Monday, November 22, 2010

Chickens in the Snow

We had an early snowfall in Western Washington this year.  It started snowing yesterday, while the hens were out pecking for bugs, and they were not very amused by the whole ordeal - this was their first experience with snow.  They don't seem to mind the rain that much, but the snow made them pretty nervous.

There was a fair amount of snow accumulation overnight, and the snow is continuing to build up during the day.  When I opened up the girls' henhouse door this morning, Penny popped her head out briefly to assess the situation and decided that it was a good day to stay indoors. 

Their water had frozen, so I filled the jug with warm water and placed it and their feeder inside the henhouse.  I also put a tarp over their yard to help trap heat and keep the snow from building up in their pen.

Chickens can do just fine in a snowy climate, as long as they have a dry shelter where they can get out of the wind and the snow.  The bedding inside the coop provides some extra insulation, and the snow that piles up on the roof also helps to keep heat from escaping.  If the weather gets too far below freezing, we might bring them inside the garage to keep them warm.

The biggest issue is the water situation.  Their waterer should be checked periodically to make sure that it hasn't frozen.  As I mentioned, we fill our jug with warm water to deal with that problem.  You can also purchase water heaters; GardenSphere, on N. Proctor in Tacoma, sells an electric heater base.  A variety of heated waterers are also available at

It's also important to keep an eye on their wattles and combs, as these areas are likely to be affected by frostbite.  Rubbing petroleum jelly on the wattles and combs can help.

More reading:


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Egg Recipe: Feta & Spinach Quiche (with Homemade Pie Crust)

 We've had a surplus of eggs lately, despite giving plenty away, so I thought it would be a good time to make a quiche.  It required a whopping 7 eggs.

Feta & Spinach Quiche (6 servings)

HOMEMADE PIE CRUST (makes 2 crusts for 9 inch pans):
  • 1 1/2 cup vegetable shortening (Crisco)
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 whole egg
  • 5 T cold water
  • 1 T distilled white vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
Using a pastry cutter, mix the shortening into the flour and salt.  Do this for about 5 minutes, until the mixture looks like a pile of small pebbles. 

In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork, then add it to the flour mixture.  Add cold water and white vinegar.  Stir ingredients together.

Once they're well-incorporated, separate the dough into two halves.  Place one half in a Ziploc bag and put in the freezer for later.  Let the other half cool in the fridge.

Remove the chilled dough from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface.  The rolled dough should be a bit larger in diameter than the pie pan.  Once the dough is ready, place it in the pie pan and carefully press it to conform to the shape of the pan.  Tuck dough hanging over the edge underneath itself, then pinch the edge to make it a bit prettier.

  • 1 homemade pie crust for 9 in. pan
  • 7 whole eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tsp salt & pepper
  • 1 T Dijon mustard
  • 1 cup caramelized onions
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar
  • 1 cup wilted spinach
  • 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese

First, caramelize the onion.  Heat 1-2 T vegetable oil (or olive oil) on a frying pan over medium heat.  Peel and slice one yellow onion and place in the pan and stir to coat the slices in the oil.  Once they start to brown, reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to stir periodically.  After about 30 minutes, they should reach a deep brown color.

To wilt the spinach, place about 2 cups of washed spinach into a pan with a few T water over high heat.  Stir the spinach around until it has wilted.  (You'll be using 1 cup of wilted spinach for the recipe).

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place the filling layer-by-layer into the pie crust (with the feta on top). 

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, mustard, pepper, and salt together.  Pour the egg mixture into the pie crust.

Bake for about 45 minutes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Backyard Predators

Dorothy's recovering rump.

As cities keep expanding throughout the US, wild animals continue to adapt to city life.

A backyard flock of chickens can be a jackpot for these wild predators.  Having encountered no problems with Tacoma's wildlife population for the first 6 months of urban chicken farming, we had assumed that our chicken coop was virtually impenetrable.  We built a sturdy henhouse and covered our chicken run with wire - both for side and top fencing.

Several weeks ago, we discovered that our comfort was misplaced.  Around midnight, we were woken up by the squawking of our hens.  We ran to their coop with a flashlight and saw that three of the four girls were out of their house and huddling against the fence of their run.  We opened up their house via an access panel, and inside was possibly the largest possum I've ever encountered.  It was frozen in the beam of the flashlight, and all we could see around it were black feathers from Dorothy - but Dorothy was nowhere to be found.

We let the remaining 3 hens out of their enclosure, and they all went and hid throughout the yard.  It looked as if the possum had gotten in through the egg boxes by prying the lid open, which was askew.  We took the lid off and scared the possum out, then began searching for Dorothy.  We looked in our yard, in the alley, peeked into our neighbor's yard...but there was no sign of her.

The other three chickens were in panic-mode, so we put them in kennels inside the garage for the night.  We didn't want to put them back in the coop until we had time to clean it out and secure it properly.

Early the next morning, we received a call from our neighbor that one of our hens was sitting next to him on his front porch stoop.  We ran over, and there was poor Dorothy - delirious from fear and lack of sleep.  We picked her up and checked her for wounds, discovering some blood on her rump.  Fortunately, the wound was only superficial.

It looked like the possum had bitten her tail but got only a mouthful of feathers, pulling all of them out.  In the ensuing madness, it looks as if Dorothy flew out of the open egg box and all the way to our neighbors' yard, where she must have wandered around aimlessly until seeing his porch light go on.

We've since enhanced the security of our coop, and Dorothy is doing great - her wound has healed, and, as you can see in the photo, she has some fresh feathers growing in.

This event served as a reminder, though, that we live side-by-side with wild animals that are always on the look-out for an easy meal.  Raccoons, possums, coyotes, and foxes are the biggest danger in Tacoma.  Cats could potentially be a threat, but we've never encountered any problems with them.  There are numerous feral cats that roam our neighborhood, and while we've had the chickens out in our garden scratching and stretching their wings, we've seen the birds chase these cats away.

More reading:

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Not For Profit!

A selection of Penny & Dorothy's eggs.  Our two other hens, who lay blue eggs, have stopped laying since daylight has been decreasing in these fall/winter months.

Sometimes when I mention that I have a backyard chicken flock people will comment, “You must save a lot of money on eggs!” While that statement is true, it is also misleading. Yes, I never have to buy eggs, but the eggs are hardly free.

You can buy a dozen of eggs at the supermarket for about $1.50. You might spend as much at $4 if you buy a dozen of the free range, organic eggs. But even $4 is relatively inexpensive. If you buy a dozen eggs a week for a year, the most you will spend is $224. Owning chickens seems like an easy way to bring down that cost.

The coop I built cost roughly $200 to build, plus the time I put into it. If you want a dozen eggs a week, you will need three hens. Hens can be purchased at the pullet age (when they are beginning to lay) for around $25. If you try to save money by buying chicks, you end up spending comparable money on food. Also, chicks are more fragile, so they have a higher percentage of mortality. Three laying hens, if allowed free range, and if you augment their food with table scraps, should cost about $10 a month in feed. You also need a watering device ($15) and most likely buy a feeder ($15) so that grain is not wasted on the ground. For the first year, you end up spending roughly $425 on your flock, nearly twice of what you would spend on eggs.

Of course the second year is much cheaper, because the starts up costs have already been paid, but it takes a few years to recoup your expenses. It is important to remember that hens do not live a long time and that their productivity starts to dip in their second year. So after a few years, you may find yourself once again on the market for new hens.

I am not writing this to discourage you from raising a backyard flock. And it is likely true that, in the long term, you will be fiscally rewarded by your hens. However, it is important to go into urban homesteading with realistic monetary expectations.

There are many other benefits of urban chicken farming that I see as being far more valuable than saving a few bucks on the grocery bill. I enjoy taking action to become more sustainable and less dependent on distant people and policies. I take pleasure in watching our hens meander through the backyard and hunt for bugs. And they help me make a firm connection to nature. Nature sustains us all, and our dependence upon nature demands respect and reverence: I find those things in my backyard flock.