Archives for category: bird-watching

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-Jig

R.R. Edwards

I had just turned onto our road, after a trip into town, and about half way down the half-mile stretch to the house, I spotted a couple of odd creatures standing in the road. As I got nearer, it became obvious that they were, in fact, some kind of bird. At first I thought they might be a couple of escaped chickens and, as I got closer I saw that, in fact, these were escaped birds. But, to my amazement, these weren’t chickens making a break for it—they were our adopted emu chicks, on the loose and halfway to the highway! The last time I’d seen them, they were in the yard, running around the enclosure we’d set up for them.

For a few seconds I just sat there, a bit stunned and unsure what my next move should be. They stood there, staring back, just as unsure about their next move. When I inched the car forward, the chicks answered the question for me—they started heading back down the road in order to put distance between themselves and the mysterious, iron beast that had blocked their path.  So, following their lead, I began my very own, emu round-up, behind the wheel of my trusty steed.

The emus were surprisingly “cooperative”—they kept scooting along at a relatively brisk pace and, only once, did one of them threaten to take off, across an adjacent pasture by squeezing through the fence. Fortunately, he kept moving in the right direction and, when the fence ahead of him ran out, popped back out, onto the road. When we arrived where the road split, (straight, the road took you to the neighboring dairy, and to the right was our place) I managed to steer them in the right direction. Now that we’d arrived at the house, the next trick was going to be getting them either back into their pen, or into the house.

At this point I had to hope that “Mother Nature” (in a twisted sort of way) would take over, and that the chicks’ bond to me was strong enough to overcome their confused and somewhat panicked state. I got out of the car and slowly approached our feathered charges, afraid that all my work would be for naught, and that they would bolt. But, as soon as I called to them, their little heads spun around and they came running up to me, cheeping away. They were clearly thrilled to have been found by a “parent” and would have happily followed me, anywhere. Since it was lightly raining, and they looked a little soaked from their adventure, I led them inside where they could huddle under the heat lamp to dry out.

After telling AV, “Guess what who I saw standing in the road,” I realized how lucky we were, in so many ways. Once they got out of their pen, they could have headed in any direction. We’re surrounded by miles of open pasture, and once out there, they would have been next to impossible to find. The fact that they’re “fence runners” kept them on the road, between fences, but they had covered a quarter-mile, in a relatively short amount of time, and had I been back much later, they might have made it to the main road and hitched a ride to just about anywhere. Or, when confronted by me on the road, they could have “flipped me the bird,” and taken off in any direction. (And, these little guys, at the tender age of 1-month, can out run me!) All kidding aside, we lucked out that our little birds are home safe. I would have assumed that, once out of their pen, they would have stayed around the house, looking for us or a way back inside. But like most youngsters the thrill of adventure dulled their sense of self-preservation, and down the road they happily trotted. Clearly, the trials and tribulations of parenting (and youth) are universal.

 

 

Egg-Napping—The Quest for Emu Survival

A.V. Walters

Emus have lived on this farm much longer than I have. I didn’t even know they were here until after I’d been here for about eighteen months. Then, I walked into an unusual scenario—After visiting my family for the holidays, my return was delayed by a Midwestern snowstorm. Because Elmer was watching my house, I gave him a call to let him know about the delay. He told me to drop by his place when I got home—the farm had Christmas surprises! Well, it certainly did—Elmer had a new puppy, he’d learned he was expecting another new grandbaby and, in a corner of his kitchen, was the strangest little bird—a baby emu.

The little guy was clearly sick. I asked Elmer where he’d got this little critter. He responded that he was a chick from the emus. Apparently, years earlier a friend had gone into (and quickly out of) the emu business, and he’d given Elmer some of the leftover emus. It turns out that ranchers here use them as guard animals for their sheep. It’s not so much that the emus like sheep, but that they really hate coyotes. So these emus have been living quietly across the road where most of the sheep are kept.

The emus on the farm have never bred successfully. Emus come from Australia, where the winter climate is more forgiving than in Two Rock. Their breeding cycle is triggered when the days start to shorten, and while that’s fine for Australia, here, our emus end up with vulnerable little (figure of speech) eggs and chicks at our coldest time of year. The chick in Elmer’s kitchen was the only survivor of the clutch–the rest all froze. So here was Elmer, in early January, with a living, but very sick little bird. I asked him what he was going to do with it.

“Hand raise it, I guess.”

“Yeah, what do you feed it?”

“Dunno, I’ve been giving it milk.”

Elmer, it’s a bird! Whatever made you think to give it milk?”

“Well, it’s a baby.”

And this from a chicken farmer! With that, I sat down in front of his computer and Googled “Baby emu feed.”

“Elmer, it says here to feed them kale and finely diced apples. And they need to be kept warm, really warm for a couple of weeks.” I was still busy peering at the screen when he handed me the box, emu baby and all.

“Here, you take him. You’re better at the computer research stuff.” (I should have seen the obvious connection, myself–computer research and raising baby emus.)

And so, I’ve been the Emu Lady ever since.

I set up at home with the first emu baby. He was pretty sick, and only lived a couple of days. But by then, I’d become the patron saint of baby emus. I did the research and we decided on a strategy of “emu assistance.” That is, trying to help the emus to raise their own.

One of our strategies was to delay breeding until later in the season, so that the babes would come at a warmer time. Unfortunately this required separating the randy couple. With sheep to move from pasture to pasture, farmhands (with good intentions) can’t seem to remember about the emus. The fence and gate protocols were a bit much–the process was like trying to chaperone teenagers. Let’s face it–emus may be dumb, but they’re faster than we are. Well, so much for that tactic.

It’s been three years now, with no luck. We’ve gone from no live young at all, to achieving success in viable chicks, only to have them succumb to coyotes, foxes, freezing cold, and just plain stupidity. (Like the emu baby who hatched and promptly hung himself on the fence of his enclosure that we put up to keep it safe! Who knew you had to baby-proof an emu pen?) So this season we had a new strategy. We were going to combine delayed breeding with a time-honored tradition—incubation. A friend of Elmer’s gave him emu incubating equipment. He’s all concerned that it’ll use too much power, but the tide is against him and we’ve fired up and tested the incubators.

So, earlier this month we decided to check on those wily birds, figuring it was about time to get them on opposite sides of the fence. Too late. When we walked up to the pasture we saw only one emu. Mrs. Emu. That’s a sure sign that Mr. Emu is off sitting on a clutch of eggs! (With emus, the male is the caretaker parent. The female is basically a nervy, promiscuous hussy.) Sure enough, we walked up the hill to the pond to find Mr. Emu happily sitting on his new clutch of nine eggs. (The photo was taken just before we grabbed the goods.) They were early this year. By weeks. Well, that’s when we knew it was time to fire up the incubator.

Today was the big day. After a series of delays—real teenagers, neck injuries, late tomato harvests and elections—we were finally ready. It was anticlimactic, really. Mr. Emu was his usual genial self. I plied him with apple treats and, while he was snacking, I reached under him and removed the eggs, one by one. Rick wrapped them in a Mylar space-blanket and towel, and we stole off with his family! When we left, he was oblivious to what had happened, and was still gobbling down the apples. (Did I mention that emus weren’t real bright?)

So, the eggs are now safely stashed in the incubator—calibrated and set. (In the other photo, you can see some of them sitting in the rack.) We numbered and weighed them. (Weight is one method of observing chick progress—during the process they lose weight as they lose water mass.) They weighed in at 20 to 23 ounces, each. Emu eggs are big. We’ll have to do some guessing about the “due date” as those sneaky emus got ahead of us. The normal egg gestation is 53 days, but who knows when they got started. Taking their eggs will likely result in a second effort by the emus and, a second clutch of eggs. We’ll try to keep our eyes open, this time. If it’s late enough, we’ll let them try it on their own. Otherwise, they’ll be more eggs bound for the incubator. Sometime around Christmas we’ll know if we succeeded with any of the emu babies, on this first batch.

But then what will we do?

Bird Mysteries

A.V. Walters

Back in May I mentioned a new bird, a raptor that we couldn’t identify. In fact, we suspected a family of them, but couldn’t be sure because we never clearly saw two of them at the same time. He (or she)disappeared for a while but then he/she/they reappeared, in force, in these past few weeks. They had us baffled. Our bird guide, (granted, a very old and confusing tome) didn’t seem to cover this particular bird. He’s clearly a raptor, a hunting bird, but not colored like anything we’d seen before.

Our mystery was finally solved. I met some birders, by chance, during a business meeting. By the end of the meeting I felt comfortable enough to ask if I could send them a photo of our mystery guest—and then, I did just that. The answer came back in minutes (don’t you just love the internet) our bird is (drum roll, please) a white-tailed kite. In fact that’s birds plural, because we’ve discovered we have a bunch of them. (The bird guide we have at home, doesn’t even have a picture of them!)

No sooner did we get the name, than a whole family of them soared over us—four or five in a loose formation. And then a day or so later we spotted another one, a juvenile. (Yup, with a name and the internet, we’re able to confirm them from sight and even know what the babies look like. Forget about your privacy now.) In the five years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen one of these birds and suddenly we are white-tailed-kite-central! We have enjoyed their company, even though they aren’t going to solve my other bird problem, those troublesome noisy mourning doves. Don’t get me wrong, the kites are entirely beneficial—eating large insects, mice and voles and, we hope, maybe gophers. BUT, they don’t do anything to scare off the darned doves. We’ll have to be content with the fact that they’re lovely to watch and a welcome addition to our farm’s roster.

But wait—all is not lost! There is a new development on the mourning dove front. You may recall that the tone of a mourning dove’s coo drives me crazy. I find it unnerving. Apparently, that’s not uncommon—I regularly get hits from internet searches looking for a solution to those noisy mourning doves. Well, we’ve found a possible solution. It’s funny because the fix was here all along. When I first moved here there was an abandoned, fake owl (with big, plastic eyes) under the balcony. I didn’t think much of it and it’s kicked around from place to place for five years now. Last week Rick came upon it and, with nothing to lose, mounted it on the back railing.

Within a day, Silence. It worked. The mourning doves relocated out of our back yard. (So did the swallows, but it’s worth it.) The doves are still active elsewhere on the farm but they stay clear of the backyard and the top of the house. It’s blissful. Well, it was ‘til today, when a pair decided to check out the front yard—in plain sight of my office. But we have a solution. We’ll just move the faux owl around to keep the fidgety little critters on their toes, and out of earshot. So, for all of you out there yearning for some mourning dove peace, it’s only been about a week but it’s still working.

We do have real owls on the farm, some barn owls and some screech owls. They are a pleasure to watch on an early evening stroll, but they don’t do anything for the doves, because the doves are daytime birds. So, fake owls it is.