Sunday, July 8, 2018

Flying the Coop

Since my recent blog, Feathering the Nest, was written about acquiring our six new chicks, we have already had an adventure.

I wanted to raise the new chicks in our old chicken coop. It's predator proof and surrounded by an 8-foot wire fence. Until the chicks get too big to fit through the holes in the wire, they would be kept in the coop. At night, the solid wood doors are locked tight and I set up a heat lamp to keep the temperature around 90 degrees. During the day it's warm enough (especially lately) for the lamp to be turned off, doors opened and a screen put across the front to keep the chicks contained safely in the coop but allow ventilation and some sun to get in. This was how we raised our chicks for the past two years, although then we had the advantage of two broody bantam hens who gladly assumed the role of mother and heat source. Boy, are we missing Beaker and Rihanna now.

The screen barrier I put in front of the coop is about thigh high, taller than the brooder the chicks' breeder kept them in. It doesn't reach all the way to the top of the door opening, leaving about four inches of uncovered space.

The second day after I'd moved the chicks into their new housing was a busy one. I'd invited our neighbors over for a barbeque supper, figuring I had a litter of Maine Coon kittens due the next day so Saturday should be better. However, the expectant mother, River, had other plans and started active labor Saturday morning. I had been suspicious as River had started meowing excessively and doing the nervous purring of early labor the evening before. Therefore, I'd put up the baby monitor and gotten up twice during the night to check on her. This was how my day started, tired, but happy that the kittens were on the way.

Three hours later, around noon, my knees were spent from kneeling into the kitten birthing area, but we had four healthy kittens. I went to check on the chicks outside; they seemed fine. All the babies secure, I left to pick up groceries for our planned barbeque.

I just needed a few items, but ran into someone who recognized me. You know when you realize you should know someone, but can't remember how? I stared at this woman while she talked, thinking, "Maybe she's a kitten buyer or maybe I know her from Ledyard school system." Finally, the woman mentioned her daughter's name and I realized her daughter and mine were good friends. In my defense, the last time I saw her was two years ago, but who am I kidding? I'm horrible at remembering names and faces. 45-minutes of catching up in Stop-n-Shop and now I was feeling rushed to get home and start food preparations.

Jay was home from his morning fishing excursion when I got home. I complained about losing time in the grocery store because I've never been good at getting out of conversations. We both went outside to shuck the corn into the compost pile. It was one of those sweltering heat wave days, somewhere around 95 degrees, 90 percent humidity. I wanted to shuck the corn quickly and get back in the house before I got too hot. I was already wearing what I planned on wearing when our guests got there, a pink sleeveless top and white capris pants and didn't want to ruin it by sweating.

While outside, I checked on the chicks. Of the six, three were missing! I was only gone about 2 hours. I crawled into the coop, trying to keep my knees off the ground to protect my pants and feeling under the space at the bottom...nothing but spiders. No signs of violence; no feathers, no blood. It's impossible for a large predator to get in. Jay started speculating that a large snake could have gotten in over the barrier. Snakes don't leave blood and body parts around since they swallow their food whole, something I appreciate when it comes to the mice in our shed.

My mind racing, I had already taken inventory of which chicks were missing; the two Cream Legbars, Punnett and Square, and one of the Blue Leghorns, either Bindy or Mindy. Then we realized, it's afternoon. Snakes are mostly nocturnal and it was unlikely more than one chick would have been taken. Somehow, the chicks got out and the only way out was for them to fly with their little wings over the 3-foot barrier and go through the fence. Placing the remaining three chicks in a smaller cage for safety, we started looking around. There is a large woodpile of about 5 cords behind the coop. Behind the woodpile is the woods which surround our property, woods in which lurk foxes, coyotes, owls, hawks, raccoons...all of which would enjoy the occasional chicken nugget.

Then, about twenty feet away, we heard peeping! The chicks were together under a large boulder at the edge of the woods. Good for us, chicks peep when they're distraught. Bad for the chicks if we were predators. I was so relieved, but then we had to catch them. They scampered like mice under the cave the boulder created, through a hole to the other side. One ran under the pallets that supported the wood pile back to the coop. In the end, it took about an hour of Jay and I crawling on our hands and knees in the poison ivy and sticks, putting our hands into creepy spaces, carrying another chick around so she'd peep and inspire someone to answer, our dog giving us a scare when she lunged for a chick, utilizing a kid's butterfly net and a fishing net, all before we finally caught all three escapees. Did I mention it was hot? Indentations on my knees from the kneeling in the brush, sweat pouring, capris pants white no more, but we had six chicks once again, exhausted but safe.

Taking no more chances, the chicks are now caged in the guest room until they are bigger and wiser.






Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Feathering the Nest

We have 13 backyard chickens, three of whom are roosters. All but three of the ten hens have gone "henopausal," meaning they are done laying eggs and are living out their lives in guaranteed retirement with us. Our youngest hens are two-years-old, the oldest is nine. In other words, we have a bunch of free-loaders.

Tired of begging, lecturing and threatening the hens, I ordered some new female chicks, a.k.a. pullets, from The Hatching House in Canterbury. As it so happened, my good friend Jo-Ann was visiting for a couple of days and went with me to pick up my new babies. The breeder was very knowledgable, so I enjoyed picking her brain about color and breed genetics while Jo-Ann channeled my daughter, "Oooh! Look at that one! It's so pretty! Get that one! They're so cute! Can we get this one?"

I ended up getting the four pullets I ordered, two Cream Legbars and two 55 Flowery Hens as those two breeds are auto-sexing, meaning the genders can be easily be visually identified by colors or markings at birth. Thus, the breeder could be certain of selling me females. I also purchased two Blue Leghorns (yes, of Warner Brothers' Foghorn fame), who may or may not be both female. This because Jo-Ann liked the spots on their heads and also, because I had been so desperate for eggs lately, I had considered getting a breed that is known for exceptional egg production. The Leghorn chicken (commonly seen in white) is used by most factory farms for egg and meat production. The breeder promised that if any of the Leghorns turned out to be roosters, she'd take them back and has a 75% success rate of rehoming roos. That's what I needed to hear. Three roosters is already too many.

On the drive home in a torrential downpour, Jo-Ann sat with the chicks in their cage in her lap and helped me name them. I typically try to name chickens of the same breed "twin names" or ones that go together, i.e. Righty and Tighty, Ann Landers and Dear Abby, Crabby and Patty, Addy and Subtracty, etc. The Cream Legbars are a breed developed in part by geneticist Reginal C. Punnett in order to sex the chicks easily at birth. I frequently use Punnett's Square method to try to determine what color combinations I may get from my Maine Coons, so I was really attracted to this breed. Therefore, the Legbar chicks are named "Punnett" and "Square," in honor of their creator.


Two Views of the Cream Legbars
 
The two 55 Flowery girls, also gender determined by color, should grow up to be multi-colored. Their names are Pansy and Petunia.


55 Flowery Chicks - Note the multiple colors on the face

The Leghorns are named Bindi and Mindi. Jo-Ann came up with this as she knew Bindi is the name of the dot worn on the foreheads of Hindu women. Otherwise, they would have been called something more common like "Spot" and "Dot." Feathers crossed that Bindi and Mindi will never crow.



Blue Leghorns

 
 
For Part 2 about the newest additions, read Flying the Coop.
 

  

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Finding a Maine Coon Breeder - Abbreviated


So you’ve decided you want take the plunge and get a purebred, registered, bona fide Maine Coon from a good breeder…awesome! Here are some suggestions on how and where to look.

·      Do your research on the breed by visiting MCBFA, TICA, CFA & CFF.

·      Search for breeders by visiting cat shows and online with Pet Professor, KittySites, Breedlist.com, Maine Coon Cat Nation or Google.

·      Cat show calendars for shows near you can be found on TICA.org & CFA.org

·      Be persistent and patient. Maine Coon cats are extremely popular and breeders are usually swamped with inquiries.

Basic Criteria for a Responsible Breeder:

·      Registered cattery with a major cat registry such as TICA, CFA or CFF.

·      Screen breeding cats for heart disease (HCM) utilizing ultrasound, not DNA only. Proof of cardiac screening of the kitten’s parents should be available.  

·      Kitten/cat should be registered. You may be required to provide proof of spay/neuter as a prerequisite.

·      Kittens not allowed to leave the breeder until at least 12 weeks of age and two sets of vaccination received.

·      Expect to be screened as a suitable home.

·      Expect to sign a contract for the purchase of the kitten/cat which offers a health guarantee, prohibits declawing, letting your cat outside and breeding without permission.

·      The area where the kittens and cats live should be clean and the cats appear healthy and friendly.

·      Expect to be able to meet your kitten’s littermates and parents (unless an outside stud was used). Be wary of being asked to sit in one location while your kitten is brought out of another room to you.

·      No responsible breeder will sell their kittens at a pet store or through a third party. We like to know where our kittens are going!
 

 
 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

New Chicks Continued

Since my last blog in September about our home-hatched chicks, we've had a few changes to our backyard flock. None of these are really good changes.

A few weeks ago, Rihanna, foster mom who hatched and raised the chicks, died. I'm not sure why, especially considering she'd finally regrown her feathers and was looking a lot more healthy and less like a turkey vulture. I've learned over the years that even though we protect them from predators and try to keep their environment healthy, chickens are still vulnerable to unknown illnesses. If I notice a chicken has slowed down, I prepare myself for losing her.

Then just this week, Beeker died. I was not surprised as Beeker was now one of our oldest hens at 7 years. Although she willingly helped Rihanna raise the chicks, Beeker did not lay any eggs in the past year, a sign that her body was post-henapausal. Still, Beeker's adorable little pure-white Silkie presence will be missed.

Beeker and Rihanna in happier days
It's hard to mix the bantam (miniature) breeds of chickens with the standard sized ones as the smaller ones get picked on. Our rooster, Ed Sheeran, is technically a bantam also being half Silkie and half Frizzle, but as a male, he's larger and dominates. So in essence, I have to worry less now about making sure the little ones get their fair share of food and roosting space.

In addition to the deaths of our remaining bantam hens, we have gradually come to accept that our two Frizzle/Welsummer chicks are the wrong gender for egg laying; we have two cockerels. I'm not often wrong (just ask my husband and kids...not), but I was way off on these chicks. Or call it believing what you want to be true. Originally named Charlotte and Cindy, I now just call the little rascals Frick and Frack.

Frick (middle) and Frack (left)


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

New Chicks!


My husband and I have a backyard chicken flock of varying ages and now we have new home-hatched chicks.
We tend to add a few new chicks almost every year, partly because if we see a breed that looks interesting we want it and partly because the egg production slows down dramatically in hens after the age of two years. Many of the older chickens have died off. The average life span of a chicken, assuming no predation, is 4-5 years. The last hen from our very first chicks, an Americauna named Flo, died during the summer at the age of eight years. Since our chickens have a guaranteed retirement here with us and we try hard to protect them from all the creatures of land and air, our oldest hens are now seven-years-old and our youngest turned a year old in May. Sixteen chickens, ten or so different breeds, one of which is a rooster.
Last May we got two Frizzle-Silkie cross chicks and two Welsummer chicks. One of the Frizzles is a red rooster we named Ed Sheeran, after the singer with similar hair (red with a comb-forward to cover your receding hairline). He’s a handsome roo with his wild feathers that look like they were caught in a tornado.
Ed Sheeran, red Frizzle rooster
 
Our other Frizzle is named Rihanna, also after the singer. Our Rihanna, however, is probably the ugliest chicken we’ve ever had. She is tiny, black, about one pound, smaller than our other female Bantam (miniature) breed Silkie hen, Beaker. Rihanna has been hen and rooster pecked so that she is missing a lot of her curly feathers, her head and neck almost completely bald giving her the appearance of a turkey vulture. Bantam hens are slower to mature, often not starting to lay eggs until they are 8 months old. Rihanna didn’t start laying until she was about a year old. I often said Rihanna was a sorry excuse for a chicken; not attractive, very poor layer and skittish.
 
When Rihanna became broody in August, I ignored it at first. Being half Silkie, her breed is known for going broody, which means they will just sit on a nest for three weeks or so, whether or not there are eggs under her. During the broody time, a hen will not lay eggs, getting off the nest only a few times a day for short periods to eat, drink and poop. This characteristic has been bred out of most other breeds of chickens, but not the Silkie. Therefore, Silkie hens are infamous for hatching and raising chicks the old fashioned way. We have used Beaker, our white Silkie, a few times to hatch the eggs of others and raise chicks.
 
A couple of weeks into her broodiness, Rihanna remained steadfast on her nest, and I decided we should go for a few new chicks. With our only rooster being a Frizzle, any chicks that hatched would have a fifty percent chance of having the curly feathers of a Frizzle, yet the size and coloration of the mother. Rihanna and her foster mother, Beaker, were moved into our old coop with six eggs; two cream, one green, two chocolate brown and one with dark spots. I wanted Beaker there for moral support and as a back-up in case Rihanna’s hormones suddenly changed her broodiness mid-gestation. I hoped that Beaker would take over if necessary. I put in more eggs than we actually wanted because our luck has only hatched one live chick out of every four eggs any time we’ve tried to hatch eggs in the past. Plus, with Ed being a smaller breed of rooster than the rest of the flock, I didn’t know how many of the hens he’d successfully bred. Some of the girls had no trouble out running Ed.
Biological Mom - Welsummer Hen - Either Dear Abby or Ann Landers (they're twins)
On Day 21, the first egg hatched! It was from one of the dark brown Welsummer eggs, either Ann Landers’ or Dear Abby’s. The next day, another egg hatched! Also a Welsummer. The other eggs either weren’t fertile or didn’t survive. So we have two new chicks, and by the coloration, both appear to be little pullets (young hens). One has the curly Frizzle feathers. Daughter Kelsey has named them Charlotte and Cindy.
Grandma Beaker with Foster Mom, Rihanna, and chick
Cute chicks, being raised by a not-so-cute yet very attentive mother. It is fun to watch how Rihanna scratches the dirt and clucks to her babies or how she lets them snuggle under her if they are cold. Grandma Beaker seems to enjoy being around to help out yet she doesn’t try to steal the chicks away from Rihanna. And so, the miracle of life in the world of backyard chickens continues.  
Rihanna with her brood

 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Mice Beware!


I am a breeder and owner of the Maine Coon cat. It is a large breed, sought after originally because of its usefulness as a hearty barn cat who could survive the harsh winters in Maine and keep the rodent population under control. Throughout history, a cat’s main job for humankind has been that of mouse exterminator. Since its acceptance as a breed in the 70’s and growing popularity as a pet and show cat, many have speculated that the Maine Coon’s killer instincts have been bred out of it.
 
River snuggles with Tina
 
When I noticed that two of our younger female Maine Coons were focused on whatever was under our upright piano, I assumed a toy or perhaps a bug was under there. When I later heard our dog, Coraline, sniffing loudly around the base of the piano, I became suspicious and pulled the piano out away from the wall. An adorable little field mouse looked back at me.

Getting a live mouse out of the house when one has several predators around is a daunting task. I have witnessed our dogs brutally killing mice and song birds with one bite. I rolled the piano back in place to protect the mouse, put Cory in her crate and called my husband for assistance.
I was and am not concerned about finding a den of rodents as I’m pretty sure I know how it got in. We have an enclosed outdoor cat run connected to the house. The cats have access to the run via a cat door installed in the basement window. I occasionally find a rodent victim (vole or mouse) dead in the cat run.  While it is very unlikely a mouse could push the door open to gain entry, it could be carried inside via the mouth of a cat. A live mouse makes for some major feline entertainment. Before the cat and mouse games could get too far, the mouse likely escaped. All was well and good for the mouse until it realized it had fallen into mouse hell…a whole city of Maine Coon cats.

Back to the piano mouse. After my repeated calling, Jay showed up and I explained our dilemma. Once I reminded him that we were NOT to kill it, he suggested I get a towel to throw over the mouse when he moved the piano back. I got ready with my towel. From the other side of the piano, Jay moved it away from the wall. Simultaneously, one of my pottery vases fell from the top of the piano as I tossed the towel. The vase broke into a million pieces and the mouse jumped over the towel, running into the kitchen. Many expletives followed, including the declaration that I do not make a good exterminator.
It was determined that Mr. Mouse had crawled under the stove after I pulled the bottom drawer out and saw him back there. Now he had many opportunities to go behind the cabinets and hide indefinitely. This could take a while if he didn’t venture out. However, I wasn’t too worried as Tina, River, Valentine and Boom Boom were standing guard. I reminded Jay that if we heard a commotion in the middle of the night we had to get up so we could try to save the mouse before my feline forum did too much damage. Major eye roll from my husband.

“Hey, if I said, ‘let’s set traps and kill the mouse’, you’d suddenly wonder who you’d married,” I retorted. I am also the person who puts the errant moth and spider outside unharmed, so of course mice deserve the same protection in my animal-loving mind.
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long. After watching the Olympics for a while, Jay went to the bathroom and I came into the kitchen to put my wine glass in the dishwasher. All the cats were gathered around the step stool in the kitchen. River, our 10-month-old brown tabby lay on the floor, casually watching as Valentine, Tina and Boom Boom crouched attentively beside the stool. Hmmm. Wonder what you guys are up to. I called repeatedly for Jay, but Lord knows he can’t hear me in an emergency.

I grabbed a large plastic cup and carefully lifted one side of the stool. Sure enough, Mr. Mouse ran out but right into River’s arms. She surprised me by not jumping up, but instead she welcomed the little guy as her new playmate, letting him hide between her front legs. With my cup positioned on the floor, I let the mouse choose between me or a bunch of cats. He ran into the cup and I had him. Fortunately for the mouse, he seemed unharmed. Before I let Mr. Mouse outside, I took a picture and warned him about not going too close to the chickens’ yard. Our chickens are major rodent killers.

 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Still Cute


I realize that my siblings and I are not the first people to experience the decline of a parent, but lately the reality of how life ends is forced in front of me. The geographic distance between all of us makes the logistics of care difficult. North Carolina is where our mother resides with our step-father, but we, her three children, live in Connecticut, Minnesota and Arizona. Our step-father is not capable of providing the kind of continuous care his wife needs now. We want to honor her wish to die at home. Not knowing how to plan and for how long is inconvenient, but shouldn't be my main concern. Now that Mom is under hospice care, I have taken on the role of primary caregiver. Thank goodness my sister can arrange her work schedule so we can take turns.

With all this, I try to take heart with a few positives:
 
Mom isn’t in pain.

Her dementia has kept her from worrying as much about her liver cancer as a more cognizant sufferer might.

She still knows who we are and accepts our care without embarrassment or resistance.

She has flashes of humor, reminding us that she’s beautiful inside and out.

Mom is so weak, she requires assistance to stand, to turn over, to move her legs out of the bed. She barely eats and drinks only when the offer is in front of her. She has no bowel control or awareness of having gone. She’s so emaciated, her bare torso shows every rib.

Her norm over the past few weeks has become communication with a look, a nod or shake of the head, especially when she’s sleepy. Sleep is her life right now. When she does speak, it startles me. When she spoke in full sentences to a former colleague who called her the other day, I was amazed. Then she became tired and I had to take the phone.

Our mother took care of herself throughout her 77 years, making her cancer seem that much more unfair. She was active, never over-weight, regular doctor visits, no smoking or drinking, brushed and flossed…all those things you’re supposed to do. She always been a positive person and looked amazing for her age; never even had to color her hair. At this late stage, she has gray roots for the first time. Her signature heavy eyebrows and dark lashes are barely visible with their light color, making her look dramatically different.

So we focus on moments and try to freeze those in our memories. I was on the phone with her hospice case manager, a wonderful woman named Joy who had called to check on her before the weekend started. As I spoke to Joy, I walked into Mom’s bedroom where she lay and she opened her eyes, wondering who I was talking to about her. I told her, “Joy wants to know how you’re doing, Mom.”

“Tell her I’m cute.”


Post Note: My mother passed away peacefully on August 2, 2016.