Requiem for a Hawthorn Tree

Our big side-yard hawthorn (Crataegus Oxycantha), British expat and lovable invasive species, has finally succumbed. She had been visibly failing since October and probably long before. Her capitulation was precipitated by the heavy snow load Mother Nature delivered yesterday on the first day of winter.

Always a pleasant neighbour, Ms. Hawthorn graced our side yard for many years. She made herself useful, as both trees and the British tend to do. 

Each May saw her don her trademark white-tinged-with-pink floral dress for ten days or so, before flinging it off all at once as the weather warmed. We always enjoyed the resulting petal-storm, so much gentler than yesterday’s frigid blast. 

She was a steadfast summer helpmeet too, her hundreds of thousands of tiny shiny serrated leaves collaborating to shield us from the hot sun, as she dabbled her toes in the cool creek, rejuvinating her green frock. In this shady role Ms. Hawthorn silently chaperoned dear C’s graduation celebration, dear K’s wedding shower, and many teen parties and get-togethers over the years. 

Every September she produced bountiful shiny clusters of the reddest of red berries, edible, but not very palatable, admired by passers by and relied upon by our local wild bird population.

Her roots must have been imperceptibly loosening as the fall rains softened the bank she stood on because she began to tip over into the yard, managing a full forty five degrees from her traditional upright stance before we noticed that she was losing her grip and moved the hammock out of the way.

We decided to keep clear and let her come down on her own, for safety, worried that if we began sawing, the release of the strain she was under would snap us straight to kingdom come. I expected her to collapse within days of our discovery, but she doggedly hung on, long past Halloween, right through November and a series of heavy deluges, and indeed almost through December, until yesterday.

Presciently, I had taken a quick photo of her as I slogged by on my way back from the barnyard and the lunchtime feed. She was heavy with wet snow as was our whole valley. I had divested myself of my sopping snowy outerwear, poured myself a bowl of hot soup and settled down at my desk to read email when a text came in from Resident Gardener, “that hawthorn broke”. 

“Just now?” I asked. 

“The one we thought would come down soon” she continued, our conversation following the usual frustratingly disjointed cadence of my texting sessions.

“Ya heard it crack when I was outside just now” RG then observed.

By now I had made it to the bathroom window where I could indeed see that my dear Ms. Hawthorn was no longer peeking over the shop roof, and the adjoining trees’ branches still wobbling with the shock of it all.

 “Wow” I excitedly exclaimed to RG, having by then switched over to a voice call. “I just took a picture of her! Should have stood there and waited I guess.”

I ran downstairs and outside, slid into my boots and made my way carefully down the slushy path past the shop until I could see her in all her recumbent glory. I took another quick shot or two, then retreated back into the house and my warm office.

The end of a lovely tree, another casualty of 2020. RIP Ms. Hawthorne. I take solace from the fact that we can look forward to your many inevitable heirs sprouting in your place. May they grow as tall and as buxom and as indefatigably as you grew, until 2020’s latest weather bomb got the best of you.

Stomping in Puddles

As a havoc-filled 2020 continues to unfold in all its dismal glory, I am, like everyone else I suppose, doing my best to keep calm and carry on. Pandemic and lockdowns, a crazy president refusing to admit he lost, climate change breathing down our necks, ridiculous conspiracy theories deluding millions. 2020 will surely be a year for the history books, and we’ll all be able to say “yep, I was there…” and have a story or two to tell, hopefully stories where everything turns out ok.

I find that keeping busy helps, and so I do, falling asleep each night planning projects and spending my weekends accomplishing them. There’s work too, to fill my days, and chores, and once or twice a week there’s errands off the farm. It’s thankfully easy to keep busy around our muddy valley.

Yesterday after some deep coop cleaning in the barnyard, I finished tucking in the garlic bed for winter with a thick blanket of leaves; going forward I will focus on raking leaves for chicken pens. I wish the leaves would dry up a bit, the birds enjoy scratching through dry, crackly leaves so much more than damp ones. But it is November after all, so I’m not holding my breath.

November as usual has been cold, and wet, and dark, and yet I love it so much. One of my favourite months, November provides plentiful opportunities for savouring the chill alongside warmth’s sweet contrast; for labouring in the crisp air until I must peel off first one layer and then another to cool myself; for long quiet evenings in front of a crackling fire, listening to the rain tapping on the skylight. One dusky, slightly surreal day last week, heavy clouds dimmed the light so dramatically from sunrise right through to sunset that it felt like a day long eclipse. There’s just so much potential for cozy in November.

November was my mother’s least favourite month. A prairie girl born and bred, she much preferred the sunny winters of her youth. Our rain forest weather was hard on her at times, although she loved living on the coast. Mom’s been gone for many Novembers now, nine to be exact, but of course I think of her often. Like the other day, as I was traversing the soggy, slippery northeast field dragging my empty wheelbarrow pony-cart style, having just spread another load of leaves on the garlic beds. 

There was this perfect little puddle, you see. Not a run-of-the-mill mud puddle, rimed with muck and no bottom visible, this was one of those short lived mudless puddles that briefly appear in low spots after a heavy rain. A crystal clear miniature watery valley, a freshwater tidal pool, each blade of grass and bit of colourful leaf litter suspended as if in glass; silent, peaceful, still. It looked to be just perfect for stomping in, so I gave in to my childish impulse. Dropping the wheelbarrow handles, I went all in, swishing the water over the toes of my boots, rinsing a layer of mud away and stirring up the depths into a most satisfactory squishy, muddy stew. Take that, 2020! And then my inner voice spoke up, “For goodness’ sake you silly old woman, you’re almost 59! What are you doing?” 

Stomping in puddles is what I was doing, like a little kid. What an idiot I am at times. As shamefulness began to creep over me on its sharp little claws, a stray thought came too, a gift from my mom that made everything ok again. The memory of her advice, given in the toast she made at my 21st birthday party, “Value your inner child, don’t ever grow all the way up. Hold on to her magic because you will need her sometimes.” Yes mama, I will. I do. Love you. Thank you.

Planting Garlic Again

I smiled with satisfaction at the rain’s soft pattering on skylight. Right on schedule. How sweet of Mother Nature to water in the thousand cloves of garlic I had just spent most of the morning sowing, one pointy clove at a time.

We always plant lots of garlic, it’s so easy to grow it’s almost ridiculous, and we use it all up every year so why not? This year though, we have increased our garlic patch by about 50%. Planting against an uncertain future increases my sense of control. 

Our 2020 crop was so good that we had plenty of really stellar heads to choose our seed from. Plus lots to supply all our four households, and to share.  Organic local garlic goes for five bucks a head around here, making last years’ crop worth a cool $3,140. My seed garlic would have cost me $750, if I’d had to pay for it. Not bad. In fact, with its minimal effort and cost inputs, garlic is by far our most lucrative crop.

Growing garlic is one of the few farm activities all our residents play roles in, which is nice too. Even Dear Husband, a tinkerer not a farmer who prefers to spend his hobby time on taking apart and putting together vehicles, or computers, or various other items with moving parts, does his bit. I know he likes to be a part of the garlic effort.

He tinkers with the tractor, gets the rototiller attached, his pocketful of shear bolts ready (those critically important sacrificial bits of steel that snap instead of the rototiller tines when he unearths rocks), his fluids topped up and lube points lubed. Resident Gardener and I (with opinions from avid non-gardener DH 😉) finalize the spot. Where to plant the garlic this year is always a topic of much serious discussion and pondering for several weeks prior to plowing day. To avoid disease, garlic needs to be planted on fresh ground on a minimum three year rotation. There needs to be not too much, and not too little, moisture; we save our limited irrigating for the veggie gardens. We need enough sun too. Luckily we have the space for options. Our muddy valley bottom is also blessed with a couple-foot thick layer of dark loam above clay, above bedrock ten feet down. Drainage can be an issue, but fertility is great. 

This year we settled on the north east field. It’s the first time this corner of the place has been used for anything but grazing in more than 20 years, if ever. It pleases me that we are bringing a fallow area of our little hobby farm into active production; we didn’t even get the equines on it this year. RG cut the long grass, marked four corners with bamboo stakes topped with (recycled) pink plastic strips, and then DH climbed on the tractor, where he spent the next few hours coaxing his rototiller through virgin pasture, keeping a sharp lookout for rocks. His rototiller (and about seven shear bolts) discovered less than a wheelbarrow load of potato-sized beauties in the whole 1500 foot square patch. 

A few days later, It was RG’s turn to climb on the tractor so she could bring many loader scoops of well rotted chicken/horse/donkey manure compost blend over. She spread the compost and raked the patch into four rectangular raised beds at least a foot deep, with nice wide paths between.

And yesterday, with all the hard work done, it was my turn to majestically stride out there, give the beds a quick surface rake to level them, and plant my garlic. It’s great sometimes, being the matriarch.

I prised open all 150 tight heads, separating each clove, a task that had my fingernails aching by the end. Anyone who has hand peeled garlic for dinner can imagine what I’m talking about here. After years of planting garlic, I have learned to do this job all at once at the start, sitting comfortably rather than bent over in planting position. 

I count the cloves I plant for record keeping, and I always have trouble with this deceptively simple task. Planting garlic is a contemplative activity for me, as explained in previous posts, therefore I often lose track of my numbers and have to start over. So for a change this year, I counted each clove as it went into my yellow planting bucket rather than as it went into the ground. It was easier to keep track of them going into the bucket for sure. Then I was free to let my mind wander, and by the time the bucket was empty, another 300 cloves had been planted. Problem solved.

Our last task before winter will be to bury the garlic beds in their thick leaf blankets, but we must work with the trees’ schedule on that one. Not many leaves have even turned colour yet, much less fallen. It’s been a slow fall so far in 2020. How apropos.

Garlic 2020

628 bulbs weighing 67.5 lbs. Up from last year’s harvest of 575 and 2018’s 550. Split between our immediate family households where it is consumed often, and traded for stuff, it’s always mostly gone by the time the next harvest is ready. Last year’s most unique trade was garlic for Camembert and Brie with a cheese merchant’s wife. I do meet the most interesting people on farm business.

The size of our harvest continues to creep up as we apportion a few more bulbs to the seed box each year. My current farm book goes back to 2008/09, when we planted 186 cloves and harvested 143 bulbs. Not the best year apparently.

A nice thing about garlic is the ease with which it is grown. Absolutely our most reliable and least effort crop, I was even able to do garlic through the years when I had three busy school age kids (as well as the husband) to manage. We have been growing garlic here since the late 1990s when we first moved in, a couple hundred give or take, each year. 

After much discussion on this year’s garlic patch location, (a new spot every year is a must!) Dear Husband or Resident Gardener will climb on the tractor and start plowing, fetching great shovels-full of well rotted manure compost from behind the barn to mix in. By the time they are done, the lovely new garlic patch will be fluffy for a foot down.

I do the planting, in beds two arms-length wide with pathways between. Then RG and I bring the mulch, layering leaves with sprinkles of wood ash and more compost, bedding the garlic down for the winter. The mulching often takes a couple weeks since we like to use a variety of leaves, and they don’t all drop at once. RG rigs up the fence, which is only a couple feet high since neither deer, nor horses and donkeys, like to eat garlic. The fence only needs to discourage the chickens from scratching up the seedlings on their bug hunts.

Then we get on with our lives for seven or eight months, glancing at it infrequently to see how its doing this year, until the following June when RG cuts the scapes. I pull the crop, usually in mid July, they hang in a sheltered spot for a month or so, and then I cut off the stalks, trim off the roots, and sort them into net bags for each of our households, with the nicest bulbs going into next year’s seed box. Which is what I did today.

Garlic harvest is both a yearly milestone and a mindless task, a perfect time for reflection. Each year, I think back on what’s happened since last time I worked with the garlic, and about what the upcoming year might bring. New babies, new pets, kids moving out, and in, and out again, engagements, break-ups, new romance, sickness and health, there’s always something to review, something to look forward to, and lots to be grateful for.

I tell you though, I never foresaw this pandemic! Nor did I think that I would be cleaning bulbs this year with a face mask on, so I could breathe without wheezing, as our neighbours to the south incinerate. 

But not everything has gone wrong in 2020. It’s been a very good year for garlic, for example. Maybe this harvest is mother nature’s way of helping out. Garlic is supposed to be good for warding off werewolves and evil spirits, and we all know that 2020 can use all the help it can get!

Dried Clean Tomatoes!

Ready for the dehydrator

Spaghetti, butter chicken, tacos, tomato soup, salsa, meatloaf, chicken paprikash, mulligatawny, hamburgers, curry, chili, beef stew. It makes sense for us to grow tomatoes, because we use them in so many dishes. Resident Gardener starts them from seed, usually saved or traded, in January each year. This means they are easy on the budget too. 

Since the sixteen century when the Spanish brought tomatoes home to Europe from South America, their use has spread around the world like…well, like an indeterminate tomato plant. You know…the ones that just grow, and grow, and grow.

Our gold nugget cherry tomatoes always ripen first, in July usually, and by late August we are buried in tomatoes of all colours, shapes and sizes.

Heavenly. There is nothing better, in my view, than a still-warm-from-the-sun Italian Stallion tomato, sprinkled with pepper and eaten out of hand…buttery, umami, nirvana. 

By the time September rolls around I’m preserving tomatoes like crazy. RG picks them a couple times a week, taking everything from fully ripe to just starting to pink up. I finish the half ripe ones in the house. Tomato harvesting is a race against the weather in our damp climate, and in this way we maximize our harvest. Once picked and brought in, which can be done as soon as they “break” (10-30% of the surface turns pink) I set them along the window ledges so I can easily see when they turn red. 

In another month or so, when we pull the plants, hopefully just ahead of the blight that shows up each fall, I’ll fill paper grocery bags with mature green unblemished fruit and then check for pink ones every few days as they ripen slowly in the bag. Some years we are eating homegrown tomatoes almost until Christmas. I know some folks make green tomato salsa, and pie, and chutney, and I admire their innovation, but I like them red. Or golden or black or chocolate…depending on the variety.

I process our ripe tomatoes in various ways, with my goal being to enjoy them in all the dishes mentioned above, all winter long. I used up my last bag of frozen 2019 tomatoes in June this year. Perfect timing.

Prettiest tomato award for 2020 goes to this beauty.

Every year I roast tomatoes with olive oil and garlic, bag and freeze. The flavour is incredible, but sometimes I forget they are in the oven which never ends well. Or I make ketchup and can it. The easiest method is to simply de-stem, rinse, bag, and freeze. This has been my preference for years; it’s so simple. I add them straight out of the freezer to whatever I’m cooking that needs tomatoes. On the rare occasion when I want to get all fancy and remove the skins, I hold them still frozen under warm running water, squeeze slightly, and the skins slide right off. The single drawback to freezing tomatoes is that they take up a lot of room. And freezer space is hard to come by around here in the fall, even with our big upright freezer, RG’s small chest freezer, and three fridges going.

A couple weeks ago I saw a discussion about drying tomatoes on one of my preserving groups. Some people dry just the skins, left over from canning tomatoes. Others dry the whole fruit. “Oooooh boy”, I started thinking, “if I could get the tomatoes out of the freezer, maybe I will have room for some local lamb!”

A tomato mosiac

I had several pounds of ripe ones in the fridge, so I sliced them a quarter inch thick, the cherry toms into halves or thirds, then onto trays and into the dehydrator they went, for about eighteen hours at 135 F. I suppose you could do them in your oven. But my friend says tomatoes don’t go well in her little Nesco dryer…so be warned.

The gold nugget cherry toms shrunk the least.

Once they snapped when I bent them, I unplugged the dryer, piled them all into the blender together and zipped them into powder in about thirty seconds flat. 25 cups of tomatoes, eight 15×15 inch trays full, almost fourteen square feet of tomato slices, dried down into about 600 ml of super concentrated tomato powder.

So far, I have mixed my tomato powder with water (two tablespoons) to make an almost-too-rich tomato paste for spaghetti sauce and sprinkled it sparingly (two teaspoons!) into homemade veggie barley soup where it both added a tomatoey tang and reddened the broth. The flavour is intense. I can already tell I will need to be careful to not use too much. Best of all, it stores in glass jars in a dark cupboard where it takes up very little space. I added a silicone crystal sachet to the jar too, to keep it from clumping.

I will still roast, and freeze, a few tomatoes. But most of them are going in the dehydrator this year. And now to find me a nice box of lamb…

The Joy of Mending

I visit the barnyard at least four times each day, and never without a pair of gloves on. This habit is so ingrained I feel quite strange without them. 

I find light duty gloves to be indispensable in the barnyard. They warm my hands, have saved me from many cuts and slivers, and keep the poop just that little bit further away from my actual skin. 

They also cost money, get dirty fast, and it’s hard to find comfortable ones. After trying many styles and materials over the years, I have developed a clear favourite; light printed cotton ladies gardening gloves with stretchy cuffs. They are easy to slip on and off and thin enough that my fingers stay nimble. You can’t beat the price, and they sail through the laundry beautifully. 

Lots of people like the stretchy nylon gloves with rubberized fingers and yes, those are comfy, I used to buy Costco packs of the Gardena ones before chickens. But chickens means poop, and poop means more frequent laundering. The rubbery gloves don’t do well in the dryer. After I got chickens, I grew tired of ending up on my knees every laundry day with my head inside the dryer, peeling half melted gloves off the drum walls. So I went all in on the cotton ones.

As all gloves do with such frequent use, mine develop holes from time to time. Curiously, to me anyway, it’s always the right hand that gets the holes, very few on the left, and I’m left handed! You would think it would be the other way round. The holes are often at the fingertips, also a prime danger zone for poop-to-skin contact. But rather than chuck them and pull out a new pair, I like to repair my gloves.

When I have collected a few pairs that need fixing, and they are fresh from the wash, I will sit down with a needle and thread, slide a holey glove on my right hand, and sew up the holes with my left. As noted above, since most holey gloves are right handers, and I am left handed, this works well.

When I have to fix a left hander, I use the same strategy. I have learned it is better to force a glove onto the wrong hand than to wield a sharp needle with one.

It takes only a few minutes to stitch up each glove, and my effort gains me months more use out of each pair. This makes me happy. There is a great deal of joy to be found in mending, if you look for it.

My Covid Project

Three weekends of satisfying work, and I am rewarded with a snazzy new rooster coop. The first residents seem delighted with their new digs. It may have been sparked by an uncomfortable night moving birds out of a crappy old chicken tractor, but this has in reality been my first big Covid project.

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Circling the wagons, improving infrastructure, provisioning the household,  increasing personal food security. This all brings me comfort and a sense of control in a world where normal looks a long way off.

I know it’s not just me. People everywhere are busy with Covid projects.  Starting new gardens, refurbing or enlarging old ones. Adopting new pets or expanding their livestock holdings (in our case, with ducks). Keeping sourdough starter and scobys, making kombucha and bread. Even Dear Husband turned out a few loaves.

I have to laugh at myself though. I only figured it out today, as I was sitting out there drinking lemonade, admiring my accomplishment. My tall, secure coop, with spacious roosts. My fully netted pen. My grassy 2500 square foot free range yard. Sure it works for roosters, but do you know what we actually have here? The perfect turkey setup.

I have considered turkeys for a few years now, and of course researched their needs thoroughly, on many a snug winter evening by the fire. An informed farmer makes for a successful farmer after all. But I never pulled the trigger on a turkey project because usually, one or another of my neighbours have birds available for the big three turkey-fuelled holidays, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s much easier just walking down the road, handing over some cash, and toting home a delicious zero mile diet roaster. This year, neighbour S is raising them and I’ve already put my name in.

I honestly didn’t mean to build a turkey shed, so I have to have a good laugh at myself. I’m such a turkey sometimes. 😂  But I couldn’t have designed a place more suitable for raising turkeys if I had tried.  Even my subconscious is in prepping mode I guess.

Maybe  I can pick up some turkey eggs next spring, try to hatch a few, see how it goes. Something to muse on, this winter by the fire.
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Thirty 2x4s and a Weekend Later…

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Time for a new rooster coop I decided, as once more I found myself crouching on hands and knees persuading reluctant, sleepy cockerels into transport crates. It was the night before freezer camp and I was crating up 2020’s first batch of winter chicken dinners.

The bachelor coop was still perfectly comfortable for its inhabitants, who stood an average of eighteen inches tall. For me though, at five foot seven, it was a little tight, and hard to clean, and after three years, starting to come apart at the seams. It had lasted pretty well for a recycled boxspring floor with plastic pipe studs and chicken wire walls, but I was ready to upgrade.

After conferring with Resident Gardener and Dear Husband, I decided that the rooster coop should stay in the secret field but move to the other side, tucked under a hedgerow for shelter, with its back to the rising sun (to help keep them quiet in the mornings). It should be big enough to walk upright into, for ease of cleaning and handling birds. And the doorway wide enough for a wheelbarrow.

A new fence and gate would let the young cockerels free range over the whole bottom half of the secret field, snacking on bugs and grazing, turning the secret field’s output into chicken. A new pen, attached to the coop, would give them somewhere to stretch their legs when they couldn’t free range.

With that vision in mind, I picked up 30 eight foot 2x4s and a role of half-inch hardware cloth on my Wednesday feed run, carried it all down to the job site on Thursday and Friday using the “grab a couple and take them with you every time you walk by” strategy and started construction Saturday morning.  A quick couple questions to my carpentry mentor DH and I began putting together the base. I only had a couple hours to spend on it though, Saturday is coop cleaning day and I had my regular chores to get done.

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Today I had no competing priorities, and was able to spend the bulk of the day down in the secret field, working on the coop. So much fun. I used up all but two of the 2x4s, and finished up most of the framing. My new rooster coop is looking pretty good so far if I do say so myself…

Barnyard Inspiration

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It’s that time of year again, broodies sitting on eggs or raising babies all over the barnyard, with varying degrees of success. Lots of my Marans are broody this year, which is a bit strange. In all the time I’ve kept this breed I’ve only ever had one or two wanna-be mommas. My sister has a Marans broody from my lines, and it appears that now I do too. Except I seem to have seven or eight. Luckily they have mostly been doing a good job, especially for first time moms.

The latest one hatched a surprise Wyandotte x Marans chick last week. It was a surprise because I thought I had put a couple infertile eating eggs under her, to give me time to gather fertile ones and then hatch chicks in the incubator for her to raise. Or at least I thought they were infertile.  I also didn’t realize the placeholder eggs had been under her for quite as long as they had, until one morning I walked into the barn to hear peeping coming from her nest box. Uh oh, we’d had a little accidental hatch, and well ahead of the incubator hatch too. Damn, now I couldn’t give her any extras, her singleton would be a week old when the next group hatched. I would have to do the work of raising that batch myself.

In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t give this Marans any more responsibility than she already had because she turned out to be not particularly interested in mothering. I moved her and the chick out of the nest box into clean quarters, as I do after every hatch, putting them in a large brooder with some two week olds and a heat lamp. After making sure momma was fine with the two week olds, I left them to their own devices.

Over the next few days, little singleton settled right in, playing with the big kids then running under momma’s skirts every time he needed a warm-up. But momma wasn’t happy. She just kept pacing the fence line, all day long. She totally ignored the older chicks, and kind of ignored her singleton. He really had to yell to get her to stay still long enough for him to warm up.

I thought momma might be happier back home, and thus do a better job with her baby, plus I knew from past experience that her baby would be safe with the mostly calm, laid back Marans and olive eggers, so I took them home to her flock, and then carried on with my day.

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But at dusk when I went to lock up, what do you think I discovered?  Had indifferent momma made a nest in the fluffy thick shavings I laid down in her preferred corner for that purpose? Was she snuggled in for the night with her baby? No. Of course not. She had hopped up high on a roost, leaving her baby behind on the floor, where he was stomping around peeping pitifully for her to ‘get down here!’

Now the logical next step would have been to take momma and baby out of the Marans coop and put them in a small private brooder, with no roost. And honestly I did think of that first. But when I looked up at the rows of black chickens, preparing to scoop her up, I realized I couldn’t tell which one was momma. And she sure wasn’t talking – none of the 20 black hens looking back at me showed even the slightest interest in the complaining baby below.

So what could I do? I scooped baby up instead and walked him back to where he had come from. He would just have to bunk in with the older chicks, in the only brooder with a heat lamp.

It has been a few days now, and things are going great for little singleton. His bunkmates all snuggle together to sleep, and he just worms himself right into the middle of the pile where I can’t even see him. The heat lamp is only on at night, but he seems to have no problem making it through the day with no momma to warm up under. It helps that it is summer, and that the brooder coop is snug and dry, he can always get in out of the wind. The little guy is actually thriving!  He even has a “bird of a feather” to flock together with, another little black chick who is much bigger than him now, but not for long.

I am pretty impressed with this little guy’s resilience, it’s a talent we could all use lots of in these most eventful days. I hope that I will prove to be as strong and resourceful as my little singleton. It’s sure worth a try anyhow, just look at him go!

Happy Canada Day everyone. And as our most wonderful Dr Henry says…Be kind. Be calm. Be safe. ❤️🇨🇦❤️

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A Solitary Sentry

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Quail are so common in our muddy valley that we have a Quayle Road just down the way. In the summer months we see them a lot. They dash along the roadside in single file family groups, pacing us for a few seconds before plunging into the brush. Mini roadrunners with legs flying, flouncy headdresses bobbing in front of them as they go.

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California quail were first released in the Victoria area way back in 1861, a hundred years exactly before I was born. They thrived, as immigrants tend to do, and are now common all over our valley and indeed most of the west coast. In the fall and winter they congregate in “coveys” consisting of a few adults of both sexes and a bunch of youngsters. Female quail choose a new mate each year in early spring, and the happy couples leave the covey to hatch and rear their brood before rejoining, kids in tow, in the fall.

One day a few weeks ago, I noticed a lone male hanging around the chicken coops. That first day, he introduced himself by standing on top of a barnyard fence post, chuk-chuk-chuk-ing at me for all he was worth. When I got too close (rudely ignoring his warnings), he burst up into the air, flew over my head and then dove for the nearest bush, where he hit the ground running. California quail are far better runners than fliers. They use their wings much like chickens do; only in a pinch, and to escape delicate situations.

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A few days later, Resident Gardener approvingly noted how well puppy Arrow was doing with his livestock guardian raptor training. “He ran off a quail!” she enthused, “he knew it wasn’t a chicken!” I politely refrained from pointing out that quail may not be chickens, but they ain’t raptors either. Nor did I mention that I had already met this particular quail.

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Arrow may have run him off that day, but not for long. Our new little sentry is very much still around, popping up every single time I go out to the barnyard. And every time, I get a stern talking-to, in quail-speak, for daring to set foot in what he evidently feels is ‘his’ chicken empire. It’s a blessing that quail aren’t physically aggressive creatures, or I would surely have had my eyes picked out by now. This plucky little fellow, even smaller than Tiny Chicken, has adopted my flocks as his own, lock, stock and barrel. He stands guard from dawn to dusk, usually on the bridge railing (sadly now unfit for human hands), and roosts up high in the willows at night.

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As you might imagine, I am out in the barnyard a lot, enjoying various chicken keeping activities, and I have become accustomed to his constant surveillance and commentary. Our little sentry continues to get himself quite worked up at my presence and so far he is careful to keep a healthy distance. I hope he gets more approachable over time.

When the roosters call out a warning, the little guy goes ballistic, echoing their concern in his most enthusiastic manner. But it doesn’t work the other way around. When he freaks out because, say, I’ve shown up, the chickens don’t listen. They know I am no threat.

Our barn cat is wary of him now, after their recent run in. The other day as I was filling feeders, Callie decided to come on over for a quick visit and neck scratch. She had made it halfway across the paddock separating the barn and the coops, when a brown and gray feathery spitfire launched himself at her, claws first. Scoring a direct hit, he beat her with his tiny wings, chuk-chuking loudly all the while. Recoiling in utter shock, Callie turned tail and ran to hide in the barn, while our little sentry drew himself up, gave his headdress a satisfied toss, and returned to his post. I believe it is only a matter of time before he does the same to Arrow.

I wonder why he is all alone? Did he find a mate and she meet a tragic end? Or was he fated this year to be a bachelor, with not enough females to go around? Did he willingly strike out on his own, eager for a big adventure? Or get the boot? I will never know his story, only that I am now part of it.

I probably shouldn’t be encouraging wild birds to stick around, they carry disease as all wild things do. But my flock free ranges all day anyway, I couldn’t keep them insulated from wild birds unless I fenced the sky. Strong healthy birds fend off disease, so I will focus on good husbandry, and give my birds their freedom, and enjoy my little solitary sentry. I wonder how long he’ll stay?

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