18 April 2010

New Chicks in My Life

"You should really have your own chickens."

It wasn't a challenge - or if it was I was too dense to recognize it as such at the time - but when Stephanie first suggested I get some egg-laying hens a couple of years ago I didn't think much about it. Frankly, I didn't much care for the idea. It sounded like a lot of work. Picking up eggs at the store is so easy.

The notion, though, hung around like a bum at a plasma donation center. Then about a year ago I visited my neighbors just down the street and toured their little chicken operation. I later wrote about my conversion to local, genuine free-range eggs. I started looking at my big, empty, full acre lot a little differently. But, gee, I was way too busy to do it myself.

And then fate stepped in.

My son recently asked a local girl to a prom. Her response included a little poster with "I'd love to be your 'chick' for the dance." And, to punctuate the pun biologically, three real little chicks. Females.

Hello there!

Suddenly, I was a grandpa. Sort of. And so, the question: Should I drop them off at a local agricultural products vendor? Give them to my neighbor? Should I [hard swallow] keep them?

Steph and I have talked a great deal over the last couple of years about the evolution from local food systems to increasingly complex, networked systems. The powerful economic realities of cheap food production have led to the sad, perverse fact that it can be less expensive for a local rancher to buy commercial meat at the supermarket than it costs him to sell himself one of his animals and have it butchered. This, however, does not consider the quality of the meat.

I decided that it was time to try my hand at egg farming.

Asher and I built them first one, and then a second, larger box. We established feeding and watering systems. The bird box became a fixture in the kitchen. The little birds learned to get excited when their sugar-daddy (me) would come around. Changing their bedding every couple of days kept the place from smelling like an avian toilet.

"Peek-a-boo" through the cardboard windows

Now they're several weeks old, and their real feathers are coming in nicely.

The day before yesterday I put together part of an old dog run I had in the backyard, and turned it into a chicken run.

Mother Earth News published a good article about the superiority of genuine free-range eggs over commercial eggs. Even so-called commercial "free-range" eggs are misleading. It may mean that the eggs come from chickens that can see daylight or have somewhat more spacious cages.

I've had a talk with these maturing chicks. I've committed to providing for them and shown them what I expect. We've set some goals and I have a good feeling. I don't think they'll let me down. And I will be there for them.

Honesty and transparency are the bases of good relationships.

I don't yet have a coop, but I'll put something together during the next several weeks. I can run power from the garage to their run and give them the heat they'll need at night and during next winter. They're still a little young to be outside at night anyway. For now, my girls are enjoying being in the safety of the run during the day, eating seeds, bits of grass, and bugs, and living reasonably decent chicken lives.


Tovar Cerulli said...

Looking forward to hearing how your adventure in chickendom progresses!

Seth said...

That's awesome, Mark. I bet those eggs will be the best you've ever tasted--like garden fresh tomatoes. Susan Orlean wrote a wonderful piece on the new chicken craze recently in the The New Yorker. Check it out:


Mark Lee said...

Update(s) will follow, Tovar.

Thanks for the link, Seth. I live in an agricultural community and a few folks have always just had chickens, dutifully carrying on family traditions that predate electricity, but even out here there's been a renaissance of hen-keeping; I can think of a couple of folks who just started up within the last year.

Jeffrey said...

When they get a little older and are in the egg laying stage, they really love a little canned dog food once or twice a week, like PAL (Australia).

Remember chickens do like grubs and slugs, as well as organic grain fed.

One of my training mates from Aikido had 'chooks' (chickens) and he gave me this advice, along with half a dozen beautiful eggs each week.

Garth Huckabay said...

You might enjoy this blog - she's posted about her recent experience raising ducks.

PottsAntiques said...

I've noticed that the differences between the white eggs I buy at the store and the rainbow eggs given to us by local farmers are the flavor and yolk color. For some reason, I noticed that the local eggs have darker yolks. Let me know if you notice that with your feathery ladies.

Oh, and my significant other (also having the awesome name of Mark) wants me to tell you that the little windows you made in the box were very cute.

Mark Lee said...

It's been fun, Jeffrey, to watch them alrighty fight over the little bugs they come across outside. When they were only a week old, there was a ruckus one night when a moth ended up in their box. All treaties and former agreements were suspended during a free-for-all that went on for several minutes.

Thanks for the link, Garth. I've subscribed to Tamara's blog and will enjoy reading about her adventures with her gang of waterbirds.

I shall keep you posted, Laura. It's likely that the dark chick will produce brown eggs while the two lighter ones will make white ones. It will be very interesting to compare yolk colors of the different shell colors given practically identical diets.

Tell Chris/Mark thanks. I am becoming an architectural artist in cardboard.

The Old Man said...

I am a follower of the forager diet. I am also a scientist who understands the biological aspect of things. I also understand studies and statistics. Why is in now OK to eat free range chicken eggs where in the recent past, eggs were poison that would clog your arteries and bring on a heart attack? We even took it to the point of making "fake eggs".

Mark Lee said...

If you're already foraging, then I suspect I'll be "preaching to the choir." Still, in short, Old Man, because of the modern tendency to (1) believe that we're smarter than we are (2)and to discount the eons of evolution and consumption of real foods that preceeded us.

Regarding the first, historians like to point to example of award-winning chemist Thomas Midgley who - believing he was helping humankind - invented both CFCs and leaded gasoline in the early 20th century. Within generations, both items were banned and blamed for contributing to the damaging of the atmosphere. Similarly, early dietary thinking considered human plumbing to be similar to that of a building, with fats clogging the "pipes." And so we invented stuff made out of hydrogenated vegetable oils that ended up being far worse.

Eggs are, in fact, high in cholesterol and fats, as well as a massive list of vitamins and minerals. Modern thinking such as that offered by Gary Taubes in Good Calories, Bad Calories suggests that cholesterol and natural fats may have been falsely made boogeymen (boogeypeople?) while we should have been looking at sugar in its many forms, both obvious and subtle (processed grain foods).

Flying Mermaid said...

Awww, mazel tov, Gramps!

Eager to follow your avian journey.

Mark Lee said...

Thanks, FM. I'd already decided I'd like to have between three and six, so I just purchased three more; two Wyandotte and one Rhode Island Red. They're about three weeks younger than my first birds.

Flying Mermaid said...

Oh, goodie, staggered ages!

mary(Crone) said...

They're adorable! And you look to be a good daddy.
Try Craigslist for a free doghouse for those babes. If it's big enough you can put a pole in there for them to hang out on, hay in the bottom, and you're good to go until you get more. They won't lay without a rooster nearby, though. Could be a neighbor...?
I once raised a chicken in my apartment bathroom because the poor baby was trampled by the others at the store where I worked. I know they're supposed to be dumb as rocks, but she pottied in the potty. Pinky swear!
Oh yeah- it's me, Mary.

Mark Lee said...

Smart enough, indeed, Mary. This morning my new outdoor birds followed me up the stairs to my back porch, normally the safe-haven for my cat who doesn't quite know what to make of these noisy, investigative creatures.

Since I'm not seeking fertilized eggs, I won't need a rooster. I have arranged for shelter inside the coop for now until I can get a proper coop; I've got some great ideas from one of Steph's friends, and I've been looking at smallish coops (3-6 hens) online. Backyard chicken farming is the new "big deal," so there's a ton of information out there.

PottsAntiques said...

Simply waiting for an update on your lady friends, I mean, the chicks.

Mark Lee said...

About every other day or so during our regular conversations I can expect Steph to get around to "any eggs yet?"

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that out of my six hens, I have three left. One simply disappeared one day, and two perished in a skunk attack one night a month or so ago when I got home late and hadn't put them into their run. I was sick with frustration and vented onto video. I'll get around to cleaning that up someday and producing something with it.

Anyway, of my three, Asterisk is the lone survivor of the older hens and should be producing any day now. Colon and Hyphen shouldn't be too far behind.

I knew from the beginning that one doesn't raise hens because it makes getting eggs inexpensive and easy. I didn't know how caught up I'd get in the personalities of these crazy birds.

Judith said...

I was going to comment that three is an excellent number of hens to have. Then I read further and saw that you had bought three more. Then I read further and I see you are back to three again! I am sorry about the losses, they are quite vulnerable to predators. Anyway good luck! Chooks are very endearing and they all develop their own personalities. So rewarding. And the eggs are superb!