The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Cute and Cuter January 11, 2015

Today we’d planned to clean up after Christmas. Down with the tree, to the cellar with all those bins, out with the broom, vacuum and dust cloths. Homework and lesson plans were on the list too. I was looking forward to cleaning house for a fresh start and Elihu and I were both looking forward to getting caught up in general. After talking a bit about the things coming up in the week ahead, we enjoyed watching the birds on our feeder after breakfast, and if it weren’t for Elihu’s slightly prophetic suggestion at around 1:04 of this video, it wouldn’t have warranted posting. But it was too coincidental to pass up. I’d so hoped things would quiet down around here after the holidays, but apparently not. On with the adventure…

Ok, so check out what Elihu says at around 1:04. “Squirrels are cute, but newly hatched chicks are cuter.” I bet you know where this is going….

A few minutes later I went out to feed the birds, and I heard a frantic cheeping sound. ?!?!?  (The first half of this vid has no clear audio, but some may still enjoy getting a look at our setup.) Checkout the behavior and relationship of mom and baby. Amazing.

Ok. So maybe letting our broody gal set on her clutch to just “see what happens” might not have been such a good call. We’ve never had a chick hatch naturally, without an incubator, so we kinda didn’t think it would happen. But it did (and there are fifteen more viable eggs still under a hen!). In the dead of winter we’re now faced with keeping chicks warm and fed. Lucky for them they’re so darned cute!

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A sad Post Script: Our new little member of the flock died today. It appears she froze. Although still underneath her well-meaning mother when Elihu found her there, mom was pressed up against the cold cinder block of the brooder pen’s outside perimeter. When Elihu found the chick she was cool to the touch. (I keep wondering why the mother settled there – when there were warmer spots just a couple feet away. ?) How sad we’ve been all evening. Perhaps if I’d just left them alone in the main coop they’d have been fine. I don’t know, but in any case, fretting too much over it isn’t productive. At this writing the two broody hens are sharing a nesting box under a heat lamp in the brooder pen, so things seem ok for now. I don’t want to rock the boat and introduce any new elements. They seem to be comfortable, and they have food, water and safety from other members of the flock. We’ll just have to wait and see how things turn out.

 

Hungry Fox and Broody Hen February 21, 2013

Feb 2013 hens 002

While I’ve been drinking prep solution and having polyps removed, life in the country has continued on without me, with new tiny dramas and situations arising each day. And no matter what’s on the day’s agenda, it always must start the same way: first thing in the morning, with muck boots and farm jacket on over my pajamas, I head out to water and feed. Everyone’s happy to see me, and it’s a charming way to start the day. The walk outdoors brings me into my body, the fresh air revives me, and seeing these silly, endearing creatures always – always – lifts my spirits.

We’ve had a couple of light snowfalls over the past  couple of weeks, and with the fresh snow come fresh tracks. There’s a new resident fox in our neighborhood – first made apparent to me by a friendly Facebook message a few weeks back from Stephanie, who lives across the field and the road from us (owner of the ancient model T seen in previous posts, the tracks of which you can see at the bottom of the above photo). A day later I myself saw the mangy creature run down the driveway one evening as I made my p.m. rounds. He/she merely trotted past, in no hurry to escape unseen. I hadn’t seen a fox with my own eyes in some four years. And the last one I saw, quite sadly, killed my much beloved lilac point Siamese and tabby mix, Taylor. (I still can’t quite let myself off the hook for not calling him in that one, fateful night.) My heart went out to this lil creature, regardless of the threat it might pose to my flock. In fact, I so wished I could surrender up one of my non-layers to her. But of course, I couldn’t make such a living sacrifice. After the sighting, I didn’t think much about the fox for a few days – until I saw its tracks recently.

A straight line of petite dog footprints made their way up the hill from the woods – and went straight to the coop. Then they went under the coop. Then a second set of tracks came out and proceeded to march down the course of the driveway, eventually turning to cross the field. This was a bit alarming, but nonetheless it awakened my pity on the creature, and I decided to leave out some leftovers that night. It worked. She returned, ate them, and revisited the coop. I don’t worry for the hen’s safety – that little building’s shut up tight. But it’s those couple of minutes just after sunset that concern me. If I’m not there to shut the door and gather stragglers – something might happen. And just a couple days ago, something did.

I heard a very suspicious round of hen noises one afternoon (usually attacks occur at night in my limited experience) and so I threw on my coat and made a beeline to the coop. In the snow I saw something quite different from before: groupings of two prints side by side were each separated by some six feet – making a line from the woods to the coop! This was clearly a fox moving at lightening speed – and at the end of the tracks? A small pile of feathers. No blood. No real evidence aside from that – and a reduced head count. I had to admire her. Swift, stealthy and successful. In fact, I wasn’t at all dismayed, but secretly quite happy about it. I had too many mouths to feed anyway. Since that afternoon I’ve seen tracks again, but I’m hoping she’s not quite as hungry and motivated as before and that she’ll find herself a cozy little den to nap until spring. Not letting my guard down yet though. (I’m not terribly concerned about losing one of our many generic red hens – I just want to make sure Max, Austin and a few of my favorites are safe.)

So now the cycle of life means to revive itself once again – and one hen has parked herself most determinedly on a clutch of eggs. She can’t be dissuaded – when I try to collect eggs from beneath her she pecks quite violently at me. I myself am quite impressed with her behavior. And, like the fox, I admire her innate qualities, her resolve to do what she knows she must. Sitting on eggs, however, seems quite a usual thing, right? Probably doesn’t sound so impressive.  Sounds natural, yes, I know – after all, this is how chickens reproduce, right? Well, in the old days, yes. But sadly, modern chicken breeders have made it a priority to breed out the instinct of hens to ‘set’ (sit patiently on a pile of eggs til they hatch) and instead have chosen to aggressively breed the less broody (maternal) gals. The reason being that it’s much easier to get eggs from gals who don’t sit on em, and from gals who really couldn’t care less. Rather than setting and being all broody, wasting time and hoarding the inventory, they just go on eating, laying, eating laying… And that’s what a consumer-based, commercial world demands of these gals. Kinda sad, I think. When I first heard that finding truly broody hens these days was not such an easy thing, I felt my heart sink. How sad! Can you imagine? Chickens bred to do nothing but ‘make product’, and their procreation depending entirely upon the intervention of man – and on man’s own schedule! Ich. So seeing this gal – and seeing how tireless her post (she’s been there each and every time I’ve been to the coop the past three days) my heart and hopes are lifted. Good girl.

However, it’s much too cold right now to be raising up a new flock – so I must intervene. This morning I held her head in my right hand while I retrieved some eight, toasty warm eggs with my left. She’s such a good mother, and I just hate to do this to her. She had piled up all the hay and wood chips in a cup-like shape, making a nest as snug and warm as possible. Oh dear, I really do feel bad. She’s clearly upset about my removing her future babies, and it bothers me to know she’s feeling so distraught. I try to convey to her with my heart that there will be plenty of time for this in the spring. That warmer weather is coming, and one day, universe willing, she will have her babies. Yet ultimately, a few years down the line, they’ll either end up in the freezer – or in the fox. Sounds kinda sad, yeah, I know. But that’s just the way it goes. At least everyone here has a full, rich and natural life – as fine a life as any animal could want.

And so on it goes… for both fox and hen.

Feb 2013 snow

The view from my kitchen window early morning

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Fox tracks coming in from the woods…

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and up through the model T tracks towards the coop…

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My beloved flock (Austin above at left)

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Happy, hungry hens

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The broody gal takes a water break

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… and returns to her post

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A bird’s eye view of a top row nesting box

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The fox uses the long driveway to make her exit… See you soon, you sly fox!

 

Deep Freeze January 24, 2013

Tonight is not a very good night to be a hen, here at the Hillhouse Coop. It’s mean cold outside, and although it might look as if our girls had it good… tonight, they just plain don’t. As I get up and look out the window toward the coop, I feel for em. Many aren’t even choosing to roost tonight, as they’re finding more warmth with their bellies against the ground (which itself has to be freezing too!) Alas, one door is full of holes, and now is losing a pane of glass too – by now it lets in as much outside air as a screen. A 250 watt heat bulb has been on non stop for over a month now, but little good it does on a night like tonight. When it’s below zero. When the water freezes less than a half hour after I’ve refilled it. When the birds are covered in tiny ice crystals, and half a dozen gals can’t stop sneezing. (Yeah, chickens sneeze. It means the same thing as when you and I do.)

The structure itself looks impressive; it’s well-built, sturdy, and has been built on a human scale. Painted a nice barn red, it looks a tidy addition to our property. But on a night like this, those things don’t matter so much as they serve to make me feel a good deal of guilt. I had this small structure built so that my many hens might enjoy a comfortable hen house, one with enough room for all, yet cozy enough, well insulated enough to keep in the shared warmth of so many feathered bodies. That was the idea, but I didn’t know enough yet to execute the plan as well as I should. First off, the damn ceiling’s too high. The room is too narrow, and the doors at either end prevent us from making better use of the wall space. Roosting bars are too steeply stacked, meaning that birds are always pooping on the backs of those one rung below. If I’d been thinking less about how I wanted the henhouse to match my garage and more about the comfort of the birds who were actually going to live there, I mighta done it differently. But then again, live and learn. I’ve lived with it, and now I’ve learned what I’d do differently. But for now, it’s so bloody cold we’ll all just have to make it through as best we can. Can’t make any big changes now.

Oh, may God bless and keep my chickens safe and as warm as possible tonight. They have continued to give us eggs when so many other flocks are down. They do so well by us, I only wish I could keep them more comfortable in return. Especially right now, as I’m about to snuggle deep down into my winter bed, which is so many, many degrees warmer then theirs is on this night of the deep freeze.