Monday, July 16, 2018

Hero worship

The ducks, Fern and Aida - who turned out to both be boys despite my female names for them - adore Gretchen. And who wouldn't? Gretchen struts around the yard like he owns the place. He has a flock of hens to choose from and he always gets the best and tastiest treats simply because he is the largest. No, there are no pesky gentlemanly characteristics to get in the way - he will push anyone aside to get what he wants, whether they are wife, mistress, or daughter. It is no wonder, then, that the boys look up to him and seek to emulate him whenever possible. This emulation includes attempting to mate with the hens who flap and squawk and run away as fast as possible. (But not always fast enough - they have been caught several times even though you would think a chicken could easily outrun a duck... it probably has something to do with the fact that there are two ducks versus the one hen.) It really doesn't matter how many times you tell them that there are no such things as "duckins," they refuse to listen. Or maybe they simply figure that fair is fair - Gretchen tries to mate with Minna, after all. Apparently he believes in the "duckins are possible" theory as well. 

The ducks are let out first in the morning and Fern and Aida will often forego a large breakfast in favor of running up to the dog run fence to watch as Gretchen then eats his breakfast. The rest of the day the boys spend following Gretchen around the yard as best as possible. The boys are unable to fly up and over the dog run fence so if the chickens happen to be in the dog run (where their coop is located) the ducks are out of luck and have to settle for walking along the fence line staring at Gretchen all the while. If Gretchen does happen to leave the dog run and head out into the yard, the boys can usually be found within several feet of him. They dare not follow too closely as Gretchen tends to turn on them and chase them off but this has done nothing to dampen their hero worship of him. It seems that in their eyes, Gretchen can do no wrong, which is a refreshing change from listening to my dad and my brother complain about "Hooligan" (the name Dad has taken to calling Gretchen) and his dislike of men and certain neighbors which he expresses by attacking them. But as he would likely be butchered if we were to send him anywhere else, re-homing him would probably be a death warrant so for now at least "Hooligan" stays and the ducks will continue to have someone to look up to.

The boys, hanging around outside the dog run fence while Gretchen ignores them from within. Aida is on the left and Fern is the one with more white on his head, on the right.

Gretchen, in the yard, with the boys remaining at a respectful distance.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hatching chicks on the Unfarm!

Last summer, my dad went on an epic bike ride from Washington state all the way to Maine before flying back home. My brother was temporarily in San Francisco and my sister lives in Colorado. This left my mom and I alone to tend to all the Unfarm chores. This was a huge mistake on my dad's part because that also meant that my mom and I were left alone on the Unfarm with no one to tell us "no" so when Georgia, our partridge Wyandotte hen decided to go broody we said "yes." We let her sit on her eggs - all 15 or so of them by the end - and attempt to hatch them. 

This was our first experience with hatching chicks and we didn't know quite how to go about it so we let Georgia do most of the work with keeping the eggs at the right temperature and humidity and turning them when needed. This worked well enough for the first two chicks. At that point, Georgia decided she was done and hopped off the nest for good. I only found the two chicks - who we named Luna and Sally, Luna because the solar eclipse was the next day and we wanted at least a semi appropriate name considering the occasion - because August 20th I was laying in bed with my window open and I heard rather frantic peeping that didn't sound like any of our local birds so I went out to investigate. I found Georgia in the run with one chick and the other chick was stuck in the coop, peeping her head off, trying (in vain) to call Georgia. Checking the nest box I found the rest of the 13 eggs beginning to cool off. Georgia had apparently decided that she was good with two chicks and the rest could fend for themselves. Having candled the eggs (probably way more often than we needed to or would be advised because we were so excited to see the little chicks developing inside) we knew that the eggs were all full of living chicks so in a panic I ran inside and set up the incubator, which I had purchased from the feed store upon seeing Georgia up and off the nest at one point, thinking that she had abandoned her eggs. (Hens will occasionally leave the nest to grab a bite to eat or go to the bathroom without any ill effects on the eggs. I discovered this after purchasing the incubator.) I carefully transferred all the eggs into the incubator and set it up on the kitchen table where we would be able to keep an eye on it and it would be relatively safe from dogs and cats. 

The incubator on our (rather messy) kitchen table.
The two chicks that had hatched got set up in the bunny room in a brooder pen that we fashioned out of a dog crate and brooder kit with a heat lamp on top. There was one unfortunate incident in all of this: one of the eggs in the nest had cracked open but the shell membrane had started drying out and was shrink wrapping the chick inside, who wasn't moving. Figuring it was a loss, but unsure what to do with it I just stuck it under the heat lamp next to Luna and Sally and waited until Mom came home from church to decide what to do about it. However, upon showing it to Mom we noticed it was starting to move so it was still alive in there but seemed unable to get out of the remainder of it's shell. So we took tweezers and very carefully peeled the membrane and shell off of the tiny chick. Not sure if the chick would make it or not, we named her Lucky in hopes that her name would give her good luck and help her survive. 

Lucky, half in and half out of her shell

Luna and Sally hanging out underneath the heat lamp, before the brooder crate was set up.

Once Lucky had dried out and was relatively mobile we brought Georgia into the house and set her up in the brooder pen with her chicks. She was, as it turns out, a really dedicated mother. She'd let the chicks snuggle up under her feathers to sleep or hop on her back for a ride and she always made a gentle clucking noise when food was provided to show the chicks what was food and made sure that they ate before she did. 

Georgia give a chick a ride in the brooder pen.

The rest of the chicks hatched over the next week or two in the incubator - the reason for the staggering in hatching times was that Georgia only laid a couple of the eggs herself, we believe. The rest of the eggs she rolled into her nest as soon as the other hens laid them, and then sat on them herself, so each chick was a day or two behind the previous chick in terms of development. Once they were all big enough to be outside we set up a small pen for them so Georgia could be with them outdoors but the other hens and Gretchen would not be able to get to the chicks and possibly hurt them.

A chick in the incubator, just after hatching.
Drying off in the incubator. You can see the other eggs still incubating.
One of our few blondies, we think these chicks are the offspring of Bridget, our Rhode Island Red hen.

Georgia, the proud momma, in her outdoor pen with several of her chicks.

By the way, Lucky survived and is doing fine and she is one of the four chicks that we kept. The others were given to a friend who has a farm and was in need of some more chickens. Sadly, all of our barred rock chicks turned out to be roosters. We were planning on keeping some of the barred rocks if they were hens as their mother, Lucy, is so very friendly. How we ended up with one hen that produced only males and all the other hens producing only females is a mystery to us.

Lucky, a beautiful black hen.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Arrivals and departures on the Unfarm, duck edition

I've put it off for almost a year now but I am finally making myself do it. I have to announce the departure of Maggie, one of my favorite ducks. He (named when we thought he was a she) was a beautiful solid white Pekin (you know, like the Aflac duck) that was especially devoted to his mate, Minna. He would bravely defend her from mating attempts by Gretchen and stood up to any hens that decided to chase Minna. He traveled with us to the beach, to our family house on the Puget Sound, and on camping trips where he and Minna were always a big hit with everyone. He lived most of his life (at night) inside the house with Minna and the bunnies in my art studio, locally known as "the bunny room," where he tolerated wearing a diaper quite well and was generally a very loyal, calm, and friendly duck. 

Unfortunately, a short time after moving outside into the duck house, I went out in the morning to let him and Minna out for the day and found that Maggie had passed away sometime in the night. I took his body in to the nearby humane society and had him cremated, and his ashes now sit on one of my bookshelves in my room, along side several other cremated pets. At some point I fear my deceased pets will outnumber my books - and I have a lot of books - but that is the hazard when you live with animals: you are almost guaranteed to outlive them. Sadly. 

At any rate, Maggie's sudden and unexpected departure left Minna alone in the yard and ducks are not designed to be solitary creatures. Also unfortunate was the timing of Maggie's passing. Duckling season was over and procuring new ducks in the middle of July was going to be more troublesome than I would have liked - I usually just get my ducks and chicks from the local feed store about a mile up the road. As it was I had to scour craigslist and got lucky when I found someone in the city who had just hatched a batch of Ancona ducks. 

Fortunately for me, my mom was visiting my sister in Colorado and my dad was on a cross country bicycle trip so it was the perfect opportunity to get two ducklings (as ducklings should always have at least one other duckling with them.) I find it's generally better to ask forgiveness than permission in situations involving the procurement of more pets. This then is how we ended up with Fern and Aida - two beautiful dark brown and white ducks who turned out to both be males. I would have preferred to have ended up with at least one female duck out of the two so that the girls outnumbered the boys but at the very least Minna is no longer the only duck in the yard and could spend her time with the boys if she chooses to (which she does, on occasion) and there are now three ducks to huddle together in the winter time in the duck house at night to keep each other warmer as the duck house lack central heating. 

As beautiful as Fern and Aida are, I don't know as though I would go the route of a private breeder again for acquiring ducks as the boys are much more nervous and flighty than any ducks I have ever gotten from the feed store. I think it may have something to do with how much handling the ducklings got initially, the feed store ducks being exposed to almost constant attention whereas the small breeder ducks didn't receive as much attention in their formative days. That's my theory, anyway.

Maggie and Minna

Aida, with the darker head is on the left and Fern with the lighter head is on the right. They are both quacking their displeasure at my presence in the yard. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Minna goes missing

Less than a month after Sophie went missing, we are now faced with a missing duck. Minna is small, brown, and rather inconspicuous to begin with and when she wants to secret herself away she is remarkably good at staying quiet and going unnoticed even if you happen to be standing right next to her. She does this frequently, actually. I'm not sure if she is hiding from me or trying to stay under the radar of the boys (Fern and Aida) and Gretchen, all of whom I suspect of trying to mate with her although I have only actually seen Gretchen attempting it. At any rate it is not an uncommon occurrence here on the Unfarm for me to wander around the backyard calling Minna's name while she sits in whatever spot she has chosen and waits me out. I suspect she also laughs merrily at my increasingly frantic searches as the ducks seem to have very little sympathy for my nerves.

Usually, the evening routine is that the ducks will get dinner after the chickens go to bed and then they waddle on in to their own coop for the night. This is usually when Minna decides to make her appearance: as soon as she hears the lid to the food bin opening up. The other night, however, she failed to show up so I went in search of her, fearing the worst (as anxiety is my forte.) I searched in all the usual places: under the deck, behind the wheelbarrow and beneath the fronds of the day lily. No Minna. So I widened my search and as I was nearing the gate separating the relatively safe backyard from the hugely unsafe (and therefore off limits to all unsupervised birds) front yard, where any wandering coyote or neighborhood dog could spell disaster, I saw Minna's head poking underneath the gate. It seems she had decided to exile herself from the backyard and was enjoying life in the front yard, sans any birds of the male persuasion. Which was, I may have mentioned, hugely unsafe. Mystery one: where is Minna? Solved. Mystery two: how did she get out? Unsolved. At any rate, she was found relatively quickly and I didn't have to spend a sleepless night worrying about her. 

What I thought was an isolated incident turned out not to be when Minna was discovered missing again the next day. This time, the first place I looked was the front yard as time was of the essence if she was wandering rather slowly through it (she walks with a limp from an old injury and so does not move very fast and is, therefore, one of our most vulnerable animals.) I found her almost immediately, sitting underneath the trailer right outside the gate. How exactly she got there was still anyone's guess because recent tilling and weeding activity in the side garden had exposed several gaps along the bottom of the fence line that were just big enough for an enterprising duck of Minna's size could fit through, not to mention the gap and the bottom of the gate. We blocked off the bottom of the gate with a block of wood and that seems to have stopped Minna's forays into the front yard for now (solving mystery two) but I fear it is only a matter of time before she finds a new escape hatch. She is, after all, highly motivated to keep out of the way of the Gretchen, Fern and Aida; despite explaining numerous times to them that "no means no," they refuse to listen to me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Chicken harness

Penny, currently our oldest hen, gets picked on. A lot. By pretty much everyone. She is definitely low hen down in the pecking order here on the Unfarm. I don't know if it is because she sports spurs (nothing like Gretchen, the rooster, of course but spurs nonetheless) or because she walks with a limp from an old injury she sustained when she was still young (let it not be said that we neglect the health care of our animals: the vet tried putting a cast of sorts on it but it still healed up crooked) or simply because she didn't grow up with the rest of the chickens and is thus outnumbered. But whatever the reason, she gets chased and pecked at and harassed on a daily basis. This has led her to spend most of her days hanging out in safety zones: the grape arbor, behind the old screens from the failed catio, or up on the deck. 

Feeling bad for her and inspired after a trip to Coastal Farm and Home Supply, I decided to sew our feathered friend a harness so that I could more safely take her out in the front yard to get a break from the constant harassment in the back yard. You can simply purchase ready made hen harnesses from Coastal but Mom vetoed that idea and I was too impatient to order one online and have it shipped so I broke out the sewing machine and cobbled together a harness using whatever we had on hand: mesh fabric, a D-ring, a buckle, and some nylon strapping. After a bit of trial and error, and several fittings which Penny (fairly) patiently sat through, we had a working harness. 

A neck loop goes over her neck and is attached to a back strap and then an apron like piece covers her belly and attaches to two side straps that connect through the back strap, holding the whole harness on her. A D-ring on the back strap allows me to attach a leash and take her for "walks" which don't look like walking so much as wandering around and pecking at the plants, but she seems to not mind it too much. Unless I drop her leash and let it trail behind her, then she runs squawking around the yard in circles until I pick her up again. The only reason for this behavior that I can think of is that she thinks the leash is somehow chasing her and it freaks her out. At any rate, Penny seems to enjoy her newfound freedom away from the rest of the flock and if the neighbors didn't think we were crazy before, they do now that they have seen us walking our chicken. 

Penny sporting her harness, hanging out on the front deck.

You can see the back strap of the harness a little better in this picture. The leash is not attached when she's just hanging out on the deck.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Terror on the Unfarm

For several days last week the Unfarm was terrorized by a spider. It began when a large, fast moving spider was spotted in the downstairs bathroom. Normally this would be a cause for concern but hardly a reason to live in terror. Except that this particular spider was spotted by my brother who is apparently scared of spiders and his method of dealing with them is to close the door to the room and blockade the bottom of the door with a towel or something, instead of simply killing or removing the spider. When I spotted the sheet shoved under the door to the bathroom the next morning I knew immediately something was up and asked my brother what it was, exactly, that was trapped inside the bathroom. 

Armed with a mug shot of the offending insect (or at least a physical description) and the location of it's last known whereabouts I carefully stepped into the bathroom and prepared to do battle. Unfortunately, I was too late. The spider had either hidden somewhere in the bathroom or sneaked out under the sheet somehow. In any event, it was not to be found so the bathroom was reopened and we lived under the constant threat of the spider's imminent re-emergence for several days. The downstairs bathroom was avoided in favor of the upstairs bathroom and we tread lightly and kept an eye out whenever we had to go downstairs. Those were troubling times, I tell you. 

Thankfully, after spending part of the week living in terror we woke up to a note on the refrigerator one morning that stated, "Attention, all! The horse sized hairy tarantula has been captured before it could eat anyone." Mom had, apparently, caught sight of it as it was crawling in front of her office door downstairs and had killed it and removed it from the house. I am pleased to report that the downstairs bathroom is once again in use and we can all sleep easily, no longer worried about spiders crawling into our beds in the middle of the night. Crisis averted. Until the next one, of course.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The ducks have left the building

Well, it's finally happened. The ducks have been kicked out of the house. For a good ten years or so the ducks wore diapers and slept inside in the house with us at night, or when it was very cold and they simply refused to go outside for the day. We had a good run and it made for a good conversation starter to state that we had ducks that wore diapers and lived in the house at night but alas, it was not meant to continue. I knew it was coming: my parents had been threatening for years to make the ducks move outside but I managed to hold them off for a decade or so before finally giving in. The ducks now live in a spacious duck house out on the back patio and spend their days wandering the gardens or playing in the pool and at dusk they eat their dinner and then waddle on in to their house for the night.

I spent several days making the house largely on my own with some help from my dad. It did not turn out the way I expected it would - as is the case with many of the projects I take on. For one, it is way more massive than I ever expected it would be - probably because it was built from a design for a chicken coop and they need roost bars and height where ducks typically do not. (At least, I have yet to see a duck roosting on a bar at night - or any time for that matter.) 

In looking back on it I probably could have made it much shorter but as it is I can comfortably sit inside it without stooping down so maybe massive was the way to go after all. It also sports an asphalt shingle roof, red painted exterior, a large window in back and "french doors" in the front. Which is to say, I took two glass fronted cabinet doors and attached them to the front of the house as the doors the ducks use for access. The whole house sits on four couch legs that can be swapped out for new ones should the current ones ever start to rot, extending the life of the house. The floor is vinyl to protect the wood underneath as ducks are - you may be surprised to discover - rather wet little creatures. The vinyl extends out onto the front porch, where I have found Minna likes to sit in the evenings. As a finishing touch I strung an extension cord from the house up to our back deck and installed a set of string lights in the rafters - for ambiance, of course. 

The completed duck house sporting french doors and a front porch. This was taken before the lights were installed. And needless to say, it did not stay this clean for long.
Minna and Maggie enjoying their house (and the fact that the pool is right outside.)

Getting a drink

Monday, May 7, 2018

Chicken takeover

The chickens staged a takeover the other evening. Let me back up. 

The chickens are no longer allowed on the back deck. Dad got sick of them pooping all over the deck - even though the dogs came out and ate said poop, so I really don't see the problem - so when we had to rebuild the decks we opted for a cover on the back deck that would protect the whole deck instead of just half of it and gates on both entries to the deck. The main entry out to the dog run now has a lattice style door on sliding barn door hardware. This allows us a view of the backyard while still preventing the chickens from getting up onto the deck and leaving their calling cards. And the chickens, by and large, respect the new rules and don't usually come onto the deck even though most of them could fit through the slats on the smaller gate down to the patio and those that don't could simply fly over the top of the gate. But they don't. Except for Penny, when she is being chased and harassed by the rest of the flock: I found her on the deck yesterday, hiding out from Gretchen. 

This, then, is the way of things: the gate and the door to the dog run stay shut unless the chickens are in bed or the dogs need to go out to go to potty. Which is why the door was open the other day: Axel had to go out to the yard but because he is a bit slower these days the chickens saw their opportunity and seized it. Coming back into the kitchen to see if Axel was ready to come inside yet what I saw instead was that our entire flock of chickens (with the notable exception of Penny, who avoids the flock whenever possible) had mutinied and was now ambling around on the back deck or standing on the couch. I am quite sure that Gretchen led the attack on the deck and his harem of ladies simply followed suit. What I am not sure of is the reason for the attack. By now, most of the chickens won't go on the deck even if the door is open so what possessed them to do so that night is beyond me. It did, however, make for some good photo opportunities and gave Dad, who is several states away and headed further east by bicycle, a decent scare as there was nothing he could do about it from where he was. I chased all of them off the deck and let Axel back inside, but they were already staging a second attempt and surely would have charged for the deck again if I hadn't shut the door and foiled their attempt. 

"I swear, I had nothing to do with this, Mom."

Axel looks on as the chickens stage their mutiny

Gretchen gets ready to launch another attack on the back deck while the ladies await orders.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Disappearing chickens

Call in Nancy Drew: we have a mystery. One of our chickens went missing last night and for the life of us we could not find her.

9:30 pm, Sunday night

Usually the chickens put themselves to bed every night as soon as it begins to get dark so imagine my surprise when I wet out to lock them up last night and found Penny perched on the couch on the back deck. Perhaps, I surmised, she tired of the trash can she usually chooses to sleep in. I scooped her up and continued on my way out to the coop with her only to discover Bridget roosting the the dog run gate. And then either Hannah or Henrietta on the dog run fence. Now things were getting unusual.

A quick look inside the coop confirmed my suspicions - not a single chicken to be found. The reason for this lack of chickens was also apparent; the chicken door had fallen shut, effectively blocking entry of all our chickens to their nightly roosts. What followed was somewhat of an Easter egg hunt involving chickens. I deposited Penny into the coop and then set about rounding up the others. I had already noticed Bridget and Hannah/Henrietta so I scooped them up next. Using the flashlight I was able to locate Lucky, Henrietta or Hannah, and Gretchen in the compost bin. While I was rounding them up I heard some scuffling noises in the shed so that was where I went next and discovered Georgia in the trash can usually occupied by Penny, and Lucy perched on the edge of said trash can. That's eight. The only one left was Sophie and as she is a mostly white/light colored chicken I had every confidence that I would soon find her as well.

So I searched. And I searched. And I searched some more. I checked under the deck, in the duck house, in the grape arbor and all over the gardens. My confidence began to waver. I looked behind the bamboo, in the trees, on top of the wood pile, and in the rafters of the back deck cover. It was like she had vanished into thin air and at this point my confidence that we would find her was shot. After searching the whole yard three times over, Mom and I finally called it quits and simply hoped we would find her in the morning when she came out from wherever she had been hiding. As this was not our first case of disappearing chickens (we discovered the last on had been roosting in a tree branch for three nights while joining the rest of the flock during the day) we prayed she would be safe wherever she was and then we reluctantly headed off to bed, but not without setting my alarm for early the following morning.

5:30, Monday morning

I headed back out into the yard to search for our missing Sophie and stopped short on the way out to the dog run as I passed by one of our weeping Japanese maple trees, where Sophie was happily perched on top as if nothing was amiss. Imagine my chagrin: if I had looked on top of the tree instead of just underneath it in the branches, I would have found her. Oh well, another day, another lesson learned here on the Unfarm.

Sophie on her roost for the night

A closer view of Sophie, gloating at having outwitted us simple minded humans

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Beware of attack chicken

We have, residing here on the Unfarm, an attack chicken. This attack chicken's name is Gretchen and he (yes, you read that right - he) is our rooster. We named him as a chick when we were told that he was a she and the name just stuck. If you ask either my mom or I our opinion on said rooster you would be told that he is a fearsome defender of (almost) all of his lady hens but otherwise he is relatively harmless and even somewhat comical at times - performing his sidestepping shuffle dance for us in an attempt to either add us to his harem or show who is in charge, depending upon which theory you ascribe to. According to Dad, however, Gretchen is a "mean rooster" who attacks both frequently and without remorse. 

In looking at various threads on the website the main consensus seems to be that Gretchen's behavior is dominance based and that he should be culled from the flock. Well, that's just not how we roll around here - Gretchen is family and we just don't go around killing our family members. We just don't. And besides, it's not like Gretchen isn't good for anything. He does protect most of the ladies. Penny is the notable exception - we're not sure if it's because she is older than the rest of the chickens and so didn't grow up with Gretchen and his crew or if it is because she is sporting spurs on her legs - but whatever the reason, Penny is definitely lowest down in the pecking order and frequently gets picked on or chased by Gretchen and several of the other hens. 

Aside from his lack of protective instincts towards Penny, Gretchen is quite protective of all the other hens and no one is too big for Gretchen to go up against when it comes to someone bothering his ladies. Axel, the largest of the three dogs, grew up with chickens and cows on a farm somewhere before we rescued him from the shelter so he generally leaves the chickens alone. Scout and Molly, however, are another story. Scout thinks that the chickens are endlessly fascinating toys of some sort and they only want for the proper persuasion to get them to join in a rousing game of chase. Molly will chase almost anything that a) moves and b) is smaller than her. Being a chihuahua mix not many things fall under category b, although she will join Scout if he decides to chase the chickens. The chickens, for their part, squawk and flap their wings and tear around the yard in a highly disorganized manner that often leads them back into the path of the dogs. Hearing this commotion, Gretchen races to the rescue. He flies into the dog run and heads straight for whatever dog is closest and slams into their side, effectively drawing the attention away from the hens in order to give them time to make their escape from the dog run. The party is generally over at that point. The hens are gone and none of the dogs wants to tangle with Gretchen the attack chicken so for now the good outweighs the bad and Gretchen is staying where he is, "mean" or not.

Gretchen, our attack chicken