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Our hen lays blue eggs. January 4, 2015

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Since part of Poor Richard’s Almanac involves chickens (see our headline), occasionally our friend Ben likes to update our readers on all things chicken, especially when they’re happening here. Silence Dogood and I keep six chickens here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Each chicken is a different heirloom breed, so we have a colorful brood—red, black-and-white, gold, white with black edging (the most beautiful, in my opinion), red with black and gold, and spangled black.

They’re all beautiful and fun to watch, but today, it’s the “red with black and gold” that I want to talk about. She’s an Ameraucana, descended from the nearly wild Araucanas of South America. And she looks wild, with a great ruff of feathers around her head, making her look more like a rooster than a hen. (We don’t keep roosters here, they’re aggressive and pointless unless you want your hens to produce chicks; they’ll still lay eggs without roosters, but the eggs will be sterile, just the way a vegetarian like Silence likes them.) She’s also thinner than the other chickens, another sign of her “next-to-wild” origin.

Our chickens are pullets, first-year hens, so they had to fatten up (no problem around here) before they could get into laying mode, which began this fall. Suddenly, we began finding beautiful brown and bisque eggs in our nestboxes. But then the hold-your-breath watch began. Ameraucanas are often called “Easter egg chickens” because they lay colored eggs. The eggs can be blue, olive green, green, even pink. But a given hen will lay the same color all her life. If you only have one Ameraucana, what color will she lay?

Fortunately for us, our Ameraucana eventually laid an egg, and it was blue! We’ve been so lucky that over our decades of chicken-keeping, our Ameraucanas (and we’ve only had one at a time) have all laid blue eggs. Our friend Ben does not mean some pale stain on a white egg, either—these eggs are sky blue, robin’s egg blue. They are so gorgeous, Silence can barely bring herself to cook them! Mind you, they taste just like our other wonderfully fresh, organic, free-range, nutrient-packed eggs. It’s just the color that distinguishes them. But what a color!

There are only two of us, so we’d never want more than five or six chickens (as it is, we’re giving away six-packs of eggs to all our friends and neighbors). But if we had a larger spread, it would be very tempting to get a few more Ameraucanas!

If you don’t have chickens but would like to try blue eggs, of course you can try your local farmers’ market, but I’ve never seen them at any of ours. Where Silence and I have found them is at a local health food store, where a local farmer has made beautiful 8-packs of multicolored eggs. Maybe high-end groceries like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wegman’s would have them, too. (But remember, you’re paying for the color of the shell, not the contents.)

Chickens lay blue eggs!!!


Harvest time. October 28, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silnce Dogood here. It’s a mild October day, and normally I’d be sitting out on our back deck listening to the corn talk. (The farmers in front and in back of our little cottage here in the middle of nowhere, PA, grow corn, and once it gets tall and dries out, it “talks” with every slightest breeze.) Today, however, I’m hiding in the house.

That’s because the farmers are harvesting the corn behind the house. There’s a terrible noise, and every few minutes a rhino-like, John-Deere-green creature passes in front of our deck doors, bellowing and presumably cutting down corn. This of course isn’t corn on the cob, it’s dried corn and cornstalks to make silage and sustain their milk cows through the winter.

I wonder what our poor chickens make of all this. This will be their first winter, and they love the dried corn in their scratch grains, but I doubt that they’re loving the racket that machine is making. People always tell you that country living is quiet and peaceful, but apparently they forget about the machines.

It’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking about a move. Not to mention all the toxic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and so on. There are plenty of upsides—we have lots of great deck-sitting days—but downsides too. Days we see toxic bubbles from farm chemicals in our stream and wonder if our well water is drinkable. Days we can’t breathe outside because of chemical application. How wonderful to live surrounded by organic farms!

‘Til next time,


A three-part food disposal system. September 11, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, chickens, critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. There’s nothing as demoralizing as wasting food, but we all do it. It’s not just a shame, but a sin, when people all over the globe, people in our own cities, are going hungry. Yet we’ve all had the experience of opening our vegetable drawer and finding produce that’s past its prime, or discovering a container of leftovers that makes us go “Eeeeewww!!!,” or looking forward to our morning toast and finding a moldy loaf of bread (sob).

No worries, this food needn’t go to waste. Our friend Ben and I have a three-part food-disposal system that takes care of pretty much everything. Well, actually, I guess it’s four-part. The first line of defense is our black German shepherd, Shiloh, and our yellow-naped Amazon parrot Plutarch. They do a pretty decent job of eating scraps of cheese, veggies, chips, nuts, and the like.

The second line of defense is our flock of six heritage-breed chickens. They’ll eat that moldy bread, overripe tomato, leftover rice or pasta, wilted greens, or what-have-you with relish. The only thing I’ve ever seen chickens reject is zucchini. If that’s not a statement, I don’t know what is.

Then there’s our earthworm composter. Earthworms also love leftover fruits, salad greens, and veggies, but they’ll also eat things like coffee grounds and tea bags, turning them into rich fertilizer for greenhouse and garden plants.

Finally, there are our compost bins. We can put anything in them, with these exceptions: diseased plants, meat, dairy, grease. Diseased plants will contaminate the compost, infecting whatever you put it on, while the other contaminants will attract rats and other vermin to your compost bins. I’d also advise against putting weeds, especially weeds that can harm you like poison ivy or aggressive weeds like thistle that can spread throughout your garden, in your compost bins. Sometimes, the trash can is the only option.

However, between pets, chickens, earthworms, and the compost bin, a lot of potentially wasted food gets returned to the earth and enjoyed. I love to cook and use fresh seasonal produce, but I never feel guilty about eating out. OFB and I make a point of bringing every single thing we don’t eat home. I’ll bring a meal home that’s big enough for the two of us for another supper. OFB will bring his leftover French fries and half a bun home for the always-thrilled chickens. With our pets, our chickens, our earthworms, our compost bins, and, well okay, ourselves, there’s never an excuse to waste food. As our beloved hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, would say, “Waste not, want not.”

‘Til next time,


Why buy pullets? August 4, 2014

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Most people who want to raise chickens buy chicks, either directly from a mail-order hatchery or from a local ag store like Tractor Supply or Agway. Hatcheries offer the greatest variety of breeds, but they also usually stipulate a minimum order of 25 chicks. That’s way too many for a backyard chicken yard such as our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have here at Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. There are only two of us, anyway: How many eggs can we possibly eat?! Six chickens is our max.

In the past, we’d go to our local Agway and sign up for six of their heritage-breed chicks. Then we’d go to an appliance store like Sears and pick up an empty refrigerator box. When April rolled around and the chicks arrived at the Agway, we’d set the huge box up in our mudroom, add a layer of wood shavings, put a chick feeder and water dish on top of them, top the box with window screens, and place a heat lamp on top of the screens. Then we’d pick up the chicks, put them in the box, turn on the light, and spend the next two months waiting (and waiting) until they were big enough, and it was warm enough, to transfer them to the chicken yard, where they’d have plenty of safe, enclosed room to roam and perch and a secure coop to stay in at night. Needless to say, this made the mudroom inaccessible for other purposes, and cleaning up and removing that box once the chickens had been transferred was something else. Phew!

The upside was that we only had to do this once every eight to ten years, since we let our hens live out their lives (which can extend to 12 years, though we’ve never been fortunate enough to have a hen get that old) with us once they were with us. But after two rounds with the refrigerator box, Silence had had enough. “Ben, we need to get young hens that we can put outside right away without worrying about them getting cold or squeezing through the kenneling fence. We need pullets!”

Pullets are first-year hens that have not yet begun to lay. We began our pullet experiment when we needed to replace two elderly hens who had gone to their reward. Someone suggested a farm that might sell us a couple of young hens, and they did. There was some squawking in the chicken yard as the hens settled on their new pecking order, but everything went smoothly after that. No fuss, no muss, no mess in the mudroom! Silence was ecstatic.

But eventually, our last flock dwindled and died out. I was desperate for more chickens, for their bright colors, cheerful personalities, and super-fresh, organic eggs. Silence agreed, but only if we were able to get pullets. We like heritage breeds, the big-bodied, healthy, multipurpose layers of brown eggs (or, in the case of Ameraucanas, olive green, blue, or even pink eggs), and we like a mix, so we have lots of colors in our chicken yard. We asked around, but this time, didn’t find any pullets for sale at local farms. What were we going to do?

To our surprise, we discovered that our favorite hatchery, Murray McMurray (www.mcmurrayhatchery.com), now sells pullets as well as chicks. And it has a nice selection of heritage breeds. Best of all, there’s no minimum order, so you can get as many or as few as you like, and mix and match, to boot! We chose six different heritage breeds, one of each of Barred Rock, Buff Orpington, Delaware, Ameraucana, Rhode Island Red, and Spangled Sussex. The chicks have been raised organic and free-range, eating bugs, grains, and other chicken goodies out in the field rather than confined to a cage. McMurray gave us our shipping date—not until (sob) July—so that they could ship the entire order to us at once. We resigned ourselves to waiting months and months.

And we worried about chickens being shipped to us from the Midwest via the US mail, not even overnighted through FedEx or UPS. Not even shipped to us, but to a “nearby” post office, which was supposed to notify us for pickup. We frantically rushed around to several post offices in the area and left our names and phone numbers, pointing out that live chickens might be showing up between July 8th and 11th. Yikes! We received an email from Murray McMurray that the pullets had been shipped at 3 pm. What, 3 pm?! They couldn’t possibly arrive here until the following day. How could they possibly survive?!!

Silence was frantic. She had me calling all the post offices in the area the next morning. No pullets. I tried to reassure her, but we both were envisioning boxes of dead chickens. By late afternoon, I finally got hold of the right post office, which had been trying to contact us by calling a wrong number since 6 am. I rushed over and retrieved what turned out to be six very healthy pullets.

They took to their new chicken yard and perches at once. There wasn’t even any fighting to establish the pecking order, as we had feared. They were (and are) considerably smaller than they’ll be at full size, so we probably won’t get any eggs ’til next year, but that’s fine with us. We’re happy to wait, and enjoy them just as they are, letting them grow on organic scratch grains and pellets and lots of our own leftovers, from produce and fruit to bread and pasta. (Watermelon is their favorite.)

Ordering pullets is way more expensive than buying chicks, but you can get exactly what you want. Mail-ordering them sounds scary, but they arrive, improbable as it may seem, safe, sound, and healthy. Buying pullets saves you the work and mess of raising chicks indoors for months. If, like us, you only need a few hens, and if, like us, you plan to let them live out their lives with you, then we think pullets are the way to go. They’ll earn their $20 price tag again and again each year with delicious eggs, wonderful colors and personalities, and genuine companionship.

The chickens of “Game of Thrones.” May 29, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I are getting a small flock of new heritage chickens in early July. There will be six, and as always, each will be a different heritage breed: Rhode Island Red (red), Barred Rock (black and white), Buff Orpington (gold), Delaware (white), Ameraucauna (red and gold), and Silver Laced Wyandotte (black with white edgings). Quite the colorful group, and all are hefty birds that lay big, brown eggs, except for the Ameraucana, who will lay blue or green eggs.

We’ve never ordered pullets through mail-order before, but couldn’t find anyone locally who would sell us some. (Pullets are young hens who are about ready to lay, as opposed to the day-old chicks that are normally shipped and sold in April.) Luckily for us, Murray McMurray hatchery (http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com) sells pullets individually, so you can buy one of each or any number that you want. They carry many heritage breeds, and they let them range on grass and eat grass and forage for bugs, seeds, and etc., as opposed to cutting their beaks as other hatcheries do, a horribly cruel practice akin to declawing cats. I suggest that, if you’re interested in chickens, you check out the Murray McMurray website; they’ll even ship you a free catalog.

So what does this have to do with “Game of Thrones”? Well, we’ve always named our chickens, since once we get them, we keep them (well-fed on organic pellets and grains, along with fruits, veggies, bread, and scraps from meal prep and leftovers) until they eventually die of old age. They also have their own enclosed yard, safe from predators, including hawks and owls, with a grapevine growing over it for shade and a chicken coop with a window and a transparent roof to let in light. We know from experience that every chicken knows its own name and will respond to it.

In the past, I’ve named chickens for Regency heroines (Venetia, Sophia, Lucretia, Charis, etc.), Tolkien characters, and the like. But at the moment, OFB and I are on a “Game of Thrones” kick. (And, alert viewers, chickens have appeared in a number of episodes.) So we’ve named our soon-to-arrive flock accordingly: The Delaware, white-feathered, for the white-haired Danaerys of House Targaryen. The Buff Orpington, gold-feathered, for the golden-haired Cersei of House Lannister. The Rhode Island Red, red-feathered, for the red-haired Catelyn of House Stark. The Ameraucana, red-gold, and less domesticated than the other heritage breeds, for the Wildling Ygritte. The Barred Rock, black-and-white, a fearless breed, for Arya of House Stark. And the Silver-Laced Wyandotte, a fancy, glamorous girl, for Margaery of House Tyrell.

Have fun with your own flock and their names. T.S. Eliot once noted that “The naming of cats is a difficult matter.” We beg to differ, both with cats and with chickens. But it’s especially fun to choose a theme for your flock and name them accordingly.

‘Til next time,


Organic Mechanics (plus). March 26, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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So far, today has been a banner day here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. First, our Buff Orpington hen, Stella, laid the first egg of the season. Our friend Ben heard the triumphant cackling from the greenhouse, and looking out, saw Stella doing the traditional victory lap around the henyard, announcing her triumph at top volume. Thanks, Stella! It’s a beautiful egg.

In case you’re wondering, after their first year—when they mature and start laying eggs in the late summer, then continue through the fall and winter—hens raised without artificial light and heat stop laying for the year when the days get short in fall, and don’t start again until the daylight lengthens in spring. During the cold months, they use every calorie to stay warm. And people say chickens are stupid! But I digress.

The second great thing was that we discovered a new-to-us potting soil, Organic Mechanics, that we’d purchased at James Weaver’s Meadowview Farm in nearby Bowers. We needed more potting soil (shock surprise), and couldn’t resist a bag that boasted great ingredients, no peat (a natural resource that’s rapidly being depleted), and “Mom Approved.” When we opened it, we were wowed by the rich, beautiful soil. We could almost hear the plants we were potting up breathing a huge collective sigh of relief as their roots sank into this gorgeous soil.

Returning indoors, our friend Ben checked out the Organic Mechanics website (www.organicmechanicsoil.com). Apparently Silence and I aren’t the only folks who were wowed by this potting soil: It’s used by three of the most prestigious gardens in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens, Chanticleer, and the Scott Arboretum, not to mention the U.S. National Arboretum, the U.S. National Park Service, and the British Embassy. I don’t know what pleases me and Silence more, that we’re supporting an excellent local PA product, the anticipation as we wait to see what it does for our container plants, or the thought that all these important gardens and arboretums (and even the Park Service!) are using organic potting soil. Kudos to them, and to Mark Highland, Organic Mechanics’ founder.

Fortunately, you don’t have to live in the Mid-Atlantic region to find this outstanding organic potting soil. The Organic Mechanics website is excellent and informative, and you can order direct. Thier product line is short and sweet: Seed Starting Blend Potting Soil, Planting Mix (for raised beds), Premium Blend Potting Soil (for veggies and other food plants), Container Blend Potting Soil (for perennials and woodies), and Worm Castings.

We have our own earthworm composter, so we can attest to the incredible richness of earthworm castings as a soil conditioner and fertilizer. And of course, you can also use them to make earthworm “tea.” Here’s how Mark makes “tea” from castings: “Mix 1 pound of castings in 1 gallon of water. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, let castings settle to bottom, then pour off a fraction of the liquid solution. Stop before pouring out castings particles, and repeat until tea turns light brown in color, then pour out any remaining castings and use as mulch.” Of course, when he says “pour out,” he doesn’t mean “throw out.” Use the liquid you’re draining off as a foliar spray or soil drench.

The third great thing about today happened when our friend Ben called up our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, to post this, and saw that we now have over 400,000 total views. We promised when we hit 300,000 views that we wouldn’t go on about this again until we reached 500,000, so ’nuff said. But you can bet we’ll be inviting our friend and resident blog historian, Richard Saunders, and his girlfriend Bridget over for a celebratory supper!

Unfortunately, by tomorrow we may not be having so much to celebrate. After several weeks of daytime temperatures in the 70s (including several days that reached 78 degrees) and nighttime lows in the high 40s and low 50s, tonight the temperature is plunging down to 26. Brrrr!!! With apples, peaches, and pear trees in bud and our pluot in full flower—not to mention our bed of greens, just peeping up through the soil, our spinach, Swiss chard, and herb transplants, and our windowbox planters of violas—we are seriously concerned. Guess we’ll have to hope for the best and see what makes it through the night.

Meanwhile, happy gardening to you all. Thanks for visiting, and we hope you have things to celebrate today, too!

Giving chickens a bad name. August 6, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Yesterday morning, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood had been delighted to see a “Crazy for Chickens!” decal on the window of a passing car, including an outline of a happy hen. We wished we could find one for our own car, the Red Rogue, where it could join our “No Farms, No Food” and “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” stickers. Go backyard chickens!!!

We have a small flock of heritage-breed hens, who provide us with fantastic organic eggs, entertainment, high-quality fertilizer for our garden beds (their high-nitrogen poop naturally composted with the straw of their chicken yard and the shredded paper in their nest boxes), feathers for our fly-tying friends, and a ready source of appreciative and ever-hungry diners for all our past-peak produce, bread, etc., plus any leftovers we’ve had enough of, pulled weeds that are too scary to compost, spent garden plants, and so on.

Chickens are nature’s garbage disposal. And unlike actual garbage disposals, they give you delicious eggs and free fertilizer, not to mention good company. Ours not only look different—we try to choose each of our six or seven from different heritage breeds—but have their own personalities and know their own names. They also know us and our black German shepherd, Shiloh, and relate to all of us with varying degrees of affection and complacency.

Our chickens take up little space and require little in the way of care: a snug enclosure (coop) with nest boxes where they can get out of the elements and lay eggs, a chicken yard where they can wander around outside, enjoy the sunlight and fresh air, take a dust bath, revel in the feel of rain running through their feathers, forage for anything they might find, and enjoy a steady supply of fresh water and a diversity of foods, including fresh greens, an assortment of fruits and veggies, scratch grains, egglayer pellets, bread and other baked goods, pasta, rice, and milk or cheese that’s past its prime.  

We love our chickens. They’re colorful, personable, low-maintenance, and they reward us with the best eggs we or anyone we’ve given some to have ever eaten, with huge yolks like glaceed apricots and a rich, delicious flavor. So we’ve been thrilled to observe and read about the rise of the backyard chicken movement across America. In cities from Seattle, WA to Madison, WI to Pittsburgh, PA to New York, enthusiasts are raising a few (ordinances generally limit the number to between two and five) chickens and reaping the rewards. It’s one step closer to sustainability, a link to our ancestors, who couldn’t have imagined not raising chickens along with their veggies, herbs, flowers and fruits. Back to the future! Great eggs, no salmonella, no guilt over patronizing the hideous factory farms that remind us of the human “flesh farms” in “The Matrix.”

Seeing the pro-chicken decal buoyed our spirits, but our delight was short-lived. Arriving home, Silence went online to see if any e-mails required a response and saw a “This Just In” e-mail from our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. One of the headlines was “Lower Saucon rooster repeat offender, attacks elderly woman.”

On the morning of August 5th, the rooster ran out of its yard and attacked a senior citizen as she took her morning constitutional. According to police, who cited the rooster’s owner with “violating the township ordinance of failing to keep his rooster on his property,” this was the third time the rooster had charged and injured a passerby, the other two instances occurring in May and June. In response, the rooster’s owner informed the officers that he was “aware of the attack.”

This is the kind of thing that gives chickens a bad name. Even roosters that are confined to a chicken yard are loud, disturbing the neighborhood with their early-morning cries. They are protective of their flock by nature, charging perceived intruders with beak and spurs, as the super-sharp claws on the backs of their legs are called. Their instinctive ferociousness, designed to defend their harems from predators whatever their size, is why the so-called “sport” of cockfighting came about, and their legendary fearlessness is why countries like France chose a rooster as their national emblem. Many’s the farm child who’s grown up with scarred legs from rooster attacks.

It’s insane to keep a rooster in an urban or suburban situation anyway, much less a free-roaming watchrooster. You don’t even need to keep a rooster to get eggs: Hens lay them anyway. The eggs of roosterless hens are sterile, just like the ones you buy in the store; they’re for eating, not hatching. The only possible excuse for keeping a rooster is if you want to produce your own chicks, not really an issue for city dwellers.

The owner of the attack rooster has clearly rusted out a few bolts in what passes for his brain. To allow one’s animals to attack elderly passersby, or children walking by, or anybody passing by, is criminal. Had the rooster escaped its enclosure and rushed someone once, it would still be inexcusable, though accidental. (Imagine the lawsuit if a dog had done that!) But clearly this rooster is, ahem, free-range.

The damage one owner and one bird like this can do to law-abiding, quiet, peaceful urban and suburban chicken owners is incalculable. Each time the rooster attacks, it makes the news. Not only has an unoffending neighbor been savagely attacked, but the owner’s comment is not, “Ohmigod, I’m SO sorry! I should never have tried keeping a rooster in a neighborhood setting! I’ll send it to a local farm at once, and of course I’ll pay all emergency-room fees.” Instead, what he says is “I was aware of the attack.” What a great guy! Just the kind of neighbor everyone dreams about.

What happens next is only too predictable. Next thing you know, a group of outraged citizens will demand that the township revoke any ordinances allowing chickens within city limits, or demand that an anti-chicken ordinance be instated if no laws regarding chicken-keeping are on the books. Because of one idiot, an entire city could be deprived of the delights of chicken-raising, the ability to learn useful husbandry skills, to enjoy the freshest possible eggs, and to savor the feeling of a little more self-sufficiency and control over their own food supply.

We think this is a shame, even a tragedy. Rather than banning chickens from the community, we’d like to see that stupid, uncaring bastard punished instead, and to make sure that his punishment fits his crime. We think it would be fitting to close him up, in only his underwear, in a very, very small space with his beloved rooster for a very, very long time…

National Chicken Month. September 1, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Chicken lovers, rejoice: it’s September, and September is National Chicken Month. Our friend Ben knows of no better time to have a few chickens in your own backyard, especially in light of the most recent salmonella scare. But I’ve already raved on about that in an earlier post, “Eggs: Grow your own” (which see). So today let’s delve into the wild and wonderful world of chickens and chicken-keeping with the Top Ten Things You Should Know about Chickens. Ready? Let’s go!

        Top Ten Things You Should Know about Chickens

1. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The egg, obviously. It contained the slight genetic alteration that made the pre-chicken a chicken. Don’t let anybody try to pull this one on you again.

2. Why did the chicken cross the road? It didn’t. Chickens are smart that way. They’ll stay in their yard or pile up in the ditch that borders it, but they won’t step into the road. That’s why you never encounter a flattened chicken, even on a country road, even if they’re wandering freely in the yards beside the road.

3. Do you need a rooster to get eggs? No. You need a rooster if you want those eggs to hatch into chicks, but not if you just want eggs to eat.

4. How many eggs does a chicken lay? That depends on the breed, how long the individual chicken lives, and whether they’re tricked into laying year-round by artificial lighting and heat or allowed to take the winters off as they would in nature. Chickens don’t start laying until they’re five or six months old, then they lay very dependably every year from about April through October, when they shut down for the cold, dark months. But once they reach the ripe old age of six, they’ll start producing fewer eggs each year. Since chickens can live to be 12 years old, that could add up to a lot of eggs! But the average estimate for a good laying breed is 800 eggs over a five-year lifespan.

5. Where did chickens come from, anyway? This question appeared to have been resolved by none other than Charles Darwin, who maintained that domestic chickens were descended from the red jungle fowl of India. But a 2008 research project at Uppsala University proved that Darwin was only half-right. Turns out, our modern-day chicken descended from a cross between the red and the grey jungle fowl, a hybrid the researchers believe was deliberately made by the first chicken-keepers.   

6. Who’s the chicken king? Our friend Ben votes for Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). But a close second is Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A. Much as we love the Colonel, those “Eat Mor Chikin” cows are really something else.

7. Why is a wine named after a chicken? Rex Goliath wines are named after HRM (His Royal Majesty) Rex Goliath, a 47-pound rooster who toured with a Texas circus around 1900. Rex was billed as “The World’s Largest Rooster” and was a very popular attraction. In 2002, vintner Marty Spate named his winery after the famous fowl, explaining that “our wines are a tribute to Rex’s larger than life personality, with big, fruit-forward flavors.” The label on each bottle reproduces the circus poster immortalizing Rex, with the humorous addition of “free range,” a hot button for organic chicken fanciers.  

8. Can a chicken really live with its head cut off? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Why some moron would cut off a chicken’s (or, more typically, rooster’s) head, then decide to keep it alive through extensive effort when it didn’t die, is beyond us, but our friend Ben did turn up a subtle hint: $$$. Take the case of Mike the Headless Chicken, who lived for a year and a half back in the 1940s after his owner had cut off his head, being sustained on a mixture of milk and water administered with an eyedropper. His owner toured him around the country, displaying him with a pickled rooster head. This, however, was not Mike’s original head, which, as one website explained, had been eaten by a cat. Mike raked in $4,500 a month on tour (at 25 cents per view), probably more than a typical farmer of the time could make in a year.    

9. Why did cowardly behavior come to be called “chicken”? Our friend Ben failed to find the reason for this. Roosters are so notoriously brave, and so fearless in defending their flocks, that cockfighting became a popular sport  from the very beginning of chicken breeding; there are archaeological records of cockfighting in the Indus Valley as early as 2000 B.C., and unfortunately, the unscrupulous around the world still indulge in this brutal sport to this day. That’s why Chanticler (also Chanticleer), the rooster, became a national emblem of France, symbolizing fearlessness, not cowardice. We’ve never had roosters here at Hawk’s Haven, but have never detected the least sign of cowardice or craven behavior in any of our hens, and have read more than one account of a hen surviving a hawk attack through sheer fearlessness. If you have insights to offer on how this scurrilous connection came to be made, please share them with us.

10. Why did Chicken Little run around shouting “The sky is falling?” Our friend Ben didn’t have a clue, but discovered that it was because an apple fell on Chicken Little’s head. I guess this shows the difference between Chicken Little and Sir Isaac Newton, who after enduring the same experience went on to propose the theory of gravity. No wonder Chicken Little never received a knighthood.

And the bonus:

11. Do buffaloes have wings? Our friend Ben has failed to notice any winged buffaloes in either field or photograph. But chickens have wings, and chicken wings were sort of a waste product in the chicken industry: nobody wanted to eat them. At least, not until a brilliant entrepreneur in Buffalo, New York decided to smear them with hot sauce and call them “Buffalo Wings.” Now hot wings have taken the country by storm and command a premium price; you’ll pay a lot more for your wings than you would for a chicken breast or drumsticks, previously considered the prize meat on the bird.

Eggs: grow your own. August 24, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben confesses to feeling a bit smug this morning as I walked into the kitchen with three big, beautiful, organic, still-warm-from-the-nest eggs. Not that I would eat a raw egg, but I knew that I could eat these eggs (or feed one to our egg-loving black German shepherd, Shiloh) raw without worrying about salmonella or anything else. No recalls here at the Hawk’s Haven Pullet Palace!

The fact that salmonella-tainted eggs are once more in the news shines a spotlight on factory farming and its loathesome, cruel, filthy practices. According to The Washington Post, just 192 “agribusinesses” own 95% of the laying hens in the U.S. And if 192 companies producing pretty much all our eggs doesn’t strike you as too small a number, consider this: Americans consume 60 billion eggs a year.  Our friend Ben has noticed that it’s now trendy to refer to the monster pharmaceutical conglomerates as “big pharma.” I’d like to suggest that we start calling these agribusiness conglomerates “big farma.”

But there is a way to feed your family safe, wholesome eggs, and it’s as close as your backyard: Grow your own. Chickens are the easiest animals to raise after aquarium fish. They’re colorful, personable, and fun. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs, so you don’t have to worry about crowing disturbing your neighbors or a rooster going nasty and trying to spur you or your kids. And just two or three hens will give you the luxury of farm-fresh eggs every day (or, if you have a big family or a big egg-eater, every couple of days).

Our little flock of five heritage-breed chickens provides our friend Ben and Silence Dogood with plenty of eggs for omelettes, huevos rancheros, fried eggs, and hard-boiled eggs for our salads, as well as for baking. And we almost always have some to give away to friends (and, of course, share with Shiloh). In return, we supplement the chickens’ diet of scratch grains and egglayer pellets with tons of fresh greens, bread, fruits, veggies, and the occasional leftover pasta, rice, or what-have-you. They thrive on it all, and our eggs are out of this world. Thanks, chickens!

Keeping chickens isn’t cheap, but that’s only because of the initial outlay for a coop and a secure chicken yard. We designed the Pullet Palace ourselves and had a carpenter friend build it, then enclosed it and a good-sized yard around it in tall kenneling walls set over horizontal wire to keep critters from burrowing under. We also added kenneling panels over the top as a secure roof to keep out hawks and raccoons, then grew a wine grape over it to provide shade for the yard in summer. (Not to mention yummy grapes for the chickens and us!)

Once the setup is in place, it’s simply a matter of providing food, water, grit, and straw (we also line our nestboxes with shredded paper if we have it on hand), visiting with the chickens, and collecting those yummy eggs. We think it’s a wonderful return on investment!

Grumbling in the rain. April 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has actually heard of people who like to garden in the rain. Either these people are deranged, or whatever they do by way of gardening is far, far different from the things our friend Ben considers to be gardening.

Unfortunately, spring is such a busy time in the garden and landscape that even the rain-averse our friend Ben can’t let a little thing like a light rainfall (after two days of downpours) stand in the way of getting things done. So this morning found a reluctant OFB—goaded on by an increasingly sarcastic Silence Dogood—hauling myself outdoors to take care of the following, while Silence, mind you, remained warm and dry inside “writing.”*

First off, our friend Ben carted all the flats and containers of frost-tender veggies and ornamentals that will ultimately go into the garden beds out of the greenhouse for the day and set them either on an unoccupied bed or on the deck. This process, euphemistically known as “hardening off,” bears more resemblance to torture (from the plants’ perspective) on a cold, wet day like this. To make matters worse, normally our friend Ben would haul them all back in again for the night, as I’ve been doing daily for the past few weeks, but since overnight lows are supposed to stay in the mid-40s, I think I’ll leave them out there to fend for themselves tonight. After all, they’ll have to get out and stay out in just two short weeks, so they might as well get used to it. Plant boot camp, here we come!

Next, our friend Ben transplanted this year’s crop of surprise pumpkin-or-squash seedlings. Silence and I love to decorate for fall and the Harvest Home season, from September through Thanksgiving, by arranging a wealth of pumpkins, winter squash, gourds, ornamental corn, wheat sheaves, sorghum—you get the idea—around the front door, on our kitchen table, and on the deck. Then we typically compost the pumpkins and squash.

This move results in surprise squash or pumpkin seedlings emerging from our compost bins and taking over a fair part of the lawn around the compost bins the following year. Two years ago, we had a luxuriant butternut squash spilling over one compost bin and producing an abundance of large, handsome squashes. Last year, it was a delightful and prolific miniature orange pumpkin.

This year, our friend Ben noticed that the compost we’d spread on the hot pepper bed and perennial vegetable bed had somehow sprouted squash and/or pumpkin seedlings. The pepper bed had produced two seedlings with the most enormous seed leaves our friend Ben has ever seen. And lurking under the horseradish in the perennial vegetable bed was a cluster of super-healthy squash/pumpkin seedlings. (I’d better back up and note that pumpkins, summer squash, winter squash, and cucumbers are all related, collectively called cucurbits. Pumpkin and winter squash seedlings are especially hard to tell apart, and if they’re volunteers and could be either, you might have to wait until they fruit to find out what they really are.)

So our friend Ben transplanted the two huge seedlings, a couple of clumps of the smaller seedlings, and a yellow zucchini transplant we’d bought on Saturday to the raised bed behind our Pullet Palace (that is, enclosed chicken coop and yard). I’m pretty hopeful, since Silence and I chose all heirloom edible pumpkins for our display last fall, which should up the odds of getting some good and beautiful edible pumpkins this year from our surprise seedlings. (But Silence points out, correctly, that we need at least one more yellow zucchini and several yellow crookneck summer squash plants.)

The next chore on the list was to pull up an enormous armful of dandelions and throw them to the chickens. Normally, our friend Ben enjoys this chore. Far from another abysmal round of hand-weeding, pulling vitamin- and mineral-rich dandelions for the hugely appreciative chickens is more like harvesting. This natural spring tonic gives the chickens a real boost, and it shows in their delicious eggs.

But like every other rainy-day chore, there was the downside. First, hauling ever-more-slippery containers across the yard. Next, transplanting seedlings with muddy rootballs into muddy ground, then trying unsuccessfully to get the mud off your trowel and hands. Then the agony of knowing that the cold, wet air has made your nose run, and you have a tissue in your pocket, but your hands are coated with mud. Then trying to pull slippery, wet weeds out of the ground with your slippery, mud-coated hands.

Fortunately, by now there was only one chore left: Clearing one path through our Cultivated Wild Meadow and laying down newspaper prior to putting down mulch, once we actually get some. Our friend Ben should explain that our Cultivated Wild Meadow is divided into quadrants. One quadrant houses the chicken coop and fenced yard. The other three contain a combination of meadow plants native to our area and perennial flowers, biennials, and ornamental grasses that we’ve planted in over the years. A cross-path separates the four quadrants, with an antique chimney top capped by a silver gazing ball in the center where the four paths intersect.

Unfortunately, we’ve been rather neglectful of the paths in recent years, and weeds have encroached. So this year, it’s time to reassert authority by laying down thick layers of newspaper and topping them with mulch. Rainy weather is perfect for the newspaper phase of this project, since it will wet the newspaper down to a sodden pulp, which not only prevents weed growth but keeps the newspaper from blowing away before you can get the mulch to go on top of it.

Because of this, our friend Ben approached this particular chore with considerable enthusiasm. Pull any upstanding weeds from the path, put down the paper, weight it with rocks, and let the rain help us weight it down and solidify it. Sadly, we only had enough paper for one arm of the quadrant, but no matter, we’ll continue to accumulate more, since we subscribe to both our local paper and The Wall Street Journal. We’ll keep clearing the paths as we go. And one arm seemed easily doable, where four would be a real chore.

In this case, the rain—our ally in weighting down the paper—became our friend Ben’s nemesis in terms of hauling rocks. We keep the rocks we dig out of our garden beds and other ventures in an unobtrusive pile where they’re accessible when we need them for a task like this. But yow, the difference between handling dry rocks and wet, mud-covered, slippery rocks! Once again, OFB’s hands became mud slicks as I struggled to secure the paper as quickly as possible in case the rain intensified and the winds came up as predicted.

Returning at last to the house, I was confronted simultaneously by a horrified Silence (“Eeeewwww, don’t touch anything, look at your hands!!!”) and our exuberant puppy Shiloh (“Take me out, take me out, take me out!!!”). By now, our friend Ben was a sodden, miserable mass (and I still needed a Kleenex in the worst way).

Gardeners who like working in the rain, I can only ask, “Why?!” And as for you, Gene Kelly, much as I like singing in general, anybody who’d want to sing in the rain has water on the brain, if you ask me. Go soak your head!         

* An incensed Silence, reading over my shoulder, pointed out that she might be dry, but there was no way anyone without fur could possibly be warm in our frigid little cottage. I have to admit, she has a point there.