The Guys in the Shell Department

Today we’re going to talk about shell production – the industrial-level, incessantly-cranking-‘em-out-level production of … (no, not artillery shells! been listening to a little too much Dan Carlin, have you?) … egg shells!

A little quiz today, or think of it as Some Questions for Fun:

  1. When is the last time you saw an egg without a shell? Last time you cracked one (or two or three) to make an omelet or some popovers, right? Duh.

Check out these beauties – that orange is what happens when you give your chickens the scraps from a lobster fest.

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Okay, clearly you need a harder question, even at this hour.

  1. Eggs are so beautiful. I sometimes just stare at them. What perfectly beautiful shapes – though you have to think that middle, fattest, section is the hardest moment for the chicken, just sayin’. What lovely variation in color and size my chickens give me:

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(Yes, that’s my raccoon skin underneath them, in case you were wondering.)

Speaking of size, they do vary tremendously. Here are some measured next to coins.

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And others next to a ruler.

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Oh, right, there were questions happening here! Let’s try again.

  1. What is eggshell made of?

(You science nerds will get this in a second. The rest of us are deeply grateful that there are science nerds in the world to tell us such things.)

The code (is it called a code?), uh, formula? chemical name? is CaCO3, which in English is calcium carbonate. Well, the shell is mostly, as in 95%, calcium carbonate. You always wondered how the shell can be tough enough to protect the growing chick inside it but breakable enough for its 21-day-old beak to poke through. According to Labmate, “The remaining 5% features hundreds of different proteins that affect how calcium carbonate crystallises. It’s this perfectly balanced cocktail that allows mineral crystals and proteins to form an eggshell that’s crack-resistant, then use nanoscale adjustments to change the pliability and let a chick break free when it’s ready to hatch.” Cool.

Fun facts (these from the Exploratorium) also include: a. the eggshell is covered with as many as 17,000 tiny pores that air and moisture can pass through (so the chick can breathe while it’s developing) and b. the shell has a thin outermost coating called the bloom or cuticle that helps keep out bacteria and dust (which is why you don’t need to wash eggs and should use them quickly if you forget this rule).

Question #3!

  1. What else in nature is like an eggshell (in being made up of calcium carbonate)?

Give it a little thought before you read on…

The examples are striking. Who isn’t impressed with the stalactites and stalagmites you see in caves, like the gigantic ones at Luray Caverns?

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Also there’s

  • seashells that are the exoskeleton of snails, lobsters, clams (though NOT turtle shells, in case you were wondering – I knew you were wondering)
  • coral that you scuba divers find in reefs and the rest of us watch on Blue Planet
  • pearls that oysters and clams make, in which the individual CaCOcrystals “are laid down in such a perfect order that the result is smooth, hard, shiny, and sometimes even iridescent, as in the rainbow colors of abalone shells.” Who knew? (Thank you, again, Labmate.)
  • whole mountain chains in the form of chalk, limestone, marble and dolomite. IMA Europe says more than 4% of the earth’s crust is CaCO3, and jrank says 7%, so somewhere between 4-7% is probably right.  And you know how much we need chalk (to raise pH in soils with high acidity, clean pewter, keep screws secure and dry your hands for weightlifting, bouldering or gymnastics), limestone (to make steel, cement, fertilizer and even white paper), marble (from columns to countertops, a most gorgeous building material as is) and dolomite (to make glass, bricks and ceramics).Now back to the chicken eggshells.
    1. What happens when someone in the shell department screws up?

    Screws up? What do you mean screws up? Eggs are eggs, right? Smooth on the outside, kinda slimy (when uncooked) on the inside, invaluable in making delicious food and fabulously nutritious.

    Nope. Eggs are not just eggs. All eggs are not created equal.

    A daydreaming shell maker got a little carried away on these ends – made little warts instead the standard smooth finish because of thinking about his girl maybe (hmmm), or that new car, or those ribs for dinner? Bit too much CaCO3 in those places I’d say. Best have a little chat with this worker about focusing when in production mode. Focus, Jack. We have a job to do here.

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    The one assigned to this day’s lot was confused. Gourds on his mind perhaps?

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    This worker forgot (toward the end apparently) what shape we are aiming for in egg production.

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    Now, back to Question #1. When is the last time you saw an egg without a shell?

    Forget the omelet. How’s this? A wildly woobly egg! An intact egg with NO shell to speak of, though maybe a few granules of the calcium carbonate here and there, a spattering you could call it. The bottom flattened out and the top collapsed a bit, but this egg mostly held its shape, its membrane apparently keeping it from gooing all over the place. When we touched it, it squished in like jello. Oh yes, and whoever the shell maker was in this case tried to cover his tracks and squirted a few squirts of the CaCO at the end (see that unshapely blob sticking out toward the right?) – undoubtedly a last-ditch effort to demonstrate that it’s not a complete bomb and maybe he should not get fired. Really, HR needs to have a conversation with this employee!

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Last question: What’s really going on in the chicken coop???

 

 

Green Turtles, Pink Boots and Blue Ears

Turtles don’t wear boots, definitely not pink ones, definitely not shiny plastic pink ones that are attached with velcro. No matter. This turtle has boots.

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Whether a fluffy green turtle named Flllfffl dons pink shiny boots, or a moth named Betty is scouting out home zone possibilities on your property, or a superhero named Iron Man is heroically facing the Big Bad named Thanos, the world is a better place because of it. (“Flllfffl” is the best I can spell it, btw – that’s what she said his name is!)

I’ve been thinking about how we suspend belief so selectively. I was all into the Marvel movies (and would watch them all again!) but Star Trek doesn’t do anything for me. Mom can enjoy Mary Poppins float in on a magic umbrella but has no interest in a superhero that can stop a speeding ballistic missile (that scene from Captain Marvel is etched in my head!). And little Piper, my granddaughter from Seattle, sees nothing irregular in a turtle wearing pink boots!

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But it works in reverse, I come to see. For reasons having to do with this little darling living in Seattle and me living in Virginia, Piper and I communicate via video more than in person. She calls me Oma but I think she sees me as the Chicken Lady. She LOVES my chickens. I have walked to the coop, phone in hand (pointing away from me and at my feathery friends of course) more times than I can remember because as soon as we get on a video chat, she says Chickens! If it’s already too late here and too dark outside, I’m sure the call is over in her mind. Check out. Done. If there’s no chickens, why bother?

Coming to see Oma included the natural excitement of seeing the chickens for real. The ride from the airport was too long, but finally we arrived at Golden Hill. No point even going into the house on a beautiful day – let’s go see the chickens!

My first clue should have been when this untimid child timidly hid behind both of her parents. Brad was amused but Beth said Oh, yeah, she has a problem when it’s a real animal. I went in and picked up Whitey anyway and brought her out to show her to Piper. See? Fluffy head, blue ears… Yes, this is a real chicken…

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and this is her real blue ear.

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The photo doesn’t capture how the blue is almost shimmery.

No can do.

Turns out there is a big difference between a real chicken and a chicken on a screen. Small shrieks of terror told this astute Oma that maybe awkward, weird, ungainly chicken movements and throaty, cacophonic, random chicken noises on a screen are one thing, and an omg-it’s-getting-too-close-to-me chicken in the hands – jerking its head randomly and slightly the way chickens do (oh, look, a little human!), a little dirty on its feet from the scratching around in search of delectable bugs (hey, it’s spring and bugs are everywhere!) – is quite another. Whoa, all too real, no thanks, can we go look at the garden now?

Ah, the garden. Oma loves her roses right now!

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I guess we all have our ways of filtering out, shutting down, blocking, or otherwise not having to deal with what’s too scarily real or too stupidly unreal. Likewise we open our arms, hearts and waking hours to what’s appealingly real or fascinatingly unreal. I think we are allowed. It’s a big, full, amazing world, but we would overload our circuits if we took it all in. We draw the lines around ourselves, redrawing them depending on where we are, who we are with, what they day feels like, what our present self can handle.  The lines are wiggly and wavering. They have gaps big and small, with ways to expand when curiosity or security define the moment and ways to tighten up when fatigue, fear and sorrow don’t let us be so open.

Piper is doing just the right thing, drawing the lines where they feel somehow, mysteriously where they should be. Those weird chickens are outside her feel-good zone right now, so, yeah, hiding behind the big people she knows she can depend on makes sense. That turtle with the pink boots – watch him prance around awhile and then rip open that Velcro and pull his boots off when you’ve had enough of that. Why does a turtle need pink boots anyway!?

Oh, but am I still the Chicken Lady? If I’m not, that’s okay. We can redraw the lines.

This Hen’s Got Pluck!

I had trouble with a chicken.  You may recall. Goldyneck was a bully, always harassing the little silkies – chasing them, snatching at their back feathers with her beak, intensely and recurrently bothering them. This is the one I’m talking about. She’s pretty, you have to admit. Who would guess she has such a mean streak in her?

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I can’t have a bully.

She’s big, but not as big as the bigger girls in the other coop, so I banished her. I put in her with them for a while. They sneered at her. Snubbed her. Ostracized her. You wanna see something funny – watch a big hen puff her chest out in the direction of a smaller (clearly inferior) coop-mate with a gesture that has who-do-you-think-you-are? written all over it.

She hid under the coop trying to steer clear of them. She was clearly at the bottom of the status heap. See her in the upper left-hand corner? She won’t be able to get near that feeder until the rest have had their fill.

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I felt sorry for her and put her back with the silkies, hoping she had learned her lesson perhaps? But chickens don’t learn. Their brains are very small. In no time she started the bullying again. I seemed to have a no-win situation on my hands. Maybe someone could just take her away?

Solutions are often not that easy. No one volunteered.  No one came. I was stuck with her. But the bullying annoyed me. I saw it every day. First thing in the morning she started in with the chasing, snatching, bothering. In one decisive moment a couple months ago, I put her back with the big girls, come what may.

The square footage of their run is more than twice the recommended (generous) amount. The others eventually wander away from the feeder. Bugs are to be found here and there. I throw leftovers in randomly, plenty for all. I knew she wouldn’t starve. But she sure was getting a lesson in pecking order. They still made her sleep separately.

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What’s a girl to do?

Before I tell you what she did, we must be clear that this is a female chicken. She has no external evidence of being anything else, and I am not going to look further.

If you are not familiar with chickens, let me review the basics.

Status Pecking order is a real thing. We get the very term from chickens. They are good at it, unabashedly cold-shouldering the weaker, smaller, lesser among their flock. I have even seen murder, no kidding. In one fell swoop, Goldyneck went from the top of the order to the bottom. I do not fear for her safety, but it’s her lot. She asked for it.

Eggs Hens lay eggs. Roosters don’t. Roosters fertilize eggs. If you have a rooster in the mix, you will get chicks eventually. If you don’t have a rooster in the mix, you still get eggs.

Noise Hens cackle. Their noises make it seem like they have something caught in their throats. Cackling has its charm, in the evoking-sympathy, is-that-really-the-best-they-can-do sort of way. Roosters crow. They don’t just crow in the morning, the way storybooks present it. They crow all the day long! I find crowing annoying.

Roles Hens are good for eggs, wonderful eggs, and entertainment (they are very funny looking). Roosters are good for lawn ornaments (some people think the chicken picture is not complete without a strutting cock), protection (some predators, not all, might think twice if there is a big rooster defending the ladies in non-protected, open territory), dinner (some people eat them) and fertilization (if you want chicks down the road). I want/need nothing that roosters offer, so I have only hens.

What Do Hens Do All Day? Mine scratch around in the hay and the dirt, looking for anything edible. They eat pretty much anything. They dust themselves in the dry sand under their shelters. They sit to rest and lay their eggs. They get wet in the rain and look ridiculous.

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It’s not a rough life around here: Frequent kitchen scraps. No predators to worry about; (very secure enclosures). No bravado males running around after them always trying to jump on them to get, you know, theirs.

Back to Goldyneck. She seems to have come to terms with her now-permanent location among the big girls as well as her low status. She finds her food and finds a place to lay her eggs.

But this hen, this would-be dominatrix, this bully-taken-down-a-notch, does not cackle. This hen decided to sing!! By singing, I mean crowing. I mean I have a hen that crows! This hen’s got pluck!

She starts in about 530 a.m, before the sun comes up. At first I thought I was hearing my neighbor’s roosters. It’s wintertime and the leaves are down and I reasoned that the sound had to be traveling from Tracy’s coop to my ears. But I was wrong. Early one morning the noise seemed too close so I went out there to investigate. I watched her myself. Thankfully she does her crowing strictly in the early morning, for a few minutes only, and not at all during the day.

She’s some kind of chicken.

You won’t let me chase the silkies, she says. You won’t let me show them how much better I am. You put me in here with these big girls who make me eat last and sleep alone.

Fine. I’ll show you. I’ll call attention to myself another way. I’m cleverer than any of them. I’ll do a thing that you can’t take away from me. I’m special in my own way. And it won’t hurt anyone.

You gotta hand it to her! Hens don’t crow when there is a rooster around, but apparently, rarely, they do crow among just their sisters. Goldyneck had something to prove, and by golly she’s proving it on a daily basis!

Let us all sing in our own way, especially when we can’t do the thing we really want to do 😊

Sliding Snow

As we left to go see Aquaman on Saturday, it was beginning to snow lightly. When we came out of the theater, there was a dusting on the ground and we were glad we had chosen the 3:45 p.m. showing instead of the 7:10. Sunday morning at not quite dawn (you can see the dusk-to-dawn, timed heat lamps still glowing red inside the coops), this scene greeted me.

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I didn’t think the chickens would be eager to put their feet in the cold, white stuff, so I took my time getting out there to open the door for the hens in the new coop. They did not rush out when I raised the door, practically tumbling over one another as usual. They didn’t even peek out. I opened the brooding box doors and found Whitey in her usual spot and Spot still in lala land. Hey, that’s cold air – d’ya mind?!

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I noticed the icicles forming and threw some feed inside for these Unwilling Chickens. If they chose to stay inside for a while, scratching around in the straw to find the grain would give them something to do.

The other group had come through the opening at the top of their little ramp and down into the covered area, but that’s as far as these Reluctant Chickens went. For once they were not clamoring at the door where I stood taking their photo. In order to do that, they would have to step into the cold fluff. For once they did not seem to be begging for food so much as Could you get rid of that foreign material??

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An hour or so later I found these Underneath Chickens that had managed to get as far as the area under their coop. This is not better! How do we get back up and inside??

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Not a fun day for any of them, but I was oddly unsympathetic. They have a heat lamp inside at night! (Not every chicken can boast the same.) They’ll live. Chickens have survived cold before.

What got my attention a little later in the day was the snow sliding off the metal porch roof of the cottage. Look how it’s heavier in the middle and drooping into a fan shape. How cool is that?!

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What I found Monday, after the temperature had risen slightly above freezing and the snow had melted some, was just as interesting. The weight of the snow had come slowly down the two front valleys of the cottage roof, buckling into waves.

(right)

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(left)

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But the best part was the icicles tilting toward the front door.

(right)

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(left)

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It hadn’t been all that windy, so I guessed that the weight of the descending snow had caused this effect. At first I wished I’d had a slow-motion camera going on it all day because surely those icicles were hanging straight down before they veered sideways. Then I thought I should have not only individual shots of the icicles on either side, but the same shot as above with the fan-shaped swath in the middle, only without the fan-shaped swath in the middle because it had already fallen to the porch by the time I took the icicle photos. I went back out not twenty minutes later to try to get this shot – boots, coat, scarf, the whole business – and the icicles on the right had already crashed down to their natural end. So much for that. Only the icicles on the left remained. How quickly things can change!

This made me think about two things:

The moments we capture and the moments we don’t. Our phones make incessant photography and videography possible but let us not get too lazy and make the camera do all the work. Some things we should capture, yes, especially for those who cannot be there. I love seeing a video of my two-year-old granddaughter Piper (in Seattle) telling her very obedient dog to roll over (and Zadie does it!). But no matter what we capture, no matter what we have a glimpse of – there’s always more to the scene, always more that we should/could imagine. Let’s not forget 1. There’s a fuller picture than the glimpses we get, and 2. The best images, the most powerful images – our memories — live almost exclusively in our minds and our hearts, and that’s where they belong. Some of them, to be sure, live only in our imaginations. Let us continually build up that bank, filling it with sweet and wonderful images that sustain us when it’s dark outside, when certain days of wonder are behind us, when the screen is blank.

The expected way and the sideway. Ordinary icicles go straight down on account of this thing called gravity. Not many seemingly have a mind of their own and veer in any non-downward direction — Nah, who wants to go straight down?! Let’s give ‘em something to marvel at! I keep thinking about the extraordinary things people do that they don’t have to, such as Lincoln and Julia building their pentagonal, straw bale insulated house in Vermont. Various well-meaning people said to them, essentially: You have two small children. You live in a cold place. Build something simple – four straight walls, four straight corners, roof, windows, door, water, power, heat – that you can live in temporarily while you then play with funky designs and materials. But Lincoln and Julia chose the unexpected way, the sideway, the harder way. They chose to make their own unique house from the get-go (unconventional yurt in the meantime notwithstanding!), thereby writing their own unique story. The sideway is not always the best option, granted, and we have to think it through and sometimes take our chances, but oh the dividends! Lincoln and Julia not only give us something to marvel at, they also are making lots of deposits in their memory bank!

Tuesday morning the mango peels I threw on the ground inside the chickens’ run on Monday are still there. None ventured into the snow to get them. I opened the door, out they came, still unsure … and they all stood on the platform. Now what? Huh? Now what are we supposed to do?

The others had made their way to the door and begged as usual. Food, remember?? Starving here! (As if!)

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But the icicles! Those on the left had not yet fallen off, but had inched ever slightly downward. Against the backdrop of dawn over the mountains, I felt like I was in a fairy land.

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And the blanket of snow that had formed on the side roof of the cottage, the blanket that yesterday looked like this…

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…now had shifted down and curved inward.

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Nature made a show for me. I’m so glad I was here to see it!

A Golden Visitor

It’s quite impossible to describe softness in words. Or curiosity. Or grace. The best we can do is give examples and hope that our meaning is clear. Yesterday afternoon all three of these words found a beautiful example in one incredible animal. Millie came to visit.

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Millie is a six-month-old golden retriever. She came with my Airbnb cottage guests Frankie and Steve, who graciously let me enjoy some time with her while they went off to an event downtown. What is it about a golden?

I have always been partial to them. For twelve years, this beauty named Candy was a big part of my world. She was a birthday present for Lincoln when he turned 12 and one of those loyal, gentle, intelligent, perfect dogs that come along now and then in this world.

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She accompanied me to school when I taught in an upper elementary Montessori classroom. As the classroom dog, she brought comfort and cheer to the students every day. I remember one fifth grade boy named Jay saying to me as he sat on the floor with her stroking her fur, “If you’re having a bad day, or someone hurts your feelings, you just go to Candy and pet her, and everything is okay again.”

She seemed to be seriously weakening in the fall of 2012. I had planned a trip and was going to be away for almost two weeks. One morning before I left for work, she was lying on her bed, hadn’t moved yet that day. I got down with her to stroke her lovely head before leaving as I always did. “Candy,” I told her, “you go before my trip or after, but not while I’m away, okay?” Later that morning, Bradley came to me in my office and said, “Mom, I’ve never had to do this before.” He had to tell me she was gone.

How does a dog get so attached to our hearts? I cannot say, but I knew Candy would forever be attached to mine. In her memory and honor, I named my property Golden Hill.

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It all came back yesterday when Millie arrived. I’ve had guests with goldens before but have not been able to spend time with them as I could with Millie. We spent hours outside. I sat with her on the deck of the cottage stroking that amazingly soft fur. We walked over to the coop, she staying right with me as a good dog does. I watched her stare at the chickens – totally, utterly intrigued.

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Around the perimeter of the coop complex she padded noiselessly and gracefully, as if seeing them from a different angle would answer the question written all over her gorgeous face: What are they?

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What are those noises they make? How do they balance those odd bodies on those two ridiculous legs?

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No, I mean seriously: What are they?

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Maybe if I get a little closer…

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Maybe not.

And this one, with the fluffy head… What IS that?

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So I let her inside to see what she would do. Her curiosity was just as intense.

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The chickens, as you can see, were not as interested in her as she was in them.

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Their MO was to get as far from her as they could. Clearly a face-to-face would not be possible without a little help. So I introduced her to them up close and personal.

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No, still no idea…

Millie may have remained baffled, but my day was completely wonderful – I got to enjoy this perfect golden for a few hours. She is and will undoubtedly henceforth be a joy beyond words to Steve and Frankie. I am so thrilled for them. It is not everyday that a dog like this comes into your life.

Two Brooders

After Christmas it’s easy to feel tired. Not only do we have all the preparation – the packages, the meals, the travel, the extra this and that not normally in the routine – but we also have the interactions, the conversations and the ideas that floated around and made us think about new things or old things in a new way or things we just haven’t thought about for a while.

And then today it rained besides. It rained so much I had a rivulet of water flowing downhill by way of my little stream bed, exactly where it’s supposed to flow. Don’t you love it when things work the way you set them up to work?

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But I don’t think we can blame Christmas for the two depressed and brooding chickens in my coop right now. They didn’t have to make, get or wrap packages, or prepare meals for guests. They don’t have to rewind the conversations of the family and friend get-togethers in their heads at night, wondering if they listened well enough or if they could have said something a little more clearly (or why Aunt Mildred always has to tell the same old stories!).

And we can’t blame the rain either because it just started last night and these birds have been holing up for a few weeks now, a thing chickens do sometimes apparently. This one we call Blue on account of her blue ears.

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See her in there? Almost any time you look, you will find her in that exact spot. We toss her into the run several times daily so she will go get water and food, but she spends most of her time huddled down on this side of the (rightly named) brooding box. Maybe she’s still scared of Goldyneck, reliving the nightmare of having her tail feathers yanked. I expect she was so traumatized that she has not noticed the blessed truth – Goldyneck has been (perhaps permanently) banished. That’s right. I watched her relentless bullying one too many times. Here she is on the other side of the fence with the Big Girls, clueless as ever. Somehow she’s surviving being Low Girl on the Totem Pole.

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The other Brooder is Whitey. I disturbed her to check for eggs underneath (and found a small white one, still warm!) so she is not as tucked in as Blue. Nonetheless she spends as much time on her side of the brooding box as she can.

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The UPside of being a Brooder – today – is that Blue and Whitey are the only two chickens that are dry. The incessant rain does not change the looks of the Brahma Girls. You would not know it’s raining to look at this one

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or her sister.

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Nor are the Reds much affected by the wet weather. Don’t you want woobly red things hanging down from your chin like that!?

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But the silkies, the poor silkies. The rain is not their friend. Fluff turns to spikes in no time. Here’s One-Eye (and that’s the one eye) in glorious spikes. If you look carefully you can see her blue ear.

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Wait, she has blue ears too?  All the silkies do. Here, when she leans over you can see it better.

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Why we call one of the silkies Blue when all of the silkies have blue ears I cannot explain.

Spot is the most spikey if you ask me. Those are some serious spikes.

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But they don’t seem to notice. They walk around in the pouring rain as if they don’t look even more ridiculous than usual. And a night inside with that marvelous heat lamp going… (is this the life or what??)

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…and they will all be fluffy and dry again by morning. Ah, to be a chicken on Golden Hill!! Now why can’t the Brooders see it that way?

First Snow for the Chickens

Today it snowed! It doesn’t always snow when they say it will, but today the weather forecasters were right. We have at least six inches and it’s still coming down, which negated our plans to go see the Russian Ballet perform the Nutcracker on stage in Charlottesville this evening. I’m not sure I ever had to forfeit theater tickets before because of weather. But Samuel made his homemade pizza instead and that was quite a consolation.

Even if it wrecks your theater plans, snow is so beautiful.When it first started to blanket the cedar tree in the middle of the circle, I could see from inside the house the white Christmas lights through the light frosting of powder – it was magical. Outside it was very pretty too, but you could hardly see the lights.

I headed for the garden shed to get the snow shovels and realized that this was the first time my chickens have seen snow! They hatched at the beginning of this past March and were indoors for their first 6-8 weeks. How would they like it? What would they do?

What would you do if you were a chicken? Do you see any chickens?? I didn’t!

Oh, there they are! Underneath! I did not expect a snowy day to turn into an I-feel-proud-of-my-chickens day, but it did. I have Smart Chickens! My chickens stayed out of the snow!

The stuff is cold and wet! What did you expect??

Anyway where did all the bugs go?

I somehow expected the Sewing Circle to be this sensible. They are the bigger hens (which does not make them smarter, I know!), and their sheltered area leads directly into their coop. I’ve marked their little door leading inside, or where it starts anyway – it’s behind that post. I watched them and wondered if they would go inside or continue to tramp around in their very small un-snowed-upon area not wanting to get their cold feet. All they have to do is go up a small ramp from where they are and they will be fully sheltered inside the coop.

In no time they went in on their own, not quite sure what to do in there in the daytime. Normally they come in here only to sleep and to lay eggs. Hey, ‘scuse me, pardon me, looking for something to eat here!

To my delight the Bridge Club was also trying to stay dry! There they were, all huddled up in an even smaller un-snowed-upon area.

It’s cold, lady!

And there’s no way inside from here!

We’re stuck!

It’s true. The configuration of the new coop and run is different than the old one. To get inside, these chickens would have to venture into the white, wet stuff and then make their way up a much bigger, possibly slippery ramp. See it in this next photo?

Poor little silkies! You can tell from how fluffy their heads are that they did not get wet first and then seek shelter. Good little silkies! Why is it that I don’t feel as sorry for their coop-mates? Oh, right, that group includes the one that thinks she’s a rooster, croaking out a sickly sounding half-crow now and then, and the one that won’t let you catch her easily, even when you need to, and the one that insists on bullying the silkies every single morning when I let them out! (She still does, yes, and the silkies endure it…)

But one and all were cold and getting colder, so we picked them up (though none seemed the least bit happy about it), and put them inside their coop and shut the door against the wind. None of them had to get their feet wet or brave the ramp. When it gets warm again we should perhaps build them an easier way in, like a wheelchair ramp, long and gradual, nice and wide (well, maybe not wheelchair-wide!) so they don’t worry on their way up or down. Is this necessary? Would you do this for them?

Bored Chickens? Say It Isn’t So!

I asked Samuel to put an ax to a pumpkin yesterday. I did this because my Aunt Vivian gave me an idea. She suggested that my chickens might be bored. Bored??!! We can’t have that! Not in a place that proclaims unboringness to the world.

It had not occurred to me that chickens would be bored, could be bored, though I suppose on an unconscious level that’s possible? Vivian’s daughter Deb, my cousin, also keeps chickens, and apparently has had similar harassment problems among them. Let me assure you of what we all already knew: Chickens don’t learn. Despite her recent banishment because of harassing the silkies, yesterday morning I watched Goldyneck pull feathers out from Whitey’s tail! Just came along behind her for no apparent reason, right after I’d let them out for the day, and snatched and yanked at those fluffy feathers. I did not banish her this time, standing firm as I was (for the moment) in They will work it out. Whitey retreated to the under-coop space and Goldy minded her own business, for a while anyway.

Deb has mitigated the boredom-leading-to-harassment problem by putting a hay bale in the run, giving the chickens something to do. They’ll scratch at it and break it apart looking for something edible or at least interesting within. Okay, I’m on board. I’ll supplement They will work it out with Give them something to do. I had a bale available but remembered the pumpkins on the cottage deck.

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Yes, that thing to the left of the orange pumpkin is also a pumpkin. Some of you may recall my stating very clearly my preference for orange pumpkins back in October when I went to Bob’s Corn and Pumpkin Farm in Snohomish, Washington. Thanks to Sandy’s thoughtfulness, I came home from that trip to a variety of pumpkins decorating the outdoor space at the cottage, including this unconventional, clearly-not-orange one. It’s an unboring pumpkin – I’ll give it that!

Nonetheless its day had come. After Thanksgiving you have to do something with the pumpkins and other fall adornments you picked up while creating the harvest image, if you have them, which I don’t. (Oh right, I did buy one of those tiny gourds for the little round table in the cottage. I am aware that gourds don’t have feelings, but I still feel bad just chucking it into the woods…)

It is unclear to me why I thought I couldn’t break up this pumpkin myself. The image of Samuel swinging an ax while chopping cords of firewood, the whack of the blade against the hunk of wood, the crack of the splintering fibers unable to resist the force from above, yes, that’s probably what did it. Pumpkins however, especially old pumpkins, are not like wood. It doesn’t take much to break them. Just dropping this one on the ground got things going big time.

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But what the heck. He agreed and it was fun to watch him with the ax. Notice he does not yet have an audience.

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The first whack practically did the job. Had I done this myself, assuming I could lift the ax high enough to come down where it needed to, assuming enough accuracy not to just land the blade in the straw, bemoaning my weak arms all the while, I might have managed a similar split, then flipped it, cut side up, and given the other one to the Sewing Circle – half a pumpkin for each group of chickens, as I did with the watermelon – and stopped there, called it a day.

But no. Whack away, son of mine! The birds began to be curious.

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By the time he was done breaking up half for the Bridge Club and half for the Sewing Circle, there were scattered pieces of pumpkin, a way better situation anyway so that you don’t have them all crowding around one mass of food and possibly competing and showing each other who’s bigger or pushier. This would clearly defeat the purpose of the pumpkin giving them something to do so that they annoy each other less.

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Boring is a slippery slope to me, always has been. I bristled against the word when my children were small. They seldom used bored to describe themselves to me or to complain perhaps because they tried it once or twice (for sympathy maybe, or for a kind of attention?) and when they said it, breathed the very word, I immediately replied with something like, “Here’s a broom. How about sweeping the floor?” They soon learned to occupy their time in engaging and rather more pleasurable ways.

Time is short. We don’t know what’s around the next bend. And the world is so rich, so full of interesting things to do and learn and see and taste and feel and laugh about and listen to and ask questions about and marvel at! How is boredom possible in such a world? We are limited only by our willingness – within our individual capacities of course – to think, to imagine, to stretch, to wonder, to engage, to love, to serve, to explore. And of course by our obstinacy, as in doggedly determining that Boredom will not reside here. Not even in my chicken coops!

Hmmm, what’s this!!??

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It’s a hunk of something that wasn’t here before, sister! Have at it! What a life, eh? Never a dull moment!! 

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The Chicken Conundrum: Part 2

I woke this morning to the sound of rain. It was still dark. I did not immediately remember the small rug I had hung out over the back-deck railing last night because it had gotten wet from the leaking (unbeknownst-to-me-turned-off) freezer – it is surely wetter now. I did not remember the itty-bitty splinters in my hands from when the front porch was wet (and a bit icy) yesterday morning and I had slipped and caught myself by reaching for the rough cedar siding of the house. Instead my mind flashed to the chickens – dry in their coops now, but not for long!

Bedraggled is the best word for them when they have been standing in the rain, seemingly oblivious to it, for even a short while. I can provide them a palatial coop, I can make sure they have space under it to escape nasty weather, but I cannot keep them from getting wet.

Do you see the beginning of what was already a bad hair day starting to get worse? This photo, taken on another wet day back when the leaves were still green, shows the clumps and points and spikes beginning. In the rain, the silkie’s crown of fluffy feathers gets clumpier and clumpier, pointier and pointier, spikier and spikier and ultimately flatter and flatter. Hey, that’s my crown you’re talking about!silkie9.18 (2) beginning of bad hair day.jpg

No offense, Missy, but there’s not a lot of brain in your fluffy head.

Then I opened my phone and saw Claudia’s thoughtful response to my recent Banishment-Harassment Conundrum post. Regarding what to do with Goldyneck, my black copper maran that unmercifully harasses the silkies in her coop, was banished therefrom and subsequently reunited with the smaller hens, Claudia wrote:

Great observation and great metaphor for social analysis. Analogies help us think, they unfold a truth and point out connecting and turning points. But at one point a chicken stays a chicken and a human being – convicted or not – is a human being with the ability to think, feel and change if that human being recognizes a need to change plus receives the needed support. That is the pedagogy and assumption in me. Chickens on the other hand follow their instincts. Goldyneck will be at the lowest level in her new society until someone newer and weaker than her joins. If you keep her at her new place much longer – guess what – I think she will be the new one again and start from the lowest position. Sociology. No logical thinking patterns in chickens, no rational thinking just instincts, NO empathy. That’s where the original analogy ends and where we need to look for a new one that helps us think further and put our findings into understanding. How about a heart: We as humans have the ability to feel and build emotions in various contexts. Chickens don’t have that part – they “feel” pain because of their neural system but they are missing the emotional heart.
Thank you for making us think!

To which I say:

On the contrary, my friend — you are the one making us think.

Any analogy we make (including the one I had made comparing chickens to humans) goes only so far. Always, always, let us remember that behind every statistic, behind every story, there are individuals who act in certain ways in part because they are genetically programmed that way (we breathe to get air into our bodies, we run from fire because we naturally self-preserve) and in part because it’s what we individually want (for dinner, say) or what we thought would be the best course of action (such as quitting a job or choosing a mate). The thinking part distinguishes us from our feathered friends.

Chickens lean heavily, almost exclusively, toward the actions that are genetically programmed (pick on the little guy to establish pecking order). The image of Goldyneck being excluded from the watermelon circle,

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watching the others play out the who-invited-you? scenario, kept coming back to me, indeed weighed on me. In sixth grade – I remember it as if it were yesterday, there we were in the elementary school gym – as I myself attempted to merely stand with a small group of girls (I was not trying to share the watermelon!), those were the words I heard: “Who invited you?”

Unlike Goldy, who in her chicken-ness is alone but probably clueless as to why, I, being human, felt the pain of that exclusion. It reached my emotional heart and lodged there and over time turned into an understanding of human pecking order, as real as chicken pecking order, and a bristling within myself whenever I see anything that resembles this kind of behavior practiced maliciously.

But as emotionally challenging as my own experience was back then, my ability to reflect/think/reason kicked in regarding Goldyneck. She is never going to learn. And as Claudia so beautifully pointed out, all her relocation will accomplish is simply a different pecking order. Within hours of posting the first conundrum blog I came to this same conclusion, and I put Goldyneck back where she had started, with her Bridge Club, among her silkie girlfriends.

They’ll work it out, I said to myself. In their primitive way, the silkies will find a way to hold their own — as by extension, all of us who are deemed “lesser” somehow will do with whatever emotional and social capacities we have (or don’t have) naturally within us or (let us hope) we have developed over time. There will always be those who are bigger, stronger, more powerful, more strategically placed — and more bent on asserting such. It has never been otherwise, and never will be. We all simply do the best we can with what we have wherever we are. Or at least we should be trying to do the best we can. Regarding How to think and How to feel – let us never imagine that we have arrived at the pinnacle of either, but always know we have a ways to go in improving both.

Upon approaching the coop this morning as daylight increased and rain slackened, I observed the Bridge Club – the smaller chickens just waiting to be let out, curious about me on the other side of the wire. Goldyneck was among them, waiting too, curious too, behaving as you would hope, minding her own business.

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I went around to the other side and opened the egg door. She was the first one out, loaded with energy, scuttling around on her two funny feet. Then didn’t she find a silkie to peck!! She comes up from behind and grabs hold of the feathers on the back of the silkie and pulls a bit. For no apparent reason! This poor thing, the one we call Spot, was the harassed one this time, but she managed to distance herself and find a place of peace under the coop. (Do note her dry head at this time — they had emerged just minutes ago from the coop.)

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The way of the world is not so nice sometimes, but she found her corner. We all find our corners. Goldyneck continued to traipse around the run, but for as long as I stayed out there refilling food and water, she didn’t bother any of her coop-mates again. Who knows what moves her to annoy the others? Who knows why she stops? There are some things you cannot know, some things to just leave alone (until she gets my dander up again!).

When I returned an hour later – after the rain had started up again, after the not-overly-bright birds had stood in it for a while, I saw the natural outcome of small brains + rainy weather. As Sandy so aptly remarked: Punk is alive and well 😊

Hey, that’s my crown you’re talking about!

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The Chicken Banishment-Harassment Conundrum

Pecking order is a very real thing. What should I do with a bully chicken that has been unmercifully pecking the silkies recently? This is the question of the day. I gave the offender, Goldyneck, time-out by putting her in the coop with the big girls, and I know very well that her brain is miniscule and will not in any way connect her new location to her crime. I also know that the tables have turned and she is the one now subject to bullying, shunning and other downsides of her present banishment.

For example, I had a small watermelon in the fridge that sadly I had not been able to get to last week, and it was a bit soft. You don’t want soft watermelon, to say nothing of the vague strangeness of eating watermelon in November, which I could handle better if the fruit were not bordering on mushy. But the combination of too-soft plus nip-in-the-air put me over the edge and the watermelon went to the chickens.

Clearly Miss Goldyneck is being left out here. C’mon, girlfriends, let me have some!

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She circled around and tried to come at it from the other side.

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Forget it, sister. No one invited you. They are not making room for her, no way. Finally she gave up and walked away.

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Not only that. I went in later to give them some other food – fabulous picked chicken carcasses that my local deli manager ok’d me taking home. (I was at the deli and saw that they had pulled the meat off the rotisserie chickens for chicken salad. Those carcasses were just sitting there… I asked for them and they kindly gave them to me and my mother said, “You have no shame.” I said My chickens will love this stuff! They will pick every possible bit of what’s edible off these bones! It’s protein. They eat bugs!)

Anyway, I went in to give them a portion of these bones that I brought home and didn’t see Goldyneck. A slight moment of panic was followed by a glimpse of black feathers.

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No, she wasn’t dead, she was hiding under the coop. I scattered the carcass bones such that she could get to some of them without problem. There was enough to go around. (Thank you, my deli manager!) My poor offender got some, no doubt.

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You don’t know what it’s like for me! These monster chickens are always bothering me! Save me! (So I can go back to bothering the silkies!)

Are you feeling sorry for her yet? Part of me does, I admit. But I am torn. This is the same chicken who was harassing my silkies in the other coop. While saving the silkies from harassment, I am subjecting the harasser – who has no capacity to see reason – to the same. In protecting victims, I create a victim. The obvious parallels to our human prison systems do not escape me.

Chances are also good that in the silkies are now being harassed by the second most aggressive chicken in the Bridge Club, who is relieved that Goldyneck is gone so she can practice her own techniques. I might not have made anything better. I don’t know if this is true, but it could be, and I will continue to watch this drama unfold.

Last night I went to check on them after dark and found the shunning continuing. There she is, by herself, under the roosting ledge, alone in the world!shunned 2_LI (2).jpg

There are no easy answers to this situation, but your thoughts are appreciated. I don’t know what to do!