Archive for August, 2012

Part II: Slippers, Headlamp, Gun – Bobcats Beware

A continuation of the chick update…

We raised 1600 chicks for five months behind this same fencing, and not a one figured out they could fit through if they jumped above the bottom two strands.  Hell, I didn’t even realize they could fit through!  Yet in 72 hours these 24 birds had that fence cracked. Thus far, our home-hatched poultry were proving uncannily bright – perhaps they had the wherewithal to thrive as truly free range birds?

Despite my anxiety for their safety, it was delightful to see them foraging freely – dashing through the brush in synchronized troupes, leaping about in the grass after insects, and hunting down hog manure to glean rich maggots. With their festive array of colors and patterns and even a few silly hair-dos in the bunch, they gaily animated the pasture, as captivating as a spirited school of fish. They roamed at liberty, popping into their pen for a siesta under the shade sled, a sip of water, or a snack of fresh sprouts, popping back out again for an adventure or two and, God bless the little morons, to sleep. Like any teenager, these birds had reached the age where rampant expression of free will clashes dangerously with bad judgment and mistaken notions of immortality.

There was no herding them in to safety at dusk, as they’d gone quite feral and scattered every direction but forward at my approach. My trial-by-fire lessons in flight zone, pressure, and point of balance for herding escaped hogs, goats, and adult poultry were futile without the flocking instincts of those other animals. Yet for almost a week, the only consequences of their liberty were unbridled avian happiness, unprecedented growth from all the insect protein and nutritious foraged foliage, and the most robustly healthy flock of chicken poults you ever did see. Perhaps thanks to the nearby presence of the pigs or the wildlife’s inexperience with such easy prey, for several days the birds slept in a pile on the ground, yet miraculously evaded predation. Yes, a pile. On the ground. A newly-mobile toddler could have caught them in his toothless mouth. To my great relief, after three or four days of this nonsense, they graduated to dozing on a low fence rail, a gently bobbing row of bonhomie. I snuck out after dusk several evenings in a row and lifted them one by one gently up to the very top fence rail, and, to their credit, they quickly adopted this slightly safer perch.  My expectations were low, but my reluctance to expend more energy on these birds necessitated some admittedly erroneous optimism.

At long last, their sweet freedom ran head on into reality and their numbers began to steadily dwindle. Gripped by disappointment at the failure of my long anticipated poultry pen, my give-a-damn abruptly dried up. All my preparation, my many months of research, and my final flash of creative problem solving – they were no match for the stubborn foolishness of chickens. I did not return to the drawing board (aka google and/or a long run) to find innovative inspiration.  I did not call up a brainstorming session with my brightest coworkers to wring another solution out of our collective intellect. I took the low road. I vowed vengeance.

And thus, one humid, breezeless night in the golden days of summer, two border collies, some nocturnal wildlife, and a waxing moon witnessed a redneck streak I never knew I had. 18 inches from a buzzing array of gnats and mosquitos on the too-close ceiling above my lofted bed, I lay waiting in the silent dark for the desperate last peeps of dying chicks. Finally around midnight, one drawn-out squeak of surprised horror. I was down the ladder and flipping on my headlamp. Then another cry, punctuated by a warble of indignation, quickly muted by the jaws of murder. I loaded the pellet clip into my gun, flipped the switch from bb’s to the deadlier pellets, and stormed out the door. In my furry, powder-blue slippers, my red plaid boxers, and a baggy, bedraggled tee shirt, I cut a fearsome figure as I strode down the path, crept across the bridge to the pasture, and slid between the fence rails. Only eleven birds remained, silhouetted against the night sky, some shifting from foot to foot and murmuring to their neighbors, others still sleeping soundly in deluded tranquility.  For many long minutes I crouched in silence, hoping to confront the carnivore who was so enjoying the fruits of my pastured poultry failure. Hoping to destroy the sharp-clawed or razor-taloned manifestation of my frustration.

Luckily – for my karma, not the chickens – no right-minded wild creature would be fool enough to approach my ill-camouflaged, red-lamp wearing self, and despite my best laid plans of stealth and sniping, no cunning carnivores were harmed. At long last giving up on the reappearance of the predator, I put down my gun and started gathering chickens. With the whole flock conveniently lined up on the fence, it was easy to walk down the line plucking each bird off its perch by the ankles, swinging it upside down, and sliding its skinny legs between two fingers.  Though they don’t appreciate being jostled around in a chicken bouquet, it’s quite possible to carry eight or ten little birds that way, so I only needed two trips to get them all on the roosts in their safely enclosed hutch. With dew-dampened pajamas, I unloaded the clip and scuffled back to bed.

I gave up entirely and brought the eight remaining little angels indoors to begin a life of captivity, where they simply have no say in their survival. Though I really get my panties in a wad over all the escaping, self-endangering, garden vandalizing livestock, my frustrating experiences are incredible testament to the power of the seeking instinct. In one of my favorite books, Animals Make us Human, Temple Grandin describes how, of the core emotions inherent in both humans and animals, seeking is one of the most powerful forces driving our behavior. Seeking is desire, anticipation, and curiosity, or “the basic impulse to search, investigate, and make sense of the environment.” The experience of seeking something like food, a mate, or even material wealth has been shown to be incredibly pleasurable, often more pleasurable than gaining the reward itself. I’ve watch many animals withstand electric shock to escape and explore, then find they are unable to overcome their fear of the fence to get back in for food, shelter, and companionship. Quite a testament to the power of curiosity!

Interestingly enough, the second core emotion Dr. Grandin describes is rage. She explains that rage likely evolved from the need for an explosive and aggressive response to capture and restraint by a predator.  Captivity, in a cage or behind a fence, can stimulate a mild form of rage by limiting physical movement and the freedom to seek. I’ve been in enough traffic jams to know that I too would run through an electric fence if it would relieve the frustration of entrapment.

For the sake of my sanity and the happiness of my animals, I hope to one day find just the right balance between necessary restrictions and possible freedoms. To minimize mutual rage by satisfying their emotional needs without sacrificing safety and health (or the garden). On second thought, wouldn’t it be a lot easier if Cargill just replaced that ancient seeking part of the brain with an apathetic chunk of asparagus genetics…

Part I: And on the Eighth Day, God Brought forth Poultry, With Which to Torment Sinners

I’m sure you’ve been on the edge of your seat awaiting an update on our precious, home-hatched chicks!

With their cozy brooder and fresh, green sprouts, the chicks grew like little bindweeds, transforming their fluffy down into beautifully patterned plumage, developing the strength to run and hop on increasingly huge feet and gawky legs, and even learning to fly tiny distances from one perch to the next.  After six weeks, I happily moved them from their secure but crowded stall – where they were thriving, exploring, and roosting like champs – into my latest and greatest pastured poultry habitat. I’ve been incredibly excited (barely-able-to-sleep excited) about my new “egg mobile” design which is simple, cheap, and yet able to meet a chicken’s every need – frequent moves to fresh pasture, shelter from hot sun and inclement weather, clean and drown-proof water, and – my greatest achievement – protection from predators!

After three disappointing attempts with egg mobile/chicken tractor designs over the last year, I went back to the drawing board and, in a sudden rush of insight, realized that trying to create one single object able to keep 100+ chickens cool, warm, dry, safe from predators, fed, and watered WHILE being light enough to single-handedly move around a swampy pasture is trying to wring blood from stone. (A quick note for any confused readers out there: egg mobiles, chicken tractors, and chickshaws are just other names for mobile chicken coops) Certainly many creative chicken lovers have built practical and maneuverable chicken tractors, but for flocks six. And many clever farmers have developed really neat egg mobiles that house one or two hundred birds, but they weigh three quarter ton.  I have no doubt that a brilliant team of industrial designers, architects, and ranchers could (and maybe one day will) create a workable design to unite the necessary features with human-powered mobility, but in the meantime, I needed to think outside the box.

Thinking outside the box is challenge enough without the added chore ofgetting my bosses on board!  It’s hard enough getting them to understand the box, much less what options might be outside of it. After so many strenuous and repetitive hours attempting to explain the basics of sustainable agriculture to my city-slicker managers, I quickly learned that garnering support for a novel approach to the tried and true (but inapplicable) methods would require nothing short of a stout club and powerful hallucinogens. The two ideas I proposed were denied without discussion, one dream permanently crushed with the sneaky sale of an old truck that I was going to turn into the coolest 50-bird egg mobile ever (ok, not ever, but pretty nifty none-the-less). Oh, woe.

Luckily, with my clueless supervisors two towns away, and conveniently unable to tell the difference between an unauthorized pastured poultry project and a curious plastic thing with some metal bits and lumber – OMG probably for hatching buffaloes! –  I was able to build my system on the sly. I first refurbished one of the old calf hutches into a deliciously simple roost ‘n nest shed. While very lightweight and easy to move, it provides excellent warmth in the winter, great day lighting to encourage all-season laying, is well-ventilated in the summer, and is rain- and wind-proof without the hideous and short-lived addition of tarps.

Wild fowl generally roost high above ground and under the protection overhanging branches to reduce predation, and I adapted that strategy to protect our exceedingly inept flock. The roosts and nest boxes are more than 3 feet above the ground and attached only to a sloping, slick plastic wall, so should make sleeping birds inaccessible to those predators who are able to make it through the electric fencing – dastardly weasels and rats. The door is large enough for a person to waddle through but narrow and set below the height of the roosts, so should exclude all but the most acrobatic of owls and raptors (is that redundant? are owls raptors?). Thus, there is no need for a wire floor to obstruct predators as in our previous tractors, which not only makes moving difficult by snagging on grass and rocks, but facilitates the formation of that ever dreaded “crap carpet.”  With this method of predator-proofing, though the human sized opening will need a covering in the winter, there is no need for a closable chicken door, and thus no need for a staff person available every day at dusk and dawn to open and close the damn thing.

I then built a very simple “shade sled” that can be easily pulled along with the enclosure, but should provide adequate shade to prevent those mid-summer lulls in laying productivity. I also built a mobile water sled which supports two buckets fitted with chicken nipples and also has an area to keep two feed troughs out of the sun and rain to reduce spoiling. Chicken nipples are a recent discovery of mine (thanks to Backyard Poultry, a publication for those delusional people who actually like chickens) and one which I desperately wish I’d known about last summer.

Rather than the regular, very expensive chicken waterer, with its guaranteed-to-leak reservoir draining into an open tray designed for drinking out of, but universally used for pooping in, the chicken nipple allows you to outfit any bucket with a red plastic toggle that drips water only when the chicken pecks it (remember, they peck anything red, as red might be a spot of blood on a sibling who needs cannibalizing). Nine tenths of the water we laboriously hauled to our chickens last year was used to concoct shit soup, three quarters of which was spilled into the bedding to cultivate mold in the aforementioned crap carpet. And if you’ve never experienced the penetrating fragrance of a moldy crap carpet while peeling back its sodden layers with your muck rake, well, you’ve never truly lived. You might even get lucky enough to catch the piquant aroma of a flattened chick corpse if you dig around in there long enough.

So, anyway, I introduced those delighted young pullets to their new outdoor enclosure, and they were in heaven. For the first two days they danced around the pen, inspecting every corner, tasting every variety of plant, and chirruping to each other about all their wonderful discoveries, only stopping for tranquil naps under the shade shed or dainty sips of perfectly clean water. It made my heart sing.

Until, three days in, the pen could no longer contain their curiosity. To my great dismay, they discovered they could fit between the vertical strands of the electric fence if they hopped up to the third horizontal strand.  How in heaven’s name their naked little feet withstood those 8000 v shocks is a mystery I’ll never unravel, but their feathers protected the rest of their body from the effects of the electricity, and within hours the entire flock was flowing in and out of the pen like water through chubby fingers.

To be continued…

Thunder Paws

Wilbur and I had another exciting wildlife encounter in the woods Tuesday night! The temperature was once again solidly in the nineties, and not headed below eighty until well after 9pm. Much too hot to follow through on my plan to horse back ride. Though the heat doesn’t bother me, perched up there getting a 15mph breeze without having to run 15mph, my dark furry dog and dark furry pony get miserable pretty fast if it’s over 75 degrees. I was toasted from a good morning WOD anyway, so happy to just go for a riverside stroll.

I brought my Edible Plants of the Rockies guide and a sack, hoping to find some of the ripening service berries I’ve been passing by on my runs to the gym. Scavenging the shrubs along a twisting forest footpath, I found a nice patch of something vaguely familiar with delicate white flowers just giving way to fruit. It was taking me a bit to track it down in my book, and I took a seat on a cottonwood log, fallen across the trail right next to the mystery bush, to research in comfort. Wilbur ran off ahead, busy with enticing smells and rodents rustling around in the undergrowth.

I was getting pretty engrossed in the “Currant Family” section when I heard Wilbur’s jack-rabbit-on-crack routine headed my direction.  On cool evenings, or when he’s a few miles short of his daily exercise quota, or when he just ate some really exciting poop/dead thing, or sometimes for absolutely no reason at all, Wilbur will drop into a crouch with a devilish grin, pause for a heartbeat to let the delight build, and then erupt in mindlessly ecstatic doughnuts.  Ideally there are bystanders to careen around, clumps of shrubs to crash through, large streams to leap with wild abandon, and a few dog friends to hurdle over as he rockets by (he gets a kick out of jumping over other dogs, so weird). With the ground bone dry from this lingering drought, his frenzied paws drum across the turf like the hooves of a charging war-horse, and I felt the involuntary grin spreading across my face as I listened to him barrel down the trail ahead of me.

Suddenly, alarm flickered in my brain. Wilbur’s footfalls were in the wrong pattern, growing much too loud, and accompanied by far too much crashing foliage. My head jerked up from medicinal uses for elderberry in time to see a bear hurdle around the last bend in the trail, galloping with heart-stopping momentum towards where I was frozen to my log in the middle of the narrow trail. He didn’t see me until just after I saw him, and veered around my seat just two paces away, plunging off into the woods with surprising agility and speed.  Before I could regain my breath, Wilbur streaked by in hot pursuit, though giving the bear a noticeably cautious lead. Once off the trail, the racket abruptly stopped as the bear shot up a tree and disappeared above the dense jungle of wolfwillow (berries edible, but mealy).

Weeks after that fleeting encounter, I remember well the ruckus and the rush and the pride on Wilbur’s face, but most vividly I recall the bear’s uncharacteristic grace, as deft racing across this rough terrain as my younger self was leaping down the stairs and around the hallways of my childhood home.   Though his flight was a bit frantic and very  noisy, his enormous paws touched the ground with such deliberate, dexterous familiarity, thick claws gently tapping the earth.  His golden brown fur caught rays of the canopy-filtered sun as it flounced with his rocking stride, showing off his all-weather undercoat. I imagine the forest floor relishing a back massage from a dear friend every time a bear breaks into a run, and I so envy his immutable citizenship in the natural world.

Fearless bear hunter/Goofy love monkey