Archives for posts with tag: animals

Just Us Chickens

A.V. Walters

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I’m not one much given to ‘cute.’ Never have been. We got chickens because we prefer the taste of fresh eggs, and we like to be able to ensure the quality of the food we eat. Our chicks eat organic.

I resisted the idea of naming them. However, they have earned descriptives–if only because we need to be able to identify them in conversation. When they first arrived, there were two very small chicks and two larger chicks. Then, one of the small chicks (whom we identified as “Yellow-head”) had a burst of development. She is now the largest. The other smaller chick is still well behind all of the others, both in size and feather development. Despite being the runt, she’s no dummy, and has strategies for compensating for her size. I’ve been calling her Einstein. The middle two have been neck and neck in their growth–and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. One walks taller–and so I refer to her as ‘Upright,’ while the remaining mid-sized chick moves about with a sort of nervous, crouched, posture. Perhaps it’s wrong, but I call her ‘McNugget.”

My sister has chickens. They have them for the eggs–and because the spent chicken litter is a great way to speed your compost and build high quality soils. But her chickens are pets. They have proper names. She fully speaks chicken.

Chicks are a lot of work. They are filthy little creatures. I should have remembered from when we raised emu chicks, but I am at a loss to understand how an animal that will spend hours preening its feathers will also shit in its food bowl. Perhaps it’d be easier if the “cute” factor resonated for me. Oh well. After just two weeks, they’re looking moth-eaten, and teenage scruffy. They not fuzz-balls anymore, but neither do they have their full plumage. Only a mother hen (type) would find them attractive at this point. They are, however, psychologically interesting.

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Even at this stage, they clearly demonstrate the concept of “pecking order.” Yellow-head is the dominant and lets them all know that she’s in charge. After the first week we gave them a perch. It belongs to her, the queen of the roost. She won’t let anyone else on it. The others get it. They stay on the floor–except for the occasional hop up to try it out–when Yellow-head is asleep.

At first, the three larger birds would crowd Einstein out of food bowl access. Now she just pushes in between them. And if the rest are asleep, Einstein takes advantage and fills up when there’s no competition. I don’t know if this is intelligence, or just survival. Einstein does not challenge the pecking order. Nor does she spend much of her time socializing–grooming or cuddling together for naps. The two middle sycophants are forever nestling together, grooming each other or Yellow-head. That must be chicken bonding. So far I don’t see any outright pecking of the little one–though I’m watching for it. Chickens can be vicious. Maybe she can continue evasive maneuvers and avoid that particular bit of chicken ugly.

Yesterday we moved them from the basement to their coop. They’d outgrown their cardboard box. Seeing them in larger digs is a relief–they look much better. Relief from overcrowding seems to have minimized aggressive behaviors.

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Watching their interactions reminds me of our current social order. As a species, we need to move beyond bullying and ass-kissing. We need to foster resilience, independence and courage. As much as I’m impressed with little Einstein, it isn’t enough to keep your head down and mind your own affairs. We need to stand up for our convictions. Maybe we can find strength together. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of chickens.

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Wascally Wabbits!

A.V. Walters–

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Cages and Wraps

Late April and early May were a whirlwind of activity. We ordered over 200 trees, anticipating the participation of 40 volunteers in this spring’s tree planting extravaganza. The trees arrived. The volunteers did not. There were good reasons for standing us up, but that still left us on our own with a lot of bare root trees.

With bare root plants, you have, at best, two weeks to get them into the ground. You can “heel them in” to buy additional time. Heeling in is essentially storing them in dirt—either by digging a trench, or mounding. Still it’s planting and uprooting them again—more work for us and more trauma to the tender roots. So, we rolled up our sleeves, and planted.

No sooner were the trees in, than we began to lose them to deer and rabbits. So began the next great surge—the making and installation of the tree cages. In all, over a very short period, we made and installed almost one hundred and fifty cages. By the time we finished, and feeling invincible, I was almost beginning to think that rabbits could be cute. Then, we (mostly Rick) re-fenced the garden/orchard area with rabbit-proof fencing. You’d think that there would be an opportunity then, to breathe and rest. Ha! Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

Below the house, we’ve planted a hedge of berry and blooming plants. Well, eventually it will be a hedge; currently it is a widely spaced and hopeful collection of spindly plants. Its purpose is to provide a visual break and to host a wide variety of blooming plants that will be good for the bees. As a side note, there are a number of berry plants that will provide treats for us, too. There are blueberries, high-bush cranberries, service berries and elderberries, mixed in with lilacs, redbuds, red osier, and lavender. In a few years it will be really beautiful. Because the berry plants are particularly tasty (and because I have an emotional and aesthetic stake in this hedge), they were among the first to be caged. Finally, after weeks of work, we could relax.

Well, I actually went into town for groceries, and bought some new work shoes. Rick was working on plumbing, so I walked up to the house to show him my fancy new footwear. On the way up the path, I saw it. A baby bunny. Cute, eh?

Not so much. The baby rabbits are very small. They fit nicely between the wires of our new tree cages. Once in, they are protected from predators, and can munch, at their leisure on our berry plants. From my vantage on the path I could clearly see a baby bunny giving my brand new blueberry bush a serious pruning. I rushed it, waving my arms, screaming. It ran. And stopped, thirty feet from the new hedge… waiting. Quickly, I surveyed the damage. One blueberry, neatly pruned to half its original size. One baby bunny, stalking. And, across the field, half a dozen baby bunnies, frolicking.

Rick came to the door of the house, alerted by my cursing. I held out the severed blueberry branches and he understood immediately. We pulled out a roll of chicken wire and began cutting cage-wraps, glancing nervously over our shoulders to the hedge. I should have stood guard, because in the twenty minutes it took to cut the wire wraps, three more blueberry plants were pruned to within an inch of their lives! Thank God for new shoes!

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Blueberry, it’s branches trimmed!

Now, all of the berry and bloom hedge plants have double cages. I’m also going to string deterrent wires across the tops, to discourage any deer, who might reach down into the shorter cages for a nibble. It’s the Fort Knox of landscaping. Maybe now we can relax a bit. Except that it’s time to put in the garden.

Bunnies? Maybe they’ll be cute again, someday.

 

Opening Day Posting

A.V. Walters

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We’ve debated it. After all, we don’t want to appear unfriendly to our new neighbors. Ultimately, we decided that we needed to establish our boundaries. The land has been vacant for twenty-five years and others have come to see it as open land, or even as something to which they have a right. In just this past year we’ve had trespassing mushroom pickers, berry pickers, Christian campers (claiming a leasehold from our neighbor! Lord only knows who has boundary problems in that equation), road commission workers and a farmer who finds it more convenient to park his heavy equipment on our land whilst he works his own. Apparently building a house is not enough to telegraph the message that we are here.

On our back property line, new neighbors, who are diligent about posting their own property, are not mindful of ours. They took a page from the farmer, and planted and poisoned to the very edge of their land, using ours for their tractor access and turnaround. They are not farmers; they plant a large “feed plot” to attract deer. I hope they are better hunters than they are gardeners. They inspired our decision to post, but they weren’t the only reason that we broke down and bought “No Hunting, No Trespassing” signs. As any good psychologist will tell you, one needs to establish healthy boundaries.

Yesterday was a beautiful day and we took full advantage to traipse about the property, hiking, surveying and putting up new signs. The signs from twenty-five years ago are long gone. They were sturdy metal signs, but the words have long since faded, they’ve been shot at, torn down, or the trees on which they were posted have toppled. If we were going to do it, yesterday was the day. Today is Opening Day.

For those who are not rural, Opening Day is a big deal. This next couple of weeks marks the official and traditional hunting season. Of course, folks have been hunting now in the various “special seasons” for months. There’s bow season, and there are special permits for farmers protecting crops. There must also be some kind of special “youth” hunting—because the pictures of tykes and their “trophies” have been in the local paper for weeks. Still, the die-hard traditionalists wait for Opening Day. That’s the day they all head off to go to Deer Camp.

Hunting season is real. Just try getting your car fixed this week (or worse, if you needed a plumber!) Though not entirely divided by gender, for the most part, men disappear this time of year. You can still find them at the hardware store, or buying liquor at Bunting’s Market, but nowhere else. Even the schools have attendance problems.

Rick bought the signs last week, while I was gone. He bought “Michigan lingerie,” too—the ubiquitous orange vests that make you visible in the woods. When I was a kid, hunters wore cammo gear. I guess it’s lucky that someone finally did research and determined that the deer are color blind; now the hunters can stop shooting each other. In past years, we’ve stayed out of the woods in season. It was safer that way. Of course, it was cold and snowy, too. This year is an ENSO year (El Nino Southern Oscillation) which should bring rain to California and a warm, mild winter here. We’re unwilling to surrender our time in our woods, so we suit up for safety. One would think it was unnecessary on one’s own land, but then, one wouldn’t expect Christian campers, either. We’re wearing the vests.

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Cammo hasn’t completely gone out of hunter style, you can buy many, many deer camp accessories with the old pattern, wall paper, upholstered chairs, all-terrain vehicles, even refrigerators and freezers, come in the popular, man-cave pattern.

We wanted to be strategic about the signs. Posting the entire property would be time consuming and expensive. We concentrated our efforts on those areas of known (or suspected) incursion. The back line was easy. Our neighbors had posted numerous, bold, NO TRESPASSING signs, facing in our direction. (They’d even put hand-written additions to their signs, “no cross-country skiing, no hiking.” Sheesh!) We simply posted our orange, day-glo signs to the backs of theirs. There’s a comfortable, tit-for-tat in it, that is satisfying.

Another neighbor had joined in the no-cross-country-skiing litany. We posted there, too. We have always welcomed respectful neighborly use. What is it with this antipathy towards a sport that is so light on the land? And, from people driving ATVs and tractors, too! Go figure.

The surprise was on the Northern line. It’s low-lying, marshy with a small creek running through. We didn’t expect anything there, but it was a nice day and we were walking perimeters. Lo and behold—a neighbor on that side had set up his deer blind on the very edge of his property, facing ours! He’d amply chummed the area (his and ours) with apples. It’s a lovely spot and all—but rules are rules, and if you want to hunt on someone else’s land, you ask first. So we posted there, too. It’ll come as an unwelcome surprise, this morning, on Opening Day, when he sees our orange signs.

There was another odd thing. All around his chummed territory, there were a few apples up high, in the trees. These are not apple trees. We wondered, what possible purpose would those apples serve, up high like that? We decided to ask our friend, Fred, hunter extraordinaire. He laughed, “The hunter didn’t put them there. The thieving squirrels did.” Apparently hunters must endure boundary violations, too. The squirrels make off with the free food—decorating the area like some Christmas tableau. I guess we’re all ready now, for Opening Day.

March of the In-Betweens

A.V. Walters

Critter calling cards on our stoop.

Critter calling cards on our stoop.

T.S. Eliot was dead wrong. April is not the cruelest month. March is. One day it’s warm and lovely, the next, snow is falling and the ground is white, again. For those of us waiting to build, to plant, to get a jump on the season… it’s agony. Those nice days—just teasers—don’t let them fool you into starting your seeds early. It’s March, the season of the lions and the lambs.

My years in Northern California, where daffodils come up in February and (if you’re lucky) March will deliver a seasonal, finale rainstorm, have confused me as to the truly transitional nature of March. March, in Northern Michigan, is here to teach patience.

I’m trying to find transitional, spring-readiness things to do. I’ve hung my laundry on the line in the snow. (Yes, it works.) We’ve assembled, primed and painted the bee boxes. I’m pulling nails out of some recycled flooring we bought on craigslist. It’s a time of enforced waiting. Today we’ve seen light snow and temperatures in the teens, again. By midday, we may see twenties—what’s spring-like about that? Those stellar 40s and 50s of several weeks back, spoiled us. Now, temperatures in the 20s and 30s feel cold. We’d spent February hiking in single digits and teens, without complaint but now, we turn up our collars on much nicer days.

We’ve been tempted to take the snow-blower off of the Kubota (and maybe replace it with the backhoe, for building) but for the fear that we’d trigger one of those late-March snowstorms. Maybe that’s the origin of the term ‘March Madness.’ (Basketball may have nothing to do with it.)

There are things that need this on-again-off-again season. Warm days and cold nights wake up the trees. Sap begins to run. March is the sugaring season. Without the stuttering warm-cold cycles, the sap production would go straight to manufacturing leaves—and we’d have no maple syrup. I’m a little in awe of the sugaring process. Who thought that up, all those eons ago? The whole thing is an exercise in patience; collecting the sap, literally, drop by drop; boiling it down, for syrup it takes forty gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup; and bottling it up. Sugar-maple candy boils down even further, and then gets instantly crystalized, ladled into the snow. Around here, it’s mostly the old timers who still tap the trees. Our neighbors do, using new-fangled drip collection bags, (if you’re patient, you can watch the steady dripping that turns the season.) We’ve talked about it; we certainly have the maples. It goes into our ‘maybe someday’ list.

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The critters are out. We’re in a walk-out, basement apartment, so we see them almost eye-to-eye as they wander about, unfettered by deep snow. There’s a herd of deer who happen by everyday at dusk. Just before the deer show up, there’s a small parade of turkeys. The bunnies come out just as the last light fades. If we miss them, we can take attendance by the tracks left in the thin spring snow. Two days ago, the robins arrived. I was sitting by the window and suddenly the yard was full of them. To the impatient among us, they are a sure sign of Spring.

Two-Legged Hazards…

A.V. Walters–

People just don’t walk. In Two Rock, Rick and I had a reputation. If we went to feed the emus, on the other side of the farm, we walked over. We walked when we visited Elmer, our friendly landlord. We walked to our favorite berry patch, only about a mile and a half away. We would have walked to more places, but there wasn’t much around. (The nearest market was about 5 miles away, and that’s a little far to be lugging groceries.) People noticed. Sometimes they’d roll down the window to ask if you needed a ride. Soon, folks in the area knew us—they’d wave. We heard that they’d asked Elmer about us—you know, what’s up with those two, always walking all over the place? Elmer would just shrug. The farmers in the area all drove pickups, or four-wheelers, wherever they went. It made sense if you carried tools and feed. But it was more than that, one day Elmer dropped by for one of our friendly conversations. In the middle of it, he was reminded of a newspaper article that he’d saved for me. He held up one finger, “Be right back,” and he hopped in the truck for the 500-foot trip to his house.

On his return, I asked why he drove that little hop, to his place. Granted, he had a bad knee, but it was more than that. Elmer and Don always drove everywhere on the farm.

“It’s habit, I guess, we can’t afford the time it takes to walk everywhere.”

I guess my face showed doubt.

“Really, a walk over to the sheep barn would take 20 minutes, the work-day is long enough, as it is. If we walked, we’d never finish what needs to be done.”

So, in part, it’s a habit. Once the workday is done, the habit remains, and you drive to visit the neighbor—if only yards away.

Our walking was noted by the livestock, too. We had a single lane driveway to our side of the farm, about half a mile long. On one side of the lane, there were two large pastures, for sheep and, opposite the sheep, there was a huge field for the dairy cows, next door. That dividing lane serviced the dairy trucks, hay haulers, feed trucks, egg trucks, tractors, numerous tenants, you name it—all manner of large and noisy, vehicular farm traffic. They moved along at quite a clip, too. The sheep and cows grazing mere feet from the hurtling trucks didn’t even flinch at the noisy invasions. But, pedestrians? You’d have thought we were wolves. We’d walk down the lane and the sheep would flee as though their lives depended on it, lambs galloping, followed by lumbering, milk-heavy ewes. The cows would stare, chewing, and as we approached, mosey on, away from the fence line. Of course, if you carried a feed-bucket, those same sheep would mob you.

We’re back to our walking ways, and our neighbors have noticed. They drive by and wave. Yesterday we walked into town, just over a mile, to check the mail. Like Two Rock, the roads here are not very pedestrian friendly. On the way, we spooked a doe and her fawn. They’d been poised at the road’s edge, readying to dash across. It’s a busy road. Michigan statistics show that every year over 60,000 of them don’t make it to the other side. Deer seem oblivious to two or three tons of fuel-injected steel, screaming towards them at 70 mph, and yet, when confronted by a couple of pedestrians, that deer bolted back into the swamp, along with her equally spooked, spotted fawn. Maybe I should check myself in the mirror. I’m a little afraid of traffic—but the deer are afraid of me.

Emus in Absensia

A.V. Walters

Elmer called the other night—they have emu chicks. Mr. and Mrs. Emu are at it again and, with all the food we gave them over summer, and the mild winter, they now have a sizable clutch of eggs. Or had. Out of the original twelve, two chicks have already hatched and died. Stretched so thin, Mr. Emu has difficulty watching the new little ones—he’s still nest-bound.

So Elmer and his daughter kidnapped the one little guy they found still alive and plan to remove the rest as they hatch. Between cold nights and predators, little emu chicks have a rough go of it in Northern California. Hence, the call. Rick and I are the only ones on the farm who have successfully hand-raised the little guys, and they need help.

They’ve decided that more emus would be just the ticket to guard over their new venture in organic duck eggs. (You should see all the ducks, it’s pretty impressive.) Emu guards are not a bad idea. We learned, the hard way, that the emus in our front yard were, in fact, protecting the chickens.  And so, the questions begin. What do we feed them? (Finely chopped kale and apples, to start.) Can we give them chicken feed? (No, chickens are seed eaters. Emus are grazers and need green fodder.) How warm do they need to be? (94 degrees F for the first two weeks, tapering off 5 degrees a week, after that.) What about water? (Not for about a week, until they’ve mastered balance and eating.) Those, and more, are all questions that we had to find the answers to, a year ago—either through trial and error, or what we could find on the net. As it turned out, we did okay. We had no losses from the five we raised. I guess that makes us emu experts. (And, given some of the so-called “expert” advice we found on the net, we are!)

We haven’t been homesick since our relocation. We miss some of the people, but we are caught up in the possibilities of our new lives. This, though, gave us pause. We definitely miss the emus—and raising them was an adventure we really enjoyed. So, we stand ready to be emu emissaries. We’ll provide all the information we can. And, of course, we’ll worry.

 

 

The Other Side of Winter

A.V. Walters

I get comments, (mostly by email) from friends and family when I post a blog. They’re usually supportive but, occasionally, they’re smart-assed. There was a range of comments on my last post. Apparently everyone wants to know–how are these two transplants doing with winter? It makes me wonder if bets have been placed. One friend thanked me for posting a positive perspective on the season. This is, after all, one of the most intense winters in decades (which is why everyone is so curious as to how Rick and I will handle it. Of course, to us, it’s all new.) My sister set me straight.

I guess my warm and fuzzy “snow dusting” blogs are pissing her off. She lives waaay up north, and they’ve had so much snow, that they’re running out of places to put the stuff. My mom reports that the snow banks are between 10 and 12 feet high. My mom is delighted; but she’s not doing the plowing. For many, they have to get up early to deal with the snow before they go put in a full day at work. For my sister, Kelly, lately that’s been three or four hours of extra work each day, hand shoveling out her entry and the path to her chicken coop. Today she was especially heroic—she snow-shoed over to my mother’s satellite dish, to clear it, so my mom could get reception. (Poor mum, last night she missed Downton Abbey!) Kelly’s husband also puts in several hours each day with the plow—besides their home and store, he keeps a number of other families clear.

Kelly is not alone in her frustration. She runs the town’s general store, so she hears about it from everyone. Over the weekend a colorful, but not particularly volatile local came into the store, stomping the snow from his boots and railing, “I’ve had it. Snow just isn’t fun anymore! I’d suck someone’s cock if the bastard would just blow out my driveway!” He hand-shovels, and has run out of places to put the snow. Now, he’s loading it into a wheelbarrow, then carting it across the highway, where he shovels it again, mostly up over the existing banks and into the woods. He hopes the Road Commission doesn’t notice that some of it strays onto the highway. (You’re not supposed to shovel your snow into the roadway, though the plows feel free to fill your driveway with road snow.) Keweenaw County checked in earlier this week at 167 inches for the season, and that was before the most recent foot, or so. I guess this all helps to keep the northerners fit.

So here I am, singing the praises of the beauty of winter. Add to that, I work from home—I don’t need to shovel out everyday—and Rick has taken up most of that duty, in any event. My family and I talk, everyday. Discussions about the weather are sometimes charged. There’s a fierce one-upsmanship to even the most casual comparisons. My mother called first thing this morning, and demanded to know, “What’s your temperature?!” (“Oh, hi mom. It’s 9.”) “Yeah, well it’s minus 7, here. Visibility is so low, I can’t see the mountain!” Really, it’s much milder here; I can’t compete.

Yesterday, my brother called to warn me about “wind chill.” (We’ve actually had a Wind Chill Warning.) We’re in a cold snap—it’ll put us in the single digits and negatives for the better part of the week. Really, though I’ve been in California for thirty-five years, I didn’t slip into a coma. I do remember wind chill. It seems that everywhere, but here, it is really snowing. My brother (a few hours south of us) has seen 14 inches in the last two days. My mother (well north of us) has seen even more. Us? A dusting, maybe five inches over the past four days, barely enough to shovel every day. Today, we are seeing the beginnings of the “big storm”. We check the radar by keeping an eye on the weather websites.

Critters here are challenged, too. It’s tough when, everyday, you have to dig deeper for your food supply. The last two nights, rabbits have come to clean up what’s left of the birdseed we threw out for our jays, juncos and chickadees. We get squirrels, too, and that makes me nervous. The squirrels can get into the engine compartment of your car. Sometimes they’ll even eat the insulation on the wiring. I mentioned it to Rick, who noticed that the squirrels seemed particularly interested in hanging out under and around his truck. (He went out to check the engine compartment—just to make sure there weren’t any rodent condos going in. Believe me; you don’t want to tangle with squirrel HOAs!)

Inside, (though I don’t think it’s any gotten any colder) the cat has taken to snuggling up all day on the electric baseboard heater. It hasn’t the charm of a good woodstove, that’s for sure. It’s a little pathetic, but we all do what we can.

Our local papers are full of weather reports and snow records, too. Our year-end snow count topped 100 inches. The local Meteorologist promised that the colder temperatures would slow the snow. Also, he points out, if the Lake freezes over, it will lessen the “Lake Effect” snow. If the Lake freezes over? Look at a map. See how big Lake Michigan is? They don’t call it a Great Lake for nothing. When a Great Lake hits 90% ice cover, it’s said to have “frozen over.” (Normal winters usually see a 50% cover.) How often does a freeze over happen? Well, in the last 110 years, only four times (1904, 1976-1978.) His report is otherwise scientifically problematic, saying (and I quote), “Northern Michigan only gets 140 to 150 inches of snow each year. We’ve already had 100 inches, so that leaves January, February and March to get an additional 50 inches.” What? So, if we reach our statistical norm, someone’s going to turn off the snow?

We’re lucky. Nestled next to the lake like this, we get the snow, but not so much of the cold. Inland areas can get bitterly cold. And, we have great winter gear. My oldest sister abandoned the state a couple of years ago, saying she never wanted to be cold again. When we decided to move east, she gave us all her winter gear—coats, hats, scarves and mittens by the bin-full. (We’ve got so much down, we’re up!) We have no excuse for being cold, or for staying in. In fact, as soon as I finish this, Rick and I are headed off for a walk. We thought we’d go take a look and see what the Lake is doing.