Leaving Chickhood Behind – The Hipster Chicks Move Out of the Woodshed

On Saturday evening, I went into the woodshed with the bag of dried mealworms.  The chicks know this bag of deliciousness on sight and gathered around for a treat.  Valerie and Squawky, who are not shy, ate some delightful treats right out of my hand while the others blissfully pecked them off the floor.  Then Valerie, as she often does, hopped right into my hand.  That’s when I closed my hand around her and shoved her into the cat carrier that my wife, Kathy, was holding.  I also nabbed Squawky before she could run away and put her in the carrier with Valerie.  Both chicks cried out continuous shrill peeps of fear and alarm, and the others scattered for the corners of the woodshed.  We carried these two little girls down the hill to the pole barn and released them into the new coop that I’d prepared for them.  The time had come for these nine-weeks-old chicks to take the next step towards henhood. 
Life So Far for the HIpster Chicks:  They hatched on June 6 and were put in a transport box - I picked them up and drove them to their new home.  Their first week was in the big blue bin - mostly under the heater.  Then they moved to the plastic kiddie pool, where they started roosting on top of the heater.  Finally, at about three weeks old, the kiddie pool went away and they had full run of the woodshed - until last Saturday!

I Don't Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Like - And I Like Chickens!

Fair Use: Photograph of Hahn/Cock in situ in Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA - To discuss artwork and to illustrate the appearance of the work in its context in Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Last weekend I finally found time to make a pilgrimage to the cool new gimongo chicken sculpture that has been installed in the Twin Cities.  The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden has added sixteen new pieces as part of its recent multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion.  One of them, Hahn/Cock by German artist Katharina Fristch is a giant blue fiberglass rooster standing on a steel base – the base and rooster top out at 25 feet. 

Fristch likes to incorporate not-so-subtle ironic humor into her works, and she's best known for Rattenkönig/Rat King, a group of enormous black polyester rats, shown at the 1999 Venice Biennale.  This is her second edition of Hahn/Cock.  The original was on display in Trafalgar Square in London as part of the “Fourth Plinth” project.

The Hen Pen Project

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
C. Northcote Parkinson

In 2011, as I was reaching the end of my working years, I decided to go part time.  It was wonderful!  All of a sudden, I had extra days to work on my bazillion projects here at the ranch.  It was great for a while, but it was only a matter of time before those extra days also gave me the opportunity to think up even more projects.  Soon, my project list, instead of getting smaller, was actually expanding! 

Then in 2015, I retired.  That also was wonderful!  I once again had extra days every week to work on projects.  Guess what happened next.  Yup.  The project list got even longer!  And now I’m out of options for adding more days to the week unless I start making my own calendar with a ten-day week! 

Meet the Flock Roundup – May & June, 2017

Meet Veronica the Easter Egger, a prolific layer of green eggs. Veronica's in her 5th year and was the only Easter Egger of her generation to lay continuously through this past winter. Such a hard worker! And very pretty to boot!

Spring Non-Chickens

Chickens are not the only birds we feed here at the ranch.  We’ve got a collection of birdfeeders by our house to feed all of the feathered denizens of the woods around us as well as those who just stop by for a snack.  We serve sunflower seeds and suet and add sugar water and jelly to our summer menu.  Our arrangement with the birds is that we provide food for them and they provide entertainment for us.  Win-win, right?  Regularly glancing out the window to see who has stopped by for a snack is just part of life. 

When our kids were young, they learned all of the birds’ names—and not just the last names (e.g. Cardinal, Grosbeak) but also the first names (e.g. Carl and Carla Cardinal, Gary and Mary Grosbeak).  Of course, there were many cardinals and grosbeaks, but the males were all Carl and Gary and the females were all Carla and Mary—this system only presented a problem when multiples birds of the same species would show up at the feeder at the same time and then we could just say that Carl and Carla were entertaining guests.

Watching the birds at the feeder happens the year round, but it is especially fun in the spring as we wait for the first appearance of our migrators and the occasional glimpse of the birds that briefly stop by as they migrate through.  With the Fourth of July behind us, we’re moving out of the spring season—nests are built, eggs are hatched, and fledglings are getting ready to leave the nest.  On to summer!  Here are a handful of springtime bird pictures that I’ve taken over the last several years. 

Rose Breasted Grosbeaks are usually the first spring arrival at our feeders.  They winter in Central America and Northern South America and are ready to chow down on some sunflower seeds when they show up.

The Afton 4th of July Parade

My thoughts while doing the Afton 4th of July Parade: “Beautiful day!  The rain they predicted never materialized.  It’s maybe eighty degrees – a little warm in the sun, but perfect in the shade.  Blue sky with just a few little fluffy clouds and just enough breeze to keep the streamers on the float fluttering.  Perfect spot in the staging area in the shade of some towering cottonwoods.  My spot is in the last third of the parade, behind the string of classic Corvettes and in front of 'Tony Jurgens for House of Representatives' and Pinky’s Sewer Service.  My support crew folks show up en masse, Kathy arrives in the truck with the buckets o’ candy and the Silke hens, we get them transferred to the float and we’re underway.  There are a few folks lining the street right outside the marina, but when we turn the corner onto Main Street, we are engulfed by the throng—solid masses of people lining the street and actually spilling over the curb onto the street in several places.  The crew is busily handing out candy to eager youngsters—it’s obvious that the $85 worth of candy is not going to get us through the route!  This is the epitome of festive!  The noise:  music, shouting kids, sirens, hot rod engines!  My boombox is belting out the chicken-themed hits, but nobody can hear it in the midst of the general cacophony!  Everybody loves us!  Kids smile and point at the little hens.  When the parade halts on occasion, moms bring their toddlers close so they can see the chickens close-up.  I get lots of 'Hi Randy!'  and 'Way to go, Randy'—I don’t know any of the people shouting my name, but 'Randy’s Chicken Blog' is displayed prominently right on the float!  We drive Main Street, turn at the coulee, drive Main Street again, and then it’s all over.  But what a memorable day!"

The thoughts of Emily and Courtney the Silkie hens while doing the Afton 4th of July Parade:  “Aaaaaaaaarrrrgh!  Squaaaaaaaaaak!  What is going on???!!!  The crate we’re in shakes around.  We seem to be moving!  Who are all these people?  Why do they keep pressing their faces up to the crate?  It is so noisy and scary!  When we get back to the coop nobody will believe our horror stories!  We will never forget this day!"

But they did just fine.  Once they got settled in, they handled it just like seasoned professional chickens!  I’m ever so grateful to these little hens for helping out with the parade.  I couldn’t have done it without them!  And I’m also grateful for the support and assistance of my seasoned professional crew:  Katie, Eric, Madeline, Josh, & Kathy!  Thanks guys!  You were very brave in facing the hordes of candy-crazed youngsters!  You too were vital to the success of this endeavor!

Without further commentary, here are a few pictures from the day.

Afton: A Town! A Parade! A Chicken Float!

Welcome to Afton, Minnesota, USA—my hometown!  Afton is a diminutive and bucolic town located on the pristine and federally protected St. Croix River and is one of Minnesota’s oldest towns.  Back in territorial days, when there were no ferries or bridges crossing the river, there was (and still is) a large sandbar, the Catfish Bar, which allowed for an easy and shallow crossing.  Afton formed at this crossing point. 

But Do Elephants Tell Chicken Jokes?

Elephant jokes first showed up on the scene sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s.  Over the years their popularity has waxed and waned, but they have been and no doubt will continue to be discovered by subsequent generations of delighted kids.  The main elements of an elephant joke are (1) an elephant and (2) an absurd situation.  That’s all it takes—they are not, after all, anywhere near the pinnacle of sophisticated humor.

Isaac Asimov, in his book, Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor, suggested that elephant jokes would remain forever "favorites of youngsters and of unsophisticated adults."  He did not mention young or unsophisticated chickens, yet Snowball the Silkie Rooster has the hens in my coop, especially Angitou the Golden Polish Hen, falling off the roost with laughter.  Is there any possibility Snowball will stop telling elephant jokes?  Probably not.  I think he’s got a million of them, and he keeps getting so much positive feedback with all those “Braaaak ak ak aks!”  

Chickens of the Woods Are Not Really Chickens

This happens a lot:  You're about to try some unusual food for the first time and the self-anointed expert slides up and knowingly announces "Oh - it tastes just like chicken."  Well this post is about one of those foods that tastes just like chicken. Hopefully, the Hipster Hens won’t find out. The food up for discussion in this case is the incredibly delicious sulphur shelf mushroom.  We’ve had a little rain and they’re popping up out in the woods like, well…like mushrooms—much to my gustatory delight. 

If you’ve never foraged for mushrooms before, this would be a good one for you to start with.  Unlike other mushrooms that hide under the leaf litter on the floor of the woods, these guys grow on stumps and trees.  And unlike other mushrooms that are camouflaged by their color, these little fungus dudes, with their orange and yellow coloring, can’t be missed.  It’s almost like they’re jumping up and down, waving their little mushroom arms, and yelling, “Here I am!  Here I am!  I want to be sautéed right now!”  Also, because it is so hard confuse this mushroom with another mushroom that might be less edible or even poisonous, mycologists include it in the list of the “foolproof four” that beginners can safely forage.  Exactly which four mushrooms are included in that list of four seems to differ depending on which mycologist you’re talking to, but everybody includes sulphur shelf mushrooms among the four on their list.  (The term “foolproof four” which so many mycologists bandy about was coined, as far as I can tell, by Clyde Christensen in his 1943 book Common Edible Mushrooms.  His list: morels, puffballs, sulphur shelf mushrooms, and shaggy manes.)  

Getting Your Ducks in a Row for Raising Baby Chicks: Eight Questions and Answers

The expression "taking them under your wing” is one of about a million idiomatic phrases that originated with poultry keeping.  I’m sure you know what it means and I’m willing to bet that you’ve used the phrase yourself more than once.  But just in case you’ve never heard the expression, it means to nurture and protect those who are inexperienced, young, or in need of protection—just as mother hen nurtures and protects her baby chicks and gathers them under her protective wing.  When you adopt baby chicks, you’re taking these small, helpless, peeping balls of fluff under your wing.  It’s a big responsibility, and if you’ve never done it before, you should make sure you understand the list of basics before you undertake this big venture.  If you have done it before, it’s good to pull out that list and review it just to make sure you have all your ducks in a row (I’m mixing metaphors here, but it does present an interesting mental image!).  Raising baby chicks is not hard, after all, but there are a few things you have to consider and a few things you need to do right. 

I'll be publishing this post on June 5, and shortly after I post it, my wife, Kathy, and I will get in the car and set off on our quest for baby chicks.  If you’re reading it the day I post it, you can imagine us somewhere on I-35 headed south from Minnesota to Webster City, Iowa to pick up chicks at the Murray McMurray Hatchery.  Or maybe we’re on the way home and I’m holding a box of peeping fluff balls on my lap.  You can be sure that getting these babies was not a spontaneous decision.  What follows is a list of the questions I've asked myself and the answers I've come up with before getting these babies. I think these questions and answers will be useful to you if you're considering getting chicks for the first time, or if you're adding to your existing flock. There’s lots of useful information on the web about caring for baby chicks, and every time I’ve gotten chicks I’ve taken the time beforehand to sample from the collective knowledge of all those people who have raised chicks and written about it.  I’m including a lot of links to all those folks in this post.  It takes a village, don’t you know, to raise a chick. 

1 - Do I want chickens?  This is the obvious first thing you consider. If you’ve thought about owning chickens, you probably already realize that becoming a chicken owner will put you at the forefront of the local/sustainable food movement.  You’ll be producing food right in your own backyard!  If you already produce food in your backyard with a garden, chickens are a natural complement to that garden—the chickens will happily devour any leftover vegetable scraps and weeds you give them and all that composted chicken manure will make for some very happy garden plants!  Also, any chickens you keep will, without a doubt, be better treated and happier than the majority of the hens laying the eggs you find at the grocery store.  So, does it make you happy to imagine a small flock of hens clucking contentedly in your backyard?  If you immediately answer “yes” to that question, you’ve jumped the first hurdle!  That was the easy one!  Of course if you already have chickens the question becomes, “Do I want more, chickens?”  The answer to that question is always “yes”, naturally.

How ‘Bout Them Apple Trees!

Hen fruit is not the only food we harvest here at the Hipster Hen Ranch!  We’ve also got apples!  A couple years after we moved from the city out here to the ranch, we decided that any good homestead needed apple trees and that for this homestead, the time had come.  So I picked up my Gurney’s catalogue and ordered four trees which Gurney’s then sent through the mail.  They could come through the mail because they were bare root trees.  “What are bare root trees?” you ask.  Well, when you go to a nursery and buy a tree, it will have a ball of soil around its roots.  Bare root trees have absolutely no soil around the roots—which is exactly why they name them “bare root trees”.  My name for bare root trees?  “Sticks.”   When they arrived and I tore open the box I immediately had deep misgivings.  I couldn’t imagine that these dead looking sticks would actually grow when I put them in the ground.  But that’s exactly what bare root trees do.  Nurseries grow baby trees for one to three years, then in the fall they’re dug up and all the soil is removed from the roots.  They’re stored over the winter with the roots kept moist in a cold environment, then they’re shipped to customers in the spring.  Obviously, bare root trees weigh a fraction of trees with a root ball, so they can be shipped and handled for a fraction of the cost.  Because they can be shipped at a reasonable cost, it allows you to shop for trees from a much broader geographic area and allows you access to tree varieties that you might not be able to find locally.  If you plant and maintain your trees properly, they’ll grow and prosper just as happily as a tree with a root ball.

A Carton of Eggs: Part 3 - Wild Harvest Cage Free Large Brown Eggs

This is the part three of a series about the information printed on egg cartons.  I’ve found you can learn from all that carton information once you figure out what it's actually saying.  And sometimes you can learn a whole lot by what it doesn’t say.  Today I’m going to take a look at a carton of Wild Harvest Cage Free Large Brown Eggs.  Wild Harvest is a brand created by SuperValu in 2008 to address “consumers' growing preference for organic and natural products.”  SuperValu can trace its roots back to an 1870’s Minneapolis dry goods wholesaler with the unlikely name of B.S. Bull and Company.  From those humble beginnings, it has grown to be the fifth largest food retailer in the US. 

Meet the Flock Roundup - March & April, 2017

Meet Sam! Sammy joined the flock with a bunch of other chicks of a variety of breeds in 2013. Sam was a mystery chick at first - she didn't fit the pattern for any of the breeds and I was totally kerflummoxed as far as what she might be. I should have followed the rule of thumb, that if you don't know what a hen is, she's probably an Easter Egger - since they're not a true breed (they're a cross of any number of breeds with Auracanas/Americanas). Sure enough, when Sam started growing her distinctive (and highly attractive, I might add) ear tufts, I knew for a fact that she was an Easter Egger girl. Later, when she started laying those green eggs, that confirmed it!

Here's another picture of Sam. This is a picture from 2013, right after her first adult molt. Chickens can sometimes show subtle variations in feather patterns from one molt to the next and after this molt Sam had a delicate "necklace" of light gray feather. She lost this attractive feature after her next molt and it's never shown up again!

Garlic Mustard: Invading Alien, Delicious Treat, or Both?

In the 1978 sci-fi doomsday flick, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" plant-like aliens take over San Francisco by sending out tendrils that attach to people and digest them while they sleep.  Later a large fruiting pod opens up and an exact replica of the digested human creepily steps out and sets about helping other "pod people" in their nefarious plot to take over the world.  The invading plant aliens basically take over by eating us.  It occurs  to me that the movie plot may have had a completely different outcome if we had eaten the aliens!  Don't be shocked by this.  The pod people looked like us, but they were plants! So eating them wouldn't be cannibalism - even vegetarians could participate! And for all we know those pods would be highly delicious.  Think snap peas, or okra, or peppers - all pods!

Defeating invading aliens by consuming them has been on my mind lately as I continue my ongoing battle with garlic mustard, an abominable invasive plant that happens to be as delicious as its name suggests.   Europeans have been eating this plant for a long time.  Archaeologists have found garlic mustard seeds in food residue in 6000 year old sites in Denmark and Germany.  Sometime in the 1860's somebody decided it would be a good idea to plant this culinary herb in their little garden plot in New York.  That person was no doubt horrified as the plant, freed of it's European insect and fungal control agents, grew rampantly out of control.  Garlic mustard is now considered a tenacious alien invasive species in North America and grows almost everywhere in the US and Canada (map).

A Carton of Eggs: Part 2 – ALDI’s Goldhen Farm Fresh Eggs

Previously in this series:

This is part two in my series of posts where I labor to get to the bottom of all that information that covers those egg cartons that reside in our fridges.  Right now I’m looking at an egg carton that was purchased from ALDI a while ago.

ALDI is a grocery store chain that started in Germany and lately has been expanding its presence in the United States.  The company website shows that the majority of its supermarkets are located on the East Coast but that they're also moving into the Midwest and California. 

 The brand logo proclaims these eggs to be “Goldhen Farm Fresh Eggs” and the picture shows a white chicken on a background of radiating yellow stripes at the top and green on the bottom.  It is stylized but it the chicken is obviously standing on a grassy hill in the sunshine.  Apparently egg companies like to present a bucolic image.  Check out the names on the egg cartons next time you’re at the grocery store and notice how words like “country”, “sunny”, “brook”, and “meadow” keep popping up.  Following that trend, Goldhen tells us that these eggs are “farm fresh”.  What does that mean, exactly?  In this day of backyard chickens, the freshest eggs may actually come from the coop in your urban backyard – far, far away from the nearest farm.  Of course raising hens on a commercial scale in the city is not practical, so these eggs no doubt came from a farm somewhere out in the country.  So how fresh are they?  Well, there are “sell by” standards that must be maintained.  Were these eggs laid yesterday?  Probably not.

A Carton of Eggs: Part 1 - Hipster Hen Wonder Eggs

Here’s the cool and unique thing about eggs: They come with their own container - the eggshell.  Granted bananas and potatoes have their peel, and oranges and melons have their rind, but what other animal-sourced food is prepackaged?  I can’t think of any!

Of course, you seldom buy just one egg.  They usually come in batches of a dozen, and those dozen eggs need to be contained in something – hence the egg carton.  In addition to keeping eggs grouped together, a carton provides stability and cushioning in transport; an important thing - we’re talking about a product that is “as fragile as eggs”, after all.   An egg carton also provides lots of blank space that can be filled up with information, promotional messages, and art.  And that’s as important a carton function as either of the others.  Selling, after all is about merchandising, and merchandising is about branding.  An eggshell is pretty anonymous.  When you look at an eggshell, you don’t learn a whole lot about the hen that laid the egg.  It’s not like she has the ability to stamp her initials or trademark on the egg as she lays it.  But then the hen really doesn’t care too much about branding.  The egg company cares though, thus all those words and pictures on a carton.

Meet the Flock Roundup - January & February 2017

Meet Paul!  Paul is my "second-in-command" rooster and is a frizzled bantam Cochin.  "Frizzled" refers to his curly feathers, "bantam" to his diminutive size, and Cochin is his breed - a sweet-tempered, feather-footed breed that originated in China.  In this shot, Paul is out for a walk in the leaf-covered chicken run in mid-November.

Here's a 2013 picture of Paul in his awkward adolescence. He was a normal looking fluffy little chick, then he went through his first molt and all these weird curly feathers started coming out every whichway. He survived his teenage years and turned into the dapper little roo that he is today!

Meet Paulette, one of the quartet of Cream Legbar hens that joined the flock as babies last March. All four of the Legbars' pretty blue/green eggs have been increasing in size since they started laying late in the summer last year and Paulette has been leading the pack. Each of her eggs is typically over 60 grams now, which puts them in the "extra-large" category. And she lays an egg pretty much every day. Such a good girl!

Here's a picture of Paulette in her youth (last May). In this shot she appears to be taking great interest in a leaf stuck to the brush cutter.

Here's a picture of from last spring of Paulette doing her daily yoga routine. I think this pose is called "downward chicken".

Meet Rosa the Rhode Island Red. I bought four RIR baby chicks in the spring of 2013. Sadly, Rosa is the only one left. I love my reds - they were all prolific egg layers, personable, and pretty little hens. Rosa seems to be doing just fine, and while she's been on a "winter break" from egg laying ever since last fall's molt, I expect she'll get back to business once spring rolls around.

Here's another picture of Rosa taken on a June day last summer.

 In this old picture from 2013, Rosa and Charlie Barred Rock share scratch direct from the source. Mmmmm! You can't beat scratch fresh out of the bucket!

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Eggshells in a Nutshell: Blue and Green Eggs

What's Up With Blue and Green Eggs?

  • Blue eggs are blue because of biliverdin-IX, a pigment that’s produced in cells lining a hen’s oviduct.
  • Biliverdin-IX, like protoporphyrin-IX, the pigment in brown eggs, is made from an iron-containing chemical called heme that comes from broken-down red blood cells.
  • Biliverdin-IX is added to the hard testa layer of the egg shell during egg formation, so a blue egg is blue all the way through and is blue on the inside of the shell.
  • Chickens that lay green eggs incorporate both blue biliverdin-IX and brown protoporphyrin-IX into their eggshells.  Since most or all of the brown pigment is in the bloom, the inside of a green eggshell is blue.
  • The hue of green eggs will vary depending on how much brown pigment is present—they can run the gradient from light blue-green to a dark olive.
  • While blue eggs are not uncommon in birds (think of robin’s eggs), they are a little unusual in chickens.  All of the chicken breeds that lay blue eggs originated in or contain breeding stock from South America.
Blue egg courtesy of Veronica the Easter Egger

A few of the blue/green egg-laying Hipster Hens
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Eggshells in a Nutshell: Brown Eggs

What's Up With Brown Eggs?

  • Brown eggs are brown because of protoporphyrin-IX, a pigment that’s produced in cells lining a hen’s oviduct.
  • Protoporphyrin-IX is made from an iron-containing chemical called heme that comes from broken-down red blood cells.
  • Some brown-shelled eggs have pigments added to the hard testa layer of the egg shell, but most eggs have the bulk of their pigment added with the bloom—the “paint” layer that goes on right before a hen lays an egg.
  • Because the bloom is still wet when the egg is laid, you can wipe much of the color off of a freshly laid egg.
  • Because the pigment of most brown eggs is in the bloom, the insides of most brown eggshells are white.
  • Different breeds add different amounts of pigment to their eggshells, for example, Black Copper Marans lay eggs that are a deep, dark chocolate, while Barred Plymouth Rocks lay very light brown eggs.
  • There is no nutritional difference between brown eggs, white eggs, or eggs of any other color.  A factor that does influences the nutritional value of an egg is the diet of the hen that laid it.

Brown egg courtesy of Maran the Cuckoo Marans Hen

A few of the brown-egg-laying Hipster Hens

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Eggshells in a Nutshell: White Eggs

What's Up With Eggshells?

  • Eggshells have three layers:  That thing that some people call the "skin" on the inside of an eggshell?  It's real name is the mammillary layer and it's a thin protein membrane. 
  • The brittle middle layer, the testa, makes up the bulk of the shell and is made up of columns of calcite crystals held together by a protein matrix (imagine tiny crayons or pencils stacked together with their tips pointing out around the egg) – the spaces between the columns form pores.  Moisture and gases can go through these pores—so an eggshell is porous like cloth, not airtight like plastic wrap.  This middle layer provides the form and structure to the eggshell.
  • Calcite is a form of calcium carbonate – it’s the same stuff that’s in the shells of oysters and other marine animals.
  • The outer layer, a very thin layer of fat and protein, is called the bloom or cuticle. Think of it as paint or varnish that seals the pores of the testa to keep the stuff in the egg from evaporating and to keep bacteria out.  When an egg is washed, the bloom is washed off, which is why a washed egg spoils faster than an unwashed egg.
  • As an egg passes through a hen’s oviduct, the inner mammilary layer is applied first, then the testa, and finally the bloom is applied right before the egg is laid.  The bloom is still wet when the egg emerges from the hen.
  • It typically takes a hen 25 hours to make an egg.  20 of those hours are used for making the shell.
  • Calcite is white, thus eggs are white.  Eggs that are not white contain pigments that give them their characteristic color. 

Learn about brown eggs here!
Learn about blue and green eggs here!

White egg courtesy of Jennifer the Polish Hen
A few of the white egg laying Hipster Hens
Randy's Chicken Blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to products available on Amazon.