Graduation Day

Remember those five chicks which the Buff Orpington hen hatched out in mid-June, and which she has been doing such a good job raising free-range? I’ve been swamped with an avalanche of work, (sorry about the mixed metaphors) and haven’t been able to post an update lately, but the chicks continued to thrive and roam the property all summer long. They got to the point where they all roosted together with their mother on the various rungs of a ladder out in the barn at night, which was pretty cute. They were lots of fun to watch during the day as well. They foraged every imaginable place, and would sometimes come past at the most unexpected times. I often heard Mother Hen’s instructive clucks (and the chicks rustling in the weeds of the garden) through my window as I worked, and it never failed to put a smile on my face. It gave an amusing sense of randomness to the summer, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

And then, early this past week, mother hen suddenly decided that she’d done all she could do. Like the parent who releases his hold on the child’s bicycle seat, and watches proudly as the kid continues to pedal down the street, Mother Hen’s job here was finished. One day the whole little family was foraging together. The next day, it was just the five chicks. They looked a little lost, and a little uncertain, but continued doing what they’d always done — and going the places they’d always gone. Just now, Mother Hen was no longer with them. It was admittedly a bit poignant, kind of like watching kindergartners climb on the school bus for the first time. But seven weeks is a long time in the life of a chicken, and they were ready to face the world.

All five of the little ones have continued to roost together at night, in various parts of the barn. They don’t always forage together as a group during the day, however. Sometimes three of them will go one way, and two of them will go another direction. It makes me wonder how long it’ll be until the five of them completely separate from each other. For now, it’s nice seeing them stick together at least some of the time.

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What’s most striking, though, is the reminder of how different the animal kingdom is from us humans. Our family ties are, of course, lifelong. Even those of us who’ve moved far from home tend to keep in touch with our families, and think about our parents every day. But with birds … when the mother hen’s job is done, it’s done. That’s it. She turns her back and moves on. As incredibly dedicated as she was to her chicks, and as fiercely protective as she was of them (even putting herself in physical jeopardy when the dogs or we humans came too close), she was motivated by instinct — not the self-sacrificial love of a human parent for a child.

This isn’t a criticism, and isn’t meant to take anything away from the job the hen did. She was magnificent, a true joy to watch, and didn’t lose a single one of her chicks.  It’s simply to say that this week’s “graduation ceremony” got me thinking about just how special we humans are, and what a blessing it is that we have the opportunity to share the bonds of family love for our entire lifetimes.

Everything’s Ducky

In late June, we had a mother duck hatch out eight ducklings. Cute as it was, watching them waddle around the property, we’ve never had much long-term success with ducks brooding their ducklings free range. (Chickens, on the other hand, have tended to do an excellent job.) The mother duck tends to get moving too fast, and tends to plow her way into weeds which are too high for the little hatchlings. The little ones get lost, or picked off by barn cats, and the next thing you know … no ducklings are to be found.

So, Mother Duck and her little ones basically spent the month of July in a 4 x 8 portable pen in the garden. They had a grand old time, eating weeds and bugs. We also gave them some high protein supplemental feed, so they grew quickly.

Last week, I decided they’d had enough time to mature and bond with Mother Duck and each other — and they were certainly big enough and strong enough to keep up with Mother Duck wherever she might lead. They had pretty much fully feathered out, and there was no reason for them to remain confined. Besides, we needed the pen for a batch of Cornish Cross meat chicks. It was time for the duck family to go free range.

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A couple of the Yeoman Farm Children helped me catch the ducklings and mother duck; even in such a confined area, ducks are so hyperactive and high-strung, they can be difficult to grab. We eventually managed to do it. I handed the ducks over the garden fence to one of the kids, who turned them loose in the area right behind the barn.

Mother Duck promptly bolted for the sheep pasture, with a duckling or two behind her. The other six ducklings took off in four different directions, all squawking and quacking as they did so. The kids and I managed to track down a few of them, but the others worked their way into the garden and into some very thick weeds. When I tried to reunite the newly-found ducklings with Mother Duck, I couldn’t find her. She’d already vanished into a crowd of other ducks in the pasture.

A handful of other ducklings had congregated near the barn. Still incredibly high-strung, they nervously ran away as I approached carrying their stray hatch-mates. I set the other ducklings down, nudging them toward the larger group. They somehow connected, and then squawked together while looking very frightened.

I decided the best thing for me to do would be to walk away, let them calm down, and let the situation sort itself out. That proved wise. When I returned to the barn that evening, Mother Duck was back — and surrounded by a pack of seven ducklings. They were all as high-strung as ever, but together. I worried about the eighth duckling, and wondered if it was still lost in the weeds somewhere.

The answer wasn’t long in coming. Listening carefully, I could hear the distinctive squawking of a young bird in distress. Ducklings and chicks have unmistakable ways of calling for their lost mothers. This one was clearly coming from the high weeds in the garden, and I figured I had just enough daylight remaining to find it.

It wasn’t hard to home in on the sound — but as soon as I approached, the crazy duckling took off deeper into the weeds. The harder I tried to catch it, the more desperately it tried to stay away. I must’ve chased the thing around for 15 minutes before finally pouncing on it when it stopped to rest. I carried it triumphantly to the barn, the duckling squawking in protest the whole way. I eventually found Mother Duck, but she and the rest of the brood began running away when they spotted me. So, I gently tossed the eighth duckling in their direction; a moment later, the entire brood was again together.

The next morning, Mother Duck and all eight of the ducklings were still together — and they’ve remained so ever since. All day long, they forage across the barnyard. Every night, they pile up for sleep in the barn. Each morning, when I come out to tend the sheep, Mother Duck and her brood are there to greet me.

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It doesn’t get much more ducky than that.

Birds, Birds, Everywhere!

Summer is now in full swing, and it’s prime season for baby birds.

Mother Hen continues to be a lean, mean, foraging machine. She’s made a nice nest for her brood in the barn, in the stacks of hay bales, where they sleep each night. They’re up with the dawn every morning, working the property. We’ve been sleeping with the windows open at night; early in the morning, I can hear her clucking and calling to the chicks as they pass by the house. It’s amazing how much territory they cover over the course of each day; seems every time I look out, they’re someplace new. She leads the way, like the fleet flagship, and the five little chicks scamper right along. I try to give them a little bowl of high protein feed each evening, once they settle into their spot in the barn, but otherwise all their food has been from forage.

Now nearly three weeks old, they’re starting to feather out nicely. Of course, she keeps me from getting close enough to the to get a good picture of those feathers. Here they are, on bug patrol in the garden:

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Meanwhile, Mother Duck’s little brood continues to thrive in the garden pen. This is turning out to be a good solution. They are able to stick close to her, and forage on all the weeds in the pen, and have easy access to high-protein feed (and water). All eight are growing nicely. They’re so high-strung, it’s hard to get a good picture of them, but here’s my best try:

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BTW, while I was out checking on the ducks, I was struck by just how thoroughly the meat chickens had cleared the weeds (and fertilized) the section of the garden we’d given them:

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Of course, we can’t rely on our own birds to produce enough replacements for us to eat. We still need to order baby birds from the hatchery, and brood them ourselves. About a week ago, we got a fresh batch in from a hatchery on the other side of the state: 25 cornish cross meat chicks, 25 Buff Orpington pullet chicks, and 5 turkey poults. All 55 birds are thriving in the brooder, under lights; because the weather has been so warm, we haven’t had to use the really intense heat lights – after just a few days, this incandescent has been plenty. We should be moving them out to a garden pen by the end of the week.

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I should note that we wouldn’t normally brood turkeys with chicks; there are diseases that turkeys can catch when you do that. However, in this instance, we didn’t really have a choice. We only have one brooder, and this was our last shot at getting turkey poults. It was either try it this way, or definitely be buying our turkey at the grocery store this Thanksgiving.

While we’re talking about broods, I should mention that not every hatchling in the barn belongs to a domesticated bird. Homeschooled Farm Girl recently discovered a barn swallow nest — with some hatchlings. The nest is on a big support beam, in the goat area. (It looks like Mother Barn  Swallow used some chicken and duck feathers to help line her nest.) The babies are waiting for Mom to return with something for them.

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We started looking, and discovered a nearly identical nest a few beams over, in the sheep area.

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The wild birds are of no value to us, but watching them in action is still wonderful entertainment. It’s a nature documentary, right there in the barn. No television required.

National 24-Hour Challenge 2016: Ride Report

Father’s Day weekend, I again headed out to Middleville, Michigan (about 90 minutes west of here) for the National 24-Hour Challenge. It’s not technically a race, but rather a “challenge yourself to do your personal best” event. It draws hundreds of people from all over the USA, and from other countries. Lots of fun, very festive, and something I look forward to each year.

This was my third time riding, and long-time blog readers will recall my ride reports from 2014 and 2015. The 2016 ride report, which follows below the break, is much longer than a typical blog post — and way off the blog’s usual focus. I put together these long write-ups mostly as a set of “lessons learned” that can be reviewed the next time I’m preparing for a similar event. I am sharing this one here largely for the benefit of other cyclists who might be considering taking the plunge and trying something crazy, and are led to this page by a Google search for information about the event.

But even if you’re not a cyclist, and have no interest in trying something crazy, I hope you find the story entertaining.

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Mother Duck Delivers

I mentioned in a recent post that we had a mother duck on a nest in the barn. She’d hunkered down fairly high up in the hay bales, and could sit very still. We didn’t even know she was there for a couple of weeks, at which point we began keeping an eye on her.

This past Saturday, the eggs began cracking open and little black-and-yellow ducklings began emerging! We could hear them, and occasionally could catch a glimpse of one or two, but she wouldn’t let us get a good look. We decided to let her stay on the nest, and continue hatching as many as she could hatch, until the initial hatchlings got adventurous and began wandering off the nest. Because the nest was so high off the ground, if a duckling fell from the surrounding hay bales there would be no way for it to get back to the nest. It would be certain to get picked off by a cat, if it didn’t starve or freeze to death first.

Sunday morning, we decided it was time for Mother Duck to move. Ducklings were emerging from under her, and running around on the hay bales. It would be only a matter of time before one took a tumble. The problem was what to do with her and the brood. As fun as it would be to watch her lead them around the yard, that would surely end in disaster. She had a total of eight ducklings, which is a lot to keep track of. And ducks are not nearly as attentive to their broods — or as good at keeping them in line, or frightening off the barn cats — as hens are (at least in our experience). Every time we’ve let a mother duck free-range with a brood, the ducklings have rapidly disappeared.

I’d just butchered the last of the meat chickens, so we had a tractor pen free in the garden. Homeschooled Farm Girl helped me move it to a new place with lots of weeds. We made sure the waterer was full, and that there was grain in the feeder. We then went back in the barn, found a box with a good lid, and grabbed Mother Duck (who was very displeased, and tried to nibble me to death). Once we secured her in the box, I scooped up the eight ducklings and put them in with her. We then carefully carried the box out to the garden pen, and turned them all loose.

She’s been doing a great job with them. All eight were still alive this morning. We definitely want her to brood them, raise them, and teach them how to be ducks — but it’s best for all involved that this happen in a controlled environment.

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BTW, Mother Hen has continued to be outstanding. Her five chicks have been thriving. Visitors to the farm have been having a blast watching them do their thing. I wish we could give Mother Duck the same freedom, and perhaps we will at some point. But for now, it’s critical that the little brood get firmly established in a safe place.

Chicks on the Move

A few hours after putting up yesterday’s post about the newly-hatched chicks, I heard a distinct sound coming from the barn: “Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!” It continued for a long time, very loud, echoing across the yard. I knew it could be only one thing: a chick. The only question was whether it was one of the original four, or if there were a fifth chick that had gotten stranded on the way out.

I made a quick check of Mother Hen, and she still had four. The “cheep!” was still coming from the barn. Must be another.

I headed up to the barn, to try to catch the chick. It was standing in the entryway, making its noise through a crack in the bottom of the barn door. As soon as I reached the barn, however, it scurried back toward the hay bales. It scooted between two bales, into a place I could never reach it, just ahead of me. Don’t you know I’m trying to help? I thought.

I went back to work, giving the chick time to re-emerge. Sure enough, within a few minutes, I could hear the forlorn call. I approached the barn more stealthily this time, but the chick still beat me into the hiding place. These things sure are fast for being so little and so young!

Homeschooled Farm Girl joined me a moment later, and I explained what was going on. We sat down on various hay bales to wait. It didn’t take long. As soon as the chick emerged, the two of us managed to disorient it enough so we could drive it into a place where we could catch it. I carried it down to where Mother Hen was foraging with her brood, set it down gently, and it ran to her. It began following her, and the other chicks, as if it’d been with them all day. To my great relief, Mother Hen welcomed the chick (sometimes they peck at and reject a newcomer). It never again strayed from the brood.

It’s really amazing, watching the way a mother hen teaches her little ones to forage. She scratches something up, calls the chicks, and then points out to them what they’re supposed to peck at. I managed to shoot this video yesterday evening:

Later in the evening, we had a hundred new bales of hay to stack in the barn. Unfortunately, no one checked to see if Mother Hen had brought her brood back to the old nest first. After piling up quite a wall of hay, which almost sealed off the nest from the rest of the barn, I finally remembered to look to see if she was there. Yes, indeed. She had settled in with the chicks under her, clucking reassuringly to the brood.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I cleared the best path we could for her, with a little tunnel through the hay bales. We weren’t sure she’d be able to get out, but we hoped it would be enough.

When I came out to the barn early this morning to start on chores, the hen was still back on the nest. Then, about an hour later, HFG came to my office with good news: the hen was out, with all the chicks. They were already behind my office again.

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We went watched them forage for several minutes. It really is fun. I could watch them all day.

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Hatching Time

One of the most-fun things about having a small farm, with free-ranging livestock, is that the animals get to be themselves. For the poultry, that includes making a nest, collecting some eggs, and hatching a brood. Because we tend to collect all the eggs we can find each day, that means the mother bird has to pick an out-of-the-way spot we won’t easily discover.

This duck, for example, has been on a nest for weeks. She built it high on a stack of hay bales, where we had also piled a few bags of unprocessed wool. I didn’t discover her until she’d been there for a while. You can tell from the large number of feathers that this is definitely a nest she’s constructed and prepared for hatching. When birds just lay eggs, without intention of hatching, they don’t go to this much trouble.

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She’s been so quiet, and so motionless, you wouldn’t even know she’s there. (And that’s the idea — she certainly doesn’t want predators coming in for an easy kill.) But try to approach any closer than I did for this shot, and she will puff herself up and start hissing like  a goose.

I don’t know if her eggs are even fertile (we do have several drakes running with the flock, but you never know for certain). She may just sit there for weeks, with nothing to show for her efforts. Given how long she’s been there already, I’d have expected ducklings by now. But we’ll see.

The chickens tend to be more reliable setters and mothers. A few weeks ago, one of our Buff Orpington hens built a nest between the hay bales and the barn wall. Unlike last year’s crazy hen, who built a nest so deeply back in the hay that her chicks weren’t even able to get out, this one planned an exit strategy. And this weekend, she hatched the chicks. Homeschooled Farm Girl, who had recently discovered the nest, noticed the development and let me know. (HFG also confirmed that the hen had a way for the chicks to get out of the nest).

This morning, Mother Hen emerged from the barn with her brood. She’s been taking them all over our back yard, away from the other animals. Just a few minutes ago, she was behind my office building. I wanted a picture, but she saw me coming — and took cover. It’s amazing the way she uses various clucks, with differing tones and cadences, to give orders to the hatchlings. Even at just a few days old, they seem to know what they’re supposed to do. When Mother Hen sounded the alarm, they all scrambled after her into the burdock. I got as close as I could, with her clucking protests the whole time about my nearness, and managed to get this picture:

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Note that there are three orange chicks that look just like her. There’s also one black chick, hidden in the shadows. She was either bred by multiple roosters (we have a number of them, of different breeds), or a Barred Rock hen found the nest and deposited an egg in it before Mother Hen went broody.

Doesn’t matter to her. They’re all her chicks, and she’s doing a great job with them so far. With just four for her to take care of, I’m inclined to let her free-range with them for now. When hens get too big of a brood, we find it works best to isolate all of them in a garden pen. But my preference is always to let them continue to range free. After all, that’s what makes small-farm life so much fun.