Tuesday, March 30, 2010

We have a broody hen! I am so excited about this I can hardly express it. It is a wonderful amazing thing to care for something its whole life and then see it prepare to care for its own young.

She is a Dark Cornish, one of two in our flock, she is not one of our friendlier or prettier birds but she has a very likable quality. The description of her breed in the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog (from where we have ordered all of our chicks with great satisfaction) says they are "good setters and mothers" obviously I cannot attest to the latter but with the former I certainly agree. She has only left her small clutch of eggs for short periods once or twice a day, since going broody the end of last week. She seems prepared to fiercely protect her precious eggs, even giving me the chicken equivalent of a snap every time I hint at reaching my hand into her nesting box.

In a life of off and on chicken raising something I have never experienced is the natural incubation and hatching of chicks. When I was a kid we had some disastrous experiences with home incubators and as an adult have only purchased baby chicks. I do know, roughly, the process a mother hen goes through to incubate her own eggs but I suspect there is a lot that I have yet to learn.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

One of the boys' favorite foods to make is fresh pasta. It is a super easy, inexpensive meal and a lot of fun to make.

There are many different methods for making great pasta, this is what I do:

Put three cups flour in a medium bowl, make a well in the center, add four eggs and about 1/4 teaspoon salt. Use a fork to stir the eggs, incorporating the flour slowly until you've mixed as much as you can. The dough should be dry but if it won't form a ball at all add water just a few drops at a time. I always end up using my hands at this point to incorporate that last bit of flour.

Turn the dough out and knead it until it is smooth. Divide in four equal parts, shape each part into a disc, then cover and let it rest for twenty to thirty minutes.

Feed each piece through a pasta maker (this is Seltz's favorite part) once for each setting beginning with largest and ending with smallest (obviously). Lay the finished sheet aside and repeat with the remaining disks of dough.

Using the cutting attachment feed sheets of pasta back through and hang over a dowel (or on the counter but it will take longer) to dry while you cut the remaining sheets.

I have never rolled pasta by hand but I know it can be done. If I found myself stranded without my pasta maker I would probably divide the dough into eight pieces instead of four and use plenty of flour to roll each piece as thin as possible before cutting with a knife.

Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling, salted water for two to three minutes. Drain, toss with olive oil and top with whatever you like!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


A few days ago I found out that my neighbors have ordered their first batch of baby chicks and it has caused me to think back to my own experiences with the tiny little fluff balls.

It has been nearly a year since my last order of day old baby chicks and right at two years since my first. This year we are hoping that our flock will hatch and care for the next generation on their own (last year this wasn't an option since we didn't have any roosters) and even though the prospect of letting the chicken ladies do all the work is pretty exciting there is a lot I will miss as well.

My first order was of Black Australorps and Americanas with a "free mystery chick" thrown in by the hatchery. When I made the order my twins were a little more than a year, by the time the twenty six arrived at the post office Mack and Seltz were fifteen months and I was in the middle of my first trimester with Henry. I was colossally unprepared and more than a little overwhelmed.

I kept the chicks in a box under a heat lamp in a corner of the living room until they got so big that they began to fly out, at which point we moved them into an old dog kennel I set up in the garage. The never ending amount of mess (and smell) that they produced was killer on my morning sickness but they were so incredibly endearing that it was all totally worth it.

Before long all twenty six were ready to graduate to the barn and not long after that we suffered our first casualty. It was our mystery chick, a White Crested Black Polish. I was devastated and immediately began planning my next order.

At six in the morning on the first of June last year I got the call from the post office that our fifty one chicks had arrived. The boys and I hurried in to get them. Mack and Seltz were old enough to be excited and I felt wise, confident, and more than a little excited myself. Then we got them home and found that one had died in transit and one had an injury it couldn't recover from. All of a sudden reality hit, I had a six month old playing in the nursery, two toddlers bouncing off the walls, anxious to see the chicks, a dead chick and one I had to kill. It was a really rough morning and more than once I wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into but by that evening the survivors had settled into their new home in the garage and were all doing well.

I delighted in doting on them, took pictures of each of them, and counted them nightly. After a few weeks I found that I could tell how they were doing by the pitch and frequency of their cheeping. There was a universal cheep for an escaped chick, and another for when they were running low on feed and yet another for waking up in the morning.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that the grown birds in our flock started off so tiny and fragile. They have each developed into such lovable animals with distinct personalities and I am thankful for each one of them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My desire for a clothesline has occupied the majority of my thoughts today. Sadly, that desire, and all those thoughts aren't materializing into anything on their own.

There are a few things that have been slowing me down, not the least of which is where it should go. My initial idea was to put it in the backyard where we had one when I was a child.  It would get good sun and there are no trees in the way, but I think the animals would pose a significant problem. 

The goats are rather easily contained in their own yard, a sizable subdivision of the backyard, but to take advantage of their weeding abilities and to fill their bellies, we often let them graze in the acres behind the house. I am certain that given the chance they would do their best to tear clothes from the line and who knows what else.

I do not really want to shuffle goats from yard to yard every time a load comes out of the wash, but I can.  What I cannot do, nor do I care to, is control the movement of my dear chickens. They are truly free range and that means that all corners of the property (and some of the neighbors' as well) are theirs for the roaming. I am quite confident that my sweet birds would think a clothesline was the perfect place to take a rest in the afternoon, and where they rest they poop. That is not an environment I care to hang clean clothes in.

At this point somewhere in the front yard is seeming like my best option. The chickens are able to get in the front yard but they do it rarely. Our neighbor's flock spends more time there than ours do but I'm not too concerned with them, they pretty much only come over to eat and generally keep to themselves.

I don't typically get too bothered with appearances but something about something so conspicuous in the front yard kind of troubles me. I did some light reading about setting up a clothes line today and stumbled upon the idea of a removable pole. Making it possible to quickly dismantle and stash in the garage in the event that I am overcome with vanity or some other such emergency, makes the front yard locale much easier for me to stomach.  I think this would be significantly more work but also well worth it. 

So now, I think I know where it should be and the manner in which it should be installed, leaving just one last stumbling block. Am I at all capable of such a project?

I'll keep you posted.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring break is over, the boys are finally well after a month of fighting colds, and the sunny days and green grass are downright invigorating.

We all loved having Shelby home for his spring vacation, and though we didn't get to everything on the to do list (in fact, we may not have completely finished anything) it was a productive nine days none the less. We made huge headway organizing and cleaning out the spare bedroom as well as the garage. The garden is not as ready for plantings as we hoped it would be, but given that we just experienced a major cold snap it's probably best that we didn't have any seedlings in the ground. I had aspirations to erect a clothesline but didn't even come close so that's something that I'll try to get to in the coming days.

As much as we accomplished I'm pretty sure that it was more a result of our mindset and less about the time we had, and that leads me to the most important thing I took away from the week.

I always imagine that when Shelby is home everything will suddenly be easy, that is decidedly not true. The laundry and dishes still must be washed, everyone still gets hungry, and the kids still out number the grown ups. To tell the truth I was feeling a bit discouraged by those very things these last few days, but by the time this morning came that dark cloud had lifted and I was overcome with more motivation and optimism than I have had in a while.

Let me be clear, things are way more fun when the five of us are together, just not necessarily more productive and that means there is no argument for procrastination. Today is as good a time as any for even the most daunting of chores and that is kind of an exciting thought! Maybe by summer vacation instead of having a list of specific tasks to tackle we can follow the whims of the day and relax a little bit more.
That sounds pretty nice.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A day to celebrate

Today would have been my father's sixty first birthday. The boys and I celebrated by making a cake, looking at pictures and talking about the wonderful man their grandfather was.

A week before I was born my mother and father bought the house that Shelby and I are raising our boys in now. It is here that my parents instilled a love for rural life in my brother and sister and me and where the five of us had more good times than I could ever begin to recount. When Shelby and I were given the opportunity to buy this house from my mother three years ago we knew it was where we wanted to be and where we wanted to raise our family. There hasn't been a day since that I have regretted the decision.

I was a young girl when we got our first flock of chickens. Both of my parents encouraged my love for the birds. My mother took me to the library where I checked out every chicken book I could find and for weeks afterwards my father patiently and attentively listened while I proudly recited all that I had learned.

He was a brilliant wood worker who made beautiful furniture, and custom doors from his shop just down the hill from our home. I walk by it several times a day when I feed my chickens and when I have occasion to go inside the smell of wood brings me back to the untold amount of time I spent there as a child. He worked tirelessly in that shop. He was the hardest worker I've ever known and would often push himself beyond the point of exhaustion to put food on the table but the unconditional love and unwavering support that he gave us seemed to be completely effortless. 
Along with my mother he made us feel like there was nothing we couldn't accomplish and nothing we were lacking.

Even though he struggled his whole life with the loss, grief and abandonment he experienced as a child, he was an amazingly positive and optimistic man. He taught us to be better than he was, to know our principles and to live by them. He taught us that each day could be our last, often reminding us, "I could get hit by a bus tomorrow" it may sound a little gloomy and morbid but coming from him it always seemed more inspirational and invigorating than anything.

Cancer killed him more than eight years ago but I feel like I'm still learning from him and about him. He has made me a better mother to the grandsons he never got to meet and a better wife to the man he didn't live to see me marry.

He was a really good man whose flaws were as clear to him as they were to anyone else but he never tried to pretend he was anything that he wasn't. He lived a kind and honest life worth celebrating.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

The prodigal hen returns. Well, kind of.

Yesterday evening, on my way back to the house after feeding the chickens I came across a visitor. It was my runaway hen! I called to her, "chick, chick, chick" and even though the can of feed I was carrying was empty the promise of a meal must have been enough to hook her.

She followed me all the way to the back door where I left her for just a moment so I could run inside to grab my camera and a strawberry. The few other hens who accompanied her up the hill headed back to the barn for the night but (much to my delight) she lingered. I called her again and tossed the strawberry in her direction. She hurried to it and feasted while I sat captivated beside her.

Our picnic didn't last too long, only three or four minutes passed before she finished, I was thrilled none the less. It was quite possibly the only such visit I will get from her, but then again, who knows. She's a strange bird.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Healing hands of time

A little more than two months ago I found my only Cuckoo Maran huddled and wounded under some brush in the chicken yard. The immediate relief I felt to find her alive was quickly replaced by concern when her condition worsened over night.

She had a deep wound on her back and after a short amount of observation it was clear that keeping her in with the rest of the birds (particularly the roosters) was seriously hampering her ability to heal. I treated her wound and brought her up to the house where I keep a pen for just such situations.

Within the first twenty four hours of isolation she showed marked improvement and within a few days she regained full mobility and seemed to be back to her usual clucky self. I kept her in her private pen for two weeks, checking on her several times a day until I was sure that she was fully healed and strong enough to rejoin the flock. Her return was a seemingly smooth one. I slipped her in with the others one evening after dusk and though she didn't reclaim her original spot in the pecking order she wasn't at the bottom.

For more than a month she has appeared to be a perfectly happy and healthy hen, with one notable difference.

Prior to her injury she was a strong layer of the dark brown eggs that are unique to her breed. After her injury she completely stopped laying for two months. Certainly one would expect her to focus her energy on healing at first but more than a month after all signs of injury were gone and she returned to her role in the flock she still hadn't laid an egg.  Did she spend any time stressing over her lack of production, worrying about what the other chickens would think? Or, did she perhaps just keep on about her chicken business until she was truly healed without any thought of it one way or the other?

I have no way of knowing what her thoughts were on the matter but my gut tells me that it was the latter and if such is the case that makes this another instance where I could learn a lot from a chicken.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Birds of different feathers flock together too

A greener cleaner

Over the weekend I made some laundry detergent for the first time.  The relationship between laundry and chickens may seem like a strange one but knowing what goes into our eggs makes me want to know what goes into more and more of the things in our life. Making as many things as I can, from bread to yogurt to laundry detergent helps me to be more aware of the world we share with chickens.  

The original method I read for homemade laundry detergent recommended using washing soda (sodium carbonate) but after a little more research I found that oxiclean (sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate) was an acceptable substitute, which was fortunate since I was unable to find washing soda in any local stores but did have an unimaginably large amount of  oxiclean that I bought ages ago.
This is what I did. 

Using a cheese grater I grated one bar of Ivory soap and allowed it to dissolve in a quart of simmering water. Meanwhile, in a large storage tub (I think a five gallon bucket would have worked better but I didn't have one) I combined three gallons hot tap water, one cup oxiclean and one half cup borax and stirred until it was fully dissolved before adding the hot soapy water. Once everything was combined I put the whole container in the garage for twenty-four hours before using. It was so easy!

Eighteen hours and five loads of laundry later I feel very confident saying that it works. I washed a range of clothing, from dirty diapers, whites, toddler clothes, barn clothes, and dress clothes.  They all came out looking and smelling clean. Not like a spring meadow, but definitely clean. 

After some experimenting I have found that about three quarters of a cup (six ounces) works well for one of our average loads of laundry. We are pretty dirty people and you may find that less would work for you, it just depends on how large the load is and how soiled the clothes are.

I will not claim to have made any significant steps towards self sustainability, after all I still had to purchase the ingredients. I will claim a financial savings, a reduction of packaging, and perhaps most importantly, it made me excited about laundry.