A Silkie Walks the Plank

Finish the coop, for crying out loud! Then we’ll go in!

This, possibly, is what half of my chickens were thinking for the past four months. I know it’s unlikely. The MO of chickens in general does not include much thinking. But I stand firm with the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, firm in believing impossible things, especially before breakfast.

           “Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

            “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

In any case, they finally – most of them, most of the time – go into the finished coop at night.  Yes, it’s finished. We put the chop saw away.

Possibly now that it’s colder the birds are further incentivized – it was 39F when I went out before breakfast this morning. The half of my chickens that I refer to is my Bridge Club — the silkies, d’uccle and black copper marans. (The Sewing Circle – the old auracana, Rhode Island reds, cinnamon queens and brahmas – have gone into their own coop at night from the start, though possibly the old girl led them.)

What’s funny is watching the Bridge Club come out in the morning. As I approach the coop area, I see them through the large window on the side. Do you? That’s Miss D’uccle standing front and center.

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As I get closer, I see her competing for the window space with a black copper maran in front of her and a silkie behind her.

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To let them out, I lift the door that slides up and down behind the egg door by way of a string attached to an eye hook inside.

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They’ve seen me. They hear me. They are waiting with bated breath.

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C’mon! Hurry up!

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Out! Freedom!

They can hardly get out fast enough. In a matter of seconds they are out the door and on the ground. They don’t go down the ramp. They jump off the platform with wings out. They land. They keep going. Move, sister!

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Hey, I was first!

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We’re coming too!

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All except for one.

One white silkie is not so sure. She does this every day. Hey, where’d y’all go?! It’s really quite cozy in here. Can’t we stay in a while longer?

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Again today, she stayed and thought about it. She shuffled. She hemmed. She hawed.

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Finally she ventured. Sort of.

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The others were by now busy fanning forth, finding food, feeling fine, facing fate, flaunting feathers, fluttering fancifully, forgiving faults, fostering friendships and formulating fragments of fowl facts for future fame.

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Not Whitey. She’s still fearing, fussing, fretting, frowning. Fully two minutes after the others impatiently poured out, she finally stuck her head out. The following photos show the next two more solid minutes that it took her to get to the bottom.

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But it’s cold out here!

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Fine. All right. If I have to.

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But I’m telling you, I don’t want to. Why can’t we just stay inside?? Oh, seriously, now you want me to walk this plank!

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Are you kidding? I’m going to break my neck!

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Okay, I’m coming. See, I’m two steps down already. Don’t rush me!

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I told you, I’m coming. Hold your horses. Save me some food. I’m coming…

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This is the bottom. Almost. Now I suppose I have to keep going. Bother this daytime routine. Hmmm. Anything interesting happening over there? Yeah, don’t worry, I can see it from here just fine.

Oh, wait. Do you think I’m sexy? What about if I stretch out my neck like this?

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No, no, I’m not posing. I’m not in any way enjoying the attention I’m getting from the human who keeps clicking something. I’m just thinking about my next move. I’m just showing my sisters how it’s done, how you make a grand entrance, how you show the world you’re worth waiting for.

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What are you looking at?

It’s not so easy, you know, being me.

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I could step onto that straw right now if I wanted to. I just don’t want to. Not yet. What’s the big deal about straw?

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Why am I a chicken? How did I draw the straw to become a chicken? I should be a princess. Then they would listen to me. This chicken business is not really fun. Bugs again we get for food. Corn. Leftovers here and there. Okay, the cantaloupe yesterday was nice, I admit. More fresh fruit would be good. More lobster! Where’s the lobster??

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You have yourself a nice day! I’m going to go get my breakfast now.

Old Timbers Well Aged

Don’t get the wrong idea. Don’t read the title of this post and think I’m feeling spry and am going to tell you how a good diet and a consistent and sensible exercise routine have long term health benefits. They do, but “old timbers well aged” does not refer to me!

I’m talking about timbers, the kind that come from trees. In this photo from six years ago when the cottage was being built, you see two tree trunks laying down, about 12 feet long. I’m talking about timbers that come from logs like this.

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In our early days on this property, we had to take down trees. I hated it. Perfectly fine trees they were, but in the wrong place or just plain too many of them. I could hardly watch. After the deed was done though, Bradley used an attachment for his chain saw  called an Alaskan saw mill. With it he milled the logs into usable lumber. In the photo below you see two tents. The one on the right, down the hill a bit, was filled with usable lumber milled right here at Golden Hill. (The one on the left still stands, still houses firewood.)

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Among the stacks of wood were some larger oak timbers, the center sections of felled trees that ended up about 10” x 10” x 12’. Some of these were milled to make the clapboards that sided the original chicken coop that my sons Bradley and Lincoln built.

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The rest sat under the tent, unneeded. Frankly, forgotten. Other things become more important (you know how that goes). But sometimes it’s a good thing to forget something. Sometimes, things need to age. This past spring, when building the new coop, I thought about its siding.

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The T-111 all by itself (already skinning some sections of Coop #2 in progress) might have been ok if Coop #2 was not sitting next to Coop #1 with its rustic, oak clapboard look. We planned to use the same red metal roofing material, so that would coordinate, but the siding was in question. Obviously, rough cut oak clapboards would be best, where was I going to get them? (I completely forgot I had those oak timbers!) I rejected the T-111 because no matter how we might stain it, it would still look inferior and incongruent. I looked into cedar shakes, thinking they might complement the oak of Coop #1 nicely, but oh, no – really expensive.

It was one of those bumps in the road that (in part because of your failing memory) you can’t see to the other side of. All this effort — yes, I know, a considerable bit of effort for chickens! — and no idea how to side the coop. Thankfully, there was enough else to do, and I back-burnered this problem. Clearly there is always enough else to do around here!

That tent that houses the firewood, pictured earlier, also houses other things that don’t fit elsewhere but need to stay reasonably dry. (There is no proper barn or storage building here.) The lawn mower, ladders, straw bales, extra garden fencing, stakes and – OH! What’s that wood under that pile?? God bless my boys!

Large, long, aged oak timbers!

It’s one thing to have the right timbers. It’s quite another to have them cut down to the right size. I went to a local mill to see if they could help me. No, they don’t mill other people’s wood. I guess I can see that. What if there was a nail or something worse stuck in the wood? Much as I wished I could have clapboards made from these timbers, I felt discouraged. If this mill wouldn’t do it, what made me think another one would? I was lamenting this to my neighbor Tracy, who immediately and casually said she knew someone who could do it.

I’m from New Jersey where we have this thing: “I know a guy.” You have a problem with your carburetor, your friend says, “I know a guy.” Your septic backs up, your neighbor says, “I know a guy.” You need someone to move the old, no-longer-running camper out of your driveway, your uncle says, “I know a guy.”

Tracy knew a guy. His name is Chris, and he was very happy to turn those timbers into clapboards just like the ones on Coop #1. He came, took them and milled them into rough pieces about 3” x 1/2“ x however-long-they-ended-up – all for a very good price. Chris said that if the timbers had not sat for six years, the wood would have too much moisture in it and would warp more and shrink more, and you don’t want that. See? It’s good I forgot all about them! It’s good I found them again!

The past two weeks, while waiting for the rain to stop so we could proceed with Big Dig Part Two, it seemed like a good idea to get the rest of those clapboards up. One afternoon I put up long pieces along the back of the coop. Their imperfections are so perfect. You see how some are darker than others. Some have knots. As more went up, as if I didn’t like it a lot in the first place, I liked it better and better. You are welcome to disagree, but I do think the clapboards beat the T-111 by a long shot.

At the bottom, where you see those rope handles, a horizontal, red flap of a door will go.

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One thing at a time here, working our way around. The side with the egg door is special and needed special framing. This is silly Coco a few months ago. Someone (can’t imagine who) put her inside the coop. Hey, do something. I’m stuck.

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Joe showed me how to use the band saw to cut the pieces to frame it out after I’d enlarged a template I found online.

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It framed out the egg door nicely. Do you think anyone else but me cares about this?

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The weather was good, so I kept going. First the cedar upright along the right, then one along the bottom, then the oak clapboards.

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It was tricky working around the netting that forms a ceiling over the run to keep owls and hawks away from my Bridge Club. But with a lot of help from Sandy doing all the trim pieces, it’s (nearly) finished, and I love it! Chickens never had it so good, it’s true.

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It still needs a ramp so the chickens can get up into the coop, which you may be glad to know they are now sleeping in on a regular basis! They are going in on their own at night! With no help! Okay, most of the time. Okay, with some help sometimes still, but mostly they have the idea. A new ramp would make it easier for the silkies. We want to make it easier for them. Who wouldn’t?

Sandy dressed up the front with a fascia board right — that horizontal piece just below where the roof ends. This is without it, earlier this week.

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This is with it. See the difference?

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I’m not a builder. I’ve watched things being built many times, but never — before this chicken coop project — felt comfortable with the chop saw or the few other tools I had to use. There are many mistakes, many places where the cut could be better or the gap between boards a little tighter. And I’m still not comfortable when the piece is too small or the cut anything but straightforward. But it seems to me that a chicken coop is a good way to get your feet wet because when something is not perfect you can say, “It’s a chicken coop!” And not worry about it.

Also remember, next time you think nothing is happening, think again. Something is aging, waiting, getting better with time. The oak timbers needed to sit in a quiet, out of the way place for years. There they were under the tent, truly forgotten, doing their thing, releasing their moisture little by little, waiting for their day. Old timbers well aged turned out to be the icing on the cake!

 

The Frying Pan Hotel

We all get stuck with things we don’t want. An old bicycle that no one wants to ride any more. Promotional giveaways. Thanksgiving leftovers. Spare parts that might be useful someday but sure aren’t now.

In the excitement of getting new chicks and building a new fancy coop for them, I got stuck with too many roosters. More than zero in my case is too many. A few weeks ago I got really lucky. Pablo answered my ad and wanted my roosters. Come to find out, his wife Andrea especially wanted my brahma rooster and was elated to discover that he is a giant.

My own elation – the roosters were going away to a good home! – did not last long. Shortly after their little yellow truck drove off, I heard the telltale crowing and my heart sunk. How did we miss that there was yet another rooster in the flock? Sly bugger thought he could avoid detection forever perhaps, then was so distraught at the departure of his fellow crowers that he had to cry out. Or perhaps he now felt like king of the hill and wanted to announce it to the world. Better yet, with no competition, he could chase the females. That’s what sealed his fate.

This guy. Couldn’t help himself.

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Needless to say, the females weren’t interested.

I ended my blog post about the departure of the roosters (and the discovery of this guy) with “Pablo, oh Pablo! Want another rooster?” He made a great comment about his wife showing off her giant brahma to anyone who came over, but he did not respond to my question. Oh dear. In the meantime, two more roosters came out of the shadows and revealed themselves! How did I miss three? The upside (thank you, Claudia) of having this many roosters overall is that when they are gone, I have fewer chickens overall.

There’s no way I’m keeping the roosters, even if they don’t lay eggs. Every morning that crowing, which my Airbnb cottage guests assured me was enchanting, woke me up and reminded me that yet another day had passed and still I had roosters. Two women answered my craigslist ad, but neither followed up. I broached the subject with Sandy, who couldn’t stand the idea of a fate for them other than Pablo’s Chicken Paradise, and offered to drive them to him. When I suggested this to Pablo, he graciously declined Sandy’s offer and said they would come on Saturday so Sandy wouldn’t have to drive so far. Whoo-hoo!!!!!!!! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, God bless Pablo! I will happily add God bless Andrea! because I am sure she had something to do with this decision.

When I mentioned on Saturday morning to my brother-in-law Billy that the last three roosters were leaving, he said, “Where are they going? To the Frying Pan Hotel? You know, the one you check into, but you never check out?” Not my roosters! My roosters hit the jackpot!

My expressions of eternal gratefulness to Pablo and Andrea for their willingness to take them began before they even got out of the truck. They just smiled, clearly having a different take on the whole small-farm thing. Why stop at chickens? They had once again been to a swap. She had a white bunny in one of their cages, which tried valiantly to mind its own business, but the dogs had other ideas.

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She had a lionhead rabbit. Did you ever see such a thing?

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And in another cage were the most beautiful chickens I have ever seen. Okay, here I am calling chickens beautiful. I am sure my children think I need my head examined. But the design on those feathers – c’mon, that’s beautiful! They are called sebright silver laced.

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As they say though, it ain’t over till it’s over, so we began the coop-to-cage transfer. Can you tell that these three jail birds are anxious to be released from their incarceration? I’m sure they don’t care where they’re going next, as long as it includes time with the ladies.

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First the silkie rooster. This wonderful couple is happy to get him!

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The second one out of the coop likely has some mille fleur in him, which makes him think he’s French and, you know, special. You think what you want.

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His “boots” are especially distinctive. You can only dream about having boots like this.

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Finally it was time to move Mr. Blue Ears. He decided he did not want to leave.

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First he evaded capture by hiding at the far end of the coop. Then he jumped out when we weren’t looking! An escapee making his way into the forest! The dogs had a field day.

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Forest. Yeah, not a good plan. Maybe this (newly widened) stream bed will take him somewhere?

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Silkie on the loose! Who can corner the silkie?!

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Bah! Up against a fence! Run around to the front! If you have ever tried to catch a chicken, you know it has its challenges. Nonetheless, humans generally prevail.

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To express my gratefulness again, I gifted Pablo and Andrea with the silkie hen that matches The Blue-Eared Wonder. Look at this hen look at this rooster. Seriously? I have to go with him?

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Once again, the sight of Pablo’s truck driving away brought me waves of relief. Dear God, let there be no more roosters!

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The true test came at 5am this morning. Let me tell you what I don’t hear – crowing! Yay!!!!

 

Water Runs Downstream!

Everybody knows that water runs downstream. So why should I get so excited to see it?

A bit of a recap first for those who missed the earlier post on this. Some weeks ago, during a bad rainstorm, I noticed that water was running from the level of my driveway downward. The problem was that it ran all through my chicken coop area. That was fixed with a small retaining wall, plus a berm along the driveway, which did the job of keeping the water away from the chickens. But in the next storm it flowed through the mulch in the area next to the chickens, making a mess of the mulch. Long term, this was not a good plan. In my head I see a woodland garden in this area (someday!), and I can’t have water running willy nilly.

I could see generally where the water had flowed because of how the mulch had been moved – curve here, curve there, according to the lay of the land. I raked it back to the banks of what looked like a natural path for the water to go, and sure enough, in the next rainstorm, the water followed the path. It looked like this:

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Those are some beautiful curves, but I wanted to make them more beautiful and feel a bit more certain that the water would go where I wanted it to go. I decided to make a stream bed with rocks following that same path. It was a lot of work finding, hauling and laying the rocks. It took a long time.

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I laid down white landscape fabric under the rocks to keep the weeds at bay and dug out the bed somewhat to make it easier for the water to obey.

20180623_145538.jpgThat’s Fred, who helped me with the first third or so of the total length. You can tell he was thrilled about digging dirt and laying rocks. Who wouldn’t be?! Look what’s coming! Pretty soon it looked like this:

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I say pretty soon because in retrospect it seems like it took no time at all. How quickly we forget pain and hardship when there is a favorable outcome! It reminds me of the lady in labor in the room next to mine when I was giving birth for the first time (or maybe the third time or the fourth time, I forget that too). She screamed in pain, let me tell you. There was no question that she was not having a good time, no question that it hurt! Well, I had my baby and she had her baby, and coincidentally she and I were placed in the same recovery room. We were both resting when her phone rang. The person evidently asked how things had gone, and she said, just as cheerfully as anything, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad!” Lady, I thought, it was that bad! I was there!

Yes, we forget. I forget the digging (the hacking at Virginia concrete soil, more like) and the tree roots and the bug bites and the hot sun and the heavy rocks and my aching body at the end of the day. Did I mention the heavy rocks? They are heavier when you put a bunch of them in a bucket and carry them back to the work site, a trek which more often than not included an uphill climb. But no matter. In the end I had a beautiful stream bed. And then, of course, we had a dry spell.

I had to water all the plants in the berm and elsewhere it was so dry, so one day when I had the hose out there I stood at the head of the stream bed and let ‘er rip. It took a good bit of water but it flowed the way it was supposed to. My bed passed a small test, but the real deal would come when the skies opened.

I waited and waited. It poured in the night once or twice but I slept through. Today was my lucky day. The wind kicked up in the late afternoon, the gigantic trees outside my windows started to sway and I heard the first drops fall. This was not a tease of a storm, this was real. It started pouring at about 430pm, I mean pouring! Picture time!

I did remember to put on a hat before running outside, my wide brimmed sun hat, which sort of helped. It was raining so hard I was drenched before I even got to the head of the stream. It took a minute or so for the level of the water to build enough to start flowing over the rocks. I stood there cheering it on… c’mon, you can do it, oh yes, up and over, whoo-hoo, and flow it did! Look at that water flow! It works!

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That’s water flowing over the rocks! See? Water! A lot of water but mainly where it is supposed to be! Yes!

I know it’s a still photo (wish I knew how to upload the video) but hopefully you get the idea how fast it’s going:

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I could hardly stop laughing and giggling and whoo-hooing the whole time I was out there (I’m sure the chickens were wondering Who is that kooky human?) – it works! That’s why water running downstream is so exciting! My stream bed did its job! I was soaked through and still laughing when I came back inside. The poor dog, who had scooted out there with me – she never wants to miss anything but I think she regretted this decision – she was drenched too. But she ran all over, found her toy, ran some more, wanted to play. Something really fun is happening, she is thinking, I don’t know what, but something!

Oh, what a beautiful day!

The Departure of the Roosters

Until recently I had never had roosters before. I had hens, only hens, and they gave me eggs. That’s all I wanted, that’s all I got. I was happy and the hens were happy. A lot of people ask me: Don’t you need roosters to get eggs from hens? No. You need roosters if you want more little chicks (which I don’t). Hens lay eggs whether there is a rooster around or not. I prefer my eggs unfertilized, thank you.

I had always said I didn’t want roosters. This was because 1. My neighbor had them a few years ago and I could hear their annoying crowing all day long, all the way from his coop, which is way farther than a stone’s throw from my house. It’s at least ten stones. 2. I don’t want a major chicken operation. All I want are eggs. Hens clucking softly works for me as a background noise. They are a bit of entertainment too. Watching chickens go to town on mealy worms makes me smile. Oh boy, mealy worms!

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But all that time when I didn’t have roosters I wondered if I would change my mind if I actually had them. Would they somehow endear themselves to me? With this latest batch of 33 chicks, I had the chance to find out. (33, I know I’m crazy, you don’t have to remind me.)

It’s very hard to tell males from females when chicks first hatch. Hardly anyone can do it. You take your chances, and you don’t even really know for sure until you hear their crowing, which happens at about three months. Five of my birds started crowing a month or so ago. Three brahma roosters were “relocated,” one found his way back, leaving him plus two little (but loud) d’uccle roosters. Or so I thought.

It turns out there are other reasons not to want roosters. The crowing is, yes, every bit as obnoxious as I remembered. But roosters are also, shall we say, virile? Additionally, they want what they want regardless of how the hens feel about it. A rooster picks one pretty girl, chases her around the enclosure while she squawks like mad, and soon manages to have his way. It’s fast, and it’s the way of the world, but it riles up the hens. Understandably. I prefer a calmer flock.

Finally, someone answered my craigslist ad. God bless Pablo. Imagine that a person would drive more than an hour to come get a brahma rooster. He said he would come Saturday morning. Great!

First the Roundup. Let’s just say chickens don’t like to be captured. Perhaps there is a trick to this, but we are amateurs. The blurriness of the bird in this photo makes it clear that he is moving very fast to get away from Sandy. The job is harder than it looks.

20180714_082303.jpgPerseverance paid off, as it usually does. The brahma big boy was actually easier to nab. Look at the size of him!

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Before too long, three roosters were corralled and placed in the coop that they have been avoiding. The sliding egg door came in very handy.

 

Trapped! Oh, I mean ready for pick-up. Pablo, where are you?

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The roosters calmed down after they realized that the chase was over. So did we. Did I mention how happy I am that Pablo wants them?

What does he want them for? I had no idea, and I admit I didn’t care. You may recall the three general purposes for a rooster: dinner, lawn ornament and the fertilization of eggs. There is another and it is awful to think about: cockfighting. That people could get pleasure from this confounds me. If I let myself, I could even get angry about it, but I know you can’t stop all the evil in the world. Still, I didn’t want that to be my roosters’ fate. The only clue I got from Pablo as to his intentions was that he said he was coming with cages.

He also said he was coming in the morning and would let me know what time. In my world, the morning ends at noon. No Pablo by noon. No word from Pablo. Roosters were content in the coop, cluelessly awaiting their fate, but I was worried.

I breathed a great big sigh of relief when he drove in at about 230pm. His yellow truck did have cages in the bed – turned out he and his wife Andrea and their little boy had been to a chicken auction and already had some chickens in those cages. Pablo took one look at my brahma and said, “Whoa.” Yes, I know. He’s a big boy.

I breathed my second big sigh of relief when he told me he planned to use the roosters for stud. Andrea said she wondered if there were different strains of brahmas, big and small, because the brahma hens they had in the back of the truck were smaller than my brahma hens, and gigantic Mr. Brahma dwarfed them all. Thankfully size didn’t matter (you can save your size jokes). A brahma is a brahma after all and God bless Pablo for wanting mine.

The joyful transfer (joyful because I am soooo joyful that they are leaving) from my coop to their cages started with me getting into the coop with the roosters. What I will do to get rid of these birds!

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I was enough of a presence to make the birds run toward the door (make for the door! make for the door!) which Sandy blocked. He then got hold of them as they tried to get past. He turned them calmly around and handed them to Pablo.

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The last rooster put up more of a fuss than the others, but this little fellow had no more choice than the others had had.

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Pablo and Andrea and their son posed for me …

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… just before that glorious moment when the third rooster joined the other two in Pablo’s cage.

20180714_144148.jpgHappy smiles. Everyone is happy. All the humans anyway. No one is happier than I am!

A long time ago, a woman I knew said, “I don’t believe a thing will happen until it’s all over and I can speak about it in the past tense.”

Thus my moment of greatest joy: watching Pablo’s truck drive away with my roosters in the back, off to their new studly life. It’s over! The roosters are gone!

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Off they go! Bye-bye, roosters! Good riddance! Yay!!!!!

Until Sunday morning. Say it isn’t so!

It is true. We missed one. I heard the incriminating crow early, before dawn, fainter and weaker than the d’uccles had been. How did we miss him?! Possibly the other roosters had drowned him out or intimidated him. With them gone, he was free to let loose. All right, it wasn’t so bad. Maybe I could get used to a little crowing…

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But the rascal sealed his fate when he couldn’t help it and had to fast-chase a squawking hen around. Her racket got my attention while Sandy and I were moving plants in the late morning sun. I marched in there, caught him pronto (you are out of here, buddy!) and put him in the woods outside the enclosure. He soon walked back, curious to find himself on the other side of the fence from his beloved girls. Back and forth he walked along the outside of the enclosure. There must be a way back in…

I didn’t care. The image of him chasing an unwilling female meant I had no mercy at that point and would have relocated him to the bottom of the hill to be a fox’s lunch if I had not been so busy with the plants. But Sandy couldn’t stand it. He has a soft spot and hated to see this half silkie, half black copper maran become a snack. This rooster, despite his less-than-charming face,  has rather interesting features like blue ears and iridescent tail feathers. Sandy cornered him pretty easily and put him in the coop, away from the girls, awaiting a new life somewhere else.

Pablo, oh Pablo! Want another rooster?

The Purpose of a Dropcloth and What Dogs Do Well

You thought I was kidding about the bench, right? Nope. Just yesterday morning, my Airbnb guests – on their own – went out to visit the chickens and take their own photos of the ridiculous birds. Can’t you just imagine the smaller one on the left saying to the one front and center: Hey, sister, I wouldn’t say this in front of the others but I need to tell you, that spikey look really isn’t working for you. Maybe try a new a shampoo?

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It thrills me to see people having fun and admiring the chickens. (Perhaps they are not admiring, perhaps they are pooh-poohing. That woman thinks these birds are interesting? Pretty starved for good entertainment, wouldn’t you say?) Well, you think what you want to think and I will think what I want to think. Guests from Ohio earlier this week left a note that said, “We loved being secluded in the woods, watching the trees sway in the wind and admiring the beautiful chickens.” See? Admiring.

Some admirers will stand and stare, or walk all around the perimeter, or scooch down and get face to face. I found guests earlier this week standing right in the coop with them. She held one of the pretty ones, smiled hugely (the woman, not the chicken), while he took her picture. They left a note behind that said, “We love your feathered friends in the coop next door.” The one before that said, “So nice meeting you and hanging with the chickens!”

Some guests will want to sit, to admire from a fixed spot, to ponder the multiple ways a simple egg-laying bird can move and contort its funny little body or peck at a bug, or they might imagine the chickens’ conversations with each other, their hierarchies, their vanities, their grooming techniques (how will she get those spikes clean?).

The sitters would want a bench for all that. Maybe they would even bring their coffee out there with them in the morning, and sip and stare at the same time. The more I thought of this, the more I thought that a 4×6 on its side as the top of the retaining wall, practical and unobtrusive as that is, might not fit the bill entirely. A bench would be better.

My Uncle Ernie and Aunt Vivian called a few weeks ago to plan a visit. I had not seen them in a few years and was very much looking forward to the visit. Ernie is an extraordinary woodworker, and I mean fine woodworking. The craftsmanship and expertise behind his own beautiful kitchen cabinetry, and what he has made for his children, to say nothing of his wood carvings, leaves no doubt. He has the right tools, he knows how to use them, and he has been practicing for years. I think he easily fits Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule from the book Outliers: Over the course of time, if you been passionately engaged for a total of 10,000 hours or more honing a skill or developing a craft or being deeply, technically and seriously involved in a specific subject, you are likely in the upper echelon of experts in that field. This applies to playing the violin, writing computer code and fine woodworking just the same. You don’t get to be an expert unless you put in the time.

You see where I’m going, right? By contrast, when it comes to woodworking, I am almost completely a novice. I know what a router does, I understand the value of built things being square, level and plumb, I have a healthy respect for any tool with sharp teeth that rotates at 30,000 rpm’s. But as my guests from this past week will tell you, there is a difference between watching the chickens from outside the fence and getting in there and picking them up. Other than being the gopher, the tidy-upper, the drink-fetcher, the supply-orderer and the holder of things in place while someone else uses the power tool to secure it, I have not been as involved in construction projects. All right, I’ve dug a lot of dirt, moved a lot of rocks, and sanded and painted and stained. I’ve even zip-stripped – which is not as exotic as it sounds!

So my expert woodworker uncle is coming to visit for two days. I want a bench for my chicken coop viewing area. Now surely you see where I’m going. I asked him if he would guide me through the building of a simple one, at least to the point where it is together and all that remains is the finish sanding and painting, which I can confidently do. I told him I would follow his instructions, do what he said. If your uncle looked like this, you would do what he said too.

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Just kidding, Ernie. He really is a great guy. Some people can reinforce how amateurish you feel or make you feel like the subject at hand is overwhelmingly difficult and you really should leave it to the experts. Just buy a bench, right? But Ernie didn’t do either of those unhelpful things. He walked me (he didn’t rush me) through every step and couched all of his technique demonstrations with: Let me show you why this way is better, or What you need to remember is… or Look how easy this makes it. He was patient with my ignorance but kept things moving all day. Goofy is also in his repertoire.

 

Before they left, the base was together and the top slats were ripped. I learned how to use the table saw and a biscuit joiner and how to get the same exact length of board as many times as I need. (You want the legs to all be the exact same length, think about it.) I glued in the biscuits per his instructions using the right amount of glue and a cheap tiny paint brush and he showed me how to make two shorter bar clamps do the work of one longer one. I understand better how to allow for the width of the saw blade when using the chop saw.

 

In the end, the vertical pieces are strongly secured to the horizontal ones. We flipped the base right side up, put the slats on it loosely and made sure that three people will be able to sit on this bench and watch chickens. Or sit in the basement and pose for the camera.

 

That’s Aunt Vivian, an artist in her own right. She kindly brought me this beautiful painting she did herself. There’s a lot of talent in that family!

 

We said good-bye and I routed the long edges of the slats and legs and any other part of the put-together bench base where the edge of the wood needed softer corners, then hauled it all up to the deck on the back of the house for finish sanding and painting. The sawhorses and drop cloth were still there from when I had given all the boards a first coat before Ernie and Vivian came.

What I did not anticipate was the involvement of the dog.

Coco misses Samuel, who went off to San Francisco to seek his future, so she sticks to me. Where I go, she goes. Last week I set things up to spray paint a metal table base. I set up a cloth out to the side, special for her, away from the work area. Heaven forbid she should have to lay on the mulch.

 

Next thing I knew, she was off her designated spot, nearer my work space, not a good place for her. You see how close to my space I had placed her space? But no, come closer, be under foot. That’s a thing dogs do well.

 

She did the same when it came to the bench on the deck. All that deck to lay on (not even mulch under her delicate little limbs!). But no, under foot again.

 

The drop cloth laying on the deck under the saw horses has a piece of plastic under it because (you may recall) my friend Fred recently power washed the deck. Let us safeguard our assets. I now have a clean deck and want to keep it that way. Someone else (a smarter person) would have put down (and would have advised anyone else to put down) a bigger piece of plastic and a bigger drop cloth, covering more surface area against the possibility of paint randomly flying off the brush and landing outside the protected area, but I am a risk-taker as well as a careful painter, and was impatient to get going, and did not do this. (This scenario is not as risky as it looks. That bench was more to the left when I painted it and was moved to the right when I was not painting it. Slats also came more toward the center for the actual painting. When they are drying I don’t care. I did work over top the cloth, really I did!)

Now look carefully, kitty-corner behind Coco’s right shoulder. That is a drop of red paint from the bench above. (I know, I know, it could have so landed easily on the deck instead, and I have such a pathetically small drop cloth under that work area. Do not chide me. This is about the dog now.)

 

This drop of paint is a problem why? Here’s what happens when the dog goes to move to another underfoot spot:

 

Do you envision little red marks all over my deck? I do. I did. So I cleaned up that paw and my deck was saved. This time. I know, I could put her in the house. I should put her in the house. Why can’t I just put her in the house? Take a look at her face again. That’s why.

Scrap Wood Unwasted, a.k.a. Cheap Runs Deep, Part 2

In the beginning was the idea to build a new chicken coop. This was because certain (unnamed, and possibly including myself) people had gotten overexcited about the idea of chicks and bought sooooo many there had to be two separate enclosures in the basement. They were awfully cute back then.

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Of course they got bigger and the basement started to smell. Getting them outside sooner rather than later kept us working as often as weather and time allowed.

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The coop took shape. Chickens need to scratch around outside too, so there would have to be an outdoor enclosure (a run). But it turned out that the one set of basement chicks was growing at the speed of light, far outpacing the other set and looking gigantic in comparison.

Chickens are nasty, you know. Integrating one flock with another often leads to shows of blood. Pecking order is a very real thing. Peck, peck, peck on the back of the neck. Big over little. Strong over weak. Murder happens. I have seen this. It’s not pretty. Mine were used to their separate spaces. Keeping the giants separate from the dwarfs would be the best approach.

So okay, two coops, two runs – adjacent but with a chicken wire fence between them. Is this unreasonable yet?

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It got to where there were two sets of doors, leading into one run and the other, with a concrete (soon to be brick) entrance. That’s all there was going to be at first, just a flat, sweepable way in. That garden bench was still there at that time (fancy table too, huh? cinder blocks and a piece of 2×8). I had been sick and it was nice to have a place to sit down, and then when I felt better it was too heavy for me to move by myself and not really in the way… yet…so it just stayed there.

Clearly we already had some bricks for that area in front of the doors. Clearly not enough. There is a salvage place in Louisa that I had never been to before and will never go to again, but they did have bricks, and I bought as many as would reasonably fit in my Prius. At 20 cents a piece I deemed it worth the trip. These still were not enough, but that problem would wait for another day.

Set the bricks aside and ponder. Sit on the bench and stare. Cute chicks. Darn slope. From the top of the old coop’s stoop to the height of a brick on the concrete was 14”, way too high a step. Someone would surely get hurt if I didn’t do something about that. Plus the mulch would wash over the bricks every time it rained, the run would get the overflow water and it would all be a mucky mess.

There had to be a way to terrace the land right there. One way or another it had to be leveled out. I started digging without much of a plan in mind, which I realize has the potential to be problematic. But I was feeling stronger after having been sick for a month and was happy to be strong enough to dig. First I took out the old coop’s stoop.

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Once I did that I was committed so I just kept digging.

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All the while I’m thinking vaguely This has to be flat. So I kept digging. It is hard to think deep thoughts when you are busy digging. I realize that following a plan has merits when doing a project but sometimes I just keep going. When I got it dug out, I had a flat and reasonably level space with a new drop-off, this one at the front corner of the old coop. Some kind of retaining wall would solve the problem, would be obvious enough that people wouldn’t trip on it. Plus it would keep the water away from that area. I played around with some very heavy concrete blocks that are made for retaining walls, but they were too unwieldy and I couldn’t make them fit in the tight corner. Also they were kind of ugly.

A deck then. It has to be a deck. That would tie the coops together, make a bigger clean space for approaching (and viewing!) my peaceful (non-murderous-because-they-are-separate) chickens and fit the setting better than concrete.

This, however, is where it is going to look funky to those of you who have ever made a deck of any kind. What on earth is she doing with all those short, scrap pieces of 4×4 and 4×6? Bear with me here. This is not as crazy as it looks!

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What I was doing was using the shorter pieces to get my trench level and prepared. Truly I was, but I also stupidly thought I could actually use them there. Sandy took one look at that and said Uh, no. I didn’t yet have the longer 4x4s that you see up and to the right, which he insisted were a necessity. I so wanted to use up all that scrap wood! No, he said, you have to have solid pieces on the sides.

But okay, once the solid sides were in and once they were solidly joined to each other making a solid frame around the whole thing, the rows in the middle would still need wood to screw the decking boards into. I had an itch to scratch, you see, and by golly I was going to use those shorter pieces! End to end, snug in against each other and against the outside framework, c’mon, this works. Then once you screw in the boards from the top, those babies aren’t going anywhere. The ground is hard pack clay (like concrete if you are familiar with Virginia “soil”). And this method does not require me to throw the scrap away (they are pressure treated and can’t be burned) and I had to buy a little less wood (thank you, Bertie!). In the end it looked like this — perfectly solid and perfectly wide for every screw from above to find a home.

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The landscape fabric and sand that ended up on top of these should have been put down below them, I know, but by the time I got all this in place, and level and square, I wasn’t moving anything again. I have my limits after all. So the fabric went on top, then sand, then I punched a bunch of holes in it for rain to get to the earth a little more easily. I didn’t want little pools of water under the deck for the mosquitoes to breed in.

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For the retaining wall side we used two 4x4s on top of each other, connected with timberlock screws, plus a topmost 4×6 on its side to serve as a somewhat more comfortable seat. You can sit on it and look at chickens. You would want to do that, right? You would want to if you saw my chickens.

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Then came the fun part, laying the decking boards. I got real comfortable with the cordless screwdriver I got for Christmas (the one that got lost for six months, but that is another story). There were a lot of screws. This is grunt work. I see why the new guys get the grunt work.

With a few more bricks from Lowe’s I figured out how to make them all fit without cutting any, which was a relief because believe me, it was time to have this project be finished!

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This is the whole picture now, viewing deck ready for guests (and do they ever use it!), solar lanterns up, solar panels in place to power the chandeliers inside the coops, flower pots to look pretty, fluffy chickens showing off. The only thing left is the siding, but I am content to wait for that to be milled.

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The topmost 4×6 on the long retaining wall works as a seat for me, but maybe not for everyone. Anyway now that I am so experienced, I think I’ll make a bench besides…

A Chicken Coop With a Viewing Area?

Building a new chicken coop was, all by itself, quite an undertaking. You’ve had those projects too perhaps, the ones you think will take a weekend. Ha! This project started at the beginning of April when the chicks were one month old, still under the heat lamp in the basement, still cute. Three weeks later the new coop was skinned but not yet roofed, covered to protect it from the rain, and connected to the old coop only by the framework for the doors that would lead into each run. I had only the murkiest of thoughts as to what this area would look like in the end.

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It’s hard to see in this photo, but if you look at the stoop of the old coop, you can see how the land slopes toward the left. That sloping would mean mud and yuck under the feet of the chickens in their run if rainwater continually washed in that direction. So I thought — and this is as far as I thought at this time, really, though perhaps those bricks might have chimed in, the ones holding down the black plastic around the fresh concrete securing those posts – How about let’s make a bricked area just outside the doors? That will allow for easier access when we have to get a wheelbarrow inside to clean up or get just ourselves inside to feed the silly birds. At that point I had no idea what was going to happen with the old stoop, and didn’t want to disturb it. The simplest thing seemed to be to dig out the area defined by the three posts with bricks around them (you can imagine the fourth corner).

This wasn’t as hard as digging the post holes for the run because 1. There were not as many roots here and 2. I didn’t have to go as deep.

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There were ten 50-lb bags of cement sitting on the pallet in the woods behind the run, all that was left after we had filled all the post holes (we had mixed up 20 bags already). I have no idea why I figured that ten had to be enough, but I did, and it was. The last weekend of April I felt really tired, but the forecast for the coming week said we would finally have day after day of sunshine, so it made sense to push through and get it poured so it could set.

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Chicks Rule indeed! (though no one else will ever see that). When I scratched that message in, I didn’t know I was getting sick, so this concrete pad was pretty much the last thing I did for a month except take a photo occasionally of the progress Sandy was making on the construction of the coop, which was great. I think I laid these bricks in, just to see how well they fit. But I am not sure.

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How fun it was when Brad, Beth and little Piper came for a visit!

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All chicks were outside by now. In the photo above you can see that the ones getting huge were confined to the old coop, and in the photo below you can sort of see the smaller ones confined to underneath the new coop. At least they were out of the basement! The predator who unsuccessfully tried to dig under the fence to get to them made me get a little overprotective (just a little) and ask Sandy to put those boards and cinder blocks in its way, should it decide to try again. (Let it just try!)

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May was a beautiful month all in all, and Sandy moved right along, first by checking the fit of the metal roof panels…

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… then by skinning the roof….

(In the photo below it’s a little clearer how the land slopes. See the difference in elevation between the top of the old coop’s stoop and the concrete pad below? It’s a drop of about 14″. The wheels in my mind were turning every time I looked at that slope: It’s going to be a muddy, mulchy mess every time it rains.)

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…then by papering the roof (which I’m sure is not how you say it).

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Then Sandy got the new red panels on (matching the old coop – thankfully they had the same color still available after seven years). I vaguely remember standing next to the concrete pad, holding the first one in place on that side while he stood on a ladder and screwed it in. Once the first one is in, the others are easy because the panels have grooves that fit, one on top of the one before. “Easy” is a relative term.

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That’s Coco under the brooding boxes with chicks behind her. All you had to say to her, even while she slept soundly (which she did, quite often, next to me on the couch), was Wanna go see the chicks? And she hopped to!

But see how muddy and yucky it looks there after it rained?

It’s fascinating to me how things evolve. As it turned out I was quite sick during the month of May. I didn’t drive for at least two weeks and spent a lot of time indoors resting. But I would wander out there sometimes, looking at that slope, looking at that mud, thinking This is not okay, something has to be done here. There was no thought of a viewing area, I assure you, just thoughts of slope, mud and a way to get a wheelbarrow in there.

One sunny day Sandy put a camp chair out there for me so I could sit and watch at least, and then when Bradley came they brought that bench from the garden. Chicks were still underneath because the fencing of the runs was not yet finished, but progress is evident: ridge cap, doors, brooding box shingles, etc.

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I sat on the bench. It was nice to watch the chicks, nice to be where the coop-building action was. I sat there a lot, too sick to help, though thankfully this was before the flying, biting insects came out in full force.

Without planning it that way, I had myself a bona fide viewing area. A viewing area is a good idea for me, for my Airbnb cottage guests, for friends, for family who come to visit….

Cheap Runs Deep

People often don’t know how they touch the world, what kind of mark they make that others notice and perhaps admire or emulate. My friend Kim’s dad was a make-do sort of man. I admired him greatly for many other reasons before I knew this about him, and when Kim reminded me not long ago that he would always find a way to use what he already had, which I do myself whenever I can, I felt proud to share a good trait with a great man.

The first time I realized I was being like Bertie in this way was when I was making war with weeds this spring. Well, maybe not war, but as much as possible, I was determined not to let them get the upper hand this year, especially in the paths between the raised beds in the vegetable garden. I have piles of mulch right now from when two big trees were taken down in the winter. It’s just sitting there, asking to be useful. Asking in its own way.

 

That empty middle section was as big and deep as the piles on either side of it.

Before I made (many) trips back and forth from the pile to the garden, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of mulch, I put down some very expensive landscape fabric (that had been kindly given to me) as a barrier between the dirt and the mulch. Weeds would pop through in no time if I didn’t. (Note what happened in the planter box of yesterday’s post – oh, that’s what I can do! I’ll make a barrier against the aliens!)

This was a good plan until that roll of very expensive landscape fabric ran out and I was in the middle of the job and rather grubby and quite unwilling to go to the store, even if I was willing to spend the money, which, despite my understanding of the need for such a thing, at that moment I wasn’t.

Barrier, I need a barrier.

You know that little birdie that sits on your shoulder sometimes and whispers good advice in your ear? (And you either listen or don’t, depending on the day’s measure of good sense vs. stubbornness?) Well suddenly the little birdie was Bertie, and I heard, “All those old cotton sheets you have in the basement, those old towels… they would serve….”

Indeed they are as good a barrier as anything. Water can get through them but weeds can’t, they will break down just the same over time and didn’t cost anything, and I didn’t have to go anywhere to get them except the basement! (And now I have a solution to the alien invasion besides!)

You’d never know it, but the part right between the bench and the bed with the lemon grass behind it has old sheets and towels under the mulch 😊

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Some weeks later I decided that the two chicken coops needed a deck between them. You might have seen previously how this looked as a finished project (finished except for the siding on the new coop, which I am still waiting for):

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In the next few posts, as I go through the steps it took to get to this pretty picture, I’ll show what’s under those nice deck boards, and you will see that Bertie was whispering in my ear once again.

The Coop Unoccupied and the Stubborn Horse

It has been weeks now, weeks (!), since the coop for the silkies and their friends has been finished on the inside. It has fabulous features like cedar roosting poles and the coolest chicken ladders ever. Chickens generally go in their coop at night after they scratch around and dust themselves and eat bugs and whatever they can find during the day (and make obnoxious noises if they are roosters).

This is what the interior of their coop looks like at night with the egg door open. That opaque panel above the egg door can come down by way of a pulley system for an extra measure of protection. That is, if they went in.

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Theoretically, when the chickens go on the cedar pole on the right (the one that looks like it’s shedding), you/we/anyone will be able to see them from outside through those plexiglass windows. Oh wait, maybe that’s the problem. No privacy! Anyone could see in at night. Maybe I have chickens with a privacy complex.

During the day there’s all kinds of curiosity. Look, they are practically lined up to check it out.

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They have no problem going up and down this outside ladder. Nevertheless the coop itself remains unoccupied, day or night. I caught three chickens one rainy day and put them in there. They stayed a while, then probably shrugged, said “Eh,” tossed their heads, turned toward the exit and left. Ungrateful wretches.

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And that d’uccle rooster found his way back in on his own one time, and not again since.

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But by and large they avoid it like the plague. Perhaps it’s not a privacy complex. Perhaps this photo says it all. You want me to step on that??

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This silkie had been put in via the brooding box through the door that is behind her. The wire mesh floor is supposed to allow the nasty stuff to go through into vinyl-lined trays below that can be pulled out from the back and (easily) cleaned. Sandy, who almost single handedly built the coop, found the idea online somewhere and it seemed reasonable. Tracy, my neighbor who has more chicken experience than I do, said she tried mesh and her chickens’ poop was too big and didn’t go through; then again hers was a double layer of mesh. Obviously I’m counting on my small chickens having small poop. Claudia, my dear friend in Germany who grew up on a dairy farm that also had chickens, suggested that perhaps the wire didn’t feel good under their feet.

It’s unnatural, really. All the dirt and mulch and stones outside under their feet all the livelong day – why would they want to go from that to this? I didn’t think chicken feet were that sensitive, but fair enough. I took Claudia’s advice and put down newspapers, then sprinkled food – yummy cracked corn — on top of the newspaper.

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Still no takers!

I am reminded of a specific horse, well known in the annals of time. You know, the one who wouldn’t drink.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

These darn chickens have a Ritz of a coop, and they won’t go in it. I’m leading as best as I can. But I can’t make them.

Isn’t it just like so many things, so many people? You lead, you encourage, you hope, you provide, you give, you understand, you help, you pull strings, you even finagle! You do whatever you think it might take to get them to do a good thing, a better thing, a more sensible thing. And God bless you for it. But the hard part is stopping after you have done your bit. The hard part is letting them do their bit — or not. Then waiting. Then (maybe) encouraging some more.

For now I am waiting. My birds don’t want to go in there? Fine. I do think that sooner or later they will wander in and enjoy their Ritz. Possibly one of these days one of them (let’s say a smart one) will meander up the ladder, peek in, hop in, look around and shout, Hey, girlfriends! Look at this! Check it out! Our ship has come in! Whoo-hoo!

Do you think?

Maybe they just need a little more encouragement (just like people), and I am not likely to give up. Suggestions, anyone?