Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Year of the Bird

One year I spent the summer looking downward, studying pasture grasses, and what the horses ate and what the sheep ate, and what they left behind. I walked barefoot in the yard and discovered that, yes, it was cooler where the clover grew.

This year, I seem to be looking skyward.

Blame it on the house finch for starting it when she built a nest in the Christmas wreath hanging on the front porch in early spring. A storm dislodged her nest, and my interest turned to the Canada geese who landed on the nearby pond.

On the daily dog walk, I discovered that Mickey, the Border collie, was indeed a trained goose dog. The 11-year-old dog raced to the pond and drove the geese onto the water, then circled to the other side. Because she didn't get into the water, she never touched the geese. But the geese decided there were other, more hospitable ponds and moved on, much to Mickey's disappointment.

In the spring, I also met the bluebird man who has built hundreds of bluebird boxes and installed them throughout the countryside.

"You have to put them where the bluebirds will want to stay," he told me, explaining that he looks for pastures and fence rows that provide bluebirds with a food supply.

His bluebird project began years ago after the saw his first bluebird. He recalled that he'd never seen something so blue and beautiful. Now, he sees them almost daily.

I do too, thanks, in part, to the bluebird boxes he installed near the hay fields.

The hay fields, pastures and fence rows attract an abundance of birds. When working the dogs in the tall grasses of the sheep pasture, I came upon a red-winged blackbird nest on the ground and wondered how the birds find their nests in the acres of grasslands.

After a hay field was mowed, I stumbled across a green-tinted egg, almost the size of a chicken egg. A pheasant egg or some other game bird? Pheasants live in the area. Years ago, I discovered them when an insistent pheasant cock called for a mate. The pheasant call reminds me of a juvenile rooster learning to crow.

Identifying birds by sound seems to be my new mission. Blame it on the mockingbird that began singing at two in the morning. I had to learn what was keeping me up at night.

When I discovered a pileated woodpecker on my morning walks, I had to look it up to be sure that's what it was. Our area doesn't have a lot of standing dead trees or woodlands, so woodpeckers aren't that common.

That's when I discovered Cornell's Bird Guide. Not only does it show and describe the birds, it has an audio link so that you can learn their sounds.

So, now when I hear the woodpecker, I look for the red-headed bird.

As I write about the birds, I realize that one bird, my favorite, the barn swallow, isn't in abundance this year. Usually, they are nesting above the windowsills of the house. When mowing, dozens of them would swoop behind me, looking for bugs. We have some, just not as many.

The swallows are some of the first birds to head south each year. Usually, in late August, I walk around the farm and realize, with great sadness, that they are gone. Their flight reminds me that summer is ending.

I wonder, if because their numbers are smaller, I will miss missing them this year.

Monday, June 24, 2013

While you are sleeping

I grab a bucket and trek to the east-facing fence rows where the wild raspberries grow.

It's the first picking of the year, and, thanks to normal temperatures and rainfall, they are juicy and large, at least for wild raspberries.

As I pick, I think about bears, and how many raspberries they must eat to satisfy their hunger. Of course, that's a question for my Alaska friends since there are no bears competing for berries in western Ohio.

The birds, though, like the berries, and they are quite vocal as I pick in the early morning hours.

"Don't worry. I'll leave you plenty," I say, for I know some berries, hiding behind leaves, will escape my notice. Others, I leave because I don't want to bushwhack through the brambles.

During the first picking of the year, there are no paths created by human berry pickers. I do find spots where deer have nested.

Berry picking is a slow progress that leaves me with purple-stained fingers, sweating, and scratched. While the bug repellent keeps the mosquitoes from biting, it doesn't stop their buzzing.

I find that buzzing more annoying than the garter snake that slips over my boot and into the brambles.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Broody Hen-The Final Chapter

We're not having chicks this month.

The hen doesn't know that yet.

It's been 23 days since she began sitting on her nest. The incubation period for chicken eggs is 21 days.

Yesterday I endured the pecks and picked her up. The eggs were clean and unbroken and showed no signs of hatching. Apparently they were unfertilized.

Because I'm an optimist, I'll give her another day or two. Then, I'll take away her eggs and hope that in a few days she rejoins the flock.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Cat Training

I can train a cat to come when called, to ring the bell to go outside, to fall over when I say bang, to sit, to tap the ball.

But I can't train him to differentiate between the songbird and the starling, or the dandelion and the dill.

Trick the Barn Cat has made the garden his summertime home.

It's the perfect home for a curious cat. The fence protects him from rambunctious Border collies, yet offers him a view of the chickens and sheep and humans.

The sleeping choices are abundant. I've found him lounging in the shade of sunflowers, on the straw around the potatoes, or in the dirt by the tomatoes.

Best of all, it's the one spot where he can get my undivided attention. He rolls in front of me while I'm weeding, twirls in the rows I'm trying to plant, and walks on the newly-sprouted beans. I pick him up, move him, pet him.

This morning, when I entered the garden with a hoe, I didn't see him. Maybe weeding could be a 20-minute job.

But within a minute he was trotting from the barn to the garden. He strolled in front of me and the hoe, rolled and mewed.

And I realized I'd train him perfectly to do what I didn't want.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Sounds of Quiet

Visitors to the farm often remark how quiet it is.

What they mean to say is how they don't hear the sounds of car engines, human voices, the clanks and clatters of city life.

The farm is not quiet in June.

I awaken, in darkness, to coyote yips as mothers teach their pups how to hunt.

The mockingbird goes through his repertoire hours before dawn. Accompanying him are the crickets, and the occasional burp of the bullfrog from the pond a half-mile away.

At dawn the song birds join the chorus.

As do the hens, with their clucks and squawks.

And, of course, the roosters crow all day long.

The ram bellows when the sheep amble to pasture and leave him behind.

Lambs bleat, calling for their mothers.

Horses whinny, reminding me that it's time to go to pasture.

Although the sounds quiet in the late morning and afternoon, when it is siesta time, I still hear the buzz of flies, the bees, a disgruntled hen.

The insect sounds grow louder toward dusk, as do the hens as they squabble for prime roost space. As the sun sets, the owls hoot, closing a sound-filled day.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

An Addition to the Morning Routine

As I go about filling water buckets and scooping chicken feed, the old ewe eyes me and walks to the gate.

She makes her presence known with an insistent bleat.

I call her the Good Mom, a moniker she earned with her attention and care of her lambs. I took her out of the breeding flock a few years ago, but didn't have the heart to cull her. The last remaining ewe of our foundation flock, she could spend her retirement as part of the flock I used for training sheepdogs.

But a romp with the ram lambs slated for market last fall changed that. This spring, she had triplets.

While the other ewes and lambs stay well-fed on pasture, the Good Mom needs the extra calories that grain provides.

So, when she asks, I fill a feed bin with grain, open the gate and let her into the aisle way. Usually her triplets and the llama follow.

When finished, I open the gate and let her return to her flock.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Broody Hen: No Calendar for Her

Hens don't mark the days until they get to Day 21.

They just sit on eggs, turn eggs, and wait, and wait, and wait.

They will sit on eggs for 21, 25, 30 or 40 days, waiting to hear peeps.

I, though, know it takes about 21 days for chicken eggs to hatch. I mark the calendar when I notice a hen sitting on a nest. If the eggs do not hatch by Day 25, then I remove the eggs.

Note on the photo: I took a new photo today. This hen has really hunkered down and is taking her nesting duties seriously. I have only seen her leave the nest once. I asked her why she has covered herself in straw, but she is tight-beaked about it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Alas, No Wings

When I first spotted the red ewe lamb in the yard, I paused.

In all of our years of raising lambs, we've never had one escape the pasture. Upon finding no holes in the mesh that separated the yard and pasture, I chalked it up to wings.

Weeks passed before, once again, I found a red ewe lamb in the yard. Was there some gap between the ground and fence?

Yesterday, when photographing sheep, I found the problem.

A concrete block had been moved, thus creating an opening. As I put the block in place, the lamb ran up the driveway, through the yard and toward the barn.

I followed.

Try as I may, I could not find wings.

I was hoping for wings.

But when I returned home from work today, I found this same lamb in the yard.

She looked at me and winked.

The Brown Ewe: Part 2

We chose brood and hoped we had made the right choice.

Each year, we choose three ewe lambs for breeding replacements. Fern, aka 1055, aka the Brown Ewe, was our top choice from the 2011 lamb crop. She had a good pedigree, conformation, temperament and color.

When she became ill, I didn't expect to breed her. But a few months after her near-death experience, she was fat and healthy looking. We didn't know if she had some health problem lurking that we knew nothing about.

When, one March morning, we found her with twin ewe lambs, we were relieved.

The lambs are 60-90 days old now. Mamas and babies are mostly shed out. As we trim hooves, vaccinate and tag the ewe lambs, we evaluate them, noticing their temperaments and weights.

"I can tell these are Fern's babies," comments the husband. "They have the same soft expression that she does."

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Brown Ewe: Part 1

Food or brood.

Last fall we debated what to do with a yearling ewe that had almost died a few months earlier.

On a July afternoon, I'd found the brown ewe standing by herself in the paddock. Head down, she was drooling. When asked to move, she was unsteady, especially on the left side. She'd gone blind in one eye.

A consultation with my sheep books gave me lists of possibilities: rabies, poisoning, a list of diseases. With no definitive answers and a concern it could spread to the rest of the flock, I called the vet.

"I've got a ewe exhibiting neurological symptoms," I said, and then went on to explain what I'd observed.

"I'm in the area, I'll stop by," he said.

When he arrived thirty minutes later, the ewe's temperature had spiked to 105 degrees and she was not moving.

With no obvious diagnosis, we threw everything at it: anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, b-complex vitamins, fluids. He also drew blood for testing if she should die.

My husband and I would give her three shots, twice a day, for the next five days.

For two days, she stood, head down, next to a stall wall.

"If she hasn't died yet, she'll live," a doctor friend and fellow sheep owner said.

On day four, she nibbled some hay.

My husband, who held a bowl of water to her lips several times a day, named her Fern.

Fern lived. In the coming weeks, she began eating and gained weight. Her gait improved. Her eyesight returned. By fall, she was fat; her coat, glossy.

I called the vet to report on her progress.

"What should we do with her?" I asked.

"You could use her for food and brood," he said.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Chicken Lessons: The Not-Quite Comatose Girl

Mammals gain weight during pregnancy.

Chickens don't.

When sitting on her nest, a hen's metabolism slows. Because she has to keep the eggs at that 100 degree temperature, she can't leave the nest for more than ten minutes. That's enough time to drink some water and get a few bites to eat.

But it's not enough time to eat as much as the other chickens -- who usually spend several hours a day foraging for bugs, grain, worms, plants and other food.

Thus, the hen's metabolism slows and she loses weight during the 21-day nesting period.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The New Crop in the Hay Field

I spotted it before the dogs.

The tan creature stood in northeast corner about fifteen yards from the hay field's fence row.

From more than one hundred yards away and in the fading light, it was difficult to determine its size. A fox maybe?

I turned the dogs to to the southwest corner of the hay field. Walking backwards, I watched the tan figure.

It seemed too light-colored for a fox. A dog, maybe?

Oblivious to the intruder, my dogs chased each other and hunted for mice.

The critter didn't seem to move. It was definitely too large for a cat, but too small for a deer. The right color though.

After reaching the southwest corner of the field, I turned the dogs around and backtracked toward home.

The critter appeared lighter-colored. Had it turned too?

Curiosity got the better of me.

I approached.

When about thirty yards away, the dogs noticed it.

Hackles went up.

I put them in downs.

The critter didn't move.

As I approached, I saw why.

Some tall blades of grass were holding the Mylar balloon in place.

I picked it up and brought it home where I deposited it next to the three blue Mylar balloons I'd also found in the hay field this weekend.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Chicken Lessons-Part 2, Incubation

A hen can't sit on a nest and watch chicks at the same time. So nature has devised a way for the eggs to all hatch within a few days of each other.

A hen that is going broody will lay an egg about every day. In this hen's case, it took her eleven days to lay nine eggs.

If a fertilized egg is left at room temperature, it will just sit there, not developing into a chick. However, once a hen warms it to 100 degrees, then the incubation process begins. This allows all of the eggs to hatch at about the same time.

For chickens, the incubation period is about 21 days. So, if this hen continues sitting on her eggs, and if the eggs are fertilized, then I expect to see little yellow heads sticking out from under her sometime around June 18 or 19.

She does not know that's the due date, but that's the subject for another blog.