Friday, May 18, 2018

The ducks have left the building

Well, it's finally happened. The ducks have been kicked out of the house. For a good ten years or so the ducks wore diapers and slept inside in the house with us at night, or when it was very cold and they simply refused to go outside for the day. We had a good run and it made for a good conversation starter to state that we had ducks that wore diapers and lived in the house at night but alas, it was not meant to continue. I knew it was coming: my parents had been threatening for years to make the ducks move outside but I managed to hold them off for a decade or so before finally giving in. The ducks now live in a spacious duck house out on the back patio and spend their days wandering the gardens or playing in the pool and at dusk they eat their dinner and then waddle on in to their house for the night.

I spent several days making the house largely on my own with some help from my dad. It did not turn out the way I expected it would - as is the case with many of the projects I take on. For one, it is way more massive than I ever expected it would be - probably because it was built from a design for a chicken coop and they need roost bars and height where ducks typically do not. (At least, I have yet to see a duck roosting on a bar at night - or any time for that matter.) 

In looking back on it I probably could have made it much shorter but as it is I can comfortably sit inside it without stooping down so maybe massive was the way to go after all. It also sports an asphalt shingle roof, red painted exterior, a large window in back and "french doors" in the front. Which is to say, I took two glass fronted cabinet doors and attached them to the front of the house as the doors the ducks use for access. The whole house sits on four couch legs that can be swapped out for new ones should the current ones ever start to rot, extending the life of the house. The floor is vinyl to protect the wood underneath as ducks are - you may be surprised to discover - rather wet little creatures. The vinyl extends out onto the front porch, where I have found Minna likes to sit in the evenings. As a finishing touch I strung an extension cord from the house up to our back deck and installed a set of string lights in the rafters - for ambiance, of course. 

The completed duck house sporting french doors and a front porch. This was taken before the lights were installed. And needless to say, it did not stay this clean for long.
Minna and Maggie enjoying their house (and the fact that the pool is right outside.)

Getting a drink

Monday, May 7, 2018

Chicken takeover

The chickens staged a takeover the other evening. Let me back up. 

The chickens are no longer allowed on the back deck. Dad got sick of them pooping all over the deck - even though the dogs came out and ate said poop, so I really don't see the problem - so when we had to rebuild the decks we opted for a cover on the back deck that would protect the whole deck instead of just half of it and gates on both entries to the deck. The main entry out to the dog run now has a lattice style door on sliding barn door hardware. This allows us a view of the backyard while still preventing the chickens from getting up onto the deck and leaving their calling cards. And the chickens, by and large, respect the new rules and don't usually come onto the deck even though most of them could fit through the slats on the smaller gate down to the patio and those that don't could simply fly over the top of the gate. But they don't. Except for Penny, when she is being chased and harassed by the rest of the flock: I found her on the deck yesterday, hiding out from Gretchen. 

This, then, is the way of things: the gate and the door to the dog run stay shut unless the chickens are in bed or the dogs need to go out to go to potty. Which is why the door was open the other day: Axel had to go out to the yard but because he is a bit slower these days the chickens saw their opportunity and seized it. Coming back into the kitchen to see if Axel was ready to come inside yet what I saw instead was that our entire flock of chickens (with the notable exception of Penny, who avoids the flock whenever possible) had mutinied and was now ambling around on the back deck or standing on the couch. I am quite sure that Gretchen led the attack on the deck and his harem of ladies simply followed suit. What I am not sure of is the reason for the attack. By now, most of the chickens won't go on the deck even if the door is open so what possessed them to do so that night is beyond me. It did, however, make for some good photo opportunities and gave Dad, who is several states away and headed further east by bicycle, a decent scare as there was nothing he could do about it from where he was. I chased all of them off the deck and let Axel back inside, but they were already staging a second attempt and surely would have charged for the deck again if I hadn't shut the door and foiled their attempt. 

"I swear, I had nothing to do with this, Mom."

Axel looks on as the chickens stage their mutiny

Gretchen gets ready to launch another attack on the back deck while the ladies await orders.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Disappearing chickens

Call in Nancy Drew: we have a mystery. One of our chickens went missing last night and for the life of us we could not find her.

9:30 pm, Sunday night

Usually the chickens put themselves to bed every night as soon as it begins to get dark so imagine my surprise when I wet out to lock them up last night and found Penny perched on the couch on the back deck. Perhaps, I surmised, she tired of the trash can she usually chooses to sleep in. I scooped her up and continued on my way out to the coop with her only to discover Bridget roosting the the dog run gate. And then either Hannah or Henrietta on the dog run fence. Now things were getting unusual.

A quick look inside the coop confirmed my suspicions - not a single chicken to be found. The reason for this lack of chickens was also apparent; the chicken door had fallen shut, effectively blocking entry of all our chickens to their nightly roosts. What followed was somewhat of an Easter egg hunt involving chickens. I deposited Penny into the coop and then set about rounding up the others. I had already noticed Bridget and Hannah/Henrietta so I scooped them up next. Using the flashlight I was able to locate Lucky, Henrietta or Hannah, and Gretchen in the compost bin. While I was rounding them up I heard some scuffling noises in the shed so that was where I went next and discovered Georgia in the trash can usually occupied by Penny, and Lucy perched on the edge of said trash can. That's eight. The only one left was Sophie and as she is a mostly white/light colored chicken I had every confidence that I would soon find her as well.

So I searched. And I searched. And I searched some more. I checked under the deck, in the duck house, in the grape arbor and all over the gardens. My confidence began to waver. I looked behind the bamboo, in the trees, on top of the wood pile, and in the rafters of the back deck cover. It was like she had vanished into thin air and at this point my confidence that we would find her was shot. After searching the whole yard three times over, Mom and I finally called it quits and simply hoped we would find her in the morning when she came out from wherever she had been hiding. As this was not our first case of disappearing chickens (we discovered the last on had been roosting in a tree branch for three nights while joining the rest of the flock during the day) we prayed she would be safe wherever she was and then we reluctantly headed off to bed, but not without setting my alarm for early the following morning.

5:30, Monday morning

I headed back out into the yard to search for our missing Sophie and stopped short on the way out to the dog run as I passed by one of our weeping Japanese maple trees, where Sophie was happily perched on top as if nothing was amiss. Imagine my chagrin: if I had looked on top of the tree instead of just underneath it in the branches, I would have found her. Oh well, another day, another lesson learned here on the Unfarm.

Sophie on her roost for the night


A closer view of Sophie, gloating at having outwitted us simple minded humans


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Beware of attack chicken

We have, residing here on the Unfarm, an attack chicken. This attack chicken's name is Gretchen and he (yes, you read that right - he) is our rooster. We named him as a chick when we were told that he was a she and the name just stuck. If you ask either my mom or I our opinion on said rooster you would be told that he is a fearsome defender of (almost) all of his lady hens but otherwise he is relatively harmless and even somewhat comical at times - performing his sidestepping shuffle dance for us in an attempt to either add us to his harem or show who is in charge, depending upon which theory you ascribe to. According to Dad, however, Gretchen is a "mean rooster" who attacks both frequently and without remorse. 

In looking at various threads on the backyardchickens.com website the main consensus seems to be that Gretchen's behavior is dominance based and that he should be culled from the flock. Well, that's just not how we roll around here - Gretchen is family and we just don't go around killing our family members. We just don't. And besides, it's not like Gretchen isn't good for anything. He does protect most of the ladies. Penny is the notable exception - we're not sure if it's because she is older than the rest of the chickens and so didn't grow up with Gretchen and his crew or if it is because she is sporting spurs on her legs - but whatever the reason, Penny is definitely lowest down in the pecking order and frequently gets picked on or chased by Gretchen and several of the other hens. 

Aside from his lack of protective instincts towards Penny, Gretchen is quite protective of all the other hens and no one is too big for Gretchen to go up against when it comes to someone bothering his ladies. Axel, the largest of the three dogs, grew up with chickens and cows on a farm somewhere before we rescued him from the shelter so he generally leaves the chickens alone. Scout and Molly, however, are another story. Scout thinks that the chickens are endlessly fascinating toys of some sort and they only want for the proper persuasion to get them to join in a rousing game of chase. Molly will chase almost anything that a) moves and b) is smaller than her. Being a chihuahua mix not many things fall under category b, although she will join Scout if he decides to chase the chickens. The chickens, for their part, squawk and flap their wings and tear around the yard in a highly disorganized manner that often leads them back into the path of the dogs. Hearing this commotion, Gretchen races to the rescue. He flies into the dog run and heads straight for whatever dog is closest and slams into their side, effectively drawing the attention away from the hens in order to give them time to make their escape from the dog run. The party is generally over at that point. The hens are gone and none of the dogs wants to tangle with Gretchen the attack chicken so for now the good outweighs the bad and Gretchen is staying where he is, "mean" or not.

Gretchen, our attack chicken

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Thrill ride

Not all mice like those little clear plastic balls that let them roam around the house without danger of them squeezing into some little hole somewhere and reappearing months later with a whole passel of babies in tow courtesy of some local wild mouse. 

Francine, for example, does not like said ball and when placed inside one she simply sits in one place and refuses to move. Evangeline, on the other hand, loves her rolly ball; put her in it and she happily rolls out of the bunny room, down the hall, around the living room and into the dining room. She even hangs out in the kitchen when we're baking, preferring to be where the action is. 

A recent development may have changed her mind about the ball, though. She was rolling down the hall while my brother was throwing toys down the hall for Scout to run and fetch and during one such trip down the hall Scout's foot nicked the side of the ball and sent it spinning. All poor little Evangeline could do was hold on for dear life as the ball spun across the hall. From my position in on the living room couch I could only watch helplessly as Evangeline went from right side up to upside down to right side up to upside down to right side up again when the ball finally stopped moving as it ran into the wall. I ran down the hallway and scooped up the ball and opened the lid to allow a grateful Evangeline to crawl out onto my hand. 

I have yet to try putting her back into the ball and am worried that when I do she will simply sit there in terror like Francine tends to do. Then the only option the mice will have for exercise is time on their jungle gym (aka me.) And as much as I don't mind having mice crawl around on my neck and shoulders I do mind the deposits they leave behind. I have made some tiny outfits for the mice in the past. Just small things (as if all mouse clothes aren't small!) like Santa hats, reindeer antlers and tutus but maybe it's time to consider making mouse diapers...

Evangeline sporting her reindeer antlers

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Who flew the coop

Last week we managed to get a cover of sorts over our chicken run, which when combined with closing the hen gate, blocks the chickens into the run. And by "cover" I mean we took plastic garden fencing and screen door material and stapled it from the run fence to the trees inside the run, which leaves a large hole in the center of the run uncovered but it is too far from the fences for Gretchen to fly over, and the hens don't go over the fence, just through it using the hen gate. Because the run is roughly circular this was not an easy task to do and to say that it looks "DIY" would be putting it nicely. It's a hot mess. But at least it was doing the job. Until Easter. 

As Easter is the holiday for chicks and ducks and all things cute and fluffy, Mom decided that the ladies deserved to be out in the yard, free ranging it until the evening when we were expecting a guest for dinner and we wanted to put the dogs outside for the occasion. (Scout is not known for his manners as he is still young and exuberant and would happily eat a roast of lamb if you let him.) This is not a problem for Axel (because he was raised around chickens and can behave himself properly) or Molly (because she is twelve pounds and Gretchen the rooster is her size or larger so she won't take them on by herself.) Scout is another matter. He is young and while he was raised around the chickens they are the only animals on the Unfarm that he can't behave himself around. They run and flap and make noise, after all. What dog could resist chasing them? Certainly not Scout. 

Dinner approached and our guest was due to arrive within the hour so Mom and I decided it was time to round up the chickens and put them back in the run. Penny, Lucy, and Gretchen went calmly into the run but this was not the case with Bridget and Georgia. These two are affectionately (and sometimes with a tinge of exasperation) called Dumb and Dumber. For the life of them they could not figure out how to get back into the run, despite the fact that they do it daily, and our efforts to coax them in the right direction only served to convince them that we were about to pop them into the stew pot and so they had better avoid us at all costs. Chickens are harder to catch than they look and while we were chasing them around the yard they were cackling the whole time, screaming for help in their little chicken voices. 

This was too much to bear for Gretchen, who decided he needed to come to the aid of his mistresses so he found a way out of the run, flying to the top of the coop and from there to the run fence and over. At this point, with three chickens now on the loose, we gave up and kept the dogs in the house during dinner, plying them with trachea (yuck) and rawhide treats to get them to behave properly, which they did for the most part. The chickens went into the coop for the night and we blocked up the hen door so that the next morning all five chickens would be blocked into the run again. Problem solved. 

The next day, however, we looked out into the yard to discover Lucy and Gretchen wandering around the garden, side by side while the other three remained stranded in the run. Penny looked relieved to be anywhere that Gretchen was not but Bridget and Georgia simply ran back and forth in the run trying to figure out where the hole was that allowed this escape. Lucy, being the smart little cookie that she is, had watched Gretchen escape the day before and now followed suit, vaulting off of the coop to reach the run fence and the yard beyond, and wherever Lucy goes Gretchen follows as she is his favorite hen. So now we are back to square one, with deck construction looming in the near future and no way to keep the ladies confined. We have a new run planned, in an area of the yard not filled with giant trees so it will be easier to cover but that's likely not coming until the summer. Who knows? Maybe we'll just have to diaper all the chickens and bring everyone inside during the construction - wouldn't that be an adventure?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wild weather and a mason bee update

What do you get when you combine high winds with wet soil, large trees, and old fencing? You guessed it: a mess. During the high winds a week or so back there were trees and fences down everywhere and the Unfarm was not immune - we lost power for 19 hours and three sections of fence came down but it could have been worse considering we have over ten mature trees on our property, mostly redwoods and firs. House smashers, is what they are. Fortunately our house is intact and none of the animals were harmed in the wind. It started up fairly early in the morning and the chickens were not yet out of the coop so we just kept them inside until it was over, lest we have chickens hurled about the yard, and not of their own accord. 

When we finally did get our power back on it was time to clean up the mess left behind which means we have been working on the fences for the past week. You need to dig out the old post before you can even begin to work on putting the panels back up. There was a period of time when Dad was using two bags of cement per post hole in a misguided effort to prevent the post from falling down. What resulted was a post that rotted off at ground level, leaving behind a heavy cement "mushroom" that then has to be hauled out of the hole somehow. And because I am too impatient to dig the whole thing out I employed the following technique: dig out the hole enough to jam the 4x4 post under the lip of the mushroom and then jump up and down on the 4x4 until the mushroom wiggles itself loose. It may not be the best technique, but it works for me. 

The chickens, meanwhile, were locked in the coop all day for two days straight while we worked on the fences until we could find a way to cover their run so they could be let out of the coop without the worry that they would simply fly over the top of the run and go gallivanting about the neighborhood when a bobcat is on the loose. (See previous post for more on this, if you so choose.)

At any rate, we eventually got the run covered sufficiently to keep them safe inside it and we have almost finished with all of the fencing - we have one last post to replace before it falls down on its own when we are most unprepared to deal with it, in all likelihood. 

And now, for the bees, there is some good news to report. A few of the bees have found their way back to the tubes and have taken up occupancy. I noticed some activity around the house during the week and when I checked one evening with a flashlight I saw five little faces staring back at me from within the tubes so perhaps this year won't be a total loss after all. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Mason Bee Mystery... and Bobcats

We raise mason bees. Or at least we used to. Mason bees are an easy way to get your feet wet with bees without all the expensive gear or the risk of getting stung. This year we watched all of our little mason bees hatch out of their cocoons and bask in the sun on their top of the line mason bee house with reusable plastic trays (which we switched to after the squirrels discovered our more basic mason bee houses filled with cardboard tubes where the bees live and lay their eggs - the squirrels started eating all the baby bees and pollen out of the tubes like they were pixie sticks.) After basking for a few hours the bees flew off in search of pollen and mud (which they use to plug up the holes they lay their eggs in.) We waited calmly for them to come back and start filling up their tubes. And we waited. And waited. And waited. It has been several weeks now with no sign of our bees. Usually we will see them coming and going from the house and the tubes will begin to plug up with mud but not this year. I don't know if they all flew off in search of greener pastures, so to speak, or if they were killed off by the pesticides the neighbors used on their homes this spring. At any rate, we have no bees and no clue as to why. For now, it remains a mystery. We were concerned that we would have to expand our operation this year and add a second house but now we will be lucky to have any bees at all next year. 

In other news, a bobcat has been spotted in our neighborhood. This has us concerned, as you would expect, for the safety of our chickens and ducks which currently roam freely throughout our backyard. A six foot wooden fence probably isn't much of a deterrent when there is an easy meal on the other side of it. We are trying now to find a way to cover the chicken run so that the chickens stay confined inside of it. I am as yet unsure what we will do to protect Minna and Maggie because they need access to their pool during the day. The makeshift catio under the deck will not work for long because in a couple of weeks we will no longer have a deck. It needs to be redone from the ground up but that is a headache for another day. In the meantime, let us hope that the bobcat stays occupied with rats and other small creatures further down the street and leaves our yard alone.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Cuddle time

Most of the animals here on the Unfarm are fairly self sufficient when it comes to going to sleep. The chickens put themselves away in their coop each night - even Lucy, who has stopped going into the Little Coop at night as abruptly, and mysteriously, as she started it. The ducks start nodding off as almost as soon as they get inside for the night and the mice curl themselves away in their little castle to sleep the day away. The rabbits sleep quite lightly but they do doze several times throughout the day and night. Cats are notorious for being good sleepers and ours are no exception, napping most of the day so that Maximus can spend the whole night upstairs playing while the dogs are out of the way in the bedrooms. And speaking of dogs, Molly and Axel can go to sleep whenever they feel like it - mostly when I am gone from the house and there is nothing else to hold their attention. Scout is another story. 

Scout is many things. He is high energy. He is fast. He is a ball thief at the dog park (because he is fast.) He is playful. And cute. And also really, really annoying when he is sleepy. Apparently he can't just go to sleep like everyone else. He must have someone there with him to cuddle up to. He is insistent. Very insistent. When he gets tired he finds someone and proceeds to make a pest of himself. If I am watching TV in the bunny room, Scout will try to crawl up onto the TV stand. Or my desk. Via my chair. If you are working at the dining room table he will try to crawl up onto the table, pushing your laptop out of the way until you give in and sit with him. On occasion, Scout has even tried to crawl onto me, putting his paws up on my shoulders and crawling into my lap. 

There is little else you can do but go and sit with him. And sometimes that is not even enough. In his quest to get close to you he will often sit not just next to you but actually on you. I got a text message the other day that said "look at your dog." Going out into the living room I found my brother on the couch with a 50 pound Scout sitting on his chest. If you are lying down he will try to sit on your head. 

This annoying behavior has been given the innocuous name of "cuddle time" and someone always draws the short straw and has to cuddle with Scout. If you choose not to you have to go into a room and close the door behind you, then listen to Scout as he scratches up the other side of the door trying to get in. Each scratch on the door is another one of your nerves being shredded until you just can't stand it anymore and you give in. Probably not the best way of dealing with him but the only way we have discovered so far. We keep wondering if perhaps he will outgrow this puppy-like behavior but at two and a half years old it isn't looking good as of yet.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Starting the new year off with a fizzle, and wintery weather

Every year I make New Years resolutions. Lose weight, get in shape, blog more, etc, etc. This year I have managed to avoid inevitably breaking my resolutions by not even getting around to making any. So, like I said, I'm starting the new year off with a fizzle. I may eventually get around to making some resolutions but likely not any time before the end of this month and possibly not even by the end of March. We'll see how it goes. At any rate there is some news from the Unfarm to catch you up on. I finished four of my needlepoint stockings just in time for Christmas, we finally got some winter weather and Molly managed to come down with a case of giardia, probably from drinking out of puddles on her walks.

But now: snow. We finally got some, though not as much as I would have liked and it didn't stick around long enough either. We ended up with about ten inches of it here on the Unfarm, which I realize isn't much compared with some parts of the country but it is a fair amount for around here and considering global warming and all. The animals were of mixed opinions about the weather. The dogs thought it was great, even Molly who is barely above the snow when standing in it. We bundled Molly and Scout up in their coats and took them out for walks in the snow. They tended to stick to the pathways where the snow was already packed down while Axel, with his thick fur, simply plowed through wherever he felt like it and was often found lying in it on the back deck.

The ducks and the chickens were decidedly less enthused about the wintery weather. The ducks were forced to stay inside the whole week the snow stuck around as their pond was frozen over and I didn't want them sitting on the ice and sticking to it or getting frostbite on their feet as they have not the sense to stay off of the snow and under the covered areas of the yard. They are frequently to be found sitting out in the middle of whatever bad weather we are having at the time and did I feel like carrying two wiggling, squirming ducks furiously paddling their feet and/or flapping their wings inside each day while trying to keep my balance in the slick, packed down snow? No. I did not. (Why would I have to carry them inside, you ask? Because Maggie has developed a bad habit of stepping on his own feet when he walks, causing him to fall down at which point he often just sits there waiting for you to come retrieve him.) 

The chickens were quite put out by all the snow. On the first day we opened their coop and they poked their heads out like they always do but instead of jumping out enthusiastically they made a collective decision to stay in the coop. For the whole day. And the next day. And the day after that. Finally, feeling sorry for the poor birds, we put out some old fence boards on top of the snow so that they could have somewhere to stand that wasn't covered in ten inches of the wretched white stuff they were so dismayed to awake to each morning. After that they would hang out on the boards or underneath the coop - the only place the ground was still visible - until the snow melted sufficiently (about a week later) for them to begin venturing out into the yard again. Needless to say that the chickens much prefer the warmer months when the ground is soft and they can once again become the terrors of all small plants in the yard.