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:
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.
Bring your water to a boil.
Fill your jars or bowls with enough water to cover your eggs if possible (if not, you can just rotate your eggs).
Add one Tablespoon of vinegar per jar.
Add enough food coloring to each jar to achieve your desired color (10 or so drops per jar).
Let your eggs sit in the jars (rotating as necessary) until they reach your desired color.
Use your darker brown eggs in the darker colors and your lighter brown eggs or cream eggs in the lighter colors.
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!
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.