Monthly Archives: September 2008

if I had a million dollars

even samples couldn’t sell all our cucumbers today.

Today at the Windsor Market, we had the fine fortune of experiencing an accidental double-booking of musicians. So the market was forced to put one group where they always do, at the far opposite end of the market — and one group in an entirely new location, right next to us. It was one of the few times we’ve actually been able to hear the music, and I ended up dancing or tapping my foot a good deal of the time. (We liked them so much, we tipped them in tomatoes and chard.)

At one point, the band — a father-son shenanigan named “Generation Gap” — played “If I had a million dollars,” by the Barenaked Ladies. It seemed a fitting song, since the day’s sales were extremely s–l–o–w. In the end, we made less than 2/3 of what we did yesterday… and of course, we spent just as much time harvesting, preparing, and selling.

Anyhow, after the band finished playing that particular song, Emmett cracked a joke that I’d never heard before:

Q: What does the farmer, who’s just won a million dollars, do with the money?

A: Keep farming until it’s gone.

On a slow day like today, that joke seems fitting. But despite the slow sales I’m still in a good mood, because when I came home from the market and peeked in the rooster’s infirmary pen, lo and behold, the lame had risen to walk! He stands up and flaps his wings self-importantly; without the boots, his feet are straight, not curled; and he walks, albeit a bit nervously. He’s now in a shipping crate where he can see a light brahma and a silver laced wyandotte through breathing-holes, so he has some company. When I put his lady neighbors in his side of the pen for a visit, he only made one rude lunge, and then graciously permitted them to polish off the rest of his chick feed. (I think that, faced with two hungry females, he knew instinctively that he was toast if he tried to get between the girls and their lunch.)

Updates on our fall planting tomorrow.

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chicken update (again!)

the pudgy rooster, who — when he isn’t eating — is sleeping in his food.

I promise this will be my last consecutive post about chickens.  But the reason I haven’t posted lately is because, well, my life has been taken over by chickens…  so I need to throw at least one more post on the topic out there into cyberspace.

Update:  All seven older chicks have spent two days and nights out in the newly-reinforced coop.  The coop now has a solid, half-inch plywood floor, not to mention newly-reinforced doors and hardware cloth all over every single ventilation space.  There is no way a fox can dig its way into this coop — although Emmett and I have been camping out by the coop for the past couple of nights just in case.  The ladies are loving their new abode, and are especially enjoying the recently-added chick sauna:  a cardboard box (the half-box you get when you buy a dozen Mason jars) full of dirt, perfect for dust-bathing.  This box has finally led to the naming of the lone White Leghorn of the bunch:  the leghorn likes it so much she sullies her pretty white feathers, so we’re calling her “chiminey” after the Mary Poppins chimney sweeps.

Sadly, Eileen/Cassidy/Su/Gimpy passed away.  We think there was something wrong with her besides her leg:  she hadn’t grown a bit, and by the time she passed at a week old, the other chicks were twice her size.  Her wing-feathers kept growing, though, so she looked rather like an angel:  a tiny little body with long, graceful wings.  One day, she simply stopped eating and drinking, and despite our attempts to force-feed her (at that point, the only fight she showed was irritation when we dipped her beak in the water), she was dead the following morning… her little wings extended, like an angel in the pine-shaving snow.  It was sad, but we know we did our best, and sometimes fragile little things just don’t make it.

Speaking of not-so-fragile little things — now it’s on to our story of the evening:  the itty-bitty, roly-poly, meanie-weenie rooster.

A day or so after the little broken-leg one passed away, I went over to the brooder and noticed that another chick had issues.  Not a runt, mind you, but rather the biggest, fattest chick of all — one who was so fat, in fact, that we’d tentatively named him Santa.  But when I saw him, he wasn’t ho-ho-ho-ing:  rather, the rooster was flopping/hobbling in the center of the brooder — and on closer inspection, I realized he was essentially walking on his knuckles, instead of the pads of his feet.  His little claws were all curled up, which pitched him forward (and provided little grip), so he couldn’t properly walk.  Fortunately, I already had a mini-hospital-brooder set up, so I grabbed him and plopped him down in it.

According to folks at BYC, curled toes are a fairly common occurrence in chicks — sometimes resulting from a thiamin deficiency, sometimes from genetics, sometimes from growing too fast and becoming too top-heavy.  Suggested treatment:  give chick vitamins containing thiamin (in water or drops) and access to yogurt (which contains thiamin, along with extra calories).  Oh, and put boots on it.

Boots?  Yes, boots.  So now, not only have I wiped chicks’ bottoms, I’ve also fitted a chick for fashionable, functional footwear:  a cardboard-cut out sole, with tape placed over it so that the chicks’ toes are splayed out and stuck onto the cardboard — which allows them to reform to the “normal” chicken-foot position after a few days of continuous wear.

Note:  aforementioned fashionable footwear is prone to falling off when chick walks through water dish and/or yogurt, and thus the fashion (yellow Cheerios box, plain brown cardboard, blue scrap cardboard left over from something-or-other) changes multiple times a day as we’re forced to make new boots to replace the soaked ones.  Unfortunately, aforementioned rooster does not particularly like aforementioned footwear, and so he seems to seek out the water dish out of pure spite.

This little rooster is really something else.  While most week-old chicks are frightened by the presence of a fly, he snaps at it.  He’s unfazed by loud noises:  shut car doors, trucks driving by, people entering or exiting a room — he doesn’t seem to care, he just kind of fixes the offending object with a steely glare, don’t try that one again, buddy.  When we put a lady visitor in his little infirmary and she tried to peck at a piece of food stuck in his backfeathers, he pecked right back at her — not so much to clean her, mind you, but in a “watch it!” kind of way.

And when he wants attention, he screams for it.  He woke Emmett up in the middle of the night with his ear-piercing cheep (never mind that he’s about three inches tall and behind a shut door).  The way this little guy cries, you’d think he was dying — and sometimes he cheeps if he gets his boot awkwardly stuck behind him, which is understandable — but most of the time, I think, he just wants company.  And, since he’s so prone to getting his booted feet tangled together, he spent most of yesterday in the car while we harvested, weeded, and watered at the farm.  That way, we could check on him and untangle him as needed.  Under the sun, with windows cracked, the station wagon was just about the perfect temperature for a chick.

What to make of this little firecracker?  More importantly, what to name him?  Since, sadly, our last joint naming attempt passed away, maybe you can help me out with suggestions on this one.  My current thoughts are:  Santa (we tentatively began calling him this before he got hurt, since he was always the fat, jolly chick… but he seems to feisty for this one now), Johnny Walker Red (since he’s a Rhode Island Red, and needs a walker, and has some kick), John Wayne (because he’s fat and feisty), Boots (for obvious reasons).  Currently, we just call him Rooster, which has echoes of John Wayne (as in Cogburn), but it seems too obvious.

Enough obsessing over chickens.  My next post is going to be about produce.  I swear


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the challenge of chickens

Emmett’s hands, and the new babies.

It has been a challenging week with the chickens. Quick update on the survivors: Hope’s doing really well. She’s now sufficiently recovered so as to utterly hate spending time in her “infirmary,” a little cardboard box with food, a hot pad, and medicated water (i.e., water with antibiotics dissolved into it.) She spent the first twenty-four hours in there, but after that had perked up enough to spend nights with her sisters — which helped keep her warm, and also kept her spirits up. Now I only keep her in the infirmary (to drink a little antibiotics, to prevent infection) in the mornings. She’s clearly ready to be done with the hospital: As soon as I walk into the room, she starts cheeping to get out, and the moment I open the roof she flies out of the little box.

The other survivor, a Rhode Island Red, hasn’t missed a beat. She scrabbles and fights for her share of the treats — current favorites are wormy sweet corn and melon rinds — with the rest of the flock. At the moment, she, Hope, and the rest of the older ladies are outside on the lawn in a makeshift run — a dresser that has been partially taken apart and placed on its side with a screen on top. (We got the dresser for $5 at the dump, to make farmer’s market display boxes out of the drawers — so our $5 has really gone a long way.) The chicks are within my eyesight, and they’ll come in before dark. They really enjoy scratching in the grass and sunning themselves, and I really enjoy the fact that they’re pooping in the grass (and not the litter that I have to constantly change.)
And now, the new chicks. Apparently we got lucky the first time around — absolutely zero problems with any of the chicks (until, of course, the final catastrophe). This time, after the very first night, I found one fluffy little yellow Leghorn dead in the morning. We have NO idea why — I had woken up in the middle of the night, and checked on them: everybody seemed fine, not too huddled together, some sleeping and some eating, as usual.

Still, we wondered if maybe the temperature wasn’t 100% right — it was a month later than our last batch, after all, and the ambient air temperature had decreased twenty degrees in that time. Perhaps the lamp wasn’t warm enough to combat that additional cold? So we moved them inside, into their own little room, away from Jasper the cat and in a warm, draft-free spot.

I thought that would be enough chicken-trauma for one week. But then, two nights ago, one tiny little bird broke her leg. I’m not sure if it was a stampede that broke her leg, or if her leg was broken beforehand, and that weakened her, causing her to flip on her back — all I know is, all of the chicks were huddled on one end of the brooder (avoiding the scary poop-cleaning hand), and I noticed that one was on her back with her feet up in the air, jammed inbetween all the other chicks.

I shooed them away; the little ruddy Rhode Island Red chick got up and limped across the brooder towards me, breaking my heart a little with each pathetic step.

Now, in this group of birds, we have two obvious runts. Broke-leg is one; another, who seems to be doing fine, came to us with one side completely… well, pasted. As in, one side of her body was fluffy, and one side wasn’t — like her yolk sac had perhaps ruptured onto her, which would explain both her stuck-together feathers and her small size.

That was the one I was worried about. And then this one went and broke her leg. Which means there are two worrisome chicks, and I do not feel like losing anybody else this week!

Broke-leg (aka “Gimpy” — if you have a more PC/sweeter-sounding name for this little girl, do comment and let me know, because I feel sort of bad referring to her as Gimpy) is now in a tissue box. She has to be inside the brooder, because we only have one heat lamp — but she can’t be in contact with the rest of the chicks, because they’ll mow right over her. (Since she suffered her injury on day two, her growth seems to have slowed dramatically; she was small to begin with, and she remains about two-thirds the size of most of the chicks — and she’s not very mobile, either.)

And so it came to pass that we put her in a tissue box, inside the brooder, with bottlecaps for food and water. The water has to be refilled constantly, since the small liquid volume evaporates out fairly quickly beneath the heat lamp’s warm glow. Stumbling into the chick-room at 3 a.m. this morning to refill her water, I felt like the overseer of some strange dollhouse infirmary — how big my fingers seem, and how clumsy when I try to place the water in the bottom of the tissue box without spilling any.

The final miniaturized touch: this morning, after finally identifying the location of the break (we think), I held Gimpy upside down while Emmett put a splint on the hurt leg. First, he wrapped an infinitesimally tiny piece of gauze around the leg, so tape wouldn’t stick to it. Then, he placed half a toothpick on either side of the leg, and wrapped medical tape around the gauze/toothpick combo. Finally, we trimmed the toothpick a bit more so that it wouldn’t press into her toes. She can still hobble around with the splint on, but hopefully this will keep some of the pressure off the break so that it can heal more quickly.

To sum up: when it comes to chickens, it seems that anything can go wrong, at any time — and if you’re a softie like me, it means you’d better be prepared for a bit of an emotional rollercoaster…

Below: the “pasty” runt chick, who has gotten a bit better and less pasty-looking each day.


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a new start, a miracle, and a funeral

Above: red roses for the Reds, a white for the Leghorn, and an orange for my Buffy.

After listening to some advice that we get back in the chicken-keeping saddle, yesterday I made a call to Belt Hatchery to order more chicks. They happened to answer the phone when I called (which doesn’t usually happen). They happen to ship on Wednesdays, and they happened to have exactly the chicks I wanted right then and there. Would I like them shipped out this afternoon? Feeling a bit emotional (and hence impulsive), I said, Sure, why not?

And, like clockwork, a bit before 8 a.m. this morning the post office called.

It was decidedly surreal driving to the post office this morning to pick up new babies when the others weren’t even all buried — and when I was still ready to cry at any mention of my lost chicks. But it was also good, in a life keeps on sort of way, and also in a holy cow, did the other chicks really start out this small? sort of way. Looking at the six remaining older chicks, and then at the itsy-bitsy day-old babies, I was halfway convinced that perhaps the hatchery had made a mistake and sent us bantams (miniature chickens) instead.

Emmett assured me that the other chicks had, indeed, started out this small. And that’s a miracle in and of itself — how quickly creatures can go from tiny, helpless things, into fully-feathered, sassy, full-of-personality teenagers, from generic little imps into birds you know and care about.

But the true miracle of the day came when Emmett and I drove over to the coop to bury the chicks.

Now, yesterday, both Emmett and I had separately made several visits to the coop just to double-check… just in case one of the babies had managed to make it back home, and was huddling, lonely, in the empty structure. Each time, we walked up, hoping to hear a little cheep-cheep and see one of our little ladies fluffing her feathers, scratching in the hay, or wandering around in search of her lost sisters. But each time, the coop was empty.

And then, this morning, when we were only thinking of funerals, what should we hear when we pull up but a little cheep cheep cheep.

I admit to a moment of delusional denial: for a second I thought, maybe most of them are back, maybe this was all a bad dream, maybe the fox just took a few of them and the others had hidden in some tree and found their way back home. That’s how it would have happened if life were like The Incredible Journey, or Homeward Bound, after all.

It wasn’t exactly like when Shadow ran into the arms of his waiting boy — but still, when Emmett and I walked up to the coop, incredulous, one little Rhode Island Red ran up to the door to greet us.

Somehow, this little miracle chick not only survived a fox attack, she also survived two nights outside, and one full day, all by herself. We couldn’t believe it.

A new start, a miracle — and a funeral. Emmett and I buried the last of the chicks — two Rhode Island Reds, and the lone wing of my favorite little Buff Orpington, which was the hardest by far — later this morning. We promised to make the coop into a steely, impenetrable fortress, so that something like this would never happen again.  Many tears were shed. (In fact, I’m tearing up just thinking of Buffy right now… the way she would always fly out of the brooder as soon as the lid came off, just to get a better vantage point, and the way she’d come right out to the edge of the coop as soon as I opened the door, and step up onto my hand. The newest little Buff Orp has a lot to live up to.)

But it’s pretty hard not to smile, even through tears, when you find yourself watching day-old chicks, and one little Rhode Island Red picks up a piece of poop and starts running around with it the way chickens do when they’ve got a tasty morsel they don’t want stolen by anyone else. This particular little one was darting all around the brooder, pulling out all kinds of evasive maneuvers, all so nobody would rob her of… her poop.


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unbelievable tragedy

Above: my babies.

One month to the day after they were hatched out into this world, twenty four chicks lost their little lives to a marauding fox.

Last night, as I was getting into bed, I had a bad feeling. This happens a lot to me, though, so I dismissed it as simple overworry. But for some reason, I found myself thinking about how protectiveness of my chicks had made me second guess my previous pro-wildlife-at-any-cost stance: specifically, I thought, Heck, I think I could actually bring myself to shoot a fox if it were going after the little ones.

I never got the chance. This morning, twenty-four of my babies were dead or missing. A predator — presumably a fox — had dug underneath of the coop, deep enough to avoid the coop’s chicken wire skirt.

Last night, Emmett and I tucked them into bed. We made sure they were all together to stay warm, moving the four chicks on the top floor onto the ground floor with the rest of their buddies. Where the chicks were huddled — underneath the ramp, in a warm all-wood section of the coop — was precisely where the fox dug. Our decision to move four chicks (including my favorite, Buffy) down to the bottom floor may have cost them their lives.

Emmett’s dad was the bearer of the bad news; he couldn’t reach Emmett by phone, so he actually stopped by the house to tell us. Emmett and I raced over to the coop, combed the surrounding area, calling out “here, chick chick chick” through our tears, to no avail. We found one White Leghorn dead inside the coop; two others were left in a nearby salad bed, along with one wing of my favorite chick, Buffy the Buff Orpington. The predator didn’t even bother to eat them, just kill them.

The sole survivor, now named Hope, was found huddling beneath the coop’s ramp. Nobody noticed her until I moved the ramp to check for more bodies — and to my surprise, heard a little “cheep cheep cheep” emanating from the coop’s first floor.

We swabbed Hope’s wounds — bite marks — with Neosporin, and put a heat lamp over her to warm her little body. She’s now in a box with two other Araucanas for company; we’ll see if she makes it. She’s a bit wobbly and lethargic, but she drank water from the waterer, ate food from my hand, and snuggled against my neck the entire car ride home.

I can’t quite express the horror of losing 24 chicks that I’d doted on, lost sleep over, and — most importantly — grown to love and know, as bird-brained and silly as they might be. A number of the ones I lost had names and distinct personalities; all were very friendly, and would come right over to say hello when I stopped by the coop.

I understood, going into this, that predators could be a problem — but somehow I didn’t think it would happen this suddenly and this severely. Every single chick but one? I’m lost: I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I still can’t look at the old pictures of the chicks without tearing up…


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of beans and forgiveness

After writing a post about how much I hated beans — and after thoroughly hating beans for the past couple of weeks — yesterday, I found myself strangely at peace with them.

Now don’t go thinking that I’ve gone all mushy and overly optimistic and glass-half-full-y.  What I am about to describe is one half-hour of beanpicking only — and may not, under any circumstances, be extrapolated outwards to reflect an earth-shattering change in my typically cynical worldview.

Emmett and I had just dropped the chicks off in the coop and headed down to the field to water the plants.  While the drip-tape dripped and the misters misted, I found myself noticing some small, tender Kentucky Wonders tucked into the bean thicket amongst the gigantic podded-out monstrosities.

Now please note:  at no point did Emmett say “we really need to harvest beans today.”  I, completely of my own accord, picked up a lug bin (aka harvest bin) and started tossing beans into it.

And rather than focusing on all of the woody, podded-out beans — which were present in a three-to-one bad-to-good ratio — I focused on the nice, tender new ones.  I left the large beans to nab later for soup beans, and let my fingers scour the vines in search of narrow beans to pinch and pick.  And, having given the beans up for dead-and-done, I was amazed by the amount and quality of the second-wind crop.  I didn’t really end up with very many beans — the purples, Kentucky Wonders, and Blue Lakes together just filled the bottom of the bin.  But when you aren’t expecting much, a little is a lot.

OK, that’s purty gosh darn lemons-into-lemonade-y.  In fact, standing there picking beans, I must confess that I felt a little like Pollyana, Mary Englebreit, Hallmark, Ann Geddes and Precious Moments all rolled into one.  So pardon my corny moment.  This is not my normal M.O.

But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s good to pay attention to the small, tender beans in the world, and not the irritatingly humongous ones.

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stretching their wings

I was always perplexed by the way a bitch (as in, female dog) will eventually turn on her pups — snarling as the little ones (who are, by then, not so little, with not so little teeth) try to continue nursing from her. Some dogs, it seems, will simply run away to leak milk in private somewhere the pups can’t find them. Other mothers growl and snap at the pups, sending a crystal-clear ‘it ain’t gonna happen, sweetheart’ signal.

It seems cruel — after all, what could be cuter than a puppy? — but it makes sense. Eventually young creatures outgrow the need for coddling, and past a certain point, coddling actually hinders them.

So it was with the chicks. Since we picked them up from the USPS that fateful August day, they’ve been kept in the garage in boxes. At first, thirty chicks fit handily in one 90-quart Rubbermaid container. (At this stage, for a sense of scale, three chicks also fit handily in the palm of my hand.) But after a week, they needed two boxes. And after two weeks, they let their dissatisfaction with their two-box living quarters be known by pecking one another. More space was needed: I started putting chicks in cardboard boxes, Jasper’s cat carrier, whatever I could get my hands on. And let me tell you, thirty chicks in six different containers is a heck of a lot more work than thirty chicks in one container.

That’s twelve dishes constantly in need of refilling — because as the chicks have quadrupled (maybe quintupled!) in size, they’ve developed the klutzy-teenager habit of knocking over anything that contains something useful. Water dishes are a particular favorite, and knocking them over can create a serious chicken health hazard.

People talk about toxic mold growing in wet litter, but I didn’t find any visible mold. No, my biggest problem with constantly upended water dishes: Wet chicken litter smells not like manure, but like ammonia — a component of their excretions, and a known lung irritant. Given birds’ sky-high rates of respiration, they’re especially susceptible to lung irritants. (In fact, pet parrots can die just from being exposed to a hot non-stick pan, which releases toxic gases during cooking. Word to Polly: don’t cook the cracker in Teflon.)

The chicks’ propensity to knock things over meant that I spent a good portion of the last two weeks scooping out wet, ammonia-rich litter, drying it in the sun, replacing it, and then watching the chicks — the moment they had fresh litter — knock over another water dish and wet the litter again.

So, the point is, I can empathize with mama mutt. I promise: I didn’t growl at the chicks, bite them, or even run away from them, exactly — but it was quite gratifying to drop twenty-five of my not-so-little brood off at the coop this morning. And even more gratifying to watch their delight and terror at suddenly finding themselves in so relatively vast a space. We started them out in the top level of our two-level coop condo, and it was hilarious to watch the first pioneer — a bold little Leghorn — press into the undiscovered territory of the ground floor. (She alternated between curiosity, bravado, and abject terror at suddenly finding herself alone, without any of the protection afforded by her flock.) Eventually she was joined by an Araucana. After an hour or so, I tossed a few ears of sweet corn onto the ramp between the levels; about half the flock took the plunge and followed the corn onto the ground floor.

Also gratifying: the chicks’ waterer is now a large five-gallon bucket. (Good luck knocking that one over, guys! Er, knock on wood.) Their feeder is also a five-gallon bucket. This means I have just two vessels to refill for twenty-five chicks — and hopefully I won’t be refilling these large containers that often.

Okay, so I mentioned that I only moved 25 chicks this morning. The other five are still here, but they have the run of the brooder: one large box houses just two birds, the other just three. They’re still under mama-watch until their peer-inflicted scabs heal — at which point they, too, will get the boot. And I’m trying to keep them outside as much as possible, where they seem to revel in the sun, spreading out their wings to luxuriate in it, dust-bathing in the pine shavings, and eying the yard’s greenery with considerable curiosity.

It’s 5 p.m. Now, the only question is: can I resist the urge to drive over to the field and check on the little ones just one more time before morning?

Ducky, the biggest Araucana (named after the uber-happy character in The Land Before Time who says “Yupyupyup!”) surveys the brooder box.  You can see she’s almost as tall as the box itself.

Ducky surveys her new home — and, presumably, deems it quite satisfactory.

A pioneering White Leghorn is the first to explore the coop’s lower level.

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