Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chick Order

This morning it’s 29 degrees in Birdland. I was hoping to plant the sedum that my friend, Gayle gave me—shared from her beautiful yard full of perennials. Instead, I’m thinking about starting a fire in the woodstove. Maybe by afternoon the crust of ground will have thawed enough for me to dig, warmed enough so that the roots won’t get frostbite when I set them into the soil. The daffodils have joined the crocuses to begin the parade of color that begins and ends in yellow in my yard.
When the daffodils announced that spring is here (they don’t even seem to be bothered by this morning’s slip back into winter chill) Ellis and I decided it was time to order chicks. We spent the winter mulling over the decision about what breed to get. We settled on Cochin Bantams because they are so gentle, and the hens make excellent brood mothers. We got the bargain mix, partly because we like the surprise of the variety of colors we get (these are just the leftovers from other people’s orders), partly because of the bargain, and partly to take up a tiny bit of the slack of the waste of cockerel chicks in the hatcheries. When you order chicks from a hatchery, you can choose (and pay extra for) pullets (girl chicks—they aren’t hens until they are a year old), cockerels (boy chicks—they’re cheaper) or “straight run” (both sexes—you’ll get about 50% of each). Most backyard flock keepers want pullets for the eggs. Fifty percent cockerels is not a good thing. You want to end up with only one or two roosters, if any, for a small flock. Too many cockerels grow into too many roosters, which means fighting, and it can get ugly. If you live in town, you may not want the noise of crowing (or your neighbors might not want it—some towns even have an ordinance against roosters in a backyard flock). If you order straight run chicks, you’ll need to harvest most of the cockerels when they begin to crow to keep the peace in the flock. If you’re not up for harvesting, you’ll want to order pullets only. It seems like a simple solution, but if a clutch of eggs hatch out roughly 50/50 of each sex (which they do), and if more people order pullets only, where do the rest of the cockerels go? According to Harvey Ussery’s article, “Moral Puzzles in the Backyard,” in the February/March issue of Backyard Poultry, large hatcheries do away with them. (Cue my fourth grade teacher reading Charlotte’s Web: “Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?”) Ussery shows how the hatcheries are making a business decision, and the industry couldn’t survive without some method of handling the surplus cockerels. He says it’s the most logical resolution, and he’d do the same thing were he running an industrial hatchery. He also describes graphically the different methods of “doing away with them,” and shows how consumers of day old chicks (and even supermarket eggs) have some responsibility for the carnage. Yes, I say “harvest” when I kill my chickens to eat, which I think is much different from wasting life. When you harvest an animal or a vegetable to eat, the life force has a continuity that is cut off when life is wasted. This is true whether we’re talking about day old chicks suffocating in a barrel or a dumpster of restaurant plate scrapings on the way to the landfill instead of the compost pile. At any rate, just when I was thinking it was worth the extra money to save myself some trouble and order all pullets, Ussery’s article convinced me that the straight run bargain mix was not only the most economical, but the most moral spring chick order I could make.

The temperature has climbed to 32. Time to go out and prepare the chick nursery in the aviary. They’ll arrive sometime next week. I’ll get an early morning call from the postmistress and pick up a box full of musical cheeping. We need to spread fresh bedding on the floor, mend the plastic windbreak, check for rat holes in the chicken wire, clean the brooder box, and make sure the lights work. The sun is shining brightly. When we’ve finished preparing the brooder, it may be warm enough to plant that Sedum after all.

Venture in Beauty; Harvest Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland, near White Heath. She is interested in the morality of even small choices.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Suddenly Spring

In Birdland Spring seems suddenly here, especially in the soundscape. Migratory birds have returned and the yard is full of melody. Frogs add their juicy chirp from the wet spots in the field to create a rhythmic and tuneful concerto. Yesterday we walked around the yard, surveying winter’s damage and cataloging projects for the coming weeks. We picked up fallen branches and tossed them into the pile to create next summer’s mulch, a slow and simple composting project. I imagine the tangle of sticks and branches from various ice and windstorms, last December’s Christmas tree, apple tree prunings, becoming a winding trail between two rows of flowers on the way to the barn. This takes a lot of imagination. The “rows of flowers” are still a double dotted line of mud where last fall I planted Day Lily divisions and a mix of bulbs I got on sale. Also, the winter was pretty hard on the barn. We’ve always had fierce windstorms out here, but they came so frequently last year, that before we could finish our repairs, the gale force winds flattened the west wall, recycled barn timbers, lovingly constructed new doors, and all. What can we do, but begin again this spring? Isn’t that what the spring is for? New beginnings?

We walked back to the little pond to see how the fish had fared. I dug the pond 2 1/2 feet down, and the fish have survived several winters, huddled in the depths of the pond, sometimes under a foot or more of ice, to rise up in the spring. A few weeks ago I saw beneath a pane of ice a 4-inch goldfish hovering patiently, waiting for the thaw. This winter we had what seemed like a month at least of below freezing temperatures, with several dips below zero. This winter was too much for my little pond. We still have a nice school of fish of various sizes, but for the first time this spring, as we pulled winter’s leavings from the dark water, we found several dead fish floating amongst the cattails.

In past years we have often had crocuses blooming in the snow, violets blooming in February. This year crocuses have come late to Birdland, and we still wait for the violets. In the south flowerbed the bulbs are coming up; ghost lilies, tulips and daffodils get taller by the day. One clump of crocus in bloom, the golden color of the yolk of one of Maude’s eggs, tides us over until the other bulbs blossom. Some of my favorite spring chores are cutting away last year’s dry foliage. I should do it in the fall, but I never seem to get around to it. I find it much more satisfying in the spring, when I can see for myself the fresh green of new growth at the base of the plant. It seems more hopeful, somehow.

Kali the ghost kitten slowly makes her way upstairs. Each evening we call her and then sit waiting for her to come up and nibble delicately at the food in her dish. We talk to her a little and sing sometimes. She tolerates our serenade. Last night we moved the dish up past the top step into the kitchen floor. She took it in stride, pausing only a little to look around the kitchen before setting to eat. I took my friend, Joanne’s advice and bought some fancy cat treats. They are highly aromatic and salmon flavored. When I crinkle the foil wrapper to shake some out, her head snaps up and she eyes me sharply. In a few days I’ll see if I can coax her to take them from my hand. I try not too think too many steps ahead as I gain her trust.

The chickens have moved back to their old coop after some time in the aviary. This morning we let them back out into the yard. They have wandered over to the thicket, and I will probably regret the loss of the eggs they will hide there, but I love seeing them quietly busy in the undergrowth. The sunshine warms their work, and on my way to the house I see that the sun has quietly pulled one golden trumpet from the daffodil bud that was closed tightly only this morning. I wander back down my imaginary path, and look! One of the muddy polka dots has now sprouted a crocus, the timidly opening flower the same golden-yolk color.

Commence in Beauty; Bloom in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland, near White Heath. She is interested in the cycles of nature, social justice, and her own back yard. Birdland now has a fan page on facebook where you can find links to more of her writings.