Friday, May 18, 2012

Peeping Deliveries

The chicks have arrived! Wednesday morning just after 7:00, the Davidson Post Office called to let us know that there was a peeping box waiting for us there. Could we come and pick it up as soon as possible? You bet! The girls and I rushed to finish mucking out the stalls and the coop and dashed to the car. Within minutes, we were at the post office's back door, ringing the bell as instructed. (Did you know there is a door bell at the back of your post office? We felt awfully in-the-know and official, standing there waiting for our special delivery and watching the early-morning shift sort and stack packages. To think that, just yesterday, we were still front-room-only citizens.)

The gentleman who came with the box smiled empathetically when he handed it over, wishing us luck and hurrying back inside. Oh my, I thought. They must have gotten our order wrong. There's no way twenty-eight chicks could be crowded into this tiny box! We tried our best to peek through the holes in the cardboard but couldn't see much, so I gently bent up the top panel to get a better view and found that not only was the box surprisingly small--they were only occupying half of it! The other half was blocked off with a divider. But there sure did seem to be a lot of them. "Yikes--those critters are TINY!," I muttered. That quick look assured me that they were all alive (baby chicks sometimes die in transit from hunger, thirst, or cold). It also assured me it was not going to be possible to do an inventory until we got home. So off we went, chirping and peeping our way back to the house.

My husband, G-P, had been kind enough to set up and prep the brooder, so when we arrived it was already warmed to the prescribed 95 degrees and waiting for us on a utility table the Discovery Room. The sugar water and food were in their respective troughs, ready for the hungry travelers dig in.

"They're in that box?!" G-P exclaimed--assuming, like me, that the hatchery had only sent half of our order. Once we got the box open, we were able--though not without difficulty--to count their pecking, dancing, scurrying little bodies. Twenty-five. Well, that was close. We soon decided that it was three of the eight Ameraucanas that were missing. I soon got on the phone, and the kind folks at Stromberg's (the hatchery from which we ordered them) went to work making sure we got replacements for the missing chicks--and then some! This morning (Friday), we received eight more female Ameraucanas and eight "filler chicks" (males from less popular breeds--sent with the Ameraucana pullets to insure that they stay warm enough to survive the trip). So instead of going from nine chickens to thirty-seven chickens this week, we've gone from nine chickens to fifty! The gentleman at the post office wondered, "Did you eat all of those already?!?"No, we assured him. And no, he needn't worry; we won't be back for more--at least not until next spring.

But let's get back to Wednesday morning. Once we had the chicks counted, the girls and I began lifting them out of the box and putting them one-by-one into the brooder. We were careful not to skip the all-important step of dipping their little beaks in the water trough before releasing them. This teaches them both what and where the water is (without a mama hen to lead them to a water source, chicks sometimes don't figure this out). A couple of the particularly squirmy ones managed to hop out of our hands and get a quick bath--not good for tiny chicks. Fortunately, we were able to get them dried off before they got chilled. Then we started introducing them to their "chick-starter" feed. It didn't take them long to figure that one out! Within seconds they were happily pecking away, peeping and chirping excitedly.

And that's what they've been doing ever since. Only a handful have managed to escape so far, and the rate of breakouts is rapidly decreasing. The tiniest of today's shipment has managed to make it all the way to the floor (several feet down!) several times, but even she seems to have given up her flight fantasy during the past couple of hours. For the next 4-5 weeks they'll live in the brooder--eating, drinking, running about (where are they going in such a hurry?), peeping, and pooping. Then they'll move to the extra stall in the barn, where we'll set up perches and a heat lamp to help them transition to free-range living.

All the chicks belong to heritage breeds--that is, "traditional livestock breeds that were raised by farmers in the past, before the drastic reduction of breed variety caused by the rise of industrial agriculture" ( Here's the breakdown of the breeds we now have:
  • Splash Jersey Giant
  • Dominique
  • Buff Plymouth Rock
  • Rhode Island Reds 
  • Delaware
  • Barred Plymouth Rock
  • Ameraucana
  • Buff Orpington
  • A few mysteries (stay posted!)

Together these chicks will provide our little farm with a veritable rainbow of color, shape, personality, and history. And many healthy, delicious eggs! Indeed, all of our current chickens and almost all of the new ones are pullets (females), with a handful of males (cockerels) thrown in so we can have a few to eat and a couple to fertilize future eggs. (Like the males of most farmyard species, male chickens tend to be louder, more aggressive, and generally more high maintenance than the females, and thus are much less populous and shorter lived than their sisters. Poor little devils.)

Which brings up the biggest challenge we face now: trying to keep the girls from naming each and every one of these babies. We keep explaining that we'll have to eat some of them and will be giving away (and possibly selling) several as well. But they just can't seem to help themselves! And as we all know, once you name them, you love them. But that's a topic probably best left to another post . . .

Late-breaking news: It looks like we have a chick-count update! Crystal finally managed to hatch one of her eggs, so now we're up to fifty-one. We were especially happy to see this little one. In fact, we were beginning to wonder if all these weeks of sitting would pay off for Crystal at all. Much to our dismay, she and/or the other hens started pecking at her eggs early in the week and managed to wipe out nearly all of them within a couple of days--except this one. It's evidently as tough as it is cute. We'll have to find an extra-special name for it. Oh, wait. The girls have already taken care of that. It will be Lou Lou--the nickname of my feisty, lovely older sister. Let's hope it turns out to be a pullet.

These past few days of listening to the musical chatter and watching the energetic antics of these tiny creatures has indeed reaffirmed our love for, and fascination with, chickens. There's truly nothing like a good dose of chicken time to lift one's spirits and perk up a dreary day. Try it sometime--I promise it'll do wonders!

For more information . . .
  • On heritage breeds of poultry and other livestock: the website of The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
  • On raising chickens:
    • The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers, by Harvey Ussery
    • Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow
    • Keeping Chickens, by Ashley English
    • The Joy of Keeping Chickens: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Poultry for Fun or Profit, by   Jennifer Megyesi and Geoff Hansen.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Welcome, New Family Members!

We added a few new members to our farm family this week in the aftermath of last week's traumas (described in my previous post). First, we got 6 Rhode Island Red laying hens so that we could continue to enjoy and market farm-fresh eggs. (Rhode Island Reds are a dual-purpose heritage breed, and according to, "the do-everything bird: they lay exceptionally well, they're valued for their meat, they're extremely cold hardy, and hardy in general." They're also the state bird of Rhode Island!) They are adjusting well to their new home--reveling in the wide open spaces of the pasture and scoping out the many potential perching and egg laying spots. (We hope they'll soon settle on perching and laying inside the coop with the rest of the civilized chicken world. Until then, we'll be doing quite a bit of chicken wrangling!)

After replenishing our flock, we turned to finding an animal that could help us ensure that no more of our feathered or furry kin get snatched by predators. Luckily for me, this meant that we finally had a good excuse to buy the animal of my dreams, the one I've been longing for, hinting at, and searching for since I first dreamed of having a farm. We finally got to buy a donkey!

Donkeys are famous among farmers for effectively defending livestock against coyotes, as well as against foxes, dogs and other potential predators. But donkeys have many other valuable--and lovable--traits as well. You'd never know it from common knowledge of this ancient equine, though, as they have been persistently maligned in popular culture and literature as stubborn, slow, dumb, and ugly. A case in point: this "classic" poem written by G K. Chesterton, in which the repulsive creature's sole redemption is serving as the beast of burden that carried Jesus to his crucifixion.

The Donkey
When fishes flew and forests walked   
   And figs grew upon thorn,   
Some moment when the moon was blood   
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,   
The devil’s walking parody   
   On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,   
   I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:   
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

It's really too bad--and terribly unfair--that donkey's get such a bad rap. For they have been loyal assistants of humankind for thousands of years. And in many areas of the world (including most of the places my anthropological research has taken me), they remain the preferred mode of transport for both cargo and people. Here are some other fascinating facts about these "tattered outlaws of the earth" (gleaned from and other sources):
  • A donkey is stronger than a horse of the same size and can navigate a wider variety of terrain than horses. 
  • Despite popular misconceptions, donkeys are actually highly intelligent. Their curiosity and eagerness to learn make them especially easy to train. (Training a donkey relies upon showing him or her, by words and action, that they can trust you to that you will protect them from harm.)
  • Donkeys have an incredible memory - they can recognize other donkeys they were with up to 25 years ago.
  • Donkeys are not easily startled and are therefore less likely than horses to hurt themselves or others (an especially valuable trait if small children are around).
  • Donkeys have a reputation for stubbornness, but this is due to their highly developed sense of self preservation. They are more independent in their thinking than horses and will reason, then make decisions based on their safety. It therefore is difficult to force or frighten a donkey into doing something it sees as contrary to its own best interest or safety.  
  • Donkeys' large ears help keep them cool--a particularly helpful trait in the desert regions where donkeys originated. Those ears also allow them to hear the call of other donkeys up to 60 miles away. (Their loud bray doesn't hurt their chances, either! While some people find it revolting, I agree with the scores of donkey fans out there who think it's one of the most delightfully unique calls of the animal world.)
  • Because food is scarce in those desert habitats, donkeys utilise 95% of what they eat and therefore do not need as much food as other equines.
  • Donkeys are herd animals and prefer to share their daily lives with other donkeys, or with cattle, goats, or sheep. (Donkeys in a herd will groom each other in a way similar to monkeys and chimps.)
  • Donkeys (particularly jennies and geldings, both of which are gentler and more nurturing than jacks) are often used as guard animals for cattle, sheep and goats since they bond easily with these other farm animals, have a natural aversion to canines, and will keep canines (dogs, wolves, and foxes) away from the herd or flock. They are also commonly fielded with horses due to the perceived calming effect they have on nervous horses. (If a donkey is introduced to a mare and foal, the foal will often turn to the donkey for support after it has left its mother.)
  • In the past:
    • The wealth of the ancient Egyptians was due largely to the precious metals carried from sub-Saharan Africa by donkeys.
    • Donkeys were used to carry silk along the Silk Road from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean in return for trade goods.
    • In Greece donkeys were used for working on the narrow paths between vines and their work in vineyards spread as far as Spain. The donkey was associated with the Syrian God of Wine, Dionysius. 
    • The Roman Army moved donkeys into Northern Europe using them in agriculture, vineyards and as pack animals.
    • The first donkeys came to the Americas on ships of the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1495.
  • Today, donkeys continue to be a lifeline to families in many regions of the world. They help with water and wood fuel collection, land cultivation and transportation of produce to market. 
Added to all this is the fact that they are a lot less expensive to purchase and care for than a horse or pony. What's not to love? And my girls and I do love them. We thus could hardly believe our good fortune when their dad suddenly blurted out, on the evening of the coyote attack last week, "Well, it looks like we are going to have to get a donkey now." After months of us girls suggesting, hinting, and pleading for bringing an equine into our fold, it looked like it finally might happen!

The next morning, G-P zipped me an ad he'd found on craigslist, and by noon I had an appointment to visit a nearby farm to see a jenny recently brought in from Kentucky. We were particularly interested in her because the ad said she had been trained to lead and ride and had already worked as a guard for cattle and goats--a rare combination of traits these days. Also, she was described as a Standard--a basic, old-fashioned, no-frills donkey--not one of the more popular Miniatures (which are generally kept as pets or for show) or Mammoths (which cattle farmers often prefer).

We were excited as we headed out to meet her on Saturday morning. But we were anxious, too. We had, after all, visited a number of farms during the past several few months to scope out donkeys and had generally found pitifully neglected, forlorn creatures often living in wretched conditions, covered with skin sores, and often fearful of their owners (one farmer actually demonstrated for us how he "wacks" his donkeys into submission). What a world away these places are from central North Carolina's picturesque horse farms. It's a startling, and very troubling, contrast.

So we approached the farm with both anticipation and dread. But this place was clean and well-organized. The seller seemed knowledgeable about his herd. And the jenny--well, it was love at first sight. She was not only calm and gentle, but also so responsive that I was able to hoist the girls onto her back and lead her around the paddock this very first time we met her. We were sold. And so was she--the very next day! The seller was kind enough to bring her to us on Monday morning.

Ellie Mae Mushroom explores her new home.
She has been settling in beautifully, munching placidly on her hay, exploring the pasture, getting to know the goats, and exchanging innumerable hugs and kisses with Segi and Simi. The three of us have been grooming her, spoiling her with bits of carrots and apples and handfuls of grain (not too much--donkeys are prone to get fat if overfed), and enjoying rides up and down the pasture. 

When I was a little girl, on every birthday I can remember, I closed my eyes to blow out my candles and wished for a horse. I was never led to believe that I would ever get a horse, but it didn't matter--I continued wishing the same wish every year. Until eventually I grew up and grew out of it. But once our family decided that we would try to farm, the wish returned--this time not for a horse but for a donkey. I'm not sure I believed this wish would ever come true either. But all of a sudden, in the course of a couple of days, it has. And the best part is that I get to share this childhood-dream-come-true experience with my daughters. What a lucky girl.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Barnyard Traumas

Yesterday was quite a day. It started off normally enough. I got up, as usual, at 4:30 a.m., worked out and checked my e-mail. Then Segi, Simi and I went out to the barn to do the morning chores. As soon as we were done, I gave the girls their breakfast and combed out their locks. Then, as usual, they returned to the barnyard while I busied myself in the kitchen for a while. But after just a few minutes, Simi came running back into the house, yelling at me to come, that Zebra Zuzu (our Delaware hen) was lying still in the barnyard and there was a fox out there. Since we have quite a bit of drama in our household--and much of it make-believe--I probably didn't take Simi as seriously as I should have. But I grabbed my cup of coffee and walked over to check things out.

The moment I opened the gate and saw the bunch of feathers lying ahead of me on the ground, I knew something terrible had happened. I soon found Zebra Zuzu's lifeless body out in the pasture. I looked over to the fence by the creek just in time to see a retreating fox (or was it a small coyote?) staring back at me. There had evidently been several of them. I also found and collected the bodies of two other hens: Dottie (the Black Australorp) and Aniponi (a Dominique). We only found two of the chickens alive: Cuckoo (another Dominique) hovering terrified between the rain barrel and the barn wall, and Crystal (the Jersey Giant), who was still sitting as placidly as ever in the coop on her clutch of foster eggs.

So, I thought, they must have gotten away with Queenie (the Buff Orpington), Libre (the other Dominique), and Autumn (the Buff Plymouth Rock). Segi was devastated. Autumn, her beloved chicken, was gone. Ripped apart and consumed by foxes. For a while, she held onto the goats and cried, drying her tears on their soft hair. Then she locked herself in the storage shed by the house, refusing to come out or speak. All I felt I could really do was hug her and tell her I was so so sorry.

While Segi mourned in the shed, Simi and I took the three dead chickens to the woods and dug a trench. We buried them there and covered the mound with leaf litter, topping it off with a rock we plan to paint as a gravestone.

Then I went back to check on Segi. Her face was strewn with grimy tear marks, but she was recovering. Simi helped a good deal by offering to share her own chicken (Crystal) with her sister. In fact, Segi soon managed to carry herself from "I hate foxes! I'm always going to hate foxes!" to "I'm really glad the foxes got something nice to eat, Mama. I hope their babies were happy to have a good meal." Oh, to have the heart of a child!

We were supposed to go strawberry picking yesterday morning and decided collectively that we should go ahead and do that. It's good that we did. We drove out to Bradford Farm and had a great time picking 4 gallons of organic berries. (Actually, we probably picked a good deal more than that--Segi and Simi must have consumed at least a gallon apiece!) When we returned home a few hours later, we found that all 6 of our goats were gone! Oh, no, I thought. This can't be happening.

Turns out it wasn't. They were nonchalantly waiting for us on our front porch. Silly things. The best part, though, is that as we searched for them, we found Autumn! Actually, Simi found Autumn, and came running around the house with her sister's chicken in her arms yelling "It's Autumn! She's alive! She's alive!" Only a few moments later we spotted Libre! These two often hang out on and around our deck during the day (Autumn often comes to say hello to us through the sliding glass doors), and they'd evidently been here when the foxes came in the morning. They were close enough, though, to be good and frightened, and it seems they'd stayed in hiding until we returned from our strawberry picking venture.

So the morning's tragedy hadn't been quite as extensive as we first thought. We lost only 4 of our 8 hens. (If Cuckoo makes it, that is. She's still spending most of her time cowering in the corner, and we think she might have a broken wing.) We are sad but also grateful--grateful for the lives of the chickens who are gone and grateful for those still with us. And hopeful for the new little lives sitting under Crystal and the lives of the chicks that will soon be shipped to us through the mail.

I don't think I expected farming to be such an emotionally laden adventure. I guess I failed to consider that whenever we become involved in nurturing other living creatures, we risk becoming invested in their well-being in ways that go well beyond the monetary and material. We risk letting them into our hearts. While this makes us more vulnerable than we'd often like to be, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Feelin' Broody

In all the months we had a rooster here at the farm dutifully making his rounds among the hens, none of our hens showed any interest in sitting on eggs. Since we thought it would be both fun and educational to watch the laying-hatching-mothering-growing cycle, we did our best to encourage them to "go broody." We'd place several eggs together in one nesting box and leave them there for a couple of days. When that didn't work, we'd start a new clutch in another box. When that went nowhere, we'd do the same thing in the barn--setting clutches of eggs in corners and on haystacks. We also tried feeding, watering, and petting the hens while they were laying. We got no response at all, except an occasional "oh-you-silly-humans-always-trying-to-control-things" look. We continued this little charade off and on for weeks, right up until the day Captain Haddock left this world behind (see the 3/26/12 post to read about that harrowing drama). There was no point in continuing on after that, of course, since the eggs would no longer be fertilized. (Did you know that chickens lay eggs even without a rooster around? A lot of folks don't. For more interesting--and sometimes surprising--facts about chickens and their eggs, check out this page at

Now, less than a month after Captain's departure, one of our hens has decided to go broody! Crystal, the Splash Jersey Giant belonging to my younger daughter, Simi, is determined to sit on eggs. At first we thought she was just "playing house," but as 2 days turned into 3 and then 4, and she was still sitting there, we realized she was serious. The girls tried convincing her to get out of the nesting box, explaining in the gentlest and most sensitive of terms that she'd get no chicks out of those eggs. She was unimpressed with this argument. So my husband, G-P, decided to take them all away--snatching them out from under her one evening when he came home from work (he still has the peck marks to show for it). I was sure that once she realized she wasn't sitting on anything but straw, she would lose interest. But no. She was bound and determined to stay right there. It started to get sad. Seriously, it was breaking my heart seeing her sit there hour after hour, day after day, going without food and drink, patiently waiting for her non-existent little ones to develop.

I know I really shouldn't anthropomorphize. And I know that if we'd tried a bit harder, we could have "broken" her of the broodiness, and she'd probably have quickly forgotten about the whole ordeal. (If you ever find yourself in a similar situation and need information on how to do this humanely and effectively, consult this forum, again at But we just couldn't bear to do that. So one evening, we called our good friend and organic supply store owner T. McLeod, and he offered to bring a dozen fertilized eggs to his store the next morning. G-P ran out to pick them up and put 8 of them in Crystal's box. He said it was amazing to watch her "take them in," gently pushing each one underneath herself to just the right spot.

And she's been sitting there quietly ever since, the epitome of the long-suffering, selfless mother. Although the girls offer her handfuls of scratch and sips of water every morning and evening, she eats and drinks very little. Neither does she seem to sleep very much. Every time I've been to the coop since she started brooding, she has been completely alert. In fact, she has taken to possessively guarding her nest, "growling" (as the girls describe it) at anyone tempted to get too close and pecking those who do.  She has also started plucking feathers from her breast with her beak to insulate and soften up her nest for her babies. She will continue all this for 21 days--the typical incubation time for chicks.* Then she will have another overwhelming job ahead of her: feeding, grooming, safeguarding and educating 8 little ones!

More than likely, she won't complain a single time. She won't play the martyr. She won't dramatize the depravations. She'll simply give her best shot at doing what needs to be done to take care of her offspring. I plan to spend part of Mother's Day this year out in the coop with Crystal. I have a feeling there are some things I can learn from her.

Mother Hen
(accessed at
I am having one of those days
where I want to take you under my wings
and nestle you against my bosom,
keeping you warm against the winter air
and safe from the salivating wolves that surround us
I may freeze from the cold--
they may have to pry your peeping bodies
from beneath my ice-covered wings--
or I may be eaten by society's wolves--
they may have to search through my entrails
to discover the still-living chicks--
but I want to keep you safe. I will keep you safe.
Come to me, my children. There, there.

* All of Crystal's behaviors are typical of brooding chickens. For a detailed description of the behavior of broody hens, click here