Dec 12, 2011


Meet Hawkeye, my new BFF*

Until I got my own girls last year, I had no idea what drama existed in the lives of chickens. In my innocence, I imagined nothing more than cheerful bukking and clucking as my fantasy hens roamed my garden, patrolling for bugs, creating fabulous fertilizer, and laying the odd egg. But in the year and a half since I got my first peeps, I have learned that tv soap operas are nothing on the real life drama of the henhouse.

My first taste of avian angst occurred when the girls were still peeps. Betty, the only solid colored bird in the group (a golden orange RRI/Buff Orpington cross), sank to the bottom of the pecking order as soon as feathers started coming in. I had to apply the smelly purple goo to fend off the bullies.

When I added Babe, my ill-fated bantam frizzle cochin a week or two later, the peck-a-thon recommenced against her. She was just too different for the other girls to deal with, so they harried and chased and pecked her until she was nearly bald and a complete mental wreck.

She made it through the winter and I found a happier home for her with one of my chicken coop tour guests this past spring.

Early this summer, I brought in a couple of young pullets from a poultry swap, to ramp up the egg production, and though they had a bit of an adjustment, they mostly settled in with the gang, though now taking Betty's former spot at the bottom of the pecking ladder.
Sylvia (Dominique/Blue Orpington cross)
and Maisie (Dominique)

But last week I noticed Hawkeye, my sole Ameraucana, was staying inside the henhouse day and night. Was she cold? Winter temperatures had just arrived, and she was in heavy molt. Another day or two went by, the weather warmed up, but still no Hawkeye appeared outside. Was she sick? No, she seemed alert and normal when I checked her out, and when I offered her food, she ate hungrily.

Hmm, maybe it's something else. I read up on molting behavior, and learned that it hits some hens like a version of chicken PMS. They get cranky, moody, and irritable. Their new feathers growing in can be painful if they brush up against anything, so they stay away from the gang. Maybe that was it. I offered her a bowl of water and food, up on her perch atop the nest boxes. She ate as if famished, which she probably was. And she moved around so I could see she wasn't injured or seemingly sick.

A couple of days later I opened the door and caught her in the act of eating an egg from the nest box! Bad chicken. Very bad. As you can imagine, egg-eating chickens are not only bad in themselves, but they often teach other chickens to do the same thing. Various schemes ran through my head all day, as well as visions of the stewpot. Realistically, though, that's probably not an option, since: a) I couldn't imagine eating one of my girls and b) I have no neck-wringing experience. Thinking hard and asking various other chicken owners, I gave her more food in her cave in hopes she had just been desperate.

By now she was giving me a friendly greeting every time I opened the door of the henhouse and looked in. The top photo shows her, coming to say hi as I open the henhouse door in the morning (bearing ... ahem, treats). A couple of days ago I I was kneeling down, attaching something to the wire of the outside run. Suddenly Hawkeye appeared next to me, on the side opposite the other chickens (who, typically, had all come in to see what I was doing). Then she leaned against me, and when I raised my arm, she ducked under it and crawled right into my lap! Then she jumped up onto my arm, and when I finished with what I was doing and stood up to go outside, she flew up onto my shoulder and stayed there, peering into my face and looking around happily.

No matter what I did, I couldn't get her down, so I stood there for a while like some kind of farmer/pirate, with a chicken on my shoulder in place of the standard parrot. No one else was home to help, and I was freezing, so I finally managed to get her down onto the ground. Immediately the two highest-ranking hens ran over and started totally whomping on her! I chased them off and she fled back into the safety of the henhouse, where no one can get at her.

And that's where we are now. Up to now she has been squarely in the middle of the pecking order rankings, so I can only surmise it is her pathetic featherless aspect that has caused the attacks. She was never particularly friendly to me before, so obviously I am now viewed as her protector and new BFF*. Still really a novice chicken keeper, I have no idea if the attacks will stop when she regrows her feather, or if she has permanently sunk to the bottom. Maybe I should knit her a wee chicken 'jumper' (jacket) as the kindly English ladies do for the rescued battery hens?

Stay tuned for further bulletins. Until then, you can call me .......
Kathbeard, head chicken whisperer

*Best Friend Forever

Dec 5, 2011

Solar So far

When we bought this house, 33 years ago, one of the main reasons we chose it (in addition to the fact that we could afford it) was its location in town (halfway up a south-facing hill) and its orientation (long east-west axis) on the lot. Lots of south-facing walls to gather and hold heat, wide eaves for overhead frost protection, and a lot that slopes gently downhill, leading cold air down and out of the garden. What was perfect for gardening turned out to be perfect for solar as well. Large trees close to the house are mostly to the north, leaving the south-facing roof open to the sun's daily path.

Now that we have our cool solar panels, we wonder why we waited so long to do this. Cost has always been prohibitive -- or so we thought until last August, when we found out about all the federal, state and local financial incentives. Unbelievably, they paid a full 3/4 of the total cost of our 3.75 kw system. Some come in the form of tax rebates, so we will have to wait until we pay our next taxes (April) before realizing them. One was from something called the Energy Trust of Oregon, which paid 1/4 of the cost of the system right off the top -- this is a fund set up through our local power company that we have, as ratepayers, apparently been paying into for years. Sweet!

The other big reason why I haven't been more proactive about researching solar for our home was my own longtime desire to be 100% off the grid -- to generate all of our electricity with a home system. That really would have been far to expensive for us to do, so I just wrote it off and never seriously looked into evolving options.

What I have come to realize is that even if all we do is reduce what we buy, it is something. 'Reducing our carbon footprint' is a trendy, PC term for 'using less', ie conserving energy, which is a smart thing to do in any day and age. In these days of world-wide awareness of global climate change (except of course in our own dear country, where business-as-usual trumps the future welfare of humanity), it seems more important than ever to look for all kinds of small ways to have a less negative impact on the planet that nurtures us. It also seems downright crazy NOT to be taking advantage of the sunlight in our area, where the local Chamber of Commerce boasts of 'over 300 days of sunshine a year). Why don't new houses all come with solar?!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, most people assume the majority of our electricity comes from the many hydroelectric projects (dams) on the Columbia River. Not so. The majority of our power comes from the same evil coal-burning plants as everywhere else in the country. A good reason in itself to buy less of the stuff.

Part of our system includes an online tracking program, which gives us a graphic display of the panels' current production

It also shows hourly production. Thus we cheer when the sun is out, and watch the power generation spike shooting upward, then gloomily watch when clouds or night-time roll back in, and down to flat it goes. It's a bit of a bummer, starting with a system in fall, since we are heading into the shortest days of the year. Yet we are still making power, 3 weeks from Winter Solstice.

The new electric meter goes *both ways*, and when the sun is shining, we can stand out by the meter and watch the arrow pointing away from the house, indicating that we are not buying, but actually generating more electricity than we are using, and are sending the surplus *to* the power company. So satisfying.

And at the bottom of the online display is a cute little graphic, showing our total carbon offset as 'trees saved' and 'you have generated enough electricity so far to power XXXX houses for one day'. Here is the total after just a couple of days.

I have just paid our first power bill under the new system. It showed that we bought 761 kw from Pacific Power, and generated 112 kw from our system, from the 3 weeks of the month after our system went online. We saved $50 over last year's bill for October -- yay! We'll see how it goes this winter. We are still in the 'balmy' portion of late fall/early winter weather. And as the days grow longer beginning in February, those kws will be increasing. Mr. Sun is our friend!

Dec 4, 2011

on grot

Many years ago my sweetheart and I became addicted to British tv. Monty Python was our gateway drug, but PBS provided us with many memorable BBC moments in our early years of tv-owning. Hard to imagine it now, but we neither owned nor missed owning a television set in our early years together. My parents got our first family tv when I was 5 or 6, around 1957? but I was off to college before they got a color model. I don't think I watched anything on tv during the 6 years I was at uni, and once we were established in our new home of Bend, we relied on the radio for any and all news of the world -- that and the local newspaper, which came out on weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings. Thus I pretty much missed the entire Watergate era, and listened to Nixon's resignation speech on the radio.

I think we procured our first television set in 1976 -- a cast-off color model (my first) encased in a mammoth credenza-type unit that also included a record player, with yes, I think it had actual stereo and storage for LPs. It was huge and weighed a ton, and my sweetheart and a friend drove 8 hours (one way) from Bend to Twisp, Washington, to retrieve it from his mother's house. The impetus for this epic undertaking was the 1976 Olympics, which for some reason we had decided we wanted to watch.

In those years, the only tv station we could get was OPB (with a special antenna), and one pitiful local station, a CBS affiliate that featured news anchors and advertisements so lame as to be almost unbearable to watch. We set the channel changer (manual -- turn the dial -- how I miss those days) and discovered Brit-coms. One early show we grew to love was 'The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin', about a loser-type guy who hated his life and marriage so much that he staged a fake suicide, and began a new life as a purveyor of 'grot'. I don't know if 'grot' is an authentic English slang word, or if the producers of the show invented it, but it made a great impression on us, and has been part of our family vocabulary ever since. Grot is nothing special: useless stuff nobody would want. But Reggie sold it successfully (until he went broke) in his Grot Shop: bad paintings done by family members, homemade wine of hideous flavor: I can't even remember it all.

Fast-forward to today, and grot is alive and well in our lives. As an occasional knitter, I wax and wane in my enthusiasm for the sport. But alas, with rare exceptions, most of my knitted output tends to be fairly grotllike. Witness my latest passion: fingerless mitts. Wow, what a cool thing. Easy to knit, they work up fast and don't use much yarn. Patterns abound in knitting books, magazines and online. Mitts with cables, mitts with beads, mitts with lace fringe, mitts made with multi-colored yarn, mitts for casual and mitts for best dress. Make them all!

After being gifted with an 'easy' pattern by a member of my knitting group a couple of weeks ago, I launched into a pair the very next day. Yes, it turned out to be easy, though I had to make a trip to my favorite yarn shop for coaching on a minor point. Yes, it was fast. Yes, yes, yes. But then what? I put them on and couldn't figure out why, where, or when I would ever actually wear them.

a) I hate things on my hands. I can't stand wearing rings, or having long fingernails.
b) I hate half-things on shirts, pants -- they've gotta be long or short
c) If my hands are cold outside, I want full-finger gloves. If I'm cold inside, I put on another layer and sit by the fire.

But they are so cute! So ...... Dickensian. I saw a prime example on the fingers of Jeremy Brett in a rerun of the classic Sherlock Holmes series only last night.

So I did what any smart person does these days: I Googled my question. 'Why wear fingerless mitts?' and got two opposing answers, both of which I had already figured out for myself:

1) They are stupid unless you are Madonna. If you want to keep your hands warm, wear real gloves instead. If you are not Madonna, and want to look like an escapee from a Victorian poorhouse , go ahead and wear them. Preferably hand-knitted.


2) They are ultra cool. Keep several pairs around for different fashion needs! Look great with boots, tights and mini-skirts.

Uh huh. Right. 'Fashion' and moi don't go in the same sentence. We are not even in the same country. The closest I've ever gotten to 'chic' is 'chick' -- good thing I have chickens.

So I scratched my head, admired them one last time,

and gave them away to the mother of three of my students. She was thrilled, said she wears them all the time, and when I ran into her in the grocery store 3 days later, she had them on (tasting wine) and said she hadn't taken them off since I gave them to her. She is not Madonna, but they exactly suit her eclectic style. Now her three daughters are all jealous. Ha! I see a project materializing: wee mitts for the kids. Now, where's my stash?!


My computer/internet incompetence has created a slight issue with this blog. All the dates for posts have inexplicably vanished into the maw of the cyberspace vortex. There is surely some way to fix this, however it apparently involves doing something with the dreaded HTML, and with my luck whatever I do will cause the entire blog, with all its posts, to vanish into the ethers. No way am I going to try. So from here on out, we'll all have to use our imaginations to decide when posts are/were written. Sorry. When Mercury is Retrograde, all bets are off.

(this is me, trying to psychically fix the problem via hands-on healing)

Dec 1, 2011

Falling into Winter

I don't know why I've been so reluctant to embrace winter this year. I have been in full denial of its surely imminent arrival since September. In the face of a predicted snowfall two weeks ago, I managed to lay down a base layer of bark mulch in the chicken day spa, and purchase a new heated waterer to replace the one that died after one short winter season, last spring. I stapled plastic sheeting to the outside of their secure runs, to reduce wind and keep the snow out. At least the girls are ready.

In the garden, though, I have been slow and laggardly in preparing for winter. In early October, I did get the massive tomato harvest picked, much of it still green, and consigned to trays, dishes, baking pans, colanders and other flattish containers spread over every empty surface in house, shop and garage, to gradually ripen. I dried huge numbers of cherry tomatoes in my ancient food dryer, and more are still ripening as the weeks pass.

Only a small part of the tomato harvest:

But the greenhouse is crammed full of my usual wintering-over container plants, and I am in a guilty quandary over what to do with most of them. Normally I let the many bowls with flowering annuals do their thing, protected from severe cold, until supremely short days in January cause them to dwindle to nothing. At that point I shove them under the greenhouse benches and let them die. A few toughies, like petunias and lobelia, actually survive and resume growing and blooming in quite early spring, if I keep them watered and unfrozen through use of a small radiant heater. Same with geraniums, some not-super hardy miniature roses, and a few odds and ends like agapanthus and tender sages.

Scene from a previous, better organized fall:

Part of my reluctance to let things go (planters with still-beautiful coleus, tuberous begonias, zinnias and fuchsia) comes from my feelings of having been robbed of a full season of bloom, due to the very late spring we had. Part comes from a few special favorites that were so amazingly beautiful -- individual varieties, or just spectacular color combinations never before achieved -- and I don't want to let them go just yet.

I plant a lot of these annual color bowls, and I pride myself on their variety and carefully matched hues. I hate those 'red, white and blue' generic planters you find everywhere in big box stores. I imagine mine to be far more subtle and tasteful, but a lot is impossible to duplicate from year to year, since I mainly buy starts where I can at local nurseries, and what is available varies from year to year.

Here is a sampling of what I start with:

and the final result, arranged on the back deck:

The guilt comes from an earlier decision I made to NOT provide extra heat in the greenhouse this winter, in order to conserve electricity and lower our power bills. The purely financial aspect of this is obvious -- saving money is good. There is, however, an additional psychological aspect to things this year that is new.

In mid-August, we attended a presentation on 'yes, you can afford a solar power system for your home or business' offered through our local Sierra Club chapter. We have wistfully thought about having some kind of solar system for decades, but solar anything has always been super expensive and impractical, and we haven't given it serious thought. But the Sierra Club is partnering with various local installation companies around the country, and it sounded interesting, so we showed up. And were amazed to learn that, due to state and federal incentives and new financing options, we actually could afford a pretty cool little system that would provide potentially 30+% of our electric usage for very little money. As in, payback in 3-4 years on a system warranteed for 25 years.

We went home and looked at our power bills, did some research, talked to our bank, and sprang for it. But even before we got our system, we found ourselves determined to reduce our overall electricity usage, so that when we did get our system, the percentage it generated would be as high as possible.

Turning off light switches and unplugging phone chargers when not in use is fine, and all those little kilowatts do add up. But let's face it: heating a greenhouse in our cold winter climate, even at the minimal level I do it (thermostat set to go on only when temps hover around 35 F), uses up a lot of juice. Ow. In the early, heady days of proud solar panel ownership, I vowed to abandon my greenhouse darlings. Practice triage. Hoard only the very dearest and best tender plants in the protected sun porch attached to our house, and good down to 7 F without opening the door into the dining room.

No problem. Conservation is our middle name. Goodbye, annuals. See you, reincarnated, at the nurseries next spring.

Uh huh. Bold promises, easy to make when the sun is shining and the days are long and warm. Not so happy, now that the reality of snow and freezation are upon us. So far I haven't had to make the final decision. Lows have stayed in the low 20's to high teens, and so far have coincided with times I was drying tomatoes in the greenhouse, which kept the temperature warm enough on its own.

But tomato drying is ending, real winter is on the horizon, and soon I must face saying goodbye to the remnants of my glorious summer garden, or ... guiltily plugging in that little heater.