Clicker Training Chickens

Our new pullets aren’t as used to being handled as were our last flock of hens. And because they don’t come when called, they can’t leave the chicken run to wander the yard.

So I’m working on training them. I know I could do more, but for now all I’m doing is taking special treats to them once a day and feeding them while making my chicken call (cheeck-cheeck-cheeck). They’re beginning to associate me and the call with treats. This doesn’t mean they trust me yet, but at least they have started making greeting noises when they see me. I hunker down in the run with the treats and hold very still. I put the treats close to me and make them come near to get them. The boldest one will sometimes take a treat from my hand.

This may work eventually. Or I could step up my game. Do you know that chickens can be clicker trained? My dog trainer friend tells me that in dog training seminars, trainers are often taught clicker training (a form of positive reinforcement) with chickens instead of dogs. This is because chickens are 100% food motivated and learn fast. Also, using hens takes away the potential mind games that occur between dog and trainer. Free of that distraction, the trainer learns the correct rhythm for training. It’s pure stimulus-response–reward.

Here’s a video of a chick learning the basics. You can find others of this sort on Youtube:

You might be able to find a chicken training seminar in your area, probably under the banner of dog training. With the rise of urban chicken-pets I think there is opportunity to be had in offering classes for would be chicken trainers. Googling around, I found this one in Lake Oswego, Oregon which is booked months in advance.

Have you trained your chickens to do anything?

News from the Kat Kingdom at Root Simple

Meet Buck.

Warning: Shameless, meandering cat narrative ahead. If you don’t like cats, all you can do at this point is turn away and sigh.

The big news here is that we’ve been suckered into taking another kitten–but there will be no more! We will not turn into crazy cat collectors. As it is, keeping three cats in this tiny house is ridiculous. They’re always everywhere, always staring at you, or tripping you, or sitting where you want to sit. We’d sworn only to have two cats, but two factors intervened. One is our neighbor Anne. The other is the shadow of the Grim Reaper.

Factor 1: Anne is a dangerous neighbor because she almost always has a kitten (or other needful creature) on hand, and can be quite ruthless in her drive to find them homes. The story behind this particular kitten is that a neighbor girl came to Anne and led her to a tiny kitten laying cold and dehydrated in a driveway, somehow separated from its litter. Anne said he was so far gone as to be stiff, and she thought he was a goner, but given some milk and warmth he rose up like Lazarus himself. (Or as Lazarus would be, had Lazarus been blessed with four white paws a perky little tail.) I saw him that same day and fed him a bottle. Anne is very good at tricking one into getting emotionally involved with the foundlings–this is how she got us to take the other two.  And to cut a long story short, that is how she got us to take this one.

Factor 1-B: I should mention that the kitten was a dead ringer for Trout at that age. I think they share genetics, as they come from the same street. It was very hard to reject a mini-Trout.

Factor 2: Phoebe seems happy and well enough right now (I don’t think you’d guess she was sick if you saw her), but medically speaking she is in decline. She has officially commenced heart failure, which means her lifespan is now measured in months. In fact, at a recent visit to the vet we found out she has not one but two distinct heart diseases, and the newly identified one is very rare in young cats. The vet is fascinated by her case. But it doesn’t change her outcome much, just makes it all the more inevitable.

Obviously she doesn’t have a lot of energy, but Trout does. The resulting dynamic between the two of them had become slightly worrisome. She could play with him for a bit, but then needed to rest. Trout didn’t understand that and would regularly disturb her naps by pouncing on her. She is pretty good about holding boundaries, and Trout is not too much of a jerk, but nonetheless when this kitten offer came around we realized a kitten would be an excellent distraction for Trout.

So yes, we basically we adopted this kitten as a toy for Trout– a toy that looks just like him. For some reason this reminds me of little girls with their American Girl dolls, dressed in identical outfits, playing in a solipsistic world. But anyway, it’s worked out well.

Of course we were worried about the “what ifs”  -  What if Trout and the kitten didn’t get along? What if the kitten beat up on Phoebe? But we trusted what we knew about all of them to believe it would all be fine.

The transition went like this: We threw them all together, but watched them. Trout was thrilled and stalked the kitten for the first day. The kitten was less than thrilled and bristled and yowled at Trout, and Trout would back off.  On the second day, someone threw a magic switch and all of a sudden the kitten and Trout were chasing, then they were wrestling, then they were spitting on their paws and promising to be blood brothers for ever and ever.

Phoebe, on the other hand, was horrified by the new arrival. She clutched her pearls and hissed and wouldn’t be in the same room as the kitten. But she would avidly watch him around corners. And after two days of sputtering indignation she got bored and came out to observe the kitten from high spots. After four days she and the kitten were playing chase games. At the end of the week all three cats were sleeping on our bed. We decided we would definitely keep him.

We named the kitten Buck. He’s bold and affectionate and eats like an alligator and though he is currently Trout’s toy, will likely rule the house very soon.

The two boys play and snuggle together as Phoebe and Trout never have. Phoebe is dignified and standoffish, whereas Trout is a goofball. In Buck he’s met his match. As a pair they generate cuteness levels that can actually make you lightheaded. They play all day, every day, and then sleep together in adorable postures. We spend far too much time watching those cats with glazed, stupid looks on our faces. Household productivity is way, way down.

Meanwhile, like us, Phoebe seems genuinely entertained by watching the boys. If Buck is Trout’s toy, the two of them together are Phoebe’s television set. She gets to sleep unmolested, and when it suits her, she plays with both of them. So all is well.

Phoebe kindly attends to our filing, to make up for lost household productivity

The Sacred Chickens of Ancient Rome

I stumbled on an odd historical anecdote last week: the use, by the ancient Romans, of sacred chickens as a form of divination. From the Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert:

Sacred chickens were chickens raised by priests in Roman times, and which were used for making auguries. Nothing significant was undertaken in the Senate or in the armies, without omens being drawn from the sacred chickens. The most common method of drawing these omens consisted in examining the manner in which the chickens dealt with grain that was presented to them. If they ate it avidly while stamping their feet and scattering it here and there, the augury was favorable; if they refused to eat and drink, the omen was bad and the undertaking for which it was consulted was abandoned. When there was a need to render this sort of divination favorable, the chickens were left in a cage for a certain amount of time without eating; after that the priests opened the cage and threw their feed to them.

I had hoped to be the first blogger to break the sacred chicken story, but a blogger named Elektra Tig beat me to it, telling the tale of a naval battle involving some sea-bound sacred chickens who delivered an unwanted prophesy. The naval commander, Publius Claudius Pulcher, refused to take no for an answer and had the sacred chickens tossed overboard saying, “Let them drink, since they won’t eat.”

Elektra Tig also found a drawing of a sacred chicken coop just in case some of you are looking for coopatecture inspiration:

Maybe some of us urban homesteader types can put together a flock of sacred chickens for the US senate. By Jove, it would probably work better than whatever means of projection they are currently using.

Update: Michael Pigneguy left a link on Facebook to a Smithsonian article with the following chicken divination anecdote:

A chicken bred for the demands of American supermarket shoppers presumably has lost whatever magical powers the breed once possessed. Western aid workers discovered this in Mali during a failed attempt to replace the scrawny native birds with imported Rhode Island Reds. According to tradition, the villagers divine the future by cutting the throat of a hen and then waiting to see in which direction the dying bird falls—left or right indicates a favorable response to the diviner’s question; straight forward means “no.” But the Rhode Island Red, weighted down by its disproportionately large breast, always fell straight forward, signifying nothing meaningful except the imminence of dinner.

Google Sketchup as an Urban Homesteading Tool

I just completed a new chicken run, greatly assisted by an amazing and free 3d design program: Trimble SketchUp (formerly Google SketchUp). While it takes some time to learn (I’m still learning!), this program helped me visualize the chicken run as well as estimate the amount of materials I’d need to buy. Here’s how I used it to create the run:

Previous runs either did not work (chickens squeezed out and flew over) or were hideously ugly. I resolved to design a run that was both aesthetically pleasing and practical. Inspired by A-Frame cabins of the 60s Kelly and I came up with this idea:

I took my A-Frame plans to a friend, John Zapf, who runs Zapf Architectural Renderings. He took some time out, literally, from rendering multi-million dollar buildings to help with my lowly chicken run project. He could see a few problems with the A-Frame idea immediately–wasted space on the side towards the fence, and a lack of continuity between the shape of the chicken coop’s roof and the new run. Taking out pen and paper (sometimes the quicker option!) he sketched out  a much better design:

I took John’s sketch and entered it into Sketchup:

Being the low-tech bumpkin that I am, once I completed the run I was excited to see how much the real thing looked like the rendering.

SketchUp has some powerful features. There’s a library of objects other people have already drawn for you that you can download for free. For instance, the fence and tree (the exact same species of tree in my backyard, by the way) were both in the SketchUp library. And, amazingly, you can drop your model into Google Maps and even figure out the shadow patterns it will cast in the course of a year.

I’d strongly recommend going through the tutorial videos before trying to use SketchUp (I didn’t do this and wasted a lot of time initially).

And thanks to John Zapf and Anne Hars for your help!

Our New Chickens

When I put out the call to you, our readers, to name the ideal urban chicken I got a call from my friend Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. He said something like, “Duh, the Barnevelder, of course!” Craig and his partner Gary Jackemuk have an ambitions breeding program to take the Barnevelder from show chicken back to farm chicken. So far the results are impressive.

I took this as a message that I should fix my run and get ready for some new chickens. This weekend, I picked up four new pullets from Winnetka Farms, all crosses between a Barnevelder and an Americauna. I call them “Winnetkavelders.”

The Barnevelder, according to Craig and Gary, are a great dual purpose breed that is both heat and cold tolerant. They also take well to confinement.

The “Winnetkavelders” that now live at the root simple compound have an unusual characteristic. At least one of the pullets is laying an olive green egg:

Hmm. This color may not display correctly. Basically, the green-ish egg they lay is exactly the color of a cocktail olive. Not one of those fancy (and suspiciously) bright green olives, but the true drab olive you’ll find in your typical dive bar martini olive. (No offense to the hens! We’re just talking color here.) Yesterday we were joking with a friend that we should paint red pimento spots on the end.

This is the result of crossing the blue/green egg color of the Americauna with the dark brown of the Barnevelder. Another of the Winnetkavelders is laying an amazing dark brown egg like a purebred Barnevelder and a third is laying a green/olive egg with brown spots. They’ve been very productive and are taking well to their new surroundings.

A big thanks to Craig and Gary!

Homemade Cat Toys

Top to bottom: Trout, palm frond, twine, acorn, plastic strip

This is advice for new cat owners coming from relatively new cat owners: don’t waste your money on cat toys. Cats are fickle, ungrateful little creatures. Novelty is more important to them than just about anything else. And I don’t mean genuine novelty–they don’t need newer and stranger toys all the time. Rather, individual toys seem to get stale for them. A fresh paper bag is thrilling, but by the end of the day it’s old news. However, if you put another paper bag down, even the exact same kind of bag, the thrills will start all over again. If you try to fulfill their whims by buying them new toys all the time, soon your pockets will be empty and you’ll be up to your neck in ignored cat toys.

The only exception to the above is a laser pointer. If you’re going to buy one toy, let it be that, though be warned that the laser is addictive for cats. Small cloth mice, especially those stuffed with catnip, have some staying power as well. Or at least they are occassionally resurrected, as nothing else is. In our experience, everything else gets totally and utterly abandoned after about 15 minutes.

These are our cats’ favorite toys. Several of which are in the photo above.

  • Cardboard boxes and paper bags. This seems hardly worth mentioning because it is universal.
  • Ditto goes for unfortunate insects.
  • Sticks or branches of (nonpoisonous) foliage I bring in from outside, e.g. palm fronds. This is very exciting for indoor cats.
  • Trout’s favorite playthings, by far, are the plastic strips that you tear off when you open zip-lock packaging. He demands they be replaced regularly, and will greet a new one with an hour or two of ecstatic solo play. When he gets tired of that, he insists that we play fetch with him by tossing these strips around. Most mornings we wake up with strips dropped upon us.
  • Meanwhile, Phoebe is quite fond of bottle caps. But one cap is good for about a half hour, then it is ignored. However, a new cap is always a thrill.
  • Acorns on hardwood floors also make for enthusiastic but loud play. But of course “fresh” acorns must be substituted for “stale” acorns on a regular basis.
  • Unauthorized objects are always their favorites. One favorite unauthorized toy for our cats is our big ball of gardening twine. Yes, yes, string is bad, they’ll choke & etc. We don’t let them play with it unsupervised, but if they get a chance, they love to tackle this ball. My yoga mat, unfortunately, is another big favorite in the unauthorized category. It looks like it’s gone through a cheese grater. Trout will also gleefully shred anything wrapped in plastic. He’s destroyed packs of toilet paper, opened bags of people food and most recently shredded a mailer holding a book.
  • Sweaty bacbpacks and messenger bags, especially those of visitors, provide hours of fascination and somewhat creepy sensual rubbing. Encourage your friends to wear their bags over in the summer. Consider opening a hostel for through-hikers.

What do your cats play with?

Phoebe Update and a Question: Is Pet Insurance Worthwhile?

Many of you have asked for an update on our cat Phoebe. She was born with a very defective heart. Instead of being separated into chambers, basically Pheobe’s heart is one big sack. Even her heart valves are defective. If she were a human being, in a prosperous country, she would be waiting for a heart transplant. Cats, however, can’t have heart transplants. Our vet has said that we should enjoy every day we have with her, but that we should not expect her to live for more than nine months from now. She is on a few inexpensive medications to make her days comfortable. She’s slowed down a bit and is showing the first signs of heart failure (an occasional cough), but otherwise acts like a normal cat, playing with Trout and enjoying long afternoon naps.

She is a daily reminder that we should not take life for granted, that we have no control over when our time to pass will come, that we need to celebrate each day as sacred and make the best of the time we have on this earth. The thoughts and prayers readers of this blog have sent our way are greatly appreciated. You, our readers, are people who grow, make, share, and are involved in making this world a better place. We our fortunate to be in communion with you, some in person, others in spirit.

As this blog is practical one, I have a question for you. Thankfully we did not have to make any hard financial decisions regarding her care. There’s simply nothing that can be done. But veterinary expenses raise some real ethical (I’ll leave those ethical questions for philosophers and theologians to parse out) and financial quandaries.  As to those financial questions, I’m curious to hear from blog readers about veterinary insurance. Do you think it’s worthwhile? Have you used it to care for the pets in your own household?

A Time Out Box for Quail

 
In this week’s guest blog post, Nancy Klehm tells us about her unique way of dealing with pesky quail: 

It is a beautiful, lush rainy spring in Chicago and all my birds get a large bouquet of fresh weedy greens everyday to supplement their feed: chickweed, dandelion, clover, shephard’s purse, garlic mustard, stinging nettles.

Besides chickens, I have been raising quail for the past four years – I have both Coturnix and Bobwhite quail. Quail need to be enclosed and can’t ‘free range’. They are top choice of any urban predator: raccoon, possum, stray cat and raptors.

After almost a year of this particular constellation of individual birds living peacefully, unrest flared. Recently, ‘B.B. Curious’, the largest of all the quail became exceedingly aggressive towards the others. She was chasing them and pulling their back feathers out causing periodic frantic scurrying and distressing calls from the others. I checked her body and health. I stepped up their seeds and protein in case it was a protein deficiency causing this. I created visual baffles with extra flower pots (quails love to niche themselves).
And so, after nearly a week of this behavior, my friend Sarah built this ‘quail timeout box’ in a jiffy from scrap wood and a milk crate she found. Needless to say, B.B. Curious, settled into it comfortably and after a few days, was released to rejoin her bevy much more at ease.

Picture Sundays: Trout Smells Kraut

Somehow, in a post about a handy fermenter from the Farmer’s Kitchen, I failed to put up this shamelessly cute picture of our cat, Trout, interfering with the photo session.

If you’d like more proof that the internet is some kind of million typing monkey/non-linear/collective unconsciousness generation machine, try typing “cat and sauerkraut” into Google. You get a fluffy and deaf white cat who loves sauerkraut. We can now consider that long experiment in human civilization complete.

How to Prevent Bees From Living in Your Walls . . . or Welcome Them In

I love and keep bees. That being said, I’d prefer not to have them living in the walls of the house. Now, a hive can live in a wall for years and cause no harm–forget about the horror stories told by exterminators (they are, after all, selling poison). But if you have to remove bees from a wall it can be an expensive job if done correctly. I’ve removed hives from walls and it’s both hard on the bees and the beekeeper.

Thankfully you can take a few easy steps to prevent a hive from moving into your house. Bees like dark hollow spaces–think of a dead tree or an empty stud wall. Here in LA many old houses, such as ours, have lots of cracks a bee colony would be happy to move into. Note the small hole I found on one of our walls that opens into an empty space between the studs (old LA houses often have no insulation).

So how do you keep bees from moving in? According to backwards beekeeping master Kirk Anderson., all you need to do is fill a wall cavity with a can of spray foam insulation.

Please note: do not do this if there is already a hive in residence! If that is the case, hire a beekeeper to cut or trap them out. Bees are very gentle until you disturb their living quarters. If you’re in Los Angeles you can call the Backwards Beekeper rescue line. If you’re not in Los Angeles, start your own Backwards group!

How to Welcome Bees Into Your Wall
Now, a more permacultural approach would be to design buildings in such a way to welcome bees into a wall.  Here’s an example of a hive box built into a stone wall in India:

Photo from http://ranichari.blogspot.com/

There’s a tradition of keeping hives in wall or niches in Europe and many other parts of the world. No need for spray foam or exterminators–just lots of free honey from your wall.

Bee skep in a wall in Kent, England.

Time to bring back this practice!

Note from Kelly: This might seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many people pay for bee removal or extermination and then do nothing afterward to correct the conditions that attracted the bees in the first place. Invariably the bees come back, because a house which looked good to one swarm will look just as good to the next swarm that comes along. Better, in fact, because it will smell of bees. Plug those holes and screen off all vents!