Monday, August 1, 2011

What? The Flock.

After a several busy and productive weeks moving in and getting things into shape on the farm, it was nice to spend a week with family in Tahoe.




Ann displayed her usual obsession for tanning. The weird thing is that she’s actually covered in baby oil behind her dual rainbow shade shields.


That pic reminds me of New Years in Zipolite and the giant orange umbrella we lived under for 5 days straight on the beach. 

But while it was great to be away, I’ll admit I wished I had taken a little more time to get our web cams up and running back at the farm. And if I had, I likely would have known that Petunia had not eaten all week. It wasn’t until we were home, sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, that I caught a bit of motion out in the pasture from the corner of my eye and figured out what was happening. Despite running as fast as her stubby little legs would carry her the second she heard the food slide down the metal gutter from the automatic feeder, the sheep would see Petunia’s frantic dash – and the cloud of dust it kicked up – and get there first. Kneeling down on their front legs, they’d stuff their wooly necks through the small door of the converted dog house and vacuum the food up while Petunia squealed pitifully outside.

Here’s what she sounds like one time we had to herd her back through the pasture gate. You can imagine the fuss she’d make watching her food being stolen for the 7th day in a row.

The first solution I tried was adding a board across the top of the door to lower the opening so Petunia could barely squeeze in. I hoped adding her name to her cafeteria entrance would further clarify the situation.


The wooly and wily sheep simply limboed lower, forcing me to take more drastic measures. We had to stand guard over her while she ate for a whole week until the item on my to-do list labeled “pig tunnel” worked its way up the priority list. This solution has been working like a charm; She’s fully enclosed in chain link while she dines at a leisurely pace.



I asked Ann to make a sign that said “NO SHEEP – THIS MEANS EWE!” but she refused.

Since moving in, I’d been amassing a significant brush pile in the back pasture as I pruned trees and cleaned up downed limbs. Lured by the promise of riding the new ATV and operating a huge diesel wood chipper, my 15-year-old nephew Austin came up to stay with us for a few days.


Yeah, he might get a little more freedom under his aunt and uncle’s roof, but after the day of hard manual labor I put him through, I’m not sure it was worth it.


All day I was sending harassing texts to his parents – “Wait, why do you guys *pay* for a gardener when you have Austin around? Does he not work like this at your place?”

But the more rewarding project was putting the finishing touches on the chicken house. I’d extended the height of a few posts that had formed a small paddock just inside the pasture gate and added a few more to make the footprint.


Next, I added some sloped trusses for a shed roof. 


And after some bracing and “wiggle board,” topped it with 12’ galvanized roofing panels.


That afternoon I walked upstairs in the house and was almost blinded by the reflection off the shiny metal roof. Oh well, I hope we don’t take down any planes or ignite our trees like an ant under a magnifying glass.

I framed up a raised coop a few feet off the ground between the posts in the back corner, and Austin and I paneled it with the redwood planks I’d cut off the mushroom boxes that became our planting beds. The swing up doors were Austin’s idea and make it easy to get inside to clean the coop. There’s also a side hatch that opens on the back of the nesting boxes to collect eggs. Note that we put in a hardware mesh floor to the coop which will allow for most of the droppings to fall down into the composting bedding below.



Predators are a fact of life with chickens. I mean, if a raccoon got into the coop he’d make out like a fox in a hen house. So of course, I chose to spend hundreds of dollars on hardware cloth and chicken wire to protect the $50 or so worth of chickens we’d soon be bringing home.

The side walls wrap under by at least 12 inches and then are overlapped by mesh on the floor. Way overkill (I hope). Though the plan is to let them range around the pasture during the day, the thought was to have a large enough run that we would feel okay about leaving them “cooped up” when we were away for a few days.



Ann, Riller and Petunia were integral to the process. Below, Ann put out her chair and Gorilla took up a position in the sun a couple feet away. A few seconds later, Petunia waddled over and plopped down right in between them.



See any thing familiar?

We’d been keeping an eye on CraigsList for people offering chicks of various ages. Our thought was to get a few chickens that would start laying soon, 5 to 6 months of age being about when they start, and found an add for some 11 week-old Ameracaunas. Your head will spin once you start looking into the breeds of chickens. Request the catalog from the McMurray Hatchery to get a small sampling of the variety that’s out there. In fact, while people often use their names interchangeably, Araucanas, Ameraucanas and Americanas  all have different characteristics (more info). We chose the Americaunas as good all around “dual purpose” – meat and eggs – birds with the added benefit of laying eggs in pastel shades of blue and pink. This talent has earned them the colloquial moniker “Easter Egg Chickens.”

The ad said “Sonoma County,” and while we now officially lived there, we were were not prepared for the 45 minute twisting route that wound its way up Sonoma Mountain Road before narrowing and eventually turning to steep dirt. A mile up the treacherous switchbacks, we emerged into a clearing. Does anyone watch the HBO series “True Blood?” Well, if so, we pretty much pulled into “Hot Shot,” the encampment up in the hills where inbred mountain folk cook meth and someone’s always wearing overalls with no shirt and carrying a shotgun. Oh, and they’re also “were-panthers” – think werewolves that could claw your couch to pieces in seconds – but I doubted they would be able to keep so many tweety birds around if that were the case here.

We were met by a boy of about ten who directed us to a small metal cage with 7 birds inside. He explained that his father had had the idea for him to breed the Ameraucanas as a money maker because there seemed to be a demand for their colorful eggs. We agreed to take the five hens he had - the other two being roosters - but before leaving, I mentioned that at some point we might want to “borrow” one of the roosters for… I’m not positive, but at this point I *may* have winked at the 10 year-old boy… well, to keep the girls company. After feeling terribly inappropriate, I realized later that one of the side effects of growing up on a farm – or even a remote hillside meth lab where your parents may or may not morph into jungle cats during the full moon – is that you inevitably learn more than the average city kid about how life is created. 

On the drive home, the chickens played “jello” in the box resting on the back seat, their claws scratching for purchase against the smooth cardboard. Every time we’d lift a flap to peek inside, one would try to burst out. The thought of keeping the car on the twisting road while a panicked chicken bounced around the interior was enough to convince us to rely on their constant peeping as evidence enough of their well-being.

We couldn’t wait to let them loose in their new coop and immediately walked out to the pasture, carrying the box at an arms length more suggesting that it contained a cobra than 5 fluffy adolescent chickens. With the door to the run closed behind us – it was by pure chance that I’d happened to realize that I needed to install an interior latch as well as an exterior one before I managed to lock myself inside – Ann opened the box and tentatively released them.




Gorilla was transfixed by the new additions and appreciated that the mesh walls and floor of the coop allowed her a great view of the action.


We all watched for a while, Petunia even curious though I suspect it had more to do with seeing food on the ground, but eventually wandered back into the house, the glare from the galvanized roof reminding us; We now had chickens!