Every morning, the chickens gather expectantly behind their door, clucking and warbling, and, if it hasn’t snowed, come streaming out as soon as I open it and gather around me in expectation of a treat. Some of them go straight to the flat bowls of warm water, others will begin pecking and eating from the mix of cracked corn, chicken feed, sunflower seeds, bird seed and oats tossed around the ground. Roger (the young rooster) and the 3 Garys (Barred Rock laying hens) gather around me, cocking their heads, eyeing me up, and expecting more. The Garys are especially expectant, a little aggressive, and come close to pecking at me as if I am food.
I’ve spoiled them. Already. What the Garys really want is meal worms. Since I bought a bag of dried meal worms a few weeks ago as a treat and supplement to their feed, they expect meal worms for breakfast and definitely know their favorite treat is in a purple and white bag. Leader Gary will peck at the bag of meal worms. Follower Gary will soon join in. Me Too Gary will lose interest in water or ground feed and wait for her meal worms, too.
There are 2 feeders, filled with standard, bagged, store bought layer feed, hanging in the coop, in addition to a hanging waterer. They don’t eat much from the feeders. This is supposed to be the proper feed mix for laying hens (or soon to lay pullets), but they prefer to eat from the ground. First, the meal worms are quickly devoured, with the Garys scarfing up the most, then, and only then, will they eat from the ground, and tend to pick the cracked corn, millet, or sunflower seeds. When I toss standard chicken feed on the ground, they mostly skip it in favor of the scratch grains and bird seed.
Since the birds don’t eat much of their proper feed, I’m beginning to wonder if they are getting the nutrients they need. Have I spoiled them too much? Is it like feeding donuts and candy bars to your kids instead of vegetables and fruit?
I don’t know. The Annies and Ritas — 3 Australorp and 3 Rhode Island Red pullets — have grown a lot in the last few weeks. Roger is sprouting pretty green tail feathers and crowed for the first time yesterday. And the Garys are laying 2 eggs/day. If they’re growing, fed, watered, and apparently happy, that’s what matters most, right?
We’ll see. As always, I don’t know what I’m doing.
We had rather thick, early morning fog for a few consecutive days earlier this week. Since it was below freezing, it formed a white rime covering all the trees and cold surfaces.
More or less. I miss working outside. Winter put a stop to my fencing, shed building, wire pile removal, and other projects.
The sparrows will miss their wire pile. 25-40 sparrows regularly use it for shelter.
There’s >1000 feet of rolled wire fencing and 100 metal posts buried in snow about 30 feet in front of the snow-covered sawhorses and partially built small animal (or storage) shed.
I should learn to be more cold hardy. Maybe I should take up cross country skiing. There’s plenty of room for that in the pasture and some paths through the woods. I could get a bit of exercise and enjoy the snow rather than just look at it from the warmth of the house.
Nah. I’ll fill the bird feeders, have another cup of hot coffee and watch them from inside the house.
And cold, I suppose, now that winter has set in. They don’t like walking in snow, but they seem pretty happy. No signs of frost bit yet, either. Very gentle, curious birds. Roger, the young Rhode Island Red rooster, and the 3 Barred Plymouth Rock hens, are especially friendly, approaching closely and expectantly when I’m around, eager for a treat or simply showing that they know the hand that feeds them. They will all readily eat of my hand. Watching them, feeding them, and just hanging out with them, makes me happy. And, man, do they love meal worms! They recognize the bag and scarf them up like crazy when I toss them around the pen or coop.
I chose dual purpose, cold hardy, heritage breeds for a reason and I’m glad I did. So far, they don’t need to be babied. They just need fresh warm water at least twice a day and prefer fresh feed, scratch grains and meal worms tossed around the ground. They have hanging feeders filled with standard poultry feed and a waterer inside the coop, but they prefer to drink water from flat bowls and would rather dine on whatever is tossed on the ground, so long as they don’t have to walk in too much snow.
I only named 1 chicken — Roger, the young rooster (cockerel) who has yet to crow — because I couldn’t tell any of the pullets or young hens apart. My sweet, quirky, imaginative, 11-year-old daughter Ally named the Barred Rock hens Gary. Ha! They look identical, but there is a difference in their behavior and personalities. There’s #1 “What’s Up! Don’t Fence Me In” adventurous leader Gary. She’s the first to approach me closely, look at me expectantly, eat out of my hand, follow me around, fly out of the pen and wander freely around (before there was 10-12″ of snow on the ground). Gary #2 is the “Looks Good to Me, I’ll Follow Her” hen and Gary #3 is the “Wait! I’m With Both of You, Don’t Leave Me Behind, Give Me Some Time”” gal.
Only the Garys are old enough to lay eggs so far. Even in winter, I collect 2, sometimes 3, eggs/day.
Their eggs are tastier, more vibrantly flavorful than any store bought eggs I’ve ever had.
Then there’s the 3 Rhode Island Red pullets. They’re about 18 weeks old now, have yet to lay eggs (as far I know). I’m calling them Rita. They tend to hang together, too, like the Barred Rocks and are growing by the day. Calm, curious, apparently happy.
And 3 Australorp pullets, black feathers and feet, also about 18 weeks old. The 3 Annies. They tend to hang together, too, are a little shier and a little smaller than the others. One of them was the last to climb up on the roosts in the coop at night. She would huddle in a corner at night for a couple of weeks, but now goes up to one of the 2×4 roosting bars, huddled close to her Australorp sisters at night.
Last, but not least, is Roger, the one and only rooster, a Rhode Island Red cockerel about 18 weeks old. He’s the closest one to being a pet, doesn’t care to be pet or held or picked up, but, along with Gary #1, will follow me around like a little dog. He has yet to crow, has grown the most in the few weeks I’ve had the chickens, and is sprouting pretty greenish tail feathers.
All of them mix well and get along very well, though they tend to hang with their own kind. And no fighting that I’ve seen, though there is a bit of a pecking order, with the 3 larger Garys at the top and the shiest Annie at the bottom.
Roger has begun to get a little randy with the Ritas and the Annies now and then, but he seems to know better than to get too forward with the Garys. The older, larger, more seasoned ladies will have none of that. Thus far.
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I used to see 9 wild turkey hens regularly. It was always 9, no more, no less, precisely 9, for 2-3 months. They would be out in the pasture, at the edge of the woods, and usually work their slow, methodical way up into the yard and feed around the oak tree under two bird feeders.
With winter coming on and my general affection for these (and all) birds, I thought they would need a food source to stay around, so I bought them a feeder of their very own. It looked perfect for the task, sits up on 12″ legs (still in the box below in the only picture I took thus far), and wasn’t cheap ($225!) — especially for wild animals that aren’t expected to making any contribution toward paying the mortgage on the Small Calm Farm. But I really like having non-predatory wild animals around and they definitely need food in winter, so I’m thinking I should feed them. They’ll add some needed life and color to the place during dulling times.
I put a 50 lb. bag of cracked corn in it and set it up at the edge of the wooded area between the neighbor’s field of harvested sorghum and the yard, a place where I can easily see from inside the (warm) house from a distance without disturbing them. A month passes. It snows. It turns cold. It stays cold. It snows more. It snows again. Winter is here to stay. Nothing. Not a single turkey for weeks. Sparrows, juncos and other birds gather around it sometimes. But no turkeys. Not a turkey in sight for weeks.
Then, finally, today, turkeys! They scratch around on the ground, digging down into the snow. through the snow, eating the bird seed fallen to the ground around the oak tree, the seed the smaller birds haven’t eaten.
Fine. Whatever works. But you have your own dining area! (Off to the right of the oak tree in the distance by the tree line.) It’s just your height. I got it just for you! C’mon, man!
I’ll figure it out. In time. I want these big birds to know this is their home. I’d like to see them every day, or at least regularly.
Turkeys are VERY wary birds. At my slightest movement, they were off and away from the dreaded human with a camera. Before they sensed my presence, they were having a great time.
Lesson learned. No more turkey pictures. Gotta figure out how they will go to their own feeder.
I certainly miss the green of spring and summer, and the colors of fall.
Winter is so drab and lifeless.
I’m not cold hardy, either, so my daily outside projects — other than refilling wild bird feeders, opening the chicken coop door in the early morning, changing frozen water containers, collecting eggs, and closing the coop door at “night” (about 4:00 p.m.) when the chickens have gone in to roost — have stopped.
The ground has pretty much frozen, so the 5 acres of fencing I had barely started is on hold.
But the birds are thriving.
I have much respect for birds. All birds. They are hardy and active and welcome signs of life across an otherwise dulled land.
I suppose the CAPS in the title gives away my current thinking.
Since Scootch died, Nico sits under these two bird feeders a lot, just waiting to pounce on a careless bird.
I really liked Scootch. She was special, more than a farm cat. Scootch bonded to me. (And me to her, despite my general distaste for cats.) Nico, though, was bonded to Scootch. So I had been trying to transition both cats to becoming house cats. Scootch loved being in the house. But Nico wouldn’t enter, not with me around. So, now, instead of having 2 house cats or 2 outside cats, there’s 1 one dead, should’ve-been house cat buried under the pine trees and 1 very vocally miserable farm cat. Nico mews constantly when I’m near, won’t let me pick her up and still won’t enter the house on her own. She will sit 6-10 feet away from me, mew, and wait until I leave to eat the food I give her. She’s sad, I suppose. So am I. Without Scootch, Nico is a constant, irritating, sad reminder of a special animal we’ve both lost.
Nico still won’t come into the house or let me get closer than 6-10 feet from her. I have debated whether to (1) capture her and take her to a shelter, (2) capture her and force her to be a house cat and eventually expect her to “warm up” to me (and me to her), or (3) obtain some other farm cat for her company.
Number 3 is out, I think. I don’t really want another cat (and innate bird predator) and there’s no guarantee that another cat would bond with Nico or she with it and I don’t want to play cat psychologist. I just don’t want this miserable cat to vocalize its misery all the time. I’m not inclined to trap and force a nearly feral cat into the house where it might “like” me (and me, it) while becoming a clawing, curtaining-climbing, restless house cat. Nor do I want to keep a lonely, distant, outside cat who only reminds me every day of how we both miss Scootch.
Poor thing. I feel sorry for her. She needs company. Somewhere else.
I never wanted cats. Until Scootch. Without Scootch, I can do without Nico.
So, I have a farm cat in need of a new home. Must trap it first.
This is sad. But it’s a lesson. Certainly to me. Maybe to whoever else reads this.
Scootch liked me. And I liked her, despite my general indifference to cats. She was more like a dog than a cat. She would stay close and watch me when I was working outside, pounding on this and that, building the chicken coop, even felling trees with the chain saw. She didn’t like the louder, larger equipment like the lawn tractor, but she inevitably sat or napped in its seat when I was sawing wood, building shelves or tinkering in the garage. If I did something scary, she would run off to a safe distance, but sit and watch whatever I was doing from the safe distance she had defined. As time passed, her definition of safe distance shrunk.
While I was building the chicken coop, she would jump up on the saw horses for attention while I was trying to saw a board. She was increasingly fearless around me and apparently knew I would do her no intentional harm.
I didn’t really want a house cat. This place was supposed to be a little farm, with OUTSIDE, not inside animals.
Scootch stalked wild birds sometimes, but she was a wonderfully incompetent hunter. I wanted her and Nico to remain incompetent, but knew that was unlikely to last. As much as I preferred to have outside cats and didn’t need a “mouser,” anybody with senses, a modicum of experience, or a marginally functional mind knows that birds are unlikely to cohabitate with outside cats for long without some loss of bird life.
She was a sweet cat. No getting around it. Better to have her in the house.
Scootch had changed my mind. I was a ready to have a house cat. But, since I have 2 cats, it didn’t seem fair that Nico, the still somewhat feral cat, so closely bonded to Scootch, should be outside all on her own. And, after I let Scootch stay a few hours with me in the house one night, she slipped off and pooped in a corner upstairs. It took 2 days to discover it, after the smell became a bit too much. If I had put a box with litter in the house, I imagine Scootch would have used it. (Potty training is a definite upside of cats over dogs.) But I hadn’t yet committed full on with a litter box.
I felt bad closing the door behind me with Scootch just a few feet behind me, but I was trying to consider her bonded buddy, too. I didn’t “like” Nico all that much, but she liked Scootch so much, that it seemed sorta mean to let one abide inside without the other. Over time, I thought, both cats would stay in the house primarily, if I slowly worked it into their routines. So I started putting food, water and a litter box on the sun porch and, unless it was too cold, I left the door between the sun porch and the kitchen open.
Sccotch would come in to the sun porch readily. She would eat, drink, poop and come in to the house. Nico would dart in to the porch from time to time for food, but always lit out when she saw me. I kept this up for a few days. Scootch would always come in, all the way into the house, every day for several days. I didn’t let her stay too long by herself before I went outside, and she eagerly followed. (She really was more like a dog, in my experience, than a cat.) Only once, in those few days, when Scootch was all the way inside the house, did I catch a glimpse of Nico. She was just inside the door to the kitchen, but skitted quickly away outside when I moved just a bit.
The last time I saw Scootch alive was two days later when two good friends came to visit from the city. My male friends like to bring their guns when they come out to visit me in the country. The place is laid out like a perfect shooting range. No harm, no foul, no charge. I’ve never been a gun owner, have no interest in hunting (or killing anything or anyone, really), and had never shot a real gun until I shot another friend’s gun at a makeshift target on this nascent farm. It’s fun, I guess, more or less. Guns are LOUD! Absurdly loud. You have to wear ear plugs or muffs before shooting the ridiculously noisy things unless you want to blow your ear drums out and pick up all the metal leftovers when target practice is over. It’s kinda stupid, really, like shooting off fireworks, something I’ve never been a fan of. You spend a lot of money on the fireworks for a few seconds of blowing something up in the air and watching some sparks. Big deal. Never interested me. Even when I was a young kid. Guns are similar, except you’re trying to hit some target and there are no “pretty” patterns of sparks or explosions.
I have nothing against guns or hunting, mind you. I hit the target a few times, not spot on, not the bullseye, but not bad, for a novice. I’ve just never been too interested in owning a gun or killing anything with one. I had even thought about buying an inexpensive, simple gun. I would try to shoot a coyote that might pose a threat to an animal (like Scootch or an eventual chicken, goat or sheep) that lived here, but I wasn’t in any hurry to buy any weapon. Guns are scary to hold and shoot and much too loud. They’re designed to kill. They spit out metal waste. And if you have to wear ear plugs to use them without deafening yourself, well… Maybe it ought to be a sign.
Scootch was on the concrete pad behind the garage, a few feet away from my friends as I stapled the paper target to a board nailed to a stump about 30 feet away and walked back to the concrete. One friend fired the first shot from a .44 pistol and Scootch took off like a low furry rocket.
That was the last time I saw her. I don’t remember seeing her that evening. She definitely wasn’t around the next morning to greet me when I went out to the porch and garage to feed her and Nico. She ALWAYS came running when she heard the sliding door open, without fail. Nico was mewing like never before. She seemed worried. I was worried. Scootch had never been out of my sight for more than an hour or two. She had a way of being near me, even if she didn’t like what I was doing (sawing trees, wood, mowing, loud stuff).
I’m not blaming this on my friends or the gun shooting / target practice. But the sound is frightening to an animal (or person). I won’t have guns here again. Even if my friends want to shoot out across the natural range of the open pasture. Even though it’s the country and do what you want. I’ll have to say no. They’re too loud. Wasteful. Lacking in purpose. Frightening to animals.
I found Scootch about 1/8 mile away 2 days later, dead along the side of the road, where the speed limit is 55 and people generally seem to go at least 5-10 miles faster.
I’m so sorry, Scootch. You were the sweetest cat I’ve ever seen. I should’ve let you be the house cat and companion you wanted to be.
The lesson learned?
If you like the cat, and the cat likes you, bring it into the house, let it stay, keep it safe and happy, there and by your side. Domestic it fully, happily. Clean the litter box. Let the birds fly freely without domesticated predators stalking them.
Now I have Nico, a young, lonely, mewing, semi-domesticated predator who still won’t let me get closer than 6-8 feet away. A cat I only kept as company for Scootch. She camps near the bird feeders most of the day. For company. Or sport.
So… Mama Cat and her 4 little kittens had successfully moved into the garage and I had not yet moved permanently to the Small Calm Farm. I had purchased a good self-feeder and water dispenser that held enough food and water for several days for Mama Cat and her nursing babies and I visited at least twice/week, staying overnight on weekends until I moved out my Milwaukee and into the country house at the end of August.
Mama Cat was annoying, approaching me and meowing for something whenever I visited the farm, darting in front of me and nearly tripping me up when I walked, sometimes hissing at me, sometimes rubbing up against my legs. She was somewhere between independently feral and dependently domesticated. She was also a good, protective mother, nursing the kittens when she felt like it and hissing them away when she wasn’t didn’t. On mornings when I stayed over, she would plant herself at the door meowing incessantly. So I began to give her canned food (a delicacy, to my mind) for her first meal of the day. She inevitably devoured a full can and immediately came to expect it. I didn’t particularly like Mama Cat. But she lived here before me and had 4 little babies.
The kittens were cute, of course. Who doesn’t like kittens? I couldn’t get closer than 10-15 feet from them, but that was alright. They were born under a barn, after all.
Then, early one morning, with Mama Cat at the front door meowing for her canned food breakfast, I hear a second, new, distinctive mewing coming from the garage. It’s yet another cat! Another kitten, a bit bigger and a little older than the other 4, but a kitten and obviously not one of Mama Cat’s own. Mama Cat didn’t like this one at all. I thought it was a male, for some reason (the more squared shape of its head/face and bigger, more upright ears, but what do I know?). “He” regularly tried to sidle up to Mama Cat, at first. She hissed, aggressively meowed, and nastily swatted him away. So he would run away and hide, scootching between the reclaimed barn wood stacked and leaned against the walls of the garage. (Thus the name Scootch. He spent much of his time hiding that narrow, protected space between wood and walls, scootching out his thin hiding space he he heard me.) Days passed, then weeks, and he refused to be run off by Mama Cat. When Mama Cat wasn’t around, he would bound and play and wrestle with her kittens. He would approach within 2-4 feet of me, not quite close enough to pet, but he would purr, loudly enough to hear from several feet away, and sometimes flop down and writhe happily on the concrete. The video below is one of the first times I tried to pet him, and basically captures the moment when (s)he won me over.
I liked Scootch. Immediately. He was different, kinda weird, somebody’s unwanted stray, a little cat that just appeared. He was affectionate, from a distance. I liked his coloring, longer hair, copious ear hair, odd behavior, perseverance and courage in the face of Mama Cat’s aggression toward him. He wasn’t born on the farm. He was a survivor. In contrast to Mama Cat and her kittens whom I had basically inherited with the farm, Scootch had come here, due to abandonment or something, and stayed — by choice. In turn, I chose to keep Scootch, without a doubt. I was unsure of all the other cats. I kept them out of a sense of responsibility, not affection. I don’t particularly like cats. They’re innately selfish creatures. But I liked Scootch.
Because of Scootch, I tried to warm up to the other cats a bit more. But, still… 6 cats? No thanks. No way. I had gone from 0 planned cats to 6 cats before I even settled in to the new place. 6 cats could become 20-25 cats in no time at all. I also planned to raise chickens at some point. Cats and wild birds don’t mix. Cats and chickens probably won’t mix. Cats simply didn’t fit the “ecosystem” I wanted to eventually establish and steward.
Though she was very well fed, Mama Cat was a skilled and determined hunter. One day, I found this dead vole near the garage. Killed, not eaten. (There’s that contradiction of domesticated predator again!) I didn’t know what this little animal was until several people identified it via Facebook. It was somewhere between a large mouse and a small mole. (Thus vole, I guess?:-) Then, a week or so later, Mama Cat came prancing out of the tall, overgrown, thistle-infested part of the pasture with a bright yellow goldfinch in her mouth. Finches thrive on thistle seed, their light little bodies sitting atop the opened head of seed, nipping away. That was it for Mama Cat. I won’t watch that more than once. I took her to the Janesville Humane Society the next day and paid the fee to “surrender” her. (Someone did adopt her. After she had been spayed. I checked back later.)
So now I have Scootch, the apparent stray or otherwise abandoned cutie, and 4 newly weaned, approximately 5-6 month old kittens. Scootch had begun to play and bond with the kittens, even more so without mean Mama Cat around. He had begun to let me pet him and even pick him up and hold him for a while. The 4 kittens remained unapproachable. Meanwhile, I had read that cats can begin breeding as young as 5 months, my youngest daughter (I love you, Ally.) had named the 4 kittens (and approved of my name for Scootch), so I was responsible for caring or finding homes for them all. I found a very nice lady, via an “Unwanted Farm Animals” group on the dreaded Facebook, who was happy to take 2-4 kittens in, care for them, tame them, and find new homes for them.
Scootch was the keeper. No doubt. But I didn’t want him to be alone, so I decided to keep one of the kittens so Scootch had some feline company. Since the kittens were basically feral, I had to trap them in a live (humane) trap and a cat carrier, inducing their entry into the devices with fresh canned cat food. I successfully captured 3 of the 4 kittens and kept the 4th (Nico, pretty black and white, short hair) as a companion for Scootch.
With the cat population now narrowed down to a more acceptable number, I was finally able to capture Nico in the cat carrier and take them both to be “fixed.” After that process, I learned there were both female. After coming back from the vet. Scootch and Nico were nearly inseparable. I say nearly because Nico followed Scootch everywhere, but Scootch would often be impatient with Nico rubbing up against constantly, got closer and closer to me when I was working outside daily, and had begun to follow me into the house regularly. Nico would never follow Scootch into the house, even when I left the door open encouraging her to do so. She would invariably stop at the door, even after I had started to leave the sun porch door for both of them to come in.
Scootch wanted to come into the house every time I came in. Scootch was ready to be a house cat. Nico wasn’t.
I have this issue with the house/front yard portion and the larger majority of the small calm farm where I spend most my time (working or just enjoying the space). There’s a nice, solid 12 foot retaining wall between the house and the garage/property, but I must walk 40+ feet east to the end of the retaining wall and down the gravel lane, go straight out the same sun porch door and climb 12 feet down a home-built ladder to the garage pad, or go a few feet out the west door on the other side of the sun porch and down a 35-40 degree slope (my preferred path). That slope, as a friend who recently visited reminded me, will be teacherous when it’s snowy or, worse, icy.
So, I dug and built these quasi steps, using blocks from a raised flower bed / planting area I don’t particularly want.
Next year, I plan to build a simple 10-12′ x 16-20′ deck (from lots of 4×4″ and 2×12″ reclaimed barn lumber) on this side of the sun porch. For now, I have these steps.
So far, walking down on frozen snow, I haven’t broke any bones.
Pictures were taken 2 days before snow and sub-freezing temps came and stayed for several days. I didn’t have a chance to flatten out the “step” landings and cover them with gravel. So this must do until the next warm time when the ground thaws.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
But try to do it myself, anyway.
On the cheap.
That’s the theme here on the Small Calm Farm.
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