March 16th, 2014 §
As expected, the eggs under the broody hen began hatching this morning. I was outside doing chores and cleaning up the garage for a long time and heard nothing. I finally peeked under the hen and all these teetering yellow fluffballs started peeping. My heart almost burst from a combination of gratitude, excitement, and awe.
I can’t really explain this emotion I get from hatching chicks, but it’s addictive and drug-like and makes me feel better than few other things. I suspect it stems from bearing witness to the divine, to seeing something so commonplace and taken-for-granted as a chicken egg turn, in just twenty days, into a walking, chirping, perfectly formed and bright-eyed living being.
I don’t consider myself particularly religious, and I don’t have children and probably never will. But I imagine that what I feel watching these chicks develop in their eggs and hatch is a microcosm of both experiences. A microcosm of a miracle. So infinitesimal, and so huge.
March 9th, 2014 §
Tonight I snuck a peek inside some of the eggs incubating under the broody hen in the garage. It is much warmer tonight than last Sunday, so I felt comfortable taking a few photos to show you the developing chicks. Again, for a candler I just use a Mag-Light flashlight with the end duct taped but for a dime-sized hole. Here’s what the embryos look like at 14 days:
I didn’t candle all the eggs, but I did enough to determine that I have at least a few little Wheaten Ameraucanas (baby Coras) in development. The pale blue eggs are much easier to see into than brown eggs. If you want to see what the embryos look like inside at this stage, click here.
I didn’t make out too much movement, but that’s typical for this stage of development. Each embryo should soon be flipping around in its shell, pointing its head toward the rapidly-shrinking air cell (the bright, clear blue area in egg) in preparation for breaking through it with their egg tooth at hatching.
There are nine possibly viable eggs left under the hen. Props to the still-unnamed broody hen for keeping all these eggs warm during some seriously cold temperatures last week when it was well below freezing on her nest. If all continues to go well, we might have some St. Patrick’s Day chicks!
March 1st, 2014 §
Last night I drank half a glass of wine and candled the 15 eggs I’d put under a newly broody hen Sunday. What, this isn’t your idea of a rocking Friday night?
Maybe not for most people, but for me candling eggs induces Christmas-morning excitement. There are few things cooler in this world than getting to peek into an intact egg, with nothing more than a flashlight, and see bright red veins, a beating blob of heart and small dark eye. It is a magic trick, a miracle, and all those other things that make me grateful to be along for this wild ride.
Out of fifteen eggs, eight were definitely on the road to becoming chicks. One egg was a big fat question mark, and I magnanimously returned it to the clutch. I suspected five eggs were infertile, and in the interest of self education I risked destroying embryos to crack the eggs into a white bowl to check. All five were totally clear. My instinct and eye must be getting sharper.
I didn’t take any photos of the developing eggs this time because I wanted them to be out in the cold air as little as possible. In fact, I withdrew them from under their mother two at a time, quickly candled them, and then snuggled them into a pan full of clean towels to hold their heat as much as possible. The whole operation was over in minutes. My pipes may have fallen victim to the polar vortex, but my potential chicks shouldn’t. If you want to see candling photos, they’re here.
I have high hopes for this hen as a broody. She’s one of last summer’s olive egger babies, and there’s a 50% chance she is Dahlia’s daughter. I only mention that because broodiness is a genetic trait. The young broody started plucking her breast feathers out a few weeks ago, and then hunkered down on all her flockmates’ eggs, hissing violently at any chicken that got too close. She’s the only broody out of the four I’ve had that’s actually pecked at me when I reached under her, and I take this feistiness as a good sign. I suppose I should name her as she’s definitely distinguishing herself.
I was on the fence about whether to do chicks again, but finally decided that it’s the best part of chicken keeping and costs me nothing. So I moved the broody to a coop in the garage, where she settled immediately despite being moved during the day, having a raucous rooster (Griz) in the coop next door, and me driving the loud and stinky tractor in and out right after the move. She remained steadfast, I set the eggs, and here we are.
I placed four eggs from my Coronation Sussex, two from last year’s olive egger babies, and nine Wheaten Ameraucana eggs from Cora under the hen. I removed all four of the Coronation eggs tonight, which were all infertile, and one Wheaten Ameraucana egg that was one of the oldest I placed, and had also cycled through the refrigerator as I waffled. I find it telling that my Coronation Sussex hen is the only bird that still has luxuriant feathers on her back and all her eggs were infertile. The hens that laid the fertile eggs are all looking a bit sparse back there because of Calabrese’s attentions. Another lesson learned—keep an eye out for “favorite” hens when scouting future mothers.
I just read back through last summer’s pained posts on hatching eggs, and I have to say that after that experience and this, I will never again let a hen set eggs in the middle of the summer. I realize now that the heat was really detrimental, leading to spoiled eggs that burst and contaminated the nest, and to chicks that were born prematurely and deformed. Incubating in the winter is the way to go. Live and learn.
But then again, we’re only five days into the 21-day incubation period, so let’s not count our chicks before they hatch, right?
January 20th, 2014 §
All that pottering in the garden yesterday was barely enough to keep me warm. To get the blood flowing I split some kindling, enough to get a few more wood stove fires going. I tore into a few rounds of of choke cherry cut this time last year when I cleared my wood line. It felt really good to split this beautiful red wood that I knew when it was still a living tree, festooned with honeysuckle and girded with wild brambles.
I was heavily supervised by the quality control team, which didn’t seem too perturbed when an errant piece of cherry clocked one of them in the head. That Griz (rooster, lower right) really keeps an eye on everything. He’s a personable rooster if I ever saw one—maybe because as an embryo he was rescued from a refrigerator and I held him in my hand within seconds of him kicking free of his eggshell?
That makes me think of one of the most unexpectedly wonderful, and sometimes heartbreaking, aspects of this whole farm life. Whether it’s working to turn a living tree into fuel to heat my house or raising generations of homegrown chickens, it is beautiful to see cycles, and lifecycles, complete themselves under my watch.
I started stacking the kindling and this one, my English shadow, maneuvered himself right into portrait position and smiled for the camera with no direction from me. The Cora photobomb was similarly unscripted.
Speaking of Cora, she’s another country heard from with yesterday’s egg collection. Along with two small green eggs, and one large brown Dahlia egg, I found a pointy blue egg that could only have come from Cora. It’s one of less than ten that she’s ever laid in her life, which makes each of her eggs worth probably $100 when you figure in the cost of feed. If I hadn’t felt this little dear die and resurrect under my fingers, if I hadn’t become intimately acquainted with every muscle and vein of her skinless head as I fought to keep infection and fly infestation at bay, she would have long been Craigslisted by now.
But Cora still here, and once in a blue moon she lays a pointy turquoise egg. To my appreciation and great delight.
January 6th, 2014 §
What a wonderfully evocative/apocalyptic name for this weather phenomenon affecting much of the U.S.! Central Virginia is being swirled into its embrace as I write. The temperature dropped 16 degrees in the last three hours, and the thermometer outside my kitchen window now reads 10 degrees at only 9:00 p.m.
This evening I turned on a red heat bulb in the chicken coop. As long as they have access to unfrozen water and plenty of food, chickens are just fine in low temperatures without supplemental heat—they snuggle close together on the roost and they are, after all, walking around wrapped in feather duvets. But with projected temperatures near zero with a wind chill warning, tonight I figured I would help them out a little bit by closing up their windows and heating their coop. It’s very rare that I use heat in the coop—in my climate it’s really not necessary.
If you’re considering heating a chicken coop with a light bulb, make sure the fixture is securely installed and not just precariously hanging. The risk of fire is too high otherwise. One of my friends burned down his garage when a light fixture he’d suspended over a broody box of chicks fell into their bedding. Imagine just how fast a wooden coop filled with pine shavings would go up in smoke should a lit heat bulb fall into the bedding. That would be one hell of a rotisserie!
I nailed my light fixture to a rafter and used cable clips to secure the extension cord that powers it to the walls, safe from being pulled down by either people and chickens. The set-up has worked great thus far, and even though I rarely use light or heat in the coop, it’s wonderful to have it there for these polar vortex situations! Which, by the way, and despite the howling winds, I am loving (from the warm coziness of my woodstove-heated snug little home). I have high hopes that all the ticks, squash bugs, harlequin bugs, bean beetles, etc. that plague my person, pets and garden will be totally obliterated in the next two days. A girl can dream!
December 7th, 2013 §
Tonight we’re under the first winter storm warning of the season. A real mess of snow, sleet and freezing rain is predicted for tonight into Sunday evening. With the possibility of ice comes the probability of power outages, so I took some time today to prepare.
Power outages in the winter are actually better than outages in the summer. It’s much easier to heat a space than it is to cool it. I have a wood stove, which keeps my home as warm as I want it without any electricity, and I can cook on top of it. Additionally, I can light my gas stove with a match and easily boil water for tea, to heat up my food, or for washing up. The biggest challenge is actually obtaining water, as without power my well pump doesn’t work. So any time a storm is due I go into water collection mode, filling five gallon buckets and storing them in the garage to water the chickens. I fill my big brew kettle inside for my drinking and cooking water. I also fill a bath tub in order to have water for flushing toilets and bathing. All this would last me about a week, in winter, maybe more. Beyond this, if I ran through my cut wood and drawn water and the roads were blocked, I know that I can walk into my woods and cut and carry enough dead, downed wood to run the stove, and I can haul enough water from the creek to boil and drink.
I have a refrigerator and freezer full of food, and when that’s gone there are enough stapes—flour, yeast, canned beans, tinned fish, sugar, etc. in my pantry that I’d be fed for quite a while. A friend who was here for Thanksgiving took a look at all the packaged broth I had stored and joked that I was preparing for the apocolypse. Maybe. And outside in the winter garden are rows of frost-sweetened arugula, kale, mustard, chard and broccoli raab, all of which are happy to hibernate under snow, so I won’t want for fresh greens. And if push really came to shove, I’ve got ten fat chickens roosting in the coop, and the tools and knowledge and mental willingness to turn them into meat. I’d start with the roosters, then move on to the nonproductive hens, and so on.
Food storage during a power outage in winter isn’t usually a problem, as if it’s cold enough to make an ice storm it’s most likely cold enough to use the back porch as a refrigerator. So anything perishable gets moved from the fridge to the porch. And I’d eat my way through what’s left in the freezer as it defrosted.
So heat, water and food are taken care of. The car’s full of gas, for charging a cell phone that doesn’t get much of a signal here anyway. That leaves light, which some could argue is really a luxury and not a necessity. But light is easily accomplished with an arsenal of rechargeable lanterns, flashlights and carefully-contained candles. And even in the absence of light, remember I built this house from a hole in the ground on up, repositioning light switches as they were installed to most easily meet my grasp. Sometimes I feel like I wear this building like a second skin, and to navigate it in complete darkness is as intuitive as reaching out to touch my toes.
As I put the house in order tonight, thinking ahead in anticipation of potentially losing power and being house-bound by ice, I kept coming back to this idea of survival. Of course this concept is relative, and compared to many in the world even suffering through an extended power outage in my home would be their very definition of luxury. But I live here, not there, and this is the survival that is relevant to me. I am also a relatively young, single woman, making these winter preparations on my own instead of counting on a husband or boyfriend to take care of me, my animals, and my home. Other than a few bloggers, I don’t know any one else in this position.
Fortunately survival is really more a state of mind than a set of strapping male muscles. Thankfully I was raised by parents who between the two of them, had they been born 150 years earlier, no doubt would have been leading the Conestoga wagons across the frontier, such was their self-reliant determination, intelligence, and ability. I spent years during college and after camping across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and that helped hone my ability to stay warm, fed and hydrated in all sorts of backcountry situations. And finishing school was living in an off-the-grid, no road access log cabin in Alaska, where I learned how to run a wood stove and take an entire bath in a saucepan of melted snow.
All of these experiences culminate in nights like tonight, when I go to sleep knowing that no matter what the weather brings tomorrow, I will survive. I will be fine. I will be better than fine. As the ice sluices down, whether the power is on or not, my animals will be fed and watered, I’ll be curled by the wood stove with a hot mug of tea in my hands, and I will thrive. There is hardly anything I’ve done personally or professionally of which I am proud. But to be able to say that I have the knowledge, skills, and mindset to survive when the comforts of modern life disappear under a quarter inch coating of ice is the greatest accomplishment of my life.
December 6th, 2013 §
Another olive egger pullet has come online. Yesterday I got two olive pullet eggs, and I figured out that their mother Dahlia is responsible for the big brown egg. She’s setting a good example!
These little olive eggs are so amazing. They’re like the eggs of some exotic species. And today I got one more! The pullets are twenty-one weeks old this week. Eventually the pullets should produce full-size eggs—these are just their starter eggs. Thus I am especially appreciating them because I know they are a fleeting phenomenon.
Something I never knew before I had chickens is that a hen will consistently lay eggs of basically the same shape and color, with the same amount of speckling. If you pay attention, this makes it easy to know which bird is laying which eggs, and how often, and gives you a good idea of a particular hen’s productivity. For example, I can tell from looking at the photo above that different pullets are laying the olive eggs, even if I didn’t know they were both laid on the same day, as one egg is browner with speckles, and the other is a clear, lighter olive. And the first egg I got this week was laid by the pullet that produces speckled olive eggs.
December 3rd, 2013 §
I had a completely unexpected surprise today as I was feeding the chickens. I glanced into their nest box and saw this:
Ever since the girls quit laying for the winter—many weeks ago—I’d stopped checking their nest box for eggs. But it turns out that even without any supplemental light, and headed into the darkest days of winter, at least two chickens are making an effort. One, laying the large brown egg, is either Dahlia or her Black Copper Marans sister. And the other laying chicken is a homegrown olive egger pullet, which is a total surprise as the chicks were born so late this summer that I hadn’t expected any of the four young pullets to lay before next spring.
This little olive pullet egg is the first egg from a chicken born and raised right here on Bonafide Farm. She’s a second-generation Bonafide bird, and a science experiment begun two years ago when I raised her Wheaten Ameraucana (blue egg-laying) and Black Copper Marans (dark brown egg-laying) parents with the hope that their genes would combine to produce a chicken that lays an olive egg.
And today, with this first beautiful olive pullet egg, I can claim success. Well, as much as one can having not actually laid the egg myself!
For more on how this pullet came to be, head on back to July 2013…
November 24th, 2013 §
A friend and Tuck and I took a long hike up to Blue Hole and further up the mountain to Shenandoah National Park.
Tuck in one of the swimming holes along the North Fork of the Morman’s River. It hasn’t rained in a long time, and the water was low and crystal clear, the rivers easy to cross. This is the first and last time during the hike that Tuck got totally submerged. He figured out pretty fast that mountain streams in late November aren’t the same temperature as they are in summer!
The last of the fall color. Just about all the leaves are down now, and it’s looking very wintery.
Blue Hole. This is where my friends and I did most of our swimming growing up. With the water snakes, timber rattlers, copperheads and ticks. Rural childhood. You can jump off those big rocks below and not hit the bottom of the hole.
Yesterday I gave away one of the roosters that hatched this past summer. He’s turned into a handsome guy, but there’s no way I need three roosters in a small coop. This guy went home with a jolly lady and her young son—found via CraigsList—to rule over his own flock of hens. So he’s on to a better life, and I am happy about it. I knew he would be well-treated when his new owner asked what he prefers for treats! HA!
October 15th, 2013 §
After harvesting more than 100 ears of ‘Glass Gem’ corn, I needed to do something with it. A harvest wreath was the perfect project. I love to make wreaths—I love the seasonal symbolism of them and the way they act as jewelry for the house, dressing it up in a way that shows that the person who lives there cares enough to make the public face of their home pretty and welcoming.
However, the wreaths one most often encounters in stores are all too frequently plasticly hideous, reminding me of cheap gravestone decor, while being simultaneously, ironically expensive. It’s very hard to find a good wreath, which in my definition is one that looks natural and fairly understated, while also having enough going on to be interesting. The wreath should also be complementary to the home that it’s decorating.
Because I am picky about wreaths, I tend to make my own each season. I’ve done fall fruit wreaths, winter greens wreaths and spring wildflower wreaths, but I’d never before attempted an Indian corn wreath. It was a bit of a learning curve, but here’s how it all went down.
I got a few cheap wire wreath frames, and then I set to work sorting my best-looking ‘Glass Gem’ corn by length into separate buckets. I figured I had enough good corn for two fairly substantial wreaths. Then I did a test fit for the first wreath, choosing the ears for the four cardinal directions and then filling in between them with a nice balance of colors.
I soon realized that the corn wasn’t thick enough to totally hide the wire frame. I did two things to fix this issue. First, I wired some pieces of rafia sheeting, which were actually cut-up IKEA window screens that I’d had for many years, to the wire base. Second, I folded a few pieces of corn husk back behind each cob, trimming the husk that stuck out past the end of the cob.
After I hot glued each ear down, they still needed more support to stay on the frame. I had to make two points of connection on each ear to keep them from flopping around or falling off when the wreath was hung. I got a big needle and some very fine gauge wire and sewed each ear onto the frame, going around twice. The silver wire blended in pretty well and wasn’t too noticeable. I tied the wires off in the back of the wreath, leaving them long enough that I could tighten them again should the corn shrink as it dries.
And then I just kept going, glueing and wiring the corn in place, all while sitting on the floor of the garage.
It took a long time to fuss with each piece to make it look nice, but I had lots of company.
In fact, the chickens seemed pretty happy to be snacking on runaway ‘Glass Gem’ corn kernels. What a gourmet treat!
Once I got all the corn cobs attached, I went back and filled in some thin-looking spots with extra corn husk. Some of cobs had lost their husks entirely, so I hot-glued prosthetic husks to them. And then I got some wheat stems (picked up at the craft store) and glued them in between each cob for another layer of interest. I trimmed the tips of some of the cobs with my pruners to help make the negative space in the center of the wreath as even as possible.
After a test-hang to check for any weird-looking spots, the wreath was ready for the front door. I couldn’t have picked better corn colors to go with my house!
And then I made another for wreath for my mom’s front door. The wreaths have been hanging almost a month and seem to be holding up pretty well. They’re both on protected porches, which I am sure helps to extend their life. But if they should decide to take a turn for the ugly, I know a bunch of chickens that would be pretty thrilled to help dispose of the remnants of my harvest wreath.