It was Mother's Day weekend, a couple years or so ago, I reckon. My lovely wife and I were hosting a grand family weekend soiree, which is not to be confused with a weakened sorbet. That could be slightly less tasty, a little less filling and maybe kind of brain-freezing, depending on whether you were eating it or simply soaking in it with Madge.
My lovely wife's parents were up from the South Bay Area, as was our daughter, her husband and our two incredibly wonderful grandchildren. Our Grandson was going to be six that summer and our Granddaughter was going to be three.
Our daughter's family had just relocated to Oakland from San Diego, which made the drive to our house only about two and a half hours compared with the grueling eight before. They were now much closer, for which we were all thrilled to the frayed ends of our orbits.
The move was made possible by our son-in-law, an aspiring rock star who also has a PhD in Chemistry, just in case. He had just been hired by a firm in Emeryville, CA, after an intensive, two month and seven interview hiring process, a gauntlet that could stretch the mental and physical limitations of any able-bodied rubber band member. Or rock band member. Although he was hired by this firm for his scientific prowess, his impromptu death metal air guitar solos are quite an impressive diversion.
But I digress.
Wait. Still digressing.
Sunday morning, around 7:00 AM, young Sophia and I were the only two souls awake in the house, and we were outside on the deck enjoying a highly existential conversation. Somewhere in the middle of one of her oh-so-important yet completely unintelligible soliloquies, I heard a distant and muffled, "Er-a-er-a-errrrr."
What the flock?
My keen senses immediately jumped into overdrive and my ears went parabolic, like a German Shepherd on kitten patrol. With the sage wisdom of the ages, I said, "Uh-oh, a Rooster!"
And then, there it was again!
Quick on the uptake, Sophia said, "Uh-oh, a Woostah!"
Yes, it’s true. Like farm-fresh rubes from faraway Hootersville, we had recently purchased a house on a couple acres and decided to dabble in the fine art of poultry propagation.
How did this happen? Well, the first task in the new venture was research and acquisition. I began to hatch a plan. Get it? I had been perusing several hatcheries’ catalogs over the course of a year. While extensive in their offerings they all seemed to stipulate a minimum order of twenty-five chickadees, and I simply didn't want that many birds. I chose not to buy local because they didn’t have a large variety of chicks and they weren't available until early March. I wanted to get the girls situated before that time frame.
I finally settled on an internet distributor called eFowl.com. My choice was determined by a couple of reasons. First of all, oh man, the name is a cackling hoot. Get it? Also, they offered a Heavy Breed Mix, which essentially gives you a blind opportunity to get as great a variety as possible -- depending on availability at the time. They would all be good layers as well as cold-hardy, which was another requirement since we do get some snow up here in the often frosty Sierra Nevada Foothills of Northern California.
eFowl also had minimum order requirements, but they were well within my reach. Their minimum order was fifteen, and when a friend said he'd take three, I knew we were freely in range. Bam! I wanted to start my flock with about a dozen fine feathered hens.
I ordered them online at eFowl.com and I was really quite impressed and amazed by the whole process. I would highly recommend the site to anyone if they were going to invest likewise. If you’re not interested in the poultry business or uber fresh eggs, I would probably advise against it. You know, like, why bother? If you just want to look at naked chicks, why not go to a porn site instead? Know what I mean?
eFowl notified us by email when they mailed the chicks, about six days after I placed the order. The chick was in the mail. And again, Bam!
Our brood arrived February 6, 2012 via the US Postal Service. In fact, the post office called at 6:30 AM stating they had some chicks for me, and to come on in and pick them up. Ironically, I never used to go to the post office to pick up chicks. I’d usually go to a bar. Or a bingo parlor. Yeah, they may have been a little bit older but they sure were willing.
When I arrived, you could hear a cacophony of chirping chicks throughout the entire building. When the nice lady brought them to the counter I was surprised to see them all essentially in a small, heavy duty shoe box with holes. And then, like getting hit with a bucket of fruit infused Jello upside the head, I discovered the reason they have those minimum shipping requirements. To keep the chicks alive and warm on their trip! You know, shared bodily warmth.
I ended up with a splendid diversity in the mix. Four of the birds were, in poultry-speak, Buff Orpingtons. The Orpington is a breed of chicken named after its origins in Orpington, England, and Buff refers to its grand looking pale yellow, or gold color. One of the Orpington’s turned out to be the Rooster – a dude!
Four of hens were Red Sex Links, a cross between a Rhode Island Red Rooster and a Delaware Hen. They are not quite as dark as the more familiar Rhode Island Red, and they have a little black in their tail feathers.
Four more were Barred Plymouth Rocks, an All-American breed renowned for their black-and-white checkered plumage. They were also not allowed to land onshore with the pilgrims, hence the “barred” in their name.
The final four were Black Sex Links, another cross, bred between a Rhode Island Red Rooster and a Plymouth Barred Rock hen. They are glossy black, with some brown on their chest and a greenish tint on their backs. And yes, eFowl actually sent sixteen for the price of fifteen. Nice touch!
I brought them to their new home, two large moving boxes taped together in the garage. I put pine wood shavings on the bottom and then added two little round chick feeders and a one gallon waterer. I also had a flood light on about eighteen inches above the floor of the brooder for warmth. They had a good twelve square heated feet or more to start their little lives, which was just about the right amount of room.
That would be their home for a couple months, primarily to keep them safe and warm. In the meantime, I had been refurbishing an old, dilapidated goat pen out behind the house. I mean, who needs goats? George Clooney stares at them and they die. The Rolling Stones put their heads in a soup. They have devil eyes. No thank you, sir! The repurposed Poultry-a-go-go was just about ready to go-go and I was just about ready to be repurposed as the flocks’ fearless leader.
As per our arrangement, my old friend Tom chose a Red Sex Link, a Barred Rock and a Black Sex Link. The flock was further reduced after I lost a Black Sex Link and a Barred Rock. I'm pretty sure one of them died of thirst straight away. I thought I had gotten all their little beaks into the water a couple times, but with all the commotion I could have missed her. That is the one major important step when receiving fowl in the mail, making sure they get watered immediately after their journey. The other fowl death remains a mystery.
I was actually concerned about a buff chick, which was looking rather lethargic, just like the black one that had already perished. So I dabbed her beak in water several times over the course of a couple minutes and she was noticeably improved. When I went back an hour later to check on her, she was fine, but a black one that had shown no outward obvious symptoms was dead.
I had harbored some suspicions about "Boldie Goldie", the dang rooster, for a while. But several sources I had read stated that aggressive or bossy behavior, large combs or wattles, body size, tail feathers and stance don't mean much of anything. Some hens can be all that. What really matters are the saddle feathers, which are the feathers that develop where the lower back meets the base of the tail. In hens they are flat or rounded; in roosters they are pointy at the end. And then, of course, the best indicator is a simple yet rousing "Cock-a-doodle-do"!
Feathers, schmeathers. Being an admitted novice at this, I waited for the "Cock-a-doodle-do" to be certain. And it did finally come.
The process of sorting males from females happens immediately after hatching by somebody at the hatchery, who I imagine would have a rather large magnifying glass and knows exactly what they are looking for. How big could it be? But even they can make mistakes, averaging about a 90-95 percent accuracy rating. So, this would mean that I would have had about a one in ten chance of getting a rooster, which apparently I did with my surviving flock of eleven.
Why do roosters crow? I dunno. They crow all the time, at least Goldie does. The legend that they simply crow at sunrise is a falsehood. Trust me. They'll also crow because they hear other roosters crowing, to show that a certain place in the barnyard is their territory, to assert their authority or for any other dang reason they want, known or not known to man. As I previously mentioned, I dunno. Apparently neither does anyone else.
Goldie will also crow when a vehicle comes up the drive. He’s become a “watch” rooster. He’ll also crow if he hears me fart in the middle of the night. That bird has an amazing set of ears. I mean, half the time my farts are silent.
Our flock of eleven is now just over four years old. It’s actually a flock of eighteen now. I think. But there’s only three hens remaining of our original flock of eleven. Yes, eight of those have died, including the original damn rooster. And even after adding from two to four chicks every year, prior to this year’s addition of six we were just sitting at one over the original flock number. Heat, predators and maladies all take their toll.
We started with six new chicks last year. Only four are still with us. One turned out to be a rooster. He was a big all white White Rock. Like Foghorn Leghorn. Fortunately I was able to re-home him to a couple that wants him to mate with their flock. They plan on raising chickens to eat. Fine by me. At least my guy will be involved with the funnest part of that process.
The other, a sprite little Gold Lahenvelder, was probably the smallest of the “litter”. She was kind of a light orange and black hen, a frisky and friendly little bird. We had a short heat wave and when I was locking the flock up for the night I found her kind of gasping and wheezing.
Immediately sensing some sort of problem with the heat, I picked her up and got her beak in the water. I made sure she swallowed several times, and she seemed to be a little better. The next morning she was still in distress so I repeated what I had done the evening before. I got her beak in the water; she swallowed once, immediately convulsed and died in my arms. Sigh.
That’s the first time I’ve had a heat related issue with the birds. They normally have about three gallons of water available in two different containers. I confirm they have water every morning, especially when it starts getting hot. If that’s not enough, I also fill up Lake Capon every hot summer afternoon.
Lake Capon is about a 2x4 oval puddle inside their yard. I’ll fill it with about four inches of water and they’ll get in it, stand around and gossip. With the hard clay we have around here water slowly drains over the course of a couple hours. Located under a majestic oak, this fowl recreation also helps that tree stay somewhat hydrated during the hot summer.
You’ll have to continue reading this book to find out what happened to all the birds. A total of eleven have met their fate under my seeming cavalier care. Drought, pestilence, quick sand, rap music. Nasty, vicious assaults by hawks and Ringtails.
What is a Ringtail? Read on!
These poultry tales amid many others are all part of the continuing saga of a 60-year old ex-executive trying to toss together a homestead in a small town in the Northern California Sierra Foothills.
In the middle of it all. A midwife crisis.
And nobody’s even pregnant.