Ducks in the Backyard

I just had my first article as a contributing author for The Permaculture Research Institute published! This one is about ducks and how they fit into a backyard system, the next one will be about converting my coop’s bedding into a worm farm! It’s not quite your typical Apron Stringz material, but I thought some of you might enjoy it.

Ducks in Backyard Permaculture


Food Post Directory

Apron Stringz is two years old! Over that time, the content has grown like a nursing baby with knee dimples. While much of what I write is just day-to-day flotsam, I do sometimes crank out a useful and, I feel, enduring post. And I hate that blogs (at least, free ones like mine) don’t support any decent kind of index for these posts. Blogs are ephemeral, meant to be enjoyed hot off the presses, I guess. But it bugs me to no end that our hard work, one week after publishing is more or less lost to the world.

So here is a directory of posts on the wide subject of food. These are all posts with a more practical edge, those that you might reference. There’s an equal number of my more journal-style posts which I have left out, particularly on the subject of gardening. They make an interesting read if you like that sort of thing (and if you read this blog, you probably do) but seemed less in need of reference-able indexing. If you’re going for the journal aspect, try the archives. A few brave souls have apparently read start to finish.

How to Make Home Cooking Work:

Kitchen Efficiency

Real Life Kitchens: Part One

Part Two: The Sink

Part Three: Work Zones

Part Four: Microzones

Cooking Efficiency

Not Menu Planners — solace for the rest of us

Dinner in Real Life

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen — summer cooking


Cast Iron Cookery

Rescuing and Seasoning Cast Iron

Cast Iron for the Rest of Us — taking care of your pans

What and How to Cook in Cast Iron


Caution: Martyr in the Kitchen

Sourcing Good Groceries:

Responsible Consumerism: How to Make it Work

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Part One

Part Two

Fair Trade is Fair

A Trip to the Grocery Store — peeping Tom my cart!

Whole Wheat Pasta Rises from the Grave

Punk Housewife Tip: Oil and Wine

Home Food Production:


Gardening for the Table

Harvest First, Cook Second

Planning an Efficient Garden — it’s all about follow-through

Self Irrigating Planters Made Easy


Just Wing It — build a half-assed coop and get by, if you need to

DIY Chicken Waterers

Egg Shells to Egg Shells

Preserving Local Bounties:

Bringing Home the Basil — how to make, store and use pesto

Monastery Marmalade — scavenged fruit and citrus pectin

Marmalade Redooo — note to self: it is entirely possible to make too much marmalade

Truly No-Nonsense Tomato Sauce

Ghee: Frying Local



Bread Evangelizing — the perfect cherry-popper bread recipe

Bread Every Day, Part One: Ingredients

Part Two: Techniques

Sprouted Wheat Bread: an exploration

Mastering Sprouted Wheat Bread!

Perfect Whole Grain Biscuits


Homemade Grape-Nuts — they’re just caramelized bread crumbs!

Grrr-nola: Make Your Own Breakfast Cereal and Stick it to Kellog Corp (from the old blog)

34 Times Round and a Recipe for German Pancakes

Bouquet of Choice: A Recipe for Swiss Chard Muffins

Anything But the Kitchen Sink — leftover granola muffins

Slow Cooker Leftover Granola Bread

If You Can’t Beet ‘Em — pink pancakes win major mama points

Leftover Easter Eggs to Savory Breakfast Pockets!

Food to Go (a well packed snack bag = less emergency food purchases)

Chewy Granola Bars

Surprising Kid Snacks — no recipe, just a plug for seaweed

A Problem of Sandwiches


Stop Buying Salad Dressing NOW

It’s What’s Fer Dinner — favorite quick meals

Baking Bonanza — home cooking in the real world, plus a recipe for easy lasagne

Good News For Half Beer Lovers — meat and/or mushroom carbonade

Green Tomato and Turkey Enchiladas

Swiss Chard Ravioli

Dinner Deconstructed: Ground Meat Patties, Brown Rice and Glazed Carrots — thorough instructions for beginner cooks

What to Feed Kids When You Really Need Them to Eat — at our house it’s macaroni and cheese’n’fish’n’peas

Sunday Dinner Any Day of the Week — pot roast your local grass fed carbon-neutral meat to melt-in-your-mouth perfection

Value Menu: Whole Chicken — get the most out of your $4/lb farmer’s market bird

Chicken an’ Bisket — my favorite roast chicken and what to do with the leftovers

Of Stock and Bullion (from the old blog)

Making Your Own “Canned” Soups (also the old blog)

Leftover Queen — savory vegetable pie

Empanadas: A Confession

Dinner Every Night: Pasta with Lentils

Not So Goaty Enchiladas

Dessert (which is to say mostly chocolate)

Chocolate: Cures What Ails Ya — the easiest way to stretch $9+/lb fair trade chocolate chips

The Best F***ing Brownies Ever

HOT Hot Chocolate — turn your thermostat down 5 degrees and whip up a batch!

Holiday Baking Party — German Christmas bread and super easy truffles

Food Recycling: Lickety Split Leftover Apple Pie — with the easiest ever pie crust

Flaky Whole Wheat Pie Crust — not the easiest, but so good


Do let me know if you find this index useful, it will help motivate me to keep it updated!

Egg Shells to Egg Shells

Laying hens need calcium to form all that good strong eggshell, almost one shell a day! That’s a lot of calcium! You can give them ground oystershell, it’s very good stuff, but I can’t find it locally and ordering it is pretty expensive. Instead, I grind up the old eggshells and feed them back to the hens.

There’s something undeniably uncomfortable about feeding hens their own eggs, and surely it’s not as nutritionally superior as oystershell, but it’s common practice with apparently no deleterious effect. And of course much cheaper and ‘closed loop.’ I think if chooks have access to good outside ground (not just a few square feet of destroyed dirt) everything becomes less critical, they can forage to fill any gaps. Bugs must be chock full of calcium, right? Not to mention loads of other goodies.

At any rate, I keep an old paper flour bag on the counter for eggshells. When it gets full, all you have to do is smunch the bag to crush them down loosely, then keep filling. (As you are cracking the shells initially, don’t stack them into egg towers, as I used to do. Keep them more or less in singles so that the residual eggy goo can dry instead of rot. This also helps them to crush easier.) When the bag gets a good stock of semi-crushed shells, I take a rolling pin to it. Some rolling, some bashing. Like making bread crumbs. The kids love to help.

I’ve never been clear on how fine the shell needs to be. I have taken it down to almost sand like, but I’m pretty sure that was unnecessary, and a hell of a lot of work. They eat rocks, right? Probably their internal burr grinders can handle bigger pieces of shell. I have settled on taking it to about quick-oat size. Which is still plenty of work, and may still be quite unnecessary. Anyone know the answer here? Feel free to chime in.

After the rolling pin gets old, I take the bag outside onto the concrete patio and bash it with a brick a few times. That seems to finish the job.

I nailed a tuna can to the wall inside the coop for the ground shell, and we keep a yogurt container outside for re-filling from. That’s one of the 4yo’s jobs. These hens don’t seem to eat near so much of it as my hens in Alaska ate, and I suspect it has something to do with this:

This is what they call “gravel” around here, not the sticks part, but the shell part. The entire chook yard looks like this. Might be the whole of what this crazy city is sitting on. I’ve even seen crumbling concrete structures, revealing a filling of this “gravel,” like modern fossils. Anyway, whatever dirt goes along with all that shell must have quite a bit of calcium, nay? So my ground up egg shells may be redundant.

But we keep filling up the can anyway. Can’t hurt right?

[post script: based on some of the comments on this post, I stopped working so hard at this task. Now I just crush them in the bag with my hands and throw them into the chook yard all at once, with some pieces still as big as pennies. Seems fine. They trample them up smaller and eat them over time I guess. Our ladies still lay good strong eggs, so I’m gonna stick with the easy way.]

DIY Chicken Waterers

I promised you a bit more detail on my DIY chicken waterers. These are both easy projects, with cheap or scavenged materials.

Let’s start with the more standard version. This gallon sized bucket waterer sits outside in their run and lasts 3-4 days for four birds in wicked heat.

This one works on the same gravity/suction principles as the commercially available waterers. It’s really quite simple. You turn the bucket right side up, fill with water, set a dish of some kind on top, then gripping both tightly, in one deft maneuver, flip the whole lot upside down. The water runs out through drilled holes near the (proper) top of the bucket (bottom when in use), and fills the dish. The holes need to be even with the desired water level, just below the lip of the dish. Meaning, if your dish (I’ve used a terra cotta planter dish) is one inch deep, make your holes about 3/4-7/8 inch from the top of the bucket, 1/4 inch-ish in diameter– it’s not very critical, the water will make it’s way out into the dish because gravity is a law. Why the water stays otherwise in the bucket I’m more hazy on. Something about suction and vacuum. Anyway, you don’t have to understand it, it works.

You can use a larger bucket to last longer between fillings, but I think more than 2 gallons would be unwieldy for the ole flipperoo.

I didn’t want to use the bucket kind inside my coop, because the coop is very small and the access door (that little piece of plywood mid-way down) is very skinny. I had dreamed up an alternative kind of waterer for my last coop in Alaska but never got around to the actually making. It seemed like it would be perfect this time around, since the bulk of the water sits outside.

First of all, are you familiar with that homesteaders’ best friend, the gravity “pump?” It’s a genius way to move water up and over something, even for some distance, so long as the end destination is lower than the start. For example you can use this to empty your kids pool across the yard and onto the lawn (if the lawn is even ever so slightly lower than wherever your pool sits). You have to somehow fill the hose with water, traditionally by putting one end into the water then sucking on the other end until you get a mouthful. So long as the mouthful end is lower than the pool end, gravity and suction will pull the water up over the edge of the pool and out onto the grass. This is also how hoodlums empty your gas tank at night so they can go joyriding on your hard-earned dollar.

As far as chicken waterers are concerned, my idea was to fill a big tote outside to an appropriate level, dunk a length of tubing under until it was full of water, plug the end with my thumb, then up and over the coop wall to a little trough inside, which would be slightly lower than the water level in the outside tote. Because the hose would be full of water, and water wants to flow to the lowest place, it would create a suction and pull the water up and over the coop wall to the inside trough. As the chooks drank the water level down, the trough would continue to fill from that outside tote.

But who cares? you may ask. Well, the point is that that little trough inside which conveniently takes up a mere 6 square inches of space, quite inconveniently can only hold about 2 cups of water. Four hens would polish that off in a couple of hours. By connecting it to the large tub outside, I can effectively offer up a couple of gallons of water, in that same 6 square inches of coop space. Plus, it’s easier to fill than the bucket waterer.

Of course, I am well aware that there exists on-demand waterers which draw off an outdoor water supply. But they’re expensive. This set up cost me about $7, the cost of the big tote and the length of hose. The little ‘trough’ I found in my stray tupperware cupboard. And although it’s going to sound complicated in description, it’s actually extremely simple to set up.

When I originally spawned the idea for my Alaska coop, I envisioned placing the outside tote under the eave of the coop, so that our (copious) Cordovan rainfall would fill it, at least some times (like the times when it was raining cats and dogs and I didn’t feel like going out to fill the chooks’ waterer). I still think this is a stellar idea, but is a bit more complicated since it requires guttering.

Instead, I just haul the hose over every three days or so and fill the outside tote up. Rain or shine.

The disadvantage is that, unlike those fancy on-demand waterers, you do have to clean the trough every day. Chooks love to scratch, and they fling their bedding all over the place in the process. No big deal, I just take the trough out (it hangs from two screws), dump the icky water and swish some clean water around. I ought to keep a brush out there to scrub it with, but haven’t gotten around to that seemingly simple task yet. I just use my fingers to rub the slime off. I’m that kind of girl.

Let it be known, there have been a few blips. First off, it’s imperative that both ends stay in the water. I have… umm, twisty ties… holding the tubing in place. One time I didn’t twist the tie enough, it came undone and the tubing got flipped out of the trough. The tubing then drained the entire tote’s worth of water right onto the floor of the coop. Fortunately it was on the very edge of the coop and didn’t cause a problem.

Also, right after I first installed the whole set-up, we left for an overnight trip. When we came back, it had just stopped working… There were bubbles of air in the tubing, and the nothing was moving. Not sure what happened exactly, but it hasn’t happened again. A fluke?

Anyway, point is, although this system can deliver 3 days worth of water, don’t count on it with your chooks’ lives. If you’re going out of town for more than one night, have someone come check on them. Which you would probably do anyway, right? Just had to say my piece.

DIY Gravity Pump Chicken Waterer


  • Tote or large container of some sort. Shallow is fine, actually it only needs to be a few inches deep, but the wider it is, the more water it will effectively be able to deliver. Don’t use something clear– if standing water gets light, algae will grow. Even more important, it must have a lid to keep mosquitoes out. I meant to cut a notch in my tote’s lid for the tubing to exit, but never got around to it, so I just set the lid on top lightly. Fortunately, the little gap created by the tubing doesn’t seem to be a problem, but if I leave the lid truly askew, the skeeters get in. If you see some weird little creatures swimming around, dump that water immediately! I’m pretty sure they die once they dry out.
  • Flexible vinyl tubing. It’s easy to get, it’s used for refrigerators’ ice makers, among other things. Our teensy little corner hardware store had several sizes. I used 1/4 inch (outside diameter), and I wouldn’t go any skinnier. Bigger would probably be better, but make sure you can plug it with your thumb. The length will depend on your situation (see below), just be sure to get a bit more than you think you need. Any extra can be coiled up in the bottom of the tote, or just cut off.
  • Drinking trough. Any old plastic container could do the job, so long as it’s sturdy enough to drill holes through, and hang up full of water.

Set Up:

First thing you need to do is consider placement. The trough needs to go inside, the tote needs to go outside, and the tubing needs to run in between the two, in a way that can easily be taken down and put back up (while your thumb is plugging the end). In other words, you can’t just drill a hole in a wall to run the tubing through. Capice?

So, install the inside drinking trough as near to your access door as possible. Drill two holes in the container big enough for a screw head to fit through, then put in two corresponding screws to hang it off of. Make sure to mount it at chicken chest level, the higher the better really, so long as they can still get into it comfortably. This helps keep the water clean.

Now, set your big tote outside the coop, also as close as possible to the door. It needs to be up at the same level, approximately, as the trough. It’s the water level that gravity will equalize, so keep that in mind. If you use a very deep tote, like mine, you will just be filling up the bottom 6 inches or so. Any more would be unnecessary, and you will want to change the water out completely once every couple of weeks, so why waste more than you need? I set my tote on top of another tote that I keep the feed in. Then whenever the feeder needs to be refilled, I consider it time to dump and clean the water tote.

Get one end of your tubing into the trough and the other into the tote outside. Don’t worry about water just yet, you need to affix the tubing to both the coop wall and the inside of the tote in a way that can be undone repeatedly. As I mentioned I use twistie ties. In the coop, since my ‘walls’ are made out of woven wire, I just twistied my ties right onto the wire. For the tote, I drilled two small holes well above my guestimated water level and put the twistie tie through the holes. If you are attaching to a solid wood wall, you could staple your twistie ties up. Whatever works. Make sure you put one down right by where the tubing goes into the trough, since that’s the spot most likely to get pulled on by a stray beak.

When you’re ready for water, start by filling the tote up to what you guess is about level with the middle of your trough. I had it easy because I can see my trough from the outside, so I just eyeballed it. But, this ain’t rocket science. Just wing it. You can adjust soon enough.

Now fill the trough up, just by hand. Then remove the tubing from the twistie ties and slowly dip it into the tote, a little at a time, watching to make sure it’s filling with water. Once it’s all under water, shake it around a bit and see if any bubbles come out. When you’re sure it’s all full of water, plug one end with your thumb and (making sure the other end stays in the water in the tote) get it into place in the trough, releasing your thumb when the tubing is fully under water.

Twistie tie that sucker up, then run inside and grab your sharpee and a pot. Don’t take too long. The water will quickly move towards equilibrium. Keep your hose handy and watch the level in the trough. If it goes down, add some more water into the tote. If the trough fills all the way up, and starts to overflow, dip some water out of the tote (it shouldn’t overflow very fast, mine just drips slowly when I’ve filled the tote too much). The speed it fills will depend on the size of tubing you used. Something about surface friction per square inch…

Once you’ve discovered the Sweet Spot, and the trough is full but not overflowing, mark the water level in the tote with your sharpee. Now every time you fill it, you can just fill it to that mark.

If you were setting this up to fill with rainwater, you’d want to drill big overflow holes right at the spot we just marked with a sharpee, otherwise big rains would flood right into your coop via your waterer.

Okay, got that? It sounds just so very complicated once I write it all out that I’m afraid no one will tackle this actually extremely simple project. Never fear, my dears! Once the basic principle is seen in action, it all makes sense.

[One last thing about daily use. When you take the trough down to clean it, unless you live somewhere that moisture is a problem, you can just leave leave the tubing hanging down, dripping. That way it stays full of water and you don’t have to do the whole dunk and fill process again. If you were concerned about moisture, you could stick a yogurt container in there to catch the dribble while you clean out the trough. Then when you hung the trough back up, you could just pour the accumulation in…]

Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions.

Just Wing It

Our chicken decision has been a continual pleasure. I can hardly believe I was going to not get chickens. As I mentioned in the Chicken Herder post, they have been an incredible learning opportunity for my daughter. The regularity of a chore, that belongs to her but benefits the family, is just wonderful. But in addition to that overriding lesson, there are myriad little daily lessons to be had in purely tangible problem solving. She has learned to operate the hook and eye latches to let the chickens out and put them away at night, to gather and count eggs, put them away in the kitchen and mark the appropriate number of ticks onto our “egg calendar” on the fridge. Furthermore she has learned more subtle things like how to lure the ladies into the coop with a cup of grain when necessary and how to clean the wood shavings out of the hinge when the door isn’t closing properly.

The chooks also provide a continual source of entertainment, especially since the run is right next to the house and we can open the dining room window and throw them scraps. We had a friend over recently and, after cutting up an avocado she asked if I wanted the peel in my compost bucket. The 1.5yo piped up, eyes big with pride at cracking a code, “Kickens?” Oh yes! Don’t compost what you can throw to the chickens!

My favorite thing about having hens remains feeding them kitchen scraps. I hate wasting food, and I think we do a darn good job at recycling leftovers around here. But, especially with kids, there are just quite a lot of bits and pieces which would otherwise get dumped. Bread crusts, two bites of oatmeal, dried nibs of cheese from behind the sofa. I love throwing those things out for the ladies, who come running full bore when I open the window.

But the best thing to feed chooks is the kitchen failures that otherwise make me want to cry. I tried fermenting some pickles recently, but I didn’t make enough of an effort to keep the cukes submerged. The sticking out parts turned into moldy slime. I am fairly devastated by this kind of DIY failure. I kick myself pretty hard. And, not that it didn’t still suck the big one, but when I pulled the mold off and threw the half rotten pickles to the chickens, my fallen heart got a little boost back up. Yea. Something good came out of it, at least.

As far as their yard, those ladies work hard all day long, churning up the dirt to keep the weeds back and eating bugs that would otherwise head towards our house. The soil devestation would be a problem in many situations, but in ours, the area alongside the house where I set up their run was a big overgrown mess. Unusable for anything else, just a jungle of bug breeding weeds. They are actually dramatically improving the value of that side area.

And did I mention that the eggs kick ass? I had thought they would taste just like the farmer’s market eggs, which are very, very good. But no, my eggs are even better. Maybe it’s because they’re mine. Maybe it’s because sometimes they’re still warm when I crack them into the pan. Maybe it’s because they eat bugs all frickin’ day long. But damn are them some fine eggs.

Yes, I highly recommend the chicken caper. It’s not utopia, I mentioned the downsides here, but if you can get past those, there are so many benefits.

Erica at NW Edibles gave us a tour of their coop recently, which is righteously awesome. I want to give you a tour of my set-up, which is the extreme other end of the chicken spectrum, just so you know that you can do it for hardly any money, and very little work if the situation warrants it.

Did you catch that last part? Before we get into my scroungy coop, I want to make something very clear. If you own your own land and intend to have chooks over the long haul, do not slam together a half-assed coop like mine. Take the time and money to build a high functioning, long term solution like Erica’s. You won’t regret it. Consider it like a pension fund.

If, on the other hand, you are renting like us, or want to give chickens a try without committing, or really, really want chickens but are just flat broke, you can do it on the fly. Here’s some inspiration:

Classy, isn’t it? Nothing like a blue tarp to dress things right down. I could buy a sheet of plywood to properly roof it, but that would cost actual money. As it is, all the materials except the wire mesh and the tarp were scavenged. There is a plywood roof under that tarp, but it just barely fits the footprint, without any overhang. Hence the tarp.

Here is the church, here’s the steeple, open the door and see all the —

Oooops! Hello there lovely lady! Hard at work I see.

As you can see, I sprung for the fancy feeder, not sure why, those are a pretty basic DIY. But I did set up a sketchy brainchild gravity flow waterer, complete with twistie-ties, which I’m going to explain in a separate post.

The coop itself is very small because the girls spend most of the day outside. If they had to be enclosed at all times, we would need a drastically larger coop. When I built my coop in Alaska, I had planned on the chooks being outside a lot, but that didn’t really pan out because of dogs, a roaming neighborhood bear, and a lack of fencing. Because they were in the coop almost all the time, it turned out to be a bit too small for my animal ethics. The lesson here is, carefully consider whether you have an appropriately secure yard space for the ladies, before you plan your coop.

The very generous sized chook yard, already enclosed on the two long sides, and the lack of serious daytime predators is a lot of what made my shoestring budget possible. We have possums here, which apparently can and do kill chickens, but they are nocturnal. Other than that, it’s just the small possibility of a loose dog. You can see that although the coop itself is pretty tight (we lock them in at night), the yard is really just to keep the girls in, not anything in particular out. I do sometimes leave the house for short excursions with them out in the yard, and it’s somewhat risky, but I think the benefit outweighs the risk.

If you are going to be building a small coop, I highly recommend looking for some crates. These worked out very well, and I think could even have their place in a nice coop. They are pretty sturdy really. These came from a boutique tile store, so are probably sturdier than most.

I’m not sure that using all that wire mesh was the right thing to do. I had my pick of a very large pile of scrap plywood (small pieces) and could have saved even more money by using it (that small gauge mesh is expensive!) but we don’t have a power saw here, and the idea of cutting very much plywood with our hand saw wore me out. Stapling the mesh on was relatively quick and easy. But as you can see, the bedding is slowly filtering out onto the ground. Plus I need that tarp overhang partly because there’s no plywood siding to keep the rain out. That damn stuff just refuses to fall straight down, and always seems to come at an angle.

On the other hand, the mesh helps keep things cooler in there, and at 95 F, cooler is definitely better.

Have you ever seen chickens pant? They do, like a dog. They hang their beaks open, and their whole little bodies heave with the in and out breaths. It’s somewhere between cute and disturbing.

With my next post I’ll go into a bit of detail about some specific DIY chicken projects, such as my weird brainchild waterer.

Stay tuned!

Chicken Herder

I take back everything I said about being slow and reasonable. If you’ve been dreaming of chickens, and you have small children, go now. Build that coop.

When our ladies first arrived, into my hastily thrown together crate coop and the inevitable glitches of such haste started rolling in, I felt the cold shadow of regret. After thinking about it so hard, had I failed to keep my head in the end? The constant trouble of a poor set-up loomed and I felt tired. The hens were pickier than I remembered, they wouldn’t even eat the chard stems I had so been looking forward to feeding them. Bah. I considered cursing the universe for taunting me with those stupid, perfect crates. What’s the big deal anyway? Eggs. So what. I can buy them just as good at the farmer’s market, for hardly more money. Was this just a big waste of my time, when I could have been using my “vacation” for more vacationy pursuits?

But. I was leaving out one very big piece of the puzzle.


I mean, I had thought about how the kids would enjoy having chickens, and how they would provide valuable life lessons about where our food comes from, etc, etc, but I had failed to realize the immensity that keeping hens had to offer for a 3-going-on-4YO. Her role in this life is revolutionized. With no formal training, and very little fanfare, my little girl has become a chicken herder.

A few days in, I mentioned that checking for eggs could be her job. I’m always looking for good chores for her, and as I suspected, she stepped up eagerly. We put a special latch on the coop door that she could open, so that she could check for eggs all by herself. On about the fourth day, she leapt out of bed in the morning. ‘I have to check for eggs!’ she yelled, big bright eyes shining as she ran out the door. I stayed in the house, to give her the opportunity to accomplish her task alone. A few minutes later she came running back in, ‘Mama, mama! The chickens are out of water!’

You know when you watch your kid learn something that, before having kids, you had never given a single thought to? Some small skill that seems totally mundane, but when you watch it unfurl from the sea anemone of infancy, just blows your mind.

I can’t think what the word is for this new skill. It’s more than just initiative. I had given her a job, and she had done it, and then looked around with a critical eye to see what else was needed. Her little brain is learning to link things up, make sense of disparate parts, realize problems and troubleshoot them. Gulp. My little girl. Growing up.

Every day she collects the eggs, brings them into the kitchen, puts them in the egg carton that is strategically placed where only she (and not any shorter members of our household) can reach it, then marks down how many on a piece of paper taped to the fridge. She lets the ladies out into their yard in the morning and shuts them into their coop for the night. She knows she is not allowed to open the gate into their yard unless they’re all in their coop. I watch her surreptitiously through the bedroom window when she goes out by herself. She takes it all ever so seriously and carefully follows any rules I have laid out. Which, have you been reading this blog? is not exactly as per personality. She’s usually more of a make-a-rule-and-you-will-live-to-regret-it kind of kid.

But the chicken herding is real. Kids aren’t stupid, they know when we give them bogus tasks and bogus rules. The chickens are real live animals, smaller than her, dependent on her. People talk about getting their kids a pet so that the kid will ‘learn to take care of something’ as if it’s a hard lesson we have to teach them, but I think that puts the wrong spin on it. I think a pet gives a kid the opportunity to take care of something, to be genuinely needed, to rise to the occasion. Which are all enormously important sources of joy and satisfaction to people of any age.

Pets are well and good, but what I have realized is so fantastic about the chickens is that, not only is she taking care of creatures smaller than her, but she is taking a genuinely useful place in the workings of our household. She takes care of the chickens, they lay us eggs, she collects the eggs, we eat the eggs. At the store this morning she said happily, “We don’t need eggs.”

the herdess waits patiently for her charges to file in for the night

I don’t know how I feel about enforced chores for kids. We haven’t quite gotten there yet. I didn’t have chores when I was growing up, and I ended up with a damn good work ethic, if I do say so myself. But, of course it can go an awful lot of ways. Having kids has definitely given me some utopian ideas– like, the best way to foster a love of something is not to force it, but to allow a child to discover it on their own. We shall see, as things unfold. Certainly the best possible way for a kid to discover the meaningful-ness of work on their own is to have the opportunity to do work that has genuine meaning.

It’s not that easy to provide such opportunities in today’s household. Kids used to be honestly needed. By 4, they are amazingly capable, and I can see how this would have worked, in ‘the old days.’ I can see how she has this blossoming desire for responsibility, coupled with the ever-present drive to challenge herself. If I genuinely needed her to, I think she could take reasonably good care of her 1.5YO little brother. Which sounds crazy by modern standards, like, someone call Child Protective Services. And I don’t leave them alone, of course. I don’t need to. But sometimes I wonder if we would all be better off if I did.

Her chicken herding services aren’t genuinely needed either. I could easily do it myself, and I’m sure we all know that. But at least it genuinely needs doing, at a level she can understand. Not like the abstract chore of picking up her toys. It might not be my ideal survival family education, but it’s the best thing we’ve got going at our house.

The shadow of regret was in fact just a cloud passing over. Instead I can hardly believe I was considering not getting chickens. The work of the coop, the cost of the feed? An insignificant price to pay for such an incredible learning opportunity. Let alone the selfish pleasure of watching my little girl master new skills and think creatively as she joyfully takes on her first big responsibility.

Thank you for slapping me till I took notice, oh Benificent Universe!

The Deed is Done

Here I am. End of the week. Projects half done all over the place. Just like me. I can’t seem to knock it off with the thinking I can do it all. Which always ends in disappointment, disillusionment, and the ironic dissolving of my energy to finish anything.

But! If I can just remove myself from the stupid disappointment of not being able to achieve the impossible, it was a great week! I got plenty of good shit done and managed to squeeze in some quality goofing off time.

And of course, I got chickens.

After finding those crates on Mother’s Day I went from absolutely having decided against it, and joyfully starting a zine instead, to diving head first off the cliff of chickens in about 4 hours. Within 72 hours, I had hens in a coop. Those crates really did make the job so much easier, I can’t believe I was considering building a coop from scratch. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, though time will tell if my shoddy methods will come back to haunt me. My first coop in Alaska, I built to last for years, and it took me a week. This coop I built to last a single year, and it took me about 10 hours, including 3 hours to go buy materials. Purty quick like. I hope I don’t regret it.

I feel obliged to speak directly to those of you who want to get chickens and are trying to hold off in the name of reason–

Do. Hold off I mean.

I’m pretty happy about my own caving in, but it makes a huge difference that I’ve had chickens before. I was delighted to find that the components of a coop were already set up in my mind. How wonderful to have gained knowledge! And then it’s there for you, like opening a book but easier. Not that I know much about chickens, don’t misunderstand. I had one batch, for about a year and a half. But I already did all the careful planning and consideration of feeder, waterer, roosting pole, nesting box, bedding and access.

And let me mention again that I don’t expect much economic return here. I spent $160 on materials for the coop, including a few tools we didn’t have here like staple gun and tin snips, and bedding. Add on $15/50lb bag of feed, say I go through 200 lbs of feed over a year (?) that’s $60. Another $30 for bedding. Total costs– $250.

If these 4 ladies, at 7 months they are in their absolute prime for laying, give me 2 dozen eggs/week, that adds up to 100 dozen over the year. At the farmer’s market price of $4/doz that’s $400. Assuming there are no more unforeseen costs (extremely unlikely) and that I’ve estimated feed costs right, I’ll save $150. Not much considering the work of setting up the coop, the work of maintaining it, the daily chores, and the fact of being kind of tied down by high maintainance pets.

(mostly) finished coop

Speaking of pets, I think this is a good time to rant a little about fads. Keeping chickens has become a fad, no doubt about it. In the course of it’s fadishness some important facts seem to have been lost. Most critically the fact that chickens only lay enough to pay for their feed for about 2 years. They live for 8-10 years, sometimes as long as 20! Before anyone gets chickens, they need to consider this very seriously. They do continue laying, but it really tapers off. So, will you get new, young hens to keep up the egg production? To do some simple math, say you get 4 hens for an egg production of 2 doz/week. If you keep on the older ladies after their production drops off, and get 3 fresh young things every two years, in 8 years you have built a flock of 16 chickens! While still only getting probably about 2 dozen eggs/week.

Of course, unless you have a big farm, and they feed themselves more or less, this can’t work. To have produce eggs in an urban or suburban yard, you will have to kill chickens. If you treat your chickens like pets, how will you feel about killing them after their two years of service?

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about it myself. I have fully wrapped my head around killing wild animals for meat, but farming, with it’s indentured servitude, I have not. Use them for their reproductive services, then kill them off? Deep breath.

The thing is, we eat eggs. We buy eggs. It’s me or someone else, so might as well be me. I guess.

But if you have a good farm source for eggs, there’s really no ethical imperative to do it yourself. The Goat Man, at the farmer’s market, I bet his chickens got it at least as good as mine, maybe better. Certainly better than many urban chicken set-ups which are sometimes just a glorified dog kennel.

our first egg, note it's not in the nest box

My main persuasion was scraps. Have you ever had a compost pile and then not had a compost pile? Did it hurt every time you threw food scraps into the trash can? I think like composting, once you have chickens you can never really go back. It kills me to throw good food away. Even when ‘away’ is the compost bin. Even when ‘good food’ is just carrot tops or two tablespoons of leftover oatmeal. After having fed those scraps to some happy hens, and had them turn it into both compost and eggs, I just can’t go back. It’s ruinous.

And for my one of the greatest part about having chickens is the way it closes a loop. Of course I still feed them store-bought stuff, and plenty of it. But any amount of home scale recycling is just deeply satisfying to me. Feeding the hens carrot tops from my garden is almost as satisfying as collecting the eggs, seriously.

So no, we will not be naming our ladies. I will love them, in my way. And then when it’s time to head back to Alaska in a year, if I can’t find a new home for them, I’ll kill them and eat them.

Love is a many splendored thing.

Helpless to the Siren Call

I really had definitely decided not to get chickens. Really.

But…. out for a walk on mother’s day I found three big, solid wood crates on the side of the road. I felt almost annoyed at the universe, who had the week before directed me toward a large sized dog kennel (read chicken transporter) by a dumpster. Can’t you lay off about the chickens? I’m doing my best here to exersize self control, but you’re really not helping!

The crates really threw me. These two were even stacked provocatively into a coop shape. I walked home sighing big sighs. I have just put much too much thought into the silly question of whether or not to get chickens. I can’t seem to lead myself away from it, I keep reconsidering. Once the idea was planted, it was really just a matter of time until I caved.

So, I hauled those MFs home. Then I drove to the nearby new house going up (there’s always at least one around here) and scrounged out of the enormous pile of incredibly good lumber “scraps.” Yesterday I made it real to the pocketbook, and therefore really real, and went to Lowes. $100 egg deposit.

I started stapling the hardware cloth on last night, and put a piece of plywood on top for a roof. This is my favorite kind of building, it doesn’t have to look good, or even be good. It only has to last a year. Just get that shit done. Oh the joy of stapling! So satisfying!

this one will sit atop the other one

Unlike my Alaska coop, this one doesn’t have to keep the chickie-poos warm at 5 degrees. And they will doubtlessly spend all their waking hours outside in the spacious run, so it doesn’t have to be big. What it does have to do is protect them from night predators, namely possums.

I did find plenty of plywood, but air flow seemed a better idea in this climate, so I’m planning to use the mesh for all the walls. ie: no part of the coop (other than the laying box) will be enclosed with plywood. I hope I don’t regret that.

just look at the run-waiting-to-happen! could you resist that space?

One thing I didn’t mention in that last post, because I was trying to talk myself out of the idea, was that there is a place a short drive from here selling laying hens. About one year old, in the prime of their laying life, for $15. So, I will not be doing the whole chick raising business (I know lots of people enjoy that part, but I thought it was a pain in my ass). Since I’m only getting 4 hens, and I’ve already come to terms with the fact that this is not a money saving venture, I think it’s worth it. And then I will be getting eggs– BING, BAM, BOOM!

This morning I found an ad on craigslist for laying hens for only $10, and less of a drive. I’ll call when it gets to be a reasonable hour.

Perhaps the universe was looking out for me. If I’d decided earlier to get chickens, before I found those crates, it would have been a hell of a lot more work. And in light of the new craigslist ad, I might be about to save $20 by waiting a few more days…

Now, off to do more stapling! Did I mention that it’s fun for the first 400 staples, then becomes a total drag?

good thing I have help