Something to Crow About

It was wonderful to have my daughter Mauri home from college for Thanksgiving, to hear of new friends, new ideas, and new opportunities.  After she left, it really hit me.  She’s ‘flown the coop’ – I have a new appreciation for chicken-related phrases these days.  Seriously though, she is ‘tasting’ the world.  She is learning, and growing.  While I suspect, and hope, she will do this all her life, now is the time she should be throwing her whole heart and soul into the process. I think she is, and I think I am ready for this change, as much as I will miss her regular physical presence in my life.  Human parents have a long time to get ready for this stage.  Some will mourn the empty nest longer than others, but I hope to embrace the changes as gracefully as possible; they’re going to happen anyway.

Animal parents, when they parent at all, have much less time to get ready for the maturation of their offspring.  I suppose, though, since all the stages of development proceed at a faster rate than human development, the animal parent is ‘ready’ for the dispersal of their babies, just as we humans are for our children.  But what if the mother is used to a gradual realization of this inevitable stage – 18 years in my case – and the child is ready much, much earlier?  Say at 4 months of age?  Yes, today, shockingly, my baby girls have flown the coop!

I believe raising free-range chickens to be the best option for the health of chicken, but for two reasons we did not want this option.  First, we did not want to find chicken poop just any old place, though this is probably not a big problem with just four birds.  Second, we were concerned for their safety. My dogs are the main concern, but also hawks during the day, and numerous crepuscular neighbors that would be happy to drop by if I was too late in shutting the girls in for the night.  Another option, a larger stationary coop, was undesirable because we do not like the dusty bald patches of ground that are inevitable in such a set up.  I also want my birds to eat insects since they are omnivores.  So for these reasons, I have a moveable coop located within my 3500 square foot garden.

I move the coop weekly to give the girls fresh grass and access to insects.  I also let them out whenever I am in the garden or working nearby.  I was getting frustrated about this as recently as two weeks ago because they just seemed too timid to spend much time outside of the coop.  I worried they were ‘too chicken’.  On one hand, I was happy they felt comfortable in their coop, but on the other hand, I wanted them foraging in the garden, removing pests, and fertilizing as they go about their wanderings.

Coop with door open for girls to ‘free-range’.

Well, Monday my baby chicks suddenly became teenagers.  I let them out as usual, but I went back inside, keeping the dogs in with me.  I checked on them twice in the first hour, expecting to close them back in the coop, but each time they were out and about.  One time they were checking out my compost and the other time they were sunning in a mulch patch.  They seemed quite content.

Suddenly two hours had gone by and I decided to get them back under cover.  They were not out in the garden, which meant, I thought, they were upstairs in the true coop part of their mobile home.  As I placed the door back in place, I was talking to them as I usually do, and I was greeted with silence, not ‘a peep out of the kids’.  I had a brief moment of panic when I realized they were not upstairs, but there was no sign of an attack in the garden.  Then I heard them.  Outside the garden!  They had walked right through the six-inch square openings of the fence.  They really had flown the coop and decided to explore beyond the world I’d created for them.  They were quite literally tasting their world, and not willing to be cajoled home.

I tried.  I made cooing sounds and I shook their feed, but they just went about their business of ground investigation under the forsythia.  Damn their independence!  I was their mother and they should come when they are called.  In the end I resorted to picking each one up and placing them in the coop, shutting the door, and heading for the next one.  The last two engaged me in a comical chase around the coop (chickens are fast), and I was grateful no one was around to see me.  I’m ‘no spring chicken’ and I was getting ‘madder than a wet hen’.  Well, not really, but I was getting frustrated.  As I got the last one in and scolded them, I was already devising plans to reinforce the perimeter of the garden.

Getting ‘cocky’

The next day I added what chicken wire we had to the side of the fence where they had escaped, figuring that was where they would try first.  I would need to buy more wire later to finish the job.  Then I let them out.  This seemed to work nicely for an hour, so I decided to take a walk, leaving the dogs inside the house just in case.  When I returned, there were no chickens in the garden and I smugly went to the coop to shut it up.  Alas, I had ‘counted my chickens before they hatched’.  No one was home.  This time I found them outside the fence, on the other side of the garden.  Wanting desperately to be smarter than a chicken, I resisted the impulse to try and catch them again.  I went in to get a shower, hopeful they’d come home at dusk.

I have a great view of the garden from the upstairs bathroom of my house.  An hour later I watched with parental pride as each of my chickens – chicks just a mere 3 months ago – paced back and forth along the fence looking for a square opening they liked before stepping through the fence back to the safe side.  They scampered to their home readily.  Once it was dark I shut the outside door and the walkway to the upstairs.  My girls were safe for the night.  I am happy they seem to be developing normally: foraging, taking dust baths, getting exercise, and knowing to come home at dusk.  I might just end up with free-range chickens after all.  Now that’s ‘something to crow about’!

Who me?

Favorite Natives

A few weeks ago I wrote about autumn olive and some other invasive species on my property.  A week later I discovered several small burning bush plants along the driveway.  Hidden all summer amongst all the greenery, they practically jump into view now in their red-leaved splendor.  I think they are very pretty and delicate looking, adding a welcome intensity to the dull border of the driveway.  Unfortunately, the species I have, the winged euonymus, is also considered invasive.  While I marveled at the corky wings projecting from the stems, I felt frustrated by yet another problem plant.  So I decided to focus my attention on two of my favorite plants at Halcyon: sassafras and spicebush.  They are both native.

Corky projections on stem of burning bush

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is an easy tree to recognize, and I have always delighted in teaching its classic mitten-shaped leaf to students.  Actually its leaves come in three forms that are usually found on the same tree: oval, two-lobed (the mitten), and three-lobed.  Its flowers are very pale yellow, and its fall fruit is a dark blue drupe on a red stalk that is eaten by at least 18 species of birds.  I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve never noticed these fruits.  That we’ve only a few sassafras trees is a poor excuse.

All parts of the plant contain a substance called safrole.  This substance used to be used to make tea and root beer, and as an ingredient in toothpastes, soaps, mouthwashes, and chewing gum.  However, it was discovered to be a liver carcinogen, and the FDA declared it illegal to market in 1976.  I’ve had students tell me of their grandparents drinking sassafras tea all their lives.  This helps me go back in time mentally to imagine Halcyon and its species being used in such different ways than today.  In colonial days sassafras was highly used in medicinal treatments.  Sir Walter Raleigh first exported sassafras to England, and for a brief time in the 17th century sassafras was second only to tobacco in exports.  Before this Native Americans were also using sassafras for medicinal purposes.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a common understory shrub of bottomland forests.  I never noticed it until one spring when I was “off our beaten track” and saw its delicate yellow flowers hanging like a mist in the air.  With its thin trunk and twigs blending into the late winter dull background, it really did seem like the blossoms were floating.  It was magical.  I fell in love with spicebush.  It became the poster child last spring for my impetus to understand better my non-human neighbors at Halcyon.  I have since found it in a few other areas of the property, and I am starting to recognize it without its flowers.  The delicate lemon smell of a crushed leaf will confirm my guess.

Spicebush berries

Spicebush berries are a gorgeous, bright red color.  They are also a drupe and appear in late summer.  In colonial times the fruits were dried and powdered, after removing the seeds, and used in place of allspice.  I collected a few berries to dry this fall, but have since misplaced them.  I am sure to find some small dark wrinkled ‘things’ someday and wonder what they are.  I will try again next year with hopefully some methodology to my ‘madness’ so that I don’t lose track of them.

Tea was also made from the leaves, twigs, and bark of spicebush to induce sweating and break fevers.  The leaves turn yellow in the fall.  Overall spicebush is a gorgeous, understated shrub that I am delighted to have growing at Halcyon.  Growing, I might add, without any help from me.

Closeup of spicebush berry

What I didn’t know before researching this post is that the sassafras and spicebush are relatives, both being in the laurel family.  I like that they are both favorites of mine and related to each other.  While I am making my Thanksgiving dishes, I will wonder if past inhabitants of Halcyon made sassafras tea or needed to drink tea from some spicebush leaves to break a fever.  Did anyone use the dried berries of the spicebush to flavor their pies?  These special natives continue to nourish many species of birds, small mammals, and insects.  The feasting by such animals cannot create the same sense of tradition for them that humans can attain with our long-lived lives and overlapping of generations.  Animals just know what to eat by instinct.  But I like to imagine that somehow these creatures know of favored spots to eat, grow, mate, and die, and I hope to keep natives like sassafras and spicebush around to create such favored spots that will be used for generations.


Humans tend to enjoy activities and tasks that they do well.  Engaged in a task on the roof of our side porch this week, I found myself, definitely not enjoying myself.  I was attempting to re-glaze a window and found the work very frustrating.  I’d only ever done this once before and had to watch a video for a quick refresher.  Now the memory of that first also frustrating time came back to me.  Glazing windows is more of an art than a chore, and I did not have the right finesse.  As I stood there applying and reapplying glazing compound to the wood, I tried to focus on the delightful warmth of the sun on my back.  The same sun I avoided in July and August because it drained my energy was now waking muscles already resigned to cold winter mornings.  I soon found myself hearing a squirrel in the tree above breaking open a walnut, and the sound became like a song stuck in my head.  Walnuts are plentiful on our property and no other nut would cause him to gnaw and scrape so incessantly, with so much determination.  Is that all I needed to get my task done?  Determination.  I thought to myself how I could just get someone else to do this task for me, but what about that squirrel?  What if he couldn’t crack that nut?

Of course in a broad sense, he’d starve.  Evolution selects for squirrels that can feed themselves.  But I got to thinking about other tasks in a squirrel’s life: nest building, food storage, predator avoidance, and I wondered if squirrels cooperate with each other.

We have three species of squirrels at Halcyon:  the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), and a flying squirrel (family Sciuridae – I have no idea if it is the northern or southern flying squirrel).  All three species of squirrels are native to Virginia.

The flying squirrel does not really fly; it glides with flaps of skin called patagium that stretch between its wrists and ankles.  The only time I’ve seen a flying squirrel was when I rescued one that had gotten in the house and barricaded itself in the baseboard electric heater to hide from our cats.  Luckily the heater was not on.  With a little perseverance and quick reflexes at the right moment, I managed to trap it in a large Tupperware bowl.  As I released it, I had a chance to brush against the softest animal fur I’ve ever touched.  I hope as I merge better with the rhythms of Halcyon, I see more of the flying squirrels that live here.

The gray and fox squirrel are much more ubiquitous, though I must admit I tend to think they are all gray squirrels.  I guess I haven’t taken the time to notice them, to notice details.  The details are important because they are hard to tell apart.  Both squirrels are grayish in color with black and red in their fur. The gray squirrel is smaller and spends more time in trees.  It has a white belly.  It is crepuscular in habit, being most active at dawn and dusk.

In contrast, the fox squirrel is larger, and has a reddish belly.  It spends more time on the ground and it is strictly diurnal.  Walnut trees are particularly favored.  That means Halcyon is practically paradise for the fox squirrel (If we wanted to change Halcyon’s name, a good replacement would be Walnut Acres).

I still admit to not being good at telling gray and fox squirrels apart.  Often the ones scampering about on the ground during the middle of the day (hence diurnal) have white bellies and are therefore, gray squirrels.  Apparently you can tell from their incisors, and while I’d like to become more observant, I have no real desire to get that close to a squirrel’s face.

So do squirrels cooperate with each other?  Squirrels will warn the whole neighborhood if there is a predator about and they share their nests, but the only other information I could find about cooperation came from a pest control website stating that gray squirrels will cooperate by sharing as many as 50 nest sites and by pelting dogs and cats with nuts.

The sentence about a single squirrel having access to as many as 50 nests intrigues me, but since I can’t find any other similar claims, I am also skeptical.  I am not an expert on squirrels or squirrels as pests.  Perhaps I should be since there is a squirrel that seeks shelter in the wall space behind my closet every winter.   However, I think that pest control companies tend to exaggerate, sometimes, the problems associated with wildlife as pests in order to make their living.  As for pelting a dog or cat with nuts, I must really be doing a poor job of observation on my property if I’ve never seen this at Halcyon.  We’ve two dogs who love to chase squirrels, three cats, and a lot of squirrels.  Besides, evolutionarily it does not make sense that squirrels would waste their food pelting an animal stuck on the ground barking or waiting for them.

Perhaps the squirrels’ method of caching food for future use allows for cooperation, at least as a side effect.  Studies have shown that an individual squirrel is capable of remembering its own cache sites and will preferentially find and eat its own food stores.  But that same individual will periodically take food from another squirrel’s cache also, and these caches are found by sense of smell.  I imagine a squirrel that is not too good at caching or remembering, could still survive using its sense of smell.  Of course, it still has to crack that nut.

So my question about cooperation remains unanswered.  In general species do cooperate, at least when resources are plenty, or the species might die out.  I was wondering about more specific cooperation, sharing of tasks one individual might just be miserable doing, like glazing windows.  We can’t be good at everything.  I think I’d rather put more practice time into observing nature than glazing windows.  Thankfully, I’ve only eight panes to go on the glazing, and hopefully, over 120 seasons of observing at Halcyon.


Preparing for Sandy

Winter has come early to Virginia thanks to Hurricane Sandy joining up with some low-pressure systems from the west and the north.  I love the hunkering down feeling of a storm coming.  I get excited planning for cozy fires, soul food, and even power outages.  Two days before Sandy made landfall, I noticed this same frenzy of preparations in other animals during my walk, and throughout the day.

A pair of Pileated woodpeckers was doing their concentric tree trunk hopping with more pep in their step, quickly searching for a few more insects to tide them over if the wind became too strong to hunt.  Overhead, flocks of red-winged black birds and grackles were heading somewhere more hospitable to their habitat needs, much as we head to the store to buy emergency supplies to add comfort to our habitats.  A box turtle appeared near the wall outside my kitchen window.  He was moving cautiously, already cold perhaps. It is about a quarter mile to the closest patch of woods, and I wondered if I should help him get there.  He needs to dig a burrow about 10 cm below the soil surface for the winter.  Perhaps he will just ride this storm out under some leaves and then get to his business of hibernating.

Box turtle

I also saw two black snakes this week.  When reading about snake hibernation, I came across a site that said snakes never go in a crawlspace.  Ha!  They’ve never checked my crawlspace.  We have found shed snakeskin over the years in our crawlspace or any space a snake could crawl in our house (see my previous post on Elaphe obsoleta).  Both snakes were traveling in the opposite direction of the house though, presumably in search of a hibernaculum such as a rock crevice or rotting log.  Black rat snakes are known to hibernate in groups and even in mixed-species groups such as with timber rattlers, copperheads, and bull snakes (we do not have bull snakes in Virginia).   I’ve wondered about this arrangement given that black rat snakes will also eat copperheads. Definitely a case of strange bedfellows!

On the domestic front, my chickens spent a lot of time eating.  Somehow they too knew they might not want to venture downstairs once the storm started.  My dog Toc was very playful, leaping and twisting in the air, and then stopping in front of me, a clear indication that she wanted to play.  Does she feel the same quickening in her heart that I feel when the leaves go skipping wildly down the street, the same excitement that turned my walk into a run?

I got to thinking about how animals will complete their frenzied activities and actually settle down, either for this current storm or for the whole winter. Some will undergo a true hibernation with suspended metabolism like frogs, turtles, groundhogs, and snakes.   The wood frogs’ blood and body fluids actually freeze, but instead of its cells bursting from the ice crystals that form, the wood frog has a mechanism to increase glucose and urea, which act as antifreeze for its blood.

Some animals such as bears will just slow their metabolism and venture out if conditions periodically warm over the winter.  Black bears are capable of not urinating for months at a time – I’d settle for just a six-hour car ride – but such a feat would be toxic to us.  Bears can recycle the toxic urea into useful amino acids.  They also are capable of maintaining muscle and bone strength while inactive.  If we tried to sleep curled up for months without moving, we would have muscle atrophy and brittle bones.

Some animals, of course, will not hibernate at all.  Deer, turkey, squirrels, and rabbits will ride out the storm and then venture out to eat as soon as they can.  We are like these animals.  Except we tend to eat a lot.  Holiday parties and feasts seem more decadent in the winter than in the summer for us.  Deer, turkey, squirrels, and many songbirds will have to do with twigs and leftover greens or seeds they can find under the snow.

I find animal adaptations amazing, especially those adaptations that allow for survival in extreme weather and cold temperatures.  I am awed by how they know to get ready, how they know what to do, and how resilient they are.  I am not, however, envious.  I’d much rather haul in some wood, huddle by the fire, and even deal with power outages, than wait it out under the mud with antifreeze in my blood.  It would be so much harder to drink wine that way.

The dogs have adapted to the good life