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Egg Lessons

This is the time of year that all those chicks we bought in February have started laying. With that comes a lot of questions about eggs. I would say the majority of people go to the store, buy their dozen white (or brown if you’re the adventurous type) egg, stick them in their refrigerator, and never give them another thought. Until they see something crazy like a blue egg.

Do you need a rooster to get eggs? This is probably the most common question we hear. The answer is no. Chickens, like people, have so many eggs available to them. You can’t get a chick without a rooster, but the eggs come whether the hen wants them or not. Makes sense when you think about it, right? Like I said, most people really don’t think about it. That’s OK. Most people don’t have to.

Hens start laying eggs at about 20 weeks of age. We have nesting buckets set up for our girls, but it usually takes the young ones some time to figure it out. In the past week I’ve found eggs in the middle of the yard, in the ducks’ nest and even in the poop bucket. Yep, the poop bucket. The particular hen seems to really like it in there, so I emptied it out, threw in some hay, and now it’s her personal nest. Silly hen.

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Some of the young ones have figured it out, and lay the eggs where they’re supposed to. We have several nesting buckets available, but there seem to be some favorites. I don’t understand it, but it makes sense to the chickens. They will stand in front of the empty buckets, while they wait for their favorite to be available. For some of them it can be quite a wait because the young girls aren’t entirely sure why they’re in the bucket, which means they aren’t entirely sure when they’re done.

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Where do all those different colors come from? Different breeds of chickens!!! We’ve been asked more than once what we do to “make” our hens lay different colored eggs. We don’t do anything. Different breeds lay different colors. Ameraucanas, for example, lay the pretty blue eggs. Wyandottes lay light brown eggs, and Marans lay dark brown eggs. Even within the breeds, there will be some variations in the shade of color. We actually select our birds based on their egg color. This year we’re shooting for more different shade, and are even hoping some of our blue eggs end up closer to green. We’ll see.

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Now, here’s something I never thought about before having chickens. They have to work their way up to full-grown eggs! When they first start laying, their eggs are teeny and adorable. We try to save the little ones for Reta Jean because she thinks they’re special, just for her. Over the first couple weeks of laying, the eggs will gradually increase in size, until they’re “mature”. Fortunately, once they reach a certain size, they quit getting larger. Some hens naturally lay larger eggs than others, and sometimes you’ll see an abnormally large egg that’s ended up with two yolks, but that’s part of the magic of having your own chickens.

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You can usually tell when the hens are laying because of the noise. Most of the time they cruise around, contentedly cluck-cluck-clucking at each other. When you start hearing the BROCK-BROCK-BROCK, that’s an egg coming. When the youngsters start laying, I head out as often as I can following the “egg song.” Sometimes they get confused and decide to eat their eggs, or at least peck at them until they’re flat. This is a hard habit to break once they start, and it makes a big mess.

I don’t know about other people, but we seem to have a delivery nurse. One of our older hens has taken it upon herself to make sure there is always enough noise to properly welcome the new egg to the world. For all I know, she isn’t even laying eggs herself anymore. I used to run out, thinking someone was having a severe problem, or was maybe dying. Now I know it’s just the town cryer.

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When eggs are first laid, they are covered with a thin membrane call the “bloom.” This prevents bacteria from getting into the egg. If you don’t wash your eggs, they can sit on the counter for several weeks. Once they’re washed, they need to be refrigerated. Even if they’re not washed, once they’re refrigerated, they need to stay that way. When you’re getting 10-15-20 eggs a day, it makes more sense to not wash them and keep them on the counter. Otherwise, you won’t have room for anything in the refrigerator except eggs. Since they’re laid in nests, they should stay pretty clean on their own. If necessary, they can always be cleaned right before use.

We tend to eat, use or give away our eggs within a week of them hatching. In comparison, grocery store eggs are probably hatched 6 weeks before you take them home. Anybody who thinks there isn’t much of a difference needs to think again. A couple of weeks ago Carly ran out of our eggs, so got some from the store. Reta Jean took one bite and said, “These aren’t Gabba’s eggs!” Carly told her they were from the store. Reta Jean said, “I don’t want eggs from the store, I want eggs from chickens.” See? Even a two-year-old can tell the difference.

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Princess Practice

Our family has never been supporters of pageants. I understand, in theory, they can be viewed as a positive. They can promote self-confidence and there’s a chance of winning scholarships. I think the reality can be a lot more damaging. No matter how much pageant directors want us to believe it’s about poise and personality, it’s also very much about appearance. This is not something I wanted my girls to be a part of.

We tried to raise the girls to be strong, independent young women. Through the years, they played soccer and water polo, swam competitively, and were involved in photography, art and theater. They were encouraged to pursue their interests, and  being a girl was never a reason not to try something. When Tori was in high school, a new class in stage production was offered. She had already been working on the theater sets and was excited to enroll in this new class. Initially, the teacher tried to cast her aside, and even suggested she should listen to the boys to learn what to do. Needless to say, none of us were happy with this – Grandpa had made Tori her first workbench when she was only 4 or so.  Tori kept her cool, and worked hard, and soon the boys were coming to her for help.

When “Toddlers and Tiaras” was created, the girls and I would watch it regularly. We rolled our eyes, got indignant about bratty behavior, and thought most of the mothers were awful. But every now and then a girl or her mother would catch our attention. The girls who loved to dress up, but didn’t care if they won. Or the moms who lovingly encouraged their girls to participate to help them get over their shyness or awkwardness, or to give them the opportunity to participate despite a disability. Our favorites were the girls who were out there having a great time spending time with their families.

So, maybe in the right circumstances pageants aren’t all bad. If it’s something the girls really wants to do, and her family is willing to support her to accomplish HER goals, it could be OK. We even thought the more natural pageants were pretty cool. Then, along came Reta Jean!

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This little girl is just overflowing with confidence and personality. She’s fearless and friendly and funny. She loves being the center of attention and loves to dress up like a princess. She’s also loving and not afraid to speak her mind. She’s only 2, but we have joked about her being a pageant girl for a long time. I mean, if you ask her if she wants to be a princess, she’ll very firmly remind you that she IS a princess.

Enter the Miss Gold Dust Royalty Pageant. This is a local, natural, small-town pageant, celebrating Gold Dust Days in the town of Gold Bar. The most important part, though, is this is a community service pageant. The pageant itself is used to collect food for local food banks. The contestant who wins the title of “Ambassador” is the contestant who brings the most food donations. “Queen of Queens” is a winner from the previous year, who participated in the most community events during their reign. There is a full schedule of events throughout the year, like Relay for Life, that winners are encouraged to participate in.

I heard about the pageant when I saw an announcement for an informational meeting. I asked Carly if she and Joe would be OK with Reta Jean participating, and they were willing to learn more about it and give it a try.

Carly and I told Reta Jean we were going to Princess School, because that sounds way more fun than Informational Meeting. We figured if she liked it, great, if not, no biggie. Well, she loved it! She sat very patiently during the boring meeting part, then was the first kid up on the stage to practice. She was so busy running around the stage, she ended up being one of the last to practice, but that just gave her time to see what she was supposed to do.

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She was almost a natural. The co-director, Katelynn, ran her through the walking pattern and Reta Jean took right to it. (The pictures are a little blurry because, well because it’s Reta Jean. Next time I’ll take my camera and have it set on action mode.) She loved waving and blowing kisses and being on the stage. She also had a ball throwing in extra spins and running in circles instead of regally turning. She tried to convince Carly that was how it was SUPPOSED to be done.

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Seeing how much fun she was having, and knowing she would be participating in community service events, convinced us this was for her. The big day is in just 4 weeks. There will be one more “training” party before the pageant, and we’ll make sure Reta Jean makes it to that. Meanwhile, she’s enjoying Princess Practice, as long as it doesn’t interfere with playtime.

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She won her t-shirt in a raffle, and insisted on sleeping in it. I’m sure it will be getting a lot of wear.  We think she’ll do great in the pageant. If not, we’ll all have a great time getting ready for it.



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Pool Time!

The weather forecasters and locals are going crazy! We’re in heavy drought conditions and it’s HOT! Now, I can get on board with the fact that there’s a drought. Last year, we had a total of just under 70 inches of rain. This year, so far, we’re at a total of about 6 inches, with a whopping 1/4 inch for the month of June. So, yeah, it’s dry!

The whole “hot” thing, I’m having a little more trouble with. It’s getting into the mid- to high-80s, and flirting with the low 90s for a few days over the upcoming weeks. Not having air conditioning does make the afternoon high a little uncomfortable, but the evenings still get down into the 50s and 60s. I can open up the house and let the cool air in, and I love it! OK, ok, it’s hot. But it’s not lose-your-mind-HOT! (Remember, I grew up in Palm Springs. This week, they’re getting up to 115, and their overnight lows are the same as our daily highs.)

The trick is to balance the drought and the heat issues. I was running the sprinkler in the animal yard for a while everyday, but it’s getting too hot for that, and the sprinkler would need to be on too long. We got a wading pool for the kids a couple weeks ago, so I figured it was time to get a few for the animals.

All the kids like playing in the water, but Reta Jean LOVES it! She says, “Gabba, I love the huge, huge bathtub!” The boys eventually want to go play at the troll bridge, or run up and down the hill, but not Reta Jean. She’s a mermaid princess!

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The animals weren’t quite as sure about the pools. Even the ducks studied them for awhile. Tajo loves the water as much as Reta Jean, so he was the first to head over and check it out. The hose was his first clue that something cool was happening.

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Spike came over next, but I’m pretty sure he was just looking for food. He likes the water, but he likes food MUCH more.

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The ducks crack me up all the time. They always quack-quack-quack around together. I’ll very rarely seen one away from the others, unless one is laying an egg. They held true to form in checking out the pool. Their quacking is usually very soft and soothing. The more the pool filled up, the more excited their quacking got.

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Even though the ducks were getting loud, they still weren’t getting in the water. I decided I would need to step back and let them do their thing. Once I wasn’t hanging over the fence, more of the gang came around. Tajo didn’t want to get in, but he enjoyed drinking the water.

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I think Spike was mad at me because it wasn’t food.

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The ducks eventually got in, and then they were really happy. There was so much splashing around, Spike decided he needed to keep his distance. He was like the mom hanging by the pool with the kids, but not wanting to get wet.

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I had to hang out and watch the fun. There was another pool in the yard, but everybody liked this one. Probably because it was in the shade.

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We have chairs set out by the animal yard, in the shade of pines and a flowery plant (I still don’t know what that plant is called). It was already one of my favorite spots in the yard, and now it’s even more so. When the days get to their hottest around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, this spot is shady and cool. I sit and watch the critters playing in the water, and wait for the heat to pass.

Life really is that simple.


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Summer Visits – P.J.

Since moving to Washington, we’ve learned that visitors come during the summer. (In Palm Springs, visitors come in the winter.) And why not? The trees are green, the flowers are in bloom, and the weather is beautiful! That, and we love having people up to the farm. It’s still new to us, and we’re still figuring out what we’re doing, so it’s fun to share what we’re learning with our “city” friends.

A couple weeks ago, our youngest son PJ moved from Southern California to Portland. That puts him just 3 1/2 hours away! He had some unexpected time off and he came to visit this past week. He’s only been up twice since we moved, and both times were quick trips. Having him Sunday-Thursday was a treat for all of us.

The first morning, he got up bright and early to help me with my chores.  We had to make fun of him for putting his jacket on since it was in the high 60s. At first the alpacas made him nervous, but he got over that really fast. Turns out his main concern was getting spit on. At one point he heard a strange noise and asked why the alpacas were doing that. They were just standing there. They weren’t doing anything. The noise PJ heard was the ducks quacking. We really need to work on countrifying this boy.

Carly brought Raymond and Reta Jean up to visit. The kids taught PJ how to look for eggs, shoo away the chickens when they’re being pests, and play nice with the pacas. It’s rewarding to see that farm life has become second nature to the kids. Raymond still doesn’t like roosters, but he doesn’t get scared off anymore. Little Reta Jean thinks she’s the farm boss, and the animals seem to believe it, too.



After chores and farm lessons, it was time to play. PJ hadn’t seen the Troll Bridge area since it was just a big tree. Raymond and Reta Jean had a ball showing off their play area. I had taken PJ to town the day before to pick up supplies to make the chalkboard, so this was the first time the kids got to use it, and it was a hit. After drawing awhile, it was time for a sword fight and jumping off the troll bridge. PJ’s just a big kid himself,  and they all played and played.

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It didn’t take any time at all for Reta Jean to charm PJ out of his ice cream cone. I think PJ needed a nap as badly as the kids did when they were done playing. They’re going to love having him around more. He’s the only one who even comes close to keeping up with them.

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PJ has 4 roommates – all young men in their 20’s. That meant I couldn’t send him home without food. The garden won’t be producing well until his next visit, but I was still able to send him home with lots of eggs. He also got homemade lasagna and chocolate chip cookies, as well as angel food cake and strawberries. At least I know he had food for a day or two.

If you consider summer to be from Memorial Day to Labor Day, then our family is going to be all about summer this year. We started it with PJ’s move, and we’ll be ending it with baby Riley’s arrival. In between, we’ll have 6 birthdays, friends and family visiting, the County Fair, and all kinds of fun on the farm. And to think, I used to hate summer.



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Cross Creek Alpaca Rescue Shearing

We had fun shearing our alpacas a few weeks ago, and this past week was Cross Creek Alpaca Rescue’s shearing. It was still fun, but shearing 63 alpacas takes a lot more planning and work than just two. Cross Creek is run by two very dedicated women, Jackie and Shari. They coordinate rescues, rehome alpacas, ensure health needs are met, follow through with legal requirements and organize the annual shearing. Oh, yeah, there’s also the gelding of males, delivering cria (babies), and other vet bills that come up. That’s just the big things I can think of. There’s the day-to-day care, feeding and just loving these animals that didn’t come from the best circumstances. And that’s not counting the rescue horses, mini-horses and dogs that are part of the animal family.

Cross Creek is actually home to 24 alpacas. The others that came for shearing are rescues that have moved on to their new homes. Because shearing is such an important part of an alpaca’s health, Cross Creek makes sure it’s available to those who need it.

Alpacas, by nature, don’t like to be haltered and led. With training and human interaction, they will get used to it and are fairly easy to handle. The key phrase here is “with training and human interaction.” These are all rescues. Some have had some training, others have never been in a halter. Some are very sweet and some are more ornery. And on shearing day, many of them have been transported to a location that isn’t totally familiar to them. Shearing a group like this requires patience, stamina, a little creativity and a lot of humor.

When we first pulled up, the first thing I noticed was the front pen of ‘pacas. We could tell by looking at them that they knew something was up, and they weren’t real thrilled with it. Throughout the day I referred to them many times as “toddlers” because that’s exactly how they act. Think bath time when a toddler would rather be playing outside.

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Shearing is accomplished either lightest animals to darkest, or darkest to lightest. That keeps fiber colors from getting mixed up too much. Boys and girls are kept in separate yards. That means lots of running back and forth, cornering, catching, leading and returning in different corners of the ranch. Charlie and I didn’t even try to get a handle on the organization of the whole thing, we just went where we were told. Spreadsheets set up before shearing help keep everything running smoothly.

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The goal was to always have one alpaca ready to go so there wasn’t a break in the shearing. Some of them went through the shearing like the old pros they are, while others were total drama queens. Again, think toddlers with their first haircut.

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When an alpaca doesn’t want to move, they can be coaxed with some pushing, pulling and coaxing. When a llama doesn’t want to move, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. The average weight of an adult llama is 350 pounds. Mama Llama dug in her heels, dropped to her knees, and finally just went for dead weight. Something like Raymond and Reta Jean do when it’s time to come in from playing in the water. Mama Llama eventually got tired of…I don’t know, something…and decided to get up and move.

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Chester is a llama-alpaca mix. It’s not recommended to cross breed them, but sometimes it happens. He really didn’t want to cooperate. At all. Once we got him to the hitching post, he had calmed down. Even though he was a bit of a “problem child,” I REALLY liked him. I guess that’s no surprise to people who know me. Isn’t he pretty?0607151102 (800x754)

You can see, with before and after, they relax and are so much more comfortable without all that extra fleece. It got to 97 the day we were shearing and we were all hot in jeans and t-shirts.  I would have been miserable in a 5+ pound fur coat. I felt better just taking my shoes off at the end of the day.

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All that fiber gets bagged, sorted, scored, bundled and readied for processing. Those rolls are called “noodling.” It’s the new way to package fiber and it’s pretty cool. Instead of having disorganized fleece in a bag, you get the blanket of fleece laid out just like it was on the animal. I’m looking forward to seeing more fiber packaged this way.

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Charlie and I met Jackie and Shari, and Spike and Tajo, at last year’s shearing. We are so lucky to be part of the alpaca world. We’ve learned so much over the past year and look forward to learning more. There is such a need for rescuing and supporting these wonderful animals, we will continue to do whatever we can to help.

When you consider this is coordinated by two people who do all of this strictly for the love of the animals, it’s really amazing and touching. There is no salary involved, and everything is funded by donations.  To read more about Cross Creek Alpaca Rescue, or to make a donation, please visit their website. http://www.crosscreekalpacarescue.org/


Rainwater Collection – Is It Legal?

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on social media about rainwater collection being illegal. I know it’s not illegal in Washington, and decided to check on exactly what the legalities were in other states. I started checking laws. Then I stopped. The government websites  that include water collection laws, are written in full legalese. I just want to know, “Can you collect rainwater?” yay or nay. They just can’t make it that simple.

The gist of what I’ve found is good news. Colorado has very strict rainwater collection laws, but other states are actually becoming more lenient, not stricter. The main concerns are health matters and overcollecting.

Rainwater is relatively pure, and is even pH neutral. Dirt, leaves, fecal droppings from birds and animals, and insects, being washed from a catchment area into a collection barrel are the leading causes of contamination. Equipment can be used to sterilize collected water for consumption, but I think most people would be happy to collect enough water just for gardening and providing water for animals.

The issue of overcollection is kind of weird. The official concern is that rainwater collection could affect aquifer and groundwater supplies. The theory being, if everybody were to collect rainwater on their own land, the streams would dry up and tap water supplies would disappear. Let’s think about that for just a second. Collecting rainwater is bad for groundwater levels, but using tapwater is OK. How much sense does that make?

Douglas County, CO conducted a study because that’s what governments do. The study showed that letting people collect rainwater on their properties actually reduces demand from water facilities and improves conservation. Furthermore, the study showed that only about 3% of Douglas County’s precipitation ended up in the streams and rivers. The other 97% either evaporated or seeped into the ground to be used by plants.

While Colorado still has strict guidelines pertaining to rainwater collection, they are working on new pilot projects to examine the feasibility of rainwater collection to help with water conservation. So, if you’re in Colorado, check with the Division of Water Resources to confirm what is legal.

Bottom line: If you are interested in setting up a rainwater collection system on your property for personal use, it’s probably legal. Some states are trying to come up with guidelines limiting how many gallons an individual can collect, but they have yet to come up with a number they feel is fair and realistic. I imagine it will take several more years of studies.

To check rainwater collection regulations in your state, Google “Is rainwater collection legal in (insert state).” Every state has their own board or agency, but this search seems to point in the right direction.

To learn how to set up your own rainwater collection system, check out this post from last fall. http://redmonwoods.com/2014/09/03/water-works/

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Birds of a Feather

I’m the first person to admit that I’m, maybe, too easily amused. It’s also no secret that our animals crack me up on a regular basis. Our “old” girls and “new” girls are overlapping a bit, so we currently have about 30 birds. (Charlie can count them, but they move around too much for me to keep track.)

Morning feeding time is my favorite time of day. I have a routine, all the animals know the routine, and yet they’re always hoping I’ll feed first, THEN clean instead of making them wait.

Our male hen – ok, yeah, he’s a rooster – is always the first one to start following me. I don’t mind him following me, but if he starts attacking me, he’s going to become dinner like the last rooster. So far, he’s a pretty nice guy.

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He sends up the alert, and the girls start gathering. And gathering. And gathering.Wherever I go, they’re following. When I look down at the whole flock, surrounding me, it occurs to me it’s a good thing I’m not afraid of chickens. And it’s a good thing they know I feed them. Can you imagine if they all got mad at me at once? That would be like a horror movie. “Pecked to Death.”

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Fortunately, they’re willing to play along while I keep them waiting. Once I do start feeding them, I continue to entertain myself. I’ve learned if I scatter their scratch in patterns, the birds will make shapes for me. They all start with the first straight line, but then spread out as more scratch is put down. This day I was trying for a square.

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They almost got it. Maybe I need to shoot for more rounded sides. I’m also thinking of trying to do the whole alphabet, one letter at a time. It would take several weeks. We’ll see how ambitious I get.

The ducks join in with the chicken scratch, but they know they get fed next. Spike knows they get fed next, too. He knows he’s not supposed to eat the duck food, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He has no shame. He even tries to keep them waiting. Tajo takes full advantage of Spike wanting to be a bird. He gets to eat his grain in peace while everyone else is following me around.

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Eventually Spike backs off and lets me feed the ducks. He’s pretty persistent, though. He acts like he’s given up, until the food is scattered on the ground, then he sneaks in, like maybe I won’t notice he’s not a duck. Or a chicken. I’ve learned to spread the feed thin, so he’s not able to get large amounts.

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People are always shaking their heads at how well our animals get along. They’ve always been like this. Sometimes the ducks and hens gang up on the rooster, but that’s because he’s trying to exhibit his manliness when the hens are trying to eat. Nobody appreciates that. Other than that, they’re like one big, happy family.