On Counting Your Chickens

One, two, three, four, five…fourteen, fifteen, sixteen…Wait! OK. One, two, three, four, five…fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. I’m missing one chicken!

This is the story of my life. I have to hunt down “one more” chicky girl at least two or three times a day.

When we ordered our chickens, we wanted a dozen but ordered fifteen in case some didn’t survive the shipping. About two days after we got our chickens, my husband announced that we had seventeen, not fifteen. It seems the company sent us extra in case some didn’t survive. We’ve been counting to seventeen ever since.

Counting chickens has become such a regular part of my day and my husband’s day that all we have to do is shout to each other, “I got seventeen,” and we know what we mean, and we can relax—for at least the next little bit.

Our girls have a beautiful coop my husband built and a “run” that is surrounded by a very tall fence for chicky-girl protection, but our girls, our Rhode Island Reds, have strong spirits, free spirits, and they want to free range as much a possible.

image of chickens
Our girls love to free range and scratch around near the woods. I have to herd them out of the woods all the time!

Since we live right in the middle of some Maine woods, this means I live in constant fear of hawks, eagles, foxes, and weasels, and mysterious forest creatures of my imagination, all of which have a taste for chicken. If you know me, you know I’m a worrier. So I worry about our girls.

But, to be fair to myself, though I love my neighbors, they don’t help my worrying. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that it’s “just a matter of time” before we “lose a few.” And one of our neighbors even told me a story—twice—about some kind of creature that killed most of his chickens and left their heads in a pile!

All I could do was make my “tragic” face and say “oh dear!” I mean, what kind of serial chicken killer lives in these woods?

So you can see why I worry—and why we count. On an average day, I’m not sure how many times my husband counts the chickens, but I’ll bet I head outside and count about ten times a day. And this takes some time. They’re never together and can be in all kinds of places on our property. They’re also extremely wiggly. It’s a job.

I used to be able to bribe the girls. I could bring out a small piece of bagel or fruit, call for my girls, and they would all come running. Now, I get like twelve when I do that. The other five make me hunt them down and worry.

The worst counting incident came in the late fall. It was early morning, and the girls were out in an open area to be in the sun. I was in the kitchen making breakfast when our youngest came running in to say he heard “a commotion” with the chickens. My husband and I ran outside just in time to see what looked like an eagle flying away. I didn’t know how long the “commotion” had been going on, but my heart sank. I figured it was “the matter of time” our neighbors had been telling us about.

Some of the girls were hiding in the garage, and they were very upset. We had thirteen in the garage, and some were so scared they were hiding within my husband’s tools on his shelves.

When I found three more girls hidden very deeply in some shrubs near the eagle sighting, I knew we had sixteen, and I was just sure that was it, that we finally lost one. My husband and I continued to search everywhere to no avail, and I began to cry. After a pretty exhaustive search, I headed back to the shrubs where I had found the other three, thinking that since I had not seen those girls originally, maybe I had missed one more. But nothing. No more girls.

As I walked back toward the house with a heavy heart, I can’t even begin to describe the beautiful thing I saw. My husband was coming from the backside of the house, and he was carrying number seventeen. I couldn’t believe it!

Sometimes, I think my husband is a super hero. He is a saver of days for sure. But this was big for me. He was the saver of chickens as far I was concerned. Now, I don’t mean to make it seem like my husband is always a super hero. I mean, he does leave the coffee grounds on the black granite in the kitchen most mornings, but, well, mostly he is a super hero. He just is. He was totally a super hero to me anyway as he carried that shivering chicky girl toward me.

He said he found her way down under the back steps of our deck. I don’t want to jinx us, but our girls are pretty smart. They seem to be good hiders.

Since that day, we make sure our girls have lots of places to “duck and cover,” and they do a pretty good job. Still, there is a lot of counting work to do each day.

Interestingly, even though the new babies we got last week are all contained in a temporary brood in my husband’s office, we find ourselves counting them too. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. They’re always all there—at least for now.

baby chicks
We have had our baby girls for about a week now, and they are starting to get feathers–and curious.

And, in the evenings, after the big girls have put themselves to bed, when I go out to close up their coop (and let me tell you it is like the Fort Knox of chicken coops), I do one more count—all the way to seventeen.

And I say goodnight to the girls, and they make their sweet, sleepy chicken noises (they coo). In my mind, as crazy as it sounds, I’m sure they’re saying goodnight and thanking us for worrying about them.

 

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On Not Sweating the Small Stuff

I mean this to be a lifestyle blog, but I cannot decorate really at all. I feel like, if you have a lifestyle blog, you should probably be able to decorate. I used to be able to, but I lost my touch a bit—or at least some of my desire. It was a bit purposeful though. I needed to make a change in my thinking for a variety of reasons.

I want my house to be clean and look fairly nice, but I used to feel very differently about the way my house looked. I obsessed about it too much. I wanted things to always be neat and cute, and I am not sure why or who I was trying to impress. Mainly, my efforts to create a “nice” house caused me stress because I could never make it look like the ones in the magazines, and I just decided, kind of gradually, that the stress wasn’t worth it.

Now, I should qualify this blog post. If you are a person who needs a lot of order to be happy, then you shouldn’t change yourself, of course. But, if you are like me and mainly just worry about how others might “judge” you for your house being a bit of a mess, then maybe it’s okay to let go of that.

I have been trying for a long time to find balance in my life—balance between work, my boys, my husband, cooking (and no matter what Michael Pollan says, it takes me more than 20 minutes to make a home-cooked meal), work, our farming. It’s hard to fit in cleaning most days. Plus, I have a little boy who loves to “decorate” with Legos. We also have a pretty big old house. It’s not huge, but it’s big enough that it seems impossible to have every room clean at once.

On top of this, while I am interested in decorating and enjoy one or two HGTV programs on Netflix (we’re cord cutters to save money), in a big house, it’s kind of costly to decorate, even when you’re really frugal about it.

So, I made a choice. I decided that, to be happy, for me, I was just going to have let go of the notion that everything must be in order and beautifully decorated. Our house feels “real,” and it’s also warm and full of love. And color. We do seem to like color on the walls, and I might be a little too fond of orange. I’m pretty sure a decorator would hate it, but that’s okay.

An epiphanic moment a couple of weeks ago has made me feel a lot better about my decision to let things go a bit. Ronan, my youngest, drew a smiley face on the windowsill. Interestingly, it was right above a crayon line that I had missed when he drew several crayon lines on the same windowsill a couple of years ago. When he had drawn the original lines (he must have been about 4), I scolded him a bit, scrubbed and scrubbed the crayon marks, and told him not to draw on the walls.

Crayons and Decorating

When I saw the new smiley face on the windowsill, I noticed a crayon mark left over, one I had missed and then forgotten about. I realized there had been some crayon on that windowsill for like two years. And guess what? It didn’t kill me. I didn’t even notice it there. On top of that, I realized that the smiley face was, in fact, pretty awesome and that, ten years from now, I would give anything to have smiley face back. So I left it, decided to admire it, and took this picture of it. Now, I am memorializing it in this blog. Why not, right?

Thankfully, my husband and I are totally on the same page with this. He was like, “That is an awesome face.” And that’s how we roll…because we decided to roll this way.

I have two children, one is almost 19, and my youngest, the budding artist, is 6. I am no parenting expert, but I study people and listen to other parents as much as possible—and I read a lot as well. I will have more “sage wisdom” on parenting in other posts, perhaps, much of which may or may not be relevant to anyone else, but I do think I know this: You definitely want your kids to grow up to be good, kind, people—and happy people; but there are many ways to accomplish this. Why not enjoy the whole process along the way? We should at least try, right? I’m pretty sure that means not sweating the small stuff.

It took me awhile to get to a place where I do not sweat the small stuff, and I still do sometimes, though I try to catch myself. I think figuring out ways to slow things down has helped, and connecting with nature through our garden and animals has helped me as well. But, of course, there is no “right” path to living a patient, more thoughtful life. Each person is unique.

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This week, we got 8 more baby girls to add to our chickens. I will be writing more about these new girls next week, but, in the meantime, I will just say that they have been good for our whole family. Right now, they are in a temporary brood in my husband’s office. They definitely add a nice touch to the décor.

On Chickens, Snacks, and Love

I’m certainly no expert on raising chickens, but I learn more every day and spend a lot of time reading the forums at backyardchickens.com, one of my favorite sites. Of course, my husband and I didn’t just jump into this chicken thing blindly. I think I read The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals about three times and then the chicken chapter about six more times after our baby chicks arrived. So I continue read a lot and ask a lot of questions, but I have also learned that our girls have their own personalities and their own tastes in snacks. I have also learned that our chicky girls are spoiled.

Chickens can eat people food, with some exceptions, of course, but they love bread and fruits and vegetables. For some reason, our girls do not love apples, but I still haven’t figured that one out, as other people tell me their girls love apples. Our girls do love breads and veggies and most fruits, but they have one rule for us—these items must be chopped up. I guess we started out that way, and there is no turning back now. If we put a whole piece of lettuce or a piece of fruit in their bowl, they will snob it. We must chop up their snacks into bite-sized chicken treats.

image of chicken scraps
My husband carrying the treats to our girls. Notice the finely chopped goods.

One thing we did that has been a huge help in the snack and food department (and I highly recommend this to anyone with a large number of chickens) is contact our local bagel shop to see if they had any scraps they were just throwing in the trash. Now, this was no easy task, so I don’t want to make it seem like we got a “yes” on the first place we called. We called all kinds of grocery stores and sandwich shops to see if we might be able to get their scraps. Larger stores had policies against such things, and most of the smaller places were already working with local farmers to give away scraps. So it took me a couple of weeks, but we finally got really lucky. It was definitely worth all the calling around.

The bagel shop that shares its scraps with us uses fresh ingredients and makes everything from scratch. Sometimes, when I look in the buckets after my husband picks them up, I think that I might like to eat some of those scraps. There are grapes, tomatoes, fresh lettuce, sometimes onions that we have to remove, and bagels, beautiful bagels. But I never eat anything from the scrap buckets, so don’t worry.

But, of course, then these scraps must be chopped up for our chicky-girl enjoyment. Did I mention our girls were spoiled?

Chickens Eating Snacks
Our girls enjoy their tasty treats! Plus, the fresh fruits and veggies have made the eggs taste extra yummy.

The universe smiled on us with the bagel shop thing in many ways. Coincidentally, our girls loved bagels long before we got the scraps from the bagel shop. Shortly after the girls were able to eat people food, I started heading out to see them every morning. It was late summer, so I would sit and watch them while I ate my morning bagel and drank my tea. Soon, I was sharing my bagel. Soon after, the girls were getting their own bagels, and we developed a routine, a morning ritual that was good for my soul. I hope it’s good for our girls. I think it is.

Every morning, as soon as I get up, I head out to the chicken coop in my jammies with my bagels in my robe pockets. I open the coop door, and as the girls head out in their yard, I start pinching up bagel pieces and sharing. I have to move quickly with 17 (we ordered 15, and the company sent 2 extra for good measure) hungry and spoiled girls, but they are fantastic. They squawk and talk to me (and I’m pretty sure some are being quite bossy), and I have some that will pick a piece of bagel out of my hands so gently that it touches my heart. Of course, some girls will take my finger with the bagel, but some of our girls seem to be gentle spirits. I love them. I love all of them.

After the girls get their bagels, I say, every morning, “That’s for you. Now, let’s see what you have for me.” I head into the coop and collect eggs.

There are usually a couple of girls still in the coop laying in the nesting boxes, so I have to sneak a few bits of bagel in for them. I give them a few pieces, and most of them will stand up slowly and carefully, so I can take the eggs. Every now and then, a girl doesn’t want me to take her egg, but that’s another blog post.

The whole process is beautiful and important to me. We take care of our girls. They take care of us. They give us fresh eggs, which is such an amazing gift. I am so thankful to them that it feels important to me to show our girls appreciation, which includes chopping up chicken snacks every day.

Chickens are truly amazing animals. They have personality, are smarter than most people might think, and give us food to sustain us.

Our chickens have taught me so much about love toward all animals by teaching me how much of a connection there can be between people and farm animals. Plus, when I see how sweet my husband is to our chicky girls, it makes me love him even more–if that’s possible.

I have always been a dog and cat person. Now, I am a chicken person, too. How could I not be in love with these girls?

On Introductions

When I turned 40 last year, I made a promise to myself to change my life, but I’m not generally the kind of person who takes risks or makes big changes. I’m generally a “play it very safe” kind of gal. Still, I knew I was unhappy with my life because I was working long hours and missing my family much too much. I had been dreaming of a different life for years—a life with a hobby farm, chickens, goats, knitting, writing, and working much less. I wanted a simpler life, but as so many others have found as well, sometimes, finding simplicity can feel pretty complicated.

I had been a writing professor in an academic setting in one form or another since I turned 22 and began teaching writing to first-year college writers. Academia had been all I had known, and despite low pay and long hours in many positions, I had worked my way up to a mid-level administrative position, which still involved long hours but actually had middle-class pay to go with all that work. Even though I was unhappy with my life, it was difficult to make a change. My husband had also been working long hours to get our dream hobby farm started, so the income thing was up to me. With our two boys to think about, making a change seemed so difficult, and unlike some who find a simple life after losing a job or experiencing a major life event, if I wanted this change, I was going to have to initiate it. It felt risky, maybe foolish. I had a career that was on the upswing. Did I want to give it up voluntarily?

Changing my life would mean really changing my life. As a family, we would have to learn to live much more frugally. My plan, my dream, was to work a few part-time teaching and consulting jobs and just enough to pay our bills and put a little back for savings. My plan was to follow Thoreau’s words of wisdom and work only as much as was needed for the things I really needed to have. His words, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run” were of utmost importance to me as I considered my life changes. I have never been afraid of good, hard work, but the stress of academia, the egos, and the politics were tough on me. I wanted my work to feel valuable to me; I wanted to work on our hobby farm helping my husband grow food and raise animals. But there was a part of me that kept telling myself it was just a dream, that people only managed to change their lives in such a way in the books and blogs I read.

And then my husband took the big step and ordered our chickens. I think he may have known that he was giving me my push I needed. He’s very wise, but I didn’t know how big this was going to be at the time he placed the order. Still, after three years of researching chickens, reading about chickens, being jealous of anyone and everyone with chickens, I was finally going to get my own girls. We wanted to start with 12 but were worried we might lose some, so we ordered 15 babies. It took a few weeks for the girls to arrive in the mail, and on a beautiful June morning in Maine, I received a call from the local post office that I could pick up our baby chicks at the back door before 7:00 AM. My husband was busy readying the chicks’ new home, so I made the drive to the post office.

I stood at the back door and knocked. When a woman came to the door, I told her I was there for a box of baby chicks. She asked my name and then disappeared behind the post office door. She reappeared a few minutes later with a box much smaller than I had anticipated, and that box was cheeping loudly. I loved those chicks before I could even see them. I loved how they sounded. As I carried the girls to the car, I spoke through the holes in the box. “Hi, babies, I am your mama, and everything is going to be alright.”

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Our girls in the warming light during their first week. Love!

There are some major milestones in my life, and, as crazy as it sounds, getting our chicks was a milestone for me. In the days after we brought the girls home, I gave notice at my job and set out to change my life. Our “chicky girls,” as I often refer to them, reminded me of what was important in a way that is hard to explain, but they reminded me that the love in my life was more important than money and work and that I needed to make some changes to better enjoy all of the amazing love I have—love for my husband, my boys, my friends, our animals, and all of the beauty in the world.

This blog is meant to serve as a forum for me to tell of my experiences related to changing my life and my life after making the change—working less, loving more, raising animals, growing food, and living frugally, simply, and self-sufficiently. And, perhaps most importantly, taking time to enjoy the small but best things in life.