Thursday, March 22, 2012


THE CORNER OF THE YEAR IS A SHARP ONE THIS TIME. Spring came to Birdland, stayed for a few minutes, and already summer seems to be settling in. Temperatures in the high 70's accelerate the budding, blooming, bursting out of all the green, growing things. In town this morning I saw a carpet of redish gold mulching the sidewalk and surrounding lawn. When I got close I saw it was the tiny florets of trees fallen from above. Did you ever look at the subtle flowers of Maples or Walnuts? Since they are wind pollinated, they don't need to show off with flashy petals or haunting scents, like, say, a Horse Chestnut or Lilac. The wind comes, or it doesn't, regardless of the wiles of Nature. And if the pollen blows in the right direction, a seed will form. Maple flowers come in minute pink clusters, like tiny bouquets, and Walnut flowers are long, limp, green catkins.

 Up the block was a Magnolia tree, the big pink flowers popping out of their calyxes, which lay all over the sidewalk like the empty hulls of giant pistachios, like the open mouths of birds. The shell-pink petals were still wrapped in large, conical buds, twice as long as their discarded calyxes. Yes, the heat is cooking all these flowers to an early emergence.


At home, crowds of Daffodils nod their heads in the breeze. Crocuses are open, too, the rich color of the yolks of my hens' eggs. Irises stand guard around the house, each leaf enfolded to make a fan growing taller every day, to form a spiky, dark green border. Lighter green day lilies emerge in a circle in the back yard like little symmetrical fountains of greenery. These won't bloom for a few months, but their vegetative parts are almost like green corsages pinned to the earth. Leaves of ghost lilies grow inches a day, and will fade even more quickly. Next to the birdbath we find red sprouts pushing out from amongst the dry, grey stalks of peonies. Everywhere we turn is a flower, or the promise of one. I find more Irises sprouting near my path to the door where I had forgotten I planted them. I will need to be extra careful when I mow in a week or two. Yes, the grass is greening up and growing fast.

The chicks are feathering out nicely, and I have been taking them outside to the little chick tractor during the day when it's sunny. It is a movable, bottomless coop so they can have access to the grass and all its varied treats. It's called a “tractor” because if you leave it in the same place for a while, a week or maybe a few days, the chickens will scratch so much that they can actually plow up your garden for you. I move it a little each day, so they can fertilize the yard evenly, but I don't let them plow up the lawn. When they get big, they will have the run of the whole yard. The grown up chickens come over to investigate and the chicks get flustered, running in a feathery flurry to get away from giant, curious beaks from above. Bit by bit they will get used to each other. Ursula noses the chicks' coop, but if you want to know the truth, she is most interested in their food. My dog could easily tear through the chicken wire in my little chick tractor, but I convince her that it's much more fun to chase a tennis ball. “Where's your ball?” I ask, and she tilts her head for a moment, and then turns toward the driveway, where we last had our game. She runs this way and that, searching, and in a few moments she returns with a faded tennis ball in her mouth. The game distracts her from the chicks and disaster is temporarily averted. She retrieves her ball again and again, and with each throw I move the game away from chicken territory. The chicks return to their inspection of their new grassy pen, and each in our own way, we enjoy the afternoon.


SPRING HAS COME TO BIRDLAND IN THE SOFT GREENING OF THE WINTER-BROWN GRASS. Bulbs are pushing up in various fashion, the flat, green tongues of ghost lilies emerge stacked like pages from the damp earth; Daffodils thrust up in a green bouquet, like a gift from a friend; red edged tulips curl to make a cluster of empty vases, ready to fill; spikes of crocuses appear, like birthday candles, with a large, yellow flame. The Daffodils are already trumpeting their message: Hear Ye, Hear Ye! Spring Comes Early This Year.

 The wind blows fiercely, and in the yard, lawn furniture is overturned and twigs, branches, and even limbs snap off of trees and tumble to the ground. It seems like every day we right the chairs and carry broken branches to the mulch pile, but the spring yard is always in disarray. Ursula finds plenty of sticks to coax us into a game. Our dog loves to fetch. The big bushes in the front yard—some kind of dusky pink kin to the rose—has put out flower buds. They are like pink capers, wrapped tight against the wind. But the surest sign of spring in Birdland is peeping next to the wood stove. That's where the brooder is. Okay, you knew I was going to go back to that farm store and get those chicks, didn't you? We have a dozen. Six Buff Orpingtons, and three each of Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rock. They are straight run, which means that half will be pullets and half cockerels, the natural ratio. At the time, a dozen seemed like plenty, but suddenly only 6 hens next year seems like such a small number, especially accounting for predation. Maybe I'd better go back before the sale ends.

For now the chicks are in the brooder, under lights, but I hope soon the wind will die down, so I can set up a temporary pen in the grass. They'll be less bored outside, where they can scratch in the ground and snap up grass and dandelion greens. They'll be healthier, too, and easier to keep clean. Chicks only get “pasty butt” when they are in an artificial brooder. In the yard, grazing on a more varied and natural diet, they are in a better balance. Once they feather out and lose their soft down, they won't even need a light. Won't they be surprised to discover that the world is wider than the plastic crate they live in now?

Like Birthday Candles
with Yellow Flame
 “Spring is the mischief in me,” and the next thing I know, I'm online and looking up “Serama hatching eggs.” Seramas are the smallest breed of chicken. Sometimes called “the teacup chicken.” They are about the size of a large can of soup with a tail. A couple of my hens have been broody, lately. I find especially the little red hen sitting in the next box in the dark warming a clutch of eggs mostly stolen from her sisters. I could order a dozen Serama eggs, set up a nest in a crate in the basement and set her on top of the serama eggs. She would hatch them for me, and then raise the babies. They will follow her around the yard as she shows them how to scratch and peck in the wild jungle of grasses in the yard. When they get cold, she'll sit down so they can run to her and burrow into her warm feathers. They can live in the aviary with the finches and parakeets.

Hatch in Beauty: Bloom in Peace:
Blessed be.

The wind will die down; the sun will coax open more buds; new chicks will scratch and graze. Spring will come and leave us again to make way for summer.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


The first out of the door would be
Rufus, the Lionhearted
BIRDLAND HAS BEEN UPSET. We had such a tidy balance. In the mornings, just as the sun was coming up I would carry the big, galvanized scoop full of pellets out to the chicken house. A few steps away from the coop I would stop and spill a small offering to the great dog, Ursa, and then continue on to greet the flock. The first out of the door would be Rufus, the Lionhearted. The big, red rooster with the brave soul. He would rush at Ursa, and she would leave the small pile of grain, and turn tail to retreat to the trunk of the old Maple tree, lest she be thumped by the patriarch of the flock. Ursa used to think it was great fun to grab Rufus by the scruff of the neck and trot around the yard holding him in her mouth. However, once she got acquainted with his spurs she learned to show him more respect. A rooster's spurs are like three inch thorns on the back of his leg. They can somehow jump up and turn their spurs toward the victim to give a sound thumping. If spur meets flesh, there will be blood. Ursula lived to regret her earlier disrespect of the old rooster.
 Once Rufus was satisfied that Ursula would not bother the hens, he would join them in foraging around the yard. He would show them the tastiest treats, keeping a sharp eye on the sky for the hawk who strikes like a silent missile from above. When he saw a shadow circling in the sky he would sound the alarm and everyone would run for the shelter of the lilac, or the cedar tree. In the dark, under the sweeping branches they would all wait until he sounded the all clear.

Rufus was not the only rooster in Birdland, but he was the oldest. Chaucer, the upstart, is only just a year old, and though taller and heavier, he deferred to Rufus. Rufus gained confidence as he gained experience, and Ursa thought it wiser to leave the old fellow alone. 

Now, the door of the coop was secured with a bungie cord, but a curious thing has been happening lately. When I go out in the morning to bring food and carry away eggs, the bungie cord is sometimes missing. This happened a few times, and I didn't think too much of it. Once I found the bright orange cord next to the little pond, but another time I couldn't find it at all and had to replace it. Then one morning I went out to find my little white hen missing, feathers scattered all around the chicken yard. When this happened, we meant to fortify the door with a real latch—not just a bungie cord hooked over a couple of screws—but kept forgetting to pick up the hardware in town.

Of course, you know the end of the story. This morning, when I went out to let the flock out, they were already out, the door hanging wide open. The hens were wandering in two groups, poor Chaucer looking lost was with one of the groups, but instead of keeping a sharp eye on the sky or the field for danger, he was running from one shaded shelter to another. Everyone seemed agitated. Rufus must have put up a good fight. He valiantly defended his flock and his home, but all we could find were his downy, white under-feathers, and they were scattered from one end of the coop to the other.
... scattered from one end of the coop
to the other.
In town tonight, I remembered to stop by the farm store and buy a latch for the door of the coop. They had pens full of day old chicks—Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rock, and Buff Orpingtons. I paused for a moment and watched their various chick activities—sleeping, eating, pecking at the wood chips, pooping. At home we installed the new latch, but the chickens were afraid to go back to the scene of the disaster. At dusk, they circled the coop but wouldn't go in. Eventually, one at a time, they ran across the yard to the aviary, where they brooded as chicks. We opened the door and let them go in while we upended the coop to patch holes underneath and install the new latch. Then, in the dark, we carried them from the aviary back to their newly fortified home.

A year ago we had about 20 chicks. Now we have less than a third of that. When you pasture your chickens you're going to lose some of them. Hawks have to eat, too but it's time to replenish our flock, and I'm thinking—Buff Orpingtons.

Balance Beauty; Measure Peace; Blessed Be.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


BIRDLAND HAS A NEW DRIVER, and for the last two weeks I've been getting up before the sun, even earlier than usual, to deliver Ellis to school for his 6 AM driving lesson. My youngest doesn't really need too many lessons at this point. He's pretty experienced. He and I drove to Seattle last summer and Ellis did over half of the driving, logging on about 3000 miles. But he doesn't get too many chances out here to practice parallel parking, so I'm grateful for the finer points his driving teacher is showing him.

 Driving to town pre-dawn is a different kind of experience. We drive past the already lighted windows of our neighbors, but don't meet many cars on the road. Out in the country, it's customary to wave to anyone we pass, whether we recognize them or not. It seems strange to my city friends, and if they are in the car they might ask curiously, “who was that?” Sometimes I can tell them, but more often I just shrug and say, “a neighbor.” In town, too, the roads are quiet, though we do see some early morning drivers off to an early work day. At the high school we park near the two driver's ed cars and wait for his teacher. It's the last lesson: Today Ellis will take his driver's test. I get a little choked up, thinking about it, and rummage around in the back seat for the blessing for new drivers he received at the church a few weeks ago. I read it to him again, a bit stiffly because it is a little formal, but he smiles and thanks me. The school car's lights flash as the teacher starts the engine remotely, walking toward the parking lot, and Ellis grabs his heavy backpack and heads off into his full day and into his new responsibilities.

 I am thoughtful as I drive home. I take the country road that curves up hills and through farms, past the pastures of cows and buffalo. The sun is just sending up a glow behind some clouds, creeping up from the horizon. The Earth is still dark, and I pause, actually park the car by the side of the road, to admire the silhouettes of buildings and trees. I see silos and grain bins, arranged in neat clusters, fences curving at the top of the hill. I am thinking about this next phase of my son's life, as the ties that hold him to me loosen another notch. Now he will be able to ask for the car keys and drive himself to pep band, to early morning practices, to get groceries for the household, or to go on a date. In some ways, it is a relief. My schedule has been tied to his for so long. Soon I, too, will have more freedom. But the other side of that coin is more worry. Will he drive carefully and safely without me? Will he follow the rules (my rules and the official rules of the road), wear his seat belt, follow the speed limit, refrain from texting, be home by curfew? Will he stay safe and keep his friends safe too?

These are important responsibilities and I think about the ways our culture marks people's entry into a new phase of life. If I could plan a ritual to mark these important transitions I would have them be equal parts sobering and celebratory. I want my son to celebrate his (and my) new freedom, but also honor the great responsibility that any great transition, including driving a car, brings. I mull over, for a little while, plans for his 16th birthday, and then I start up my car again and drive into the sunrise.

Travel in Beauty; Journey in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She wants to wish a very happy 16th Bird-day to Ellis. You spark my world.


BIRDLAND HAS A DAMP CHILL, BUT THE CHICKENS DON'T SEEM TO MIND IT. Yesterday the door to their coop somehow blew shut, and at dusk I found half of them circling the coop, trying fruitlessly to join their friends inside. Those outside were wet and bedraggled. They didn't seem to mind that much, but they were glad to go inside to the coop. I keep a light bulb burning in the winter for warmth, and I imagine it helped them dry off once they went in. On warmer days, I turn off the light, but last night it made the plastic covered chicken yard glow like a lantern.

This morning they are roaming the yard, looking for snacks. My chickens have a varied diet. I take a scoop of food out to them each morning, but they don't spend much time in the coop. They are more interested in what they can scratch up in the yard. My red rooster has found some kind of treat. He bobs his head, clucking excitedly and three of the hens come running. He is chivalrous, as most roosters are, and steps back to allow the hens to snap up the delicacy—maybe the light winter has allowed some grubs to survive and the damp weather encourages them to come up to the sunlight. Either way, my chickens seem to enjoy living off the fat of the land.

The varied diet of my hens (greens, grubs, seeds, even small mice when they can find them) gives their eggs the rich yellow yolks and sunny flavor we enjoy so much. I've been listening to an audiobook of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, and he makes some sobering points about what we eat. In our agricultural practices, we have gotten really good at maintaining levels of macro-nutrients in the soil (Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus) simply by adding them. And by keeping those levels constant and in balance with scientific testing, we can produce big yields. I've lived on a farm long enough to be able to tell when the corn is low on nitrogen—it gets that sallow, yellow color you sometimes see at the edge of the rows. But we also have need for micro-nutrients in the food we eat—things like zinc and selenium, and I've never heard of a truck spreading selenium on a field. Pollan explains that the nutritional makeup of common foods, like apples and broccoli, is going down, so that we have to eat 2 apples grown today to get the amount of some important nutrients in an apple grown in the 1950's. If you think about it, if micro-nutrients are absent from the soil, how can they possibly end up in the fruit grown on that soil? The best way to get these into the soil is via organic methods—the slow breakdown of organic matter in the soil is so complex that we can't really understand, let alone replicate it. Somehow that process adds hundreds of complicated chemical compounds. Years ago, a friend who was studying soil science told me that soil, like us, is an organism. Like us, it can be healthy or sick; in balance, or out of whack.

Plant in Beauty; Eat in Peace;
Blessed Be.

All this thinking about good food has me planning my garden. Because of my school schedule, I tend to get a late start on gardening. The past few years my “garden” has been mostly a dependence on the generosity of others. But today, I'm determined to revive the garden coop—the frame house with the chicken-wire walls that we built to keep the chickens from pecking holes in my tomatoes and cucumbers, to keep them from shredding my lettuce and chard. I'll plan to order heritage varieties—those vegetables that were bred before the agricultural industry started breeding for things like shelf life and size of harvest (which Michael Pollan points out often comes with a nutritional trade-off). But for today, I think I'll pull out some leftover seeds and plant a few pots of lettuces and herbs for the window sill. In a few days the seeds will sprout and green will show, a promise of the spring to come.


The New Egg Rack
IN BIRDLAND IT IS THE SEASON OF MUD. The grass that was green all winter for lack of a frost has now browned, and last week's snow has sunk down into the earth making mud along the footpaths and the edges of the lane. A few days ago the sun warmed the damp earth and a cold shroud crept up on us, so that in the morning, a misty fog rose in swirling pockets all across the field. It was like the earth was breathing, exhaling, and you could see her breath in the chill. And the next morning that same fog crystallized on the trees and the goldenrod stems and the grasses and weeds, so that everything was frosted in white. I thought of how, when you breathe on a frozen window, your breath sometimes creates a spreading pattern of ice crystals. The fog made the distant rows of trees come forth in layers, like plywood scenery in a play, each layer painted a different color to show the distance. If the sun had come out, the sugar-coating on the trees would no doubt have sparkled briefly and then melted away, but the sky was leaden and the trees just kept their frosting for a few days. 

It is the season of Mud.

 The mud thaws and then freezes back again, holding Ursa's paw prints in a hard crust of ice mud. The chickens are still laying well, but now beginning to go broody. When I go out to collect the eggs I find first one, then another hen camped out in the nest box, warming a clutch of eggs of various shades. I reach under her and feel her feathery warmth and steal her precious eggs. She will screech and sometimes peck before flying off in indignation. Sometime in the next few weeks I'll let one of them hatch out a brood, either mixi-chicks from their own eggs, or maybe I'll buy a dozen serama eggs. I miss those tiny chickens I used to have in the aviary. Until then, I bring the stolen eggs into the kitchen and put them into my new Orville and Wilbur egg rack. We were looking at a biography of the Wright brothers, and it had a photograph of their camp kitchen at Kitty Hawk. It was neat and organized, with a long, high shelf lined with cans—all the same kind, lined up with the labels facing front. Below the worktable was a long rack with onions lined up, cheek by jowl. I thought they might keep longer like that, than just thrown together in a bin. Above the table, at eye level was a smaller rack, made of wooden slats, with eggs lined up the same way, like oblong pearls on a string. We had to look closely to see that they were eggs, like mine, of various shades of brown. We talked about making a rack for our kitchen, when I remembered the wooden racks I use for spices. The eggs fit perfectly. Thank you, Orville and Wilbur. I'll name my next roosters after you.

 Kali, my basement kitty, has slipped outside again. She's been gone for a few days. I haven't seen her, but I don't think she's gone far. Probably just to the barn. At night I call her and set a dish of food right outside the basement window, and it always disappears. I have to wait until I've brought Ursula in for the night. My dog would surely get the food before Kali got anywhere near. As it is, Ursa hears the cat coming for her dinner, and starts barking. Kali is so shy that I'm afraid she won't come back in if Ursula is around, but one of these days, I'll leave that window open and set the food just inside. She'll come back in and take her place on the top of the wood burning stove in the basement.