Domesticated Predators, Part 2: In Affectionate Memory of Scootch

Original home of 4 kittens – a little cave/burrow underneath the concrete barn foundation behind a piece of picket fence.

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

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.

2 of the 4 inherited kittens. Nico is the black and white one sitting and facing the camera.

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.

Scootch
Despite my general dislike of cats, Scootch was a keeper. This is my first attempt to pet “him.”

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.)

Vole

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.

To be continued, sadly…

Functional? We Shall See.

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.

Amateur steps down slope.

So, I dug and built these quasi steps, using blocks from a raised flower bed / planting area I don’t particularly want.

Better than sliding down in winter?

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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Cats Are Domesticated Predators: An Unacceptable Oxymoron

When I took the huge financial, social and psychological plunge to abandon an increasingly random, aggressive and violent city and move to a less stressful, more peaceful existence in the country, I didn’t intend to have cats. I have also enjoyed the presence of wild birds a lot, providing feeders and natural habitat for them whereever I’ve lived in the city for over 25 years. The presence of many different species of birds and their cumulative songs were a major factor in my decision to make the largest property purchase of my life and the most recent, drastic, late-life move I have made in a life-long pattern of what most people say are drastic, re-inventive, “courageous” or downright crazy life changes (one of which, a divorce, was not chosen, but sadly deserved). I looked past the wasted shell of a barn, looked across the bucolic pasture, eyed the distant woods, watched and listened to the ubiquitous birds. The birds sealed the deal to make an offer on what I come to call the small calm farm.

Unbeknownst to me, I had inherited cats. Cats are the planet’s most historically successful and ubiquitous predators. Whatever plan I had for this small, calm, nascent farm did NOT include cats. But, on my first afternoon visit after signing the purchase papers in the morning, what greets me? A mewing, demanding cat at the front door. She wanted something from me, no doubt, but when I approached and tried to pet her, she hissed and ran a few feet away. Not too far away, just out of reach. She was a cat, a selfish cat, demanding sustenance or something other than my not altogether willing show of hesitant affection.

Neither of us made a good first impression on the other. I didn’t want or expect her at all. And she didn’t like me much either, except as a provider of food, acted like the place was her territory, and apparently lived here before me. So I went to town, bought her some cat food, bowls, fed and watered her, and went back home to Milwaukee.

By my third visit to the farm, in mid-late June (weeks before I moved in), what I initially thought was one annoying, nearly feral, demanding cat turned out to be 5 cats. She was the mother of 4 little kittens living, and presumably born, beneath the cracked concrete foundation of the ancient (pre-1900), falling down, and exceedingly unsafe barn. Oh goody. I didn’t want ANY cats. Now I have 5! And 4 of them are cute and vulnerable babies.

Razing the barn was my first order of business. Rebuilding it, as much as I would have liked to restore it to its original, classic form and function, would have been nice from a historical preservation sense, but well beyond my financial means and practical needs or wants. It was difficult to insure the new property because of the barn and attached silo. No insurance company would insure the property, unless and until the structurally unsound barn and dilapidated silo were taken down within 60 days of issuing a surprisingly costly — compared to my previous urban homes — policy. (Home insurance is MUCH costlier in rural areas, by the way, primarily due to the distance from a fire hydrant or station. That’s something I didn’t know or expect before I literally bought the farm.) At any rate, the barn had to come down and come down soon.

I may not have chosen to be the keeper cats, but I’m not so hard-hearted to be responsible for burying 4 little feral kittens alive during the barn’s demolition. So my son and I did what we could to make a safer shelter for them and lure them to it before barn demolition day. Mama cat was a savvy, wild (yet dependent) survivor and often nasty (but nursing) young mother who would’ve run far away from the barn when it came down. But her kittens would’ve probably tried to hide deeper into their den beneath the foundation. Dylan, my deeply compassionate, cat “parent” son of an urban stray, spent half a day building an elaborate, layered, multi-level kitty home with available materials. I put food and water in the garage, and kept the door open enough for cats to come and go. He cared immensely. I cared just enough to lure them away from an ugly living burial. Eventually, Mama cat and kittens relocated their home base to the garage, and the barn came safely down with no loss of kitten life. I visited the farm at least twice a week on my days off from work in Milwaukee, filling the food and water fixtures, savoring the bucolic space, watching and listening to the many peaceful birds and providing sustenance for the unwanted cat family.

Rural people say it’s fine and useful to have outside cats on a farm. They catch mice, rats and keep the farm free of rodents. That’s fine, as far as it goes. I grew up with an annually fluctuating population of wild shed/barn cats and they served their purpose. We fed them cheap dry food, provided water. They avoided direct human contact and presumably patrolled the shed and kept the environment free of bothersome small rodents. But cats, the most widespread, successful predator species on earth, carry the inherent, perpetual instinct to stalk and prey upon small birds. There’s no amount of “training” that takes that impulse away. Given a wild bird’s acute senses, protective instincts, natural quickness, impressive flight and, dare I say, keener minds, the average house/farm cat is rarely successful at catching a wild bird. But… I didn’t want ANY cat to EVER kill ANY bird. Not once. Not on my watch. Not within my sight. Period. Especially if I provide food, housing and sustenance for said cat. I’d rather put up with mice (eating feed or seed, nesting in small engines or eating through wires, doing what mice do) than see 1 bird in the mouth of a cat.

But I digress… I have a soft spot for wild animals of all sorts. Predators? Less so. They’re not welcome on what I envision in this new rural adventure. Coyotes? NO. I’ve heard them at night. Hawks? Well, ok… They’re impressive, work hard for their meals, are amazing to watch when they swoop down and snatch a vole or mouse or whatever it is they see from 100-200 feet away and have the skills to grab and eat. Cats? No ways. Unacceptable. Cats inhabit a space between a dependent, domesticated animal and a wild, instinctive predator. You can’t have it both ways. Not in my little world. Anyone who’s ever had a cat has probably seen it “play with” a mouse or baby bunny, basically torturing the smaller animal to death, without eating it. Then the cat bats and lifts and throws the dead little animal up to continue its game. Game over. Plaything dead. It’s the cruel show of a domesticated predator — an oxymoron for which I have no patience or desire to foster or encourage.

I like mice. They’re so cute, fragile, and preyed upon by nearly every other animal on the planet. Full grown humans (and elephants) fear mice. I’ve never understood that. I’ve had them in the house, several houses. Little bitty mice. Unless they poop in the food cabinets, so what? Feared and loathed by so many people? Why? What harm do mice really do? When I was 11 or 12 years old, still fairly new to driving the tractor on the family farm, I stopped chisel plowing a field, braking the tractor completely until a field mouse 15-20 feet below hopped out of the tractor and plow’s path. After I turned lifted the chisel plow, whipped the tractor 180 degrees around and headed in the opposite direction, I saw my dad’s truck at the end of the field. When I got to the end of the field, I stopped and got down from the tractor. Dad had a worried look on his face and asked “What happened? Why did you stop? What’s wrong?” He thought there might be something wrong the machinery. It never crossed his mind that his son would stop all proceedings to let a MOUSE safely pass in front of the oncoming tractor and chisel plow.. He wasn’t mad when boy me sheepishly admitted that I had stopped the work and big machine to let a… uh… mouse bound its little hop-steps out of the tractor’s path. Nonplussed would be the most accurate word for Dad’s reaction, I suppose. Stunned fits. Perplexed, too. Or, utilizing an acronym of our degenerate days, WTF is spot on. He didn’t process how a farmer’s son would willingly, knowingly and abruptly brake a 200 horsepower tractor while breaking up soil 12 inches deep In an 80 acre field for fall field preparation — halting all operations to let a mouse move out of the way.

But I digress again.

This is leading (maybe?) to a tentative conclusion about my general affection for wild animals, inside vs. outside cats, and one cat in particular.

To be continued…

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Chickens and Winter

Winter came. And stayed. After nearly 2 weeks of mostly sunny and fairly warm temperatures following Thanksgiving, the first snow came and the temperatures dropped below freezing and have stayed there for several days, day and night.

The chickens were very hesitant to step out of the coop onto the snow. Inside the coop, their water was frozen. I tried to entice them with fresh feed and flat bowls of warm water. They went straight to the warm water and all of them seemed to appreciate that more than food. Is this the equivalent of a hot cup of coffee for a chicken on a cold winter morning? Maybe. But I know they don’t like snow. After quaffing the full flat bowl of warm water set on a snowless patch of ground, they all went back into the coop where I had filled their hanging feeder with a fresh, hanging dispenser of unfrozen water and had a solid breakfast from the in-coop feeder. It took the better part of a day before any of the chickens walked on the snow for more than a few steps.

I had leaned a few pieces of metal roofing (reclaimed from the demolished old barn) against the fence for them the day before the snow came. The older, Barred Rocked hens seemed to like that sheltered area, but had to traverse some snow to get to it, so it was a marginal success. I don’t blame them. They have no feathers to insulate their feet, so I suppose it would be a bit like a person walking barefoot in the frozen snow.

The coop itself is secure and as warm as it’s going to be this winter. I don’t have electricity in the coop, don’t want to run long extension cords out to it all winter, and, above all, don’t want to risk the fire hazard of heaters or lamps. I spread a bale of fresh straw over the 4-6 inches of oak leaves to help with warmth, bringing the total thickness of bedding to about 10 inches. I also don’t want to “baby” farm animals and chickens are much more cold hardy than a lot of people (like urban “chicken keepers” and sundry sensitives) give them credit for. I chose heritage breeds (Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Australorps) because their species have dealt with winter weather and made their contributions to farms before electricity was invented or made available in rural areas.

Water is a problem. The waterer (the green and white one hanging in the picture) freezes hard in 5-6 hours. Before the snow and cold hit, the chickens preferred to drink from flat bowls set outside the coop, which also freeze hard during the day, even when I put a ping pong on the bowl. (Ping pong balls are supposed to help water from freezing by adding movement, but that hasn’t worked at all.) So, my morning chores consist of going out with an old plastic gallon milk jug of hot tap water, a fresh hanging waterer and 2 flat rubber dishes. My morning highlight is the chickens clucking behind their coop door in anticipation of their human keeper and they make a bee line to their warm water and whatever else is new on the other side of the door.

One thing I’ve learned so far: Chickens drink a LOT of water, much more than I was led to believe (from “expert” internet blogs and such).

And, yes, they poop a LOT. Anywhere they want. Any time they want. I’ll be cleaning up chicken poop more than I expected. I want to keep their coop bedding somewhat clean without changing it out completely until Spring. As such, I’m using a cat litter scoop/shovel, leaf rake and pitchfork to gather and sift the poopiest parts of the bedding, put the manure in a 5 gallon bucket, and fluff the straw/oak leaf bedding.

Only the 3 young Barred Plymouth Rock hens were old enough to lay eggs before winter hit. I had been collecting 1-2 eggs per day from them before the cold and snow hit. I’ve only collected 2 eggs from the 3 laying hens in 4 days since the snow and cold. The other young pullets (3 Australorps and 3 Rhode Island Reds) aren’t due to hit egg-laying age for another 5-8 weeks.

I don’t blame them. I’m not as productive in winter. I barely want to go out when it’s below freezing. I miss my outside building and fencing projects. I don’t know what to do with myself in winter. It’s boring.

And there’s the cockerel (young rooster). He would follow me around like a puppy dog, even through the snow, as long as I had a feeder or treat in my hand. He’s now named Roger, the Rhode Island Red, entertaining leader of the little brood. I haven’t heard him crow once yet, but maybe crowing doesn’t happen until he’s reached full adulthood. I look forward to his first morning crow.

I haven’t named the pullets or young hens yet. I can’t tell them apart enough to distinguish them with names.

As always, I don’t know what I’m doing.

Every post should begin or end with that statement.

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It’s Chicken Day

Beautiful sunny December 1st.

Chicken Coop and Fenced Area

Since I finished the chicken coop and outside fencing (a.k.a. “run”), I decided to obtain some adult Rhode Island Reds and/or Barred Plymouth Rocks. Both are cold hardy heritage that have been around for 2 centuries.

Chicken Pen
Nesting Boxes with Bedding from Old Feather Pillow

This area already had old, tough metal fencing panels, grape vines and scrubby trees. The area must have been home to some sort of small animal years ago, maybe a pig (?). The trees had grown into and through the fence and would have been very difficult to remove, so I decided to reuse the resources at hand and make this the home for chickens. The trees should protect chickens from the many hawks around here. (I’ve seen as many as 5 hawks at a time scanning the pasture for meals.) Hawks like to swoop down in open spaces.

I have used some of my copious supply of oak leaves as initial coop bedding and feathers from an old pillow the cats ripped up for the nesting boxes. It seems like a chicken should like nestling into a feather bed to lay eggs, right? Sorta of like nestling into Mama.

Walk-in Door and Chicken Door with Ramp

I found a local person on the dreaded CraigsList with a few 14 week old Rhode Island Red pullets and a rooster for sale at a reasonable price ($10 for hens, $5 for rooster). I’m going to get them at 3:00.

Exciting day! My first livestock on the Small Calm Farm!

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Chicken Coop

I don’t know what I’m doing. But I did it all by myself.

Walk-in door and chicken door.

It’s… rustic. Repurposed siding and other materials from barn. Frame, flooring, roof sheathing and shingles built with new material.

Broken window and nesting box.

Used a repurposed barn window, cracked it during installation and broke it while nailing siding. Will repair that with a piece of plexiglass, also from the demolished barn.

I was going to put a hinged door on the outside of the nesting box, but that was a pain and not necessary, so I closed it up with siding and studs.

I wouldn’t want to be graded on this, but it’s solid. Setting trusses by myself, though small, was really difficult. They’re not lined up precisely or perfectly square, but I made 5 trusses for an 8′ x 8′ box frame, so it should be sturdy. Sheathing was hard to put in place, too, and it’s a bit saggy in one spot, but, well…

Did I say I don’t know what I’m doing? I’m an incompetent carpenter.

Inside of coop. 2 x 4 perches. One 2 x 4 is parallel with truss for chickens who want to roost high up.
3 wooden nesting boxes plus milk crate for a 4th option.

I will paint it when it’s warm enough. So it will look decent from a distance.

I think it will be functional. The chickens can’t complain. Can they?

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Sparrows Like Twisted Metal

Not the music, I assume, but who knows. I haven’t listened to metal in decades. It’s not on the play list out here.

This pile of twisted metal fencing is greatly favored by 15-20 sparrows. They congregate there regularly. I imagine you can barely see them in this photo which, I suppose, is the attraction for the birds. They can roost together and be very well protected visually and physically by whatever might want to prey upon them.

I have to cut up and dispose of this mess of wire and metal at some point. I sorta feel bad about doing so since these humble birds like the spot so much. They’re going to miss it when it’s gone

They have plenty of trees around here to go to, but nothing quite like this pile of twisted old fencing. Maybe I’ll plant some shrubs or something (like lilacs) in or near this spot after I haul away the twisted metal.

When In Doubt, Set It On Fire

One of the leftovers from the barn demolition is this big pile of uprooted trees, twisted metal fence, dirt, and ancient manure.

The Pile

I have to cut up the twisted metal into manageable pieces before I can properly dispose of it. One of the uprooted trees had grown around, into and through the solid metal fence. I can’t suss how to separate the tough metal panels from the rock-hard wood and don’t have the right tool to cut the metal.

I have a reciprocating saw (a.k.a. Sawzall) and metal blades. Nope. Didn’t work at all. So I spent a good portion of this morning’s coffee / wake up time browsing the dreaded internet for tools to cut metal. An angle grinder seems to be the consensus choice, but I read or watched so many sources filled with warnings of the danger of such tools and what I watched or read involved cutting clean or straight metal. Nothing I found demonstrated or guided me through the cutting of twisted, thick, tough, rusty metal around which trees had grown. And I didn’t feel like using good late November daylight going to town to shop for tools which may or may not work and with which a novice like me might cut off some fingers or put out an eye or two. Not in the mood for that today.

Twisted mess of wood and metal.

So, what to do? Well… Do what I am capable of doing. Do something I know how to do. Do something I’m good at. Set in on fire!

Step one: Burn it up

I’ll cut up the metal another day.

When in doubt, set it on fire. This may be my new motto.

Chicken Coop Progress

I had originally planned to use reclaimed barn wood to build the chicken coop, but I used most of the old, true 2″ x 4″ wood on converting the pergola into a barn swallow house and covered shelter and most of the other wood from the demolished old barn is much bigger than I need for an 8’x8’x6′ high coop.

The cost of wood is much higher than a couple years ago! A basic 8 foot 2×4 stud is $4.98 each! Add the 3/4″ plywood for the floor, 1/2″ sheathing for gabled roof, nails, screws, etc. and I’ve spent almost $500 so far. Oh well… The coop will look nicer and should be a comfy home for chickens.

I was able to use reclaimed barn siding for at least some of the coop. It will better when it’s painted.

Dylan is going to come help me attach the trusses and start on the roof today. That’s a difficult one man job.

Clearing

The thunderstorm came hours later than predicted, so I was able to wield the chain saw (one of my favorite tools!) and fell the unwanted trees that poke out into the pasture today.

Pasture will continue past these felled trees and 7 foot tall weeds come Spring.
The black walnut tree remains.

The pasture turns to the right past this tree-weed space. Those 7 foot tall weeds with thick stalks and burrs have to go. Will knock them down before winter and cut the trees into firewood by spring.

Imagine a straighter line from grass on the east back through to the green past the trees.

Of 12.77 acres, about 6.5 is already woods. This little bit of woods doesn’t fit.