outdoors

custer versus napoleon

A look at my posts over the years indicates I’m more than a little bird obsessed. Birds creep into my fiction and essays, into the décor of our home.

Since February, I’ve been back at the chicken mama thing. I’m (mostly) thrilled to have babies again, and their presence in our lives has been a lovely diversion during a pretty strange year.

Plus, we have this tiny farm now, and farmers keep chickens.

Riley and I went to the hatchery and chose six pullets – two Wyandottes, two Auracanas, and two Bantam Golden Sebrights.

The girls have been inside our garage cozying up to each other in their heat-lit habitat. There’s nothing so thrilling as a bunch of animals living in the garage, stinking up the place, squalling as they figure out who’s in charge, and making a general ruckus that results in the shavings from their cage becoming airborne in the way of fine dust sprinkled over every single thing. The veiling silt is a pall fine as drywall dust.

It’s time for the birds to go outside to the coop we’ve assembled. Over the past few weeks, Owen – desperate for money to feed the prom monster – has led the charge on building. Our creation is more like a chicken condo, really, and built from a structure we carried from our previous urban chicken days and another we rehabbed from the new place. We focused on using what we could reclaim this time, and the result is funky and…artistic…the enclosed run will happen in Phase 2, due to begin soon.

It’ll do the job just fine.

As John says, “They’re just chickens. No need for the Taj Mahal.”

Which is true, although it’s pretty easy to get carried away.

We talked about our bird love so much, we convinced two other families to get flocks for the first time. “It’s easy,” we promised. “Think of all those eggs,” we said. “There’s hardly any chance of getting a man,” we said, our fingers crossed behind our backs.

 

The last time we had birds – Mrs. Howell, Ginger, and Marianne – we discovered that the 99% certainty in predicting the sex of chicks means the Gibsons will access the 1%. Mrs. Howell was anything but ladylike in the end. Crowing all night, telling the whole neighborhood what a stud he was. With some friends who own a farm, we traded the rooster formerly known as Mrs. Howell for a hen who was sweet, a steady productive layer, and much nicer than Mrs. Howell.

This time, I joked early and often that another rooster was in the cards for us, though every time I said it, I secretly hoped this wasn’t the case. We’re allowed to keep a rooster on our land, at least, but still. The threat of another dandy has made us reluctant to finalize names for this flock. I’m inclined to go with female characters from Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey, which has been met with some complaints in the group, but since I’m the one scooping the poop, feeding the birds’ relentless hunger and cleaning the garage, it seems reasonable I get to call them whatever I want.

So, Mrs. Hughes, Cora, Daisy, and Mrs. Patmore it is then. For the birds I know are hens, anyway.

By late March, one of the Wyandottes was clearly developing the most gorgeous florid comb and wattles. Bigger than the other, more aggressive. Most sources say bossiness doesn’t a cockerel make, but I’ve had my eye on him, worried. Last week, his voice-cracking teenager crow was unmistakable. John named him Custer, a name we giggle about every time we say it. We’ve decided we can handle one rooster. It’ll be good to have a bodyguard for the girls.

My other worried eye has been on one of the Bantam Sebrights, who is beginning to look very much like this fella:

www.cacklehatchery.com Bantam Golden Sebright Rooster

http://www.cacklehatchery.com
Bantam Golden Sebright Rooster

The other one looks very much like this hen:

http://www.cacklehatchery.com/

http://www.cacklehatchery.com Bantam Golden Sebright Hen

Over the weeks, the be-combed Sebright has become a tiny, angry specimen of a bird who struts around his habitat starting fights, flicking his tail feathers. We named him Napoleon (he does look very French), hoping we’d be wrong.

Yesterday, Napoleon, a week younger than Custer, announced HIS presence in the world. The two generals, of course, cannot stand each other and are separated, so now I have TWO filthy garage habitats to keep clean, and twice the dust.

Today they really must go outside, where there is only one living arrangement. It’s going to be ugly with too many suitors in the manor. I’ve asked around, and no one, of course, wants a rooster, even a really beautiful one. And, of course, none of the friends we convinced to get chickens got a rooster, and so they are reveling in the good fortune of their 99%-ness.

At our house, one of these boys is going to be voted off the island. There’s much heated debate about which one. And also, quite a bit of discussion about the virtues of a hearty late-spring soup, versus a chance encounter with a hawk, versus a sudden interested benefactor willing to adopt a general still in his awkward teen phase.

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Categories: chickens, family, girls, outdoors, writing | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

screech

For the last few months, I’ve been watching a pair of small owls hunting at dusk in the neighborhood.

While they’ve spent the bulk of their early evening hunts flying into and out of the horse chestnut tree across the street, the pair seems especially to hanker for mice in the backyard next door.  That house is empty, the yard a brown tangle of beds gone fallow and some iron monkey bar-looking structures.  From the back deck, while I’ve watched the owls’ tandem swoops in the gloaming, I’ve come to know their calls to each other.  The lilting tremolo, the barking chuck, the soft hoots.

Early last week I was in the backyard watering when I heard a low, bouncing whinny.  It was mid-day.  I looked up into the maple and spied a grayish mass on one branch, roughly the size of a housecat, and thought maybe Arturo, bigger than ever, had reasserted himself as the squirrel yard boss.  But it was no rodent squatting on the branch of the maple. It was three screech owlets who sat huddled together, their feathers still a tufted, downy gray.  They sat blinking sleepily, leaning against one another while I had a proper look at them and while their parents stood guard not too far away, chirping at them, no doubt, not to engage with the human.

Over the course of last week the babies filled out.  Their feathered ear tufts darkened a little and their yellow eyes remained open much of the day.  I stood below their roost and made conversation while they stared unblinking, occasionally responding by swaying and bobble-heading, trying to get a bead on what sort of threat I was.

In the scheme of their life span, the owlets are pre-pubescent.  After they hatch, they learn everything they need to know in five weeks.  This week they are awake much of the day, begging to get off their branch and go do something even though the sun is high.  The adults admonish, hush them by cleaning their feathers, let them shuffle to another branch, maybe chirp at the squirrels who roughhouse nearby.  Sometimes the owlets split up and sit alone.  From where I stand on the ground, I can’t tell the adults from their young now.  They blink down at me, unfazed.  They’ve got my number.

Aware that I’m at risk of sentimental anthropomorphizing, I know their presence in town is just nature adapting. Still, I feel lucky they’ve chosen our tree in which to spend their days, and even luckier that I can witness them leave this perch to go hunting.  Well before dusk the owlets register their discontent, flap their wings, peck at each other.  In the loud correction of the adults there is exasperation, as if to say, “We are sit-and-wait predators.  When you can perfect that, we’ll see about driving.”

A half hour or so after the sun goes down, one of the adults leaves first and flies to the fence and then calls for the owlets to stay behind.  There’s a lot of thrashing and tomfoolery in the branches.  The babies fight, fidget, bark out into the night for the adults. They want to fly, and they can – they navigate within the branches of the big maple just fine.  But it’s not yet time for them to hunt solo.

Their impatience is raucous.

At our own house we are teaching Owen, 15, how to drive.  Being a passenger with him is alternately terrifying and rewarding.  He insists that he’s an excellent driver already, that we’ve got nothing to worry about, but he has trouble with road awareness.  He hugs the white line and argues that he IS in the middle of the lane when I suggest that’s the best place for success.  I’m white noise, a goathead pricker in his sock, a dog whistle he cannot hear.  He’s impatient to take the reigns of his life, raucous and flapping like those owlets, who, each night, get less and less obedient about following directions.

Last night, a full moon, the owlets flitted out of the tree as soon as their parents left and took their squabbling to the roof of our house, to the top of the neighbor’s van.  I could hear one of the adults talking to them a few yards over.  After short consultation, the babies decided they had better get home.  Breakfast was on the way.

The moon rose higher, illuminating the show in the backyard.  Three mice in an hour, a good haul.  Food in the belly quieted the owlets in the maple.  The adults flew off into the night.  I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be in our yard.

Soon, the babies will be off in the world, hunting in the backyards of other streets, finding mates of their own, and these will be monogamous and long-term relationships.  Owen, too.  I try to remind myself that he IS doing it right.  He’ll learn best by trying, by possibly failing, by sometimes succeeding.  His flight is about to be out of his parents’ hands.

I wonder if the owl adults have an impending sense that their work of the season will soon be over.  If, after dawn, when they’ve been up all night hunting, they wonder whether their efforts will build self-sustaining offspring who are smart enough to avoid death by hawks, by cars, by razed habitats.  If they fret that their teachings, even now, are falling away and growing smaller in the rearview mirror.

 

 

Categories: family, nature, outdoors, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

depth perception

Deep and sincere thanks to Matthew Limpede and the staff at Carve Magazine, who said yes to including the story “Depth Perception” in their Spring 2014 Premium Edition.  I’m in great company in these pages and ever grateful for the chance to be there.

 

2014_1 spring.png

Categories: fiction, gardening, outdoors, publishing, short story, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

bragging post

birdweb.org

birdweb.org

In the foothills I saw my first meadowlark this week.  It was the perfectly orchestrated sighting.  That gorgeous canary yellow breast, embellished with a black chevron, heaving with song from a perch on a stem of sagebrush.  Backlit by the blaze of rising sun, it was crooning its heart out.  There could’ve easily been music, something by Bach or Handel, or maybe Beethoven.

It was pretty thrilling to finally spot one and feel the song was aimed at me, for I was thrilled, too, at witnessing the paling sky surrendering to the bold lines of day.  The half moon was just disappearing across the valley.  I stopped to soak in the privilege of being present at that moment in that place and hoped it wouldn’t startle and fly away.  What with the tilting sky on the threshold between night and day, the full-bodied song, the solitude of the place, I understood the impulse to yawp over the rooftops of the world.

Later I learned male meadowlarks like to squat on “bragging posts” to tell the world all about their fabulous selves, much like roosters, and this certainly seemed to be the case that morning.  The lark was busy with the job of wooing, to be sure, but also, it would seem, saying to any fellas within range, Robert de Niro-style, “You wanna piece of me?”

His serenade must’ve trumped the undersong of pugnacity.  Along came two females – these fellows travel in the world with two mates—and off they flew together.

allaboutbirds.org

allaboutbirds.org

Categories: nature, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , | 4 Comments

surviving february

Over dinner our family sometimes plays the tattoo game.  It goes something like this:  If you had to get a tattoo, which animal (or fruit or motorized vehicle…) would you choose and where on your body would you put it?  The answers are sometimes surprising. Riley always tries to choose a bird no matter the category. John once chose a unicycle for his “motorized” vehicle, and that led to a half hour discussion on locomotion. But anyway, the kids like our strange amusement.  It’s a pastime that saves us on days we’d otherwise easily fall into lamenting the ways the world feels terribly broken.

How the world is broken seems more evident in February, when the slant of light has changed, but not enough to signal spring. When it feels like it’s been winter long enough, and yet the storms keep on coming. What’s wanting is diversion enough to distract from another several weeks of slate skies and long underwear.

The other day I found the perfect thing on River Teeth‘s website.  You can sign up to get a daily email from them — “28 days of Beautiful Things.”  Each day you will receive an excerpt from Michelle Webster-Hein’s essay “Beautiful Things,” originally published in River Teeth in 2013.  I was hooked after reading the idea for the project, but what really got me was the gorgeous photo of a beet, a vegetable I uniformly detested in youth but which now I cannot eat enough of.

Golden, Chioggia, Detroit Dark Red.  Roasted, pickled, slawed.  Nothing beats (ha) growing them. Feeling them release from the soil when they are ready to be harvested.  Knowing that under the tough exterior awaits brilliant color, sweet earthy flavor. Fresh beets means eating the greens, too, steamed or sauteed in sesame oil or hidden inside chili or lasagna (don’t tell the kids).

I’m not usually very clever about where I’d put a tattoo — I almost always choose my arm, because it seems like if I’d gone through the journey of permanently inking myself, I’d want to be able to admire the art without having to use a mirror.  The kids tell me that’s not the point.  Tattoos are meant to be seen by others.

My obsession with body art doesn’t get much past our dinner game.  When we play vegetable tattoo, a beet in any of its iterations is always my answer.  It’s also the lone answer to another game we play — If you were marooned on a deserted island and could only have one food, what would it be? The beet.  Of course. Though I would have trouble deciding which variety.

The miracle of a beet is the topic of “28 Days of Beautiful Things” first beautiful thing.

Today’s excerpt from Webster-Hein is an ode to dust — oddly dear to her, its silty presence on her belongings means she’s spent time doing what she loves instead of housekeeping.

Amen to that.

From River Teeth's website.  How could anyone not love this gorgeous vegetable?

From River Teeth’s website. So gorgeous every time…

Categories: gardening, kids, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

boomerang

At the trailhead Zora always lingers too long, inhaling the scent of other dogs who’ve peed on the boulder by the kiosk, ferreting out who’s squatted in the sage, heavy with flowering stems.

“Hurry up,” I say.  “Spending too much time here is like reading a dime store romance.  The story’s way better up ahead, I promise.”

And it is.  Off the leash, she frolics, radiating wider and wider until she finds some deer and is gone for twenty minutes.  Too long.  I worry about her driving the chase into a street over the ridge.  I worry whether she’ll be able to find me when she’s finished running that story down, creating and telling it all at once.

Over the ridge I can hear her syncopated deer song, high and yearning, joyful.

good photo, sage and sunrise

She always comes back, tongue out, sides heaving, sharing her adventures through that Sherlock of a nose she bumps against my thigh and those eyes, wild and dark.

I pretend to be mad.  I put her on the leash and ask her if it’s worth it to lose her freedom by going so far away.

But I know the answer already.  Next to storytelling about others, running to find me with her nose to the ground is her quest.

If she could talk, she’d say she can’t  invite me along to chase deer, because then there’d be no me to come back to.

2013 December 022

Categories: dogs, outdoors | Tags: , | 4 Comments

winter’s fist

2013 December 009

It’s been in the single digits for days now.  Minnesota cold, John keeps saying.

On the phone with family and friends, I try to describe the frigidity.  Waking up to temperatures below zero and the way it stings your face, lungs, and teeth.  Sheets of  ice crystals on the original windows of our old house.  Remembering youth, when this sort of cold required us to coddle our car batteries, keep them warm enough to start the next morning.  Though we’ve seen some cars in the neighborhood plugged into heaters, our cars get no such attention.  They’re starting right up but registering their complaint through intermittent dash display lights asking to be serviced.

2013 December 025

We finally stacked a pile of firewood, a job we did quickly, a race against too numb fingers.  It’s the best sort of riches, the delicious possibility of all those fires.  Even better, coming inside from this kind of cold to sit next to that warmth.

2013 December 016

Since the weather turned, I’ve carried in my head a poem by Joe Green, one he and Marquita sent to us as a holiday card, hot off their own printing press, a few years ago.

The Longest Night
 
Ice on the sidewalk.  The first dusting
of snow lasting a week on your deck.
Perhaps tonight you’ve even left
 
 
the faucet dripping in your kitchen sink
to keep the pipes from seizing.
Think of this weather as winter’s fist
 
 
adjusting its grip around the hours.
Then go outside and try to collect all the lost
particles of light around your sleeping house.

2013 December 001

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gluttony, thy name is arturo

On Thanksgiving day, Arturo decided to make his move and get to the nougaty center of seeds inside the acorn squash.  He tolerated a few pictures through the glass, so they’re a bit hazy.

2013 November 032

Although a gallery of his henchmen, four of them, sat on the fence, drooling in anticipation of finishing what he did not eat, none dared interrupt the Godfather’s meal.  Zora couldn’t photobomb the event because she was out on a walk. He sat for almost a half hour and ate more than his body weight.

2013 November 031

I still can’t figure out how he crammed that much into his being.  He only stopped once to shake his fist and beat his chest at those fellas on the fence.  Or maybe they were ladies.  It’s hard to say.  But there was for sure some kind of exchange that involved threats and cussing, after which the gallery on the fence sat skulking, perhaps plotting their revenge.

2013 November 040

Unfortunately, his girth, jewels, and gold chain are mostly hidden.

2013 November 042

We were getting along so well, I tried to open the door and join him on the deck.  His mouth is closed here, but he had just told me to step the (*&^%$ off.  The next step, I’m pretty sure, was to pick up that blue broom handle and beat me.  So much for all that nonsense about the hand that feeds.

2013 November 049

Arturo seems to have a good handle on what Thanksgiving is all about.  After he ate, he waddled off the deck and managed to climb the big oak in the backyard.  I can’t imagine he could do anything else but sleep off his binge.  This is what he left for the fence-squatters, who gave themselves several minutes before coming down to brave the leftovers without getting their asses kicked.

By the time we finished our own Thanksgiving feast and went out to see what was left, the whole thing was gone.  There wasn’t so much as a seed left.

Arturo’s bar is officially closed for this year.  He’s going to have to go back to foraging for nuts as nature intended.  But it makes me wonder, if he can make such quick work of a little squash, what could he do with something much bigger, like a butternut or turban? Maybe next year I’ll go for broke, leave out a pumpkin the size of Arkansas, and see what kind of tomfoolery will come of that.

Categories: gardening, nature, outdoors | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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