Coonie! Coonie! Coonie! Alert!

If you ever want to test your mettle as a chicken owner, see what happens when a full-grown raccoon saunters into your backyard while your hens are out grazing. This mother hen? She passed the test.

It all started on another rainy St. Pete day. Gone all day working at a client site, home at dinner time–just early enough to let the hens out for some rain-soaked grazing time in the lush (er–unmowed) backyard grasses. Inside making a delicious pan of garlic smashed redskin potatoes and sautéed asparagus dinner, glass of Chardonnay while I chop away on the cutting board and peer outside with pride at my feathered little harem fluffing it up outside the window, when WHAT to my wandering eyes should see, but a big ole’ coonie comin’ around the corner! Panic! Alert! Sound the chicken alarm! Wait–I don’t have a chicken alarm, I realize, spoonful of potatoes in my mouth, eyes frozen wide in horror, hands on the window pane in clenched, useless emptiness. Wake up out of my heavenly potato-induced reverie, unclench spoon-inhabited mouth and barely hear spoon clatter on counter, and RUN to back door with “no-way-will-you-get-MY-chickens!” jaw set, fling open the back door, trip down the stairs, and run to the garage for the broom.

Meantime, the coonie sees me, takes a detour around the back of the garage, and jets to the side yard in a mad rush. All the while, my four spectacular huntresses stand at raised-giraffe-alert neck and line up in a ready-to-rush-him formation (they probably think it’s a harmless neighbor cat–“Arghh, we’ve seen ‘er kind before!”). I could see Henrietta getting a curious set to her beak (yes, you learn to see things like this)–it was almost a sort of “I can take him” expression–and right before she gathered up her wings to hightail it around the corner after the coon (much like old Gram-mama hiking up her britches for an open-the-can-o-whoopass on the trespassing neighbor’s dog), I reached them and, broom waving wildly over my head, hissed like I’ve never hissed before, driving my now-frenzied flock in a crazy zigzag gallop back to the safety of the run. I don’t think Henrietta or Mabelene have ever seen me like that. The sounds that erupted from my gaping maw were unlike any they’ve ever heard. (Sometimes the unknown works to your advantage.) All four hens flitted and fluttered in a weaving pattern across the lawn and back to the coop, whereupon I slammed the door shut and stood proudly (and a bit out of breath), hand on hip.

By now, the girls were so freaked out (it’s not often that you see a wild bra-less woman with garlic-smashed potatoes on her chin chasing you with a broom) that they hopped around in aimless little circles in their fenced-in run, jumping up on their roosts and talking all about their close call in animated squawks and chirps and clicks. “My gosh, did you SEE her?” “Was that our human caretaker?” “Heavens to Mergatroid, I’ve never been witness to such a spectacle!”

But. They are safe. And as long as I’m in charge and not sleeping at the wheel, they will continue to be so.

Ahh. Perhaps another glass of wine is in order.

Postscript: For the record, I love raccoons. I cherish any sort of wildlife–especially those unfortunate creatures who have managed to carve out a meager lifestyle along with us greedy land-stealing humans. So I wish no harm to raccoons. (Ask anyone who knows me.) But I also have protective priorities, and my pets are at the top of that list. I think the coonie won’t be back for awhile. If the aforementioned image of me with broom held high isn’t tragically seared into its little brain forevermore, I would be surprised.

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Rolling in Eggs

Well, I’ll be egg-bound. Not only have one of my babies started laying, they BOTH laid eggs this morning!

There are those occasionally raucous days of incessant squawking and overly hormonal bickering between the hens that tries one’s patience. Today was one of them. Hens in and out of the nesting boxes. Hens outside squawking and hollering because someone else is in the nesting box. Hens standing on my back porch steps yelling inside–really, literally, THROUGH the door, clearly directed at me–for God-knows-what. I go outside, flush them off the steps. Go back inside. Wonder why I ever decided to get four hens. Four LOUD hens. (Yes, the babies have found their voices.) a few minutes later, Goldie is out in the backyard BOK-BOK-BOKing at the top of her voice. I go back outside, grab the broom (anyone with chickens knows this is just about the only backyard implement you need on those unbearable days), chase her back into the coop with Marge and close the door. Now everyone is mad because they’re all closed-up. Go back inside and consider converting away from vegetarianism.

And then, a few moments later, silence. Blessed silence. I head back outside an hour later to release the Krakons from their cages. First, the babies–after a cursory look into the still-empty nesting box (even though Mabelene has been laying in there for over an hour). After they scuttle out, I let the big gals out of their run, and just as I walk back over to the back door, a gift on the ground: a perfect green egg, still wet from exiting Mabelene’s little fluffed-up body. The answer to yesterday’s question of who left the mystery eggs under the porch! Our little crippled-toe, emaciated-looking hen Mabelene! So I did what any mother would do: grabbed my camera and snatched up a shot (see below). So the divine Miss M is laying! Delightful. She just needs to work on her timing. And placement.

Not even an hour later, Marge is huddled up inside the nesting box. There is the unmistakable sound of an egg dropping to the box floor. Score! And before she can even waddle back into the yard to join Goldie on a bug hunt, Henrietta disappears into the box. Hm. Is she copying Marge, or even Mabelene? Jealous of Mabelene’s recent beautifully deposited green orb of deliciousness? I go about my business of drinking coffee and reading the Sunday paper. After Henrietta takes her leave, I head out to grab Marge’s egg from the box and–wonder of wonders–there’s a green egg right beside it! Henrietta, you sneaky little devil.

As I write this, Goldie is now taking her turn. When she drops hers and waddles outside to announce it to the world, it will be, finally, officially, a FOUR-egg day at the City Hen. My life is complete; haa.

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Precious Greenies

I would have them on a train, I would have them on a plane. I would keep them from a mouse, I would find them under my house. And under the house is where I found two perfect green eggs.

Mabelene? Who’d-a-thunk she would start dropping eggs before Henrietta? At least, I’m assuming it’s Mabelene, since she’s been the one spending the most time in the coop lately. But wait–Henrietta was huddled up in the coop several days ago, as well. So now I’m thoroughly confused. Regardless of which little hen it dropped out of, consider me an incredibly proud mother hen whose chest feathers are simply a-swollen with pride.

Now the problem: the choice of laying location. Under the house. I only stumbled upon the first egg since I was sweeping under the back stairs and noticed something pastel-green out of the corner of my eye. An egg! After a squat-and-peer session under the back porch (carefully avoiding possible chicken bombs in the grass near my hands) I spotted egg number two. Out of my reach. Of course. Grabbed a rake and attempted to roll it out from under there, retrieving several other surprise items I never knew had found their way under the house: plastic planters, an empty yogurt cup, and HEY! My missing Croc! Last time I saw the other one, it was floating down the road during Tropical Storm Debbie.

I digress. The egg! My metal rake crushed it before I could get my greedy little hands on the perfect green orb. Dang it! Well, since only the chicken gods (or Henrietta or Mabelene) know when the egg was laid, I probably couldn’t have eaten it anyway. As is the case with the other one I snatched up.

Mean mom that I am, I had to close off the underside of the house with some temporary lattice panels. Sorry, babies! Once you start laying your precious greenies in the proper location (or at least somewhere I can reach), I’ll move the lattice away.

The babies should really know where to lay. There has been a marble “decoy” egg in their nesting box for over a month now. Goldie and Marge are constantly laying in their nesting boxes, and Henrietta and Mabelene take great care to observe the process and check in on the laying hen several times an hour, even sitting on the egg after the big gal makes her way outside. (The hen equivalent of playing house with Barbie and Ken.) So I’m hoping it’s just a matter of time. As are all things chicken-related, yes?

For now, let’s just enjoy the fact that I’m finally seeing green eggs on my homestead once again. Even if i have to work to get them… This fact, combined with the wonderful little Mabel-like sounds that are coming out of the babies’ beaks now, reminds me of the days I had a certain very special hen named Mabel ruling the roost. Bittersweet happiness for sure.

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Okay, so I might have cheated by placing it in the nesting box near the decoy egg (wishful thinking, maybe…), but it sure does look good in the nesting box!

Are We There Yet?

Little things are happening. Good things. First of all, Henrietta now allows me to pet her. How did she learn this? Could it be by watching me pet Goldie and Marguerite? Every time I come outside the big girls run to me like I have a handful of spaghetti. (Sometimes I do.) Regardless of whether or not there is a treat in my outstretched hand, there is always an outstretched hand. And sometimes, all they receive is a nice pet on their beautiful feathers. Each and every time this occurs, I make sure it is in view of the baby hens. I know they learn much of what they know from other chickens.

And just the other day, when Henrietta walked toward me, my outstretched hand was acknowledged with a quick drop and squat–wings spread–and I took the opportunity to pet her. It was delightful. Perhaps Mabelene will get the point next. Although she is still just about as skittish as a hockey puck on slick ice. (Quite suitable for a hen that runs like a speed skater.)

Other notable milestone: All four girls spent some daylight hours in the big run while I was gone the other day. We had had downpours of rain, and the babies took refuge in the big girls coop, with the big girls below in the outdoor run. I had to go out for an appointment, and I knew there was no way I was going to get those babies to come out the coop and into their own little coop. (Anyone who has chickens knows that if they don’t want to go out in the rain, there’s no way to make them unless you can grab them and move them yourself.) So, knowing that I had enough escape routes and upper-level perches built into the structure–and the babies are comfortable now enough to leave them and get away from the big girls if they need to–I left them. (Of course, not before texting my neighbor to ask if they could stop over a few times and let me know if they detected any blood-curling carnage going on.)

I am thrilled to report that all went well. When I got up in the morning to let everyone out for the day, the babies were running around in the run with the big hens. Granted, they were standing in a corner with their necks raised like giraffes on alert and eyes as big as saucers, but they were holding their own. And the big girls seemed to have no desire to kick their asses. I even noticed Henrietta do her squat-and-drop submissive pose when Marguerite got a little close. Marguerite took stock of the situation and simply walked away.

So, I believe we are almost entirely integrated. I still don’t have enough confidence to leave them together all day-I worry that the babies will never get anything to eat that way, so will hold on to their little coop for now. Plus, having an extra domicile could be beneficial in the future, should I need to separate anyone for any reason.

For now, reporting from the land of backyard chicken-dom, all is well. Over and out. 🙂

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Henlette Steps

There are those mothers–new moms, usually–who make a practice of boring their friends and acquaintances to tears (or wine) while new mom brags on and on about little Johnny’s first poo, his latest excursion across the kitchen floor, the color and texture of his most recent deposit on the burp rag. “Aww, isn’t that cute?!” Sigh.

I hope that my blog posts are not reflective of these legendary motherhood-induced rants and raves that succeed only in blowing the bored pupils out of my friends’ and families’ eyes. Like a new mom, I am proud of my babies’ accomplishments–even if it’s a hen’s first egg or the semi-integration of my flock after three long months of plan-adjusting. And this blog is my way of tracking these momentous occasions–for the history books of backyard chicken-keeping, of course, and for the really cool blog subscribers who’ve chosen to read my blurbs. But I never want to risk boring you.

So, to ramp up the edgy factor in tonight’s blog, let’s start with a little drama with a few facts from my weekend. First, my pool drained completely into my already drenched backyard (after two days of almost record-setting rain in St. Pete), one of my kitties announced that she had a raging UTI on Saturday morning when all vets except the $800/hour emergency clinic were closed, and my air conditioner went on the fritz on this, the second official day of summer. In Florida. When it’s 93 degrees with 89% humidity. How’s that for drama?

As far as chicken drama, there hasn’t been any, I’m thrilled to report! The daily hunt for bugs in the grass, the animated response to a new wedge of watermelon on a hot day, maybe the appearance of a curious hawk on the telephone wire above. All those are little bits and pieces of City Hen drama. And honestly, that’s all I want.

At the end of the day, I look for happiness in the little things: when my flock is safely ensconced in their chambers for the evening, all bellies are full, feathers are preened, the neighborhood hawks have flown to other yards for observatory duties, and four sets of precious clawed feet are wrapped around the highest coop perches my dad could build. And then there’s this: tonight–for the first time–two young hens walked into the big gals’ domicile and climbed right up into the coop before Goldie and Marge waddled in. Two minutes later, Henrietta and Mabelene were PERCHED on the ROOST in the big gals’ coop! (Stop me if I sound like I’m talking about little Johnny’s latest upchuck.) What a moment. My mother hen breast inflated with pride, and I couldn’t help thinking all was right with the world, even if it was only until the big gals came upstairs a few minutes later and chased ’em down for the night.

Progress, my good readers, progress! It doeth continue.

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Babies in the big coop.

A Tentative Accord

All is relatively quiet on the farm (except, of course, when Goldie lays an egg and decides to announce it to the whole world). The baby henlettes are looking more and more like real chickens, I am able to sleep in on the weekends (unless the neighborhood dogs are up before me), and there seems to be a mutual peace amongst the backyard grazers. In fact, just today, I noticed Goldie and Henrietta pecking away at a patch of grass only two feet apart.

The babies have even shown the big gals a few new tricks. For instance, how the crawl space of the house is such a desirable place to while away these hot pre-summer afternoons. I now find the whole flock lounging under there together when I venture outside. (For the record, I’m not sure if the big girls have the babies trapped against their will or not, but I’m willing to take the “glass is half-full” approach here.)

The big girls also seem to enjoy the new coop, making a beeline for it when I open up everyone’s doors for turnout in the mornings. They peck away in there for bugs and treats the little ones have missed during their evening meals. Surprisingly, I found Goldie puffed up in the new coop’s nesting box today, and wa-la, an hour later, a perfect brown egg appeared. This may just be the ticket to training the babies where to deposit their eggs when the time comes.

For now, there is a very enjoyable routine developing at the City Hen headquarters. Welcome to June.

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Goldie trying out the new coop’s nesting boxes.

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The Mabelettes are growing up.

Out of Broodville, Into the Mix

Goldie is out of brooding. The babies are growing up–Henrietta sounds less like a chick and more like an almost-hen. Mabelene still can’t seem to get that last toe to splay backward and thus, still runs like a little speed-skater, head down low, full speed ahead. Marge still wants to take a beakful out of anything with feathers that’ll move. Everyone’s out in the backyard together during the daytime (and trying to eat all of my potted annuals), and in their separate fenced quarters at night. Time marches on.

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Attempted Murder

Today, one Marguerite Bazany was arrested on charges of attempted murder. (See mug shot below.) Several witnesses reported observing the perpetrator attack a young hen in a small corner of the victim’s residence and repeatedly peck with intent to kill.

“It was just horrible,” observed Henrietta Bazany, sister of the victim. “She came at us in the run, all big and fat and fast, and there was nowhere to run. I managed to get out and squawk for our mother hen. Mabelene got trapped and couldn’t get out,” she said, shaking her wattles. “It was awful. She had Mabelene’s feathers all in her beak. The evidence was clear.”

The victim’s caretaker rushed to the run and broke up the fight, locking the alleged attacker in the small kennel while walking in circles to contain her rage and frustration.

“I think she was going for the grill,” said Henrietta. “And she’s a vegetarian,” she whispered through her beak.

After verifying the victim was unharmed–but severely shaken–Caretaker Bazany returned the victim and her sister to their safe house and secured it carefully with extra treats. The attacker was then locked in her own residence. The caretaker left the premises for a much-needed run along the downtown waterfront to contemplate the next steps.

Ms. Marguerite Bazany is being held on bond and has been denied bail for fear of a strong flight risk.

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Chutes and Ladders

When backyard chickens start to rule your life, it’s time to make some changes. The worry over their exuberant discussions that can sometimes rival the volume of the idiot neighbors’ yappy dogs, the stress about keeping the ever-growing babies in a too-small kennel, the fear that if left out with the big gals, there will be carnage and bloodshed. You spend way too much time at home, decline invitations to go out with friends, race home from whatever appointment you’ve been on, just to get home before sunset so that the babies can be let out to get up to their roost for the night. Pretty soon I’ll be eating out of cans with a stick because I’m afraid to go to the grocery store. Well, the time has come. Yesterday I said to myself, “Self? It is time to step away from the chickens.”

Adding to the dilemma of successful chicken integration was a new twist: Goldie went broody. The bad news: she’s more emotional than a hormonal teenager with first-day PMS. The good news: she spends all her time in the nesting box, thus removing an additional threat to the young ‘uns. Now, how to capitalize on this new twist? The answer (we hope)? Chutes ‘n Ladders.

After two very strong cups of Baileys-laced coffee (hey, it’s the weekend; leave me alone), I decided yesterday that though my ground-level square footage in the hens’ run was limited, vertical space was still available. I donned my baseball cap and worker clothes and grabbed my fully-charged power drill (thanks, dad), let the hens out in the backyard, and walked into the run to survey my blank building canvas. There was the babies’ kennel, squished up against the wall. There is the outcropping of a ledge above the nesting box–the little ones’ evening quarters and newly declared safe zone. There is the dual set of roosting poles stretched across the run which serve as the vaulting pole for the babies to launch themselves up from the kennel to the ledge. Now, since they feel comfortable with their surroundings, and heights are their only safe place, I must build a sort of upper-level domain that they can live on until Marge’s urge to dismember them passes.

A few planks of wood and some zip ties later, and the new backyard hen Chutes ‘n Ladders domain was constructed. It’s not pretty–paint would certainly help; maybe a pretty lime green and white?–but I’m hoping its not a permanent thing.

I herded the babies into their new domain so that they could have a few hours of time to figure it out, Marge-free, and shut the door. And watched. And wonder of wonders, they did. Smart little crackers. Before I knew it, they were both navigating the upper-level platforms like champs (well, Henrietta had to show Mabelene the ropes first), and they settled on their ledge for some quiet time. I placed Marge back inside an hour later, and though she wanted OUT (as usual), and she paced back and forth like a lion in a cage, I stepped away and left things for a little while. Prayed the little ones wouldn’t come down to ground level and meet up with a very large black and white surprise.
They didn’t.

Before nightfall, I let everyone out for a last backyard bug hunting rendezvous, and then the babies went back inside and up to their ledge. Marge went in next–against her will, of course–and eventually things settled down for a peaceful night. And I with my glass of wine and Santa with his–oops, that’s not the right story–I finally rested.

This morning, I heard ear-splitting shrieks. Leapt out of bed, threw on a robe, tore outside–past four wide-eyed cats who wondered where their breakfast was–and checked on the hens. The babies had come down at sunrise and probably been surprised by an equally-surprised Marge (“Oh crap [though I’m sure she didn’t say ‘crap’]–you two are still here?”), but thankfully, they had remembered how to slip into their cracked-open kennel door and to its relative safety. Whew. The next test is to place them all inside for a few daytime hours and see what happens. Marge will be ÜBER-frustrated at being locked up, but I have to do these experiments while I’m home, darn it. Nobody wants to come back from the grocery store and find a dead henlette. Would Marge kill them? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure she would. It’s less than four weeks to my trip. This has to work.

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