something better!
I started reading "Keeping Chickens" by Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis. Some of the breeds are astoundingly beautiful. There's a sub-culture of chicken enthusiasts. I'm not in their class. My goal is simple: to raise chickens to eat their eggs and have a modicum of self-reliance. MAYBE I'll learn to butcher them, especially if they taste good.

Jeremy's book is giving me confidence I can do it. "Keeping chickens is an excellent hobby for children, teaching them responsibility through feeding and general care."

If a child can do it, I can do it. I've been a 4-H leader. The only animals we focused on were dogs. DRAT. Another missed opportunity. I wonder if I'm too old to join a 4-H group?
This weekend, I'm going to install the drying rack and talk to hubby about us building a chicken coop. Does anyone have any plans for a modest chicken coop on wheels? My plan is to wheel it around the lawn so they can feed, fertilize the lawn and peck the pests from the lawn.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Building a drying rack

To cut down on dryer use, I'm building a drying rack for my little utility room that also holds the central heater, so it's super dry and hot in there. It's right next to my washer/dryer on the first floor. I have a wood floor rack, but need more room.
We live in a renovated lakeside cottage without a basement-- which would provide more indoor drying room, c'est la vie. I love the coarse feeling of an air-dried towel.
That's hubby at left, clamping the stainless steel wire at the ends to create the indoor drying line. I would've used 15-gauge wire, but he had some heavy-duty stainless cable on hand -- which will be strong enough to hang an elephant to dry.
Next step is to mount it on the wall. Stay tuned.

Mr. Electricity says I'll save $141 a year by using the drying rack.
That feels low. I guess it's the principle that counts.
Energy Hogs
4400 watts Clothes dryer (electric)
4400 watts Electric oven
3800 watts Water heater (electric)
3500 watts Central Air Conditioner (2.5 tons)
1500 watts Microwave oven
1500 watts Toaster (four-slot)
900 watts Coffee maker
800 watts Range burner
500-1440 watts Window unit air conditioner
200-700 watts Refrigerator [surprisingly low]
60-100 watts Light bulb