Winter Dirtgasms

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My chickens are desperate for spring, just like the rest of us. They’ve been stuck in their coop, either voluntarily or not, depending on how cold it is (and it’s been cold), for weeks upon weeks.

Every morning when I go in to refresh food and water and open their door just enough for them to scoot in and out, they rush the main door, trying to get out into the yard. I guess they imagine that there’s actual grass out there in the world. Little do they they know…

Yesterday morning was nice, for once. The sun shone and there was no wind, so it felt actually comfortable. I let them crowd out the door this time, slipping across the ice slick around their run. They made a break for the sheltered corner of our south-facing yard, the one that’s tucked up against the house in a bed that I don’t bother planting. It’s their dirt bath.

All seven of them piled together in the dry dirt, flipping over on their sides as they kicked dirt over their backs, letting it pile up on them and run down between their feathers. They pull the dirt toward their chests with their beaks — don’t ask me why; yeah, there was a lot of that going on too.

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I let them dirt bathe for about 30 minutes before I called them back into their “prison” of a chicken yard. They all shook themselves out in clouds of dust and came running except for Onyx, whose jet-black feathers pull in more sun than the others. She was drunk with it. Handfuls of corn and mealworm treats were almost compensation enough for the girls’ mini-spa.

Winter dirtgasms are the best.

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So Long Captain, My Captain      

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Roosters are not known for being nice animals. As my vet once said, “If a rooster hasn’t been mean to you yet, it’s just about to be.” Captain wasn’t that kind of rooster.

He was a Silkie, a bantam chicken that didn’t get any bigger than the hens, and was even smaller than some of them. I’d laugh at Captain trying to mount the bigger ones and just sliding off their backs, landing embarrassingly on the ground with a little bump.

Captain was a good leader to his hens. He’d cluck them over if he found a choice piece of grass, or a bug, or an extra mealworm, just so one of his girls could have it. Always on the watch for predators when they were free ranging, he would call the flock to him if he sensed any danger.

And if the girls got too mean with each other, he’d sort them out with a quick peck and a puffed-up chase around the chicken yard. Even though he was diminutive, he was definitely in charge.

Captain’s end was quick, I hope. I walked into the chicken yard a few mornings ago and said out loud, “It looks like there’s been a massacre in here!” The hens are in various stages of molting, so there are clumps of feathers, and naked chickens, all around. Then I spotted Captain, in the corner. “Oh – there has been a massacre in here,” I muttered.

From what I could tell from the condition of his body, Captain was killed by a possum that somehow got into the chicken yard. I thought it was secure, but on inspection, I found a few ways a wily possum could have gotten in and out of the space. I fixed the holes, but it was too late for Captain.

Chillian and I said a few words over him and put him back to nature in the swale next to our house. Bees and wasps and one intrepid cricket were already having their part of Captain, so I imagine that he’s already sunk back into the earth.

I’ll miss Captain’s crow at all hours, his endearing care of his flock and his tolerance of being cuddled whenever we humans saw fit to scoop him up. I know it mortified him.

Good-bye Captain, my Captain: you were a good rooster.

Welcome Home, Us!

 

 

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We miss you, Mommy!

We traveled to the U.K. over the past few weeks to see old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years. After spending the first week in cities, it was a perfect respite to take the train out into the English countryside to visit Jane, who I first met in 1987 or so, when I and my punk hairdo lived in London. She and her family moved three hours out from London to Herefordshire a decade ago and have carved out a beautiful life on five organized acres.

The property, Docklow Manor (with a few vacation cottages to rent, if you’re heading out there), is actually sculpted in a way mine will never be. A hundred-year-old, 20-foot hedge divides the garden part of the yard from the working part. Chillian and her son, Joe, scaled the hedge from the inside, as Joe has done many, many times before, and sat on the top for a while before sliding down the outside, which seemed to me an insane way to exit a giant hedge, but which turned out to be the best way.

The chickens and ducks have a big, enclosed field to wander in, a far cry from my poor hens’ dry, barren chickenscape. Somehow, the local fox hasn’t found the field yet, luckily, and birds of prey seem to gloss right over it. May it ever be so. My hens and duckies have to be supervised when they’re out, since Señor Fox will snag one of them in broad daylight if they’re left alone.

Jane’s vegetable gardens are also far more organized than mine. Detecting a theme here? She’s got lovely hills of fingerling potatoes that pop out of the soil like giant, yellow gems when you dig under a hill with the big garden fork. Everything looks lovely and happy, with the exception of the squash, likely because it rarely climbs above 70 degrees and it rains a LOT. Or at least it did when we were there.

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Docklow Manor and the massive hedge

I’m jealous of those veggie beds. By the time we got home, my cucs were fried and finished and the tomatoes weren’t far behind. The limas are ready to pick and the chard is going bonkers, but it’s almost time to find some Brussels sprouts and cabbage, maybe broccoli and cauliflower, too, for the fall crop. I hope I can find some.

Envy aside, Jane’s and my lives have followed a remarkable parallel over the years. She’s married with three kids and I’m married with one; she’s a writer, I’m a writer/editor; she’s a remarkable home chef and I’m not too shabby. The likenesses carry on: we’ve both got two dogs, one big and one small; we both have chickens and we acquired ducks at almost exactly the same time. We’re outdoorsy and athletic. No wonder we picked back up where we left off two decades ago!

As amazing as the journey was, there’s nothing quite like returning home from a trip, especially when all sorts of critters having been missing us, and we them, for weeks. The dogs jumped and yelped; the now-fully-mature ducks quacked eagerly and the chickens went berserk for outside-the-coop time. While we were gone it’s become obvious that the newest chicken addition, Baby, is a hen – Yay!

Our August days are starting to feel autumn-ish and the sun is setting sooner. I adore this time of year here as a faint snap layers beneath the steamy afternoons, the hummingbirds battle for their last weeks of fuel before migrating south and back-to-school sends a zip of excitement through everyone.

Welcome home, us!

 Photo: Lori Cuthbert

Swim Time for Ducklings

 

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Just because it’s Friday and just because I have three ducklings being all cute all the time, here are cute ducklings at swim-time photos. Scamper realizes there’s something shiny in front of her (I hope it’s a her).

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Zoom! Scamper and Bandit do underwater laps.

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Scamper is the most curious, seriously. I tried to get Bandit and Oscar on film, too!

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And this one, just because of the fuzz. Oh the fuzz.

Photos: Lori Cuthbert

Save the Bees

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Bees have been on my mind lately because we just harvested honey for the third year running. Our hive is going strong; so strong, in fact, that we left half the honey behind so that the bees had enough to sustain their numbers.

It gives me happiness to see our girls lined up on a lily pad drinking from the pond, or in a semicircle at the edge of one of the bird baths, or drenched in pollen from a squash plant or a rose. We started the hive to do our part to keep bee populations healthy, given all of the trouble they’re in with pesticides and Colony Collapse Disorder.

Pollinators are in peril worldwide. In some parts of some places, like Korea and India, pollinators have all but disappeared and humans are left to do the work of bees, flies and ants. In the United States, where over 60 percent of our fresh foods rely on pollinators, successful beehives have dropped by 60 percent over the past six decades. The bees that are left are worked too hard to keep up our nuts and apples, compromising their health. It’s grim. We’re polluting ourselves, and the creatures that support us, with poorly understood chemicals, and we don’t even realize it. Many of us don’t care, either; we just think our fruits and vegetables will keep on arriving no matter what.

It was gratifying to have the White House at least recognize the problem last week when it formed a task force to look at pollinators in trouble. Task forces, though, tend not to move very quickly, let alone legislation. There’s a class of pesticides that are ubiquitous in our world that are killing bees and other helpful animals and we need swift action to fix it, not task forces.

They’re called neonicotinoids and they are literally everywhere. They took the place of nightmarish DDT as the pesticide of choice in the early 90s and they’re used on the crops in our farm fields, both sprayed on and applied to seeds before the plants grow. Many of the flowers and vegetables we buy in home improvement stores (I don’t have all organic stuff in my garden…) have been treated with neonics, as they’re called.

Neonics have now been shown to directly harm — and sometimes kill — invertebrates like earthworms, insects like bees, and birds. Scientists are closing in on neonics as the primary cause for the decline of pollinators. The European Union has banned their use on flowering crops. There is no such ban here, though some local governments are banning them.

This means that the plants I’ve bought from our local home improvement franchise have most likely been treated with these pesticides. It means that the corn and soybeans grown in the field across the street have most likely been treated with them. It means that our well water most likely contains them. It means that the honey we just harvested, and the squash I roasted last night, mostly likely contains these pesticides, since the chemicals change the plant on a cellular level.

It means we’re mostly likely helping to kill the very bees we’re trying to save. Is that ironic, or paradoxical? It sucks, I’ll tell you that.

Neonics haven’t been shown to be toxic to humans, at least not in the short-term. They don’t cause hives or awful birth defects. But there haven’t been studies, either, of the long-term effects of consuming these chemicals day in and day out. The one study that was done concluded that neonics “may adversely affect human health, especially the developing brain.”

Here’s a start: Home Depot will, by the end of 2014, require its suppliers to label plants treated with neonics. Lowe’s and Walmart, if they have such plans, aren’t saying. I just yesterday refused to buy butterfly bushes from Lowe’s because they’re probably treated with neonics. Monarchs migrate through my back yard and our bees love butterfly bushes. I’ll check locally for someplace that doesn’t use pesticides on their houseplants. I have just the place in mind; let’s hope they’re clean.

Meantime, we can avoid garden products with these ingredients: Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam.

Photo: A cranking beehive in our back field. Credit: Lori Cuthbert

DuckEEEES!

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The tapping of little flappy feet has been my daily soundtrack for the past few weeks since my Call ducklings arrived and it makes me very happy.

In my book, there is not much that’s cuter than a baby duck. Puppies, sure, they’re adorable. Kittens, yeah. But the tiny black eyes, the soft, soft down, the itty-bitty webbed toes, the raspy peeping when I leave the room: they pluck my heart like a miniature, ducky harp. Not even chicks are cuter and they’re really cute.

I’ve wanted to get Call ducks for a while now because they are, by all accounts, the cutest ducks in the world. They’re dwarf ducks, so they end up being smaller than a football. I’m training these 10-day-old ducklings to come to my call — plus a mealworm treat — and it’s working splendidly. I call Duckeeeee! and if they come, they get mealworms in their waterer.

I’m not taking any chances this time.

About three years ago, I had some Calls, but only for a few hours. I brought the six-week-old babies home one hot July Saturday and set them up in a pen I’d constructed outside. I sat in there with them, starting the process of getting them used to me. But then I got hungry.

Assuring them I’d be back soon, I went inside to get some lunch. I was gone no longer than 20 minutes. When I got back to the pen … no ducklings. Panicked, I ran through the woods and across the yard, scanning the ground for movement. I caught a glimpse of them hightailing it around the corner to the country road we live on.

I hoofed it after them, Mark in hot pursuit, and he said he had seen them take a hard left into the tall grass by the side of the road. I dived into the grass, which was waist high, and started searching. No ducklings. I sprinted back home and got on long pants and a long-sleeved shirt and galoshes and raced back to where we thought they had disappeared. Nothing.

For the next four hours, crying, keening and calling out to the ducks as late-afternoon thunder and lightning got closer and closer, I went over the grass and the ditch next to the grass what felt like inch by inch. I expanded my search until it seemed a little crazy, but no ducklings.

I never found those babies.

It took me three years to get up the nerve to get more ducklings. Oh, I did rescue some adult Pekin ducks (who were eventually eaten by the local fox), but I never saw them as babies.

These ducklings are almost too cute. I can’t actually internalize their beauty all the way; it feels like there’s a cuteness filter inside me that won’t let me fully fall into their adorableness. Why? I dunno — maybe too many cute Corgi/goat/animals on trampolines YouTube videos. Maybe there’s a lifetime limit on how much cuteness a person can take and I’ve exceeded it.

Or maybe I’m afraid.

I told Mark today that I wanted to take them outside into the dog yard, but that I was worried that they could fit through the fence. He said, “No way — remember what happened last time.”

Yeah, I’m afraid alright, afraid I’ll lose more babies. So in their plastic Rubbermaid container they’ll stay, napping and squidging through their waterer. For now, anyway.