Damnit Chickens, You Win

The mystery began with shards of egg shell in the arena. I pondered the source and had suspicious thoughts about the usual predators about the yard. The dog seemed most likely innocent as this scene lacked the limp corpse that usually marked her interactions with small animals. A racoon snack? The hens, you may recall, had been sleeping in the trees for months at this point so a night raid of the coop might only turn up eggs. Perhaps a very vigorous someone who enjoys both collecting eggs and performing daring acts of speed and agility dropped an egg on his way to the house?

The mystery was solved some days later when I spotted this thief winging his way off with his prize:

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This whole super-extra-free range chicken situation was going from mildly worrisome (What will they do when it rains? When will the racoons wise up and start picking off the lowest roosting ones?) to frankly irritating.

Enjoying the fresh air.

Good night, bad chicken.

After deciding they preferred open air sleeping, the chickens began fancying themselves entirely feral and began making nests willy nilly all over the paddock. They got terribly good at it and sometimes we wouldn’t discover the hidden clutches for days. The crows, however, were not so impressed by the chickens’ egg hiding prowess and, faced with such bounty, took to just pecking out and eating the eggs right at the nest. If we were really diligent with our egg collection we could beat them to it, but really diligent has never described my relationship with the chickens. Meanwhile, proceeds of our 36 dollar bags of organic layer pellets and lovingly tossed kitchen scraps were going directly into making the next generation of genius crows. I had to take action!

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So I did it. I locked them up. A few of them I could lure into captivity with treats, but I figured not all would go so gently. I purchased the long, metal, chicken-catcher hook that I had always looked at with curiosity/apprehension at the feed store and slunk around the yard after the last 2 stragglers until I could slip the hook onto a leg and drag each poor thing into my clutches. Our coop was once a duplex sort of a situation for chickens and rabbits, but has been all chicken space since our last Angora rabbit died several years ago. As such, it’s not perfectly designed to be an all-the-time space for chickens. It’s long and narrow and has a wire floor them keeps them off the ground. They hated it right from the start, pacing the cage most of the time, looking longingly at the two loose bantams (uncatchable, I didn’t even try) who were still able to roam. I had convinced myself that this was the practical thing to do. We have our chickens for eggs! We will eat all the eggs! I let this sadness persist for a few months.

Until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Having unhappy animals just isn’t part of our deal, not worth it. For awhile I thought the answer was to build a fabulous new, larger coop that would showcase all the innovations I was discovering on line (a poop hammock under the perch! chicken-weight-operated rat-proof feeder!). Ben, however, thought this kind of job would realistically not happen until the Summer, which sounded approximately 50 years away.

Instead we just opened up the door. The ladies have never looked back.

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There has already been evidence of egg theft, but I have a new answer: more chickens! I figure with enough chickens we won’t miss the eggs too much. I also hope to soon have much of the detritus and hiding spots around the yard cleared out so that the nest box in the coop looks most inviting. I have some ceramic eggs in the nest which are supposed to help. And, sigh, I’m working on that diligence thing- collecting eggs more than once a day to stay ahead of my competition.

It’s all worth it when I pull into the driveway and see the gals loose in their Redwood habitat. I have always been enchanted by even the most banal of chicken behavior. I stop the car sometimes and just sit, taking in the awkward flailings of a dust bath or the precise, repetitive strike of a beak into a nook of bark. Great stuff.

 

 

First Sting Down!

When I was first contemplating beekeeping I was pretty scared about signing up for being stung with any kind of regularity. I read accounts of beekeepers acclimating to stings over time and figured I was of somewhere near average fortitude so I would probably be okay. But it still scared me. What a pleasant surprise to discover that stings are pretty avoidable, if you’re careful. I am lazy about smoking my bees to keep them calm, so I rely on their inherent gentleness and a good bee suit to keep me protected. My usual system involves wearing paddock boots, their ankle-high, thick leather shielding the only part of my body that isn’t covered in protective gear.

A couple of Wednesday’s ago the weather was approaching the mid sixties and I figured it would be wise to do a cursory inspection of my hives. The mother of the queen in my far hive swarmed a few months after installing her with just a package of bees, so I want to be careful to give that colony as much space as they need to avoid another swarm. That far hive has been looking very active and the three medium boxes are too heavy to lift with one hand (a quick measurement of food stores is to feel the weight of the hive), so I wanted to see if they were ready for another box to move into. I believe it’s a little early to have a nectar flow in Oakland, but the torrential rains we had in December after such a long drought mean all bets are off. After all this time without a sting I decided not to walk into the next room and find my boots, figuring that my jeans covered that gap between my bee suit pants and my clogs well enough.

There is a concept in beekeeping called “bee space.” If you leave the bees 1/4″ to 3/8″ of space they will treat this as a thoroughfare and generally not muck it up with comb. More space than that, however, and you are inviting them to fill it with comb for brood or honey. There are many things to love about the feeders I have but they do violate the concept of bee space and usually result in crazy comb being built up into the cavern that allows the bees to access the syrup I add from the top. When I opened the far hive I broke apart quite a bit of honey filled comb, leading the girls to believe, with fair logic, that their precious stores were under attack. One thing led to another and a particularly devoted guard bee located the tender, black argyle sock patterned weak spot of this massive intruder. The sting itself was pretty much how I expected it to be- unpleasant, but better than the times I was stung as a kid. I’m a beekeeper now, I thought, this sensation is a part of the bargain! I brushed off the stinger, hustled back to grab my boots, and finished inspecting both hives. I did end up adding a box to the far hive- those bees are going strong! The near hive is about where they were in November. One deep box pretty full, but not ready for any more space. The near hive’s queen is the daughter of a queen who performed so poorly last year I had to kill her myself in hopes of saving the hive. We’ll see if things pick up as they should, or if it was a mistake to keep the genetics of that first queen going.

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I was feeling fairly smug about the sting as I went about the rest of my day, tearing away at the thicket of weeds that used to be the garden and generally trying to tidy up the property. I had my first sting and it was no big deal! I thought. I am going to write a totally nonchalant blog post about being stung and everyone will recognize I have become a super tough beekeeper sort of a person! Yay, me!

That evening, however, the situation took an unfortunate turn. The swelling and itching had begun in earnest. The first step after sitting for a bit was sometimes an exciting stab of pain and each step was, in fact, pretty darn uncomfortable. By bedtime I was gimping around somewhat dramatically and contemplating whether or not this injury would keep me from work the next day. As a nurse working in inpatient psychiatry, I value my ability to move quickly and easily if the situation demands it. We are, according to the instructor of the annual training our staff gets in managing violent patients, the most assaulted profession. I also felt that a severe limp would be somewhat unprofessional. I imagined myself cheerfully telling a patient that I would be right back with that glass of water/medication/lunch tray/etc. and then limping extravagantly away. My position is unbenefitted, however, and I really couldn’t stomach the idea that one bee sting was going to forfeit an entire day’s pay.

So, it wasn’t a super fun work day but between some anti-inflammatories and a very sexy pair of knee-high compression hose I got it done. I think I kept the limping to a not-embarassing level most of the time. Here is the average ankle on the left and her sausagey friend on the right after a night of rest broken by horribly satisfying itching sessions.

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A few days more and I was good as new!

In the end I’m not sure what this experience means. I have my suspicions, though. Perhaps I’m just not super tough. Being sensitive has its upsides, right? And maybe I will never be that fearless beekeeper that inspects hives in flip-flops and cut off shorts. I bet the honey will taste the same!

Stress Antidote Tea!

As this year comes to a close I’ve been reflecting on the time I spend on the computer, following blogs, Instagram and Facebook. I think there are certainly positives to these activities but it seems they have completely displaced blog writing for me and I miss it. I have been pondering the balance between producing and consuming in general lately. I would like to be the kind of person who produces more than I consume, a steep uphill struggle in these times when I can have my hearts desire in a mere 2 days from Amazon and get delicious little pings of dopamine from notifications on Facebook whenever the mood strikes me. Writing the blog feels less like a cheap thrill and more like actually making something. It’s still time sitting in front of a screen instead of having actual interactions with people or crossing things off the endless, endless, endless to do list but it consistently brings me happiness and gives me a bit more motivation to get things done around the tiny farm. One of my favorite parts of having dinner parties is the pre-party hustle, tossing the piles of yesterdays clothes (likely discarded during the bedtime routine wrestling match) behind closed bedroom doors and turning forts back into furniture a person might actually want to sit on. Having a blog is like having mini dinner parties all around the property. Little bits of cleaning up here and there so you don’t look like a crazy slob all over the internet lead to actually being less of a crazy slob! Delightful.

I’m also giving myself a pass if all I have is crappy pictures from my phone. See below. The perfect is too often the enemy of the good around this town.

All that was merely the preamble to the good stuff: Stress Antidote Tea!

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As I was sipping some delicious tea today it occurred to me that sharing this tea recipe might be appropriate this time of year. Perhaps I am not the only person for whom the holidays conjure mixed feelings? For this, my friends, there is Stress Antidote Tea. It is a sweet, minty, incredibly soothing elixir of goodness. So many herbal teas will let you down- they smell amazing and taste only so so. Not this one! If anything it tastes better than it smells. Super sweet! I learned about it from my chiropractor, Armene Lamson.  She recommended Five Flavors Herbs for buying the herbs and I can say from experience that the quality of the herbs makes a big difference. Grow your own or make a special trip and get the good stuff. It’s a simple recipe: equal parts peppermint, oat tops (oat straw would also do), nettles and licorice. You can play with the tea/water ratio to suit yourself. I go for a hefty amount and brew it twice. The first steep is almost syrupy, the second round is more refreshing.  The longer you steep it each time, the sweeter it gets.

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The sweeter it gets, the more likely it will be snatched and emptied by one of your children, beginning a delightful positive feedback loop in which you are simultaneously soothing yourself and a potential source of stress! Brilliant!

How To Make Your Own Elizabethan Dog Collar

Back when we lived in our first place in Oakland we had less space and no kids. It was the time in my life when my love of dogs was most pronounced and I was rather focused on the idea of having a Chinese Crested dog. Mostly we are rescue dog people and yes it is true that this breed does spawn some of the ugliest creatures known to dog (see example here), but when well bred they can be quite fabulous (see example here). Half of most litters are actually covered in hair, but you can give them “pony” cuts like that last picture and leave a little short hair covering their bodies along with the flowing “furnishings” so you don’t have the naked dog ick factor. Then you end up with the most hilarious and appealing (to me) dog ever- like a Clydesdale and a fairy had a puppy!

Well, B had to draw the line. He is a man of relatively few limits in terms of tolerating my animal related ambitions, but a Chinese Crested was not something he could have. Just couldn’t do it. So ever since then I think I have been taking out my desire for one of these strange and delightful creatures on the other dogs I groom. Bonny is the latest victim.

Doesn't everyone wonder what their Doodle would look like in a blond wig?

Doesn’t everyone wonder what their Doodle would look like in a blond wig?

With most dogs I have found that their coats and my amateur skill level are really the only limiting factors in getting the hair-do I want, but with Bonny if I clip her too short she gets so itchy she tries to chew off every scrap of hide she can reach with her chompers. How short is too short? Well, I shave portions of my sister’s poodles down close enough for emergency surgery (#40 blades) but Bonny can’t even handle #10 blades. She is a #7 or less kind of a girl. Admittedly, something about the color of her coat with her pink skin peeking through doesn’t look very appealing at a #10 length, so perhaps it’s all for the best.

Bonny, looking a bit more like something you might find aging in a meat locker than the froofy Goldendoddle we usually encounter.

Bonny, looking more like something you might find aging in a meat locker than the fluffy gal we usually encounter.

We tried the standard plastic Elizabethan collar (those lampshade shaped dog torture devices you get from the vet) to save her from herself, but she was soon the hard plastic was gouging out the flesh from her neck in her attempts at itch relief. The donut shaped, inflatable collars were no match for her super flexible noodle-dog physique. Enter: the DIY Elizabethan dog collar. Thank you, internet!

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Basically you take a thick towel, fold it into thirds lengthwise and wrap it very snugly around the dog’s neck. Secure with the webbing belt your husband has saved since middle school and another strap that clips together unearthed from the mound of climbing gear lurking in your front hall closet (or similar). Very simple and effective. That’s it!

 

 

 

2013 Family and Farm Round-up!

I haven’t carved out the time for a blog update in forever and ever, so here’s a slapdash tour of the whole darn year to make up for some lost time. If you’re not my mother, you might just want to skim the pics. It got a bit looooong. Here goes:

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I got suuuuuper duper pregnant! If I had a nickel for every person who asked if I was having twins… I would tie them up in a small sack to tote in my purse and use to whack those people upside the head. Most especially those who followed with “Are you sure you’re not having twins?”

It was not a delightful 9 months. I will absolutely miss some things- the feeling of having a mysterious, kicking creature inside me and all the wonder and joy it inspired, but mostly the rest of it was rough. I had amazing, intense nausea and please-let-me-lie-down-on-the-floor-right now-to-sleep fatigue for the first 17 weeks, followed by some absolutely crazy making insomnia and pelvic discomfort for the remainder. I was so darn happy to have that baby for all the usual reasons, but also to end that pregnancy!

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But who wouldn’t go through that if it meant you got to have this guy in the end??! Baby R- way beyond worth it.

He’s in that exponential growth period of life these days, so looking at pictures like this one is a trip. Moments ago he was a grub and today he was ransacking our cabinets and burning holes through the knees of his tiny track pants in an all out crawl-sprint for Bonnie’s dog food bowl. Nuts!

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Yep, here comes trouble!

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O has proven to be a superb older brother. There have been some minor recent frustrations as R has gone from a largely sedentary guy that a big brother can interact with or ignore ad lib in the course of an afternoon’s play to a roving Lego hoover that must be constantly monitored to keep from destroying and/or being destroyed by a person’s favorite toys, but overall it has been quite a smooth transition. O is enjoying R so much he’s even had moments of lobbying for another baby (gasp)! R is one lucky guy.

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For the chickens it has been a year of declining productivity and tree roosting naughtiness. We got our newest round of chicks in the Fall to get a jump on Spring laying and all was going great until one of our young ladies started crowing yesterday. Another rooster! Sigh. The four standard size hens we had ranged in age from about 4-7, so it was time to also retire them to the big hen house in the sky (a.k.a. my friend Catherine’s freezer). I was more hands on in the slaughtering and dressing this time around, so I think in the future we’ll be keeping our old birds on site for our own stew pot. I’m also thinking of a more rapid turn-over plan in the future so that we have more consistent laying through the winter months. Catherine and I tried a couple of new techniques in processing the hens this time- using garden shears for the beheading and skinning rather than plucking the birds (Catherine doesn’t like the skin), both of which I highly recommend.

The chicken above, Amelia, will certainly be remembered. She was constantly in search of a better place to hide her eggs, a trait which led to many misadventures. The first time she went missing I just assumed the worst after a few days, but B, in a rather surprising moment of chicken tenderness, flyered the neighborhood with “Lost Chicken!” signs. Turns out she had just been on a walkabout and taken to roosting in a tree outside our neighbor’s bedroom window. The second time she was lost B found her splayed out in such an awkward pose in one of our compost bins that he was sure she was dead. A loud screech and panicked flapping set him right on that account when he went to pick her up, uncovering the 17 eggs she had been secretly laying and attempting to hatch. Often, though, it would be Bonny the Bloodthirsty who would find her after she had flown from the safety of the fenced chicken paddock. Three separate times the chase ended badly, but each time Amelia managed to escape death’s fluffy blond jaws. Some chicken!

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Here we find Bonny terrorizing other small animals across the West.

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Ferocious!

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As mentioned before, my fabulous dressage trainer Sue and Sebastian The Wonder Mustang absolutely kicked butt this year while I was busy being hugely pregnant and then hugely tired postpartum. I couldn’t be more pleased with Sebastian’s progress! Certainly some credit goes to him being a really wonderful guy, but the layering of well done dressage training over natural horsemanship foundation training is just dreamy. He is a pleasure to be around and he’s really learning to use his body correctly. He and I are even moving up to First Level this year! I took him to a show and rode him at Training Level in October. He was a total champ (as expected) and I managed to mostly keep my wits about me and steer the proper course, so onward and upward we go!

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That one is me! In full dressage show gear- Hah! I thought showing hunter/jumpers was silly with my wool coat in the heat of the Summer, but check me out now- white pants and gloves for riding horses. Who thinks that’s a good idea?? After finding that the dressage coat that fit me well was 480 bucks (AK! I could adopt 3.84 more BLM Mustangs for that price!), I dyed my old hunt coat black and put on silver buttons to emulate dressage fashion. Totally passable, I think. I had a lot of fun at this show. I can’t wait for our next one in February.

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B did manage to go skiing in the back country- once, last April. As a guy who grew up in the mountains, skiing all through the winters, B really recharges on these kind of trips.  Once is not nearly enough! Jeez. This life balance thing is tough.

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The bees! Oh, the bees. This first year as a beekeeper has been, well, very mixed. I have loved everything I have learned and the hands on care has been amazing, BUT I think most all of my bees are dead. I found that sad, sad fist-sized clump of dead bees surrounding the dead queen of the far hive after the cold snap in the late fall. I imagine they were just too small and weak to stay warm. At last check a couple of weeks ago the near hive had a smattering of brood on two medium frames and not a lot of bees. A few days ago I watched a sort of sputtering bee topple off the landing board and found that she had the shriveled little nubby wings that come from deformed wing virus- a sure sign that the mite levels in the hive are overwhelmingly high. The virus enters the bees through openings made when mites feed on their bodies.

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I guess it’s possible that they will come back, but I can’t help but think they’re pretty much done for. They have all the leftover stores of honey and nectar from the far hive and in theory there should be Eucalyptus to forage now, so we’ll see.

It’s hard to know what did almost everybody in, possibly a combination of robbing wasps (there were soooo many this year!), mites, and stress from me checking in on them as an eager first year beekeeper trying to learn the ropes. Next year I’m going to get packages of bees from a new source and be more vigilant in some ways (robbing screens on earlier, more intensive mite control) while less invasive in terms of hive inspections. I definitely love the practice of beekeeping, so I’m going to keep at it. The dry, dry California weather (it’s eerie, I can barely remember the last rain) will present a new problem in the coming year, however, with much less forage available. Please wish us luck, it seems we will need it!

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Of course the year involved a good deal of crafting. Between O and I there are always a project or two and various supplies littering the house. O is particularly fond of anything involving tape or string, but my only-for-work pens and any strap-like horse tack also do quite nicely when constructing elaborate art installations in the house. I got really into making paper flowers. This is my New Year’s wreath:

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So there it was, a loooong glimpse at Full Hearts Farm 2013. We send our best, best wishes and lots of love to all for the coming year!