Category Archives: Backyard Chickens

Ducks are Due

The runner duck eggs are due tomorrow, and we already have our first two pips in the incubator! You can view their progress on the hatch cam here.*

We also had some last-minute additions to the duck incubator this morning. We got the first eggs from friends in our old neighborhood after their duck hen went missing, and then they found the missing duck sitting on a huge clutch of eggs. Soon they had both of their duck hens sitting, so we made plans to build a duck shelter and keep a few of the hopeful hatchlings here.

Sadly, this morning my friends woke up to find both their duck hens were killed by a predator overnight. With no way of knowing exactly how long the eggs were without their mother, we figured we had to at least try to save the ducklings inside. So she nestled them in a big basket filled with pine shavings and immediately drove them up here to join the other ducklings in the incubator.

In my 5 years of keeping chickens, the predator losses have been the hardest part. There’s a lot of guilt that comes with not having been able to prevent the attack, but the fact is that protecting your animals from predators and keeping them happy can sometimes be mutually exclusive. Sometimes foxes happen by later than usual. But does that mean you should keep your chickens in the coop all day? Both are devastating. But I’d rather my birds have one free day than a lifetime of captivity.

The good news is that where there’s pain, there’s usually a silver lining.

The day I lost my first flock to the fox, that silver lining was getting to know my wonderful neighbors. I went over to give them a heads up about the late-morning predator attack, and later that day I opened my door to find their sweet daughter holding a plate of lemon bars and a vase of sweet peas. We became fast friends, and in the years since I’ve learned so much about life, death, joy, and generosity. These are the people who taught us how to butcher chickens and press apple cider on crisp fall afternoons. They helped save our birds when the coop flooded, despite the flooding on their own farm.

I’m so sad at the loss of their ducks, but it gives me a measure of joy that we were in a position to put the eggs right in the incubator. Some are due on the 8th, and others are a couple weeks behind, so we’ll know pretty soon if any survived.

On a similar note, we also have an incubator full of chicken eggs growing for another friend that lost her whole flock overnight (the predators in that neighborhood are motivated, to say the least). So the hatch cam might be pretty busy during the month of July! Stay tuned.

*I haven’t hatched ducks before, and apparently runner duck eggs take a LONG time to hatch (24-36 hours from the time they pip), so we might be waiting a while. The first pip happened about 10 AM today (Friday) so we’re expecting to see hatching starting tomorrow. You can also search for “HatchCam” on the Ustream app for iOS and Android if you want to check in on the ducks from your BBQ. Happy Independence Day!!

 

 

Back to Brooding

I’ve been on a long hiatus from hatching (and blogging, sorry about that). The move from the old flood-damaged farm quite literally put a damper on things, and it’s been a long process of getting back to where we were. But this summer the chickens have a proper coop AND a fence to keep them out of the veggie and flower gardens, which are finally planted. There’s still a lot of work to do here, but so much potential. I’m excited to share the process here on the blog, and finally start getting back to the recipe and chicken posts too!welsummerXfaverolles_just_hatched

And I can’t think of a better way to revitalize the old blog than the way we started. A couple weeks ago, our sweet little hen Rotisserie, one from the August 2013 hatch, forced the issue by going broody. She settled on a nest full of eggs and refused to budge, even at night. So we moved her into an old doghouse overnight, to keep the other hens away from her nest (and also make sure she was really on board). She stuck with her nest of unfertilized eggs and golf balls, signaling that we were either in for chicks or weeks of trying to convince her otherwise.

broody_hen_rotisserie

My sister and I decided to go the easiest (and cutest) route, by picking up some fertile eggs for Rotisserie to sit on. The eggs came from my friend’s flock, including a few hens that were fathered by Rotisserie’s late brother Pecker — so she’s even got a chance to keep the family lineage going. Only problem is, the eggs wouldn’t all fit under her. I put the rest in the incubator, so we can all have some fun watching them hatch. Chicks are due around Sunday, June 14th (though they’re sometimes a bit early!) and the live stream will start once the eggs start pipping. Check back soon, and follow me on Facebook and Instagram for regular updates and behind-the-scenes photos.

Apple Cider Pressing

My good friends (and former neighbors) have an old cider press and a big apple orchard, and during the fall they often invite friends who also have a lot of apples over when they’ve got the press out. A few weekends ago, my sister and I grabbed a couple of boxes of apples from the big old tree in the front yard and headed over for the afternoon.

apples in bushel baskets

Tradition at the farm is to mix all the different types of apples (and crabapples too!) so you get a little of the flavor from each. Our two boxes of bug-bitten apples paled in comparison to the 10 or so bushels of huge, unblemished apples that greeted us when we arrived, but I like to think that our tart little Macintosh-type apples added a special flavor to the mix.

We worked outside on picnic tables, first mixing and washing the apples. Then they were cut into big chunks, cutting out any blemishes but leaving the cores. I got to be the “mix master,” plucking apples from each basket and throwing them into the washtubs, then carrying big bowls of clean apples over to the cutting table. I happily volunteered for some apple washing, having already processed way too many apples from our trees (but we’ll leave that for another post).

washing apples before cider pressing

When we cut enough apples to fill the press, the real fun started. One person turned the wheel on the grinder as another threw apples into its maw. The smashed apples dropped into a cloth bag inside the press, and when it was full we turned the big screw on the press until it could turn no more, as the rich brown cider poured out into a pitcher at its base.

grinding apples in cider press

grinding apples in a cider press

apple cider pouring from cider press

When all the apples were finally pressed into cider, we delivered the scraps to some very excited cows.

cows enjoying leftover apple mash

And then we reminisced about the last time I was here for a cider pressing, and one of the cows (impatiently waiting for apples by the gate) bumped the electrical pole and sent a shower of sparks raining down from the power lines above. In a split second I was all the way across the yard, still clutching my butcher knife. “Oh good,” my neighbor laughed, still calmly seated at the picnic table. “You’ll be able to call 911 if we need it.”

This time, the cows left the power lines alone and we had an uneventful cider pressing (unless you count waving off a few dozen hungry hornets, and the bite I received from a large wolf spider that was lurking in one of the bushel baskets). Afterward, we spent some time hanging out at the farm and visiting all the animals.

mother hen and chicks

The highlight of my day was seeing one of the hens I hatched for my friends back in February, who is now raising chicks of her own. This hen is the granddaughter of Kung Pao and General Tso, and she’s an excellent mother.

She led her five chicks all around the barnyard while we were there, pointing out good things to eat and giving a reproachful side-eye to the “feral” barn cat (actually friendlier than most house cats). The cat kept her distance, casually licking a paw whenever the hen looked at her. Clearly, she’s already learned a lesson or two from Mother Hen about messing with the chicks.

mother cat vs mother hen

not-so-feral barn cat

The not-so-feral barn cat, affectionately known as Mama Kitty

We headed home that afternoon with three big jugs of cider (more than our fair share, to be sure). Apple cider still contains all the sediment that’s normally filtered out of apple juice, so it’s dark and rich and cloudy. I’ve been drinking it cold, hot, and sometimes spiked with a bit of rum — just the thing for a crisp fall night.

Unruly Hens and Old Fashioned Gingerbread

frozen_sunset

We’ve barely begun 2014, but the sun sets a bit later each day and I can feel the promise of spring on the horizon.

The hens are feeling it too; egg production is ramping up and it’s getting harder to enforce their early winter curfew.

Most of the chickens follow me right out to the coop, but I almost always have to round up a few stragglers at bedtime. It’s normally a quick and easy affair, but the other day was something else entirely.

beeline_for_the_birdfeeder

It was sunny when I let the chickens out, so they happily plowed through an acre of snow just to get to the bird feeder. Then, a cold front came through and they didn’t want to walk back through the snow to get back home.

A couple of the hens started to follow me out to the coop, but I came back to find they’d given up and planted themselves in the garden, fluffing their feathers like little down jackets. One after the other, I scooped them up and carried them to the coop, their feathers warming my hands as they settled into my arms. I’m pretty sure they were grateful.

I soon realized I wasn’t done giving free rides out to the chicken coop, and that not everyone would be as cooperative. The other hens huddled together, eyeing me uneasily, reluctant to be picked up but not wanting to run out into the snow.

Most allowed themselves to be caught without any trouble, but not Shelly. She dodged me several times, but finally I managed to come within an inch of grabbing her. That is when she completely freaked out.

Shelly is a pretty small chicken, and I knew from her past adventures that she is better at flying than most. But I was shocked when, with a series of loud squawks, she launched herself off the ground and flew across the entire garden, about 150 feet. And then she started gaining altitude and fluttered up onto a tree branch, about 8 feet off the ground.

oh_shelly

I scrambled up onto a piece of lawn furniture and grabbed hold of her tail before she could fly up to a higher branch, prompting her to go hide under the big spruce tree instead (with four of her friends). It took me over an hour to get them all in for the night.

sunset_stream

Today, most of the hens are out in the snow again, pecking at the door and lurking on the back steps. Probably waiting for me to give them a ride home. Or maybe they’re just hoping I’ll let them in, where there’s freshly baked gingerbread and chai tea, and it’s (slightly) warmer than outside.

morning_tea

As excited as I am for the spring weather to get here, I’m always sorry to see gingerbread season end. In case you’re wondering, gingerbread season starts when the first chill of autumn creeps into the air, and ends after the last blizzard of April — if to you gingerbread means houses and cookies shaped like little men, you’re definitely missing out on the best part of the season. Fortunately, you still have time to catch up.

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Green Chile Bread Pudding (+ an update on the chickens)

getting_their_wings

After a busy weekend, I looked at the chicks and realized they’re getting their wing feathers already. They’re nearly a week old now, and they’ve also mastered scratching in their feeder and in the clumps of grass I put in the brooder; seconds after I place them in the freshly cleaned box it’s trashed again.

6_day_old_chicks_trashing_the_brooder

They’re adorable though, and all eight appear to be thriving and will shortly be moved to their private quarters in the chicken coop. And then this Saturday, incubator #2 is due to hatch so we hope to have a few more joining the fun.

welsummer_egg_hatching

welsummerXfaverolles_just_hatched

The big chickens have also been going through a lot of changes this week. We found our first tiny pullet egg this week, and the rest of the girls from our April hatch should start laying anytime. And of course, the young roosters found their voices and started trying to put the moves on the ladies. It’s been an awkward few weeks, steeped in rejection, frequent ambushes, and plenty of dominance battles. Visiting the coop was like being in middle school again.

Ideally, the ratio should be 10 hens for every rooster. And as the boys matured, I learned firsthand that chickens aren’t meant to live in equal numbers. Our once-harmonious flock grew edgy and out of balance as the hormones kicked in, and we knew it was time.

With this flock, we planned from the start to harvest all but one of the boys. And so on Saturday morning, we followed through and butchered nine beautiful roosters. It was hard and sad work, but ultimately gratifying to see an entire shelf full of meat that we raised with care, from egg to freezer. Most roosters never even have a chance at life, they’re just an unfortunate byproduct of egg production — for each of the 18 female chicks we’ve purchased from hatcheries, a male chick was sent off to a rendering plant.

And so I think it’s more ethical to hatch my own laying hens and raise the roosters for the freezer, because I can ensure they’re well cared for and treated with respect. Even so, I get the occasional comment to the effect of “I wouldn’t kill a good looking rooster like that, send him to a nice farm!” (Actually, I’m pretty sure we are that farm). Butchering is bloody, brutal work to be sure, but I consider myself fortunate to be part of the process and know that my birds are treated with respect — really, I feel like I had more blood on my hands back when I was buying factory-produced chicken and eggs without acknowledging the source.

Butchering includes several steps, and as novices with nine roosters, my sister and I had our work cut out for us. Fortunately, our wonderful neighbor came over to help and even recruited her three houseguests to join us — maybe not what they were expecting on vacation, but they were excellent sports.

With six people on the line, the work passed quickly and the emotional burden felt a bit lighter too (or at least, having other people around helped me keep the water works under control). After just a few hours, we were all freshly showered and drinking a champagne toast to the boys, who were cleaned and chilling in the fridge.

I put brunch together the night before, since the kitchen would be devoted to packaging chickens and I doubted I’d feel like cooking afterwards. This dish is one of my go-tos when I’m having people over, because all I have to do in the morning is pop the pan in the oven. It’s usually improvised in my house, sometimes with bacon, sometimes with jalapeños, always with cheese — so just think of this recipe as a template for your own creation.

Green Chile Bread Pudding

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4-6 servings

Green Chile Bread Pudding

A perfect dish for those days where you've promised someone you'll feed them brunch, but really want to sleep in.

Ingredients

  • 1 medium loaf of crusty bread, about 300 grams
  • 1/2 cup of your favorite green chile sauce, or roasted and peeled anaheims, or a small can of diced Hatch chiles
  • 8 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 3 slices bacon (optional but highly recommended)

Instructions

  1. Cut bread into chunks about 1" thick and arrange in a 13x9 glass baking dish.
  2. Beat eggs with milk, and whisk in salt, chiles, half of the cheese, and bacon (if using).
  3. Pour egg mixture over bread and press down on the pieces to coat them.
  4. Sprinkle remaining cheese across the top and cover; refrigerate at least 8 hours (and up to 24).
  5. In the morning, let the dish come up to room temperature on the counter (about an hour) then bake in the middle a 350 degree oven until the cheese is browned and bubbly, about 25 minutes.
http://www.homegrowngourmet.org/green-chile-bread-pudding-an-update-on-the-chickens/

 

Day 20: First pip! (and how to follow the hatch)

firstPip#18

It’s happening! After 20 days of waiting, we got our first pip at about 10 this morning, and I’m starting to hear a lot of muffled peeping from the incubator as I type this. It could be another 24 hours before this chick hatches, or things could progress fairly quickly like they did last time.

first_chick

The first chick from the April hatch, who popped out much faster than expected

If you’re on Facebook, like The Homegrown Gourmet to receive the latest updates as they happen. If not, you can still read our recent posts in the column to your right. And of course, you can watch the live video stream from the incubator here!*

*To view on mobile devices, download the (free) Ustream app and search for “fall chicken hatch due 8-21-13”

Thanks for hatching with us!

Day 14: Candling

red_star_day_14_candling

Last night the eggs reached 2/3 of the way through incubation, and we candled them again to see how they’re developing.

The second batch of eggs, which we started after discovering that most of the original eggs were infertile, will be ready for their first candling this weekend (and we’ll be putting incubator #1 on lockdown this weekend, too).

ee_day_14_candling

This is a developing Easter Egger, the green pigment in the shell makes it difficult to see inside.

alive_and_welsummer_day_14_candling

A Welsummer egg, also very hard to see through but definitely developing.

leghorn_day_14_candling

White eggs are very easy to candle.

light_brown_egg_day_14_candling

By day 14 the claws are forming, and the chick is moving into position for hatch. It’s also taking up so much space in the shell that it’s difficult to see anything inside, much less photograph it.

welsummer_egg_day_14_candling

I pulled 5 eggs that weren’t developing, including the Welsummer egg I tried to patch with wax. No big surprise there. But interestingly enough, they were all from the same flock — so it probably has more to do with their diet or the age of the hens than the incubation.

dead_welsummer_egg_day_14_candling

Wax patch gone wrong

welsummer_egg_blood_ring_day_14_candling

Another Welsummer egg that didn’t make it.

dead_leghorn_day_14_candling

A dead Leghorn egg (we’d be seeing a lot more veins otherwise)

The other 13 looked really good, and we could see a lot of movement in some of the eggs. I also weighed each egg (ideally they should lose about 13% of their weight by the end of incubation) and most were right on track, at around 11%. In a few more days we’ll increase humidity, so the weight loss will slow down a bit then.

The chicks are due to hatch in about a week, and I’ll be starting a live video stream from the incubator once the eggs start rocking and rolling – so check back often! I’ll also be posting frequent updates to the Facebook page as we get closer to hatch day.

easter_egger_day_14_candling

Day 8: Candling

candling_day_8-2

It’s hard to believe the eggs are 8 days along already (they turn 9 this evening)! By now the embryos are far enough along that they’re starting to look like birds, and they’ll be sprouting feathers in the next few days.

Well, some of them are, anyway.

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It’s that time again…

eggs_for_hatching

After all the fun we had with the hatch last spring, I’ve been itching to get the incubator out again. And now, it’s finally time to get started on the fall hatch. So last night, I set the eggs. It’ll be barnyard mixes again this time, but I got my eggs from different sources.

I have six lovely dark brown Welsummer eggs, from a lady that I met on an incubation forum when I was planning my last hatch. I’m really excited about these — I’ve been wanting dark brown eggs for a long time, but Kung Pao rejected the first ones I tried, and I got 0/2 from the dark eggs in my last hatch.

So to up my chances, I got another four Welsummer eggs (with speckles!) from a local farm, plus a few Leghorns (white) and Easter Eggers (green). That flock includes a Cochin rooster, so most of the chicks should have feathered feet — which I find really cute, until it rains.

One of the pretty speckled eggs was cracked a bit, and I decided to take a chance and put it in anyway because there’s plenty of room (I’m splitting the eggs into two incubators this time, so that the chicks have more room to hatch and also so there’s a backup in case one fails).

wax_patch_job

I sealed the egg by lighting an unscented candle and dripping a bit of melted wax onto the crack to seal it. And then I accidentally poured wax halfway down the side of the egg and had to pick some off, probably ruining any chance that egg had of hatching.

I also put in 4 eggs from my neighbor, who has mostly red sex-links (which do not produce more sex-links, unfortunately). And because I saw Cordon Bleu attempting to molest Cutlet the other day, I put a few eggs from our flock in as well.

Finally, I filled in the balance with some eggs I got from a lady on Craigslist, which (I think) are from Buff Orpington and Rhode Island Red hens crossed with a rumpless Araucana (or is it Easter Egger?) rooster. So we’ll have some interesting genetics this time around.

incubator_running

There are more eggs in the mix than last time (55 versus 41) because there are quite a few that probably won’t hatch, and I’m not sure of the fertility rate for others. It’ll be an interesting experiment for sure, and like last time I’m planning to broadcast the hatch on Ustream starting around August 20th. Details (and candling photos!) coming in the next few weeks.

The upstairs neighbors

kestrel_on_roof

The chickens live in a big 1950s-era coop with birdhouses mounted on the north and south sides. These houses have been home to many different birds in the few years we’ve lived here, and just recently I noticed some young, very noisy kestrels sticking their heads out.

young_kestrel_in_birdhouse

They’ve all left the nest now, and we have a family of 5 (I think) little falcons living around the coop. I love these birds: They’re smart, beautiful, and they chase away big hawks that might otherwise try to prey on the chickens.

And, most importantly, they’re mouse-killing machines. Living on 40 acres of pasture, it’s a constant battle to keep field mice out of the coop, the shed, and the cellar. But I haven’t seen any trace of a mouse for months, and now I know why.

kestrel_in_tree

It also explains the very agitated kestrel I found in the coop 3 mornings in a row last winter — the birdhouses are right beneath the open eaves of the chicken coop, so it must’ve gone in the wrong entrance when it went home for the night.

Kestrels do hunt small birds, but they’re way too tiny to take down any of the chickens we have now. Week-old chicks are a totally different story though, so I did what I could to raptor-proof the brooder room last spring (and I’ll definitely be double checking it before I put any more small chicks in there!)

juvenile_kestrel

But what’s a little extra hardware cloth when you can look at this face every morning?