Weird Winter

I hear that those of you in Colorado are having SNOW. My cousin in Australia is taking her summer vacation in record heat. Here in the American Northeast we have had a very mild winter; no snow, below freezing only at night, and warming up during the day so that the kids go to school in jackets – no bundling them up to look like mini-Pillsbury doughboys.

The chickens are happy not to be cooped up by icy weather (bad pun intended). Although, I’m sure they’d be happier with some bright sunshine so that they could take a nice dust bath in a warm patch. (It’s been mild, but cloudy.) Still, it is winter and they aren’t laying. Last year, in the bitter cold, they did lay. I think that because they were younger, they still had it in them. There’s a reason that egg farmers don’t keep hens beyond two years!

I miss their eggs and hope that by February they’ll be laying again. By late winter I should have a few more young pullets, too. Hopefully a Silkie, and a couple of nice, big basic laying hens.

Happy Holidays to all.

Perfect Pasta

Have you read Heat, by Bill Buford? He’s a New Yorker writer who became a “kitchen slave” to Mario Batali. I hated the book. Buford glorified the abusive, hierarchical management style of many European-trained (mostly male) chefs. There’s something macho about being able to survive the rants, anger and insults of someone like Batali. If you’re not familiar with him, perhaps you’ve seen Gordon Ramsey on his reality TV show, Hell’s Kitchen. (And no, I don’t think his behavior is an exaggeration put on for television).

Years ago, I worked in a kitchen headed by a French-trained German chef who would get drunk on Friday nights and throw knives. But I’ve also worked for a woman chef who mentored me and ran a sane, kind, and yet highly professional kitchen. There are generous and talented male chefs out there, too.  What this profession doesn’t need are the Bill Bufords buying into, and popularizing, that demeaning and nasty management style. Trust me, you can have camaraderie, brilliance, and the cook’s high after an exhaustive night, in a caring kitchen as well as an abusive one.

What does this have to do with chickens? Nothing! But, Buford did have something to say about eggs. He was obsessed with Italian pasta, and he traveled to Italy to learn how to make perfect pasta from a woman named Betta. Buford romanticized her method of hand rolling. Then he discovers that a master pasta maker, named Miriam, no longer rolls her pasta by hand; she uses a machine. What made her pasta perfect? She said, “My eggs are the best in the region. They are very, very good eggs.” Buford went on to write that “an egg was modern pasta’s most important ingredient, provided it was a very good egg.” And by that he meant a very fresh egg from pastured hens. Mario Batali, in his NYC restaurant, had to add yolks to his pasta, because he couldn’t get good eggs. Pasta is simply flour, water, salt and egg. If that egg is a battery-farmed egg, it just won’t do. I didn’t like Buford’s book, but I liked his conclusion about good eggs.

New Barn

There’s been a lot of activity just outside the chicken yard. The vegetable garden and fence came down and a four-foot deep, 12 x 20 foot hole has been dug. I’m getting a new barn!

At first I considered buying a 200 year old granary. You can buy such things from salvage companies. But it seemed like a lot of trouble and expense. And I’m on a schedule – I need the barn for a photo shoot in March for a new project. Then I found what seemed to be the perfect solution. Country Carpenters makes timberframe barns. The building comes delivered in pieces, like a Lincoln Logs kit. A simple 10 x 20 barn like the one I selected can be installed in a week.

But isn’t it always the questions you don’t know to ask that create the stumbling blocks? There was a bit more to site prep than I imagined. It turns out that in our town, you need two land surveys, a building permit, a site inspection and a 4-foot concrete foundation. It also turns out that the only good spot to erect the barn was right over our septic line. So, first the excavators had to hand dig down to the line and move it. Then use the backhoe for the big hole. Then the concrete foundation guys come. Then we need a different concrete crew to do the flat work.

My husband, Steve, has been taking care of these details. I very much appreciate that he’s dealing with all of the aggravation. What am I doing? Well, last week I went to the New England Bantam Club’s poultry show and came up with a list of breeds to buy once the barn is in place.

Chickens Surprise Scientists

A paper published in the scientific journal, Biology Letters, has challenged scientists’ view of the intelligence of chickens (and other creatures).

Many scientist have long believed that only humans use language to denote things in the world — that we’re the only ones who can point at an object and give it a verbal label.

But the research by Dr. Chris Evans and Linda Evans showed that golden Seabright bantam hens had twenty observed and specific calls. For example, there was a difference between the clucking one did for corn and for pellets. It was also noted that they could recognize each other by their facial features. Birds also understand the concept that if an item is removed from view, that it still exists (this was formerly thought to be the provence of “higher” animals.)

Does this study give me insight into the life of my girls? The research wouldn’t surprise anyone who has sat and observed their backyard flock. I already knew that hens can recognize their best friends in a crowd. I’d already been aware that the girls have a range of specific vocalizations. Actually, the study gave me more of an insight into the world of academia and scientific thinking than into my birds’ brains.

Where's the Tail?

Marge’s tail fell out and I’m not worried about it. Although, judging from your emails, feather loss is the second biggest source of anxiety for chicken keepers (broodiness is first.) Here’s the ugly fact: chickens molt once a year and it’s not pretty. It’s not like one day you go out to the yard and they’ve lost all of their feathers, which then proceed to quickly grow back. Oh, no. The feathers come out in clumps. Slowly. And the feathers that grow back at first look like porcupine quills. Even worse, during this month-long process, the hens stop laying.

Commercial growers try to control the molt. They want their hens to all start and stop at the same time, and they want it to happen as quickly as possible. They practice “controlled starvation” to bring this about. But that’s still iffy, so they’re working on chemical means to initiate the molt. Enough said. That’s not happening with our girls.

Instead, I look at the molt as nature’s way of giving the hens a break from the resource-depleting job of egg laying. And isn’t it nice to know that even the beauties among us have a bad hair (feather) day? :)