Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why Some Chickens Live Forever and Others Find the Stew Pot Before They're One.

Story time! A chicken-y entry today; four tales of poultry, with a knitting one due soon - maybe with another sneak peek into Toe-Up 2-at-a-Time Socks, ok?

We first started keeping chickens more than 10 years ago now, long before there was such a thing as Ridge Brook Farm or 2-at-a-Time Socks. I was amazed from the beginning by the intelligence and personality displayed by these birds. I should not have been that surprised. I'd spent enough time with pet birds to know that avian folk have a great capacity for learning. They also have amazing instinct. One day years ago we witnessed something truly amazing between our birds in defense against a prey animal.

The spring before this amazing event, we'd somehow ended up with a batch of 6 bantam chicks. This was not by choice, but was a hatchery error that initially had me shaking my head ruefully. These were not just any old bantams. These were novelty birds. Useless as layers unless you enjoy cracking 3 or 4 tiny eggs for every one full-sized one, they charm and delight their owners but are generally good for little else. They stand in defiance of my rule that if a thing gets fed, it should be useful. Dogs bark when intruders appear. Cats catch mice. Everyone has a job. Bantam hens look good, and that's about it. Unfortunately for me bantam hens that look good attract the support and affection of the rest of the family. After finding homes for the roosters in the batch, we were left with two small white Sultans and one White Crested Black Polish. The two Sultans were called "The Jet-Puff", and they generally functioned as one unit. The Polish we called Phyllis (as in Diller) and she was an amazing little hen. She laid eggs that were almost the size of a full-sized bird, and had a maternal streak a mile wide. She would fuss over anyone she felt needed fussing over, and was always the one to break up arguments about nest space. She was really the mom of the bunch.

At the end of a particularly lousy and dry summer, when the Jet-Puff and Phyllis were about a year and a half old, a marsh hawk (more properly known as a Northern Harrier) came into our yard in search of a meal. Marsh hawks tend to fly a bit lower to the ground in search of rodents for prey, but the vision that predator had of the fluffy small white balls that were the Jet-Puff proved beyond tempting. Hearing an unusual noise in the yard, I ran to a window and saw the hawk bashing into one of my lilac bushes, desperate to get at the birds hiding within and beneath it. I ran outside, waving my arms and yelling. The hawk moved to the other side of the same bush and continued to smash into it. Not until I was about 10 feet away did she appear to realize that I meant business and retreated.

I wasn't sure how many birds had made it to safety, or where they'd got to. All I could see was five or six birds hiding within the safety of the lilac, a few huddled under the asparagus that had gone to seed, and a black pile of feathers on the open ground that looked about the size of Phyllis. The Jet-Puff were nowhere to be seen. I assumed the hawk had killed at least one of them, and Phyllis as well, although why would it have been so relentless if it had made a kill? And it could not have possibly made off with multiple birds in a five minute period. The black pile of feathers did not move. I did not want to look. I checked the other birds first, doing a quick head count. No Jet-Puff, but all others, except Phyllis, present and accounted for.

It seemed so unfair to me. Poor Phyllis, I thought. Teary eyed, I walked to the pile of feathers and nudged it with my foot. Nothing moved. I reached down, sighing, knowing that it was too late. As my hand reached out and touched the soft ruffled heap, it burst to life. The white head popped abruptly out from under a wing, half-hidden eyes blinking slowly as if she'd been awakened from a deep sleep. It was then that I realized there was something else beneath her outspread wings.

I lifted her up and there on the ground, curled into the smallest of feathery balls, were the Jet-Puff. Phyllis had protected them. She did not have a mark on herself, meaning her decoy was effective. She'd spread out her wings over them both, keeping them safe. You could say it was an accident, that she didn't "mean" to save them, that's just where she landed in her attempt to save herself from the hawk. You could say it was instinct; that would probably be true. But the vision of that pile of feathers bouncing to life, and revealing the Jet-Puff stayed with me. It ensured that Phyllis and the Jet-Puff would live for as long as I could let them.

A couple of years ago we had a rooster named Plush. I had high hopes for him, a big Cochin boy, and planned to breed babies from him. Indeed we had a few in the incubator at one time. Beautiful, he was. One day he developed a horrible habit. He would rush me from behind and gouge my calves with his spurs. Eventually he started doing it to everyone.I tried everything to deter him. But it was no use; he saw me as a competitor for the attention of his ladies, and no amount of coaxing was going to convince him otherwise. I'd made a decision that he had to go before he hurt someone besides me - a visitor, or people just out for a Sunday stroll who happened by my yard when he was in a bad temper. The time had come, and difficult decisions had to be made. But before I could take action, he ended up a sacrifice to the coyotes who entered my yard and took about half of my birds over the course of an hour and a half. Judging by the feather pattern on the ground, he and his compadre Bed-Head, a Silver-Laced Black Polish had given their all and done their best to protect the hens, which is just what I would have expected of them. I was devastated by the disaster and the loss of all of those birds, but I was grateful that the decision had been made for me. Nature had corrected the imbalance, and I was off the hook. Too old for good eating, his death at my hand would have been a waste.

Last week when we returned from vacation Girl mentioned that one of the boys needed an attitude adjustment, preferably at the business end of my knife. Worst for me is that the boy in danger is a Cuckoo Maran, a replacement of sorts for my best-ever rooster, Napoleon, who served me (or maybe I should say served the hens) for nearly 10 years. The decision, made now, would mean that he'd serve a purpose in the crock pot. I learned from Plush the waste that brings. If I wait he'll be too old to make a meal for us, which violates a prime ethos of the farm - "waste not, want not". But, I thought, he'd never come after me. I reasoned that it must have been a fluke, or she'd upset him somehow (I don't know how, but you'd be amazed at the defenses I can dream up for errant animals around here). Yesterday he made a decision that will have terminal impact on his life. He went after my naked heels when I went to get a package from the garage that UPS had delivered. Soon, probably this weekend, his actions will result in a visit from me. Not one that ends well for him, I am afraid. I know a boy's got to do what a boy's got to do, but we're all family here and if he can't play nice then decisions will have to be made. They're free rangers. I can't have free range roosters attacking the neighbor kids or the little girl that walks with her dad of a weekend.

Earlier today I headed up to do chores. The birds are inside for a few days because of the snow and slushy rainy mix that's falling now and predicted to intensify. They hate being in, but they also hate rain and snow and I hate wet chickens. They make a mess of the chicken house - I mean Solar Barn - and then everything smells and is damp, which is both "icky" for me and unhealthy for the birds. When I went to fill their water and do some quick tidying, one Australorp hen would not step away from me or the fork. Just unwise, really, and shows a level of foolhardiness that tends to idiocy. Human, pitchfork. And she must choose: narrow door containing human and fork, or the safety of the flock. Which would you choose? She got by me and disappeared into the barn. I kept my eyes front, watching for more escapees, aware that turning my back for a second to track one sneaky hen could mean mass exodus for the rest. Catching one hen is not that complicated. Catching and herding thirty-six birds is extremely complicated. No one else even made an effort to escape; unusual given that they are a flock and tend to follow one another. I finished up my tidying and turned to find the black hen with the attitude problem and the single lone white feather in her wing. I found her easily enough; perched in the big green trash can we use for loose flakes of hay.

Now the interesting and amusing part of this is that on Saturday or Sunday Mr. Wonderful had opened a window into the chicken house - excuse me - Solar Barn - to let in some fresh air. I made a face, as there are no screens in the windows and the chicken wire to keep out bigger predators (and keep birds in) has not yet been applied. An open window is a temptation to a bird. "It's too high" he said. "If you say so" I said, and shrugged, knowing that any birds who got in could get out again, and the worst we'd face is poop on the tools and lumber waiting for the barn finishing in the spring. When I went to get eggs later that evening I discovered that someone had made it into the barn through the open window, laid one very dark egg in the green hay bin, and left by the same way she'd entered. Mr. Wonderful did not, at first believe me. I showed him the carefully made nest in the green hay bin. He still was not moved. "That's been there for a long time!" he insisted. I showed him the feather marks in the dust on a bale of shavings in front of the window. Nope. I could have done that myself. I showed him the muddy chicken tracks leading clearly from the window sill, across the bale of shavings in their kraft paper wrapper.

He accepted the facts. Now the interesting part is not that this hen got into the chicken house - how hard is that, really; they'd spent last fall and early winter driving the contractor mad with their constant jumping in and out of the chicken...Solar Barn, pestering him at every turn. What is interesting is that this one single hen, coming through a window to lay an egg, had a very clear image in her mind of where she wanted to lay today's egg. The minute I opened the door - not a window, not the same route at all - she made for the green bin filled with hay where she'd laid her last egg. She's never gone that way before. She's only accessed that nest one time, through a window, from the outside to the inside. But she knew how to get back, even from inside the barn; she knew that if she could get out of the chicken stall, for lack of a better term, she could get into that nest and lay her egg. In doing so she ensured that she will live to ripe old age and lay many, many eggs. Anywhere she pleases!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Of Socks and Friends

The first in a series of sneak peeks into my upcoming baby - er, I mean book - Toe-Up 2-at-a-Time Socks coming in April from Storey Publishing.

Today is Mary-Alice's birthday, and so in honor of the day I present to you all Ballet
Very special thanks to photographer John Gruen for his wonderful work on this book. But the thanks for these socks all go to Mary Alice.
I am, at times, difficult to work for. Not because I am a driven task-master. Worse, I am a scatter-brained individual with "visions" that I then hand off to others to execute. In the early stages of a book those directions might say something like "CO 72 stitches, work half in patt, half st st, work until it's about 3 inches long, then email me. Oh, gauge is 11 sts/in, I was on a US 0. Have fun!". Lucky Mary Alice often gets the brunt of those kinds of directions and has never once let me down in spite of my obvious letting her down by providing such a direction. She trusts the vision, and I love her for that. So a very happy birthday, Mary Alice. We're all very grateful for the work you did on this book. It won't be soon forgotten. Your friendship is excelled only by your amazing skill and dedication as a sample knitter for an obvious flake of a knitter. (By the way, got any free time this year? I may have a couple things I need knitted up...)
These were the first socks in the new book to be designed. The yarn is Valley Yarns Huntington. I saw these socks very clearly as I was falling asleep one night. I grabbed a notebook that I keep by the bed (this has happened before, this half-asleep vision-quest stuff) and made a very quick little sketch and some notes. Time passed, as it has a habit of doing, and I tried to begin swatching for and working on other socks, but I just couldn't. These guys wanted to see daylight and I needed to let them. I think that was a good choice! What do you think?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Like I said...

it just keeps speeding by. Last week was vacation, and in the first full day I had an offer for a book and three offers to teach at locations all over the country. I should go to Florida more often maybe? This week I catch up on some work; there's a list; and recover from the experience that is a Disney vacation. Relaxing it is not. Recovery is needed. For today I share vacation pictures, which I know bore some people and other people just love, and I just can't resist sharing! Next entry there will be knitting - I promise! The FO's from vacation and the work bits from this week, maybe even by Friday? Who knows. It's still going by so fast I can barely catch my breath!
Remy the Rat from the movie Ratatouille with his handler at Chefs de France at Epcot Center. Because anyone can cook!Dear Mother in Law - Yes, it's true. Not only have I corrupted him with raw fish, he also now eats snails. On purpose, and twice so far. I can't say I am sorry. Now if I can just get him to try frogs' legs.The Running of The Tourists for Soarin' at Epcot Center just after park opening. This is a cool hang glider adventure over California, sort of, and is one hot ticket. People love it. heck, I love it and I've been on it maybe 10 times. The best bits of California on a really big screen and a feeling of flight. Not bad.The wedding pavilion at Disney World that I did not get married in because a.) $10,000 for 7 people in 1997 (including the bride and groom) seemed just a tiny tad outrageous and b.) Well. OK. There is no B. Just A.Delightful view from the wedding pavilion toward the Polynesian resort which I kind of like in a kitschy, 1970's Hawaiian tiki party sort of way.Loud sound! I do not remember what primates these are, but they were yelling back and forth with white cheeked gibbons who'd just had a baby in a nearby enclosure. Although at Animal Kingdom the idea of an enclosure is liberally interpreted - on stage you feel like there are NO enclosures!The cat Mel believes he is. And I think he is, too.A friend I made while waiting for Wishes fireworks at the Magic Kingdom. He had a lady friend already, but her ability to hold his attention in the presence of a potential food source (which I am not - I do not feed wildlife) was limited.The corner of a parade float with the castle in the background. Really it's not a parade. It's a street party held a few times during the day and by the end of the trip I not only knew the words but could almost do the little parade dance. Gene has pictures. We won't be posting those.Just a moment of peace on the bridge from the Swan and Dolphin toward Boardwalk resort and ultimately Epcot. We resort hop either for amusement or to dine or in this case to visit a mini-golf course.Compulsive tweeting from mini golf course. Bad, bad vacationer!He beat me by ONE point. ONE! In truth I expected to fare much worse. It helped that he forgot to record a few holes and just gave us each a 3.I love the movie Fantasia and to see bits of it recreated as a mini golf course makes me happy. This is Baccaus, dumping wine down the hill. Such a waste. I hope it's a cheap blend.Our new favorite resort, which given that we're not planning to return any time soon is a bit sad...this is Port Orleans French Quarter which I would highly recommend for people with no/few kids - it's not as "cool" as some other resorts that kids enjoy - but it is small, peaceful and laid back. We usually stay at Port Orleans Riverside. I like this better.I flew and once again no one died!My bag is on the left, a duffle bag that was a Christmas gift a few years ago. I don't think it's made to be checked luggage, but there it is. It's made it across the country to Sock Summit as my carry-on (3 days on the train each way) and now it's begun a flying career - it has to be checked because it doesn't fit in the bin. I packed a whole week's worth of clothes in here. I was amazed that it worked; that I could travel without traditional luggage and be comfortable with what I fit in here for a whole week. Thanks to Dena, I am now a near-total onebag.com convert and am looking at carry-on sized bags for the future.So there I am, laying on a beach chair at the Grand Floridian waiting for tea time. Tea not tee. And I look up at the bright blue sky and the beautiful white sand and the swaying palm, and then I see it. The ultimate irony. "Waste Please". Every deluxe resort we visited has cans labeled the same way. Now I certainly know what they're saying here. But the irony...oh the irony.The resort at night. Ahhh. Love the place. So peaceful just walking around the resort, which is good since the rest of a Disney vacation is not exactly relaxing.Skipper Dan - really! An actual Skipper Dan!
Sort of like training your whole life as a figure skater only to end up playing a dancing spoon in Disney's Beauty and the Beast on Ice...The best and only reason for Lasik surgery. Cool Sunglasses. My jealousy over these things knows no bounds. On the plus side I have saved a fortune over the last 42.362 years. But man. What I wouldn't give to be able to wear cool sunglasses.I wanted to do this so very badly. 400 feet over the lagoon at Downtown Disney...and we pick the week with the wind and the rain and all manner of deterrents. The thing was grounded for most of our visit. The one time it wasn't there was an hour wait, and I was hungry, so I said we'd get supper and come back. By the time we got back it was too windy aloft and was closed. Curse my impatience!!
That's the end of the boring vacation photos - or really the tip of the 400 image iceberg. We had a good time, wore ourselves out, and are glad to be home. Recovering!!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Life Goes Speeding By

And sometimes you have to let it. Things have been crazy here for a while. First I got a bit sick again and had to go back on antibiotics, no big, just annoying that I want to be done and apparently the Lyme is not done with me yet. I am not a fan of drugs so the idea that I have to take these things for longer than the standard 7-10 days is difficult for me. Apparently 7-10 months is more likely, although we're at 9 now, and maybe longer the way things are going. Maddening honestly, and I wonder how many other people are mis- or un-diagnosed out there, ticking little time bombs, waiting for discovery. I hate deer. When they come through the yard I want to shoot them. I know they're not the only vectors. I could have gotten a tick off of anything. I was in the woods a lot. Heck, I live in the woods. But deer are the most likely source, so they've garnered my everlasting dislike, the poor things.

Then, just when I was thinking I really, really needed to get in here and blog, we lost our internet service - the dish broke. I discovered that I am indeed addicted to the internet. And now I am getting ready to head off on vacation, but I wanted to share a few things with you before I left, so you don't forget me!

First of all I did this pattern for Clover USA which you can download for free from their website. The socks are called Dresden.You can download the .pdf of the pattern on Clover's Make-It page. I love Clover. Ask my students. I have a thing for the Chibi and the bent foot tapestry needles and the locking ring stitch markers and...but I digress! Knit up a pair and tell us all about it!

Next, I am going to give you sneak peeks of the new book over the coming weeks. Today you get just a tease, a little taste of what's inside. First we need to thank wonderful photographer John Gruen for his amazing work on this book! Ok, ready?I love this image. When I saw this picture it took my breath away a little, I am not ashamed to say! The socks have names. On the left, from top to bottom are Seagrass, Wavelength, Twisted Baskets, The Keep, Raindrops and Helix. On the right are Peppercorn, Graphic, Ballet, Soft Waves and Kid Stuff. You'll learn much more about them inside the pages of Toe Up 2-at-a-Time Socks. I could gush about them now, but then I am a Sock-Mom, and we do that. We go on and on, waxing poetic about the compelling and complex twisted stitch pattern of Ballet, for example, and how the delicate cables of Helix make my smile every time I slip them on (I knitted the pair for the cover, and once done popped them right on my feet). I could tell you about how delicious The Keep feel in your hand, since they're knit in Malabrigo, or how the soft and subtle colors of Soft Waves, knit in Blue Moon Fiber Arts Socks That Rock in color Lunasea will make you want to head for the nearest ocean on a stormy day...but I'll save that for later.
You'll get a few more tastes and hints in the coming weeks - maybe after vacation when I post pictures of Mickey Mouse and socks all in the same day?
A couple of weeks ago I caught up with Kristen and Marley and Mary Alice at the New England Poultry Congress. I was half-heartedly considering trying to buy some birds. In the end we didn't bring along a cage, which was just as well. I didn't see anything that really caught my eye.Kristen thinks I need the Guinea sign. I think I may need both, although so far the boys are wonderfully well behaved. I am waiting until spring really gets here, then we'll see how their attitudes really are. If all four stay lovable I will be most pleased. If not, well, anyone with a mean streak can head into the freezer thank you very much! We ordered meat birds rather than hatching them out. With the book coming I am not sure that I want to be tied up with turning eggs twice a day, every day. Chicks I can handle!
This is a poultry oddity of sorts. It's called a Frizzle. Their feathers grow "backwards".Kind of strange. They look like chickens that had a bad run-in with a blow dryer. I don't think I'd want one, but I enjoy looking at them.
Today I came home to find this guy (or girl) lurking in a big maple across the street.Too close for chicken-mom comfort, but there's not much I can do. He has to eat, too. I'd prefer it if he stuck to mice, voles, pigeons...and left my birds alone. Chickens are really too big for a bird this size, but a bad winter will make them try anyway. So far with a mild winter I feel pretty safe from predators in the air.
The other day I came home to this.This is our killer cat, the one who was returned to the shelter after 24 hours when he "attacked" his adopter when she rubbed his belly. When I see him all sprawled out like this on Gene, belly exposed, I remember that and wonder how many misunderstandings between animals and people result in shelter returns or abandonments. The only misunderstandings we've had with him involve my obvious stupidity. He thinks he should be fed five or six times a day. I am too stupid to understand this. He thinks the papers in the recycle bin are toys. I am too stupid to tolerate this. He thinks he should be played with when he says so. I am too stupid to play. Just ask him. He'll tell you!
See you in a week or maybe a little more, with a new sock picture or two!