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Chandra's Blog


Entries in Quinn (6)


Hoffmans' Happy Hens or #birdnerd

So it begins, with Harper and Good GirlFor three years, I waited to push send on my shopping cart. I read books, researched breeds and coops, free range vs. pasture rotation vs. predator proof penning, puzzled over exactly what I wanted, how many, the types, and the eggs, oh the colorful eggs! It's no secret that there's a little bit of farmgirl lust in me. You can read my essay about goats here or this blog post where I confess my secret cow milking fantasy. But the timing was never right, until last summer when we returned from our tropical adventure. I finalized my shopping cart, and hit CHECK OUT. 

What has followed has been such a year of adventure and birdnerdom. I ordered our first batch to arrive during birthday week in early September. Since that original order, we have added to our flock four times, a second fall batch that included fun pet chicks for each child (they chose two Silkies, a Buff Brahma and a copper Marans--Welcome Poppy, Nugget, Posey and Fancy Pants.)

Poppy, one weekThis was followed by an accidental impulse order from the feed store this spring since we didn't have any Buff Orpingtons and who wouldn't want a few more Easter eggers? (Welcome Sunny, Cleo and Pai).

Our Spring Chicks--Sunny, Cleopatra and Pai










Then this past month, when our Silkies Nugget and Poppy went broody, I drove 40 minutes in the pouring rain, and bought them fertile eggs to hatch. (Welcome Bright, a Wheaten Ameraucana and Clara, a black copper Marans.) 


Last week, we adopted Orphan Annie, a rejected 3 day old barred rock from a friend, bringing our total chicken count to (cringe) 17. Seventeen chickens. 



And I don't even consider myself a bird person.



Nugget mothering the adopted Orphan Annie


But there is something about my girls. Maybe it's because we purchased unique, distinctive chickens that created the possibility for us to bond. If I walked outside to feed and clean and care for a random flock of seventeen Red Stars, indistinguishable from one another, I imagine I wouldn't feel the same attachment I do to my girls.

But we know each of our hens, their personalities and quirks, their habits. Good Girl is my faithful early morning layer, a quiet and fair leader of the flock. Magda has a bit of a mean streak, but lays gorgeous olive eggs. Posey and Fancy Pants are besties, never more than a few feet apart, so that I felt Fancy's devastation and betrayal the day Posey made a play for a coveted upper level roosting post spot, like one of the medium popular girls finding a rare entré into a posh clique, leaving Fancy running around the yard crying like Posey was dead to her. (Good news: Posey was promptly ousted by Prima and returned to her former second post status.)

Ding-Dong and Siren like to forage at great distances, way down by the stream. Prima dawdles at sunset; she prefers to be the last girl in at night. Nugget wants to hatch ANYTHING, and is very willing to be a lap chicken and ride on the swings. Poppy doesn't have many friends, but she'll do whatever Nugget does. 

Quinn takes Nugget on our evening walk



Raising chickens turned out to be surprisingly easy. We converted the 6x6x6 playhouse connected to our swingset into their night coop with minimal cursing and marital strife. We removed the slide and covered the windows with black coated hardware wire. We stained and mounted some AC Moore craft crates on their sides as nesting boxes and some 1x4 as roosting posts, and bam--we had an elevated, predator proof coop. 

my crazy kids going barefoot mid-snowstorm to collect eggs










My middle son is an early riser and lets them out in the mornings, where they spend the day free-ranging. They put themselves to bed at sunset and we count heads and lock the coop door at night. Throughout the day we are endlessly entertained by their hilarious antics and the chicken politics, as they roam about, eat ticks, bugs and compost, dig dust baths under our rhodies, and lay their eggs. 


This is by far my favorite thing about the girls, other than sitting out with my coffee and watching them be chickens, is the eggs. Oh the eggs! I selected girls so that my egg basket is distinctive and colorful. No boring, red stamped, pale yolked white eggs in our house. In fact, Siren, my Silver Lakenvelder is my only white layer, and I find her egg beautiful because of its distinctiveness. 

While most venture back into the coop to lay, a few of them have gone so far as to offer us kitchen door service, climbing into the box where I keep my gardening tools and depositing their treasures there. 

Posey delivers her eggs to the garden box













our countertop egg basket

I have a strange passion for animals doing what they want to do, and it benefitting humans. (Like my goats and poison ivy.) The girls are happily out chickening every day, running free, catching bugs, fluffing up their feathers in flowerbed dust baths, and then trotting up to the coop to lay their eggs with a faithfulness that defies the best egg predictions on the websites. Most of my girls, even the rare breeds, are laying daily. 

As a mother, I feel good about feeding my kids a protein source as fresh and close to nature as I possibly can. And it never gets old. My kids run out to collect multiple times a day, if I haven't beat them to it, proudly announcing the egg and its layer as they drop it in our basket. 

And even though we can eat some eggs (I used to buy 36/week) we have more than enough to share. Enter the idea of Hoffmans' Happy Hens. My kids love knowing who was responsible for their breakfast, and order them by name, "I'll have two scrambled eggs on a bagel, um, I'll take a Freaky and a Ding-Dong, please." 

When we started getting almost a dozen a day, more than we could eat, we offered them for sale--fresh, free-range eggs. (There is usually a wait list.) We thought other people might like to know where their breakfast came from, so we wrote biographies of our chickens, and took some sunny morning glamour shots.


These inserts go in the tops of our egg cartons, like a box of chocolates, identifying the source and the personality of each of our gorgeous eggs. Truly, they bring me a ridiculous amount of pleasure and I am only sorry I didn't venture into chickendom sooner. 

* *** *


Hoffmans’ Happy Hens

Know Where Your Breakfast Comes From (L-R in carton)

our daily egg carton, listed below L-R


 Good GirlGood Girl (Red Star) our first and best layer has laid a large brown egg every morning for 115 days straight! Top in the pecking order, she uses her leadership wisely. 







 SlackerSlacker (Red Star) a beautiful dark auburn who took a while to get going; but now lays a medium brown egg almost as faithfully as Good Girl.






PrimaPrima (Plymouth Barred Rock) a docile curious girl, she’s the first to come find you out in the yard. She lays a lovely, pinkish egg.







 Ding DongDing-Dong (Plymouth Barred Rock) named this because of the burnt feathers on her back when she got too close to the heat lamp, we are grateful for this distinguishing feature from Prima. Their eggs are as similar as they are.





 MagdaMagda (Easter Egger) this bossy girl lays the more olive-tinted blue egg. We often catch her bearded face peering in the kitchen window to see what we’re doing.







 Freaky FridayFreaky Friday (Easter Egger) this sweet girl endured a scalping accident as a chick that earned her this name. We think the way she combs her feathers over the scar on the back of her neck disguises it nicely. She lets the world know, crowing from the railing of the coop steps, whenever she lays a lovely pale blue egg.






 Fancy PantsBig Mama/Fancy Pants (Buff Brahma) this full-bodied, feather-legged girl is hilarious to see running across the yard. She lays a pink egg with white speckles in the front porch gardening box and screams like an old lady if you check on her.  







PoseyPosey (Black Copper Marans) Best friends with Big Mama, these girls are never more than a few feet apart. Posey lays a very large, gorgeous “chocolate” dark egg, sometimes speckled.






 NuggetNugget (Silkie Bantam) this tame sweetheart loves to be held and stroked. She lays a tiny cream-colored egg. She has recently gone broody and hatched two adopted eggs.








 PoppyPoppy (Silkie Bantam) this little darling loves to hang out with Nugget but sometimes Nugget leaves her out. (This makes Piper sad.) She lays a tiny, golf-ball-sized cream tinted egg.







 SirenSiren (Silver Lakenvelder) this shy girl lays our only true white egg with a torpedo shape like her body. Her breed name is Dutch for ‘shadow on a sheet’ and we often catch a glimpse of her darting across the yard to forage.


 * *** *







Monday Musing -- talk before sleep

Some days with homeschooling my three kids in the middle of a northeastern winter, I wonder at my decisions. Some mornings there is so much whip-cracking and bellyaching involved, I'm astounded. My husband is home from Utila right now and has front row seats to the circus that is our morning routine.

J asked me if it is always like this, and I was tempted to use a phrase that has been long-banned from our relationship, Welcome to my world. Because let's be honest, does anyone, especially among the long-married, ever mean, come on in, can I get you a drink, take your jacket, show you around, welcome you to my lovely world?

But the truth is, it isn't always like this. I can appreciate I've got a pretty good gig, here in this momjob. After we got our busywork done, I took all the kids to the rink where we run "Learn to Skate" on Mondays, which means hours of open ice, friends, and fresh air, followed by Hayden's science club and playdates, Max's hockey practice, homemade spaghetti sauce (where everyone detected the spinach and boycotted!) brownie baking and sleepovers. After reading to Piper and Quinn, Piper's sister cousin age 4, who are on an every-other-on-again-off-again sleepover schedule (it's not as complicated as it sounds) I get to eavesdrop on their pre-sleep conversations. 

Q: Piper! Great news! I can feel the little hairs growing in my armpits! I'm so excited!

<Long pause>

P: Quinn, everyone has hairs in their armpits. Everyone has hairs everywhere.

Q: But these would be real hairs. 

P: Mom. Are you still in here?

Me: Yes.

P: I think I burst another eardrum, just now, while blowing my nose.

Me: Sorry to hear that, honey.

<long pause>

Q: Piper, I can't sleep.

P: Try to do some math problems in your head.

Q: <heaving a sigh> What's MATH?

<long pause>

P: You know what I wish? I wish it were a hundred thousand years ago, and I were a baby, but I still had my sense of humor, and I could just go around eating or stomping whatever I want.

Q: <dreamily> yeah....

Three minutes later, it was this:




Favorites on Friday-Letting Go

Everyone has a favorite holiday--mine is Christmas. I wrote an ode to the ritual of Christmas last year, on the importance of making the magic for my own family as my parents made it for us. This year, I want to honor the opportunity that this time brings for letting go. Christmas in America has come to mean a time of excess--excessive splurging and gorging and maxxing out and doing it all. I recently overheard my uncle ask my mom how she was doing with holiday prep and she said, "Frantic!" and he said that he believed that was an honorable celebration of Christmas--can you imagine how frantic poor Mary felt having to travel so close to her due date, to be taxed, and then go into labor and have to give birth in a barn? 

But I don't want to be frantic, and I don't want to scramble to do all the things that will make the magic so that I risk losing some of what I am really craving: peace, and time with people I love. 

It's easy to get comparative at Christmas. My kids complain that we don't decorate our yard with inflatable snow globes or hang icicle lights from our eaves. I use the excuse that we live far off the street to get out of the snow globe horror, and that our eaves are two precarious stories up--do they not remember how many times Daddy dropped the F-bomb as we maneuevered the ancient, creaky extension ladder up to the roof so he could teeter up there and spray/silicone the hole where the wasps were coming in last month?!

It is also easy to compare this Christmas to ones that came before--we're not going to the Caribbean (because of hockey and an adolescent Sampson who cannot be left for two weeks) and I worry, when the rest of the family leaves, will they be sad? And what about presents? Did we buy enough WOW gifts? Enough surprises and treasures and presents? Are there too many useful items like clothes and toothbrushes and new boxer shorts?

I ordered my Christmas cards early, but with this photo as my frontrunner, you might wonder why most of them are still sitting in the box, half-addressed? It's far from perfect, but it captures the essence of this year pretty well:


CHRISTMAS CARD 2011And though I managed to get three chocolates into each of the advent stockings that hang in the garland up the stairs, in early December I was crushing to get my second novel off to my agent and didn't put in slips of paper with carefully thought-out, festive directives of past years:

do a good deed for someone

set up the LGB train

go for a night drive and look at Christmas lights

watch the Grinch

bake Christmas cookies for the classrooms

go to the Tableaux

learn a Christmas song on the piano

help Mom stamp the Christmas cards

read Jan Brett's "Christmas Trolls"

go on a date with Mom/Dad to buy presents for siblings

While we are managing to do most of these things, I worry that it is not with anticipation and mindfulness, with the ritual I had hoped. The Tableaux were a disaster--Max had binged on three (five?) donuts at our three morning hockey games and was a full-on grouchy Scrooge, despite the fact that his beloved Harper was playing the part of the baby Lord. Piper upon spying her best friend in the processional, had a screeching tantrum about not being able to sit with Ellery--the accoustics in the Cathedral are really something.

We did manage to bake the cookies for their classroom Christmas parties, but they look more Cake Wreck than blog-worthy and I kept reminding myself that it is the PROCESS, not the PRODUCT.


One Piper piping...

the product 

I do these instead of individual classroom gifts because I maintain that there is nothing I want to buy that I can afford sixty of as classmate gifts, and there is nothing I want to receive that someone else bought sixty of, (see my post on plasti-Christmas-crap)

I worry my kids are a little let-down by this--that when everyone else is handing out Santa erasers and foam picture frames from Oriental Trading Company, they have a tray of cookies to share, but they did report that our less-than-beautiful cookies were a huge hit and brought home nothing but crumbs, much to J's chagrin. 



I am committed to letting go this year. Everything will not be perfect. The majority of the hundreds of items the kids have initialed in the toy catalogs will go unpurchased.

(We have often said it would be easier and save ink if they just initial the handful of items they don't want.)

But there are presents under the tree, puzzles and books and new hockey equipment and Legos and Beyblades and snowpants and handsewn Ugli dolls and dollhouse accessories and clothes and (shh! an iPad2) and I hope that by the time Christmas comes, I will have made peace with all the things I didn't do or buy or finish... 

Yesterday, my sister and Harper and Quinn were here to bake cookies, address cards and for me to work on sewing Harper's quilt. Instead, I lay down on the couch with the baby on my chest so my sister could stuff her cards. Instead of baking cookies, Piper and Quinn played with the wooden nativity and rescued the baby Lord from Sampson's jaws, peppered with multiple live re-enactments of the Christmas story.  It is easy to let go when you see that there is magic happening, even if it is not the one you scripted.

Piper and Quinn play Mary and Baby



Favorites on Friday -- Harper

I love HarperCollins, who brought CHOSEN to life as a hardcover and last month, in paperback, and I am having a great time on the blog tours with TLC and ChickLitPlus, but this post is about another Harper debut, my sweet niece born on 11/11/11 at 11:11 who has me smitten. Harper Ford

What a fantastic sister I have to not only move from the Caribbean to the PA farmhouse in the apple orchard only a hundred yards from my front door with her instant playmate daughter for my daughter, Piper's 'sister-cousin', but then to give birth to another sweet baby who brings magic and her angel sphere to our life every day. 

My love for babies is no secret--I will travel to orphanages in Eastern Europe to hold babies and have cherished that early time with each of my three. There is a frequent revisiting of this issue in the Hoffman House (captured in my article "Are You Done?") a constant questioning about whether or not this sphere will only visit our house in the form of nieces and nephews from now on... 

Harper in our lives is all the fun of baby time--walking up to steal her away for a prolonged visit at our house while my sister sleeps, play with her, and then the ability to drop her back off if she squawks too much.

What a gift for my kids as well! I knew Piper would love her (and accelerate her campaign big time for Piper and Harpera baby sister of her own) and Max has always been obsessed with babies, but one of my biggest delights was when Hayden held her for the first time. 

Hayden is a great big tough ten-year-old now, bustling from hockey games to researching rare reptiles to hip-hop dance class and interested in all things Flyers and Lego. I put a week-old Harper in his arms during our extended family's Sunday Night Dinner, and her pure innocence and magic touched something in him--he started laughing, the delicious, uncontrolled, joyful chortling of his toddlerhood, a hearty belly- laugh I haven't heard from him in ages. It didn't stop--he just kept laughing, marveling over her toes, her tiny fingers clutching his, the way she dreams with dramatic rapid eye movement, lids open...  

Today, my favorite thing on Friday is Harper, and the rest of her lovely family, the gift of getting to raise my family in this extended village, and be the doting auntie to its newest member. 

Auntie C and Harper Ford


Weekly Dog Blog -- Sampson, 9 Weeks

Age: 9.5 weeks

Weight: 30.4 lbs

Yes, you read that correctly. In his first three weeks home, Sampson has almost doubled his body weight. 


The past week and a half have flown by with my husband's birthday and the arrival of my sister's family as they transition from full time Caribbean life to a US existence. I have hardly known how to handle myself, so many exciting things at once. If you haven't  read This POST about the fabulousness that is my sister, you might not get how giddy this makes me, to have her family shouting distance away... 


Piper and Quinn with their ongoing painting projectAnd Piper has been thrilled to have my sister's daughter Quinn, her sister-cousin. Both girls agree that Sampson's chewy phase is unwelcome. He loves following the little girls' flouncing skirts and thinks their delicious, sun-warmed forearms are just ripe for nibbling. Perched up on the kitchen counter out of the way of Sampson the other night, Piper told me:

"I have decided I don't want a puppy. I want a dog. The worst Jonah ever did was shake his wet on me."


Throughout this time of helping their family to settle in, Sampson has been a game little shin-high compadre, toddling cheerfully between their new house and ours. He should be relishing his final moments indoors at Casa Nowak because the white carpet comes tomorrow and it's not going to be much longer that J can do this: Over the Shoulder Puppy Holder

In addition, this past week we had our annual family reunion--a tradition my maternal grandparents started more than 50 years ago. From these two people, who had seven children, there are now 72 relatives--their children, grandchildren and great-grands with three new babies due. This year, we decided to hold it locally, literally in the common property. My grandfather celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday and we are all feeling blessed to have him as this winter he underwent treatment for cancer and beat it. The day before the fesitivities began, he played his first full round of golf. This is the cake my sister and I made to celebrate my grandfather's return to one of his favorite pasttimes:

Grandpa's Golf Cake

 Because of my grandparents' belief in family, because of them starting this tradition, my children know their second cousins more intimately than most people know their firsts. It was so fun to see the twenty great grandchildren traveling in a pack, fishing and bouncing and running wild. Sampson got to be underfoot for much of the family festivities in the backyard, scavenging under banquet tables, frolicking with my cousin's two-year-old Bernese Mountain dog and snuffling small cousins.

Our typical 4 am pre-dawn walks were spent restocking the hidden treasures for the weekend-long scavenger hunt and Sampson was a game little companion, sniffing out . In order to control him in such a crowd and monitor his bacon intake, I started attaching a leash to his collar. He mostly dragged it or carried it proudly in his mouth, but it was a start.

There was also time for a little bit of this--early morning writing with my sweet boy at my feet: 


Holy Biter, Batman!

When I was growing up, conventional wisdom was that when a dog nipped or bit, you 'popped' them under the chin. Never over, so they wouldn't see it coming or get head-shy of petting. This doesn't jive with our parenting style or who we are as people so I have been researching some non-violent approaches to keep Samps from being too bitey with the under-four set. 


In this, we coat Piper's palm with a smear of peanut butter, and then she calls Sampson to her and tells him to 'lick', while repeatedly praising him. The idea is that when he runs up to her, mouth open, she can hold out her palm and say 'lick', and he will do that instead. This has about a 35% success rate. The rest of the time, he just looks at her incredulously like, "Wow, you're giving it to me? It's more fun when I chase you down and you squeal but okay..." before chomping down with his needle teeth. 

2. "YIPE"

So when that doesn't work, we have tried to teach her to 'yipe', high pitched and loud, like one of his litter-mates, to give him the message that that's too much. If you know Piper, and her big-eyed, soft-spoken ways, you know that this only works when I am right there and 'yipe' for her.

3. Mama Dog Says NO

This is another one that is only effective when I am around and comes straight from the Dog Whisperer. When he gets her, I make my fingers into a claw/jaw and close them over his skull like a mama dog's jaw and hold it there making a low growl until he lets go. This is the most effective of the three, though nothing quite beats the foolproff way of keeping Piper from getting nipped--carry her; everywhere. 


If you have a great puppy-training method, I'd love to hear it!