The Roving Rototiller

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Foosh.  Sometimes life gets in the way of things with a vengeance.  Where to start?

Fifteen months ago, the old job wasn't working out . . . really wasn't working out.  After five tooth-grinding, nerve-fraying months of job hunting, I found a new job.  It's been a really good experience and I am actually grateful to the unhappy situation at the old one, because without that I never would have had the impetus to move sideways in my field and try something so new.

Thirteen months ago, we moved out of our little rental house and at last into a house of our own.  The move shook the flock, and it wasn't particularly kind to us humans either.  A word to the wise:  when you and your spouse are both over 35, it's not a great idea to take on the task of disassembling, moving, and reassembling four Magnum pens, two homemade field huts, three hundred feet of fencing and all the various accoutrements that go along with a large flock of chickens--perches, waterers, hoses, feeders, feed, feed bins, nest boxes, nest box rack, etc.  This, on top of packing an entire household, and dealing with a moving company that had profound communication flaws between the agent who quoted us for the move, and the rest of the company.  We could never have done it without the tireless efforts of friends ("Could you use a truck and horse trailer for this move?  Can I volunteer my kids to help load and unload?") and the kindness of the ranch owner down the street, who let us hire his men away from their regular work for two days of really gritty hard labor.

Then, once we, our critters, and our belongings were all reunited (read:  "dumped in a heap") at the new place, it was time to sort it all into some kind of order.  That has been a work in progress for many months.  There were hang-ups.  A fox got into our new peapen and killed seven peafowl, including our beloved first hen Pea.  A handful of chickens couldn't adapt to the stress of the move, and either developed respiratory disease or quietly passed away.  We discovered that, contrary to expectations, there was no water supply running down to the barn and no irrigation installed in the yard at all.  There are still hoses strewn everywhere.  And the chickens really, really miss the mulberry tree that was in their old yard.  We have three cottonwoods, but the hens will tell you It's Not The Same.

But things are settling in now.  Our alpha rooster Hikaru (a Phoenix) has managed to maintain his position in the flock, and under his benign leadership the flock is calm and happy.  Beta rooster Potion, from that ill-fated batch of incubator chicks two years ago, is the flock enforcer, keeping the younger roosters in line.  The hens did go broody last summer, several of them cross and miserable in the heat; they'd been broody when we moved, but the change in setting ruined their mood.  By June and July they were ready to try again, and spent the requisite three weeks sweltering in their nest boxes.  From their combined efforts we kept back four young roosters and a dozen hens, all Icelandics.  Thus far the four boys have declined to upset the power balance, instead burning off their energy in endless patrols of the yard, herding the hens to safety whenever they perceive some threat.

The other addition to the mix has been Becky, a spayed female Great Pyrenees with the unusual quality of being a chicken guardian.  With her eighty-odd pounds of benevolent mass ambling about the yard, the chickens feel much safer.  They have accepted her as some sort of remarkably hairy human and will come out to scratch and cluck nearby when she is sleeping under a tree.  Becky has the unfortunate but common trait of her breed of being very active at night, including a lot of barking.  However, her efforts have kept foxes, coyotes, skunks, and opossum out of the yard.  She treed a raccoon in February, and kept it stuck there all day.  She has even driven away the local Cooper's hawk when it gets too close to her birds.  I can't say enough good things for having a flock guardian dog.

And meanwhile the cycle turns.  Three hens have chicks this morning, and three more are broody.  The peahens are laying eggs and trying to decide where to brood this year.  The compost heap grows slowly.  Four potato plants are sprouting in feed bags and pots, along with a pot of tomatoes and a bag of pole beans.  The strawberry plants I reclaimed from the old yard are putting out fruit, and the iris plants I dug up when moving--nearly in tears for the ones left behind--have just finished blooming.  Several tiny herb seedlings are struggling taller on the kitchen windowsill, awaiting their turn to be put into pots outside.  And beside the front door are three big pots containing tiny mulberry trees, someday to be planted down at the barn.

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