Thursday, May 26, 2011

Parenthood According to Poultry

WARNING: This post is much too long and if you don’t really care much for chickens or mamas, you can skip it. I won’t be offended. Heck, I’ll never know. But if you linger over the nature channel, or struggle with your own ideas of motherhood, this one might be right up your alley.

Lesson one – You can’t stop motherhood.

This spring several of my chickens became mothers. Witnessing their adventures has been a privilege and a lesson. It’s also made it apparent why it’s necessary for chickens to lay an egg nearly every day to ensure the species’ survival.

Way back in February, when I was cursing the cold and fumbling my way through the barn in the near dark trying to find the light switch, my hand fell upon something feathered. Now, all things feathered should have already made it back to the dorm by the dusk curfew so this was unexpected. One of the surprisingly consistent behaviors of chickens is that as soon as the sun begins to set, they will always find their way back to the hen house for the night. So when I come flying up the hill in my pajamas at 10pm, they are all there quietly cooing on their perches only a little indignant that someone forgot to shut the door on the cold night.

I finally managed to locate the light switch and was shocked to see one of my Buff Orpington hens perched in the hay bales. I was even more shocked when I attempted to pick her up to move her to the hen house and she puffed up, bristled her feathers, and started screaming at me like a junkyard dog protecting a bucket of fried chicken. My first reaction was to jump back and put my hands up to show that I was unarmed (or maybe to be certain that I still had my fingers). Then I remembered that I’m the person and this is a small, relatively brainless bird. Plus I was wearing gloves. So I swooped in once more, ignored her protests and her sad attempts to remove my fingers and hauled her to the hen house. I retrieved the eggs she had been protecting and went about my chores.

Everything I’ve read says that the “broodiness” has been bred out of our modern chickens. So I felt fairly confident that this hen was simply confused, until we repeated this little scene every night for a week. To my children’s protests, I simply said, “We don’t need any more chickens unless these are chickens we raise for the dinner table.” That shut them up. And soon the hen quit her attempts at motherhood, or so I thought. A few nights later when I was moving some hay bales, I caught site of my would-be mother hen hiding back between the bales and the walls. This time to remove her I was forced to squeeze myself between the wall of hay and the nasty cob-web covered side of the barn. When I bent down to pick her up, my face was way too close to her fussing beak. I’ve fed this hen for two years, raised her from a peep, but I’m fairly sure she would have taken my eyes out if I’d gotten much closer. I considered moving the hay, but it was stacked six bales high and it was late. So, that’s how “Jules” got to live her dream. Because I’m the chicken.

I looked up “broodiness” in my chicken-keeping bible (Storeys Guide to Raising Chickens) and discovered that while most domestic chickens no longer have the urge to brood, occasionally a Buff Orpington hen will and sometimes she is even be successful. Huh.

Jules sat on her eggs faithfully as the hay bales slowly receded. Not being sure exactly when she began her sit-fest, I wasn’t sure when the eggs might hatch. It takes 21 days. I didn’t know how many eggs she was sitting on and I didn’t know if she knew what she was doing. It seemed pretty cold for an egg to be sitting on the ground. Plus the barn flooded during that time and I was too distracted with getting everything else to high ground, I forgot about Jules.

When I was pretty sure it had been more than three weeks and enough bales were eaten that I was able to reach her, I donned the gloves and picked her up. Much to my shock she was sitting on over 30 eggs. And I knew they weren’t all her eggs because there were brown, blue, white, and green eggs. Obviously, Jules was ready to raise everybody’s babies. When the other hens were out during the day, they must have been laying them next to Jules and letting her claim them. I didn’t have the heart to tell Jules that most of the eggs lying near the outer edges were ice cold.

That day we moved her to her own private box (the old pack-n-play). I selected six eggs that seemed warm and built her a small nest out of hay and shavings. She settled right in after lecturing me a bit to stay back. I had to admire this little hen’s determination to become a mamma. She was bucking her breeding, ignorance, and my efforts to deter her. And then one day, in addition to Jules nasty warnings, I also heard a little “peep”. A chick was born! There was much celebrating! And of course I posted her picture on Facebook. I’m glad Jules has a bird brain and probably doesn’t realize that this chick is obviously an Arucana chick and not a Buff Orpington, like her. A few days later a nearly identical chick popped out. And that was enough for Jules. She abandoned the remaining eggs and fretted over her two babes.

Lesson Two: Motherhood is contagious.

About two weeks in to the sitting project, another hen set up shop high in the bales. This was another of my Buff Orpington hens, so I knew better than to fight her on this. I barricaded her in with more bales hoping to deter the other hens from dropping their potential off-spring on her but soon discovered it wasn’t working. Her egg pile quickly rose to 15. So my husband and I “candled” her eggs. Candling is when you shine a light through an egg so you can see what’s inside. It’s no ultra-sound, but we were able to tell easily which eggs had a chick-in-progress and which were duds. My roosters are busy boys, but apparently they aren’t servicing each and every hen. So we pulled out the hot eggs and set this hen (“Treat”) up in her own digs just like Jules. Treat hatched her one and only chick about a week after Jules. Even though she sat faithfully, one day the stench of rotting eggs was so bad, I had to ditch all the remaining eggs and convince her that one chick is plenty.

My oldest son named the lone chick “Not-a-Rooster”, never even considering my suggestions of Ranger or Hans (as in Hans solo). He stuck with his choice, reasoning that this way maybe the chick would have better odds of survival since I (being the “meanest mother in the world”) had already declared that we had plenty of roosters and if any of these chicks was a rooster, he was going, one way or another.

When the chicks got a little older we let the two hens and their chicks out and delighted in watching them running around together. The two moms shared mothering duties and some nights when I would go up to the barn to put them away, I’d find all three chicks under one hen and no chicks under the other.

Not long after we began letting the chicks and moms run loose, I found a hen in the chicken pen sitting on eggs in the laying house. I guess seeing the other hens with their chicks was too much for her. I wasn’t too worried because this hen was a Jersey Giant and the book says that Jersey Giants are not good brooders, “rarely able to successfully hatch”. Good news for us. I confidently removed the would-be Mama from her egg box each night and shoved her back in the hen house with the others, apologizing profusely and grateful that she kept her beak in check.

I did this for two weeks straight. And then I began to worry about this hen’s psyche. What if she really, really wanted to be a mama? What if she would never stop sitting on eggs until I finally let her fulfill her destiny? What if she was really a Buff Orpington trapped inside a Jersey Giant? The two mama hens and their brood had moved in to the same pack-n-play, so I had an extra box. And now that we had three chicks, what’s a few more? I’m becoming soft. So now we have another hen sitting on eggs in a pack-n-play in our barn. She’s due on Memorial Day.

And that’s not the end of the story. About the time that I moved “Monty” to her new digs, “Python”, another black Jersey Giant began a campaign of her own. It’s been a week now of pulling this hen off her eggs every night. I’m torn. I feel the injustice that must tear at this hen’s heart (or it would if she had a brain that worked like that). How can I allow three other hens to realize their dreams of becoming mothers, and deny her? Probably I can’t, but right now there just isn’t an available pack-n-play.

Lesson Three: Some mothers are better than others.

Sad, but true. Some of us are just not cut out to be mothers. That’s what Jules figured out about two weeks in to the shared motherhood with Treat. One night I was late getting up to the barn to put away the mamas and babies. Normally at night they settle down in the old nest Jules built way back when this odyssey started. After dusk, I move them to the pack-n-play and cover it to protect them from any stray foxes or cats that get the wrong idea. But on this night I found only one hen. All the chicks were accounted for, but only one Mama. I looked everywhere, but no Jules. The only answer could be that a fox had gotten her. I imagined her sacrificing her life so that the others could escape. There was a real Lassie feel to my fantasy, but alas, no Lassie had come to the rescue.

In the morning, I sadly told the kids. Being kids (or maybe being my kids), they didn’t believe me. They slapped on their boots and went in search of Jules. Maybe she was trapped somewhere! They held out hope. And in just a few minutes they arrived back at the house triumphant! They’d found Jules! She was in the chicken yard with the other hens. Apparently, this motherhood gig wasn’t for her, so she hopped the fence and rejoined the single life, leaving Treat to deal with her two chicks. Oh, I laughed over that one. And now I remind the kids of Jules’ chicken run when they are pushing me to the brink.

Lesson Number Four: Some mothers will sacrifice all for their babies.

This was the saddest lesson for all of us. This past weekend, my husband and I were away on a rare weekend without kids. My parents had kid rustling duties. I had divvied up the barn duties and the dog duties and the cat duties, and yet it was still my mother who discovered late Saturday night that there were three chicks in the barn, but no Mama Treat. And in the morning, she was still gone.

When we got home I sent my husband to find the body. We both knew what had most likely happened. We have an old dog, a good dog, who is also a foxhound. She can’t help herself. We were fairly sure if the mama was gone and the babies were there, it wasn’t the act of a fox because a fox would have eaten those babies for dessert. No, this had to have been our old dog. And sure enough the evidence was under the deck. I lectured her as best I could, but really, she can’t help herself. Most likely, the babies had wandered in to dog territory and Mama Treat had put herself on the line between danger and safety. I’m certain she stood her ground to that huge, bumbling dog who kills simply for sport. Poor Treat. What a good Mama.

We knew better than to ask Jules to step back in, she’s moved on. So the babies are settled in to the chicken tractor until they are large enough to join the rest of the flock (except for Not-a-Rooster who really is a rooster and will be moving on to greener pastures hopefully at a neighbor’s farm).

I feel more attached to my girls now than ever. We are kindred spirits of sorts. I remember when I gave birth to my first child feeling very primal and at one with nature. As humans we tend to project our own experiences of motherhood on the animals around us. Animals do motherhood in a million ways, but some of their behaviors are very human.

Sadly, it does seem that motherhood is unstoppable and it can be contagious. Some people jump in to motherhood without serious consideration. Societal expectations have been ironed on to their hearts just like animal instincts, or maybe they do it because “everyone else” is doing it. There are others who would do anything to become mothers – suffering all kinds of indignities and hardships.

Motherhood is not for the faint of heart. There are some days I truly do want to fly the coop and rejoin the single life, but deep down I know I would lay down my life if it meant the safety of my babies. So maybe lesson five is: Everybody does motherhood differently. Expectations and comparisons are a dangerous game. We never truly know what we are capable of until we let our children (or our chickens) teach us.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Don't Recycle That Newspaper! I've Got a Better Idea!

Once upon a time I was a purest and I thought store-bought mulch was for sissies who weren’t serious about growing organically. Chipped leaves and sticks from my yard were fine for mulch, but as for the rest – I would stay on top of those weeds. [pause for effect....] Then I had kids.

Like so many other things that changed after children like sleep patterns, the cleanliness of my car, and how much time I spend on my hair, I do things differently now. I love mulch and buy it by the pick-up truck load. And every year we buy more. I know this is a terrible thing to confess as one who claims to garden organically.

As my garden has gotten bigger, I’ve learned how to get the most bang for my buck when it comes to mulch. Before any mulch hits the ground, I cover the ground with a layer of newspaper. Our newspaper uses vegetable-based inks, so as it breaks down it won’t harm the soil. And it holds in moisture as well or better than conventional mulch. Here’s the best part about newspaper mulch - it’s free! (well, unless you count the money I spend on my subscription, but I’m a compulsive morning paper person so that would happen even if I didn’t need the paper for mulch!) We stock-pile paper all year long and what isn’t used for starting fires in the fireplace is used for mulch in the spring. We never have enough.

Newspaper alone is a great mulch and if it wouldn’t blow away I’d forget about buying anything else. I’ve heard of hard-core cheap skates who simply weigh down their paper with rocks. I admit to being more than a little vain when it comes to the appearance of my gardens, so that’s just a little too cheesy for me. After the layer of newspaper is thoroughly wetted (sometimes it is necessary to keep a hose handy and sprinkle as you go or the whole process becomes a comedy of errors), I toss out a thin layer of store-bought mulch, just enough to hide the paper and keep it from blowing away.

We do this newspaper/mulch trick around all our fruit trees, blueberry bushes, flower beds, and now our brand new “vineyard” (12 grape vines we’re testing out to see if our south-facing slope will be conducive to grapes). Last year we tested out how well the newspaper/mulch duo worked as compared to the mulch only by papering around half the fruit trees and then (because we had run out of paper) simply mulching around the other half. The paper/mulch half did a better job of keeping the weeds down. The mulch circles around the trees without paper seemed to shrink each week surrendering more and more of their ground to the encroaching grass (thus making it difficult to drive the mower around them without decapitating yourself).

I still don’t do much mulch around the “real” vegetable garden. I’m too worried about what might or might not be in the conventional mulch from the local hardware place. But this year I am going to try the red plastic mulch around my tomatoes. The last two years we were struck with the early blight and then the late blight. So, in the interest of getting no blight, we’re going to mulch our tomatoes. I’m curious to know if the theory that red plastic mulch will make your tomatoes ripen faster is true. Reading a few garden-nerd websites on line, there are a wide varieties of opinions on that, so I’ll have to see for myself. Look for a red-plastic report late this summer. (I know, I know, it’ll be hard to contain yourself!)

Meanwhile, happy mulch season. Maybe it’s time to subscribe.

Note: My husband knew I was musing on mulch and sent me the following article, pointing out that even if we aren't buying it for our gardnes, most of us are eating plenty of mulch!
In case people don’t know it, when they eat low fat foods they are getting their share of mulch…