Where you Goin’, City Boy? (Updated)

I wrote this about a month ago for a guest blog at ‘Back At The Ranch: Adventures in Holistic Living.’ (http://backattheranch.net/where-you-goin-city-boy/) They were kind enough to have me, and kind enough to forgive the doggerel I turned in as finished copy. The 550 word limit seemed daunting at first, but after I edited out all of the inflammatory religious statements, I almost got it.

As I am still struggling to function past the second round of Therapeutic Botox, I’ll share this with you until I can get running again.

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Where you Goin’, City Boy?
A sardonic look at the homesteading craze.


I am still amazed when I can answer someone’s chicken question. For so long, my chicken madness was answered with, “Chicken? There is more than one type?”

Despite my deep family roots in the Amish Community, as a child, I visited the family farm exactly once. Farming was something that I knew people were doing, but as a child growing up in the Greater Cleveland area, it was an abstract concept at best. It was an odd disconnect, in a farming state in the Midwest, but I always said that Cleveland wasn’t really in Ohio. It is in its own State, somewhere between Confusion and Denial.

In 2010, we watched ‘Food Inc.’ and got the farming bug. Always having an interest in Ornithology, naturally I gravitated toward chickens. Impatient to begin, we crammed for the test, found a spot and got started.

Having been a theater carpenter with the Union, I was quite proud of my coop, ‘Hacienda del Chicken.’ Built of found materials, I understood well the mechanics of getting a wall to stand up on it’s own, even in a microburst, while artfully repurposed Ocotillo branches gave the whole thing a rustic feel.

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It was obvious that we had no idea what we were doing. So impatient and dismissive of what should be a simple task, we backed ourselves into a corner more and more as we jumped to correct for unforeseen events and circumstances.

Anyone who says they are raising chicks in the bathtub is headed to a dander nightmare of epic proportions.

”Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you.” –Sam Elliot as ‘The Stranger,’ The Big Lembowski (1998)

You eventually have to realize your limitations and account for them. Years later, I still don’t know what I am doing, but I am always happy to answer questions. I was once asked by the city’s Botanical Garden to give a presentation to the society ladies about backyard chickens. I harped so hard on Biosecurity that no one in that room made plans for chickens. I had not meant to be gloom and doom, but to skip things like ‘buckets of poo’ is the disingenuity that results in a world where the Humane Society have added chickens to the adoption roster.

On the other end of the Greenhorn Spectrum is my cousin, and he really is my hero. Not only is he ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World,’ he also leads a life some would call charmed if they didn’t know the work he put into it. Despite his city-rearing handicap, his homestead in the mountains of California looks like the brochure for the coolest summer camp ever: lush gardens, towering trees, daily kayaking.

Though I have been trying for years to get the man on the Food Network, he is satisfied to be ‘just’ a Master Chef. He once made whiskey sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving, and I still like to recall them fondly five years later.

Despite this expertise, mishaps will happen. While cooking at home, there was a fire. With reactions honed in years of professional kitchens, my cousin sprang into action with the nearest fire extinguisher and sprayed it liberally until the fire was out.

(* Note to Manufacturers: Bear Mace looks a lot like a Fire Extinguisher, and doesn’t put out a fire very well unless you use the whole can.)

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(Update!) He’s a good-natured guy and took my ribbing in stride. I can only dream about doing as well as he does, but I didn’t tell him that I was immortalizing his moment of humanity in digital form. He now has three of these, which I imagine will still work better on a bear than bear mace works on a fire.
not bear macemostinteresting

 

 

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The Joy in Genetics

(This section on chicken genetics and behaviors is a continuation of ‘Fowl Dukkha Revealed.’) 

When I open the coop in the morning, Big Red Oedipus, the Auburn Rooster, hits the door ready to fight.  Puffed up to twice his size like a cloud of red fire, he makes a bee line for the pasture fence and squeezes his bulk, real and for show, through a tiny hole like a cartoon character, and he is gone.

The Rooster is quickly joined by an adolescent flock that is nearly half roosters. The plan for genetic dispersal has taken on a different approach due to the neighbor’s new rooster.

The Rooster is not so selfless. Due to predation and emergency sales, Big Red’s harem is below optimum level. For a happy, satisfied rooster, you have to have at least 12 hens. If you have at least 12 per rooster, you can (usually) keep more than one rooster with little fuss.

The rooster nearby has a weak, young crow; a little strangled. Based on this, Red knows that he can take this rooster. He is leading his adolescent chicks on a raid. The basic idea is that Red will be able to diversify his genetic contribution over a wider genetic base while also possibly providing his progeny a chance to begin their own flocks with outside material.

Really, he doesn’t care. He just has to kill this rooster.

I chase them back into the pasture with dirt clods in the branches of a nearby tree and mend the outer fence. The lesson of Animal Domestication is that you subvert natural behaviors for personal benefit.

Hatch D

Hatch D

This clutch of chicks represents the first blocks of a breed I am trying to create. As far as I can guess at this point, two are half Ancona (See my earlier blog-post where I wax poetic about this breed), two are Dark Cornish and the final three are Easter Eggers (which should lay blue to green eggs). Against the backdrop of an Auburn Java, any one of these could be the start of a new breed.

I know that this sounds like mad science, and at some level, it is. I have a lot of respect for a farmer named Joel Salatin. I had spent years studying breeds and picking the heritage breeds that would work best in the desert, when I happened across an article he wrote for a giveaway copy of Acres USA. In the article, he explains that breed maintenance is not nearly as important as genetic diversity. The breeds, when considered, developed in the places they were originally found for thousands of years of domestication. Until the breed standardization of the early 19th Century, farmers in an unbroken chain had simply been building their flocks, new hens added from whatever sources were available, and each breed was a genetic flock that streamlined for the environment it developed in.

This profoundly changed how I was looking at my desert chicken project. It is difficult to find birds that excel in this extreme subtropical desert environment, but they do exist. Most of them are egg breeds, the conservation of resources being a plus. An egger-breed won’t eat nearly as much as a meat breed because they are not putting on bulk. One of the breeds is legendary, the Lamona, and if anyone is breeding those, they are keeping their cards close to their vests. The next might as well be legendary for all the luck I have had in locating them, the Catalana.

“W.W.J.S.D.?” What Would Joel Salatin Do? © ….He’d make his own dang breed. To do that, I have heard that he mixes three different breeds, one of which is the Blue Andalusian. Since he does this in cycles, the industry cannot seem to keep up with his orders of 16,000 birds.

Strange that his actions would cause a threat to the continuance of a heritage breed.  He was seeking a replacement breed the last I heard.

My goal is an egger body shape, made large like an anti-bantam. Canny and quick, the bird has to be alert to predators while also being an active forager in a desert environment. I am also attempting to breed in a high disease tolerance, moderate egg production and and meaty carcass.

If I can give them plumage that looks like a smoky fire, all the better. So, I wonder what would happen if I took the hens from Hatch D and paired them against a Blue and White Polish?

Muhahahaha!

The Marquis, Marquis Mark is a Blue and White Polish. #silkieville

The Marquis, Marquis Mark is a Blue and White Polish. #silkieville

I can see the farmer’s general acceptance of genetic modification because they have always done this on a much lower scale. Agriculture, itself, subverts the Natural Order for the sake of convenience. Changes are introduced which cause bounty or ruin, but the end result is something that can excel in the environment it is in, because any that couldn’t cut it have long since died off. Yet, the end result is still artificial because it is built upon human intervention and general maintenance.

Like a prize rose has to be grafted to a wild rose’s root, the genetic diversity comes from the pure breeds, the the evolution comes from the cross breeds. In the Monoculture of Big Ag, the entire system rests on a few specific strains on DNA, which is a dangerous thing to the survival of the whole. At this time, there is a need for people to maintain the heritage breeds in preparation for this eventuality, yet there is a place for mixing at the edges, too.

In Chile, there is a breed of chicken we call the Araucana or the South American Rumpless. They have cheek puffs and lay blue eggs due to a DNA rotovirus that happened early in the line’s establishment. This natural GMO founded the Ameraucana, and its DNA spreads out to Easter Eggers. They are also known to be quite docile, which is not exactly the mark of intelligence. Oddly, the cheek puffs are known to be a lethal gene that lowers the hatch rate significantly.

There is a legend among the Chilean farmers that raising and maintaining these birds is a punishment from the Gods for subverting the natural order. I like that, when the Divine takes an active interest in our stewardship of the environment.

Mankind has been rough on this planet. So many unique things have disappeared under our consuming grasp.

Moa Mock Hunt

When you’re talking about the largest bird in existence, it is really a toss-up between the Elephant Bird and the Moa.

The Elephant Bird was most likely the inspiration for Marco Polo’s Roc, it stood 10 feet tall (3M) and weighed 880 lbs. (400 kg). It had gone completely extinct in the 17th Century due to human encroachment (this time, the French), over-hunting and secondary disease brought by chickens that someone thought they might need in the land of Giant Chickens.

The other was the Moa, towering at 12-13 feet tall (3.6 m), but only weighed 550 lbs (230 kg). It once thrived in New Zealand in many varieties. There was actually a predator for these things, the massive Haast’s Eagle, the largest Eagle ever to have been known to exist. The Māori arrived in 1300 AD and the Moa population was extinct by 1400 AD, though still remembered in Māori legend.

It staggers the imagination to think that, with proper management of a uniqueness in the world, we might have been selling chicken thighs like sides of beef.

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As always, some wiki:
Elephant Bird: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_bird
Moa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moa
and the Blue Egg Laying Araucana: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Araucana

For the wide diversity in the bird world, check out http://www.birdsofafeather.ca/about-bird-species

Please donate to our Brain Surgery Recovery Fundraiser: http://www.gofundme.com/likeaholeinthehead

Fowl Dukkha Revealed

Despite my pain and musings on the divine, I am still just a simple farmer. If I wanted to pontificate at large on the nature of the Universe, I should have been a minister or a scientist, but there were hindrances to my development in either.

Now, as you have seen, I still dabble a little in the Bible, but I also dabble a lot in science. When you own chickens, you are partaking in one of Mankind’s oldest experiments, Animal Domestication: If I am nice to it, will it hold still enough for me to eat it? The history I have heard, they can trace the domestication of chicken to China about 3000 years ago. You’d think that it would have started sooner, but perhaps the dogs we had co-evolved with for 9000 years before that kept scaring them off.

When I first started talking chickens at people, they always seemed surprised that there was more than one type of chicken. Even people who kept chickens seemed to have limited knowledge. I once had an industrial farmer try to strike up a ‘heard you like chickens’ talk with me. ‘I had chickens. 40,000 of them,’ he said with pride. When I asked him what kinds, he seemed confused for a moment. “Dunno,” he said. “White Ones?” McDonald’s had needed a lot of eggs, and KFC a lot of chicken, and he had stepped up to the task, salting the farmland around him with liquid manure until the EPA had shut him down.

Despite the wide variety of chicken breeds, all chickens, with a few exceptions, are descendant from the Red Jungle fowl. There, literally, is one branch on the chicken tree. Now, this is not odd in domestication genetics. I remember reading that they had chased the Blue Eye gene back to one family, a generalized mutation. This would mean that all blue eyed people are related, like distant cousins, though thousands of generations removed. Not sure if that one is true, but it follows what I have learned on the farm.

I have learned a lot from Big Red Oed. When we hatched him from fertile eggs I picked up from Riverwalk Farm, I had asked for ‘whatever she had available’ so I figured that I was getting cross breeds. I was calling him a RIR mix, and when he was about two, it was confided that we were in possession of a rare Auburn Java.

The Java is not just a very old breed and the base root on many other breeds, but it is also the first breed developed in the US from Asian chickens of unknown origin off of an island in Java sometime before 1835. This was an odd time in the birding world as they had recently realized the the Great Auk had nearly died out. The Great Auk was an important food source around the Atlantic, a wild caught chicken dinner penguin that an old lady with a cane could run down. Eventually, demand for their feathers drove them to extinction. The very last recorded capture of a Great Auk tells us that the last of the might penguin hunters later clubbed the bird to death when they decided that it was a witch.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_auk#Extinction)

The Preservation movement started then, when people realized that uniqueness was leaving the world and that we were responsible. Being a more agricultural society then, it became the project of many farmers to identify their birds, record traits and trace shipment histories for the origins. The competition became fierce as the fairs had people for miles around trying to breed the most perfect genetic representation of a specimen.

The Java was first mentioned in print in 1835, providing the base stock for various mutations kindly referred to as breeds. Jersey Giant and the Plymouth Rock both hail from Java stock. The standard was set for breeds in 1883, covering Black, White and Mottled Javas. In 1910, the White was removed from the standard as being too similar to the White Plymouth Rock, and the line died out by the 50’s. I have heard one breeder claim that White was still possible in a proper mixing of genetics, with a yard full of white Javas, but I was never sure until Big Red Oed.

The Finest rooster in existence. This is the Auburn Java.

The Finest rooster in existence. This is the Auburn Java.

Auburn Java genetics is still present in the Black Java line and will occasionally produce a throwback. My rooster is a representative of a breed of chickens thought to have died out in the 1870’s after founding the Rhode Island Red breed. Throwback genetics can be odd, though. Despite his deep red plumage, he still throws chicks at a 50% ration to Black. With no Auburn Java females, there is nothing to strengthen the red in the offspring. About ten percent of the time, he’ll give a red offspring, the others get a mottled fire red and black that is just as stunning.

The problem is that, no matter how beautiful the bird, each of the breeds are a controlled evolutionary experiment from a specific time and place. Sometimes you can get that to work where you are, sometimes you win, when a thing out of place thrives where it is not supposed to, and sometimes that thing that you have placed in this environment cannot survive and it dies.

With my core flock, I don’t have to wonder if they can cut it in the desert, because I had a pretty heavy predation issue in this area, a few times. The main culprit were two packs of pet dogs, each lead by a little dog. In one case, it was a chihuahua and the other a shih-tzu. Each of the packs also had the big bruiser that can tear chain-link. The big guy would tear a hole and the little one would dive in and chase the chickens to the snarling jaws of the dogs sticking their heads through the hole.

An Auburn Java/Silkie Mix Rooster

An Auburn Java/Silkie Mix Rooster

You read that right. An Auburn Java-Silkie Rooster. Never saw them do it, but they apparently did quite regularly. The picture doesn’t do him justice. The darks are a smokey grey and the red flashed in the sun. His big red walnut comb looked like a fire hat, so we called him Fire Marshal Bill, or ‘Marshal’ for short. I was arranging hens to breed him against when I caught the dogs that killed them, which is how I know how the attack worked. At this point, I had lost 20 birds.

Yet the others survived, and this not only proved that they were the best choice for this environment, but we lost so many due to basic generational hierarchy. During a rather large, but controlled hatch, the Silkie who had disappeared for nearly a month returned from a secret nest in the undergrowth with 15 chicks. Our chicken math was thrown off kilter, and, as we tried to account for this many more birds, they began sleeping in the trees. Red was keeping the adolescent chicks out of the coop to maintain his genetic base. With in a week, the problem took care of itself.

Hatch D

Hatch D

This is the new batch.

On the next post, I’ll go into genetic plan breeding and interesting behaviors. Check out https://grimmjest.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/the-joy-in-genetics/

Check out our Fundraiser and thanks for reading.
http://silkieville.wordpress.com/2014/05/17/the-adopt-a-silkie-program-whats-it-about/

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Glimmers on the Horizon

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I was having trouble finding just the right farm hat without paying an arm and a leg. Not that I am adverse to quality, but in Arizona, we have ‘sun’ like nothing you have ever experienced. Being a Subtropical Desert (Zone 9a on the USDA charts) we are much closer to Equatorial sunshine than anything short of the Florida Keys, but it’s a Dry heat.

Those Amish-kin with Ginger traits MUST HAVE A HAT AT ALL TIMES.

This hat is the Honorary Irish Rogue hat Kroger stores were offering for St. Patrick’s Day 2014.  Those that know me know that I, for reasons that have to do with being greatly displaced from my homeland, have designated ‘The Green Parade’ as a family tradition. We aren’t Irish, nor Catholic (obviously), but, after attending the our first in 2008 and being the only Gingers in attendance, I decided that it was something of a Civic Duty to attend.

Those that know me, as well, know that I am a cheap S.O.B. and that I didn’t wear this hat this year. I wore a green plaid round cap that had been discounted from the year previous. I did see this hat before St. Patrick’s, and ‘found meself sorely tempted’ (Did you read that in my bad Irish accent? You were supposed to), but I held off until I found it in the discount bin a few weeks later.

The center of the badge is where it proclaimed The Day, in the hopes that you would buy a well-made hat for use on just one day before discarding it. Tempting, as I could probably get decades of St. Patrick’s Day Parades out of this hat, but as I said, I needed a new farm hat. Here is #3 from last year, which handled about 3 months of straight desert chicken care in the sun:

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It had looked new when I bought it before leaving Cleveland. It was, of course, in a discount bin, too, because there is no shortage of Cleveland Indians hats in Cleveland, so the value on a free ‘Stuckie’s Ice Cream Night Stadium Promotion Hat’ is rather low. The Logo looks faded because such casual racism, while being OK in the microcosm of Ohio, doesn’t fly well with the Local Natives who have always been nothing but kind to the White Man who shoved his way in and dirtied the place up. I would regularly black the logo completely out with a Sharpie Marker.

The new logo I placed  on the hat is strangely fitting, though that was unintentional. It is originally from a hat that must have started life as Logo Practice Sheet at an embroidery shop. It had a logo I can only describe in order: “Flying Sacred Heart of Jesus Tres Equies Tequila.”  The ‘Tres Equies’ looked like the title screen from a Vin Diesel movie. It made absolutely no sense and it was awesome.

It was the hat I wore back when ‘Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.’  Kurt VonnegutSlaughterhouse-Five

In those days, I was a warehouse manager for a now-defunct Decor company, Don Yunker Design (RIP), doing a stressful but magical job with an amazing set of God’s original prototypes. My stressful boring bullshit made for more amusing recounting than yours.

“Where the hell is the Buddha Statue? I’m late.”

“I am pretty sure I can fit the third totem pole in this truck if we only move mountains to the other one.”

“Why are there going to be pink flamingos with the cowboy town?”

When your stress is pink flamingos, it is hard to take seriously, and ultimately, I believe, that was my downfall. It was long ago and far away, and I was already fleeing ahead of the pain back then. It just hadn’t caught me yet.

The hat was disgustingly crusty by the time it retired, but I saved this piece of it, The Flying Sacred Heart. It isn’t part of my iconory, and yet it is. To me, this is the logo of a time when I was happy and productive, and afixed to the hat, it looks like a Flogging Molly Song. I wonder if that will be enough to get the magic to work again. I have got a lot to do on a time frame, and I don’t have time for the pain.

(Sorry about the shakiness of the photos. Today was a very bad pain day. I have high hopes for my second Theraputic Botox on the 29th, but it is still a daunting thing.)

I wanted to take a moment and thank a few people.

This morning, we discovered that my wife’s participation in an Ultimate Homemaking Bundle contest had earned us a prize pack of books and materials valued at $700. I don’t know if I am supposed to, but I’ll be writing reviews of some of the materials here. I am very excited, as I am in desperate need of the entire homeschooling section. The rest made it like Christmas Morning! (http://ultimate-bundles.com/)

We were selected by the Teaching Mama to receive this prize, perhaps based on our recent Online Schooling woes. If you could, hop on over and thank her for me. (https://www.facebook.com/teachingmamablog)

I also need to give a massive THANK YOU to my favorite Sister-In-Law, Melissa Rich. My wife left for a much needed spa day, and came back with a lot of hope. That was a huge miracle and I don’t know how I can thank you.

Things are moving forward and looking up! Excelsior!

Breed in Focus – The Ancona

I’ll tell you all about my current obsession, The Ancona Chicken. (Gallus gallus domesticus)

(To all of the World of Warcraft people who accidentally got redirected to this blog, this is not “The Ancona Chicken” you are looking for. Now, go outside and don’t come back in until the street lights come on.)

savage henry

The Ancona Chicken is a stunning Mediterranean breed with mottled feathers, black with white tips. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Mottled Leghorn,’  this is a separate breed with its own bloodline.

When a breed is established and standardized, it will, traditionally (though this is not always the case, especially with “Ornamental breeds”) will be named for a city nearby.  Ancona is a city in central Italy, originally established by the Greeks in 387 BC. That should give you an idea how deep this bloodline goes. When chickens were first brought to this area, Plato was teaching Aristotle at the Platonic Academy.

H. C. Sheppard

H. C. Sheppard

The standardization of this breed dates to the 19th Century. They were first shipped to the United States in 1888. H. Cecil Sheppard of my hometown, Berea, OH imported Anconas in 1906 and quickly became a major player in this popular breed with a rather sizable farm. If you are wondering where the farm is these days, it is called the Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

From the book "A Little Journey Among Anconas" by J. Cecil Sheppard, 1922  (Special thanks to Google for digitizing)

From the book “A Little Journey Among Anconas” by J. Cecil Sheppard, 1922
(Special thanks to Google for digitizing)

We ordered our start, 25 hens from Murray McMurray Hatchery since Sheppard is out of business. The problem with starting a show flock is that you have to start it with show birds, and try to maintain the breed. Getting substandard birds and trying to breed them up to show quality is difficult and time consuming. I discovered that the Ancona was the perfect way to test a breed store’s knowledge, as well. If you ask about an Ancona and they keep trying to correct you to Ameraucana, they don’t know anything about chickens.

Since I was introducing this breed to the area, I got the purest strains I could, and ordered 25 hens. There is a method to this madness. As any chicken farmer can tell you, every hatchery has ‘Chicken Sexers’ and they are actually paid quite well. That’s because Sexers can move quickly through a batch of chicks and their services will change your odds of getting all hens from ’50/50′ to ’90/10,’ yet there is no real basis for the science of how it gets that way.

Even with the odds being heavily stacked against getting a rooster, I knew that I still would, and when they grow up together, they get along better.

My original intention was to get 25 chicks and sell half of them, but I discovered very little interest at the time (November), and I was a little nervous in that I am _not_ a chicken sexer, and I didn’t want to hurt my chances  by giving away my rooster.

A culling happened anyway, and it was completely unintentional, but worked out to our advantage. The heater in the brooder box had a thermostat error and went on the fritz. 90° in November is not uncommon in Southern Arizona, but having a heater decide that is too cold is. By the time we discovered it, half of our precious flock was dead.

Yet, half of them were not, despite enduring 125° for a couple of hours. That’s the mark of a good desert chicken.

Anconas are an ‘egger breed,’ and as such, they stay very small and lean, using most of their feed as energy for the egg machine. They lay standard sized white eggs, which were the brown eggs of the early 20th Century (no difference beyond the color of the shell, but people wanted them because they were different than what they were used to), and they lay them in prodigious numbers.

Some chickens are ‘flighty’ in that they go to great lengths to avoid human contact, but Anconas seem to have more of a pheasant-like wariness. They stayed out of my way, but they were not scared of me.

They were also quirky in strange ways. Every night when it was time to coop up, they would line up, with the rooster supervising, and file patiently in.  Feeding time had the feeling of a formal dinner, each chicken taking it’s place and eating in an orderly fashion.

They made up for this by being some of the most talkative and curious breed I have dealt with. As they matured, I realized that I should not have them penned, but having a mixed flock pastured, I didn’t want them to get mixed together. I began putting things into their pen to climb on, just to try to keep them occupied.

The Ancona Rooster stares down a Dark Cornish Hen

The Ancona Rooster stares down a Dark Cornish Hen

My flock’s rooster was Henry, and he immediately excelled at the role. He made sure that treats were distributed evenly as were his attentions. He also had a spectacular crow that sometimes he would start unleashing at 3 in the morning. We began calling him Savage Henry when he began defending his territory from safely inside his pen against all comers, though he remained quite friendly with me.

When my wife’s heath deteriorated, it went quickly. The pain had been with her for about a year and a half, and suddenly we had a brain surgery immediately on the horizon. As I took up more and more slack, my time and ability to care for the chickens quickly disappeared. I ended up selling the flock as a lot at cost or slightly lower and they sold within an hour. You have to do the right thing when your care of your flock becomes you taking the eggs out with a shovel once a week. (That is a hard thing to do, to have to throw away buckets and buckets of eggs because your coop is a mess.)

I miss them. Their enclosure is currently full of Easter Eggers I got on the cheap, and they have no real personality. I did keep one Ancona hen, and now in the mixed flock, she has excelled at free range pasturing. She’s still quick and alert, even with one eye being covered in a ‘comb over.’ Her pattern makes her vanish in the shade of a tree and look spectacular in the sun, which brings out the green beetling of her black feathers.

If I get the chance, I will get the Anconas again when I know that I can keep them exclusively. What a fine bird!

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Added 6/5/2014: Please donate to our Brain Surgery Recovery Fundraiser:http://www.gofundme.com/likeaholeinthehead

Big Red Oedipus

The Big Red Oedipus

The Big Red Oedipus

It suddenly occurred to me that I should probably start talking about agricultural interests. My preaching can get a little heavy handed… That’s why I don’t do it professionally.

We had just completed a Dark Night of the Soul when Farming began calling us. It was a lifeline because we had lost everything. It’s was when you realize that you really didn’t fall _that_ far that it occurs to you that perhaps it is time to try a different course.

We began with a Hobby Farm introduction to chickens, and the research began. My wife and I come from two different types of thought. She is a Valedictorian and I am an Obsessive Dyslexic. As such, we planned tackled the world’s combined knowledge of this feathery breed, much of it contradictory.

Nest egg before eggs in the nest, we moved back to my hometown, Cleveland, on some bad tips… but maybe that’s why you don’t order steak at the International House of Pancakes.

From a crappy long term stay hotel minutes from the airport, we began ordering any farming catalog that would send one to an address next door to The Crazy Horse Gentleman Club.

See? It's still about chickens.

See? It’s still about chickens.

The only person that it was difficult to give directions to was my mother. It had everything to do with a ten foot tall Stallion’s Head with its tongue hanging out, done in pink neon. I could find my house in a whiteout because I just had to follow the glow. Did a couple of times.

We carried chicken catalogs everywhere we went and nattered in anyone’s ear whenever anyone gave us the slightest window to turn the conversation to chickens. We studied constantly, because what else are you going to do in Cleveland in the Winter? …Yeah, we did that, too. Now, with another mouth to feed on it’s-his-her way, our studies took a new urgency.

By this point, we knew we were going back to the desert. No one really escapes. I had heard of an old Indian legend about the mountains around Tucson, that due to their bowl-like circumference of the city, part of your soul stays here, dooming you to return. I told that to one of the Tohono O’odham, and he looked at me like I was sun-touched. He took it well though. The Tohono O’odham have a long history of having to deal with sun-touched Europeans babbling nonsense.

The things is that there is a wealth of knowledge about chickens, but it is woefully lax in the Southwest, and as you can understand, this is a very real concern. Summers start in March and hit 100°F fairly quickly. We get 12 inches of rain a year, and it still causes flash flooding because the top soil here is only a few inches deep before turning to natural concrete.  After two years of research, we developed a list. Our tester breeds identified, we found a place and set up shop.

Now, a word of warning to the wise…. If you have a game plan, stick to it. This does not mean that there should not be an allowance for chaos.

We saw an ad with everything we needed to set up a tractor, plus all the extras, feed and two hens named Betty and Cornelia for some third the value. Normally, I would recommend trepidation when getting someone else’s chickens. Illness, too old, cannibal… the list is rather extensive, the problems you might inherit when you take one someone’s bird, especially on the cheap.

I arrived to find a young, disinterested professional gentleman who owns a solar panel installation service, slicker than owl turds. Someone had tried his hand at a little green-washing and found it not to his tastes. So I collected his entire lacquered deco-chicken tractor, his feed in pool chlorine buckets and two hens used to having to fend for themselves.

Corny, the Dark Cornish

Corny, the Dark Cornish

I put them in what, I eventually found out, was Chicken ‘Nam, and they were happy anyway. When one, the Dark Cornish that we called Corny, went broody, we got them a succession of roosters and learned a valuable lesson in Chicken Romanticism. Namely, that the duplicitous nature of the Female boils down to the fact that they have minds of their own and do as they please, just like everyone else.

Eventually, we settled on getting fertile eggs from a local, established farm. We figured that even a breed that is not supposed to do well in our brutal summers and bitter warm winters, after a few generations in this place, they would be. We borrowed some local genetics, and we successfully utilized a broody hen, which is the easiest way to make them stop brooding.

The last man standing was Big Red Oed. A Rhode Island Red that, I think, has a touch of Black Java. (*Edit: It has been established that he is an Auburn Java) Awash in flaming red feathers, he grew to the proportions of his massive Island kin. Tempered in the fires of a desert summer, he grew up hearing the coyotes right outside and a speedy feathery death from above.

(Also silly packs of domesticated dogs that always, inevitably, included a Chihuahua. Each pack is a psychic penalty for the hubris of my youth. As a young man, I would loudly proclaim that Chihuahuas had been bred for show, and that you’d never see a feral pack of them taking down a cow on the Discovery Channel. It turns out that these little [expletives] are quite adept as killing and survival.)

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Big Red was a warrior, and he needed more of a name. I had already had a Big Red rooster before, so this one needed something to distinguish him. Something Roman and powerful, like 300 and Gladiator were put in a blender powered by War and eaten by Lance Armstrong the day before he got caught. He needed a legendary name for his legendary life….

Big Red picked that unfortunate moment to try and get freaky with the hen that hatched him and he’s been Big Red Oedipus ever since…. Or at least, ‘Big Red Oed.’

He doesn’t seem to mind.

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