Thursday, September 29, 2011

Not Exactly Spring Chickens Anymore

Over two years ago, ten baby chicks arrived at the Ledyard Post Office in a box addressed to me and we became backyard chicken hobbyists. I still have seven of those chicks and have since added more. Along the way, the rooster and two hens were sold, we lost a couple of hens to predators, hatched a couple of chicks and gave them back when they turned into little roos; now we have a flock of 13 hens. To those who may still wonder, yes, hens lay quite well without a rooster. We have a diverse flock of four Americaunas, two Silver Spangled Hamburgs, a Silkie, Jersey Giant, Light Brahma, Rhode Island Red, Red Star (a mixed breed), Plymouth Barred Rock and our favorite, Buffy the Buff Orpington.

Foster, one of our Americaunas as a baby chick
Last spring as the days became longer and the snow finally melted, egg production got up to nine eggs daily. Now we’re averaging four eggs per day. My original hens are reaching the age of less egg production, chicken menopause if you will. Chicken farmers often routinely cull the flock every two to three years and replace them with new pullets. That way their egg production keeps up with demand and they don’t end up with hundreds of less productive hens. We, however, have chickens as pets so although Foster hasn’t laid an egg in weeks, there are no plans to “off” her.

The Americaunas - Flo, Foster and Billie, Faye in back
I was aware that hens’ egg production slacks off considerably after a few years, but was curious as to other causes of fewer eggs. I turned to the Back Yard Chickens website and found an article written by J.C. Hermes which goes into more detail. In general, egg production is affected by age, temperature (hot or cold), breed, light, nutrition, stress, broodiness and molting. The article is written about the White Leghorn chicken, an excellent egg laying breed normally used for commercial production. The author states that the young hen starts laying at 35 weeks old, lays 265 eggs annually, her peak production lasting 10 weeks after which the eggs gradually come less frequently.

The egg production from my girls has slacked off more than normal even taking the shorter days into consideration so I’m leaning toward age as a cause. A couple of hens are molting so they are excused from laying for a few months. A molting chicken has to put all her energy into growing new feathers, not making eggs. Pilgrim, my Plymouth Barred Rock hen, is currently broody. Pilgrim prefers to sit on the nest than lay eggs, so she’s excused for now also. Once Pilgrim gets past this hormonal phase, she’ll go back to laying again.

Kelsey with the Peeps
As for other possible causes, I don’t regard my hens as stressed birds. They range freely in our yard and have continuous access to layer pellets, oyster shells for calcium and water. They come running to us in the yard, a behavior reinforced by the receipt of our leftovers. They don’t peck each other’s feathers out until bald spots show, a sign of overcrowding or an active rooster. I did notice that after Hurricane Irene came through, egg production dropped markedly for days afterward. The storm followed by the constant noise of my neighbor’s generator probably caused them more stress than it did my family.

I have a heater in the chicken coop for the cold winter nights which keeps the temperature above 35 degrees. I do this not for egg production, but to prevent my girls from getting frost bite on their combs and wattles. This year I may add a light. Egg production is definitely influenced by the amount of light exposure with the normal recommendation being at least 12 hours daily for maximum egg laying. I’ve noticed that if the weather is overcast and rainy, the following day’s egg production will be smaller. Likewise, sunny days yield more eggs.

Backyard breeds like mine are not expected to be major egg layers. My hens all look different and their eggs reflect their diversity; they can be small, large, white, blue-green, brown or freckled. I usually know each egg’s creator by name. I got the chickens for several reasons; pets, pest control, garden fertilizer and the most delicious, beautiful eggs. We don’t need a bunch of eggs, but it’s kind of special when your breakfast has been produced by someone you know personally.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's a Good Thing They Have Nine Lives

I hate to admit it, but there has been more than one occasion when I could be considered an animal abuser. I don’t mean I’m likely to be on Animal Cops or Hoarders; I get just as upset as the next person when I see cases of severe neglect. It’s just that I’ve experienced a few instances where the result made me feel extremely guilty, and lucky that the situation wasn’t worse.

Anyone who’s read my previous blogs about Cassie knows that she is my favorite Maine Coon cat. But even I, major Cassie fan that I am, have unintentionally caused this sweet brown ticked torbie with no trace of torbietude, bodily harm. For the uninformed, “torbietude” is cat terminology which means “tabby with patches of red, aka “torbie”, calico or tortoiseshell with an attitude.”  Many otherwise educated cat fanciers falsely label a cat’s personality by its color combination as if it were fact. I can easily dispute that claim by demonstrating my non-torbie’s (male or female) moodiness and my sweet torbies without a care in the world as examples. To me, the label is akin to saying all red-headed women have fiery tempers and all blonds are dumb…ever notice how hair labels don’t apply to men? But I digress….

My more recent cases of Cassie abuse have centered on her pregnancies. Being a breeder of long-haired cats, I’ve found that Maine Coon queens have an easier time if I trim their coats along the vital areas. In anticipation of the inherent messiness of kitten birth, I’ll cut the hair around her backside. A shorter coat makes clean up less tedious for a cat who’s just delivered kittens. Most cats are so fastidious, they will clean not only their kittens, but eat the placentas, tend to their own backsides and tails which become matted down with amniotic fluid and also lick the bedding in their attempt to make the nursery clean for their new family. The instinct comes from the need to destroy any odors which would attract predators.

In addition to trimming the area where the kittens arrive, I trim a swath all along the mother’s belly to make it easier for the kittens to find the teats. Kittens actually learn that when they are blindly searching for the milk bar nozzle to stay in the short hair section. If they climb up to the region where the hair is long, they’ve gone too far and will change direction. The long hair becomes a marker that lets the kittens know where they should look.

Some pregnant queens don’t like to lie still while I’m trimming their bellies, so I’ve found it easier to do it while they are in labor (if it’s taking a long time) or shortly after they finish delivering. Once kittens start arriving, the new mom won’t go anywhere. I just ease over with my rounded scissors and clip a path while she’s distracted with a new kitten or contractions. I was performing this kind of barbering on Cassie, when I cut off the tip of her nipple. This is when the reader should be clutching his/her chest and grimacing. I was horrified! Cassie, however, was fine. She didn’t flinch, didn’t notice the blood, nothing. I got a wet paper towel and applied pressure to stop the bleeding. Cassie kept purring. Once the bleeding finally stopped, there was the nice straight, flat angle on her little nipple. She didn’t even seem to mind if a kitten nursed on it. Since then, Cassie has fully recovered, the flesh grew back and I can’t even tell which teat I hacked now.

When Cassie was younger, more of a teenager, she fell out of my second-story bedroom window. I was downstairs when the dog suddenly jumped up and looked out the back door. I saw a cat. Wow, I thought, that cat looks just like….Cassie! The fallen window screen and the toppled lamp on my nightstand in front of the open window told the rest of the story; Cassie and another cat must have been running around in the bedroom chasing one another when Cassie jumped a little too vigorously into the window, knocking the screen out and following it down to the wooden deck below. Cassie was none the worse after her flight; she was only about eight pounds then and a lot of fluff. I remarked how lucky I was that it wasn’t one of the twenty-pound cats who flew out.

Recently, Cassie challenged my windows again. I was upstairs napping. Cassie was sequestered in our bedroom because she was very pregnant and due in a few days. During the warmer months, we have a tall, oscillating fan in our bedroom. It keeps the room comfortable and creates a white noise which makes it easier to sleep. I had just drifted off to sleep when I heard a noise. I looked up and saw nothing, heard nothing more, so I went back to sleep. Unbeknownst to me, Cassie, who had been lounging in the open window, apparently caused too much stress on the screen locks with her larger size and fell out of the window. Jay was outside and witnessed the exit. He called me, but I heard nothing with the fan going. Left to catch the cat himself, I had no idea what was going on outside until he came in the bedroom with a window screen and Cassie.

Once again, Cassie seemed unaffected by her escapades and I still felt the unborn kittens moving around. Since she was so pregnant and off-balance, there was a lot more concern about potential damage. As Cassie was delivering her kittens a few days later, I anxiously waited to see how they would look. Would the kittens be flat like pancakes, have broken limbs or just have smashed-in Persian faces? Fortunately, Cassie's kittens, like their mother, bounce well.

Cassie's Recent Litter - Quinn, Puck and Rachael

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Reflections on Hurricane Irene - Like Camping with Comfortable Beds

My husband Jay was living in Charleston, South Carolina when Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989.  I believe I was living in City Island, New York at the time (we hadn't met yet).  Jay has experience with hurricanes, losing power, floods, downed trees, rescue operations (he was in charge of logistics and recovery at General Dynamics and led the restorations efforts after Hugo.  He was also a fire fighter during college).  I grew up as a tomboy in a rural area, rode horses and occasionally have had to "rough it" by peeing outdoors. 

Jay is one of those people who can watch the Weather Channel for hours.  If a storm is brewing, he's glued to the TV and gets excited about the possibilities.  I call him the Drama King.  I've lived in Connecticut for eleven years now.  During that time, our basement has flooded on three occasions (we now have a sump pump), but never due to a hurricane.  Every time there's a hurricane or tropical storm warning, Jay prepares the yard, securing objects that may fly into the windows, extending the gutter drain with god-awful ugly PVC pipe, filling up buckets with water, cleaning the gutters so the expected deluge of water has a place to go, checking the flashlights, filling the propane tank for the get the picture.

We've all seen the drama kings on the Weather Channel smile as they predict the impending gloom and doom from the sky, smiling because this is when their ratings go up, when they are worshiped and revered, when they are no longer the geeky kid with the barometer but the Great Wise and Powerful Meteorologists.  Then the storm comes and it's not nearly so bad as the predictions.  What's a little rain or snow in New England really?  To save face, the media will still caution people to stay off the roads, batten down the hatches, stock up on milk and bread, because it could get worse than it appears.  It's sickening, but it's television.

Call me a cynic, but every time my husband gets all nervous and the Weather Channel's ratings go up with their grandiose weather predictions, I laugh.  Wait and see, I say.  Hurricane Irene is already projected to just be a mere Tropical Storm by the time it reaches us.  It'll just be windy and rainy.  We've had wind and rain here before.  Remember the floods in March of '09 when we got 14 inches of rain?  Why are you so worked up about a possible 6 inches? 

Still, we had planned to visit our friends Jo-Ann and Chris in upstate New York that weekend.  I would've gone anyway since I was still poo-pooing the notion that Irene was a major threat, but Jay was afraid of driving back home on Sunday in the wind and rain.  My friend Jo-Ann, a fellow Maine Coon breeder, had delivered a litter of nine kittens that Friday night.  Her cat Maya, had looked big, but no one expected such a large litter.  My cat Cassie was nursing a litter of four 6-day-old kittens and had room for more.  So Jo-Ann and I rendezvoused in Springfield on Saturday morning to beat the storm and I took three of her kittens to foster.  Her cat Maya was nervous and seemed to be overwhelmed by the large number of mouths to feed.  Cassie readily accepted her new babies. 

Cassie and Her Brood
The storm came during Saturday night while we slept.  In the morning it continued and the power went off at 5 am.  Big deal.  We've lost power before, but never for more than a few hours.  It'll be back.  I took a picture of our fallen 10-foot sunflowers, our big tragedy of Irene.  After a while, I realized the real tragedy of a loss of power when a household lives on well water.  Electricity is needed to power the pump which brings us water.  No running water, no flushing toilets.  My cell phone indicated that the winds in our area were gusting at 45 mph.  Not that big a deal really, but several trees fell on power lines and across roads. 

Sunflower Tragedy After Irene

We were lucky.  Debris in the yard, toppled sunflowers, but no flooding in our area.  The inconvenience of living without power or running water began to wear on me pretty soon though and I had to admit that for once my dramatic husband was right.  I was not a happy camper and this was like camping but with comfortable beds.  Sixteen-year-old daughter Kelsey had a hard time accepting that it could be days before she'd have the Internet back and another week before she could start school (Kelsey loves school).  Everyday we drove past the three large trees which were still leaning on the power lines down our road, the anger toward Connecticut Light and Power grew.  Most of our community was without power and suffering the same inconvenience and resentment.  We were promised that we'd have power back by Saturday, six days after joining the dark side, but we hoped for action sooner. 

So we learned to flush the toilets when necessary with buckets of water from our full bathtub.  We texted more to preserve our cell phone batteries.  We learned to keep a flashlight nearby at night and take advantage of daylight hours.  I drove to four different places in search of ice for the coolers then stockpiled ten bags for fear of not being able to find ice again.  Most of the ice melted before we could use it.  Finding D batteries in the toy department at Target was a major accomplishment. We visited Jay's niece and her 6-month-old baby girl, Rori, at their home in New London where they still had power.  We used her shower and dishwasher, grateful for cleanliness every other day.  Jay started taking showers at work.  We used the dogs' large water jug to bring water home from New London.  We learned that boiling water on the grill and trying to wash dishes was more effort than it was worth.  Jay learned that puncturing a Keuring cup and straining it for a cup of coffee could be a little crunchy.  We bought a new game to play by candlelight, "Hedbanz".  Kelsey, who normally spends most of her time in her room on her laptop pretending to be annoyed with all things parental, learned to come in our room after family game time and keep us up late with conversation and flatulent humor.

Kelsey with Baby Rori

Our neighbor ran a generator which came to symbolize our suffering.  We did not have a generator and therefore lost most of our food even with our iced coolers.  We rationalized that even if we could find a generator to purchase, the cost of buying something that we'd only use once every ten years or so wasn't worth it.  Most generator owners run them for a few select hours to keep the food preserved, take a shower or have light at night.  Our neighbor ran his generator constantly.  Non-stop.  At first it hummed.  Our houses are far enough away from one another that when the trees are in full foliage, we can't see each other.  We can't hear each other either, but can hear loud noises like a barking dog.  It's normally very quiet and secluded at our house nestled in the woods.  Every day, I'd drive around to the nearby towns with power, charging my phone, in search of batteries, ice or some other survival tool and hope to come home to a house with all the lights on.  Instead, as I pulled up to our house and opened my car door, I heard the roar of the neighbor's generator indicating that we were still doing without.  I curse you generator.

Fortunately, the weather was perfect.  Not too hot, not too cold, no humidity, no rain.  Temperatures were in the high 70's during the day, mid-60's at night.  With our windows open, it was good sleeping weather.  That is, it would have been if it weren't for the incessant throttle of the generator pounding in our ears.  That damn generator teased us, "Nyah nyah!  We have power and you don't!  We can flush our toilets and and take showers and you can't!  We don't have bags of ice melting all over our freezer and you do!"  By Day Five, the noise was deafening. 

My Nemesis
In between all this, I was bottle-feeding newborn kittens four times a day, weighing them twice daily by flashlight, mixing up Kitten Milk Replacer with bottled water and trying to clean the bottles the best I could.  Cassie's milk supply took a few days to catch up with the demand of three additional kittens and the newborns weren't gaining well.  Two of the kittens faded and died.  I don't blame Cassie or myself as three of Jo-Ann's six kittens died also.  Sometimes there occurs an awful thing called Fading Kitten Syndrome.  It could be due to an underlying uterine infection that was transmitted to the kittens, but took a while to take effect.  Or it could be due to the large litter size and the mother not having enough natural immunity to pass around to everyone.  No one is completely sure of the cause.  Either way, the results were depressing. 

On the fifth day, the trees leaning on the power lines had been cut for two days, but still no power.  The newspaper had a headline: "CL&P: We're Working as Fast as We Can".  89% of Ledyard was still powerless.  I got an automated call from the school superintendent telling the community that our town would be distributing free bottled water and meals from the Town Hall.  Showers were set up across the street at the elementary school.  I despaired that it had gotten this bad.  Did this mean we were going to have to wait even longer as the rumors suggested?

That afternoon, an orange Asplundh tree truck drove up our driveway to check the lines.  We spilled out of the house like hillbillies, cheering it on.  Kelsey yelled to the men in the truck, "We love you!"  Hey, if a 16-year-old girl telling you she loves you doesn't inspire a flip of the switch, what will?  A few hours later, while were playing Hedbanz again by candlelight, it came back.  We cheered so loudly the cats scattered at our outburst.  Kelsey took off to her room to go on her laptop.  As she left to go upstairs, I told her it'd been nice talking to her the past few day and not to be a stranger.  Before I shut the windows to turn on the air conditioning, I yelled at the top of my lungs out the window toward our neighbors, "You can turn off your damn generator now!"