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Our hen lays blue eggs. January 4, 2015

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading.
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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!!!

Why buy pullets? August 4, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading.
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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,

Silence