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The egg production of the Golden Laced Wyandottes went down drastically after they molted. We knew we had to get a new generation of birds and, to avoid the over-abundance of accidental roosters that we experienced last time, we opted for a new breed of chicken: the Red Star.

Red Star Chickens

Photo by Adrian

There are professional chicken sexers who examine the crotches of baby chicks to determine whether they’re male or female, but their accuracy rate was off the mark, based on our last order of chicks. Friends and I ordered around 30 female chicks and wound up with at least four roosters. Not a problem with Red Stars! They can be sexed by color (hence the name “sex-link”). The males and females are different colors when they hatch, so no crotch-inspection is necessary.

We have found them to be early and enthusiastic layers. The first ones began laying at four months, as opposed to the usual five to five-and-a-half months of age. The eggs are lovely, and a rich, shiny brown.

Meanwhile, the seven remaining Wyandottes found a wonderful new home via Craig’s List and Buttercup remains our only retiree.

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This Mother’s Day, all I wanted was to check things off my To Do list, and that meant farm chores. Getting the baby chicks into a bigger brooder,  for example, finishing the installation of a “baseboard” around the garden that will prevent me from tearing vast holes in the plastic deer fence with the string trimmer (note to self: never use plastic fencing again), and brushing the winter coat out of Emma, the livestock guardian dog. Emma’s fur is rather intriguing from a fiber standpoint. Dog fiber actually has a name, “chiengora,” and as a spinner and knitter, I’m thinking maybe I don’t need sheep after all. Maybe all I need is my sheepdog. It’s 80% warmer than wool and sheds water, but I wonder, would my chiengora sweater smell like a wet dog after I’ve been out in the rain for a while? And would the cat sit on my lap while I’m wearing it?

The chicks were a bit freaked out when we moved them to the new brooder, so I took one that seemed in distress and lay down on the hammock with her on the bib of my overalls. The little incubator chick, who has never known a mother, soon fell asleep under the “wing” of my hand. These pictures are a bit fuzzy because the camera was so close to the chick, but it was such a sweet moment that I want to post them anyway.

Gong . . .

Going . . .

Going . . .

Going . . .

Gone

Gone

Our chickens hit the 18 month mark, which is when they molt. They stop laying eggs during that time, so they can devote all their energy to “changing their clothes.” Buying eggs just feels wrong when you have a bunch of chickens and it was a strange feeling to have to ask guests to bring eggs for a pasta-making venture.

Photo by Adrian

Photo by Adrian

Thankfully, they have begun to lay again. After they molt, they lay fewer, but bigger, eggs.

The Big Snow took out the net above the chicken yard, and today some chickens figured that out and flew over the fence. We were dog-sitting for friends while they went skiing over the weekend, and the dog attacked one of the escapees. Adrian thought the chicken should be dispatched right away to put her out of her misery, but despite the deep puncture wounds in her back, she looked like she had a chance to me. 

So I brought her inside and, with Adrian step-and-fetching, held her on my lap while cleaning and dressing her wounds. She remained bright-eyed and calm throughout most of it. We wrapped her in an an old towel and put her in a plastic tub. 

Chicken hospital

It’s funny how conscious we are of the threat that wild animals pose to our livestock. Though owls, hawks, eagles, raccoons, and coyotes could all kill our chickens, none ever have. Three Four have been killed and one has been injured by the dogs of friends or neighbors. And unlike wild animals, none of them did it because they were hungry.

A postscript: the chicken died around midnight of the second night that she spent in my room. Rest in peace, little hen. Thanks for all the eggs.

My friend Renate and I watched in amazement as our drake mated with a chicken yesterday. He had been chasing chickens around, but they had always managed to escape by flying up to a window box where they were out of the drake’s reach. I didn’t think much of it until I saw the drake grab a chicken by the feathers on the back of her neck. It was then that I realized he had romantic intentions, but I never thought he’d succeed.

When he had had is thrill, he fell to the ground in a heap, as he always does, and then took a refreshing post-coital splash in the pond.

The duck, who was laying an egg at the time, looked on peacefully.

“Doesn’t the duck mind that he’s a philanderer?” Renate said.

“Well, they’re not like us. The rooster has 12 chickens to choose from.”

“Is she going to lay bigger eggs, now?” she said, referring to the chicken.

“No,” I said, knowing that ducks and chickens may go through the motions, but nothing will ever come of it.

A quick search of the internet reveals that ours is not the first barnyard in which this has happened.

Oh my. The things you learn on a farm.

Our chickens are egg layers, and we can’t imagine butchering them. But, curious to determine whether we had the stomach to raise animals for meat, we offered to help when our friend Molly told us that she had to butcher some of her chickens.

Warning: If you are a vegetarian, you may not want to continue past this point.

Catching the chickens in question was a responsibility that fell to Adrian and Molly’s son Gabe. Once caught, the chickens were handed over to Molly’s father, Hal, who quickly and unceremoniously dispatched them. I think this was the hardest part for Adrian–not the killing, but the lack of some kind of ritual of gratitude.

Next came the plucking. For the feathers to come out easily, the carcasses needed to be scalded. Hal and I donned oven mitts and carried a canning kettle full of near-boiling water from his place next door over to Molly’s. Then we began dipping the carcasses.

Scalding the chickens

After that, plucking the chickens was easy.

Plucking

The denuded chickens were plopped into buckets of water to cool.

Cooling

Once all the chickens were plucked, we carried them over to Hal’s, because his kitchen was more conducive to the next phase of the project: gutting.

Molly with carcasses

Hal demonstrated the gutting process, and Molly and I took turns eviscerating the chickens. Here I am reaching waaaaaay up into the chicken’s body cavity trying to remove the lungs:

Petra gutting a chicken

Overall, I found that I didn’t have any problem plucking and gutting, but I just couldn’t bring myself to cut off their heads and feet. 

Chicken feet

It took about five months for our chicks to grow into adults and begin laying eggs. By that time, I’d spent so much on fences, nest boxes, feed, and shelter, that I figured I’d have to charge about $50 per dozen to begin recouping my investment.

Around December 10, our chickens laid their first egg. (Don’t they look proud?)

Because they matured during the darkest time of the year, I decided to play “god” and artificially lengthen their days to make them produce more. I put a timer on the light in the chicken shed and gradually worked them up to 14 hours of “daylight,” which increased their egg production. Their free ride was over. It was time to earn their keep.

Having said that, I wonder if gathering eggs will ever get old. It still seems like Christmas every time I check the nest boxes and find little treasures in them.

My plan to have a perfectly homogenous little flock of Golden Laced Wyandottes was foiled the day the chicks arrived. My friend Stephanie ordered a smattering of all kinds of different birds, which arrived in the same box as ours, and she noticed that Adrian fell in love with one of her yellow Buff Orpington chicks. She asked if she could give it to Adrian.

“Oh ALL RIGHT,” I said in defeat.

 Now, we had a perfectly homogenous little flock of Golden Laced Wyandottes AND “Buttercup.”  

Buttercup as a chick Huckleberrying with Buttercup

Because all the other chicks looked exactly alike, and perhaps because blondes do have more fun, Buttercup got a lot of attention from Adrian. When she got older, he tucked her under his arm and went for walks in the forest with her, occasionally stopping to feed her huckleberries.

I don’t share Adrian’s passion for Buttercup because she once pecked me right in the eyeball. She’s been on my personal “butcher” list ever since.

We spent a long time with the Murray McMurray catalog, and finally decided on 12 Golden Laced Wyandottes, which are considered a “rare and unusual” breed. I thought they were the prettiest chickens in the catalog. Having had a higgeldy piggeldy flock of mismatched hens, I was ready for a beautiful flock that I’d enjoy looking at out the kitchen window.

Like anything else you order from a catalog, baby chicks come in the mail. You have to order a minimum of 25 of them (they keep each other warm in the box), so friends and neighbors went in on the order.

Early one morning in late June of 2007, someone from the post office called to say the chicks had arrived.  So we pulled on clothes, ran to the car, and drove to Langley to get them.

Adrian at the post office getting our baby chicks

That is the day we became farmers.