Joining the flocks after letting them spend their days in the large chicken yard together has been less dramatic than we feared. Still, in the mornings they start hollering to be relieved of each other’s close company around 6 am. I get up, pull on a sweater (that time of year), slippers and head out, a bleary-eyed zombie, and open the door for them, then go back to bed and to sleep. Not fun.

So I did some research on chicken coop door (“pop hole”) openers. I looked at many systems and products and in the end went for one of the more expensive but (I hope) less troublesome systems: the VSB motor that runs on batteries and by a light sensor made in Germany by AXT Electronic. I might get the timer, but we’ll see how the sensor works first.

I bought the motor, the rails and the door in one package from a US supplier, then got the outdoor sensor from AXT Electronic directly. It’s all pretty light and small:

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My install was going to be pretty straightforward. There is a lot of space in the coop, and no studs, etc. At first I thought I’d cover the pop hole that was already there, but it was too wide and, anyway, I thought it would be good to keep that one free (though closed), in case the electronic door stops working and the hens need to get in or out quickly. Also, since that new roost is pretty well stuck, it would have been hard for me to reach that area. Lastly, I figured that by moving the pophole and ramp to the other side, it’ll make access to the coop easier for humans.
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So I decided to cut a new hole. It took some effort as I had to cut through the box and the siding.
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Not straight, but it’ll do.

Whatcha doin?
Whatcha doin?

Then with the help of a bubble level, a pencil and my in spite of my perfectionist ambition to get it all level and straight, etc., I managed to install the rails.
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The instructions aren’t very clear, so here are some tips:
1) The “stops” mentioned in the instruction are the two screws you put into the bottom of the rails. When the door hits those, the motor will stop unwinding the cord. So make sure you install those bottom holes on the inside.
2) Make sure the stops are an inch or so below the pop hole you cut. That way, when the door is closed, an enterprising long- and nimble- fingered raccoon can’t get its digits underneath the very light door and pry it open.
3) Don’t install the rails extra tightly against the door: you want it to slide easily, but also don’t give too much leeway.
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So far so good. Then I installed the VSB box. First I opened the door to where I want it, then marked the highest point of the paper clip. I held the VSB so that that point overlapped with the bottom of the loop in the pull cord. It’s at that point that the VSB will stop retracting the cord (there is a tiny bead on the cord that pushes up the white lever, making the engine stop). Screwing it in requires a long drill bit.
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The distance between the bottom of the door when closed and the VSB can’t be more than 60 cm, which is about 23 inches. I was good.
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When I threaded the loop through the paperclip and let the door hang on it, it turned out the cord has some give, so I put in a knot to make the loop less long, giving the hens an extra inch.
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The sensor is threaded through a small hole in the bottom of the box and attached to the 5 and 6 pins. I put in the batteries, covered the sensor, and it worked! Here’s a 40 sec video:


I closed the box and guided the sensor cable along the open eaves of the coop. I taped it down on the inside and the outside (my hens like to climb up there) so they don’t get the idea to peck at it.
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Then I closed the other hatch and moved the ramp over.
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The real test will happen this evening and tomorrow morning: then I’ll see if the door closes not too early, not too late. If it does, I’ll need to adjust the sensor’s light sensitivity.

Beyond making my life easier, this kind of technology makes it possible for schools and businesses to have chickens without burdening custodians and volunteers. Wouldn’t it be neat for your neighborhood school to have chickens?

{UPDATE} It works perfectly: all chickens made it in at night, and this morning I was not woken up by their squabbling!

Our pullets espouse an escapist ethic. They fly up into the vines and no fence that I’ve put in place – the highest being six feet – has kept them in the chicken yard. Their adventures have led them into the vegetable garden, which is no big deal at this point, as most of the plants in there are done, but come Spring I won’t appreciate their visits.

They found the compost bins!
They found the compost bins!

They hang out under the raspberry bushes where I’m not keen on searching for their eggs. They are venturing further and further down the drive way, and soon the neighbors will have to swerve and the neighborhood dogs, some of which are just loose in the streets, will have themselves a nice raw chicken nugget.
So, enough of that. I became a Youtube expert in wing clipping and with Amie’s helped clipped those wings.

Victim number one: a Buff (I can’t keep the two apart):

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Ten flight primary feathers (I clipped only their right wings):
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Done, and the other Buff comes to investigate:
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The pullet jumped off and continued her scratching, no harm done. The primary flight feathers don’t have a blood supply, as you can see from the next shot: the shafts are a pure white.
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And some video:

We may march in the Big Apple in the biggest Climate Action in the world, ever, but then we come home where our lives are (somewhat) normal and comfortably small. Here we concoct an elder syrup of elderberries, elder flowers, astragalus root, peppermint and homegrown, raw honey. In fact, over a quart of it!
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One jar sits in the door of my fridge and gets sampled every day. The rest went into the freezer, which is safe for honey.

We also celebrate the arrival of pullet eggs! We’ve found five so far (these pullets are master flyers and escape over the fence to the great beyond quite often, so who knows), so must be more than one pullet. Figuring out which ones is nigh impossible, but it’s not essential. As the eggs gain their mature size, we might be able to start telling the difference.

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The days are shortening and cooling fast. I made that wonderful escarole, garlic and cannellini bean soup with an escarole head from the CSA box. Yum!

What with the four pullets moving in, it was time to build a new roost. This one should house nine chickens.

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Next up: add a nest box and an automatic door opener. The racket now starts at 6 am, and seeing as I go to sleep around midnight, I’d dearly love for the door to open by itself. We might build one ourselves, or buy a kit, don’t know yet. There are many choices out there!

It’s getting a little repetitious, but there were again many more tomatoes. The warm weather continues and there are still many fruits on the vines, so this may not be the last of ‘em.

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I’m looking forward to next summer, when I’ll have the super sunny front patio to grow tomatoes, peppers (can you spot the red one) and eggplants. The crew starts work on it in a week or two.

I went into the bees just now and found very little honey, just four or so full frames. There are lots of frames half-filled, half-capped. The bees were hard at work there, though (at least I hope they were, and that they weren’t gorging on honey in preparation of a swarming!). So perhaps I just need to be a little more patient and I’ll get another ten or so frames from both hives.

The generation of hens – three two -year-olds, one one -year-old and four 6-month-old pullets – have been combined into one coop. There’s a quite a bit of pecking, but not too much. The poor one-year-old gets the worst of it. No eggs from the pullets yet.

I am so thankful to these chickens for many reasons, one of which follows. Amie had her kids’ birthday party on Sunday (we postponed it because in Summer many of her friends aren’t around) and I promised to make the heatwave cake. I had bought a dozen organic, free-range, extra large eggs at While Foods. What junk that was! The egg whites were like water, one whipping and the yolks turned beige. The first roll wasn’t up to my standards, so I made another one with an extra egg (that one failed because we just got a new-to-us range, and I must have pushed the wrong button; it was yummy but impossible to roll up). After french toast that morning, we had only 2 homegrown eggs left, but the hens laid three more, just in time for me to make one more roll, which was perfect. I’m happy I made that many, because the nine kids ate ALL THAT CAKE. It went so fast I didn’t get to take a picture.

Quickly.

Made 25 pints of blueberry jam from Farmers Market berries and another batch from 5 quarts of berries Amie and I picked at a very locally IPM place with friends one thunderstormy afternoon. We came out of the field drenched but happy and surprised we had been picking for three hours. Our tribe will be co-purchasing and canning peaches again.

Blanched and froze 4 lbs of green beans, half of these from our garden, half donated by a friend whose community garden plots are going wild. We’ve been sharing a lot of produce, one garden producing more of this than the other.

Put together two 3-gallon carboys of sweet mead with the winterkill honey, which I pasteurized. They’re bubbling away in the basement and should be done in few weeks – but that won’t stop me from going down there and thieving some for a taste.

We’ve been consistently harvesting onions, green beans, cherry tomatoes (the bigger ones are almost there), kale, chard, squash, zucchini, cucumber and tons of herbs from the garden. That plus our farm share is more than sufficient for our needs, and when I walk into the supermarket nowadays I skip the produce section altogether. I only (and rarely) mushrooms, but then I just spotted an enormous chicken-of-the-woods in the neighborhood, beckoning. Come to think of it, all I buy at the supermarket is the very occasional fish or meat and butter, and predominantly milk.

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With our town’s Green Team had a booth at the Farmers Market yesterday. We displayed all the harvests from the school gardens – all of which went to the Food Pantry this morning – photos of our school composting systems, and talked to people. We also sold some of my Spring honey as a fundraiser, as well as purslane harvested (weeded) from all our gardens. We ended up giving lots of it away and having lots left over too. No worries: I brought it home and made it into potato-purslane soup, most of it for freezing. Yum!

The chickens have been consistent layers and we’re looking forward to the pullets starting to lay (in September or thereabouts)m at which point our bartering power will increase significantly. The two flocks are “together” – well, in the same shared space, namely the chicken yard – during the day, but at night they still retire to their own coops.

Lastly, how lovely, really, to get books delivered that you had forgotten you’d ordered. A big batch for me today: Pioneer Women by Stratton, Pioneer Women by Peavy and Smith, The Klamath Knot by Wallace, The Way to Rainy Mountain and In the Bear’s House, both by Momaday.

This is one of my favorite times of the year: the first harvests are coming in. For greens, we are eating kale, lettuce, chard and good king Henry, New Zealand spinach, mache, minutina, and celery. All the herbs – parsley, rosemary, sage, etc. are ready. The malabar spinach is almost ready and it’s a lovely climber that is colonizing the trelises that the unfortunate peas never climbed (we had only a pound or so, the bunnies ate the rest). The potatoes – from organic potatoes I bought at the supermarket – are growing like weeds. So are the tomato vines. No ripe tomatoes yet, though.

I’ve also started putting up. Yesterday I made a pile of basil from my garden, our CSA and the Farmers Market and made 8 jars of pesto (to freeze). I assembled rhubarb from the garden with some from the Farmers Market and red currants from a friend’s garden and canned 8 jars of rhubarb-red currant preserves. I’m tasting the white currants in my garden every day to get them when they’re just ripe. There are also grapes growing, lots of them, but those will take longer. If all the little nubbin figs on our one remaining tree make it, we’ll have twenty or so figs.

The chickens are laying four eggs a day. And there are four of them. Toothless, who got injured and started limping, then getting pecked on even more ruthlessly, went for a spa at my friend Katharina’s place while we were away. I didn’t want my intrepid chicken sitters to have to deal with a bloody, or worse, chicken. Toothless has her own little coop there to relax and recover.

Tomorrow I plan to go into my hives and take a full super off the strongest one (which swarmed during the week we were away!). I almost fell over when I lifted it off: full of honey! I’ll add a new super to that one and also one to the less strong hive. Both hives are making new queens.

Speaking of honey. I am enjoying the raspberry melomel I made a little over a year ago. It is mellow and tasty and not too alcoholic.

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But where were we all last week? Hanging out with this crazy bunch…

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… in the rain forest of Panama!

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More about that in some other post. I need to go water the garden, because it’s dry here.

Three posts in a day! I couldn’t resist posting also these pictures. Chickens are so good to have! They provide no end of entertainment. Unfortunately we have one mature hen who is injured somehow. She will not stand on one leg. I ruled out bumble foot and (thank goodness) Marek’s. None of the bones are broken, as far as I can tell. She may just have strained a muscle. In any case, she was already at the bottom of the pecking order and the moment she started hopping around on one foot, the other hens went after her. Luckily Amie and I were in the chicken yard. We saw two hens hold her down, grinding her head into the dust with a claw, scratching and pecking out her feathers. I think they would have killed her. I ran in and rescued her and we’ve been keeping her separate so she may hopefully recuperate.

But here are some happier chicken times. Amie hypnotizing Lucy, the 9 week old chick (pullet now?):

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Here’s a little video, with commentary:


Sweet, rubbery feet:

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When we let the chicks leave their mini coop to scratch and play in the chicken yard, we lock the adult hens in their run. They’re quite outraged about it:

"Can you believe it! They're letting those chicks eat our mint!"
“Can you believe it! They’re letting those chicks eat our mint!”

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But hey, the hens get enough time free ranging in the yard. When we’re home, we let them out every day, all day, since we don’t need to stay with them – the chicks would get scooped up by the hawk in no time. They love to dust bathe, reducing themselves to discombobulated piles of feathers in the dust:

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Can you even recognize them as chickens?

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So, for those more chicken inclined, here’s a video:

My last blogpost worth that name is from March 14, and I haven’t figured our Riot since December last year. One of the reasons for my silence was overall business (explained below), but the main culprit was that all the sites I maintain were hacked (same server). We had to shut down the Green Team site completely, saved most of the Transition Wayland site, and the blog, well, as you can see, most of the sidebar features have disappeared and, as you can’t see, the editor is a right mess, but here’s an update anyway.

Here’s a roller coaster run-down of events.

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On April 21, my parents-in-law arrived from Chennai, India. On Tuesday, my friend and fellow blogger, Katharina, dropped off the 15 chicks that remained in her care – she was on her way to DC and the Reject and Protect Rally. On Wednesday, add to this menagerie my friend R’s 16-year-old, mostly deaf dog for dog-sitting. And me and R saying our goodbyes and leaving all this to them, not to mention the care of the garden and chickens, and the hundreds of seedlings in the basement.

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Where was I off to, that was so important that I could leave all of them, especially Amie (for the first time for so long)? It was Stephen Jenkinson’s Orphan Wisdom School, and I will have to write more about that later. R and I were there, all wrapped-up in the goodness and sorrow of words, till Sunday, when we drove back in one non-stop haul (11 hours). R extracted her dog from the sleeping house, and I crashed, exhausted. The house returned a little more to somewhat normal when Katharina took all but our four chicks back a couple of days later.

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That Sunday Earth Day happened (more on that later too), along with Amie’s orchestra concert at Jordan Hall, and her grandparents’ surprise 40th anniversary present(s) and surprises(s).

Amie named the chicks and started “training” them. Always a joy to watch.

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Our days warmed, with some summery days thrown in, especially Mother’s Day, which we spent out side working in the garden, planting, among other things, lots of strawberries and blueberries. I also finished the drip irrigation in 90% of the garden, all of it running smoothly off the top IBC tote, simply by gravity. The chicks too enjoyed their first outing into the big world.

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I picked up new bees too: two packages. What a joy it is to see them fly again. In other bee-related news, Katharina, who is also a fellow beekeeper, roped me into helping her out with helping the young artist Jarrett Mellenbruch set up and maintain his Haven project at the deCordova museum. More about that soon, too!

My parents-in-law went back to Chennai, and the house is emptier. I like a crowd of animals, so I am glad for the bird song in the house: the chicks, though they now look more dinosaur-like, still squeak quite sweetly. And there is one more bird…

We finally got a friend for Amie’s parakeet, Kiwi, who lost his mate a few months ago. Kiwi had spent some time at Katharina’s (we’ve a veritable animal exchange going here) where he received a mirror, and he had fallen deeply in love with the bird in that mirror. That is why Amie decided to get a green parakeet, female though (hopefully), who looks like that mirror bird. Introducing a new bird is always tricky, so we had them in separate cages at first – having bought a huge new cage. But after some hours Kiwi was trying to push his heard through the bars, and they were singing to each other, so the next day we let Kiwi into the new cage and all was well.

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That’s my quick run-down of events. Lots to flesh out. I will do so, soon, promise! Now let me click the “publish” button and see how this looks!