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Geese and Chickens

Chix n geeseWe had agreed to look after K’s flock of free-range Bantam chickens. On the face of it, this seemed to be a fairly simple task. All we had to do was feed the 20-or so hens and roosters cracked corn ever so often, and keep a wary eye out during the day for the many hawks that lived around the property. K’s wife had used a slingshot to pop away at hawks that dared to land on trees around the yard, and the presence of K’s old red-tick hound also helped to discourage these efficient predators from swooping down to snatch up the unwary chick.

Well, we didn’t have a sling-shot and K’s hound had gone off to live at the farm in Ocala. We had Echo, Anni’s black lab, to defend the flock. Turned out Echo was basically an indoor dog, more given to relaxing on the cool cement floor of the porch or hanging out in front of the fireplace than in chasing hawks or, luckily for us, chickens. Also, we went off to town each work day, which pretty much left the flock to their own devices.

For the first couple of months, all appeared well. We’d be sitting out on the screened porch, enjoying an early morning coffee, quietly watching as the flock of hens, roosters and chicks would move through the tall lawn grass, muttering chicken nonsense to each other as they rapidly snapped up insects perched on the tall grass-blades. The flock would form a kind of skirmish line, beaks darting left and right as they made their way steadily down the lawn toward the lake. Only when they reached the old concrete boat ramp and the headland beyond it that anchored the dock would they turn around and go their separate ways, dispersing toward the tree line, the large bamboo stand and the wall of greenery at the outer edges of the lawn. Here they spent the day, safe from the marauding hawks, protected by  the dense canopy of greenery offered by the massive magnolia tree, the water oaks, hickory trees, pine trees and the odd palm tree, all festooned with old-growth Spanish moss that waved like giant flags from limbs and boughs as the morning easterly breeze came on, building force as it crossed the width of the lake, dispersing the mosquitoes, flies, gnats and who-knows-what that had settled in the lawn overnight.

As the winter dusk drew in, the chickens would find a nest out in the barn to stay warm. Hens would cluck encouragement to their tiny chicks as they’d usher them up the trees whose branches grew near the chimney.

At some point we noticed a couple of the hens were missing. We counted beaks and, sure enough, we were shy two adult hens. When we shared this disturbing news with friends who lived on a farm near Ocala, they recommended that we get a pair of geese.

“Wonderful property guards, geese,” we were told. “They’ll go after anything, they’re fearless and they hang close together and mate for life, so you wanna get at least one male and one female. Raise them by hand when they’re goslings, they’ll imprint on you and make you part of their set. But- they live a long time, like 30 years, so it’s a commitment. And, if you ever need to find a second home for them we’ll take them in, they’ll do fine with our geese.”

Sounded good to us, so we went off to yet another farm to get two baby geese. That began our education in goose-keeping, the first lesson being, geese aren’t easy to “sex”, or determine what gender they are, until they’re pretty much grown. Hmmm. We took the advice of our goose-provider, who found us two lovely tiny, snow-white Embden geese. The goose-woman was “90 percent sure” that one was a male and the other a female, but truly only time would tell.

Of course we named them Hansel and Gretel, and bundled them off to the cabin in a cardboard box.

BabyGeese1

Off we hied to the library, checking out any book we could find about raising domestic geese. Thankfully, there were tomes available, and we dug into the research, reading out loud to each other interesting bits as we sat on the couch before the fireplace, sharing foot space with Cami-the-Siamese and Echo-the-black-Lab, who insisted on taking up the best spot where the heatilator blew warm air.

Between the books and observation, we became more knowledgeable, and more enamored of our two lovely geese. It didn’t take long for the differences between the two youngsters to become apparent. One was growing up to be a bit larger than the other, with a dark orange beak. The smaller bird had a pink beak and seemed to be far more mellow, perfectly content to sit on a lap.YoungGeeseSwim2In about 3 months, the geese grew from tiny goslings held in the palm of our hand to the size of large cats, albeit with large wings. We were entranced by their soft mutterings, the way they enjoyed cracked corn with gusto, and their signature flat-footed stomping gait as they would race toward us when we stepped from the house to greet them or bring them a tasty bit of lettuce, a favorite treat.

Before long, we determined that the larger bird was indeed a gander, and the smaller bird a goose. Now we knew which was Hansel, and which was Gretel. A small triumph, and likely more important to us than them.

YoungGeesePool1Concerned that the geese might make their way into the lake, where large gators roamed at will, we set up a kiddie swimming pool, much to the birds’ delight. We’d spy out the windows and laugh at their antics as they frolicked in the pool, splashing in with abandon, frantically swimming about squawking and flapping their wings vigorously, causing small molted feathers to fly every which-way. With such wild activity, they soon learned to take turns, sliding in over the pool edge on their breasts, flapping and splashing about, then clambering out awkwardly, sometimes landing beak-first.

After a few such rounds, they’d stand off a few feet away, spread their ever-growing wing-spans, and flap vigorously three or four times, their heads stretching straight up as first one then the other would let out a loud “Arrrrk!”, which ended on a high note. It looked to us like they were having the time of their lives playing in that pool.

In the depth of that first winter, the pool froze over. We hadn’t really thought about the consequences, assuming the geese would stay out of the pool until things warmed up. However, after an overnight hard freeze, I happened to look out the window and there was Hansel, stomping toward the pool with his usual brisk, flat-footed gait. As I watched, he approached the pool, turned his head so that he could eyeball the surface, then carefully placing one broad webbed foot on the edge of the plastic and spreading his wings to get a bit of lift, he launched himself off the pool edge, landed breast-first on that slippery ice, scooted across the surface, and slid ass-over-teakettle right out and over the other side, landing in an ungainly heap on the frosty dirt.

My hoots of laughter brought Anni to the window lickety-split. While I was choking with laughter as I described to Anni what I’d witnessed, Hansel was prancing around the pool, his wings fully extended, head on high, and squawking like a banshee. Gretel had witnessed the whole thing and kept approaching him with her head level and extended toward him, cooing reassuringly, but he would have none of it! “Skuaaaaawk! Ark! Agggggh!” and other crazed vocalizations accompanied him as he stomped off a few feet, flapped his wings vigorously, and finally tucked them in, wiggling his goose-butt in a most emphatic manner.

“They’ve outgrown that baby pool,” Anni observed dryly. “We’ll make them a better goose pond in the Spring. And the new one sure won’t freeze over!”

Puzzled, I asked what she meant and Anni went on to describe a design she’d obviously been toying with, one that would combine a bit of digging, some cement, and the clever use of the constant flow of 72-degree water from the aquifer that provided an unlimited supply of fresh water to the house.

Fast-forward to the Spring and the unveiling of the new goose pond. A couple of neighbors and friends gathered round, beer cans in hand, as Anni carefully swiveled the PVC pipe that routed the flow of the spring and water cascaded down into the cement pond. The geese were standing by, and soon approached the scene of wildly splashing water as the pond slowly filled.

GoosePond

The crowd-pleasing moment arrived, as the geese unhesitatingly jumped right into the pond and began excitedly swimming around in circles, flapping their wings, dipping their heads, and shaking their goose-butts with abandon. It was a moment to remember, marked by triumphant geese honking and the hoots of the delighted humans.

Video snippet: Anni with our geese in the pond

Video snippet: Geese greet Anni

BabyChixGooseKissLynnGretelChat

GeesePoseLynnGretelLynnGeeseTalkGeeseFlyBest

A Shot in the Dark

Another nighttime chicken emergency: once again, loud squawking outside the front door had us out in the dark, in the summertime, in our underwear. Flashing our big spotlights into the trees near the house, we spotted a large Barred owl as it took off from a tree limb and flew out of the light. A Bantam rooster soon tumbled from the limb, sprawled on the ground near our feet and started running in tight circles. Its head was strangely cocked over its back and flapped in an alarmingly non-natural way.

“I think it’s neck is broken,” Anni breathed. I stood there and tried to say something or react in some useful way, but I couldn’t think of what to do. I’d never seen the proverbial “chicken running around with its head cut off” and I must admit, it was a horrific sight.

We finally got organized and decided we needed to put the poor rooster out of its misery. Anni suggested that we whack it with a shovel and she headed over to the barn. I called out for her to bring the hoe instead.

So then we had to decide who was gonna do the deed. We each had perfectly good reasons why the other needed to be the executioner. Meanwhile, the rooster was still scrambling around, even as its vocalizations were getting more faint.

We had to act fast and quit talking about it, the poor rooster was suffering. I said I’d do it but only if I used a pistol. So Anni went in and got the old .22 revolver I’d been given by a family member. The thing was horribly inaccurate and as I popped away at the rooster, shot after shot went astray. Seriously, you could stand four feet away from a paper plate, aim and miss the thing.

The more I missed, the more I got pissed. Anni wasn’t helping with her dry observations about the usefulness of my Army weapons training and my fancy shooting badges. The situation was getting grim. Luckily, the rooster was getting weaker and moving slow enough that I could get closer and place a shot point-blank.

It fell to Anni to dispose of the rooster as she saw fit, I was done for the night. I took my shaky self into the house and went to bed, after making a mental note to clean that crappy pistol the next day. Or maybe throw it away.

We kept several weapons on hand. Target practice was a good idea and fun too.

We kept several weapons on hand. Target practice was a good idea and fun too.

The whole issue of our “failure” to protect the domestic fowl on the property was coming to a head, but we honestly didn’t have a ready answer for it. My frustration level grew each time we experienced an incident but, beyond rounding up all the flock and giving them away, we were caught up in a paradigm. And it didn’t help that K would call us several times during the year to inquire about how his wife’s chickens were faring! We felt like we had to hang in there, to do our best and after that, well, it was up to the lake gods.

Martha and the Vandals

The loss of a few Bantam chickens made us think of getting some bigger chickens. Our reasoning was two-fold: they’d be trained to come into the chicken pen at night for protection and, being much larger than the Bantams, would less likely fall prey to hawks or owls. We bought four Rhode Island Red hens and named them Martha and the Vandals. Not really sure why, it just stuck.AnniChixGretelThe four big hens fit right into the flock, and were soon grazing the lawn and hanging out under the trees during the day. At night, we’d shoo them into their enclosure and let them out the next morning. Often they’d lay large eggs with bright orange yolks. The eggs were rich and we found them to be very strong tasting but golly they made huge omelets and with enough onions and tomatoes and the like, they weren’t bad.

For months all was well with the flock until we came up short one hen. We kept our eyes peeled but she went missing for several days. We’d just about given up hope for her when, one fateful day, we were out in the back yard grilling burgers with a handful of visiting friends. All of a sudden we heard loud squawking and thrashing noises beyond the trees at the edge of the lawn. As we headed over to the tree line, a big red hen came racing out onto the lawn, flapping her wings and screaming crazily, scattering tiny feathers as she ran around in circles and darted about the lawn.

We quickly grabbed a long-handled fish net that was leaning against a tree down near the lake and with the help of a few people, we chased the panicked hen until we netted her. Feathers had been obviously ripped painfully out of her head, her tail, a wing and a section of her body. The poor thing was bleeding where the feathers had been snatched out and was clearly in shock and pain.

We were all in shock too, and as we hovered over the mangled hen, we discussed what could have done this to her. A dog? Nope-  we would have known if there were strange dogs in the neighborhood, and all the known neighbor dogs left the chickens and geese alone. Maybe a gator? Nope- she came out of the woods, not the lake, and gators didn’t hang out in the woods. Then, maybe, a raccoon? Yeah, maybe but boy, that would need to be one big, mean ‘coon to do this kind of damage.

The hen eventually calmed down a bit and we determined that there wasn’t too much we could do to help her. She’d lost a lot of feathers but otherwise seemed able to walk and dart about, her eyes and legs were undamaged, so we put her up in the pen to keep an eye on her progress.

After a couple of days, she seemed normal and it appeared some feathers were growing back, so we let her out of her jail so that she could eat bugs and scratch for pebbles and hang with the flock.

Hansel and the Raccoon

Lynn Defends

Hansel could be a tyrant!

One evening at dusk, we were unloading the groceries from the car out front when we heard Hansel squawking  and raising hell down near the lake. We shot through the house to the back porch, grabbing spotlights and sticks as we went.

Anni turned on the big outside lawn light and the porch screen door slammed shut with a bang as we headed toward the edge of the pool of light. Sweeping our spotlights down toward the lake, we spotted Hansel, apparently on top of some animal.

“My god I think Hansel’s beating up on a ‘coon!” Anni called out. I couldn’t quite make out what her spotlight was illuminating because my light was on Gretel a few feet from the fracas as she stood off, hissing furiously, her neck fully extended horizontally and her tongue sticking out with the force of her anger.

Anni told me to come up to her but no further. I was arguing about how we needed to go to the rescue when she said “No, wait, I think Hansel’s got that ‘coon licked!”

What a scene! Hansel was balanced on the back of a large raccoon with one wing extended and touching the ground to steady himself while furiously beating the ‘coon with his other wing. Hansel had crooked his wing so that the bony “elbow”  was exposed, and the sound of the rapid blows he rained about the ‘coon’s head carried across the lawn to where we stood rooted to the spot, amazed.

“Go!” “Yay- get ’em, Hansel!”, we shouted encouragement as Gretel crept closer, hissing and honking and flapping her wings threateningly.

Suddenly, the ‘coon managed to shrug Hansel off its back and in the blink of an eye darted across the lawn and into the darkness under the tree line.

We decided to stay where we were because it was clear Hansel was still in fighting mode, and even Gretel’s cooing did nothing to calm him down. He strutted around, flapping his wings, stretching his neck on high and honking mightily.

“That’s his Tarzan call,” Anni said and we laughed to break the tension. What an intense scene to witness! We were very proud of Hansel and the way he protected his goose, and we thought Gretel did a fine job supporting him. At least she, and we, had the good sense to let him finish what he’d started. I don’t doubt we would have jumped in if needed, but we knew enough about the strength of wild animals to know that someone would likely have come away injured, so we were glad that Hansel had whipped that ‘coon’s butt.

GeeseFlyBest

Landing

Guard Snake

We had this sort of love-hate thing going with the snakes on the property. Actually, it was more like those we tolerated (non-venomous) and those we steered well clear of (rattlesnakes, coral snakes, moccasins for the most part.) However, we did end up encouraging a truly large, fat, 3-foot long rat snake to live between the walls of the house and up in the “attic” space above the drop ceilings in the two bedrooms and bath that were added onto the cabin.

The reason we tolerated this snake was rats and mice. A few months after moving in we finally got around to checking out that space when we were running some electrical wire to upgrade the system. Lo and behold, there were huge rat traps and mice traps and enough droppings to make clear that the attic was inhabited by rodents, or had been not too long ago.

About the same time of this discovery, Anni spotted a large, fat rat snake slither into a 4-inch hole in the wall of the 4th bedroom, which we used as an art studio and home office.

“Well, at least we know now what that hole was there for,” Anni said, scratching her chin as we stood in the office studying the hole.

We figured that if we nailed a square of hardware cloth over the hole, that might keep the snake up in the attic and out of the house. It was a quick project, but we didn’t kid ourselves that the snake would probably come and go as it pleased. We were after all living in a log cabin built in the 1940s and it surely had all manner of gaps and holes that the snake might discover. But we decided that was OK because now we knew that snake, and all we had to do was not panic if we saw it, give it plenty of space and keep mum about it when we had guests.

We discussed whether Echo the lab or Cami the cat would mess with the snake but we decided it was too big for either of them to take on, and so we left it at that.

Fast-forward to a cold, pitch dark night when Anni was staying at the cabin alone and got in very late from working in Ocala. You have to imagine a cabin with the interior temps the same as the outside (in the 50s), no heat, no fire in the fireplace. The dog and cat had long since gone to sleep in the big fluffy dog bed at the foot of Anni’s waterbed.

Exhausted from a long day, Anni brushed her teeth, put on her PJs and crawled into her nice warm, heated waterbed to settle in for the night. That’s when she felt something at her feet move. Telling the story later, she had us all in stitches as she described lying still and thinking about what that might be- couldn’t be Echo or Cami, they were on their bed. Couldn’t be her date, she’d come home alone. (OK that’s a joke.)

She rolled over gently and turned on her bedside lamp. Under the covers at the foot of her bed was a lengthy, fat shape and it was slowly writhing – just like a snake. Just like a big, fat rat snake.

Pandemonium ensued, as Anni leapt from the bed, the waterbed bladder undulating crazily, propelling the snake out from under the covers and onto the floor, and causing Cami to take off like a scalded cat. Echo barked like crazy and chased the snake around the base of the bed while Anni snatched at Echo’s dog collar, trying to pull her away before Echo got bit in the nose.

The snake found refuge between the back of the bed frame and the wall, with Echo on one side peering into the opening and barking and Anni on the other side with a flashlight in her hand, pondering her next move.

As she tells it, Anni grabbed Echo, drug her into the great room, closed the bedroom door, and saw the snake crawl quickly through the other bedroom doorway to the short hallway beyond. Anni followed and peeked around the doorway, only to see the snake disappear into the office at the end of the hallway.

Anni quickly closed the office door behind the snake then raced back through her bedroom, into the great room, over to the other office door, closed that one and Voila! The snake was at least confined to the office– where it stayed until the next day, when Anni crept in, removed the hardware cloth from over the hole in the wall, and crept back out again. She decided she didn’t need to go looking for the snake in the jumble of items in the office closet, surely the reptile was curled up there and would go back to its old hole and home to its attic.

Anni said she never did spot that snake again, and figured it was so traumatized by the event that it either went away or made up its mind to live happily ever after in the attic.

Oh, and we never did have any real problems with rats. Ever.