coparenting in the chicken coop

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Back in June I promised I’d tell the story of my broody hens’ transition to motherhood. But … yeah, I let things slide. It’s my site, after all, and my uber-volunteer world claims most of my spare time. Which is fine by me.

But about the chicks. The babes—six altogether—pipped over a two-day span. One needed help; I was sure after I liberated it from the egg that it was dead, but I tucked it under a mom anyway. The next day I had six fuzzball babies peeping out from under their moms.

Within a couple more days it was clear—one mom claimed five babes while the other got only one. Even so, those turf battles over nest boxes and eggs? Forgotten. In fact, I was struck by how content both seemed. I’m sure it helps that hens just can’t count. Let me go further and anthropomorphize for a moment and suggest that each felt completely validated as a mom regardless how many chicks hung tight with her. (I’m happy to attribute this mostly to their pea-sized brains.)

Even so, I was relieved when, two days later, I propped open the door. The moms and chicks hung together all that day and the next and the next and … such a lovely job of coparenting they did. They didn’t wander with the main flock, but they didn’t avoid them either. (Which probably is why this year, integrating the chicks into the main flock went as smoothly as it did.)

Then came the day the mamas quit. A mom always quits about the time the babes are gangly, half-grown teenagers, just starting to fly (to the extent that a chicken can); about the time you start getting a hunch which are en route to roosterhood and the stew pot. And when mama’s done, she’s done. One day she’s protective. The next she’s out of there. The chicks keep their own little flock together a while longer, but when they start checking out the main coop, I close the door to the rabbit hutch for good. By then the moms treat them like the newbies they are—the moms aren’t mean, exactly, but they don’t cut them any slack either.

green cemetery coming to Columbia County?

Last week I zipped over to Columbia County, about the furthest east I’ve been in mainland York State*. Our first real snow fell the night before, though by noon the mix of wind-blown mist and (as the hours swept by) high-breaking clouds had wiped twigs and stubble bare.

I swung through Schoharie and Albany counties — through the mini-burgs of Berne and East Berne, Clarksville and Selkirk — then across the Hudson, onto the Taconic Parkway (for all of a half mile) and down toward the hamlet of Harlemville, where I met my hosts, Jonitha and Paul Hasse, who took me on a brisk tour of several sites that might, just might, make lovely natural burial grounds.

Jonitha runs a tiny rural cemetery just outside Harlemville. Tiny, as in less than an acre altogether: point-eight-eight acres, to be exact. After our tour we held an afternoon workshop on the nuts and bolts of making green burial work in Columbia County—and who the players might be. Jonitha has honed her skills and is ready to ramp up; now she’s looking for companions for the journey.

From that tiny cemetery comes this photo of the most striking headstone I’ve ever seen.

*More on “York State” anon. (If I get to it, that is.)

gone broody

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Chicken moms are devoted to duty from day one. So when two of my youngest hens went broody within a day of each other, coveting the eggs the rest of the flock had laid as well as their own, I trotted up to my neighbors’ to snag their day’s take. They, after all, have a rooster.

Yes, my broodies were peckish (you might say) when I slid my hand beneath them, lifting their wings and even their toes to tug out their infertile eggs and slip in my neighbors’. But an egg’s an egg. They were maybe ten seconds settling back in.

The past two years I’d kept moms and chicks apart from the main flock, housing them in a rabbit hunch mere feet away from the main coop with just a temporary fence between. But each time when I integrated the flocks, the hens with the deepest connection to the pecking order—both the alpha hen and the previous year’s most bullied chick—put way more energy into beating up on the newbies at the feeder than I care to see.

Problem was, keeping my broodies in the main coop didn’t quite work. During her first days on a clutch, a broody hen barely eats, barely drinks. At last, however, hunger and thirst overpower the compelling need to brood those eggs. Meanwhile, a nest chockfull of eggs is prime real estate for any hen. I fed my broodies at the back edge of their nest boxes but had no way of providing water right at the nest. When they hopped off to slake their thirst—well, an older dom would move in and refuse to make way.

One day I came home to find the entire set of nest boxes moved perilously close to the ramp leading down from the coop’s floor. Clearly an epic kerfluffle had happened not long before. An older hen had possession of one 9×13-inch nest box. My two broodies were crammed into the other. And as good care as a momma takes from day one, when they’re competing for prime real estate they’re oblivious to the toll their spurs take on delicate shells; likewise oblivious was the usurping older hen in the other box. Once I got them sorted out—the older hen pushed off the nest, the broodies back in business—four chicks just days away from pipping had died.

So that night I moved the moms into two hastily prepared crates in the rabbit hutch. (Some things are best done under cover of darkness.) Dark as it was, still—the each mom tried to roll the most eggs into her domain, and in mere minutes I saw which of these relatively low-ranked hens was top dog in their little twosome. When I checked a half-hour later, both moms had set up shop within and just outside one of the crates, and the four eggs that remained in the other were left unattended in the chill night air.

How many chicks pipped—and how did they fare? Did accord or catastrophe ensue? Can momma hens coparent a clutch of babes without killing a one—or does one, defeated, join the rest of the flock in the main coop? And … how do the other hens react when two-day-old baby chicks venture into their home turf?

Stay tuned.

the ladies’ friend … for sciatic suffers

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I thought I knew everything about sciatica. If so, I’ve forgotten a few details. That, or a body six-plus decades in the making expresses itself differently than one in its thirties.

Three decades ago I had a bad patch of  sciatica—undiagnosed for upward of three years (I’m guessing) because I didn’t have health insurance. Finally a friend, a masseuse, suggested the cause. And over time physical therapy provided the cure.

Here, in full color, are clues to nuances I didn’t remember from the first time around.

Carry this kit, slipped into a plastic bag inside your daypack or luggage: and if you have a choice, aim for the funnel style on the left.

Like — how much misery it provokes just to pee first thing in the morning. (Why? Details below.) Ditto with getting into your jeans—let alone your long johns on a cold winter day.

So ladies … here’s your sciatica morning kit: a couple of funnels from the auto-parts store and some strong cord (look closely for the safety pins stuck through the cord). More on that slotted spoon with the funny handle later.

Look for the tranny-fluid (aka power-steering fluid) funnels. The angle is perfect. Still, practice makes perfect … you don’t want to hit the toilet seat, after all. And if you’re doing this at night by a dim bulb … don’t you go slipping the funnel in backward. Because you’ll be dropping your undies in the laundry basket before you crawl back into bed. (Put on your undies and socks before you go to bed—they too will throw you out of kilter if you wait till morning.)

I suggest the style on the left—the narrower mouth, notched midway around its circumference, is a better fit for a woman’s anatomy. Buy two: one for your backpack or satchel; the other for home.

The cord? Tie each end to the belt loops on your slacks and slowly, slowly walk your way into them. It’s awkward, but sure beats the alternative. Don’t have belt loops? Thus the safety pins. And it’s lots easier to get jeans over silk long johns (or PJ bottoms).

The slotted spoon with wooden paint stirrers taped fore and aft — that’s a homemade back-scratcher; I’ve used it to clean my gutters too. Came in handy those mornings when I couldn’t quite lift the lid to the toilet.

Doesn't that yellow one look like a snugger fit? That's what you want. But if they only carry the wider type on the left ... well, you can make it work.

My first bout of sciatica was due, I’m sure, to the fifty- and hundred-pound grain and flour sacks I hefted back when I worked in a bakery … not to mention that fridge and the mattresses I hauled (by myself) up a steep, uneven flight of concrete steps to the place I was renting back in the early 80s … the massive flagstones and glacial erratics (look it up) from my landscaping days …  and all the other heavy work I did from time to time, not thinking twice about keeping my back strong, not even knowing there’s a right and a wrong way to lift and boy, I was doing it wrong.

There you have it. Stay fit, stay safe — but if you’re already in deep, this’ll help you get back into whack. Oh … I forgot; I said I’d explain that “first thing in the morning” bit. Well, I’m told our disks take on water in the night. So if a herniated disk is already butting in on a nerve channel, it’s worse if the disk has swelled during the night. You want to give your disks two hours to let that water seep back into … wherever …  before you do anything — like sitting, like putting on your socks.

True, the red isn't that much bigger. (And I'm told it comes in purple too.) You can work with it. But it'd be worth going to a couple of auto-supply stores before you settle on one.

PS. Such a crazy warm winter we had, I didn’t even get to practice writing my name in yellow snow. Next year!

eat your (wild) greens

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It takes a practiced eye to see the garden in my weed patch. Nearly gone are the flowers; my conservative guestimate is that I lost upward of a thousand species, cultivars, and color forms. Though I haven’t counted the survivors, only a relative handful made it through all these years of neglect. Of the vegetables, the chives alone stand undaunted by weeds. The asparagus, even the rhubarb (victims of shade from small trees that got big fast) are nearly kaput.

Yet I just brought in a peck of greens gathered in a ten-minute ramble through the what’s now mainly goldenrod and garlic mustard. Indeed, perhaps a third of today’s  bounty was garlic mustard. I don’t much like the stuff, but the first new shoots of this in spring are the mildest—a relative term for sure. I doubt I’ll cut more; other, milder greens are popping up now.

From the top, clockwise: first your nettles, followed by dame's rocket and dock. The dandelion greens at bottom surely look familiar. At the bottom left: garlic mustard, one of the fastest-spreading invasives around. At nine o'clock: daylily shoots; more on using them later, while those skinny, spiky things are chives.

Yet when diluted by two or three bushels of other greens I’ll gather through the seasons, the flavors—tart, lemony, pungent, mild—complement each other and the other vegetables I’ll have gleaned from overrun neighborhood gardens or the occasional folding table by someone’s drive, heaped with squash or cukes or beans—and a can to drop your money in.

My technique? I just dump each harvest into a large clear trash bag in the freezer in my cellar—what I call my walk-in fridge; even in August the cellar is still relatively cool. By the time the bag’s half full I’ll slip on some rubber gloves, set the bag atop a bench, and crunch those frozen greens into shards and flakes until I’ve reduced the volume by, oh, maybe 75 percent.

Then I keep filling it and mixing it so that early spring’s dame’s rocket  and garlic mustard—that dame’s rocket is almost as intensely pungent as garlic mustard (they share a family tree)—are scattered throughout the year’s bounty of nettles, dandelions, violets (the leaves, mainly), chives, ramp, daylilies, dock, bedstraw (not much; harvesting it is a chore), japanese knotweed shoots (get them early), watercress; and I’m sure I’ve left some out. All are either in my yard or within a 10-minute walk of my house.

To cook? Well, you just make your pot of soup or stew (more later on how to freeze taters, squash, carrots, sweet corn, etc.). Once it’s pretty much ready you just get a scoopful of crushed greens from your freezer and drop them in. If the soup’s really hot I’ll just turn off the flame then; the greens cool it as they cook. Or let it simmer a few more minutes if that cooling-cooking routine makes you nervous.

The important thing? Don’t let your greens thaw before you dump them in the pot. They’ll turn into an unappetizing black mush that even I might hesitate to eat.

Well, there’s more I could say. I could extol the virtues of nettles. And of poke; it should be poking up any day. When to pick dandelions. But those will have to wait.

i swerve for deer

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I swerve for deer.

I swerve for deer

photo courtesy Ted Jones

Actually, I don’t. But truth be told, I haven’t been tested.

Though every couple of days another dead deer hits the shoulder along the 10-mile stretch between my place and town, when deer leap into the road ahead of me I’ve always had time enough to brake without putting myself into a tailspin.The other thing that helps? I just don’t have nearly as many opportunities for as most drivers do; I take the bus to town most days. (I probably should credit TCAT for my great driving record.) So anyway, it’s a half-mile walk downhill from my place to the trailer park where the bus turns around—and just a few days ago I saw right off I see this blue car rear-ended into a tree. No one there and a shaky note scrawled on a scrap of cardboard under the windshield wiper: swerved to miss a deer and crashed, will pay 4 fence, along with a phone number.

Most of us instinctively swerve when a deer, dog, or squirrel bounds into the road. Who wants to maim Bambi or some kid’s pet? I met someone once who as a 20-year-old wrapped around a tree to keep from hitting a black lab and she’s still in that wheelchair two decades later; she can even talk now, sort of. I’ve rehearsed the mantra don’t swerve, don’t swerve, don’t … often enough with every bloody roadkilled critter I see that who knows, I might—might—do the rational thing some night when it’s right there and I’m out of other options., with precious little time to double-check for oncoming traffic, for loose gravel, soft shoulders, steep ditches or big trees, brake as hard as conditions allow … and then swerve if I can.True, some animals you don’t want to hit. Horses. Cows. Moose. Bears. Animals that weigh half as much as your car; that pack a wallop when they fly through the windshield and into your lap. But do you really want to go head-to-head with that milk truck in the other lane either?

But while the occasional bear, horse, or car (and highly unoccasional moose) wanders onto the highways here in the Finger Lakes at dawn or dusk—the worst time for vehicular encounters with wildlife—a day hardly goes by that you don’t see deer.

Learn more:

http://blogs.northjersey.com/blogs/roadwarrior/comments/See_a_deer_Dont_swerve_to_avoid_it/

http://www.cultureofsafety.com/safety-tips/deer-vs-car-collisions/

… and about those moose: http://www.theheartofnewengland.com/lifeinnewengland/Tips/moose-driving-tips.html

homegrown 若い生姜

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Salsa, jalapeños, curry—if it’s hot, I can’t hack it. But there’s something about ginger. Crystallized ginger, that is—which zings even as it zaps. Now specialty farmers (think organic, locavore) in the Northeast are growing ginger in hoop houses. I could grow it myself, and maybe someday I will.

So naturally I thought, how marvelous … I can make crystallized ginger in the comfort of my home. But when I googled a recipe … well, about those glittery shards of turbinado sugar coating each half-inch cube of ginger in the bin at my local market … I bet even the natural-foods version of the crystallized ginger I buy has way more sugar in it than I really oughta be eating. So it’s got to go.

Just in time to keep hope alive, a friend gave me a half-pint of pickled ginger, homegrown here in the Finger Lakes by Melissa Madden and Garrett Miller on Hickok Road in Interlaken. Of course, even when hoop-house grown, you’ve got to harvest northern-grown ginger early (hence 若い生姜, or “young ginger”). Google tells me young ginger is milder than fully mature ginger, but my relish  has a bit of a kick. Just right if you ask me; depending on the batch, crystallized ginger can almost put me over the edge. Meanwhile, 若い生姜  comes without that rough, scabby skin or those coarse fibers running through the roots—a major plus in my book.

Good work, Melissa and Garrett. I’ll have more to say about M and G at Good Life Farm as this year’s crop takes root.

Years ago I stuck a chunk of ginger root in a clay pot and ... well, I don't remember quite what happened except no, I didn't harvest any. So wasn't it something to see this glorious pix of freshly harvested ginger from a farm in the heart of the Finger Lakes? Keep it up, guys. (Photo credit Melissa Madden.)

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