Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Jean-Luc, collecting eggs for the Hovabator and a critter update

Jean-Luc, our tossed away kitten, has become living proof that one person's trash is another person's treasure. This little guy is an absolute joy. He is the most relaxed, friendly, affection kitten I have ever had. He completely defies the idea that cats are not social creatures. After a week alone, cold and hungry, he makes sure now that he is never far from his people. All catnaps are taken in a lap, draped across shoulders or tucked under a chin. He basically slept and ate for 2 days, and now when he is not napping, he is playing.

The Farty Boys, Sheldon and Sawyer, greeted JL with mild interest. They are now large, strapping toms. Sheldon is close to 15 lbs of muscle and fur, while Sawyer is a lithe, pretty boy. They spend their nights outside, scrapping (often w/each other) and hunting. Days are spent curled up under beds or on top of shoe piles, asleep. JL is a puzzled to them. Sheldon is the more serenely affectionate one, so he has met JL's innocent curiosity with patience. Sawyer just rolls his eyes and walks away. As if he doesn't have enough to deal with.

When it comes to the dogs, JL is very brave. Remember, the day he was rescued, the dogs tormented him for hours, growling and barking while trying to dig him out from under the baler. At first, whenever JL saw them, he growled like a small boy shaking his fists and uttering threats in a high voice at schoolyard bullies. He's settling down now, as nobody has shown any real intention of actually eating him or anything.

Still, while neither one of the dogs could be called aggressive, that isn't much comfort to a small kitten who facing being played with to death by Toby, or mothered to death by Mini. Toby is desperate to have JL as a friend, and in a few weeks I have no doubt they will be the best of buddies. For now, though, JL is just too small, and while Toby tries to be gentle, he's too much for the little guy.

As for the chickens, JL hasn't met them yet. We still have most of our flock from last year's Hovabator experience. There was the one rooster that we ate. That incident will be a post all it's own. We've lost a few hens to illness and coyotes. I nursed one hen through a broken back to complete health, yet lost another to a sinus infection after days of care. We also lost one hen to the realization that she was really a he who developed later than the other roosters. Beauty, the Americauna that we hatched, turned out to be a roo. Big surprise.

We still have seven roosters cooped up in the shed. As I said, we ate one. Yeah. I'm collecting eggs for the Hovabator, as a neighbour has paid us to incubate some of our eggs for him. We're going to do a batch for ourselves, too, and our neighbour said that he would take the roos. This means I am going to have to figure out how to sex chicks. I know there is lots of info on the net. I'm hoping for videos, too, as I am thinking I may not be very good at it.

I'm looking forward to hatching out chicks. It was a great experience last year. I know that the roos I give to my neighbour will end up in his freezer. It's interesting - the farmers reading this will wonder why we don't put our roos in our own freezer. The pet owners will wonder how we can fathom the thought of sending sweet, fluffy chicks down a road that leads to Sunday supper. I guess we are lingering in the middle. I am able to eat my own roos, but I don't enjoy it. I understand that for us to have more hens, we have to do something with the roos that will hatch. We can't afford to feed them and keep them for pets, nor do we want to keep them stuck inside all the time. And we need more hens. We have 7 hens to 3 roosters, and while there isn't a lot of fighting amongst the roos, there is confusion as to which hen belongs to whom and it makes it difficult for the roos to do the job of keeping the hens safe and cared for.

Call it the circle of life, or just the way things are. With the joy of having chickens comes the difficulty of tough decisions.

Speaking of the circle of life, Pippin, our rabbit, didn't make it through the winter. We miss him. He deserves a blog post all to himself, though.

All in all, it has been a good year. The winter was hard, but Spring has properly arrived in all her fragrant glory. She's bringing an inordinate amount of rain with her, but given the tornadoes going on in parts of the States, I'm trying really hard not to complain.

Peace out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Saving Jean-Luc

It has been a long time since I have updated this blog, I know. I'm not really sure why, but I do know that once time starts to go by and blog-worthy incidents build up in life, it becomes difficult to know where to start.

Tonight something happened that I immediately realized is the perfect place to start. Marc and I had gone for a walk down the lane, and as we returned we heard plaintive mewing coming from the baler in front of the house. A week ago, I had found a young cat dead at the end of the lane. I assumed that she had been hit by a car. I was sad, and because I suspected that she had been dropped off by someone who didn't want her anymore, I was angry. I moved her to the side of the lane. She was lovely, silky black with a sweet young face.

Later that day, Marc saw a young grey kitten at the end of the lane near where I had place the young female. The kitten was so frightened, he actually jumped into the water in the ditch and got away. Tonight that little grey kitten had hidden himself away in the baler. Mini and Toby, the dogs, had spent much of the day digging up the wet ground underneath the baler trying to get at the kitten. We saw the results of the digging, but we thought they may have been trying to catch a chipmunk or something like that. Then we heard the kitten crying.

We slipped into rubber boots, and filled a bowl with cat food. It took less than a minute for me to lure the poor little guy out to eat. He was very thin, but otherwise in good condition. We brought him in and he ate desperately for several minutes. Now, as Marc watches a documentary on snipers and I type this, the kitten is crawling all over us on the couch, a bright, curious, purring grey baby.

We decided that, tentatively, we are going to call him Jean-Luc, for Jean-Luc Picard, the captain the the Enterprise in Star Trek, The Next Generation television show. After watching the little guy stand up to Mini and Toby when we introduced them, given the fact that they had most likely terrorizing him all afternoon, I'm thinking that he is going to live up to his name.

It is a cruel and brutal thing, to leave animals alone and uncared for in the country when they are no longer wanted. The idea that they will simply hunt and take care of themselves is false. Left at the side of the road, the animals are often killed by passing cars. What is worse, they are also often wounded by cars and left to suffer and die slowly because there is no one to care for them. They are unfamiliar with the danger of traffic, not to mention wild animals,farm yard dogs, hunger and disease. Dropping off mothers with babies is especially cruel. Cats and dogs are not wild animals. Their young aren't able to keep safely hidden while their mothers hunt for food. If anything happens to the mother, as in JL's case, the young are left helpless, unable to find food, and vulnerable to weather, wild animals and disease. I had placed some food in a bowl at the end of the lane near JL's mother in hopes that he would come back to his mother's body, and so he was able to have a bit of food. It wasn't enough, though. He wandered in the ditch and fields for a week, hungry, alone and frightened. The very thought of this makes me sad. And angry.

Owning animals is a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously. It's not rocket science. If we don't already know what our new pet will need from us before we get them, the internet provides endless sources of information. When circumstances dictate that we can no longer look after our animals, we need to seek out options that do not leave our pets in danger. What we should never do is just dump them like trash on the side of the road, thinking that someone else will take care of them. It is rare that discarded animals find caring homes, and even if they do, they suffer terribly before they are rescued.

At this moment, little JL is curled upon Marc's chest, purring as he slowly falls asleep. Tonight he is safe.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Special Deliveries and New Friends

I watched one of the hens lay an egg this morning. I don't usually hang around the coop waiting for breakfast to drop, but this is our last older hen, and lately she has decided that if the young hens are going to use her laying boxes, she's defecting to the front porch. There's a box in the porch that has some bedding in it that I had used when I was nursing one of the older hens.

This hen, affectionately dubbed the old lady, leaves the coop as soon as I open it in the morning and heads to the porch. There, she meets Pippin, the watch bunny, who's self-appointed role is to keep any and all chickens off of the porch. His methods are adorable, and quite effective. He plants his head into the fluffy hen bottoms and chases them while they run, flap and squawk their way around the porch trying to get away from the freak with his head up their bums. I'm not sure how the old lady makes it into the porch each morning to lay, but she is determine, and it is possible that her age gives her an advantage. She's smart.

Today, I took pity on her and carried her into the box. While she was getting ready to lay, I busied myself by sweeping bunny plops off of the porch. It never gets old, watching the hens lay. When our foster girls come for a visit and I know a hen is about to lay, I let them know about it. They'll go and stand by the porch watching, and will remain there for quite a while for the privilege of bringing in the latest arrival.

The young hens have begun to lay the most cunning little eggs. Yesterday there were six of them. There are 11 hens, counting the one old lady. I am saving the small eggs up and will make pickled eggs with them, as they are just the right size for it. The eggs will get larger as they continue to lay. They always remind me of Cadbury chocolate eggs, so round and brown and miniature.

It has been a while since I have written about some of the other inhabitants of our furry/feathery home. The kittens are no longer kittens, having grown into large, strapping toms. They are something like 6 or 7 months, and seem large for their age. They are also as sweet as cats come. They are endearingly affectionate with each other, and with the other animals. It is not uncommon to see them together, wrapped around Pippin on the front porch and sleeping when we rise in the morning.

We have been taking care of a young Pomeranian, Toby, since the beginning of August. He was a little crazy when he first came. He had spent a lot of time in a cage, and was desperate to use up his energy and have some adventures. He was so bouncy and eager that Mini was promptly turned off. The chickens ran from him, and the cats eyed him cautiously.

When he first arrived, I pulled him up on my lap and told him that his best bet for a critter friend around here would be Sheldon, one of the kittens. Sheldon is a calm, patient, laid back fellow, and he seemed interested in Toby. In fact, Sheldon is so low key, he would sit on the floor and placidly watch Toby race in convulsive circles around him. The other animals just didn't have the patience or the nerves to deal with Toby. When Toby would wear himself out and curl up on the couch for a sleep, Sheldon would approach him and curl up beside him.

Toby has settled down quite a bit now, and has made friends with almost everybody. Mini is still skeptical, but at least she's not trying to beat him up anymore. At any given moment, Toby can be found pulling a cat around the floor by his tail, or stealing corn cobs from the chickens, or dancing on his hind legs for treats and just utterly charming us all into oblivion. Everyone seems okay with him. He is the same size as the cats, and they have always played roughly with each other so I think when he plays with them, they see him as just another cat. Only his teeth seem to hurt more when he gnaws on their legs, but a quick paw upside the head solves that problem.

We'll miss Toby when he goes home.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Imprisoned Roos and New Mothers

Well, the boys are in lock up. Last week was a little bittersweet. One of the young hens began laying, the smallest, brownest sweet eggs tucked in with the older hens' jumbos.

At the same time, the young roosters took their amorous activities to a new and dangerous level. They started swarming one of the older hens, and actually got so rough with her that she died. I scooped her out from under them a few times, and I wish I had seen how rough they were getting. Up until literally the day before, the older hens put up with very little from the young roos, and could send the pack of them running with a mild charge. I'm not sure what changed.

After the first hen died, the roos started going after the other older hens and Bruce couldn't contend with a pack of 10 - 11 young studs ganging up on his two remaining girls. We had to lock the boys up in the chick pen, and leave all the hens with Bruce in the older coop. I did go into the boys' coop and pick out one more rooster to add to the flock of hens and Bruce. There are 12 hens and 2 roosters now, and it seems to be working well.

I do feel bad for the roosters. They are such a regal, handsome lot. The new coop has screen doors, and the boys stand at the door looking forlornly out at the world. Every once in a while I'll see a young hen at the screen door, peering in at her brothers and perhaps wondering why they can't come out to play. But life goes on.

Today, there were two small eggs in the laying boxes with the big eggs. The girls are starting to lay. Bruce and the new roo (I'm thinking Gaston for a name, but we haven't decided yet) seem to be dividing the hen care without too much fuss. The young hens have taken nicely to Bruce. I think there can often be drama attached to adding a new group of hens to a flock, and especially when they come with a young rooster as well. Allowing them to range freely and get used to each other in an environment when they can come and go as they please has been helpful. The merging of the two groups has been gradual, but we have been able to give them the time and space for it.

For a few nights after the roos were locked into the new coop, the hens had a hard time figuring out that they needed to go to the old coop for bedtime. We had to pluck them out of trees and the shed, off of the lawn tractor and the fences, and off of the window sill of the new coop, where three or four of them would cram together. They are fairly tame, and so it wasn't hard to scoop them up and deposit them into the old coop. Chickens are truly creatures of habit.

I visit the young roos daily, bringing them treats and talking to them, petting them, etc. I think, if it is possible to give them away, I want to be able to offer roos that are socialized and less likely to be unnecessarily aggressive. Even though Bruce can be testy, he is a master protector of the flock and generally only attacks when he feels his girls are threatened. I have to admit, I admire this. His judgment may not always be spot on, but I have numerous memories of watching him stand out in the open, bravely eying a winged predator while his girls were tucked safely under the scaffolding or bushes. Or repeatedly plunging his face into a thorn infested rose bush, plucking blossoms to offer as treats for his girls. What a guy.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Roo News

Marc has now told me that as long as Bruce, the head honcho roo, is able to stay on top, there should be very little fighting among the young roos. Huh. Why did I think they'd be at each other's throats as soon as the testosterone hit their brains? Apparently if Bruce loses ground and the youngsters see an opening, the battle begins and continues until someone wins and takes over Bruce's place.

Bruce is a young fellow himself, and quite masterful so I don't see why we can't have peace with everyone safe from the stew pot. Wish I had known that before I spent weeks lingering in the coop at bedtime giving "give peace a chance" lectures to the babies.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Long over-due update

I must offer sincere apologies to anyone who is reading this blog (and if you are, sincere thanks as well) as I have not updated for quite a while. It has been over a month, which in my chicken years, is close to their entire adolescence. We had multiple computer problems and vacation times and, well, life happened.

The chicks are very close to adulthood now, at approx. 16 weeks. Some internet sources say the hens should be thinking about laying eggs soon, so the rush is on to build boxes. How have we solved the rooster problem? We haven't.

Roughly half of the chicks (We call them "chicks" or the "babies" to distinguish them from the adults) are roosters. They are fine, handsome fellows with interesting personalities and wonderful presence in the yard. They all subjugate themselves to Bruce, the king of the yard, and there hasn't been any fighting. They do indulge in a bit of posturing occasionally, but never around Bruce.

Any conflicts they have are usually caused by their growing awareness of their "romantic" side, and their efforts at figuring out what they're supposed to do with it. When a rooster mounts a hen, he grabs her by the feathers on the back of her neck and climbs on. The baby roosters understand that they are supposed to grab their intended by the back of the neck feathers, but they get a bit confused as to who they are supposed to be grabbing and the grabbing bit seems to be all they know about sex. So they grab the young hens and each other indiscriminately. It is not unusual to see a young hen or roo racing around the lawn with a hapless rooster in tow, clinging desperately to the fleeing sibling's neck feathers and wondering what to do next. Somebody always gets soundly told off. Even if the intended is a hen, and she doesn't jump and run like a startled rabbit, the romantic roo still doesn't know what to do after the initial grabbing.

I have to admit, though, that my boys are more than making up for their confusion in the romance department by their manful efforts at crowing. A few of them have been crowing for over a month now, which I was convinced was wonderfully precocious of them. Like everything else that is sweet and funny about young beings learning to be adults, the roos' first crows are precious. They sound like they are crowing through a kazoo. Bruce usually starts crowing between 4:00 and 5:00 am. Then the kazoo symphony begins in the babies' quarters. I can tell how many are crowing by their distinctive voices. In fact, all the babies went through a nasal, honking stage. They cheeped like babies until they looked almost like adults, and then their voices changed and they began to sound a bit like ducks. Now they are cooing and clucking like grown chickens. Marc doesn't remember the chicks of his youth going through the awkward kazoo stage, but then again he wasn't married to an obsessed woman then.

Usually, by now, we would be seriously thinking about preparing the extra roosters for the oven. As you can tell, I'm not there yet. I don't know if I ever will be. They're not challenging Bruce, nor are they fighting over the hens. The fact is, if they manage to work out some sort of arrangement among themselves that leads to relative peace in the flock, we'll keep them. We don't mind giving them away to people who need a roo for their hens, but none of us feels up to eating them. We've watched with a mixture of pride and dismay as so many of them have developed into handsome, manly roos. I don't know if it is possible for there to be peace in the flock.

I have to admit that each night when I go to count them and put them to bed, I stroke each chick and talk softly to them, encouraging them to be good and kind to each other. I even pray, as I close the doors, than they will be peace-full. I do this with then adults too. It may seem silly, but at this very minute, from where I am sitting on the couch, I can see one of the kittens snuggling up with the bunny on the front porch. At the moment, we have 3 dogs here (2 visiting), 2 cats, the rabbit and 25 chickens, and everyone gets along. In fact, one of the visiting dogs is Toby, a hyperactive Pomeranian who promptly irritated everyone in the yard except Sheldon, one of the cats, who made a point of repeatedly approaching Toby until he calmed down enough to be friends and snuggle. Toby has calmed down considerably now and is friends with everyone. So miracles can happen.

I'm counting on it. So are my roos.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Feather-friend updates

I just came in from outside to avoid yet another thunderstorm. I was sitting at the patio table with Beauty asleep in my lap. She is remarkably tame for a chicken, although she has been petted and fawned over so much I'm certain she is a veritable diva in the chicken coop.

Robin is outside now, and has been for a week. Actually, we let the chicks out too. In the heat of last week, we couldn't justify keeping them in their pen no matter how many fans we could fit in there. Everyone seems to be adapting well. Robin flies well now, and is getting better and better at finding his own food. We know this by how much food he asks us for. He's down to one or two teaspoons of cat food a day in his little dish outside. Every morning when we go out, he's there on the scaffolding by the house waiting for us. His chirp is quite distinctive, as I suppose all birds' chirps are. We are just familiar with his. We feed him, fill his little bath (a plastic ice cream container lid) and let him do his morning ablutions.

A few days ago he seemed to have had an altercation with one of the cats, because his eye was sore and he has a bit of blood on his head. He hung around in the porch most of the day, until I brought him into the house. I thought he needed a day or two to recover, and the air conditioning in the house would be more comfortable for him. I left his cage door open, but he just stayed in his cage and slept. The next day he was fine, thankfully. I'm glad that he knows that he can come back to us if he gets hurt or needs our help. It makes me feel better about leaving him out in the big world. And believe me, for a little robin, it's a huge world!

The chicks are something like nine weeks now, almost indistinguishable from the older chickens but for their size. One of the white chicks, obviously a rooster, has been trying to crow. It is the most preciously funny thing. He literally sounds like he is crowing through a kazoo. It's not the effect he is going for, I am sure, but he'll get the hang of it. I think nine weeks may be quite young for a roo to be crowing, so he has lots of time to perfect his technique. As I wrote before, the chicks are now free-range. They wander around the lawn chasing butterflies and eating bugs and just generally exploring. They tend to stick together, and every once in a while a group of them will dash across the lawn in a fluttery panic. It's never easy to tell what sets them off. Personally I think the kittens are having a bit of fun with them. The chicks are quite attached to Marc and I, and when they see me in the morning they all come rushing over to huddle around my legs, cheeping and fluttering and pecking affectionately at my legs. One time they followed me to the car, all 21 of them, and would have piled in if given the least bit of encouragement.

Bruce the rooster has been quite testy with the chicks, and they have learned to run to either Marc or I and hide behind us when he is on a rampage. He is pretty rough with them. At first, Marc encouraged me to let them be, as Bruce was merely establishing his leadership over them. It soon became apparent that he was doing more than that. He was attacking them with no provocation at all, and hurting them. They were terrified, the precious babies. They would squeak and cry and huddle in the corner of their coop to evade him, to no avail. Finally we threw animal wisdom to the wind and began to swoop in to the rescue.

One time, Bruce had Beauty cornered in the coop. When Beauty saw Marc approaching, she scooted out of the coop and ran to him, Bruce in tow. Marc reached down and Beauty jumped into his hands, buried her face in the crook of his folded arm and whimpered. Marc's heart melted. The only thing nicer than being able to care for and protect these wonderful creatures is knowing that they trust us to do so and freely avail themselves of our care.