Posts Tagged ‘compost’

Brooklyn Chickens

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

In spite of how often I seem to find ways to make mistakes, I sometimes feel like I have it easy with this whole chicken thing. We’ve got a ton of space to let them run around. We live 5 minutes from a feed store, so whenever I need anything, I can just nip over for it. No one lives in the house closest to us, so they can’t be bothered by noise. It could be a lot worse. If I find myself thinking some chicken-related task is a drag, I remind myself that I could be doing this in the city, and it would be a lot harder there. Then I think, “Well, how do people do this in the city, then?” My friend Scott lives in Brooklyn and has chickens, so I decided to ask him about it. Is that city enough for you? You got a problem with Brooklyn?


Life in the city.

The big thing I was curious about was predators in the city. I’m a little obsessed with making sure nothing can get into our coop besides chickens. That’s probably a good thing, since so many things that like to eat chickens live where we are. When I think about times I’ve lived in cities, though, I start to think about rats, and how I am so much happier worrying about fisher cats and possums and raccoons than rats. Rats can pretty much get into whatever they want to, no matter what you do to stop them. I was once on a kick where I read a bunch of books about various types of vermin, and the rat one really kind of scarred me. I know what they’re capable of. So I asked Scott what predators he had to worry about. His answer kind of surprised me. Rats aren’t really the issue. Feral cats are. I had completely forgotten how many feral cats are kicking around Brooklyn, even though we have one as a pet, which we rescued when she was a kitten. Because of this feral cat situation, Scott has made the wise decision to not let his chickens out to free range in the yard. There are some rodents around, but the cats are probably the ones to watch. His own cat even once snuck into the coop and experienced a brief moment of what Scott described as being in the Thunderdome before beating a hasty retreat. I think street cats might not back down so easily. His coop setup is quite nice, and the chickens have plenty of room to run. They’re happy and safe inside.

Scott's coop

Scott’s coop

It’s been a while since I lived in Brooklyn, but I never remembered seeing any feed stores around in my travels. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were there, since you can pretty much find whatever you need if you look hard enough, but I asked how Scott handled the feed issue. He said they used to just track down an Agway any time they left town, but they’ve recently found a guy who raises his own chickens and sells feed out of his garage right in the city. Of course, his garage is protected by security cameras, barbed wire, and a gate with a buzzer, so you might think he’s selling something other than chicken food. Maybe he is, but you have to applaud his industriousness for finding new markets. It’s certainly easier than having to go out of town any time you need to stock up on feed, intimidating though it may seem.


No buzzer here.

I suppose Scott could just get chicken bedding from this guy also, but why bother when the New York Times is printed with soy ink? He just shreds some copies of the Grey Lady, tosses it in the coop, and that’s all there is to it. Food for the mind, bedding for the other end. It’s compostable, and maybe the chickens will learn something. It almost makes me want to subscribe just to do this too. I really like this idea. He keeps the paper on a good rotation, and so there are few problems with smells.


Good reading, and other things.

The question I was a little afraid to ask had to do with the ultimate fate of these birds. Not everyone is a weirdo chicken-hugging vegetarian like me, so I had prepared myself for a less than storybook ending (depending on what sorts of storybooks you read). He did say that once they stop laying eggs they will have outgrown their usefulness to him, as he is not running a chicken retirement home. However, he has a cousin in Vermont with a fruit tree that is a magnet for a certain type of bug, and these bugs are considered highly delicious by chickens. So when the time is right, they will be sent out to the Green Mountains to retire in bug eating bliss. It’s the rare case where sending your pet off to a farm in the country isn’t actually a euphemism.

Future bug eaters. (Probably current bug eaters, also).

Future bug eaters. (Probably current bug eaters, also).

There are a million stories in the chicken city, and this is just one of them. What I love about raising chickens is that there’s room for everyone to do things their own way, and so they do. Loads of people in New York have chickens now, and I bet plenty of them do things entirely differently from Scott. If I hear about others, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll think about how my own coop could probably qualify as a highly expensive studio apartment in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood, and remind my chickens how good they have it.

(All photos from Scott’s Facebook page.)

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The Big Coop Cleanout

Friday, July 19th, 2013

(Broadcast 7/19/2013)

The chickens moved out of our house and into the coop about a year ago. Maybe it’s a little less than a year, but given how time dragged during the building of the coop, I’m going to call it even. Whether you clean out all bedding regularly, or do like I do and use the “deep litter” method and just keep adding more shavings, it’s probably a good idea to clean everything out and wash it down every so often. When I was starting out, I read something that suggested doing this once a year, and so, with it being almost a year, my thoughts turned to the Big Coop Cleanout. I wasn’t terribly excited about this, as cleaning of most kinds gives me anxiety, but at least I only had to clean. I didn’t have to clean and organize, so it could have been worse.

el diablo

The inventor of cleaning and organizing.

The one thing I knew would help me out was that I had built the coop with this annual event in mind. On the backside of the coop I have a board that is held in place by wing nuts. My idea was that once a year I would remove this board, sweep everything into the wheelbarrow, which I’d park right in back, and everything would be easy. Now it was time for the big test of this plan. I’ll admit that I had worried at first that the bolts I used in conjunction with the wing nuts might rust, but I will also admit that I had forgotten about that worry. So the good news is that I had not worried at all. The bad news is that I was right about the bolts rusting. However, these bolts were too long in the first place, and really only laziness and forgetfulness had kept them intact. So I undid each wing nut to the farthest point it would go before sticking, and then used a hacksaw to cut the bolt before that point. They then came off fine, and I removed my magic board.

magic board

That’s a magic board alright.

I was greeted with a giant wall of pine shavings, visible chicken poops, and many more poops lurking deep in the pile. I girded my loins, picked up a rake, and plunged it into the coop.

Magic board, removed.

Magic board, removed.

I think my loins were the wrong thing to gird, because the rake didn’t work so great. I went back inside and got a shovel and the metal rake we use for the driveway gravel. I have never had good luck using the shovel in the coop, so I don’t know why I even brought that out. I think I just wanted to feel like I had options. The metal rake, flipped over so the non-pointy side was down did the trick. The bedding came right out, more or less into the wheelbarrow. I’m not going to claim I got it all in there, but I got enough in there. The floor of our coop is covered in linoleum that I ripped out of one of our bathrooms, and if you have the chance to put some linoleum in your coop, I highly recommend it. It was the perfect smooth surface for raking the shavings out, and it also protects the wood from the nasty moist things that come out of chickens.


You probably can’t tell, but this hole is full of ants. ANTS! And their eggs. EGGS!

When I originally read about this cleanout process, the instructions I read said to use bleach to clean everything in the coop off. I didn’t remember the ratio of bleach to water, and I didn’t want to overdo it, so I did an internet search to get a recipe. Remember how I’m always saying that people have opinions on the internet? Well, they had opinions about this too. Not only about how much bleach to use, but whether you should use bleach at all, or even if you should ever even clean the coop. Looking at the cobwebs that collected in the corners of the ceiling, I found myself on the side of, “yes, I should clean the coop once in a while.” As far as the bleach went, the internet made a good case about “do you really want to expose your chickens to this?” I don’t even like to use bleach in the house, if I can help it. I tend to use vinegar if I need to disinfect things, you know, because hippies. Why was that good for the house, but not the chickens? There were plenty of people who did do the annual cleanout who used vinegar, and they reported no health issues. The good thing was that if there was a patch of vinegar that didn’t dry before the chickens went back in, it wasn’t going to kill them. And it would smell a whole lot better than bleach, unless you don’t like salad. So I sprayed the whole inside of the coop, the roost, and the nesting buckets with vinegar, and then wiped everything down. I feared that the towel I used might no longer be among the living by the end of the process, but at least it would have died in the service of cleanliness. However, after a trip through the washer, it’s as good as new. It’s a Too Many Chickens! miracle. Anyway, some people say to follow a vinegar wash with peroxide, but I was fine with just doing vinegar. I opened all the vents to air it out and let it dry, and when everything seemed o.k., I threw down more pine shavings. It looked ridiculously empty. I guess when you’re used to a year’s worth of chips, enough to just cover the floor is about 5 inches too few.

clean coop

Cleaned out, and ready for shavings

The chickens have not registered any sort of complaints about any of this. I think they may be weirded out by how spacious it seems without the extra chips, but we’re all getting used to it.

As I was wiping off the nesting buckets, I wondered if maybe I should take out the one they never use, since they never use it. They are pretty into the other one. I put it back just to not change too much. And of course, since they can read my mind, they have been using the one they never used to use quite a bit now. I guess they needed to change things up, and this cleanout was enough to get them to act on it. The salad smell has subsided, and I think we are getting back to whatever normal is around here. It wasn’t so bad, but I don’t mind waiting another year before I do this again.


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The Incredible Rubber Chicken Egg!

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

a rubbery egg


Here’s a video of an egg from one of my chickens a while back. I’ve gotten a few of these. My guess is that it has something to do with not getting enough calcium, though I do give them oyster shell chips as a supplement.


Rubbery egg! from Erik P. Kraft on Vimeo.


I came across this article the other day, that reminded me I had taken this video. Turns out it could be the work of The Devil! I suppose I should have called this post The Incredible Cock Egg! to be more in line with the folklore behind this.

When Chickens Eat Their Own Eggs

Friday, May 31st, 2013

(Broadcast 5/31/13)

I’ve talked a bit before about how I’ve fed my chickens their own eggs. You can scramble them up, and the chickens go nuts for it. It’s a nice way to get them nutrition and cut down on the ever growing pile of eggs on the counter. The key part is that you scramble them. If the chickens make the connection that the eggs they lay in the coop contain food, then you may have a problem on your hands. I have had an episode or two with this sort of egg eater, and I’m trying to work it out.

drawing of chicken

Artist’s rendition of crime scene

The first incident happened when I went to clean the coop. The chickens like to watch me do this for some reason. I assume it’s that they feel superiority over me because I am touching their poop. You know what chickens? Everyone feels superior to me, so you’re not special. Anyway, once I’ve cleared out the smelly stuff and put in new bedding, I usually toss some treats in there so they scratch around in the shavings and mix up any poop that’s still in there. Their excitement is probably due to the expectation of treats. I’m sure it’s not that they enjoy my sparkling conversation.


Hey, Housekeeping’s here!

One day, when I opened the back door to get cleaning, there was an egg in the shavings, and a chicken in the coop. The chicken ran over to the egg, pecked it, it broke, and she began to chow down on the goodies within. I grabbed the broken egg as fast as I could and tossed it in the compost, but I was a little alarmed. “Why would she do that right in front of me?” I thought. I posted on a messageboard what had happened, and within five minutes the first “you have to kill that bird” response came in. I seem to get these a lot. I don’t think I’d have any chickens left if I listened to them all. I understand that if this is your livelihood, you don’t want a chicken eating the profits. But I’m an experimenter, and I wanted to figure out why this happened. This was just the first time, and while maybe this was the start of a bad habit, maybe it wasn’t. I wanted to see if it happened again. I began to suspect that maybe the excitement over treats had something to do with it. Maybe the chicken saw the egg, thought it was a treat, and acted accordingly. I posed this to the forum, but no one had any input on it. “Kill it,” they said again.

A clue that stood out to me was that the egg in question was one of the pale, flimsy ones that sometimes appear. I’m not sure which one of them is doing it, but someone lays very thin shelled eggs now and again. Maybe every couple of weeks. I give them calcium, but sometimes this still happens. I thought that maybe the chicken happened to peck at the egg just to see what was up, and it was thin, so it broke, and “oh hey candy!” I decided to not bring this up with the “kill that chicken” set, but this was the theory I went with.

pale, long egg

Weird egg on left.

Over the course of the next several months, I found two more eggs that had been cracked open. Neither had been entirely eaten. Both were pale, thin eggs. I felt my theories were being borne out, but at the same time, I was a little worried that they might move on to eating the other eggs after a while. There is the chance that one egg eater will teach the others the skill, and then you’ve got trouble. I looked up how to handle this end of it, and chose my method.

Chickens apparently don’t like mustard. If you blow an egg out of the shell, and then fill the shell with mustard, Lady Eats-Eggs-A-Lot will come along, try to eat the egg, get a mouthful of mustard, and that’s the end of that. The problem was that since this was only happening with one type of egg – the pale, weird variety – I wanted to use that type of egg to do this. I actually had to take back an egg I had given my parents in order to get the right kind. They don’t happen that often. I went to fill it up with spicy brown mustard, but we had two bottles that weren’t that full, and didn’t help much. So I supplemented that with yellow mustard, which we had a lot of, because apparently no one likes yellow mustard. Then, for a tiny bit of perverse irony, I put a shot of rooster sauce in there, even though people say chickens can’t taste hot sauce. Just let me have my fun, people.


Gravity was no help.

I taped up both ends of the egg to slow leakage, and put it in the coop. Not even duct tape would stick that well to the egg, but I did my best. The chicken I suspect of being the egg eater, a Mandrell Sister, was the first on the scene. She approached the egg, and rolled it back towards herself a couple of times. Chickens sometimes scoot the eggs along the floor with their chins. I guess when you don’t have hands you have to make do. She then began to tap it a little, as if to test the strength. Then she found the tape, pulled it off, and “oh hey candy!” She got a mouthful of mustard, did a little head twitch that seemed to indicate that she didn’t like it, but went back for more anyway. By now others had shown up, and a couple gave it a taste. I figured I’d let them all in on the idea that egg eating is wrong. They all had more than one serving, even though they twitched after every bite. I decided I might be making it worse by letting them continue to feast, so I took the egg away, and hoped they got the message.

taped up egg

This totally looks like a normal egg.

The big thing I took away from this was that the first chicken seemed to be doing some sort of quality control on the egg. She tapped it a bunch, and with these pale eggs, the shell is pretty weak. I’m now thinking that the eggs that have gotten eaten, or at least cracked open, can’t withstand a gentle peck, and that’s why they broke. I don’t know if they do this to reject bad eggs, or if they just like pecking the eggs. I don’t think the eating is habitual, at least not yet. As I keep saying, those eggs are few and far between, and sometimes they’re tougher than others. I gave the chickens the mustard test, so we’ll see how it goes. We got a weird egg on Tuesday, but it was in one piece. Meanwhile, no necks will be wrung over this. I just want to understand, man.


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Chickens – Nature’s Compost Piles

Friday, May 24th, 2013

(Broadcast 5/24/2013)

Now that Spring is here, everything has begun to bloom. If you have allergies, you probably noticed this already. My wife and I usually get excited when the weather finally gets nice, go outside, and get so thoroughly attacked by mosquitoes that we wonder why we ever leave the house. But with a little homemade insect repellent (witch hazel and lemon eucalyptus oil) it gets better, and so I can sit outside and take in all of Nature’s glory. For better or for worse, Nature’s glory contains weeds. It used to be that I would just mow them, or ignore them altogether. I don’t take pride in having a pristine lawn, and mowing the lawn actually tends to fill me with existential dread. Oddly enough, weeding doesn’t bother me as much. I actually kind of like it, even though it’s very time consuming. I’ve heard that the hand motions used in weeding are hard wired to some sort of evolutionary rewards center, which is why gardening is so enjoyable. It gets us in touch with our inner chimp. Just keep the dung throwing to a minimum, please.

Did somebody say "dung throwing?"

Did somebody say “dung throwing?”

Aside from any sorts of feelings of getting back in touch with our primacy, weeding is also a good way to supplement your chickens’ diet. We actually get so many weeds that we even have too many for the chickens. Luckily, we also have a compost heap for the overload. I found when they were baby chicks that they loved dandelion greens, but those seem to be pretty popular across many species, save for the homo perfectlawnicus. I’d pull them out, rip them into tiny pieces, and watch those goobers go nuts for greens. It also helps give them variety in their diet, which improves egg flavor. Everyone wins. I’ve read that if you pick the weeds and give them to the chickens, rather than letting the chickens pick the weeds on their own, there is some risk of the weed getting stuck in the chickens’ crops. The crop is where they store their food right after eating, before it heads to the stomach. If things aren’t torn into pieces, there may be a bit of a digestive traffic jam. Like people, you need to take sensible bites. What I usually do is either toss a pile into the run, where they rip them to shreds in a frenzy, or I poke them through the hardware cloth, and again, in the competition for the weeds, they rip them into smaller chunks. The chickens don’t seem so interested in eating the weeds on their own, so I have to do the work of pulling them out, and then do what I can to insure clear crops.

Lawn perfectionists quake with fear.

Lawn perfectionists quake with fear.

Weeds aren’t the only plants chickens like to eat. I have heard chickens referred to as “living compost piles,” as they’ll eat all sorts of vegetable scraps. I prefer to call them “Nature’s compost piles,” since that doesn’t really make any sense, and that’s how I roll. But when the farmer’s markets start opening and I find myself buying more kale than I can handle, it’s nice to know I can give the extra to the chickens as a treat. We’re growing our own kale this year, so I suspect even more excess than usual may find its way into the run. Most vegetable scraps can be fed to chickens as long as they’re raw and oil free. There are a few that are off-limits, so it’s not a bad idea to check online to be sure something is o.k. before tossing it into chicken town. Green potato peels can be bad, as well as the leaves of tomato plants. The list goes on, so be safe, rather than sorry. (Here’s a good list of acceptable treats and things to avoid.)

toxic symbol

Be sure not to poison your birds by accident.

I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell you the one crop chickens excel at eating. As you know, every summer our nation squirms in the grip of what has come to be known as “The Zucchini Problem.” Our gardens, homes, and workplaces sag under the weight of this most prolific of green beasts, and friendships can be strained by being overly generous in an attempt to be free of the surplus. My friends, the chicken is here to help. Last summer, my coworker brought in a crop of zucchinis that were the size of human legs. I brought one home out of politeness, but had absolutely no idea what I would do with it, save for possibly beating an intruder to death. I thought to myself, “well, maybe I’ll cut a hunk off and give it to the chickens.” You may have heard stories about piranhas skeletonizing a cow in seconds. I can assure you that in this part of the world, the chicken is the piranha and the zucchini is the cow. Chickens will skeletonize a zucchini in record time, and act as though they want more, even if it was a small green blimp like the one I had. We do need to be cautious of overfeeding, so let’s not go nuts with our extra veggies. Think of them as treats, and we’re all set. But woe be to the inexperienced zucchini who innocently wanders into the chicken run.

The real green monster

The real green monster


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The Other Thing Chickens Produce

Friday, March 29th, 2013

(Broadcast 3/29/13)

Dear listeners, we’ve been talking about chickens for a while now, and I feel like we know each other. I’m finally comfortable enough to have this discussion with you.

Any new creature that enters your life brings with it its own unique forms of poop. When my wife and I first got a dog, we would delightedly email or call each other to report his bowel habits. “He’s been eating rocks again. It looks like cookie dough ice cream,” I’d say. Then we’d laugh hysterically about how we HAD to talk about poop. It was for his health. The dog walker notebook became a daily log of hilarity.

How's YOUR health?

How’s YOUR health?

Kids are the same way. Not that the dog walker is chronicling the poops of children, though I suppose it’s possible. But poop is a window into the inner workings of little creatures who can’t tell you when they feel bad. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes they have a blowout in a restaurant so bad that it shoots out the back of their pants. Not that I know about this. I wasn’t so easy to gross out to begin with (unless you count the time my dad rented Blood Feast to watch while we ate Thanksgiving dinner), and having a kid has made me so numb to bodily horrors that I sometimes think I could eat a sandwich while changing a diaper and not be bothered. It would be hard in terms of not having enough hands, but not as much in terms of yucko. I have read that revulsion to bodily functions is a manifestation of a fear of one’s mortality. I must be ready to die.

So the chickens came into a home where poop is just something that happens. Chickens mix it up by actually expelling something that is both pee and poop, in a way. It’s like poop in form, but pee in chemistry. Luckily, when they are cute little chicks, their poops are also very cute. What makes it even better is that when they’re really small, they do a little dance before it happens. One day I walked in, and one of our chicks stuck her wings out and started wiggling her butt, and I thought, “She’s practicing laying an egg, how adorable,” and then a turd shot out. “Oh,” I said. I then came to enjoy catching the poop-egg dance, because it was still very cute, and at this point, it didn’t really smell at all, and was so small as to not really be a big deal.

"Oh man, there's a line for the ladies room."

“Oh man, there’s a line for the ladies’ room.”

However, there comes a time when a child’s poop goes from weird scrambled egg thing to a smaller version of adult dung, which, while lesser in size, packs all the stink of its larger counterpart. I knew this was bound to happen to with the chickens some day. And when it did happen, I was leaning over the brooder. That whole “pee in the poop” thing makes it smell nice and ammonia-y. I had smelled this smell before. One time my friend’s boss took us out to dinner in Chinatown. As we were leaving the restaurant, there was one of those old-timey shop scales in the trash on the curb. “I can’t believe they’re throwing that out,” I said. I grabbed it and threw it in the trunk of my car. When I got into the car, I smelled something awful. “Man, something stinks around here,” I said.

“Oh God,” said my friend’s boss. “It’s chicken crap. Your gloves. It’s chicken crap.” I smelled my gloves to confirm her accusations. I should not have done that. The scale came from a butcher, and was covered in chicken leavings. Some of the very same chicken leavings that were now on my gloves. I could at least wash those. The scale got hidden in the bushes in front of my friend’s apartment building. So anyway, in large doses, this is not a good smell.

In small doses it’s not so hot either, but it’s manageable.

The world's smelliest scale

The world’s smelliest scale

If you keep on top of coop cleanliness, it’s not that big a deal. Each morning I cover last night’s “productions” with some new pine shavings, and then once a week I clean it all out. What I take out of the coop goes into a pile to mellow out for a while. Chicken poop is a fantastic fertilizer, but it seems it’s even too potent for nature at first. After about a year it’s ready to go into the garden. So I have a regular compost pile, and a dedicated chicken one. I haven’t even had the chickens for a year at this point, so I won’t be using their “handiwork” in the garden this summer, but soon enough they’ll be helping us with food that isn’t eggs.

Scraps & Craps was a failed cop show in 1980.

Scraps & Craps was a failed cop show in 1980.

Another angle to all this is that as the chickens grow, so do the poops. Sometimes I’d think the birds got bigger, but it can be hard to tell. I’m not out there with a measuring tape charting their growth, and sometimes a size change sneaks up on you. But then I’d open the coop, and it would be obvious. A small growth in outer size can sometimes make a large change intestinally. It makes me very glad that people chart their children’s growth by height and not other means. You really don’t want to look in the closet and find that measurement written on the door jamb. Or maybe you do. Just keep me out of it.


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