Monthly Archives: November 2009

On Thanksgiving

As we’re once again bombarded by new traditional recipes on morning shows, in newspaper columns, and magazines, I feel compelled to say a little something about that most American of all holidays, Thanksgiving.

It’s Emmett’s favorite holiday, mostly because he likes to eat.  My favorite holiday is Christmas, because I like giving people presents.  Specifically, I like thinking about people and waiting for that inspiration to strike — the mental flash of the gift that the person most wants (as opposed to the gift that I most want to give them).  Christmas always has a little of that tension, doesn’t it?  There’s always that choice between what I want to give you (which is often what I want given to myself) versus what you’d actually want.  Too often we go with the former instead of the latter, but to me Christmas is still about that spirit of providing for another person.

But back to Thanksgiving which, everyone knows, is about food and family.  And food first.  It’s the only holiday that is defined by a meal, as opposed to a religious observance or a greater cause or commemoration.  And since I’m now in the business of growing food, I find Thanksgiving a bit more important than I once did.  This year, we saved the last of the Yukon Gold potatoes so that I can make my mom’s famous mashed potatoes (which involve potatoes, butter, Lactaid, salt, and at least a dozen tastings to determine whether the appropriate proportions have been reached for optimal creaminess).  We’ll decorate the table with squash and gourds we grew, and we’ll roast our beets and carrots as another side dish.  We’ll know the work and time and effort that went into these parts of the meal — because we tended them and processed them, from seed to finished dish.

And in the process, I’ll realize that Christmas isn’t the only holiday about gifts.  That each item on the table represents the sweat and toil of another human being (or, in the case of the turkey, its life).  So even if you weren’t the person who grew your potatoes or carrots, your cranberries or yams, your turkey or wheat for the stuffing, say a little thank you for your food.  Because someone did grow them for you, and the gift of a meal goes beyond a simple economic transaction.  Because tomorrow, in houses across America, families will combine a bunch of different foods, have some people over, sit down at a table, and instead of dinner they’ll have Thanksgiving.  And without the people growing the food, whether they’re driving combines or hoeing by hand, none of that would happen.

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Life, Death, Hatching


Splash and Sparky: love at first sight.


I’d like to share a story with you that took place a few months ago.  It tells an interesting tale of chicken mothering behavior — a story of three mamas, two chicks, life, and death.

One of my Splash Orpington hens — a big gorgeous gal, silvery white and flecked with different shades of grey — decided to go broody.  (“Going broody” is when a chicken, who usually just lays an egg and forgets about it, is suddenly overtaken by maternal instinct.  When she’s broody, her only desire is  to sit on the eggs and hatch them — not pass the egg and go on with her day.)  

Unfortunately, Splash was a teenage mom — she’d barely started laying eggs herself — and a very confused one at that.  

Specifically, she couldn’t decide which nest was the proper one to sit on.  In the morning, she’d be sitting on one nest, fiercely defending it from any birds or humans who dared venture near.  By the evening, she would have forgotten all about her original choice and switched to whatever nest had the most eggs in it.  Talk about a fair-weather mom.

Since I’m a sucker for letting chickens behave naturally (and also a sucker for cute baby critters), I decided to place an “X” on a few eggs and let her try to hatch them.  I mostly placed guinea eggs under her, but also a few chicken eggs.  Of course, since I frequently found the eggs cold and abandoned and Splash sitting on another nest entirely, I didn’t think the odds of the eggs actually hatching were very good.  (Whenever I found her on the wrong nest, I put her back on the proper eggs, trying to teach her how to be a better mom.)  

At some point during the incubation period — which is typically 21 days long from initial heat to hatch day — Joy Luck, my Light Brahma, decided to go broody as well.  Let me tell you, Orpingtons are big birds, but Brahmas are bigger.

Giant Joy — if she were human, she’d be a jolly overweight lady wearing curlers and fuzzy slippers with a propensity for watching soap operas — quickly out-mama’d Splash.  She decided that the “X”-marked eggs were hers, and hers alone.  Since she’s bigger, she used her size to her advantage.  Basically, Joy would sit on top of Splash until Splash was tired of suffocating and moved on to another nest.  

So soon Joy took over incubation duty, although Splash kept trying, and moved onto the nest whenever Joy got up to eat or poop.

Okay, are you still with me?  One nest, two mother hens.  It’s about to get even more complicated.

I have a White Leghorn named Mama.  Three days before the eggs were about to hatch, Mama went broody on the nest under the porch.  Mama had been broody before and she was an absolutely top-notch mother.  For her last clutch, I’d put her in a plastic crate in the garage; she didn’t need much space since after all she was sitting on her nest all day and all night.  Once a day I’d go visit her, bring her fresh food and water (which she hardly touched), and open the door.  She’d hop out, run outside, deposit the nastiest smelliest largest chicken poop you’ve ever seen in your life, and race back to her nest.  She sat on her nest stalwartly and when her baby chicks hatched, she took wonderful care of them.  She showed them how to eat and drink, defended them fiercely against all invaders, and always used the “outside toilet” so she wouldn’t soil their surroundings.  

Meanwhile, Splash pooped on her eggs.  She abandoned them when another nest looked better.  She did not seem to have the makings of a good first-time mom.  

Then, just over three weeks into this broody insanity, I checked on the nest at nighttime and one of the chicks inside one of the eggs had miraculously tapped out a tiny hole in the shell.  I was thrilled — a pip!  Now, what to do?  Should I leave undeserving Joy on the nest?  Put Splash on it?  Or place the eggs under a known veteran mother?

I decided to put Mama on the nest, since she knew what to do.

The next morning, I tip-toed down to the basement and peered in the nest, ready to see a cute little chick fluffed out under Mama’s white feathers.  Instead, I found a dead chick tossed in the corner of the nestbox.  It had a bloody wound on its head.  Mama, instead of taking care of the chick, had killed it.  I felt terrible — this tiny little thing should have been enveloped by soft down feathers and gentle cooing noises.  Instead it had been stabbed to death.

To make matters worse, another shell had pipped:  another baby was trying to make its way out into the cruel world.  I had to act, and act quickly.  Realizing my mistake — chickens must have their own internal clocks and Mama had realized that this chick was hatching out too early and wasn’t “hers” — I decided to take a gamble.  Joy hadn’t been sitting on the nest for three weeks either; she could kill the next baby just as easily as Mama had.

So I ran out to the coop and grabbed the ineffective teenage mom, Splash.  I brought her down to the basement and as quick as I could I snatched Mama off the nest and stuffed Splash into it.  

Then I crossed my fingers, and waited.

Judging by the picture above, you know the end of the story.  An itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny guinea keet popped out of that egg, much to the surprise of both Splash and me.  And that’s just the beginning of the many adventures of Splash and Sparky (as the guinea keet came to be called, for reasons I’ll explain later.)  

For now, let me just say that there is nothing more beautiful than the love of two creatures who don’t speak the same language.  And that’s really a roundabout way of saying there’s nothing more beautiful than love.  After all, no one — mother/newborn baby, husband/wife, brother/sister — really speaks the same language as anyone else.  

But a baby guinea and a confused teenage chicken?  Now there’s a pair whose languages aren’t even close.  (But somehow, they managed to translate just fine.)

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Peg-Leg Pippi: Part II

Pippi Longstocking

A more flattering picture of Pippi to make up for the unflattering photo posted earlier. It's her wide-eyed wonder and sweet personality that make people gaga over this goat!

This morning, I took Pippi out of the large multipurpose dog crate, put Pippi in a smaller plastic crate (actually a giant tupperware type thing that I drilled breathing holes into and have been using as a kid transport crate ever since), stashed the crate in my Subaru and took off to the vet.

This, perhaps, is the best part of the story.  Dr. Jessica, who has a way with caprines, places Pippi on the table.  She watches her stand, watches her walk, feels the leg up and down.  It’s warm to the touch — which isn’t bad, Dr. Jessica notes, in fact it’s a sign of healing.  She also notices some stiffness in Pippi’s shoulder.

And then she arrives at her diagnosis.  The final word:  Pippi’s a wuss.  Yes, the vet actually diagnoses Pippi as being a wuss.

As in, she freaked out after having her leg stuck in the trough, and overreacted by not wanting to walk on it.  Much the same way that, when I felt a nail slide easily into the flesh of my palm, I refused to do anything but press my other hand tightly against it until Emmett looked at it and determined the extent of the damage.

I still have a sweet scar from ‘getting nailed.’  As for Pippi, her leg was bruised, with probably some damage to the ligament, but absolutely nothing to be worried about.

Except, of course, for the fact that she will be eternally known as Pippi, AKA Peg-Leg, AKA Misfit, AKA The Wuss.

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Peg-Leg Pippi


Peg Leg Pippi bemoans her state. I owe her an apology for posting this unflattering photo that makes her look like a bovine or a donkey. (Goats, like women, do not like looking like a cow or an ass.)

Remember how I mentioned that I had quarantined Wildechicken?  Well, she was rather abruptly un-quarantined.  Someone else needed the use of our lone, multi-purpose plastic dog crate that has been used to transport goats and sheep, and has also housed feral cats and a particular Splash Orpington who had hatched out and was mothering a particular Pearl baby guinea keet.  (The crate, by the way, came from Freecycle — which is a really brilliant system if you haven’t used it.)

Judging by the picture above, you might guess that Pippi, the misfit goat, needed the use of our quarantine crate.  And you would be right.

I do not know what to do with this goat.  She is just about the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  And I mean that in the very best, motherly, smother-her-with-love sort of way.

To begin with, she’s a runt.  She was born the biggest of her triplet doe brood, and at birth exhibited the earliest signs of “dairy character” — long body, angular bone structure, with strong straight legs.  But somehow she quickly lost ground  to her sisters.  When I picked her up at 8 weeks, I fretted that she wasn’t big enough to have been weaned from mama’s milk. The breeder assured me that she was eating solid foods and would be fine.

The breeder was right.  I’m no longer fretting about her food intake — this little creature eats like a horse, and frequently eats so much hay so quickly that she looks as though she’s swallowed a basketball — but I do fret about other things.

Like when, yesterday, she cutely got her butt stuck in the water bucket.  How does a goat, known in the animal kingdom as one of the most nimble of creatures, get her entire hind end stuck in a water bucket?  The world may never know, but I can promise that I casually glanced up at the goat yard and did a double-take when I saw misfit Pippi stuck in 5-gallon plastic bucket full of water.  I had to physically walk up to the yard and remove her from the water bucket, and let me tell you that there is nothing cuter in this world than a runt goat who is very wet and irritated, and needs but does not want mama’s help, thank you very much.

Or when, today, I came home in the dark from a long day at work (my “day job” at Sonoma County Farm Trails) and Emmett informed that Pippi had been injured.  My heart skipped a beat.

She’s okay, Emmett assured me.  How was she injured?  She got her foot stuck in the feeding trough.

How did she get her foot stuck in the feeding trough?  Again, how many licks does it take to get to the center of  tootsie pop:  the world may never know.  Luckily Emmett was working outside (just like luckily I happened to glance up at the yard when she was immersed in water), and thought it was odd that one of the goats seemed to be screaming its head off for 5 minutes straight.  He went over to investigate, and poor Pippi had her hoof wedged in the one part of the feeding trough it could possibly get stuck in (a small triangle in the bottom of the catchment).  Nate, our ram lamb who is living (usually peacefully) with the goats while our other ram Teddy makes babies with the ewes, was ramming her.  When Emmett freed Pippi, she wouldn’t put weight on the leg and limped around like a sad three-legged dog.

Emmett called a couple of vets, splinted the leg, released Wildechicken, and stuck Pippi in the multipurpose dog crate.  Good man.  An hour later, he checked on her — she was favoring the leg, but it was much improved.

And then I got home, and of course immediately commenced fretting and flitting around poor little Peg-Leg Pippi.  Emmett had made an appointment with our favorite vet (Dr. Jessica in Healdsburg, who works with locally famous Dr. McCrystal) to see Pippi in the morning to make sure the leg wasn’t broken.  In the meantime, she didn’t seem to be in pain, and we guessed (and hoped) that the splint — a piece of PVC cut in half, lined with an old sock, and wrapped in tape — wasn’t cutting off circulation to her tiny little hoof.  Was the leg broken?  How much money were we going to have to spend on this little error of a goatling?  We’d just have to wait and see.

to be continued…

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Foggy River Farm Blog Returns with the Case of the Wildechicken!

You might have thought that we’d dropped off the face of the planet, a failed farming experiment composted into the earth, possibly to return only as a few volunteer tomatoes and squash pushing up through a vineyard of Chardonnay grapes.

In fact, we’ve just been hella, hella busy.  And I don’t use the word “hella” lightly.  (In fact, it makes me cringe.)

Anyway, there will be tons of catch-up blog posts starting now.  Expect to hear all kinds of crazy tales involving baby Nigerian Dwarf goats, Babydoll Southdown sheep, guinea keets, my girl Tux, a war on frost, and goat sex (along with goat teenage crushes and lesbianism).  Oh, and there’s flora side of the farm, too:  this year we grew three types of beets, kale (2), radishes (2), turnips (1), carrots (3, including purple!), lettuces (3), broccoli (3), tomatoes (10), potatoes (5), winter squash (15), summer squash (6), and many different herbs.  Mind you, the numbers in parens are the number of varieties we grew – not the number of plants.  This year we had over 600 tomato plants in the ground.

But enough of that talk.  The catching up part will come later.  Right now I’m going to tell a story that left me scratching my head late into the night.  I said the following sentence—“I just really don’t get it!”—at least a dozen times before dinner, until Emmett was rather annoyed, and just wanted me to stop sounding like an idiot and shut up.

Yesterday, I was cheerfully going about my evening chores:  gathering the sheep into the fenced pasture to protect them from nocturnal predators, feeding the goats their nightly supper of alfalfa hay, collecting the chickens’ eggs, and moving the juvenile chickens from their attempted bedrooms (the nestboxes, which I like to keep free of little poop machines) into their proper bedrooms (the perches near the big scary chickens).

As I was moving the juvenile delinquents up onto the perch by the window, I noticed a very unusual chicken sitting there.

I was quite confident I had never seen this chicken before in my life.  She had the blue feet characteristic of an Ameraucana but none of my Ameraucana chickens have that much black on their heads, that much dark mahogany on their back feathers.  And yet there she was—in the coop, on the perch by the window that is usually only inhabited by the youngest generation of fowl—the motley assortment of 3 lavender guineas, 3 white leghorns, 4 cuckoo marans, and a host of entirely useless bantams that I purchased because I was devastated over the loss of my favorite chicken in the whole world (again, more on that later).  

[By the way, if you’re not familiar with chicken social behavior, my chicken flock has several sub-flocks of chickens:  I raise chicks together in the brooder, transfer them to the smaller coop, and then introduce them to the large coop only when they’re big enough to defend themselves against the old broads.  These sub-flocks tend to hang out together and sleep together—and the youngest group, as I’ve mentioned, gets the least desirable perch in the corner by the window.]

But back to bizarre-o-chicken.  Not only did this chicken have an unusual coloration for my flock; she also looked like hell.  As in, half of her tailfeathers had been broken off, clumps of feathers were missing, and new feathers were poking through her skin.  The feathers poking through her skin meant that she was molting, which is something that’s very easy to notice—and I keep track of all my molting chickens so that I can make sure they’re staying healthy and well-fed during this stressful time.   Curious, I picked the chicken up.  She clucked angrily, and I immediately noticed a gnarly wound on her leg.  About an inch long, it was covered with the biggest scab I’d ever seen on a chicken; the scab was partly falling off to reveal a still-unhealed raw opening underneath.  Just looking at her leg, she looked more like chicken meat than laying hen.  The scab was surrounded by some funky bumps, possibly already-healed smaller wounds, or evidence of an infection.

I collected my nightly eggs, tucked the chicken under my arm, and took her in the house to show Emmett and see what he thought about this stranger.

“Don’t ask me,” Emmett said.  “I can’t tell your chickens apart.  You know them better than I do.”

“Well, we did have one Ameraucana who was a darker brown, but she didn’t have this much black on her head.  And she was the one who always flew over the fence to lay her eggs in the neighbor’s bushes.”  Come to think of it, a couple of months ago I noticed I hadn’t seen her lately.  But the thought occurred to me during the day, when the chickens are sprawled across the property foraging—by nighttime, when the chickens are clustered together in the coop and easier to count, I’d forgotten to look for her.  I did sneak over onto the neighbor’s property to hunt for her nest several times, but was never able to find it.

Who was this mystery chicken?  Donning my Sherlock Holmes hat, I came up with two hypotheses.

One:  someone, knowing that I kept chickens (who are easily seen from our busy road), dumped her off at my coop hoping I’d take care of her.  Two:  this was one of my chickens who had somehow gone walkabout — disappeared and then reappeared, damaged and changed.

The more I thought about it, the more the “rescue chicken” theory didn’t seem to hold water.  Why would someone abandon a valuable laying hen?  And why would she go into the coop so readily?  She did seem a bit unnerved by the coop—and certainly aggressive toward any chicken who came near her—but she also looked an awful lot like the chicken who used to fly over the fence.  Chickens’ feathers do change color from moult to moult; I’m guessing that her feathers just grew in even darker than they were before.

The chicken’s new name is Wildechicken and/or The Beast.  I am now quite confident that she is the same utterly useless chicken who used to eat my hard-earned chicken feed and then fly over the fence to deposit her egg somewhere I’d never find it.  (The proof of this will be when she lays me a brown egg — the one time I was able to catch her laying an egg, several months ago, it was brown, which is the wrong color egg for an Ameraucana and proof that hatchery chickens are not in fact quality purebred birds.)

But this doesn’t solve the mystery.  Not one little bit.  The real question is, how the hell did this chicken survive life in the wild for two months?  I know, I know, you don’t believe me.  I have eighty chickens; I probably just didn’t notice her.

But I beg to differ.  Her behavior alone — sitting on the wrong perch, re-determining her place in the pecking order and acting like she’d never seen the younger generation of chickens in her life — suggests that she hadn’t been hanging out with the flock for quite a while.  (Specifically, the younger generation had cohabitated with the old ladies for 7 weeks, and were by this point tolerated by all.)  Then, there’s the fact that Wildechicken was molting — and had been for quite some time, long enough to have grown in a new set of feathers.  As of yesterday, I only had four molting chickens:  Hope, Mo the Rooster, one Rhode Island Red and Mama the White Leghorn.  I watch them fly out of the coop every morning, and then I toss them several handfuls of Black Oil Sunflower Seeds and they dart around my feet, nabbing the treats with their beaks; this is when I check to see who’s moulting and make sure everybody looks healthy.

So the mystery of Wildechicken remains.  I have absolutely no clue how she managed to survive a couple of months in the wilderness — a wilderness home to foxes, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, hawks, owls, and the neighbor’s dogs.  Clearly — judging by the nasty wound on her leg, which I promptly swabbed with equally nasty blue lotion that stained my shirt — she interacted with one of these nasty beasts and survived to not tell the tale.

If only chickens could talk.  I assume Wildechicken had “gone broody” and tried to sit on her nest in the wilderness.  Did she successfully hatch out chicks, and then lose them?  Were her eggs eaten before then?  Was she temporarily adopted by the neighbor—or held captive by his golden retriever and beagle, until one day she made a brave escape?  How the hell did she not only survive some sort of attack, but also remain plump and well-fed while living on her own and molting?  (When molting, a lot of chickens’ energy goes into the production of new feathers—even chickens with access to high-protein chick starter and treats can start to lose weight.)  And why on earth did she decide to return?

Last night, as I was sticking water and food in her quarantine cage, she attacked me.  All I know is, this is one hell of a chicken—and if I were a raccoon/fox/coyote/owl/beagle, I’d probably think to myself, this feisty dinner is so not worth my effort.

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