The Girls Doing Better than I Thought With Cold Weather!

Gayle and I were absolutely breaking into a sweat over the onset of winter and the prospect of freezing temperatures endangering our hens: Buttercup, Holly, Broodie, and Harriet. Instead of sweating, we should have just chilled out, however. The girls are cool with winter weather.

We did a bunch of research online. Some folks put heat lamps and heated pads or even a heated perch in their chicken coops and seem to swear by them. Others, a great many others, assured online readers that chickens could take temperatures as low as 30 below zero. Then I read that heating up a coop could actually throw the girls’ biological rhythms off, like when they should be molting. After considering the fire hazards associated with trying to heat a coop, the anti-heating arguments finally swayed me over.

L - R Holly Broodie, Buttercup and Harriet Jan 2018

The girls taking a winter dirt bath. From left: Holly, Broodie (the boss hen), Buttercup, and Harriet.

So, what did I do to get my girls ready for the cold stuff? First, I made doggone sure that absolutely no wind or rain could inside their coop and run area. Probably a word of explanation is due here. My girls are out of their coop and run area all day long while they forage in our huge backyard. It’s close to an acre of land, making those hens essentially pasture raised. When they coop up at night, however, three of them–Broodie, Harriet, and Buttercup–don’t actually go into the coop, the wooden “apartment” that’s truly weatherproof. Oh, no! They jump onto a perch in the run to go to bed and use the wooden coop ONLY for egg laying and nesting. Holly, on the other hand, sleeps up in the apartment more often than not. Maybe she’s a little smarter than the other three. Once in a while, though, I’ll count four birds in a row on that perch in the run. Frustrating! Accordingly, my mandate was to weatherproof the run.

Setting about the task of making the run rain and windproof, I duct taped plastic sheets around all the areas open to the wind. Then I threw waterproof paint cloths (one side of which was plastic-lined) over the run to boot. Finally, just to make sure, I then put duct tap over every inch of the north-facing end of the run. I mean, I could squirt a fire hose at the north side, the side where Old Man Winter will really huff and puff, and those girls of mine would stay dry and out of the wind. Admittedly, it’s not insulated, but then again, it’s not heated anyway. (I do have some deep shavings and such at the bottom of the coop and run in the hope that it’ll all compost and generate a bit of heat, but I don’t expect much.) From all I’ve read, as long as they stay out of the wind and keep dry, they’re good to go as far as their shelter goes.

Chicken Coop 180108

The girls’ winterized coop and run. The wooden coop is upstairs in back. I’ve had to winterize the run by using duct tape, plastic sheets, and a paint drop cloth with plastic on one side to keep out the wind and rain. It’s not pretty, but it all works just fine.

NOW, I’ve also changed up their diet in these colder times. I ran off to Tractor Supply and bought a big ol’ bag of cracked corn. It takes a lot of energy to digest it, and will, therefore, keep my girls warmer at night. I’m also giving them plenty of scratch (seeds and grains, including more corn in the mix) and even spinach. Both scratch and spinach generate that body heat, as well. Then just before bedtime, I show up and distribute another handful of corn and, for the coup de grace, mealworms! Those girls love their mealworms. I don’t know if mealworms generate heat or not, but I read on at least one site that they do. One way as the other, it’s a treat for my good little girls, eh?

So far, it has gotten down as low as 15°, and the girls act like it’s 70° or something. When I go outside to let them out into the yard, they’re gossiping and fussing with each other and generally having a high old time. Once I open the door and let them out, they skip right out and commence to forage and act like it’s just another day in the sun. Whatever doubts I had about not putting a heater into my tinderbox of a coop, the one with dry wood shavings everywhere, have been laid to rest. Just like my girls, I’m cool with winter now. We’re all just going to chill out.

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Working at Home but Not by Myself!

Not too long ago, I put the brakes on commuting back and forth to work and decided to bang away at a keyboard at home. Heck, I even have my own website nowadays. People sometimes wonder how I handle being alone all day without anyone to talk to. Oh! When Gayle is out and about, I am anything BUT alone. Living on the edge of town, a little one at that, we more or less live out in the country. That has facilitated the acquisition of a BUNCH of pets. We have seven rescue dogs (BigDog, Trudy, Marley, Mr. Little, the Beanie Boy, Heidi, and GrayGirl), four cats (Shadow, Cuddles, Missy, and Punkin’), AND four–count ’em–four chickens (Broodie, Harriet, Buttercup, and Holly). My day is absolutely filled with one conversation after another, querying various suspects about that pillow on the floor, who knocked over the candle on the table, or who isn’t pulling her load laying eggs that day.

While we all miss Miss Gaylie when she’s gone, I am anything but lonely here on those days when she wanders off to substitute teach. My animal friends and partners enrich each day and keep me plenty busy!

Poor Little GrayGirl Older Than We First Thought

This month marks about a year since our veterinarian introduced us to Miss Gray. Her previous owner had died of Alzheimer’s Disease, and the stricken woman’s daughter had brought poor Gray in to be euthanized. Thank goodness our vet is more interested in the humane treatment of animals than he is in making a buck. People can tell he really, really likes the critters he sees at the office. He simply took Gray and promised to give her to a good home. After a false start at one good home (she’s not a playful pup for kids), she ended up here. Since then she has been in and out of the vet’s office like she works there or something!

GrayGirl Oct 2017

Miss Gray on her couch

When the vet first gave her to us, he said that his best guess was that she was about 10 years old. That made me happy enough. I figured I had another 6 or 7 years to love her and give her a good life. On our last visit a week or so ago, and after reviewing a BUNCH of tests done at the doggy emergency room for an acute tooth and gum problem earlier, he said he thought he was off on his first estimate and that she is much older. Her kidneys are slowing down and so is her appetite, both symptoms of older dogs. She still has issues with her teeth and gums, and I have yet another appointment to take her in for another battery of tests to see if the vet can safely use anesthetics and what type during the procedure to clean her teeth, fight her periodontal disease, and give her little mouth a fighting chance. He’s pretty much treating her like an old, old dog nowadays. I guess that makes sense. Everything seems to point in that direction.

My heart is just broken over this. Oh, my love for little Gray was not and is not predicated on her age or how often she has to go to the vet or anything like that. When I love someone, and that’s what Gray is–a someone, a member of the family–I want her around for as long as possible. Now, I think I have to focus on giving her the absolute best life I can in the time she has left, whether that’s another year or two or less. That’s my duty to her and my sincere desire. I love you, Miss Gray. I will treasure every day you are with us.

Colder Weather and My Chickens

The temps are starting to get into the 40’s at night, which may not appear to be so cold to a reader from Maine, but it’s pretty chilly to Texans and Texas chickens! Eventually, it’ll get around to freezing even this far south. That shouldn’t be a problem for my girls. They have a nice, warm coop made of thick, sturdy wood with plenty of wood shavings on the floor. The problem is that they won’t get in the coop except to lay their eggs. The rest of the time, they run around the yard foraging and doing what chickens do. Then, come bedtime, they go into their run, which is attached to the coop and fenced in to keep predators like raccoons out, and hop up on a perch out there. Every night I count four birds in a row–Broodie, Harriet, Buttercup, and Holly–on that perch.The upshot is that they’re protected from predators but NOT the weather on that outside perch. At least they weren’t.

Chicken Tent

My solution? Well, I’ve turned their run into a tent of sorts. First, I duct-taped plastic trash bags around the front and sides of the fencing to really windproof things (being careful to leave plenty of ventilation, of course), and then I slapped canvas over the run to combat wind and rain. I’ve created a campsite of sorts for the girls, and I think it’s going to do the job. They’ve got such a nice, warm coop but insist on sleeping elsewhere. I guess the camp is going to have to do for now, unless they figure out that their sturdy coop is the place to be as the weather gets even colder.

Rats!

Raising chickens has its uppers and downers, mostly uppers. (Coop cleaning is a bit of a downer.) I had no idea just how much personality chickens have and how much fun they are until I started to raise them. Raising them, however, means feeding them. Feeding them means putting out chicken feed. Putting out chicken feed means rats. Rats mean trouble.

Chickens Keeping Cool 170818

Buttercup scarfing cucumber

Yep, I went out the back door the other day to check on my girls, and–wouldn’t you know it?–I spotted a big ol’ gray rat scurrying between the two halves of  cucumber I had put out for the hens. I didn’t do much about it that first time. I don’t know why. Anytime I’ve spotted a problem and ignored it in the past, it just got worse, and this was no exception. I went out the next morning to let them out of the coop, and there was that (apparently) same rat again INSIDE the coop! OK, I opened the coop, let the girls out, and then I had to grab a stick and scare that rat out from under the water can and thence out the coop door. Of course, right then and there I decided I’d have to do something about my rat problem, but it took me a day or two to get into town and get my anti-rat supplies. When I went into town, I drove over to Brazos Feed and Supply in Waco and, after some discussion, decided on a two-pronged approach to my rodent problem. First, I got what amounted to a roach motel for rats. It was a big, plastic container with a tunnel that led straight to a block of poison that Mr. Rat was supposed to nibble on and then go somewhere and die. I know. It sounds kind of mean, but I’ve got to protect my girls. I also bought a large, metal, spring-loaded, traditional-looking rat trap. A hungry rat starts nibbling on the bait (in my case, cucumber), trips the trigger, and–THWACK!–one less large rodent in the world.

Returning to the house with my defensive weapons, I waited until dark and for all four of my girls to coop up, and then deployed them. I put both of them about two feet apart where I’d seen that rat running by the cucumber. The plastic rat motel was easy. I just took it out of the box and sat it down on the ground to do its work. The metal, spring-loaded trap was another matter. Baiting it wasn’t hard. I just hooked a piece of cucumber onto the metal spike sticking up at a slant on the trap door or trigger. Next, I carefully set the trap, all the while trying not to lose a finger, and then gently set the trap where I’d last seen my prey. The next morning I wandered outside and, sure enough, the rat motel had been moved a bit, so I figured a rat had visited. Upon closer inspection, the block of poison looked nibbled on just a bit, too. As for the trap, there actually was a rat, stiff as a board, caught in it. Honestly, I felt a little bad for the poor guy. I mean, rats aren’t inherently evil creatures, but they spread germs that can kill my chickens. Heck, those germs can get me, too. It was rats that caused the Plague in medieval Europe! Steeled by such thoughts, I grabbed the trap, disposed of the rat, and cleaned it off for the next round, since there was bound to be more than one of those critters.

Trap

Metal trap with cucumber tied down

After the girls cooped up that night, I put the poison and the trap out again. When I got up and looked outside, there was another one of those critters in the trap. I reset the trap that night, and the next morning I observed a curious happenstance: the cucumber was gone and so was the rat. The trap had not even sprung. I observed the very same phenomenon the next morning, as well. No cucumber. No rat. Rats! That little spike on the trigger wasn’t doing such a great job of holding onto the bait. Either that or I had one crafty critter on my hands.

Poison

Poison Rat Motel

Doing a little research on the web, I read that one guy actually used string to tie his bait to the trigger. That seemed pretty logical to me, actually, kind of a forehead slapper, so I dug out some string I had hidden in a drawer and tied my cucumber to that metal trap like Oil Can Harry tying Sweet Polly to some railroad tracks. The next morning, my trap had done its work yet again: one less disease-carrying rat in the world.

I don’t know that I’ve gotten every rodent within 100 yards of my girls’ coop or not, but I haven’t seen one cruising the buffet bar in several days now. I’m still putting the rat motel and rat trap out every night, and I will do so for about another week just to make sure; nonetheless, I think I’ve got a handle on the problem now.

Mom Is Getting Jealous!

The social dynamics around my house are changing now that I am semi-retired and work at home. I’m home all day now, and it is affecting a very important doggy relationship. (We have cats, too, but they don’t care who’s around.) In particular, Mr. Little, Gayle’s favorite canine cutie, a critter who can do no wrong as far as she is concerned, is beginning to hang around Dad more and more, even at night when Gayle comes home from her substitute teaching gigs, when she has them.

Mr. Little Oct 2014

Mr. Little looking up while worrying his weasel, his fav toy.

Even now when Gayle gets home in the evening, Little, along with the rest of the guys, races to the driveway gate to meet her and escort her inside the house. It is quite the joyous celebration, and Little joins right in! In times past, however, he would attach himself to her at the gate like he was Velcro and that was that. Wherever Gayle went, Mr. Little was right there to make sure she didn’t leave again. NOW he peels off after escorting her inside and stays with me while I’m in my office or wherever. Now he’s done it. He has officially hurt Gayle’s feelings. Every night for the last week she has wandered into whatever room I’m in and asked where Little is. Invariably, he’s been lying at my feet or right alongside me on the couch. (I’m rather astounded that GrayGirl, the Chihuahua Couch Queen, tolerates this!) When Gayle spots him, she starts wheedling, remonstrating, and otherwise begging for him to get up and go with her. No dice. He just lies there like the proverbial rug. Occasionally, he’ll look up at her, and that’s the sum total of his response. I feel kind of bad for her. A couple of times, I’ve actually picked the little guy up and hauled him into the bedroom, where Gayle usually is, and plopped him on the bed beside her. He’ll generally stay–for a while. The next thing I know, I look down, and there he is! That will generally produce another forlorn foray from the bedroom as Gayle tries to retrieve her baby.

Goodness knows I’m not doing this on purpose! I am NOT passively encouraging this, either. Little is just betting on the guy who’s here most of the time, that’s all. I think kids with stay-at-home moms fixate on their mothers all the time for much the same reason. They favor the one they interact with most. This could turn into a problem for Mr. Little and me both! I simply must avoid being so charismatic, eh?

 

Going to Prison! (To visit a friend)

I have a friend, Vince, in prison. He was a coworker who went a little crazy one evening back in 2014, and he landed in the Texas legal system and, ultimately, in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Wallace Pack Unit, near Navasota, TX (an hour or two from Houston). I’m taking advantage of a temporary situation and going to visit him soon because he’s a little closer nowadays. He’s been moved from South Texas to Central Texas and the Travis County Jail because a federal judge ordered him and others relocated because TDCJ was “deliberately indifferent” to the inmates’ suffering in sweltering heat. In Texas in the summertime, sitting in a concrete or metal blockhouse without windows, places that heat up to well over 100°, is indeed suffering.

Pack Unit Overview 160830

The TDCJ Pack Unit just south of Navasota

I applaud the judge’s order and not just because I have a friend in prison right now. On humanitarian grounds or even Constitutional grounds, it’s just cruel and unusual punishment. Honestly, when I became aware of it, I was living next door to a TDCJ guard in Teague, TX. That poor guy would come home from work looking like he’d been pushed into a cauldron of boiling water. He was wet from his shoes right up to the part in his hair. He looked whipped, too, slumping just a bit and hanging his head as he went inside his home. It was if he had worked in an oven all day. I don’t remember the guy ever smiling when I saw him trudging to and from his car. It seems to me that working in a prison would be a soul killing job in any event. Texas only turns up the heat on that process. I felt bad for that guy every time I saw him. It occurred to me at the time that at least he “only” had to suffer for 8 hours a day. The inmates never escaped the heat. It was a state-sponsored inferno all in the name of being hard on crime. Every year, I’d read about heat-related deaths at one prison unit or another. Every year. In Texas, where a guy can go to jail for years for such non-violent crimes as smoking a joint, every prison sentence can be a death sentence.

Politicians love to point out that plenty of citizens out here don’t have air conditioning in their homes. That’s sad, but it’s true. On the other hand, those same citizens can open a window, maybe turn on a box fan, or go outside and sit in the shade under a tree. They can even get on an air-conditioned city bus or go to an air-conditioned library or mall. Their lives can be miserably hot, but they can escape it when necessary. Prisons are built for precisely the opposite. No one escapes.

Good for for Vince. He’s got some air-conditioning for a while, at least until it cools down and he is transferred back to the Pack Unit. Even though he’s being punished for his criminal behavior, which he readily admits he deserves, he is not being tortured because some politician believes he needs to be tough on crime. The upside for me in all of this is that Vince is in the Travis County Jail in Austin now. When I go to visit him this Saturday, I’ll only drive about half the distance I would have had to drive if I were going to Navasota and the Wallace Pack Unit.

I’m happy for Vince and the other inmates rescued from the Texas summer heat. This should be an interesting visit.