Valentine Greetings

Come February, in grade school, I eagerly looked forward to making a “mailbox” in my classroom, and having it fill up with Valentine’s Day cards. It’s not that I have any good memories (not a one!) of receiving a special valentine from a special friend. I don’t have any bad school Valentine’s Day memories, either. I never had expectations of a crush tucking a valentine into the box with the others from my classmates. Nope, it’s simple. They’re cute. As cute as can be. The colors are bright and optimistic. They’re silly and happy. And the puns! Awful!

When my sons were younger, I’d pore over their bags of valentines, but now they’re too old to get a card from each classmate. So, I’ve been collecting vintage valentine cards. With a chicken theme, of course. Here are a few of my favorites, from me, to you, with Valentine’s Day love.



The Goats Leave Gifts For The Birds

It was 17º F this morning when I did my morning chores. The goats don’t care what the thermometer says. They’ve have had it with their winter coats. Bit by fuzzy bit, they’re leaving it on the fence.

It’s a gift to the wild birds. I hear them singing. Some are already building nests. There’s going to be some soft beds for their chicks this year.

Gardening With Chickens

A small flock of chickens, let loose in your yard, can, in no time at all, leave a swath of destruction in their feathery wake. They’ll eat every raspberry, tomato and squash blossom. They’ll down the chive blossoms. While dust bathing they’ll expand the flower beds so that dirt spills onto the paths. They’ll pull up the basil seedlings. They’ll peck holes in the cucumbers. They’ll leave manure everywhere. Left to their own devices, the yard would soon become bare, packed dirt with a few hollows for dust bathing.

But, it doesn’t have to be like that. Your garden could look like this:

Well, it could if you lived on a British estate and employed master gardeners.

For the rest of us, there is a compromise between hens run amok, and keeping them penned at all times. You can pick where and when you want your girls to roam. Yesterday the Gems spent quality time in the pumpkin patch, scratching up overwintering pests and weeds. I appreciated Agatha’s help.

A new book, Free-Range Chicken Gardens, written by a gardener who is also a chicken keeper, dispenses good, commonsense advice. Jessi Bloom (is that a perfect name for a garden writer?) talks about how to use fences, mature plantings and appropriate building materials to make a garden that both you and your hens can enjoy. Included are plant lists and garden plans, which are especially helpful for those in the beginning stages of gardening and hen keeping.

I have a few quibbles with the book. She says not to use pine shavings as bedding. Maybe in the Northwest there’s a different type of pine shavings, but here on the East Coast I’ve used them safely for many years. She also suggests that if your hen dies from unknown causes that you send it for a necropsy. Unless there’s a danger that your chicken had a serious, communicable disease, don’t ship your dead animals off to a lab, or your state vet will be inundated!

Smaller points aside, it’s a well-written and attractive book that will be especially appealing to the urban chicken keeper. To promote it, the publisher is having a giveaway. The winner receives a copy of Free-Range Chicken Gardens, a $50 gift card to McMurray Hatchery, a chicken coop plan, and a pound of organic forage and seeds for chicken-friendly plants. Let me know if you win.

Brown, Green, Blue, White: Chicken Egg Color – The Real Story

A dozen eggs bought at the supermarket are all the same, smooth and identical in shape and color; any variation that does occur is sorted out by machines and by workers in the factory and don’t end up in cartons. In contrast, the eggs from our own backyard hens are a varied lot, which is no surprise as our chickens, unlike the ones in the commercial production facilities, don’t look alike. The eggs in our cartons are as unique as the birds that lay them.

On the most basic level, breed determines the color of the egg. You can try to select your backyard hens with an eye to what your egg basket will look like, but it doesn’t always go as planned. But, each hen has their own genetic makeup, and don’t always follow the rules. I got a Welsummer because they are known to lay chocolate-colored eggs. My Welsummer, Jasper, lays beige eggs. It’s my Rhode Island Red that lays deeply brown eggs with speckles.

How the egg becomes colorful is fascinating and complicated. It takes about 26 hours for an egg to go from the ovary until it is laid. First the yolk is encircled with whites and membranes. Then this jelly-like mass goes into the shell gland, where it will spend about 20 hours while the shell is formed.

The shell is made up almost entirely of calcium carbonate, which is a white mineral. White eggs are white, through and through. But, during the last four to six hours in the shell gland, a brown egg-laying hen adds pigment to the mix. This is why the insides of brown eggs are white – the egg starts out white, and gradually becomes more colorful. In the last 90 minutes, the rate of shell formation slows, and the cuticle, a viscous, protein-rich fluid (also called the bloom) is added. (The cuticle is the first line of protection against bacterial infection in the egg.) This is also when the hen secretes most of the pigments into the shell.

A lot can interfere with this process. If a hen is stressed, she’ll release a hormone that ceases the cuticle formation and so her shell color will be pale. Some viral diseases can decrease shell color. Certain medications can impact pigmentation. The size of the egg can affect color, too. The hen is genetically programmed to make a certain amount of pigment. If she lays a very large egg, there’s less pigment to go around. As a hen ages she becomes less able to synthesize the pigment and so her eggs will lighten over time.

As the egg moves down the passageway it rotates. If it goes slowly, the egg will have dark speckles. A notch up in speed and there will be streaks. Sometimes it will look chalky. Sometimes, half of the egg is darker than the other, and it appears to have been dipped in dye. This is because the egg moves through the passage round side first. That end, pushing through, has more contact with the papillae that excrete the pigment, and thus it’s laid on with more pressure.

This process is even more complicated for blue egg layers. Blue pigment is a different chemical than the brown. It’s scientific name is biliverdin, and it is derived from hemoglobin (a component of blood.) It is metabolically costly for the hens to create. A recent study of Blue Footed Boobies show that the blue color will become even more pronounced with an increase in carotenoids in the birds’ diet. (I’d like to see a teenager do a science fair project with their Araucanas to see if they can replicate this work with chickens!) Biliverdin is added to the calcium carbonate earlier in the shell-making process, and so the eggs appear blue all the way through. Chickens that lay greenish, gray, or dusky blue eggs produce both biliverdin and brown egg pigments. The brown overlays the blue.

It’s been said that the brown pigment can be removed. When an egg is first laid it is still damp. In the short window of time while it dries, the cuticle can be rubbed off, and so much, but not all, of the brown pigment along with it. Certain breeds (and some individual hens) deposit pigments in the last few minutes of shell-making, and so, it seems as if it’s just dye to be wiped off. But, scrubbing removes not just color, but also the all-important bloom and calcium carbonate. Because I’ve heard so much about the permanence/impermanence of shell color I did some experimenting. I wiped, I used abrasive baking soda, I used a stiff brush. Some eggs lost some pigment. Some lost none. As you can see, none became white.

But, I do rather like the egg that looks like it has a bald pate. Perhaps I can start a new trend in Easter egg decorating?

Chickens Don’t Smile

We humans are programed to read emotions by looking at faces – and especially at mouths. We look for snarls, sneers and bared teeth. We look for grins and laughter. It’s how we determine friend or foe. Some animals, like dolphins, appear to be perpetually smiling, and so are deemed beneficent, loving creatures. They are, probably at times, but they are also dangerous animals capable of anger. Karen Pryor has told me harrowing tales of dolphins that mean harm, all the while “smiling.” With dolphins, one has to read air bubbles, body language and swimming patterns.

So, how does one interpret this?

Ignore the downward turn of that beak. Garnet can’t help it. Ignore that beady stare. She can’t do anything about that, either. Instead, pay attention to the set of her tail, to her bold curiosity, to the tilt of her head. Listen for chortles, squawks or silence. Drop your assumptions and see the animal for what she is.

It’s hard to get past that glare, isn’t it? It’s hard not to believe that Garnet  is one disapproving hen.

Like most Rhode Island Reds, she’s bossy, hungry and demanding. Garnet is used to me, and knows that there are times when I’m the bearer of good things, so she’s approachable. She wants to know what I’m up to. She doesn’t want to miss the hand-outs. That’s all obvious. But, the more subtle traits take time to discover. As the weather warms I’ll be sitting out on the lawn. Watching. I’ll have to ignore that downward scowl in order to see the chicken behind it.

Still, it makes for a funny photo doesn’t it?