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First Strawberries

Pre-script: I didn’t do yoga as scheduled this morning. I also didn’t clean the house as needed. Instead I got my zen squatting in a corner of the chicken run, watching a mama hen teaching 5 chicks how to scratch down to the dirt, hunting out tiny bugs. If I hold very still then she knows I am not dangerous, and they all carry on as usual. Usual, but amazing at the same time. This is a prequel because when I wrote Spring Broodies, just weeks ago,  I could not know how it would all unfold…

So spring is finally really here in Maryland. Uh, isn’t it? That 80 degree weather in April sealed the deal didn’t it? I don’t think cold weather can zap us again with a near freeze…in May…well, merely 40s. Yikes. What a strange year we have been having.

Looks like the cherry blossoms escaped that last frost (at least in our yard), and see!

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Fruits are coming where blossoms just were. The winter garlic looked good but now it needs to be pulled before it rots in the ground. The asparagus finally came up in that blast of early hot April weather, and finished too soon. No manure on that bed last fall equals skinny stalks this spring. In 2016 the stalks were fat like I had never seen before! For 2017 we got lots of skinny little guys. Lesson: ALWAYS put manure on your asparagus in fall! Especially if its sharing space with strawberries…

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Look at those skinny stalks! Lesson learned. The strawberries love the asparagus bed, enthusiastically expanding, growing huge green leaves. If we feed the bed in fall, maybe the asparagus will get some of the food too…

Here is the re-planted and recovering greens collection, is now nicely fenced to protect from other ransacking greens appreciators —

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HOORAY for this greenhouse structure Edward put up (with help from Oskar)!  Right now it holds agricultural fleece above the lettuce and greens to protect them from that hot weather we had…(can you remember?) It will  stay up year round, covered in plastic sheeting during cold months to extend out lettuce and greens production as far into the winter as we can.  So many of my ideas never achieve reality (I know. I have too many.) It is pretty satisfying to see one up and working.

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But most exciting to my readers will be the Chicken news! Starting late April we seemed to have two broody hens. Two of my hens began staying in two nesting boxes day and night, making those intense little noises that I recognize. When a hen goes broody all her instincts tell her “Stay put and keep those eggs warm and you will be a mother!” A true broody hen plucks feathers off her breast to get skin to egg contact and the 90 plus degrees needed. A good broody will go out only to relieve herself, grab a bite or a sip, and then get back on the nest. Less informed broody hens poop right in the nest. (Read more about broody hens here: The Modern Homestead)

What this means to the suburban grower though is a chance for an adoptive mother to raise a couple new chicks. I did it once before with success. But I don’t have the space for two mamas to raise chicks in the privacy needed — in nature they like to go off alone into the brush or a corner of a big farmyard.  So I discouraged the Golden Maran, and encouraged the Buff Orpington. This wasn’t easy. I moved her three times trying to convince her that the broody box in the little coop was a better place than the nesting boxes with all the other hens. There is no way that a hen can raise chicks safely with the other hens around – they would be attacked by the other hens as interlopers. But most broody hens have about half the required instincts – they don’t isolate themselves. So I did my best. Finally, after some more research online, I moved the warm eggs first to the new location, and then took her, struggling and resisting, to sit on her eggs in the new spot. This time I remembered to close the door, so the other hens couldn’t bother her. And there she stayed.

Three days later, I picked up 5 one day old chicks from a local feed store – and Edward (who kindly accommodated this errand while on his way back from a medical procedure) agreeably held the box in his nice warm hands.

Once home (and my ailing husband settled) I threw the chicks into a warm oven and scurried around setting up a temporary box – we had to wait for night to make the switch.

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Trum would like to play with the chicks…

It was hard not to worry. This night would be the night that the previously warm weather turned cold again!  Fifty degrees — and baby chicks like 90.  That night I carried the box of them out, and by cover of darkness I slid the hot eggs out from under the broody Orpie and slid the panicked, peeping chicks underneath. I had to shove one little guy under twice – she seemed frozen. All the next cold day I didn’t see or hear a peep. But the hen was all puffed up though over top of them. That was hopeful. She looked…surprised.

Next morning I pushed a flat dish of food and then water up close to her chest, and she ate and drank avidly. Prior to the cold snap, the weather had been very hot and she had been brooding for weeks, hardly leaving her nest for food or water.

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Then she pulled away. She wanted me gone. So I went away, hoping that young and inexperienced as she is, her instincts would tell her that those babies need to eat and drink too, somehow, despite the cold.

I shouldn’t have worried.

I have doubted this broody hen every step of the way – doubting whether she could sit a nest, whether she would reject these adopted babies, whether she would know to feed them on a cold day! I have been distressed to find that she wants to sleep on the ground under the structure I built for her, instead of inside it. Even after I made a new ramps for the little chicks yesterday to get up into it, they showed no interest. We tried moving her once, which caused extreme distress to her and her chicks and she hid them in a corner.  But she is proving herself to be a good mother – and she knows better than I do about the whole process. Last night it went down to the 40s again — but I gave up on the idea of moving her into that nice little coop, and just piled pine shavings around her to help her hold her heat. She did not object.

This morning I opened the top of that little coop to get something out, and noticed that the temperature in there was a lot colder than the air temperature in the run outside it. Ahh. I see. That little house was colder than the ground. Being wood, and drafty, it holds heat more poorly.  Yep – I guess she knows.

I have no idea what this upbringing will do for these babies. They are having a pretty au naturel experience compared to most American suburban chicks: enduring cold, sleeping in the dirt under mom, scratching in the straw and mud for breakfast. I threw them some of the strawberry tops this morning, and they were all excited, mama too. I notice that two have paste butt, which isn’t common for chicks raised by a mother – maybe it’s the switch from 24 hours of heat lamp life to Real World cold spring. I am waiting to see if the mama hen will do something about it, or if  I have to intervene causing great panic and distress. These little ones are eating just the right stuff to be healthy. They have very little interest in the Organic Chick Starter feed I put out. (It doesn’t smell good to me either.) Ah well – on to the next adventure!—-