Archive for the ‘Chickens’ Category

Tale of a Broody Hen

Some of my hens turned broody in the spring. I don’t keep a rooster in the flock to fertilize their eggs or give them any hope of motherhood but still they sat, staring ahead as if sheer will and concentration could turn those blanks into babies. They only came down from the nest once a day, heads low and plumage fanned out like visiting royalty as theycartoon-chicken-on-nest steered an imaginary brood of chicks to feed and water.   Most of them gave up after a couple of months. Chicken eggs only take twenty-one days to hatch. Every day after that further dissolved the illusion in their little minds that it was ever going to happen for them. They abandoned the nest and the cluck-clucking sound distinctive to broody hens, drew in their feathers and resumed their place in the pecking order with admirable stoicism.

One chicken, whom I’ve affectionately come to know as Millicent, refused to give up her dream of a family. Every day I took away the eggs she sat on, so until the other hens laid more the next day, she had to imagine the eggs as well as the chicks, and still she sat, week after week, month after weary month. She began to be distressed and confused, abandoning one group of eggs by midmorning to sit on another, desperately hoping for one of them, any of them, to hatch.

cartoon-chicken-on-nest-02I finally took pity on her in August and ordered a flock of day-old chicks for her from Frey’s Hatchery in St. Jacobs. I could have ordered fertile eggs for her to hatch out herself but they only sell fertile eggs in lots of a single breed and I wanted an assortment of yellow, black and brown chicks scuttling about the barnyard with the hen, just like my mother had when I was small. Albert and his mother said it wouldn’t work – no self-respecting hen would deign to rear a chick she hadn’t hatched herself, but then neither of them had probed those flickering, broody eyes, seen the desperation tinged with madness there…you’ve got to know your chicken.

On September 8, I set out for St. Jacobs, a good hour and a half from home. The day was an unseasonably warm 84°Farenheit but air conditioning kept me comfortable on the way. The drive home was another story. At one day old, chicks are unable to regulate their own body temperature so their environment must be 95°Farenheit. Free of drafts. Or any other relief that an open window might have afforded me that sweltering afternoon. The scenic route lost all appeal; I gripped the wheel and sped up the inside lane of the 401 for home, my cargo cheep-cheeping in chorus from the passenger seat and sweat pouring from my hair down my neck and back. Clearly, I’d underestimated the merits of unicolour chicks. I cracked the windows before I got halfway home; I couldn’t help it. By that time it must’ve been closer to 200° in there anyway.

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On being introduced to Millicent, the chicks cheep-cheeped their raucous and unanimous vote: she would do very well for an adoptive mother, even though they had no other prospective mom to compare her to. Until the day before, they had incubated in a sterile, noisy mechanical mother devoid of softness, gentle clucking sounds and every other comfort a hen provides except heat, yet they instinctively ducked under Millicent’s feathers and she automatically stood up a little to allow them even though her brain struggled to make sense of this new development. Her first contact with her chicks should have been a stirring under her feathers as they began to peck their way out of shells accompanied by peeping, twittery progress reports whenever they stopped to rest, and she keenly felt the omission. It took a moment for her to decide that adopted chicks were better than no chicks at all but once she was sure, she commenced to cluck and wing her noisy brood of children into obedience and order.

Not that she’d let herself be cheated of any more birthing rites of passage if she could help it. Fertile eggs almost never all hatch no matter how devotedly the hen cares for them, or if they do, they don’t all come out at the same time so after most have hatched, the hen continues to sit on the remaining eggs for a day or so, just in case. So did Millicent. Her mail-order children darted to feed, to water and back to her, repeated the circuit, then mixed it up for interest’s sake but she remained resolutely parked atop her imaginary eggs for another thirty-six hours. I’d taken every egg out from under her when I brought her the chicks but to her mind, this was no reason not to give them a fighting chance.

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I moved the little family to a small pen for a week, a sort of chicken nursery where they’d be safe from jealous hens and other predators. Then I pulled up a lawn chair and sat down to watch them. Some people look at fish aquariums in order to relax and unwind…I look at chickens. Presently, Sniper the German Shepherd shuffled in to join me. Looking at her look at the chicks is an amusement in itself. Something in me resonates with the expression flickering across her face when she gazes on the tiny, defenseless chicks. I’ve felt the same emotion when I look at a plate of cream puffs. Thankfully, she’s an obedient dog who respects her boundaries as well as any dog can.

The chicks are a delight to touch, too. At one day old, each downy ball is so light, you almost can’t feel it when you pick it up. There’s a barely discernible skittering as it explores the palm of your hand, like a spider if spiders didn’t ignite irrational fits of terror in otherwise serene and sensible middle-aged women. Three of the chicks are roosters, so we’ll have to see if they’re as sweet-tempered when they’re fully grown as they are now. I’m a little nervous when I think that within a few months, they could morph into brawny, spiky thugs who mug me whenever I cross their terrain but if they do, I reckon they’ll rehabilitate well enough in the soup pot. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

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shop talk

When we moved here about eight years ago, I asked Albert to build me a little egg shop and he did it. He’s a sport, that Albert, because he knew I was much more interested in embellishing it than in keeping it stocked with eggs.  It’s as much a canvas I use to display and enjoy a few relics I’ve acquired from fifteen years of yard sale snooping, auction picking and thrift store rummaging than it is a business.  They range from semi-valuable to endearingly kitschy but each one is a treasure to me.

egg shop storefront

Still, I keep my end of the bargain by keeping a coop full of hens that turn out a basket full of eggs by noon every day for me to sell to the neighboring folk.  I count on them to do it.  Without them, my reason for keeping a sweet little egg shop would cease to exist.

egg shop eggs & goats

egg shop sink

In the farthest reaches of my memory stands a double-sink cement laundry tub in my mother’s laundry room against the north wall next to her wringer washing machine.  Before I was old enough to remember much more they were replaced by a white plastic tub and an automatic washer so when I found this one complete with raised cement ridges forming a built-in scrubbing board at a Shackleton’s auction, it was like a lost piece of my childhood dropped out of the sky and landed upright with a k-chunk before my very eyes.  I paid $10 for it, hauled it home and now it stands on the egg shop porch as a haven for garden gnomes, petunias and other trailing things.

egg shop gas pump

Albert and I went to see a man about a motorcycle last summer. We ended up buying it along with an old gas pump I found rusting in the weeds beside the garage that housed the more fortunate motorcycle.  I sandblasted as much of the rust as I could, covered the pump with the most joyful shade of red I could find and fitted it with a few choice accessories from a website called Gas Pump Heaven.

I’m not sure why it’s called that – is it where old gas pumps go when they die? Or does it describe the euphoria felt when vintage gas pump enthusiasts discover that not only are we not alone but that there areegg shop bell enough of us to merit a whole website dedicated to uniting lovers of these rusty shells of yesterjunk and supplying us with everything we need to restore them to their former glory?  Both are apt.  I haven’t spent as much time and money into my gas pump as some have but it stands a bright and cheery greeter to folks round about who buy eggs from my little store.  Albert never did take to that motorcycle.  He likens it to a Chevy Cavalier – it’ll get you where you need to go but the trip is pretty boring.  I like my gas pump very much.

This old bell hung from the exterior wall of the workshop at our first farm until just before we sold the place. I made Albert scramble up a ladder, remove the screws that held it fast and yank it from the wall hours before signing a contract that stated everything bolted, nailed or screwed down was to remain as property of the new owners.  It’s clanging can easily be heard from the barn and clear to the next farm.

Let’s go inside.

egg shop arborite table

It’s odd that my most precious childhood memories formed in my mother’s laundry room. Or maybe it’s mostly those that come back to me in the form of vintage treasures like this arborite table in classic chipped ice pattern.  My mom’s was grey and littered with homemade lye and beef tallow laundry soap and a bottle of Fleecy to cover the smell of the soap on Dad’s work clothes.  Mine provides a spot for customers to set their eggs and make change in the tin that collects their money.

The heavy slate chalkboard above the table comes from the farmhouse where I grew up. It’s only through providence (and a bit of shameless begging on my part) that it remains in the family today.  You can read that story here.  Now it’s a shop sign and medium for my best friend Suzy’s artistry.

egg shop fan  The fan and heater come from an old camper we bought years ago but I only ever use the heater. The fan comes from the time when a safe environment was forged less through built-in safety features than common sense: anyone who stuck their fingers in the fan blades whether accidentally or otherwise would almost certainly never do it again.  I can’t be sure all of my customers would agree with this reasoning though, so the fan serves only as an ornament.

From the north-facing wall, Heintje looks past us to an unseen plane of perpetual childhood joy and incorruptible innocence. There’s something wholesome and reassuring about vintage boys so I surround myself with them like a safety blanket.  Contemporary choirboys have the same effect.

egg shop heintje & candy machine

Next to him, Felix the kit-cat clock keeps near-perfect time with his rolling eyes and pendulum tail. I can’t tell whether those eyes convey lunacy or the most knowing smirk I’ve ever seen but they’re definitely benevolent.

A surprising number of children and teenagers accompany their parents into the shop. Anxious lest they be deprived of an equally satisfactory purchase as their elders, I brought in a new but classically appealing Beaver candy machine.  Parents leave the store with the best-tasting free-range brown eggs in the county, youngsters leave with handfuls of sugary sustenance and we’re all of us gladsome.

egg shop cartons

In another corner, customers drop off their empty cartons for me to reuse. Sometimes, it looks as though I’ve filled one carton with larger eggs than the next but I really haven’t.  It’s just that some cartons are designed like a Wonderbra – tiny compartments force their contents upward making them look bigger than they really are.

The old radio on top of the fridge is set to AM 980 news talk London, the only station it’s able to receive. Depending on the hour and the day, my customers can hear the news, learn to take a proactive approach to their health, weigh in on current affairs or take in a rousing gospel message.

egg shop radio

The Essex County milk bottle is a present from Bob, who lived next door to our first farm. Bob was a retired nurse from Hamilton with a yen to farm in his golden years.  His farm consisted of two goats, three pigs, a few hens and a dog on one acre of land.  It provided plenty of physical work for a man his age but little excitement for someone used to the diversions of urban life.  He became my laid-back, witty travel companion anywhere I decided to go on a whim, whether exploring flea markets or tramping through St. Patrick’s cemetery in two feet of snow the day I wanted to see the Donnelly gravestone.  Bob was also an invaluable fashion guru who was never afraid to proffer an opinion about my clothing, including a pretty pair of heels I could not make up my mind to buy in the shoe department one day.  “My dear”, he sighed, his impatience barely contained, “you cannot spend your entire life in rubber boots.”  My decision was egg shop curtainssuddenly simple.  Whether or not those heels see the light of day more than twice a year is another matter.  Some years later we moved away and Bob returned to the city.

I stitched my seventies-inspired curtains from a piece of fabric left over from a skirt. If I’d known my waistline would expand six sizes in as many years I might not have spared material for curtains but that’s another story.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely finished outfitting the egg shop.  There’s too much wall space begging to be filled, too many yard sale and flea market treasures still pining for a second chance at life in dim and dusty corners of the barn and garage.

I’ll show them to you sometime.

egg shop ivy

Albert’s Favourite Cook

Albert wasn’t keen on my cooking when we got married.  To this day he maintains that he’s never eaten as many eggs as he did for the first few months of marital life – fried eggs, egg omelets, deviled eggs, scrambled eggs and egg breakfast casseroles. I guess I thought arhode island red farmer who tended a flock of Rhode Island Reds with as much care as he did would welcome the fruits of his labour on the dinner table.

That was thirteen years ago.  Albert says I’m a much better cook now.  I reply in a none-too subservient tone that the only difference between then and now is that I’ve given up preparing any but such delectable dainties as his discriminating palate will accept.  It’s kind of true though.  I like being my husband’s favourite cook and I’ve attained that status, too.  Almost.  There’s not a woman around who can make Albert’s mouth water when the aroma of slow-cooked pot roast floods his senses like I can.  My adversary is a man.

His name is Jacob but Albert calls him Wishbone because he perfectly personifies the cranky cook so named in Rawhide, Albert’s favourite old TV western.    Wishbone cooks for the men at Albert’s annual week-long hunting camp as I explained in an earlier post titled Of Moose and Men.

When Albert returns from camp I’m regaled with stories of savoury dishes and gourmet soups and stews served with soft, steaming tortillas prepared by the culinary marvel that is Wishbone. soup

“Isn’t that something,” I say, all rapt attention and admiration.  “You ate three bowls of his venison stew?  Wow.  He must really be something.”

Dinner hour finds me feverishly cranking a wooden spoon over a bubbling stockpot in an effort to recreate Wishbone’s magnificent dishes out of hints dropped during my husband’s glowing reminiscence and wondering how, from a community known for traditional roles and industrious housewives, my kitchen nemesis turned out to be a crotchety Old Colony Mennonite man.

My first clue that something was different this year came not from what Albert said during his first phone calls and text messages home but from what he didn’t say.  Usually so eager to tell me all about Wishbone’s latest kitchen creations, he seemed not to want to talk about food at all.  Throughout the week though, the disappointed details began to emerge.

For a man whose responsibility it was to feed nine hungry hunters, Wishbone had turned unaccountably stingy with the meat supply.  Meat barely appeared on the table at all.  It seemed to be replaced by an inordinate amount of eggs. uncooked roast

“Eggs?!” I tutted, all wifely concern.

There were grumblings in the camp.  A man who had joined only this year was heard to mutter that the missus need not fret that he wouldn’t return home to her cooking if these be the victuals Jacob was famous for.  Albert eyed an uncooked beef roast that languished in the fridge all week, hoping that today was the day when Wishbone would serve it up, steaming and delicious and ladled over with rich beef gravy.  He tired of the provision Wishbone strangely seemed to consider a fair substitute for meat – cold baloney.  “Baloney!?” I cried in righteous horror.  Wishbone was clearly off his game.

As the men broke camp and headed home late Saturday morning, Albert and I continued our steady stream of text messages.

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And we did.  Tender, slow-roasted beef, fluffy mashed potatoes, corn and carrots smothered in savoury gravy devoured by the trail-weary, ravenous hunter.  The mistress of the house in her spotless apron sat by, a pie server at her right hand with which to dish out cream-filled pastry for dessert the moment he should wish it.  The serene countenance and beatific smile with which she presided over her table almost (but not quite) concealed the glint of triumph in her eye.

Wishbone may recover his culinary prowess; I’m not saying he won’t.  I wish it for him, poor fellow.  But for one year at least, I aim to relish every bit of the prize I’ve waited for so long to claim.  I am Albert’s favourite cook.

 

 

Chicken Business

Broodiness is a physiological state that makes a hen want many babies, all at the same time, starting now.  Broody hens are easy to recognize.   They toddle about making maternal clucking noises with their feathers fluffed out from their bodies, ready to incubate anything from a golf ball to an avocado pit in hopes of hatching a chick.

About a month ago, five of my hens had a yen to brood.  I don’t have any roosters, so the hen’s eggs are little blanks as far as babies go.  I decided to enquire about the neighbourhood for some fertile eggs.  In the meantime, I left three infertile eggs in the nest for the broody hens to care for, kind of like those fake babies you get in high school, just to make sure that they wouldn’t get discouraged and give up their dreams of motherhood before I managed to find a surrogate chicken with eggs to spare.  I marked the counterfeits so that I wouldn’t accidentally collect them the next morning.  They are (from left to right) the hippie, the beauty and the cynic, although it occurs to me that in the case of the gloomy little embryo to the right, my own dismal artistry is to blame should cynicism be mistaken for an untreated case of hemorrhoids.

threeEggs

 My friends and neighbours had no fertile eggs to spare.  Then in true Jane Eyreian style, I advertised, but it would seem that folks are even less disposed to part with their fertile eggs in my day than they were to hire a governess in Jane’s.  Finally I called Frey’s hatchery in St. Jacobs who agreed to sell me five dozen eggs for a trifling eight dollars and twenty-five cents a dozen.  Albert almost came out of his chair when I told him my plans.  He thought I was barmy to drive an hour and a half one way to pay almost three times a decent price for chicken eggs.  But for me, it’s not just about acquiring more livestock.  It’s about the fun I have settling the hens into cozy straw nurseries, of hearing those first cheep-cheeping sounds as the chicks chisel and hammer their way out into the world, and of watching each proud mother lead a row of perfectly formed baby chickens into the meadow for Scratch & Peck 101, a sort of poultry kindergarten which covers elementary techniques for unearthing deliciously squirmy things to eat.

Even the expedition to St. Jacobs was a pleasure.  There’s nothing like listening to Sarah Brightman’s sweet, clear soprano on the stereo while cruising the summer countryside, of measuring the open road not in miles but in arias, just me and Sarah.  In our small town of Aylmer, Ontario, you can drive a John Deere through the main stoplight hauling a loaded manure spreader and no one will bat an eye.  But play opera and classical music with the windows rolled down at your peril if blatant staring and necks craned to get a better look at you unsettle your nerves.  The long drive to Frey’s Hatchery was a chance to listen to the music I like, as loud as I liked and on the way home, the unborn chicks in the backseat enjoyed it with me.  I don’t know if chickens are able to distinguish music from other sounds, but if they are, these may be the first in the history of the world to break out of their shells cheeping the melodic theme to “O mio babbino caro”.

Two of the hens got cold feet about motherhood so I adopted their eggs.  No, I’m not going to sit on them for twenty-one days (I did read one woman online contemplating the odds of successfully hatching chicken eggs in her bra.  I don’t know if she actually tried it or not, but either way, we don’t hold with such nonsense in this house).  I set the unwanted eggs in our incubator.

I have successfully hatched eggs this way but it’s tricky, even with the new-fangled automatic egg turner.  For the next three weeks I have to keep a careful watch over it, not allowing the temperature to stray from 99.5 -100ºFarenheit and making sure the humidity hovers at 85 – 87 ºFarenheit.  The outcome for this lot is iffy already because I had to tweak both the temperature and humidity quite a bit yesterday.  I will candle some of the eggs (hold them over a light in a dark room) in three days.  If an egg is clear, it is either infertile or it was fertile but died.  An egg with a dark spot in the middle means that a live chick is thriving inside and everything is tickety boo.

The three hens are lucky; God created them with an inner thermostat and hygrometer preset for the job.  They don’t have much to do for the next three weeks but sit.  And they do.  Sitting on eggs is deliberate and concentrated, a terribly serious business to a broody hen.

The four of us can hardly wait out the days and hours until July 31st.  That’s when the babies are due.  I’ll let you know when they get here.

The Promised Pen

This is what my new flock of hens saw when I opened the door to their pen for the first time: a barren desert, bleak, dry and grazed to the ground by the previous generation of chickens to the point that there are no roots left to flourish there.

This is their view to the west: a goodly, fertile pen flowing with grass and bugs.    The old generation of hens has passed on.  The lush, green pen is promised to the new generation, and shall be theirs as soon as we’ve mended a few holes in the fence.  Meanwhile, feathered spies have gained access through those holes to scope out the country and report back to the flock.  It is an expedition fraught with danger because fierce giants from the tribes of Nola, Sniper and Magnum inhabit the land:

The Nolanites (far left) are especially dangerous. Many’s the time they’ve almost licked me to death.

 

I met one of the spies in a secret place and was able to get a short interview.  She was self-possessed and confident when I asked her about the giants, which is quite remarkable.  I would have thought that next to a giant, she would feel about as big as a grasshopper.

 

 

The only other preparation we need to make before we set them free to conquer the land is to mow the grass down a bit.  Finding all of their eggs in the tall grass would be next to impossible.  We may as well try to get water from a rock.

 

Chicken doings

The hens in my new flock are already wonderful layers, but their perching abilities leave much to be desired.  It’s not the poor biddies’ fault.  They’ve had neither mother nor older hens from whom to learn this necessary skill, or likely even a stick of wood to practice on.  They arrived two weeks ago at nineteen weeks old, and every night, they’ve huddled together on the floor like rabbits without a burrow until the ground resembles one wall-to-wall carpet of chicken.

So tonight, Albert and I taught them how to roost.  This did not involve us climbing the perch and flapping our arms, but it was almost as awkward.  Moving chickens for any reason works best in the dark because they can’t see, so they don’t resist or fuss much.  That is why they retire early, and where the expression “go to bed with the chickens” originates – they don’t like to stumble over the nightstand.  Instead, we stumbled about the murky coop, transferring one hen at a time from floor to perch.  Well, Albert carried two at a time, but they clucked and fussed much more than mine did, because you can’t gently lift and comfortably cradle two hens at a time.

Most of them balanced like pros as soon as their toes touched wood, but some lurched back and forth like drunks and a few fell off and had to be helped back up.  As if their night’s events had not taken a strange enough turn, I snapped their photo, blinding them with my camera’s flash before I said goodnight.  I hope it doesn’t give them little chicken nightmares.  They’ve got a busy day ahead and need to be fresh, bright-eyed and ready to greet the  morning.

Whistling girls and crowing hens…

I posted this note in our little self-serve egg store today.

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It’s not that the hens are lazy.  They’re just tired.  They’ve laid faithfully for two years and are ready to retire.  Chickens can live for ten years or more in the right conditions and lay eggs just as long, but their peak laying season happens between five and eighteen months.

A hen can even undergo a sex change to become a rooster later in life; no scalpel or testosterone shots required.  This happens through a biological process called protogyny, no word of a lie.

Check out  http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/1277-sex-change-chicken-rooster.html and http://www.howtokeepchickens.blogspot.com/2009/07/hens-sex-change.html for the scientific explanation.  It happens rarely, about 1 in 10,000, but it does happen.  First they start to crow, then their combs grow big; they develop a wattle under the chin, sprout long tail feathers and exhibit all the behaviours of a sure ’nuff rooster.  There are conflicting opinions about whether or not these choosters can reproduce.

I have heard many times that crowing hens always come to some bad end, but nobody ever told me that they turn into roosters.  I must not whistle.  I must not whistle.  I must not whistle…

Conversely, when a rooster turns into a hen, it’s called protandry.  So far this has never happened and may be impossible, but if it ever does, that’s what it will be called.

At any rate, our hens have dramatically reduced their egg production over the past couple of months.  I want to beg them to rally for one more month, just until the new shift arrives to take over, but I can’t because I’ve never told them how I’ve been profiteering from their labours all these years.  If they knew, they might strike or demand a severance package.  Or worse, morph into a flock of vicious roosters and attack me.

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