Category Archives: Chickens

Letters from the Kids

These letters just came in the mail from the first graders who visited us last month. Excuse their spelling errors. It is their thoughts that really count.

We had two hours together. They fed snails and worms to the ducks, checked the temperature of the compost piles, examined our rainwater-fed duck pond and fed the fish in it, harvested Calendula flowers, explored the greenhouse made of recycled redwood and salvaged stained glass, collected warm chicken eggs, heard a Mockingbird do a variety of other birds’ calls, decorated easter eggs with berries and flowers, and ate lunch in the garden.

Dear Suzanne, 
I lovd the ducks and I also lovd feeding the ducks and also lovd the chickins. I also lovd holding the snales and worms. I also lovd wen we were picking the flawers. And I also lovd macking the Easter eggs and I also lovd finding eggs. That was fun wen we wer living (leaving) at the last moment a chickin lade a egg. Thank you it was a funn day.
Love, Tierra

Dear Suzanne, 
 I liked the ducks because I like the noise they made. I liked the chickens noises and thair soft fethers and i also liked the stinky-stinky-stinky composts. It was enteresting checing the dugrees and the hot hot mud by mud i meen soiol (soil). And I alsow liked painting the eggs. Thank yuo for inviting us to your farm. 
 Sincerely, Alex 

 Dear Suzanne, 
 I liked feeding the ducks. I also liked peting the chickens. I also liked harvesting the flowers. I liked the smell of the farm. I also liked hearing the sound of the birds. I also liked decorating the Easter Eggs. I also liked collecting the chicken eggs. I also liked going in the greenhouse. 
 Love, Devi 

Dear Suzanne, 
 I loved wen wee fed the ducks snails. I liked peting the chicen. I like how you dye peices of cloth it looks reale cool. I also liked wen wee dyeed Easter eggs. And I thingk that it is cool the way you get water in the duck pool. And I thingk it was reely fun! Thank you a lot! 
Sincerely, Zoe

This boy had a really hard time settling into the visit here. He wouldn’t touch anything or participate until the very end when I led him into the greenhouse to meet a worm. I left him there and he stayed for a long time emerging happy and with a new friend in his hand.

Dear Suzanne, 
I lovd making frinds with a worm. Gathering flowers and decorating eggs was fantastic. I loved the greenhouse. The colored glass and the special wood and the plants made it really beautful. I loved your garden. 
Thank you. 

THIS is why I work with kids here at the ol’ homestead.

Chicken Soup (Part 2)

O.k., so my husband thought the last entry was a bit of a rant. Well, it was….

Back to Carla Emery’s indispensable ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COUNTRY LIVING. She had a picture of a wooden board with two nails partially nailed in and standing up about 2 inches. It created a sort of V shape. She had us stretch the chicken out on the board with its head between the two nails. I held the body down while my husband did one whack with the kitchen cleaver (the big Japanese kind was perfect). That was it. A friend had warned me that the nerves fire off for “much longer than you’d think” so I was prepared for that. It was true. I held down with one hand until it stopped. Surprisingly little blood.

I walked the chicken over to the pot of boiling water and dunked for 30 seconds. Then, sat down on a log and commenced to pluck. The feathers came out so easily! Almost immediately the chicken looked like one you’d buy in the store. Boom! I made the connection. I was sitting there plucking a chicken I had raised just as millions upon millions of women had done throughout history. It was so empowering! I envisioned a group of women sitting on that log with me all doing the same thing. Feeding ourselves and our families. Whew!

The gutting was my husband’s job as he had cleaned turkeys in the past. I washed them down and packaged them up and let them sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Then, I put one in the freezer and one in the soup pot. These hens were a year old so I did not know how edible they would be. The breast meat was perfect but the rest was pretty tough. It was good for stock and the tougher meat went to the dog. I would not raise chickens for meat but I don’t mind making use of the older layers.

My plan now is to change out the flock every two years as egg production declines. I’ll have the next generation of layers just about ready to lay before I cull the older hens. Do I name them or not? Hmm… My friend Jane names them and puts their name on them in the freezer so she knows who she’s eating.

I had kids over last week and told them that we’d butchered two of the hens. “Which ones?”, “Why?” they asked. I told them that chickens don’t lay eggs for more than a few years and that I couldn’t just keep adding chickens to the backyard flock. They immediately understood and asked to look in the freezer. One of them said, “I just want to say a few words”. When they looked in and saw what looked like a chicken from the store they understood even more. We closed the freezer and went to the feed store to buy more chicks. “Mary Ann, Fred, Irene, and Honeycomb”. So, much for not naming them.

This time I did my research. I bought varieties bred for meat AND egg production. We got two Delawares and two Golden Sexlinks. They will be added to the two just-laying Aracauna and Americauna. Heaven help them from the older Americauna’s wrath.

I’ll cross my fingers when it’s time to integrate them. Good ol’ “Ari” still walks upon the earth. She’s the one pictured peering out of the peephole in the last entry.

Chicken Soup (Part 1)

Well, I guess we just got a little more serious about the whole ‘homesteading’ thing…

Our Speckled Sussex hens were not quite living up to our expectations as egg layers. They were an impulse purchase at the local hay and grain. I cannot be purchasing chicks on impulse. This is a 6,000 square foot urban lot with a 1200 square foot house on it. There is not a whole lot of room for livestock. Chickens live a long time and only lay eggs regularly for a few short years.

I was in the process of introducing two new young hens to the flock which was not going well. First of all, they were supposed to be an Americauna, a Wellsummer, and a Barnevelder. But, noooo….. We ended up with an Americauna (fine), an Aracauna, and another damn Speckled Sussex! To make things worse the Speckled Sussex turned out to be a rooster. Roosters are not allowed within city limits. What a mess. Another impulse purchase gone awry. The rooster went to live on a ranch outside of town.

So, I began to introduce the two young hens to the resident flock after carefully raising them in an separate enclosure within the main enclosure. Everybody was happy. Then, the second the smaller enclosure was removed all hell broke loose. The resident Americauna went for blood and the Sussex joined in. The terrified new hens decided to live in the tree above the coop and have nothing to do with the older hens since they want to KILL them.

All I wanted were some nice little hens to lay some nice big eggs on a regular basis for the kids to collect and for us to eat. But, no. It had to be blood and mayhem and chickens living in the trees!

So, that was it. I decided the Sussex had to go. I’m still attached to my first ever chicken (the older Americauna) so I gave her a break (for now). Luckily she went into a full molt and was too weak to continue to try to KILL the new hens.

I got out my copy of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COUNTRY LIVING, turned to the section on butchering chickens and made plans for the following morning. We happened to have an out of town guest staying with us who probably thought we had completely lost our minds. “Have you ever done this before?”, he asked. “No”, we both answered and carried on with our plan.

My husband got up the next morning and said, “O.k., I’ve got my killin’ pants on!”. He reached for the cleaver and headed out to the backyard. Our visiting friend and I followed. I got a big pot heating on the outdoor stove. I looked over toward the coop and saw my husband holding Hanna (one of the Speckled Sussex). He looked like he was just having a little talk with her. I asked, “Are you going to be able to do this?”. He said, “Yep”. We all headed over to where the cleaver was waiting.

The Case of the Sneaky Chicken

Well… it has certainly been a while!

We’ve added a second 1350 gallon rainwater tank and a 150 gallon duck pond. The rainwater tanks and the pond are full and the rain is still coming down!
We collect our rainwater off of our asphalt shingle roof so we had some concerns about asphalt residue, fungicides, etc. ending up in the rainwater we collected. Brad Landcaster mentions in his rainwater harvesting book the idea that asphalt roofs might leach only when it’s hot out and not when it’s raining in the winter. We were still unsure. So, we filled the new duck pond and put a dozen goldfish in to see if they would live or die. Not a single fish died! The ducks love bathing and swimming in their new pond (really just a 150 gallon Rubbermaid stock tank). They poop while they frolic and the fish eat the poop. It’s an idea we read about in Bill Mollison’s big permaculture manual.
The pond does not have a pump or filter. The rainwater tanks gravity feed water to the pond through a hose. The pond has it’s own hose out a spigot at the bottom which we use to water the garden (also gravity fed). The pond water contains nutrients from both the duck and the fish poop. Everyone and everything benefits. The rainwater tank overflow fills the swales in the garden and sinks the water on site for future use. As we drain the pond to the garden we refill it with the fresh rainwater. The system actually works. Amazing.
So, back to the case of the “sneaky chicken”….
The ducks got a new duck house to go with their pond and I guess the chickens got envious. One morning not long after the new duck house was set up I did my usual morning rounds. I opened the duck house door and the they all came piling out. A few seconds later out came a chicken! I could not figure out why one duck would not go in the night before. Well, there are four ducks and four nest boxes. I guess she had gone in there and found her nest box occupied and came back out refusing to share with the likes of a chicken. I kind of felt bad since I had physically picked her up and shoved her in there not knowing the whole story. So, out came the chicken who immediately ran over to the chicken coop and begged to be let back in. She has not flown the coop since.

Duck Season! Chicken Season!

We just found out why the salad bed looks like it has had ducks foraging in it. It’s because ducks have been foraging in it! They found a way to squeeze through the remesh pea trellis and have their way with the chard and the lettuces. Everything else they leave alone- collards, romanesco, broccoli, kales, onions, mustards, tatsoi, arugula, mizuna, cilantro, cabbages, sugar snap peas…. What a quacking commenced when they realized they’d been found out! It clearly translated to “It wasn’t me! I swear!”. They were then put back to work on the outside of the drift fence surrounding the ‘off limits’ bed to gobble up sow bugs, earwigs, slugs and snails.

With the exception of this incursion we have throughly enjoyed this breed of backyard duck. Khaki Campbells seem to be a perfect size for the urban homestead. They are happy with a tub of fresh water to bathe in, a pan of chicken mash and scratch with crushed oyster shell to nibble on and free range of the entire backyard. They put themselves to bed at night in an old dog house outfitted with nest boxes and dry hay for bedding. We lock the dog house door each night for their safety. They are a whole lot less work than the chickens who have to be confined (bunch of teenagers that they are) because they’ll trash the place otherwise.

I came out to the yard the other day to find the chickens had been let out. “Oh Great!” I thought, “What have they destroyed now?”. I found that my neighbor had enlisted the chickens and the ducks to work the compost into the garden bed he had just amended for winter. The chickens were scratching and the ducks were dabbling. They were just doing what they do naturally.

Even though the days are getting shorter the ducks keep laying their eggs right on schedule. The chicken eggs are petering out slowly. The two Araucanas and the Barred Rock are taking turns slacking off. One day it will be two blue eggs (Araucana) and no brown (Barred Rock ). Then, the next day it will be one brown and no blues. With the abundance of wonderful ‘weeds’ now growing everywhere we’ve been able to provide the chickens with lots and lots of greens in addition to their grain and alfalfa hay. The color of their egg yolks has been spectacular lately. A boost in nutrition for all of us. Soon, the neighbors will start bringing snails over and we’ll step it up another level. We have a neighborhood e-mail list on which I recently sent out a request for snails. Since we got the ducks we are virtually snail-free. Now, if we can teach them to eat voles and gophers….

Don’t get me wrong we love the chickens and their eggs. We’re just trying to simplify the system around here.

Summer’s End/Be Careful What You Wish For!

Well… there are bins of fruit piled everywhere- peaches, plums, pears, apples, grapes, and blackberries. The house smells sweet. It’s difficult to keep up. We’ve been harvesting, canning, and juicing. We’ve been making pies, cobblers, sauces and cider with our cider press.

We are trying to keep up with the 15 different kinds of tomatoes we’re growing. They go well with all of the pesto we’ve been making and freezing. It’s been great putting all of that homegrown garlic to good use. We’ve been blanching the tomatoes in boiling water for two minutes, slipping their skins off and freezing them in nice manageable portions. The freezer is full of tomatoes for sauces and soups, grated zucchini for bread, sliced apples and peaches for pies. It’s going to be a tasty winter!

We have a pumpkin the size of a Mack truck growing out into the street. We came home the other day to find a young man sitting in a beach chair next to it. He said when he saw the pumpkin “It just looked like a nice place to sit and hang out”. That made us smile.

While we’re on the subject of Mack trucks we are growing Hubbard and Musque de Provence squash for the first time. Let’s just say it has inspired us to have people over for dinner (often). They are huge and delicious! We’ll do a whole blog on squash next time. They’ve completely taken over the yard. The bees love the blossoms and ducks enjoy foraging for slugs and sow-bugs under them. I pruned off all of the leaves with mildew last week and to look out there now you’d never know.

The kids had fun harvesting carrots and potatoes. They’ve loved eating sweet corn right in the garden. They stand out there under the tall stalks munching on a cob and giggling. The giant sunflowers have charmed and amazed them. They have been sharing the seeds with the Scrub Jays who are busy planting next year’s crop as we speak.

The chickens and ducks are laying eggs now and the kids have enjoyed gathering the eggs. Two blues (Aracauna), one brown (Barred Rock) and two white duck eggs a day. Ping is still working on her egg-laying technique. She’s only laid soft-shelled eggs so far. We’re giving all of the birds oyster shell to supplement their calcium intake. They also make good use of the lucerne (alfalfa) that we grow in small patches around the yard. The chickens get it in hay form and the ducks graze on the fresh plants. It is also a good source of calcium.

The honeybees are busy filling the hive boxes with honey for the coming winter. The Mullein has been blooming for them for a good six months and there are still sunflowers full of pollen. We watched them drinking out of the birdbath today. This summer has been tough on them. They have fought yellow-jackets, ants and now wax moth larva. We’ll be opening the hive soon to assess the situation. Cross your fingers.

It’s time to get out there and start planning the winter garden.

Harvesting the Winter Garden

Well it’s been a while… It’s a busy time in the garden. Lots of harvesting and filling those spots with Summer crops. The garlic was a huge success even the new bed that is mostly shaded in the Winter produced quite a bit. The onions are beautiful and so easy to grow! The kids love picking the carrots. They eat the fat and sweet orange part and feed the green tops to the rabbit. The Scrub Jay’s nest in the apple tree is still quiet. We’re expecting hatchlngs any day. The ducklings and chicken chicks are huge and gobbling up as many snails, slugs, earwigs and sow bugs as they can find.

We got bees! Our friend caught a swarm and brought it to us. They seem very happy in their new home. They are so docile. Anyone can pick blackberries right next to them. The Mullien is blooming in the yard and it’s so fun to watch the bees gather its bright orange pollen. They love the Borage, Yarrow, Toyon, Citrus blossoms and Senicio too. The yard is buzzing! The hive already smells of honey.

Ping Pong and Pi

All of the ducklings and chicken chicks are adjusting to their new life here. The resident Scrub Jays have decided to become part of the “flock” now that the chicks are too big to eat. They drink from the kiddy pool and eat the organic crumbles I put out for everyone. So, the backyard is full of birds. The Towhees have discovered the bird bath and try to use it whenever the Scrub Jays leave the yard to gather nest materials. It’s busy back there!

In April our friends in Fillmore gave us a duckling. Someone in their family had gifted their grandkids with two ducklings for Easter and only one survived. We were planning to buy ducklings when we returned home so we took it as a sign that we should take “her”. We did not know its gender or breed and so we were taking a chance. Well, “she” turned out to be another Pekin and here we are again. We are just hoping that “she” is a she. If not, “he” will be joining our other Pekins out on the pond. She’s certainly acting like a “she”. The new Khaki Campbells- Ping and Pong are convinced that Pi the Pekin is their mother. They sleep as close to her as possible and follow her everywhere. She loves the attention and seems to take the job quite seriously. When the chicken chicks went exploring in the berry patch today she ran out there and herded them back to the coop. A little later as I worked in the garden I heard lots of contented peeping coming from those same bushes so I guess they worked it out.

We hope to integrate the chicken chicks in with our single Rhode Island Red. While she was supposed to be weeding and eating snails today she flew over the four foot picket fence (no match for her) and went to meet the chicks. We have our fingers crossed that all will work out when it’s time to put them together. They can’t have the run of the yard like the ducks. Chickens are much, much harder on the garden. On a small lot such as this the chickens have to be penned and given specific places in the garden to work. We haven’t built them a proper chicken tractor (a portable open-bottomed pen with a top) yet but we certainly intend to do so.

Permaculture Pet Extraordinaire

In the latest issue of ‘RIPPLES- a revolutionary journal of seasonal delight’ published by Daily Acts ( our backyard duck Dabbles is described as a “slug-eating Permaculture pet extraordinaire”. Bill Mollison once said something like, “You don’t have a snail problem. You have a dearth of ducks”. Well, he’s certainly correct. Our neighbors are now bringing us their snails and asking if they can borrow our ducks for a day. Even the kids at the local elementary school garden collect snails for us. It’s a family event to come through our back gate and feed the ducks what they’ve gathered.

We”ve learned a bit since we invited Dabbles and his mate Dee Dee into our backyard. We had not done any research on which duck breeds are best suited to backyard life and more importantly who lays the most eggs. We are an urban homestead so we have to stack functions as much as possible. The ducks eat slugs and snails, fertilize the garden, entertain us, and lay eggs! What could be better?

It was all going great until Spring rolled around and our male Pekin (Dabbles) started feeling his oats. The ducks and the chicken were all peacefully coexisting until about March. Then, what we humans saw as charming- “Oh, look! He follows us around the yard!” turned into “Hey, stop chasing me around the yard!”. And, “Oh look, he really likes the chicken.” turned into “Get off the chicken and stop pulling out her feathers!”. Lessons learned: Pekins are really big, bred for meat, just o.k. egg layers, and male ducks in general can really be a pain especially if you have other poultry around. If you don’t care about eggs and you just want a pair of pet ducks Pekins are great. They are charming, beautiful and will eat all of the slugs and snails they can find. They look really good in the garden too. They just weren’t the right choice for us. So, Dabbles and his mate Dee Dee now live on a farm near here with a two acre pond and lots of other duck friends. It was not an easy choice for us but we have to utilize every inch of this place so there was no room to house a renegade duck and his girlfriend. Dabbles really liked his purple turtle kiddy pool but I’m thinking he’ll like the pond even better.

We’ve done our research and learned that Khaki Campbells and Indian Runners are the best egg layers and well suited to backyard life. Enter Ping and Pong our female Khaki Campbell ducklings. They arrived last week at the local feed store and have moved right into our hearts. We also added three chicken chicks to our flock. Two Americaunas and a Barred Rock. We had a close call with the resident Scrub Jays (who find chicks tasty) but everyone is doing fine.