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Emerging Rocks

Periodically, rocks buried in the soil at our farm will come to the surface.  This is usually a very slow process aided by weather conditions.  It can take years, decades, or in the case of huge boulders, centuries for the rocks to be pushed out of the dirt.  After many years of mowing the fields and orchards, I have memorized the locations of all the rocks that jut from the surface enough to catch the mower blades.  Or, at least I thought I had.

In recent years new rocks have lifted their heads within just a few winters.  The piece of granite above is an example.  It measures about 3.5 ft x 2 ft and for most of my lifetime at the farm has been nearly submerged.  The stone is a piece from the cellar of a barn that stood on our property back in the 1800s.  Until recently I have been able to mow right over this chunk of granite.  Starting around four years ago, things changed.  I hit the thing with my mower blade.

Trying to mow a rock with a rotary mowing machine is not recommended.  I cringe whenever I hear that telltale ringing crunch of metal on stone.  Luckily, it is a rare occurrence since removing the mower blades for sharpening is a tedious, time-consuming task.  Yet, in the past few years I have caught several previously unknown rocks that have suddenly surfaced.  What is so quickly moving these buried chunks of mountaintop or ledge?  Most likely the power of ice.

Our weather here in central Maine has changed since I was young.  Even in the last ten years there have been noticeable shifts in patterns, something I’ve discussed in prior posts.  The current pattern involves much more rain in winter.  Storms that once would have been pounding Nor-easter blizzards now deluge us in rain.  The ground does not freeze as deeply as it once did so the water soaks in.  Since it is still Maine in winter, a heavy rainstorm in December is often followed by several days of below-zero F temperatures.  All that moisture runs down around and under the rocks in the ground and then freezes.

Freezing water expands with an irresistible power.  The ice crystals push the rocks higher and higher until they break the surface.  I believe the new warmth and excess rain are why rocks are appearing with such annoying regularity when I’m mowing.  And also why older rocks are rapidly working their way more completely from the earth.  As they pop to the surface, most of these stones can be loosened with the tractor bucket and moved out of the way.  The great chunk of granite above will require some effort with chains, pry bars and the tractor to get it out of the middle of a hayfield.  I’ll put that job on my To Do list.

Hazelnuts In Bloom

The three young hazelnut trees I’ve planted in the orchard all survived the winter and are in bloom.  Each plant has male and female flowers.  The males are long catkins filled with pollen.  The females are tiny, round, bud-like forms with projecting bright red styles.  Hazelnuts are wind pollinators, which explains why such copious amounts of pollen are produced.  The plants must cross-pollinate to produce nuts, they are not self-pollinating.  The woods are full of wild hazelnuts in bloom; some of their pollen could also easily reach my little trees.

The largest hazelnut bush grows in leaps and bounds every year.  This spring I trimmed out some of the oldest, least productive limbs.  I gave the trimming to my rabbits.  Bunnies love hazelnut wood!  This largest plant has produced a crop of nuts for the past 3 years or so.  This year it is covered in blooms, so if all goes well I will have hazelnuts to eat in September.

The other two trees are smaller.  One, the same age as the the largest bush, is only starting to thrive after its transplant a few years ago.  The other hazelnut survived the second winter.  The white bags on this tree are an experiment I conducted over the winter.  Last year, the poor sapling was nibbled by deer.  The original leader was nipped off and a side branch has become the new leader.  I had heard of placing human hair in cloth bags and tying them to the branches to deter deer.  When my husband got a haircut last fall, I collected the hair and tucked it in some small muslin bags I had on hand.  To my surprise, the tree was not touched by the deer last winter, although they had plenty of opportunity.  So perhaps this strategy actually works!  I’m glad, since this was an expensive little hazelnut, purchased from Stark Bros. nursery.  The other two were quite inexpensive and came from The Arbor Day Foundation.  I bought the Stark tree because it is supposed to produce large nuts.  Hazelnuts are my favorite for eating, so I’m rooting for these trees to do well.

 

Rough Life For A Chicken

Chicken society can be brutal.  Ameraucana chickens are known to be less aggressive and more tolerant of other birds than many breeds.  That does not preclude them from becoming vicious at times.

This hen is part of the flock, hatched at the same time as the rest, raised as a sister.  Yet, one morning in the middle of the winter when I did chores, I found this hen with her head all bloody.  I thought the weasel who attacked my flock in December had a relative trying to prey on my birds.  I locked them up tight at night for awhile.  The hen began to heal.

Then one morning, again, her head was all bloody.  She was also acting afraid of the primary rooster and trying to stay away from him.  I closed her away in her own smaller pen and her head healed.  Just about the time she was starting to look good again, she escaped from her pen and went in with the others.  Everything seemed fine that day.  She went to roost with the rest of the flock.  The next morning, there she was again, her head pecked into a bloody mess.

This time I ensured her enclosure was completely escape proof.  I gave her a nest to use and after a few days she began laying.  She was separated from the other birds by wire so they could still see each other and interact.  When her head was well healed I tried once again to introduce her to the flock.  Within minutes, as I watched, the rooster went after her, attacking her head.  Quickly, I scooped her up.

I don’t know why the rooster took such a strong dislike to this hen.  She looks like everyone else.  She lays an egg a day.  She is docile and submits to the rooster.  Perhaps she said something to insult his male pride and he won’t forgive.  Who knows?  Chickens are ruthless.

So, to keep her company and fertilize her eggs, I placed the auxiliary rooster in her pen.  He is the back-up in case the main rooster dies.  The birds hit it off immediately.  He is a perfect mate, considerate and gentle, always finding little tidbits to entice her affection.  She cuddles up close to him at night on the roost.  They are so happy together.

Every day the main flock goes out to free-range in the afternoon and returns to the roost about an hour before sunset.  When the coast is clear, I lock the main flock up and let the hen and auxiliary rooster out to roam.  Their happiness is complete.  I’m hoping the poor hen will grow feathers on her head again.  With all the trauma the skin has endured, she may remain a bald bird.

 

Maple Syrup Season

Finally, maple season has started here at the farm.  Last week we tapped the maples and have 25 buckets collecting sap.  So far we got enough sap to make about 1.5 gallons of syrup.  The first batch is in the house ready to finish.

We do the majority of boiling outside, down in the woods where the sap is collected.  The evaporating pan sits on a wood fired stove.  This way most of the 39 gallons of water that must be boiled off to get one gallon of syrup will go into the atmosphere and not into our house.  When the syrup is reduced to about 4 gallons we carry it to the house and reduce it to syrup on the stove where the temperature can be better controlled.

I drill each tap hole with my antique hand drill, making a 7/16″ hole for the spile.  The sap runs out the spile and into the bucket.  On a good run day when the temperature is in the 40sF and it’s not too windy, a tree will nearly fill a 2 gallon bucket.  Older trees that are over two feet in diameter can have more than one tap in them.

When the sap is running well, the sound of drops plinking into buckets fills the maple sugar bush.  This time of running sap and early spring work passes quickly.  In a blink the snow will be melted away and the temperatures stay above freezing at night.  The trees start to open their leaf buds and sap season is over.

Winter Chicks

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The chicks I was forced to hatch in January due to the loss of my best rooster are a month old now.  There are nineteen babies.  One died at day three, a common time for newly hatched chicks to perish if they have an internal birth defect.  The rest of the flock seem to be doing well.

The first month of their lives was spent in cardboard boxes in our house.  Their lives began in a bathroom in two joined boxes with a 60W light bulb for warmth.  At two weeks they outgrew that space.  I moved them to two larger conjoined boxes in our unheated woodshed.  With foam board insulation around the boxes and a 100W bulb they kept warm.  When the temperatures dipped below 30F in the woodshed I ran an electric space heater.  The babies thrived and grew quickly.b

Two days ago we moved them outside to an insulated hen house.  I’ve sealed all the windows and doors with plastic sheeting, used plywood to create a space with a ceiling about three feet high, and installed a 250W heat lamp.  At night I close off the heated area with plastic burlap to a space about 3 ft x 5 ft under the lamp.  Their water and food are inside with them.  So far they have stayed warm and their water hasn’t iced up.  We are lucky to be in a thaw period with temperatures in the 40sF during the day and no colder than 15F at night.a

The little guys are growing fast, making more insulating feathers by the minute.  They love the freedom of forty square feet of floor during the day.  I can hear them chirping away as they romp and flutter about in the hen house.

Chickens love apples and these babies are no exception.  They will peck a whole apple away in a day.  They also quickly learned to drink from a pan.  I teach all my baby chicks to drink from a pan by placing the beginner waterer they first learned to use inside the pan.  In no time everyone drinks from the new water source.  They eat chick mash like little feathered piggies.

These winter necessity chicks were a real burden to raise in the house, but I think the effort will be worthwhile.  At least four of the babies appear to be little roosters that look very much like the father we lost to a weasel back in December.  They are silver splash in color with lots of white on their breasts and body feathers.  I am hoping to produce some laced chicks from the splash color.  Although splash and laced are not accepted purebred Ameraucana chicken colors, I find the laced coloration very beautiful.  Each white feather has a band of black around the outside edge.d

So, if I’m lucky, breeding the splash color may result in laced babies one day.  Hopefully on a nice warm spring day and not in the depths of winter!

January Chicks

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The first Ameraucana chicks of 2017 finished hatching overnight.  Currently there are twenty babies, an excellent hatch rate any time.  The hatch is particularly impressive for eggs that were collected when the temperatures were at or below 0 degrees F and the majority of eggs set had been stored in the refrigerator for several days.  When the best breeding rooster for the next generation is killed by a weasel, any possibly viable eggs that could contain his DNA should be set.  Of the 42 eggs I placed in the incubator, 37 grew embryos.  Of those, 22 pipped and 20 hatched.  Had I owned a better incubator, I believe the hatch rate would have been higher.c3

In the photo above, the last two chicks to hatch are in the lower area.  They appear less fluffy than the rest because their down has still not shed all the albumen residue that keeps them wet and lubricated so they can escape from the egg shell.  In a few hours they will be as fluffed as the others.

I’m saving my pennies to purchase a Brinsea incubator to replace the styrofoam Hova-bator currently in use.  Had I known that such an early hatch was necessary, I would have begun saving sooner.  The usual hatching season begins in March for me.  By then all the hens are laying well, the days are long enough to assure good fertility and when the babies hatch, the weather is warm enough to keep the chicks in the barn.

Now I am faced with twenty chicks that must live in the house until they are old enough to go outdoors.  They will need to stay in with us for at least three weeks!  Anyone who has raised chicks knows they can get smelly.  They usually go in the barn after one week.  I will need to provide a large brooding area and consistent attention to bedding to keep the odor of chicken at an acceptable level.  The cats are another concern.  One of our cats, Chloe, killed some newly hatched chicks the first year she lived with us.  Since then she has mellowed, but we now have two one-year-old males who consider themselves mighty hunters.  The baby chicks will need to be enclosed in a cat-proof system.

Still, my hopes are high for a good outcome with these babies.  I’m certain many of them were fathered by my best rooster since he was the dominant male in the chicken house.  So far they are a beautiful hatch of silver Ameraucanas.  I look forward to seeing their adult plumage and the color of the eggs they produce.c2

 

Requiem for a Rooster

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The last few days have been an adventure for the chickens and me.  On Dec 30, I went into the chicken barn to find two dead fowl.  One was a lovely black hen and the other was my best silver splash rooster.  It was easy to see what happened from the tiny neck wounds.  We had a weasel.  Outside in the fresh snow around the barn (we had received about 16″ overnight,) were the tracks of the tiny predator.  It hopped across the top of the deep snow right in the barn door and then squeezed through the chicken wire into the pen.  The weasel must have grabbed the hen and the rooster went to defend her.  This is the first time a weasel has ever bothered my birds.

Weasels are tenacious little killers.  They latch onto the throat with a massive grip that is not dislodged by the frantic thrashing of the victim.  The strangle hold subdues even a large, strong bird like a goose in a couple minutes or less.  Often a weasel will kill more than one animal, almost as though it were sport.  Because the prey was too large to pull back through the wire, my beautiful chickens were left dead on the floor.  So sad for me.

I only had thirteen hens, my breeders overwintering to produce spring chicks, and two roosters.  The lost rooster was gorgeous.  I found the two pictures of him that I’ve posted.  One was taken when he was a very young bird and the other when he matured.  In both photos he is in the back so it is hard to see just how attractive a rooster he was.a2

Unlike a regular silver color rooster, this one was splashed with lots of white.  He had luxuriant muffs and beard, the feathering around his head.  He was also the dominant rooster, yet a gentle soul peacefully coexisting with the other males.  The ladies all loved him.  And so did I.  Now I have to find a way to dispose of his body in two feet of snow and with the ground frozen.  So aggravating.  And devastating since I planned to use him as my main breeding rooster.

I removed the bodies of the chickens I’d raised from eggs and placed them on the floor outside the pen.  If something wasn’t done to stop the slaughter, I could lose all my flock to the villain.  I started worrying about how to protect the birds.  A couple hours later alarm calls began sounding from the barn.  Hurrying down the snowy path, I crept into the barn and there was the weasel.  It had returned to feed on my dead chickens.  When it saw me, the weasel scattered.  In a cloud of rage, I dug out my only trap, an ancient leg hold variety left over from my brother’s trapping days 40 years ago.  It was designed to hold foxes.  I hoped the powerful jaws would get a chance to dispatch the little chicken murderer with a quick snap to the neck.  I set the trap and laid it between the bodies on the floor.

That night the chickens went voluntarily to their safest roost, an enclosed space I use for segregating birds.  Securing the door with layers of fine mesh chicken wire, I closed my diminished flock in the small space.  A dedicated weasel could dig under the wall and get in with some effort.  I hoped the fresh kill would keep the weasel busy.  The next morning the chickens all wanted out of the confining pen.  The dead birds and trap had not been disturbed.

This continued for two more nights.  The chickens instinctively went where they felt safe at night.  The trap was undisturbed.  Then yesterday morning when I went in the barn door:  victory!  There was a small, white creature with beady black eyes staring back at me.  It tried to run, but couldn’t.  The trap held it by the right front leg, high up at the top of the humerus.  As I approached, the chicken murderer became frantic, struggling to escape.  I grabbed a sturdy club for the final coup.  The weasel froze and watched me.  I got a good look at those big ferret eyes, the tiny little white ears so cute and rounded, the pleading expression, almost as though the animal knew what came next.  I couldn’t do it.  I was too weak to crush the skull of the little white murderer.

So I got a cat carrier and made a loop out of baling twine.  I worked the loop over the weasel’s head to act as a leash.  Weasels are vicious.  Teeth are their weapon and they brandish them, waiting for the right moment to sink them in deep.  I gave the weasel a stick to chew on so I could step on the trap to open the jaws.  It latched onto the stick, but let go in favor of my boot.  After several minutes struggle I pulled my boot out of the weasel grip.  I was left with puncture marks in my nice LL Bean Bob chore packs.  Such power compressed in a small package was amazing.  No wonder birds haven’t got a chance.

Finally, I maneuvered the tiny wild ferret out of the trap and into the cat carrier.  The skin where the trap held the animal was badly abraded, but not an open wound.  The weasel put no weight on the leg and I feared it was broken.  Such a large trap was designed for thicker bones.  I had hoped the critter would have been quickly killed by the trap instead of maimed.

I gazed into the carrier and the weasel looked back.  It was fairly terrified.  It pushed under the newspaper lining and watched me with huge dark eyes.  It also emitted the odor of weasel, not such a fine cocktail of musky scent very reminiscent of its ferret kin.  I decided to bring the weasel in from the cold, give it food and water and see if it started to use the leg.  After a few days, it might actually recover and I could release it far away.  The weasel was settled comfortably in the bathroom and it went to sleep.

Quickly I realized it was illegal to hold onto wildlife.  I called the game warden.  He said he would contact a local wildlife rehabilitator to see if they wanted to take the creature.  Turns out they did want to try and help the weasel.  So I drove 45 minutes to South China to the Wildlife Rescue people.  They assured me this was not the first weasel they’d wrangled.  One of the specialists put on gloves and proceeded to try and extract the weasel from the carrier.  The chicken murderer was not going to come easily, launching itself repeatedly at the man’s hand as he tried to subdue the animal.  Little weasel managed to find a hole in one glove and bit the rehabber’s thumb.  Luckily, wildlife specialists get their rabies vaccinations so he was not in mortal danger.

He got a good grip on the weasel, removed it from the carrier and restrained it to look at the wound.  The skin was not broken.  The upper leg was swollen.  It was impossible to tell if the bone was broken.  I smoothed anti-bacterial salve on the trap burn and the weasel went in a new cage with an old blanket to tunnel in for comfort.  The rehabber said they’d give the weasel a few days to see if it resumed use of the limb.  Because the sturdy little animals are so muscular, lithe and athletic, it is possible this weasel could survive just fine in the wild with only three legs.

I left a donation to help purchase weasel food (frozen mice) and was glad to leave the creature in skilled, if bitten, hands.  Maybe I’ll call later to see how Mr. Weasel is doing.  In the meantime, I salvaged 42 eggs from the refrigerator and set them in the incubator.  It is very early in the year to hatch chicks, but my only hope for preserving the genes of my best rooster.  Hens carry sperm in them for up to 10 days after being fertilized so the eggs I collected after the rooster’s death could still hold his DNA.  My fingers are crossed.  If any babies do hatch, there will be the new problem of how to deal with chicks in the house in the middle of winter.  That is for a later blog.