As I do every year at about this time, I’ve gone broody.
I need chickens.
Actually, what I *really* need is quail, but they aren’t available locally. Failing that, I’d like a duckling. Or two. Or six. Whatever. Ron is balking, but I’ve seen a couple of people in town raising them as backyard pets, and they appear to be thriving. Sure, their wading pool will probably add a coupla bucks a month to the water bill, but that’s still cheaper than buying eggs at the grocery store. Plus if I ever adopt that Border collie I’ve been thinking about since January, it will have something to herd, so it won’t get bored and spend all day annoying me. And if we end up hating them? Duck is DELICIOUS. I’m not seeing a down side here.
Anyway, one way or the other, it is that magical time of year when a Rubbermaid tub full of shavings and a screen are supposed to appear in my office, and a heat lamp is supposed to hang over them, warming a flock of stinky-yet-adorable balls of fuzz.
My favorite chicken breed, as anybody who’s spent much time on this blog knows, is the buff Orpington. Orps are good layers with great personalities — curious as cats and almost as friendly as dogs. They get along well with other chickens, they’re decent foragers, and they’re entertaining enough that I could probably cancel my Britbox subscription if I had a flock. WIN.
Tractor Supply — the only local source for chicks that I’m aware of at the moment — does not carry buff Orpingtons. Or any other variety of Orpingtons, for that matter. They do, however, have a few barred Rocks, and if I’m completely honest with myself, I’ll admit that Rocks are probably a better choice for our yard than Orpingtons, because they’re much more aggressive foragers, and I’m told this neighborhood is lousy with scorpions in the summer. A flock of feisty barred Rock hens would happily knock down the scorpion population for me.
I think I’ll head out to the shed to take a quick inventory of my chick-rearing equipment, and then I’ll cruise down 66 to Tractor Supply and see what kind of feathered friends I can rustle up.
… listening to the soft plink of canning jars sealing in the kitchen.
Not enough tomatoes yet for salsa, but I just put up seven pints of pickles. I think I might roll Vegan Friday and Eco-Saturday into a single entry this week, because canning is an incredibly useful skill to have if you’re trying to shrink your environmental footprint.
This project wraps up a pretty productive weekend. I made a feed-store run, started two more batches of beer, blogged, planned for vacation, sorted recipes, ran errands, moved the quail, harvested cucumbers, took the dogs to the park, picked up guitar strings and a comic book, and put up pickles. Not bad; the only thing on my to-do list that didn’t get crossed off was a trip to Shivelbine’s to have the action lowered on my guitar, which I’ll try to do this week.
I am considering making two acquisitions after our vacation.
The first thing I need is a vehicle suitable for chasing stories in lousy weather, because the Dreamcar did NOT perform well on these hilly streets last winter. If I can put my hands on a reasonably priced AWD Volvo wagon, it’s going in my driveway. If I can’t, I’ll probably just buy an old pickup. Whatever I get will NOT be my daily driver, but I need something I can use for covering stories in the snow and hauling (sometimes literal) crap around on weekends.
The second thing I need is a half-feral cat to guard my tomatoes. We never had a problem with birds and squirrels raiding the garden in Tulsa, because the neighbor’s cat was always hanging out back there, but we’ve been battling the SOBs all summer here.
I’ll have to put a latch on the quail pen to discourage the new hire from going after the wrong fowl, but if this proposed right-to-farm amendment passes, I should be swapping my vulnerable little birds for a few big, saucy chooks in the near future anyway. (While I suspect right-to-farm is Monsanto’s latest middle finger to the planet, if it passes, I’ll certainly be happy to exploit the loophole it creates exercise my constitutional right to life, liberty and a flock of buff Orpingtons, and the city can get riiiiiiight the hell off my land while I do it. Supremacy clause, bitches.)
We had chickens for six years in Tulsa. We kept them in something called a “chicken tractor,” which is a portable coop that provides all the advantages of free ranging poultry (fresh air, natural surroundings, diverse diet) while also providing all the advantages of a confinement operation (protection from predators, shelter from the elements, ability to keep the birds out of mischief). Joel Salatin, in his book Pastured Poultry Profits — which I highly recommend — calls this portable setup a “tractor” because he can move it into areas he intends to cultivate and let the chickens prepare the soil for him. They are exceptionally good at this. Chickens will gleefully strip away vegetation, loosen the soil, fertilize it, remove weed seeds and kill pests while providing their owners with a steady supply of protein in the form of eggs. Everybody wins.
Chickens are illegal where we live now — as are guineas, peacocks and several other species — but quail aren’t, so I did a bit of research and determined coturnix quail would be an acceptable substitute for the time being.
In late March, I bought a dozen quail chicks from the feed store and embarked on a new experiment. Here are my findings thus far. I’ll post updates as the summer progresses.
Coturnix chicks are ridiculously cute, and their diminutive size makes them easy to handle. They’re also good egg producers — I’m told one hen will produce 300 eggs a year under normal circumstances — which helps make up for the fact that it takes five coturnix eggs to equal one chicken egg in recipes.
Because quail are much smaller than chickens, they also require less space — I’ve seen figures indicating anywhere from 40 square inches to a square foot of floor space per bird — and because they are ground-dwellers, they don’t use perches, so tractor construction is easier. They will, however, scalp themselves while attempting to fly if you make the coop too tall, so I constructed a quail tractor from 2x2s and half-inch hardware cloth. It’s roughly four feet long, two feet wide and 10 inches high, with a hinged lid and an open bottom that allows the birds direct access to the ground. I also enclosed one end with removable styrofoam panels to provide shelter from the weather.
The quail seem to be thriving in this setup, and they seem more confident, adventuresome and opinionated now that they’re outdoors where they belong. I can’t imagine raising them in an indoor confinement operation.
Their small size makes quail chicks a bit more delicate than chooks, and their mortality rate is higher. In the past month, I’ve had to deal with wry neck, leg injuries caused by inappropriate bedding, and issues with the birds maturing at wildly different rates, causing the bigger ones to run over the smaller ones until I set up a second brooder and separated them by size.
The other major drawback is that my quail have been exponentially more prone to random acts of abject stupidity than my chickens were.
Quail stupidity primarily manifests itself in a tendency to drown themselves by lying down in the water dispenser and falling asleep with their heads underwater. After one of mine pulled this stunt, I did a little research and discovered the placement of the water dispenser is important: If it’s directly under the lamp, the water will warm up and feel soooooo good that the babies just can’t resist napping in it. (Yeah, I have no idea how these animals survive in the wild, either.) I also threw some pebbles in the trough around the water dispenser so they wouldn’t bathe in it, which can lead to hypothermia.
Being cute does not prevent an animal from being belligerent. Shortly before I moved the flock out of the brooders and into the tractor, a young rooster attacked two other birds, causing serious enough injuries that I wound up butchering the perpetrator and roasting him with garlic and pecans so he wouldn’t maim anybody else. His victim seems to be recovering nicely, but I doubt that would have been the case if I’d left him in there.
This raises an important point: If you are not prepared to kill an animal you’ve raised, you probably shouldn’t keep livestock. It’s not fun, but sometimes it’s necessary, and if you can’t or won’t do it, your animals will suffer unduly as a result.
Quail chicks are harder to raise than chickens, but once they move outside, the differences are minimal, aside from their size and appearance. Given the choice, I’d still rather have chickens, and if you have the option, I’d recommend you do the same, but thus far, they seem to be a viable alternative in a city whose animal ordinances leave something to be desired.
Our quail finally showed up at the feed store today. We brought home a dozen. Squeeeee!
This is where they’ll live when they get big enough to go outside:
I’ll have an Eco-Saturday post about our quail-rearing adventures in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, here are a couple of quick facts about the cage you see above:
1. This is a “quail tractor” — a portable coop designed to protect the birds while giving them access to fresh forage. I’ll post details when I do the instructional post — complete with plans and a materials list — but for now, the upshot is that it’s a similar setup to the one we used for our chickens in Tulsa, except I designed it to suit the needs of quail, which are smaller and have different habits and preferences than chooks.
2. It’s not quite finished. It needs a roof, some corner braces to reinforce the lid, and maybe some removable insulation panels around one end to keep the quail warm in the fall. The hard part — cutting and attaching the hardware cloth — is done, though.
Now we just have to keep these little guys healthy and happy until they’re big enough to work in the garden. I hope they’re as enthusiastic about scratching up weeds and eating bugs as our chooks were.
I still feel sort of morally obligated to flout the city’s anti-chicken ordinance on the grounds that I don’t see the city treasurer’s signature on that check to the mortgage company every month, but I keep reading things that suggest quail — which are perfectly legal — are actually lower-maintenance than chooks, so I haven’t ruled them out.
The main advantages of quail, as far as I can tell, are:
1. They’re smaller and can be moved indoors easily if the weather gets too nasty.
2. They have better personalities than chickens. Personally, I loved my chooks, but some of them did have attitude problems.
3. They’re cute.
4. They’re quiet.
5. They’re legal. This is an advantage from Ron’s point of view and a disadvantage from mine.
6. Their size makes them easier to butcher quickly and cleanly. (Of course, this might be a wash, since their size also makes them adorable, which makes them harder to butcher, because who wants to kill something cute?)
7. They’re mostly dark meat.
I’m still trying to decide what I want to do, but that last point might be the determining factor. Anybody who’s known me very long knows I like dark meat better than white meat, and if I’m going to have a freezer full of something, I’d rather it was something I actually like.
We’ll see what happens. I’ve got all winter to make a decision.
I was too busy wandering around in a folk-royalty-induced fog yesterday to report this, but the fence guys finished enclosing our backyard yesterday, and my dogs are now contentedly wandering around out there, barking at imaginary varmints and stretching their legs more than they’ve been able to do since we moved.
The fence — a six-foot-high wooden job that should discourage busybodies from getting too inquisitive about my garden and its inhabitants — enables us to finish settling in like we mean it.
Without a fence, I was afraid to put in a pond or an in-ground dog waste composter, lest an errant child wander into the yard and fall into one or both. Without a fence, I was afraid to put in a beehive, lest an apiphobic neighbor complain to the city and inspire a flurry of anti-honeybee legislation at City Hall. Without a fence, I was afraid to adopt any chickens, as I am not entirely sure they are legal inside city limits.
With a fence, I can have all the bees and chooks and goldfish and rabbits and composters and other Have-More-Plan luxuries I can cram onto this small but remarkably fertile property of ours.
We closed on the House of the Lifted Lorax on Monday (congratulations to new owner Josh, who is way amped about the solar panels and the woodstove, and whose young niece is way amped about the Lorax mural on the side of the garage), which means we have just enough money in the bank to pay off our moving expenses and put a privacy fence around the backyard.
You can’t fully appreciate the value of a good fence until you’ve spent six months putting out a pair of hyperactive dogs on short cables umpteen times a day. Yeesh.
In addition to affording us the convenience of opening the back door and letting Song and Riggy take themselves out, this fence will free us up to establish a new beehive, adopt some chooks, install a pond, start a compost pile, and — if I’m feeling really ambitious — maybe set up a small warren of rabbits without interference from curious neighbors of either the two- or four-footed variety.
I put in an experimental, totally halfassed garden this spring and learned enough about my new yard to feel pretty confident taking my usual “Darwin Garden” approach: Coddle the tomatoes and leave everything else to natural selection. So far, I’ve determined that California poppies won’t do a damn thing; cucumbers, strawberries, arugula and most herbs will thrive with absolutely no attention; green beans should do well with minimal attention; and tomatoes should perform fairly well if we choose a variety that’s tolerant of partial shade and try to protect it from the local wildlife.
After meeting the new owner of the old house Monday and giving him some pointers on living the eco-hippie life to its fullest, I’m in full-on DIY mode, so this afternoon, I mixed up a batch of homemade laundry detergent and am currently trolling for dishwasher detergent recipes, since I’ve got plenty of washing soda and borax left over.
Also on the to-do list for this afternoon: Get a new set of shelves for the basement, join a gym, stock up on soup and chili ingredients, find the source of the smell coming from the kitchen drain, and work on the coupon books I’m making the kids for Christmas.