Ready, set . . . lay!

droopy kale

High summer, indeed. Here we are in the longest days of the year, and apparently they aim to be the hottest, as well. Yesterday hit 105°, and currently it is 85° inside. The house is gloomy with our passive cooling measures — blinds and windows shut this morning, after the night spent wide open. It’s been four days of 100+ though and things are not getting so cool overnight as one might wish.

backyard camp

We’ve been sleeping in the tent in the back yard the last few nights, enjoying crystal-clear skies and cool breezes. We’ve been meaning to test-sleep the tent in preparation for some overnight bike trips, and this finally got us to do it. It’s not a new tent, but we are needing to think about what it needs to make it bike-friendly, as we’ve only car-camped with it.

laying hen not quite

We’ve been so focused on eat local month for the last while, y’all are probably wondering if we ate our chickens! Well, we didn’t. The girls are growing up, as you can see here. And they are hot too — you can see their little beaks hanging open as they pant in the heat. The one on the left is pretty much ready to lay. She has starting “assuming the position” when Patrick approaches to pick her up. This involves crouching low and sticking her butt up in the air. When he touches her back she sets there for a second and then moves on. I was mentioning this to someone at the co-op the other day and he said a friend’s rooster had once mounted his leg, flapping about for a few moments and leaving a bit of sticky residue. Chicken sex doesn’t take too long, I gather.

The hen who is closest to laying has a lovely comb and wattles, displaying a nice, healthy red. She’s also showing the most green iridescence in her feathers. The other two are bigger than her, but not as mature, with just the beginings of bright red showing up on their smaller wattles. They are about four months now.

As they get older, the chickens get chattier, and are now greeting the day with some cackly clucking. This morning one of them almost sounded like she was laying — but no egg. It’s pretty cute, whenever the girls hear us outside they start up a little conversation, hoping for some dandelion greens. Since we’ve been sleeping outside, as soon as we wake up and say something to each other the chickens start speaking up, asking to be released.

It looks like our hens are going to be on the Portland Tour de Coops, on July 29th. Yikes! We still haven’t placed the final fence-post for their yard, so the gate is being held closed by a rock. We’re hoping to get to that before the tour, though it probably involves getting a flexcar to pick up the 4×4, which is hard to convince ourselves to do. There is nothing worse than getting into a hot car in the summer. Ugh.

We went on a sustainability bike ride when we lived in Oakland that included a visit with an experienced backyard chicken raiser in Berkeley. At the time we were in our planning phase, reading and agonizing. Seeing someone else’s set-up was a great chance to see that people really were doing this crazy thing we had been thinking about. This tour is self-led — you pick up a map of coops and then go visit during a set period of time during the afternoon. Hopefully we can encourage some fledgling city-chicken folks — and take some time to go visit others in our ’hood.

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7 Responses to Ready, set . . . lay!

  1. Scout says:

    Wow, how exciting!

    When I worked at the culinary school, one of my friends/coworkers had chickens at his home, and could bring me eggs whenever I wanted. I took him up on the offer, and even bought my own plastic egg carrier to send him home with at night. A few days to a week later, I was the proud owner of the most beautifully colored blue and green and brown eggs.

    I was amazed at the quality of the eggs. I knew they would be better than even the best store-bought eggs, but the disparity was shocking. Bright, almost orange yolks, and frequently more than one yolk. And the results of cooking with them? I made a souffle one night, after bringing home a batch, and I have never seen something so beautiful or tasted something so delicious. Granted, my excitement certainly colored the end result, but even I couldn’t influence the whole experiment. We ate the souffle after dinner, stuffing ourselves on its fluffy goodness, and set the remains and the dish in the sink, intending to clean up later. Of course, we forgot, and when I woke the next morning, I found the most startling thing: the souffle left behind had not fallen, as they always do after a small period of time.

    I talked to my friend about it at work that day, and though he had never heard of his eggs’ supernatural souffle-leavening powers, he did note that using them created moister, longer lasting foods than with regular eggs. I attributed this not to some hippy-dippy earth mother power, but to the fact that in culinary school, I learned how eggs were treated like any commodity. Stored in near-freezing conditions, the eggs were sold to market only when the price was high enough, or the expiration close enough. They’re not bad eggs at all, but they’re so far from farm fresh as to embarrass any proud owner of chickens. I hypothesized that fresher eggs must have more vitamins and more lecithin (the part of yolks responsible for emulsifying sauces and helping the egg whites to bind stuff) when they’re newer– perhaps indicated by their bright color– losing these attributes gradually as they age.

    Either that, or living in beautiful Silverton has actually created all-powerful chickens.

    The other thing I found amazing was how sometimes I wouldn’t get my egg delivery on time. It turns out that when he began collecting the specimens and moving them to the fridge for me, the chickens wised up and started hiding the eggs. My friend would then have to traipse back and forth in his yard, searching out hidden treasure like an Easter egg hunt. I didn’t mind, because I would gladly wait for the treats, but began to feel a bit bad when I heard of their desperate attempts to protect their eggs.

  2. Paul Cooley says:

    Your chickens are looking good! Somehow three seems more reasonable than our seven. Our chickens have been ranging over their half of the back yard, chewing up all the chard in the garden and ripping out flowers. I’m a little worried they will get into the bees. Do chickens have more sense than that? I had to set up an emergency hive yesterday, and it’s down on cinder blocks, pretty close to chicken level. I don’t feel right leaving seven chickens in an eight by four pen, but they’re big enough that they’re getting into trouble. I either have to pen them in to a larger pen, or put chicken wire around all the things I want them to leave alone. How attractive is that? Our next door neighbor raised chickens as a child, and he said we should clip their wings or they will soon be flying over the wall. He spent much of his childhood tracking down chickens.

    The dogs got one of our chickens yesterday. I thought she was dead, but when I picked her up, she was still alive. She is, hopefully, recovering in a box in the house. She’s still alive this morning, but I’m worried about infections.

    We tried to give the dogs away on freecycle — we really, really, really aren’t dog people and what were we thinking? — but no one wants them.

    Have fun with the chicken tour. You should put a huge “Hen Waller” banner in front of your house to impress your neighbors.

  3. Holly says:

    It is truly astonishing how much better truly fresh eggs are. What you mention about how long factory-produced eggs sit around is totally part of it. Another critical piece is that mass market eggs are grain (and other unmentionedable ickies) fed. They don’t get grass and bugs and the good things that make for the most orangey-golden yolks. Our inability to go back to regular eggs is a big factor in having chickens. Our hope was to have at least half a dozen layers, so we could share some eggs. Sadly, that wasn’t possible.

    Of course, in PDX there are quite a few people selling very fresh, pastured-chicken eggs. Our two favorite vendors are Cherry Blossom Farms, who sell at the Saturday farmer’s market, and Champoeg eggs that we get from the co-op. Both have all our favorite fresh-egg qualities.

    I wouldn’t feel too bad for the chickens and their hidden eggs. In a totally free-range situation like that, the eggs would at best get eaten by racoons and rats, or at worst by the chickens themselves! Better you than them.

  4. Holly says:

    Argh, Paul, I just read the latest adventures at your spread! Oh, my lord. Sorry about the dog situation. I love dogs—when they are someone else’s!

    On the chicken front, however, my advice is to pen them up in the 4×8. They really really will be fine. Great in fact. And your garden will be allowed to thrive. This is something that people don’t mention about chickens, but they are incredibly destructive because of their propensity for tender greens, and for digging for bugs. They will basically leave a scorched-earth look anywhere they go. Unless you have huge amounts of space to chicken tractor them around in, you really need to restrict their space. Give them all the scraps from greens in your kitchen, and non-grassy weeds, and they’ll be delighted.

    They will also be safer from predators—domesticated and otherwise—you won’t have to clip their wings, nor will you have to search for their eggs once they start laying. I know that we are in somewhat of a minority among backyard birders for this position, but in urban situations I really don’t think it’s that practical to let chickens truly free range. In a rural situation there are ways that I think it can work. But chickens are essentially defenseless. I have seen and heard of a lot of free-range urban chicken situations, and a lot of what I hear is chickens getting injured, “disappearing” (hmm, I wonder where they went—must have gone off to seek their fortunes), or getting killed. I am not sure what breeds you have, but with a 5′ fence they will probably not be able to fly out once they reach their full size. We used something called horse-fencing, I think, it’s got something like 3×2″ squares. It wouldn’t work for keeping them safe at night, but it’s great for keeping them out of the garden.

    I hope your injured pullet is ok. Be aware that she may get beaten up by the other chickens when you put her back with the flock, (see “Spring Crop” and Calm returns to the waller” for some of our sick-chicken adventures) depending on whether they’ve started to establish a pecking order. Make sure there’re no open wounds on her when she goes back.

    I love the idea of the Hen Waller banner. That would be too perfect. I have to confess, part of our desire to be on the tour was to impress 😉 the neighbors.

  5. Paul Cooley says:

    Thanks for the advice. I kept the chickens in the pen for most of this day, only letting them out near roosting time, so they could get a little pre-roost exercise.

    Yes, we now have two bee hives. For a top bar hive, that should translate into about six gallons of honey a year. What is incredible is the hive built up to swarming strength from a three pound package in just two months. They CAN’T keep that up. We just don’t have room for that many hives unless we move beekeeping up to the roof of the house. Some do it, but I’m not quite ready to do that, particularly with the roof leaking.

    Chrysanthemum is still alive, but she can’t stand on one leg. We’re all pulling for her. We still haven’t found any homes for our dogs. I think we’re just naturally evolving toward urban livestock. I feel bad for the dogs — they’re not that bad for dogs — but they’re just not as important to us as the bees and the chickens. Dogs deserve to be man’s best friend, not viewed suspiciously as a potential predator you have to buy food for and clean up after.

  6. Holly says:

    I think that raising urban livestock has the effect of pointing up some issues with our domestic pets. Patrick and I have come to a much different view of cats for example, since becoming involved in growing plants and animals for food. We spent so much more on cat food and care last year then for the chickens, and the cats, to be frank, are 90% pain in the ass (fleas, health problems, meowling in the night, territorial pissing, allergies, killing birds, etc). We are now down to one cat, and he’ll likely be around for a while, but at this point I don’t know that we will ever get another domestic pet. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me in terms of where our resources should be going.

    It’s a confusing issue, though. Another blogger, 10 Signs Like This, reported today that she lost one of her chickens to what she believes is a feral cat, and there is a discussion going on about whether animal control should be brought on, or (semi-seriously?) whether it should be shot with a BB gun. That doesn’t seem like a reasonable response to me. Feral cats are a huge problem, and I think it’s great to do whatever one can to reduce that population, but not just because one killed your chicken that was running around free. It might have been a neighborhood cat. Cats roam, and they eat birds. Someone commented on her blog that you can’t have a “chicken killer” roaming around. Well, then, you can’t have outside cats at all—or racoons or possums. (Cats, in my experience, won’t bother full-size chickens. Hers was a banty, though.)

    At the end of the day, I believe that we are responsible for the safety of the animals we have chosen to husband. We cannot blame natural predators—which cats and dogs are—for doing what they are wired to do. And in an urban environment, we especially cannot threaten domestic pets with mayhem for interfering with our ventures. At the least, that will not endear us to fellow citizens whose forbearance we need to keep farm animals in the city.

  7. Patrick says:

    I’ll haul that 2×4 with my bike . . . or i’ll eat my hat! Flexcar schmexcar.

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