Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Chicken Adventures

 Warning: This is a long post with images of dead animals (not graphic)

The chicken adventures...where do I start this story?
It all began with a dream I have had since I was a little girl.
My grand-parents had chickens. And I knew that someday, when I grew up, I, too, would have chickens. I didn't know I wanted a farm with lots of animals. That came later. I just knew that I loved the sound the rooster made in the mornings and all through-out the day. I loved the gentle cluck of the hen as she scratched the ground. I loved collecting the eggs and holding and petting the hens.

So when it was the right time in my life, we decided to build a hen house.
I will never forget that late winter. Me and my son did most of the work, digging ditches and pounding nails and putting up wire and tin and siding.

Finally, the big day came and we went to the farm store. We were going to have chickens! The children were so excited. Chickens of our very own, in a pen we had made just for them. The dream was finally coming true and our hearts were happy.

Three days after bringing them home, dogs from a neighboring yard came and killed all of the babies, except for one, which we named Blessing. I was so upset. I had not expected that to happen! 

We fixed the pen even better before going back to the farm store and getting more babies. This time, we got fifteen and with Blessing, we had a total of sixteen babies. They grew up and began laying eggs for us that fall. Now, we could sit back and reap the benefits of all our hard work and patience and collect eggs all winter.

It was not to be. Slowly, the hens began missing. One night, a hen was just gone. We could not find her anywhere. What had happened?

The next night, another was missing.

Some mysterious creature was taking our hens. It was the only explanation. But there were no feathers on the ground, no blood, no signs of distress. We did not have a roof over our chicken run. It was a five foot tall fence outside the hen house. What could possibly get inside and leave no evidence it had been there? We wracked our brains. A fox was not strong enough to lift a hen over the wire. A coyote would only dig, not climb a tall fence. But there was no evidence of digging. We were truly stumped.

We realized that if we didn't close the door to the henhouse early enough, something would get in around dusk.

One evening, before dusk, my son went down the hill to lock the hens up for the night. He couldn't believe his eyes...he saw a cat standing over a chicken. A big cat, he said. When he told me the size and coloring of the cat, I knew then that it was a bobcat. A bobcat? Around here? We'd heard stories of coyote and you can hear them late at night, off in the distance. But a bobcat was unheard of. Needless to say, the cat saw him and ran off into the weeds.

After locking the hens up every night for weeks on end, before dusk...we had no more casualties.  We would let the hens out in the morning and feed them. Eventually, the cat outwitted us again. As we would still be inside doing our morning chores or eating breakfast, the cat would jump the fence and grab a chicken and away it would go. One morning, my son saw the cat jump the corner of the fence with a hen in it's mouth. He chased it on a path near our pond. It dropped the hen and disappeared into the foliage.

We found three dead hens, buried in the brush nearby.

We decided to put a roof on the chicken run. It was hard work, but the roof worked. No more deaths. Sadly, we were down to only four hens. Yes, before it was over with...almost all of our sweet pets had died. I cried at first. That is what a new farm-girl does. She cries when her pets die. But eventually, over time, when there have been so many deaths and you see so many things happen, you stop crying and come to realize that death is part of life. This is farm life. It's not always the lovely image you see or read about in books.

My husband was walking to our bedroom one morning and glanced out the kitchen window. What do you know? A big bobcat was walking around the hen house, sniffing the ground. The roof was on and now she couldn't figure out how to get inside. He ran down the hill and shot at her. She jumped and took off into the brush. For months, it was quiet. No more sightings.

In early spring, we got twelve more chicks. Time to start again.

Several more months went by and one early June morning, a young bobcat got into the pen and killed one of our new hens. 

He had squeezed through the wire but could not get back out. As my son meandered down the hill and went in to check on the hens that morning, he saw them huddled in the corner. He said, "What's the matter with those hens?" and about that time, a bobcat ran in front of him. Surprised, he jumped back and slammed the door.
Moments later, he came barrelling into the house and grabbed his gun. Yes, we killed the bobcat. I hate to take the life of any animal, but we had had enough. We did not want any more hens to die. We had spent so much time, money, effort and energy on having chickens. It seemed our dream was not meant to be. No matter what we did, they always died.

After such loss, we learned what to do and what not to do.
If you ever want hens, a word of advice: Keep them in a pen that is well-built and has no openings or weaknesses in the wood or wire.

Where the wood is weak, dogs can bust it down.
Where there is a small hole, weasels and 'possums can get inside.
If there is no roof, hawks can fly down and grab a hen, bobcats can clear a six foot
tall fence, coyotes can dig under wire, foxes can climb a wire fence with their paws and raccoons can, too!

You will not want your pets to die and you will not want to have to take the life of an animal who is only trying to survive. 

We figured out the story of the bobcat. The first one was a female who was fixing to have a litter. She was hungry and trying to store some food for the winter. When the babies were weaned, one of them came to the hen house for an "easy" meal. This is the one we shot. We have not seen the big bobcat anymore. I am sure she is still out there, along with others. But thankfully, no more have come calling.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Guessing Game

Do you know what this is? I will let you try to guess for several moments before I tell you......

It was so soft and tiny. That is my hand holding it when it was only 3 days old. It weighed about 3 oz. It was hairless and blind.

O.K. do you give up? Or have you guessed a baby bunny? Because that is what it is!

It is so much fun to have baby buns, as we call them. We've never had baby rabbits before this year. Queenie was pregnant for exactly twenty-one days. I knew she was fixing to give birth because she had pulled out all of the fur from her tummy. I had marked the day she was "due" on the calendar and we skipped down the hill to check on her. Lo! and behold, we saw three babies in the nest box.

 a box o' buns...a week old

about four weeks old

But there were eleven babies total! We found out soon enough because several had died. We had to clean out the nest box and put in fresh hay. Slowly, several more babies died. Some were very small and had not been fed properly. One fell out of the box and was trampled. Eventually, eleven babies dwindled down to only four. This is actually not as sad as it may sound. As a first time mom, it was better for Queenie to have less babies to deal with. She was not as over-whelmed as she would've been with eleven. I personally cannot imagine having eleven little babies needing my attention all at once! Oh dear!!
They always have a few "extra" is just nature's way of ensuring that some survive. 

I have always found it fascinating that animals just know what to do. No-one ever tells rabbits to rip out their tummy fur so that their babies will have a soft, safe nest to keep them warm and so that their teats will be exposed and easily found by the new nurslings. ever tells them and yet they figure it out, all on their own. 

 six weeks old

The four who lived are thriving and growing big. They hop and jump and flip through the air. The children like to sit in the rabbit pen with them and pet them and draw pictures of them. They will be finished nursing in just a few short weeks and they will be considered fully grown. It does not take them long to grow up, unlike human boys and girls who stay with their parents for eighteen years or longer.

When they are fully grown, they will look like their this:

Often, wild rabbits on our property come up to the fence where our tame rabbits are and "talk" to them through the wire. I wonder what they are saying?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Animals of Happiness Hill

We have many animals on our farm and are always expanding our horizons with new ideas. Currently, on the farm, we have 6 rabbits. They are mixed breeds. The buck is Sergeant Buckleberry and he is fat and kind. His wife, Queenie Cloverblossom is more slender. She is nursing four babies, mind you! She is very tame, as well and we hold and pet the rabbits every day. They have a small enclosure that was built especially for them, so they can get on the ground every day, eat grasses and clover and hop around and flip through the air, which I am happy to say I see them do quite often!



We have a hog. We have not named the hog. He is just hog. He is so funny. He acts just like a puppy dog. I have come to be very fond of him and his silly antics. He likes to let me scratch him on his head between his ears. One of the most anticipated moments of my day is taking the slop bucket to him. As soon as he sees that white bucket, he starts squealing and snorting, runs to the edge of the fence and shakes his head up and down. I love to see his little tail swirl in circles and wag back and forth, as he happily grunts and sucks down the contents. I don't know why that tickles me so.

hog, when he was little

We currently have 12 hens. We had 16, but slowly, different things have happened to them over the years. In fact, we have had three different "batches" of hens. The "hen adventures", as we will call them are too exciting and thrilling to discuss now. Their story will be saved for another time.

Cotton, one of our many hens

We also have two boer goats. Bonnie Blue is a beautiful, docile goat with blue eyes, who is now a mother. We gave her baby, Silly Billy, away to a friend of ours this year. We milked Bonnie for several months and let me tell you, it was the most delicious milk I have ever tasted! Bonnie's sister is named Nellie Blythe. She is a brat...we call her "Fatty Bratty" more often than her given name. She is very co-dependent and cannot handle life if Bonnie is not near. She cries for her. Bonnie usually just ignores her and continues feeding and occasionally lets out a little bleat to let Nellie know she is near, even if she's not visible. The goats have a large fenced area and are put to pasture daily.

 Bonnie with Silly Billy


Last, but not least, we have our dog, Tennessee. She is a rescue that I found on the side of the road about 10 years ago. I picked her up and brought her home and she is the best friend I could've ever asked for. A very loving and patient dog, who does not disturb any of the critters on the farm and happily watches all the goings-on at the top of the hill, in the shade of the big Red Oak tree.

Tennessee, our dog

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Happiness Hill is our Farm

We live in a small house on top of a hill.  "We" consists of me, my husband and seven children, ranging in age from 16 years old to 9 months old. Several years ago, our children started calling this place 'Happiness Hill' and it stuck. They had many different places named around our property. There was also 'Thistle Valley', where thistles bloomed bountifully in the low spot between our pond and the neighboring hill. 'Camp Willow' was situated on the banks of the pond itself. Big willows hang out over the water and the leaves glide gently across the surface. Every year, the seedlings from the willows fill the air with puffs of cottony snow, floating about and making everyone sneeze. 

The children used to have a place called 'The Nest'. This was, quite literally, a small "nesting" area they had cleared away at the bottom of the hill, near the run-off drain from the pond. It was only accessible, of course, in summer, when the pond had dried up considerably.  A place they would throw blankets and pillows. We took our nature journals, and sat for hours daydreaming while listening to the birds. We walked to and from the pond up a steep, narrow trail. The youngest were always pretending to be some sort of creature roaming about. The oldest ones would hike their pant legs up around their knees, and like Tom Sawyer, covered in mud and barefoot, they'd travel back and forth all day, to the pond and back down that little trail, with frogs or worms in hand, telling tales about their adventures.

Our silly dog would chase them up the trail and jump into the water, drinking and paddling at the same time. She is a retriever mix but now she is getting rather old and mostly lays about in her doghouse. Those memories are special and have become rather mystical and magical there in the recesses of my mind. We have created more memories and have shared many more adventures here at Happiness Hill. But times have changed.

Today, the place looks quite different than it did back then. Because now, we run a farm. We did not have a farm back in the day, when the children lovingly named everything, everywhere. Today, there is no 'Camp Willow', just the memory of it. There is no 'Thistle Valley', though thistles still grow every year, in various places.