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My Chicken Schnitzel

Chapter 13
My Chicken Schnitzel

I would like to think that as a mum I have no favourites.  Of course my one and only son is definitely my favorite child, and my one and only dog, well yes he is also my favorite dog, but with my other family of five chickens, whom I raised from day old chicks surely I couldn’t possibly single one out to be a favorite?  That just wouldn’t be right.  However if you look at my photo album, it seems that I do.

My favorite time of the week is around five o’clock on a Saturday and Sunday evening when all the chores are done and I sit on the edge of our deck, chardonnay in hand and watch my chickens clucking around in the back yard.  Watching chickens as it turns out is akin to watching the ocean or a roaring fire.  It’s meditative, relaxing, and sometimes hilarious.  So funny to watch those fluffy bottoms bouncing whilst running to find shelter from an overhead cockatoo, to see them fight over a grasshopper and steal it off each other, or risk life and limb to try to take a peck at the dog’s bone whilst he’s not looking.  
Whilst my husband is quite fond of the chooks too and has learnt how to make some amazing omelets, he is not very tolerant of the “land mines” they leave all over the place.  He is constantly hosing the back carport, back door step and sweeping off the deck.  As the egg production is now starting to slow down in their later years, he has become increasingly frustrated that we have to deal with their mess and buy their feed for very little oval reward!  But the other rewards are that they provide us with a great deal of entertainment.
Those of you who keep free range chickens will know that after many hours of observation, chickens all have very distinct personalities.  Of our five, Omelet is the Boss.  She has also been the one to stray from the herd and at times fly the coop into a neighbors yard.  On one occasion she was unable to be found when it came time to lock the chickens away safely for the night and so she remained locked out.  I cant imagine that would have been fun for her when she came home to find that the gate was shut and she was on the outside of it.  I silently hoped all night that she wouldn’t be taken be a predator.  Seems by the “land mine” evidence left behind that she roosted on the deck with Scruffy (the dog) to protect her.  I know somehow she has learnt her lesson though as she hasn’t wandered far away in the late afternoon for some time now.
Hazel, is the guts, running the fastest when I am approaching with the food and diving head first into whatever it is that I deliver. Consequently she is also the fattest, healthiest chook we have.  Apart from that she is placid and obedient which makes her an easy chook to live with.  Kentucky, is a follower.  She just does as she’s told, gets bossed around by Omelet and sometimes even mounted (a dominant act?).  She is hard to pick up but always comes when called. 
Georgia, our only white chicken was the one that came down from our neighbors house.  Because she was a late comer she has never really fit in.  The other chooks pick on her so she hangs far enough away that she doesnt suffer their pecks too often.  She molts profusely and because her feathers are white they are like a blanket of snow over everything in the back yard.  She doesn’t like to be caught and picked up more than likely a cause of being raised by the two young and not so gentle kids up the back.
The fifth chicken is Schnitzel and she has made herself my pet.  I imagine she is as close to a puppy dog as you can get.  Her main appeal is her amazing curiosity which sees her get in all sorts of places you wouldn’t imagine a chicken wanting to be.  
The front door of our house opens right into the space where I work each day and is adjacent to my office window.  There is no screen on the door to protect us from insects, weird couriers, dogs frightened by lightening or wandering chooks.  During my work day Schnitzel will often wander in and have a look around the house muttering this funny little geiger counter noise that almost seems like she’s using a sonar or radar trying to find a niche the right size to sit in.  I must admit that after two years of having to interrupt my train of thought to constantly chase her out, I now just let her have her wander.  
I have discovered that she will walk around for about fifteen to twenty minutes, her little chicken feet scrabbling on the timber floor trying to find some purchase.  She wanders the house trying any small space on for size, the bookshelf, under my desk, the shelf under the TV, any nook or cranny.  After trying this in a few different places; among the rolls of fabric, in the cupboard with the cotton reels, next to the overlocker, on top of my filing tray, she gets fed up and leaves.  She never deposits a “land mine” in the house, unlike the other chooks and she does clean up all the dropped goodies or stray insects under the kitchen table and on the kitchen floor.
Sometimes though these visits can be a little annoying.  Just recently I had an a saleswoman from Brisbane come to show me the latest uniform designs in her company’s catalogue.  Whilst she was turning the pages to show me the one that corresponded to the garments lying on my desk Schnitzel sauntered her way in to my office and flew up landing right onto the book and samples.  Poor lady got quite a fright!  We did have a laugh about it together but I bet she wont be coming back to see me any time soon.
Just lately Schnitzel has taken to hopping into the boot of the car when I leave it open to bring in the groceries and even the other day the front passenger seat of the car while I was opening the gate.  I swear that if I sat in the driver’s seat and opened the door she would hop onto my lap and let me take her for a ride. 
I can honestly say that I love all of my chooks and I know that as they approach their third year (they only live for four) I will start to see some of them “drop off their perch” which will make me very sad.  I will miss them running to me when they see me in the yard, I will miss their help when I weed the garden, I will miss their clucking, their cuddles, their antics and their eggs, but I will NOT MISS ONE BIT the land mines they leave everywhere!

The Pumpkin Patch

Chapter 9
The Pumpkin Patch
 
Gardening is all about experimentation to me.  Perhaps it is more about my lack of motivation to do any research before poking in a seed or planting a cutting, but I am enthralled by the results that very little prior preparation and planning can still produce.  
 
After a recent tour of a friend’s wonderful acreage with organic vegie garden I learnt that one of the best things to control weeds is the planting of running vegetable plants such as pumpkins.  He had a wonderful crop of robust Blue and Kent pumpkins running mad around the bases of his stands of banana trees.  They seemed to be cohabiting quite well and there certainly didn’t seem to be a weed in sight.  
 
Taking this information on board I thought the perfect place to employ this technique was one of the car tyre retaining walls (oh so attractive!) which was both eroding and constantly overgrown with weeds.  
 
We have a number of vegetarian friends (as I may well have previously mentioned) and so I constantly make a big tray of feta, pumpkin and spinach quiche.  Every time I peel and deseed a store bought pumpkin I scoop the seeds into a container to allow them to dry out in the kitchen.  So I had plenty of seeds to propagate in some shallow trays, which soon produced about a dozen healthy butternut pumpkin plants.
 

I know well about caging my vegies when you have free ranging chooks, so after planting the seedlings at the bottom of the tyre wall (thinking they would climb UP it), I put a frame over the plants, covered it with chicken wire and the chookies were not impressed.  From then on the weather was bad and good and wet and bad and eventually with little help from me the plants took off.  And “took off” is exactly what they did… in the wrong direction.  As I watched the plants grow and send out tendrils strangling the “mother of millions” or “cobbler’s pegs” as I had instructed them to do, I also noticed that they were heading downwards towards Brent’s workshop and across the driveway leading to it.  So the tyre hill was still covered in weeds, eroding and UGLY!  The best part is that even though they didn’t GO where I wanted, they did DO what I wanted them to do and we were happy to receive about a dozen lovely little butternut pumpkins which were quickly turned into quiche and so on and so on.
 
Okay so we live an learn.  Back to the original premise.  The top of the tyre wall unfortunately was not retained in any way.  It is the top of the walkway and goes off on a steep slope towards the shed.  So the new idea was to retain a boxed plot at the top of the hill, plants some new seedlings and hope that they would have no choice but to cascade down and give the desired end result.
 
Projects like this really do excite me.  I am even more chuffed when I tell my husband and he asks “how can I help?” rather than telling me it is a ludicrous idea.  So we cut some boards from some rubbish timber lying around.  He helped me run some stakes into the bank to support their weight and we cut some triangle shapes to enclose the ends.  We ended up with a box about two metres long and half a metre wide.
 
I weeded the area as best I could with a little help from the curious chooks, and then it was my job to back fill it with soil.  So I hooked up the trailer to the mower and took it through the gate (closing it behind me) and down to the compost heap.  
 
Each shovel full was teaming with worms which was quite encouraging and I was secretly hoping the curious chooks wouldn’t come down and see what I was doing and get in the way.  I shoveled and shoveled until the trailer was full (no mean feat) and then drove it up to the yard and as close as I could to the walk path which was still a few metres away from the planter box.  Then shovel by shovel I walked all the soil to the box only to discover it was going to take at least another trailer full to come close to filling it!
 
Back again to the compost heap, more hard work, back up to the walk path, and guess who is in the planter box eating all the worms?  There is nothing like a fresh pile of dirt or a heap of garden mulch to get chooks excited!
 
After I finished shoveling in the dirt I shoed the chooks away to plant the seedlings and cover them with mulch.  In quite a hurry I caged the new plants behind a mesh fence and gave them a drink to help them settle in.
 
Weeks have passed.  Much rain has fallen.  The only problem with the location of the pumpkin patch is that at the top of the hill is it doesnt get as much sun as at the bottom of the hill.  The plants are growing and I havent lost one yet but they arent really growing very fast.  I should also mention that it is now winter so maybe that has something to do with it.  Experimentation. Live and learn.

Miracle Eggs

Chapter 6
 
Miracle Eggs
Our Bubba Chookens, as we affectionately call them, began to grow very rapidly.  All eight were almost fully grown, their baby down replaced with feathers, their cute status updated to full grown chicken almost as we watched.  Then one morning at about four am we heard the sound that we were dreading “cock-a-doodle-doo!”.  Oh no, one of our hens is a him!  Well that would have been just fine, in fact we were kind of aware that at least one of the girls might be a boy, but we weren’t prepared for each morning more and more birds to join in the chorus! One, two, three, four, and then FIVE!  Out of our eight little chicks five where declared officially not egg layers.  
 
What were we to do, we grew them from chicks, we had named them, fed them, looked after them and now they were waking all the neighbours at 4am and worse still US! Being new to all this chicken stuff we weighed up the options.  I was even offered money by one of my Vietnamese machinists to take them off my hands…for dinner!  I just couldn’t bring myself to do that I’m afraid, they had to go to a happy home or more reasonably many happy homes.  So I rang around and found that the people at Nerang Stock Feed would take them the next time they were receiving point of lay hens and would offer them as a free giveaway to those who wanted to take them to make new baby chicks.  Gives new meaning to “Buy this and receive a free chook!”.
 
I must admit that we put off the inevitable for a few weeks, neither of us willing to catch the somewhat aggressive big white birds.  We were spurred on (he he) one weekend when we had some sleepover guests (luckily from a country property) who were also woken at 4 am by the roosters.  Armed with a big cardboard packing box and a bit of tenacity and encouragement, Benny caught them, stuffed them into the car and drove them to the stockfeed place just minutes before they were due to close.  Bring on the sleep in!
 
I made an off hand comment to Lawson that I reckoned within the week that the remaining three hens would begin to lay without being harassed by the roosters.  They really were copping it bad from being dominated five birds to three.  My optimism was rewarded only two days later with the first of our “miracle eggs” (Lawson’s name for them) which was cooked for breakfast that weekend on the BBQ, YUM!
 
Another really amazing thing happened the very next day, when unexpectedly two little chickens, not much younger than ours just walked into our yard!  They were obviously hens (I was learning how to discern the difference) and it was getting late so I locked them away with our girls.  I thought that perhaps the owners would come looking for them in the morning, but this never happened.  So we named them Kentucky and Scramble and added them to our brood of Schnitzel, Omelet and Hazel .  So eight became three and then five, awesome.  Looking forward to waking up to five eggs a day for the next four years.  
 
Some time later our neighbour up the back gave us his two white chickens as he, his Mum and his sister were “over them”.  One kept straying back up the hill but the other “Georgina” was happy to stay.  Eventually we lost Scramble and one of the white hens (no idea where they went although we hope they are with a good home), so five became seven and then five again.  Nowadays we have five eggs a day, which is enough to give us what we need, sell some and give the occasional dozen away in exchange for help in accounting, babysitting or just because we can.
 

I am constantly amazed at the “miracle eggs” and look forward to collecting them every day.  I was surprised to find that white chooks have white eggs and brown chooks have brown eggs, but even these vary in shades from cream to purple/beige to caramel.  When you add our eggs to a vanilla cake mix it become so yellow it looks like it should be lemon cake.  The yolks stand proud when you crack them into the frying pan and the whites also are thick and gelatinous not runny like store bought ones.  The most amazing thing is the fattest greediest chook, our Hazel, lays the biggest eggs and almost all of her’s are double yolkers.  One morning we were amazed at the size of this particular double yolker and thought “ouch, that must have hurt”.  It was twice the size of the normal eggs that she was used to laying and we couldn’t even close the egg carton on it! 

 
We have had our share of eggs taken by peewees, crows and bush turkeys but luckily few and far between.  I have fixed the massive holes in the wire roof over the run in an abstract pattern of criss crossed wire web that no spider would claim or be proud of, but it works to keep the crows out.  
 
While I was cleaning out the chickens blue box (rudimentary chook house) one Saturday I noticed the trail of white ants around the crumbling timber of one leg the box was perched on.  I grabbed some bricks to stabilise it just in case they were to eat  right through.   Just as well it seems because only days later it collapsed onto the bricks.  I dragged Benny in to the run to have a look and announced that we had to build our bubba chookens a new home post haste.  A project for the whole family wouldn’t you say!
 
 

Cage the Veggies and Free Range the Chooks

Chapter 4

Cage the Vege and Free Range the Chooks

 The couple of potted plants that I brought with me to the house were suffering and longed to spread their roots through moist rich soil and flourish.  I planted them into the ground accordingly and so, here we are almost one year on and what should be a metre high miniature capsicum plant is less than half that height and a prolific birds-eye chili plant looks more like ground cover!  What happened you may well ask?  Was the soil not fertile was the sun not shining was the rain not falling regularly?  No, all of that was happening like it should, perfect growing conditions in fact, however our free range chickens were free ranging all over my plants! 

 
I read just recently in Earth Garden magazine that if you want to free range your chooks you need to cage your vegetables, so that’s just what I did.  Using the new roll of wire netting that was supposed to be the new roof over the chicken run I cut out sections and fenced off a part of the garden just for me.  
 
We have grand plans to build a large raised vegetable garden down one side of the yard next to where right now our herb garden is doing very nicely.  There is a vacant spot, a “no mans land” that is basically just a wasted space that requires regular mowing.  It is overlooked by what I would call the “sun room” a long thin room running the length of the house from the front door which was originally a verandah that has been closed in.  This is currently where I spend most of my week days as it is also one of the  spaces that we have dedicated to our clothing business.  It houses the cutting table, packing benches sewing machines etc.  A right little “sweat shop”.  To have that space overlook our vegetable plot will be a calming view on those not so calming days when work is overwhelming and all I wish I could do was be outdoors.  
Alas, this garden will be an added expense that hasn’t reached priority status just yet.  With the water tank in and paid for but still yet to be plumbed, the garden will have to wait.  So meanwhile I have decided that every other available space that doesn’t require any monetary commitment needs to be dedicated to my need to grow food.
 
The good thing about my new fenced area is that is already has water reticulation and with just a few added risers has pretty much got water spraying to every part of the ground.  A trip to Bunnings and not a lot of money later my crops include; snow peas, real peas, rainbow carrots (a heritage variety), asparagus, lettuce that sprung up from an old plant that went to seed, rainbow beetroot (another heritage variety), broccoli, cauliflower, perpetual spinach, and a lone purple runner bean plant (heritage), a lone cucumber (we started with four plants) and the chili and capsicum plants that bravely survived the chook’s garden decimation.  I have other vegies in the herb garden also.  A striped eggplant and lebanese egg plant that my sister and her partner bought me at Christmas and have already given up some beautiful fruit.  I have strawberries that have tripled over the summer and now are laden with fruit that is just beginning to blush with the promise of yumminess to come.  As I mentioned in the last chapter we have plenty of banana trees that previous owners have planted and also a renegade golden passionfruit vine which has yielded a huge crop already even after sharing many fruit with the possums.
 
When we first bought the house I envisaged a fruit grove running the length of the driveway so I quickly planted some trees; a “lots’a lemons” which has given us three in its first year, a lime, which has only produced one so far, an olive tree, a grafted avocado tree and a housewarming gift coffee tree. 

In the compost heap down the “back forty” which is lush and rich and aerated with the help of my efficient garden mulching chooks, three other avocado trees have sprung up by themselves.  So its fair to say that from virtually nothing edible in the garden we have a veritable bounty in its early stages.  
 
There is nothing more satisfying than picking and eating some food that you have grown yourself!  The other morning I had a free range egg omelette with home grown tomato, capsicum and gently flavoured with our own chives.  Next I’ll be looking to source an alternative for the cheese and I’m thinking about growing mushrooms.  I look forward to my fist home grown dinner party (with our vegetarian friends of course), and I think they are looking forward to it too.

Chook Whisperer

Chapter 2 
Chook Whisperer
I had a priority in mind from the first moment I set foot in our new back yard and saw that there was already a run and coop in place, CHOOKS!  Having lived most of our lives in apartments and resorts or in rental accommodation our son Lawson hadn’t had the benefit of being able to grow up with a pet that didn’t live outside of a fish tank.  He craved (as did I) to cuddle a pet, have it follow you around, greet you when you came home and generally give you that unconditional love that only pets can.  
 
We had a friend who lived on acreage on the Sunshine Coast who introduced us all to the concept of chickens as pets.  We spent ages at their place watching chooks roam the yard, hearing them cluck, chasing them off the deck and feeding them kitchen scraps.  We even learnt how to pick them up and give them a cuddle.   Breakfast was harvested from the nesting boxes each morning and then cooked up on the barbecue, with bacon and toast.  The fluorescent yellow yolks standing proud from the chooks varied diet of human food, insects, grasses and weeds topped up with laying pellets to keep them healthy and egg shells strong.
 
I spoke to our son’s Drama teacher, who owned chooks on a suburban block about the pros and cons.  She convinced me that it was better in the long run to raise chickens from “day old” chicks rather than take the cheats way out getting point of lay hens.  I didn’t know if I was up to that challenge… but when she phoned just days later with the offer of baby chicks I just couldn’t resist.  
 
I had asked her for six chicks, for just enough eggs every second day to fill a carton.  However, she had a “good news – bad news” scenario.  Apparently the incubation program at her friend’s school had eight chicks left and all those that weren’t taken by well meaning households would be euthanased!  I’m sure that if the preschools knew that this was the fate of the baby chicks the children delighted in seeing hatched from eggs, they would think again about doing the program! 
For the first few weeks we kept the chicks in a plastic box our lovely Drama teacher had leant us, with holes drilled in it for ventilation, a light bulb for warmth and newspaper, straw and food containers.  This all sat inside the shower recess of our spare bathroom.  As they got bigger they became messier and the smell became worse in that warm confined space.  When it was apparent that there were going to be house guests for the following weekend and the second bathroom was going to be required I spent the weekend securing the old chook house inside the run to make sure it was snake and vermin proof.  We plugged holes in roof and walls engaged my father in law’s help to make a sliding hatch that they could walk in and out of once they were bigger.  We placed the plastic box on its side inside the chook house, barred the sliding door and walked away.  I was silently hoping all night that they would be okay.

The chickens grew rapidly and it wasn’t long before we had them running around inside the pen during the day and just secured in their comfy box at night.
 
They spent the required time in the run to know that this was their home and then just a week after they had had free reign of the run, we opened the gates.  
 
There’s nothing like a free range chook.  We still sit for ages watching their antics as they clucked around us on the grass.  It was very apparent that they had adopted both Lawson and I as their parents and we were both content to hold that role.
 
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