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Panthers Hollow

The Geese Discover their Freedom

Jennifer Quinn

Geese with forsythia

Late last summer I acquired a trio of geese, thinking they’d help me keep the grass and weeds under control since I was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the mowing. At first I was concerned about whether they’d make use of the small stream on my property for bathing, since I don’t have a pond. I even went so far as to make a bathtub for them with logs and black plastic!

I needn’t have worried. Soon they were splashing around in the stream to their heart’s content and floating on the small area that was deep enough to hold them up. Later I saw them visiting another part of the stream farther down. Then one day, I walked down the private road and spotted them swimming on a neighbor’s pond, which worried me a bit because I know there are big snapping turtles in there. The neighbor wouldn’t mind, because he’s rarely there and only uses the property for hunting, and he’s assured me he wouldn’t shoot one of my birds by mistake. That’s good, because often I’ve seen my birds foraging over there — not only the geese, but the chickens and guineas. Here they are after a swim on the pond:

Geese flapping at Tignorsreduced

With the onset of spring weather, they’ve been wandering farther and farther afield. One day recently I was surprised to see them all the way down by the big creek — a few hundred feet from my property. They started disappearing for entire afternoons, returning only at dinnertime. Then one day, I walked down the road to the creek and couldn’t see them anywhere, though they weren’t at my place either.

I got in my car to drive into town, and about a quarter of a mile up the road I looked over toward the creek, and there were my geese, making their way upstream! Of course, they were back at the house at dinnertime, announcing their presence with loud squawks and shrieks. “Here we are — ready for dinner!”

So what good are these geese to me now? Instead of grazing the lawn, they just go where they can find the best forage — definitely not my yard. I guess now I have to settle for getting eggs and maybe some goslings that I can sell. They’ve already begun mating, so I should start seeing eggs any day. But I just realized I have to keep them confined throughout the breeding season so the females don’t go off and make a nest who-knows-where. Not only would I not get the eggs, but by setting on a nest day and night the geese would be at high risk of getting killed with all the predators around.

Now I have to haul a bucket of water up to the shelter twice a day, along with heaps of grass and weeds that I’ve cut for them. And still all they want is to be let out. They’re slow to eat the food I bring them, and as of Day Two neither of the girls has laid an egg. Plus the gander makes threatening advances at me when I come in to feed them. But at least they’re not hanging out by the back gate pooping there all day. It’s kind of nice not to have to clear away poopy straw every time I go out my back door!

A Little Adventure Beats the Winter "Blahs"

Jennifer Quinn

House in winter

Homesteading sometimes involves a lot of tedium, especially in the winter and especially if you live alone. So recently, on a balmy morning, I decided to do something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I moved here: climb the ravine behind my house to the property line at the top of the ridge. I had planned to do some work outside in the morning, but figured I could do this first and still have some time left. I had always wanted to see what the view was like from up there, and my curiosity finally got the better of me. So I put on my hiking boots, grabbed my sturdiest walking stick, and headed out.

The climb turned out to be a bit longer and more strenuous than I had imagined; I remembered why I had started out a couple of times before and had given up before getting very far. Since the little stream that runs down the ravine was at a minimum, I could walk in the stream bed most of the way without getting my feet wet. But there were places where the rocks were either slippery or too steep to climb, and I had to detour up the slope on one side or the other. That was more challenging since there was very little to hold onto, and I couldn’t go fully upright without sliding.

Still, I finally made it to the top and got to enjoy a few peaceful moments of solitude and reflection on a carpet of dry leaves, under a canopy of bare trees and blue sky. By now it was almost midday, and all was quiet except for the occasional sound of a car or a farm machine in the distance. An orange-brown butterfly flitted through the branches — the first I had seen this season. In the picture below you can see the ravine I just climbed on your left. Not far behind me is a tree with a piece of orange tape that marks my property line.

Top of ravine--sml file

I had been curious to see what was on the other side, but all I could see was another spine extending away from the ravine since all the slopes were completely wooded. Still, I had a nice view of the tops of the other ridges against the blue sky. I couldn’t help thinking what a nice spot it would be for a campsite, until I realized what it would be like lugging a tent up there, along with water and all! Soon, I thought I’d better head back down. Here’s what the descent looks like:

Looking into ravine--sml file

Going back down was faster but more challenging — part of the way I was just sliding by the seat of my pants! What a relief it was when I saw my chicken coop come into view, then my house. As for the morning work plan, though — forget about it. I spent most of the day recuperating.

Troubleshooting the Water System – Again!

Jennifer Quinn

Line in stream_edited-1

As I wrote earlier in Winter Projects, I recently checked my entire water line and tightened any loose connections I found. So I was a bit baffled when I was taking a shower a few weeks ago and the water suddenly ran out. The temperature had dropped into the teens the night before, so I wondered if perhaps the line had frozen somewhere. Still, it didn’t seem cold enough for that. During the winter of 2015 the temperature dropped below zero, and still the water only froze for part of one day.

When warming temperatures and a sunny afternoon didn’t solve the problem, I knew something was wrong. I was hoping the trouble was at the spring, because otherwise — I thought — it was probably in the buried portion of the line where I’d have to dig it up. Perhaps that bear had finally managed to knock the barrel over again? (The water runs first into a barrel, then into another pipe that goes out the other side.) When my plumbers were working a few years ago, they had found it knocked over and the pipe pulled out. My neighbor said it must have been the bear that’s been living up there for years and had knocked over a similar barrel that he was using to store grain. So the plumbers had piled rocks all around the barrel and on top and said, “If the bear knocks it over now, that’s one mean bear!”

As soon as possible, I headed out with my walking stick and a scoop, thinking it was probably time to scoop out some of the mud that’s always collecting in the basin. On reaching the spring, I found things pretty well clogged up and not much water running into the barrel. It was pretty muddy at the bottom, and it looked like only a trickle of water was going out. So I reached down into the barrel and scooped out probably about a gallon of mud until it was almost clean.

The sieve on the intake pipe was full of mud, too, so I yanked that out (with some effort), gave it a good cleaning, and put it back in. Now there was a good stream of water going into the barrel and a nice little stream of clear water going out. I also scooped quite a bit of mud out of the catch basin, but couldn’t access one side of it because a huge tree limb had fallen over it and couldn’t be moved. Either a limb or a tree trunk — I couldn’t be sure. Whatever it was, it had been there quite a while because there was moss growing all over one end of it!

Feeling rather pleased with my efforts, I went back to the house and waited a couple of hours to see if I’d get water. I was so exhausted from my climb and from cleaning out the spring and all that I didn’t even haul the cover off the holding tank to see if anything was coming in. As it turned out, I still could get very little water. The next morning I pulled off the cover and found not a drop coming from the pipe.

I decided to check all the connections again starting at the top. I thought I’d pull each connection apart and check if there was water there. But that’s hard to do, and even harder to get it back together if the water’s flowing! Fortunately, I discovered that if I could just lift up the line and put my ear to it then I could hear the water running through. I continued doing this all the way to the bottom of the ridge. I was beginning to get discouraged when I spotted it; just where the old black tubing connects to the new blue line, it had come apart!

Soon I realized why. The screw on the pipe clamp had rusted, and apparently I hadn’t been able to check it earlier because it wouldn’t turn. Fortunately it was an elbow connection, so I was able to take my shovel and hammer it back on good and tight. Pretty soon I had running water again. Later, I went back with some rust remover and fixed the clamp.

This makes the fourth time in less than four years that the system has gone down, so I guess I can expect to go through this at least once a year. But I’m gradually getting over my reluctance to deal with it. The balmy weather that week certainly helped, since I actually enjoyed the outing — except for the strenuous parts. And this time the system was only down for three days instead of weeks!

What To Do About A Shy Rooster?

Jennifer QuinnGreyscale looking over shoulder

When my last brood of chicks were maturing last summer, I identified three young cockerels that I absolutely loved. I had only planned to keep one or two, but all three of these were so captivating in different ways. The spunkiest and most active was all black with a floppy comb, which seemed like a slight drawback. I decided that if I had to narrow it down to two, he should be the one to go. I considered trying to sell him, since he seemed like such a fine specimen, but, sadly, he disappeared one night while roosting in a tree.

Greyscale, a black, grey, and white fellow with a red saddle impressed me at first by being the biggest, plus I liked his calm, laid-back manner. He clearly didn’t like fights and would patiently wait to eat until the more aggressive birds were finished. But he was eventually taken over in size by the more aggressive Embers, who was clearly the champion.

Embers is mostly dark-hued with shimmery, gold, neck feathers, hence the name. Since diversity is one element to be considered in building a breeding flock, I thought the two would make a great contrast. And clearly Greyscale was willing to accept Embers’ dominance, so I didn’t need to worry they’d fight.

However as time went on, Greyscale’s calmness turned to skittishness while Embers’ assertiveness turned to aggression — at least where Greyscale is concerned. Greyscale will run off screeching hysterically whenever Embers pecks at him or pulls his tail and now spends much of his time alone, far from the rest of the flock.

Undoubtedly, the shortage of hens and pullets is partly to blame for Embers’ total banishment of his rival. They seem to be “feeling their oats” more than ever, and with only four potential mates, one of whom is currently not in lay, it’s no wonder Embers want to corral them all. I’ve been hoping next fall, when I have a lot more females, each of them will get his share.

Of more concern, though, is that Greyscale allows himself to be bullied not only by Embers, but by the guinea hen, as well as one of the more aggressive pullets. With only one pullet that he dominates, he ranks second-to-lowest in the pecking order. Apparently he’s ignorant of the rule that roosters always dominate hens.

The only female who doesn’t follow Embers is the mature hen, who’s presently experiencing what must be the slowest molt on record. She’s not interested in male attention right now. But since she’s the only one Greyscale can get near, he’s taken to grabbing her by the neck feathers and trying to force himself on her while she shrieks and flaps furiously and manages to escape.

One day I saw him do a little prancing motion near her, which I’ve never seen one of my roosters do before. “Now,” I thought, “if he can do a mating dance, that would be a reason to keep him!” But the hen paid him no mind, and I haven’t seen him do it since. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed Embers trying out some similar moves, so maybe he’s learning it now.

Besides all this, Greyscale has sustained a slight bit of frostbite on his beautiful rose comb, while Embers has none. And when something spooks the flock, Greyscale seems to end up farthest away from the presumed danger.

Conventional wisdom says I should have culled him long before this. It’s costing me money to feed him, after all, and a few chicken dinners would be a welcome change from endless venison pot roasts. An extra rooster is useless baggage at this point unless his genes would contribute something outstanding to the flock; given his shortcomings, that seems doubtful. Trouble is, I feel sorry for the poor fellow, and I’ve gotten rather attached to him. I’m casting about for a really compelling reason either to keep him or cull him. Otherwise I’m afraid I’m stuck with a pet rooster!

Winter Projects

Jennifer QuinnSo maybe you think, now that it’s winter, I can settle down with a good book? Or get busy and finish all those indoor house projects I’ve been putting off? Well, yes and no. It seems there are always outdoor projects hanging around that should have been finished in the fall but never got done. One of these is clearing the forest of invasive hedge (common privet?) that, over the last couple of years, somehow started taking over the bank along the private road.

Earlier on, I had noticed this strange little tree at the corner of my driveway with black, oval berries that nothing seemed to eat. I left it alone for a couple of years, thinking maybe it was some kind of native shrub, though I could never identify it. I finally decided it was probably useless or worse, so I cut it down. Then someone pointed out that the same things were growing all over the bank where I hadn’t noticed them. By that time they were so big I had to get my handyman to take them out with his chainsaw!

That was in 2015. This summer, I noticed that stump sprouts had grown from all of the strange trees he had cut, plus I now had a few big ones growing on the stream bank that had gotten too stout for my loppers. I hadn’t noticed those because of all the weeds and the vines growing on them. During the growing season I get so engrossed in gardening and livestock chores that sometimes basic property maintenance isn’t on my radar!

So, in November, I finally got my handyman over to take care of some things, which included cutting the trees on the stream bank. I had him haul a lot of junk away, too, as well as take one of my 100-lb propane tanks to be filled. After everything else was loaded up, there was no room for the cut-down trees, so here they still are!

Brush for removal_edited-1

My handyman had promised to return, since he needed an extension ladder to clear three years’ accumulation of dead branches and leaves from my garage roof, to bring a boot to put around the stove pipe he replaced in the workshop roof, and to return my filled propane tank. But, like everything here, that was “if the creek don’t rise.” Of course, it did. It has stayed riz ever since.

Meanwhile, I figured I could clear those stump sprouts with my loppers so he could haul that off, too, but this is as far as I’ve gotten:

Brush Pile

All that green stuff you see at the top of the slope still needs to come out. Not an easy job since it involves crawling up a roughly 45-degree slope with my loppers and trying not to slide back down while cutting multiple sprouts from each stump, sometimes with my outdoor cat, Cecil, perched on my back. (He loves that I’m working outside, since it means he has company for a change!)

The other pressing chore for early winter was to check my water line and tighten up any loose connections so I don’t have a repeat of last winter’s experience when the line came apart; it took me weeks to find the trouble and get around to fixing it. Since the line comes from a spring about 800 feet from my house and partway up a ridge, this has always been a daunting project to me. The last few hundred feet of it roughly follow a stream bed, sometimes lying in the stream, sometimes on one bank or the other, often buried under mud and brush. Since I had never walked the entire line most of the work involved clearing weeds, brambles, and small branches so that I could access it without all that stuff poking me in the face. Here’s an example of one of the rougher sections:

Disappearing water line--original

It took me three sessions of an hour or two each, but last week I finally got it all done up to where it connects with my neighbor’s line, tightening several connections as I went. I don’t think I’ll bother going the rest of the way up to the spring, because my neighbor probably checked that part at the beginning of hunting season when he was going to be staying at his cabin. And, while it does make for a scenic hike past the two waterfalls, I have limited tolerance for scrambling up the last 50 feet or so, stepping over rocks and grabbing onto saplings to pull myself up.

Now maybe I can get to finishing that kitchen-painting project!

half-painted kitchen 2

Is There a Future for My Free-Range Flock?

Jennifer QuinnMore Icelandic chickens

When I first moved to Panther’s Hollow, I was warned that it would be hard to keep free-range poultry here with all the predators around. A couple of the locals had tried and given up after all their birds were killed. But having free-range chickens was one of my main objectives in moving to the country, and I had seen them on nearby properties. So I was determined to give it a try.

I’ve written earlier about my problems with predators at Panther’s Hollow ("A Guinea Disaster," "Chicken Challenges," "Predator Problems"). In the two years I’ve had my free-ranging flock I’ve lost at least two-thirds of my birds each year — not an encouraging start! Some of this, though, can be chalked up to lack of experience. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve learned a number of lessons about how predators can get at my birds and have found ways to improve security.

This year, some new challenges presented themselves. First, as my new chicks matured, many of them started to think that the large chestnut tree next to the coop was the best place to spend the night. (So did the two guinea keets.) This may have been partly because the mature birds were bullying them, with one hen in particular trying to clear everyone else off the roost. I began shutting the aggressive hen in a pen at night, but that didn’t solve the problem, and I lost a number of young birds that way.

I did think of a few strategies that might have avoided this problem. First, if I placed a second feeder in the coop then I might be able to get all the birds feeding at once and shut the door before any could escape. Now that I’m down to very few birds, I can do this fairly easily. Second, I think removing some of the lower branches might make it hard for them to get up into the tree.

I’ve also been planning to convert another, much larger building into chicken housing, and I think that will work much better. With more space and more perches, the younger birds won’t be as easily intimidated. The building is also closer to the house, which may make predators more cautious, and there are lights I could use if necessary.

The raccoon that I mentioned earlier began coming around again before dark, and this time I had my rifle at the ready. Though I still can barely hit a target, I got as close as I could and fired a few shots at her. Amazingly, the first shot barely caused her to flinch. After the second, she ran off a little way and turned to face me again. Only the third shot was enough to send her running, never to be seen again. Perhaps I came close to hitting her — I don’t know. What I do know is that a new problem soon presented itself.

One day, two birds mysteriously disappeared during the afternoon — my guinea hen and my favorite chicken pullet. This got me thinking that there were two of something hunting together. A few days later, I was in the kitchen when I heard a great ruckus and all of the chickens and guineas came flying out of the woods. I ran outside just in time to see what looked like two coyotes sauntering off through the woods! Fortunately no birds were caught that day, but one day I heard another ruckus and came out to find a coyote walking around the front of the coop and another bird missing. Shyer than the raccoon, these marauders always disappeared before I could go after them with the gun. They did stop coming around, though, for whatever reason.

Occasionally I’ve lost a chicken to a hawk, too, though the guineas are usually pretty good at spotting them and sounding the alarm. Clearly I can’t go on like this — raising birds to feed the local wildlife. It’s not fair to the birds, let alone to me. So I’m hoping my new strategies will help to keep the birds safe, and that the coyotes and the rogue raccoon won’t return.

Having lost all but six chickens and one guinea pullet, I’m going to try raising more chicks next year and maybe a few guinea keets. If I can’t keep the losses to a minimum, I guess I’ll have to give up trying to have a free-ranging flock. I suppose I could get one of those little hen houses with an attached run (it had better be a sturdy one!) and get a few lazy hens that don’t mind being confined all day. But I’m not sure it would be worth it. I really want to breed Icelandic chickens! And I want my birds in the garden, doing pest control and fertilizing the soil!

Honoring Temple Grandin

Jennifer QuinnIn my post on butchering, I wrote about my reasons for becoming a meat-eater again after years on a vegetarian diet. I commented that if we didn’t keep farm animals for meat and other products, they’d only exist in zoos and preserves.

I just watched the HBO movie Temple Grandin, where the renowned animal scientist is beautifully portrayed by the actress Claire Danes. Though Dr. Grandin has practically devoted her life to promoting more humane treatment of animals, she has drawn criticism from animal rights groups for working in the meat industry. But in the movie, while talking about cows, she makes this observation: “If we didn’t eat them, they’d just be funny-looking animals in zoos ... We keep them for us, and we owe them respect.” These are her actual words, which we hear in her own voice in the accompanying feature on the DVD.

Along with Joel Salatin, Grandin is one of the people who have inspired me most in working with animals and thinking about them. I first read about her in a New York Times article in the mid-nineties and was fascinated. The article explored how Grandin’s autism enabled her to understand the behavior of cows and to design more humane systems for moving them, which are now used in over half the cattle-processing facilities in the US.

About ten years later, I was in Barnes & Noble and saw the cover of her new book, Animals in Translation, which I bought immediately. (You will never look at animals the same way after reading this book.) Shortly after, I was offered a temp job working in — of all things — a beef-packing plant. I had previously turned down this offer, thinking this was an industry I wouldn’t want to be involved in. But, after reading about the improvements that had been brought about through Grandin’s innovations, I decided to give it a try. This gave me an opportunity to witness her influence firsthand.

As it turned out, the facility used her system for moving the cattle and had used her training videos. I learned that, due to pressure from animal rights groups, fast food chains like Wendy’s and McDonalds — who were among the company’s biggest customers — required audits to encourage humane practices. I’m not saying the audits were foolproof; they used benchmarks that required fewer than a certain percentage of animals to be prodded or to be found limping, for example. But it was reassuring to know that there were standards that had to be maintained and that minimizing stress on the animals was the goal. While I have my objections to the beef industry on other grounds, I can still appreciate the progress this represents.

Grandin’s achievements in improving livestock-handling practices would be impressive enough, but they are even more so given the challenges she had to overcome as an autistic woman in the 1960s and 70s. She had to learn to function in mainstream society while at the same time dealing with the sexist attitudes of a male-dominated meat industry. The HBO film explores this very effectively, and also touches on her contribution to the understanding of autism. In the 50s, when her condition first manifested, autism was poorly understood, and children with autism were frequently institutionalized. Grandin is widely credited as the first autistic person to speak and write publicly about living with the condition and about the advantages of her highly-developed visual thinking. This latter aspect is illuminated in her book, Thinking in Pictures.

In addition to her teaching at Colorado State University and her work with the meat industry, Grandin now lectures extensively on autism and has written several books on the subject. And the hug box she designed, based on squeeze chutes used in the cattle industry, is now used as a calming device for autistic children. Hats off to Temple Grandin, and to HBO for their excellent movie!

Beef cattle feeding
Photo by Fotolia/ellisia