Sunday, March 27, 2011

starting...the blog...not the chickens

Well tomorrow it will be three weeks since the first of the baby chicks arrived in the mail but I am only now finding the time to start the blog suggested by my son at least the family can follow my latest passion.  My daughter Liz chimed in with "mom, you are carrying this empty nest thing a little too far", which was cute, and perhaps true, but a person needs to follow their nose wherever it

back to the chicks...The first 17 came in the mail on March 7th from a hatchery called Murray McMurray, a shared order with my chicken raising mentor Jen.  We pooled our order because of their minimum 25 chick requirement.  My chicks included 5 Dominiques, 5 Partridge Rocks, and 5 Columbian Wyandottes.  All are dual purpose heritage breeds, good as both layers and meat birds, though I have no intention of eating any of these ladies, at least not until they have had a nice long laying life at the farm.  We also received a surprise "rare chick", chosen by the hatchery.  Jen suspected it might be a male and offered it to me because although we ordered all females it might be nice to have one rooster...not sure yet if rare chick is a rooster, or if I even want one, but we shall see.

When Jen arrived at the house with a box she picked up at the post office, wrapped in a blanket and peeping loudly, I was ready.  And so excited.  I had lost at least half a night's sleep on each of the last 5 nights thinking about and reading about chickens.  This so much reminded me of the excitement and anxiety of childbirth.  I hadn't embarked on something so new and unknown for years.  Two days earlier I had been out east on Long Island to a local farm supply store to pick up two feeders, two waterers (1 gallon), two heat lamps, a 50lb bag of organic chick starter/grower feed and a bag of soft wood shavings for bedding.

The box was ready and set up on a side table in the kitchen.  I had put two large uhaul boxes together on their sides and cut openings on the top for viewing, lighting, and access.  I cut the openings on three sides and folded the top down into the box, creating a divider that could be opened later when the chicks needed more space.  As it turned out when the second set of chicks arrived 3 days later I was able to separate the two groups for a few days and let the new little ones get settled before they were introduced to the slightly older and  larger chicks.  That worked out really well.

It is hard now to recreate the excitement of those first days.  But I did spend innumerable hours standing over that box watching them do...well eat and drink and poop.  I had purchased a starter gel from the hatchery and it was supposed to be a first food, used only in the first 6 hours.  Just add water and feed.  Well it may have happened anyway, because it is written about in the chick books, but I had a lot of pasty bottoms, poops stuck to chick vents that just hung there threatening to plug up the little I spent a lot of time the first week , first with a warm wet qtip and later with my fingers, gently wetting and massaging these poops off the little chick butts.  I would definitely not recommend using starter gel to anyone.

But everyone survived those first days.  I did have one little one I named sick chick who several times went into a separate box that I labeled "the infirmary".  It was as if she had cholic, or some intestinal distress...she would cry and lay on her back and stretch out her legs.  When she was down the other chicks would come and while some, those of her breed, would surround her as if to protect her and stand guard, others would take the opportunity to peck at her while she was down.  Hence the separate box.  This would happen for perhaps a half hour once or twice a day for the first 4 or 5 days but now she is fine and I am not certain which one she is though I suspect she is the smallest of my Wyandottes.

I loved having the chicks in my kitchen...I watched them all day long.  I moved my office onto the dining room table and could pop up and take a look whenever I heard an interesting peep.  Which in those first days was almost all of them.  I got very little work done.  And I invited everyone I knew to come visit and many people did.  I also took a lot of photos.  I loved when they would be walking along and then suddenly just flop in place, take a 15 second power nap, and they get back up and continue on.  They would also walk all over each other with absolutely no consideration for disturbing or hurting each other.

But by the end of the first week we had dear friends over for drinks on Sunday afternoon and as we sat and talked my friend Robin felt her head filling up with congestion.  With an open floor plan to our house Steve and I had not noticed the build up of chick dust in the air but a sensitive person certainly could.  Jen had warned me about this but I was in denial.  Sure enough, a dust rag on the dining room table showed a thin film coating everything.  The chicks lasted almost another week in the kitchen before it became impossible to ignore.  We tried moving the box to the mudroom but that was a room with 3 and a half walls and so within hours the smell was strong.  When I returned from the Spring Pot Luck supper at Restoration Farm where I work there was no argument with Steve, my amazingly tolerant supportive husband:  we moved the chicks to the basement storage room immediately.  And immediately started washing any dishes that had been sitting on open shelves in the kitchen.

I miss the chicks.  First, I can go whole days without seeing them except when I go to change their water and feed them in the morning and evening.  They really don't require much in the way of care and they are now out of sight and more often out of mind.  The basement storage room is unheated and now smelly so I don't spend hours by their side.  They also are a bunch of chickens....whenever I walk into the room they all get spooked and run into the far end of the box and it takes 3 or 4 minutes for them to settle down and march back out to the feed and water stations.  So I leave them be more than I used to.

Toward the end of the second week they started with little attempts at flight.  They used the top of the feeder as a jumping off point and would fly for a few inches at a time.  It was time to put a cover or netting on the box to prevent accidents.  Within days the braver, and more dominant ones, were flying up and sitting atop the one gallon waterer.  I wish I could keep track of who did that but I still can not tell them apart.  All together there are seven breeds, the second March 10th batch that I picked up at the farm supply store included 4 Speckled Sussex, 4 New Hampshires, 4 Buff Orpingtons, and 4 black australorps.  And none of them ever stay still for more than a few seconds.  There are 33 of them moving around in a box that now, with the addition of a third box earlier this week (I call it the 3 bedroom condo model), is still only 6' by 2' so it is crowded and busy.  By the end of next week I'll need to move them again to something more spacious.  I am hoping that the mobile coop that my Habitat for Humanity friends are helping build out in the driveway will be ready for them soon.  Moving them out there is also conditional on the weather warming is still only getting into the forties during the day and colder at night.  There is just so much heating 2 or 3 infrared 250 watt bulbs can do.

  The chickens are intended to be workers at Restoration Farm, the organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where I work as a volunteer.  In exchange for their keep we are expecting them to rotate through the fields in their mobile coop, eating bugs and weed seeds and depositing their droppings as fertilizer.  The CSA has 180 member families so we will not be producing eggs for the members but we are hoping to provide for the farmers, Dan Holmes and Caroline Fanning and their daughter Ada and new baby son Kobi, born Friday, March 25th, a day after this picture was taken of Dan, Caroline and Ada coming to visit the baby chicks.

Coop Building Project

The chicken coop building project is going well but like any house building the framing goes fast, the finishing slow.  We have had 4 build days here and I have to thank Tom, Larry, Chris, Ed, Ray, Charlie, Gene, and Mike for their commitment and talent in building a home for the girls.  These friends usually volunteer their time two days a week to building homes for the Nassau County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity.  The affiliate is currently waiting on approval of building permits from the towns of Hempstead and North Hempstead and so the chicks and I are the lucky recipients of their time and talents.  It's a race to see if we can finish the coop before I lose them to their first passion of building homes for low income families in Nassau County.  I have been teasing them that perhaps we can create a Homes For Chickens for profit business to fund our non-profit work.  With backyard chicken raising becoming so popular this could be a really good fundraiser.

So the house we are building is a 6' x8' house on a farm wagon base that can be pulled around the farm by a tractor.  On the front is a small porch to carry feed, supplies and tools.  We are building it in my driveway so that we can use the house on cold winter build days to warm up and because we can have breakfast and lunch in my kitchen.  My critical job in all of this is feeding the crew.  Although I have acquired a modicum of building skills (under close supervision) in my seven years as a Habitat volunteer, my stronger skills are in the kitchen.  The willingness of the crew to come here and work long, cold unpaid days is in no small measure due to the promise of good food.  Some mornings I have to run to the Home Depot for supplies, but everyone knows that by 9am there is hot coffee and bagels in the garage for breakfast.  For lunch there are delicious salads with homemade soup and freshly baked bread.  Deserts are pies with ice cream or freshly whipped cream, and beer is served with lunch for those forswearing power tools for the afternoon.  If the weather ever warms up I have promised a bar-b-q though I am a vegetarian and no one is really looking forward to veggie burgers.  Perhaps the next lunch should be egg salad to inspire the mission.

I have to especially thank our project manager, Tom Bacarella, shown here designing on the fly, based on the list of 25 critically important design elements I have asked him to incorporate into the worlds best egg mobile. There is no way this project could happen without him.

The house is being built in modular fashion so that we can disassemble it and throw it in the backs of all the pickup trucks and then reassemble it at the farm.

The first day the base for house was built on the wagon, the walls constructed and the roof raised.  Amazing progress.

There was even time for the usual horsing around.

Later build days have involved putting in windows and building doors.  There is the front door, for me and all the volunteers that I expect are anxious to help and be a part of the chicken project.  Then there is the pop door for the chickens, a little 1 square foot door with a ramp, for the chickens to enter and exit.  Then there is a rather sizable clean out door on the side of the coop that will allow the droppings under the roosting bars to be easily emptied.  Also part of the design are drop down soffits along both long walls to add much needed ventilation in summer and closed to prevent draftiness in winter.  Behind the openings hardware cloth to keep out predators, particularly at night when no one is at the farm.

As with any building project the extras and what ifs keeps growing.  Should we have a skylight for extra light?  Or will that make the coop too hot in summer?  Electric door (solar powered)  for the chickens, opening and closing on a timer so the farmer (me) can be late on occasion- definitely a must.  

At this stage the coop is nearing completion and remaining projects are the building of the nesting boxes (six in total, 3 over 3) and the roosting bars for sleeping (three 6 ' lengths), installing hardware cloth and other hardware as needed to make the coop secure from predators, and roofing tiles.  One more day here and an assembly day at the farm should do it. 

So at this stage I have a lot of people to thank.  First there is my husband Steve, who only wants me to be happy, never says no to my many adventures and even starts a lot of them for me.  If he hadn't come home from a closing in which one of his clients sold a piece of land to Habitat for Humanity Nassau County and told me he volunteered me to be Treasurer I never would have begun my work with Habitat which has been so rewarding and has brought so many generous and good hearted friends into my life.  And if Steve hadn't come home from a meeting with Ralph, a long time client, to tell me that Ralph's vision was failing and he volunteered me to help planting seeds in his greenhouse, I would not know but a fraction of what I do about growing vegetables and building raised planter boxes and the how to save seeds and so many other things that have led me down the road to farming and most recently chickens.  So really Steve, I owe it all to you.  Thank you sweetheart!

Thank you to Ralph and Susan, who have allowed me to learn about backyard farming as it was done in Italy and still done in a suburban backyard on Long Island.  Your generosity in allowing me into your greenhouse and your yard, teaching me to love persimmons and to sit around a table with you and your sister shelling beans, sharing fresh broccoli raab growing in the greenhouse in March, teaching me how and when to start my seedlings, giving me so many starts, teaching me to dehydrate and preserve the harvest, and so many skills that inspired me to start my own backyard raised bed garden and then, wanting more, to volunteer at one and now a second Organic CSA.  You nurtured a process that has added so much to me life.  There is no way I can ever repay your kindness...although I hope raising a couple of chicks for you is a start.

Thank you to Dan and Caroline, two warm and generous farmers who have attracted to their farm a amazingly fast growing and loyal group of volunteers who share their love of the land and longing for community.  Every day I spend at Restoration farm I feel so fortunate to have found such wonderful people and an opportunity to spend my days doing something truly fulfilling in an environment that is just gorgeous, truly as oasis in Nassau County.  I never imagined I could find this here. And thank you for allowing me to pursue this chicken adventure on your farm...your willingness to support each persons individual dreams within the community is what inspires and draws this lovely energy to you.  Seeing Kobi yesterday brought tears to my eyes...thank you for letting me hold him.  He is even softer than a baby chick and I didn't think that was possible.

Thank you to Jen, my chicken raising mentor, who has allowed me to help her with her flock and learn about chickens, including how to bribe a rooster with oats so I don't get pecked when entering the chicken yard.  I don't think I would have had the courage to do this without her help.  As a person not afraid to jump in she has taught me to leap.  She has generously shared the design of her chicken mobile, the sources of her supplies, her expeience of breeds, and matters of advice great and small.   Juggling her busy life, including a young son, an imminent move out east, her own flock of 30 laying hens, the need to get her own planting done, and raising 40 new chicks in her own brooder, she has patiently born my visits and answered my email queries at 11 pm or 6am as needed.  Thank you so much...I could never have done this without you.

Thanks to the Habitat volunteers who are turning my chicken dream house into reality with each passing week in exchange for what amounts to chicken feed.  Thanks to my friends who have come over to see the chicks and be supportive and drink wine in my smelly kitchen without complaint.  Thanks to my kids for encouraging me and never being embarrassed because I am not like the other moms and rather liking me for that.  Thanks to my mom, Gigi, for sharing her stories of her years growing up on her grandparents chicken farm...maybe that's where this all got never know.

Too sappy...better stop

Speaking of sappy, Roger thinks I should call my blog "The Mother Hen"- what do you all think?

All comments and suggestions welcome
If I have left anyone out I will hopefully fix it next post.

More soon,


  1. Mom, what a great start to both the blog and the chicken raising adventure!! I am so proud of you and know that you inspire me to be brave and daring and to follow my dreams. I love you, you're awesome!
    And by the way, I like Roger's title suggestion!

  2. Donna,

    What an exciting experience for you! At school, we often hatched chicks from eggs we ordered for that purpose, but we never kept the chicks very long. We usually donated them to an organic farm in Suffolk County. I really admire your effort and the work you do at the farm.


  3. Congratulations Donna,
    I remember the excitement and the din of peeping when my first chicks arrived from Murray back in the '70's.
    I am jealous of your new mothering venture and hope to meet the flock someday.
    Fun blog, will you have time when spring finally arrives?

  4. great first post, thanks for taking me up on my suggestion!

  5. Donna ~
    Great blog!
    Great being involved in building the chicken coop!
    Also, let's not forget about all those great lunches!