Who Are You Going To Believe?

Groundhog Day is this week. Supposedly, a hibernating woodchuck wakes up, peeks out of his (why is it always a he?) hole, and if he sees his shadow there’ll be six more weeks of winter.

Around here, we don’t like woodchucks, and we certainly don’t pay attention to their prognostications.

Would you believe an animal that looks like this?

Woodchucks are foul-tempered rodents which destroy fields, mow down vegetables, and are truly stupid. (Yes, stupid. Years ago an entire family marched, one-by-one, up to my dog, who dispatched them all.)

Or would you believe Tina?

Tina, who took a long molting and winter break from laying, left this in the box last week, and has laid an egg, almost daily, since.

Around here, that’s a sure sign of spring.

Perhaps, though, you’d like a harbinger of spring that is prettier than either the woodchuck or Tina. Will this do?

The bluebirds have returned. They’ve been checking out the nesting boxes in the meadow.

Of course, here in New England, you don’t count your daffodils until they’ve bloomed. A few major snowstorms could still blow through. But, right now, I’m thinking that I’ll be able to get my cool-weather greens and peas in by April first. Meanwhile, it’s time to get the shedding blade out and go groom the goats.

January Thaw

It’s 40º F and sunny. Around here, a mild day this time of year is called The January Thaw. Usually, it’s a brief respite in the middle of a cold, dark and icy winter and is much appreciated. But, so far this year it seems as if winter never arrived, we’ve skipped two months, and are into the tail-end of March and the start of springtime. It’s confusing everyone.

At noon today I let the goats and chickens out onto the squishy, half-dead, yet oddly green lawn. The old girls stood in the sun. Betsy preened.

The Gems went further afield.

The goats found green brambles under the grass.

But, even better than the edibles was this scratching post.

The goats are shedding. Already. Their winter garb has two layers: a fuzzy and thick undercoat, and a long, dense top coat. They’ve been carrying this around for months now. It’s hot. It’s itchy. They want it gone. There are at least six more weeks of winter. According to the record-keepers, February is our snowiest month. The boys have a lot of fur. Even if they lose some of it now, they’ll be warm enough if the weather turns. Still, I’m not ready for handfuls of goat hair everywhere. Besides, the birds who collect it for their nests haven’t even arrived yet.

The only animals not confused are the fish. The pond is in the shade and remains frozen.

This is a relief. The koi need to stay slumbering until spring. Sweet dreams, Beast.

Note- tomorrow I’m off to a 3-day writer’s workshop and it will be difficult to do email.

Choosing Chicken Breeds Right For You

It’s that time of year. Chicken catalogs appear in the mailbox. Experienced poultry keepers think about expanding their flocks. People who have never kept hens plan their coops, ready their brooders and dream of chicks. Everyone is mulling over what breeds to get.

Picking the chicken breeds to order can be overwhelming. Catalogs are a veritable, well, catalog of choices. It’s like opening a box of chocolates. Such a selection! You know you don’t want the coconut bonbon, but what about all of the others? You can’t (you shouldn’t) eat all of them, but they all look delicious. It’s the same when faced with a crate of chicks at the feed store, or perusing the pages of a hatchery catalog. Decisions must be made and limits must be set. But how? To use another analogy, it’s like going to an auction. You’d better decide ahead of time how much you’re willing to spend before you’re actually face-to-face with temptation. Use restraint. Don’t go over.

Few people with a small backyard flock decide on breeds based purely on practicality. Some chose birds based solely on appearance. We fall in love with feather color, fluffy bottoms and silly head plumage. We like big birds, or very small ones. We like floppy combs, or pea combs, or no combs. Some make their decision based on egg color. They want blue eggs, or all white, or brown, or chocolate.

Certainly you should take looks into account. Right now if someone offered me two grey hens (any breed, as long as they are a pretty slate color) I would welcome them into my flock (even though my flock is healthy and well-established and I shouldn’t have any more chickens.) But, there are other things that you should think about, and I’ll list them here for you.

1. Do not order too many chicks. They grow up. They get big. They need way more space than most of the prefab coop advertisements specify. Plan on a minimum of 4 square feet of interior space per chicken – and that doesn’t include the nesting boxes! Plan on a foot of roost per bird. Make sure there’s another 8 square feet of outdoor space per chicken.

2. Purchase a variety of breeds. First of all, it’s easier to tell your hens apart if they have different feather colors. The differences in personality will be more obvious to you (their individuality is part of the fun.) Besides, everyone loves having multi-hued eggs in their basket, and even if you select all brown-egg laying hens, there will be variation in darkness and mottling from breed to breed.

3. Take breed personality into account. Some chickens are more assertive than others. Some are better foragers. Some are docile. Some like to interact with people, some are aloof. Just like there are advocates of different dog breeds (Dachshund or Irish Wolfhound? Border Collie or Pug?) so, too, will people be opinionated about chicken breeds. I’ll give you my prejudiced view. I’m sure to get some disagreement! In my experience the hens that are avid, active free-rangers are also the ones most likely to pick on subordinate hens. Rhode Island Reds, any of the leghorn/RIR hybrids, the Wyandottes and the Barred Rocks, all are greedy about food and not willing to share their space. They’re fine together, but woe to the meeker breeds mixed with them. More mild-mannered hens are the Orpingtons, the Barnevelders, Welsummers, and Cochins. If you want hens that are eager to interact with you, go for the Speckled Sussex and the Leghorns. Do you want good layers that are decent birds, but not friendly? Try Australorps and Americaunas. If you want chickens with no chicken sense whatsoever, get Polish.

4. Take into account your climate, facilities and management style. Pearl is my feather-footed, heavy-coated Cochin. She’s beautiful (grey!) and sweet as can be, but I would never get another Cochin. In the summer here it gets hot and humid and she overheats. She goes broody and suffers even more from the heat. In the winter the feathers on her feet become crusted with frozen slush and snow. In the spring her feet are dirty and I know which eggs are hers from the mud on them. I end up having to trim the feathers on her feet. She gets manure stuck in her fluffy feathers and so she needs baths. She’s totally impractical and high maintenance. Another poultry-keeper might not mind, but that’s not my style. It’s also why I no longer keep silkies. I’ve had only two and I adored both of them for their sweet temperaments and adorableness, but they both died young and I take responsibility. When a silkie gets cold and damp they get sick – something I didn’t realize as a new henkeeper. Where I live it is often cold and damp. If I were to keep silkies, I’d have separate, indoor facilities for them. For some, that extra care is worth it. I prefer sturdy hens that don’t need coddling.

This post probably hasn’t helped you at all. Not only have I been none to specific, but I’ve left out numerous breeds. That box of chocolates is still there, open, with too many temptations. But, the truth is, like a good box of confections, they’re all good. Even if one isn’t ideal, the mix is delicious. I once had a blue-egg layer named Perrie. She wasn’t friendly, but she laid gorgeous eggs, and that was enough. Buffy is a calm Orpington. She was never a good layer, but she’s a content face in the flock. That’s enough, too. All of the parts make the whole. So, when selecting the right hens for you, look at the complete picture. Each hen doesn’t have to be perfect, but the mix should form a satisfying whole.

I am not placing a chick order this year. My Gems are laying, and my retired hens don’t need the upheaval of new birds in their midst. I’m missing the excuse to pore over the catalogs. So, if you’re placing an order, share you thoughts with me. Getting chicks? What’s the picture that you see?

Snow Day

Snow fell all day on Saturday. As it came down, it seemed like a big storm, but the snow was light and dry and by nightfall there were only a few inches on the ground. Still, it’s enough so that it finally looks like winter. Sunday morning dawned cloudy but bright; the shadows blue.

It was 12 º F when I did my chores, but without a wind, and with my warm barn coat and gloves on, it felt good to be outside. However, the hens did not want to leave their coops.

The cold wasn’t bothering them at all. What kept them in was the snow – chickens don’t like walking in it. I shoveled out a space, but they still looked dubiously out their doors.

I mucked out the goat stall and instead of dumping the used bedding into a compost pile, I spread it at the base of the pop-door ramps. Everyone happily stepped out into the sunshine.

Candy likes snuffling around in the goats’ discarded hay, but she likes snow even more. She hopped over to the side of the pen where leaves have blown and piled against the fence. Candy pulled out the leaves,

and then munched.

At least Candy approves that I didn’t do a thorough fall yard cleanup!

So, despite  the well-below freezing temperatures and snow on the ground everyone is comfortable and content. Even the goats don’t mind this airy snow. It reflects light onto them, ideal for sleepy sunbathing.

The Girls Come Running

My hens come when called. Even if it is a beautiful day. Even if they’ve been stuck in their dirt-floored, boring pen for days and are finally out in the woods, which, if you are a hen, is the absolutely best place on earth, they still come. They flap, they run, they stick their necks out and hightail it.

Well, everyone except Agatha. But, when she finally looks up and realizes that her friends are no longer around, and when she finally hears me calling, she does come. Sweetly and calmly, and is happy to be carried back home.