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Lil’ Hussies when they truly were little.

Remember that I adopted chicks this spring? Well they are growing! It took me a while to find a way to protect them, and I lost another since I last mentioned my chickens. But these days they are thriving.

My original group of hens were dubbed The Hussies, and when my friend started calling my new babies the Lil’ Hussies, I loved it. I started with 4 Hussies, and I only have one left. The matron is Jamie. I saved her life a couple months ago when I heard her squawking and I sprinted out of the house and down to the chicken pen to find a raccoon chasing her in circles around the pen. The raccoon was not bothered by my presence, and soon had its teeth around Jamie’s neck and had her pinned to the ground. I was barefoot and unprepared, but I ran over and somehow got the raccoon to let go of her. I put the stunned Jamie carefully inside the chicken house and then turned to the arrogant raccoon, who was not leaving while there was still a chicken that wanted killing.

I was furious and tried to get it to leave by yelling and flailing and stomping my feet at it. It did not flinch. I picked up sticks and rocks and threw them at it, but it watched them approach and then swatted them to the side. I waited, but the raccoon didn’t budge. After a stalemate for awhile, I opened the chicken house door again to peep inside at Jamie, whom I had not yet inspected. She seemed ok.

In that 20 seconds while I wasn’t looking, the raccoon had somehow dashed outside the pen. I had wanted to watch it exit, to figure out how it was getting in. The only thing I could think of is that it is climbing the walls.

At the time of that incident, the Lil’ Hussies were getting big and I had been trying to decide when to bring them into the big pen with the adults – now adult. I realized that until I made the place safer, they could not live here.

First of all I needed to block the gap beneath the front door. I knew raccoons had come through there in the past because they dragged the rocks I placed, out of their way. I had to place a rock too heavy to drag. Concrete is a heavy rock! I bought a couple bags, built a form, then mixed the concrete and filled up the threshold beneath the door. There is no way a raccoon will either fit through or be able to move the concrete. I used the leftover concrete to reinforce the bottom of the walls of the pen in places where the chickens dig holes to take dirt baths.

New concrete threshold. My land is sloped here, so the slanted door and threshold follow the contour of the land.

Next I solicited advice from friends and family, and read articles online and watched YouTube videos, trying to figure out the most reasonable way to protect my girls from the raccoons who would still get inside by climbing the walls. The option I went with was a suggestion from a fellow blogger. The entry point for my girls for 4 years has been a chicken-sized opening into their home. No door. They come and go as they please. I think it was Maureen who suggested putting a door on the chicken house and locking up the girls every night. It was the cheapest and most reliable option.

“Cheeks” I called her for awhile

What’s all the activity about?

New door, held open by a bungee.

Close up of latch.

In the shop I found an old cabinet door from before I remodeled the kitchen. It had been smeared with blue paint at some point, but the chickens wouldn’t care.

Next I needed to get the right hardware. The Internet assured me that raccoons will be able to figure out any latch and the only guarantee would be a padlock. Well…that’s a bit much for now, but I did find a two-step latch with a ring in case I ever do want to use a padlock. I also bought hinges and screws and charged my wireless drill.

I had to remove the ramp and replace it farther down the wall, to allow the door to close. Then because the door was an inch thick and rested on the outside of the wall, I had to attach another piece of wood so that the latch could be mounted level. I needed to figure out a way to keep the door open during the day. I collected all my tools and began figuring it out.

Jamie, the only hen residing in the pen at that time, hovered around me. Like all chickens, she’s nervous of anything new, but also desperately curious.

What, exactly, are you doing to my home?

When it was done I put all the tools away. Now. How to get six excitable middle-school aged hens from the other side of my lawn into this pen? The easiest method would be to wait for nighttime, and that’s what I did. In their separate pen, my babies were still huddling into a cardboard box filled with straw each night. I waited till it was dark and they become paralyzed. I threw a blanket over the top of the box, and carried the whole box into the chicken house. I set the box into a dark corner, uncovered it, and quietly backed out and locked the whole place up for the night.

The next morning I was eager to find out what the Lil’ Hussies thought of their new home. I opened up the door and waited for them to come out and explore. I kept waiting. Then I peeked inside.

The girls had no interest in leaving their home at first.

The chicken house is a big place for the little girls to explore.

Finally they stood in the doorway and looked around.

Jamie is happy to share her home with other chickens again.

I gave up waiting after half an hour or so. I went back to the house and made some coffee and began my day. A couple hours later I went back down the hill and coaxed and coaxed, and finally got them to come out into the world. They were scared of everything, and kept climbing back up the ramp and going back into the house.

Two months later, the teenage Hussies are comfortable and have explored every inch of the new pen. One thing I find very amusing is that they love to climb the tree. Have you ever heard of tree-climbing hens?

Lil’ Hussies are tree-climbers!

Interested in the cedar tree.

Ok, I’ll show you the trick! The tree is sloped.

I think it’s so funny that my hens climb the tree.

The chickens include Easter Eggers (the ones with the cheeks, that were sold as Ameraucanas), Buff Brahmas, and Jamie, who is a sexlink (mixed breed).

The door has worked wonderfully, but the lives of my babies depends entirely upon me. One night, about a week later, I forgot to lock the door. In the morning, one of the babies was dead. Killed by a raccoon. Now there are only five Lil’ Hussies plus Jamie.

The next major challenge is what to do with them when I leave. You know me, I travel! So far, when I’ve only been gone a day or two, I leave them trapped in the house the whole time. I’d rather have alive chickens who feel imprisoned, than dead free-range chickens. Eventually, though, I will be gone a long time. I do not know what to do. I have two neighbors. The next door neighbors I do not want on my property for any reason. The folks on the other side of them are good people, but older and not in the best of health. They have offered to free my chickens during the daytime for an upcoming trip of four days length. But if I’m gone for two weeks in the future, I feel like that’s a lot to ask of people who have much more important things to worry about. I need a mechanical door on a timer!

I like to sit in the pen with my girls and watch them do their chicken thing.

 

bat+open door = oops

So. Much. Stuff. Happened. Last night.

Except sleep. Sleep did not happen much.

The evening was fine until I got a text from someone who pissed me off. And I could not stop thinking about it. I was mad, mad, mad. I went to bed and stared fiercely at the shadowy ceiling while I tried not to worry about the 6:30 am alarm that would be coming soon.

My cat Racecar likes to sleep on my neck. It’s hard to breathe, but she’s soft and warm and she’s my comfort blanket. Except last night it was 87 degrees and neither one of us could get comfortable. I had opened the deck-side sliding glass door a little, and the window, but there was no cross breeze. Racecar walked across my throat, stepping on a boob now and then, back and forth, back and forth, but could not pick a satisfactory place to curl up on my neck. Too hot. She finally found a place at the foot of the bed and it suited us both fine.

Even with my comfort blanket down at the foot of the bed, the damp sheets, and no cross breeze, I finally fell asleep, who knows when. But I do know it was 11:47 when I heard a “mrrroowr! meeeooowww!” from a strange cat that woke me out of a dead sleep. It had managed to squeeze through the opening in the sliding glass door and got all the way to the kitchen to eat my cat’s food, and then couldn’t find it’s way out. I started yelling and it found the door and skeedaddled. Racecar, worthless cat, was still curled up at the foot of the bed, clearly not defending me from foes.

Then I was awake again.

Ugh. It was so hot. Against my better judgement, I went to the other side of the room and opened the door to the back yard. And opened the glass door wider, trying to bring the outside air in. I figured the strange cat probably wouldn’t come back. I tossed and turned for at least another hour. I was hot and mad, trying to sleep. You know how you silently yell at yourself, “go to sleep NOW!” and it doesn’t work?

Then I started wondering what that fluttering sound was. Such a soft, pretty sound. Probably a moth. Fluttering around and around the room. Racecar got up and started following it around the room. “Good girl,” I thought in my fogginess. “Eat the moth so I can sleep.” Flutter flutter. Moth wings have a sort of fur on them, which must be making that lovely sound. Then there was a quiet “eeeek” on one of its passes over my head. Funny, it reminded me of a bat. Racecar started jumping as the moth swooped close.

Actually the flutter was pretty loud. That must be a damned big moth. I picked up my phone and turned on the flashlight app and shined it up to the ceiling so that I could see into the blackness…and saw a BAT swooping around my bedroom! Shadows cast by my phone covered half the room. Wing shadows, probably teeth shadows, but I didn’t hang around to look. Obviously it came in through one of the wide open doors and now couldn’t find it’s way out.

A bat! A Bat! In my bedroom!  I slunk off the bed, crouched, arms over my head, and duck-walked to the door to the living room. Once out, I closed the door behind me. The bat could find it’s way out of my bedroom eventually, but I needed to sleep in a bat-free zone.

I checked to make sure kitty had come out of the bedroom with me, then padded down the hall in bare feet to Tara’s room (unoccupied while T is at college), and climbed into bed, pretty much awake.

I took deep, slow breaths, calming myself, thinking some more about the 6:30 am alarm. Still mad about that text message, planning all the clever mean things I would text back in the morning. Tara’s room was a little cooler, and the bed is comfortable. My eyes began to close and I began to drift off.

thump I hear from the living room. Thump thump…bump. CRASH! What the?? I sat up and listened. Whack-bump! thud.

Jeeze Louise.

I got up and walked into the living room in the dark and found Racecar leaping from the furniture into the air, trying to get the BAT that had followed us out of the bedroom! I ducked.

I wouldn’t even walk through the living room. I went out the front door of the house, outside in my bare feet, around the house to the deck, opened the living room sliding door so the bat could get out, then through the sliding door into my bedroom again, and dropped to the still-damp sheets. Is this for real?

Fully, fully awake. I checked my phone. 2:12 am. I went to the bathroom and swallowed a sleeping pill. I had to work in the morning. Sleep was critical. It worked after another 45 minutes, and I finally fell asleep after composing a perfect text response in my mind.

There was a time warp and in four minutes, the alarm went off. “Like hell,” I mumbled. Turned off the alarm and went promptly back to sleep, only to be awakened immediately by cluck, cluck, cluck…brrrrr cluck? Clearly chicken sounds, and clearly too close. “Arrrggghhh!” I said to no one, looked at my phone, which said 6:33. I heard it again, cluck cluck?

I got up and opened the door to the living room, and crept in while crouched, eyes at the ceiling. No bat. But there, in the living room, was one of the Hussies. Of course this would be the morning Tawny got loose, and of course she came up on the deck and found all the doors open, and came on in. Because, she’s a chicken. Chickens are dumb, and annoying. I love them, but it’s an honest relationship.

“Come on, chick! chick!” I called, and dumb, happy Tawny followed me out the door, across the porch, down the steps, across the grass, and to the chicken pen. I’m Momma Chicken to her.

Back in the house, I checked for poop (none! yay!), and resigned myself to starting up the work day.

As I settled in at the computer in my home office, I heard CCCRRRREEEERRRR….CCRAAAACCKK! BOOM!

Pretty little elderberry tree by the creek.

Exactly 24 hours later. Can you see the massive tree that has fallen across the creek?

I ran outside, and saw that a huge Alder in my back yard had just fallen. No wind. No storm. It just…gave up and fell. An enormous tree that now lies in the creek. Just last night I had stood there, captivated by glowing evening light on the elderberry bush beside it. That must have been an omen, the light on the bush. Earth was saying to me, “Pay attention and enjoy this moment of peace. Because… well… you know.”

It was pitch black through my nighttime adventures, and I couldn’t get a photo, not that I was even thinking of it. I told a few people today, “I’m gonna write a blog post about it, and Allie Brosh will do the illustration.” Sadly, I don’t know Allie personally. So I had to do the illustration myself a-la-Hyperbole and A Half.  This is me, crouching behind my bed, arm up as protection against the bat:

In lieu of Allie Brosh.

Here’s another photo of the downed tree. You still can’t get sense of how big the tree is by looking at the photo, but it’s a little better.

All those sideways branches=one tree

 

My farm is greening up in the Spring weather.

My farm is greening up in the Spring weather.

Not to give a false impression: it’s not really a farm and I’m not really a farm girl. But just give me a little time…

I grew up on some land. We had pigs and rabbits and chickens to supplement our only meat supply each winter: deer, elk, and if we were lucky, bear. We chopped wood to heat the house and to cook on the wood stove. In the early days, Mom cooked all our meals on the beautiful cast iron stove. I learned how to make toast on the surface by sprinkling a little salt, to keep the bread from burning. We used the stove to heat a flat iron to iron clothes because we had no electricity. We took our baths in an big aluminum tub in the yard, beside the pump, because we had no indoor plumbing. And yes…we woke up sleepy in the middle of the night and shoved our feet into boots to trudge through the snow to the outhouse. I am a rare remnant of American history, in that my childhood was from an earlier century.

I’ve been nostalgic for decades, daydreaming of the someday when I could have a farm of my own, and now I’ve got it. But see, here’s the thing: in the meantime, I became a city girl. Not in my soul, but in my experience. Because of my job, I’ve had to live in cities. I’ve only known electric heat and natural gas water heaters for those luxurious hot showers inside my home. When I was lucky, I had a little patch of grass to mow and some dirt in which to bury some bulbs for next season.

Managing a big piece of land is going to be a big job, and I am confident I can figure it all out. I’m also wise enough to know there will be a sharp learning curve. But off I go! Look out world. 😉

The Hussies behind a fence.

The Hussies behind a fence.

Eggs in their proper place.

Eggs in their proper place.

I grew impatient with the idea that perfectly good eggs were being stashed in the forest, as a result of my wandering Hussies. I began a campaign to diligently collect the hens each day and return them to their pen. With a four-foot fence they were contained most of the time, and typically only one or two hens would fly to freedom per day. After one week I had a carton full of eggs and the Hussies were less inclined to escape. Then I contacted a local man I know to come and build me a respectable chicken fence.

Douglas helped me take down the old fence so we had room to put up a new one.

Douglas helped me take down the old fence so we had room to put up a new one.

I was tickled by the official label slapped onto my lumber order.

I was tickled by the official label slapped onto my lumber order.

My boyfriend and I (yes!) pulled out the old fence to make way for the fence guy to build a new one. After two weeks of being returned to the old pen, the hens got into the habit of using their lovely henhouse with perfect little boxes filled with dry straw. So, while they have returned to their wandering habits, they still come home to lay. I am so pleased to be getting daily brown eggs, with thick shells and dark yolks you get from country hens.

I had to pick up two more 4x4s in the Jeep, which is not made for hauling lumber.

My Jeep is not designed for hauling lumber, but that didn’t stop me.

Some feathers to help me remember my Lacey, the sassiest of the bunch.

Some feathers to help me remember my Lacey, the sassiest of the bunch.

Fence-building is currently underway, but we had a tragedy nonetheless. Miss Lacey, whom you met not too long ago in my post about finding a stash of eggs, wandered into the country road and was hit by a car. I researched and decided not to try to eat her. First because she died by blunt force, which likely ruptured her organs, and second, because those organs likely had a chance to contaminate the meat as she laid beside the road all day long before I came home from work and found her. I am sad to lose my Lacey, as you can imagine. I’ve grown to love the bold & sassy Hussies.

The rain let up for a week and the ground dried out enough to begin using big equipment. I backed the riding lawnmower out of the shed and got it running. I had not personally cut the grass since buying the used machine, because I had friends and neighbors who took turns on it last year. It took me awhile to figure out how to get the blades going. I chose a knob that looked promising and gave it a tug. The serpentine belt went flying and the engine cut out.

Serpentine belt came off the deck the first time I tried to use the mower this year.

Serpentine belt came off the deck the first time I tried to use the mower this year.

The grass grows fast in the Spring and it was like mowing a jungle.

The grass grows fast in the Spring and it was like mowing a jungle.

I went online and discovered that I had done the right thing, it just hadn’t gone well. I checked local repair shops and found they were closed for the weekend. And then I looked up schematics for a Husqvarna blade deck and got some tools and pulled it apart and put the belt back in it’s place. I put it all back together and tried again. Viola!

Add small tractor repair to my list of talents.

There is a lot of grass to cut here. The property is 4.3 acres and I imagine the house and pond take up the 0.3, leaving approximately 4 acres to mow. Whew. It took me 5 days of mowing to get it all done. About 14 hours total. The tractor wasn’t running well and I ended up taking it to the shop when I got done. It should be done in a week and I’ll have sharpened blades and I’ll be able to tackle all that grass once more.

I’m continuing with adding a bit of landscaping here and there: rhododendrons and azealas, honeysuckle and camelias, a bunch of hydrangeas from my Uncle who lives a couple towns over, and a few plants my mother gave me years ago: a peony, some irises, and lavender. Each day the place becomes a little bit more my own personal heaven.

Looking across the pond up to the house, while taking a break from mowing the back forty.

Looking across the pond up to the house, while taking a break from mowing the back forty.

DSC_0069

Lacey wants me to hold still so she can find out whether the large black round thing on my face is edible.

The Chicken Hussies, I’ve been calling them. They are saucy and misbehaved. They are rarely home, running around the neighborhood bringing dishonor upon this house. They don’t come when I call them and I dont know where they are half the time. When they do show up, they run to me at first with joy of recognition. That turns into clucking complaints, demands, unceasing inquiries about the availability of grain. They peck my hands and my shoes, and mutter that the feed I give them is tiresome and they would prefer leftover oatmeal. “Remember that time when you fed us oatmeal?”

These hens leave their, shall we say, “fertilizer” all over the deck and the front porch, and in the equipment shed on the side of the house where they sleep. It’s a sure sign that they know where they belong. And yet do they stay here like proper ladies? Never.

I fear their reputations are ruined.

DSC_0068

“Oh, it’s a camera? Well, here, I think this side of my head is more photogenic.”

DSC_0018 (2)

In back, left to right, Lacey, Jamie, Phil. The red one is Tawny.

The once sensitive topic of reciprocity has become more of a common theme. Admittedly, I am the one who brings it up. I explain about the cost of hay, feed, fencing. I explain about having a full time job and getting phone calls from irritated neighbors who wish for me to spend my off time collecting chickens from their properties. I tell the Hussies I’ve resorted to forcing my evening visitors into chicken-wrangling, in which I throw a tarp over the sleeping group and together we haul them down the hill and put them back into their perfectly darling chicken house filled with dry fluffy hay. They reply, “We were wondering what that was all about.”

Then I cautiously bring up the topic of eggs. THE POINT OF ALL THIS.

They pretend not to understand. “What are these ‘eggs’ of which you speak? Forgive us, we are dumb chickens. Ooh! Over there, is that a spider?”

One morning after a successful chicken wrangling, I was out on my deck with a cup of coffee. I looked with satisfaction and pleasure, down the hill at my lovely ladies: Tawny, Lacey, and the twins Jamie and Phil. They were safely inside their fence, clucking contentedly, eating grass, scratching for spiders. I was filled with such love for them, I called down “Good morning my chickies!!”

All four froze and turned to see me for the first time, squawking “Mom!” in unison. As you would expect if there were four Harrier jets ready for a mission, the ladies rose into the air and shot toward me. One after another, they lifted straight up and over their four-foot fence, then rocketed through the air up the hill in military formation, directly to me standing on the deck. I’ve never seen chickens fly like that. I thought the appropriate response would have been to scold them to teach a lesson, but instead I was flattered.

Still no eggs. I looked up “hussy” in Urban Dictionary and one of the definitions was “chicken.” So I had to look up chicken, and one of the definitions is a female with attractive breasts and thighs. Do you think it’s time to remind them of what happens to chickens who don’t lay?

This morning a new kind of fowl caught my attention.

Something pure white in the pond caught my eye from the kitchen window. I stared and had mostly convinced myself it was a duck. Multiple ducks, from the appearance of movement. I got out the camera and used the zoom lens to confirm. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen ducks on the pond.

DSC_0083

Male and female Hooded Merganser moved to the far side of the pond when they saw me sneaking down the hill toward them.

DSC_0078

The group of six female mergansers also decided to scoot away when I showed up. Here I captured only one straggler.

DSC_0084

I think it looks like a proper pond for the first time. Ducks are an excellent accessory.

In the past I have accidentally startled a lone goose, who exploded skyward as soon as I was spotted. I would love to have some long term pond-dwellers. I crept slowly down the hill, hoping not to frighten them, I hid behind trees, and crept as close as I dared. I watched them dive for goodies underwater, then pop back up onto the surface.

If they decide to stay, I hope they don’t talk to the Hussies, or I’ll likely find myself building another ineffective pen and buying more pellets for ungrateful birds.

One of my many guises

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