Sunday, May 22, 2011

Baby Chicks Part Two

In my blog Counting My Eggs, I promised to keep my readers informed when the fertilized chicken eggs my hens were sitting on hatched.   Although I started out with eleven eggs shared by Mumbles and Thelma, Mumbles decided she'd been sitting long enough and threw in the towel.  Then Buffy, the Buff Orpington, thought she'd wax maternal and sit on the eggs.  In between all this, there were times when the eggs weren't covered.  One by one, they rotted and cracked.  They were literally half-cooked, maybe fertile, maybe not.  I'm sure the phrase, "last one's a rotten egg" comes from the situation where chicks start hatching and the
egg(s) that never hatches is rotten.  The stench is unmistakeable. 

Thelma prepares for motherhood
In the end, we have two viable chicks, a blond and a reddish-brown one.  Since the person who gave the eggs to me doesn't know the breeds of her chickens or her roosters, this is a guessing game.  The brown one has feathering on her legs so it'll be interesting to see how he/she/it develops.  I'm automatically referring to the chicks as girls, but I honestly don't know the gender.  Chickens, unlike puppies, are very difficult to sex at this age.  I'm thinking of naming them adrogenous names like "Pat", "Chris" or "Terry".  Any suggestions are welcome.

I felt guilty at taking the pheasant chicks away from Thelma after all her dedication to hatching them and want to give her a chance to enjoy motherhood.  If she never becomes broody again, then perhaps she will have learned that children are too much work.  Since I'm trying to let these chicks grow up with their adopted mother Thelma (Buffy proved too aggressive to be allowed this privilege), I have a new set of challenges.  Normally I would raise the chicks in a cage with a heat lamp in my basement until fully feathered at five weeks.  At five weeks they are adolescents and ready to move outside.  The nesting box the chicks were hatched in is about two feet off the ground so it would be difficult for fuzzy peeps to navigate that height, even with a ramp.  Plus, the other hens are not maternal toward the chicks and could present a danger to anything in their nesting boxes. 

Thelma demonstrates how to scratch out a snack to her peeps

Luckily our garden has an eight-foot fence around it, part of which is sectioned off for the chickens to keep them out of the planted veggies.  During the winter, we strung fishing line every three feet across the top of it to deter the hawks so the chickens would have another safe place to hang out.  Since our compost pile is in the corner of the garden, this provides a lot of enjoyment for the girls to rifle through our leftovers, spread the compost around and pick out worms and grubs. 

I decided the hens' fenced in garden area would become the nursery.  I turned the bottom half of a large doghouse over and placed a cat carrier on top of that.  Chickens need to roost off the ground, thus the doghouse base.  The cat carrier can be locked up at night.  I drape a sheet of plastic over the carrier at night for further warmth and rain protection.  Probably not as warm as the nesting box in the coop, but I keep in mind that Thelma's underside had to be about 95 degrees in order to have been able to incubate the eggs.   I put food and a waterer in the carrier with them, which the chicks quickly learned to use.  The garden is closed off to the other hens, something they resent, but have to accept.  The idea is that as the chicks grow, the rest of the flock will get used to them behind the safety of the fence so that the new members will be able to acclimate seamlessly. 

Our contraption we're calling the nursery

Thelma is a big girl and a wonderful mom.  I have to lift her up to see the chicks.  When it's warm, they come out from under their mother.  Now I just have to keep my fingers crossed that we can keep them safe until they are grown and that both are hens.

Thelma and her brood in their nest

As a sidenote, I am now a blogger on the Ledyard Patch, a local online newspaper.  I will be blogging about the same types of subjects as I do here, perhaps revamping some of my old stuff.  If my followers could please comment or click the Recommend button on the Ledyard Patch blog to indicate their support, I'd give them each a Maine Coon kitten.  Not really, but still, I'd be grateful.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Loss of Sanity or.... We Got a Puppy

After raising our Golden Retriever, Chardonnay, I promised myself that I would never get another puppy.  The next dog would arrive in adult form, housebroken and with all its brain cells in gear.  This is what I told my fifteen-year-old Kelsey repeatedly last year when she started asking for her own dog.  She wanted a small dog, one she could carry. She loves teacup-size Pomeranians.  Jay and I don't regard anything smaller than our cats as "real dogs".  I can't stand yippy dogs.  We compromised.  We could get a puppy as long as it wasn't a small breed. 

One of the major reasons I opened up to the idea of adding a second canine to the family has been the realization that our beloved Chardonnay is getting older.  Even though she's pretty healthy, her hips are starting to bother her, she's already had a benign tumor removed and her sire died at the age of eleven.  Chardonnay is ten.  The thought of losing my precious Golden Goof eventually makes my eyes tear up every time.  I prefer the idea of having an overlap, hoping that perhaps Chardonnay can teach a new dog how to behave in our household; no excessive barking, chasing cats or chickens and a tolerance for small children. 

Thinking we'd save money and a life by not going to a breeder, Kelsey looked on Pet Finders for a rescue and found a litter of Shar Pei mix puppies.  We ended up going through Help Save One based in Rhode Island.  After completing an application and putting down a deposit, we got very little feedback other than being told we were approved.  During the process of waiting to hear about our selection, getting auto replies to my email enquiries, being told originally to pick her up from transport at 3 AM in a McDonald's parking lot, then finding out the puppy we'd reserved was not a girl as promised, but a boy....I was tempted to back out many times, but was afraid I wouldn't get a refund.  

I had reservations at the idea of getting a puppy whose mother was a registered Shar Pei.  Although they are adorable with their wrinkly faces, the breed can be aggressive if not trained properly.  I rationalized that most Pit Bulls and Rotweilers I've met have been very friendly, sweet dogs so the breed is not always a determining factor. I also have a personal aversion to a dog whose natural tail carriage is over its back, exposing what I don't want to see every time it walks in front of me.

Nevertheless, we started recording the Dog Whisperer show and bought Cesar Milan's book, How to Raise the Perfect Dog.  I was mentally preparing myself to be a pack leader.

This was to be Kelsey's 16th birthday present a month early.  She agreed, as most kids do who have to beg, to be responsible for the puppy's care, training, save money to pay for the spay surgery, etc.  Kelsey picked out the solid black puppy on the website named "Believe".  She had this image of opening a wrapped box with a puppy inside and being surprised.  Kind of silly, but I went along.  I wrapped a copy paper box, top separately from the bottom, handle holes punched out for air, complete with a ribbon.  I took it with me, along with a regular carrier, and met Pam from Help Save One at the Mystic Friendly's around 11 AM.  Still a seedy process compared to going to a breeder's home, but much better than 3 AM over an hour away. 

As I mentioned, the black puppy turned out to be a male, a fact determined only after Pam took the puppies out as she had no idea which one was ours.  I can sex kittens with 98% accuracy at birth, 100% by two weeks.  Most vets can't claim that level of accuracy with kittens, but puppies have pretty obvious gender differences from the beginning.  Since these puppies were raised at a veterinarian's office in West Virginia, I don't blame the rescue organization for the error as they didn't even see them.  If someone wrote it down wrong, it should have been corrected.  Only two of the litter in the back of Pam's SUV were girls.  I'm glad that I at least got to see the whole litter as it made it easier to narrow down the breed of the father.  Judging by the heads and high white with brown freckles on some of the puppies, I'd say Dad was a hound, perhaps a Pointer.  I had to call Kelsey and tell her the dilemma.  The question was, was it more important to get a girl, or to get a solid black, more Shar Pei looking dog?  Kelsey chose the dark girl, a mushroom colored puppy with white on her chest and toes and a long, straight non-Shar Pei tail.  The puppies smelled like urine (they'd been in a car for over 24 hours) and complained loudly.  Although odoriferous, Kelsey's choice was happy to be held and gave me a bunch of kisses.

When I arrived at our driveway, I stopped and took the stinky, yelping puppy from the the carrier and put her in the gift-wrapped box.  Then I continued on to the house (our driveway is a quarter-mile long).  I called Tyler and instructed him to bring his sister outside.  I tried to present my daughter with her gift and sing Happy Birthday, but I became verklempt.  Figures....dogs make me emotional.  Kelsey's expectations were low after my phone call, but fortunately she loved the puppy at first sight.  "She's so cute!"  My birthday song failed, but cuteness prevailed.

After offering food and bathing her new baby, Kelsey finally settled on the name Coraline, "Cory" for short.  Kelsey has had two sleepless nights and I've gotten out of bed more than my share, but it's getting markedly better every day.  Cory only barks when she's crated and realizes she's alone.  She's quickly learning to settle in quietly when going into the crate.  She's not yippy at all.  Chardonnay loves her, but tires of the puppy exuberance at times.  The cats vary in their degrees of welcome as Cory's method of play is a big rough for them.

Cassie is ready to move into Cory's crate

If we survive Coraline's puppy hood to ever look at another dog in the future, unfortunately my preference  won't be to go through a rescue organization.  I know they're trying to do the honorable thing and it's a lot of thankless work, but I need more reassurances and guarantees.  Still, we'll make it work for the new family member.

Don't wake the baby!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Taking Advantage of My Mother's Day Power

Mother's Day and my birthday are the two days out of the year when my family, which includes two teenagers, feels obligated to do what I want.  I kind of like that power of being the queen for the day, justified by memories of living my life around those of my children for so long.  Last Mother's Day, I blogged about how we went to a butterfly pavillion where my daughter Kelsey faced her fear of beautiful bugs. 

I had read last month in The Day newspaper (yes, we actually read a physical paper; also comes in handy later when one wants to start a fire in the woodstove) about Beltane Farm.  Beltane Farm is a small goat farm in Lebanon, CT, offering tours and cheese tastings every Sunday in May.  I had been interested enough in visiting that I'd put the dates on my calendar as a reminder although I never mentioned it to anyone else. 

Here I was on Mother's Day morning, waiting for the day's planned event of a cookout at 1 pm.  The problem was that the farm is only open to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.  With a lunch planned right in the middle of that, it would be a tight schedule.  Husband Jay was already psyched up to cook, marinating the chicken and cleaning the grill and utensils for their first use this year.  Could I possibly sell him on doing both? 

As a young adult, one of my mottos was, "Be prepared to be spontaneous."  Although I'm fairly certain that motto was referring to birth control, I could apply the same idea to visiting a goat farm.  Jay balked at the idea of just picking up and leaving.  He argued that it would take 45 minutes to get out there (actually it took 30 minutes, but Jay has a tendency to exaggerate), he had a law school exam to study for, his daughter Erin and the grandkids were supposed to come over for lunch, he's cooking, etc.  Not giving in, I gave him the option to stay home or just calling Erin and changing the lunch time to a supper time.  Reluctantly, Jay agreed and changed plans with Erin.  It was Mother's Day, he had to be nice to me, right? 

Tyler, who just got home from USC this past Friday, was still asleep at 10:30 a.m. when this discussion was going on.  Being a college student, he was better prepared to be spontaneous and quickly got dressed.  Besides, Tyler loves goat cheese so he had a different motivation.  Kelsey doesn't like to eat anything different, but was up for a trip involving animals with cloven hooves. 

Tyler and Kelsey being greeted by a young goat

Within 15 minutes, we had the whole family in the van, ready to go.  Jay had his notes to study so I drove to the farm, thanking my family first for going along with my whims.  The first thing we noticed when we got to the farm was the kids (as in baby goats) on dog leashes being held by a woman.  My uncertain family lit up as the farm dog, a gorgeous collie, greeted us.  Kelsey, who has a strange fear of butterflies and other insects, has no problem with other creatures that share our space (including snakes).  The kids (baby goats) won us over with their cuteness and fondness for sucking on our fingers.  Jay immediately commented on how beautiful the farm was with its pond, barns, property, friendly people and animals.  "Glad you came?" I asked. "Go ahead, admit it, once again I had a great idea." 

I expected 15-year-old Kelsey to get a thrill at seeing the goats, cow and donkey as we don't have those animals at home.  She got equally excited with the two farm dogs, cat, chickens and the multitude of tadpoles in the pond.  Uh, we have those animals at home Kelsey.  Critters are always more appealing in someone else's yard I guess.

We tasted all the cheeses and narrowed our purchases down to four kinds to bring back, the Chevre, Harvest Moon, Vespers and Riscotta Fresca.  We could have easily brought back one of each, but I tried to show some restraint.  If any of you are repulsed at the sound of the words "goat cheese", I advise you to free your minds.  My absolute favorite is the Chevre with Herbs de Provence.  Finicky Kelsey found she liked the Harvest Moon cheese, which has a harder, cheddar-like consistency.  For those of us who love cheese but have mild lactose intolerance, goat cheese is the solution. 

Sacrificing my fingers as goat pacifiers

After about an hour, we said good-bye to the wonderful folks at Beltane.  We stopped on the way home to pick up a loaf of French bread and devoured two of our four cheeses as soon as we got in the door.  My family is happy I pushed them to go there and I had a memorable Mother's Day thanks to the goat farm.  It's over seven more months until my birthday....what will I force them to do next?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Counting My Eggs

I'll bet you've been thinking, "We haven't heard about Sharon's chickens in a while.  Wonder what they're up to?"  Well, the girls have been busy scratching up bugs, leaving poop around for the dog to clean up, laying eggs and a couple are preparing for motherhood.  In a previous post on the tendency for some hens to become broody, I mentioned that when the broody mood strikes a hen, she'll sit on the nest all day and night, taking a couple of short breaks to eat and drink.  She'll bristle and cluck menancingly (ever heard a chicken growl?) when I lift up the cover of the nesting box in an effort to scare me away from her nest.  Some will bite when you reach under them.  A broody hen will stop laying once she thinks she has enough to hatch and start sitting on her eggs so that they will all begin incubating at the same time.  This is how birds get their clutch to hatch within a 48-hour period even if it took 10 days to lay all the eggs.  A fertilized egg remains in a state of limbo until incubation commences.

Mumbles - Blue Silkie
In this day of mass egg production and plug-in incubators, most modern hens have the broody trait bred out of them.  If you don't want new chicks running around all the time, but just want eggs for consumption and healthy chickens in the backyard, broody gets in the way.  Some hens, however, are naturally broody and can serve the purpose of being a surrogate mom if one wants to hatch chicks the way that nature intended.  Such is case with many Silkies, the funny looking chickens with hairy legs and fuzzy hair that stands up on top of their heads.  We have one Silkie, a little blue one named Mumbles.  Silkies are well-known for being a broody breed and are often used to hatch other hens' eggs the old fashioned way.  Silkies are a bantam (miniature) bird, weighing less than 2 pounds.  On the other end of our chicken spectrum, we have Thelma, an 8-pound Jersey Giant. 

In casual conversation with fellow volunteer Lorraine at the horse farm, I learned that she not only had many chickens, but also had pheasants.  She was interested in hatching her eggs, but none of her birds had the maternal broody instinct.  I'll remind the reader that I do not have a rooster, so although my hens lay daily, none of the eggs are fertile.  Lorraine has both genders of chickens and pheasants.  I was at the point where I needed to break Mumbles of her broodiness, but after talking to Lorraine, we decided to give Mumbles a job.  

We put 8 tiny, dark green pheasant eggs under Mumbles, removing the golf ball decoys to encourage the other hens to lay in other parts of the nesting boxes.  Hens like to all lay in the same one or two locations, even to the point where one will stand on top of another.  They will cue up like women waiting to use the public restroom, waiting for one hen to finish delivering her egg du jour (which can take over 30 minutes) just to use that particular nesting box.  The empty spaces on either side of the laying hen are ignored unless there is another egg (or golf ball) there to indicate that this is also a suitable place to leave one's egg.  Even with the golf ball decoy, some hens insist upon using the same box each time. 

Once Mumbles started happily incubating her pheasant eggs, Thelma decided she wanted to go broody too and took over Mumbles spot.  Mumbles was dedicated to sitting on her eggs, but with her small size, it's too easy for the larger hens to push her off the nest.  If I did this the right way, I'd have a separate nesting box caged off just for broody hens.  The problem is getting a hen to adapt to a new space once she has started sitting.  I tried bringing Mumbles inside, setting up a large cage for her and the eggs.  Like I'd suspected, she was so freaked out at the move that her unhatched babies were forgotten in her anxiety.  Back out they all went. 

Thelma - Jersey Giant
Toward the end of the pheasant eggs' 24-day incubation period, Thelma had all the pheasant eggs and Mumbles had two golf balls.  I tried splitting the eggs up so each hen would have a job, but the other hens would inevitably push Mumbles off her eggs.  None of the other hens would dare challenge Thelma from her spot so I gave in and just let her take all the glory while poor Mumbles hovered protectively over her Titleists.  She's not that smart, but little Mumbles is committed. 

Finally, the pheasants started pipping their eggs.  It can take a day or two for a chick to work its way out of its shell enclosure.  Unlike mammals where the mother's body does all the work to push the baby out into the world, the process of hatching is completely up to the chick which has now outgrown its womb.  The really incredible part was being able to hear the peeping and pecking and feeling the heartbeat in my hand while holding the egg.  Unfortunately, hatching takes a toll.  When the hatching started we had 7 eggs as one had broken in the nest previously.  Two chicks went through the process of hatching only to die immediately.  Two eggs never hatched.  Three eggs eventually revealed viable pheasant chicks.  We were amazed at how large the chicks were compared to their egg.  It was twice as much chick as egg. 

Pheasant egg hatching
I had told myself that if hatching eggs worked, fine.  If not, I wasn't going to lose any sleep over it.  However, I stayed home the day the eggs started hatching, checking on the eggs every hour or so.  I was even out there at 10 pm with a flashlight.  My concern was that I'd learned from the wonderful resource of the Pheasant and Partridge Forum on Backyardchickens that pheasant chicks are so wild that they will not stay with their surrogate mother, but will run off.  I wanted to make sure I brought each one inside to the cage I had set up with a heat lamp as soon as it hatched.  Hatching under plain heat doesn't work either as they need the humidity, otherwise the egg sticks to their feathers and inhibits their movement.  Once a midwife, always a midwife.  Who was I kidding?

New Pheasant
Pheasants are beautiful birds and most often used for hunting.  Their feathers make gorgeous fishing flies, hence my husband's interest.  The pheasant can not be domesticated like the chickens.  They require a separate, completely enclosed area which allows them room to fly.  If given the chance to escape, a pheasant will take off; no thank you's, no parting gift, no last glance over the shoulder, just gone.  They can't be mixed with chickens as they are likely to pick up diseases from them.  They are actually known for attacking chickens and each other if the conditions aren't spacious enough.  Pheasants are truly wild and since we like having pets and didn't want to do any new construction, we declined Lorraine's offer to keep any. 

Lorraine has since gotten an incubator, a method I would employ if I wanted to hatch a lot of eggs simply because it leaves less to chance.  She did, however, give us eleven fertilized hen eggs to try when she picked up the pheasant chicks.  Thelma and Mumbles are at it again, partly because I feel guilty for taking their babies away.  I drew a black line around the fertile eggs with a marker to differentiate them from our other eggs.  Lorraine has agreed to take any chicks back that we don't want.  Hatch date is May 21st.  I'll keep you posted. 

Pheasant Chicks