Our chickens and that time they nearly died in a fire

One of our pullets in the spring 2012

It’s been nearly a year since I shared that we’d finally gotten our backyard chickens. When I last wrote, they were itty bitty chicks living in a cardboard box in our basement while they grew bigger and my husband Jody built their permanent home. Now they are a year old, doing well and living in their palatial coop, built by Jody and painted by yours truly, but their life wasn’t always rainbows and unicorns (or mountain scenes and prayer flags as the case may be).

The coop One of the girls with my mountain mural

Nest boxes with sunflower

One day last March — only weeks after getting our chicks —  I arrived home to find the smoke alarms going off and the house filled with smoke! HOLY CRAP! I think I was in shock as I quickly unlocked the front door, let our confused dog Piper out of her kennel and looked around trying to figure out the source of the smoke. I only had my son with me at the time and I instructed him to take the dog outside. Unable to figure out where the smoke was coming from, I joined Julian outside and called 911. While I was talking to the dispatcher it dawned on me — maybe it was the brooder heat lamp and the cardboard box that the chickens were living in in the basement! OH NO!! NOT MY CHICKS!!!

Against the advice of the 911 dispatcher, I took a deep breath, ran downstairs, grabbed the frantic chicks and shoved them into the ferret carrier, unplugged the heat lamp that started the fire and ran up and out of the house. The box had indeed caught on fire and appeared to be smoldering. If there had been flames, I’m sure I would’ve turned around and ran back upstairs, but it didn’t look too menacing, just smokey. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I coughed for a while lived and my chicks were safe and sound with me, Julian and Piper in the front yard as we waited for the fire department to arrive.

It turns out I had neglected to turn around the protective cover on the heat lamp so it keeps it AWAY from things and prevents fires. A helpful firefighter showed me how to do it. I thanked him, all the while thinking I may die of embarrassment. There I was, one of the people who spoke out in favor of backyard chickens to our city council, saying they wouldn’t cause any trouble or use any additional city resources and I was the one who called 911 after having a fire in my basement because of my ineptitude! Oy. Of course I didn’t tell the firefighters that. I just smiled and nodded and apologized profusely. (Thank you for your quick response and help, fire department! :)

Thankfully there was no damage to our house, just some water to clean up and soot on the wall and carpeting. The chicks’ cardboard box, on the other hand, had seen better days and I had to find them new living quarters. The girls desecrated lived in our bathtub for several days until we borrowed a friend’s dog kennel to house them in while work on the backyard coop was started in a hurry completed.

Lucky for us, the smoke and fire scare didn’t seem to cause permanent trauma (three cheers for resilient chickens!) and the girls started laying eggs in the summer just like happy little hens should. For a while we got the occasional double yolker (two yolks in one egg) as the girls sorted out the whole laying business, but these days they tend to be single yolks. Generally we have plenty of eggs — even enough to give some to my parents — but the girls have slowed down their laying over the winter as hens tend to do and we’ve had to supplement our supply at Vitamin Cottage.

Fresh eggs

Now spring is just around the corner and we’re hoping to add a few more chicks to the mix. Ava may be taking some to the county fair this summer as part of 4H, where she’ll have the option of selling them when it ends so our flock won’t get too big. This time around, however, I will be putting the protective cover ON the heat lamp (or maybe even buying an EcoGlow Brooder — how cool is that?) and using a large plastic bin for a brooder.

The next time I attempt to smoke a chicken, it will be in a smoker, not in my house. :)

Our Ancona this winter 2013

Here’s your Public Service Announcement for the day:
Brooder lamps get very, VERY hot and can cause fires even when properly installed. Please be careful if you use one in your house or chicken coop or perhaps check out this alternative instead — the EcoGlow Brooder.

Learn more about raising backyard hens:

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We finally got our backyard chickens!

OK, so technically they are basement chicks, at least for now. But yes, it’s true — we’ve got chickens!

After much organizing, letter writing, signature gathering and city council meeting attending, backyard hens were finally given the go-ahead in my city. I could have actually gotten chickens quite a while ago (when the limited number of permits was opened up city-wide), but like all good things, planning and patience were involved. I can’t even say now that we have it all planned out, but we’re working on it. And with chicks in the basement that are growing bigger by the day, we have to have it all sorted by the time they need to spread their wings!

Oh, and hi by the way. Yes, it’s really me coming out of blog hiding (is that what it is I’m doing?) to share this fun news with you all. :) Happy Spring!

We chose a variety of chicks. I based my decision on some breeds based on what I’d read about their temperament, etc., and some choices happened because the kids each wanted to choose one for themselves and we were at the mercy of what the local feed store had in stock. Currently residing in our basement are a barred rock and gold-laced cochin (my choices), a production red (Ava’s choice), a gold sex link (Julian’s choice), and a black and white ancona (one that I thought looked cute). Our chicks are 3 to 4 weeks old and have recently started having some supervised playtime in the backyard. They LOVE it! Pecking around in the grass and dirt is apparently a fabulous thing when you are a chicken. I have to admit that they are pretty fun to watch too.

The two chicks pictured with our newish dog Piper (we got her in November 2011) are the same chicks Ava and Julian were holding in the first picture taken just two weeks prior. These little ones grow fast!

My husband has been scouring the ‘net looking for the perfect coop design for our feathered friends and so far we are both liking this free insulated coop design. The coops looks to be some pretty snazzy digs, including a solar-powered door and a deicer for the water in the winter.

I’ll be sure to update once our chickens have a permanent home in our yard and when that first egg comes you’ll probably hear me shouting from the rooftops! :) Bawk, bawk.

Learn more about raising backyard hens:

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Compost through the winter with worms in your house!

It’s no secret that I hate to see things go to waste. I have been known to dig recyclable items out of the trash and attempt to Freecycle or otherwise give away some of the craziest stuff before I will consider tossing it in the trash. It makes me anxious when my 3-year-old leaves the water running or stands with the refrigerator door open too long. And I really have a hard time throwing away table scraps and fruit and vegetable peels, especially considering my children eat fruit like there’s no tomorrow. All of that fruit adds up to a whole lot of orange peels, apple cores and watermelon rinds. Honestly, that’s the biggest reason I started composting. I hated seeing how much food waste was going into the garbage and knowing it only ended up in the landfill. Sure, the end result of making your own fertile soil which is great for gardening is an added bonus, but mostly I compost to reduce my family’s garbage output.

I didn’t start out trying to do vermicomposting or composting with worms. We got a composting bin, set it up in a relatively sunny spot in our mostly shady backyard, and got to work. Along the way, I threw in several shovels-full of dirt, hoping it would speed up the composting process. Apparently I threw in some worms too, which reproduced like rabbits. It didn’t take long for my regular compost bin to become a worm composting bin. I think it’s a little freaky, but my kids get a big kick out of all of the worms in there and have been known to fish some out just for fun. :P

However due to the cold in Colorado this winter, my compost bin hasn’t been working very well. In fact when I dig into the pile I find lots of frozen (dead?!) worms. I’m sorry wormies. And my food waste is not being broken down like it is in the summer. As a result, some of our food waste has gone down the garbage disposal (which isn’t a good option because it uses a lot of water and energy to process at the water treatment plants) and I’ve also thrown some into the *gasp* garbage. It breaks my little green heart.

My friend Julie who also lives in Colorado has run into the same frozen composting dilemma this winter and decided to start worm composting in her basement. The idea of having a bin full of worms in your house might skeeve some people out, but the worms are contained and it’s a very practical way to keep your food waste out of the landfills. While I haven’t set up my own system yet, I have started learning more about it. Not only is it a great option for people who live in colder climates, but it’s great for apartment-dwellers or others who don’t have a yard to put a traditional compost bin.


Photo credit: Bramble Hill

Why compost?
Recycling the organic waste of a household into compost allows us to return badly needed organic matter to the soil. In this way, we participate in nature’s cycle, and cut down on garbage going into burgeoning landfills.

What is vermicomposting?
In the simplest terms, “vermicomposting is a system for turning food waste into potting soil with the help of worms.”

What do I need to get started?
According to Worm Woman, you will need:

  • An aerated container
  • Bedding such as shredded newspaper
  • Moisture and proper temperature
  • Small amount of soil
  • Redworms (Eisenia fetida)

Learn more about vermicomposting:

If not for the fact that we are trying to get our house ready to go on the market and I need another project like I need a hole in my head, I would totally set up a worm composting bin in my house right now. But the worm bin project (along with the getting chickens project and what else is there?) will have to wait until we have sold our house and have moved into our new abode.

Cross-posed on BlogHer

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Why buy the cow? Here’s why!

I’ve decided I’m over getting chickens for my backyard. Sure, eggs would be nice and chickens would be fun, but eggs aren’t THAT expensive to buy at the store or even from the local farm down the street.

What’s really been bothering me lately however is the price of organic milk and cheese. I love that we get our milk delivered right to our door, but it’s costly and it’s not raw, and really I’d like to have raw milk. Also the cheese I buy at Vitamin Cottage or through our local co-op is not exactly cheap either.

So I’ve been doing some research the past few weeks and, while this totally wouldn’t be legal in my city, I’m going to give it a shot and buy a Shetland Cow! It’s like a Shetland Pony, but it’s a cow. The breed is mostly brown with white spots and has a little mop of hair up top. They only grow up to three feet tall and weigh about 200 lbs when full-grown. They also only produce about a quarter as much milk as a full-sized cow, but I figure for our family of four, that will still be plenty. Since they look rather like a large breed of dog, I am pretty sure our neighbors won’t even notice, so I’m not too worried about being turned in to animal control. Oh, and they are great with kids. :)

We will get our Shetland Cow, which Ava has already named “Pony” (because the first time she saw one she didn’t believe us that it was a cow), this weekend. We’re picking it up from a farm about 25 miles from here. Pony is only 3 months old, so still is quite small at this point and can easily fit in the back of our Forester for the drive home. I can’t wait! :)

The best part about owning a Shetland Cow is tricking all of your friends. ;) April Fool’s! :) Did you really think I would buy a cow and give up on chickens that easily? Here’s the really funny part. I honestly thought the idea of a Shetland cow was totally a joke, but apparently (now that I really am looking into it), miniature cows do exist and even Shetland cattle! Apparently, the joke is on ME! Anyway, I’m not getting a mini cow (of any type), but I am long overdue for writing a post to update you all on the chicken happenings in town. It’s finally legal (for 50 permit holders). More on that later. Hope you all have a fun April Fool’s Day! :)