I had intended today’s blog to be a sweet little story about a girl (me) and her dog (Louie), guess what? That will have to wait for another time…
Fred and I took an extended camping vacation over the Labor Day weekend and spent some time at Watoga, West Virginia’s largest state park. We had a great time, other than the frigid nighttime temperatures dropping down into the 30’s and the constantly shivering dog. We did a lot of hiking and ate a lot of crappy camp food, drank some really good percolator coffee and were generally glad to get back to our nice mattress and warm quilts after several days in cold damp sleeping bags. All in all we really did have a nice respite from real life. I also took time off from the internet, disappeared from facebook, shut off the cell phone and took a break from the blog.
We left the tending of the homestead to my mom who has graciously stepped up from substitute cat herder to part time chicken farmer. We discussed in great detail, while we traveled, whether or not mom would once again rise to the challenge of part time milkmaid if we invest in our hoped for goat herd next year. I have a creeping suspicion that may be where grandma draws the line. Letting the chickens out in the morning and giving them a few treats before you shut them in at night is a far cry from showing up before dawn to milk a bunch of surly grumpy goats and then repeating the exercise before bed. Oh well, that is still in the somewhat distant future we have real live up to the minute problems to deal with in the here and now.
If you remember a few blogs ago Mama had stopped laying, or so we thought. We were still under the assumption that the other five were too young to lay and after some extensive research we assumed that Mama had merely stopped laying for the season as the days got shorter and the temperatures began to drop. Well apparently, as my daughter would say, we suffered an epic FAIL. Sigh.
Fred has been on me for about the last week insisting that he thinks Helga is going to begin laying at any moment. He said her waddle and comb had filled in completely in the last few weeks and that her bottom had widened out and she was developing the same fluffy under feathers as Mama. I blew him off. By my calculations Helga would not be due to lay till probably spring. (Oh and yet another FAIL.) This evening as we ate dinner Fred again broached the subject.
“Look how big Helga’s gotten,” he said. I looked out the sliding door where the chickens stand looking pitiful while we eat at the table (and yes if pitiful does not get them any prompt scraps they will resort to terrorizing the dog by pecking at the glass). Yes, she was big, yes, her comb and wattle were totally filled out and bright red. Yes, her butt was extra fluffy and soft looking.
“You know she has been disappearing a lot,” he said. I sighed.
“I think we should go out and walk the fence perimeter and look for eggs,” he pushed. I sighed again and gave in.
We left the dinner dishes on the table and hurried out to look for eggs before the sun began to set. I was almost certain we were not going to find anything but I figured at least if I made a concerted effort Fred would stop badgering me about the eggs. I have heard for days on end now how he would really like to have a “meatless” loaf. “Meatless” loaf is one of my original recipes very much like a traditional meat loaf but with a textured vegetable protein instead of meat. It does have to have an egg to bind it together and since I will not eat or cook with store bought eggs it has been off the menu since Mama stopped laying. So of course it is something my family begs for constantly.
Out we went tramping around the fence line like a scraggly bizarre little parade. Fred and I were in the lead followed by six straggling chickens that were followed by one scruffy dog. This was not the first time I was thankful our neighbors never cut their grass. At least no one from the road could see us getting down on our hands and knees and searching through the brush. We walked the entire fence line and found nothing I was starting to feel vindicated but figured we should check under the pine trees that dot our yard just to be sure.
We looked under the first tree and found a false alarm. What looked to be a pterodactyl size egg was actually a whiffle ball long ago forgotten and abandoned by the kids. I breathed a sigh of relief I was sure that I had miss counted and obviously had a dead chicken corpse somewhere if any of them had managed to pass anything that size. We moved on to the next tree. As we circled the base and tried to get a good look through the branches Helga began to put up quite a fuss, dancing around my feet and clucking and carrying on like a wild thing. I shushed her and bent down to pet her right about the time that Fred shouted “I SEE THEM!”
He saw them all right, all fifteen of them, in all their oval, creamy-brown glory. I could have cried. Not only were their fifteen eggs laying there that we could not eat (it is impossible to tell how long each one had been laying in the makeshift nest) but now I have at least one chicken, and more likely two, to break of laying outside the nesting box. I cannot even begin to tell you how frustrating a task this promises to be.
I am really baffled as to why Mama, who had religiously laid her daily egg in the nesting box would now choose to go and lay them under a tree? Did she see Helga do it and decide it was too long a walk back to the coop and up the ramp? Was her nesting box suddenly unsatisfactory? Was she afraid she was going to miss some excitement in the chicken world? I suspect that she was annoyed with us opening the nesting box too frequently and decided to create for herself a more private egg-laying experience. I really do not know all I know for sure is that there were fifteen eggs under the tree which also leads me to believe that Fred was correct and that Helga too is laying. I will have to go back and do the exact math when I figure out which day I collected the last egg from the box.
We gathered up the fifteen orbs and marched over the bank to the river’s edge where Fred unceremoniously hurled them into the Elk. We originally started to throw them over the creek bank but we were afraid that this might attract raccoon or some other egg lover who would in turn begin to haunt our coop. Again, I found myself wanting to cry. I know they are only a few dollars worth of eggs. It was not so much the loss of the actual eggs themselves as it was the disappointment in once again being thwarted on the homestead. I am learning to take the little disappointments in stride but sometimes it is just frustrating. The victories are sweet the defeats are razor sharp.
But like most things in our green endeavors there is no time to cry over spilt milk or, in this case, cracked eggs. I had to put my big girl panties on and suck it up. We decided that as of tomorrow we cannot let the chickens out to free range until there are eggs in the nesting box. Fred and I got out our dust masks and the wheelbarrow to hurriedly clean the coop out and make the nesting boxes as inviting as possible. We laid down a fresh bundle of pine shavings in the main coop and lined the nesting boxes with a thick layer of fresh sweet smelling straw. I shaped the straw to look like a nest and I took two of the fifteen back in the house to paint black lines on them. We decided to do this so we could use them as decoys. Our hope is any laying hen would recognize that eggs go in the nesting box, but they are chickens, and sometimes they need a little extra help.
As I was walking back to the coop with the blackballed decoys I looked over under one of the smaller pines and admired the dappled sunlight streaming through its branches and illuminating…what!??! Another egg. At this point I think I really could have lost it. There sparkling in the sun was one perfect, huge, lustrous, giant, speckled egg. I ran over to the tree and dropped to my knees, mocked by the gleaming shell. I looked under the tree from every angle but, as best I could determine, that lone ranger was flying solo. I think that probably further confirms Fred’s suspicions that Helga too has begun to lay. This egg was disproportionately larger than the others (although not the size of a whiffle ball) and had a strange shell which was mostly white and flecked with brown bits, it almost looked like beautifully handmade pressed paper.
Lots of the chicken books and articles we have read state that the first few eggs a chicken lays when she reaches maturity will often be extremely large, double yoked or misshapen. It is almost as if their bodies are not quite sure they have the hang of it and have to squeeze out a few test runs before they get down to business, whatever the reason, that egg stood alone in under the small pine.
We finished up with the coop with half a dozen of unbelievably curious and innocent acting chickens milling about our feet trying to see what we were doing and pecking at our toes vying for a treat. I scolded and lectured and grumbled but all it got me was that curious side gaze and a look of utter astonishment “who me?” they all seem to say. As if none of them would be caught laying eggs anywhere but the nesting box. How indecent! Really, to accuse an innocent chicken of such malicious behavior, I should be ashamed. Obviously I was off my nut and some rouge chicken has been sneaking into my yard and leaving their illegitimate egg clutch behind to incriminate my girls.
Helga even went so far as to drink from the indoor waterers (you remember the one designed for gerbils) as if to say “Look at me, look how smart I am! I know a trick, now give me a treat!” I was so exasperated I even threatened her with the stew pot. She answered my idle vegetarian threats by walking over and soundly pecking me on the toe. Sometimes not even the chickens respect me.
Well the game plan for tomorrow then is indefinite chicken imprisonment, wrongfully accused or not, everyone stays in the coop until someone produces an egg, preferably in the nesting box. We will see how long I can hold out. Helga usually begins screaming to be let out at first light. I wonder if I will get any complaints from the neighbors. I intend to feed them at the regular time and give them lots of treats just not let them out until I have an egg. I guess we will see. Who will win the battle of wills? Chicken or chicken-keeper? Stay tuned.
Much Love & thank you for reading,