Saturday, March 31, 2012

Heeding the Wake-Up Call

Every morning I awake to the hens' calls. Diamond, the Silver Spangled Hamburg, chirps a noise somewhere between a woman's guffaw and the screech of a red-tailed hawk. The other two hens emit quieter sounds, more like gentle "Top o' the Morning" greetings.

Jersey, the fourth hen and alpha bird in the flock, has taken ill and no longer sings her morning wake-up song. Three days ago I walked into the coop and discovered her in a heap on the ground, one wing splayed out. I picked her up and placed her back down. Her legs folded under her and she collapsed on the bed of pine shavings.

Does Jersey have Marek's disease?

She was a gift to me, Jersey, the giant black bird with iridescent feathers. So, were the other three hens and the large two-tiered coop, hand-built with love, that houses them. Even though it's nearing the time for Jersey to start laying eggs (she's six months old), instead she has become ill.

I purchased a small dog cage from the local pet store and separated her from the other hens. Marek's, an airborne poultry virus, is a highly contagious disease.

I called the local feed store. The poultry expert assured me that all of the hens had been vaccinated as chicks for Marek's disease.

"Ten years ago, we never saw Marek's in this area," said the woman. "Maybe some strains are becoming resistant to the vaccination. Or, perhaps, there was something wrong with the original vaccination." Whatever happened, she agreed, that Jersey's plight sounded like Marek's. She suggested I put Jersey next to a small light to help keep her warm. "Hens body temperatures are high and without the flock to warm them, their bodies can become stressed from the cold."

Jersey now sits in a cage on the patio during the daylight sun and sleeps at night in a cage in the garage under a light. She's stilling eating and drinking water. I'm feeding her a homeopathic remedy Hypericum Perforatum (St. John's Wort), 5 dosages in 1 tablespoon of distilled water and also a complex of crushed food-deriven Vitamin B. Occasionally during the soft hours of the day, I hear her gently cawing to the other birds as if to say, "I miss you." And, I also see her scooting around on her tail feathers trying desperately to stand up. She seems determined to not give up on life until she can stand on her own again.

Having a sick bird is a wake-up call to how fragile life is.

Last year, I had a series of my own wake-up calls. Some were medical, others professional, but they all resulted in the eradication of toxic things from my life.

Intuitively I knew that if I continued on the same path, a path that seemed to wind through a thicket rife with poison oak and venomous snakes, I would end up like my beloved Jersey--wings clipped, legs splayed--unable to stand on my own two feet.

So, I made some changes and heeded the wake-up call.

And, while in flux, I met one of the most important souls I've ever met. He challenged me to debunk status quo, eradicate prescribed meanings of success, and to follow my creative being. He asked tough questions, taught me what he knew, and pushed me beyond my boundaries. Under his tutelage, I flourished. Or, at least, I began to.

But, thickets are notorious for spawning new growth and, sure enough, the weeds of exterior forces began to entangle our feet, ensnaring us in expectations, judgments and external demands. Even the sun that cast its dappled guiding light at the end of the thicket, couldn't stop the questions from coming. Had we, like in Don Quixote's Impossible Dream, dared to run where the brave dare not go? Were external forces clipping our wings? When did love become not enough?

Wake-up calls sometimes don't go as dreamed.

This morning when I awoke to the sounds of the hens, I realized I was like Jersey. Alone. Sequestered in a cage. Sad. Hurting.

It's time to heed yet another wake-up call.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Picture Perfect

Anticipation                                                                Photo credit: Keith Skelton

Keith Skelton's photo of Sequoia and Coachie, the Partridge Giant Cochin, made picture of the day on Workday Chicken Pictures today.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The First Egg

Coachie's First Egg       Photo Credit: Keith Skelton

Just in time for spring, Coachie, the Giant Partridge Cochin laid her first egg. I knew she was getting ready because I found her in the nesting box early last week scrambling the straw into a funnel so she could sit down in the middle of it. "I think we're going to have an egg when we get back from the Valley," I said. I had seen this behavior before, preparing a nest. Years ago, my cat did the same thing before she gave birth to kittens.

Sure enough, a small, brown egg was on the coop's floor when we returned from the Valley two days later. While we were admiring Coachie's beautiful creation and discussing how we would prepare it for breakfast the next morning, Coachie jumped up into the nesting box and started making a racket--a noise so loud it resounded through the neighborhood. And, then, she laid another egg, right there, while we were lifting the lid, watching. She arched her butt up and lowered her head to the straw. Her bottom eyelids (nictitating membrane) raised up as she strained. And, then, a warm egg popped out beneath her. I stroked Coachie's head. "You're such a good mother," I said. "Well done."

There's nothing like birth.

When my daughter was young, our cat, Snowflake, became impregnated with a litter. Snowflake searched out a dark nesting place under the bed where a blanket was stored for winter. That morning before work, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, cat in my lap, stroking her belly and the underside of her chin, when she began to push and strain. "Hurry over here, Alli," I yelled to my daughter, "I think Snowflake's giving birth." My daughter and I watched as a kitten in a sac began to emerge from its mother. We were so in awe that the birth was happening in my lap, that our glee upset Snowflake. She raced to her nesting place, the newborn still half in and out of her. There she birthed six kittens.

There's nothing like birth.

Years ago, while vacationing on the south shore of Kauai, my family and I were sunning by the beach when we saw a great fin sticking out of the water. At first, I thought it was a wind surfer who had caught some errant breeze. But, then I saw the fin flip around, and around, and around and realized that it was a whale of some sort. The locals were all stopping and pulling their cars over to the side of the road. A great commotion of people began gathering. No farther out to sea than a short boogie board ride was a Humpback whale. It rolled and rolled around in the water, its great fins becoming giant sky masts. Moments later, a small whale could be seen floating behind its mother. Together, the two Humpbacks began gliding their way down the shore toward their next destination.

There's nothing like birth.

Years ago, I didn't have the chance to see the birth of my daughter. Because of the quickness with which she finally arrived, my eyeglasses were left on the hospital's bedside table instead of being brought into the operating room. Even though a large mirror was carefully positioned at the end of my surgical bed, I couldn't see anything. I remember squinting my eyes at the mirror and trying like crazy to see her come out of me, but all I saw was an unfocused blur.

Even though I couldn't actually see my daughter's birth, it didn't matter. Because once I heard her "I'm here in the world" wail and wrapped her in my protective arms, I knew I had just seen the most miraculous of events that has ever happened to me.

There's nothing like birth.

Last year was an unusual and difficult year. A lot of things changed for me. Some events were very sad, others happy and rewarding. But, all were somewhat unanticipated. I re-learned that the Universe can easily toss "balls" into the air and use its great hand to juggle and keep them there.

So, in preparation for whatever this year decides it will bring, I am readying my nest. I have ripped up my front yard, mended fences and reinforced retaining walls.  Tomato plants now overflow my extra large garden box and 100 sunflower seedlings have been planted in anticipation of them turning their faces, one day, toward the sun.

I am preparing my nest so when the confusion clears and the Universe decides it's time for the "balls" to drop, they will have a soft, safe place to land. With my nest ready, I feel prepared.

Because, there's nothing like birth.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Art and Egg-ucation of Chicken Farming

Hana chases a chicken in the chicken pen          
Photo credit: Keith Skelton,

Montecito Messenger published an article written by me (photos by Keith Skelton) about Crane School in today's weekly edition:

 Putting the “Country” Back in Crane Country Day School.

For Anne Dascomb, assistant to the head of school at Crane Country Day School, starting Crane's afterschool Discoveries Chicken Farming program for first through fifth graders was a natural. When she was a student at University of California-Santa Barbara, her roommates were veterinarian students and always had chickens around. Dascomb's animal husbandry skills combined with a generous grant from Parents from Crane (Crane's parent association) and a chicken coop donated by parent Ramsey Cronk, provided Dascomb with all she needed to launch the chicken farming class.

"I always say that I'm putting the 'country' back in Crane Country Day School," says Dascomb, dressed in a flouncy Western skirt and stylized leather cowboy boots.

A quick stroll past the Sprague Mathematics and Science complex to the far end of the parking lot leads to a small knoll above the basketball courts. There sits a bucolic patch of land that hosts the chicken coop, the chicken pen, a compost, vermicompost, the school's organic gardens, and an outdoor classroom with wooden benches and an oversized white board.

"We were so lucky to have Eric Haessler, our Lower School Drama teacher, donate a weekend of his time to construct and install the chicken run," says Dascomb, pointing to a long, extended run that is enclosed by chicken wire and opens up to the coop with hinged doors. "The pen gives the chickens room to run."

Known affectionately around campus as "The Chicken Lady", Dascomb says she loves the program because she is no longer "just an administrator behind the desk." Children visit her all day, bringing her empty egg cartons from home in hopes of being one of the "winners" of the dozen egg giveaways (a half-dozen each) at school assembly. The weekly or so winners receive egg cartons designed with a gift label that says, "From your friends in the Poultry Club at Crane Country Day School." The label portrays animated caricatures of Dascomb, Haessler, Maintenance Supervisor Joel Jamison, Learning Specialist Theresa Gorey, and two of Crane's inaugural chickens. The person who draws the winner of the eggs enthusiastically recites the catchy chicken phrase, "Winner, winner, chicken dinner" as he or she pulls the name of the egg-cellent prize.

In fact, many of the first-, second-, and third-grade girls are "totally into the Crane hens," says Dascomb. "They collect the eggs from the nests daily and bring them up to the office, and they beg to announce the winner of the eggs. It is so much fun to see an otherwise shy little first-grader stand up and, all on her own in a brave voice, shout out to the 280 assembled students, faculty and administrators, "Winner, winner, chicken dinner.'" Besides barnyard activities, Dascomb has a "flock" of curriculum ideas. The students watched the Virtual Chicken DVD, a movie produced by Auburn University's (Alabama) Department of Poultry Science that takes a "trip" through the hen-making apparatus. 

They've also whipped up tantalizing chocolate eggs and formed their hair into rooster-like styles using egg whites.

The students crafted felt "flock" jackets for the chickens, better known in the poultry industry as "hen savers." These jackets provide chickens with extra protection from aggressive, pecking peers, which are often the more dominant hens in the flock. One chicken "farmer", Rhys, glued cut-out fabric letters onto a hen saver for his cleverly named chicken "Fly."

Besides the care and feeding of the chickens, the students also learn about chicken anatomy and by the end of the class, are required to know the Chicken Farmer's Glossary of Terms from, a popular chicken blog. During the final egg-xamination, the students crowded around an outdoor picnic table next to the coop and began answering Ms. Dascomb's questions.

"What does a chicken need to lay an egg?" asks Dascomb, which is in itself a bit of a trick question.

Zane raises his hand and proudly says, "A hen doesn't need a rooster to lay an egg."

"You're right," says Dascomb and hands him a rubberized see-through egg with a yellow yolk inside.

Other questions are asked. Enthusiastic answers are given. Each member of the Chicken Farmers Club receives an egg toy and accolades from Dascomb.

"You've all graduated," Dascomb says proudly as she holds up the Chicken Farming T-shirt. "And, you're now official members of the Chicken Farming Club." She hands them each a T-shirt. On it, it states, "Crane Country Day Schoool. Eggucation at its best." And, that it is.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Always Spring.

Looking into the outside - from the winter to the spring.                          Photo credit: Nancy Shobe 

A friend of mine, Rebecca, constructed the most amazing coop. She gathered recycled boards, windows, and a door and built her coop in her backyard. Every time I visit her, I'm in awe of her finished endeavor. It's not just that the coop is the perfect little house, a house that could become a future mother-in-law getaway (if it was well-scrubbed) or a tucked away artist's studio. What amazes me is that Rebecca constructed it herself. She donned her hip belt and adopted a Rosie the Riveter's attitude. It's as if "I Can Do It," is written in subliminal messaging all over the coop.

What Rebecca doesn't know, and to which I doubt I will ever confess, is that I often tiptoe inside her coop while visiting her, camera in hand, and snap photos of her eleven or so engaging chickens. They prance around, hen dancing to some invisible beat. A hen has often laid a warm and recent egg and that egg sits like a golden prize in her hand-built, wall-to-wall nesting box.

But, what captivates me most is the view from the coop. Inside the all consuming darkness, I look out of the four-paned window and find a magical world of oaks, orange-blossomed nasturtium and long forgotten garden "things". Right before me, is a painting-perfect portrait of Rebecca's life: the sturdiness of the oak, the vibrance of the orange flowers, and the tradition, history and storytelling of the old and rusty things.

I feel very fortunate to have her as friend.

Friends are often remembered in ways other than the visualization of their faces. Perhaps it's their hands, the way she sat on your couch knitting her grandson another sweater. Or, maybe it's the scent of the freshly-baked apple pie that alights on your senses as you walk into her house. Or, maybe it's the scratchiness of his unshaved morning beard against your sensitive face.

I once had a friend who doesn't even know he is my friend. He sat on the airplane next to me while I was journeying back to the "homeland" to visit my dying father. We talked about life and death and what it meant to us. We talked about losing loved ones. We both had tears in our eyes as we filled the hours with a kind of partnered talk that one can almost only find with strangers--a baring of our souls, souls that are usually intensely guarded with our own immediate loved ones. Even though I can't tell you his name and I have no idea where he lives, he was a great friend to me and my heart will always be grateful to him.

As this is the last day of winter (and also National Poultry Day), I think it's important to remember those people who warm your heart and bring you spring. I admire Rebecca for her strength and courage. I respect her for taking a month sabbatical every year to pursue and refine her love of painting. I treasure the fact that I was the first person other than the parents to hold her gorgeous newborn baby daughter. And, I am thankful that she allowed me to sit with her for days waiting for her goat to give birth. I even appreciate the way that we can squabble and still be friends.

Nearly all the ways that Rebecca has touched my life has been captured by me in color and black-and-white photographs. But, the evidence of her presence in my life is so much greater. She has shown me that with strength, conviction, and a can-do attitude, the view from the window is almost always spring.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Stepping Outside of the Box

Stepping Outside of the Box            Copyright Keith Skelton;          
Every morning when I walk up the hill to the coop, the chickens are standing at the door.

The entire flock rubs their beaks against the aviary-wired door, clucking their morning "hello's", sashaying their little tail feathers back and forth. When I open the door, at least two of them jump onto the lower doorframe and peek out their heads.

Due to predators--namely my cat, hawks, a neighborhood dog, and a lack of fences--I've been hesitant to let the chickens free-range. Yet, their constant behavior of greeting me mosh-pit style in front of the door leaves me feeling guilty. So, the other day, I decided to grab two of the hens and let them explore.

With a cup of my morning chamomile/citrus tea in one hand and a chicken in the other (I made two trips), I brought two hens down to the "flatlands."

Coachie, my Giant Partridge Cochin, went into a snit. She was fine in my arms, but the minute I put her on the grass, she cawed out for the rest of her flock. Even when Sunshine, the Golden Spangled Hamburg, was set down beside her, she still cawed. With equal fervor, the penned hens responded. The communication went back and forth for over a half hour.

After 45 minutes or so, Coachie began to relax. Well, kind of. One peck here, and a quick twist of the head and a dash of the eye. One peck there, and a quick twist of the head and the dash of the eye. She clearly didn't appreciate being the Christina Columbus of chicken explorers.

I kneeled down next to her and petted her. I tried to reassure her with my best Chicken Whispers. Her agitation lessened but never ceased. After downing my cup of tea, I scooped her back up into my hands and transported her and Sunshine back to the remaining flock.

Coachie was having a difficult time being out of the box.

Settling into the "coop" of life is so much easier than stepping outside of the box, isn't it? When a challenging opportunity arises, instead of "going for it", it's much easier to heed the bugle blowing warning calls: What if I fall apart? What if I get sick? What if I die? What if I'm a failure? What if I'm away from my kids too long? Our mind rages with warnings like an overprotective parent. "Don't you dare do it," it screams while throwing a protective arm across our chests. "You could get hurt." So, we don't move forward. We stay. We listen to those whispering voices and nestle back under the wings of our existing flock. After all, it's warm there. It's comfortable. It feels familiar. Maybe life's just easier staying inside the box, we tell ourselves.

But, what happens after awhile?

We get bored. We suffocate. We pick fights with significant others.

Our minds and souls feel as if they are turning to mush.

A librarian friend once asked me, "How do you do what you do for a living?" referring to my career as a fundraising professional.

"I do it because everyday I wonder if I can. When I wake up in the morning, I have 'butterflies' in my stomach. I suppose it's the challenge that keeps me interested, keeps me engaged. My life's motto is,'Go for the butterflies,' " I said with a giggle.

"I can't even remember the last time I had "butterflies" in my stomach,"  she said.

Going for the "butterflies" adds excitement to life. It means taking ourselves beyond our own prescribed limits, testing who we are.

There was the time years ago I attempted to climb Vernal Falls in Yosemite, despite my deeply embedded fear of heights. I almost made it to the top. Even though I didn't climb the last twenty steps, I gained such confidence in my abilities that I landed a very significant philanthropic gift the next week.  I learned that "butterflies" in my stomach--although certainly not comfortable or at all desirable--are a sure sign that I am stepping outside of my box, or "wandering" away from my norm, and that "ain't all bad."

I interviewed a man once who helped found a branch of an international leadership organization and at 83 years old or so, still travels extensively around the world for work.

"What's the secret to your success?" I asked him.

He paused for a moment, deep in thought. Then, he looked at me, with amusement dancing in his eyes, "It's that I've never said 'no' to any offer. When someone asks me to do something or go somewhere, I always say 'yes', that is unless I have a sense that it's very dangerous or really not good for me."

"And, the result has been your success?" I asked.

"The result has been that I've done so many different things and been to so many different places that I had never expected or even imagined. I've led a very rich life."

All because he chose to step outside of the box. He chose to say yes to the "butterflies."

As I sat and watched Coachie's distress yesterday, I realized that I have often felt that distress, too. Stepping outside of the box isn't easy. It causes anxiety, fear, and sometimes pain.

Just this afternoon,  I sat at my desk reviewing my to-do list.  I added: create a safe space for the chickens to free-range. After all, they can't choose to free-range for themselves. The option has to be given.

But, for me...I have the ability to choose...

I, then, picked up a yellow sticky note and wrote on it in all caps: REMEMBER TO CHOOSE THE BUTTERFLIES. It's now posted on the keyboard of my laptop. After all, by choosing butterflies, I'm guaranteed wings.

P.S. According to research, the gut plays an important role in creating memory due to something called our vagus nerve (derived from the Latin word "wandering") and "second brain". This is all fascinating material. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Will They Eat It?

A very funny video on You Tube. This episode is about whether or not the chicken will eat the banana.

P.S. I tried to feed two of my chickens a banana this morning and they just kept walking by it for over 30 minutes. I guess I'll stick to peanuts.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Distinction of Extinction - Did T-Rex Become a Chicken?

                                                                      Photo By Nancy Shobe, Shobe Biz Communications

Are chickens and dinosaurs related?

Research conducted by Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center (2007) seemed to help prove what paleontologists have long thought: that common birds evolved from dinosaurs. Focus Online, an on-line news source from Harvard's Medical, Dental, and Public Health Schools, reported  in 2007 that research showed that sequencing from tiny pieces of collagen from Tyrannosauras Rex, seven proteins in all, matched the sequencing of the amino acids in the collagen of the common-day chickens.

But, as we all know, scientific studies are never conclusive. The great mystery continues, this evolution of the bird. Gareth Duw Davies for PBS gave a detailed and interesting story about the evolution of the bird. And, Science Daily reported in 2010, three years after the Harvard research, that birds and dinosaurs may have had some common ancestors but each seem to have evolved on their own path.

So, do or I don't I have a Jurassic Park in my backyard?

At one point in my career, I worked for a small paleontological museum, the Raymond M. Alf Museum, on the campus of The Webb Schools. It hosts the world's largest collection of fossil footprints. I would spend hours talking to the paleontologist/curator about the collections and the Museum's paleontological finds on its digs. A friend of mine even bought me a book about dinosaurs to help further my knowledge.

What I learned is that the intricacies of evolution probably will never be known. It's the head-banging curiosity of "making connections" that's so intriguing.

(During one of our many conversations, The Alf Museum curator told me that, at that time, there was conjecture that dinosaurs didn't make any noise. "No way," I said, "Tell that to Hollywood."  And, recent research highlighted in List Verse shows that T-Rex probably had some feathers.)

One of the things that had the greatest personal impact on me while I was working at the Alf Museum had nothing directly to do with dinosaurs. It was a huge spiral in one of its halls that symbolized the evolution of time. Starting from the ground, it wound and wound up toward the ceiling, naming different evolutionary time periods. It was only until the last foot or so that the word "Man" appeared. In comparison to the Universe, man hadn't been around very long.

I was going through a rough patch at the time and something about that spiral comforted me. My problems at the moment were overwhelming, all consuming. But, when compared with the timeline of the universe, they were an infinitesimal speck. Everything I was going through wasn't that important.

Years ago, a writer friend of mine said she wrote a journal of her years---meaning she allotted a couple of pages in a journal to every year of her life and then wrote down what she could remember about each year. She said she started to see patterns, Venn diagrams, in her life that helped her to write her stories. Connecting the dots of her own evolution helped her to better understand her life story. Perhaps it is by stepping back, observing and being curious about one's own life's trends, and not falling into the quagmire of thinking that our problems (or we) are ALL so important, that we as people evolve. 

Yesterday, I read an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about a new kind of travel called Evotravel, a travel trend to places where you can find evidence of evolution. Standing in the coop this morning, feeding the chickens sunflower seeds, I couldn't help but think I didn't have to travel far to see evolution. Just watching the chickens' antics--their wings flapping, their preening, their squawking--lessened my burdens, even if I never will truly know their ancestral history.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

You Can't Always Get What You Want

                                                                      Photo by Keith Skelton

My cat, Sequoia, is a determined feline. Perhaps it's because I discovered him homeless in the tiny town of Springville, California near the Sequoia Mountains.  He was meandering around the Springville Inn, the inn I was staying at. He frolicked at my feet while I was enjoying breakfast outdoors, waiting for me, no doubt, to throw him some tidbits to eat. I went hiking in the mountains that day and re-discovered him, again, later on that afternoon, waiting, rolled up in a planter, by the bed-and-breakfast. When I walked by, he lifted his head and purred. His personality was cute, but he wasn't. He was filthy, dirty, covered with ticks and fleas.

"Please take him home," said a woman cleaning the motel rooms. "He'll die here in the winter if someone doesn't take him."

It was an odd coincidence, finding Sequoia, as just two weeks before, I had dreamt that I was on a trip to Seattle and found a cat. In my dream, I had put the cat into a cat carrier and shipped her home. Ironically, my trip to Seattle never happened. It was cancelled eight hours before the first leg of my flight due to a family issue. I was disappointed, frustrated, angry. As a way to relieve my "pain,"  I traveled to the Sequoia Mountains. It was a last minute Plan B.  And, unbeknownst to me, that is where my dream came true. And, isn't that how it usually is? I really wanted the trip to Seattle but I got the cat instead.

You can't always get what you want...

Sequoia has been trying to pounce on the chickens for awhile. He sniffs around their coop and pen, even digs at the pen's surrounding soil. I've seen him sit a couple of feet away, waiting--quietly, stealthy, shy--and then, suddenly, take a running lunge for the cage. The chickens squawk and fly. He watches in tail-swishing glee. His happiness is fleeting. They're still out of reach.

This time, Sequoia sits inside the house, again waiting for his catch. But, there is a screen, a barrier, between him and what he desires.

You can't always get what you want...

After my father died, I dreamt that I saw him. There was a pane of glass between us. I could hear and see him. He could hear and see me. But, we couldn't touch. We each raised our hands to the glass and laid our hands against each other, palm to palm. But, the coolness of the glass replaced the warmth of our touch. We both cried in my dream. Cried because we could see and hear each other. Cried because we couldn't feel each others touch. I awoke desperately, very desperately, wanting my Dad to be alive again. I needed more than anything to feel his warm embrace.

But, there was the glass...the screen...the barrier...between us.

Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones once sang,
"You can't always get what you want.
You can't always get what you want.
You can't always get what you want...
And, if you try, sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need."

So, we don't always get what we want...
we often just get what we need.

I need to remember that.
I think it's called faith.

Seasons Magazine Publishes My Article: Backyard Brooders

                                 Photo by Keith Skelton    www,
Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine just released their 10th Anniversary issue. It is a beautiful magazine that showcases Santa Barbara County.

Check out my article about raising backyard chickens, Backyard Brooders, in the 10th Anniversary issue. If you want to know about raising chickens in Santa Barbara County, it's a great place to begin.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Name Game for Chickens

Rebecca's Chickens - In honor of Rebecca's Birthday today                          Photo by Nancy Shobe
Really. Someone ought to start a name registry for chickens.

Unlike moms and dads to-be who spend hours poring over baby name websites to find the perfect match, (one that doesn't remind them of anyone they don't like and  doesn't evoke ire from either side), the chicken owner usually waits to name the chicks until they're hatched. At least, that's what I did.

Normally, I'm rather clever at the name-game. As a former advertising copywriter, "headlines" and "names" usually pop right into my head and onto the page. But, the naming of my chickens had me perplexed. And, confused. It wasn't what to call them. It was how would I EVER remember the names of six chicks?

I took the easy way out and ended up calling them, for the most part, a name derived from their breed. For instance, Jersey is a Black Jersey Giant chicken; Coachie is a Giant Partridge Cochin. I know. I know. Not exactly clever...No CLIO Award Winner here...

There are some differing opinions on whether to name your chickens. After all, chickens are livestock, not pets, and some would argue it's best not to get attached. Personally, and I'll stand by this, I enjoy the challenge of naming my chicks and having something to call them when I bring their morning treat.

Below is a vignette I received from Jaki of Portland, Oregon--a thirty-or-so year veteran of chicken farming--on naming chicks:

" So, are you naming your chickens now?  I had one I named Lily for a while.  She was a beautiful white chicken.  They are rare here, because I don't buy leghorns.  But, as a wee one, she lost one wing somehow.  I suspect a feral cat or a rat reached in through the wire fencing that separated my babies from the grown hens.  Someone was able to pull her wing off. I was very worried.  To care for her. I ensconced Lily in a rabbit cage here in the kitchen.  I put a mirror in the cage with her so she would remember she was a chicken. She healed nicely, but remained my pet.  I did so love that bird.  Finally she was large enough and well enough to be put in with the other hens.  She did fine until a neighbor's dog dug under our fence and got into the chicken yard.  The only chicken the dog could catch was Lily, because, with only one wing, she couldn't fly.

I haven't named a bird since.

The neighbors got rid of the dog.


In just one month, I'll be acquiring another six-pack of baby chicks. Anyone have some ideas for chicken names?

P.S. I just discovered an on-line chicken naming website. Check it out at Pet Name Zone. The Internet never ceases to amaze me.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Celebrity Chicks with Chicks

Tori Spelling with her White Silkie.

It seems like everywhere you go now, you hear about women raising chicks. Is this just some new-fangled trend? Or, is that seekers of untainted, organic, nourishing food are deciding that they have to take "good food" into their own hands?

Things that are trendy always seem to have the celebrity "label" on them. But, in some cases, like Martha Stewart, raising chickens is something's she's been doing for years.

Here are some celebrity "chicken" highlights punked from the Internet:

It was almost exactly a year ago that Daily Mail showed Tori Spelling with her white Silkie chicken and reported on her fondness for raising chickens.

Oprah highlighted Barbra Streisand's home and barn where Ms. Streisand raises Araucana chickens that lay green eggs.

Elizabeth Hurley also seems to have a penchant for chicken charms. It was reported by Ecorazzi over four years ago that Hurley was starting a television show about organic farming. I wonder what ever happened to that...

Martha Stewart is no slumming urban farmer. Rather she raises chickens on her palatial estate and has for many years. But, we'd expect no less from Stewart.

Here's a great article about chicks who raise chicks written by Peggy Orenstein for the New York Times a couple of years ago: The Femivore's Dilemma.

Breaking News from Ecorazzi: Jennifer Aniston is now raising chickens. Maybe the new trend isn't celebrities raising chickens but celebrities going from hot men like Brad Pitt to raising chickens...Oh, wait, I forgot, Tori's still married...

1/j6/13: And, new to the chicken scene is Helen Hunt. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Chickens Going Nuts!

Coachie   -    copyright
See the crazed look in this hen's eyes? Yes, Coachie, my Giant Partridge Cochin, is eyeing a handful of unsalted Spanish peanuts. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that chickens would love peanuts. But, when I discovered a bag of "lost" peanuts in the pantry, I decided, "What the heck. The chickens loved yogurt. Let's see..."

As I opened up the door to the pen, a handful of peanuts in hand, just the smell of the peanuts nearly started a War of the Flock. Jersey, the Black Jersey Giant, came running toward me like a chicken on a wild rampage. I leaned down toward her. She pecked the peanuts from my hand as fast as she could to score as many as possible before the others. Being the grande dame of the flock, she also maneuvered her large feathery backside to effectively block the other hens until she had her fill.

Coachie, the more reserved and shy of the Foursome Flock, hung back until I stepped aside and offered her some of the tasty treat. Just like the others, she pecked away to her heart's content.

Even Diamond, the bantam Silver-Spangled Hamburg, loved them. The only thing was that the peanut was a bit too big for her mouth, so I had to split the peanuts in two, "spoon-feeding" them  to Diamond one half at a time.

Feeding chickens unique treats provides for a giggle-full morning. Just a couple of weeks ago, I gave the hens some nonfat yogurt. The yogurt went a'flying when the hens shook their heads to get it off their beaks. Sunflower seeds are a big-time hit. Pomegranate seeds, too. I can only hope that as they peck these bright red biblical treasures, that they're also downing some vital nutrients and antioxidants (that's if chickens require antioxidants...) has a wonderful treat chart. They advise against feeding chickens anything salty. They also advise against feeding chickens green potatoes, citrus, avocado skin and pit, candy, and chocolate and sugar. Jaki in Portland, Oregon, who has raised chickens for over 40 years, said that onions don't sit well with hens. And, the other day, while trading chicken stories with Kim, a colleague from northern California, she asked, "Have you fed your chickens mealworms yet?" I shook my head. "They are my chickens absolute favorite treat," she said.

Unable to get to the pet store today to stock up for the "disgusting" treats, I did notice as I was checking out at the garden shop that there was a box labeled, "Live Worms" next to the register.

"I'll take one of those," I said to the clerk. Now, I can't wait for tomorrow morning. Sun up means a whole new experience with a whole new treat. More on that later...

P.S. Joe from Facebook checked in and said, "From my garden, I'll provide damaged or fallen tomatoes....they go absolutely crazy for tomatoes. Yes, you are right, uncooked potatoes and some other organics foster salmonella and other bad things that can enter the flock and go into the eggs. Have fun on the worm feeding :) A friend of mine lets his chick'ns out in the back yard, there isn't a rolly-polly, earwig, worm, spider anywhere in his yard now ;)"

Friday, March 2, 2012

Higher Levels of Vitamins D, A & E and Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Pastured Chicken Eggs

Eggs from pastured chickens ready to cook in the skillet.
Crack a fresh-from-the farm egg and notice the difference. The yolks are more orange than commercial USDA eggs. In fact, they are a deep, orangish-golden yellow--a color similar to the setting sun off the Pacific shoreline. According to research by Mother Earth News and Penn State, the color of the yolk isn't the only thing that is different about eggs produced from non-commercial, free-ranging chickens.

Mother Earth News conducted the Mother Earth News egg testing project, a research project in which 14 flocks from around the country were allowed to free-range on open pastures or were moved around in moveable pens. The eggs were sent to an accredited research facility in Portland, Oregon, where research was conducted on the eggs nutritional content. Results released in 2007 concluded that eggs from chickens allowed to roam on pastures may contain:

1/3 less cholesterol;
1/4 less in saturated fat; and had,
2/3 more Vitamin A;
2 times more omega-3 fatty acids;
3 times more Vitamin E;
7 times more beta carotene;
4-6 times more Vitamin D; 

in comparison to conventional USDA eggs.

A study conducted by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and published January 2010 on-line in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems substantiates some of Mother Earth News claims. In the Penn State study, Vitamins A, E, and fatty acid composition of caged hens and pastured hens, there were striking differences in the eggs. Heather Karsten, associate professor of crop production ecology at Penn State, said, "Compared to egg of the commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids...Vitamin A concentration was 38 percent higher in the pastured hens' eggs than in commercial hens' eggs, but total Vitamin A per egg did not differ." At the conclusion of the experiment, it was noted that pastured hens weighed 14 percent less than commercial hens and averaged 15 percent lower egg production.

Raising your own backyard chickens or purchasing eggs from a reliable, pesticide-free, free-ranging farm is a great way to obtain a nutrient-rich food source. If purchasing eggs, know that they will be slightly more expensive than commercially-produced eggs. But, if you are what you eatthe decision should be an easy one.