This blog has been neglected for several weeks now and frankly there is no real break in sight, at least not until the end of this month. Sarah is swamped with summer school, trying to get ahead enough credits so that she may take all the electives she needs to successfully apply to art school, and the computer is in use for up to seven hours a day trying to accommodate this demand. Summer school has not only consumed her life but most of my free time also. So to write this blog I either have to highjack the computer or do it in the wee hours of the morning. Morning is usually the time reserved for cooking (before the house gets too hot), laundry (again before the house gets too hot) and devotions (because this is usually the only one on one private time God and I get in a day).
That being said yesterday was a momentous enough day that I feel it necessary to steal back my laptop for a few minutes to update the blog. Over the last few weeks there have been lots of things I’ve wanted to share but very little time to share them. Between Sarah’s school work, homestead chores and a small camping weekend (and with my fleeting memory), alas, those things may be lost forever. But what I’ve realized in the willy-nilly homesteading lifestyle we have adopted is: there are many such moments every day, big and little triumphs, big and little disappointments. Excitingly, yesterday was one of the triumphs and this one was too big to let the blog pass it by. Yesterday I gathered our first egg!
Not just one egg, mind you, but THREE! Let me back up a little and tell you that a week or so ago my aunt called me. She lives out on a real farm at the edge of our county. She and her husband have “real” jobs in the city and farming is a hobby for them. They have a little saw mill, an orchard and up until recently some chickens. They also have several dogs, one of which is a chicken killer. Several books I have read since beginning the chicken endeavor, suggest that once a dog has gotten a taste for chicken it is nearly impossible to break them of the sport. Not only is it fun to chase a chicken to death but they don’t taste half bad once you kill them, so for a dog it is like a game with a tasty treat at the end.
When my aunt told me she had a chicken killer I shared with her one of the tips I had read in a chicken-raising book. The suggestion was the only way to break a dog of killing chickens was to tie one of their kills around their neck and let them drag a rotting chicken carcass around for a few weeks. My aunt was desperate to save what was left of her flock and apparently one of her boxers spent the better part of a week dragging around a maggot cover chicken carcass till neither dog nor owner could tolerate the sight/smell of the punishment.
She had only three chickens left from her once impressive flock; a two-year old laying hen, a several year old rooster, and a pullet who was about a month older than our flock. She called me and asked if I would be willing to take her two hens, she said her rooster could fly and she was not worried about him getting away from the dog but she could not stand to see her last two hens traumatized and mauled to death. She, like me, is attached to her laying flock like pets. She did not want to send them somewhere where they would be used as meat birds since she had raised them from hatchlings as layers and pets. I have come to realize that chickens socialized from infancy can be very pleasing and entertaining little characters and do make very good outdoor pets.
She honestly told me that the pullet had not laid yet, which was not surprising since she was only a month older than my flock, and that the laying hen had not laid any eggs since the dog mauled the last few of her compatriots. I could sympathize with her plight and agreed to take the two hens, after all my birds are mostly pets anyway. Fred and I built our coop to accommodate more than just our four birds, if they leg eggs great, if not well they are only two more birds right? I had some misgivings about the two older birds not socializing well with my chicks (these fears turned out not to be unfounded) but I told my aunt to go ahead and bring me the hens.
As you know my flock of four consisted, exclusively, of Black Jersey Giants. Although not fully grown they are beautiful large pullets with sleek glossy black feathers that sparkle green and purple in the sun and thick black legs and the beginnings of bright red waddles and combs. I am partial to this size and coloring in a chicken because I find them to be a magnificent looking bird. The two my aunt brought me are Rhodes Island Reds. Slightly smaller than a BJG when fully grown, I expected to not be impressed; however, I have to say the Reds are an extremely attractive bird in their own right. A glossy shade of auburn, their hair is the flickering color of a flaming Irish temper ticked with brooding flecks of coco and black. Highlights of white and gold sparkle in the sun and give their feathers a dimensional quality that is beautiful to behold. They have light tan legs and bright red combs and waddles.
After checking the two new ladies for mites (an unpleasant task that involves examining a chicken’s posterior, thanks Jay) my aunt and I put them in the coop with my flock. My aunt called the laying hen Big Momma or Old Girl and the pullet was of yet was only referred to as Pullet. Momma was in serious stress over the car ride to our house and finding herself penned in a coop with five other chickens. (My aunts birds had free range on the farm and while we intend to let ours free range eventually it is important for them to spend at least the first five months in the coop getting used to their surrounding and learning where to roost and lay.) She made a noise that, had my aunt not assured me she had witnessed her laying eggs, sounded unsettlingly like a rooster’s crow. Momma continued to make this noise consistently for the first several hours of confinement and intermittently for the next few days. Pullet resigned herself to pecking the fire out of my flock and scrounging for treats in the coop. Stacy-chicken, Miranda-chicken, Gina-chicken and Autumn-chicken retreated up into the house of the coop not to be seen again for days. As I have repeatedly told Fred when he questions why they will not stand their ground: There is a reason we call cowards “chickens”.
My flock is mostly tame by this point and will come when called and eat out of my hand. They love raisins, clover, oats and sweet corn and will make a lovely little singing sound when you talk to them and offer them treats. The new girls were not so tame. They were somewhat mistrusting and absolutely panic stricken when our dog Louie got anywhere near the coop. Frankly, I was not sure how this whole situation was going to play out. Momma seemed beyond stressed. Pullet, who we now call Helga after my mom (totally different story) was just downright mean to everyone except Momma who gave her a nasty pecking over some raisins, and my girls were terrified and would not come down into the yard or go past Momma or Helga in the house. I was pretty sure I had made a mistake and called my aunt to tell her so. I told her we would give them a few days and see what panned out.
Chickens, especially a flock of all hens, have to establish a pecking order. But this was leaning toward the ridiculous. Literally my original flock would stay up in the hen house ALL DAY, in ninety plus degree weather they would only come down when I got in the yard, then they would gather under my chair and sit there unwilling to cross paths with either of the older chickens. Now while my flock what younger in age the size difference between them and the two new birds in negligible. The BJG are such a large breed that they are already almost the same size as a full grown bird of other breeds. Although I have repeatedly assured them that they are quite as big as their new flock mates and could readily take care of themselves, they are, of course, chickens at heart and are still quite terrified of their new sisters.
All that aside, after a couple of weeks now, they have begun to develop an uneasy truce. I would not say that things are exactly friendly but they do now, however unwillingly, share space. My original flock still spends some daytime in the house to avoid their new sisters but they will also come down into the yard of their own accord. I have not let any of them out to free range yet I want to make sure they all are in the habit of roosting in the hen house first. I have been heavy handed with the treats and Momma and Helga will now eat out of my hand, they are still uneasy with the dog but not terrified like they were upon first arrival. (Note: The really funny part is although my original flock is terrified of the new comers they are fearless of Louie and if he comes to the coop to attempt to steal their treats they will walk over and soundly peck him on the nose! Poor Louie he is at the very bottom of everyone’s pecking order.)
I know that my new birds are at home and are becoming more comfortable in their surroundings because yesterday when I went out in the morning to feed and water them I could not find Momma. I started to panic because she is usually the first down in the yard. As I approached the coop only Helga stood in the yard. I could hear the other girls chattering in the house. I opened the door to the house and there stood my four chicks, no Momma. I felt a little sick I was sure something got her. I started to check around the coop for holes. Then I heard a croaking sound from the nesting box. I slowly lifted the lid and as I peered in there sat Momma. She greeted me with a croaking noise and as I reached in to pet her she shivered and out popped and egg! She got up shook herself and revealed a second egg!!! I was so excited I probably scared her but I praised her and told her what a good girl she was and got treats for everyone.
Now I will admit I am painfully new at this whole chicken raising thing but according to most of the books I read you only get eggs in one of two situations: 1. You have a rooster. 2. You feed them laying mash. Neither of which applied to my hen house. All of the girls are still getting Start & Grow feed because the little ones still need it and my aunt told me that Momma stopped laying after the dog mauled the flock so I was TOTALLY surprised by the eggs. I am still not entirely sure if this is a fluke or if she will continue to lay, however yesterday I collected three eggs total from the nesting box so she was apparently a very busy girl. I am very pleased with my harvest but I am equally happy that this indicates Momma is comfortable now and feels safe in her new home. I hated the thought of her being miserable or scared.
I have done a little more research in the last twenty four hours and some of the books just say hens will lay whether you have a rooster or not they make no reference to laying mash. So I guess we will see. I am getting ready to go out and tend the chickens now so stay tuned for more EGG-citing updates.
Thank you for reading,