Tuesday, May 31, 2011


It was a busy weekend around the coop, both human and chicken. Hank is in his first of several weeks' playing with the symphony, filling in for a colleague. Two rehearsals and woodshedding (one of the works they're playing is John Adams' Death of Klinghoffer and it's a formidable doubling part) consumed a fair bit of Hank's weekend. Helping Max study for finals (division of labor: Latin, me; Math, Hank) also took some time, although given Max's general distaste for studying, not all that much.

My primary focus was on readying the chicken yard for the girls, who have begun to seem a wee bit cramped in their brooder. This is especially noticeable when they all decide it's time to give that whole flight thing a try and go racing and flapping from one end to the other. It's a little like ORD at rush hour. My hope is to move them outside full-time this coming weekend, although that plan will depend in part on just how feathered they've become and whether the weather cooperates. But this weekend it was definitely time to introduce the girls to their soon-to-be habitat, in small doses to start.

First, though, it had to be chick-proofed.

The coop resides within a quadrant of our backyard that we fenced off separately from the rest at the start of our first post-Maddy gardening season. That spring, as Maddy dug ferociously all over the backyard, Hank and I mixed concrete, sunk posts, and hung a cedar dog-ear picket fence. I had staked out that corner of the yard as a vegetable garden when we first bought the house 6 years ago. That garden project involved reclaiming a substantial amount of brick paving to demarcate beds and digging in lots of peat moss and compost to lighten the clay-ey soil. It was the only truly sunny corner, given the two towering oaks that shade the vast majority of the backyard. Someday I will write more about those oaks--they are truly majestic trees and probably deserve an entire blog of their own, that's how wonderful they are.

After the erection of the Maddy-fence, I continued to garden there for a couple of seasons, but the wonderful oaks become more so every year and what used to be a reasonably sunny patch becomes less and less so every year. It is this dynamic that has led me to shift food growing to the front of the house (more on that another day) and left the back garden, as we call, it, increasingly underutilized. But the fence is still perfectly good and dog-proof and the dappled sun and shade seemed like it might be perfect for chickens.

The fence, although dog proof and perhaps adult chicken proof, is decidedly not chick-proof. So we hatched a plan to reinforce the perimeter with what is essentially a baby gate for chicks. Sunday morning, Hank and I braved the 90 degree temps, staple gun in hand, and tacked chicken wire to the wooden fencing. Where there was no wooden fencing we used a system I have used for vegetable trellises for many years: metal fenceposts and wire mesh. It's not without its aesthetic compromises, although I have to confess I'm a fan of the functional agrarian look. Galvanized trough, anyone?

The current baby-proof yard is only about half the entire back garden space. I'm still growing herbs, kale, chard, peppers and cukes in the remainder of the space and will eventually let the hens range through the whole thing (and probably eat quite a lot of produce in the bargain). But for now, they're limited to the lower part of the garden. And this is how it looks:
isn't the sanded and repainted bench (another project from the weekend) lovely, too?
So it came to pass that having done everything a parent could think of to do to make the environment safe for the next generation, I loaded the girls into a small box with high sides and carefully ferried them, skittering and scolding inside, from their cozy living room nest to the great outdoors. I lifted each from the box and placed her feet on the ground--the first time any of them had touched earth! They all stood up straight, raised their heads and looked intently about them:

And then, as if they'd been doing it for millennia, they began to scratch and peck at the earth, the plants, and, best of all, the insects!

Gertie, Sadie, Rosie, Hattie and Millie
What became instantly clear is that we have a true flock. The girls ranged about the yard, always staying within a couple feet of each other, seemingly aware of the benefits to all of staying in proximity. As with the scratching and pecking, this piece of instinctive chicken-ness, in my very 21st-century, express-mailed, surrogate-mothered girls inspires awe, even though I know they're only doing what they are biologically programmed to do. These girls are incredibly well-adjusted--completely at home in their own feathers in a way so many of us humans can only imagine. And that is quite beautiful.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


mmmm...garden kale!
I've described how kinetic the chicks can be, making it impossible to get good, detailed photos of them. Equally difficult is getting a photo of all five together...except in those first moments after placing a treat in the brooder, when they all gather round. For the most part, they eat specially ground starter feed (or "crumbles"), but all the chick lit condones offering them treats, in moderation. High protein treats are good, as are greens. Yogurt is good for chicks for the same reasons it's good for humans: the beneficial bacteria.

Early on we adopted the practice of starting the day with a single scrambled egg shared amongst the five. This was taken 8 days ago and, boy, have they changed!

When I first wake up in the morning, I go out to the brooder, remove the screen and greet the girls. They chirp and dart around excitedly. I remove the fount, scrub it thoroughly with soap and water and refill it. I check the level of the crumbles and refill the feeder if it's low or soiled. Then, with the basics squared away, I scramble an (organic) egg. As in the finest restaurants, presentation is crucial. When they were tiny, it seemed they responded better to food if there was a strong visual contrast. Our everyday dishes are mostly whitish, but I have a few pieces of Fiesta and other Homer Laughlin pottery that I was lucky enough to acquire from that 90-year-old grandmother I've mentioned before. The green plate seemed perfect for the pale yellow scrambled egg, so it has become the egg plate now. It works equally well for dollops of Greek yogurt:
As I have previously mentioned, yogurt delivery posed an initial challenge. As is evident from the egg photo, the girls have absolutely no sense of a plate as a place for food and not for walking around--or even lounging. I've observed both Rosie and Hattie situate themselves in the center of the egg plate--still laden with egg, mind you--and commence a bizarre spastic ritual that involves much writhing, fluttering of wings and rubbing of bellies on the eggy plate. And, of course, flying bits of egg.  The first time I attempted to give them yogurt in a demitasse saucer, they made quick work of getting it all over themselves--faces, feet, bellies, everywhere! We've since arrived at the Impressionist Art method of yogurt deployment. It starts out looking as though van Gogh applied it with a putty knife; is placed in the brooder as if on an easel; and ends up looking like Seurat after the girls have finished pecking the yogurt off the plate.

But the most exciting treat of the day is the leafy one. We've tried lettuce (yum), arugula (pretty good as well) and now some lovely Lacinato kale (the favorite), all from the garden. We cut it into a chiffonade so that it resembles grass and the girls go nuts over it. The first bits are like prizes and despite the fact that there is plenty in the dish for everyone, there is much racing around, chasing after the first chick to have grabbed a shred in her beak. The chicks inhale the shredded leaves exactly as if they were slurping up noodles and there are occasional Lady and the Tramp moments with a chick on each end of a strand. It's all great fun, at the conclusion of which they all settle down for a fitful nap.

BTW, the girls are two weeks old today and simply marvelous!

Saturday, May 28, 2011


When I rolled in from work last night, the house was lousy with teenagers, both human and feathered. Max and his friends Lincoln, Dylan and Rebekah were clustered around decks of Magic the Gathering cards and Hank was busy cooking hot dogs and pasta with pesto to fuel them before an evening of Friday Night Magic at the local trading card shop. They remind me of my own misfit friends from about that age and I love them all, but oh my, our house is so tiny that with more than one lumbering teenage body it feels as though it will explode.

Once the kids were fed, Hank loaded them in the car and trundled them off to their event. With the house calm I turned my attention to the chicks. I have tried to be semi-religious about keeping their brooder clean, having read, as you'd expect, that "a clean brooder is a healthy brooder." That means hand-picking visible poo out (not as bad as it sounds, really) at least a couple times a day and changing all the bedding every 3 or so days. Hank and I had a plan to enjoy our liberation from parental duties by going out for dinner but I figured I'd use the time while he was doing taxi service to clean (bird) house.

With the cleaning done, I settled down to observe--my favorite pastime these days. The girls at this stage are decidedly adolescent. Just like teenagers, they are all developing at different rates. Gertie is like that slightly heavy girl who sprouted breasts in the fifth grade and spent the next two years slouching uncomfortably until the rest of us caught up with her. She is the largest of all and has the most real feathers. The big development of the past couple days is the appearance of tail feathers. At first they have the appearance of dandelion fluff:
Gertie loves the perch!
...but with every passing hour they look more and more like a real tail. And the girls really do shake their tailfeathers!

Rosie is now the smallest of the lot and still has the look of a baby about her head and face, although her wing feathers are resplendent in ginger, gold and brown.
F to B: Rosie, Sadie, Hattie and Gert
And the rest range between those two extremes. With feathers sprouting at odd places and down looking a bit scruffy at others, they all look as though they've been afflicted with a bad case of feathery acne or sprouted oddly-placed facial hair.

And just like teenage humans, they are experimenting with their new skills and pushing boundaries. I write these posts in a chair near the brooder where I can hear them but can only see what's happening at one end. As I wrote this post, the girls were busy, busy, busy--running from one end of the brooder to the other and flapping about. But a moment ago there was a squawk and I could tell something had happened but I couldn't see any of the birds. I stood up to look and this is what I saw:
Millie atop the fount!
And then...

now what?
Note the copious wood chips in the water--removing those is another hygiene task that must be performed many times a day.

And finally, the chicks are so kinetic that getting still photos of them at high resolution and with any level of detail is next to impossible. Video is the obvious format for baby animals (witness the many many kitten videos that make the rounds of Facebook) but we don't have a dedicated video camera. The still camera will take short video clips, though, and today I tried to capture some of the goings on. Note the cameo appearance by the dog, at first only audible and then a briefly visible snout. She is very interested in the chicks (and jealous of the attention we pay them) but we've got them covered with a screen when we can't keep an eye on her. We are very conscious of the fact that although she is a very good, very beta dog, she is still a canid--and when she looks at the girls she sees either dinner or sport! 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

peas & pinfeathers

I meant to put this up last night but technical difficulties with the Blogger platform prevented me from publishing it :-(

This morning as I left for work I realized that I could see the snow peas from the walk--a clear indication that it was time to harvest! I have been so preoccupied with the chicks that I have perhaps been a wee bit neglectful of the other growing things here at 7477. The dog certainly seems to think so. But it is hard to tear myself away from the brooder. The chicks are so dynamic, even asleep, and their antics are so entertaining...

Each day they add to their plumage and their bodies begin to take on more "real chicken" shape.
a bit blurry (sorry), but it gives the sense of Gertie's impressive wings and developing body shape
Gertie is the biggest of the bunch and today took the lead in flight experimentation. For several minutes she worked at trying to flap her way to the top of the Mason jar feeder. She doesn't have quite enough lift yet, thank goodness--because once she makes it to the top of the feeder it is a short hop (and a long fall) over the side of the brooder to the living room floor!

But Gertie is not alone. All the others are working their wings as well. As with so many aspects of chicken life (as I'm learning) the actions of one set off a chain reaction among the entire group. So Gertie's attempts send Hattie scurrying and flapping from one end of the brooder to the other; which sends Rosie flapping from her perch to the other side of the brooder; and so on... It becomes quite lively and I think it's a very good thing we have shifted them to the new brooder and given them more room to literally spread their wings and run around.

And speaking of the perch, they all seem to quite enjoy roosting for at least a little while:
Hattie, Gertie, Sadie and Rosie (curious Millie was probably up close to me checking out the camera!)
And lest anyone get the impression that our lives are too chick-heavy, before dinner I harvested those snow peas and after dinner Hank and I took Maddy for an hour long walk!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

one week old

the new brooder
It has been a busy week and weekend--including moving the girls to their new and improved digs today-- but I will kick myself if I don't take a few minutes to document the girls' first week. All week long I've felt as though the most extraordinary thing has happened to me and all week long I've had the urge to tell complete strangers about my chicks. I've mostly refrained from telling strangers (and clients!) about them, but my co-workers and friends have not been spared. And I can't tell you how many times I've noted that each displays her own strong personality only to be met with the kind of look that suggests I've become one of those people who might have 25 cats or dress up my dog. I once heard of a woman who had a pet squirrel and made a hobby of dressing it up in little costumes and placing it in dioramas and photographing it. That's what some people seem to think I've become when I talk about the girls' personalities. I'm not sure why it is that we have no trouble observing the individual personalities of each member of a litter of kittens or puppies but can't imagine that five little chicks could be every bit as full of character. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that we eat chickens and thus have erected a mental barrier to imagining them as anything other than future egg-producers or leg-and-thigh quarters.

But these birds truly do have distinct personalities right off the bat. Millie, who appears, like Gertie, to be either a Barred Rock or a Dominique, is the brash tomboy of the bunch. When I reach my hand into the brooder the rest generally chirp and scatter at first, but Millie comes running to see what new entertainment has appeared and then follows my hand wherever I move it. She is troubled by my wedding ring and pecks insistently at it and my freckles, my bracelet and the hair band around my wrist. She is always game to try a new taste treat and her appetite is massive, despite her small size relative to the others. It takes a lot of calories to fuel her mercurial activity!

Gertie on her perch

Gertie looks very much like Millie but is now nearly twice as big and has the most developed feathers of the lot. Overnight, she seems to add plumage, mostly on her wings, but today she is sporting the beginnings of tail feathers. Gertie is also an enthusiastic eater but more deliberate than Millie. She has a bit of a gimlet eye and a way of sizing you up that feels just so slightly judgmental. Gertie, perhaps because of her superior size, has been the first to avail herself consistently of the perch I made for them today, although Hattie is not far behind.

Hattie is the beautiful blonde of the bunch, most likely a Buff Orpington. She also has the softest, richest coat. Right from the beginning she was the groomer of the group, the one to spot a bit of dust or a splatter of yogurt on another chick's coat and to set about tidying up. When I reported this to a friend at work, she observed that Hattie was a typical blonde, concerned with appearances! Hattie also has the sweetest way of eating. One of the treats I give them is plain Greek yogurt, which they almost all adore, although it has been challenging finding methods of delivery that avoid getting yogurt EVERYwhere. One of the most successful has been simply to coat my fingertip in yogurt and let them peck it clean. Hattie, however, nestles her beak against my fingertip and wiggles it, scooping the yogurt in rather than pecking. As you can imagine, Millie has a vigorous pecking style.

Hattie ("look at my feet!") and Sadie
Sadie's breed is shrouded in mystery, although today we're leaning towards a Gold Laced Wyandotte. She was my problem child at first, showing signs of pasty butt. Pasty butt appears to be fairly common in young chicks, caused by stress or the temperature changes of shipping or who knows what, really. A chick with pasty butt ends up with poo dried on and around her "vent" (the term for the hole in the hen's backside through which everything--poo, eggs, mating--seems to happen) which can lead to an inability to eliminate and, ultimately, death. The cure is hygiene. For anyone who has never performed the delicate operation of cleaning a 2-day-old chick's backside with a warm, wet towel while said chick squeals and squirms...well, just hope you remain in ignorant bliss. Fortunately, Sadie's condition resolved itself quickly, especially once she started snacking on yogurt and acquiring all those beneficial bacteria to regulate her digestion. Poor traumatized Sadie is the most gun-shy when it comes to being picked up but she is in every other respect the model of a vigorous little chick.

Rosie, who appears to be a Rhode Island Red and has developed the most beautiful wing feathers, is the shrinking violet of the group. I'm slightly disappointed that she doesn't have the chutzpah of her namesake, but I suspect she'll develop more self-confidence as she grows. She shows only the slightest interest in the food treats (scrambled egg, yogurt, strips of lettuce) and hangs back while the others eagerly descend on the plate. She will eventually mosey over and check it out, but even after the others have finished and left her an ample portion she pecks at it disinterestedly before heading to the feeder and partaking long and heartily of the starter feed. She is also the most interested in digging and pecking at the floor of the brooder so I will be interested to see whether she gobbles up bugs and worms with greater interest once I move them outdoors. For a while I worried that her disinterest in the treats was a sign she was not well (nothing does a mama's heart good like seeing her babies eat!), but watching her I have concluded it's just a matter of taste and she is perfectly fine.

One other note about this week: I have never owned a bird before. Hank has. He had an African Grey Parrot when I first met him. But I've never lived with birds before and I'm finding that observing the chicks this closely has transformed how I experience all birds. I notice them everywhere--the way they move, their feather patterns and their songs.  It has been open-window weather at our house this week. We are so lucky to be surrounded by bird habitat and, therefore, birdsong. This morning I awoke to three sharp cries outside the window that I instantly recognized (even half asleep) as alarm and outrage--they sounded so much like the cries the chicks make when one of the others has clumsily flapped over the rest or otherwise upset the peace in some particularly outrageous way. But as quickly as I registered the alarm I also realized that never before would I have identified those calls as alarms. Although the chicks and the robins don't speak precisely the same language, it was only because of my growing understanding of my own birds and their language that I could have any hope of interpreting the robins' calls. Yet another reason this has been an extraordinary week.

the coop

After the slight hiccup in which the coop was supposed to have been sent but wasn't, the coop arrived from Ohio on (amended) schedule Wednesday. Actually, Hank had to make a pilgrimage through Bellefontaine Cemetery to the shipping depot on the north side of the city to pick it up. Thanks to some mad fork-lifting skills on the part of the warehouseman (a Teamster, no doubt), the two boxes landed safely in the Subaru and from there, home.

I was very sad to see the "Made in China" designation on the box. I suppose I really should have known that a coop so reasonably-priced was not being made by Ohio Amish craftsmen. As expected, it went together with only the expected amount of confusion that results from relying on pictographs for assembly instructions. 

easy-clean metal coop floor pulls out like a drawer; nesting boxes and perches

human door, perches, vents

rear view, with nesting box and escape ramp

The Chicken Yard
It's fairly lovely to look at but it seems a little lightweight and I certainly can't imagine the girls being snug in it through the winter. As we put it together and I expressed my skepticism Hank, ever the voice of reason, pointed out that it was likely to be just fine for a few months and encouraged me to think of it as a "starter coop." He was right. And that gives me most of the summer to contemplate the design and materials of our "dream coop." I knew I saved those old windows for a reason...

Friday, May 20, 2011


One of the best parts of adding to the family is coming up with names for the new members. When I was a little girl I chose elaborate names for my dolls (e.g., Christiana), my 3/4 size violin (Octavia) and the many bonnet- and hoop-skirt-wearing spunky and resourceful girls whose stories I was forever scribbling down. I once named a cat Elsinore (yes, after Hamlet's castle) and another Mirabai. But my pet names have become much tamer in recent years, tending toward things like Lily and Chuck. And our last pet acquisition was named by Max, who deemed our tiny puppy Maddy as she dozed on his lap in the car on the way home to our house from her rescue home. 

So the prospect of five additions to our family posed a delightful challenge: what to call our new chicks? I had a few ideas on the subject, but it seemed like the kind of question tailor-made for a Facebook post. And boy, was it! The post ended up with a record (for me, at least) of 45 comments and gave me some of the heartiest belly-laughs I've had in ages, confirming my hunch that the whole chicken adventure was going to be good for my spirits. No post in which I intend to announce the names we've chosen would be complete without a retelling of some of the most entertaining entries in the great Facebook chicken-naming extravaganza. 

The festivities kicked off slowly with a couple of alphabet-themed entries from my friend Gaylon. The best of these (in my opinion) was his first: Abigail, Beatrice, Cordelia, Delilah, and Edwina.  Lovely names, all of them, and not a hen in the world would be ashamed to strut around with one of them. Next Sylvia chimed in with the rather predictable, although cute, Henrietta. Don't worry--she was just getting warmed up. Her later offering--Loretta, Tammy, Dolly, Reba and Shania--was brilliant and a crowd favorite. There was a grape varietal entry (Gaylon again, wonder what he was up to between posts...) and several that tried to be predictive of the hens' ultimate fate. The best of these (sorry Nathan and Richard) came from Jonathan, who proposed that we should name them "something appropriate, that will guide them in the afterlife" before offering Cacciatore, Parmigiana, a la King, 'n' dumplin's and Teriyaki. Sylvia's wasn't the only musical suggestion. Gaylon tapped an operatic vein with two slates. A Franco-Italian: Carmen, Tosca, Aida, Ophelia, and Lucia. And a Wagnerian: Sieglinde, Brunnhilde, Isolde, Elsa, and Ortrud. Mark preferred pop singers, with two inspired five-somes: Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael (never mind the gender issues, right?); and Ginger, Baby, Posh, Sporty and Scary. I very nearly went for that last one just because it made me laugh so hard. 

So with this embarrassment of riches, what did we choose? Well, first of all, I knew I could not name them until they were actually here. I had to meet them, get a sense of their personalities, see what fit. I needed a visual and an auditory impression. And when these girls arrived it was clear to me that they were just not singers of any stripe, pop, country or Wagnerian. Which was sad because I really loved both the ladies of country music and the Spice Girls ideas. 

And as entertaining as the rest were, I kept coming back to an idea I had of giving these hens the given names of my departed fore-grandmothers, some of whom I know for a fact kept hens of their own. Although the names themselves are perhaps not the most euphonous, they are old-fashioned, solid names. They call up for me the images of those women who went before me and who with their labor made it possible for me to be here now, enjoying a life that has had space enough to allow me to enjoy not one but two satisfying professional careers, a rich family life and, coming full circle, a coop full of laying hens. And they fit my birds, whose personalities are already very much in evidence, just fine. 

So meet Sadie, for Sadie Coppock Flory, my paternal great-grandmother and mother of my still-wonderful 90-year-old grandmother who enriches my life constantly; 

Gertie, for Gertrude Keller Koogler, my tough-as-nails Pennsylvania Dutch maternal great-grandmother;


and Millie, for Mildred Mae Koogler Storck Rasper my complicated, fragile and modern maternal grandmother (and Gertie's daughter).

For Hank's side of the family, there is Hattie, for Hattie Shwarz, Hank's maternal great-grandmother who ran a hardware store together with her husband in Napa, our legacy of which is some stunning crockery custom made in Limoges for Shwarz Hardware. 
Hattie (who is a very beautiful girl but this is not the most flattering picture of her)
And finally, departing from the theme but calling on a bit of history from our immediate family and one of 3-year-old Max's favorite videos (and, okay, one of Hank's and mine, too), one of our chicks is called Rosie.
My fervent hope for our Rosie is that she becomes as plump and lives as charmed a life as her namesake:

 Next post: assembling the coop (which arrived in panels this week!).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

delivery day!

Well, it's official. Today's mail included an advert for a CLE about Ethics in Your Legal Practice, a credit card solicitation, the weekly grocery flyer...and...oh, yes, a BOX OF FIVE LIVE, PEEPING CHICKS! I went off to the office this morning as usual, knowing it could be the day but not wanting to hope too much for it and then having to wait until tomorrow. I was expecting the post office to call my cell phone when the chicks arrived and wait for me to come pick them up, which is apparently the standard practice. I imagined racing to the PO, imagined the little peeping box in the back among the mail sacks and those giant rolling bins of mail...

But it was Hank, not the PO, who called me at the office. I could tell right away by his voice that they had arrived and sure enough, there they were, cheeping in the background. I flew into a panic. Although I had in my head all the things that needed to be done, I had not prepared him to deal with the chicks!

Me: "Okay. I'm on my way. But they're dehydrated and they need to drink. Fill up the waterer. Then pick up each one, dip her beak in the water and watch for her to swallow."

Him: "Which one is the waterer?"

Me: "You know, the jar thing, the one without the holes in it."

Him: "Okay. Right."

Me: "But you have to make sure they drink. Then, find the gro-gel and get about a quarter of it moistened and give it to them on a little saucer."

Him: "Gro-gel?"

Me: "Yes, it's..."

Well, you get the idea. As I was talking to him, I was madly closing windows on my computer, emailing myself documents so I could work at home, trying to think about what work made sense to take home... And totally bummed that I had missed the babies' delivery. And then I had to call him back to remind him to turn on the brooder light, which of course he had already done.

I flew home, trying to imagine the scene at the door when the mailman handed Hank the box of live chicks. The modern world.
The Landing Module
Keep in mind that these birds were most likely hatched on Sunday, put in a box and shipped from Texas yesterday morning and arrived on our doorstep a little before 11 this morning. Quite an odyssey for a nearly weightless ball of fluff with claws, eyes and a beak. But all things considered, pretty quick. When I came through the door, they were all up and around under the light, cheeping vigorously (I know I keep using that word, but what can I say, they do it a lot). In short order, I had replicated the dipping of beaks in the water (didn't want to miss that part) and satisfied myself that they were drinking. Then we got the feeder filled and placed in the box. At first the birds didn't really notice it, but I picked one up and set her in front of it and before long they had all taken a peck at the crumbles, some more heartily than others.

For a few minutes they all made the rounds of the waterer, the feeder, pecking at the pine shavings...and then one of the two darkest ones--the one on the right in this picture--just stopped moving and her head began to droop...and just like that, she was asleep, standing up, beak first in the pine litter.

For the next hour, I mostly hovered over their box (Hank had to bring me a chair, and then a glass of water), watching (and listening to) their every move, cooing at them, stroking their tiny heads, picking each one up in turn (not too much, I promise, but it's good for them to get used to being handled). They were busy. My "nesting" comment last night was apropos of this part, too, because having a box full of 2-day old chicks is like nothing so much as having a newborn human baby in the room. It's pretty much impossible to look at anything else. When Hank brought me that water, it felt exactly like the million times he did the same thing when I was pinned in the rocking chair nursing our fussy baby. So maybe these chicks are my maternal swan song, as it were.

The memories of Max's babyhood feel especially on point given the fortuitous coincidence that these chicks share a birth/hatchday with Max, who takes special delight in the coincidence.

Every year on his birthday, we retell parts of our own "nativity" story. This year, we landed on the moment that first night, after he was born, after Hank had made blueberry pancakes for us and all the midwives, after they had all gone home and left us three tucked into our bed together, Max between us, when neither of us could take our eyes off him to go to sleep even though we were both exhausted. I expect I'll sleep tonight, but I don't mind having a little extra wonder in my life. So far, so good.

Next post: what to call them???

Monday, May 16, 2011

the nursery

The Nursery

When I hadn't heard from the shipping company about the coop, which was to have arrived today, I got a little worried. Hank volunteered to call them up and sort it out and he texted me about an hour later with the news that there had apparently been a screw-up but that they were sending it out today--express! It will arrive by Thursday. For sure, this time.

We've decided to keep the brooder in the house for the first couple weeks, in the living room, actually. And by brooder I mean, of course, a large cardboard box, outfitted with a quadruple layer of paper towels, a fluffy bed of pine shavings, a feeder and waterer and--most importantly--a snazzy metal light fixture mounted on an even snazzier red pvc lamp stand and fitted with a snazziest of all infrared lightbulb. Saarinen this is not. But we need all of this because the babies need to be kept at approximately 95 degrees for the first week. Thus, the thermometer where the babies will soon make their home. 

The box also needs to be elevated if it is to stay in the living room (dog issue). So this morning before I went off to the office I suggested to Hank that he bring up from the basement the kiddie table we use during the winter to keep our rosemary, bay and Meyer lemon plants in front of the south-facing living room window. So it was that a little while after the text exchange we had about the coop, he texted to tell me this: "Nursery now set on the little table" This, of course, is why I love my husband. 

But he is exactly right. As I set it up last night, spreading the paper towels, fluffing the pine shavings, adjusting the lamp just so...I had the exact sensation I remembered from 16 years ago when, hugely pregnant, I set up Max's nursery for the first time. And everyone knows that process is called nesting.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


I suppose it was rather misleading to promise in my last post that I would explain how I chose the particular chicks and the coop I did. In reality, I chose them like I make so many decisions: by spending quite a lot of time when I should be doing something else researching the options and then, once I've filled myself up with about as much information as I can stand, forging ahead based on an imprecise combination of reason and gut emotion.

Why five chicks? Well, the website I kept coming back to in my travels, Chickens for Backyards, offers chicks in various configurations, but their mixed breed packages come in multiples of five. Chickens for Backyards is a good site for many rational reasons: it's relatively easy to navigate, they have a good variety of poultry, including many chicken breeds, they offer "sexed" chicks so you don't risk getting a male and then having to figure out what to do with him, they provide lots of information. But what pushed my emotional buttons was the videos. Here is an example:

See? In addition to having sweet little (noisy!) videos of baby chicks, the folks at Chickens for Backyards have produced a series of videos designed to help you select "the right chickens for your backyard!" I struggle to describe the production values of these videos, all of which begin with a cartoon graphic of a chicken sunning in an Adirondack lounger, umbrella drink in...er...wingtip, while another mows the grass and a third swings on a tree swing--all as twangy intro music plays in the background. Then Byron (or Byron and Mike) appears to explain to us why the Black Australorp or the Barred Plymouth Rock is the right chicken for your backyard. After viewing a few of these, it dawned on me that they arise from the same gene pool as the "There Goes a..." series of videos Max loved (putting it mildly) between the ages of about 3 and 7 in which Dave and Becky explained and demonstrated the fine points of monster trucks or delivering the mail.

Now, you would expect that with a series of such videos promoting the virtues of various breeds of chickens that the editorial stance would be fairly neutral and limited to describing the traits and characteristics of each breed. Or at least I would. Which is why the following video totally disarmed me:

Here's what Byron says in this one: "Although every breed we offer at ChickensforBackyards.com can make an excellent backyard pet, today I'd like to share with you a little bit about my favorite, Buff Orpingtons..." His favorite??? I'm not sure exactly why, but when a guy who's trying to sell me a whole range of chicken breeds reveals his favorite to me, I just trust him more, somehow. That's when I knew Chickens for Backyards was getting my business.

Another gut decision was that I wanted hens that lay brown eggs (yes, the color of the egg is a characteristic of the breed). I considered Araucanas, the blue and green layers favored by Martha Stewart, but in the end I like the stolid feel of a good brown egg. And despite feeling certain that I would love Buff Orpingtons every bit as much as Byron and his family do, I also felt like I wanted a chance to decide for myself which was my favorite. That meant ordering a mixed lot of brown-egg-laying chicks. And although tempted to order more than 5, I heeded the advice I also found on the web from experienced chicken-raisers that the most common newbie mistake is being overly ambitious and starting with too many birds.

As for the coop...although I am an inveterate DIYer, I knew that building my own coop right now was more than I wanted to take on. I also did not want to spend the upwards of $1000 that seems to be the norm for many coops. So I engaged in some pretty rigorous comparison shopping and ended up with what I think is a good compromise: the CC-28 from the oddly-named "CC Only".
Billed as large enough to accommodate 6 hens or 8 bantams, it should be just enough for my little flock, snug (fingers crossed) and reasonably priced. I like that it includes an integral run, even though I also expect the birds will eventually have the run of a fenced corner of our back yard. It comes in panels and we will assemble it, but having put together nearly an apartment-full of IKEA furniture, I'm undaunted by that prospect. It should arrive tomorrow, the same day the chicks are scheduled to ship. Already arrived is the brooder, warming lamp, bedding and feed, which I will unpack and assemble later today.

The excitement builds!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

why: the project

Inquiring minds want to know: what possessed you to become a chicken owner? My pat answer is that it is all Dale's fault. My friend Dale lives in an apartment complex in Delray Beach that is pretty much nondescript except for the fact that his patio doors look out over a strip of grass that drops into a canal. And wading in and skimming above that canal is an ever-changing cast of spectacular water birds. So much so that on my first visit back to South Florida my house gift to him was a pair of bird books: the Audubon guide and an ur-Floridian-text entitled Florida's Fabulous Waterbirds: Their Stories.

A week ago Dale emailed me a photograph of the newest canal tenants:

Dale's caption for the photo was simply "noise" and he described them as being unprintably loud.

Thus began what turned out to be a literal goose chase, which involved me spending an inordinate amount of time perusing one of my favorite bird sites, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's bird guide, and him typing "exotic ducks and geese" into Google. Guess which one of us figured out faster that this is a pair of Egyptian Geese. Of course, my goose chase soon expanded into sites that offer a broad range of fowl for sale...which led naturally to me viewing multiple 12-second videos of baby chicks...which led naturally to searches on "chicken coops"...all of which led to me announcing to my dear long-suffering husband, somewhere around Sunday afternoon, that I had made up my mind to place an order.

Now, I will not burden the reader at this juncture with a full description of the homestead five chicks & a coop will soon call home, although I'm sure we'll get to that eventually and piecemeal. But suffice to say for now that ours is not a rural idyll. Ours is not really even a suburban sprawl. So it might not seem entirely intuitive that we would become chicken farmers. Although we clearly are not alone in the city. In fact, the lad and I went to an event promoting city chicken-raising last spring. There are many wonderful reasons (which I will doubtless explore in subsequent posts) to raise your own chickens and enjoy their eggs, even in the city. But back then, we decided against it.

This time I was ready for a new project. I'm a project person, happiest when I have an impossibly large, preferably novel task in front of me that will totally and completely occupy me for weeks or months. Or, as in the case of law school, years. For a long list of reasons I've been in the doldrums for a while now, becalmed between obsessions and fitful. But trawling the websites of poultry sellers I began to feel an old familiar stirring. Raising baby chicks, learning all about them, providing for their well-being, managing a (petite) flock of laying hens...all of that work had the feel of a project. The observant among you will have already noted that the blog-keeping only enhances the project-ness of the whole thing.

And once I had made up my mind (and especially once I had entered my credit card number and clicked the button), I felt happier, lighter, right-er than I had in weeks and weeks. Those birds were just what I needed. So there you have it. That's why.

Next post: how I chose these particular five chicks and their coop.


After considering it for several years, I have finally taken the plunge. Last Sunday (which also happened to be Mother’s Day) I clicked on the “buy now” box to purchase five chicks and a coop and thus joined the apparently burgeoning ranks of home egg-raisers. This blog will recount what I hope will be the wonderful adventure that will ensue. It is also my first effort at blogging, so be patient with me as I get my bearings in this platform!