The Roving Rototiller

Monday, December 27, 2010


It's been a busy few weeks, with the usual mad holiday crush:  clandestine phone consultations with family regarding other family, brave sallies to the shops, the Taming of the Credit Card, semi-frantic housecleaning and wrapping, wrapping, wrapping followed by the final jaw-jutting, shoulders-back foray to the Post Office.  Really, it all went fairly smoothly this year.  But it was with great relief that we greeted Christmas Day.  After the glad clatter of fixing brunch, carols on the stereo, and unwrapping our goodies, I had a peaceful late afternoon to enjoy.  The weather was gray and chilly, so I decided it was a perfect day for clam chowder.

Fixing chowder takes some time, and it was getting steadily colder out, so the first thing I did was to bring Hoppy inside.  Hoppy is our rooster in a wheelchair.  Well, really it's more of a cart.  Hoppy had a narrow escape from a hawk about eighteen months ago.  After a prolonged recovery from some very nasty wounds, he ended up with both legs crippled.  Some experiments with a stationary sling were entirely unsatisfactory to both of us, so I built him a framework out of light scrap wood and mounted cups for feed and water on the front.  Hoppy rests in a padded sling made out of polyester fleece which holds him high enough that he can get his crazy legs under him.  Four model airplane wheels, with some piano wire for axles, provide him with mobility (although his capacity for turns is severely limited).  When we're home, he spends the day out on the front walk, or the porch if it's rainy.  The mail carrier and the UPS man have gotten used to being greeted by a little gold-and-black rooster on their way to the house.

Hoppy is, however, a creature of habit.  He knows that when it gets cold out, he'll be brought inside.  And once inside, he wants to be taken out of his cart and put to bed, where he can look forward to a handful of scratch grains.  Although we often put him inside when headed out on errands during the day, leaving him to wheel slowly about the kitchen, he views this as a demonstration of failed intelligence on our part, and delivers a thorough scolding when we get home.  In his mind, coming inside equals Bed and Scratch Now.  It's very simple; even humans should get it.

But regardless, it was cold out, and getting dark, and the chowder would keep me busy for a while.  So I brought Hoppy in and set him beside the kitchen table, telling him firmly that it was much too early for bed.  Hoppy angled a bright brown eye up at me, ruffled his feathers contemplatively, and seemed willing to let the matter go.  I washed up and began dicing bacon.

Hoppy sat patiently throughout the frying of the bacon, and the slicing of the veggies, and the sauteeing of same.  But when I was in the middle of scrubbing potatoes, I heard him flap his wings, the rooster equivalent of clearing his throat.


"I know, but it's too early."

Two potatoes later, and a little louder:  "Raawk."

"Too early, dude.  Sorry."

Several minutes elapsed in silence, apart from the whickering sound of the peeler as I divested the potatoes of their skins.  Then, as I began slicing, I heard the scrabble of his toes on the linoleum, and the soft bump as he hit the bookcase.  Hoppy was getting tired of waiting.


"Can I just finish the potatoes first?"  I pleaded.

Hoppy appeared to consider it.  I cubed potatoes as quickly as I could, wincing at the little noises behind me that signalled a rooster approaching boil.  I knew it was coming, it was only a matter of time . . . and still I nearly trimmed my thumbnail with the knife when Hoppy finally blew.


When Hoppy starts crowing in frustration, he can reach a volume comparable to a low fly-by by an F-16, and that high initial note seems like it should shatter glass.  In the closed confines of the kitchen, the sound waves rebound as if homing in directly on the nearest pair of human ears.  And he can keep it up for ages, seemingly unaffected by his own voice even as it pulverizes the nerves of everyone else in the room.  I gave up. 

"All right, all right, all right . . . ."

Hoppy kicked emphatically as I unlaced his harness and lifted him from the cart, and indulged himself in his usual  "I'm flying!  I'm flying!"  flapping while being carried from the kitchen.  Moments later he was ensconced in his tub atop the dryer, happily tucking into the promised handful of scratch.  I went back to my potatoes, and finished the rest of the chowder prep without interruption.  When I went out to fetch in Quercus, Hoppy was dozing contentedly on his towel.

He's not a difficult bird, really.  But he does have his little ways.

Hoppy, in his wheelchair.  I took up the food and water
cups so that he could get at the grass, but he was more
interested in the camera.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


This morning, while letting the gang out of the barn and distributing the feeders, I took a look into the corner pen and sighed.  Baron's beak is in need of trimming again.

Baron, the son of Elwood and Charger, is a big bluff fellow with a foghorn crow and a build like a Percheron.  In manner he vaguely resembles Rumpole of the Bailey as he stumps about on his big green legs, glowering and muttering.  His body is a steel blue in color, with a darker hackle, deep rust shoulder and rusty stripes and spangles on his sides and belly.  His comb, an embarrassing collision between single and pea, slouches off the left side of his head like a half-melted ice cream, covering his eye.  And he has a persistent split in the tip of his maxillary beak that is a nuisance to him, and also his unwitting salvation.

J.R. Williams might have graced this bird's situation with a mention in one of his "Born Thirty Years Too Soon" cartoons, although chicken generations being much shorter than human ones, I think it was more like three years too soon.  He has all the makings of an excellent boss rooster:  size, presence, vitality, and voice.  His temperament is good, and he guards the hens well.  The trouble is, his father Elwood shares every one of those qualities and is still going strong.  I have wished many times that Baron had come along just a few years from now . . . or at least stuck with his original vocation.  You see, for the first four months of his life, we thought he was a hen.

Elwood has always thrown sons that matured very quickly, just like he did, and his father Blue before him.  Both Blue and Elwood were crowing at five days old, in a shrill soprano  "Pbbreepareep!"  which is a rather alarming sound to have coming from a brooder box.  They started sparring early, they hackled out early, they grew like weeds, inches taller than their sisters from three weeks of age.  So we fell into the habit of thinking that with these genetics, we'd have no trouble telling the young roosters from the young hens.

Two summers ago, Miga the Belgian Bearded sat her first clutch, mostly donations from our Easter Egger hens.  She hatched out a pile of chicks, and among them were two mixes with the blue gene from Elwood.  These two grew at a modest rate, quiet little things that kept to the background while their brothers paraded about and quarreled with each other.  One feathered out blue and gold, the other blue with some vague red barring.  Great, I thought, two more nice hens.  But when they reached four months old, I looked out the kitchen window to see the redder one stalking across the grass and realized,  Good grief, that kid's got some serious legs!

From there, it became increasingly obvious that Something was Up.  Over the following weeks that chick added height and weight like a weed sprinkled with fertilizer.  Its tiny pea comb expanded lumpily and began drooping heavily over one eye.  The rounded hennish hackle feathers dropped out, to be replaced by long ones.  Then pointed saddle feathers began peeking out of the back feathers.  Finally I gave up trying to deny the inevitable, and commemorated the whole bizarre situation by naming him Baron Ashler.  (Google it, if you like.)

So our "hen" had become a superfluous rooster; a nice enough bird, certainly, but flatly unnecessary.  Elwood was in no wise ready to retire as boss rooster.  As winter proceeded toward spring, the rest of the young roosters from the summer hatch turned obstreperous and got themselves relocated to a variety of interested neighbors.  But I hung onto Baron.  Part of it was his willingness, despite his huge size, to walk small and not challenge his father.  Part of it was his handsome plumage.  And part of it was the knowledge that surplus roosters, once given away, have a tendency to end up on the dinner table.  I hated to see that happen to this big, placid bird with his ridiculous comb.  At some point in late spring he collected a small split on the end of his beak, but it seemed to do him no harm, so we kept an eye on it and waited for it to grow out.

And then, in summer, Baron finally made his power play.  We came home from a trip to find Elwood had been bloodily and firmly ousted from the alpha spot, with Baron now in charge.  Unfortunately for Baron, our sympathies lay with Elwood.  Baron was unceremoniously deposited in the nursery pen, and Elwood shakily came out from behind the barn door and reclaimed his position in the flock.

So now we come back to that split in Baron's beak.  When Baron attacked Elwood, I had every intention of getting rid of the young snot as soon as possible.  But Baron aggravated his old injury in the battle.  The split migrated up into the quick, and even with a dremel I wasn't able to eradicate it.  Since then it's become a constant source of maintenance:  every couple of months, we note that Baron has developed a pair of fangs at the end of his beak, and catch him up and sand things back.  Baron hates being caught and he hates being dremeled, but he's gotten a lot better about it and doesn't yell so much.

And why is that split his salvation?  Because it means he stays here.  With a beak like that, his chances of becoming a nice stew are virtually 100% if I give him to a neighbor.  So Baron waits patiently, in the cosiest, cushiest spot in the barn.  One of these days Elwood's arthritic feet will start to get the better of him, and he'll get retired to a sunny pen in the south pasture like the one his brother has.  And Baron will get his turn as leader.
Baron at six months old.  He's shy about turning
his covered eye towards the camera.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Profile photo

I've added a profile photo.  This is Zoe, one of the hens from our very first flock.  A Speckled Sussex, Zoe arrived as a Murray McMurray hatchery chick and grew into one of the most personable birds I have ever met.  Go out to the barn with a bucket, and Zoe would be one of the first to arrive, cocking her head commandingly and expecting first shot at whatever was in it.  Sit down for a moment, and Zoe would be up in your lap, muddy feet and all.  If you didn't have a bucket and weren't sitting down, she was apt to fire off a strong peck at your boot or yank on your pants leg, simply to make sure that she got her "Hi, Zoe" for the day.  But she had a fine sense of what was safe to peck and what wasn't:  unlike her husband Conrad, Zoe never bit or snatched us, just our clothing.

In our old coop, Zoe and Conrad the Terrible held court in their own private room, along with an Easter Egger hen named Tiger.  Conrad had an awful temper towards people, but he treated Zoe like a queen.  Tiger . . . well, Tiger was the nanny.  Despite being of a "broody breed,"  Zoe never sat a clutch in her life.  Instead, the summer that Tiger went broody, Zoe proceeded to take full advantage of the situation.  Daily she would scramble into the nest box, squashing poor Tiger against the back wall while she laid her egg, then departing without a backward glance.  Tiger faithfully sat the six eggs she was given, and in due time hatched out two lovely Sussex chicks.  (Three of the remaining eggs were fertile and hatched under our broody peahen, but that's another story.)  Tiger raised her chicks with total devotion, even defending them from a pack of marauding dogs that broke into the yard one night.  We lost many, many birds that night, but not Tiger, Conrad, Zoe, or the chicks.  Chalk one up for maternal instincts, and for a big crabby rooster.

The chicks grew up into two hens, whom we named Dot and Dash.  Although Zoe wouldn't have a thing to do with them as chicks, when they got their spotted adult feathers, she proved the old adage about "birds of a feather" and began hanging out with them.  They made quite the trio, swanning about the yard in their brilliant plumage, always the first out of the coop in the morning and last in at night, foraging in the yard far more actively than the other birds.  Dot and Dash quickly learned that the rest of the flock couldn't tell them from their high-ranking mother, and worked their way up the social ladder.  Meanwhile their father Conrad developed arthritis and passed away during a hot summer at the depressingly young age of three.

Zoe made it to six, having survived dogs, coccidia, roundworms, fowlpox, and a nearly fatal anemia before succumbing to what was likely cancer.  Six is not nearly a long enough life for such a great personality as hers, but the same could be said for a lot of beloved pets.  She has managed to cement the Speckled Sussex firmly in first place on my list of heritage breeds, and one of these days when we have a bigger barn I'd like to get a whole bunch of Sussex and see about doing my part to maintain the breed.  Meanwhile, Dot and Dash are going strong at four years old, and I still have neighbors ask if they can have eggs from "those neat spotted hens."  Zoe will get her little memorial by serving as my profile photo.  I took this picture while she sat on my knee, trying to figure out what the camera was. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tea With Lemon

On Monday of this week, Miss Lemon and I got sick.  I had the typical mid-fall "firework" virus:  forty-eight hours of fever, aches, congestion, and cough.  Feisty while it's there, but over quickly.  Miss Lemon, on the other hand, looked like death warmed over, a pitiful little bundle of unkept feathers.  She had contracted pox.

Fowlpox is just one of those things about keeping chickens in an area that boasts a vigorous mosquito population.  Last year we learned about it first-hand when it went through our flock like wildfire, socking every bird with at least one of its various manifestations:  Warty, Weepy-eyed, and Wheezy.  With this particular strain of the virus, Warty is no big deal.  Our birds develop BB-sized bumps that scab for about three weeks, then resolve almost overnight.  They're ugly but otherwise fine, and the recovered birds are immune.  Weepy-eyed is a caution, though; it means that the virus has invaded the mucous membranes lining the sinuses and the tear ducts.  Some of our Weepy birds got pretty sick last year and spent a couple of weeks in seclusion, being dosed with antibiotics.  And then there is Wheezy, which is a red alert:  the virus is in full-blown diphtheritic phase and is causing a buildup of pus and ooze in the windpipe that can actually close it off.  Last year we lost one bird to the pox, a high-strung untouchable hen who had only the Wheezy signs.  We couldn't catch her to medicate her.

So back to Monday morning.  We have a trio of millefleur Belgian Bearded banties in a separate pen, Poirot and his ladies Agatha and Christie.  Miss Lemon is one of the daughters that I kept back from their summer brood.  While putting out the feeders and tossing scratch around, I noted her standing quietly near the back of the pen.  Squinting into the shadows, I could see a few bumps on her face.  And then I heard the quiet cough.

Well, that tore it.  Into the pen to capture Miss Lemon, who promptly freaked out.  Beardies are very small chickens, about the size of a young pigeon, with heavily feathered feet; chasing one around even a small pen is like pursuing a tiny terrified clown blowing a soprano kazoo.  Finally I cornered her and picked her up.  Back into the house we trooped.

We have a chicken infirmary in our house.  It's called the spare bathroom shower stall.  Since the bedroom at that end of the house is an office, it's unlikely that any guest will ever use that shower, and after learning of its greater calling I think it's even less likely.  Heavily carpeted with newspapers and with a brood lamp suspended overhead from the shower hose, it makes a very fine infirmary.  After dosing up Miss Lemon on antibiotics left over from the last chicken ailment and deworming her for good measure, we left her alone. 

For hours we listened to Miss Lemon struggle for breath.  Neck extended, beak open, comb a dusky mulberry, she gasped through the muck in her windpipe.  Periodically she went off in wracking spells of coughing that made her stagger.  She couldn't eat or drink.  I fretted around outside the bathroom, but there was nothing left that I could do to help.  Eventually I went off to ignore the warning signs of a nagging chill and run some errands, and came home to blow up into a proper fever, clutching a mug of hot tea while huddled on the couch in two blankets, two pair of socks, two sweaters, and playing two different rhythms at once on my chattering teeth.  Meanwhile, in the next room, Miss Lemon continued to cough.  My foggy brain took solace in the thought that if she was still coughing, she was still alive.

The next day, Miss Lemon was coughing less, although her color still wasn't very good.  She and I commiserated over breakfast and respective nostrums:  hot tea and Airborne for me, more antibiotics and dewormer for her.  (Somehow I just couldn't bring myself to consider a can of chicken noodle soup.)  By the third day both of us were feeling a lot better.  And this morning, when I went in to check on her, Miss Lemon had demolished her bowl of mush, picked every piece of wheat out of her scratch, and drunk two-thirds of her water.  Tail up, head cocked inquiringly, and hinting broadly that some lettuce would be well-received, she was back in business.  We gave her another dose of antibiotics and returned her to the coop; I'll be keeping an eye on her for the next several days.  The pox isn't gone, but if it's willing to restrict its activity to the skin form and leave her airways alone, then she can do the rest from here.

For now, though, it's time to clean and repaper the shower stall.  It looks as if Ag may need it next. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Hello to all!

I am a first-time blogger, which I daresay may be apparent to experienced readers.  Please forgive me any oversized images, half-finished posts, slips or inelegant hiccups.  I am learning, cheerfully and doggedly.  Which brings us to the reason for this blog at all.

Put simply, I am a writer, and I have an achicktion.

Chickens.  Over the years, our hobby flock has brought me tremendous enjoyment through their enthusiasm, adventures, and the eternal feathery soap opera that is a flock of chickens.  And, as if these and the tasty eggs weren't enough, they have also provided me with both subject material and impetus for my other love:  creative writing.  That's quite a gift, honestly.  Life can be a real creativity-squasher at times, and I'm grateful to our dear silly little featherheads for bringing the spark back.

And now, a few words regarding the image above.  That is Polly, aged eight months.  Her father is a golden-laced Polish, and her mother a Belgian bearded bantam; this was not an arranged match, but Miga fell madly in love with Major's long flowing crest feathers and that was that.  Polly has an identical twin sister, Castora . . . a regular Duo Damsel of the chicken world; I would see one scratching industriously in the barn, look away, and discover apparently the same hen now rounding the corner of the yard.  Even side-by-side, they are nearly impossible to tell apart.

In late spring in our corner of the country, temperatures climb and the rains stop completely.  The grass and weeds take this as a signal to go dormant for a while, and the chicken yard quickly becomes overgrazed.  Most of the flock grumbles, and sighs, and settles in for prolonged dust baths instead.  But the Twins are independent-minded ladies, and I suppose it was inevitable that one of them would spy the patch of greenery beside the front door of the house, fed by a leaky hose bib.  It was also inevitable that the five-and-a-half-foot fence that keeps everyone else in the yard . . . would fail to impress her.

It started out small.  I would open the front door, to hear a hennish shriek of dismay and catch a glimpse of yellow and black feathers speeding back to the chicken yard.  But as the weeks wore on, that patch of green became more and more tempting, and word got out.  Soon both Twins were in on the secret.  Then Mahogany, the tiny partridge Cochin hen, found out.  She was followed by Dash the speckled Sussex hen, and finally the Twins' brother Romeo decided that ranging hens needed guidance and protection, and commenced standing underneath our bedroom window and crowing at all hours.

We put up with the crowing, and the startled screeches, and the eggs hidden in the weeds next to the house.  It was kind of fun having a small part of the flock scratching about in our front yard, and Romeo was doing a great job of guarding his girls from the hawks.  That little patch of whatever-it-is by the hose bib got torn to bits, but the hens were great for bug control and they did a dandy job of neatening up the bearded iris bed for me.  Alas, all good things must come to an end.  One afternoon I heard crowing across the street, and hurried out to discover Romeo had led his hens into the neighbor's yard, where they were industriously tearing up the layer of shredded bark mulch around his shrubs.  Despite being chased back into the chicken yard several times over, the birds refused to take the hint.  Back into the neighbor's yard they would go the minute my back was turned, wreaking havoc amid the carefully manicured plants.

That weekend, I built a high-security chicken jail in the corner of one of the pens, then went out to the barn after dark and plucked each of the Roving Bunch off of their perches.  The Twins and Romeo screamed bloody murder the minute they were touched.  It sounded as if we had an entire gang of lunatic parrots in that barn, but our neighbors must have very good weatherproofing on their windows, or else the patience of saints.  Soon Romeo and his sisters went to live with a neighbor, with full disclosures regarding their wandering ways.  Dash and Mahogany were released back into the main flock.  So far they have stayed put.  But I'm going to keep an eye on them.  Once a hen learns a trick, you can bet she'll remember it.