Friday, January 15, 2010

Odds & Ends

We won! We won!
Well, okay, we got one of six honorable mentions in the most recent
Backyard Chickens coop contest. But we were pretty excited about it. Rick deserves all the credit; he worked really hard on building our coop and altering it as unanticipated design problems emerged. You can see our entry here. Check out all the winners here. There were many great ideas and interesting coops. It’s a terrific resource for anyone thinking about building a coop.

Eggs-tra! Egg-stra!
Ever since the chickens started laying – and even before - people have been asking me for eggs and volunteering to pay for them. It seems that everyone is looking for better quality food produced in healthier conditions. I’ve given some away, but resisted selling them.

I finally realized that I was reluctant to sell them because even though I’m sure these people would be willing to pay premium prices, I’m not sure the best price I could get would really reflect the labor involved in producing the eggs. If I count only organic feed and bedding, I could break even at the Whole Foods organic eggs price – when the hens are laying every day. They’ve really slowed down since it got very cold and the days grew short.

But if you factor in all the work and money invested up until the point where they start laying – the researching, the purchase of tractor and coop materials, building said tractor and coop, caring for the chicks, cleaning pasty butts, taking them outside and back in when they are babies, getting up in winter to fill hot water bottles, cleaning poop, mucking out bedding – it goes on and on – we’re operating at a loss. The only justifications for the expense are the degree of self-sufficiency we enjoy from producing our own, that these eggs are fresher than supermarket eggs, and, I suspect, more nutritious than commercially produced organic eggs, and that the hens also produce manure (and plenty of it!) for the garden.

So I decided I would only barter the eggs, perhaps in exchange for some home-grown organically produced vegetables that I wasn’t growing myself; or, for some fish! Our friends John and Barb, lifelong Wisconsin residents actually love ice fishing. Last year John gave us a beautiful bass that was the most delicious fish I’d had in years. I don’t know whether it was the freshness that made it taste so good, but it was succulent and almost sweet.

You’ll never catch me out on the frozen tundra, drilling a hole through ice, setting up tip-ups, and shivering while I wait for the fish to take the bait. I’ve cleaned fish before, when I was a girl (interestingly enough, when Dad took us on vacation to Wisconsin), but that’s another activity I’d like to avoid. So trading eggs for fish is a no-brainer. John just gave us our first bass of the season. I’m looking forward to beer-battered fish and chips for dinner tomorrow.

Mean Girls
After Little Jerry left, we had a period of d├ętente, when the girls appeared to stop fighting. We put bag balm on their combs to help heal their scrapes, treat the dry white patches from the winter cold, and prevent frostbite. Almost as soon as their combs were beautifully red and restored to nearly perfect, the pecking started up once again.

I was afraid of this; afraid that once we got rid of Little Jerry, someone else would assume the bully role. Astonishingly enough, that individual turned out to be Amelia, who I once described as our sweetest chicken. We’ve caught her picking on Tracy, the lone remaining Rhode Island Red, more than once, chasing her off treats or away from anywhere Amelia thinks is her domain. This morning was the first time I saw the tell-tale scrapes on Tracy’s comb. Judging by Amelia’s comb, Tracy gave as good as she got.

Still, Tracy has for days wandered around looking downtrodden. It makes me sad. Tracy has always been a good chicken; perhaps not the friendliest, but the first and best layer, eager to eat her greens, (Batgirl prefers cracked corn – not the best diet) and very healthy.

What is it with these chickens? They’ve got plenty of room; why can’t they just get along? It seems like the trouble starts between hens of different breeds. Little Jerry always left Tracy alone and went after Amelia and Batgirl, the Barred Rocks. Now Amelia is going after the remaining Red. We had already decided that we’d never mix breeds again, at least not in tiny backyard setting. But what if I get rid of Tracy, and Amelia starts in on Batgirl?

How do these chickens know which is their own kind, anyway? They don’t have any mirrors in there. Do they look down at themselves to figure who is Star-belly Sneetch and who is not? (Old Dr. Suess reference, for those too young to remember. I don’t know whether kids read Dr. Suess anymore.)

The funny thing is, when I told Rick his fave was bullying, he immediately started making excuses for her. Maybe she needed something to do; more greens or corn, he said. “I gave them greens yesterday morning (and the afternoon prior), and the seed ball yesterday afternoon,” I reminded him. “I always put the greens in two suet cages, even if I can’t fill them, just to separate the chickens,” I went on. “I gave them greens this a.m. and am planning to pop them some popcorn today.”

How much more do I have to do to entertain these silly birds? We all have cabin fever in winter. I guess my next step is getting them a treat from the pet store this week-end. I’ve read online of people buying crickets at the pet store for their chickens to chase after and eat. This week-end it will be warm enough (with a high of almost 40F!) that the crickets won’t die right away. Or I might stop by a bait shop and get some worms. Maybe if they’re pecking at some other beast they’ll leave their roomies alone.

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