Friday, April 30, 2010

A walk in the woods

Mother, O Mother, come sweep out the barn,
Pull weeds from the garden, or clean up the yard.
Hang out the washing, make up the bed,
Sew on a button and butter the bread.

Where is the mother whose farm is so shocking?
She's out in the woods, blissfully walking.

The shopping's not done and there's nothing for stew
And I'm out in the woods, finding flowers -- it's true.

I'm playing Kanga and this is my Roo
Look, Aren't her eyes the most wonderful hue?

We're skipping with stones and searching for frogs
Shh, there's a turtle asleep near that log.

The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
But children grow up as I've learned to my sorrow.

So quiet down barn chores; weeds go to sleep!
I'm out with my baby and babies don't keep.

(Adapted from "Babies Don't Keep" by Ruth Hulburt Hamilton)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The darker side of spring

Spring is a time for new beginnings, fresh starts and miraculous birth. But as there is birth, there is also death, and I'm getting really tired of the latter.

When the two Muscovy ducks went broody, I decided to let them sit on their eggs and let nature take its course. I'm a total bookworm and I spend far too much time reading up on everything from starting seedlings to using cold frames, always searching for the best way to do things “right”. I often have to push myself to get my nose out of the book and get into the field or the barn or wherever, so this time I thought, let's just see what happens next. It'd be a hands-on lesson in hatching eggs naturally, rather than in an incubator. Mother Nature knows best, yes? I’d forgotten that Mother Nature can sometimes be cruel too.

The first duckling that hatched was a wonderful surprise. Despite almost being trampled by four clumsy mature ducks, almost being eaten by a crafty barn cat and falling out of the brooder area, it rallied for two days until I left a container of water in overnight and it drowned in two inches of water. The second duckling didn't survive the hatching. I found it dead besides the mother duck with no clue as to what happened.

Despite being upset over the natural loss of the second duckling and my sheer stupidity that caused the loss of the first, I thought as there were still eight or so other eggs under mama duck, we'd have more ducklings soon. I couldn't have been more wrong.

A few days after we lost the first duckling, I found an egg that had been pushed out of the nest as far away as possible. It was partially cracked open and in it was a mature duckling that was dead. The sight and the smell of it made me gag. I quietly disposed of the tiny corpse and went on with my barn chores.

The next day, I found two more broken eggs with two more dead ducklings. The third day, I knew what I'd find before I even got to the brooding pen because I was hit with a putrid smell when I was still about a foot away from the door. There it was - another fully formed but dead duckling. One by one, mama duck had pushed the dead eggs out of her nest until there were only a few left.

When she left the nest to get some food, only after carefully covering her remaining eggs with white downy feathers from her breast and clean wood shavings, I carefully and quietly pulled out the last of the eggs. All smelled rotten and horrible, a smell that lingered in my nose for hours.

I took the last of her eggs, filled the nest again with clean shavings and quietly tucked in two newly laid Rouen duck eggs. Mama duck squeaked at me, ruffled her feathers in indignation and then resumed her maternal post to sit for another 28 days.

Since then, I've tried to find information about natural incubation but most of what I've found online refers to incubating eggs artificially. Based on my limited reading, I started thinking that that perhaps the second egg harboured bacteria that contaminated the nest and the rest of the eggs in the nest, killing the un-hatched ducklings. If this is the case, then maybe I shouldn’t have introduced new eggs to the nest at all. But the softie in me couldn’t leave her with an empty nest. (Yes I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s what happens when you read and love books like, “The pig who sang to the moon: the emotional world of farm animals” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.)

But then yesterday, I found a dead chick outside the area where the duck and hen are co-nesting. And today I found a dead duckling. There was no horrible smell, no sign of disease, no evidence of trauma or malformation. Just more dead.

I hate going into the barn right now. Since this all started, it's been a horrible way to start the day. Every morning I’m reminded of my lack of experience and knowledge. It's one thing to kill seedlings or plants because I didn't know better but it's an entirely different feeling when living creatures are dying at your hands.

I've always had a huge heart for animals -- both real and fictional -- that was easily wounded if it sensed any pain or hurts. As I child, I couldn't watch the movie Dumbo, especially the scene where his mother held him in her trunk and rocked him through the bars of her circus cage. Even as a small child it just seemed so unfair that he had to suffer at the hands of grown-ups who should be taking care of him. Even today, animal movies such as Lassie, The Fox and the Hound and Old Yeller send me into full-out blubbering fits that leave me weepy for hours.

So it's no surprise that I'm taking these deaths hard. If I could chalk it up to experience then it might be easier to deal with. But the problem is, there's no lesson learned here.

I have no idea what's going wrong.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


If you came here via the kinderGARDENS link-up, the actual post you're looking for is here.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, please feel free to simply admire our future bean teepee.

kinderGARDENS week 2

Last week I wrote about a new children's gardening contest started by Kim over at the inadvertent farmer -- the kinderGARDENS "Let 'em get dirty" contest. The idea is to create a wonderful garden space with and for children, to celebrate the earth together and grow a place of magic, whimsy and of course, fun!

So here's our plan. We've got a small field on the north-west end of our property that is fronted by the road and a line of trees on one side and then rows of cedars and tamarack trees on two other sides.

Technically, it's a hayfield, but it's a pretty small one and since we have 10+ acres for cutting, we decided we'd start planting our fruit trees here. As it'll take years to create an orchard, we've still got a lot of open space that was simply left to grow. Until now.

Last year, hubbie put up a small teepee and covered it with ugly blue tarp. The kids loved playing in. I loved the kids playing it in but I hated the ugly blue tarp. Yes, tarps can be very useful but they're not particularly eco-friendly. I also have an aversion to blue tarps in particular since finding tiny shreds of one all over the vegetable garden after the previous owners buried one in the place that's now our compost area. Let's just say it's really, really tiresome to pick millions of tiny pieces of non-biodegradeable blue tarp out of vegetable beds.

While the blue tarp was removed from the teepee last fall, the skeleton remained, standing like a sentry in our front field.

When I asked the kids what they wanted to do for their kinderGARDENS project, we started talking about some of the things they loved growing in our first garden from last year -- morning glories, said Jack, those giant green beans, said Ella.

Well, there you have it: the perfect makings of a bean teepee -- a living hideaway where the kids can play, read, snooze -- even snack! -- under twining vines and lovely flowers.
We'd also planned on growing a traditional three sisters garden this summer with corn, more beans and squash (or perhaps pumpkins... maybe both!) but we didn't know where to put it. Now we do -- one bed on each of the four corners of the space we've cleared around the teepee. And between the three sisters gardens -- sunflower walls, of course!

We may try to build a really simple twig fence around the perimeter of all of this. Or maybe not. It all depends on what the kids want to do. I've decided I'm not going to fall into my usually trap of making uber-ambitious projects, giving myself two hours to finish them and then wonder why I'm left frustrated and discouraged.

This time, I'm shelving my type-A self and allowing the kids to take the lead.

This time, instead of focusing on the end result, I'm just looking forward to the journey.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Madcap Monday

"One of these things is not like the other..."

Meet Jemima and Betsy. Jemina is the Muscovy duck on the left and Betsy is the Columbian Rock x Rhode Island Red chicken on the right.

About a month ago, I noticed that the other ducks were picking on Jemima so at night, I put her on her own in the feed/prep area of the barn. Soon after, I noticed that she was stealthily building a nest behind the "cubby area" where we store hay (hence the name Jemima, after Beatrix Potter's character Jemima Puddle-duck, who tries to hide her eggs from the farmer's wife so she can hatch them herself).

Then came Betsy, who also liked to nest in strange places. I thought the two of them might get ornery with each other as while the ducks and chickens don't pick fights, they're certainly not chummy. It appears these two have worked something out.

A few days after these two started co-nesting, Betsy left for some power scratching in the barnyard. She ran out through the barn doors, wings flapping and comb twitching, and beelined it to Gall's morning manure pile as fast as her little chicken legs could carry her. She was on a mission: to scratch at all the undigested grain kernels in his poop. While she was engaged in her gross buffet breakfast, I got a chance peek at the nest.

The white eggs are Jemina's and the brown ones are Betsy's.

I wondered what would happen when the eggs started hatching -- chicks hatch after 21 days while Muscovies take 35 days -- but again I decided to let nature take its course.

Seems like I made the right choice this time.

Now what I can't figure out is, how did a Barred Plymouth Rock egg/chick get in to the nest???

Friday, April 23, 2010

A boy's guide to gardening

Step one: Prepare soil.

Step two: plant seeds in perfectly straight and well-spaced rows

I think he's on to something here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Celebrating the Earth

"Too few of us are aware that to any beauty we must come as lovers, not destroyers, come humbly, softly, to look, listen, learn, to cherish and to shield." ~ Nancy Newhall

"The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope." ~ Wendell Berry

Happy Earth Day, everyone.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An uninvited visitor

I love gazing out over the barnyard while sitting at my big farmhouse kitchen table. Just like earlier this evening. I was admiring the frolicking goats, the handsome horse, the small red creature standing in the run-in stalking our ducks….

HEY!!!! That's a red fox going into the barn!!

Photo courtesy of

Off I went running out of the house like a lunatic again (I tend to do a lot of that around here) with Lucas close behind me. I guess the fox heard me coming (really?) for it high-tailed it into the paddock behind the barn and was later spotted trotting along the far end of the adjacent hayfield before entering the woods.

We’ve been restricting our hens’ barnyard movements for the last week after finding several suspicious piles of feathers in the hayfield. We thought it might have been a fox that had snatched a hen or two (or three) but what surprised me just now is how brazen it was – standing there, just a few feet from the entrance to the barn like it owned the place.

Thankfully, all winged creatures are accounted for but it's too bad we can't give our "noble" donkeys any credit for saving the day. You know the barn-eating, hay-burning creatures we installed to protect our flock? They missed out on the action. Completely. They were behind the barn treating themselves to some lovely dust baths.

Since this latest crisis, I've been reading up on foxes on the BackYard Chickens' "Predators and Pests" forum and I know we should count ourselves very lucky -- this time. For it'll be back. It's not a question of if, but when.

So it looks like I'll be shopping for more electric fencing tomorrow -- maybe that portable netting stuff -- or perhaps some traps, though foxes sound pretty tricky to snare.

Unless anyone else has any suggestions -- what do you do to keep your poultry safe?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Madcap Monday

Think I need to make some new nesting boxes?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Let 'em get dirty" contest

After a crappy start to the day, I decided to grab a cup of tea and catch up on my blog reading before heading out for some garden therapy.

Thanks to Erin of "Garden now, think later" -- an awesome blog by a urban homesteading mother/military wife AND Aussie owner in Virgina -- I've found a great project for me and the kids this summer: the kinderGARDENS "Let 'em get dirty" contest, put on by The inadvertent farmer (this looks like another awesome blog, by the way!)

Here are the contest details: "We will be looking for the best and most creative ideas for child friendly gardens. It can be incorporating a sunflower house in your own garden or it can be a garden designed and planted exlusively for children with a playhouse and everything!"

(Click here for more details and to sign on. You can also click on on the kinderGARDENS button the side... now that it's working!)

The idea is to get kids excited about growing real food. It's about hands-on gardens with real kids in them.

I love this idea. I mean, I really, really love it. I find I spend too much time preaching to my kids about why it's important to do get out in the garden -- don't you know that Growing Our Own Food is serious business?! Oh, please.

This sounds like a great way to put the fun back into gardening -- for all of us.

Not again

I went out to the barn this morning and once again, found a quiet duck pen. The little duckling, who was doing so well last night when I last checked in before closing up the barn , had drowned in two inches of water.

While I had the drown-proof duckling water dispenser in the pen, I also had a small container for mama to drink out of. Looks like baby got herself in and couldn't get out.

I feel horrible. I should have known better. This totally sucks.

Please tell me this gets easier.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Madcap Monday

Cinder lipping off

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Our morning sadness

After yesterday's wonderful surprise, when I found that new baby duckling, I was looking forward to being welcomed by a chorus of peeps this morning. Instead, I found only silence.

When I shut down the barn last night, I discovered that the second duckling had completely hatched from her shell. She was still all curled up in a ball -- hatching is exhausting work! -- but she was already starting to dry off.

Mama only let me take a quick glimpse of her newest charge before settling back down on the nest. I secured the duck pen, making sure the barn cats couldn't get in and then turned off the barn lights for the night. I debated whether or not I should bring the babies into the house or simply put the heat lamp back on as I know ducklings need supplemental heating for their first few weeks. But I decided that since mama was here, I'd leave her to take care of the new arrivals. Perhaps I made the wrong choice.

When I checked in to the duck pen this morning, there was mama sitting on her nest. And lying still beside her was one of the ducklings. While she'd started to fluff up she was still a bit crusty in spots (so I'm assuming it was the new one), but she was long gone. I'm not sure what happened -- I know babies are very fragile and perhaps she died shortly after emerging from the shell and no matter what I'd done, we would have lost her. But it's hard not to think, "or maybe she froze to death because I didn't turn the lamp on or take her inside."

(Thankfully, I found the other duckling -- still alive -- with her head shoved into mama's chest. She seemed no worse for wear and in fact, showed quite a healthy appetite for her duckling feed.)

The kids and I buried the new hatchling down by the pond and then slowly made our way back to the barn to continue on with the morning chores. As I was feeding Gall his bucket of grain, I felt some comfort in the sheer numbers of living beings around me -- especially the fully-grown ducks that I'd raised from day-olds.

But what got me about the dead duckling was an overwhelming feeling that because of my inexperience, I'd made the "wrong" choice.

The qualities that make me particularly well suited to caring for these creatures -- my deep love and commitment to raising them to the best of my ability, my appreciation for their quirky personalities and the immense sense of satisfaction I get from just being with them -- also creates a lot of pain as a caretaker.

With life, there is death, just as with happiness exists suffering and I think I'd find a much greater sense of peace by simply accepting these moments without taking personal responsibility for each and every one of them. It still sucks, though.

And now, I'm faced with another decision. Do I leave the remaining duckling with mama or do I take her inside? My instinct is to leave them together -- perhaps put the heat lamp on tonight just to help -- but I'd really hate to be met with more silence tomorrow morning.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Our morning surprise

The barn is usually a fairly noisy place first thing in the morning. The chickens are clucking, the rooster is crowing, the goats are bleating and the ducks are quacking. Well the Rouens are, at least. The Muscovies try hard but only manage a pitiful little squeak.

But today, I noticed another sound amongst the usual cacophony -- a tiny "peep, peep, peep." I looked down into the duck pen and there she was -- our very first hatchling!

After screaming and scaring the hell out of the donkeys and horse (they're a little touchy before breakfast), I went tearing across the barnyard while shouting at the top of my lungs, "Go get the camera, there's a baby duck in the barn!" once again, providing ample entertainment for our barnyard creatures.

We have two ducks sitting on eggs right now. One is in the feed area (she deserves her very own blog post) and the other is in the duck pen. Recently, I'd looked up the incubation period for ducks and while baby chickens hatch in 21 days, Rouen ducks hatch in 28 days and Muscovies in 35 days.

As this is our first time hatching our own -- in fact, we're not hatching anything... we just allowed the ducks to go broody and let nature take its course -- I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm horrible at marking dates but I didn't think she'd been sitting on the eggs all that long. I didn't even know if they were fertile, though I must say that our drakes are quite insatiable when it comes to their attempts at procreation.

Obviously, the boys did their job and so did mama duck.

What I find amazing is that the duckling isn't even technically hers. Mama is a Muscovy while the duckling is a Rouen. Doesn't seem to matter though. Lovely, isn't it?

By the time I finished taking a bazillion photos and finally got the rest of the barn crew fed, I realized it was 11:40 am. Because we weren't expecting babies yet, we had no duckling food on hand and the closest farm supply store -- which is 30 minutes away -- closed in 20 minutes. What's more, it wouldn't be open again until Monday (today is Saturday).

I quickly called the feed store, explained my predicament and pleaded for them to stay open another 15 minutes. After some hawing and humming, the disgruntled voice on the other end of the line agreed and 30 seconds later, the kids and I were in the truck and racing down the driveway.

It's a good thing too because when I got back with the duckling feed and put it and some fresh water into the pen, mama duck finally got off her nest and gave us a peek at the rest of her eggs.

Looks like duckling might have some siblings soon.

This first photo was taken at 1:00 pm.

And two hours later.

I just checked on them about an hour ago and mama is still sitting on her nest. I've read that hatching can take 24 to 48 hours so perhaps by tomorrow, I'll be met with a chorus of "peep, peep, peeps."

In the meantime, I've told the kids that mama needs her rest. She's going to have her wings full with this lot.

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