Farewell, Ambrose

May 21, 2018

I slaughtered my rooster, Ambrose Burnside, yesterday. I was sad to do it. I dislike killing anything. However, he was too aggressive to live on my farm. He had begun attacking me every time I came into the barn. He attacked Flossie the barn cat. He attacked the geese, not just chasing but pursuing them with mad intent. On Saturday morning he chased my old goose Kay out of the barn and up the hill until she went through the fence and in with the sheep for protection. That afternoon he chased a frantic Serena around the sheep stall, tearing out her feathers.

Ambrose had outgrown his teenage scruffiness and was very handsome. I’m sorry these last photos had to be taken on a drizzly weekend in the mud, as he rippled with iridescent green, gold, and copper in the sunshine. However his beauty was beside the point when he was flying at you, wings spread and spurs extended.

I don’t know what went wrong with Ambrose. He came to me as a young adult and perhaps he had a difficult past. Once he was with me I treated him with the same care and deference I’ve treated every rooster, all of whom remained friendly for years.

I plucked and gutted the carcass in the kitchen and we’ll have chicken soup for dinner.

 *   *   *

Meanwhile, of his six babies, the one with the dislocated leg was dead the second day. However the yellow chick without balance cheeped on. It became more steadily upright. It was still clueless and did not seem to be able to follow its mothers instructions or even navigate on its feet. It did not eat or drink, despite my repeatedly dipping its beak. Morning and evening I lifted the hen, expecting to find the chick dead. But no. Cheep! Cheep! It seemed that though this yellow chick had been the first to start pipping its way out of the egg, it might simply be delayed in its maturity. Feeling cheered, I nicknamed it “A Day Late and A Dollar Short” and prayed it would get the hang of eating before it starved to death.

It did. Now I can’t tell “Dollar” from the healthy yellow chick, and all five run around like busy sandpipers. My hope is one will prove to be a rooster and grow up to lead the flock.


Spring Chicks

May 15, 2018

My little white hen hatched out six chicks yesterday.

She had sat on nine eggs. Three eggs turned out to be unfertilized; after three weeks of steady warmth from the hen, they were rotten, exploding when I tossed them on the manure pile.

Two of the chicks were too weak to force themselves out of their eggs, giving up after ten or more hours of steady peeping and pecking. I am constitutionally unable to watch anything die without trying to help, so (though knowing from both my reading and my experience it was hopeless) I peeled off the last bits of shell. Both chicks are damaged. One appears to have a dislocated leg, the other a neurological problem that causes it to have no balance. I expect one or both to be dead this morning. Sigh.

This hen — I am guessing a White Orpington — was one I rescued from the school chicken harvest last fall. Every few years I have traded for a hen or two from the school to bring new blood into my flock. Invariably these hens have raised chicks for me.  I imagine it is because they are older but it always feels like gratitude.

I’m crossing my fingers that of the four healthy chicks at least a couple are hens and not cockerels. I will know by October.


Another Long Week

February 4, 2018

This was a long week and I was grateful to get to the weekend. A thaw and re-freeze turned the driveway into a luge run of glare ice. A later snow dropped two inches of fluffy powder on top, making it even more treacherous. Creeping down to the barn to check for lambs felt like an assignment from Mission: Impossible. Even walking the dogs on the icy lawn was frightening. DH stepped out of his car and took a major fall. Thankfully, he was only bruised.

My ewe Rose lambed Wednesday afternoon with twins. The ewe lamb was up on her feet bawling when I found them; the large ram lamb was still covered with the amniotic sac and barely lifted his head from the hay. I pulled them into the jug, scrubbed both dry with towels, and enticed Rose to join them. In his first hours the ram lamb was too stunned and slow to get the hang of nursing, but after a couple of feeds on a bottle to prime his engine, instinct kicked in and he began searching for his mother’s teat like a champion.

A week ago my black hen began to look droopy. During the day I kept her shut in the bull stall with food and water, so the geese couldn’t harass her. I thought the issue might be worms, so I wormed her. However she ate less and less. When I finally picked her up to tube-feed her, she was hardly more than feathers — and I felt a strange hard growth in her neck. That made the outlook seem hopeless, but it’s hard for me to give up. I tube-fed her three times a day for several days. Yesterday morning she was dead. I don’t know what killed her. It wasn’t “sour crop” (the growth was so hard it felt almost bony). My life in the barn is full of these mysteries. I buried her in the manure pile.

Yesterday a businessman from Vermont drove over and bought one of my two rams. Tag #16 is a pretty boy of Pixie’s, from the first set of twins born last year. He will have a good life in a flock of fifty ewes.

The buyer was friendly and obviously bright but had zero sense with chickens. He was entranced by Ambrose; he focused on him, crowded him, and then reached for him. (Was he thinking of cuddling my rooster?) Frightened, Ambrose raised his hackles and jumped at the buyer. I hurried us down the aisle to the rams. Ambrose followed us and struck at the legs of the buyer’s wife.

The only time I have ever had a rooster strike at anyone was years ago when Lucy at age seven or eight wore her snowsuit into the barn — swish, swish, swish! — terrifying my rooster Russell Crow. Ambrose had clearly decided these interlopers were a similar threat and was doing his best to drive them away.

The wife screamed. She was not hurt: Ambrose is only a teenager and his spurs (which can grow to two inches long) are still only nubs. But she was frightened. Apologizing profusely, I shooed Ambrose and his hens into the heifer stall and locked the gate.

I explained how I was always careful never to alarm my roosters because it is a rooster’s duty to defend his flock. Whenever I have to handle a hen and it is likely she will scream, I lock the rooster outside the barn, deal with the hen (who squawks bloody murder), then put her back on the ground and open the door. By the time the rooster races in to the rescue, the hen will be calmly adjusting her clothes; the rooster will look around in bewilderment for a moment and then forget the episode entirely. In this way I have had friendly roosters since 2002.

“Really?” said the wife. “We have to butcher our roosters every year.”

“Hmm,” I said, thinking to myself: No wonder, when your husband is a fool.

I know this is uncharitable, but it is hard for me to be patient when people blame animals for a situation they themselves have created.

Four ewes have lambed, four ewes to go.

Back in the Saddle

November 22, 2017

After losing a day to a vicious but short-lived intestinal flu, yesterday I was able to work all day long, slowly and steadily. It was very satisfying. Above is my white hen, Yuki (I have no idea of her breed; she was a rescue) investigating the floor of the quarter of the sheep stall I had mucked deep bedding out of.

This bedding should have been mucked out at the beginning of last summer — i.e. when I was busy moving house. Now it is 14 inches thick, wet, dense, and stinking. I use a pick-axe and a pitchfork, and gradually peel off hat, jacket, and fleeces as I sweat. The load is so heavy I can barely keep the wheelbarrow upright to roll it out of the barn.  It is slow work. To finish the entire stall will take 8-9 hours. I’m tackling it in two-hour chunks.

It’s a terrible job but I am relieved to have started. I lack confidence in many areas but I do have faith that once started on deep bedding in a stall, I will finish. (The lamb stall and the sheep addition are also on my list for this vacation — another 12+ hours of work. Given everything else I’m trying to get done, those two may have to wait for Christmas break.) Once this stall is finished, I will worm the sheep and trim their hooves.

Yesterday I also paid bills, spent a first hour unpacking my office, dug the compressor out of the garage, found our winter boots, went grocery shopping, picked up my repaired horse trailer from Mike, put the trailer away for the winter in my neighbor’s barn, got one of my recalcitrant mowers started, and moved 4×8 sheets of sheetrock off the porch out of the weather.

Somehow the day was so heartening that I suddenly realized: I can do it. Yes, there is awful mess everywhere I look but the overwhelming snarl is becoming thinner. I will eventually prevail.

“I’m really happy,” I told DH when I came inside to wash up and fix supper. “I only wish I had two hundred hours to get everything done.”

Gods and Generals

November 10, 2017

One problem is solved. My farm friend Chip contacted me the other evening on Facebook. “Would you like a juvenile rooster?”

Ever since Monty’s disappearance I had been looking sadly on Craigslist. (Each fall there are free roosters available for the taking.) Unfortunately all the appropriate ones were two hours away. While I did want a rooster, at this pressured time the thought of using a day to get one made me wilt. Exactly how committed am I to the happiness of my hens? Now here was Chip with a potential candidate just down the road.

“Sure!” I wrote. “As long as he’s not some kind of nutty breed.” (I prefer classic, old-fashioned chickens.) I didn’t hear back. Fifteen minutes later, however, the headlights of a truck sliced through the darkness as I was walking down the hill to the barn. I peered in at the figure behind the wheel. It was Chip, driving with a chicken on his lap.

“What kind of rooster is he?” I said, slightly unnerved by the extraordinary promptness of this gift.

“I don’t know!” Chip said cheerfully, and showed the bird to me. The rooster was black with gold, green, and rust-colored feathers and a shaggy face.

“Oh! He’s an Ameraucana, I think. Ameraucanas also have black legs.”

Chip lifted the chicken to show me the legs. Black.

“Great!” Every rooster I’ve ever had, except for my first, a Buff Orpington in 2002, has been part Ameraucana. They are pretty birds and the hens lay blue-green eggs.

Chip explained that the owners of the farm where he works had not wanted a rooster with its hens and had told him to put this one outside and “let nature take its course.” This attitude always infuriates me. Nature left the chicken a long time ago; they are completely dependent on human care.

In the barn, the girls perked up immediately at the sight of the new boy in town, and flew down from the roost to look him over. The teenager seemed more anxious than cocky.

Chip said, “Isn’t he beautiful?”

Actually, I think he just misses beauty. He greatly resembles my old rooster Russell Crow, with green, gold, and rust over basic black. (Chip asked me what I would name him, and my first thought was to go Biblical and call him Joseph, for his coat of many colors.) However, this boy’s outfit goes a bit too far by adding a pair of black and white spotted cheek muffs and beard. These tip the look over into “too busy” — and to my eyes, plain.

From the rear he looks reasonably sleek …

… but from the front he’s got a little too much going on.

I really love to watch a beautiful rooster. However… no creature should be judged solely on beauty. This one needed rescue. He is here. And there is always the chance his look will come together as he matures. In the meantime, his unfortunate facial adornment reminds me of the Civil War Union general Ambrose Burnside, whose own extravagant facial hair gave “sideburns” to the language.

With my coyote stalker, it seems I could use a general in the barn — even a meek, teenaged one.

Welcome to the farm, Ambrose.

No Happy Ending

November 3, 2017

Even though I knew it was unlikely, I was hoping for another miracle. I really wanted my rooster Monty to have escaped the coyote. I wanted to open the barn doors to find him on his usual perch, to hear him land with a thump! on the top of the doorway to crow with joie de vivre. Monty was a big crower. Walking the dogs at 4:30 AM in the dark every day I would hear Monty’s muffled heralds to the morning from up the hill.

But now the barn is empty except for the four remaining hens, who are very subdued. There is no swaggering, boasting, cocky (live with a rooster and you really understand that word) black ball of energy, clucking and scurrying and busily investigating every development.

Looking at my notes I see Monty was killed exactly a year to the day after I brought him home. In October 2016 I’d told DH I was going to drive three hours round-trip to pick up a free rooster.

Early last summer my long-time rooster, Nelson Eddy, had passed away peacefully of old age, dropping dead from his perch in the night at age nine. Nelson’s son, Lin-Manuel, reigned for only six weeks before he was killed by this current daylight-raiding coyote, along with his mother and two aunts. I needed a new rooster.

DH said, “Why do you need a rooster? Don’t the hens lay eggs anyway?”

Well, yes, but in my mind a flock isn’t a flock without a rooster, nor is a barn a barn, or a farm a farm. To me there is something archetypical and comforting about a rooster.

Nelson ruling the manure pile, 2010

So I drove to a distant farm and brought Monty home. He was tall, dark, slim, and handsome. I named him Montgomery Clift. He was also very wild. Unlike every chicken I’d ever raised, Monty had never been around people. His owner caught him in a net and I drove him home in a traveling crate. The minute I let him out he exploded from the barn and disappeared into the woods. Our first few days consisted of me trying to lure him to the safety of the barn to lock him inside. Then once I had him inside, if he noticed me he took off with a squawk.

Within weeks he calmed down enough to endure me walking past from a safe distance of twenty feet.

And within months he sensibly paid me no attention at all.

But I watched him — and his cheerful, arrogant rooster personality made me happy all year long.

Oh, Monty. I’m sad you’re gone.

No Words

November 2, 2017

Yesterday was a busy day. After teaching, I raced up to see Lucy at college and drop off her birthday presents. I could only stay to give her a hug because I had to pick up my freezer lamb at the slaughterhouse and get home in time to pick up the dogs at the vet. (They have to be in the vet while the stair work is being done.) Somehow I had absentmindedly thought: Lucy’s college is two hours north, the slaughterhouse is two hours north, the two places are practically next door to each other. Nope. To my fright, at the last moment I discovered they were 45 minutes apart. Yikes! Hurry! I ran in to pick up the dogs just under the wire.

After unloading the heavy boxes of lamb into my freezers and walking the dogs, I pulled on my coveralls and went down to barn chores. That’s when I discovered the pile of golden feathers.

One of my Buff Orpington hens had clearly jumped over the hard 42″ fence and been killed by the coyote fifteen feet from the entrance to the barn. (To keep the chickens from wandering, I’d pulled the barrn doors closed, so after jumping out she would have had no way to get in except to jump back over the fence.) This killing happened in broad daylight.

My rooster, Monty, is also missing. I found no black feathers anywhere, so I have a flicker of hope. It’s possible he fled into the woods and is hiding. However, I do know it’s unlikely. It’s far more likely that the coyote carried him off to eat elsewhere. That flicker of hope can drive me crazy sometimes.

I’m so sad and angry with this coyote, with myself for not finishing my sheep and poultry pen, and with the  foolishness of chickens… I have no words.