The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Hungry Fox and Broody Hen February 21, 2013

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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!


Culling the Flock January 11, 2013

First our hens weren’t producing enough eggs. Now they are. Only problem is, over Christmas break some of our regular customers weren’t around and our good ol’ gals just kept on doin’ their thing. We should be glad, but instead we find ourselves in a tad of a panic. We’ve got some 200 eggs now in our mudroom, awaiting their hopeful future delivery. Good thing that eggs keep really well. Cuz it’s gonna take a minute to move em. Did you know that your regular, everyday white eggs that you buy at the store may be as much as a month old? And yet still, eggs are just as healthy to eat even a month after that. Truly, this is some miracle food. Our girls eat table scraps, glean what they can from the grass and nearby woods, and turn it all into eggs. I am continually impressed with their efficiency.

These days, however, the snowfall of a few weeks ago has caused an unforseen hitch in our business, Eggs of Hope. Because the girls can’t spend the day foraging in the grass, they now depend entirely on us for food. And that – crazy at it sounds – means we must provide nearly twice as much feed as before. And at nearly $20 a bag, 2 bags a week… well, you can see this has really become more of a hobby these days than a business. It’s frustrating, especially when I’m having difficulty just buying ourselves food, but for now we’re hanging in there. I went through my pantry and cooked up every bit of pasta and flour over six months old, I opened ancient cans of vegetables I knew darned well we would never eat ourselves, and I even added a few scrambled eggs into the mix. Yup, the girls love eggs. And chicken too. ! Hey, whatever works. They are the world’s very best recyclers, of that I have no doubt. Daily I stand in awe of the miracle of a hen and her magical egg.

We sure do have a lot of magic in our house right now. Happily, we’ve got some new customers, and I’ll post some flyers in town, send out some emails. Should be able to move some if I put a little muscle into it. But still, Elihu and I have both been thinking lately that we might need to adjust our strategy a bit. We’ve had a couple of folks ask us if we sell chicken, and while we do eat our own chickens, it might not be a bad idea to step up the meat sales too. Last night Elihu and I spent nearly an hour going over numbers, ideas… I just love that he is so thoughtful about our process, so careful to consider all our options. I am so incredibly proud of him for having such a good business sense about it all. He’s just as mindful of the details as I am – and honestly, sometimes even more so.

And I’m also so very proud of him for being the farmer I myself can’t quite become. When we decide upon butchering all the non-layers next week, I hesitate. It was our original plan – how can I be getting sentimental now? I knew that the old girls were freezer-bound. I just find that it’s an honest-to-goodness personal challenge for me to follow through. But Elihu? Not a problem. In fact, he’s the one coaching me. Telling me that we tend to anthropormorphize them. That they may be individuals, but in the end they’re not that smart. They don’t return our affection. Or at least necessarily remember us from visit to visit. They are simple creatures, he tells me. They know we feed them. They’re funny to watch, and yes, he agrees, we love them…. but they’re just chickens. And after all, he tells me, they were domesticated for this very purpose. Sheesh. All right already. You’re the bigger farmer than me, it’s clear. Ok. Let’s do this thing.

So tomorrow, we’ll vent our chickens. Check out their rears, their egg-laying holes, to see if they’re wide enough to be passing eggs, or if they’re in a dormant, non-laying state. We know that if we have 42 hens but we’re only getting 27 eggs a day, 15 gals aren’t doing their job. And that makes em dead ends. Feed goes in, nothing productive comes out (and what does come out just adds to the mess and future cleanup!). We’ll vent em, paint a big white X on their back if they’re not up to the task, and plan to move em out. I’ll call the Amish farmer on Monday to see when he’s butchering. Then Elihu will help me gather and box the hens up, and load them into the car. I may take him out of school that morning to help, maybe not. It used to be a big deal, a special event, but now, not so much. He’s so nonchalant about the whole thing. Now he knows they meet with a speedy dispatch, and that’s all that matters to him. That they have a good life and a quick, humane death. Like I said, he’s a real farmer. And one with a good heart. A very wonderful combination.

I’m trying to stay focused on our new plan. We need to cull back our numbers over the winter to reduce food costs during the snowy months. We’ll sell our meat birds in mid fall, restart the flock again in the spring (as we do every year with 24 eggs in our incubator) and then start the cycle over. Near the start of fall, as it genders become evident, we’ll butcher the boys as well as the girls who aren’t laying well anymore. We’ll keep the youngish gals and a resident rooster and then just do it all over again.

This is the plan, and although it’s been our plan in years past, we’ve yet to see this process through an entire year without hiccups. Seems there’s always some situation that arises to interfere…  but I feel good about 2013. We have both learned so much together these past four years, and I feel we’re much better equipped to see our business through a successful year. Elihu and I both think that this is the year Eggs of Hope will reach its stride, get its groove. Just need to make a couple nips and tucks here and there. (Our nips and tucks will be a hell of a lot easier to make than what Congress has ahead…) That should do it. Will let you know…

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