Category Archives: Animal Husbandry

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.

 

 

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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!

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!