26 August 2015

Summer Surprises Continue (Updated)

In the upstairs portion of our barn, not far from where a mother duck recently made a nest and hatched eleven ducklings, one of our Buff Orpington hens also hid a huge stash of eggs and went broody on them. How well hidden? She'd been there for weeks, and we didn't even know it.

That changed yesterday afternoon, when Homeschooled Farm Girl happened to hear a chick peeping. She was outside the barn, on the ground level, so it's pure luck that the sound carried that far. She did some investigating, and eventually tracked down the source. Way up here, behind the hay, in the northwest corner of the barn, hatching was in progress:

It's a bit hard to get the full perspective, but I'll walk you through it quickly. See the horizontal support beams, running along the barn wall? You can see two, and there's a third that's hidden, behind the hay. The nest is on that support beam, about three feet off the floor, behind the stack of hay to the left. Until this morning, hay bales were stacked all along that wall. We had to pull the bales out, just to access the nest. Here it is, with the eggs that didn't hatch (note the stack of hay to the left, and the barn wall to the right):

It was an incredibly secure nest. The hen had squeezed in there, and did have a pathway out through the hay bales. Even when they're broody and trying to hatch eggs, they take periodic breaks to get food and water. The problem is, the nest was too secure. There was absolutely no way the chicks could get out. They couldn't follow Mother Hen through the hay - the climbs and jumps needed were far too large. Worse, they were in danger of falling off the support beam, and landing back behind the hay bales.

This morning, once we were reasonably sure the hatching process was complete, one of our kids captured the loudly-squawking-and-clearly-upset Mother Hen. I somehow fished out the eight chicks she'd hatched, and carried them down to the barn floor. We then carefully set Mother Hen with the chicks, and put some layer feed down for them. Happy, excited clucks followed, as she demonstrated for her brood what needed to be done with this wonderful stuff we'd put out.

I'm guessing the nest contained eggs from multiple hens. Either that, or Mother Hen had been bred by multiple roosters. There are a couple of chicks that look like purebred Buff Orpingtons. Two others are black. The others are white, or a mix of white and black. Doesn't matter. Their eggs will all taste the same when they're old enough to start laying.

We let the Hen and her brood wander around the barn, and the grass outside, for a couple of hours. It was clear, however, that eight is at least a few too many for her to keep track of. Plus, it's a pretty cool day. For safety, we packed her and the chicks up, and moved them to the same garden pen that the mother duck and her eleven ducklings have been occupying.

So far, the two broods seem to be getting along. The pen appears to be plenty big for both groups.

Who knows what surprises we'll find in the barn tomorrow...

Well, that didn't take long.  At about 6pm this evening, Homeschooled Farm Girl came and found me again. She could hear another chick peeping, up in the barn, near where the nest had been. "I think there were nine," she announced. "The other chick must've fallen down behind the hay."

The two of us went back to the barn, flashlight in hand. I could hear the chick, too, but it was WAY down behind the hay. We began excavating bales, which toppled over into a haphazard pile in the middle of the barn. No matter. Those could always be re-stacked.

Eventually, we moved enough bales so we could shine the flashlight into the tight little space between the remaining hay bales and the floor. And there, way in the corner, under some cobwebs and lots of loose hay, was a tiny white chick. I reached down and scooped it up.

The first thing I noticed was how chilled the little thing was. We immediately took it out to the pasture pen in the garden, to rejoin the rest of the brood. It tottered toward Mother Hen, who did not peck at it or show any other signs of rejection. That's a good start.

Here's hoping that Number Nine is no worse for the long isolation, and hits the garden ground running with the rest of the brood. So far so good.

19 August 2015

Duckling Update

The ducklings I posted about earlier this week continue to thrive with their mother duck, safely inside a garden pen. This definitely looks like it was the right move.

If anything tragic befalls the mother duck later this week, perhaps we can locate an about-to-deliver-kittens barn cat as an emergency surrogate. Seriously, the video at this link is amazing.

17 August 2015

Duckling Surprise!

One of the most-fun aspects of raising free range poultry on a small farm is that the birds are truly able to behave the way God designed them. That includes foraging, swimming in the swamp, mating, making a nest, and sometimes even successfully hatching a clutch of eggs.

You never know when you'll come out early in the morning and get a surprise like this one: 
One of our Ancona ducks, leading eleven new little ducklings all over the barnyard. When I first came out, she was foraging under the apple tree. No doubt she was looking for windfall fruit and the little bugs that come with it. Soon, she and her little pack of ducklings moved on to the pear tree to do the same.

I smiled, watched them for awhile, and then put some grain down for her to eat. Interestingly, even though I walked away and gave her plenty of privacy, she had her own plans. She never touched it; instead, she led the ducklings all over the rest of the property.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I had a discussion about the best course of action. Should we just let the mother duck do her thing? It's super-cute having a mother duck roaming the barnyard with a bunch of little ones. Who couldn't watch this for hours?

However, cute as it is, leaving a mother duck to her own devices --- especially with more than a handful of ducklings --- has seldom turned out well for us in the past. Anconas are a good all-purpose breed; they lay a significant number of eggs each year, forage well, and still have good brooding / mothering instincts. That said, their ducklings always seem to start disappearing after a few days. With the mother preoccupied by the large brood, it's easy for a barn cat to pick off a straggler. Or for a straggler to fall into a hole that's too big to get out of. Or to get lost in the tall weeds. And so on. And so forth.

We decided it made most sense to capture the mother duck, and all her ducklings, and move them into a pasture pen in a fallow portion of the garden. These pens are 4x8, so the little ones have plenty of room to scurry around. The pen gives them security, and allows us to keep feed and water in front of them all the time. Inside that pen, there are plenty of weeds and bugs for them to snack on. Plus, their droppings will fertilize the garden for next year.

Mother Duck objected to our plan, and tried to escape, but she was easy to catch. She didn't want to run away from her ducklings, and the ducklings were slow. I snagged her next to the barn, HFG scooped the ducklings into a box, and we carried them all out to the garden. Within a few minutes, they'd settled in and were again gathered around Mother Duck.

The other advantage of doing it this way: we'll be able to keep track of the new ducklings very easily as they get older and feather out. We need to cull some of the other ducks this fall, as they're getting on the older side and their egg production is slowing down. Once the new ones have matured and grown their feathers, we'll gender-check them. We'll likely butcher most of the new little drakes, but keep all the females. We'll then cull a corresponding number of old females before turning these new ones loose in the barn.

Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, of course. But with the whole brood now safely in a garden pen, I feel very confident about their safety and long-term survival.

07 August 2015

Seattle to Portland 2015

I try to get out to Seattle at least once a year, to catch up with family and old friends. Whenever possible, I time the trip to coincide with my favorite ultramarathon cycling event: the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic (STP). It's an unbelievably well-organized ride, with an extremely scenic (but relatively flat) course, which draws 10,000 participants every year. Most take two days to cover the 206 miles, but some of us crazies prefer to go the whole distance in a single day.

Why? I've done the two-day ride. Once. And, quite honestly, I think it's easier to just keep going and pull all the way through to Portland before stopping. It's a lot easier than riding a hundred miles, sleeping in a tent or on the floor of a church basement (if you're not lucky enough to book a motel room, many of which sell out the summer before the event as soon as the dates are announced), and then getting up the next morning and climbing back on the bike and riding another hundred miles. I've done lots of hundred miles rides in my lifetime. I can't remember a single time I woke up the next morning, even after sleeping in my own bed, and thought, "Hey! You know what would be a great idea? Going out for another century ride!" Some people mitigate this on STP by going past the midpoint on the first day, even as far as 140 or 150 miles, before stopping for the night. Still...I'd rather just be done with it and enjoy waking up in Portland. But to each his own.

Every year, after getting home, I put together a ride report / write-up of the trip. I've tried to include a number of details that would be especially relevant for other "out of towners" who may be considering going out to the Pacific Northwest for this terrific event. All of that follows, after the break.