Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Place in the Choir

Updates on the main hen house (actually written yesterday, but not published due to operator error):

Apparently the coyote-proofing I did is working (Praise be to God! With fingers crossed, knocking on wood). The count remains at 20 hens and 1 rooster--about half the number I had a couple months ago.

What I did first was tie a big snarl of mesh fencing on top of the post the coyote perched on, so that it wouldn't be a nice easy platform from which to leap into the pen. Not to cause injury to the coyote, but to cause discomfort and just plain make it difficult for him. I also made a small pen of 6' tall chain link panels around the door of the hen house, and lock everyone in there at night. When I have a bit more time, I'm hoping to extend it a bit and move their water tank into it.

I should mention the water tank. It's a hog watering tank, holding perhaps 60 gallons of water, with a low "drink cup" cut into the side that is supplied by the water in the main tank. The water in the drink cup can't get back into the main tank, so the ducks and geese can get the drink cup muddy and the main water supply is still clear. It sits outside the pen fence, so the poultry reach through the fence to swimming! The main tank can be used by sheep outside the poultry pen. In winter, a tank heater and some insulation on top and over the drink cup at night keep it thawed. All in all, a worthwhile innovation I learned from a neighbor who raises sheep and chickens. When I hauled all the rusted-out traditional chicken waterers to the metal recycler the other day, I realized that the expensive hog tank has actually cost less than the total of all the chicken waterers that would have been worn out...and there's a lot of life left in the hog tank if I'm careful to keep it from freezing in the winter. Plus, it has saved me untold hours of work, wet feet, and strained back carrying small waterers.

A real bonus is I never have to worry about the poultry running out of water on a hot day. I just top up the tank weekly or so. A further refinement will be when I move it next to the hen house, and can rig a gutter along the roof to feed rainwater directly into the tank (instead of the rainwater filtering down through the ground and being pumped up again by my household pump and fed through a pressure tank and filters and valves and pipes.) It will also be in a location where it can be shared by 2 separate groups of sheep then, doing triple duty. Unless demand from the sheep is high, or we have a bad drought, I'll rarely have to drag the hose over there. Dragging hoses is one of the few things I really dislike doing around here.

Out of 20 hens, I really expect more than 2 eggs a day! But that was today's gather from the hen house (the pullets in the brooder house are yielding much more). When I checked everyone between Farmer's Market this morning and driving the bus this afternoon, I picked up what eggs were there in the top row of nests. Then visually checked the row lower. Sections of snakeback festooned several of the open-back nests...Perhaps the same snake as before, but it looked significantly thicker. I saw the snake a few days ago coiled in a corner of the hen house.

I feel frustrated because customers want all the eggs my hens can produce, and that's what pays the feed bills (and will pay for replacement hens eventually). But I admire and respect the snakes and coyotes, too. They have a natural beauty, grace, and self-confidence that fascinates me. And I know they are eating mice as well as eggs. So I guess I am just a part of the ecosystem here, feeding the chickens so the snake and the coyote can eat, too, and so we're not overrun with mice.

There is something humbling and at the same time comforting about realizing I'm just another critter at the "predator" level of the food chain. A sense of belonging, I suppose. I could shoot the coyote, I could kill the snake, but then I would not belong to this farm--the community of life here--in the same intimate fashion. I would be an outsider, a conquistador imposing my values on the natives and plundering their gold.

Instead, I feel like a peer--a colleague--of these elegant hunters. We work together, in an odd sense, to keep a subtle, ever-shifting balance in the poultry and rodent populations of the farm...a balance far more important than the checking account's.