Category Archives: Backyard Chickens

How to Know Before They Crow

The spring chickens turn 12 weeks old today! Seems like just yesterday we were watching them hatch.

They’re old enough now that we can tell who’s going to be staying with us long-term. Mostly.

“Chick sexing,” or gender identification in chickens, can be pretty tricky. Last time we ended up with 2/2 boys, and because I’m an optimist, for months tried to explain away obvious rooster traits as “early-blooming hens.” Nope. Not this time.

With 23 young chickens all the same age, it’s been a lot easier to tell the girls and boys apart with this hatch. But we won’t know for certain until they crow or lay an egg (probably at least another 6 weeks).

chicken_sexing_11_weeks_EE_SS

Most of our chicks are barnyard mutts and Easter Eggers (also technically mutts), which can be especially difficult to sex because they have a lot of variation in appearance. Luckily, it looks like we got males AND females from most of our known crosses, so I have a decent basis for comparison this time.

I’m no expert, as you may have gathered from the first few sentences, but I have done a fair amount of research (and taken a lot of pictures.) So without further ado, here’s all I know about sexing chickens:

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How to tell if your eggs are still fresh

I’m lucky enough to live in an area where I can have a little flock of chickens, who provide me with delicious fresh eggs (and lots of entertainment.)

the_ladies

The Ladies: (L-R) Cutlet, Kung Pao, and Saltimbocca

Each of our 3 adult hens lays about 5-6 eggs per week, so occasionally they’ll get a bit ahead of me and I end up with several days’ worth on my countertop.

egg_skelter

I should stop here and explain a few things about fresh eggs, because before owning chickens I would’ve been grossed out by the idea of keeping eggs on the counter. So you probably are, too.

But here’s the thing: Eggs are designed to stay fresh outside the chicken for about a month, without refrigeration. In nature, a hen will spend a couple weeks laying a clutch of eggs before sitting to incubate them (and the incubation process takes another 20 days.) And — I get asked this a lot — fertile eggs won’t start developing on your countertop unless your house is a steady 100 degrees fahrenheit. In which case, I’m sorry.

An egg comes out of the chicken sealed in a protective coating called “bloom,” which keeps pathogens from penetrating the shell and also helps keep the white from evaporating. As long as you don’t wash the bloom off, you can keep fresh eggs on the countertop for at least 2-3 weeks.

Unfortunately, any egg you buy from a grocery store has already lost its bloom to a chlorine bath, leaving the shell porous and easily invaded by bacteria — so you’ll need to keep storebought eggs in the fridge. This is just one of the many reasons why I think everyone should get a few hens for the backyard, or at the very least find a local farm that sells fresh eggs. There’s nothing like the flavor and consistency of an egg that’s never seen the fridge.

And here’s another reason: If you’re buying eggs from a grocery store, there’s a good chance they’ve been sitting on the shelf a while. As eggs age, the fluid inside starts to evaporate and the air cell gets bigger. This makes it very easy to tell if an egg is still good, using what’s called the “Float Test.” So if you’re wondering if you can still cook with those eggs in the back of the fridge, try this technique. Or even better, try it next time you buy eggs and see how fresh they really are.

Step 1: Fill a deep bowl with cool water (Note: if using unwashed eggs, give them a rinse in warm water first.)

Step 2: Set the egg in the bottom of the bowl.

#1: Freshly laid egg

eggTest_fresher

If it lays on the bottom like this, it’s very fresh (this egg was laid the same day I photographed it.) You probably won’t ever see this unless you have your own chickens or get your eggs from a local farm. Eggs this fresh are perfect for poaching, but will be incredibly difficult to peel if you hard-boil them.

#2: Still good

eggTest_fresh

If the egg stays on the bottom of the bowl but stands up on end, like this, it’s a little older but still good (this one’s been on my counter about 3 weeks.) This is the ideal hard-boiling stage, because the whites don’t cling to the membranes as much.

#3: Toss it

eggTest_floater

If it floats, it’s no longer fresh (these I scramble and give back to the chickens.)

 

Beer-basted Chicken + Chicken Stock

My sister and I ate General Tso last week, and he was delicious, though the cooking part didn’t exactly go as planned.

The original plan was to do an Asian-style tea smoked chicken, which is delicious but hasn’t graced my kitchen in a few years (I have a feeling it will soon, though.) But that plan shifted when we made a shocking discovery:

The General only had one testicle. And it was enormous.

To give you some perspective, a chicken’s brain is about the size of my thumbnail. The General’s lone gonad was nearly the size of my fist. Suddenly, his aggressive behavior made a lot more sense.

So back to the recipe. We’d talked before about making Beercan Chicken, mostly in jest, because we used to have a Speckled Sussex hen named Beercan. But now we had to, because of a favorite local beer: One Nut Brown Ale.

Unfortunately, Oskar Blues had One Nut on tap but not in cans or growlers. I briefly considered ordering a pint at their restaurant and smuggling it out, but instead I settled on the next best thing:

old_speckled_hen

Only, the Beercan Chicken idea didn’t work out so well either. I decided to try doing it in the oven instead of the grill since it was getting dark outside, but the can slid around on the cookie sheet and collapsed. I tried for a few minutes to get the whole mess balanced, even using a different size can and spilling most of the beer in the process, but I soon gave up. It seemed disrespectful somehow, trying to balance a chicken impaled on a beer can. I can’t imagine why.

So instead, I laid the whole chicken down in the spilled beer (about half a can’s worth) and rubbed it all over with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped fresh thyme. Then I added a few pats of butter and some chicken stock to the pan and put it in a 325 degree oven until the thigh meat reached 165F (this took about an hour and a half for a nearly 4 pound bird.) I turned it over halfway through the cooking process, and basted every 15 minutes or so.

general_with_herbs_and_butter

The meat was tasty, and not at all tough (partly because we let it rest in the fridge for a couple days, partly because Speckled Sussex roosters are slow to mature.) The recipe I based mine on used a lot of pepper, and that plus the beer flavor was a bit overwhelming — I wouldn’t necessarily do it the same way next time, but it was still the best chicken I’d ever eaten because I grew it myself.

The leftovers were made into frozen burritos, assembly line style. And everything else went into the stockpot, soon to become several pints of rich, velvety chicken stock.

chicken_stock

To make stock, I cover the carcass with filtered water (add in any unused giblets, too) and throw in a bunch of carrots and onions. We have a huge lovage plant that comes back every year, so I use that in place of celery (but you can use anything you like.) This time I also threw in a few handfuls of thyme, tarragon, and whatever else needed to be cut back in the herb garden.

I boil it for as long as I can (about 9 hours, this time) then strain it into glass jars. Once cool, I freeze it in plastic tubs and then vacuum seal the frozen stock so I can reclaim the containers. Then I have chicken stock whenever I need it — for soups, or as a vehicle for poached eggs.

Stock is infinitely better when made at home, and it’s a perfect way to make use of every last bit of the chicken (and fill your house with delicious smells in the process.) So please, never throw away a chicken or turkey carcass — why would you want to waste all that, especially when it’s so easy? If you don’t have time to make the stock right away (I usually don’t) just seal up the carcass and stick it in the freezer.

 

Where’d all these chickens come from?

The chicks aren’t chicks anymore. They’re about to turn 6 weeks old, and now, they’re chickens.

#41

The boys are starting to make themselves known, with big combs and little scuffles popping up everywhere. We’ve identified 10 that seem to be cockerels, exactly what we’d expect from the 19 chicks we hatched. I’ll go into detail about sexing chickens in another post, once I get photos of everyone. Not that I’m an expert or anything, quite the opposite. But I am finding it a lot easier to compare boys and girls now that there are so many of them.

FiveSpice

The easter egger chicken above, known as Five Spice, is 100% boy. The large comb and the coloring are dead giveaways, even to me (and I convinced myself that my last two roosters were hens.)

Crispy

This is Crispy, one of our assisted hatch chickens. Remember Crispy? We’re thinking girl for this one, but not sure yet. The other rough hatch chicks, Shelly and Sesame, are almost certainly girls. Glad I helped them out!

cutlet_preening

We ended up with 5 Easter Egger/Speckled Sussex chicks, which we refer to collectively as “The Cutlets,” after their mother. They are all very similar in appearance and turning out to be great little chickens — wily and very pretty. I think 3 of those are roosters, including this guy:

cutlet_sunbathing

And last but not least:

Asada

This little barred easter egger, called Asada, is by far the friendliest chicken I’ve ever met. She flies up to perch on my shoulder when I bend down to refill their feeder, and settles in my lap for a nap if I sit down in the run. So far she looks like a girl, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed a while longer. Maybe you can cross yours too?

General Tso’s Bad Day Pâté

Early on the morning of Memorial Day, our brave rooster General Tso crowed his last.

the_general

The General was a Speckled Sussex rooster, and he was not altogether a bad guy. He always let the ladies eat first, and he was very protective of his flock — especially Kung Pao, who hatched and raised him from a chick. But as the General’s testosterone surged, things got to a point where we couldn’t take food out to the chicks or change their water without fending off an attack. Everything was a threat: The big plastic waterer, the bucket we carry feed in, the reflective stripes on my sister’s running pants.

general_tso_on_the_warpath

Clearly, we were headed for another Colonel Sanders. Though he hadn’t actually drawn blood from any visitors yet, the prospect of having friends bring their kids over to meet the chickens made me shudder. And the poor hens, much fewer than he should have had, lost most of their back feathers and ran from his advances. The flock dynamic was all wrong.

And so with heavy hearts, we decided it was time to butcher our rooster.

This was my first time killing a chicken, at least directly. Over my lifetime, without really acknowledging it, I’ve commanded the deaths of thousands of chickens. Ordering it in restaurants, buying pullets from a feed store; it’s not really any different when you slaughter your own bird. It just seems that way, because it’s right there in front of you.

We helped some good friends with a few of their chickens last year, so we knew what to do and how to process the General afterward. But I’ve never personally taken the life of a creature in its prime, looking it in the eye and breathing the same air. It was a heavy prospect for me, and I shed a few tears in the days leading up to it as we made preparations. As I’m sure I will this fall, when it’s time to process the roosters from the chicks we hatched last month. But I knew I could handle it, because I realized long ago that if I’m going to keep eating meat I should be okay with where it comes from.

In the end, it was not an easy morning but it went exactly as we hoped. The General went to sleep on his roost and woke up in a dog crate, with no stressful chase and capture. His last morning was a beautiful one, with birds singing and the scent of lilacs on the breeze. And then, in the space of a few seconds, it was over. A dignified end for a rooster who meant well, but whose time had come.

see_you_later

The General is relaxing in the fridge for a couple days, so that he’ll be nice and tender. Last night, I cooked his liver and made it into a little pâté, just enough for two. It was a perfect way to celebrate a fine rooster with a bit of a mean streak.

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General Tso

General TsoTheGeneral
is crowing in the moonlight

he does not know
that when he hops down
from the perch in the morning
it will be the last time.

He will crow in the morning, also,
and call excitedly to his hens
as I throw down the scraps, a few
more scraps than usual.

And he will run at me, as he has lately;
I will keep him back with the broom.

He will run at me, not knowing
that I have a hatchet, and a recipe.

 

(poem and photo by my sister, Anne Dirkse)

 

Release the chicks! (3.5 weeks)

release_the_chicks

The chicks are going on 4 weeks old now, and everyone is doing great. Yesterday they got to come out and mingle in the yard with the big chickens (who stayed as far away as possible.)

adults_only_please

tikka_masala

 

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An update on the chicks

It’s been a hectic couple weeks, with all my spare time spent getting ready to plant the garden. And true to form, digging out all our garden tools prompted a whole-house organization project, the likes of which my sister and I  haven’t achieved in the 3 years we’ve been living here. Sorry for the long lag between posts, but I assure you there will be a lot coming out of the garden (and freshly organized kitchen!) in the coming weeks.

The chicks are getting huge already! As of yesterday, we no longer have house chickens — everyone is out in the coop and having a great time testing out their new wings, which are feathering out like crazy.almost_2_weeks

So far we’ve had no losses, and all the chicks I had to assist are doing great. Two of them had to wear little Band-Aid splints for a while, but as I hoped all the legs and toes are in the right position now and they’re running around with the others. sesame!

Most of the chicks don’t really have names yet, because a lot of them look alike and it’ll be hard to keep track until they get their adult feathers. But this one is Sesame, the last chick to hatch (and one I was sure wouldn’t survive):

sesame

And this is Shelly, the pathetic-looking wet chick with the shell pieces stuck to her back. She’s one of the biggest in the bunch now!

shelly

Except for the Light Brahmas, which really look more like turkeys. But we didn’t hatch those.

vindaloo_and_friends

But another of our chickens isn’t doing so great. General Tso, the Speckled Sussex rooster, started coming unhinged about the same time we moved the chicks out to their little room in the coop. He hasn’t tried to harm them, but started showing random aggression toward humans.

soon_to_be_dinner

And so though it pains me to say it, the General’s lease is up as soon as we finish getting the garden planted and have time for another “outdoor project.” He’s officially crossed the line into mean, delicious rooster. I just need to think of a recipe.

A Rough Hatch

The chicks started hatching Wednesday morning, and we got our last one on Saturday evening. All in all, we ended up with 19 chicks out of the 41 eggs we started with, a pretty disappointing hatch rate. But look how cute they are!

FiveSpice

Noodle

Patty

Shu_Mai

The hatch went smoothly for most of the chicks, but four of them required a little assistance. The first rapidly got the top cut off of her shell (known as “zipping”), and was just about to push herself out when the other chicks in the incubator came running by and flipped her egg over. We left her alone, figuring she’d get in the right position again, but hours later she was still struggling to get out. Talk about bad timing. The poor thing was right next to a vent, and was starting to dry out and visibly sticking to the shell.

I pulled her egg out of the incubator and carefully chipped away some of the shell and membrane around her beak, until she could get her head free. Then I wrapped her in a wet paper towel and quickly put her back into the incubator to hatch. She successfully kicked the bottom shell off a little while later, but some trailing pieces of membrane kept it attached to her back. I woke up later that night to find the poor chick still wearing the shell on her back like a turtle, exhausted and unable to stand or get comfortable. I reached in and gently removed it, leaving her with just a couple small pieces of shell and membrane stuck to her down.

Shelly_just_hatched

After being untangled, the chick quickly settled down and fluffed up, and despite her rough hatch was soon keeping up with the others. And so her resilience earned her the honor of a non-edible name, a first for our flock: Shelly.

The next chick to require help was so eager that she came busting through the opening in the shell before she fully pipped, and ended up with a wing and part of her head stuck in the opening. We waited for hours and she didn’t make any progress, so I carefully broke off the tiny piece of shell that was blocking her head, and she finished hatching a few minutes later.

Wing

The third chick I helped had a particularly rough time, ending up “shrink-wrapped” in the egg as she tried to hatch. This was probably my fault, since this one started to unzip while I was helping Shelly and the loss of humidity might have dried out the membrane and made it tough to break through. (This is why they tell you not to open the incubator, even if a chick is in trouble. Easier said than done, that one.) I think she was also a bit sideways in the shell, which couldn’t have helped matters.

So I had to chip away a little shell and wrap this one in a wet paper towel too, and after several agonizingly slow hours she worked her way out of the shell. My mom was visiting for this part of the hatch, and got to name this chick: Crispy Chicken.

Crispy had trouble walking, with her toes crossing over one another and one leg sliding out to the side, probably a consequence of being trapped in the egg for so long. This is known as “spraddle leg,” and can keep the chick from getting to food and water if not corrected. The idea is to hobble the legs so that they can’t move too far apart, and then the chick is able to start learning to walk and quickly builds enough muscle to keep the legs in place. We used a Band-Aid cut in half horizontally to do this — Crispy didn’t like it one bit, but within a few hours she was able to stand up and take a few steps, and her toes stopped crossing. By the time the bandage falls off in about a week, she should be able to walk normally.

Crispy_splint

Saturday evening, more than 48 hours after the other chicks hatched, we still had 3 eggs in the incubator that started to zip and then stopped at least a full day before. The only chick that appeared to be alive was hopelessly stuck — from the look of things its yolk sack ruptured, and the chick was completely cemented into its shell and in distress. The poor thing couldn’t be helped and I had to make the hard decision to cull it rather than letting it die from exhaustion.

And that’s the bittersweet reality of life, in a nutshell. There’s so much joy in helping new life sprout and grow, but the flip side is inevitable and it never gets any easier.

But incredibly, just then I heard chirping from one of the other eggs that I thought was dead — it zipped but hadn’t progressed in at least 24 hours. But as I stared through the incubator window, I saw a chick turn inside of it — it was having a hard time punching through the membrane, but was still able to move around in there.

I gingerly picked up the egg and started carefully picking off pieces of shell, thinking to myself I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m only making it worse for the poor little guy. And then I lifted back a stiff piece of membrane and a head popped up and looked at me, peeping furiously. I quickly put it back in the incubator, and within 10 seconds a little Easter Egger chick kicked free of its shell and lay exhausted on the incubator floor.

And that was our last chick to hatch. We named her Sesame (actually, Sesame II — after a special chicken from our first flock, who was always a bit behind the others.)

Sesame_in_incubator

In total, we now have 23 chicks running around: 4 still in the “halfway house” in my office, and the rest already moved out to their room in the coop with the big chickens.

in_the_coop

Amazingly, all the chicks that required assistance seem to be doing great — hopefully they continue to thrive.

Wing_2

And if you’re wondering how we ended up with 23 chicks when only 19 hatched, well, that’s chicken math for you. We were at the feed store and some chicks followed us home (2 Light Brahmas and 2 Silver Laced Wyandottes.)

brahma_wyandotte_mysteryChick

TikkaMasala

 

Chicken Hatch Day 21: Brooder Buddies

first_three

The first 3 hatchlings: Easter Egger x Speckled Sussex in the center, flanked by Easter Egger x Rhode Island Reds.

We’ve got 15 chicks now, with more still hatching in the incubator. The early birds spent most of their first day sleeping, eating, and stretching. Must feel great to be free after spending 21 days in an egg.brooder_buddies

stretch

 

Most of the chicks had no trouble whatsoever, but so far we’ve had three that got stuck in the shell and needed a little help.

shelly_hatching

This little one was having a hard time last night, but finally got out of the shell this morning with some help. It’s still in the incubator, and recognizable by the piece of shell still stuck to its back. We normally name all our chicks after food, but this one earned a special non-edible name: Shelly (or Sheldon, as the case may be)