here comes trouble

We have had two broody hens this spring, meaning two hens who woke up one morning in a mood that cannot be intentionally stimulated by any external factor that I am aware of, a mood that leads a girl to pluck all the feathers off her chest and sit motionless on a pile of eggs (or apples, or stones, or lightbulbs--anything lumpy will do when the spirit takes them) for three weeks.  Usually she does not know why she wants to or, as we have seen here on the farm, what it will lead to.  Hens of all temperaments, even those without a shred of maternal instinct, will still set, and then may try to kill the babies as they hatch, so shocked are they to find what comes of three weeks of sitting still and being hungry.  All that, for this?

I will spare you the details.  (Those of you who have been reading long enough to endure my egg rants will be grateful).  Trust me that we have reason to be suspicious of broody hens' ability to see the thing through.  So when one gets the notion, we mark her eggs with the date of likely hatch, and try to remain vigilant enough to pre-empt disaster.  A few of our hens are proven champs in the mothering department.  Of course they did not go broody this year.  Two of the dingbats did.  This led, as it always does, to our hand-raising two chicks in the house, an adorable but smelly and time-consuming enterprise.  

But eggs and chickens and humans are an imprecise lot, with wide margins for error, and on Monday when I went into a coop that I considered to be out of the hatching business for the time being, I found what I presumed to be a dead chick, clearly attacked by one of the adult birds.  Cursing vehemently at the waste of life, I picked it up so I could offer it a proper burial.  Contrary to all visual evidence, it was not dead.  Not quite, anyway.

Next month we'll mark the 10th anniversary of our Dancing With The Chickens adventure (our now-driving eldest child was graduating from kindergarten when the first lot arrived by mail).  I have nursed a lot of nearly-dead chickens back to life in that time and NONE of them were chicks.  A newly-hatched chick could be mailed to your Aunt Lavinda in Ohio with a first class stamp.  There is not a lot of creature to work with, from a nursing standpoint.  It is a make-them-comfortable situation, with a universally predictable outcome that involves a small shovel.

So I did the usual chicken triage, with zero expectations.  I am trying to keep this PG for you, but it was not a pretty situation.  There is a reason they observe weight-class distinctions in prize-fighting.  "Stopping bleeding" was one of my tasks.

If the tension of this story is too much for you, you can see the results as they stand currently in the above photo.  As you glance at it, recall that I am protecting you from the gory details of her presenting condition at the time of discovery, and reflect on the fact that, due to and despite epic interventions and with some wild ups and downs, at the close of business on Day 1, she was breathing and that was the best I could say about her.  When dawn broke on Day 2, I came downstairs to find her sprawled on her back, and maybe you do not know this, but this is not a posture ever independently selected by a live chicken.  It is a roasting-pan pose.  "Well, dead now," I said to myself, at which point she leapt up to disagree.

By the end of that day, her Distress Peep (an impressively robust sound these tiny beasts make when they find themselves alone, so their foraging mothers can locate them even in tall grass) was loud enough to prevent rational thought by both of the adult humans in the house.  A supervised visit with the older two chicks was deemed advisable.  "Be nice," we warned them. "No more pecking for this little patient."  After a curious once-over, they demonstrated that they were basically content to let her be in their box, a mistake they have come to rue, endlessly. She is much less noisy now that she has companions.  But this tiny, downy, scabbed and depleted pipsqueak is the terror of the chicken playground.  Are ya sleeping?  Let me walk on your head.  How about now?  Tired?  I will peck your face.  I bet you are weary now.  Lie down.  Comfy? This is me stomping the length of your body from beak to tail. What are you doing now?  Can I do it, too?  Is that eating that you are doing?  Will you show me how?  Are you cowering now?  Teach me how to cower.  Oh, you appear to have fallen over into some kind of avian pediatric coma of sleep deprivation.  Allow me to creep very close to you in a sort of snuggling way AND THEN PEEP LIKE AN AIR-RAID SIREN IN YOUR TINY EAR-HOLE.  How is the sleeping going?  After a few hours of this, I saw one of the exhausted larger chicks jump up and attempt to tower over the perpetrator with a head tilt and tone that clearly expressed "YO!  TIME TO CHILL OUT," but she was unperturbed.

the "big" chicks, now hapless victims of bullying

As you can see, when I am not in the chicken ER, I am watching the chicken soap opera.  It's very absorbing.  Cooking takes something of a backseat.  The only edible highlight of the week has been a fruit leather, and though I have babbled about those elsewhere before, I try not to do that here. I don't really expect the whole wide world to be making fruit leather, and would not want you to think I expect it of you.

But this is not because it is really hard to do.  It's just because it sounds like a demonstration sport at the Self-Reliance Olympics, if you have never tried it, and I am afraid I will put you off by discussing it.  

The truth is that, if you happen to be in possession of a food dehydrator, or a convection oven with a reliable low-heat setting (I have access to a food dehydrator, thankfully, because I have a convection oven with an entirely UNreliable low-heat setting and have only been able to make fruit shards when I try to use it for this), then this is really simple to make.  Really.  About 5 minutes of active time.  Like yesterday's energy bars, one stupendous aspect of making this yourself is that you can dude it up with all the things you like, and skip ingredients you prefer to avoid or simply can't pronounce.  I recently came into possession of a bag of pomegranate powder which makes lots of claims regarding its usefulness for my health, and while I can't report on the truth of these claims (not yet, at least), I can attest that it is stupendously tasty.  I had strawberries, so I used them, but any other flavoring fruit would work.  Because the flavors concentrate as it dries, not much is needed to give you a nice kick.  You can omit the honey, which is here more for texture (it makes a softer, shinier leather) than for sweetness, which already abounds.  Fresh ginger would be nice here.  Some orange zest. Navitas, which makes the pomegranate powder, produces an impressive variety of powdered superfoods you might consider (my Healthe Foode Store stocks most of them and yours might, too).  Fruit leather is a pretty irresistible vector of delivery, even to reluctant eaters.

strawberry superleather

makes two sheets about 10x10"

  • 1 quart unsweetened applesauce
  • small handful of strawberries (3-5)
  • 1T honey (optional)
  • 1/4 c golden flax meal
  • 2T pomegranate powder (also optional)

Using a handblender or stand blender, whizz these things to a smooth puree--the more like baby food it looks, the more tender the resulting leather.  Divide between two parchment- or silpat-lined trays and dry 6-8 hours on a medium setting in your dehydrator, or carefully monitor in the lowest heat and convection setting of your oven, rotating often to prevent scorching in any hot spots.  When dry enough to handle, I generally peel it off the parchment and flip it over to ensure there are no gummy areas.  Cut in strips of desired size and store airtightly.