Archive for the ‘Chickens’ Category

I tried to name our Rhode Island Red something clever. But the family wanted a more practical name, so she was just Red. A good enough name for a good enough chicken.

She did not come when you called her, but she came when dinner was served.  Not quite as obedient as the average dog, but ahead of some kids I know. She laid big eggs, and often. She blocked the exit from the henhouse when she slept, which caused a fair amount of squawking from some grumpy hens when it was time to get up. She didn’t care much about the pecking order, and was big enough to get away with it. And not least of all, she was a looker, sturdy and lustrous crimson.

With autumn molting and a dark winter solstice behind us, the other chickens are ready to get back into laying. Red was probably working on her first egg of the winter when she died this week. She will be missed, and the garden will not be quite as bright.

So with apologies to William Carlos Williams for a little rearranging, we will bid her farewell.

so much depends

a white wheel

glazed with rain

beside the red


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Spring cleaning, chicken style

Spring has arrived in Kirkland, which means that the daffodils are blooming, the rain-soaked hills around us are sliding toward Lake Washington with $900,000 homes in tow, and everyone is engaged in some sort of spring cleaning. For the chickens, spring cleaning means rolling around in the dirt as much as possible. Theoretically the dirt baths keep parasites at bay, but I know a kid who bathes regularly in dirt and still managed to get head lice. Anyway, the chickens clean up well enough in the rain which has not ceased since March 1. Julie spent a full four hours this afternoon at William’s track meet in a relentless downpour. Which she did as the better, more dedicated parent. I told her that I was looking forward to seeing the two of them back at our warm house so she could give me a big wet Willy. Which she did not think was funny. But I believe that as long as I am able to amuse myself, that will be enough to get me to summer.

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Fart Egg

SylviaSylvia’s dysfunctions are many. She tries to sleep on top of her house instead of inside it. She pecks at the other chickens and has trouble keeping friends. And worst of all, she is always finding new ways to fail at laying a proper egg.

She has laid small eggs with translucent membranes instead of hard shells. She has laid normal looking eggs with soft shells, and eggs with hard but misshapen shells. She has even laid eggs with no shell at all. Yuck.

And then there are the wind eggs. A wind egg is normal in appearance but has no yolk inside. I call them wind eggs because it is a widely accepted term for the phenomenon, and also because it carries a certain sense of mystery with it. But there is another common term for a no-yolker. The fart egg. I cannot quite bring myself to use this term. For one thing, it does not have any sense of mystery at all. Just the opposite. And of course I am a mature adult. “Sylvia has given us another wind egg,” I’ll say. Then one of the boys will correct me. “You mean she laid a fart egg, Dad!” The others giggle. My wife laughs. I am surrounded by immaturity.

Fine. Laugh at me. I tell them that there are also many terms for a chicken that cannot lay proper eggs. Casserole. Cacciatore. Cordon Bleu. The boys pretend I’m joking.

Now, to her credit, Sylvia is getting better at laying proper eggs. The kind you would not be afraid to give to a nice neighbor. Her other eggs we can give to neighbors we don’t like.

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Mrs. Henkeeper

My wife eyes the new chicken house suspiciously.

Julie: Is that supposed to be me?
Me: Oh, no. That is Mrs. Henkeeper.

This newest henhouse with its cedar siding and custom-cut windows has considerably inflated the price of home-grown eggs. Mr. and Mrs. Henkeeper raise and lower special doors in the north and south egg rooms when you move their arms. Forrest will sometimes lay her eggs in Mrs. Henkeeper’s room when she can remember how to get into the house. Which is seldom.

Our first chicken house, an A-frame with dormer, shelters the youngest chicks, Mildred and Alice. Every evening the older chickens try to sneak inside, and Forrest still lays eggs in it when she forgets how to climb the ladder into the new house. It is somewhat insulting that all the chickens prefer the first house, which I made in a rush.

Tom: Is that Mom?
Me: Of course.
William: It doesn’t even look like a woman. I thought it was supposed to be Beethoven.

SylviaThe second chicken house, shaped like a barn, was built to shelter Juanita, Red, and Sylvia while they were still chicks. But the architect, whoever he was, spent so much time mulling over the design that the builder, whoever he was, did not finish until the chicks were no longer chicks. They crowded in anyway, until Forrest decided to leave her A-frame and join the barn chickens. She pushed her way in and went to sleep, awaking to find that the other chickens had fled to the A-frame. For weeks, Forrest the outcast waited vainly in the barn for the others to return. And then at last the third and biggest house was ready.

Julie: That had better not be me. She looks mean.
Me: Oh, no. That is Mrs. Henkeeper. And she’s not mean. She’s just very serious about keeping things in order.

The third chicken house was sketched out on paper more than a month ago. During the time it took me to turn the rough sketch into an 8’x3′ henhouse, an entire 4000-square foot home on the lake below us caught fire, was razed and reconstructed.

The barn now sits unused in the garden. Alice and Mildred sleep in the A-frame at night while the older chickens fall asleep outside its entrance, or on the roof of the third house. When they are asleep, we move the older hens into the new house, where they belong.

At dawn, Sylvia and Red and Juanita run down the ladder. Forrest, who is blind in one eye, steps forward and tumbles off the side of the ladder, squawking as she hits the ground. The youngest chicks in their A-frame sleep in late.  Like teenagers.

Nick: Why doesn’t Mrs. Henkeeper have any pupils?
Me: Go look into Mom’s eyes and then choose a color from the acrylic paints.

One day soon all the chickens will know how to climb into their new henhouse at bedtime, and Mr. and Mrs. Henkeeper will move their arms every day to reveal 5-6 new eggs in various shades of brown and blue.

And if Julie ever reads this blog, which she won’t, she should know that she is definitely not Mrs. Henkeeper. And also that Mrs. Henkeeper, although appearing to be a little stern, is greatly loved for her ability to keep order in a chaotic world. Mr. Henkeeper, on the other hand,  mostly just moves his arms up and down.

Forrest explores third house in transit. Henkeepers with their egg doors shut.

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The Reaper came to Gladys in the form of a joyful, bouncing Irish terrier. The same terrier who this fall killed Wilbur and left her as a gray, plump, feathered heap in the front yard, while the remaining chickens cowered fearfully under the farthest recesses of the front porch. 

Gladys with Tail

Gladys with her proud tail intact

Yet these chickens who watched Wilbur die forgot their trauma, and were flying out of the safety of the backyard to raid the neighborhood bird feeders within a week. If elephants really never forget, chickens surely never remember. 

Our next door neighbor accused the terrier’s owner of harboring a chicken killer (sort of the opposite of being a son-of-a-bitch). The owner was not amused, and began to glower at us instead of waving as she walked her chicken killer past our house every overcast Northwest afternoon. Certainly we could not blame her. Yes her dog came into our yard seeking game, but we let our chickens into the front yard. Or rather, they let themselves into the front yard by flying over an inadequate gate. 

In strange irony, when we dismantled our rotting deck and its protective gate a month ago, the chickens lost interest in the front yard and the neighborhood beyond. For the first time since Wilbur’s death, they were free to roam, but instead they mostly kept to the space around their henhouse. And I became complacent. 

Immediate trauma

Then on Saturday it happened. I was in the woodshed when I heard the commotion. Swans are supposed to release a beautiful song at the point of death, but chickens are no swans. They just squawk bloody murder. 

I leapt from the shed with a caulking gun in one hand, which I threw desperately in the direction of the commotion. But this was too many seconds after the attack to make a difference. I was coming from too far away. 

The terrier had run around to the back of the house, found Gladys and seized her, was killing her in her own water trough. The miracle of her survival came from the survival instincts, as it turned out, of the previous homeowner. He had created a sort of bomb shelter to store up emergency food and water, and our kids had turned this into their own fort. As luck would have it, the fort was located next to the chicken coop, and there were two kids inside when the attack came. So right as the terrier had the chicken submerged in the water trough, an 11-year-old boy burst onto the scene and pulled Gladys from the jaws of death. 

Gladys without her tail

Gladys without her proud tail

I came as fast as I could, passing the misused caulking gun and entering the scene of screaming children and traumatized chickens. In the middle of it all stood a young, beautiful terrier. A chicken killer interrupted in the middle of the most natural of jobs. 

So I scratched him behind the ears when the kids were not looking and opened the nearest gate to send him home. Then I set about repurposing pieces of the old rotten deck to erect a hideous but sturdy gate which would keep the chickens in and the dogs out. Would keep the chickens away from the neighbors’ gardens, and keep their dogs away from our chicken coop. Wilbur in Heaven is clucking in disapproval at the slowness of my actions.  And Gladys is running about the yard without her once proud tail. But she is already looking for a way over the fence to the unprotected front yard and the neighborhood beyond. And she is strutting again. Because chickens, after all, never remember.

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Spring is here, according to Gladys. After a little more than two months of winter vacation, she began laying her bluish eggs again on February 6. Her eggs are bigger now–almost the size of store-bought Large–so at last we can use them in recipes without worrying about how the cake will turn out. They look so beautiful lying on bright red bubinga shavings that it’s almost a shame to bring them in from the henhouse. But I get hungry.

Odd egg out

Forrest, meanwhile, still refuses to lay. When Gladys is busy laying an egg, Forrest stares at us through the sliding glass door with bored irritation. She spends most of her time chasing birds and squirrels out of the yard. Yesterday she and Gladys kept two crows at bay for half an hour. The crows would perch on the fence staring at the chickens, knowing something really good must be in a yard so well guarded. But every time they dropped down from the fence, there would be a chicken running at them full speed, head low. So they would retreat back to the fence to wait, staring down at the chickens in the small yard, completely ignoring the two acres of undefended land immediately behind them.

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Forrest shows off

When Peter P. joined the Windows 7 team as a user experience designer, he was given an opportunity most designers can only dream about. There are more than 1 billion PCs in use today, over 90% of them running Windows. If you are looking to change the way people interact with the products in their lives, this is heady stuff.

Just don’t let it go to your head.

There are so many places in Windows 7 for a UX designer to make an impact, from the touchscreen experience to the new ribbons in Paint. But as Peter explained to me at a recent tweetup, users have made one thing very clear: Don’t mess with Notepad.

Turns out, people value the lowly text editing program not for its features, but for its lack of features. The top use of Notepad, especially among developers, is to strip out formatting. The last thing a Notepad user wants to see  is change in the name of improvement.

This is not simply a case of leaving well enough alone. When we watch how people really use products before determining the next feature set and put aside preconceived notions of how a product is supposed to be used, we develop better products. The same principle that has preserved the simplicity of Notepad for nearly 25 years led to significant enhancements to Excel early on when it was discovered that people used their number crunching software to organize text. This is why the very word processing features that have been kept out of Notepad all these years have been added, release after release, to Excel. 

If we look around us with an eye to how products are “misused” today, we can get a sense of where things are going. My son Nick doesn’t have an iPod, so he downloads music onto his digital camera. Considering the storage capacity of his camera, and the mediocre quality of the camera on my iPhone, I think he may be onto something.

Two weeks ago, our verrückten German friends took care of the chickens while we were away in Montana for Thanksgiving. Before long we got a link to a Facebook page with a picture of Forrest riding a skateboard. I’m pretty sure a pair of 8-year-old girls put Forrest up to it, but it is pretty interesting.  I’m not saying that chickens are the next big thing in children’s entertainment, or that sports are the next big thing in chicken entertainment. But just in case, I’m keeping a lookout for skateboarding chickens.

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Meet Forrest

Used to be you could identify the nutcases in your neighborhood by their gangly ham radio antenna towers and gardens with too much zucchini. These people lived within a system of ever-evolving technology, efficiency, and comfort. But they weren’t quite comfortable. With every step forward in evolution, they were haunted by a sense that something important was being left behind. They wanted more control of the things they consumed, whether it was food, information, or entertainment. Today you won’t see the ham radio towers in your neighborhood, but there are other signs. Cars with biodiesel bumper stickers. Kids almost floating off in UFO-shaped balloons. Chickens walking casually around the yard as if they were tabby cats. 



So confession time. We have joined the ranks of crazy suburbanites with chickens.

We have three hens named by my sister who raised them from eggs in Olympia. There is Gladys the Black, Wilbur the Gray, and Forrest the Brown. Forrest was named after a character in a Winston Groom novel who in turn was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, which as most people know is an organization of chickens who run around at night instead of day. Forrest in the novel (and subsequent movie) is a simpleton. Forrest the chicken is a simpleton even by chicken standards. Hence the name.

People today need reassurance about their food. Did my beef come from a happy cow? Did my egg come from a chicken free to walk on actual dirt? Did terrorists sneak into the warehouse during a smoke break to poison my food? When you raise your own chickens, you don’t need to fret over these things because you are in control and know all the details. Today, for example, I know that Wilbur ate nasturtiums, pears, and left-over Cheerios. I know Gladys spent her day under the Japanese maple and the Chevy Suburban hiding from rain. And I know that Forrest followed the other chickens around like a hopeless groupie.

Our hens are only a few months old, so we are still eggless in Seattle.  But I can tell you that there is much more to raising chickens than getting fresh eggs every day or an eventual Kung Pao Gladys. We have raised guinea pigs, gerbils, lizards, newts, dogs, cats, two garter snakes, even an orphaned squirrel. Of them all, chickens are the most entertaining to watch. They combine thousands of years of careful domestication with the most primitive of instincts. And when you watch them, you witness both. Chicken life alternates constantly between complacence and panic. Complacence comes from being around familiar company and not having to think.

Chicken panic has three sources:

  1. Another chicken is getting food that should be  mine.
  2. The neighbor dog/cat/toddler is chasing me.
  3. The other chickens have left me behind.

Cats are warm on your lap, and snakes are fascinating when they lunge at a banana slug as if it were really capable of escape. But for sheer entertainment, nothing beats a chicken.  They do stupid things, which is amusing. They coo when you hold them, which is endearing. And they surprise you with their predictability. For now, I watch them and congratulate myself that one day our eggs will come from a pure, natural source, even if the truth is that our eggs still come from a faraway farm, and our hens are living it up without producing anything to pay the rent.

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