Tuesday, September 23, 2008

September Update

September's been a very quiet month with the girls...They have almost completely stopped laying and I do miss the eggs. Everyone has or is going through some stage of moulting and there are feathers everywhere. That alone may be the reason though stress, excessive heat, or a lack of light can also cause hens to stop laying.

I hardly think the girls are stressed...they get plenty of food and exercise and they still enjoy keeping some of my vegetable plants pruned. The last bit of cabbage I had has been bitten back quite nicely. I stopped feeding them corn on the cob, much to the neighborhood kids' dismay as they loved stopping by with the remnants from dinner.

There's not much I can do but wait things out and....gulp, gulp...buy eggs at the store...

Meanwhile, an article in the Boston Globe North section on 9/18 caught my attention. http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2008/09/18/if_council_prevails_chickens_wont_come_home_to_roost/?page=2
It seems someone in Lynn was about to be fined by the health inspector for keeping chickens after the city received a notice from the CDC about avian flu in poultry. The chickens had to be given away and now the city is proposing additional restrictions severely limiting where chickens can be kept. I responded back to the Boston Globe that a sensible and fair policy, such as Beverly has protects everyone - the birds, the owners, the neighbors, and the community. Mr. Ahern should be applauded for his attempts to provide food for his family in a sustainable manner, though it's important that we work with our local municipalities and their existing regulations, or work to change those regulations to reflect a more appropriate policy of integrating poultry into an urban environment.

There are many communities - from Beverly to Madison, WI, and New York City, that have successfully regulated poultry keeping and Lynn should take a look at those regulations before deciding on a total ban. The threat of avian flu is no more a problem for the small poultry owner than for the large factory farm. If anything, I would think we would generally have healthier birds because of the conditions under which they are raised - plenty of fresh air and room to move, food scraps, bugs from the yard, and close monitoring.. just my opinion. Mother Earth News tested eggs from many small poultry owners and found the health benefits way beyond the factory egg. Anyone who has eaten a free range egg knows the difference.

As we enter a time where rising energy and food costs are forcing us to examine where our food comes from more of us should be doing what Mr. Ahern has done - raising vegetables and keeping a few hens. As someone who also does this I can tell you of the value in knowing that much of what I eat is pesticide free and organic. I hope others will be encouraged by Mr. Ahern to work in Lynn for an appropriate poultry policy. Our communities would do well to encourage sustainable living on many levels but that is another discussion.

Lastly, I have to mention that my step-daughter, Sharon Astyk, BHS Class of 1990, has just published her first book "Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front" (featured selection this month in Mother Earth News). She looks at the future of peak oil and climate change and turns this 'depletion' into 'abundance' as she provides a practical road map for putting back into our lives much more than we realize.. It's a great book and you can get more information on the book and her other writings at her website: http://sharonastyk.com/. I have Sharon to thank for my chickens...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Skunk Visit

Early August has been tough for the girls...they are hardly laying any eggs and at least Eunice and Delores are starting to moult and there are feathers everywhere. Moulting is the yearly ritual of shedding feathers and growing a new set. It normally happens in the fall but the girls are getting a jump start and Eunice is starting to look more scrawny than usual.
And now skunks... Two weeks ago Naomi sighted a couple of skunks in the yard one morning. Following the advice of one of our kids she called the police in case the skunks were rabid as they are not usually out during the day. The police weren't that concerned and after the initial visit the skunks disappeared.
But today we saw a very bushy skunk wandering up the sidewalk about 1 in the afternoon without a care in the world. As soon as it I saw it I ran for the back to put the girls back in the coop but they were already there and screaming away. They really are an early warning system for all kinds of prey but they normally don't head into the coop if I've left them out in the yard. They'll either scatter to the bushes or stand still and scream. Not much of a defense when the hawk is scouting out its next meal. I was very grateful for their protective instincts today.
A couple of neighbors had already called the Animal Control Officer to report the skunk and I did the same as we were all concerned about its behavior. I didn't want him to think this was related to my keeping chickens as the skunk was wandering in several yards and in the street. Basically, since the skunk didn't appear to be rabid (no wandering in circles or menacing behavior) there wasn't much the officer could do as the skunk was more nuisance than anything. Since a neighbor had earlier seen the skunk with its kids we certainly didn't want to separate them. The officer said it wasn't uncommon this time of year for raccoons and skunks to come out during the day to forage for food for their children.
My feeling is that we need to co-exist with this skunk as it's her neighborhood too though I'd prefer she return to her more nocturnal habits. I'll just have to be more careful about letting the girls outside the coop. I'm thankful they alert me to every potential danger in the yard, real or imagined.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Where Have all the Eggs Gone?

It's now early August and we're experiencing a strange phenomena...very few eggs.. from a high of 4 a day in the spring we are now getting 1 every other day. I'm not sure if it's the weather, Eunice's broodiness, or something else.

I consulted my favorite web site, http://www.backyardchickens.com/forum, and it looks like the heat is a big factor. Stress can also be an issue and that probably explains Eunice's problems. Soon the girls will moult, when they lose most of their feathers, and egg production will be low as they use their resources to make new feathers and not eggs.

I'm looking forward to the cooler weather when the eggs come back..I miss them.

Eunice Goes Broody

While on vacation in July we got a call of 'concern' from Andrea, our vacation chicken sitter supervisor (Lauren's mom) that Eunice wouldn't leave the nesting box inside the coop.... I knew right away she'd gone 'broody' - that maternal condition when a hen sets herself on the eggs for hatching. Unfortunately for Eunice, all the setting in the world wasn't going to hatch those eggs as there's no rooster in their lives. We thought about coming home early from vacation but a reassuring call to Sharon, Naomi's daughter, and mother to many chickens, convinced us that Eunice would be fine, she just needed access to food and water until we returned.

So, armed with the gloves and determination, and with the neighbors to watch, I faced off with Eunice in the coop, prepared for her maternal instincts to defend her nest. Instead, all I did was give her a little prod and she fluffed her feathers and squawked and then got up from the nest where 6 eggs (none of them were hers) sat, warm and unhatched. I sadly threw out all the eggs since they probably were no good to eat and closed the coop door to keep Eunice out. She was miserable, Delores was unhappy, and after a few hours I opened the door and they went back in to the nest.

For the next week Eunice was in and out of the nesting box, some days spending most of her time there, but eventually she lost interest and returned to her normal behavior. But she hasn't laid an egg in over two weeks...

The Girls Have Their Healthcheck

One of the requirements of the Board of Health was that the girls be inspected by a representative from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources within the first year. I never did understand if that was the first year of life or the first year of living with me or of laying eggs but in early May I did contact the inspector and had someone come out to see the girls. There are pictures posted of the inspection here.

Basically, chickens need to be certified that they are free of several diseases in part so that they may be freely transported without fear of disease being spread. This especially applies to folks who want to show chickens (not me) and it ensures that a chicken that is sold is in good health. I found out that the hatchery 3 of the girls came from qualifies them for automatic passing and they did not need to be tested. But since Eunice came from the Topsfield Poultry Auction she needed her blood tested.

So, on a lovely May afternoon the woman from the inspection department came, dressed up in a protective suit and drew blood from the girls for testing. A week later I received their certificate of good health and no sign of Avian Influenza or Pullorum. Each hen has a leg band certifying her good health. The state takes poultry disease prevention very seriously and I am glad I followed through with the exam.

From what I have heard from other chicken owners in other towns Beverly is more strict about poultry testing and I am glad for it.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Eunice Arrives!

After Cora left in August I wanted to get another hen to fill out our small family of four. By September both Althea and Beatrice were laying and the eggs were wonderful so I was anxious to contine this steady source of eggs. There was no way to know when Delores would begin laying and that meant only two hens and no more than two eggs a day. Getting another hen seemed a natural solution.

The Topsfield Fair holds a poultry auction the weekend after the fair closes and I'd decided to get a hen there. I had no idea what I was getting into... My daughter and her family wanted chicks so along with chicken sitter friend Martha we all headed to Topsfield. The Essex Aggie FFA sponsers this event and all manner of poultry are offered for sale. It's not like a furniture auction where you view the items before the sale - at the poultry auction each item is brought out and auctioned off so there's no way to know what's behind the barn door. Therefore, the first few single hens came and went before I realized I'd better start bidding if I wanted to be sure of getting one. I bid a couple of times but lost and then panic began to set in - what if there were no more single birds? There were plenty of pairs, dozens of chicks, ducks, and turkeys along with other assorted fowl. I decided to go after the next single hen and so I paid $15 for a Silver Campine - a breed I'd never heard of - but a pretty silver bird with a black tail. I later found out this is an ornamental breed from Belgium. Ornamental! What was I thinking? I needed a good sturdy hen with lots of feathers for the cold winter nights.

I now had a 'pullet' (young hen) to add to the family and I knew only the basics of integrating her with the others. We named our new girl 'Eunice' and in taking the advice of an old timer at the fair, placed her in the coop with the other hens after dark knowing that by morning they'd all be friends. Ha! It might have been quiet all night in the coop but when I opened the coop's sliding door in the morning all hell broke loose. It's like going to bed as a kid and waking up to find your parents have adopted another child! You're going to be mad!

Eunice was attacked by all the hens, especially Althea, who seemed most upset by her prescence. It was really very painful to watch the girls go after Eunice who had nowhere to escape. She flew to the top of the coop where she stayed for days. At least she was safe as the other hens wouldn't fly up there. I literally had to put Eunice inside the coop with the others every night just to have her fly out the next morning to her safe spot. Nights were quiet and the days were tense. I tried everything from letting them all out in the yard together (big mistake, Eunice ran off two houses away and had to be cornered in a soccer goal net where I grabbed her) to keeping them in the run for several days with no yard time (another mistake..they went stir crazy) to spraying them with lemon juice at night so they'd all smell the same. Nothing eased the fighting and the best I got was an uneasy truce. Meanwhile, I gave Eunice her own water and food in her perch and prayed a lot.

But this story does have a happy ending. About 3 weeks after Eunice arrived, just when I was considering giving her up, my son-in-law showed up one Sunday morning to start running electricity out to the coop (my birthday present). I came back from church to find Bill digging a trench and four happy hens playing in the yard. No fighting, no blood, just an occasional squawk from Eunice who now tagged along with the others. The fighting was over and Eunice was part of the group. She never went back to her perch above the coop and she went inside with the others every night. It was an amazing transformation. I won't pretend it was completely peaceful after that as Althea had to assert herself as boss and did so with the occasional nip but Eunice obliged by following her everywhere probably to Althea's annoyance.

Since this rather unpleasant period I have since learned there are better ways to introduce a new bird and many folks agree that new birds should be kept in separate cages for up to a month to prevent the introduction of disease to the existing flock - something I'd never even considered! That gives them time to adjust without getting too close so that when they're allowed to mix it isn't quite so scarey. I do know that mixing new and old can have serious consequences and sometimes the birds can be quite cruel with devestating affects. All in all, I was quite lucky in my ignorance....

We now have our full complement of four hens - everyone's laying, they're happy and healthy, and they've certainly enriched my life!

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Girls Spring Break - 2008

Just to skip ahead a bit, this spring vacation Naomi and I went to South Carolina for 10 days. Our usual chicken sitter, Martha, was unavailable so we engaged some of the neighborhood kids to take care of the girls. As low maintenance as chickens are you just can't leave them without some basic care when you live it town.

Their normal routine is to be let out of the coop every morning. This means sliding the door that opens from the coop into the enclosed run. The water must be changed and food provided. Since I use a 3 gallon metal feeder for food I only have to fill it every couple of weeks. But water is another thing and chickens require access to fresh water, especially in the warm weather. At night it's just the opposite - shut them in the coop to ensure that predators don't break into the run. I don't know that every coop has to be closed but I always shut mine. I am very aware that the local racoons and skunks would love a chicken dinner so it's just part of the girls' normal care that the coop be closed tightly. Once it gets dark chickens will normally go back to their roost which makes the bedtime routine very easy.

I live in a great neighborhood with lots of kids and I've had many offers of help in the past year. It was nice to be able to have some of the older kids take care of the chickens while we were gone. Between Darcy, Jake, and Lauren we worked out a schedule for morning and evening coverage and the kids did a great job. Darcy has had previous sitting experience with the girls so she was able to let them out in the yard for some evening foraging before dark which they really love.

I think gathering the eggs was one of the high points for the kids. It really is wonderful getting fresh eggs every day and nothing in the supermarket compares to them for taste. I'm amazed by the daily miracle of the egg and since each girl has a distinctive style I can pretty much tell who is laying when. We get up to 4 eggs a day..

It was a big relief knowing the chickens were well cared for - we had a great vacation and I think they did too.

So if you're considering getting chickens and concerned about leaving them don't hesitate to involve the local kids. It's great for them and great for the chickens. It's not too much work and there are always parents to help out in an emergency, like a loose chicken! My girls see me coming and pace inside the run, hoping to be let out.

I really think that having chickens has been very positive for this neighborhood. If nothing else, heads turn when the girls are out front or in the driveway, and we're now a regular stop for some of the local moms pushing carriages. I would love to see a few more families start raising hens! It's a very manageable activity and something everyone in the family can participate in. The chickens are no more work than any other pet once the coop is built. Coops can be as elaborate or simple as you want - built from recycled materials, expanded dog houses, more complex buildings, or purchased ready made. Here's a great design that requires no building skills - the Eglu is already assembled - http://www.omlet.us/products_services/products_services.php?view=Chickens.

Haven't conviced you yet? How about fresh eggs higher in omega-3 and lower in cholesterol than typical storebrand eggs? How about getting rid of bugs in your yard? How about a free source of garden compost (once it's aged)? And best of all, chicken TV...they are just plain fun to watch! I also know that I'm raising hens in a humane way and that they have a very good life. I'm also a lot closer to my food source, just like when I grow my own vegetables. I am surprised how much I've enjoyed having chickens in the past year - it's really had a huge influence on my life. Just ask Naomi! But I promised her no goats! (-:

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cora grows up

It didn't take too long before we realized Cora might not be Cora, but could actually be Carl or Corey... There was a suspicious red mass growing on her head and in late June, at about 6-7 weeks of age, I heard a stange sound coming from the backyard as I stumbled into the bathroom before the sun was up. It was actually very upsetting to think that one of my girls might not be... For one thing, roosters are definitely not allowed in Beverly and I certainly wanted to stay in my neighbors' good graces. But most of all, I'd grown attached to all my chickens and did not like the thought of parting with any one of them.

As the summer went on and the chickens grew, Cora became more assertive and clearly was the leader of the pack. My fears grew and by the time we went to northern Maine for a week's vacation in late July I was terrified that Cora would become the official alarm clock of Prospect Hill. I left our young chicken sitter, Darcy, with instructions on how to reach us if any problems arose and off we went. Two days later she left us a message on our cell phone....there was a definite crowing one morning when she went to open the coop sliding door as Cora announced herself to the world. I spent the rest of the vacation fretting about the animal control officer stopping by with a warrant for Cora's arrest and deportation. But alas, my fears were mostly unfounded, and we returned from vacation knowing we needed to deal with Cora's blossoming adolescence.

The wonderful thing about having our oldest daughter living on a farm is that she was only too happy to help us put Cora in the Chicken Witness Protection Program. After all, she got us into this predicament when she shared her chicks with us so it was up to her to now bail us out! (Or so I hoped...) In all fairness, I did try to find a home locally for Cora but it's just not that easy to place a rooster in a foster home and not worry about which Sunday she's going to show up on the menu. And let's face it, how many people do you know raise chickens and can accomodate a pet rooster? I figured that if I could find Cora a home then I couldn't be too fussy about her future and this might just be her, or his, mission in life...

I was very happy when Sharon offered to take Cora on their summer visit east in late August and I counted the days until she left, apologizing to our neighbors and hoping no one turned us in. When the actual day came for Cora to leave I felt both relief and sadness as she began her new life as head rooster of Gleanings Farm. I knew she'd have a good life and I'd get to see her, or now him, on my visits to the kids.

Cora's departure left one spot open in our coop...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Girls Arrive

First of all, let me say thanks to all of you who posted comments. I thought Sharon was waiting for me to set this site up a bit more before adding a link from her web site but I guess she couldn't wait! I will also apologize for not posting sooner..I'm 'very' new to this and have a hard enough time keeping up with e-mail but I promise to be more responsive!

Back to the Girls....when Sharon's chick order was shipped last spring I took a day off, packed a small box, and headed off the NY to pick out my chicks. It was pretty exciting, all those cute chicks to choose from. Sharon gave me 4 chicks, all different colors so I could identify them, and I headed home with Althea, Beatrice, Cora, and Delores. They spent the next month in the kitchen in a plastic bin under a lamp to keep the temperature at 95 degrees. As they grew, the temperature was reduced, but they needed the heat in those weeks. I was on the phone constantly with Sharon who coached through every step.

Even Naomi was enthralled by the chicks, their tiny chirps, constant movement, and soft fuzz..who wouldn't love them? Fortunately, our 2 cats were not interested though I put wire over the top of the bin to reduce temptation.

Since I wanted to wait for the chicks to arrive before building the coop (what was I thinking??) I was seriously behind as I really only had a month before the chicks would be big enough to move outdoors.

I need to stop here and remind folks that my purpose is to let you know how easy it is to raise urban chickens and that adding my chicken adventures should be to illustrate particular points. Having said that, if you are serious about chickens start building the coop well BEFORE the chicks arrive! May and June of 2007 were a blur for me as I spent all my time (and too much money!) building the exact coop I wanted. There are lots of ways to build a coop and a fine structure can be built from recycled materials, but since I didn't have access to any and I wanted a particular look for my urban setting I looked around for just the right design. The 'Playhouse Coop' met my needs perfectly. The plans are available on ebay at http://cgi.ebay.com/Chicken-Coop-Plans-Poultry-House-Playhouse-Coop_W0QQitemZ280215435054QQcmdZViewItem. There are other sources on the web and I have found http://backyardchickens.com/ to be a great resource - not just for plans, but for the entire chicken raising process.

It got to be early June and the girls were into their second Tupperware container, having outgrown their first and my guilt at having them indoors was growing. So on a rainy evening I made myself go out and put a temporary plastic roof on the coop (I was having trouble finding a source for the metal roof) and the next night the girls moved out....and did just fine, despite all my worries about predators, the chilly nights, etc...a typical mother.

The girls thrived in their new home and our kitchen returned to normal - no 'chick' smell and no dust...but no pleasant chirps either...a tradeoff. It took me another month to get the coop finished with its metal roof and trimming but I have to say it looks good out in the back and it really fits into my neighborhood. Forget that I could have started an addition on the house with what it cost!

Whatever coop design you ultimately choose just be sure it's something you like and something that fits your chicken's needs. To paraphrase from "Chickens in your Backyard" by Rick and Gail Luttmann, the size of the coop and run depend upon whether the chickens will be confined most of the time (therefore needing more space) or whether they will be allowed to roam. My original vision was that my chickens would only be allowed out of the coop with supervision and then confined to the yard (as per my permit restrictions). And now that I understand how the chicken poop process works - they do it all the time since they have no sphincter - I wouldn't want them in my neighbors' yards anyway! My coop run is 4x8' with a 4x2' coop inside. Sort of a raised ranch. I have a friend who has 4 chickens and they are kept in a 12x12' run/coop and not allowed out. It's a personal choice how you deal with the roaming issue and really depends on your yard, neighbors, and how you want your chickens to be raised. There's no one situation that's best for all.

I have to say, though, having spent a year now with the girls, I thoroughly enjoy having them run around the yard and as other folks say, it really is Chicken TV!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Introduction

Two years ago the Boston Globe published an article about raising chickens in an urban setting. There were pictures of mail-order coops, happy poultry owners and their chickens, and beautiful eggs. I was hooked.. but some background.

My oldest step-daughter, Sharon, raises chickens in upstate New York on a 27 acre farm where she has a huge vegetable garden, has run a successful CSA, and with her husband Eric, has 4 wonderful boys under 8. It's a busy life and they are working hard at sustainable living. Unlike Sharon, her mother, Naomi,and I live in Beverly, MA, a city of 35,000 20 miles north of Boston, where we raised Sharon and her sisters. We have a lovely 100 year old house in downtown Beverly, in the Prospect Hill section, where we can walk downtown or to the beach in a matter of minutes. Hardly a farm..

We raise vegetables at the local community garden (our yard is too shady) and enjoy the simple pleasures of watching the world go by on our front porch. Chickens were never in the picture...

But as time went on and I spent more time at Sharon's and sampled the delight of free range eggs I began to think it might be fun to have a few chickens of our own. Great eggs, animals that would eat the bugs in the yard, and all that free compost! A no-brainer! Except that Naomi was dead set against it. I showed her the Boston Globe article, http://www.boston.com/news/world/articles/2006/02/12/poultry_owners_find_an_urban_coop/ and the answer was a firm NO.

I'll spare you the details but let's say it took me a full year to convince her that getting chickens was a good idea. In the end, she agreed to give it a try, mostly because she wanted me to be happy... She hasn't regret her decision...

So how did we make this happen in a city where chickens aren't exactly running around in most yards? The first stop was to pick Sharon's brain and search the internet for what others were doing. I soon found out that some municipalities have no rules on poultry and some have definite regulations. I needed to see what regulations Beverly had so headed off to City Hall in January 2007. I was immediately sent to the Board of Health where they gave me an application and told me that with $25, a plot plan, and the blessing of the Animal Control Officer m application would be presented to the Board of Health who would make a final decision.

I was quite discouraged when I met with the Animal Control Officer, especially when he learned I lived 'downtown' and not in one of the more suburban neighborhoods. An 8000 sq. ft. lot is not that big and he was concerned there wouldn't be enough space for the coop. He told me that the abutters had to approve of me getting chickens and that would go a long way in getting me approved.

So, on Super Bowl Sunday, 2007, I visited al my abutters, and presented my case. I also gave them a letter outlilning my plan with some 'facts and figures' about home poultry raising. For the neighbors I knew really well I baked some chicken shaped cookies (hey, who said I had to play fair!) to make my case. Without an exception everybody was excited and encouraged my plan.

With this vote of approval and renewed hope, I had the Animal Control Officer, Jim Lindley, visit my house on a cold Februrary day. I presented my plan, showed him my plans for the coop, and told him all my neighbors supported the chickens. With that information he gave me the clearances for the coop placement, discussed waste disposal (I was composting), and told me that the Board would make the fnal decision at my March hearing. But having abutter approval was really key and that my application looked good.

And that is exactly what happened.. at the March hearing I presented my case and reviewed my plan. I was asked a few questions and a week later I received my certificate to keep 4 chickens. Six weeks later the chicks arrived and my life hasn't been the same since! Next time I'll talk about 'the girls'...