Country Living Challenges: Keeping Chickens (Alive)

Our beautiful and obnoxious rooster, Cappy, woke us this morning with his raspy sunrise song. On a typical morning, there’d have been nothing unusual about this, but we were surprised to hear his voice. When we went outside, there he was, drenched with rain and looking irate on the front steps.

Usually, roosters don’t hang out on the front steps.

It all started on Saturday. Last week, we lost several of our hennies. Evert day or two, one or more would go missing. On Saturday night, I didn’t check the birds, but at about midnight I heard clucking and squawking outside my bedroom window. I charged around the house like a lunatic in a state of undress, searching for a flashlight. I couldn’t find one, so I ran outside and switched on the truck’s headlights. Nothing. I ran back in and found the flashlight, put on some more clothes and went out to stalk the night predators. I treed a raccoon on power pole in the yard, but couldn’t find a chicken. After looking, I went to the coop and counted. Everyone was home except Cappy. I figured he was lost.

I didn’t see a trace of Cappy in the morning which I didn’t find strange. Usually, when a chicken goes missing, it’s just gone without a trace except maybe for a few feathers strewn around the site of the kill. I went on with my life and started checking on the birds before bed, finding Windsor in a tree, Sunday night, and lifting her out to stick her in the henhouse where she belongs. It wasn’t until Monday that I saw Cappy again, scratching in the chicken yard like he’d never been gone. It was like seeing a ghost. Sean and I had to lift him and WIndsor out of the trees that night.

Tuesday, we came home a little after dark to find Windsor’s feathers all over the chicken yard, one of the babies torn to bits in the henhouse, and Cappy missing. Sean grabbed the .22 and managed a shot at the raccoon that was still gnawing on Windsor at the back of the chicken yard. He missed the shot and the chicken-thief got away. It’s devastating each time we lose a bird. We try to take care of them, but there’s not much we can do when a coon has learned to go into the henhouse in daylight. Later that night, after we cleaned up the mess and went to bed, we heard clucking and squawking out the window, a repeat of Saturday. We ran out and found a bedraggled looking Cappy, tailfeatherless, sitting on the ground by the back door. We tucked him in and went back to bed.

He was gone last night when we get home, and every day we assume he’s not coming back, but so far he’s proven resilient. He looks ridiculous, strutting around and naked in patches where critters have been at him, and this morning he was soaked to the skin to boot. I wanted to laugh: “The emperor has no clothes!”

Cappy may not be pretty, but he’s tough, which I guess is what counts if you’re a country chicken.

We’re on the lookout for new hens. It’s down to Cappy, Freckles, and the two remaining chicks, who I believe are boys. Remember when we were getting a half-dozen eggs a day? Those days are long gone, no thanks to Chunky and Co.

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My New Hat

Last night I got into bed, all ready to have an early night. Sean was just about to climb in with me, but he heard something out front.

“Chunky’s on the porch. I’m going for it”
“If you get him, what are you gonna do with him?”
“he’ll be too blown apart. I’ll just throw him away. It’d be a different story if we could get any .22 bullets.”

From bed, I heard that shotgun noise (ch-chk), then a while later, BOOM. Sean came back inside.

“It was a clean kill. I kinda feel like I should do something with it”
“But you said —”
“I’d feel bad”
“okay. Let me get dressed”

five minutes later I was kneeling on a tarp in the middle of my kitchen floor, helping Sean process a raccoon. The entry wound was small, just the size of a quarter. The sternum was shattered and the lungs were full of shot. Chunky didn’t suffer, and most of the meat and fur was in good condition.

I’ll be honest. Sean and I are amateurs when it comes to this stuff. I’m sure any of my students could have gutted and skinned this thing faster than we did, but we’re learning, and at least we have the gumption to try.

Sean froze the head separately for me. When I get home tonight, I’m going to thaw out the hide and scrape it, then wash it and tack it to a board to dry. When it’s dry, I’ll try my hand at brain-tanning. If all goes well, I’m going to try to make Chunky into a hat. We messed up the tail a little, but it’s a first try, and skinning a tail isn’t easy. The head skinned out nicely though.

Raccoon is edible, though my students don’t recommend eating it in the summer. I need to do more homework on that subject before I make a decision. Right now, I don’t know whether we’ll eat it. If we don’t, it’ll go to the chickens, circle-of-life-style. We don’t kill for sport, but to control pests, and we try to make sure that every part is used somehow. We even saved the Arkansas toothpick.

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Howdy Farmer

I got crafty this weekend! I made the new seat for this old chair out of my old overalls and a worn out pair of Sean’s work khakis. I made the potholder out of an old t-shirt using the bottom of an old lampshade for a loom. Making beautiful and/or useful things out of trash for free leaves me feeling like a giddy rockstar.

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We’re expecting a couple of tobacco plants and some heirloom tomato and pepper starts to arrive in the mail sometime soon. It’s expensive to order the plants, but we didn’t have success with the greenhouse this year, and we could use the head start that healthy plants will give us. Sean has been working overtime to till up enough garden for the summer. Yesterday we popped in a set of tomatoes and a set of peppers, and the garden is already half-again as big as it was last year, without our having planted corn. We’re swimming in lettuce, though our peas have some kind of fungus and aren’t producing like they should. The summer garden will be a handful, but I think, with my trusty partner by my side, I’ll do better than I did last year at keeping it from getting overrun.

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IMG_2228It seems our garden has laid a golden egg: I looked it up, and the internet says that this guy and his babies are Mostly Harmless, but there are holes in our sweet potatoes, so I have my doubts. He is pretty cool looking, though. In other insect news, those horrible blackflies that come through window screens and bite like mosquitos are back. We haven’t figured out how to keep them out, so we’ll just have to live with the agony until we can create some kind of ingenious solution.

The chickens have been troubled this week. It seems that someone has started eating eggs, which we have to put a stop to somehow. I know it’s because we don’t collect eggs early or frequently enough, but collecting eggs is a real challenge on our schedules, especially since Cappy turned vicious. We gave Spot away this weekend, in hopes that Cappy would chill out. Chunky and his family are back, and though they can’t get onto the back porch because of the foster kitties, they’re wreaking havoc in the chicken yard. We didn’t realize it until today, when we heard the chickens squalling from down in the garden where we were doing some weeding. Sean sprinted up the hill, and by the time I’d caught him he’d already chased two raccoons out of the henhouse. We lost all three of our sexlinks this week, after having had months with no attrition, and it looks like Chunky’s to blame. Sean’s ready to blow the whole Chunky clan away.

The pigs are growing a couple of pounds a day, and they need it! Our barbeque is next Saturday, and we’re expecting more guests than last year. We bought these pigs at a smaller size than last spring’s, and they’ve had less time to grow. We’re expecting them to weigh in at around 110 pounds, whereas Big-un was a hefty 140 by Memorial Day. We won’t have as much pulled pork, but I had to bag and freeze about two thirds of what we had last year, so there should be enough to feed everyone and then some, and Sean’s planning to smoke one of our turkeys to make doubly sure.

Sean and Sizzie mugging for the camera.

Sean and Sizzie mugging for the camera.

 

Pig Problems and Other Stuff

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We had the worst night of sleep in intergalactic history this week. The first time we woke up that night, there was something screaming bloody murder out front. We thought it might be a pig, so we leaped out of bed. I threw on shoes, snatched the flashlight and sprinted down the driveway following the shrieking sound. The sound stopped, and I turned back, illuminating the porch where Sean stood half-dressed, barefoot, and loading a shotgun. I turned the light on the pigs and they looked at me with expressions of porcine consternation. They were piled like sausages in their little shelter, wondering why I’d disturbed their slumber. I guess the screaming was a rabbit or something in the claws or jaws of some predator. We went back to bed.

The second time we woke up, there was a quiet murmuring coming from the kitchen, a quiet, British-accented murmuring. I sat up. There shouldn’t have been anyone in my house aside from the snoozing Sean beside me, and there certainly shouldn’t have been anyone British in the house at all. I shook Sean awake, alarmed, and he coolly rolled out of bed to silence the clock radio in the kitchen.

Nights here are usually not peaceful. There are always owls and coyotes in the woods, and often an armadillo or two will trundle by under the bedroom window in the night, making as much noise as a lawnmower or a small marching band as it rustles through the dry leaves. Sometimes the rain will drive sideways through the open windows over our bed and soak us awake, or the lightning will rattle the windows. What we don’t usually get are human disturbances like the BBC world news.

It rained a lot yesterday. Sean has threatened to go all Army Corps of Engineers on the hill behind the house to create some kind of drainage system that doesn’t require an ark.

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antediluvian back porch with Chunky the raccoon

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Postdiluvian back porch. My shoe floated away.

The raccoon that has been raiding our back porch has friends and/or family accompanying him to the buffet now. We’re going to have to start keeping all of our feed in the house, which blows. The varmints are cute, though, and it’s cool to see them out there, fearlessly growing ever fatter on our dime. Tonight, we heard squealing out front and went to check on the pigs, only to discover a raccoon brawl in a treetop beside the house.

IMG_1909We’ve outfitted the front porch for relaxation time. It’s not perfect, but watching the storm from the couch last night was pretty exquisite. I love the smell that soaks up from the ground when it rains and the rumble that starts underground with each thunderclap, and climbs to rattle the windows. We’re warm and dry on the porch, but only just.

we donated this homestead basket to a friend's silent auction

we donated this homestead basket to a friend’s silent auction

We’re facing some pretty serious challenges with our pigs right now. They seem to have no respect for the electric fence. We peeked outside about half an hour ago, and they were in the garden. They had dug up all of the corn that Sean planted this week, completely ignoring their new boundaries. They’re fearless when it comes to the fence, and we’ve got video of them hopping over it like fat little gazelles. It wasn’t an issue until Sean moved them this afternoon, but now it’s a front-burner concern. They’re loose right now, and we’re hoping they’ll independently decide to hop the fence back into their pasture. If they don’t, we’re kinda screwed. They’re too skittish to herd and not hungry enough to lure anywhere. I’m glad we don’t live near a major roadway or have any nearby neighbors with aggressive dogs, but I’m not thrilled at the idea of letting them have their way with our gardens.

pigs on the loose

pigs on the loose

pigs in the garden. Oh boy.

pigs in the garden. Oh boy.

Update: Night is the best time to deal with unruly swine. They just want to sleep and they don’t see especially well. We were able to rebuild the fence around them while they huddled together in a pigpile. After a long week of teaching, building an electric fence in the dark is an excruciating exercise in patience. The wires tangle up in the shadows, your flashlight dies, your partner mutters threats under her breath and you can’t quite make out whether they’re directed at you or at the errant hogs. You slip in the mud and pig shit and discover new crimes (they’ve dug up the onions!) every few minutes. It’s awful. I don’t recommend it. Electronet, here we come.

I am so ready for some pulled pork sandwiches.

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The little porkers are getting friendlier by the day. I managed to pet one while it was snoozling the other day, and they didn’t scamper away when we went into the pen earlier this evening.

Coming back to school from break has been challenging. Waking up before sunrise every morning doesn’t feel sensible anymore, and spending all day inside feels like madness when the weather is perfect. The mosquitoes aren’t out in force yet, and I spent an hour this evening reading on the lawn in the purple shade, soaking up the bike-riding light, the t-shirt temperatures, the silence of butterflies on the purple flowers in the grass and the smell of yesterday’s rain. The redbuds are blooming like confetti in the understory, and the sassafras tree by our steps has these peculiar firework flowers. Trees are poised to leaf out at a moment’s notice, hazel alder catkins are dripping from branches everywhere, and the quince in the side yard is electric pink. I don’t know how to describe the smell of the wind, but it feels like a warm washcloth on your forehead.

Seeing my kids again has made me happy. I missed their ingenuousness and their contrasting self-consciousness. I missed their jokes and their smiles and the ways they express their frustration. I love teenagers, especially my teenagers. I’m feeling inspired this week, which is a pleasant change from the frustrated apathy I’ve been feeling toward my job recently. Geometry has been awesome and conceptual. I wouldn’t say they’re all grasping the material, but I can confidently say that several of them are grasping it at a high level, and most of them are grasping it adequately. Algebra has been okay. My 7th period is a train wreck right now, but my first and fourth are doing impressive work with quadratics. I have a few students who have made incredible strides this year, and I know that if I hit PEMDAS and writing expressions hard next year (hard = ton of bricks vs. tower of eggs) I’ll see some real magic happen.

When I got home tonight, the piggies had snurfled dirt up over the lowest electric wire of the fence and joined the chickens in the chicken yard. Bad Pork! I chased them back in and collected eggs, noticing the carpenter bees bumbling around the eaves for the first time this year. Freckles is still on her eggs, fluffing up to approximately a cubic foot and gurgling every time someone enters the chicken house. We expect her eggs to hatch within the next ten days.IMG_1695
Look at all those eggs! These birds are out of control!
You can see our automatic chicken door in the background, which has been an absolute life saver and, along with the solar fence charger, one of most useful technological advances in farming since the dibbler.

We had dinner yesterday at Pizza Hut in Helena to help a friend fundraise to bring some of her Spanish students to Costa Rica. You can help her out by making a donation here. On the ride home, Sean and I almost finished listening to Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. We couldn’t stop, so we finished up while we washed dishes together. The book was beautifully written (another win for Gary D. Schmidt, who has a gift for motifs that astonishes me every time) and told a story about my home state that I had never heard before. Mainer or not, you should check out the book, but if you’re a Mainer, you should make a point to learn about Malaga Island.

Look what was raiding the critter-food bin! The flash scared it off… for now.  Dang things have those cute little hands and they always figure out how to get into our feed. Sean is going to put something heavy (like our fat cats?) onto the food bin to thwart the varmints.
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