Advice to go with those chick catalogs…

For folks buying chicks for the first time: free advice! (Many of them opinions, but based on 21 years of backyard chickens). Worth what you paid, and your mileage may vary.
1.) Bantams are adorable but can fly, are attractive to hawks, and like to sleep in trees.
2.) Many young birds can fly, at least short distances or up and over fences, but heavy bodied breeds are pretty earthbound by the time they are grown.
3.) Cats and hawks will generally leave larger hens alone. Very young birds or small breeds are more vulnerable. The family dog usually “gets” that these are family, but a neighbor’s dog can wipe out your flock in one run through the yard.
4.) Read breed descriptions at a website like Meyer or McMurray Hatchery. “Active” usually means hyper, squawky and flighty. Quieter birds are good with kids — our barred rocks, cochins and brahmas would tolerate being hauled around by kids.
5.) Some breeds are known to be aggressive, and roosters can be dangerous to kids, pets and others. Game breeds, Cornish, any rooster ever bred for fighting.
6.) The more “commercialized” breeds, (ie: white production chickens, incubator raised for factory farms for too many generations) have no maternal instincts left. They don’t know what an egg when it falls out of their butt, and won’t sit on them or raise chicks. Heirloom breeds — some of them endangered or on the watch list — can be excellent mothers, forage well for greens and bugs, teach chicks to watch for hawks and generally act like smart chickens.
7.) Your biggest enemies are raccoons and ‘possums. Both will enter a coop left open after dark, pull a sleepy hen off the perch and eat it (sometimes alive.) Always close your coop after dark. My hens free range in the yard but will put themselves to bed before dusk — we just have to go out there and close the door.
8.) Baby chicks are very entertaining to watch! We get ours early in the spring, modify a big guinea pig/rabbit cage with newspapers and straw on the floor, and a heat light in one corner — and they live where we can watch them, in a warm room or on the basement landing. You learn to hear their “tone” of peeping if they are chilly, hungry or unhappy. Fuzzy peepers are fun to have inside.
9.) Soon, though, they become feathered poopers. They generate “white dust” and can cause some folks breathing trouble. They will need a place outside, but with heat lights, protection and attention unless the weather has warmed day and night.
10.) If something happens to a hen — it is attacked, injured, sick or dying and it needs to be put out of its misery, this is what I have learned to do: Dig a hole in your yard. Gently lay the bird in the hole (I speak calmly, offer soft words.) A quick chop with a shovel will separate head from body, and you can fill the hole.

One last thing — I really value biodiversity and like to have an assortment of breeds, pretty birds, historically interesting birds — but I try not to buy breeds that were developed in warm regions and won’t winter over well in Michigan/Ohio. Big floppy combs get frostbitten, heat loving hens don’t lay in the cold, and I like to find breeds that won’t be miserable when it’s snowy outside.

OK! That’s my little song and dance. Let me know if you have questions — or feel free to point out that your experience has been the opposite! It’s all good! lol

Hen house from a shipping crate

Hen house from a shipping crate

15 bucks for plastic roof, scrounged everything else… a two chicken hen house for a friend who wants a couple of layers. Click the photo for pix of the inside…

Transitional housing

OK, so when the new chickies come int he mail, I set them up in a former guinea pig cage with a heat lamp, in our sun room where we can watch and enjoy them.

In a few weeks, though, the fuzzy peepers become feathery poopers. Chickens have an awkward adolescent stage, much like most of us in 6th grade or so: not quite the squishably cute little one, not quite the beautifully plumaged adult. So these chicks — an awkward assemblage of new feathers and bedhead fluff — got to go outside and play all day in a little grassy run, and came back in at night to sleep. But the cage was getting too small for them, and when I am not home they are stuck indoors.

We’re working on plans for a bigger henhouse made of pallets (seven collected so far) with some interesting siding… but we can’t throw these teenagers in with the old ladies yet. So we needed a temporary housing solution that gets these girls outside.

Enter Joe Clark, a firefighter friend who has access to some big recycled shipping crates. He dropped off two of them. They are seriously LARGE. I could sleep in one if I had to, and if I stacked one on top of the other I could easily attach a human sized door and have a phone booth sized mini shed. The possibilities for invention are endless.

We didn’t want to cut or change the box at all since we’ll use it later for coop building, so we removed the plywood lid,and set it on its side on a pallet in the hen yard. I just happen to curb harvest storm windows for my hoop house gold frames, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t have on the exact size of the box opening! Between 4:00 and suppertime I screwed it on, added a barrel lock, ran an extension cord for the heat lamp, set up a makeshift perch, and filled the box with fall leaves we bagged up and stored last fall for bedding and mulch. By nightfall they were in their new cottage.

Since I am leaving town next week and my kids are in school all day, I am using pallets to make a temporary “enclosed porch” with hardware cloth to keep them safe from hawks and neighborhood cats. The whole thing looks more “Bubba’s back yard” than Martha Stewart, but a) it’s temporary and b) that’s the way I roll.

If you are in Toledo, I know where you can get these boxes for fifteen bucks.. send me a note.ImageImageImage

It’s a hatch…

Three of the fancy show bantam eggs we brought home from the Ohio State Fair have hatched under my broody little mama hen, Jennecita. Four more are still eggs, but morning will maybe bring more. That’s happy stuff.

And the pigeons are in their new eight sided dovecote, roosting on the perches Connor built, using the little pigeon trap door, and sailing off during the day to return home at night. Mom and dad were here tonight, on the swing in the back yard, watching for them… it wasn’t until dinnertime (fajitas with jeff’s fresh garden salsa) that we saw them soaring in, bright and formal looking with their white-feathered bloomers, to put themselves to bed.

Yesterday we went to the Levis Common art fair, combining the trip with a bed swap (Tyler’s loft bed for another kid’s “Gregg Brady” twin bed). It was really hot, and Molly passed out while waiting to get her face painted at the children’s tent . Her big brother caught her as she fell, and once she was on the ground, called Jeff’s cell phone. By the time we came running, the EMTs had her on the gurney and were rolling her to the ambulance. She had lost her lunch, and looked a bit pale and embarrassed.

She said she was next in line to get her face done, and suddenly it looked like a grey cloud was closing in around her vision. The next thing she remembered, she was on the ground, with one lady holding an umbrella over her for shade, and another pouring a water bottle across her forehead. (Whoever you are, ladies, thank you so much!) I sat in the ambulance with her while she got her rosy cheeks back, chatted up the EMTs, and they used cold packs to cool her down.

We headed home to the air conditioned house (the car thermometer said 99F) and stayed in with the AC the rest of the day! She’s fine now.. she’d had a water bottle in the car on the way to the fair but in the future we’ll need to make sure she has one on hand, too, on hot days. Preferably chilled!

I managed to make a headboard for our bed this weekend out of weathered, silvery pickets from my last garden fence, and have plans to paint the bedroom this week. I planted fall and winter hardy greens in the space where my hoop house will be erected when first frost comes — corn salad, peppergrass, lettuces, beets for greens, mache, chickories, arugula. There are already leeks, chard and kale growing there, with more room for hardy translplants when I take out the yellow squash currently in the cold frame’s spot. In a cold frame under a hoop house, I can keep salad greens until Christmas with just solar rays for heat.

Other projects and adventures this weekend included a trip to IKEA, a lovely dinner at Rouge Bistro with mom and dad & brother and his wife, and some time spent on my pugmill and the kids’ back-to-school preparations.

Right now I am heading over to my website to take down my MFA show pots. They are all but gone, by now, and my new work is very different from my academic work, which in retrospect seemed somehow collaborative — as much about the expectations of others as about making work that inspired and excited me.

Time to move forward.