March 30, 2012

Henhouse Rules Part II (Bloody Chickens!)

It's days like today when I wonder if I'm really doing the right thing by raising my own chickens for eggs. It's a noble task, and the rewards (usually, fresh eggs daily) are many, but the challenges are also abundant. It's not like we don't treat them well—they have fresh food and water 24/7, a veritable chicken condo with a multilevel coop, a fenced-in pen to protect them from cats and dogs, and even regular free-range in the yard and trees. So what's the catch?

In our latest saga of chick-rearing, everything was going fine until...the twenty-seventh day. In general, things had been going well in the henhouse ever since rooster #2 was shipped off to la suegra's house a few months ago, al caldo. The black and white tweed rooster who escaped scot-free earned his stay by getting along swimmingly with the three hens. But the most recent events have taken us from the joy of birth to the horror of cannibalism in a matter of days. Timing played a special role in this whole happening so it's broken down by days.

Warning: this relate is not for the faint of heart.

Day One: One hen got broody and decided to sit on some eggs.
Day Three: Hen is still on eggs. Another hen joins her to sit on more
Day Four: Two hens are sharing the sitting on seven eggs in a large nest box.
Day Five: Another hen comes in to lay an egg. She accidentally breaks one of the incubated eggs.
Day Six: The two nesting hens' next box is lidded off from the others, I let the nesting hens out daily for food and water.
Day Seven: The other two hens are laying in the other boxes. No more broken eggs.
Week Two: Hens still sitting on eggs
Week Three (Day 15): Wondering why chicks haven't hatched, I look up incubation time online, and am reminded that it's three weeks (21 days), not two weeks for chickens.
Day 18: Hens are still on eggs. Other chickens and rooster are fine. I start counting the days.
Day 20: A wonderful surprise: the first hatched chick! Unfortunately, I also discover one of the other hens is sick. I stop by the vet's for medicine for her and supplements for the chicks' water. I isolate the sick hen. Margo cleans the coop in preparation to let the hens down from nest box.
Day 22: Two chicks are hatched, four eggs remain. I take the lighter-colored hen and two chicks down from the next box so they can run free with food and water in the coop. The sick hen is still sick after three days of antibiotic/steroid injections. The vet believes she probably ate a scorpion.
Day 23: Another chick hatches with the darker-colored hen in the next box. The sick hen, who was in a box outside the coop, is whisked away in the night by a clawed animal.
Day 25: Two more chicks hatch in the next box, for a total of five. I put the darker hen and her three chicks down with the others in the coop
Day 26: Everything seems to be fine, chicks are getting stronger. I do notice that the darken hen seems to be a little more clueless, more interested in eating and has even pecked one of the chicks (although she did feed another), whereas the lighter hen seems to be more maternal and protective of the chicks. I figure they will "figure it out." The 6th egg has been abandoned, unhatched and cold, and I dispose of it sadly. That night, I ask Margo how long he thinks we should keep them in the coop before we let them out into the pen. He says, maybe a few days. Famous last words.
Day 27: (this morning) I happened to notice one of the hens bobbing her head in the coop. Not another scorpion, I think to myself and run outside.

When I get there, I make a horrific discovery: the darker hen is sort of bowing in front of the lighter hen, who is pecking her comb and her head, which is covered in blood. I rush into the coop and separate them immediately, noticing that the chicks are huddled off to the side. I stand for there for at least a minute agape, with my toddler standing at the door offering us the hose, trying to decide what to do. If I put the lighter, maternal hen with the chicks, will she kill them? I curse the lighter hen, asking her what in sam hell she was thinking. As if she understands. What do I do with the injured hen, and where do I put her so the others can't get to her? If chickens smell blood, they just keep pecking. I try to think why the lighter hen did this, when they got along just fine as nest box mates for three weeks. Then I remember how protective she was of the chicks, even trying to peck me when I got near, and that they are hens of fighting stock—seven were given to us three years ago by a friend who at the time was raising fighting cocks. At first I was apprehensive but when they demonstrated what good egg layers they were, we kept them. Their natural aggressive qualities had never reared their ugly head (literally, blood-covered and quite ugly) until now.

Upset, I put my daughter safely in her stroller while I frantically searched for my first aid kit. Why so much loss on the heels of what was supposed to be the joyous hatching of eggs and cute fuzzy chicks? I can't find the medicine for the injured hen, so I call my husband who sound utterly unsurprised that this happened—they're fighters, he says, and they've been inside too long. Not able to argue with him, I rush back outside and wash off the injured hen's head—she's not putting up a fight, then check on the other, who's closely guarding the chicks. I sterilize her wounded head and it becomes clear the other hen intended to peck off her entire comb—only a little stump remains. Her eyes are half swollen shut. I am appalled, but do my best to clean her up and then administer the same antibiotic/steroid injection I had just days earlier been administering to the other sick hen. I put her in a fenced off section of the pen in the shade and keep an eye on her.

I check on the other hen with chicks every hour or so. They're all still OK. The rooster crows all day long and the other hen is looking for a way into the pen so she can lay her egg. They seem oblivious. I have errands to run and I know if I take the injured hen to the vet they're only going to do what I just did for her, except charge me a fee I can't afford. So I cross my fingers and hope that this latest drama will blow over fast, because I'll be damned if I'm going to have a bloody Easter basket on my hands!

March 19, 2012

Bonfire Anxiety

We have this family tradition of having bonfires on the solstices and equinoxes, and with the spring equinox coming up you'd think I'd already be inviting friends and family over to toast marshmallows this week. But we're just getting over being sick (the baby still is, technically), and I'm more overworked than usual. Normally even those factors wouldn't make us shy away from a shindig—sometimes celebration's the best medicine—except that we experienced an unusually traumatic fire just over a week ago—one that puts all previous bonfires to shame for its scale, timing, and impact.

Almost everyone's lives have been touched by fire, if not literally then remotely. The mass media has brought the regular forest fire seasons that have threatened arid landscapes in the Western U.S. into people's living rooms, and many know someone who's been personally affected. But fewer have actually experienced a unplanned, urgent, uncontrollable fire for themselves. Lightning strikes are the sort of thing that causes life-threatening damage so infrequently that mention of them goes the way of the mythical. You see trees on the trail that have been hit by strikes, you hear of far-removed stories but they hardly ever touch our lives.

But both finally hit home (literally) for me last week when, after having been struck by lightning at approximately 11:30 pm last Saturday, 1500 of my suegro's (father-in-law's) hay bales burned down to the ground in one night. With my baby daughter and I and several family members looking on (ironically, at first, in the rain), my husband and his brothers attempted, in vain, alongside the city fire department and several good Samaritan neighbors, to put out an enormous fire that started with too much force to ever really have a chance to be stopped.  Luckily, the fire was totally contained—the only other damage was an underground electrical register box that got crushed by the trucks that approached the fire, and they did manage to save some alfalfa and sorghum. But the once imposing mountain of baled corn stalks was brought down—a year's worth of work and harvest reduced to a paltry pile of sodden and ash stained compost. I've been recalling the incident ever since, and I don't think I'll ever see a weenie roast again in the same light.

As traumatic events always do, the event and its aftermath resulted in drawing people closer together. Memories are made. Others are recalled by the elders. My suegro's stories of people he'd known who were actually killed by lightning in the cornfields they worked decades ago. My grandmother told me more of her own personal tragedy of her family losing their barn when their house and barn were struck by lightning when she was eight years old...a story I had an inkling of, from a poem she'd written, but never heard many details about. In a chilling twist to the pre-lightning strike part of the story, my two brothers-in-law (cuñados) told us that they were atop the pile of bales only minutes before lightning struck, on a ladder and crawling around up top struggling to cover the bales with a tarp to protect them from the rain. It was perhaps the only silver lining to this particular incident that they themselves were not the victims.

Outside my house this moment, nine days later, a water truck is pumping 5,000 liters of water into the water tanks that our families share that are housed in our shed. The tank was drawn down from my husband's valiant but pathetic efforts to counter the fire with garden hoses before the fire department arrived, and the city's supply hasn't been enough to top it back up. My cuñado, a man who I once got along with famously in the States, but since moving to Mexico has been a tougher pill to swallow, is also there, recounting the story of last week to the water truck man. Even though we've had our differences, they're transcended by the sadness of tragedy, and one memory from that night rises above the rest for me. The four brothers had finally given up trying to fight the fire and were standing shoulder to shoulder facing the fire, watching helplessly as the fire trucks dumped countless liters of water on the fuming bales. Everyone present had been drawn together by forces of nature, and were completely forced to relinquish all control, as part of us all went up in those flames.

March 11, 2012

Henhouse update

One of my goals as a blogger is to master the art of the short post. It's very difficult for me since I'm very long-winded. My first foray into the short blog arena was literally 5 minutes ago—to celebrate this blog's 5000th pageview. This post is not exactly short but neither is it one of my characteristic super-long posts.

What I want to say is that my experiment with the nesting chickens worked. In my last post, I described how I put up a removable door to protect the 2 nesting hens from their marauding sisters who don't watch where they step when laying their own eggs (although the other two are laying, they're not "broody," i.e. not interested in sitting on the eggs. I must be a shabby bird biologist because I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what makes a bird broody in the first place). The day after I tied a shield with custom air holes, fabricated out of a scrap piece of corrugated plastic, and affixed to the front of the next box with my crappy knots (no wonder my husband gave me a little guide to knots a few years ago...if only I'd studied it), I was pleasantly surprised to find 1) no more broken eggs up top in the occupied nesting box and 2) a fresh egg laid by one of the unbroody hens in the box below. Success. Since the 2 broody hens are sort of blocked in, even though they hardly ever get off the nest (I've never actually observed them do it—they kind of semi-fast for 2 weeks), I feel obligated to make sure they get out and stretch their legs, eat, drink, and take care of their business at least once a day. So that's a tad bit labor intensive, but if it results in cute little chickies pretty soon, I think it'll be worth it. Crossing my fingers!

My next post will be quite long because it will tell the dramatic story of something that happened here last night—a terrifying night of a huge fire on the property started by a lightning strike. But since we were up all night and are exhausted, it'll have to wait. Hasta pronto.

5000 pageviews!

Sometime this weekend The Succulent Seer got its 5000th pageview. This is pretty exciting to me considering that it's a little over a year since its inception last February. Looking forward to five times that many page views in 2012. A little ambitious? Maybe...but I have a good feeling about this year, despite all the nutty prophecies abounding. 

March 9, 2012

The Real Easter Basket

Two months have passed since I began working part-time at an English school. It's been nice to get out of the house, I enjoy the personal interactions, and I can now breathe a little easier on the economic side of things, but it's had its expected flip-side results as well. I'm quite tired every day, I worry I'm not giving enough undivided attention to my family (some correspondences are suffering), my hip pain has returned, and my amount of free time to dedicate to creative pursuits such as writing, art, and gardening has taken a hit.

But there're also some undeniably wonderful things happening at the same time—the growth of our daughter, the flourishing of our orchard and flock of chickens, even the growth of some friendships and personal strength. I tend to believe as is in nature, also is with people, and vice versa. Even when it seems like I have little extra time for anything, the above things are both a blessing and a natural result of small, diligent, patient efforts toward progress, combined with the wonderfully powerful and cyclic elements of nature.

I'm the kind of person who likes to answer every personal email I receive, but it hasn't always been possible with my new schedule. But one of the side effects of not always being the most responsive, or first to reach out, has been to find out which friendships have perservered despite my low levels of maintenance. It reveals a connection that can stand the test of time.

I never would have guessed that something as simple as, when we built our house, placing a window facing a mesquite tree, would bring so much enjoyment from the center of our home—seeing its vibrant, almost flourescent green leaved branches waving gently in the breeze and filled with songbirds coming to take a drink from a dish of water on the ground below it. It took years of gently inviting wildlife to our yard and runoff from our roof directed to the mesquite's roots for this whole scene to develop.

There's a weedy grass that got out of control in our yard while we were otherwise occupied with parenting duties, and when I finally decided to reclaim my garden and started letting my daughter come outside and explore while we worked, we'd get covered with its sticky seeds. Even the regular feeling of desperation of just walking outside for a few minutes to pick greens or feed the animals, only to spend almost half an hour just picking the spines out of our pantlegs (and weeks afterward trying to eradicate it), managed to turn into a unexpected moment of repose, albeit a month or two later. Just today, my daughter and I were standing in the kitchen after coming in from outside and I noticed she was prostrate on the floor behind me. At first, since she has a frustrating puppy-like characteristic of chewing shoes, I impatiently said, no touch! But when I looked down, I realized she was picking seeds off the bottom of my pantleg and couldn't help but smile. This is a 17-month old, who picks kale leaves and feeds them to our chickens—why had I assumed she was just getting into trouble instead of doing something constructive? I took a deep breath, stooped down, and hugged and thanked her, acknowledging to myself that I'd judged the moment too quickly.

The living things in our garden have been in a relative state of neglect, with the exception of our flock of chickens. They didn't lay a single egg for almost 4 months this past winter, and we were starting to wonder if our efforts to keep them fed and safe were in vain. Our older chickens almost got passed over for new chicks to replace them. But then miraculously, almost a month ago, they began laying again, and right now, not one but two of them are sitting on eggs in the nest, in the hopes that they will become first time moms to some fuzzy little chicks in less than a couple weeks. In checking up on them last night I observed that one of the 7 eggs they'd laid and were brooding was crushed and smeared over the others. I couldn't figure out if it was them or the other chickens coming in and stepping on them. So I decided to try and experiment with a swinging door so they could get out and eat and drink water once or twice a day but that would block the other two hens from coming in, who'd have to lay their eggs in a lower nest box. As I was snipping and collecting grass from around the yard, and placing it in the coop, rearranging the eggs carefully, I couldn't help but think of an Easter basket. Then I thought, duh, these *were* the original Easter egg hunts! Even though I probably won't have time or money to do up a fancy colorful gift basket like the kind we used to get as kids, we'll have the satisfaction of having the real thing.

Not to be trite, but cliches describe these situations well—finding the silver lining of every cloud, or asking yourself what you can learn from a situation. My own personal list goes on, but I hope I've made my point. In these particular moments, I made a mental note that sometimes even the most disdainful situations can have surprisingly sweet results—especially if you take the time to look for them.