Although I’ve written 45 profiles in my series “Having Chickens Is A Great Way To Meet Your Neighbours” I haven’t said a lot about the woman behind the coop. In fact, I loathe being in the public eye and prefer to crow about my chickens rather than write about myself or post selfies to social media. The time has come, however, to take the plunge and brave the spotlight in the same way my ‘Neighbours’ have generously shared their stories. I turned 60 this month and although chickens don’t fly, time certainly does. Here’s a bird’s eye view of my first six decades and how I came to find my flock.
I grew up in Toronto, a big city on one of the great lakes, full of ravines and small rivers with lots of access to nature within its boundaries. I was also fortunate as a kid to have plenty of opportunities to experience country life. My parents split up when I was six and my mum, who had always enjoyed gardening and walking, joined several hiking and naturalists’ groups. I was a member of the Junior Naturalists that met at the local museum one Saturday each month. My mother was also friends with a fellow social work student who came from a Mennonite family in farming country. I spent part of my summer holidays for many years, staying at different Mennonite farms with beef or dairy cattle or pigs, although I don’t remember chickens.
When I was 11 my mum inherited $500 from an unknown relative in England, which became the seed money for our first trip to Mexico. We travelled through Guatemala and Belize (twice), as well as England and Western Canada, all off the beaten tourist path. I took road trips with my dad to northern Ontario and the Maritime Provinces.
We had friends who owned a cottage on a tranquil lake, which they let us use several times a year for a couple of decades. I spent hours swimming, canoeing, hiking, and catching turtles, salamanders and snakes.
My first job, at age 14, was as a cleaner at my local veterinary clinic. After a dull hour mopping floors and disinfecting exam rooms, I snooped through the cadavers in the freezer awaiting disposal or cremation: of course, there were dogs and cats, but also more interesting specimens like turtles and owls. I never pinched any for my collection, but carefully wrapped and returned them to their place.
The summer I was 17, I worked as a Junior Forest Ranger in a provincial park near Lake Superior. I took a high school credit in Archaeological Field Studies, an 18-day residential course at an outdoor education centre. One of our field trips was to the Faunal Osteology Lab, the largest reference collection of animal bones in Canada, housed at the University of Toronto. One of the other students and I became volunteers there and spent many hours cleaning, cataloguing and labelling animal bones from digs in the Canadian Arctic. We both returned to the field school two summers later as teacher’s assistants at a First Nations Studies course.
By then I already had a small skull collection, things I had picked up at the beach or in the woods. Being at the lab spurred me on to become more serious. My bone-collecting buddy and I bought a freezer, stored in the basement of my house, for our roadkill. I remember the time my mother, on her way to a dinner party, saw a dead squirrel in the road. She plucked it up by the tail, made a U-turn back home, dropped it off for me, and then headed back out to her event. I learned to skin squirrels with some skill, and then moved on to a porcupine and skunk which weren’t quite so easy or manageable. I went to an alternative school and wrote the curriculum for my extracurricular courses: the Board of Education gave me one credit for my participation at the field school and two biology credits for work at the lab.
My dad was an aspiring, but unpublished, novelist and instilled in me a love for language and reading. I took literature courses throughout high school and university. I even took two years of high school Latin, which has deepened my appreciation and understanding of the English language. I spent more than a year working for two First Nations organizations on their publications writing news articles and have had a slew of poetry published in small press collections.
I was keen on science, but not so much on math, which was typical for girls of my generation. Without having upper level math courses (we still had grade 13 in Ontario in those days) I couldn’t continue on with science. I opted for another love, social science, and went to York University to do an Honours B.A. with a double-major in Cultural Anthropology and Women’s Studies.
I took a 5 month Women In Trades and Technology course, a hands-on opportunity to learn some basics of carpentry, plumbing, electricity and dry walling, which stood me in good stead when I bought my first house at age 26. Out of necessity I did all the demolition myself (with some help from family and friends), built a closet, patched and dry walled, removed flooring, installed a tub surround and kitchen sink, painted and landscaped.
I worked at the tax department for three years, followed by three more as an outreach worker with youth involved in the sex trade.
One of my sisters moved to Vancouver and I first visited as a 15-year old in 1976 which sparked a desire to move to the west coast. It took me a bit, but in 1993 I took a loss in the real estate market when I sold my house and landed in Victoria, the provincial capital, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. I had envisioned doing something completely different, but fell into a job managing harm reduction programs for injection drug users and sex trade workers. What I thought would be a short-term gig lasted 7 years. I worked afternoon shifts which gave me plenty of time to walk the beaches and explore parks before work and on weekends.
I donated my original skull collection to the lab when I left home for university. When I moved out west I started finding more bones and skulls and that reignited my interest.
Once you’re a collector and word gets out people start giving you things: my friend’s dad was a retired anthropology professor and passed on some monkey and shark skulls; a friend gave me a dozen turkey heads at Christmas. I contacted pet stores, taxidermists, farmers, slaughterhouses, hunters and naturalists – anyone who might have animal skulls. When my mother traveled to the Philippines she brought home a fish skull from her dinner and the head of an eel she found on the beach. A biologist carried home an armadillo skull in a peanut jar from trip in the southern States. I started trading with other collectors across the country and around the world until I had 350 species from across the globe.
Just over two decades ago my partner, Jan, and I headed to a small island, Gabriola, situated between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. We live in a place made for postcards.
The organization I worked for had another office in the small city where the ferry terminal is located so I was able to transfer into the position of Health Promotion Educator, traveling to work via boat each day.
I went from being a manager of frontline services to doing prevention education around the topics of HIV and Hepatitis C. In the last six years, it’s expanded to include harm reduction, mental health and substance use, and overdose prevention. I’ve presented at conferences in Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Oakland.
10 Random Things About Me
- I’m a creature of habit and like everything in its place.
- Pre-blog, I was an avid reader. Between 2010-2017 I read 276 novels, mostly mysteries, by authors from 32 countries.
- I’m old school and don’t use a cell phone. I had to figure out a way to post on my Instagram account from my desktop computer (despite the naysayers, it can be done).
- Don’t ask me to dance, I have a terrible sense of rhythm. Or be on your ball team because my eye-hand coordination is a bit sketchy when it comes to sports.
- I like spicy, but not hot food: Indian, Ethiopian, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Korean.
- I have a terrible sense of smell.
- I don’t know how I lasted three years in my junior high school choir. I enjoy singing (in the car and the shower), but can’t hold a tune if my life depended on it.
- Any aspirations of being a seamstress were dashed when I ran the sewing machine needle over my fingernail.
- I’m an inveterate list maker.
- I’ve never had a cavity.
I always liked chickens and loved to go to the Royal Winter Fair and small town livestock shows. I got my first chickens in June 1994, the year after we moved onto our 4½ acres. Friends brought their pickup truck full of tools, towing their trailer and stayed the weekend helping to convert a kids’ playhouse, later converted to a sauna, into my first coop. I got 5 sexed pullets (Silver Grey Dorkings and South American hybrids) and 8 straight-run chicks (Welsummer and Easter Eggers). Unfortunately 5 of the latter turned out to be cockerels and were sent off to The Cluck Stops Here (no kidding, that’s their real name).
I kept my free-ranging flock for two years while I juggled two jobs: my 4-day a week gig in town; and weekends at our store, Good Bones: Housewares With History, a second-hand/consignment store. I was working six, sometimes seven, days a week and really didn’t get to spend much time with them. It took them awhile, but they finally figured out where the neighbours lived and discovered their garden. Long story, short I re-homed them and gave up chickens for four years.
Our property included a 1940s log homestead and a 1960’s cottage, both in need of work. We did all the interior demolition ourselves and lots of the unskilled grunt work. Both places are now refurbished. My mother, who had dementia, lived in the cottage for six years before going into care, and subsequently dying. She loved to help in the garden and kept me company while I cleaned out the coop. Our ritual during the warm months was to sit on a bench in the chicken enclosure every night after dinner and hang out with the flock.
After 17 years, we’re doing some things on the house for a second time. Last summer, during the Covid 19 lockdown, I repainted the house. My chicken-project friend Tracy (who has appeared in a number of my blog posts) gave a hand with the painting and helped replace 524 screws in the cottage’s metal roof. There are no end to projects when you’ve got land, a garden, two residences, a dog and chickens.
My first flock spent loads of time on the front porch, back doorstep and window ledges, pooping and laying their eggs in far-flung places. I never realized how many eggs I lost until I had penned birds. I bought a used coop with an attached 4’ x 12’ run and quickly realized that was too small, even for just the four hens I had. WWOOFers helped dig fence postholes and I hired someone to enclose my coop in a 30’x 40’ run with a three-sided shed in one corner. I’d already planted several fruit trees – apple, pear and autumn olive – in the area that became their enclosure. A decade later those trees have grown, flower beautifully in the spring, provide shade and loads of fruit in the summer.
I was a three-time organizer for the Gabriola Tour D’Coop, annual self-guided tours of local chicken coops. They were family friendly days to introduce folks to chicken keeping and raise money for agricultural programs, both abroad and locally. (Today we’d see it as a biosecurity no-no).
I was happy with four hens and then I had my first broody who hatched 11 chicks. Of course, I kept a few and was given some more. I had outgrown my little coop and hired two guys who’d worked on our house to build a coop. I sat down with a piece of graph paper and worked out various configurations in the maximum allowable footprint without having to get a building permit (103 square feet). I had the notion I’d use reclaimed materials in an attempt to be low budget and environmentally friendly. That might have worked if I hadn’t hired builders who loved to spend someone else’s money and aspired to replicate the chicken version of the Taj Mahal.
The floor plan got bigger, the siding was prettier. Next thing it was insulated and wired and of course, wouldn’t it be practical to have a full concrete foundation? They kept saying you love your birds and this is your hobby, don’t you want the best? I did manage to use some recycled materials including all the windows, insulation and hardware. I removed the 4’x8’ run from my other coop and attached it to the new coop before selling the old one. At the end of the day I love my coop: it’s totally practical and what I wanted.
I’ve had hundreds of birds, especially if you count the 65 hatches with broody hens, over 13 years of chicken keeping. As my flock grew and I was able to spend time with them the more engaged I became. When learning about chicken keeping and health issues in particular, I turned to the internet, spending more time on Facebook chicken groups than I care to admit. I got frustrated by finding well-intentioned, but lacking fact-based, reliable information.
Ten years into having birds I started a blog that I’d like to read: a mix of science; the quirky and obscure; human interest profiles; and advice on improving the health outcomes for small flocks. I’m an educator who loves my birds, likes to write and take photos. Entirely self-taught on my computer and hand-me-down camera, I’ve muddled through to build a fun, educational Facebook page and to post factual information on my blog. I’ve worked with vets, pathologists and vet techs, those with more experience, hoping some of their knowledge will rub off on me. A lifelong learner, I work from a place of collaboration and a desire to improve the world around me.
Six decades have passed, marking well past the mid-point of my life, thus far. When envisioning my future, I still see chickens, blogging and creating a positive space for folks who love their birds and seek the best care for them. If you stick around we can continue to share this journey together.
When searching for some photos for this post I was hard pressed to find the ones that I did. I only have a few scanned photos and lost some digital ones when a previous computer kakked. My photo archive contains 11,000 images: loads of my birds, my house and dogs, scenery, some family, but just a handful of me, because I’m the one behind the lens. The featured photo at the top is one of my favourites. It was taken just before we took Gemma to the vet to be euthanized. At just shy of 5 years old she developed an aggressive form of leukemia and her prognosis was terminal.