Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Prodigal Chicken

     Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to the little country store in McDowell and discovered one of our red hens preparing to make a purchase. She was perched on the edge of the concrete step, perhaps considering what type of butter to buy for her bread, but when she saw me hop out of the car, she skedaddled. Zigging and zagging, that sassy clucker dodged under a truck and when I went left, she went right. We continued this game of tag for ten minutes while the two old farmers loafing on the edge of the porch watched and laughed. Finally, they sauntered over and all of us flapped our arms and feinted left and right until we had her headed in the general direction of the farm.
     The farmers turned the chicken herding job back over to me and I followed the little red hen back down the road to the driveway that leads to our barnyard. But instead of turning left and joining her flock mates, that little feathered fiend continued straight across the pedestrian bridge and into the construction zone on the main road. I chased her until she ducked under a trailer and then gave up.
     A hard-hatted worker strolled up and asked why I was chasing their pet chicken around. It turns out they’ve been feeding her breakfast, lunch and supper. Biscuits, sandwich crusts and small treats three times daily are far better fare than she gets in the henhouse. My chicken on the lam is living high on the hog. The worst part is that, apparently, she brought a friend to dinner yesterday. At this rate, In three more weeks, my barnyard will be bereft of cluckers and the men on the construction crew will be tripping over chickens. It would serve them right for harboring fugitives.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Selling Chickens

     Yesterday morning, Joe and I went to the chicken house early and separated out twenty hens to take to market. It’s a task neither of us relished but culling a herd or flock is part of living on a farm. These twenty girls had simply aged out of our egg production program. Young hens lay an average of an egg every 26 hours, but at two or three years of age, their ovaries slow down. Our customers expect eggs every week, so we bought some younger chickens. Feeding the non-productive hens was too expensive, so with heavy hearts we gathered up the old girls and placed them in crates. We lined the van with a tarp and then placed the crates in the back.
     Joe had heard about a once-a-month chicken sale held in a parking lot on the edge of the city five mountains away. On this gravelly acre, chicken farmers gather with crates of birds to sell to any takers. In our area, those takers are usually Mexican or Russian families who buy the birds to butcher, or back yard farmers who buy the birds to take home. When we pulled up, the lot was full of vans and trucks. Their hatches were open and cages of birds were stacked up behind them. We parked beside a Ford Explorer. The owners, like us, had elected to transport their birds in their family vehicle, but unlike us, they had no tarp under their cages. The back was covered in chicken crap.
     We pulled out our old-fashioned wooden crates and waited for customers. We soon discovered that most of the buyers had come and gone. Apparently, immigrant families rise at the crack of dawn to shop. The day was chilly and we blew on our fingers and stomped and then wandered around to inspect the other birds. On our left, a man was selling roosters. One was a big old New Hampshire doodler who surely could have taken on an eagle and won. The other was a banty, no bigger than a dove. They commenced to crowing when they saw our hens, and what the banty lacked in volume he made up for in shrillness and enthusiasm. I almost bought him just for his cocky attitude and good looks, but then remembered my chicken chasing cat. A bird that small wouldn’t have a chance.
     Finally, a doting father bought one of our hens for his daughter. Then, another man, a backyard farmer, bought nine to take home and release in the woods behind his house. Just when we were ready to pack up the remaining ten girls and take them home, a young boy with his mother and aunt showed up. None of them spoke fluent English and the women wore head scarves. They might have been Indian, but we weren’t sure. We bargained for a while and they agreed to buy the remaining hens. One of the women asked in broken English if she could butcher them on the spot. I nodded squeamishly and watched as the boy opened the trunk of their small passenger car and pulled out a sharp knife and a large plastic pan. Then, unsure that on-the-spot butchering was allowed, they changed their minds. Instead, we found some string and tied the legs of the hens together before tucking them into the trunk of the car. I suspect that the family, who said they lived over thirty minutes away, stopped at the nearest picnic table and completed the job.
     When the last customers drove off, we packed the crates back into our van. Because we had sold all of our birds, we decided to drive on to an orchard where we picked up a bushel of apples. My van now has a distinct bouquet characterized by the earthy odor of chickens overlaid by the acidic notes of ripe apples. Perhaps we can bottle and sell it to those who long to return to a simpler way of life.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bug Busters

    No bug is safe within a hundred yard radius of my home. There are 50 red hens patrolling the grounds and not even the rooster can get their attention. I sat on the rock by the creek today and watched my bug busters ridding the world of red ants, unlucky flies and anything else that was shiny and moved. The hens walked with their eyes on the ground, stopped to stare cross-eyed for a moment then, SNAP, they clicked their beaks down and swallowed. I believe the lack of bugs in my garden this year was partly due to their appetite.
     There are other critters helping out, as well. Yesterday, I caught a praying mantis climbing up the wall of the outbuilding. I usually see at least one or two each fall. This one was a female. The girls are much bigger than the males, which makes romance truly dangerous for the guy. Generally, he is eaten by his wife as soon as the marriage is consumated. Then, still hungry, she starts stalking crickets, spiders, grasshoppers and the occasional moth or butterfly. I have kept mantids as pets in my classroom and it is fun to watch them chow down on grasshoppers. They eat the hoppers the same way that we eat an ear of corn, but they eat their husbands by pulling them over their backs and eating them from stem to stern.
     At night, just when the sky is pale pewter, the bats start to flap and flutter above my yard. If I throw a small gravel up in the air, they will dive at it. I guess for a moment their bat sonar is fooled into thinking each pebble is a big bug feast. Bats catch bugs by scooping them up with their wings and popping them into their mouths. I’ve never seen a bat do this to a rock. The bats always swerve away at the last minute to continue their pursuit of mosquitos and mayflies. I didn’t see as many bats this summer and worry that White Nose Disease has been at work. A single brown nose bat can catch and eat over 600 mosquitos an hour. I hate to think how itchy our world would be without them.
     Three years ago, I walked out into my yard and was surprised to find a network of tunnels zigzagging around from pine tree to porch. Moles or voles, I'm not sure which, had taken up residence. They lived in the yard for two years and then this summer they were gone. So were all the Japanese beetles. I know Japanese beetles pupate underground, because one amazing moonlit night, Scott and I witnessed a whole fleet of them popping out of the ground and taking to the air. I’m fairly certain that when the voles had eaten every last grub, they left for better pickings.
     Several years ago, I read that a big clear plastic Ziploc bag full of water would repel flies. The theory was that the bags of water looked like wasps’ nests to the flies and since wasps eat flies, the buzzy black pests stay away. I went one better. I have a string of round lanterns that really do look like wasps’ nests. I hung them on my front porch and it does seem that the flies have moved away. At least for the last two summers we haven’t spent each evening on the porch waving like beauty queens on parade.
     In spite of all these miraculous, organic bug control methods, my house is still the target of one bug pilgrimage. Ladybugs, the imported nuisance kind, love to winter in every corner of every room of my house and studio. I tried sticky traps on the tops of my windows, but there were so many little ladies crowding the strips that they ended up falling to the sills covered in sticky goop, making it that much harder to remove them. I was going through two traps per window, per day and still ladybugs were doing low level flybys from my reading lamp to my hair and back. I tried vacuuming them up with a hand vac, but the smell of a thousand lady bugs wafting out the back end of the machine was nauseating. In spite of their name, ladybugs, stink. So, the bug guy is coming to spray next week. Since he started dousing my house with poison, the ladybugs have resorted to dying by the bushel on the front porch. The first big wind of winter sweeps them away. I believe in taking care of the earth and I have been known to carefully juggle a wasp or spider on paper until I could toss it outside. But, sometimes that's not enough.  Sometimes the hens, the bats, the preying mantises , the decoys and relocations don't work. Sometimes, you have to defend your home against invaders.