Do Hens Make Noise?

Yes, indeed hens make noise. Far less than a rooster, but when it comes time to lay an egg you often get the stereotypical hen vocalization, technically known as “cackling,” which goes something like, “cluck, cluck, cluck, CLUCKAAAAAWWWWK!” Thankfully this only happens around laying time, which for our three productive hens is no more than once a day, and usually at a respectable time between around 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Some of our club hopping neighbors may get an early than wanted wake-up call, but so far nobody has complained.

Being naive first time chicken owners, the first time we heard this sound caught us by surprise. We suspected that it’s the result of discomfort from squeezing out an egg, or some wonder of selective breeding, a way to announce to the poultry farmer, “Hey, time to collect an egg!” In fact, research presented by University of Sheffield animal scientists Tommaso Pizzari and Tim R. Birkhead, in an article entitled “For whom does the hen cackle? The function of postoviposition cackling,” posit that cacking is a way for hens to get the message out to nearby roosters that they ain’t in the mood. As Pizzari and Brikhead put it, “One function of postoviposition cackling may thus be to avoid the costs of sexual harassment by signalling to males a particularly unsuitable time for fertilization.” This contradicts earlier theories that cacking was, in fact, an invitation to boogie.

For those who’ve never heard it, we’re pleased to present the postoviposition cackling sounds of one of our barred rock hens. Towards the end of the track you’ll hear the usual soft clucking. For the DJs out there, please feel free to use for mashups, mixes and Quinceañeras:

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Borlotto Bean Lingua di Fuoco

One of our favorite vegetables, Borlotto Bean Lingua di Fuoco, is once again growing in our garden from seeds we saved from last year. We usually eat our Lingua di Fuoco (tongue of fire) beans young in the pod, but they can also be shelled and eaten fresh or dried. The handsome red speckling, which gives the bean its name, disappears when you cook them. The plant comes in both pole and bush versions.

Borlotto beans are basically the Italian version of kidney beans, hailing originally from the New World. Italian folks traditionally use them in soups. We’re considering growing an edible wall of beans along the south side of our house this spring in order to see if we can grow enough to collect dried beans and make some soup. For cultivation and harvesting details for dry beans click on over to the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute.

It may seem like we’re pimping for Seeds from Italy, but these beans are yet another success we’ve had with the Franchi’s companies seeds that Seeds from Italy imports. We just discovered the competition, Italian Seed and Tool, which imports the rival Bavicchi company’s seeds. We’d appreciate feedback from anyone who has ordered Bavicchi seeds.

2008 . . . a year of luxury

2008 began with the sort of absurd juxtaposition we’ve come to expect from life in Los Angeles–loading 25 pounds of chicken feed into a $70,000 Jaguar (not our car for those keeping score). It was all part of a combination run to the feed store for chicken supplies and trip to the Getty Villa to scope out their Roman herb garden and ancient tchatzhahs.

The reason to hit the feed store was a return of schoolyard bully behavior from our pushy Rhode Island Red hen. We bought a bottle of Rooster Booster Pick-No-More Lotion™ to keep her from pecking the araucana hen. Thankfully the lotion, combined with a few other measures we’ll post about, seems to have stopped the problem. The lotion has lessened the amount and severity of the pecking and turned the araucana’s butt into a matted tarry mess. Mission accomplished!

While at the feed store we also picked up a copy of The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow. It’s a detailed guide to preventing and treating chicken diseases and problems. We’re new to poultry and, in just an hour of reading, have learned a lot from this book. It’s a must have for anyone thinking about getting chickens. Thanks to info in the book and our microscope, we’re looking forward to a year of DIY chicken fecal examinations and turning those parasite egg counts into a drinking game.

We’ll inaugurate a new year of posts with an entertaining excerpt from The Chicken Health Handbook,

Spontaneous sex change is a phenomenon whereby an old hen develops the characteristics of a cock, perhaps because an infected ovary has caused hormonal changes. The hen’s comb grows larger, she molts into male plumage, and she may crow or mount other hens. If the infection is successfully cured before the next molt, the “cock” will lay eggs. This phenomenon was once considered witchcraft, the most famous case being a “cock” named Basel who was burned at the stake in 1474 for laying eggs.”

Cichorium intybus a.k.a. Italian Dandelion


Our illegal parkway garden has got off to a slow start this season due to low seed germination rates. We’ve compensated with a trip to the Hollywood farmer’s market to pick up some six-packs of seedlings. One plant we made sure to get is Cichorium intybus, known in Italian as “cicoria” or chicory, but somehow, in the case of leaf chicory, mistranslated as “Italian dandelion,” probably because the leaves resemble the common dandelion weed, Taraxacum officinale (a relative which is also edible).

Both Cichorium intybus and its weedy cousin share a powerfully bitter taste that took our supermarket weaned taste buds some time to get used to the first time we tasted this plant. Changing the cooking water a few times if you boil Italian dandelion is one way to deal with the bitterness, but we prefer to just throw it together with some fat in a frying pan, such as olive oil and/or pancetta. We also add some hot pepper flakes for a nice hot counter-punch. Italian dandelion makes a good companion to balsamic vinegar marinated pork or game (squirrels perhaps–they’ve been stealing our lemons!).

The big taproot this perennial plant has means that it can bust through crappy soil. The bitter root can also be ground up to make a coffee substitute or flavor additive. Never having tried this we’re a bit sceptical, especially since it lacks caffeine, but it’s worth an attempt this coming year.

Since we purchased seedlings we have no idea what cultivar we’re growing, but seeds are available from Seeds from Italy, which has an astonishing number of varieties.

Greywater Linkage

Outlaw water activists the Greywater Guerillas have added a nice set of examples to their website showing some creative greywater strategies. As figuring out how to get greywater out to your garden depends a lot on, say, if your shower is higher than your bamboo grove, it’s great to see some real world examples.
Next step around our little crackhouse will be to figure out how to reuse our shower water. The GGs have given us some ideas . . .

We Are the Festival!


Here in Los Angeles we’ve got a number of lame Christmas traditions including the low-rent Hollywood Christmas parade and the L. Ron Hubbard Winter Wonderland (no joke). But the lamest of all has got to be the Department of Water and Power’s annual Christmas light show, which turns one of our few parks into a exhaust clogged traffic jam during the holiday season. Worst of all the city bans bikes from the light festival in spite of the fact that it takes place on a public street. The city’s ban is a direct violation of state law.

Thankfully the folks at IlluminateLA are planning to swarm the festival this Friday. Ride your bike and join them at the Mulholland Fountain at Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Boulevard at 7:30 p.m. From there the plan is to ride through the festival and take back the streets!

Unfortunately, Homegrown Revolution will be hob-knobbing with our publisher and won’t be able to attend, but we’ll be on call and ready to put down our cheese plate to bike over just in case a certain city council member needs to be taught a lesson.

Using Greywater from your Washing Machine

With our current bad drought conditions it makes no sense to pour perfectly good water down the sewer. So we just joined the greywater underground with our illegal washing machine surge tank, and the installation was a piece of cake.

We built our washing machine surge tank based on the design in Art Ludwig’s book Create an Oasis with Greywater. The purpose of the surge tank is to prevent the built-in pump in the washing machine from burning out, which might happen if you tried to pump the water through pipes. The tank also slows down the flow of water going out to the garden, allowing more time for it to percolate into the soil. In addition the tank lets the water cool a bit, should we run a load in hot water.

Bottom of barrel showing fittings

Top of the barrel where the hose from the washing machine comes in

For the tank we picked up a used and cleaned 55 gallon plastic drum with two “bung holes”, and plumbed it based on a design from Aquabarrel.com. The folks at Aquabarrel offer kits or a DIY video. We put our barrel together ourselves with a couple of common pvc fittings from the hardware store and omitted the overflow pipe, since our washing machine load will never exceed 55 gallons. The basic idea behind the Aquabarrel design is to turn the barrel upside down and use the preexisting threaded bung holes to connect up a garden hose. It took just a few minutes to complete, and our washing machine surge tank was ready to use. We highly recommend the Aquabarrel design, and you could combine a washing machine surge tank with a rain barrel with the addition of the overflow pipe and a fitting for the gutter.

When we do a load of laundry the waste water that collects in the barrel flows immediately out the garden hose and down towards the front slope of our little compound. Ludwig warns against keeping grewater around as it will quickly turn septic. We use Oasis Biocompatible detergent which is manufactured specifically for greywater systems. Regular “eco” detergents, while not harmful to aquatic plants, often contain substances that will kill terrestrial plants so you must use a greywater specific detergent.

Our next step will be to figure out some plantings that will take advantage of our laundry schedule, and to construct some simple earthworks and mulch basins to accommodate the water flow. Right now we just let the water percolate into the front slope, and our rosemary and Mexican sage look a lot healthier for it.

Chicken Guantanamo

So you want your own backyard hens? Some time ago Homegrown Revolution reader Toby asked about what it takes to keep chickens. While we’re far from being experts we thought we’d share what we’ve learned so far and welcome comments and suggestions from poultry keeping readers to add to and amend our advice. In our opinion the first step in keeping a backyard flock is to figure out where you’re going to house them.

We’ll get into more detail over the next few months, but for now we thought a few pictures might help explain what we’ve come up with. The two main purposes of chicken housing are to protect them from predators and to protect your garden from destruction by your chickens. The more room and foraging area your chickens have the happier they will be. Give them access to your whole yard however, and they will munch and scratch down every plant they find edible behaving, as the Petaluma Urban Homesteaders put it, “like a pack of delinquent teenagers”.

Our chicken housing consists of three zones. Zone one is the hen house–that aluminum structure on the right in the photo above. It contains a roost for the chickens to sleep on at night and a nesting box for the hens to lay their eggs in.

Zone two is a secure run covered in 1/2 inch hardware cloth–the area left of and below the aluminium sided hen house. We used hardware cloth because chicken wire will not prevent raccoons from reaching in and eating a chicken through the fence (we can’t help but admire the fact that chicken wire isn’t really good for keeping chickens). And as our doberman has been known to tree large families of raccoons, we took no chances and ran the hardware cloth across the entire bottom of the run buried a foot underground to keep these critters from burrowing underneath. The run also gives our hens access to dirt as well as a way for us not to have to be around to lock them up in the hen house when it gets dark.
Zone three is a mobile structure made of PVC pipe covered with bird netting and butted up against the coop and secure run so that the hens can move between all three zones. We used to let the hens free range around the yard, but a recent near miss with a hawk, the general devastation of our herb bed, and chicken poo all over the back porch where they took to roosting on lazy afternoons, convinced us to restrict their movements at least while unsupervised. This PVC structure can be shifted around a bit to let the hens work different parts of our small backyard. It will keep out hawks but it’s not raccoon proof, so the girls must be back in zone two’s more secure run (nicknamed “chicken Guantanamo”) when it starts to get dark or we’re not around.

The PVC structure replaces a more permanent enlarged run we built out of scrap wood we found under the 101 freeway. As you can see from the photo below, this structure was an aesthetic disaster, with all the appeal of a dirty mid-town mini mall. We took one look at it after it was complete and decided to demolish it the next day. If only all those mini mall developers in the 80s would have come to the same conclusion.
We’ll describe our hen house, run and “zone three” in more detail once we know everything works out. So far, we’ve got eggs and no raccoon, skunk, owl or hawk casualties. For those looking for detailed plans check out Judy Pangman’s book Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock. We loosely based our coop and run on one of the designs in Pangman’s book. Stay tuned for more details including our ongoing attempt to stay one step ahead of those bad-assed LA raccoons.