The amazing story of two 40-something women on the path to matrimonial bliss

It just keeps getting better...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Like an Old Mother Hen

Hilda, our Buff Oprington hen, determined to at least sit on some eggs--which just 
happen to be plastic Easter eggs at this point.
 Our Hilda is not old, of course, it's been just over a year since we brought her home as a tiny yellow fluff ball.  And she's not a mother  yet.  I'm thinking the phrase "like an old mother hen" may best apply to Teri and me at this point as we tend, fuss and cluck over our living charges. We take the responsibility pretty seriously, I suppose, and find we have to remind ourselves that we can't exactly control nature...neither do we always understand it!

Our attempted solution at a temporary coop in which Hilda can explore potential motherhood.
Most of what we've read in the urban and chicken farming books focuses on how to "disrupt" the urges of a broody hen--a hen who wants to sit on a clutch of eggs.  After all, the assumption is that most folks are just in it for the eggs and a setting hen is not a laying hen.  Our neighbors are forever asking us "how many eggs?" we are getting by the day, as if that is the only reason for having the flock.  They never ask us how much fertilizer they make, or how many slugs or snails they have eaten, or how quickly they clean up the sloppy fruit that falls from our fruit trees?!

Well, as Hilda started getting her broody hen on, we did more research.  Among those who suggest letting hens follow their instincts, there were those who advocate removing her from the flock altogether and putting her in someplace dark and quiet; those who were all about just letting the hen set where she settled in the midst of the chicken coop; and myriad other suggestions.  I realize now, typical for Teri and me, we went with a little bit of a few suggestions and let common sense--and Hilda--be our guide.  We adjusted it to fit our scene.

We started by letting Hilda stay in the nest box she'd chosen in the regular coop.  After all, we didn't know if she was serious or not. Seems some hens will be inclined to get broody, but they'll lose interest in a few days or be somewhat haphazard about it.  We figured, we'd give her a couple days to see how determined she was.  After setting overnight one night, she did come off the nest late the next morning and wander around the yard, take a dust bath, and puff and cluck at all the other chickens.  We thought that might be it.  But by midday, she was back on the nest.  There were some snarky tussles with the other hens who wanted to get into their favorite nest box to lay, and we started thinking that maybe if she was determined to do this thing, it could end up like a middle school rest room up in there and we might need to make some adjustments.

Some folks suggested putting fake eggs under a hen for a few days to see if she's serious, and then swapping them out for fertilized eggs--of course, this applies to hens who aren't already setting on an accumulated clutch.  This seemed to make a bit of sense and match our timing too.  Since it would take a few days for us to acquire the fertilized eggs, we decided to give her four fake eggs--a combination of plastic Easter eggs and one of the clay 'Inspiration Eggs" we used to teach the hens where to lay in the first place.  We tucked those up under her in the first nest box so she could get used to having four eggs under her, since we'd decided we were only going to get four for her to set (despite the fact that big 'ole Buff Orpingtons could comfortably set 12-18 eggs--what in the world would we do with that many chicks?!)  We figured with four eggs, there was a good chance that at least half could be roosters we'd need to re-home, and if we had to incorporate 2 new chicks into our flock, we could.  Besides, they might not all be viable eggs anyway. We're working on a small scale here!

At this point, we still weren't convinced we would have to move Hilda out of the nest box.  We hoped things would settle down and the other hens would just go about laying their daily eggs in the other nest box.  On about day three, we realized that was probably not going to happen.  Hilda trilled and screeched whenever any of the other gals came near, and the other galls squawked and clucked and tried to bully her off the nest.  It was time to come up with a new plan.

As Teri said, "We just don't know if we're doing the right thing!" and she's right. There are so many suggestions, dogmatic declarations by experienced chicken folk, and livestock rules that apply more to big operations than to evolving little backyard flocks. We remembered our neighbors had offered us use of their chicken tractor and thought this might work decently to make a protected, but adjacent space for Hilda.  We decided we did not want to separate her from the flock because we didn't want her to lose connection or have to reintegrate. She's already slipped to the bottom of the pecking order with the big gals.  We thought if we could keep her close, they'd all still hear, smell and see each other and, if chicks hatch, they wouldn't be foreigners either. 

We moved in the tractor, which is completely open on one end and placed it right up against our coop.  We had to add some boards and screening, as well as a tarp to make it somewhat weather proof, before constructing a comfortable, if a bit makeshift new nesting area for Hilda.  We put it closer to the ground so that, if she does hatch chicks, they won't tumble out of a high nest, but still up enough so she could feel safe and secure.  She can see in the coop and outside and all the other chickens can still see her too. She's got her own food and water and room to stretch her legs and poop without fear that someone will mess with her nest.

We still didn't know what would happen when we moved her in there.  She could decide it didn't suit her needs and fuss to get out, or we imagine at any point, she could change her mind about wanting to set on eggs at all.  She didn't.  She had a good meal and drank some water and then settled right back onto the new nest.  Her determination, at this point, is pretty amazing.  I think she looks stoic and Zen; Teri thinks she looks sad and isolated (I imagine we are both bringing some of our own mythology about motherhood to this.) Regardless, she quietly spent the night in her new digs and was sitting all plump and purposeful when I went out to tend the critters in the morning.

We still don't know what will happen.  The eggs should arrive in a couple days and, if she's still determined to set, we'll begin what could be a three-week wait and watch to a possible hatching.  Stay tuned...

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bee Tea, Bee Stings & Hilda Wants to be a Mom

Checking our bee hive after one week...right before I got stung four time!
Things are getting just a tad bit kooky around here--while other folks may have a predictable, mellow and static urban yard with tidy lawn patches and well-pruned shrubs, we've got some dynamic chaos and forces far beyond our attempted molding.  While we don't feel like we are in over our heads...yet...we have definitely found ourselves commenting on the amazing learning curve.  Even Teri has found her level-headed self caught up in the ride!

Our bees seem happy. They are buzzing in and out of the hive entrance, building combs, and we are starting to see them foraging all over

Our beautiful, plump Buff Orpington, Hilda Doolittle.
the garden. After two very mellow visits before they really had anything to protect, I was inaugurated into the realities of our tenuous relationship last weekend, when I got stung on the hands four times.  Damn, those stings are still itchy red patches on the backs of my hands! Teri thinks my smoking technique could use a little practice, whereas I kindly invited her to take the lead on our next visit to the bees and show me how she thinks it should be done!  The stings were secondary, however, to our discovery that there was brood in dem der comb cells!  Brood being young bee larvae.  We are going to go back in this weekend--after I get my thicker beekeeper gloves on--and check for capped brood, which will be our solid indication that we will have new bees and a growing hive in another week or two!

Just to be on the safe side, or maybe because it seemed like a terribly earthy and progressive thing to do (or as my son would say, a hippy thing to do), we have made the bees some tea. Gunther Hauk, of the Spikenard Farm Bee Sanctuary in Virginia offers up this tea recipe for providing a little extra healthy goodness for bees in transition. Okay, so I can sort of see where my son is coming from. Anyway, we had all the ingredients, except the Rue, so I decided to brew some up and put it out in the yard in a baby chicken water feeder filled with rocks so the bees could drink without drowning.  Truth be told, I'm probably trying to bribe them a bit so they will be less inclined to sting me!

Meanwhile, in the Lord of the Flies re-enactment that is our evolving chicken flock, Hilda Doolittle (yup, named after the poet & writer H.D. in an homage to my English major roots--we named all three of our inaugural chickens after modernist lesbian authors) has gone broody. She has taken to one of the nests with a Zen-like determination and is refusing to budge.  We're patting ourselves on the back a bit, because, beginners as we are, we saw it coming.  Starting with finding some of her chest feathers scattered about the nest a little over a week ago.  Then she just started acting particularly cranky--squawking and snapping at the young pullets, puffing herself out in stoic fluff for no apparent reason, AND, I actually caught her moving eggs around in the nest the other day.  Usually the hens just climb up, lay their eggs, make a noisy fuss, and clamber back down for a hearty drink and a return to foraging about the yard.  As of yesterday, Hilda has taken to the nest and seems determined to stay there until something maternal happens.

Teri and I knew this was probably coming~we knew when we chose to give the Buff Orpington breed a try that there was a very good chance she could go broody as they are one of the most motherly-inclined of the heritage breeds.  We'd had some preliminary chats but found ourselves in an emergency confab over a glass of post-work wine: Do we force her out of it? Do we let it run its course with some fake eggs? Do we move her?  After a bit more research and reminding ourselves of our mission, so to speak, on this urban farming adventure (to allow and support these animals to live as true to their nature as possible), we decided that if Hilda stays broody, we'll let her set on some fertilized eggs. 
Some of our recently-gathered NOT fertilized eggs
Now, we don't have a rooster (at least we don't think any of our new trio of pullets are male...yet) and it is, in fact, against the rules to have one within the city limits.  We are so within the city limits as to be within a mile of city center! So, we have to scramble and search for some fertilized eggs in breeds that we are potentially interested in--just in case we end up keeping a chick or two.  Big hatcheries sell hatching eggs, but a person has to order a minimum of usually 10 or 15 and the order time is at least a couple weeks out.  We do NOT need that many and the wait is too long. 

Lo and Behold...Ebay.  Don't ask me why or how I thought of it, but the light bulb went on and I thought, crap, this is an Internet World and surely...maybe? Sure enough, there are all sorts of small-time folks selling fertilized hatching eggs on Ebay and a person can order as few or as many as one likes.  I realize it's a gamble, who knows what we'll get, but four fertilized eggs sent priority mail from a Northern California back yard for $15 is better than 15 eggs mailed  in three weeks for $50.  First choice, of course, would have been someone local, but we realized we don't really know the sort of folks who would run over here with 5 or 6 fertilized heritage breed chicken eggs...yet.  In the end, we're only out $15 and, as Teri pointed out, if Hilda loses interest in setting before the eggs arrive early this next week, the eggs will still be edible and we'd pay $15 for a 4-egg omelet breakfast at a restaurant, wouldn't we?  Ah...perspective!

Honestly, despite all the books, movies, and articles we read, we are still making this up as we go along.  The kooky thing is that I sort-of feel like the animals are too so, in a way, we're all on this wild ride together!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Aging Choices

As you might imagine, Teri and I have the occasional conversations about this whole aging adventure.  As both of us are closer to 50 than we are to 40; with a few grey hairs, a wrinkle or ten and steady reminders that we are no Spring chickens, we tend to bring our unrelenting students' sensibilities to the challenges.  As far as we're concerned, how we age, to a certain extent, is a choice.

There is so much of life we have absolutely no control of: the weather, the economy, the way everyone around us drives, etc. The only piece we really get to manipulate is our philosophical approach.  When I think of the older people I know and have known who inspire me, they are the ones with a sense that time will run out before they do and there are some of their characteristics I've embraced as ones that I want to carry into the second half of my life:
  • Compassion
  • Open-mindedness
  • Engaged in community
  • Physically active (as active as physically possible)
  • Constantly learning
  • Willing to be a beginner
  • Silly
  • Reading, watching movies, going to plays
  • Embracing new music
  • Being a thoughtful, involved neighbor
  • Surrounding ourselves with diversity: folks of different ages, racial & ethnic backgrounds, genders, socio-economics, etc.
  • Refraining from giving/offering advice~unless specifically asked
  • Accepting our kids wholly for who they are, their choices, etc.~allowing them to be themselves without trying to influence or judge
  • Willingness to say "yes" and "no"
  • Every day is a new adventure!
As I've seen it, we have some choices about how we age.  There are those who become bitter and sheltered; retreating into familiarity and rigid days and schedules; and there are also those who reinvent themselves with a great leap of faith and change. I don't imagine I am really either of those sorts, but see myself more as an opening up of more and more layers of life and myself.  I don't want to abandon all that I am or have been, but I also have the constant sense that there is still so much to do, learn, and explore.  Every year of my life, I have met new people and had new adventures; There are constantly new people to meet, friends to make, books to read, places to visit, and recipes to try~but there are also relationships to deepen, skills to improve, and joys to experience again and again. There is excitement in change, but there is also a sense of maturity that comes from lessons learned deeply and relationships weathered over time and trial. 

As Teri and I have shared, we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or next week or next year, but we have a pretty good idea of who we are going to be when it happens...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Critter Bonding

We are all getting to know each other: The new pullets, the old hens, Teri, Me, the three cats, and the bees.  Throw in our wild critter neighbors (squirrels, jays and chickadees) and we've got quite the tribal settling going on over here on Cedar Street. As Teri declared the other day, there is always something going on in our back yard!

So, here's the low down on merging the young chicklets with our existing Macbethian flock of gals--it's a process.  Many of you may already know that chickens live contentedly with a social hierarchy.  What we've learned, is that the pecking order shifts depending on interesting things: for example, if one of them goes into a moult and stops laying for a while, she tends to lose a little ground, while someone else gets a promotion.  So far, we have seen all three of the big girls take a turn at being in charge.  Currently, it appears Trudy is calmly in the CEO shoes (after being the scraggly late-bloomer, we're thinking she's enjoying her turn in the bossy seat).  Hilda, our Buff Orpington, is presently at the bottom of the trio and, we're noticing, she has the most to gain with the addition of the three rookies and she's making sure they know it!

The other hens (Trudy and Virginia Woolf) pay little attention to the three new squeakers running around, but Hilda really needs them to know she's a rung above them on the ladder of success and influence.  She isn't terribly physical, she tends to use an obnoxious squawk and some jolty posturing to intimidate. Teri, ever the fair-minded humanitarian, finds all of this bossing and mild bullying disconcerting; she can't figure out why, if they know what it's like to be on the bottom, they aren't all nice, helpful and egalitarian to one another.  My philosophy is that we're probably not the ones to tackle and change what Nature has created; there are obviously things at play here outside of our realm of logic and human psychology.  That said, I also think that as long as they all have plenty of room to get away from each other and make their own alliances, fresh air, treats, and attention from us, things will settle down and our miniature animal kingdom will be relatively peaceful.

Now enter bees...
I am surprised at how quickly I have become enamoured of our buzzing little hive. Yesterday, I couldn't wait to get home from work when I realized we were having an extended sun break, just to check in with the busy ladies and see what they were up too. My lack of fear has me a bit perplexed.  Strangely enough, I actually feel a sense of calm when working around the bees.  It might have something to do with the fact that I am trying to be slow, respectful and deliberate when working around them; I don't want to startle, crush or traumatize any of them--they are all working so hard and so focused on their tasks at hand! I love the buzzing sound when the sun warms the hive and they all get active and I am fascinated watching them fly in and out of the entrances, speeding along the flight path and heading up and across the garden.

The chickens pay little notice to the bees, although they are benefiting gastronomically by cleaning up the dead ones they find amidst the grass.  The cats quickly learned to give the hive a respectful berth, although Teri reports that Bad Toby did jump up on the top of the hive the other day, only to look a bit confused and jump himself back down.  I don't think the bees have enough of an investment to protect yet, so they are pretty docile.  I imagine when they've got brood and honey stores, they will likely have less patience for furry intruders!

So amidst all this intentional critter action, we've got a half dozen squirrels who have been racing across the back fence and one determined little thing who has been hell-bent on robbing us of every bit of hemp twine we have in the garden.  We watched the thing grab one end from a ball and take off across our yard, over the back fence and through the neighbor's.  I finally cut the yards long trail with my garden clippers so we could salvage some for ourselves. The jays are stealing straw and bits of whatever they can get away with to line their nests, and after watching our chickens devour a big, crunchy snail, and watching the young pullets gobble a couple gooey slugs, I'm happily realizing that we are not going to have a slug and snail problem this year!

We're all figuring it out, we're cohabitating, and, honestly, I sort-of think we're all making it up as we go along...

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bee Poop

There are always things you can't learn in books.  I say this more of a reminder and affirmation for myself because I am definitely a reader and student long before I tend to be ready to take the plunge into new adventures.  No matter how much I read and study, however, the proof is always in the doing!

After about a decade of reading about bees and beekeeping, watching documentaries, listening to interviews and getting up the courage, yesterday I officially became a bee keeper and was inaugurated in various ways--none of which included getting stung.

Just between you and me, I have to confess that when the experienced beekeeper set that box of buzzing bees down at my feet, he might as well have been handing me a shredding scroll written in Latin.  I looked down and forgot every book and video and wondered how I would ever get the damn thing open and the bees deposited into our lesbian-built bee hive!  It seemed far more complicated than any six-sided object should ever be...

I'll spare you the stories of my adrenaline combination of excitement, glee, and panic and get right down to what the books don't tell you: shaking the bees into the hive does not result in a nice, tidy pile of newly-homed bees and bees poop.

As soon as the can of syrupy whatever capping the bees traveling berth was lifted off, bees starting buzzing out.  I had to try to slip the queen cage out and get her hung up in the hive and get the box tipped and shaken relatively quickly and that was a bit of a bumbly challenge.  I actually dropped the queen into the box accidentally and had to leave her there while I did my gently, yet authorative shaking.  I then used my long-handled screwdriver to gently lift the cage and get her hung up on one of the bars of our top bar hive--holding her in place with another bar.  Meanwhile, bees were a-buzzing!

Looking into the air and trees above our yard, thousands of bees were flying about.  They quickly honed in on the hive box and as I closed it all back up, the cloud of bees was already starting to dissapate.
Within about an hour, things had settled down quite nicely in our back yard, but that's when we started to notice little brown spots on EVERYTHING.  What the heck?  My clothes, all the lawn furniture, the deck, even Tillie, our teal-green PT Cruiser parked in the front driveway, were all covered with the little splots of brown.  I should have been more curious when my 23-year-old daughter, Lucy, who was beekeeper number 2 for the adventure, asked if it was raining in the midst of the great bee dump. Raining? I thought for a second, naw, the sun is out!
Turns out, (I think) that bees relieve themselves when they fly.  So all those 14,000 bees (give or take) were probably so happy to be let loose over a nice green garden after their long journey! I can honestly tell you, dear reader, that not one single book, article or movie warned me about the bee poop.  So, all of you aspiring beekeepers out there, I'm laying down a little realness for you.  I can't help but wonder, if my neighbors are wondering what the little brown spots are on their lawn furniture?