July 26, 2011

There's something about Larry...

Larry, all baleful
OK, Larry stays.
Our rooster, the former queen of sass, Roxy, will neither go to the chicken farm of friends – we don’t even know if they’d accept him – nor into our stew pot.
We didn’t want a rooster, didn’t expect one, and were taken aback when all our homespun sex tests indicated that Roxy was a male. But Roxy, temporarily renamed Rocky, and now Larry, has been part of our little flock since the beginning. That’s way back in April.
Both Vicki and I have fallen for these birds in a big way. I’ve read much about the affection that even veteran “hobby” chicken keepers have for their flocks, about each of the birds’ distinct personalities and pec(k)cadillos, about a soothing calm that imbues your time with the chickens.
In Larry’s case it is a flashy jauntiness, barely masking a peeping vulnerability, which has defined him even since the early Roxy days. It’s like having your darling, precocious little girl grow up to be Freddy Mercury.
He cuts a very arresting figure among the rest of the flock. Two of them are copper-on-black, three are red, and then there’s Larry.
As a chick, his yellow fluff was gradually replaced by white feathers. Snow white, which makes his prominent comb and wattles all the more striking in their redness. His tentative croaks have turned into full-throated crowing in the early morning, in mid-morning, in late morning, around noon, and on through the sunlit day. Funny how that can grow on you when the alarm on your cell phone can threaten cracked molars.
Larry, Billie, Sweet Red and Sadie. Simply Red, background.
He struts and flies to the roof of the coop and charges with his head down and beautiful cape puffed wide. He herds the girls like a tiny cowpoke, a benign security chief, and fronts off any of the hens who dare rise up to face him, fixing her with gimlet eye and a forward rush. Early on, “Roxy” behaved like the Boss Chicken, and he hasn’t changed a bit.
I just told Vicki I was trying to describe our rooster, and she said, “I love Larry. Every day I love him a little bit more. He’s just so concerned with keeping an eye on the girls and taking care of them.” Which, decoded, also carries the message, “Larry isn’t going anywhere!”
No argument from me. We may have one less laying hen, and a rooster who’ll be looking to get him some before long, fertilizing an egg here and there, crowing about it later, obnoxiously. But we can still eat those eggs. I’ve read that, nutritionally, they are virtually identical to unfertilized eggs. To prevent the rooster’s spawn from developing even the littlest bit, we’ll have to be sure to gather our eggs every day and get them into the icebox. Handled thus, deciding whether to eat them is only a matter of getting past the thought of an incipient chick in there. We have no problem with that. You can take it as a political statement or not. Can’t control who sees what where.
Ray Bohy
We were suckers for animals before we got our chickens. As I get older, I’m speaking to and about our animals with many of my dad’s words. He was a World War II Marine sergeant who was part of the last great battle of that war, the taking of Okinawa. He was a career Detroit cop who once dug the dirt from a child’s makeshift grave with his bare hands, who worked the hate-filled streets during the city’s 1967 riot, who knew the streets and its characters so well that he could phone the miscreants and tell them to come in to the precinct. For the most part, they did, including a "red-headed cross-eyed bandit" he told me about one night.
When he retired from the notorious Cass Corridor as a detective sergeant, several of those who gathered to honor him testified to that story’s truth. What I’m saying is he was tough.
But aside from a marked distaste for cats, when it came to animals, he’d comfort and cuddle, coo or talk baby talk, and just soak up the minimally conditional love that came back. When my sisters and I were kids, he was the one who picked out and named our pet dog. She was a mini-toy poodle, largely unshorn to avoid any appearance of prissiness. Her name was Gidget.
When he sent me off to college, it was with the admonition, “Come visit when you want, but no cats, dogs, or unwed mothers.” He had gotten his life pretty much where he wanted it, complete with Gidget, and was warning that nothing was to disrupt his fragile quasi-serenity.
Now, when I speak to our little parrot, one young cat, one older, and our chickens, I sometimes hear my father’s voice. And I thank him for this soft legacy here, where my own serenity is just as fragile as his, in a place complete with our animals.

July 25, 2011

My other tractor

I wanted something different for my chickens. They needed a house, a “run” for exercise and fresh air. And of course they needed a place to lay their eggs. To borrow a word from my late grandpa, Marion Ellsworth Campbell – an Indiana high school classmate of Orville Redenbacher – I wanted something snazzy.
DJ Orvie R, stylin', snazzy
There are many original and clever chicken house designs out there, and any of them would have done fine. But with few exceptions, they’re variations on the theme of straight-sided walls that join the others at right angles, a peaked roof, a couple of doors, maybe windows – in short, something like the buildings we live in.
After a lot of looking I found just the thing and plunked down my $19.99 for detailed plans. They’re made by DIY Chicken Tractors, and from their website photos, looked promising.
Just so you know, I will be plugging products, ideas, websites, and other things that I’ve found valuable in our efforts. There is no plugola involved, although I suppose there will be some link-backs for traffic. The ads on my pages appear randomly with placement by Google, and I get a few cents when somebody clicks through. But there is no connection between whatever appears in those spots, and what I write about.
It’s an old journalism ethic that you don’t find much anymore, even in the few remaining major newspapers. But I want you to be able to trust that when I say something is good, I mean it, based on nothing but its performance for me.
I’m also trying to set up an Amazon Associates link to make it easy for you to find the worthwhile books I’ll be mentioning and buy them if you like. I will get a small cut of any sales. This will not affect my opinion in writing about such books. You’ll just have to – hate to say it – trust me. I will tell you that it’s a much, much less risky proposition than when made by anyone running for public office.
So back to the chicken tractor. First thing to do is explain that this is the name given to a mobile coop setup, the intent being to easily move it around your yard to give the chickens fresh pecking ground every other day or so. Most of those I’ve seen are made from lightweight and, to my eye, not particularly sturdy materials.
But the one I chose is solid, its main frame made of two-by-fours, and its walls of ¾-inch thick plywood. Therein lies its fundamental design flaw: It is heavier than hell. At least too heavy to easily move it up and down and across and over the rocky, hilly land we live on. Altering the design option of adding six wheels to the bottom, I designed two easily removable wheel blocks so the coop sits flat when I take them off. I attach them to the back of the chicken tractor, lift and pull from the front, then remove the wheels once it’s on the newly chosen spot. I have been able to move it only by lifting the front end with my backhoe and pulling it with my tractor. That’s my John Deere tractor, not my chicken tractor.
Other than that, it was a pleasure to build because the plans were precise, clear, and complete. Especially valuable are the detailed instructions for laying out the triangular walls and the doors in each. Math has always been a personal weakness, and the explanation of this specific geometry was invaluable. Which is to say, it worked like a charm.
The Palace
It is a self-contained combination of chicken house, run, and nesting boxes. While the slats that run its length are intended both for protection and as a design element, it’s recommended that you install chicken wire inside the run for added strength and safety. I chose to attach it outside to simplify the job and prevent marauding critters from chewing on the wood.
Mine has the same color scheme as the model on DIY Chicken Tractors’ website because I liked it, simple as that. Gunship gray, espresso brown, cherry red and egg-yolk yellow somehow work together.
Through the back door: red nesting boxes, yellow chicken house with roosts, and the run
While it was said on the website that a father and son assembled theirs in two weekends, I’d like to know how. Working alone, it took me several weeks, although most of that was time spent waiting for multiple coats of paint to dry.
But it was finished by the time we were ready to pick up our chicks, and the transition from the brooder in our garage to the brand new chicken palace was seamless. They tentatively explored the front door/ramp, then the back, then walked on in and made themselves at home.
One more thing. You may notice in the photos that the lines of the chicken tractor are not entirely sleek. Some of the slats are bent sideways, not everything lines up as precisely as my handiwork intended.
The wood itself is to blame. Buying well-dried, straight lumber is a matter of picking through stacks of wood in Lowe’s or Home Depot to find the one in five or one in 10 that’s not twisted or warped beyond use. We do what we can do.
So when I look at my chicken tractor in its woodland setting, I prefer to think of its profile as “naturalistic.” Naturalistic. Yeah, that’s it.