Tuesday, November 25, 2008

She came back!

I walked into the coop last night, glanced behind the feed bins and saw a familiar grey furry body. And I had my camera in my pocket! Here she is laying on a few old feed sacks.

Her presence poses some problems, however. The big human-sized coop door was closed all day yesterday. That means she: a) came through the smaller chicken-sized door, or b) found another way in. If she used the chicken door, then she's smarter than she looks, and has learned to traverse the gate leading into the fenced run connected to the coop. If she's learned that, then keeping her out of the coop will be challenging. Maybe a few days keeping the chickens locked in the coop, with all doors closed, will convince her to find other feeding grounds.

If she's found another way into the coop, then I just need to find out where she's getting in, and seal it off with some mortar mix. Pesty, but not impossible. But I can't imagine where the hole would be. We've got that place pretty well sealed. And an opossum is not a slim critter. Unlike the mink who visited our coop a few years ago, who managed to slip through a hole the size of a ping-pong ball.

My husband suggested we use our BB gun. No way! Opossums, despite their bad rep, are more of a help than a hindrance. They eat a lot of bugs and mice. They usually don't live in groups, so this one is probably alone out here in our grove.

I've learned a few other things about opossums since yesterday. I'm guessing the opossum I found in our coop is female, since I've read that males will growl when they are threatened. Their gestation period is 13 days, after which they give birth to many tiny babies that find their way into mom's pouch and start feeding immediately. Three months after birth the babies leave the pouch and head off on their own.

They have thumbs on their back feet and their tails are prehensile, but they don't hang upside-down from branches like in the cartoons. They have more teeth than any other land mammal. Opossums are the only mammal from the Cretaceous period (the height of the dinosaur age) still surviving today. How cool is that!

As long as she stays in the woods, Ms. Opossum is welcome to our farm. Now, if I start discovering broken egg shells in our hens' nests, that's another story. Then it's time to borrow a live trap and introduce Ms. Opossum to our lovely local state park.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Down by the lake

I took a walk during my lunch break. At this time of year there are few visitors to the park, and besides flushing out a few deer and pheasants, I had the place to myself. Five minutes later I am down by the lakeshore. A thin sheet of ice covers the water.

We had a few inches of snow a couple of days ago, and the warm temps yesterday had melted some of it. It dripped icicles into the water, freezing again overnight.

I saw lots of tracks, deer and mink and rabbit and raccoon. There was a small edge of water lapping on the shore under the ice, enough room to dip a muzzle for a cold drink.

It looked like white frosting spread over a warm cake, melting off the top and over the sides of the rocks.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A hungry visitor

The dark comes early these days. At around 5:30 pm I went outside into the near blackness to do my daily goat and chicken chores. Just checking food and water, and saying a quick hello. First Eve, in her nearly finished barn, and then to the coop. The big door on the coop was open, which was unusual. I remembered that Owen had let the hens out this morning, and must have left the door open by mistake.

The hens have nearly finished their moult and their feathers have come in beautifully. I know that they are almost finished, because for the last three days I've been getting six eggs a day from them. Hurray! The boys will whoop with glee when I tell them we can make deviled eggs tomorrow.

This evening I almost whooped my own self when I went inside the coop and saw something-not-a-chicken sniffing around the hanging feeder bucket. I've never actually seen a living opossom up close. Usually I see them along the sides of the road, living and dead. This one was very much alive, and didn't really seem all that bothered when I appeared in the doorway.

We keep a lamp on in the chicken coop in the winter, for extra warmth and extra light. Contrary to popular opinion, chickens are stimulated to lay more eggs according to light, not according to temperature. That means they start laying like mad as the days get longer after the new year, and slack off a bit in the late summer as days shorten. So, to prod them into laying a few more eggs in the darkness of late fall, I leave a lamp on. Thank goodness that lamp was on, or I could easily have trod upon that opossom and not known it until too late.

I stood in the doorway collecting my thoughts, trying to remember all that I know about opossoms (which isn't that much, despite my career choice). I remembered that they are docile creatures unless cornered, when they will attack viciously. I remembered that they have very poor eyesight. I remembered that they've been around the planet for a long time, and haven't really evolved a whole lot. I remembered that they can carry sickness, like distemper and rabies.

I grabbed a big stick and went inside the coop. I circled around behind the opossom, trying to herd it back through the door. He didn't seem all that interested in leaving. Then one of our outside cats came inside the coop, saw the opossom and hissed. The opossom wasn't phased. I briefly wondered how close I would need to get, how close before the opossom thought it best to leave. I also wondered how close I would need to get before I breached the "cornered" threshhold.

Eventually, after a bit of stick beating on the walls and floor, and after the cat had hissed a few more times and ran outside, the opossom decided to leave. Not very quickly, and with no aggressive moves toward me. I looked outside and saw it walk slowly into the woods.

And all through this, the hens had been roosting quietly, watching the pantomime. "Well, that was interesting," I said to them as I filled their feeder. No more leaving the big door open during the day, unless I want more hungry visitors. I wished afterward that I had had my camera. Alas, no; no 'possom pics for the blogo, just 'possom prose.

Friday, November 21, 2008


A cold, cold morning. Single digits cold. The time has come. Winter is stretching its long fingers into western Minnesota, scraping its icy fingernails at our windowpanes. Soon winter's hand will reach out and grasp us cold and tight. Slowly its arms will curl inward and hug us close against its arctic belly. Those will be the mornings in January when a single breath outside your door will turn your nosehairs into icicles.

You can struggle against winter's grip. Most people struggle. I usually struggle. Last winter I struggled a lot. I struggled with a lot of things. It was a harsh reminder of a time not so long ago when I almost succumbed, when I fought against something within me that was big and dark and hollow and empty and terrifying.

I'm thinking about this upcoming winter, and wondering if maybe I shouldn't struggle so much. For me, this is easier said than done. But this morning helped a bit. This morning, after getting over the shock of the cold, I looked around and saw diamonds. Tiny beads of sunlight on the frosted grass, dazzling the air. A carpet of diamonds covering the prairie.

Maybe I'll try to welcome this winter's grasp, and take its hands in my own. Maybe I can wrap its arms around me, snuggle against its frozen body and listen to its heart beating against the snow. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nothing new

Another week has flown by. This morning I went into the older boys' room to wake them up for school. Graham was already awake, looking out the window. "It's snowing outside!" he said. We had about 1/4" of snow on the ground and heavy fog. Our first notable snowfall of the season.

I don't feel that I got much accomplished this week. It's been a cold, windy, drizzly week and I felt the overwhelming urge to stay inside and huddle under a warm blanket. I think my body wants to hibernate. Wouldn't it be nice to sleep through the winter? To know that the next time you wake up it would be spring time?

I've decided I'm going to order chicks next spring. This three-egg-a-day thing during the fall is right out. My egg customers have been complaining, and I've been missing all those good eggy things like egg salad sandwiches and angel food cake. Now I get the fun of deciding which breeds to order. Maybe I'll try hatching a few eggs myself with my niece's borrowed incubator. Maybe I'll let one of my hens hatch her own clutch, and walk out to the coop one morning to find this:

(photo credit: unknown)

What came first, the kitten or the egg?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An hour before dusk

I got home from work Monday and didn't feel like staying inside. When I asked for company, both Ben and Graham leapt up and started racing around looking for socks and shoes. A few minutes later we headed out.

The first stop was to the goat barn, to give some company (and apple treats) to lonely Eve. Her companion Dawn is away until the middle of December, and Eve isn't afraid to let everyone know that she misses her friend. Both Ben and Graham grab a small handful of treats and feed her through the fence. Eve chomps them down eagerly. I go inside the barn to refresh her water bucket and put another leaf of hay in her manger.

The boys follow me into the barn, and the outside cats aren't far behind. I give two large scoops of dry food to the cats, who eat like they've never been fed before (it was yesterday) while keeping a wary eye on my two little ones. Snips and snails and kitty cat tails, that's what little boys are made of.

The next stop is the chicken coop. Graham is just tall enough to reach into the nests, but Benjamin is not. Graham reaches in and feels for eggs in one of the nests, and I hoist Ben up to help him reach into another. Three eggs today. The hens are still in moult. One of today's eggs is a green one, the first green egg I've seen in eight weeks. Our hens have finished growing their feathers back, but the roosters still have a little left to go.

We bring the eggs into the house and return outside to fetch the mail. It's a running race down the driveway. Graham gets there first and takes out the mail. Benjamin is runner up and pulls the heavy newspaper from the box. They struggle with slippery ads and magazines as they head back up the driveway.

The mail and newspaper are put onto a chair on the porch, and Graham informs me we that should go for a walk. 'Where?' I ask. 'That way!' he says, pointed east over the fields. So, off we go.

The alfalfa is still tall and green, with long stringy stems. Benjamin has trouble walking through them without tripping. He reaches out and I take his hand, helping him along. We make it to the edge of our property line and begin walking across the barren, plowed field. The tines from the plow have created acres of small hills and valleys, etching a maze into the black earth. With each step we sink a few inches, until we reach the compacted path of a tractor tire. We follow the path down to the slough.

We read the edge of the slough. Duck wings are flapping in the water. 'I hear the river.' says Graham. He wants to step into the algae muck, but I discourage him. 'Let's walk around the lake,' he says and starts off. Then he pauses, puts a finger to his chin and says, 'maybe we should have brought a picnic.' I tell him that it would take too long to walk around it, and we should head back to the house to make dinner. 'Okay!' he shouts and turns around in mid-stride. We head back to the house, just as the last light of the sunset burns out over the tree tops.