Sunday, July 23, 2017

Renegade Rooster

I never gave him a name because I don't name my chickens.  They are not pets, although I love going into the hen house at night and listening to their idle chatter about the day.  Chickens make soothing sounds. They purr, hum and yodel softly when they are happy, and at the end of the day, when they are tucked together in a feathered mountain on the roost, they create a joyful soft chorus.

It was my habit to wait until about dark, then grab my egg bucket and trek through the softening light out to the coop.  The girls and their two roosters were always inside and, for the first month or so after we got him, rooster #1 watched me balefully from the roost and crowed to let the girls know I had entered the premises.

As he grew, so did his testosterone.  Rooster #1 soon became BRIC (Big Rooster In Charge).  He chased rooster #2 away any time that #2 bowed and danced and fluffed in front of a hen.  I admired the way he crowed the hens over whenever I brought out a bucket of choice tidbits.  He never ate until the hens had a chance to make first pick.

BRIC challenged any intruders and he soon had my two rambunctious rabbit beagles cowed and respectful in his presence.  Luke, who always nosed his way into the flock to share in the feast when I dumped a bucket of scraps, stopped going out to the chicken house with me.  BRIC strutted, crowed and lunged any time one of the dogs breached the buffer zone.

I admired his bravado.  No eagle or hawk or fox or racoon would be able to hurt my hens.  BRIC was on patrol.

Then, BRIC started challenging me.  At first it was all sound and fury, but then one day he lunged at me.  I started carrying a stick when I went out to see the hens and had to use it more than once to enforce my own buffer zone.   When a neighbor called to ask if her grandchildren could come gather eggs, I had to regretfully decline. BRIC was not trustworthy.

Then, one evening, BRIC jumped off the roost when I walked through the hen house door.  As I gathered eggs, he glared and paced between me and the door.  When I was ready to leave, I had to toss a handful of feed into a far corner to distract him.

I started carrying my club into the hen house.  After I tapped him with it a few times, he learned to exit through the small door, which I closed behind him.  He wasn't allowed to come back in until I was done.

While I gathered eggs, BRIC stood outside on the chicken ramp, crowing his anger, and when I opened the little door to let him back in, he often chased me out the big door.

One morning last month,  I went to the hen yard and opened the gate so the girls and boys could roam for the day.  When I turned to walk back to the farmhouse, I felt something heavy hit my thigh and then dig in.  It was BRIC.  He had launched himself, flipped his dagger sharp spurs skyward and stuck them in my thigh.

I ran screaming back to the house, and the next day had to make a trip to the doctor for a tetanus shot. Still, I reasoned, BRIC did such a good job protecting the flock, that it would be a shame to kill him. So, I let him be.

But, the joy of hens and the soft quiet music of egg picking was replaced by terror.  I hated going to the chicken house and BRIC knew it.  He gloated and crowed whenever I came near.  It didn't matter that I often came bearing treats.  He had identified the enemy and it was me.

Last week, I decided that he was just too risky to have around anymore, so I had Joe dispatch him to the great chicken heaven in the sky.  I felt terrible about it.  Although we kill and eat chickens, killing one because he was mean, seemed wrong.

I felt terrible until the next night, when I went out to the hen house and the girls were singing their soft songs about their day and I could gather eggs without a club in my hand and I could walk, not run to the door.

I'm sorry BRIC couldn't continue to defend his hens, but after examining their backs, I suspect they are glad he's gone as well.  Many bear scars from his overzealous love-making.  Rooster #2 is just beginning to realize that BRIC is gone.  He crows in the morning now and dances and struts for the hens, but so far seems happy to keep his distance from me.

I hope it stays that way.

Anyone out there with chickens ever have anything similar happen? I'd love to know that I'm not alone.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Because it is referenced in a column I wrote for Blue Ridge Country, I am posting this again.

Sometimes you see them when you least expect it.  Not the fairies themselves, but their houses.  Such was the case today when I was pulling into my driveway.  I stopped to watch a chipmunk sitting on a log and ended up leaving the car and wandering through the woods in search of fairy houses.  The light was perfect for finding them.

The first one I spotted was tucked at the foot of an oak tree.  I fell in love with the little red table in the front yard.

Beyond that I saw a cozy little cottage built on the side of a hill.  There was no smoke coming from the chimney so I knew the fairies weren't home.

I realized I had stumbled into a small fairy neighborhood.   Each house was cuter than the next.

Just beyond the neighborhood, I spotted a playground.  The fairies must have run off as I approached.  They left their ball behind.

The playground was part of a larger park complex.  There was a visitor center perched on a hill...

and a small cabin with another one of those cute red tables set out front.

Beyond the park, a small fairy city was outlined with streetlights.

At the center of the city, I found  a beautiful restaurant, reminiscent of the Space Needle in Seattle.

I would have spent more time exploring, but I was chased away by one of the guardians of the community.

I was sorry to leave it all behind.  Perhaps I'll find another fairy land some day.  If I do, you can be sure, I'll post more pictures.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mucking Around

Pseudacris crucifer.  It sounds like the name of a really loud rock band and in a way it is.  The spring peepers are calling from puddles all over the county and their shrill song, like those of many rock bands I can name, is deafening.

I’ve been on a mission to photograph these diminutive choristers, but even when I’m sitting next to a vernal pool, with calls flying back and forth so loudly that they hurt my eardrums, I cannot see the little frogs.

I started trying to capture them on film last week.  Dressed in muck boots and rainwear, I went for a walk through the soggy bottom behind our house.  

The peepers were in full chorus.  I had my camera and a net, because I was hoping not only to capture a photo of frogs singing in their native wet spots, but also to hold one in my hand and photograph it so I could have a size reference.

The calls lured me deeper into the muck and at one point I sank to mid calf in soft silt, but every time I got close, the frog song stopped. So, I tried  sweeping my net through the watery mass of tangled grass and reeds.  I brought up hundreds of salamanders, but no frogs.

Next, I moved to a high spot where I could see the puddle and settled in to wait.  The frogs were singing when I sat down, but stopped as soon as I settled.  It took 25 minutes for them to ignore me and start calling again.  One lone peep in the distance was soon a roar of beeps, trills, whistles and buzzing that moved toward me in a wave of sound.

Finally, I saw three little heads pop up above the floating plants, and then the frogs scrambled up, took a deep breath, extended their chests, and started calling.  The light was beautiful, soft and gold, and the little frogs glowed as they belted out their love songs. I pulled out my camera for some pictures and a light blinked on. My battery was dead.

I watched a little longer and then splashed my way back to the house.  I’d try again tomorrow.
It’s now a week later.  I have visited the same little swampy spot every day that it wasn’t raining.  The frog chorus swells around me as I sit quietly, but the little bug-eyed hoppers will not show themselves.  Five soggy trips have yielded nothing but salamander sightings.

Yesterday, when I went into the third grade classroom to teach a lesson about weather, one of the third grade boys raised his hand.  “Mrs. Neil,” he said.  “Look what I got.”  There was a jar on his desk, with holes poked carefully in the plastic lid and sitting in repose were two spring peepers.

“How in the world did you catch these?”  I asked.  “I’ve been trying for a week to see them.”

“Oh, it was easy,” he said.  “I went out and scooped them up with my hands.  I can catch you some more if you want. It only took a minute.”

“How long did you have to wait before you saw them?”

“I didn’t have to wait.  They were just there, right on top.  There were a bunch.”

I stared at him.  “A bunch, just sitting there?” Apparently this little boy knew some frog voodoo magic.

“Yeah, I shined my flashlight on them and scooped them up.”

The secret of frog stalking was revealed to me by an eight year old boy.  Night.  Frogs were best seen at night.  Of course.  Unfortunately, my camera doesn’t do night photos, so I went out again when I got home from school.  The frogs were louder than I had ever heard them.

I waited until just about dark, and finally a little green Caruso raised his head above the water.

Here the little fellow is, poking his head up to see if I'm hiding anywhere.
I took his picture before he sank back down.  He never did sing for me, but I have his picture. Although it's not the beautiful one I missed, the one with the gold washed frogs belting out their lovesick longings, it's still worth all those trips through the muck, to me.

He finally climbed up where I could see him better, but after resting for a minute, he slipped back under water without ever singing. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Midnight Chase

     It started in the afternoon and at that point it wasn’t too crazy.  Joe spotted a heifer out in the field, trying to calve, and after giving her a couple of hours to  push on her own, he decided that we had better get her in.  So, he came to the house and asked if I would come with him. 
     I  drove the truck out and parked it next to the barn, angled so that it made a funnel that would hopefully send the heifer into the open gate.  Joe took the four-wheeler and drove to the far end of the snow-covered field.  He was a quarter mile away from me and across the river.  I wasn’t feeling very hopeful that he could work this one heifer all the way back to the barn, but he did. 
     She wasn’t too spooky and she churned up a frothy wave of snow as she ran just a little ahead of him. Within twenty minutes, the heifer was in the barn.  I swung the gate shut after her. I should have known that nothing on the farm is that easy.
     Once she was inside, we could see that the heifer had been trying to calve for a while.  The bag of amniotic fluid dangled and swung behind her like a pendulum as she moved around, and Joe said that he had seen two hooves slide in and out while she was running down the field.  But, the calf pulling equipment was six miles away on our other farm, so we locked the cow in the barn and went back to the house to call youngest son, Scott, who was down there.  He said he‘d be up soon with the pullers.  I went back into the house to fix supper.
     By the time Scott came home with the pullers, it was dark.  When they went out to the barn, Joe and Scott discovered that the cow had broken the lock on the gate and pushed her way out into the night. They came back to tell me.  It was snowing again, and pitch black outside, but Joe said that he and Scott could get the cow back in, so I waited in the house.
     Occasionally, I looked out the windows to gauge their progress.  I could see their truck lights bouncing up and down as they searched for the heifer and then, after a while, I could see her shadowy form racing in front of the trucks.  They headed to the barn and I thought they must have captured her, but fifteen minutes later, I looked out and the truck lights were stabbing wildly across the field, going in the opposite direction, as they bounced in hot pursuit of the cow, again.
     I jumped in my vehicle and drove out.  The snow was falling harder.  I parked against the gate, making a funnel again, and then stepped out into the darkness.  There was nothing but wind and blowing snow and the occasional glimpse of truck lights far away in the field to keep me company.        As I waited and watched, the cold air drove snow pellets into my collar and under my hat.  It was so quiet. Then, the truck lights turned and headed my way, and once again, I could see the shadowy form of the heifer moving in the beams.  She dropped down into the river channel and ran along, so Scott jumped out of his truck and followed her, his flashlight beam dimmed by the curtain of snow.  I turned my flashlight on, so they would know where I was, but the cow veered out of the river channel, turned and galloped back the way she had come.
     I returned to the warm truck and Joe and Scott drove up the field, following the cow through a water gap and into another field.  After a while, I realized that they were three fields away, so I drove back to the house, parked, and slogged through the snow to the hill where I could see their lights.  Both Joe and Scott were out of their trucks in hot pursuit, flashlight beams and choice words flying around.  Once again, the heifer eluded them, so they gave up and drove back to the house.
     After supper, and some time to warm up, Scott said there was a good chance that the heifer's labor would stop and then she and the calf would both die if we couldn't get her in and help.  He pulled on his boots and bibs and headed out again to look for her.
     At midnight, he still hadn’t returned. I can see almost a mile in all directions from our upstairs windows, but I couldn’t see his lights anywhere so Joe and I dressed for the cold again, and went out into the night.  The snow had stopped and the moon made shadows under the trees, but the only sign of Scott was a set of four-wheeler tracks headed south through the fields.  I feared that he had wrecked somewhere.
     We drove a mile, over small ridges and through two gates.  The four wheeler tracks disappeared at the river.  We were about to turn around,  when we saw a flash of light in our neighbor's barn.    When we got there, Scott met us.  He was covered in blood, but it was the heifer's, not his.  He had managed to rope her, tie her to the barn and pull the calf. The red stains on his hands and down his coveralls were her afterbirth.

     After all of this, the calf was alive.  
     We let mama and calf out, yesterday, and both are doing fine.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

     Spring has come early on our farm, with temperatures well above normal for the last couple of weeks.  The trees are all pushing out buds and I'm wishing I could run around and push them back in.  It's too early and we are in danger of losing our fruit crops if there's a hard freeze, which there is sure to be.  It's only March 1st and in Highland that usually means at least a month and a half more of winter.
    The calves and lambs are coming, but for them, it is time.  Only, instead of being ahead of schedule, they are a bit behind.  Especially the lambs.  Last autumn was warm and sheep don't breed well in warm weather.  So, the girls are taking their sweet time.
    Joe and I pulled a calf a couple of days ago.  Joe spotted the cow out in the field in the morning when he left for work.  She was lying off by herself, and she was too far away to tell for sure, but he said she appeared to be straining.  When he came home, that afternoon, the cow was in the same spot and when she stood up, there was plenty of placental material hanging out her back end, but no calf on the ground.
    So, he hopped on the four wheeler and persuaded her to make the short trip to our back lot.  I helped him get her in the pen and then we moved her into the head chute.  Joe had me stand at the end where the lever is, and gave me instructions to "pull hard when her ears come through."
     I'm always afraid that I'll pull too late, and the cow will escape, but I got it right this time.  With a clang, the gates slammed shut, trapping her head on one side and the rest of her on the other.  Joe walked up behind her, rolling up his sleeves, and then slipped his hand up inside the old girl.  He had to go in all the way to his shoulder before he found the problem.
     The little calf was what we call "bass ackwards."  He was trying to come out tail first.  So, I spoke soothing words to the mama (which really doesn't help her at all, but makes me feel better) while he fished around inside her trying to find a back leg that he could grab.  Finally, he eased one out and then the other, but mama cow still couldn't budge her baby past her pelvis.
    I ran to the shed and came back with a sheep halter and a dog leash (in a pinch you use what's handy) and we looped them around the calf's hocks.  Then we grabbed the other ends (one for each of us) and began a slow steady pull. Mama mooed and grunted and pushed a little and like a cork in a very tight wine bottle, the calf slowly slipped out until he plopped on the ground behind his mama.
     Joe was surprised that it was alive because a backwards birth can often mean that the calf inhales amniotic fluid before it's born.  The calf was bubbling and frothing, but after mama backed out of the chute and turned to lick it, the calf stood on wobbly legs and got his first taste of milk.
    I love it when that happens.
     The next day, the two were moved back out to pasture and while we were doing that, we discovered a calf with a broken back leg.  Our guess is that it stepped in a hole.  The vet was called and Dr. Joe and my Joe crouched over the little calf in the field while mama cow pawed and snorted and pranced.  Then she ran far away and they were able to finish in peace.
     When the calf had a cast, Joe sat on the back of the pickup and we drove the calf over to his mama.  Joe bawled like a calf to get the cow's attention, but she looked up and at us and then ran the other way, back to where the calf had been. So, we left the calf and drove away.  There's no use playing tag with a cow and calf.  The cow doesn't know what we're doing and just runs away.  Better to leave the calf near other cows.  Eventually mama will find it, and she did.
     There's always something to worry about during the spring, but this time we had happy endings.

Friday, September 9, 2016


     Last week, the  hot humid days that have brooded over us for a month, sulked their way out of the county to be replaced by perky air spilling down from the northern regions. This was a sure sign that it was time for animals and baked goods and artwork and cloggers and canned goods and vegetables and quilts and derby cars to make their way to the back lot of the school for the Highland County Fair.
     I never appreciated fairs until I moved to a place where the fair is a homecoming event and the absolute center of the social scene for four and a half days.  School even lets out early the day before to accommodate all of the students who need time to wash and brush their animals one last time before registration and show day.
     Preparing animals for the fair is a family event that can start as early as the first day of the previous fair.  In the quest for bragging rights and a banner, parents and children eyeball the winners as they are paraded into the ring, and begin digging for answers.  "Where did they buy that steer?" "Who raised the lamb that won?"  "What bloodline should we pursue?"  The answers to these questions are sometimes closely guarded secrets until a winning family retires from the ring.
     After breeding decisions are made,  Mother Nature is left alone to do her work. Then in early spring, the flocks and herds are inspected for possible winners.  These lucky animals are brought into barns and lots for special feeding and lessons in show ring deportment.  The animals are as anxious to learn to be led as middle school boys are to learn manners.  A tug of war ensues and sometimes, if a steer is too headstrong, even tractors and donkeys are brought in to muscle the animal into docility.
    Once the future contestants are lead rope trained then the bathing and trimming and walking begin. Our boys raised and showed steers, sheep and hogs.  Each day, in the two months before the fair, the boys haltered the sheep and walked them at least a half a mile to help build muscular thighs.  In the interest of time, Joe and I helped.  Then the lambs were exchanged for the steers, who also got a walk.  After the steer strolling, the hog chasing began as there is really no way to train a hog to go where it doesn't feel inclined to go.  Hogs get their exercise by running away from frustrated humans.
    After an hour or two of dragging or evading humans, the animals were rewarded with a bath and brushing.  The next day, it started again.  Usually by fair time, we had gone from loving our fair pets to looking forward to days that weren't quite so full.  And, it's a good thing, because the day the animals are sold is still sad and would be sadder if we all weren't so tired of the whole process.
    This year, our seventh since the boys stopped showing, we walked around on the last night of the fair and watched families as they prepared their animals for departure.  Many were going on to the slaughter house to become someone's steak or bacon or lamb chop.  It's a hard night for the kids and some of the parents, and many make it a point to be out of the barn when the animals are loaded onto the trailers.  In spite of the relief that it's over for another year, there are tears shed in dark corners where the kids go so no one can see them cry.  Even the boys are a little pink cheeked when they finally come back to the barn.  But, the sadness doesn't last long.  There's work to be done.  Stalls to muck out one last time, halters to gather, equipment to load.  When everything is ship-shape, the families stand just outside the barn, leaning against fences to watch the fireworks show.  Then, they turn and head towards the truck for the last ride home. With no animals to take care of, everyone will sleep in tomorrow.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Killing Things

    When I was in second grade my teacher, Mrs. Williams, once scooped up a black widow spider, from a corner of the classroom, on a sheet of paper and, rotating it around to keep the spider from climbing onto her hand, she walked to the window and dumped it out, all the while telling us how poisonous black widows were.  This made quite an impression on me.  Even things that were dangerous deserved to live.
     I remained true to that belief, walking my own spiders outside (even two black widows) even after I married My Own Farmer and moved to the farm. Two years into our marriage,  I accidently dislodged a mama mouse from a bird box.  She scampered away from her nest, leaving five pink, pencil-eraser shaped nubbins behind.  They were her babies and it was my fault that they were now homeless.  I gathered them up, took them to the house and called my vet to see if he could recommend a suitable formula.  I think he covered the telephone receiver and snorted a few times before making his suggestions.
     When My Own Farmer came home that night and discovered the tiny box full of hairless, blind babies staying warm under a light bulb, he looked at me in total disbelief.  "You hate mice in the house," he said. "What are you doing?"  I shrugged.  "I don't know.  It just seemed like the right thing to do."  He raised his eyebrows and then sat down to read the paper.  I have to admit that I was thankful when they died in spite of my care.
    Later that year, I was at my mother-in-law's house when a raccoon wandered into the barn yard.  Geneva went outside and pitched rocks at it until it died.  She asked for my help, but I was too horrified to watch. Then she took a pitchfork and carried the body to a rock pile where she buried it.   "It might have had rabies," she explained.  Although I still didn't think I could have helped her kill it, I remember thinking what a strange new world I had married into.  Things like racoon stoning just didn't happen in the city.
     My lingering soft heart died one day when we were making hay.  As we rode around the bumpy field, tossing bales to the back of the wagon  and sweating in the brutal sun, the front wheel dropped into a deep groundhog hole.  The wagon pitched and yawed, almost righting itself before it finally keeled over, dropping all 140 carefully stacked bales  onto the meadow. We could have been killed, plus we had to re-load and re-stack that wagon full of bales.  It is twice as hard to stack bales that have to be pitched up from the ground than to stack the ones that are conveyed right to your hands by the baler.  I believe there was some cussing involved.
     The next time My Own Farmer got out his gun to shoot a groundhog in the hay field, I didn't whine about the sanctity of life.  I still didn't like the idea of killing critters, but suddenly I had a new perspective.
    Since that time, I've even requested the killing.  When my youngest was celebrating his fifth birthday, a skunk wobbled out of the woods above the house and headed down the hill to the celebration.  Perhaps he just wanted a slice of cake, but skunks don't usually come out during the day. I wasn't sure that he was healthy, so I rounded the children up and took them inside and called my husband who came home and shot the skunk.
     When a snake reared its head in the front yard and rattled two feet from my toddler, I screamed until someone brought a pistol out and killed it.   I still carry house spiders outside, but if I ever see a black widow in the house, I believe I'll squash it.
     Two weeks ago, when Lori and I went out at dawn to walk, we saw what we thought was a raccoon wobbling down the road.  It disappeared into the barn in front of my house and I worried about it all day. Where was it in relation to my livestock, my pets and my house?  Was it rabid?  That afternoon my questions were answered by my beagle Luke who began barking madly.  When I went outside to investigate, I discovered a mangy racoon hunkered under my chaise lounge on the patio.  It screamed at me when I peered underneath, so I grabbed the dog and ran inside.  My Own Farmer was at work in town, so I began dialing, looking for a neighbor with a gun.  Meanwhile, the racoon paced around the outside of my house, looking in my glass doors and chittering.  Not Normal!!
   By the time I reached a willing neighbor with a gun, the racoon had started staggering up my driveway.  It was getting away, and getting away meant that it could come back.  I would be trapped in the house forever.  As soon as the racoon was far enough away, I ran out to my car.  I couldn't let it disappear.
    As I followed the sick animal up the driveway it occurred to me that I did have a weapon I knew how to use.  My car.  I could run the racoon over.  So, I pushed the pedal to the metal and bounced up the hill.  The racoon dodged my wheels and continued climbing.  I followed it up the driveway, trying several more times to kill it, but missing. When my neighbor finally arrived and shot it, I was so shaken that I could hardly talk.  I realized that I had finally gotten to a point where I could consider killing something myself.
     I want a .22 caliber rifle and I want to learn to shoot it.  It's funny how your opinion changes when you're  trapped in the house by a crazy racoon.  It makes all the difference in how you see things.  I don't think I could ever deer hunt, even though I like to eat venison, but I want to be able to defend myself from snakes and rabid animals.  I've had enough experience, living out here in the back of beyond, to realize that sometimes a girls' gotta do what a girl's gotta do.