Skip to content

urban chickens

Homesteading Update: Chicken Mutiny

The homestead has been pretty idyllic with the days getting longer. We celebrated an unseasonably warm February by planting a long-sought-after fruiting red-leaf plum.

IMG_3976 - Version 2
Brave Irene, our Delaware hen, is keeping an eye on those blossoms for good things to come.

We’ll do some grafting and pruning so this lady grows low and bountiful. We popped her in the ground right next to the chicken run so that when and if we can’t keep up with the plum glut, they’ll be easy to toss in for the chickens.

Ah yes. The chickens. Those longer days have turned our 0 or 1 egg days into 3 or 4 egg days, so omelettes are back in season! But along with our egg bounty came The Mutiny. It started innocently enough. I peeked into our nest box one afternoon and found a cracked egg. While I sighed over the loss, I wondered if any of the girls had helped themselves to a sample. Somebird must have. In the following days, instead of eggs, I found yolky wet spots in the nest box.

I’d heard about this dreaded development–the Marxist chicken revolution. Apparently, once chickens get a taste for their own eggs and owning the means of production, the habit can be pretty hard to break. I tried collecting eggs more often and put some golf balls in the nest box as a decoy. This did not break their revolutionary spirit. Yolky wet spots abounded.

I suspected Mavis, our Auracana. She was the sweetest little sweety as a pullet, sitting on my shoulder and burrowing into my hair for comfort.

Gone are the days of my sweet little Mavis.
Gone are the days of my sweet little Mavis.

She tossed that meek fragility aside in her old age. These days, she rules the roost with an iron beak, so to speak. The ruthless glint in her eye says, “Given the opportunity, and if I had them, I’d kill you with my bare hands.”

So I couldn’t stop a satisfied “I knew it!” from escaping my mouth the day I caught Mavis in the act, gulping down broken shell with the glisten of yolk on her beak. After that, I stomped into the house and broke out the big guns: emptied some store-bought eggs and coated the insides of the shells with dijon mustard. I popped those little dijon bombs back in the nest box and thought I might have won when Mavis rejected the shells after a single, suspicious peck.

Instead, she got a recruit. The next day, Mavis and Rosie were at it together. And LemonCake might have been in on it too. Mutiny. I was incensed. I fantasized about slitting chicken throats to protect the daily food source for my lean, sunburnt family, just trying to survive out on the frontier.

Luckily, my smart homesteader friend R, the one who used to have the goats we milked, offered an alternative to death: the rollaway nest box.

IMG_3974AJ and I spent all of Sunday retrofitting, and I am proud to say that our frontier spirit prevailed! We set the nest box floor at an incline, so that once the deed is done, the egg rolls via padded board into a slot which empties into a padded aluminum paint tray.

IMG_3972
Brave Irene seeks out the camera yet again.

I am proud to report that our frontier spirit prevailed! No yolky wet spots for the past 3 days. Means of production successfully wrested from Mavis’ crafty beak.

Homesteading update: eggs

Let me catch you up on the chickens.

In short, they’ve grown up. Sometime in July, Goldie layed her first egg. She graced it upon our neighbor who was chicken-tending during our victorious summer of camping.

I’ve never experienced the chicken coming-of-age transition before, and let me tell you it is A Thing. In the days before The First Egg, the girls were small, skitterish, made little peeps and clucks, and made staying out of our way their main business. Here is what our neighbor relayed to me about The Day of The First Egg. Before she’d  even discovered it, she knew something was going on. The ladies were strutting and squawking like narcissistic high school seniors at prom.

Bless our neighbor for recounting this by shuffling around our front yard with her elbows angled just so, her neck bobbing out and in, and for saving the first few eggs for us to see. She intuited that this was also a very big moment for me. It was.

I crooned over them. They were so perfect and small. Little starter versions of real, live eggs.

First Eggs

And they were delicious. It was a miracle to see them sputtering to white in the cast iron skillet I inherited from my grandmother.

Over time, the eggs have gotten bigger, and now they’re your standard medium/large that you get at the supermarket. Except for the fact that they’re a sepia rainbow. And Mavis’ are always this amazing blue-green color and more oblong than the rest.

We’ve also gotten a few whoppers. Like one from this morning that we cracked open to find 2 yolks inside.

BigEgg
When I first layed eyes on it, I audibly winced. I hope she did some deep breathing when that one was coming out.

Now, our gals are routine and established layers. We usually get 3-5 eggs per day. The bounty is amazing.

And of course I have slipped into the mundane routine of it all, but I still get shocked into awe by the cycle we’re part of. We throw our cast off cheerios and weeds and apple cores and rotting pumpkins into the run (in addition to their pellets and scratch), and in exchange, these birds make us food and fertilizer. Every effing day. That daily wheel of give and take brings me back to the human animal I am. And even though I can be found hemming and hawing in bed about having to go outside to let the chickens out, I can also be found whispering “thanks gals” into the nest box in the afternoon.

Really. Thanks gals. You’re doing a bang up job.

Starting somewhere

You have to start somewhere.

That’s the line that’s on repeat in my head today. I’ve been reading The Mists of Avalon for the last couple of months. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a cult classic re-telling of the Arthurian Legend from the perspective of the women. I just finished the last page (p. 892!!) yesterday and still feel under a spell that only a pagan, goddess, earth-based, woman-power-festival book can cast.

Reading it has stirred the longing I’ve had, since I moved away from the small, arid town of my youth, to have the dirt and sky and seasons figure prominently in my everyday life. Instead of smelling the rain coming, I sit here and type and scan websites as though the internet will save me. My tangible connection to the natural rhythms of life consists of two things lately: hanging the laundry out on the line that we strung across a tree and our back door and digging bare hands into my daily kale salad to work the oil and lemon juice and salt into the leaves. And sometimes it’s raining, so I put the laundry in the dryer. And there are days when I’m sick of kale. On those days, my ribs hurt from sitting at the computer for too long, and I try to remember to look up at the sky when I’m sitting at the park with J.

It’s not enough.

During this recent Mists of Avalon bender, I’ve been noticing the cycles of the moon again. And remembering this experiment my mom and I did in our garden, where we planted half of our plot by the moon and the other half a few days before that, just to see if the whole farmer’s almanac, by-the-moon thing had any merit. Our by-the-moon potatoes and green beans were head and shoulders above the others–I still remember the site of that lop-sided garden. One half bushing out on mysterious lunar steroids. If the moon has that kind of influence, what power is it exerting over me every wax and wane? And why does my life have so little to do with that?

So I’ve been criticizing our life here, and how I unknowingly traded the slow satisfaction of life in the San Juan mountains for the hip here-and-nowness of living in a thriving urban community. I’m stifled by the high density of people and concrete and traffic here. For better or for worse, I was raised in the high mountain desert of Colorado. I grew up roaming on our 5 acres which was surrounded by dozens upon dozens of open, roam-able sage brush acres. Solitude and open and the sounds and smells of dirt and bugs and life were freely given every day. There was no seeking required. And now I live in our little cottage that I love. And I sit on our back deck and hear airplanes, traffic and cackling crows. The deck looks out over our back yard, for which we once had grand plans and has now become a storage receptacle for our family’s bicycle fetish (cruiser, road bike, tandem, cargo…!) and various J toys. Our front yard is a shared driveway. A very beautiful, recently re-poured driveway for which I am very grateful, because J loves to roll trucks and balls and ride bikes in it, and we have a nice table and chairs there where we enjoy warm evenings . But it’s a concrete driveway.

You have to start somewhere.

I have known, very clearly since our ill-fated trip to Boulder last year, that I want chickens in our back yard. And I’ve been putting it off, because in the back of my head, I think we might move (in the next year or two) since the 650 sqft that we occupy is, for the first time, starting to feel too small. So I want to live in our wee cottage for another year or two without my dream backyard chickens just because I might have to move them? Upon conscious thought, I’ve deemed that not a good enough reason. And my earthy, Mists of Avalon, pagan self needs chickens now. So, we’ve gotten approval from all of the neighbors and have an email in to our landlords for our final stamp of approval. Here’s our future chicken sanctuary:

Goddess willing, they’ll live just below my favorite walnut tree in existence.

I love to watch the drama of it leafing out in the spring, the crunch-crunch-crackle of the squirrel walnut harvest in July and August (which inspired this video), how in one or two days in November, it drops every single rattly leaf and is naked like this again. Locals have been telling me that the soil surrounding walnut trees is often difficult to grow in, and we’ve certainly found that true over the last 4 years. So replacing the stunted ferns and lilies  s l o wly  growing there with chickens seems like just the ticket.

The one edible thing that we have successfully grown in our walnut-ed, shady backyard are strawberries. And here are some rogue spring bloomers getting ready to pop on this lovely March day. I have no idea what this plant is, so if you do, let me know. I intentionally left them here instead of weeding them out in the fall and I’m so glad I did.

And last weekend, I snapped myself out of the internet hypnosis that always calls when J is napping, and instead I potted some plants and dragged them out to the driveway.

I’m rooting more succulents in the kitchen that will occupy another pot or two once they’ve got some nice trailing roots to show. I also want to build or salvage a long narrow gardening bed for our only sunny, vegetable garden-able spot that we’ve got–also in the driveway. I’d thought of this years ago, but A was worried about the exhaust from cars on the driveway, and so I shelved the idea.

You’ve got to start somewhere. And if that’s eating exhaust-y vegetables from a concrete driveway garden that is planted by the moon, so be it.