Critters

The Hipster Hen Ranch sits on nine acres near the St. Croix River, a pristine, protected river that forms a long section of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.  The house, other buildings, gardens, and chicken runs take up maybe an acre, and the rest is pretty much mature oak forest.  One nice thing about living in the oak woods is the abundance of wildlife.  Last night when Bailey and I took our final trip outside before bed,  I listened to two great horned owls having an extended conversation.  We often hear or catch glimpses of owls, eagles, wild turkeys, hawks, deer, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bears and gazillions of squirrels and rabbits.  There have even been occasional reports of cougars and bobcats. 

I truly appreciate being able to interact with all these wild critters, but there’s a downside.  Most of my neighbors and I choose to live in the country for the country lifestyle.  That usually includes growing big gardens and raising a few animals.  And that’s where our interaction with the local wild critters can become tricky.  Critters can be divided into three categories:  The carnivores, like the hawks, foxes, and coyotes have a pronounced appreciation for chickens—but not in the same way that you, my blog readers, appreciate chickens.  The herbivores, such as the deer and rabbits, have an insatiable fondness for my garden and apple trees.  And then there are the omnivores, best represented by the raccoons, who would be happy to have a few tomatoes from the garden for an appetizer before settling down to a fine chicken entrĂ©e. 

We all do our best to deal with this problem.  In the not-so-distant days past, the solution was to shoot every critter in sight.  When I was a kid, I learned that the birds I now call hawks were “chicken hawks”, that they existed to eat our chickens, and when you spotted one, you reached for your rifle.  Fortunately, most folks are a bit more enlightened now.  I realize that I have chosen to raise my vegetables and chickens in habitat that was occupied by wild animals long before I arrived.  So I share the space—one acre for me and my domestic plants and animals, and the other eight acres for the wild animals.  But I prefer not to share my chickens and tomatoes.  To protect my gardens from plant munchers, I keep them close to the house, spray copious amounts of repellent, and of course I have a ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever.  And to protect the Hipster Hens from chicken munchers, I don’t ever allow them to free range.  When I’m home, they’re strolling around a half-acre chicken run, and when I’m gone, they’re in the hen pen with its wire roof, and perimeter of buried wire.  And of course there’s the ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever. 

My system to protect against predators does seem to make a difference.  Last summer, a nearby neighbor lost an entire flock in one night to a weasel attack.  A friend who free-ranges her chickens had almost her entire flock picked off one hen at a time over the course of the summer by an unknown predator.  By the end of the summer she was down to two war-hardened and apparently very savvy old Barred Rock hens.  On the other hand, I've never lost a single chicken to predators (I’m knocking hard on my wooden desktop as I write this).  There has been one hawk attack that all the chickens escaped unscathed (more on that in a later post), and then there was the July 2015 raccoon incident.

Back in early June of last year, I saw a raccoon hanging around my backyard on several occasions.  The coon was quite interested in the bird feeder and quickly figured out how to shimmy up the pole, around the squirrel baffle and to the very top.  Then it was a simple matter of sitting on top and reaching down for one little raccoon handful of birdseed after the other—directly out of the tray.  I wasn’t particularly happy about the birdseed, but was even more concerned about the chickens.  While the chickens were pretty well protected in the hen pen, it would be an easy thing for a raccoon to scoot up a tree to get over the eight-foot-high chicken run fence.  The chickens are only in the run during daytime hours when I’m home, but this raccoon was not a bit shy and had no problem snuffling around the backyard in the daylight. 

The Raccoon
Raccoons are nocturnal and it has been suggested that seeing them during the day is one indicator of rabies.  This coon did not act or appear rabid at all, though, and as the Raccoon in Attic website points out, “While it is true that a rabid raccoon will exhibit a variety of unusual behaviors, activity during daytime is most definitely not a guaranteed indicator of rabies. You see, although raccoons are primarily nocturnal, they do often get some stuff done during the day. It is not at all unusual for a raccoon to be active in the middle of the day. They can't just sleep from dawn to dusk without doing anything. They may go off in search of food or drink. This is especially true of nursing female raccoons, who have a bunch of babies to take care of, and who have extra nutritional requirements, because they are nursing their young.”  And speaking of nursing mothers, I saw the babies a couple of days later—two little tykes that were cuter than heck.  Now I had to worry about three raccoons getting the chickens. 

Baby Raccoon
Over the course of June and into July I frequently saw the mom and her babies going after the backyard bird feeders.  Then one day the babies came to the backyard without their mom.  They showed up almost daily for the next few days for their birdseed, always without their mom.  Since they weren’t old enough to be on their own I begin to wonder if they’d been orphaned.  And that presented an ethical dilemma.  If they were really orphaned, it was possible that they wouldn’t survive unless I intervened.  But what if I captured them and they were really with their mom?  Maybe she was just keeping her distance as part of the weaning process.  Then again, what if they really were orphans?  The woods around my house is filled with wild animals and the drama of life and death plays itself out every day.  Was I ethically compelled to intervene in this situation just because I was aware of it?  These thoughts continued to thread their way through my head, but I didn’t act.  I was in the last days of work before my retirement, so there was a loom’s worth of thought threads running through my head then.

Second Baby Raccoon
Then my last day of work arrived.  Some of my co-workers were treating me to an evening baseball game that day and my big dilemma was that I had no way to get the chickens shut into the coop at dusk.  My wife was out of town, and the neighbor who often helps with the chickens wasn’t available.  In the end I decided I would hold my breath, cross my fingers, and close the coop door after dark when I got home.  So the hens wouldn’t get their usual tucking-in or bedtime stories (sort of kidding about that) and the coop door would be open to the night for several hours.  But when I got home after eleven o’clock, the coop was dark and quiet.  I did a quick check with a flashlight and everybody appeared to be on the roost and sound asleep, so I just shut the door quietly and went to bed.

The next morning, when I hiked down to the coop and opened the door, I found all the chickens bunched against the door.  As soon as I opened the door they all bolted out in a panic.  There was a raccoon hunkered down and snarling in the far corner of the coop.  I obviously had locked him in the night before.  A quick count confirmed that all the chickens were truly there.  And I soon figured out that the raccoon was one of the babies.  No doubt this little guy was in the coop looking for eggs or chicken feed when he got locked in – he was much too young and small to tackle a chicken.  Then I wondered if this tyke had made this bold move because he was really orphaned and he was starving.  I had been waffling about whether or not to insert myself into the baby raccoon situation, but now he had forced my hand by inserting himself into my chicken coop.

With the chickens all outside, I shut the coop door to keep him in and after some quick wrangling I got him penned up in a dog crate.  I acted carefully.  I didn’t want to cause him any injury, and I was also aware of the fact that while he was a baby, he was also a sharp-toothed, desperate, wild animal.  So I had a coon.  What next?  I live in the country.  Animal Control is a nearby shelter that only deals with stray cats and dogs.  There is no local police department—our police protection comes from the county sheriff.  So that’s who I called.  The dispatcher put me through directly to an officer who was nearby.  Let me just say that the folks at the county sheriff’s office are dedicated professionals.  If you report a burglar in your house, they will be there in minutes and competently handle the situation.   But as it turns out, if you have a coon in your coop, the response is not nearly as impressive.  At first the officer told me she would help me take the crated raccoon outside to release him, then she talked herself out of even that degree of assistance since she "didn’t want to get bit by a coon.”

Fortunately, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota is about 45 minutes from my house.  I called them next, and explained the situation.  I was able to convince them that this young coon was probably orphaned.  They said they would take him.  They don’t do pickups, so I loaded the dog crate containing the snarling little coon into my truck and drove the 45 minutes to the rehab center.  At the center, I turned the crate over to the folks there, and while they were coaxing the little guy out of the crate,  I filled out the appropriate forms, left a $50 contribution (they do great work—check out their website!), and then drove home.  I accomplished all this by 11 AM. I had not managed to accomplish breakfast or anything else, but the baby coon was in good hands.  The little guy seemed unusually subdued for a wild creature after I captured him and perhaps that was an indicator that he wasn’t doing very well, so I was anxious for the follow-up report.  They promised a full report in a month, but they couldn’t commit to any report earlier than that because they are so very underfunded and understaffed.  Until that report would arrive, that was the end of the story of the baby coon.

This is the point where you say, “But there were two babies!  What ever happened to the second one?” That question got answered around 5 PM that very day when I spotted him under the bird feeder, looking thin and worse for the wear. When I went outside he hid in the day lilies – but not very convincingly. If I had been a coyote, he would have been a meal. As it was, I tossed a box over him and then got him in the dog crate, the dog crate into the truck, and made my second trip of the day to Wildlife Rehab.  Again, the folks at the center assured me that the two little coons would be checked by vets and released into the wild if they were okay.  Meanwhile, the chickens were all fine—except for being freaked out by sharing their coop for a night with a predator.  And I learned that under no circumstances could I ever leave the coop door open after dark.  It could have been a lot worse.

Here’s the sad part:  A few days after the baby raccoon incident I saw another raccoon in the backyard.  It was ragged, emaciated, and had three legs and a stump where the fourth should be.  I only saw that raccoon the one time, and have no facts other than the ones I report here.  But I can speculate that it was the mom.  Maybe she got caught in a leg-hold trap and eventually gnawed her leg off, as animals caught in leg-hold traps are known to do.  And maybe she was coming back looking for her babies.

Here’s the bittersweet part:  In August, I got a report from the vet at the Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. The baby that I took in on the first trip was found to be thin, dehydrated, and had infected wounds on his neck. He died shortly after I brought him there. His brother had a wounded paw that was badly infected and also infested with maggots. Because of his condition he was still there nearly a month later, but was doing well. He was nearing a point where he could be moved to an outdoor area and the vet said that as soon as he felt he was ready he would be released into the wild.


I started this story talking about predators, and I suspect it didn’t go the direction you thought it would, but we nevertheless have come to the end.  And to finish the story, let me just say that nature being what it is, I’ll continue to protect my chickens from predators.  But that doesn’t make predators “bad guys”.  Predators are simply what they are.  Once there were two raccoons and one died as a baby and one survived and maybe will live a full life and kill lots of other animals, because he’s a predator.  The wild animals that live in the natural world around us are born, pass through the sum of their experiences and die practically unknown to us.  But their invisibility to us and the part they play in the natural structure of things doesn’t make these wild ones any less valid or in any way diminish their existence.  Each of them, the Desiderata tells us, like each of us, is a child of the universe.  Each of them, like each of us,  has a right to be here.  And while it is often difficult to parse out, the universe continues to unfold as it should.


[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop # 228]

Spurs!

Roosters (and some hens!) have spurs – a claw-shaped projection on their legs just above their feet.  Spurs start out as small bumps on young chickens and gradually grow into long, curved, sharp weapons.  And they are weapons.  Roosters use their spurs to defend themselves and their flocks.  When a rooster attacks, he propels himself forward feet first, intending to slash his opponent with his spurs.  People who engage in cockfighting (which, thankfully, is now illegal in all 50 states after Louisiana banned it in 2007), cover their fighting roosters’ spurs with long metal spikes called gaffs.  This guarantees that the spur, which can be injurious enough in its normal unadorned state, will be even more harmful—thus increasing the blood, fatalities, and excitement for the spectators of the “sport”.  I’m referring to this brutality as sport only because that’s how it is characterized in the parts of the world where it remains legal.  But I’m getting a bit off track from the topic I really want to talk about—trimming roosters’ spurs to make them less dangerous.  In addition to removing a weapon, spur trimming also helps protect hens from being injured while mating with the rooster.  And since spurs can become amazingly long, shortening them can actually make it easier for the rooster to walk.

Last week, my wife, Kathy, astutely noticed that one of Emile’s spurs was so curved it was almost winding back into his leg.  Spurs sometimes can actually grow all the way back into a rooster’s leg, causing pain and lameness.  I don’t know how Kathy even noticed Emile’s spurs since his legs are covered in dandy feather pantaloons all the way down to his feet, in the usual Cochin style.  But when I got a chance to get a closer look, I saw the curved spur as well and decided it was time for Emile to get a pedicure, and I further decided that we would take care of all the guys while we were at it.

If you were to x-ray a chicken spur, you would see that the tip is solidly made of the same keratin-rich horny material that covers the entire spur—it’s the same material that is in a chicken’s toenail and it’s dead—there are no nerve endings or blood supply.  Starting about half-way down the spur and going all the way to the leg, there’s an inner core of living tissue, and inside this core is bone—an extension of the chicken’s tarsometatarsus.  (Watch me toss around the hundred-dollar words!  That’s the official name for the bone a chicken’s leg shank.)  The presence of an inner core of bone make spurs more analogous to horns than toenails.

It’s good to have a mental picture of the inside of a spur when you’re trimming.  If you trim too closely to the leg, you'll cut live tissue and could even cut into bone.  If you cut in the right place, it’s as simple and painless as trimming toenails.

Spur trimming is really a two-person job.  You need one person to hold the squirming, frightened rooster, and one person to wield the trimming tool.  There are three different methods—each with its own tool:

One choice is to trim the spurs with a sharp dog nail clipper.  The operative word here is “sharp.”  A dull clipper can function more like a nutcracker and actually crack the entire outer layer of the spur—not good!  You should trim about a third of the distance from the end and keep in mind if you trim too much you’ll be cutting into live tissue.  It’s a good idea to have styptic powder on hand in case you hit live tissue and cause bleeding.

A second method is to use a Dremel pet grooming tool—an electric tool with a rotating file at the end that’s designed for filing dog toenails.  There’s no chance of cracking the spur with a Dremel and you’re probably less likely to go too deep and cause bleeding since filing is such a gradual process.  The down-side of a Dremel is that it is gradual.  Filing a spur can take some time, and meanwhile you’re holding this unhappy, frightened rooster.  And then, a Dremel is a bit pricier than even the best clipper.

Another technique is to grab the spur at the base with pliers and gently squeeze the pliers while wiggling the spur back and forth.  Eventually the entire outer layer of the spur will detach and you can pull it off, leaving the living core behind.  You will definitely need styptic powder for this procedure—there will be blood.  Many resources that I respect offer “uncapping” as viable method for trimming spurs, but I can’t get past the notion that it’s on par with pulling out someone’s fingernails.  There’s no denying that desheathed spurs will bleed and that the rooster will feel pain.


I'm a proponent of the dog-clipper method, and that’s exactly what we did.  It was quick and painless.  The hardest part was managing to apprehend all three guys!  

Kathy was the holder and I was the trimmer.  Each rooster in turn got quickly and painlessly trimmed while frantically thinking, "What is HAPPENING TO ME!?"


Emile's nearly ingrown spur


 Not only is Paul the smallest of the roosters, but he's also covered in very silly frizzled feathers.  So it's so ironic that he has HUGE spurs.  Ah, life.....

[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #227]





A Broody Pullet?!

Last week’s big surprise in the coop was the sight of Marissa the Cream Legbar pullet hunkered down in a nest box with her jaw set in determination as she tried to hatch eggs.  “No!” I told myself. “Marissa can’t be broody!  Legbars don’t go broody!  Pullets don’t go broody!”  Nevertheless, she spent an entire day on the nest, and when she was still nesting the next day, I decided it was time to do a little research.

Marissa, her jaw set in determination, broods.
First of all, Greenfire Farms, the only U.S. importer of Cream Legbars states very clearly on their website that Cream Legbar hens “are rarely broody.”  So there you go.  “Rarely” is not the same as never, but the odds certainly seem against broodiness in this breed.
 
So what’s the scoop on broody pullets?  This little hen is barely out of her teens!  Doesn’t she understand the risks of having kids at such a tender age?  I couldn’t find anything from any of the experts I depend on regarding broody pullets, but when I checked the “Backyard Chickens” forum, there were several discussions regarding broody pullets.  One flock keeper reported that one of her buff Orpington pullets started laying eggs at five-months-old and went broody three weeks later.  Of course Orpingtons do have a reputation for going broody at the drop of a hat.  The general impression I got from the information I sorted through on the forum is that any time a chicken is laying eggs they can certainly go broody, but that isn’t the usual behavior for pullets.

Basically, my research confirmed what I already thought I knew.  Pullets rarely go broody.  Cream Legbars rarely go broody.  Combine those two things into one hen and it would be extremely unlikely that she would go broody.  So I passed this information on to Marissa.  She responded by puffing her feathers waaay out and dismissively stating, “Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck.”  Typical broody hen behavior.  So that’s when I put her in the broody crate.  I only kept her in there a couple of days.  Even toward the end of the first day she was shaking her head and muttering, “What was I thinking!?”

Now she’s back with the flock and is a totally reformed hen.  She’s not laying eggs, though, and may not for a bit, which is too bad since so many of the other hens are not laying because they’re going through their fall molt.  Was this a sign that this little hen will continue having bouts of broodiness?  That’s something only Marissa can answer, and in time, I’m sure she will.


One postscript:  If you’re new to my blog or new to chickens and you’re wondering what all this broodiness stuff is about, I’ve written this post, and another one here that will fill you in.


[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #226]

A Dog Story

It’s after midnight and I’m pulling into my garage.  It’s been a long day with lots of driving.  My sleeping daughter groggily stirs to wakefulness in the back seat.  She’s been at music camp for most of the week and this was the day that my wife and I drove there, attended a concert put on by the camp kids, then loaded our daughter and all of her stuff into the car and headed home.  My wife, daughter, and I all get out of the car and stretch.  While my wife helps my daughter unload her cello from the car, I fumble with my keys as I walk to the front door.  The house is dark—my son is apparently out for the evening since there’s no way a nineteen-year-old college student would be in bed at midnight.  I unlock the door and swing it open.  The two dogs run out of the dark house and cavort happily on the lawn.  There is something so wrong with this scene that my wife, my daughter and I stand and stare in gape-jawed disbelief.  We don’t own any dogs.  “Are we at the right house?” I query in disbelief.  “Um…do we have dogs now?”  “Are those dogs?” my daughter asks in confusion.

Yes, they are definitely dogs—two big dogs snuffling around our yard.  They look like labs—one is black and one is yellow.  They are both wearing collars with weird little boxes on top.  I go into the house and find a note from my son.  “Well, there’s not much we can do about this right now.” I tell my wife and daughter.  “These dogs are going to have to spend the night with us.  In the morning we’ll call Animal Control.”

Who is this mysterious dog?
Who are these mysterious dogs?  Where did they come from?  It is, I think, time to borrow a technique from the movies and do a flashback.

Mike is out for a run on a warm and clear summer morning.  He’s enjoying the bird songs and the dappled shadow patterns on the blacktop where the sun filters through the tree canopy and is thinking happy thoughts about having a day off from his summer job and the prospect of spending some time with old high school friends after having been away for his first year of college.  His parents and sister are out of town for the day, so he’s got the whole house all to himself.  He’ll finish the run, shower, have some lunch, then climb into his timeworn Toyota and head out to see his friends. 

He notices two dogs—labs, probably—loping along the road ditch toward him—a black one and a yellow one.  The dogs pass him then loop around and start to follow him.  Mike stops and gives each one a pat.  Both of the dogs are panting hard and their open mouths and lolling tongues make them look like they’re laughing.  The dogs’ attitude of satisfaction with the whole world causes Mike to smile.  He gives each dog’s head another pat and then recommences his run.  He looks back and notes that the dogs are now traveling in his direction.  Are they following him or just heading the same general way?  After making a couple of corners, he observes that the dogs are still with him—a strong case for following.  And the fact that the dogs are still with him when he arrives home proves it.  Mike pointedly ignores the dogs—his mistake, he decides, was petting them—so hopefully once he’s out of sight they’ll leave.  He goes into his house, showers, has some lunch, grabs his jacket, and heads out the door toward his car.  The two labs get up from the lawn and wag their tails.

Mike retraces his running route in his car while the two dogs sit and grin in his back seat.  The dogs love the car ride quite a bit and also enjoy the attention they get from every neighbor at every stop.  But nobody recognizes or claims the dogs.  One neighbor suggests that the dogs look hungry and gives them some dog food, which they both enjoy immensely.  For the dogs everything about this day is fantastic.  Mike’s day is quickly becoming something less than fantastic.  The afternoon is waning, he has social plans, and the dog problem is not getting solved.  He’s feeling frustrated at being saddled with this problem and needs to find a solution.

Mystery Dog
Who are these mysterious dogs?  Where did they come from?  Hang with me now—I’m going to do another flashback and I don’t want you to get lost.

Another day.  Just like all the others.  Blackie paces the perimeter of the kennel.  Rusty, meanwhile, paces the other way.  Blackie’s life consists of sitting, sleeping and pacing in this kennel and not much else.  Of course the people in the house regularly bring food.  Food is great.  The attention that comes with the bringing of the food is even better.  But the food is only good while it lasts and the attention is in short supply.  Sometimes the people in the house actually open the kennel gate and the dogs run free.  That is wonderful. Blackie is so filled with happiness when that happens that she jumps and dances and runs circles around the yard with Rusty jumping and racing right with her.  But of course the free time is always too brief and the sterile kennel always reclaims them. Blackie remembers how she and Rusty used to bark.  When they barked long enough, the people from the house would come outside and yell.  Blackie didn’t exactly like it when the people yelled, but yelling people were better than no people and endless boredom.  So Blackie and Rusty got very good at barking and could summon the people a lot every day!  Blackie remembers how one day the house people gave Blackie and Rusty new collars.  And Blackie remembers when the shocks started.  And she remembers the day she realized that the shocks came from the collars and that they happened when she barked.  Blackie and Rusty stopped barking after that.

Another day.  Blackie paces the perimeter of the kennel.  Rusty paces the other way.  Then Rusty bumps against the gate.  And the gate swings open!  This has never happened before!  Rusty and Blackie go into the yard.  There are no house people.  The dogs jump and dance and race around the yard.  Then, they run into another yard!  Then they run beyond that yard to a road!  And then they run down the road.  It seems to go on forever!  It seems they can go as far as they can run.  They had never thought about that idea before—and being Labrador Retrievers, they’re not really thinking that hard about it now.  Not thinking—just running.

Blackie
“Mike, I can’t believe that you would shut two strange dogs in our house and just go off and leave them!” I tell my son.  He shakes his head at my usual adult incomprehension of the soundness of his logic.  “But I told you!  I had plans!”

Are you still with me?  We have now time traveled with the help of Dr. Who’s TARDIS and a tricky literary technique, to the morning after I found the dogs in our house.  There had been further adventures during the night.  In the early hours of the morning there was a crash followed by a yelp and some soft whimpering.  We had laid kitchen chairs on the couch to keep the dogs off and the black dog had obviously tried to worm her way onto the couch anyway.  We found the dog and kitchen chair on the living room floor—dog and chair tangled together like a Chinese puzzle.  The dog was not struggling at all and while I could see panic in her eyes, she stayed perfectly still while I untangled her from the chair.  Amazingly, no part of the dog or the chair was broken and after that episode we went back to bed and slept until morning.

After breakfast I call Animal Control to report that we’ve found two dogs and then spend the day working in the yard.  I’m seeding some grass and putting in plantings.  The dogs mostly lounge in the shade of the garage but also enthusiastically help dig holes for the plantings.  They’re very good hole diggers and some of the holes are actually where I want the plantings to go.  I expect that at any moment the phone will ring and that I’ll be talking to the dogs’ owner.  But evening comes and nobody’s called.  “Looks like these two mutts will be spending another night with us,” I say.  “Maybe nobody will claim them and we’ll have to keep them,” my daughter suggests.  Everybody looks a little hopeful.  I have to reluctantly admit to myself that I’d enjoyed spending my day with the dogs.  Our dog, a lab mix named Kalli, had passed away several years before.  The sadness of her death combined with the reality that our family of two working adults and two busy teenagers didn’t always have time to give Kalli the attention she deserved had resulted in my edict that we would not be getting another dog. 

We finally get the call the next morning.  My wife answers the phone and has a short conversation.  “It was a woman who says that the dogs belong to her neighbors,” she tells me.  “She was going to take care of the dogs when the neighbors went to Europe.  The day before they left, the dogs somehow got out of their kennel and disappeared.  The neighbors told her to leave the kennel door open and the dogs would eventually come back.  After they didn’t come back for a couple days, she called Animal Control and found out that we had them.”

Later that day the woman arrives and we load the dogs into her station wagon.  “I think these dogs get neglected,” she says.  “I can’t believe you kept them in your house!  My neighbors never let them in the house because they’re so wild!”

I shoot my son a glance.  “Well, they’ve been great,” I say.  “They’ve really been a lot of fun!”  Then I find myself saying, “If they ever decide they don’t want them, I’d take one of them.”  The woman drives away with the dogs pressing their noses against the car window.  I watch the car disappear down the road and then become aware of my family watching me out of the corners of their eyes.

A few weeks later, I answer the phone and a man says, “I’m calling to thank you for taking care of my dogs.  Also, I’ve decided we’re going to get rid of them.  I got Blackie for my daughter and she’s just too busy to take care of a dog—and actually these dogs are more than she can handle.  I travel for work so I’m just never around.  We got Rusty to keep Blackie company, but now I see that was a mistake and it would be for the best if we just got rid of both of them.  I heard you might be interested in one.  They’re purebred labs and they’ve had all their shots—I think we can work a deal that you’d be willing to accept.”
Bailey
And then Bailey came to live with us.  We decided that we needed to change her name.  But that wasn’t the only change.  Bailey’s life changed and so did ours.  But I think Bailey knew that would happen. We didn’t find her, after all—she found us.  She knew we were the family she wanted.  We didn’t even know that we needed a dog, but she did.

And now she's been with us fourteen years - she just had her sixteenth birthday.  We've watched her muzzle turn from black to gray, and her hearing fade.  She can't do the long walks anymore and she's started having trouble with stairs, but she still oversees house activities from her dog bed in the living room, she makes sure that the cats and chickens stay in line, and she continues to ride shotgun in the truck when I run errands.  Sweet sixteen is old for a lab and as difficult as it is to think about, she may not be with us much longer.  But she's had some great years.  And so have we all.


Decked out for the 4th of July - 2011
2015
Riding shotgun - 2016
Postscript:  Bailey is featured in another story here.

[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop # 219]


“Meet the Flock” Roundup—September & October, 2016

Meet Darcy Barred Rock, the fourth hen in the quartet of Barred Rock hens that rule the Hipster Hen roost. Darcy isn’t super friendly like Arlene, she isn’t super clever like Barbara, and she isn’t super bossy like Charlie. She is, perhaps, one of those individuals who would be characterized by all observers as “the other one”. But I don’t think Darcy cares. I think she knows that she’s SORT OF friendly and clever—and maybe just a little bit bossy. And other than that she’s happy to be the hen that goes about her business of laying one of those nice brown eggs nearly every day!

Meet Emile, the birchen Cochin rooster. Well, actually, you’ve already met Emile. This is a recent picture that I like quite a bit that I had to share—Emile in all his roosterly splendor!

Meet Emily, the plump and personable black Silkie hen. Emily really does have eyes but they’re hard to see because they’re sort of hidden in her fluff and they’re black--just like the rest of her. Emily’s eyes, and the rest of her for that matter, are hard to photograph. She just sort of absorbs all the light and ends up looking like a silhouette. I haven’t ever taken a picture that I feel does her justice, but she’s so darn cute I’m gonna keep trying!

Emily the Silkie stares contemplatively through the chicken run fence on a nice fall day.

Meet Maran the cuckoo Marans hen. She’s pictured here with her constant companion, Carmen Maranda. Maran and Carmen are in their third year—these two girls and Angitou the golden Polish hen joined the flock as babies in the summer of 2014 and came from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. Marans can come in nine different colors, but Maran and Carmen’s cuckoo color is the most common in the US. In addition to being pretty birds, my Marans hens lay beautiful dark chocolate brown eggs.

Here's Carmen Maranda and Maran the cuckoo Marans hens as kids in the summer of 2014, along with their friend Angitou the golden Polish hen.

Meet Marissa the Cream Legbar. I captured this picture of Marissa in August—about the time she started laying eggs. Since then, Marissa has laid a pretty little blue-green pullet egg almost every day, and each egg is incrementally larger than the previous one. My older hens have scaled waaay back on egg production lately, since they’ve started their fall molt. So many days the four eggs I get from my four young Legbar hens outnumber the eggs I get from the rest of the flock!

Here’s Jennifer, my fourth year white crested black Polish hen.  Jennifer was so sick that I removed her from the flock for a while in late September, but she did a rapid and spectacular bounce-back and I’m happy to report that she’s completely recovered now.  I was sure that Jennifer would be eager to model the new chicken sweaters, but she apparently felt otherwise.


In Memorium:  Sweet Roxie the Rhode Island Red.  Gone but not forgotten.

Sweater Girls

Back a few years ago, when Emile the rooster was a mere teenage cockerel, he got a bad case of sour crop.  He reached a point where he was all hunched up in a corner, staring into space and literally near death.  Happily, I was able to bring him back to good health and full recovery.  He became an amazingly docile and friendly little rooster after he recovered, maybe because of all the handling that was necessary when he was sick.  But I like to think that perhaps there was also an element of gratitude involved.

Anyway, over the last year he’s undergone a huge change in attitude.  He makes it clear whenever I go into the coop that it’s his coop, not mine, and that he’s in charge not me.  There have been a few instances where he’s taken me on—actually lunged at me feet-first with those long pointed spurs.  This usually happens when he feels I’m harassing his hens in some way, but sometimes it’s just because I maybe look at him wrong, or possibly only because he’s in a foul (um, fowl) mood.  Being attacked by an enraged rooster could be disconcerting if it weren’t for the fact that Emile is a bantam Cochin roo and the biggest thing about him is his ego.

When he goes on the attack, I usually respond by putting on a pair of gloves to avoid contact with those spurs, then I pick him up, pet him, and tell him that he just needs to think calm thoughts and concentrate on his breathing.  This really does seem to calm him, although for all I know he may just be icily plotting his revenge.

Emile with some of the girls
 The last couple of months, Emile has been on edge a lot.  The whole flock in this coop  has seemed a little tense, actually.  I can only guess as to why this is, but one of my theories is that it may be due to attrition.  I've lost a few hens - two just this summer.  And most of the hens in this coop are in their fourth year, so they’re getting old and attrition will continue.  I need to come up with something to lift their spirits.  Maybe bingo?

This week the level of anxiety in the coop has reached new levels and Mary the golden Campine is entirely to blame.  Amazingly, Mary has gone broody.  Mary has never been broody before and she is the last hen in the world you would expect to be holed up in a nest box all day.  There are hens that you can picture clucking contentedly while sitting on a clutch of eggs, and then there are those hens that you best picture forging through the tall grass while the wind gently ruffles their feathers and “Born Free” plays in the background.  Mary is definitely in the latter category.  I moved the flock into Coop 1 when Mary was just a pullet.  The hen pen, at that point, had six-foot high fencing but no roof.  The day I got to work adding a hen pen roof was the day I saw Mary cheerily flying over that fence.  The coop had eight-foot high walls.  The ceiling was ten feet high, so there was a gap between the top of the walls and the ceiling, but what chicken could fly that high?  Answer:  Mary.  But I’m sure you expected that answer.

I discovered the answer to that question myself on the night I went to the coop to put the chickens to bed and found Mary happily roosting on top of the eight-foot wall.  The immediate problem I had to solve at that moment was how to get Mary off the wall and back into the coop.  So since the top of the wall was way above my head I grabbed a shovel and waved it menacingly at Mary from the outside of the coop.  Mary watched the shovel from her perch with perplexed interest.  My next endeavor:  I got the shovel right in her face and waved it again.  That caused a response—she hopped off the wall and onto my shovel.  There I was, standing by the coop holding a shovel in the air with a chicken on the end and wondering why it was, exactly, that I had these chickens.  My next endeavor:  I walked carefully toward the coop door with shovel and chicken with the hope that I could open the door and chuck said shovel and chicken into the coop.  No such luck.  With a squawk, Mary, flew off the shovel and disappeared into the depths of the dark pole barn, which was still littered with piles of coop construction material.  After a lot of searching and chasing, I finally got the little hen back into the coop.  Mary was physically and emotionally exhausted.  So was I.

So having Mary in a state of broodiness almost seems like the universe has gone akilter. There are three actions open to me when hens become broody.  The first option is to do nothing at all.  Then they just keep sitting on an empty nest, day after day—driven by their hormones to hatch nonexistent eggs.  This, obviously, is not a good course of action.  The second option is to give them some fertilized eggs or baby chicks and let them be moms.  With winter approaching, baby chicks are not a good idea, plus I’m not sure what sort of mom Mary would be.  And that doesn’t even take into account the space limitations.  So I am forced to cross out this possibility as well.  That leaves the third option—the broody crate.  In a broody crate there is no nest and no nesting material.  A few days without a nest usually brings a hen’s raging hormones back into control and her life can get back to normal. 

Mary, you will not be surprised to learn, hates the broody crate.  She blurted out a huge squawk of surprised when I picked her up out of her nest.  She protested even more bitterly when I put her in the crate.  I feel so bad that I’ve enclosed this little free-spirited bird into such a small space and her proclamations of outrage continue to play on my guilt.  “Hey!  He put me in jail!  Hey!  I’m in jail!  Hey!  Somebody help me!  Hey!  Let me out!  I’m in jail!” Her protests are practically nonstop and go on pretty much all day long.  And that has amped up the uneasiness of the other citizens of the coop, to be sure.

Mary in jail
If I can blame Mary for raising the level of unease in the coop with her protests, the most recent incident was entirely my fault.  It started with the sweaters. 

Chicken sweaters are a real thing.  There are actually people out there knitting sweaters for chickens.  I’ve never felt that my chickens needed sweaters.  They’re clothed in feathers, after all.  Then my seven-year-old neighbor gave me four knitted chicken sweaters.  And she was very excited by the prospect of the hens trying them on.  So while I never would have gone that route on my own, today I found myself walking down to the coop with chicken sweaters in one hand and my camera in the other.  Chicken sweaters would never be a long-term thing in the coop, I reasoned, but without a doubt hens wearing sweaters would be pretty cute, so I could take a few pics and post them on the blog.

I scattered some scratch grain in the tractor alley of the pole barn and opened the coop door.  “Hey girls!” I said in my sweetest and most innocent voice, “Come here and get some nice scratch!”  Some of the hens perked up their heads and sauntered through the door.  Jennifer the white crested Polish hen was first.  She was followed close behind by Rosa the Red, and Arlene and Darcy Barred Rock.  After Darcy was through, I slammed the door shut.  Four sweaters—four hens.  Four was all I needed.  I got my camera ready and nabbed Jennifer.  Jennifer is used to being handled and had absolutely no issues with being picked up.  However when the sweater came out things got ugly really fast. 

What follows is a verbatim transcript of our conversation with the Chicken translated into English with the help of a Star Trek Universal Translator and my own imagination.  Jennifer:  “What are you doing?  What’s that thing?  Help!  He’s got a thing and he’s putting it over my head!

Randy:  “No!  It’s OK.  It’s just a sweater.”

Jennifer:  “Help!  He has a thing!  And it’s a sweater!  And he’s putting it over my head!”  The other three hens were, by this point, edging quickly to the dark corners of the tractor alley and nervously muttering, “He’s got a thing!  And it’s a sweater!  And he’s putting it over her head!” 

Jennifer
I managed to get the sweater over Jennifer’s head and then slid it back over her violently flapping wings.  The sweater actually held her wings in place, but her feet were still churning crazy circles in the air.  Jennifer started screaming, “Help!  Can’t move my wings!  He’s got a thing!  And it’s a sweater!  And I can’t move my wings!  By this time Mary had joined in full voice, “He’s got a thing!  And it’s a sweater!  And I’m in jail!  And I can’t get out!  And she can’t move her wings!

“It’s OK,” I said in a calm voice.  It’s just a sweater.”  I put my hand into the little armhole and tried to pull one of her flapping wings through.  Instead, Jennifer’s wing movement forced the sweater back toward her head and then her head popped through the arm hole.  She looked at me with terror in her eyes and said, “It’s a thing!  And it’s a sweater!  And it’s over my head!”  Then Emile started in, “Hey!  You brute!  You devil!  What are you doing to my girl?!

“It’s OK,” I said as I extracted Jennifer’s head from the arm hole. “It’s just a little wool sweater.”  “Wool!” retorted Emile, “Does she look like a sheep to you?  She’s got feathers!  She doesn’t need any stupid wool!  Unhand her you cad!  You bully!

It’s a thing!” sobbed Jennifer.  “It’s a sweater!” interjected Mary, “And I’m in jail!”  “Come in here!” ordered Emile, “You come in here now and I’ll show you a thing or two, you fiend!”  The other chickens were actually picking it up one by one, “He’s got a thing!  And it’s a sweater!  And he’s a fiend!

By this time the sweater was wadded up around Jennifer’s head.  I made an attempt to pull it down over her flapping wings which set off a fresh round of protests from Jennifer.  “He’s got a thing!  And it’s a sweater!  And he’s killing me!”  By now, the commotion had disturbed the chickens in the other coop and they started in.  “What’s going on?!  We don’t know!  But there's a thing! And it’s really scary!

Leave her alone!” barked Emile, “You cad!  You bully!”  “He’s a fiend!  He’s a fiend!” cackled all the other chickens.  Then in a swift terrified motion, Jennifer pulled herself completely free of the sweater and flapped out of my grasp, and ran for a corner.  I chased after her, made a dive and nabbed her.  As she screamed and cried, I carried her back to the coop, opened the door and gently placed her back into the coop.  As I opened the door, Emile started for me with murder in his eye, while all the other hens chanted, “Fiend!  Fiend! Fiend!”  I quickly closed the door, and one by one rounded up Rosa, Arlene, and Darcy and got them back in the coop as well.  Then I picked up my camera and the sweaters and dejectedly walked to the house.  All the way I could hear the chickens discussing sweaters, things, and my fiendhood in excited voices. 

“Not that chickens have thumbs,” I told my wife, “But the chickens didn’t really give a thumbs-up to the sweaters.”  She didn’t seem surprised.  “We discussed it at length," I told her, “And they didn’t feel the need to be beholden to every new fashion whim that comes along.”

I actually felt more than a little guilty about inflicting this new stress on a coop that was already on edge.  And yet…those sweaters were a very dapper way to herald the fall season.  So camera and sweaters in hand, I searched the house for other victims, um—volunteers, I meant to say, that might be more willing to model the sweaters.  And I found some!  So at last, here’s the Hipster Hen Chicken Ranch Fall Collection:

Maia:  “Ok, fine.  Do your thing.  Put the crazy sweater on me.  Later when you sit writing at your computer, I’ll even sit on your lap.  I’ll even purr.  But there will be retribution.  There will be glorious retribution!”

Emmy:  “One word.  Hairball.  Not saying when—not saying where.  But hairball—definitely hairball.”

Bailey:  “Oh, I don’t know.  If you like it, then I like it.  And my ears even poke out the little wing sleeves!  Will you pet me now?”

[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #217]