Tuesday, June 26, 2007

pullet puberty sets in

The girls are going through an awkward moment in their growth. In the last few days, their faces have taken a decidedly hard right turn into the realm of "only a parent could love."

At the tender age of nine weeks old, the girls' faces currently resemble those of a teenager who is struggling to grow a (patchy) beard and fell asleep in the sun without sunscreen on: patches of downy grey surrounding blotches of bright red skin.

The fine feathers that used to cover where a "chicken cheek" would be are starting to fall out to reveal the red skin underneath and I can see the wattles beginning to bulge out. Their combs have even begun to sprout out of the tops of their heads in earnest (they've grown a quarter-inch over just the last two days), although they're still on the pinkish side. I assume the deep red color comes later?

In all, its not a pretty process, but I'm getting a much better at identifying how old chicks are by their appearance... it used to be I recognized chickens in only three stages of development: chick, skinny teen and fat adult. Now I'm getting to know the finer points of their maturing, and it's delightful to see the changes that are visible each and every day.

Another bonus to the recent growth: Sophia's now started to do more of what I'd call a "clucking" sound than her typical peeps that we've grown to love over the last two months. Granted, she only sounds that way when under duress (meaning: I'm trying to coax her back into the Eglu run), but it amazes me to all the sudden recognize my girls as real chickens.

Oh, and we discovered this weekend that our girls LOVE grapes.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

neighbor cat found our chickens

Last night, just after dusk, I was feeding the dog and spied the intruder across the yard.

A tabby cat was slinking his way through the bushes behind our Eglu, and he finally popped up, crouching right at the junction between the coop and the run. Although he was forty feet away, I could swear he was licking his chops. Luckily, the girls were already in the coop, so they didn't see him.

A sotto voce "Argus, look! get him!" was enough to send our Great Dane bounding across the yard toward the now-retreating cat. Before Argus could get within 10 feet of him, the cat had scampered up and over the ten-foot privacy fence between our yard and the neighbor behind us.

We'll see how long it is before he returns.

And here I thought we'd see a raccoon or opossum as our first intruder.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Our choice of paths to chicken farming

Back in April, when I first mustered up the courage to order an Eglu from Omlet (actually, when I finally got permission from Left Coast Mom), I backed out when I found out the chickens I wanted to order along with the Eglu wouldn't be available until June 18. Back then (April 20), June 18 seemed so far away, I just couldn't imagine cooling my heels that long before getting jumping into backyard chicken farming.

Yes, ordering the chickens from Omlet meant we'd get a couple Gingernut Rangers in mid-June that were T.O.L. (Time Of Lay, or within four weeks of laying their first egg), but it also meant two months of empty Eglu in the backyard waiting for chickens to arrive. And these chickens were spending their formative weeks in some mass-production hatchery operation, not in the coddling environs of a wannabe backyard egg farmer. Who knows what bad habits the Rangers would be picking up from the rest of the flock at the hatchery? (Yes, I realize McMurray Hatchery is a reputable joint, but c'mon, we're talking about the chooks we'd be living with for years!)

So, back in April, I went to Plan B instead: get a couple chicks and raise them from days-old to old-age. Save for a few days at the beginning of their lives, we'd know exactly how they'd been treated (loved, adored, etc), and they'd imprint on our family like we were their own. Besides that, we'd get to pick our breed instead of being told which breed we could have.

As fate would have it, we ended up with a couple of fine Barred Rock specimens, Sophia and ZsuZsu. I'm hoping they're both girls, but part of choosing Plan B was taking the risk that they'd been sexed correctly. This being our first time raising chickens, I have no way to tell whether they were sexed right until one or both start a) cock-a-doodle-dooing or b) laying eggs. And that won't be for another three months when they approach 20 weeks old.

So, now I see that I skipped two months of empty Eglu in May and June on the way to getting eggs from Gingernut Rangers in July for two months of adolescent-full Eglu in July and August on the way to getting eggs from Barred Rocks in September.

Given just how amazing it's been to watch the girls(?!) grow from chicks into adolescent pullets(?!) in these short seven weeks, I think Plan B should have been Plan A all along. In this case, the chicken coming before the egg was indeed the way it was meant to be.

In my next post, I'll talk about just how ugly these chooks get as their wattles start to form. Good thing there are no mirrors in the coop or they'd scare themselves to death!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

upcoming workshop about backyard chickens

I was visiting my brother and his family last weekend up in Seattle, and he mentioned that they'd seen an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about pet chickens just the week before. Turns out more and more of us are becoming chicken farmers than ever before.

Now, in today's San Jose Mercury News Garden section I see that one of the local organic gardening stores, Common Ground in Palo Alto, is hosting a couple backyard chickens workshops next Saturday, June 23, led by Jody Main:
Chickens are a wonderful addition to an organic garden. They complete the circle. We give them our food scraps and garden greens . . . they give us eggs and fertilizer . . . we plant crops. Perfect! Chickens are wonderful pets that fully participate and contribute to the whole. Learn everything you need to know to raise happy hens, including: hen house and yard set-up, nesting boxes, water, feed, local suppliers, caring for your hens and favorite crops to grow for your chickens. Here you will see how easy it is to raise chickens and how great a role they play in creating a healthy organic vegetable garden. Garden snack included! Meet at Common Ground, then car pool to Jody's garden and hen house.
Couldn't agree more with the description of the workshop. Tempted to go myself, if only to see what her hen house looks like. (I wonder if she's got an Eglu or two, too?) The whole completing-the-circle aspect of raising chickens is right on, and as a small-time vegetable gardener, having chooks gives me the sense that I'm all that more sustainable than before. Instead of buying chicken manure in bulk at the beginning of the season, I'm now adding it in small amounts to our compost pile every other day.

If you're living in the Bay Area and still sitting on the fence about getting your own chooks,
by all means treat your self to one of the workshops. Given the fact they've had to add an additional workshop, we could have a lot more cluckers here on the Peninsula soon.

Let me know if you plan to attend!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

how fast do your chicks grow?

meet the chick!Tonight (before dusk) I let the chicks out of their Eglu to walk around the yard some... a feat they're more than happy to indulge in, and I caught myself marveling at how big they've gotten in such a short time.

It's hard to believe that just six weeks ago we brought them home from the Feed Store, and they were no bigger than a tennis ball, and it was easy to hold one of them in the palm of your hand.

Hannah as chook-whispererNow, they're each bigger than a regulation-size football, and they run around the yard at a pretty good clip chasing after bugs and whatnot. Tonight's the first time they spent an extended period of time on the actual lawn in back... up until now, they seemed to treat the lawn as a border not to be crossed at the edge of the mulch. For some reason, they no longer fear the green space, and actually delighted in chasing the bugs flitting around in the fading daylight.

I was a little curious as to where they were finding all the white leaves among the green blades, though. Then, as I looked closer at the catch and heard the accompanying satisfying crunch, I realized they were picking the little moths that otherwise were "hiding" in the grass.

Good girls! They can grow as big as they like eradicating our lawn of all its insects.

Monday, June 11, 2007

the girls survived their night alone

Happy to report our girls seemed to do just fine having spent the better part of two days all alone.

As soon as we got home from the airport last night at 10pm, I grabbed the flashlight ("electric torch" to you UK folks) and went outside to make sure all was fine.

In the dark, my initial scan of the eglu and run showed that no one had broken out (or broken in), and there was still a respectable amount of food and water left in the bowls. I quickly shined the light inside the eglu, and there they were: our two chooks asleep side-by-side in the nesting box.

That's a habit I'll have to break them of sooner than later (via putting a ball in the box to crowd them out), but for now, I'm happy to see all is well in our little chicken-land.

When I went down to feed/water them this morning, I could see they'd spent the better part of their day(s) trying to dig out from under the run. Thanks to Omlet's intelligent design of the run (specifically: the six-inch extenders off the edges), the girls didn't even get close to digging out. I am going to have to reduce the amount of mulch under their run, though (currently: six inches deep) so as to thwart any other attempts.

While I didn't see a noticeable jump in the girls' overall size since I last saw them Saturday morning, I did notice that their combs and faces are now a bright pink. No sign of wattles sprouting yet, but I'm sure that's just around the corner.

Another thing I noticed when I gave them fresh water: they gulped it down as though they'd been waiting for it. Here I thought all I needed do was make sure there was water in the bowl, but it seems they really do want fresh stuff more than just wet stuff. I'll make sure our chook sitters know this next time we go away.

Friday, June 8, 2007

leaving the chooks on their own overnight

As posted before, we're off to Seattle tomorrow for an overnight trip away from home (and coop). The neighbor we'd thought would "chook sit" for us winds up being out of town as well, so we'll have to leave the girls to their own devices.

The first two nights we had their eglu, I dutifully closed the door to keep them safe inside and opened it first thing in the morning to see them tumble over each other racing to the feeding trough.

I faced a dilemma last night once I found out we'd have no chook sitting help: find an emergency replacement? or leave the girls to fend for themselves with an open eglu door? (the run would stay closed, of course)

I decided to risk it last night and leave the eglu door open just to see how they'd do.

Turns out, they did just fine. For reasons unrelated to the chooks, I was up before dawn and was able to see when they finally rubbed their eyes and moseyed over to the feeding trough. Seems like there was no harm, no foul (fowl?) leaving the door open, so I feel ok leaving them to fend for themselves tomorrow night while we're out of town.

The "glug" and "grub" containers are big enough to hold at least a couple days' water and food (especially for seven-week-old pullets), so the only thing to worry about is that they'll somehow, some way knock over the glug container spilling all their water out the first day.

The construction is pretty solid, so I think we're going to be ok.

So happy to have the girls in the eglu instead of stuck in the wire cage in the house!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

the chicks' new evening ritual

Now that the eglu is here, the girls are sleeping outside the house (hooray!) which means that there's no poop-filled cage to clean up in the morning (hooray hooray!).

There's also a new night time ritual for the girls now that they're outdoors.

Last night, their first night in the eglu, it took quite a bit of coaxing to get them inside the eglu so I could close the door to seal them inside. The eglu owner's manual suggested that a battery-powered torch (aka a flashlight here in the States) placed inside the eglu would be the perfect lure to get the chicks to come in from the run.

Not so with my chicks. They're either disinterested by light shining inside a confined area, or they're simply not going to fall for that trick (maybe they read the manual before I did?).

I found it took my opening the side hatch of the eglu and sticking my head inside the eglu to call them in order for them to show even slight interest in the interior. Only after Sophia poked her head in the eglu did ZsuZsu come to the door to see what was up. A skillful nudge from behind with the closing door is what got them inside after 20 minutes of coaxing.

Needless to say, I wasn't looking forward to a repeat this evening as the sun went down.

Imagine my surprise when I walked out the back door to see the chooks were already inside the eglu waiting for me to close the door behind them.

They're either quick learners, or they're luring me into a false sense of security as to how easy this is going to be. I'm hoping for the former.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

a new orange crib for the chooks

new home for the chooksThe Eglu has arrived, and after a little more than an hour, I was able to put it together and move the girls in.

I was really impressed with the way the packaging was handled... the Omlet folks have done a splendid job with the product design. The only nits to pick are with the instructions on how to set things up, and the expectation for how long it'll take.

The instructions start with the sentence "Assembling the eglu and run - this shouldn't take much more than 20 minutes and is very simple."

Very simple? Yes.

20 minutes? No. Not even. Maybe if you've been putting these things together for years and are racing a fellow employee for bragging rights you can do it in 20 minutes, but for the average Joe (or Thomas as the case may be)... plan on an hour.

The handy "The Omlet Guide" included with the eglu was surprisingly informative and entertaining in addition to instructional regarding how to set up the 'glu.

In all, I'm very pleased with our purchase. But I already miss hearing the girls' cheep cheep as I type my blog. Hope they're sleeping safe and sound in their new eglu.

lessons learned raising chicks in the house

chooks and a dane As you can see in the photo, our girls have gotten really big in these five weeks we've had them (for comparison's sake, that's our Great Dane, Argus in the window just behind them). Since the girls are about to move out of the house for good this week (once the rest of our Eglu arrives), I thought it'd be a good time to recap the lessons learned so far:
  • All the books and articles and blogs you read about chicks being prolific poopers are true. If you're going to raise them, be prepared to change the cage each morning and each night to keep some semblance of neatness around the indoor coop.
  • It's the syrup-y squishy poops that stink real bad, so whatever you do, don't accidentally squish one.
  • Singing to your chooks does, indeed, calm them down. I think it even helps them bond to you, too (although time will tell for my birds and me).
  • Whomever suggested using an old aquarium as a temporary brooder must have been talking about at least a 25-gallon aquarium. The 10-gallon aquarium I acquired when they were tiny chicks didn't last more than two weeks before it was simply too small.
  • Do what you can to keep the food bowl off the ground, it'll cut down on the amount of poop they drop in it. Only recently did I buy a feed bowl that hangs on the side of the cage, and it was well worth the $2.29 in terms of saved trips to the trash to toss out the old poopy food and refill with fresh stuff.
  • With two baby chicks, you should only need to buy 10 pounds of chick starter. Any more, and you're likely spending too much on food.
  • Take the chicks out for the equivalent of a walk in the backyard whenever you can. Yes, they'll seem more restless inside the cage post-walk, but seeing them explore your backyard will give you a whole new appreciation for the place you live.
  • Clean water is key, and I think the chicks know it, too. No matter how filthy the food bowl would get, they seemed to take care not to get anything in their water. (Maybe we just lucked out)
  • Finally... watch your chicks grow. It's amazing how big they get and how fast it happens. You literally see them develop overnight. Quite amazing, and very instructive for the children to see how living things grow.
As soon as they move out of the house we enter a new phase around here: what's it mean to be a free-range chicken in Redwood City? And when's the first egg coming (smart bets are on late August).

Monday, June 4, 2007

The eglu has arrived (at least the run has)

new eglu box 1 of 2 As suspected, (half of) the Eglu arrived today. More specifically, the Run part of the Eglu arrived in a somewhat-intact box. What's not visible in the photo on the right is the fact that the bottom of the box was hanging together by only 4 of the eight staples that were smartly added to insure it held together in transit.
inside the eglu run box
Thankfully, there was nothing else that was supposed to be in the box (I hope?), but still I was a bit puzzled that
the bottom of the box was littered with what seemed to be the remains of a bunch of styrofoam popcorn. Of all the outfits I'd imagine would be using more environmentally-friendly packing materials, I'd have thought it'd be the Omlet folks.

Maybe when the rest of the Eglu arrives (tomorrow?) I'll get to see how the not-so-light-and-airy pieces are packed together. As I understand it, I'll be getting the Eglu house, the run cover, the food/water bowls and instructions how to put it all together in the next box. Per DHL, it's due to arrive tomorrow.

I (and the girls) can't wait!

Sunday, June 3, 2007

ominous email from home re: the chicks

Not the kind of email you want to see when on business on the other side of the country:

Subj: the chickens

are getting really big and are seriously pissed off about being in the cage. they're trashing the place with poop and are kicking over the food bowl--in addition to the usual pooping IN the food bowl. I gave them 4 heaping scoops of food this morning and they're already down to crumbs.

Do we know yet when the Eglu will arrive??

You know, that's a really great question about the Eglu. I left a message with them late Friday (likely after they'd shut down for the day over in England) asking for an update. We're well beyond the "couple days to fabricate" before getting a DHL tracking number.

To complicate things, we're headed out of town this coming weekend to visit family in Seattle, and we'd planned to have the chooks outside before leaving.

While I don't think our chicken-sitter will back out of the job if the chicks are still indoors, her job will be much much easier if the chicks are outside in the Eglu.

Hopefully I'll be getting an apologetic voice mail tomorrow from Clare informing me our Eglu's already on the road and she'll share the DHL number forthwith.

I tell ya, although the Eglu's a nice looking product, Omlet has a little ways to go in providing good customer service.

UPDATE: Got an email from Clare this afternoon (if you're reading this, hi, Clare!) with our DHL tracking numbers. Both pieces shipped on May 30, and according to the DHL tracking site, they're estimated to be delivered tomorrow. w00t!

Friday, June 1, 2007

building nests and beaks as hands

Interesting chicken trivia from the US Humane Society web site. I'm astounded to learn that chickens peck more than 10,000 times a day. Then again, a chicken heart beats an average of 250 times a minute, so they must be used to doing things quickly.

Chickens use their sensitive beaks like we use our hands—for exploring their surroundings, picking up items, feeding, and more. They forage (search for food) by scratching with their claws and pecking with their beaks more than 10,000 times in a single day.


Hens, or female chickens, have a strong need to nest. In nature, a hen follows an intricate process to build her nest. She first scratches a shallow hole in the earth and then reaches out to pick up twigs and leaves, which she drops onto her back. Then she settles back into the hole she dug and lets the materials fall off around the rim. She continues collecting and depositing twigs and leaves until her nest is complete.


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