On Poe: An Obituary

This obituary was originally published nearly two years ago in the summer of 2019. I published Poe’s obituary the day she died, and the response was overwhelming. In one weekend, nearly 10,000 people from all over the world read Poe’s story. Many reached out to me to tell similar stories about chickens who were highly intelligent, curious, and life changing. This week, I traveled to northern Maine to get hatching eggs from the last known remaining rooster from Poe. I now have six eggs from Poe’s son under our sweet hen, Jane. I wanted to share Poe’s obituary with Farmer-ish readers, and the full story of Poe’s impact will be published in the print annual scheduled for publication for late August.

Poe was a very special hen. I still think about her all of the time while I work on our little farm. I like to think that her presence is still with me, and I am very hopeful about the hatching eggs.

Poe Sands
April 2016 – July 2019

Easter Egger Chicken, Grape Eater, Intelligent and Curious Soul, Dear Friend

Poe passed away today from complications related to ovarian cancer, a cancer common in laying hens who have been bred to be heavy layers, but Poe was much more than a good layer of beautiful light-green eggs; she was a highly intelligent, proud chicken who marched to the beat of her own drum; she was an independent thinker; she was a helper in the garden; she was a care taker for all misfit chickens on Sands End farm; and she was a good friend to our family.

Poe came to live with us via the United States Postal Service. She came to our family early in 2016 as a “surprise” chicken in an order of Ranger chickens. She was a little black fuzzball in a sea of brown and cream, so she was special from the first day we met her.

For many months after she arrived, Poe’s breed was unknown, but she stood out as an unusual hen early on. When other chickens came along who needed someone with them, as chickens shouldn’t be raised alone, Poe was our go-to hen for babysitting new babies or anyone who was injured and had to be temporarily separated from the coop. In fact, Poe helped raise our Welsummer rooster, Rooster, who just so happens to be awesome as well. In the moments of Poe’s death, Rooster crowed and crowed, loudly and sorrowfully, though he could not see her.

Poe came to be known for her quest for flight. She could fly higher and longer than any other chickens on the farm, and, as such, she came and went as she pleased for most of her life. Poe could be found in the garden helping dad by eating the grubs, in the backyard scoping out grubs and bugs, or in the duck area, eating the ducks’ food while they quacked and complained. Sometimes, Poe would fly out of her very large chicken yard, just to visit and hang out–or ask for some grapes, her favorite food. Poe would never say no to a grape, even in the end. Interestingly, even though Poe could have, she never left our farm. She seemed too intelligent to leave the safety of her home.

In the last year of her life, as flying became more difficult, I would let her out of the chicken area in the morning, so she could have her alone time. Poe would fly back to the chicken area when she was ready. But Poe was always a bit different and a bit of a loner in the flock.

Poe’s major accomplishments included eating almost the entire row of broccoli plants in our garden in 2017, being the mother of four baby boys, who have turned out to be good roosters, and having a poem written about her, which was published in 2017. It is the best poem in the history of chicken poems, and I would argue one of the best children’s poems ever written. It captured the spirit of our Poe, and what a monumental task that was!

In the last weeks of her life, Poe decided she didn’t want to be alone. She moved into the garage where she decided to be a squatter in the crate with our broody hen, Nugget, who didn’t seem to mind having a roommate while she sat on her eggs. When the babies hatched, Poe came to live in the house permanently.

In the last few days of her life, Poe fought valiantly to live, having some good days and bad days but, overall, doing all that was in her power to live longer. Three days before she died, she ate and drank almost normally and got to spend some time in the garden. But she could walk just a little, scratch just a little, and tired quickly. Still, that night, as she was being put to bed, she held her beautiful tail up straight and proud, something she had not been able to do in quite some time. For a moment, I had some hope that Poe may recover, but it was not meant to be. Despite her powerful will to live, her little body was sick and very tired.

Poe passed away this morning, July 21, in my arms, showered in my tears, and surrounded by our family, who also shed many tears for such a special chicken. In the end, she knew she was deeply loved.

Poe will be forever remembered for making only rooster babies (not one single baby girl), for her flying, for inspiring poetry, and for teaching this human just how very intelligent chickens are. In my years of keeping chickens, I have met many intelligent birds, and they all have their own ways of being smart and curious. But there was something special about Poe with her curiosity and independence that seemed, to this human, to be so very human like. We were able to connect with one another. She was like my familiar, and I loved her.

Poe will always be remembered by me as the one who taught me more than, perhaps, I wanted to know. Poe changed things, and I will never be the same. Poe was also then a great teacher.

Poe will be laid to rest with a stone marker on the Sands End farm. A small service will be held in her honor, and poetry will be read for her.

In lieu of flowers and donations, to honor Poe, please buy humanely-raised eggs. “Cage free” means nothing, so please look for the humanely-raised label on your eggs. Better yet, if possible, buy your eggs from a local farmer. You will pay a little more, for sure, but chickens are beautiful, intelligent, complex little beings and deserve good lives while they are here. Poe would want you to know that.

She wasn’t quite just a chicken,
and maybe more than a crow,
but it’s said she’s been seen with a raven,
the flying black chicken named Poe

from “The Flying Black Chicken Named Poe”
by James Sands
Why the Moon Tumbled Out of the Sky

You Can Dye Brown Eggs from Your Flock for Easter–and They Are Gorgeous

When we got our first backyard chickens some years ago, I remember wondering the first time Easter rolled around if I would have to buy white-shelled eggs from the grocery store for making colorful eggs. I am happy to report I did not. If you are new to backyard chickens, you may be wondering how well it will work if you try dyeing your brown eggs for your Easter festivities. I am here to tell you that, not only can you do it, you will be so impressed with how beautiful the dyed eggs are!

One of my favorite things about dyeing the brown eggs is that they actually come out in rich, jewel-like colors. Pictured here, you can see how lovely the brown eggs are when they are dyed. We don’t even use an egg-coloring kit. We just use food coloring. Here’s how we do it:

Supplies:

water (and pot for boiling)
boiled eggs*
food coloring
vinegar
jars or bowls for holding hot water and dying the eggs
egg carton or cartons for holding eggs while they dry (we used a plastic carton someone had given us)

*If your eggs are from your flock, use older eggs. We plan and aim for eggs that are about a week old; fresh eggs do not peel as well.

Directions:

  1. Bring your water to a boil.
  2. Fill your jars or bowls with enough water to cover your eggs if possible (if not, you can just rotate your eggs).
  3. Add one Tablespoon of vinegar per jar.
  4. Add enough food coloring to each jar to achieve your desired color (10 or so drops per jar).
  5. Let your eggs sit in the jars (rotating as necessary) until they reach your desired color.
  6. Use your darker brown eggs in the darker colors and your lighter brown eggs or cream eggs in the lighter colors.
  7. Remove the dyed eggs and let sit in egg carton until completed dried.

Please note you can also use natural dyes; this is something I have tried when we had some beet juice in the fridge. Good natural dyes are beets, blueberries, tumeric, coffee, and red onion skins.

And, if you happen to be a chicken owner with Easter Egger hens in your flock, you may not even need to dye your eggs at all! This year, we have enough Easter Eggers and Olive Eggers that we are just decorating our eggs with stickers but leaving them their original pastel colors. The eggs in various shades of green and blue-green are little works of art to me.

No matter which way you go, just know the lovely eggs from your backyard flock are just perfect for your Easter decorating plans!

Kate’s Story (or Loving a Difficult Chicken)

My chickens do not love the snow, not one bit, but I have a few free spirits who insist on leaving the coop every morning, despite the winter weather. Still, I’ve never had a chicken who will venture out in full-blown snowstorm—until Kate.

I was shoveling the snow to make a path for the chickens one morning, and the conditions were terrible. It was snowing pretty heavily, and the winds were high. It was a good storm, but when I made my way to the coop door and opened it, Kate hopped out and took off.

I didn’t think she would go far, but when I looked up from my shoveling a few minutes later, I saw that Kate had trekked across the snow, and in the distance, though the snow was coming down all around her, I could see Kate walking around the tool shed on the far side of our property.

I had to know what this chicken was up to, so I trekked out there myself. I could see her footprints in the snow, but, suddenly, there was no Kate.

***

Kate was born on our little farm during the first few months of the COVID pandemic. It’s confusing to me that I have no baby pictures of her. Usually, my camera is full of baby chick pictures. But last year was different. It was like I was moving through molasses every day, and I did all of the farm chores, completed my work, and parented all while in some kind of “fog” that seemed related to stress.

But Kate brought me joy—and a little extra stress. She was the cutest thing I think I have ever seen. Kate is part Rhode Island Red and part Easter Egger, so she was this adorable reddish-brown color of the Rhode Island Red with the puffy cheeks of an Easter Egger. She looked like a chipmunk. That’s what I called her for several weeks.

“I hope my chipmunk chicken is a girl,” I would announce to my husband. We really hadn’t planned on keeping her when we were counting chicks as they hatched (I had been incubating chicks for others in our area who couldn’t get them), but when I saw her, I knew I had to keep this chicken. My husband, who is usually the voice of reason when it comes to the number of chickens we can keep happily in our space, didn’t argue a bit.

The chipmunk chicken won him over too. She was more than cute. She was brave, perhaps too much so for my taste, and, well, she was just sassy.

She was being raised by our mama hen, Pumpkin, along with another chick. Right next door to that little brood, another hen, Beethoven, was raising two chicks. You never know how a mama hen is going to react to other babies. There is some chance she will kill other babies.

We have never had this happen and have had hens raise babies together a few times. They generally end up co-parenting the whole group, and it’s magnificent. But, because of the potential risk, in the first few days, I will always build a little wall to keep the two broods separate. My little walls have always worked in the past, but Kate wasn’t having it.

I feel limited in my capacity to describe the cuteness of Kate’s little nightly adventures. After everyone was supposed to be tucked in with their correct mama, Kate would head out. She would take her tiny little chicken-nugget self all the way around that wall I built and would go visit the other mama hen and her babies.

She would never stay too long—just long enough to cause some chaos—and then she would head back around the wall, sort of. She would check out the garage, explore things, just sit there a little—all while the other baby chicks were tucked in with mama and going to bed.

I would often go out and scoop her up and try to deliver her to her mama, Pumpkin. But, when you pick up a baby chick, they will often cry. Let me tell you, you do not want to be holding a mama hen’s chick while it is crying. Mama hens fluff up to the size of a small turkey and become enraged at whatever is making their baby cry. I have been attacked by a broody mama hen several times in my life. I have always lived. But there has been blood, and I do not enjoy it.

One night, as I delivered Kate to her mama, Kate was extra loud, and Pumpkin gave me the full-on attack. Kate was certainly making my life difficult.

But Kate’s spirit charmed me, and when I found out Kate was a girl, I named her after Shakespeare’s famously-stubborn and powerful character, Kate. Of course, despite Kate’s charm, I figured she had a personality that would likely add to the number of gray hairs on my head.

***

I was a little worried at first, when I didn’t see Kate anywhere in the snow. Thankfully, I was able to follow her tracks. I followed her little chicken footprints all the way around to the back of the shed where they disappeared.

Kate was heading under the back shed to lay her eggs! This explained why I hadn’t seen one of Kate’s magnificent khaki eggs in a couple of weeks.

“That little stinker,” I thought to myself. I got down into the snow and crawled around. I couldn’t see her, so there was nothing to do but wait and dread the smell that would surely be coming from rotten eggs this spring.

When I saw that Kate finally returned to the coop later that day, I did a mean thing. I went out to the shed and covered her entryway with some spare fencing.

The next morning, when I opened the coop, it was another miserable morning, but I watched Kate as she took off and headed to her shed. She couldn’t get in and was visibly stressed. I spent the better part of that morning trying to convince her to go back to the coop to lay her egg.

I spent the better part of the next day doing the same. I didn’t want to leave her out there alone too much, as without the leaves on the trees, she was in a pretty exposed area, and we have had a couple of hawk attacks in the past. On the third day, I was growing weary, but I spent a good deal of that day tracking and coaxing Kate.

I was late on a deadline at work, so I was hoping Kate was going to accept the reality of the situation. How do you explain to your supervisor that you didn’t finish some work yet because you have a difficult chicken?

Thankfully, after three days of stubbornness, Kate accepted her fate to lay her eggs in the next boxes with everyone else. Kate’s beautiful eggs are back in the daily collection. Her little khaki eggs are like beautiful works of art to me.

Kate’s egg is the beautiful khaki brown on the right.

The morning after I finished drafting this story about Kate, she discovered she could fly over the gate. When I saw her do this my shoulders slumped, and I let out a sigh.

I can see that Kate is going to teach me things about behavior and about myself. This is one of my favorite things about raising animals—the learning. I am just going to have hope against hope that I can teach Kate some things too.

Review: Starla Jean by Elana K. Arnold

by Crystal Sands

Whoever said “You can’t judge a book by its cover” just didn’t know children’s literature. For a children’s book to be appealing to children, it needs to have a great cover. Starla Jean subtitled Which Came First: The Chicken or the Friendship? delivers a fantastic cover to go with a fun, heartwarming story about a little girl, Starla Jean, who catches a chicken (no small feat) and gets to keep it.

When I saw the cover illustration for this book with a little girl hugging a chicken just a little too hard, I immediately thought, “This is a book for me.”

There are some things I love deeply in this world–my family, teaching writing, farming with my husband, my chickens–and children’s books. I minored in Children’s Literature for my PhD and have been writing children’s books in my head since I was ten years old.

I also teach children’s literature, so I was pretty excited when I learned that the brilliant Elana K. Arnold had written a children’s book about chickens. This book is really as good as you hope it will be–and then some. The story is so much fun, and A.N. Kang’s illustrations fit the story perfectly.

As a chicken keeper and researcher, I have a hard time reading books about chickens. I am always on the lookout for misinformation. There is A LOT of misinformation about chickens that circulates in our culture. It’s a disservice to the animals, and I feel passionately about this. I am quite picky when it comes to a book about chickens.

Starla Jean held up to my chicken-researcher scrutiny. Before Starla Jean catches her chicken, she lists four things she knows for sure about chickens. After actually spending some time with her newly-found chicken, Opal Egg, Starla Jean learns that two of the four things she knew for sure about chickens were not true.

One important lesson Starla Jean learns is that chickens are “plenty smart,” and this is important. Too many people are under the impression that chickens are not intelligent animals. Research tells us otherwise. My experience tells me otherwise. Chickens are highly social and intelligent animals with the ability to reason and even make logical inferences. I am happy for children to get to know this truth.

Before I could write a review of this book, I wanted my little boy to read it. He is a big fan of Elana K. Arnold’s A Boy Called Bat, but he is not a chicken person like his mama. He likes chickens well enough, but they do not strike his fancy quite the way some other things do.

To write this review well, however, I needed to get his child-perspective, expert opinion. He’s a big reader. So I was planning to ask him to read the book quickly before I had to write the review. I was in a bit of a time crunch, and I was just about to ask him to read the book. With the book in my hand, my son saw the cover, and before I could ask him to read it, he said, “Hey, can I read that?”

I’m telling you that cover is appealing.

He loved the book. He’s eleven and is a very picky reader. He knows and demands good writing. He read through this early-reader book pretty quickly and announced “It’s awesome!”

And it is awesome. Although Starla Jean is an early-reader book, I think children of all ages will love it. And, if you are an adult who is a child at heart, this book is just a joy.

There was just one concern I had about the story. At the end of the book, the plan is to keep Opal Egg in a coop in the yard, and there is no mention of another chicken. Of course, chickens are social animals and generally not should be alone in a coop, but I am guessing there is more to this story.

The second book is coming. I think Arnold should do a whole series on Opal Egg, and in the series, Opal Egg definitely needs to get a friend.

I have a rule for Farmer-ish. I will only review books I love. I want to share the good stuff with as many people as I can. Get Starla Jean for your children. Get it for yourself. If you are an adult who likes picture books, this is a win-win. And if you also like chickens, too, this book is going to make your day. I read it with my morning tea, chicken mug in hand, and it helped me start my day with a big smile.

And if you find yourself reading this review before January 23, 2021, please check out this online book launch party for Starla Jean, hosted by my local bookstore, The Briar Patch here in Maine, as well as The River Dog Book Company in Wisconsin. I will be there. A few of my chickens will be there, so you can get a chance to meet Kate, Juliet, and Broody Hen.

I am going to get to teach children about chickens!!! I think it’s safe to say that I am Starla Jean-level excited about this.

Book Review: Pokey Jr. by Brad Hauter

“Why do you name your chickens?” my neighbor asked me one day.

I paused for a minute to think, as it had never once occurred to me that it would be unusual to name one’s chickens.

“How else could I tell stories about them?” I replied.

Not everyone understands the importance of this story telling, but some people do. Some people do.

When I started reading Pokey Jr. by Brad Hauter of Coop Dreams fame, I was struck by the opening. He writes: “Trust me when I say ‘I know’ it sounds crazy that I am best friends with a rooster and it certainly never started out as the end goal for either one of us but that’s what happened.”  

Whenever someone who works with animals begins anything they write with “I know this is going to sound crazy,” I know this person is a person who has been paying attention—the same kind of attention that I pay to my chickens.

There is world of information and life lessons we can learn when we simply pay attention to animals, and in his book, Hauter shows that he is the kind of human who pays attention, listens, observes, and understands animals in a way that may “sound crazy” to the average person—but only because that average person hasn’t yet had the opportunity or time to learn more.

I knew from that opening that Pokey Jr. was going to be a book I would enjoy and that Hauter was certainly my kind of human.

Pokey Jr, the main character of this tale, is a rooster with loads of personality. Hauter tells Pokey Jr.’s story from the day he hatched to his time in the chicken yard vying to be the number one rooster, to the day Pokey Jr. fails in his attempt to remain top rooster. It is then that Pokey Jr. begins his life as a lone rooster on the farm, living outside of the main flock, loving cat food a little too much, but finding new purposes and new ways to “rooster” for a batch of baby chicks.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this beautiful story is that the author offers a male perspective on roosters that we do not often get in the chicken world. Most of the big names in chicken publishing are women. As a woman, I view my roosters through my feminine lens, though I try hard not to. I adore the two roosters we keep in our little farm, and I am certainly aware of the evolutionary traits that guide my roosters’ behaviors. However, my subjectivity is unavoidable to a great extent.

This book made me think more deeply about roosters, about their motivations and their needs as animals. I think getting a male perspective on these magnificent animals led to a deeper understanding roosters for me, and I see this is as a service to chicken keepers everywhere.

But I think the thing I love most about this book is its heart—Pokey Jr. has so much heart, but his owner/friend and author of this book shares his heart with readers in that he understands Pokey Jr. for the amazing animal he is.

I highly recommend this book to chicken people and anyone who thinks they might be chicken people. It’s a quick, good read and so full of love for these amazing animals. I do believe stories like this can help people have a greater understanding of the awesomeness of chickens.

Chickens deserve our respect. Pokey Jr.’s story illustrates this.

Signed copies of Pokey Jr: Even Roosters Get Second Chances from Balboa Press are available for $13.99 at the Coop Dreams shop.

Pet Love in the Time of COVID

Last week, my cat had to have surgery. She’s an older cat and the only cat I have ever had. I have cat allergies, but when I met Sophie at the Bangor Humane Society one Friday night, I decided I really couldn’t live without her. I had to test my allergies to her first though. I petted her, rubbed my face, and went home to see what the reaction would be. There was some reaction, but it wasn’t too bad. I could certainly handle some itchy eyes and sneezing in order to have my very first cat. The power of love, I suppose.

The Humane Society wouldn’t be open again until Monday, so even though my allergy test was necessary, I worried all weekend that someone else would adopt my cat before I could get there. No one did. Sophie came home with me.

Sophie had a hard-luck story. She had been found on the streets of Bangor, Maine in January, with little fur and near death. When I met her, she still didn’t have all of her fur grown in, but she was already the most beautiful cat I had ever seen. Sophie has gorgeous green eyes and the cutest pink nose in the history of the world.

Of course, after such a rough go in life, it would be a long time before Sophie would trust me. Interestingly, having never had a cat, I was unsure about her as well. I never knew when I might do the wrong thing and get a warning bite. Her teeth were scary to me, as was her unpredictability. I was a long way from dog country–a country I had lived in all of my life.

I did learn pretty quickly to never pet the belly, though she would stretch and display the belly as if she surely wanted me to pet it.

But I will never forget the first night we touched noses, and I put my nose next to that perfect pink nose as she leaned into to my face. We were best friends after that. She was my cat, and I was her human. It was like we were announcing to each other that we trusted each other, and it was as if we knew we were put on this Earth for each other.

That powerful night occurred after having her for three years;  it was over five years ago now. During this time, I have fallen deeply in love with the magnificence that is a cat.

Unfortunately, as Sophie has aged, health problems have emerged—thyroid and kidney issues. I thought we were going to lose her in May, but she pulled through. Our vet seems amazed at Sophie’s strength, but he doesn’t know her back story. Sophie is tough.

I was still very nervous about her surgery last week to remove part of her thyroid. Thankfully, our vet called after the surgery and said Sophie had made it through but that she would need to stay until 5:00 PM for more tests in the afternoon.

It’s December in Maine, so it gets dark very early. When I arrived at the vet’s office to pick her up, it was completely dark and had been raining pretty steadily, but I could see the parking lot was packed with people waiting in their cars.

I was arriving when everyone else was arriving to pick up their pets after a day of surgery. I managed to find a parking spot. I called into the office, as there are no in-person visits right now due to COVID, and then I waited.

And it was while I was waiting in the parking lot that night that I witnessed the most beautiful thing in the world—love.

One by one, I could see veterinarians or vet techs bring dogs outside on leashes or small dogs or cats outside in crates and then start searching for the right cars, the right owners. And, one by one, I saw people jumping out of their cars with arms spread wide open, clearly so joyous to see their animals. And the best part was watching the animals.

The ones I could see, the dogs on their leads, were just as joyous—even more so. With ears down, tails wagging, bodies wiggling, I could see they were saying, “oh thank goodness you’re back” or “I’ve missed you so,” or “I’m so glad I get to go home” or maybe even “there, there’s my human.” It was so beautiful, so beautiful to see this much love between humans and animals.

I thought about the tough times we have all had due to COVID. While I have known people who have died from COVID, it has not touched my family directly. Still, we self isolate, and the isolation is wearing. I thought about how close I have become to my animals during all of this. My dogs (we share our home with two Great Pyrenees) have become more than my family; they are my only friends I get to see.

My Sophie has also become even more dear to me. She wakes me up each morning at the same time, and I feed her and say hello before heading out to care for the chickens and ducks. And since I rarely leave the house, Sophie is near me almost all day every day of my life.

I realized that this must be the case for so many people. And, for so many animals who love their humans to the moon and back, COVID has been a blessing for them. Their humans stay home.

I wonder how universal this powerful and growing bond really is. I felt like I could see it last Tuesday night sitting outside the vet’s office. I am sure this must be common, and I hope, even when we have a vaccine and can return to more “normal” lives, that we will always have this extra special bond with our animals. After all, they will have been through a pandemic with us.

Sophie was the last one out of the office. After a bit, I did start to worry some, but, finally, I saw the vet and vet tech come out of the front door with Sophie’s crate. And I, like the other humans before me, jumped out of my car in my joy and started calling her name as she came closer.

She was definitely a little worse for wear, but my kitty was going to come home with me and be with me a little longer. And Sophie’s drunken purr told me she was happy to see me too. My amazing vet had given me the greatest gift—more time with my kitty.

Because she is my cat, and I am her human.

Outside my vet’s office there is a sign someone made and left anonymously at the front office door at the start of this pandemic. The sign reads “Heroes work here.”

As I watched all that love pouring out in those reunions that night during surgery pick up, I thought to myself, “they most certainly do.”

I have to tell you a story about this egg…

I have to tell you a story about this egg because I think it will warm your heart. I know it warmed mine.

This beautiful blue-green egg comes from a breed of hen called an Easter Egger. Easter Eggers are technically not recognized as an official breed, but, for backyard chicken keepers, they might as well be their own breed. They are unique because they lay a green to blue-green eggs, like Easter eggs, hence the name “Easter Egger.”

Interestingly, it is actually a virus that hens carry in their genome that causes some breeds of chickens to lay the blue eggs. The Araucana, a breed from Chile, lays blue eggs. Easter Eggers are essentially a “breed” of chicken that has genes mixed with the blue layers.

All eggs are beautiful to me. They are little treasures, gifts from the hens to nourish us. I have hatched baby chicks from eggs, and I have seen how magical eggs are.

Eggs are so full of nutrition that a baby chick can survive for several days without food after they first hatch because they have been nourished so well by the contents of the egg from which they are born.

The eggs our hens lay are extra special to me. They taste better than store-bought eggs, and there is some compelling research indicating they are also more nutritious. Happy hens lay better eggs. Of course, they do.

Last year, before I was wise enough to freeze eggs during peak laying season, while our hens were taking their “winter break,” I had to buy eggs from the grocery store. The eggs were terrible to me. They tasted like depression. That’s the only way I know how to describe it. I don’t think I will ever again be able to eat store-bought eggs. I need eggs from happy hens. And, if you have never eaten eggs from happy hens, please do try some.

We have one hen, named Schubert, who lays the egg you see here. She’s an Easter Egger, but her eggs lean more toward a light teal than any Easter Egger eggs I have ever seen. The picture doesn’t do her egg justice. The color is magnificent in the sunlight. Schubert, named after the composer Franz Schubert, has her own way of putting beauty into the world—through her gorgeous eggs.

A couple of weeks ago, I delivered a dozen eggs across the garden fence to my neighbor, who was just inside the chicken yard with her grandchildren. They were feeding our hens grapes and breadcrumbs when I came upon them with the carton of eggs in my hands.

The children wanted to see the eggs, and I was excited because I knew they would be pleased with the beautiful colors. We have some olive-green eggs now, all shades of browns and creams, and, of course, Schubert’s blue-green egg.

Both children were immediately drawn to Schubert’s egg. I heard them arguing over which one of them would get the egg. As one sibling is in Kindergarten and another is still a toddler, it seemed like the oldest might win. If nothing else, she would have more staying power on the issue. And I was right.

A few days later, my neighbor told me that the oldest insisted she take Schubert’s egg home with her, that she needed to keep that beautiful egg. I loved that this little girl had to have that egg, that this little girl thought the egg was so beautiful that she just couldn’t let it go.

“She is my people,” I thought to myself. And that thought, the thought that there is another human in the world who sees eggs for the beautiful treasures they are, brought me joy.

Because I have to believe, if we can learn to treasure the gift, we can learn to treasure the gifter.

Book Review: My Chickens and I by Isabella Rossellini

My Chickens and I (2018) by Isabella Rossellini is not your typical celebrity book. Rossellini gets chickens, and if you also have a deep respect for one of the world’s most resilient and sustainable animals, I think you will love My Chickens and I.

When this book first landed in my lap, I was intrigued but skeptical. I have always been a fan of Isabella Rossellini, but I have too often seen celebrities publish books just because they are celebrities. This seems to be true in the publishing world in general but even in the world of chicken publishing. After all, how many books have we seen rehash the same bits of advice about raising chickens from the same famous names in the chicken world?

I am so pleased to report that Rossellini’s book offers something different. Her thorough understanding and deep respect for chickens comes through in this beautiful book, making this a book I will treasure, read to my little boy, and give as gifts to the chicken people in my life.

I love the cover of the book, which features a photograph of Isabella Rossellini with her chickens; the picture feels authentic. Rossellini is in her hat, fluffy coat, and gloves on the ground, surrounded by her chickens who clearly know her well. Below the title are sketch drawings of chickens that Rossellini drew herself. The book is filled with these sketches, which add a charm and such a “feeling of real” to this whole book.

Rossellini fills the book with interesting facts and engaging information about chickens. She writes about her own chickens and what they are like. Rossellini also includes professional photographs of her chickens that were taken by her friend and photographer, Patrice Casanova. The text, sketches, and photographs combine to tell the story of Rossellini’s journey into chicken keeping. The beautiful photographs of Rossellini’s heritage-breed chickens are phenomenal, but the text and sketches create a warmth that really makes this book unique among other chicken books I have encountered.

For instance, in the book, Rossellini explains she has a flighty hen who would simply not be photographed, a Modern Game hen, so Rossellini explains that she can offer only a sketch of that hen, which is just so endearing. I always have at least one hen who is flighty or shy and just will not sit still long enough for a picture. I love that Rossellini has this experience too.

One of my favorite things about the book, however, is the science. I believe understanding the science of chickens leads to a much deeper appreciation of them. On every level, chickens are magnificent, and Rossellini captures this. She writes about chicken intelligence and the domestication of chickens. She explains how animals evolve with different traits, and she explores the differences between wild chickens and domesticated chickens. She also emphasizes the importance of biodiversity.

As she shares pictures of some of her beautiful heritage-breed hens, she also gives the history and background of each breed, which is just fascinating information for any true chicken nerd. My favorite she shares is the Araucana, a breed of chicken from Chile that lays blue eggs. According to Rossellini, “DNA analysis suggests that these birds were in South America before the arrival of Europeans. If correct, it would mean that Polynesian explorers arrived in the Americas before Columbus.”

This is powerful information, so I fact checked it, of course. And Rossellini is correct. There is good evidence from the Natural Academy of the Sciences indicating chickens arrived in the Americas at least a century before Columbus.

Who knew chickens could be so fascinating? Well, some of us knew.

This is a book I would highly recommend to both beginning and long-time chicken keepers, as well as for those who are considering chickens. Rossellini’s clear love and respect for these amazing animals comes through the pages of this book so beautifully. And I love that Rossellini gets chickens in the same way I do.

After keeping chickens for so many years, I have developed a deep reverence for these resilient, intelligence, resourceful, and helpful birds. This same reverence leaps off of the pages in My Chickens and I.

My Chickens and I by Isabella Rossellini (ISBN 978-1-4197-2991-1) is available in beautiful hardcover at all major online bookstores, but I highly recommend contacting your local bookstore and getting it ordered there in an effort to support local as much as we can.

Respiratory Illness in Your Flock

It all started, really, with the loss of my Poe. She was a black Easter Egger who had my whole heart and changed me as a human. About a month after Poe died, we had our first hawk attack in the whole six years we have been raising chickens. And I came upon it right in the middle of the attack. Then, about a month later, we had another.

We have a large fenced area (about 3/4 of an acre) for our chickens, complete with lots of trees and many places to duck and cover. In all of our years of keeping chickens, we didn’t have a single hawk attack. When we had two back to back, I started to research heavily. I knew confining everyone to the run was the quickest solution. I read that due to lower than normal numbers of birds in our area that year, hawk attacks were on the rise. But after about a month with our flock confined the run, I realized I didn’t want my flock to live like this. They became stressed and started to exhibit some health issues related to the stress.

I set them free in their 3/4 acre again and decided the risk was worth their happiness– their joy in getting to scratch in the leaves, tromp in the garden for the gleaning, and dust bathe wherever they felt like digging a good hole.

But I had read in some folklore (and while I am an academic and science lover in my mind, I am a folklorist at heart) that black chickens, which look like crows, can help keep hawks away.

It made sense in my heart-broken desperation, of course. With Poe, we had no hawk attacks. Without Poe, hawk attacks.

So I went online and found a local chicken person with black Easter Eggers listed for sale. I was a little worried that the hens, though beautiful, seemed lethargic. We kept them in quarantine for a few days. I was mainly worried about mites. I saw no signs of anything and put them with the flock. I knew I was breaking the rules of quarantine for new birds, but I had done it once before and been lucky.

This time, I would not be so lucky. Desperation and sadness will often lead to bad decisions. This would be no different.

Within a few days, everyone in the flock was acting kind of strange. That’s the only way I can describe it. I remember closing them up one night and realizing they didn’t talk back to me when I told them goodnight. I was scared about what might be going on. Within a week, my first hens were coming down with respiratory issues, and these issues were pretty epic. If I thought the hawk attacks had been my worst nightmare as a chicken owner, I think the realization that my entire flock had been exposed to a serious respiratory issue ran a close second. It was devastating, and it was my fault.

I am terrible at making a long story short, but I need to. I want to help inform others about what I went through and what worked as treatment—and what didn’t work.

I contacted my vet, and we were not able to test for Coryza on a live chicken, but my flock experienced almost all of the symptoms. Because we are not sure if we had Coryza, we have decided to play it safe and keep our flock closed for the rest of ever.

The main symptoms were rales, runny nose, sneezing, and swelling around the eyes and face on some birds. Some also experienced gunky eyes. The only symptom of Coryza we did not experience was the smelly, runny poop. However, I have read that respiratory illnesses can be pretty severe and still not be Coryza, so there is a chance we just had a really bad respiratory illness. Still, I proceeded as if I was treating Coryza.

The rales were the worst, I think. We started out isolating birds who showed signs in our garage, and the rales were so loud some nights I could hear them in the house. It was like some kind of Edgar Allan Poe story where I was being constantly reminded of my sin of bringing in the sick birds, who just so happened to be black and looked like little ravens. You can’t make this stuff up.

I spent months treating what would eventually turn out to be every single member of our flock. Morning and night, I would do rounds of treatments on my sickest patients. Some were highly cooperative; some were not. Of course, they were grumpy at being so sick. I was bitten and scratched, and, of course, I deserved it all, I thought. I work full time and also homeschool my son, so being a nurse to 30 chickens took a toll for sure. I felt so worn.

In the end, I was treating someone from the end of October to the end of January. Below, you will find a list of symptoms and treatments I used. I am just completely honest here about what worked and didn’t work for me.

Others may have different experiences, of course, but I wanted to share what I did, as we did not lose a single hen. I read everywhere that the best thing to do is to cull. I am so glad I didn’t.

Symptoms

Rales (see video below)

Runny nose

Sneezing

Gurgled breathing

Swollen face and eyes (sometimes really swollen)

Gunky eyes

This is what rales sound like. It’s heartbreaking.

Treatments

TreatmentHow AppliedEffect
Vet RxWarmed and applied to nostrils and around the head. The instructions say you can administer it orally, but I chose not to, as I was putting other things in their little beaks. The instructions also say to put some at the wing, where the chickens tuck their heads, and I did this, only I didn’t keep it to the wing. I noticed where each individual chicken preferred to tuck in and then applied the Vet Rx in that spot. The purpose of this is so the chicken can breathe in the vapors. It’s kind of like an herbal Vicks.This had little effect that I could really notice—but some. I think it may be helpful with much milder symptoms, but I also think it maybe took the edge off when things were at their worst.
Oregano Oil/Olive OilI dosed chickens with 1 ml of olive oil before I got the oregano oil. I used a syringe and put the 1 ml of the olive oil down their throats. When the oregano oil arrived, I used it in their water. You do have to dilute oregano oil quite a bit because it is strong. For preventative, I use one drop per gallon. When I was giving it to the hens with the bad rales, I used two drops per gallon. Both of these seemed to do some good relieving some of the rales—at least taking the edge off. I think the oregano oil worked a little better, but both helped.

It is important to note that the oregano oil, diluted to one drop per gallon, also helps with the long term immune building you will have to do.
OreganoI added dry oregano to food and to nesting areas several times throughout the winter.It is difficult for me to say if this helped, in the immediate, but after two years, I can now say that it helps with long-term immune-system building for sure!
Grapefruit Seed ExtractI added 30 drops per gallon of water every day when I changed the water.The idea with this is that it supposed to help the immune system, kind of like apple cider vinegar. I couldn’t tell much from this, but my chickens did recover. It definitely didn’t hurt and could have helped.
Colloidal SilverI gave sick chickens 1 ml of this in the morning, and when things were at their worst, I tried to do the 1 ml in the morning and at night.This helped more than anything I used, outside of the antibiotics. I found out about it a few weeks in, so I didn’t have it right away. I found it to be amazing at reducing the head swelling and just shortening symptoms overall. I had one hen come down with a very swollen face. I gave her a dose of Colloidal Silver, and by that evening, the swelling was almost completely gone. It is supposed to be an immune system booster, and it worked better than any natural treatment I have ever seen. I will never be without it again.

I now use it, along with the oregano oil, as an immune booster in their water. We have a five gallon bucket for water, and I add one tablespoon.

I use this, alternating with oregano oil, as the long-term preventative.
AntibioticsI took one hen to the vet for help and to get a prescription for antibiotics. Everything I read said to use Tylan 50 for this kind of issue, but it is no longer available over the counter. The vet actually prescribed a different all-around antibiotic. I used the antibiotics on three of our oldest hens who had the worst symptoms and both of our roosters. This worked, of course. One of my favorite hen’s eyes were so infected I thought we were going to lose her, but after two days on the antibiotics, the swelling was down and she was on the mend. The issue with this is that my vet visit cost more than $200. Also, as I heard and then learned from this experience, the illness can and did come back anyway, just as with other treatments. Everyone who was treated with antibiotics did relapse. But I am glad I had the antibiotics for my worst cases.
Clean Dry CoopAs soon as we found out what we were dealing with, my husband and I stripped down the coop and cleaned it from top to bottom. My husband vacuumed any dust in the nooks and crannies and in the rafters.This worked, but it’s critical to keep it up, like forever. You have to make sure you have really good ventilation, and you just have to keep the coop really clean. In the late winter, after everyone seemed to be healed up and over the respiratory illness, we had some really damp cold weather, like swampy and miserable. The coop got a little damp because we forgot to open up the front vents, and two chickens started sneezing and gurgling again. Keeping the coop super clean and dry for the rest of ever seems to be critical.

I think the moral to this story is to not give up hope, even if your entire flock gets really sick. I have some really old hens who took a long time to get well. Both of my hens who had the antibiotics were older and relapsed pretty hard. They were both sick for nearly three months! But you would never know it now. They are happy and healthy now.

Preventative Measures

I have also learned that I now have to live my life as a chicken keeper in preventative mode. I have to constantly work to limit stress, keep the coop super clean and dry, and use natural supplements to build my flocks immune systems.

For preventative, I use the grapefruit seed extracts in the dosage listed above, oregano oil, and I use small amounts of the colloidal silver. At least every other day or so, I add 1 tablespoon of the colloidal silver to their five gallon water bucket. I have also just started using oregano oil in the water to try something different than the colloidal silver, and it worked as well. I also continue to periodically add dry oregano to food, especially in winter. Winters are the toughest times for relapsing, though I should note that I have never had more than some mild relapses.

As a testament to the success of these treatments, last summer, we let several of our broody hens raise babies. I was very worried about what might happen. Of course, these babies could never leave our property, as our flock is closed forever, but the babies all did very well. When the weather turned cold, the young chickens did get some very mild symptoms with a little sneezing and coughing, but the symptoms passed rather quickly and with no treatment beyond my preventative measures that have now become my habits. Their immunity is being built, and that’s really what beating this is all about, I think.

*Please note I was not paid to promote any of these treatments. I simply research treatments others had tried and tried them myself. My opinions are based only on my experiences treating my chickens. If you have any questions, you can post them below, and I will do my best to answer them. Please just keep in mind that I cannot diagnose chicken illnesses and believe that no one really can very well over the internet.

Mary Jane’s Long Dance: A Hen’s Story

It seemed difficult for me to decide what to write about for my first blog post for Farmer-ish, but, today, as I work through my day, despite all that is going on in the world, my thoughts have turned to Tom Petty and a hen named Mary Jane in his honor.

I hesitated to write about Mary Jane for my first post, but what better example is there of the way my life has somehow managed to weave itself so deeply around both farming and the arts?

Here’s the background.

On the day Tom Petty died, which was three years ago this day, my husband and I were processing meat chickens. We had done it only a few times at this point, and the days of processing were always hard on both of us. First of all, it’s hard work, and though my husband always bears the brunt of it, I am his assistant in the endeavor. I work from sun up to well past sun down with him. Second of all, it’s a deeply emotional experience.

To not only know where your food comes from but to also know your food will change you. Over time, the experiences have led us down a path where we eat far less meat and eat vegetarian meals more and more. But that’s another story.

This story is about Mary Jane. And Tom Petty.

There was always something special to me about Tom Petty–the poetry in his lyrics, his deep understanding of those of us who are broken for our various reasons. It was only after his death that I learned about how he, too, had been broken by his childhood, which explained so much about that deep empathy and artistic soul.

My husband was outside processing when I came inside the house to take a break on October 2, 2017. I went online to skim the news. There, I saw the headline that Tom Petty had died. It had been a rough year for all of us, for our country, and losing Tom Petty hurt badly. I just sat and cried for a bit.

I went outside with my red face and hollered at my husband from our back porch, “Hey, Tom Petty died today.”

“What?” he asked, and then the understanding came. “No!” he said in sadness.

He stopped what he was doing, and we talked for a bit–about our disbelief and sadness. It was like losing a friend. Of course, we didn’t know Tom Petty at all, but I felt like he had been with me through his music my whole life.

Now, a little more background.

Every single time we processed meat chickens, I would always start asking to save a few, especially the hens. In my mind, it’s more than just an emotional appeal; it’s logic. A hen makes so much food for someone over her lifetime because of the eggs she lays, more food than someone can get from processing her.

“But these are meat birds,” my husband would always respond. “They don’t live very long.”

It was true. Meat chickens are bred for very short lives. They grow large quickly, and even though we have never purchased the kind that grows so quickly they struggle to walk, the reality is that meat chickens are definitely not meant for longevity. We both knew this.

But that evening in October, in the sadness of Tom Petty’s loss, my husband agreed to give the last hen a chance. She was smart. She had dodged him all day, and she would be reprieved.

“She has to be named Mary Jane,” he said. I agreed.

In the coming days and weeks and months, we would listen exclusively to Tom Petty’s music, and I was inspired to write. I wrote a short piece about Tom Petty’s impact on my life that was featured on the front page of Huff Post, only for a few hours, but there I was. I would later go on to publish a collection of essays about Tom Petty’s work. It was as if Tom Petty’s creativity was contagious to me. And, in my frenzy of writing, I also wrote about Mary Jane.

When I shared Mary Jane’s story, many Tom Petty fans reached out to me. “Here’s hoping Mary Jane lives a long and healthy life,” one person wrote to me. I didn’t have to heart to explain that Mary Jane was a meat bird and that “long” for her might be just 18 months.

But I really liked Mary Jane, and over the years, I came to love her. That’s right, I said years! Mary Jane is now just about 3 and 1/2 years old and is still with us; she is just a magnificent bird. She’s huge, like the size of a turkey, and she’s even smarter in her age. She knows her name and somehow knows exactly when to run and hide when I am coming for her for a health check.

Last year, she nearly died. I brought in a little hen who infected our whole flock with a respiratory illness. Mary Jane took it the hardest, as of course she would. She was an older meat bird. But we moved her into the garage, and I got on my hands and knees every night for weeks giving her medicine. She hated it all and fought me like crazy. Essentially, I had to fight with a turkey every night.

After a while, and in my exhaustion, I just decided to put remedies in her food and hope for the best. I thought, perhaps, my battle to get the meds in her was maybe causing her enough stress to hinder her recovery. So I took good care and waited and watched.

After nearly three full months of battling the illness, that hen fully recovered. Mary Jane has will.

Then, miraculously, this spring, Mary Jane even started laying again–and on the regular! We now have a Mary Jane baby on our little farm named Petty, and somehow, Mary Jane is, indeed, living a long and healthy life.

Much has changed in my life since the day Tom Petty died and Mary Jane got to live. We no longer listen to Tom Petty music exclusively. Our little boy is a cellist, so we listen almost exclusively to classical music. Interestingly, after a few years of listening to classical music all day every day, we can’t listen to popular music anymore–with one exception, of course–Tom Petty.

Sometimes, late at night, I go to our basement for quiet while I grade essays, and I listen to my Tom Petty favorites. I think about the impact a man I never met has had on my life. And, tonight, in the middle of writing this, I just went to the chicken coop and tucked in Mary Jane and gave her an extra pet. She didn’t even seem to mind.