Swans Celebrating


It’s a brilliant end to the year, and the swans are celebrating already. I stopped by a flock on my way home from an errand today. There were hundreds in this flock, and I passed other flocks on my short errand. They are constantly talking, but about what? These are exuberant birds. If you play the audio below, you’ll get an idea what it’s like to observe them.

I feel very lucky to live where the swans visit every winter. With their long voyages, they must have plenty to talk about. One day we’ll be able to point our smart phones at them and get instantaneous translations of what they are saying. And we’ll be able to talk into our phones and out will come a stream of honks the swans will comprehend.


The Beauty of Cold


Snow is dusting the surrounding hills. The morning grass is white with frost. King Richard’s crows carry a long ways on a bright, winter morning. The cold doesn’t deter the hens from laying eggs. Ruby is settled in a nest, getting ready to lay an egg. With daylight just three minutes longer than a week ago, the hens seem to sense that spring is coming. They are already laying more eggs.


Woody 1999~2014


Often when a year ends and a new one begins, other than the dates on the calendar changing, there’s very little to mark the change. This year, for us, there are many endings and beginnings. Yesterday evening, marked another ending. Woody, our dear friend for fifteen years, passed away peacefully, lying comfortably between us on the couch.

He was always such a cheerful companion. He spent many hours in the evening, snuggled between my legs when I relaxed on the couch. It’s hard to imagine life without him. His health started to deteriorate this summer, and these last few weeks, he weakened so much, that we scheduled our veterinarian to come on Monday for a final farewell. But he went on his own, with our hands comforting him.


Woody was a great companion for his sister, Winnie, until she suddenly died nine years ago, and after that, he was Rusty’s best friend and playmate.


After saying our goodbyes, we wrapped him in one of his blankets, and let him spend the night on one of his favorite chairs by the wood stove. During the winter, he loved lying in front of the warm wood stove, or on the chair next to it. This morning we buried him in the garden, next to his sister. In a few months, his grave will be surrounded by beautiful flowers, and we’ll fondly remember our dear friend each time we walk by.


Summer Skies in Winter


The skies yesterday were like mid summer, billowy white clouds against an azure sky. The swans were as happy as could be. I had to stop and listen to them. When they get together in groups, they have so much to talk about. Maybe if I spent a year with them, listening to them day and night, then maybe, I might understand what they are saying. Whatever it is, they can’t wrap up their conversation in a few minutes. It takes them hours to speak their minds.

Posture must have a lot of meaning. Sometimes they talk with their heads held high, other times they twist their neck downward and talk low to the ground. Then there’s the head bobbing thing they do. There’s so many subtle movements they make with their heads and necks, half of what a swan says, may be with their head and neck movements, not their trumpet calls.

And with swans flying in and out of the group, there’s always new company to tell the story all over again. In reality, the swans most likely fly from field to field looking for good things to eat. But, just maybe, the reason they fly from field to field is because they get bored with the conversation in one field, and fly off to mingle with another group, hoping to hear something more interesting.

It makes you wonder if swans ever get close to landing, but see some blowhard swan they can’t stand, and keep on flying to avoid having to listen that swan again.


Winter’s Bug Buffet


MiAsa and her chicks are moving and scratching so fast, they are just a blur. It’s time to turn the compost and add more litter to it. In midwinter, a great feeding place for chickens is a compost pile when I turn it. It is full of worms and bugs. A compost pile is teeming with life. Manure and decaying plant matter provide a feast for bacteria and tiny organism, which provide a feast for earthworms and bugs, which provide a feast for the chickens.

When you closely examine a compost pile in midwinter, it’s amazing to see tiny winged insects teeming over the pile. Once the pile heats up, it provides a warm sanctuary for millions of creatures to flourish.


Post Solstice Eggs


The tide has turned. The days are no longer getting shorter. In four days, the day will be a minute longer, and next Monday, the day will be three minutes longer. Bit by bit, the sun is returning.

Fitting for a momentous day like today, there was a pullet egg among the eggs today. A young hen has started laying eggs. It’s always a pleasant surprise to find these small, precious eggs.


Still on my hunt for fresh eggs in supermarkets, I checked the eggs at the nearest Safeway. The freshest were packed 7 days ago, so they are probably 9 to 10 days old. The least fresh were packed 37 days ago, supposedly “Farm Fresh Egg-land’s Best”! Five week old eggs don’t sound very “Farm Fresh” to me. I guess they were fresh on the farm when they were first laid.

The way to tell when the eggs were packed, is by the 3 digit packing date usually found on the side of the carton. You’ll see them on the photo above. They range from 319 to 349 on the Safeway eggs I photographed today. The 4 digit numbers before or after the pack date are the numbers of the packing plant number. For example:

  • Plant 1951 on the Egg-land’s Best eggs is Rainbow Farms in Denair, California.
  • Plant 1104 is Egg Innovations in Warsaw, Indiana.
  • Plant 1143 is National Food Corporation in Stanwood, Washington.
  • Plant 1260 is Skylane Farms in Woodburn, Oregon.
  • Plant 1452B is Briarwood Farms in Rochester, Washington.

You’ll often find the same packing plant number of different brands of eggs. For example, in the Safeway eggs, you’ll see that many of the eggs come from Briarwood Farms, even though they’ll have very different labels on them. It can be that different farms use the same egg packing plant, or the identical eggs get packed under different labels. Looking at the plant information, you can get an idea of how far your eggs have traveled.

It Pays to Speak Up

It only takes one person to change things. This morning I received a phone call from Christopher Gould, Team Lead, Congressional & Public Affairs Staff, USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service.

This is in reference to the claim on the USDA’s website that many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them, a claim I know is not true. This is what he said and later confirmed by email:

I just spoke with you on the phone about eggs, and wanted to give you my contact information. As I said on the phone, since the line “many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them” is not really the point of the fact sheet – which is about food safety and how to read product dates – we will go ahead and remove that specific text.

He didn’t know if the statement would be removed from their website today, next week, or within a month, so I’ll check periodically and let you know when they remove that claim. He also didn’t know how or who put that statement on their website. From what I can tell, it has been there for many years.

I also called the American Egg Board this morning and talked to them regarding the claim they make on a handout for teachers and students. On the handout they say, “Most eggs in the U.S. reach grocery stores and other retail outlets just one-to-two days after being laid and nearly all of them reach the store within 72 hours or three days.”

They say that statement is based on information from the USDA. Someone qualified to answer my questions about the validity of that claim is supposed to call me back. It will be interesting to hear how they justify that claim, and who in the USDA is telling them that.

See also:

Considering the vastness of the universe, having the USDA remove an inaccurate claim about egg freshness is probably of no significance to anyone but me and a handful of others who care about the freshness of their eggs. But it is something that little ’ol me in rural Washington state, is able to, with a few emails and phone calls, get a US Federal Agency to make a correction to their website.

The End of Darkness


Today marks the end of darkness. Starting tomorrow the days lengthen and the nights shorten. For me, tomorrow seems like the beginning of a new year.

On this, the darkest day of the year, some of the chickens are on the roost for the night before 4 p.m., like the mother and chick below. The chick is too large to fit between its mothers feet, so it snuggles as close to her as possible. In a few more weeks, it will have the confidence to roost on its own.


These are solstice eggs, the last of the old season. It won’t be long before the lengthening days brings new life to the hens and they start laying eggs by the basketful.

Speaking of eggs, I wrote a letter to Gabrielle Johnston, Public Affairs Specialist at USDA-FSIS, asking about the USDA-FSIS statement “many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them”. I had a pleasant phone conversation with her on Friday, and she is looking into how that statement got placed on their website. I’m looking forward to her response, and will let you know what she says.

This is what I emailed her today:

Dear Gabrielle,

I hope you had a pleasant weekend. It’s nice to reach the winter solstice and have days getting longer again.

Back to the claim on the USDA website that “many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them”, I did a little research recently and this is what I found:

On December 12, I looked at the eggs at Haggens, a supermarket chain in this area, and found eggs packed from 6 to 39 days ago. The average on all the egg cartons was 25 days. When you add in the 2 to 3 days minimum it takes eggs to be trucked from the farm to the egg processing plants, the typical egg at Haggens was laid 28 days, or 4 weeks ago.

Here are the results of stores I checked on December 21:

Bellingham Food Co-Op: 4 days to 25 days, an average of 20.3 days

Trader Joes in Bellingham, WA: 8 days to 12 days, an average of 10.7 days

Fred Meyer in Bellingham, WA: 5 days to 17 days, an average of 11.1 days

Those are the packing dates, so a typical egg in those stores is 2 to 3 weeks old at the least. The USDA allows eggs to be packed up to 21 days after being laid, so on the outset the eggs could be up 5 to 6 weeks old, not likely, but not impossible.

I called several Whole Foods stores in Seattle and asked their grocers if they had any eggs that were just a few days old. They said no. They told me that even though they get a few eggs from Pacific Northwest egg producers, the bulk of their eggs come from Wisconsin and Texas. Based on that, it sounds to me like their eggs are easily 2 to 3 weeks old. The next time I am in the Seattle area, I will check their eggs.

So, I’m baffled as to how the USDA decided to put on their website that “many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them”.

I hope you were able to find out how this statement was posted on your website. Maybe some one at the USDA can provide a list of supermarkets that sell these mythical 2 to 3 day old eggs. According to the USDA, there supposedly are many of them on store shelves. I’ll keep looking. If I find any, I’ll let you know.


Poo Power


It’s midwinter, and baby it’s cold outside. Cold, windy, and wet. But poo never rests. Mixed with straw and, in this case, shredded paper, it is generating heat. Actually it is all the bacteria feasting on the chicken poo which is creating the heat. The compost pile is coming alive and getting warmer by the day.

Done correctly, a sizable compost pile will keep an unheated hoop house from freezing. Place thick pipes in it, and a steady flow of warm air will flow from the center of the pile. It’s amazing what poo will do.

The Swans Beckon


The skies are infinitely gray. The darkest days of the year are upon us. We are greeted with darkness upon waking up. The light doesn’t last as long as supper. It is easy to close your eyes and sleep. But the swans beckon. In vast flocks they trample the sodden fields, honking and telling us to cheer up. “Look at all the wonderful mud!” they honk as they splash their way back and forth on big, webbed feet. We’re kinda of luckier than them. When we run through mud, we can feel it oozing between our toes. When swans waddle through mud, their webbed feet keep the mud from squishing between their toes.