Ruby’s Back in the Coop

Day 59 of 365

When I started this journey, Ruby started her journey with me. Right as I started this blog, Ruby got her eggs. For the last nearly 60 days, I have observed Ruby’s journey. I loved watching her be a great mom. The last few days, I have been watching her have a really hard time coming out of motherhood. Her hormones have made her a wreck. I can empathize.

Tonight, as we were wrapping up dinner, I heard a baby chick screaming in the garage. They scream big for even the smallest things, but, of course, you have to go check on all of it. I found Ruby in the crate, and as her babies tried to join her, she was giving them a good, hard peck on the head.

There were seven baby chicks in hysterics running around the garage.

I reached in and pulled Ruby out of the crate. Immediately, a few babies piled in. I held Ruby a long time trying to decide what to do with her. I talked to her and gave her lots of pets. She even let me hug her. I decided to walk her to the coop and see how she did. Everyone else was on the roosts for the night.

I sat her down, and she ate some food and walked around looking a little lost. But then…she hesitantly hopped on the roost and looked up, longing for a higher roost but so hesitant. Ruby never fit in with the flock very well even before becoming a mama. I worry about her trying to find her place in the pecking order again.

She seemed like she was going to settle herself with the bottom roost, but there was plenty of room on the second highest roost. I reached down and scooped her up. She fussed about it a little bit.

As I held her, I talked to Mary Jane, who would be above Ruby (Mary Jane is a meat bird we pardoned and just so happens to be one of the smartest chickens I have ever met), and told her to NOT peck Ruby on the head. I touched her feet and told her to be sweet. Then, I told Betty, who would be next to Ruby, to be nice to Ruby.

I sat Ruby on the roost, put my hands on her feet, and leaned my head onto her back. I thanked her for her hard work being a mama.

No one pecked her on the head.

A Day Without Mama

Day 58 of 365

I seem to always forget how tough it is for baby chicks when their mamas are done. It’s a difficult process to watch (the mama pecks them to make them go away, and the babies are terribly confused by this), and I do everything in my power to make the transition easy. I spent all day dealing with the baby chicks. I think, considering, it wasn’t a terrible day for the babies, but it was still a hard day they had to spend mostly without their mama.

This morning, I could tell Ruby was done, so I spent a good part of the morning try to herd baby chicks into the fenced area without their mama. I’m going to tell you right now that herding baby chicks is not that much different than herding cats. I had to get my son to help, but we managed to get all seven babies into the fenced area. Ruby observed from a distance.

This is Dvorak. He’s a little Lavender Orpingtons rooster, and he’s the sweetest chicken I think I have ever met. I hope he stays sweet.

I had the idea, to help the babies have something else to focus on, that I would put my brood of five baby chicks in the fenced area with Ruby’s. I figured having new people to meet would help take their minds off of life without a mama. It seemed to help.

Of course, with all of this going on, I was in and out of the house all day checking on everyone, and every time I went outside to check, poor Ruby was doing something strange and different. It’s the hormones. The hormone shifts can be tough on mamas.

The first time I went out the door, Ruby was trying to come into the house. I picked her up (and it was very unusual for her to let me) and talked and talked to her. I put her in the coop, and she walked up the food and started eating grown-up food for the first time in a couple of months. It must have felt so strange.

The second time I went out to check on everyone, Ruby had flown over the fence and was in Kate’s crate. The third time, she was in Juliet’s crate. The fourth and fifth time, she was still in Juliet’s crate, and when I went over to her, she ducked and hid in the straw. Ron reported seeing this same behavior. We both expressed concern.

Later in the day, I sat outside on a tree stump with all of the babies in the fenced area. My babies were thrilled with the new situation. Ruby’s babies were adjusting. One Ruby’s, one of the girls, cautiously approached me. But she didn’t get too close. My babies, on the other hand, were all over me. I have never had a group of chickens be so snuggly. It’s the best! I sat for the longest time with one of the girls and the little rooster, Dvorak, in my lap.

As I sat there with the baby chicks, I watched Ruby. She was sitting for the longest time, just watching the ducks. I have never seen a chicken do this. She just sat and stared. I imagined she wished she could just be a duck, like maybe it was simpler. For real, today, I think it would have been.

At the end of the day, Ruby got into her own crate and let her babies in to sleep on her. This is common. I have found that when the mamas are switching off from being a mama, they will still let the babies sleep with them at night, but usually only for a few more days.

The babies are having to get used to life without a mama. Now, it’s my job to try to become their mama. Sometimes, when they have been raised by the real thing, it takes me a year or two to win them over. It’s okay though, as I enjoy the process of getting to know them.

Ruby is a tired mama…

Day 57 of 365

Today, my son and I were delivering farm shares, and I got a text from Ron: “Ruby has abandoned her babies. There is much cheeping and crying.”

Last night, Ruby looked at me though one of the holes in her crate, and it was a different kind of look. I could tell she was worn. I think she was telling me she was tired, so I wasn’t surprised by Ron’s text.

When I got home, I could see that Ruby had flown outside of the fenced area, but she was acting like she wanted back in with her babies. Ron was busy working in the garden and hadn’t noticed, so I opened the gate to see if she would go back in–and she did! I guess she just needed a break.

I don’t blame her. Her children are wild! They are all over the place, and there are seven of them! Ruby has been one of the best moms I have ever watched raise baby chicks, but after five weeks with her babies 24-7, I can see she’s growing tired. Maybe she would just like some alone time.

Tonight, when everyone was tucked into their crates, I took a peek at Ruby down there in the crate, and that poor girl had a chick on her back, chicks under her wings, chicks under her belly, and, truly, they are nearly as big she is now. Poor Ruby. My heart just broke for her.

It reminded me of one time when I was trying to use the bathroom and my son followed me to the door telling me every specific detail of some tank used in World War II (he’s obsessed with World War I and World War II history). You don’t want to hurt their feelings, but you are a tired mama. So you say, in as kind of a voice as you can manage, “Ok, but let’s pause this story because I have to use the bathroom, okay?”

Tired Body

Day 55 of 365

Today, my body is tired. I picked strawberries in the sun, and somehow that made me so tired. I took my kiddo for a walk, and he’s 6’3″ and walks so quickly. He takes big steps. I think that made me tired too.

But the best thing I did today that made my body so tired was switch out the dog crates for Ruby and Kate. Kate, with her one baby, was in the new, fancy, extra, extra large crate. Ruby, with her seven giant babies, was in the regular extra large crate. Today, while everyone was out running around, I cleaned out both crates and swapped the spots.

These are three of Ruby’s babies. The loved the new house and didn’t come out all day, even as the others played in the yard. I think they were making sure their claim was known.

Ruby and her babies were immediately pleased with the digs. Truly, when I sat that larger crate down for Ruby, she went to the door and started making happy noises. Her babies were so happy too. They ran in and explored their new space.

Kate, however, was less than pleased. This was still an extra large dog crate, and there is a ton of space for one mama and one baby. Still, this crate is smaller and older than the one she was in. She went up to the crate, looked in, looked dismayed, and then backed away slowly.

Later, in the evening, she was still refusing to go in. She sat herself VERY purposely in front of the crate, as if to make a point. I talked to her and told her that her house was fine. She was skeptical.

There was nothing to do but leave her be and hope that, when it started to get really dark, she would go in. Thankfully, she did.

I am so thankful for the successful switch, but I am worn from the cleaning and scrubbing of the crates. Tonight, my body is extra tired.

Chicken Therapy

Day 54 of 365

I knew I wanted chickens for a long time before we finally got them, though, for most of my life, I wouldn’t have thought I would have fallen in love with chickens. For years, I was scared of them. That pecking made me nervous.

When I was a little girl, my great grandmother had a garden and chickens. When I was in Kindergarten, she took me into the chicken coop to teach me how to collect eggs. One of the hens pecked me fairly hard–at least hard to my five-year-self. I cried. If that alone wasn’t trauma enough, some short time later, I came down with chicken pox. I was convinced those chickens gave me chicken pox.

I am so happy to report that Kate’s baby is starting to grow well, and she should be okay. I could be wrong, but I think she’s a she. I need to think of a name for her. It must be from a Shakespearean comedy, like Kate. If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them in the comments.

I held a grudge, I guess, and though I loved to go to farms and fairs, the chickens always made me nervous. Then, one day, I read an article about how chickens were very smart animals and were very useful in recycling food waste into eggs, and I was sold. I loved animals in general, and chickens seems do-able to me. I loved the sustainability they could provide. Plus, we lived in rural Maine. I mean, I think it’s expected that you will keep chickens if you live in rural Maine.

It took me two years of trying to convince Ron to get chickens. He would always say we should but would hesitate. But I persisted. The day I picked up that first little batch of Rhode Island Reds at the post office, I was hooked. I had researched and studied and planned for them for so long. I was a so glad to finally meet my very own chickens.

Of course, I studied and watched and learned as much as I could from them from the first day, but there is much to learn. As goes the internet, there is so much misinformation online. You have to find good chicken educators, and even then, I have found they are sometimes wrong.

I have enjoyed the learning, and our chickens bring me great joy. I have been a chicken lady since I first met them. I have found that they also serve as a kind of therapy for me in a mad world. They keep me grounded and give me a sense of security, I think. They are very helpful to me, and baby season in the summer is an especially wonderful time to me. I love seeing the littles.

This afternoon, I had a tough time at work. One of my students, who didn’t complete an assignment and earned a low grade, sent an email to me that read “I hate you.” I teach adult students. It’s not the worst I’ve read, but it was definitely disheartening. Of course, I wrote back and kindly reminded the student they could revise and complete the assignment, but my heart was sad. I know that email wasn’t about me, but it still sucks to be on the receiving end of such a declaration.

I took my laptop outside to the garage where my little baby chick crew of five live right now, and I sat with them while I finished my work. I felt better within minutes. I think, out of the five baby chicks I adopted when Kate wouldn’t, four of them might be girls. The Black Copper Maran I really wanted for the chocolate-colored eggs is a girl! But the one little rooster is so sweet. We’ll see if he stays so sweet, but right now, I really like him. I kind of want to keep him. He’s the most interested in me, he’s very curious, and he sings–a lot. He just chirps and chirps, and he will warm your heart.

And, while I sat there grading papers with tiny chickens perched on me, from Juliet’s dog crate in the middle of the garage, I thought I heard purring. I had candled the eggs under Juliet yesterday because I completely lost track of how long she had been sitting. And I thought maybe two were going well, but the egg shells were very dark and hard to see through, I wasn’t sure. But I thought I maybe heard at least one of the eggs cheeping. I should not have been candling so late. I hoped I hadn’t disturbed anyone too much, but I also wasn’t 100 percent sure I had heard chirping. The trees around our house are FULL of baby birds right now. There is a constant “cheep” in our house because we keep the windows open.

But, as I sat there grading papers with baby chicks perched on me, I heard Juliet purring, and I knew she had done it. I knew she had at least one baby hatching. And my stress and the sad email and the decline of civility were miles from my mind.

I haven’t seen the baby. If it was still hatching, I didn’t want to disturb, but the purring is a giveaway. A baby has come, and there was a happy mama next to me.

When I got up to take my work back into the house, I stopped at Juliet’s crate. “You did it, mama,” I said. I was happy for her.

A Wasp Sting and a Fairy Egg

Day 52 of 365

Thursdays are the busy grading days, so I am writing late. But I spent the entire morning picking strawberries. I am in awe of how many berries our plants are producing this year. We have shared and shared, and I am pretty sure I am going to have enough berries to make all the strawberry jam this year. Well, I might go to the big strawberry farm and pick one good batch–just to be safe.

While I was out picking, I had all of these wonderful thoughts in my mind about how generous the berries were. I was watching the birds play all around me. The sun was warm, but the air was cool. I was in love with the moment and with nature. “Nature must love me back,” I thought. “Just look at how generous these berries are being.”

Then, I thought I felt something in my eye. I thought I felt a little sting. It hurt, but there were so many berries. I just kept picking. But, by the end, I realized I couldn’t keep my eye open or see very well. When I went into the house, I found I had a giant swollen eye lid, and though I could barely see my eye, it was very blood shot.

I took a Benadryl and put ice on eye. I whined until Ron gave me some attention, and he then washed out my eye, which helped. It all hurt quite a bit, though I should add that I have learned in my life I have a very low threshold for pain, and my melodramatic son comes by his melodrama naturally I think.

“Nature bit me,” I told him, “just when I was romanticizing it.”

“That wasp didn’t mean to sting you,” he said. I knew this, of course. I was still mad at the wasp. Ron could take the wasp’s side if he wanted, but I looked like Rocky.

Later, my eye was all better. Ron made a wonderful dinner with garlic scapes, salad, beets, and peas–all fresh from the garden. It was like a feast.

And, then, when I collected the eggs tonight, I found a fairy egg! It’s only the second one I have ever seen. It’s so tiny and cute.

Now, I must keep grading essays. I can’t decide if my life is very interesting or very boring.

Bianca’s Gift

Day 51 of 365

Bianca will be two years old next week, and I am really just now getting to know her. I am thankful for it.

Bianca was raised with Kate and Juliet. They are all named for Shakespeare characters, and they are all characters, indeed. Bianca and Juliet are almost identical chickens. The only differences are that Bianca has a few more speckles in her feathers and a dark spot on one of her legs. Oh, and Juliet is the biggest character of them all.

I noticed last week that Bianca has been flying out of the main chicken area and hanging around in the garage. She has not usually done this. That’s usually Juliet’s thing. But I realized the other day that she’s probably lonely. Kate and Juliet are her crew, and they are both raising chicks or are on eggs. Bianca’s been alone in the flock.

I am glad she decided to fly over. When chickens are away from the flock they behave differently. It’s like you really get to see who they are as individuals. In the flock, there’s a different way to behave. It’s kind of like “fit in to survive” so to speak, though we have a very relaxed flock. Still, there’s always a pecking order in a flock, and it kind of sucks to be at the bottom. Bianca is not the very bottom, but she’s down there.

Isn’t it interesting how similar their social structures are to ours?

Anyway, with Bianca hanging out with us more, it’s been great to get to know her more. She’s wicked smart like Juliet, only she’s way sweeter. I love Juliet to the moon and back, but she’s bossy and spoiled. Bianca is a very sweet girl. In fact, when we had a little kiddos visiting the flock last week, it was Bianca who was so sweet and so gently took treats from her. She’s also grateful. I gave her some treats the last few days, and she seems so appreciative.

It never occurred to me that she might also be laying her eggs somewhere outside of the coop until this weekend. I kept seeing Eastern Phoebes, so I went searching around the house to see if I could see another nest perhaps. I did not find another Easter Phoebe nest, but I did find Bianca’s stash.

There, in a perfect little nook near the wood pile, was a little stash of beautiful pale olive eggs. “Oh, Bianca, ” I said to myself.

I gathered the eggs and did the float test. Thankfully, all of the eggs were good. And I learned to start checking in Bianca’s little nook every day.

So far, every day since, except for a day she took off from laying, little Bianca has left a gift for me in her little nook. Now, every time I see her out and about, I make sure to give her a treat. Maybe we can do our trades like I normally do with Juliet–treats for an egg.

It’s one of the greatest gifts of my life to get to know these wonderful animals. I am so thankful for the gift that is Bianca.

It’s hard to be a mama…

Day 47 of 365

Tonight, after everyone was tucked in, I went to check on Ruby one more time because I heard her talking to her babies, and I took this picture of her in there, surrounded by babies. She has one more baby hidden in her feathers. Ruby is a magnificent mom. She’s very nurturing, gentle, and is a good teacher. These are the things that make for a good parent across the board, I think.

But Ruby is showing some signs of tiredness. She lets me get a lot closer now, and when some of the babies are crying for mama when I am getting them ready to go in the morning, Ruby no longer gets upset. She used to attack me when I tried to help. Now, I swear, she looks at me like, “Can you deal with that?”

In a few more weeks, her work will be done, though I have had a few hens stay in mama mode for 10 to 12 weeks. Still, most wrap up at about 6 to 7 weeks. I have found it’s much easier on the babies when the mama lets them stay longer. But, however, long they let their babies stay, when the mama hens are done or nearly done, they will molt. The intense stress and toll of being a mother impacts their little bodies.

The stress begins when they are broody. For 21 days, the mama hens will barely move from the nest. They will eat and drink very little. Their combs shrivel, and they lose body mass; though I try to keep them fed and hydrated, hatching babies takes a clear and definitely toll. Then, they become mothers, and for weeks, the mamas work to teach and provide care.

When the mama hens molt near the end, they will lose a lot of feathers. There will be chicken feathers all over the yard, the garage. It’s a visible toll of motherhood. And the growing back of feathers is not an easy experience for them. Pin feathers can be painful, and they need extra protein for all of the feather growing.

My chickens remind me, deeply, that being a mama takes a toll, and my chickens only have to do it for 6 to 11 weeks or so.

I have been a human mama since I was 21 years old–that’s 26 years. My first delivery was traumatic. If I had not been so young, I might have died. My daughter nearly died.

And since then, I have learned a lot. I am a much better mama now than I was when I started. I have learned, deeply, the importance of being a good teacher as a parent. I have learned, deeply, that it is a difficult job. I have learned, deeply, that it takes a profound toll. It brings you joy, but it makes you tired. You lose your feathers.

My chickens get to decide if they want to be mama. I give them as much agency as I can because I know what a difficult task being a mother will be for them, and I believe everyone needs that agency.

Home After Dark

Day 46 of 365

When you have a little farm or homestead, it can be difficult to be away from home for any extended length of time, especially in the evening. For the most part, we have structured our lives to fit very well with the “tucking in time” of our animals. We have great fences, but fences only do so much. I feel much better when everyone is tucked in tightly and all doors are closed.

This is Ruby and a few of her babies from earlier today. Ruby is one of the best chicken moms I have ever seen. This is her looking alert because one of her babies screamed a little. I was a witness, however, that the baby was just screaming because a sibling stepped on it. Ruby was on full alert though. She’s pretty magnificent.

This evening, our son, the cellist, had a concert on the coast. He played magnificently, by the way. When I say what our son is a cellist, I mean he’s really a cellist. It’s almost confusing to me. He played so well tonight that I almost couldn’t believe it. There’s this cognitive dissonance that this kid, who puts empty milk cartons, can make music like he does. He wants to be a professional cellist when he grows up, and I think he might do it.

If the world will just not fall apart. This is the little prayer I say all the time. But I guess that’s another post about the world and falling apart and such.

Anyway, we had promised our cellist an outdoor dining experience after his concert, so we went out to eat, which is something we pretty much never do. I mean, restaurant food, even from the really good restaurants, just usually isn’t as good as home food. We are spoiled to delicious organic food from the garden. Still, it was a beautiful restaurant, and I was excited. But our server forgot our ticket–twice–and for a very long time. It was tough. We waited about an hour for our ticket. I am sure the poor server was way overworked, so we did not want to complain. Of course, the trip home was a worry. It was past dark. I was so worried about our animals. I was mainly concerned about Ruby and her babies.

Every evening, before dark, I take Ruby’s crate, filled with Ruby and all her babies, and put them in the garage for extra safety. Tonight, Ruby and her crew had their crate but were outside way too late. I was trying not to panic on the trip home, but there was some panic.

Thankfully, thankfully, thankfully, everyone was just fine when we got home. Ruby had all of her babies tucked in, and we now have all of them tucked in in the garage. The big chickens were fine, as were the ducks. Everyone is all buttoned up, and I am feeling relieved.

It was a long day but such a good day. I am so glad all is well.

A Miracle Egg (and Kate’s a Mama)

Day 40 of 365

I have be eluding to a miracle egg in the last week or so because I didn’t want to jinx my wish that an egg I had under Kate might hatch. I am quite superstitious.

A couple of weeks ago, when Kate and the adopted babies rejected each other, there were five eggs under Kate that she had been sitting on for two weeks. When I switched the eggs for the baby chicks the night we tried to give her the adopted babies, I put all of the eggs in a box near her crate. I wanted to candle the eggs, just to see if our rooster was doing any good work in this department, as he is wonderful but quite old.

I couldn’t carry all of the eggs at once, so I carried in all I could–four eggs–and just left the other in the box in the garage. I candled all four eggs, and they were all duds. I was sad about our rooster but glad I had bought new babies from a good breeder.

Of course, the next morning, Kate and the babies rejected each other, as you know from my earlier post. Kate was so confused and so devastated she lost her eggs. She kept looking and looking for them. In a sad state that morning, I grabbed that egg in the box that had sat in the chilly garage all night.

“What are the odds that egg is developing?” I asked myself. Of course, then I had to admit, even if it was fertilized, it had sat out all night without heat. I had heard of eggs making it for some hours without heat, even though my standard rule is 1 hour. I thought for a moment. “9 hours,” I said out loud. I sighed mightily.

But it wouldn’t hurt to try, and if it would help Kate get to motherhood more quickly than starting all over, it would be worth a try. I took the egg in the house and candled it. There was a baby in there that was quite developed. I said all the bad words. I won’t share those, as I know some children read this blog, but I said all the bad words. I was so mad at myself for not checking the egg the night before. I could have kept the egg warm in the house, just in case Kate rejected the babies.

But there I was–with nothing but a hope for a lot of luck. It would take a miracle.

I put the egg under her and made a wish as I did. Again, I am very superstitious. I also grabbed three eggs from the coop and thought maybe she might get one baby out of those. I thought poor Kate deserved to be a mama. Seeing her get so upset about losing her eggs that morning broke my heart. So, within half an hour, Kate was back in business. She had eggs back under her. Worst case, she would have to go 21 more days with the new eggs from the coop. Best case, one week with the miracle egg.

But a week passed, and there was no hatch. I took the abuse from Kate and grabbed the egg to candle it. I thought maybe it had developed further than when I had seen it last, but I wasn’t sure. It had been a week and though I tried to make a good mental note, I doubted myself. Still, “a few more days, just in case,” I said to Kate when I put the egg back under her.

A few more days passed, and there was still no hatch.

Yesterday, when I woke up in the morning, I told myself “today will be the day I’ll dispose of that egg.” I needed a miracle, but I researched my odds. I understood my chances were small; still, I was melancholy about it.

“After tea,” I told myself. Every morning, after morning chores, my husband and I sit and try to talk for at least half an hour. We won’t see each other much until dark, so we try to touch base every morning.

We had just finished tea, and Ron headed outside to start his work for the day. He came back to find me and said, “Guess who is a mama?” My eyes widened!

“I heard Kate purring and couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he said. When he went to look, there was a little baby chick. I could tell he was so happy for Kate too. This is one of the many reasons I love that man.

I ran to the garage, and there, right in front of Kate was her little mini-me. Not only did that baby hatch, five days late, but that baby also looks just like Kate did when she was a baby. It’s almost too much cuteness to take.