posts tagged with 'life'

our perilous mornings

Once again, we had an exciting morning with the local wildlife. No sooner had Leah let out the hens than a fox dashed in to grab one. Hearing the commotion we drove it off empty-handed (-mouthed), but then I couldn't find the hen who had been attacked even after an extended search. After half an hour I was convinced there were two foxes in on the raid—or more!—and one of them had carried her away. Because it turns out we're surrounded by fox dens: there's one under our across-the-street neighbor's shed, and I've noticed another couple kits playing every morning outside a shed a few houses down through the back. Or maybe they're the same two, with a second home?

a pair of fox kits seen at a distance

kits taking the air

Happily, our poor hen had only fled the yard in panic, and before too long she wandered back in. Unlike last Sunday's victim, she's rather the worse for wear, with all the feathers missing from the back of her neck—clearly the Plymouth Rock breed isn't fluffy enough for complete protection. Still, I couldn't see any blood; and while she was clearly shaken for a while after the attack she seems to be entirely back to normal this evening.

It's a little stressful, I admit, having to be on guard like this. But the need for vigilance is at least motivating me to spend my early mornings outside, where besides getting to enjoy the loveliest part of the day I get to put in some serious work on the garden. Just the thing ahead of a day at the office (I don't have very many of those so I'm not really good at them).

I don't know much about foxes. Will they move on once the kits are big? Or will they all find homes around the neighborhood and continue to terrorize our flock—now with even more hunting adults? I don't have a plan in the latter case, except to keep up with the early-morning gardening when I have the energy, and when I don't leave the hens penned up until it's too bright and lively for foxes to be out and about. They might complain some, but as a creature with forethought and awareness I'm going to say that, considering the alternative, their temporary annoyance is something they ought to be able to bear!

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our exciting Sunday morning

Yesterday morning I was up early to let the chickens out before we had to go to church. As we were getting ready there was a tremendous burst of alarmed clucking from the yard—the sound the hens only make when they're running from something. I had just come downstairs so I was ideally situated to run right out the door, and right away I saw all the hens in panicked flight from a fox. Well, all but one, who was firmly grasped in its jaws.

some feathers on the grass

an alarming sign

Sure it was too late but determined not to let the fox eat my Buff Orpington, I dashed down the stairs, grabbing up a stick as I went. The fox headed for the woods with me maybe 15 feet behind, and it slowed only a moment to dive under our fence—but in order to fit through the gap, it had to let go of the hen. Who, to my complete surprise, hopped up and ran the other way! On the other side of the fence the fox paused, but when I went through the gate it took off again. I chased through a couple yards before giving up; I figured I'd do better to check on the victim!

Who turned out to be much better than I expected, than anyone would have any right to expect: a little shaken maybe, but otherwise unscathed. The Orpingtons are our fluffiest hens, and it very well may be that all the feathers kept the fox's teeth from doing any actual damage. A lot of them sure fell out—it looked like about two chickens-worth scattered over the lawn in three or four clumps.

a lot of feathers on the grass

that's a really lot

We got all the hens into their run—it took some doing to find the last one cowering in the lilac bushes by the driveway—and I was a little disappointed to see the other hens didn't show the slightest bit of consideration for their sister who had just escaped, literally, from the jaws of death. She's pretty far down the pecking order, and as they squabbled for the scratch I tossed into the run they didn't hold back from pecking her away from her fair share. As we were leaving, she sensibly retired to the roost to recover.

I half expected to find her dying when we got back, but she was still fine; she was fine all day today—totally normal in fact, and not even much thinner for having lost so many feathers. So all's well that ends well—better, even, for the house sparrows and other little birds who snatched up all the downy feathers for their nests. I only wish I'd gotten a photo of the fox, who was a fine-looking specimen; as it happened I didn't really have time.

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hens sleeping rough

Who knows why chickens do the things they do. The other night we had friends over in the evening, so it wasn't til late that I went out to shut the coop door. Stepping onto the porch I almost tripped over a hen sleeping on the porch floor; there were two more on the railing. The other six were crammed into the small open coop I made for the little hens to live in at the end of the summer. None of them were where they were supposed to be, in their own house. When it's dark chickens don't really move around much, so it wasn't hard to grab them one at a time and carry them to the henhouse, but it did take a fair while. I figure that the wind must have blown the door shut in the evening when they were still out, and when they couldn't get home they had to make other arrangements. It was open when I got outside, but whatever.

The next night I was late again. It looked like everything was as it should be—door still open, no hens to be seen outside—but I thought it would be ok to check just in case. And count. Seven hens roosting comfortably... out of nine. Hmm. This time it took me a little searching before I found the other two, cuddled up on the ground at the base of a tree. I picked em up and threw em back in. Last night it was just after dark when I got out, but dark comes early these days and the hens were once again abed—eight of them this time. The last one didn't take any trouble to find, though: she was right where she'd been the night before. Today it was wet and snowy (and we had our health department inspection) so I didn't let them out. Everyone will be sleeping where they're supposed to be!

It's not that I mind them making alternate sleeping arrangements if they don't care for the home I built for them. I'm not offended! But I do like to see them in the morning, and given the wildlife running around here I wouldn't be too sure about their survival chances outside their hardened shelter. We're hearing owls—multiple owls—hooting around the house just about every night lately, just for one example.

That said, they'd probably be fine most evenings. At least twice I've closed up the run without counting and had a hen spend a night out in the open, with nothing bad happening. The only two hens we lost to predators were both in the daytime, to hawks. But there's no reason to take chances. So at least when I'm paying attention, I'm going to take the trouble to put all of them in. Hopefully they'll figure it out on their own and stop trying to make alternate arrangements. But, as I say, they think for themselves—there's no telling the mind of a chicken.

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fox in the farmyard

Saturday morning at around 8:00 I heard some noise from the chickens out in the yard—noise that was alarming enough to send me running out to the porch. That was the correct reaction, because right there coming around the corner of the house in hot pursuit of a few of our hens was fox! I yelled for Rascal, who was still in his morning stupor: somehow hadn't noticed when the chase started in the backyard, and he took an unsatisfactory four or five seconds to get out the door after the fox. And then about half that to chase it out of the yard.

a fox in the neighbor's driveway

lean and hungry look

Two interesting things about this fox, the first one I've seen up close and personal in an adversarial situation. One, it was small: too small, luckily, to easily engage with a chicken. It was close behind three of the for several seconds but couldn't manage to get its jaws into any of them (and somehow it didn't go after the two who made bad course decisions and caught themselves in corners of the garden fence!). Two, it showed good situational intelligence. It pretty much ignored me when I came out, but left like a shot when it noticed Rascal. But then when it got outside the fence (the outer fence right now is just a reminder to any animals much smaller than Rascal) it realized almost instantly that he wasn't after it any more, and stopped to look back—look back mockingly, I'd say, though maybe it just had its tongue out to pant.

At that early hour there wasn't anyone else around outside, so the fox felt safe to trot slowly around the edge of our property, with Rascal keenly interested in its progress the whole way (it was moving so slowly I had no trouble getting the picture above; I just wish I had thought to grab my real camera). When it got to the back yard again, though, it ran into trouble: the fence is lower in the woods, and Rascal was enraged enough to jump it to rejoin the chase. That was the last we saw of the little guy, who knew to get out while the getting was good.

Not wanting Rascal running all over the universe, I put him on the leash and tried to get him on the trail—but given he's a sight hound not a scent hound, the results were unsatisfactory. There was so much fox smell around he just followed the trail back around the house, and there was no way we could figure out which direction the fox had taken off in. So that was the end of the story. A happy ending for the chickens, thank goodness, and they went right back to pecking and scratching... just as we went right back to enjoying our Saturday. And a mostly happy ending for the fox too, I suppose; as happy as I'm prepared to allow it!

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more wildlife sightings

Yesterday evening an owl landed in a tree right above me, and hung out for a few minutes—long enough for me to get the boys out to see it. Late this afternoon a swan flew right overhead with wings creaking mightily. It's the first time I've seen either from the yard; maybe it's just that I've been spending more time that usual out there standing around, or maybe the wilding of the suburbs is continuing apace... either way, I'm delighted.

the wilding of the suburbs

When I was a kid, it was a thrill to see a chipmunk. We had squirrels, sure, and voles, but a glimpse of any other wild mammal was rare and exciting. Not so much any more—there are mornings when I have to work hard not to run over any of the dozens of chipmunks running back and forth over the bike path.

And it's not just them who have apparently accommodated themselves to suburban existence. My trips along the path over the past couple years provide a representative sample of the animals you never used to see that are now definitely around, if not downright common: lots of deer, turkeys, and hawks; the occasional coyote; once a snapping turtle.

My Sunday morning baking this past weekend was interrupted by a fox in the yard (Rascal was very interested, and once we let him out he saw it off in short order). We apparently have a fisher living just about in our backyard—we haven't seen it, though we've had reports from neighbors (Leah did see one in the woods several years ago). There are lots of bats around, and an owl nearby that's been very vocal many of these late fall evenings. Last year I saw a porcupine.

Now, I don't actually know if all these creatures have always been around, and I just didn't pay attention as a young lad. I was certainly oblivious to lots of other things (girls, for example...). But my hypothesis is that they are, in fact, more common now. And I like it! If we have to live in the suburbs, I'm ever so happy to share them with the wild creatures who were here first. If nothing else they make my commute a lot more interesting.

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a day in the summer life

Lijah standing on a dock looking at the water

my morning companion

When I'm not working, I can do a lot in a day. As an example, here's a report on what we did yesterday.

I got up at 5:30 when I heard Lijah waking up. Leah was about to start exercising, so I took him outside to play so she could go ahead with that. We fed the chickens and chased them around for a while, then we decided to go for a bike ride. We headed down to the river again, where Lijah played in the water; he wanted to jump off the end of the dock, so I held his hands and dipped them in. We saw some ducks, which Lijah was excited about and correctly identified ("duh! duh!") and then some geese ("duh! duh!").

Lijah in the water pointing at geese

visiting with the wildlife

Strangely, it seemed to be getting darker rather than lighter; when we heard thunder I knew why! I quickly got Lijah dressed and we headed home. When we got back the other boys were up cuddling with Mama, so Lijah joined them while I made breakfast (bagel with cream cheese and scrambled eggs). As we ate the skies opened for a brief downpour, and I was glad to be safe at home.

After the rain stopped the boys and I went out to clean the car. It was a great way to let them play outside without getting soaked in the puddles, but also totally necessary: kids can really dirty up a car, and a minivan holds an impressive volume of trash! Eventually we got it cleared out and vacuumed, then packed up food (bb&j, blueberries, and cookies) and spare clothes and headed out to Acton to pick up more chicken food and visit the Discovery Museum.

As per the plan, Lijah fell asleep on the first leg of the trip and slept through the feed store part of the outing and our arrival at the museum. I had my book and was happy to wait with him in the car while Leah took the other boys in. When he woke up we made our slow way through the little forest path on the grounds, taking in the sights.

Lijah carrying a walking stick approaching a giant globe

world explorer

The museum was as fun as always. It was Lijah's first time there as a walker—maybe his first as a sentient being—and he enjoyed it fully (though there were a few tears when we came off the forest path and into the crowded museum lobby). We did all the stuff in the children's part of the museum (ages 0-6), then went back outside to have lunch and play on the nautical playground and with the bikes. Then home, sadly (for Zion at least) without visiting the Science Discovery building.

At home we declared a rest time and the boys played quietly while Leah put Lijah down for another nap and I wrote a blog post. Another storm blew through, with some impressive thunder and high winds but not much rain. It did lower the temperature a whole lot, so after the light rian stopped we went outside. Our friend Jim just gave us a compound bow (along with all sorts of other fun toys!) but we didn't have anything for it to fire, so with the boys watching and fetching supplies I set to work making an arrow. Even without anything weighting the tip it worked impressively well.

compound bow and homemade arrow, leaning against the fence

after some hard usage

The neighbor kids came over as I was finishing it up, and they stuck around and played for a while until the sky darkened once again; as the thunder got nearer and nearer we decided it might be better to go inside. Lijah was still sleeping so they went home. We were waiting for him to wake up so we could go to the farmers market, but as it hit 4:00 I realized we'd never be able to go and still make it home at dinner time, so I declared a big snack (corn, cucumber, cheese, and crackers). We ate out on the front porch until a particularly close lightning bolt frightened us inside—or at least, frightened me enough that I ordered the kids inside.

Lijah woke up around the same time the rain stopped, so with the bigger boys in raincoats and boots (but not me or Lijah—he doesn't have either, and I just wanted to get out the door!) we hopped in the car for our trip to the market. Usually we bike, but both Lijah and Zion have been wanting to walk more than they get to, so I figured we'd park a ways away from the market and make our own way there. With the stroller along, just in case. Which we did, though in the event I tried to keep Lijah in the stroller as much as possible, to keep him out of the puddles.

The market was mostly washed away—no more bacon, alas—but we got the vegetables we needed and enjoyed talking to the hardy farmers who stuck out the deluge. There were some big puddles on the market lawn; you can guess what happened right after I took this picture.

Harvey and Elijah walking through a giant puddle on the grass at the farmers market

puddle? or pond?

Even though he was wet halfway up his shirt—that was a big puddle—and I didn't have any dry clothes for him, I decided to honor the boys' strongly-felt desire to visit the Lexington library. I called Leah to let her know and said I'd told the kids 10 minutes, which in library time means like half hour or more. I think we were there closer to an hour, when all was said and done. We left with two more books.

When we got home the kids all needed some Mama time, and I got to work making mac-and-cheese to go with the chicken and roasted vegetables Leah had already prepared. Zion fell asleep before supper, which is fair: it was at least two hours past our usual supper hour. After the remaining four of us ate I played with Lijah while Leah read with Harvey and put him to bed, then Leah and Lijah went to bed. I did a little reading and writing before finally turning in at around 10:00.

The end.

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the art of knowing

I had a chance to do some weeding yesterday. As I hand-weed I enjoy noticing what I'm pulling up: some weeds are old adversaries that I've been struggling with for years, others are easy to get rid of, and some are pretty or interesting enough that I wish I could leave them to grow—and sometimes do. Yesterday I noticed a weed that I remembered from our "community garden" plot last year, but which I hadn't ever seen in the yard before. But even with all that observation, I really don't know much about most of my weeds—most notably, I couldn't give you a name for hardly a one.

I wish that weren't so. Knowing a thing's name helps me remember it, categorize it—really notice it in a different way. Take plantain—not the banana looking thing, but the broadleaf weed that you probably work to keep out of your yard. It's everywhere, and it can help treat ailments from diarrhea to poison ivy rash, but for a long time I only noticed it when I was trying to pull it out of my lawn until I learned about it on a historical nature walk with a third-grade class (I've long since given up caring about even non-medicinal lawn weeds, by the way). Now I notice it all the time. Or black walnut: there are several trees around the center of town, but it wasn't until I learned what they were that I even noticed the hundreds of nuts! And what about elderberries? When you learn what they are and what you can make with the flowers and berries, you'll suddenly notice that they're everywhere, free for the foraging! (I noticed after I bought two plants for our yard.)

Even when there's no immediate advantage to knowing something's name, it's nice to have a label to hang your noticings on. I discovered that bird I wrote about the other day is a gray catbird, and just knowing the name and a few facts has let me pay much better attention to the pair in our yard. It was a site called whatbird.com that clued me in: it lets you put in what you know about the bird—color, size, head shape, and location in my case—and gives you a list of possibilities to look at. Now I just need to find something similar for weeds.

Of course, even better would be the chance to hang out with someone who actually knows this stuff. Can you imagine what life must have been like before we got all our learning from the internet? I'm amazed birds or weeds even have names any more... that the knowledge hasn't just disappeared in the last 50 years, leaving each individual to make up their own descriptive names: "spiky grass weed", "lawn cabbage", "lemon hearts". Although sometimes that works: I totally would have gone with "gray cat bird" if I had to come up with something myself. But it's nice to have confirmation!

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for the birds

When we moved into this house ten years ago, it was in much better shape than it is today in lots of ways, but it was seriously short of flowers. The landscaping we inherited could boast of no more color than rhododendrons a couple weeks a year. Bit by bit, I'm working to change that.

a riot of flowers up against our fence

various types

We appreciate the variety, and I hope the neighbors enjoy it a little bit—in compensation for some of our other landscaping failures—but the biggest winners are the birds. The headliners the last few weeks have been the hummingbirds that feed from the bee balm (those red flowers in the picture above). They're always thrilling to watch, even when I see them every day (they're also completely unphotographable with my skills and equipment, and really tough to point out to the kids). I've also been noticing goldfinches enjoying the seeds of the black-eyed susans, and house sparrows are currently nesting in the wisteria vines. Blackberries aren't flowers, but they're another aspect of our landscaping that attracts birds: specifically some sort of gray jay-like bird with a call that sounds like a cross between an upset baby and an upset cat. Anyone have any idea what it might be?

None of these birds—with the exception of the house sparrows—would have had any place in our yard of ten years ago. It's not a big deal, and I didn't set out to make a bird-friendly environment, but I like having them around. Just like we want to offer hospitality for people I'm delighted to extend it to birds as well.

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free at last

Every few years we have a mice infestation, which is to say we have a mice infestation whenever I'm pregnant. This time is no exception. We have started to catch the culprits two at a time, and so far we have liberated nine mice from our basement.

We use two have-a-heart traps that catch the mice alive. We check the traps every morning and transfer the inhabitants to a cozy terrarium with food and water. Usually they run around the cage for some time to the great delight of our children, then they hide in a toilet paper roll until we bring them to their new home in the Carlisle wilderness. Yes, I know that mice will come back from up to a mile away. That's why we drive them all the way over the Concord river to give them a second chance at life. While denying them the possibility of doing it in our laundry room.

When friends see a cage of mice in our kitchen they typically have three responses. In order. You could call it the Three Stages of Infestation Realization.

1) "Awww! Cute! You're raising mice?" (This stage is dominated by curiosity and attraction.)

2) "Oh, you trapped them from your basement?!?" (Here my guest slowly realizes that she is speaking to the kind of person who TRAPS and HANDLES WILD ANIMALS! Plus, is nothing sacred anymore? Not even the design and use mouse traps? This stage is marked by great psychological discomfort.)

3) "That's disgusting! Do you know those things carry diseases?" (In this stage my guest expresses concern about my health and the soundness of the mouse catching project. Information about mice returning to their nests from up to a mile away will also be repeated here. She is also probably wondering whether any food I offer from my kitchen is safe to eat.)

Finally my friends slowly back away from the cage of mice. Never mind that our mice are just as cute as the Petco variety, that there's no such thing as a "domesticated" mouse, or that the animals are no more likely to give us diseases in a cage or in the car or running into a snowy Carlisle meadow than they are from unabatedly pooping in our silverware drawer.

Having live mice in the kitchen turns out to be a divisive issue.

In the other corner for team mice-catcher are the two boy children in my household. There seems to be no end to their excitement at seeing new rodents every morning. Plus the trip to "set the mice free in the woods" is an exciting adventure.

bridge at foss farm

where is this going?

We've had some nice walks in the Carlisle conservation land thanks to the mice. On President's day Dan came with us and we explored a frozen marsh. Yet I'd be lying if I said the project is a win-win for everyone involved. The mice certainly face a reduced life span when they're relocated away from our kitchen. I always tell Harvey and Zion we're "setting the mice free in the woods," as if it's the animals' primary choice. But they were hardly enslaved in our basement. We're stopping short of killing them, yes, but we're bringing them to a much colder, much more dangerous place. It's not like they're jumping out of the cage, seeing the mountains of snow, and shouting "Free at last, free at last! Thank God almighty I am free at last!"

So last week when the snow was high and Dan set the pace too fast and Zion sat down on the ground pounding his fists in frustration and screaming "Go Away Snow!" I really felt for all the little creatures. Zion's version of pleasant adventure featured a lot more "uppy" than I was offering that day. My version of freedom for mice featured a lot more displacement than they would have chosen. I don't know why I'm the enlightened despot who get's to decide what's fair and what's free. I'm just the one in charge of keeping poop out of the kitchen drawers.

zion in field in carlisle

When you're little, freedom is a word mama uses for a lot of fricking walking.

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