Pitiful and Flightless

Oh, my gosh.  You remember that we named the hens way back when?  And Cassidy got to name one black one Juevo, and I named the other black one Chola?   http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=chola  Yeah, well ONE of those (we’ve since forgotten exactly how to tell the two apart) went through a good thorough MOLTING.  Like the Phoenix in Harry Potter.  Like the “apteryx” in the BC comic strip.  Poor little thing; she just looked AWFUL.

Her neck was all skin, with little tiny sprigs of new feather poking out haphazardly.  Like 2-day-old growth on an old guy, shuffling around Wal-mart, wondering where those orange candy peanut bags are.  Just pitiful.

I went out today to let them out (the chickens, not the orange peanut candy – or the old guys, for that matter) (I’ve been WAY more conscious of their coopdom ever since that McDonald’s egg supplier story came out) and she was afraid to fly out off the roost in the coop.  Her flight feathers hadn’t grown back in yet, and she wasn’t sure she could fly all the way out of the coop to the ground (a total of about 3 feet).  She told me all this telepathically, btw.  Her wings did look about 30% smaller than normal, even though her neck feathers had mostly sprouted back into real feathers.

Hens, while they are molting, do not lay any eggs.  All their energy conversion goes into feather-making, and not egg-making.  So while they look like total crap walking around our backyard (which would be the ONLY reason our otherwise-pristine backyard would look Okie), they aren’t contributing to our livelihood, and we STILL have to feed them.

Now, though, she looks better and is on the road to recovery.  Matter of fact, one of the eggs I gathered today was really small, and I’ll bet it was her first one after the molt.  It was as if she was telling us, “See? Just give me a minute to recover from that hell; it’ll be worth it.”

And how can you say no to that?

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Fresh Hay

Our son Jacob graduated from high school this past weekend.  We had a bunch of family come visit, and a TON of well-wishers for the party on Saturday night.  He and a buddy did most of the inviting, and Ang and I asked a few people over who both knew and cared for Jacob over the years.

I wish I would have made time to put fresh hay in the coop.  It would have smelled better, and been a better presentation of our young flock.  As it happened, I put fresh hay in their coop two days after the big party; oh, they were so satisfied!  They nestled down into it, they scritched around in it, they tugged it around, and they slept in it.  Complete.  That’s all it takes to complete them.

A little fresh hay.

Visitors surprised me with their interest in a chicken coop tour.  I laughed, kind of like this:  “ha, ha! Sure, we can go look at the chickens”.  Then I used my ‘engaging’ smile and we walked out to the part of the yard where we’d built the coop.  As I refined my ‘tour guide’ routine, I realized that these little yard animals were as much a part of Jacob’s growing up as they are ours.  I admit they are ‘background’ for him, but the reality of pets as stage dressing is undeniable for all three of our kids.  Here’s what I mean, cuz it doesn’t sound clear to me either.

I used the sandbox (that Jacob, Ethan, and Cassidy all played in during their growing-up years – they flooded it at LEAST once a week for many summers) as the ground level of the chicken coop.  It was mainly ( I thought) a money-saving move, but I realize now that the sandbox lives on for us.  It had outlived its use as a sandbox, but I couldn’t bear to part with it.  That’s one of the reasons it is so comforting to go sit and watch the chickens.  I can relive my little kids growing from tiny punkins to grown ups.  Every flooding of that sandbox (I am SO glad we didn’t forbid them doing that) rushes back when I notice a water stain in the wood of the chicken coop.  Every sandcastle (although they were more partial to mudpies) rebuilds itself (at least in my mind’s eye) when I see dirt scritched up against the frame by our chickens.

Solace, solitude, reflection, examination, healing, hoping, dreaming.  They all happen.

Just cuz of a few little baby chicks.

Green, Green Grass

Yeah, so I went out to feed our little dudes like I do every day, and when I opened the coop door, there was a long tuft of grass that stuck up and into the coop.  Oh, my gosh; you’d think they were thirsty football fans that had just sighted a cooler of Uncle Bud!  They practically DOVE at that grass; and I’m not talking about a little neck lunge or a general lean in the direction of the nacho tray.  I am saying it was like there was one LAST piece of fudge on the Christmas tray, you just saw it, and there were three portly people in your way who deserved the fudge less than YOU did.  They LUNGED.

Well, revelation set in.  I left the door half open and kept my body in the open part of the door (more so Kenzie couldn’t eat any chicken fricassee than I was scared they would get out into the yard)  You would think a toothless bird would have trouble tearing strips of grass out of the ground, much less swallowing it – some of the blades of grass (with apologies to Walt Whitman) were three inches long.  (I hadn’t mowed that part of the yard yet).

They are a genetically designed grass havoc machine.  I watched that stuff disappear down their gullets like the Lady and the Tramp demolished that spaghetti in that alley on the fruit box.  Seriously – I still think of those little dinosaurs that were chicken-size in Jurassic Park.  Our little chickens are truly a miracle of design; chicken feed doesn’t give them the challenge they deserve.  I haven’t let them out yet only because we want to record their first trip out so you all can see it.  We’ve figured out actual jpeg and mpeg transfer; yes, I know how to do that now.  All that remains is me, Ang, the camera, and a decent time to let them out to goof off.

Our little punkins are chicken-size now.  Their voices haven’t changed to a lower register – they still sound chick-y, but if you walked back there, you’d think “chickens”, not “chicks”.  No more fluff to be found.

Our garden is planted, and most of the plants appear to want to survive.  I’ve had several talks with the Jalapeno plant; I doubt his work ethic.  But we’ll see.  Jalapenos are a must and he’s gotta know he’s replaceable.  That matters to you because the chickens are gonna eat the bugs out of the garden.

If any dare show up.

No More Happy Meals

The girls aren’t full with the happy meal anymore.  You may have seen the little metal feeder we started with.  If not, go to the photo page and look at it in the tub (our original bucket!), and notice that it held PLENTY of food for our little chicas to eat.  It held at LEAST two days worth of food (back in bucket times).  Four days ago, and again three days ago, when I went out in the morning to see how the night had gone, this sweet little tin feeder had been abused, done wrong, emptied, wrung out, kicked aside, discarded, rejected.  As slow as I am on the uptake, the second morning it happened I realized they just plain weren’t happy with their food delivery system.  They blamed me.  I could tell.  (this is a perfect place to say, ‘they looked askance’ at me, but I hesitate – cuz it’s not a word we all use very often.  It means ‘they looked at me with judgment and/or skepticism’).

Since we are happy to throw money at our little charges to please them and make their lives more complete, I toddled off to Tractor Supply Corporation (still my favorite store), bought not only more feed (they’d eaten a whole bag already! *sniff*), but a ‘big girl’ feeder.  This feeder is good for up to 15 birds (maybe next year), and can hold several days of feed in it.  I put it out there on a cinder block so they don’t scratch hay and sawdust into it.

They love it.  I think they love me no matter what; that is, I didn’t buy any more love by getting them a big feeder.  I don’t think they mind getting a full-size meal, even if it means they don’t get the toy in the drive-thru anymore.  They got bored with the toys quickly, anyway, and sometimes, those toys were stupid.  Like who really ever wanted more than Aladdin and Jasmine?  Why would we want ALL the supporting cast of the ENTIRE movie?  Ok, I can see the Genie, maybe even Jafar, but the dad, the other dumb princes, the monkey, the rug?  No.  And that’s what our chickens thought, too.

Just feed us more than this little tin thing!  It only holds half a day of food!  We are gonna fill it with scratchy stuff to register our displeasure!  You need to change our living conditions! We aren’t happy!  We are fussy!  (I bet they didn’t ‘verbalize’ most of this consciously, but it was loud and clear to us just the same).

Another crisis solved, another bridge crossed, another milestone hurtles by, and we really are trying not to blink so we don’t miss anything.  They are beautiful now, and have distinctive feathering – the hanklets are off of two of them, but they each look so different we can keep them apart.

I promise pictures – (you’ll want to see the ‘cape’ on Albus).

The Shrug Off

Thunderstorms, while scary, are apparently survivable by suburban chicks.  The last few days have been blustery, with periods of plain old thunderstorm-y rain.  The first night of storms, I worried that the little gals would be ok.  You may know that I don’t hustle in the morning, under almost every circumstance (except those involving mortal personal and/or familial peril), so it may not be a surprise that I didn’t get up to go check on the girls any earlier than I ever do.  I do claim some credit for THINKING about going out to check on them, though, especially when awoken at 2 am-ish by the hard rain and thunder.  That morning they were fine.  Shell-shocked, but fine.  They wandered around the coop with the hesitant step of disaster survivors world-wide, much like the footage of Katrina, the tsunamis of the Pacific, or the tornado of Greensburg (STILL home of the world’s largest hand-dug well, even without the water tower proclaiming that accomplishment).

If we knew they’d reached teenage-hood-dom a few weeks ago when their feet got huge overnight, we got even more confirmation when Angie went out today to sit with them.  “They still love to eat out of my hand, and Barcelona (or Juevo, actually) puts her foot on my hand to steady it”, she said.  But when she tries to pick them up, they balk.  They like the hand-held food, they like when we sit and talk with them, but they don’t want Angie to pick them up and coo and cuddle them.  It’s just too intimate; see most teenagers in your life.  Our teenagers love (secretly, sometimes) the attention we show when we talk about friends, life, school plays, college plans, job prospects (ok, this one not so much).  They usually have a pretty low tolerance for actual physical displays of affection.  Our five teenage chickens are in much the same ‘space’ right now; it’s just awkward for them to stop what they are doing to receive hands-on love from Angie.

So, Ang got the “shrug-off”.  In humans, it’s one shoulder up and down rapidly, a tensing of the core muscles signaling discomfort (remember the picture of the German Chancellor – Angela Merkel? – tensing when GW Bush gave her two-second shoulder massage?), and a turning away of the face and eyes, indicating a wish to be somewhere else (Adam Sandler’s “happy place”).  In our little pullets (which only means ‘female chickens that haven’t laid eggs yet’), they got a little agitato (for you music people out there), a little scratch-y, and more verbal (in a bad way).  Not nearly as bad as when we tried to put the chickerchiefs on, but a clear set of nonverbals that said, “get the heck away from me”.  We ARE pleased that they don’t use serious cuss words yet.  We’ve tried to shelter them from the rougher edges of society – we aren’t sure if it is safe to tell them about different kinds of poultry yet, let alone other types of farm animals altogether.

Our dog, Kenzie, really wishes he could herd them around the yard!  Our idea is that once they get almost full grown, we will leave the coop gate open and let them scratch around the yard.  Now that they’ve lived there for almost a month, we hope they call those roosts in the coop home base, and when they think of a haven, they run back to the coop first.  Even chickens need a happy place, right?

Humble Pie

You know how sometimes you learn more from the audience you think you are educating? Any of you been a public speaker? Facilitator?  Teacher?  If so, then you know what I am about to confess.  Much like the days in the tropical rain forest of Papua New Guinea (north of the little pointy part of the island/continent that is Australia), when the Peace Corps office people asked us to “train” the next batch of volunteers, I learned how little I knew and how much wisdom the “new” people brought along with them.  Case in point – our little office building got robbed once; almost $600 dollars was taken so we hired two guys as overnight watchmen.  What ended up happening was we paid them to sleep on the property, next to a fire, and eat (yes, eat) freeze-dried coffee powder.  They didn’t patrol, or walk around, or catch anybody (partly cuz everyone is related to everyone else there) or stop any other lawless mayhem from happening.  When the “new” people took over for us, they took one look at THAT expense and said, “that’s gonna change”.  After thinking about being offended by what they said, I thought to myself, ‘yeah, that is a stupid expense’.

So, anyway, change is a good thing, and a little humility never hurt anyone either.

Steve.  Poor, maligned Steve.  He can’t read, so he isn’t as damaged as he ought to be by my last post, but that’s a mercy.  He had NO intention of causing an uprising or fomenting rebellion.  He merely conducted his chicken business all that day, and in the course of his chickening, his hanklet fell off.

Fell off.  He didn’t put it on the stick at all, let alone place it brazenly.  (Angie told me that she put it there so we could find it later to re-attach it.)  And now that I think about it, do animals do ANYTHING brazenly?  Maybe not.  Probably more of that elusive ‘personification’.  You English majors may need to help me out here.

So, like occasionally (maybe MORE than occasionally) in my actual human parenting life, what I thought was my finest hour (in putting the hammer down on Steve’s rebellion) turned out to be pretty shaky ground.  I do love to learn these lessons, but then again, humility?  From a chicken?  Who is barely a month old?

Here’s a cool thing.  I go out around sunset and fill the feeder for their morning, check the water, spread a little bit of bird seed around.  I believe this keeps them busy and engaged in the pre-dawn chill.  They cheep at me, in what can ONLY be fond tones, thanking me for food and water – which in chicken, means love.

Chickerchiefs and Hanklets

Tagged chicks sulking in a roost box

Coop with color-coded Hanklets

We had our first brush with traumatic chicken injury yesterday.  It wasn’t so much actual injury, per se, but what we saw made us examine our hearts, search our souls, and choose between two awful options.  A cloud passed between us and the sun, and a bitter wind blew through the backyard as Angie approached me.

Easy, now.  I’m just kidding about all that portent of doom stuff.  Here’s the story:

I’d been decluttering the backyard from the harsh prairie winter, and she had in her hand, the promised scraps of bandanna – cut to place around the chick’s necks.  We excitedly crowded into the coop, Angie set up her ‘observation chair’ (a small white stool that we keep outside the coop so it remains poop-free), and I squatted on an edge frame board.  Ang had assigned bandanna colors to each a while ago, and had cut the bandannas to size.  Once these were placed around each of their necks, they’d be ready to rob banks – just like in Point Break (except for they were humans, and they wore ex-president masks).  Ok, just like in Butch and Sundance – without the bicycle scene and the girl on the handlebars.

So, we began the move to chick identification; all the good parts of labeling and categorizing without any of the trauma of making a group of residents wear identifying clothing.  We were determined not to repeat any awful parts of history.  Little did we know….

We decided to put Cholla’s on first.  I held her and Ang tied the bandanna around her neck, loosely so she could eat a ton (we already promised our ‘backyard-range chickens’ food on demand) and not get a blockage.  As I held her, she seemed a little agitated, but not crazy.  Once placed on the ground, though, she snapped.  She hopped backward in arcing bounces, snapping her neck the opposite way of the bounce – clearly trying to dislodge the bandanna.  This was primitive, atavistic behavior, dictated by that little tiny part of the chicken brain that runs survival.  No amount of calm, rational discussion or encouraging words from us helped.  We had no choice but to remove the bandanna.  No longer would our chicks have “chickerchiefs”.

We moved to our back-up phase:  “Hanklets”.  We thought we might have to place a bandanna around the ankle (in the event of hysterical fowl play).  Steve is the most mellow of all five of our chicks, so we chose him to start round two of identifying scraps of clothing.   As such, I gently lifted him up and secured his legs so he couldn’t thrash around.  (Note to you, the prospective chicken wrangler – hold the legs gently below the buffalo wing part of the leg, and wrap your other hand over the top of the wings and body.  This keeps them safe from harm.)  Angie then tied the scrap of bandanna to his (yes, she’s a she, but ya just can’t say ‘her’ about a Steve – counseling later, remember?) ankle.  We completed this whole operation without further ado and then Ang stapled pieces of bandanna to the frame of the coop with each name right by the color of bandanna “hanklet”.

Although the girls sulked most of the rest of the afternoon, they stayed well away from the hysteria range.  My offer of handheld thistle seed (Nyger seed, really. Can’t we just call it what it is?  Why does Nigeria care anyway?) went ignored.  And when I pleaded with them to “eat, eat, you’re skin and bones” they just sneered at me and turned their backs.  Clearly, the ‘trust account’ is empty right now.  But that’s ok; it hurt us more than it hurt them.  They’ll thank us later.  We know what’s best for them.

My bribes to Cassidy worked – and we have PICTURES!!!!!