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, 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

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Real chickens

My new friend Ruth said she'd be the godmother to my chickens.
She knows a lot and has goats and a horse. They look docile.
These chickens are in her mini-barn. The eggs laid by them are fresh and delicious.

Light a candle for my chicken advent

"Chickens are much easier to take care of than dogs or children," said the chicken guru at the Groton Local meeting. I presume he had brought the delicious deviled eggs to the potluck dinner.

The baby chicks will arrive in about a month. I'm literally nesting. I need to get some books on how to raise them, build a hen house and gather a support network.

I wonder if I need a chicken shower so I can be given all of the accouterments of raising chickens.

It's very exciting to anticipate the animals joining our house. At the least, we'll have delicious fresh eggs to eat and share. Already, it's interesting conversation at gatherings to announce, "I'm adopting chickens in March."

"You'll have to watch out for predators," came one warning.

I will become intimately acquainted with foxes, racoons, fisher cats and other hungry beasts in my pond-side location. It might be interesting to see what and who the chickens attract.

I wonder how my dog Gonzo -- black Labrador-mix -- will react. As a girl, my neighbor Michael Sedgewick got a baby chick for Easter. A dog that visited chased the chicken all over the city backyard until the chicken lost the battle of the survival of the fittest.

Maybe Gonzo will protect the chickens from predators. Right now, Gonzo is trained to come to the kitchen every time she hears me crack an egg. She hopes she'll get an egg yolk.

If I reward her with an egg yolk for protecting the chickens, that could be a motivator. We all have our ulterior motives.

BTW-- I mean Chicken Advent, not Chicken AdventURE. Advent is the time before, the anticipation, the building up before a city slicker adopts chickens.