Rivaled perhaps only by the turkey.
Archive for the ‘Free Ranging’ Category
The turkeys aren’t the only new friends we have around the yard these days. The plum tree is overrun with aphids and Japanese beetles, as well as ladybugs that I introduced to eat the aphids. The ladybugs are reproducing like crazy, and it’s really cool to see their eggs and future ladybugs in their various immature states. I just wish I didn’t have to work them into the scheme of things, because the poor plum tree really has it rough these days. I’m not sure we’ll ever get plums with the way it gets attacked each year, but I keep trying. It was during my pruning of the limbs that had been picked clean by beetles that I found out we have yet another friend who has been hanging around.
I was trimming the branches and sorting them into piles based on whether they were totally decimated, still infested with aphids, or carrying young ladybug types. My mother-in-law got home and came over to see what I was doing, and I was more than happy to gripe about the state of the tree. I was probably happier about it than usual because it was really hot, which made the task even more of a chore. I don’t know why I picked the hottest part of the day to do it, but I usually have to do these things when I think of them, otherwise they never get done. So there I was.
Chickens, as you may or may not know, aren’t always the quietest animals. Ours have a tendency to get quite rowdy early in the morning, which makes us lucky to not have anyone living in the house next door. Someone has bought the place, and is in the process of renovating, but they’re not in there yet. Recently, they were running some loud piece of renovating machinery after 9 at night, and I was contemplating whether or not to go tell them to knock it off. I worried that I shouldn’t play the noise card so soon, given the chickens’ propensity for morning songs of joy. Thankfully the neighbors stopped right when I was having this conversation with myself, so fights about noise can start later. But the point I’m trying to make is that the chickens do enjoy making a good old fashioned ruckus from time to time, and usually when they do, it’s no big deal. It’s more of a “if you want to sing out, sing out,” sort of thing. If they want to express themselves, that’s cool with me, man.
So, when I was trimming the plum tree and regaling my mother-in-law with tales of pestilence, and a wave of raucous bawking came wafting over from the coop area, it was not initially a big deal. The chickens were out foraging, but that doesn’t mean they were going to be quiet. It was only when I realized that they were all joining in that it struck me as odd. Usually it’s one or two being loud, but for such a group effort to go down, I figured something major must be going on. I was worried they were killing a snake. We have a lot of garter snakes around, and I’m paranoid they’re going to peck one to death and it will just be awful, so I headed over to where they were, hoping that it was not a reptocide going on.
It wasn’t. As I approached the coop, I saw that three chickens had headed into the big pricker bush to hide out, and the others were inside the run. And then a large hawk in the tree next to the coop took flight and disappeared into the woods. I kept counting the chickens to make sure they were all there, and they were. That was a big relief. I put them all back in the run in case the hawk came back, and then started to think about what had happened. Did they make the ruckus to scare the hawk, warn the others, or to call for help? Did they know I would come over to investigate the source of the noise, or was it simply what they do when there’s a threat? I’m not sure, but I’m glad I didn’t ignore it, thinking they were just being loudmouths. I saw a hawk again today, and I’m going to have to be extra careful with free-range time now. We hadn’t seen any all summer, but they’re out there, and I’m not taking any chances. I should probably warn the turkeys about this. We can get a whole neighborhood watch thing going on.
(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music bed: Lucille by Wilbur C. Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band)
The other night the pizza guy remarked on how our house is the only one in town that still has big piles of snow in the yard. I was aware that we are always the last house on the street to still have snow every year, but it’s nice to have confirmation, however unscientific, that we also smoke the rest of the town in this regard. It’s nice to be number one in something, no matter how unpleasant that thing may be. I’m sure there are worse things to be number one in than lingering yard snow, so I’ll take it. Part of the issue is that our house has these 100 foot tall pine trees out back that block out the sun in the cooler months, and this inhibits our thawing. Unfortunately, these trees were part of what sold us on the house, so they’re not going anywhere. And hey, if they keep the yard covered in snow, that postpones mowing, which is perfectly fine with me.
Now that the snow is on the wane (or possibly gone everywhere else but our yard), the chickens are getting plenty of yard time. They’ve gone from having a small strip of ground to pick at to having far too many choices. It’s like going from a restaurant with one item on the menu to the world’s biggest all-you-can eat buffet. How do you decide what to eat? If you’re a chicken, you would seem to wander around with a dazed look in your eye, scratching one spot for a minute or two, then sprinting across the yard to another spot, scratching for another minute, and then sprinting to a third location, and just repeating this over and over so many small spots get worked over, but there’s no real system. I’ve tried pulling them aside and explaining the importance of breaking jobs down into actionable items, but they hate the term “actionable item” almost as much as I do, and so they run off without listening. I’ll have to put it all in a Powerpoint presentation and then really bore them.
The chickens aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by all the sudden new food options. It was slim pickings for predators for a while. The bunnies in our yard had a tunnel system under the snow to rival the sewers of Manhattan. But with the snow gone, they, and many other animals, are now again out in the open. This has not escaped the notice of the local raptor population, among others. We’ve been seeing a lot of hawks all of a sudden, and if I had night vision, I’m sure the owls are out, as well the coyotes, fisher cats, weasels, possums, and pretty much everything short of the Chupacabra (and I’m not 100% certain we don’t have those around here too). It makes me, the owner of a small group of prey animals, slightly nervous. However, eternal vigilance is the price of chickens, and I’m ready.
Last weekend we had considerably more snow than we do now, and my son and I were out in the yard with the ladies, enjoying the weather. I was watching the chickens, and my son was making the most of what was left of the snowbanks by rolling down them and yelling a lot while he did so. I would glance up at the sky every so often, but I figured we were out in the part of the day that was not prime hawk hunting time, so all should be well. And of course, as soon as I had that thought, a large hawk cruised through the sky above the field across the street, and started to turn towards our yard. I assumed the chickens had been spotted. I sometimes have a hard time getting them back in the run under low-intensity conditions, and now I needed to do it quickly. “Buddy, buddy, buddy!” I yelled at my son, and he obviously could tell by the tone of my voice exactly what was wrong. He leapt off the snowbank. “Hawk?” he responded. I said yes, and asked him to herd the chickens towards me, and I’d direct them into the run’s door. He held out his arms just like I do at herding time (it at least gives the illusion that you’re directing them), and guided them back to the coop. I blocked the usual escape route, so they went right in no problem. The whole thing took about 10 seconds. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten them put away so fast. We high-fived, and then my son looked up at the sky. “Where’s the hawk?” he said. It was nowhere to be seen, but it had definitely been there a few moments before. Perhaps it was waiting, possibly in disguise, for me to make one small mistake, and then he would strike. Well, he may still be waiting, because that was Sunday, and there usually isn’t free-ranging during the week. Hopefully he’s moved on, but I’ll continue to watch the skies, just in case. In life, someone’s always trying to eat your chickens. Tread lightly, and keep your eyes open.
It felt like ages in the making. It kind of was ages in the making, in that this winter has aged us all beyond our years. (Or, at the very least, it has aged our backs from all the shoveling, even with the proper technique.) But two weeks ago it was warm enough, and I felt enough snow had melted, that it was time to release the chickens from their winter bondage out into the yard once more.
After all the build up and sense of urgency to let them free-range again, it felt a little anti-climactic. This is not to say that they weren’t excited, but it’s not like they all flipped out and just dug holes deep into what earth was exposed and rid the area of bugs and worms within minutes of their release. I suppose perhaps I needed to manage my expectations a little better. However, given all the time they had been kept in the run due to the snow, I thought that they might venture a little further on their first excursion out than just right along the edges of the coop, but I suppose sometimes you have to ease back into it. And who knows, there may have been things to eat just out of reach since December that had been sitting there taunting them all this time, and finally they could get them. You’d notice the stuff right outside the fence, whereas the pile of birdseed way up the path near the house is probably out of sight. (Though, even when they got near that, they didn’t pay much attention to it. I think it’s been so long since a nice stroll around the yard that they’re just off their game.)
Boss Chicken got in on the action too. I had to dig trenches around the perimeter of the foundation so that when things began to melt water wouldn’t just come directly into the house. This perimeter had melted enough to make a nice path for a chicken who needed to be protected from the others. I stood at the path entrance to keep watch, and she happily waddled around in there as best she could. Then, I heard her make a very excited noise, and turned to see that she had discovered the entrance to the rabbit hole that goes under our side steps. I had this image of a rabbit coming out and pummeling her, but I think I was just being overprotective. Nevertheless, I moved her back down the path away from it. She of course quickly headed right back to the hole, so I gave up. I had an eye on her, so I could fend off any killer rabbits, should they appear. (SPOILER ALERT: They didn’t.)
Meanwhile, my son, who has also been trapped inside all winter (though our house has less chicken poop in it than the coop, I hope) got some free-ranging time too. He was happy to be outside again, and hit the swingset for a while until he discovered the snowbanks around the house were perfect for rolling down, and even skiing without skis. When I needed him to, he would climb the banks to the far side of the chickens and herd them back to where I could see them. None of my earlier fears about them running out into the open tundra came to pass. They stuck to the path, and seemed to find plenty to pick at there. I suppose you work over the obvious stuff the first time back out. Now that it’s been even warmer for a week, there’s plenty more exposed areas to explore. They’ll be hitting that soon, if I have any say in it. Things are slowly returning to normal.
It’s been such a rough winter, I didn’t think I’d ever be happy to be outside again, but that first day of free-ranging felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of me. The chickens were happy and well-behaved, as was my son, except for when he realized how much fun it is to put snow down the back of my jacket. But even that felt good, in its way. Every so often something happens and you realize while it’s happening that you’re experiencing something wonderful. As I watched my son roll down a snowbank for the 300th time as chickens poked around in the mud for anything they could find, I knew I had my moment. Winter may finally be over.