Archives

Possumbilities

100_4541

Baby Possums Five minute cute stage.

The most difficult part of releasing possums back into the wild is actually releasing them. It’s not that they are so cute that I can’t bear to let them go. It is definitely the opposite. They are NOT cute when they are ready to go, they are, well, possums. My nephew calls them “Grinners”. It has to do with that open mouth stare they give you as they sway back and forth in the best threatening manner they can muster. They make a sound like a heard of angry bumblebees and if you try to pick them up, they immediately poop all over you. Possum poop sticks. Possum poop stinks. Nope, nothing cute or endearing there. You are more ready to have them running about the woods and sitting in the middle of the road than they are.
No, the most difficult part of releasing them is keeping them in the cage long enough to do it. Possums are escape artists. They let themselves go as often as possible. It begins when they are very young, soon after they open their eyes. This, I might add is the five minute cute stage in their entire lives.
Let’s back up to some opossum facts. Few people realize that they are not born dead in the middle of the road. I know it seems that way to most people, as that is the only place that they are commonly seen. It is a true testament to the persistence and efficiency of nature that we have not run out of possums. I’ve never quite figured out why they seemingly commit suicide by sitting in the road, but they do. Each time I am raising a batch, my son will shake his head and say, “Mom, WHY are you raising roadkill? You know that as soon as you release them, they will just head for the nearest highway.”
He’s probably right, but back to the interesting facts.
Possums are born before they are fully developed. The mother never even realizes that she is giving birth; she just goes on nonchalantly about her business. (Hopefully not in the road) The blind embryonic babies are about the size of a lima bean. In fact they look a lot like little pink lima beans. The first project as they emerge from womb to light, is to crawl to their mother’s pouch and attach to one of the thin little teats inside. Many are born, but there are only a dozen teats. It’s first come, first served, survival of the fittest, the fastest and the luckiest.
Once inside the soft warm pouch, the mother, like most marsupials will tuck her head inside to clean them . That’s about all she has to do with them for the first month or so. At about 6 to 8 weeks , the youngsters, who now have fur and look much like mice, open their eyes and start to peek out at the world. Now considering that a mature female possum is about the size of a housecat with very short legs, you can imagine that it’s getting crowded in there and she is walking on tiptoe to prevent her belly from dragging on the ground. It is at this point that she will seek relief by letting the babies ride on her back. It’s a pretty amusing sight sight, seeing a mother possum lumbering along with a batch of babies clinging to her for dear life.
And it is for dear life that they cling. A possum this size cannot survive in the world alone. Even being on her back is no guarantee, crows will attack from above and occasionally one will lose its grip and fall off or drown as she is crossing a stream. As they grow, she will allow them to roam around a bit on their own, but if danger arises she will call them back with clicks and hisses to the safety of her pouch. By the time they are the size of a large gerbil, the only way she can comfortably nurse them all, is to lay on her back and let them argue about who gets to the milk bar first.
By the time they are the size of small rats, they are devouring anything they come across. I have yet to find a food that a possum will not eat. Bugs, birdseed, vegetables, dead things (oh they love dead things), eggs…you name it, they eat it. They are a threat to anyone who keep chickens or birds. I have discovered however, that apparently, their very favorite food is fried chicken. Perhaps this offers some explanation as to why so many are killed on the roads, they are looking for takeout chicken.
A possum does not “play” dead as is the popular belief. Their first line of defense is the evil grin with mouth wide open and needle like teeth exposed. They posture, they hiss, they growl. It’s mostly for show though; I have rarely been bitten by a possum. If the threats fail, they panic and well, faint. It’s not just any average faint. They roll over on their back or curl into an unnatural position, their lips draw back and they foam at the mouth. Then in a coup de gras, they fart. A foul, greasy, possum fart. Trust me, it is a fart like no other. It would disgust a grizzly bear. Come to think of it, that may explain why the automobile is its main predator.
The possum lies unconscious, for anywhere between ten minutes to a couple of hours. Totally oblivious to what is going on around them; they can even be picked up and moved. Several times, people have called me saying that they have picked up a dead possum with babies in her pouch, only to have it wake up on the way here. I don’t think I’d want to be in a car with an angry, stinking possum loose in the back seat.
Possums are not hibernators, though they will hunker down and sleep through major snowstorms if they can. Being nocturnal, they look for dark placed to hide during the day. Not being the ambitious sort, they expend little effort build warm nests or burrows. They would rather camp out under the eaves of a barn or in a pile of old lumber, if they can find it, they’ll happily occupy a burrow of another animal, even if they have to eat the present, hibernating occupant. At night, the possum roams about the countryside, finding and eating whatever is in their path that is not still moving or fighting back. This brings about one of the bains of a possum’s life…frostbite. Having no fur on their ears, tails or toes and lacking numerous competent brain cells, the poor little idiots have no idea that they will literally freeze their arses off. You can usually tell an old possum, by how short and misshapen his tail and ears are.
An opossum in the wild normally lives only about 3 to 4 years. I don’t blame them for sitting in the road.
Ok factoids aside, back to the story. I normally get several batches of possums a season, if they are of the age that they have fur and their eyes are about to open, they have a very good chance of survival under my care. Homely little buggers, they “chuff” (a sound much like a frog sneezing) in distress. It means they are hungry and since they usually come in groups of eight to twelve, it takes time to bottle feed each one. Being used to the tiny teat of their mother’s pouch, they are loath to take a rubber nipple in their mouth and will clamp down so firmly with their jaws that the milk cannot get through. I usually end up with a syringe and formula dribbling all over my hand. Thankfully, they can be taught to eat from a dish very early. Every feeding time I walk in and see the mass of gray and white and wonder why AM I working so hard to raise roadkill. Then in one unexpected instant, they get cute. No, they get adorable. The noses are pink, the faces white with little dark widow’s peaks at their foreheads. Their tiny hand like paws have a white fur line that looks like they are wearing opera gloves. They curl that pink, prehensile tail around your finger and you are in love. You carry them out to show everyone. You tuck them in your pockets to snuggle, you just can’t get enough of looking at them. Then, after a day or two, you walk in and there they are, grinning manically, hissing, swaying and threatening to chew your finger off. Sigh, they will remain thus till the day you release them….or they release themselves.
The current batch of possums came to me via a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, I have nothing against the people who worship in this manner. In fact I admire their commitment to their faith and in their attempt to convert the world, one door at a time. I do have a problem to people sermonizing in my own home. Even after explaining that I was Buddhist and did not choose to “Pray for the animals of Jehovah’s kingdom”, they would not give up. Finally, I more than gently guided them out the door.
This could be trouble. I was going to have to convert this possums before they could be released. I don’t really care if they share my belief in Buddhism or not, but I certainly don’t want them knocking on doors with bibles in their pouches. Some are taking it better than others. Just last night one put his paw on my hand and asked if I knew where I was going when I died. I replied, that hopefully it would not be in the middle of the road like so many of his brethren.
As I mentioned before (and several times after) Possums are a bit hard to contain. You can put them in the tightest cage and someone will find a way out. I had Jehovah’s possums in a large glass aquarium tank with a tight reptile cover and a brick weighting it down. I thought that it was as secure as you can get. One night I went in to feed them and thought “huh, wasn’t there ten of these? “ I couldn’t believe that one could escape this maximum security, so I figured I’d miscounted and went to bed. The next morning I went into the kitchen to make coffee without my glasses on and scurrying across the floor was a RAT! After the initial shock wore off and I let go of the ceiling fan, I grabbed my glasses. Nope. No rat. Baby possum. I still don’t know how he got out. Someone must have snuck him a glass cutter while I wasn’t looking.
By now they were big enough to be put out in the big squirrel cage outside. I had just released a batch of possums a few weeks ago from this cage, so I was convinced that it would hold them. Not these guys. They were on a mission. The first day all was well. I would go out to feed them and they would all be snug with their fuzzy blankie and hot rock. Then I went out and counted eight. Hmmm, maybe they were just hiding in the straw. Two days later I did a nose count and it was six. What? Were they eating each other? Was someone letting them out at night? I checked the cage over yet again, even feeling through the poop littered soil in the bottom to find a gap in the buried wire. Nope, no tunnels. I eyed them with suspicion for the next twenty four hours. I did another nose count. Still six, and six it has remained.
I still don’t trust them though. I’ve put leg shackles on them till they are ready to release in a few more weeks. Then they will go far away from my chickens and ducks and any paved road. The squirrels and bunnies will just have to put up with their sermonizing.  It will take them years to find the take out chicken.

FIrst day

It’s “First Day” You mothers out there get the first day of school. This is the first day out for the fawns. The problem is that I send my children out to play in traffic and with coyotes and dogs and men with guns and arrows. The gates have been lowered for 6 days now, but the fawns have not paid attention till yesterday evening. As I left for class, I saw all four of them in the neighbors yard. My mind was on them all through Kung Fu and I’m lucky I didn’t get kicked in the head from the distraction.

I didn’t expect them to be home when I returned, and knew I would spend a sleepless night. That first night when I know they are not in the safety of the yard is always the longest night of the year. I constantly jump at the least noise and go to check if they are home. I wake up bleary eyed and stagger to the back door and call hoping that they will come all well and whole.

But when I went to the back yard and called, four pairs of glowing eyes shown in the light. I called again and they all came running for their bottles. We had never seen them so eager and hungry. I checked them all over and the worst I could find were tails full of burrs and muddy coats. They happily returned to their favorite bedding spot in the back yard.

This morning I called and only Princess came. She is used to hanging around the house while I make breakfast and will often share it with me. This morning, she only wanted her bottle and was back over the fence to find the others.

Remember the commercial “Do you know where your children are?” I don’t know where my children are. They are out of my sight and out of my control for the first time since they came as helpless babies in the spring. How fast the summer has gone! The beautiful spots that helped me identify each by their pattern are now fading and sleek brown coats replace them. There are tiny bumps of the bucks heads and the little girls have taken on the look of the graceful does they will become.

My rambunctious group of babies have grown into teenagers and the last thing they want is a human mother following them around. The time has come to give them back to nature and let them find their way.

I suspect that Nosy or Midge will be the first to totally disappear. They bonded the least with me and will hopefully join with a group of other does and their fawns. These surrogate mothers will be able to teach them the ways of the wild far better than I. Most of them will be does that I have raised in the past and seem more eager than the wild born to take them in. If I am lucky, I will catch glimpses of them in the following weeks.

Prince and princess, I expect to return for their bottles much longer. Princess, especially. She was the first and bonded the strongest with me. She likes to come into the house and visit and NEVER misses a meal or treat. Prince, is bonded to Princess, so he tolerates me and will sometimes come for affection. Often I have one or two of the deer come to the door for bottles or treats through November.

But the day will come when I go to the door and call “Babies!” and no one will come. I’ll put away the bottles. The basket of apples and peppermints by the door will be moved and the house will be quiet. I get very few animals in during the winter and since they are adults, there often little I can do, but ease their final hours. This is the time for taking in lost dogs and small animals that are no longer wanted or able to be kept their owners. Christmas will come and go and the deep sleep will be upon the land.

The first signs of spring will be the change in the trees that lets me know it is time to set the taps for maple syrup. The snow will melt into dirty piles and spots of green will peek through the dead grass. I’ll start stocking up on formulas, bottles, and baby shampoo. By March and April the studio will be filled with cages of squirrels and people will be begging me to take raccoons. The first fawn will come in mid May and the cycle will begin again.

fuzzy’s Tale

100_7246

No matter how hard we try to prepare ourselves for inevitable pain, it still takes us by surprise and leaves us breathless. Gentle, sweet Fuzzy died last night. It was painless for her, she was on her way to her favorite sleeping spot after dinner and her heart just stopped. She fell in the path and never moved again. I found her this morning. She did not suffer. I cannot say the same for myself.
We all knew she had the congenital heart defect. We knew that she was nearly blind. We saw that she was not growing properly and remained the size of a six week old fawn. We watched her faint several times a week, but she always got up again. She was fat and happy and had even started to play a bit and would run to get her bowl of milk. We saw all this and we knew that she would not ever survive in the wild.
She in fact, did survive longer than I expected. I was even at the point where I worried whether she would try to jump the fence with the others when the time came. I needn’t have.
Fuzzy was never meant to live in this life. She was born with piebald genetics. Piebald’s are partially white or completely white deer, but not true albinos. An albino deer has no pigment and along with the white coat, it has pink eyes and nose. Even the hooves are pale and nearly pink. A piebald, can be pure white, but it will have blue eyes and a black nose and hooves. Piebalds are often mixed color, with natural coloring and white.
Fuzzy had only a bit of extra white around the ears and on her lower legs. Some of her spots were oversize, but at first glance, you would not notice. The problem with piebalds is that they have a host of disabilities that make it rare for them to survive. They are prone to heart problems, poor vision and partial or total deafness. Their bones may be weak or brittle and often are bow legged or severely pigeon toed.
Fuzzy had the bad heart. That was obvious early on. It is probably why her mother abandoned her. She may have had a twin and the doe needed to save her healthy baby and could not risk keeping a disabled one. As time went by, I also noticed that her vision was extremely poor and she was knock kneed in the back. The oddest thing was that she could not suckle and had to be taught how to drink from a dish.
But she thrived. She gained weight and grew, albeit at a slower pace. She learned to use her ears and nose to track me around the yard and never, never missed a meal…..until this morning.
All fawns are cute, but Fuzzy was really cute. She had thick hair that stood out and gave her the appearance of an expensive stuffed toy. That’s where her name came from. Her eyes where huge and still baby blue. She had big ears for her size and they swiveled like radar so she always knew where I was.
Wherever I went in the yard, she shadowed me. She liked to lay on the rug in the laundry room when it was hot and I always left the door open a bit when it was going to storm. Fuzzy never liked storms, and preferred to ride them out from the security of the house. When I was in my studio, she often wandered in the open door and lay near where I was working. Often, I would have a giant Labrador retriever on one side and a small spotted fawn on the other.
Oh, she loved people! Anyone who came into the yard was licked and nuzzled. She was my little ambassador. She allowed children to pet her back and tug her ears. She enchanted everyone who saw her and made them understand why I work so hard at a job I do not get paid for.
Yet all the time, every single day, I would remind myself, that this was not going to be a deer that could live in the woods. My best hope was that she would choose to remain in the yard with me and allow me to care for her. I would never deny her freedom, but I hoped she would choose me over the wild. Every time I looked in the mirror and saw my Pacemaker/defibrillator I wished that there was something that could save her heart also.
Maybe that’s what made her so precious to me. We both suffered from bad hearts. We both should not have survived, but we did. I thought about putting her down when I first heard the regurgitation and irregular heartbeat through the stethoscope. I debated with myself until I was in love with her and it was too late. I told myself, I could handle this. I would let her live out her days, as many as she had. As long as she was not suffering, I would stay the course.
We did stay the course. She had many days of sunshine, warm bowls of milk, cats to tease and sweet, green clover. I allowed her to eat all my hostas and my daylilies without admonition. I think she had the good life I wanted for her. She was never hungry or frightened or cold since the day she came to me. She knew only love and kindness. She had a peaceful death. Few wild animals get to experience that and I am grateful for it.
When I called the fawns to breakfast this morning, Fuzzy did not come. My heart sank and I fed the others quickly. As soon as they finished eating they walked towards the back with me. I kept calling out for her, hoping she had merely been asleep or in a faint. I searched the rhubarb and then noticed the other fawns standing in the path by the woods. I knew what was there. As I knelt beside her body, the other fawns sniffed her and then walked on. They had already said their goodbyes.
It was difficult, as I wanted to bury her as quickly as possible. The thought of flies on her body was unbearable, but my damaged shoulder and injured back will not allow me to dig with the shovel, so I would have to wait for James to come home. I covered her with a blue sheet printed with clouds. Somehow, it just looked right. Later James buried her by the garden and my life with her was over.
It was easy to take her from my presence, but it will not be so easy to remove her from my heart. I thought of her while I was feeding night bottles and as I put away her bowl. I will think of her when it’s storming and will probably leave the door open a crack out of habit. Perhaps most, I will think of her on the first day the other fawns leave the yard and explore their world. I will think of her and say a little prayer that in her next life, she will be strong and healthy and forever free.

The Letting Go

picky pig in pot
The time of year for letting go has begun. It’s bittersweet and never fails to tug at my heart. Since late spring I have been releasing squirrels and bunnies and little birds, but they are gradually let go in the yard and I see them frequently till they get their bearings and go off on their own. They are generally with me only a short while and I do not normally form attachments to them. Besides, how attached can you get to a squirrel?
Tonight though, the weather was cool and clear and it seemed the perfect time to take Pickles the porcupine and two of the raccoons out to the woods. Pickles has been my joy all summer.
She came to me, only a hour or so old. Her quills had not yet hardened to sharp little pins and her placenta was still attached. She was found by a mushroom hunter in late April and he called me as soon as he found the tiny black baby alone in the woods. He knew with the cord and placenta, there had to be something wrong. I explained to him that when a mother porcupine has more than one kit (technically called a porcupette), she will cast out the second born, even if it is healthier than the first. She does not clean it up; she does not even look at it. She simply shoves it out of the tree or log or whatever she is using as a maternity ward.
He said the baby was crying and he didn’t know what to do. I told him to slide his hand under its tummy and bring it right over. He was here within minutes.
Now, all baby animals are cute, but porcupines have a real lead in the market. They have long bristly hairs on their heads, short little noses like a guinea pig and the softest paws this side of a raccoon. Being nearsighted, they peer up at you with shiny blue eyes and give little squeaks and pips. In short, they are simply adorable.
I got her cleaned up and the cord cut and dressed, the gentleman who brought her was absolutely amazed that I handled her easily with my bare hands. He had put on welders gloves from the trunk before he picked her up. I made a warm bottle and within minutes she was snuggled to my chest making little noises of pleasure.
No one thinks of a porcupine being cuddly, but they are. They are also vocal and extremely playful. She loved to sit on my shoulder or lap while I worked on the computer and our favorite game was “Tickle the Pickle”. I’d tickle her tummy and she would squeal with delight. When porcupines are unafraid or content, they do not raise their quills. They lie flat against their body under the long guard hairs. After playing she would settle in my lap or the crook of my arm and snore happily. That’s how I discovered that you should never sneeze while holding a porcupine. I picked quills from my sweatshirt for an hour.
Pickles lived in my studio as do most of the babies in the beginning. Her cage was on a shelf behind my worktable and she got lots of attention. She was allowed free playtime to roam the counters and shelves and it generally went well, till I discovered she liked to eat crayons. They were moved out of her reach, she started nibbling the paper mache’ parade dragon I was building.By the time she learned to open her cage herself, nearly everything was moved out of reach.
Several mornings, I got up to find her in the kitchen trying her teeth on my dining room chair legs. (Oh well, a parrot chewed the top rail, so what’s the issue?) The cats and dogs are all used to having porcupines running about the house, so we rarely have problems there, but there was one squirrel who was also notorious for escaping his cage, I had to remove quills from his nose and paws. He quickly learned his lesson about porcupines and escaping his cage.
When she was no longer happy with her indoor cage, I moved her to a larger one outside. It was my old parrot’s cage and had plenty of room for limbs to climb, shelves for sunning and straw in the bottom to roll in. She loved it till she discovered that she was supposed to stay out there all night. She started working the latches on the doors. Just when I’d think that I’d managed to fix it to keep her in, I would come home from Karate or Kung Fu and find her sitting on the rail by the studio door waiting for me.
Once she was weaned and had a constant supply of food in her cage, she was more content to stay there, but she still insisted on play time in the grass or cuddles and kisses. She was definitely the star attraction and charmed everyone she met. It was like she was the porcupine ambassador, helping me teach people about how useful porcupines are in the wild. Without them, many animals who could not reach tender twigs in the winter would starve. Year round, porcupines, clip little twigs and branches with their succulent leaves and buds and drop them to the forest floor, where deer and rabbits gratefully find them. They have few predators, except bob cats, cougars and fishers, these animals have discovered that porcupines have no quills on their stomachs and quickly flip them over with a paw. I would explain that while porcupines do sometimes chew bark off of apple trees, they do little damage to the homeowner. That is, unless he has left out hand tools that have absorbed the sweat from his hands. Porcupines love salt. They utilize it to metabolize the potassium and calcium essential for their diets. Leave out a well used axe and the handle will surely be chewed.
Because she was so gentle, we were able to show people that porcupines cannot “throw” or “shoot” their quills. A person or animal must push against the quill for it to stick in their flesh. I can attest to this personally as all it takes is a careless or abrupt move to pick up a quill. Fortunately, baby quills come out as easily as acupuncture needles and seldom hurt.
By mid July, Pickles was getting pretty large for her age. I actually don’t know if Pickles is actually male or female, their genitalia do not differ till about 6 months. She seemed like a little princess to me though, so I just always assumed her female. Some evenings, I would go out for a visit and she would be sitting in her cage on her hind legs with her nose to the wind. A week or so later, she would balk and raise her quills as he turned her back to me when I would tell her play time was over. Our time was running short. Pickles needed the woods. I began giving her more twigs and leaves and less sweet potatoes and corn on the cob. This did nothing for my popularity, but began her journey to freedom.
This week, I decided that it was time for two of the older raccoons to go, so the smaller ones might have their cage. I like to get them to the woods as soon as they are competent, so they have time to establish themselves before winter. I gave them extra rations to fill their tummies and early this evening, we packed up.
The coons were put in the carrier first with little problem. One thing you can say about raccoons is that they are always up for adventure. We put them in the back of the truck and their little paws reached through every opening to see what they could get into. Not so with Pickles.
When I approached her cage, Pickles looked at me suspiciously. I opened the door and she turned her back to me and presented her tail like a prickly club. I put my hand out for her to grab, but she ignored it. I started talking to her and tickled her tummy. That broke the ice and she allowed me to pick her up without much protest. I put her in the cage she occupied as a baby and was shocked at how tiny it seemed with her in it. She knew something was up and wasn’t sure she like it. Still, she was agreeable and calm as I closed the back of the truck.
Now I may have mentioned before, that one needs to release a raccoon at least FIVE miles away or they may decide to come home. To confuse them even more, we take the long way to our destination and make extra turns. I don’t think it does anything to confuse them, but it makes us feel better. We went to one of our favorite spots on the Boardman River. It’s far from busy roads and there is fresh, shallow water, cool dark woods and plenty of food sources. James carried the coons in their carrier and I carried Pickles in her cage.
As soon as we set the cages down the coons were ready to party. We opened the door and the large female came charging out, the little male held back until she came running back for him as if to say, “Hey! What are you waiting for? Let’s go.”
As they were doing their initial exploring, I took the top of the cage off of Pickles. She seemed confused. She tried to climb back in her cage and pulled at the top half. By now the coons were halfway to the river and back and on their way again at full speed, so I lay on the ground with my shy little picky pig.
We talked and she sniffed the ground, she nosed me a few times and tasted the grass. She took a few tentative steps into her new life. The coons came tearing up and climbed over me. One of them stuck his nose in my ear and they were off in another direction. Obviously, they were having no trouble adjusting. I got up and put out my hands for Pickles to climb up. She did…all the way to my neck. We walked into the woods. We checked the trees and the water. We laughed at the coons tumbling happily in the moss.
Pickles started to click her teeth in excitement. We were next to a large white pine tree, with many easily reachable branches, I knew this was it. We went to the tree and I gave her one last nose rub with mine. She looked at me for a moment with eyes that were no longer baby blue and reached out for the tree. Resisting the urge to pull her back, I held her feet while she got her grip. She climbed. I worried that she would fall. She didn’t. She climbed.
Finally Pickles settled between two branches, high in the tree. She could see the river, the woods and the sun beginning to sink. She turned her back on the noisy coons who were having a grand time in a nearby tree and she closed her eyes. The separation was complete. She was wild now and I was a creature from a different world.
There was nothing left, but to go home. I don’t think the coons even noticed.
When I went to feed fawns and possums and coons and everything else tonight, I caught myself reaching for a sweet potato. Looking out the window at her empty cage, I felt a stab of emptiness. It only lasted a second, then it was replaced with the knowledge that three animals who would surely be dead, are now healthy and returned to the wild. They are where they belong and so am I. The letting go has begun.

Of Mice and Highly Educated Men

100_4392a

I was looking at my little deermouse tonight. I’m not really sure how many years I have had him. Four,  I think. The night I caught him the cats had him cornered in the upstairs bathroom and when there was nothing left for him to do, he turned his back and started washing his whiskers. If he were going to die, he would do it with a clean face. I was so touched by his courage and acceptance, that I scooped him up with my bare hands and he has been on my desk ever since.

He’s had everything a mouse could want , including a squeaky exercise wheel and various soup cans for sleeping quarters. He’s gotten everything from Cheetos to mouse chow, peanuts to pumpkin pie. (by the way you lick all the cheese off the Cheeto first.) He’s had a good life for a mouse.

Tonight, I was giving him a cheese nip and noticed that he was much thinner than he used to be. His muzzle is grey and his whiskers sparse. He is getting old. How many mice ever get the chance to get old, I wonder? Still he runs in his wheel and tucks his food away in his soup can for later. Each time I sit down at the desk, he runs out to see if I have brought him anything. I suppose some morning he just won’t come out of his can any more and that will be the end. I hope so. He deserves to die peacefully in his sleep with his tummy full of Cheetos, not as a snack for some hungry cat.

But when he goes….I bet his face will be clean.

It reminds me of another mouse story.

Of mice and Men (highly educated men)

It seems like the phone only rings when I am either feeding something or washing a fuzzy little butt. Either way it is an interruption and hopefully I get time to wash my hands before I pick up the phone. On this particular day, I was feeding two fawns and washing another fawns butt (in one end and out the other) when the phone rang. I managed to tuck one of the bottles under my arm and wipe my hand on my apron before I grabbed the phone in the shed. (I have phones in the oddest but most convenient places around here) I wedged it between my ear and shoulder so I could continue feeding.

The professional sounding voice on the other end hardly waited for me to say hello, “This is DR Edward Hildibrand,” He said athoritively.  “My daughter has found a squirrel this morning and you HAVE to take it.”

This conversation was arrogant on so many levels, that I was already loosing patience. “Well, Dr Hildibrand, tell me how you found this squirrel and what does it look like?” After spending years chasing after supposed bear cubs that turn out to be old porcupines and retrieving a seagull, that the caller INSISTED was an eagle under her porch, I have gotten in the habit of asking for descriptions.

There was a tone of exasperation on the other end of the line. ‘We found it in the driveway this morning. It doesn’t have any hair and it’s about an inch long. You have to come and get it NOW, we are on vacation and I have things to do.”

Oh gosh, he was on VACATION, he must have really pressing, important things to do, but since he was a doctor, I’d give him the benefit of a doubt. “Well, sir, I said, I don’t actually come to pick up the animals. It’s standard for the person who finds it to bring it to me. “ I explained as concisely as possible that if I were to travel to pick up every animal call every day, not only would I not have any gas, but there would be no time left to take care of the animals I did pick up. I could tell he didn’t like the idea, he was on VACATION after all and that was more important. “Are you sure it’s a squirrel?” I asked, it sounded awfully small to be a June squirrel.

You could hear the ice form over the telephone line. As he spoke slowly enough for someone of my obvious low IQ to understand. “Yes, I’m sure it is a squirrel. I have a PHD for God’s sake. My daughter found it in the driveway and she won’t stop crying till we take care of it. I told her that you people get paid to come take care of these things.”

Ohhhh, A PHD doctor….on VACATION!  Wow, this was my lucky day! I tried to keep any trace of smugness from my voice as I said.  I’m sure you weren’t aware of this sir, but we don’t get paid to do this job and I’d really appreciate it if you could drive the animal out to me.”

Then he played what he thought was his trump card. He put his daughter on the phone. She sounded about seven. She was crying.  “My Daddy said that you would come and take care of this poor baby squirrel so we can go on our boat trip. He promised that you would do it!” I could hear her little foot stomp in her hundred dollar sandals.

“Well honey, I will take care of your little squirrel, if your daddy would just be kind and generous enough to drive him to my house. You see, I can’t leave right now because I am feeding some baby fawns. Would you like to see the fawns? They still have their spots and will drink out of a bottle for you.”  HAH! Ace in the hole.

I could almost hear her eyes get big and round as she told her daddy, in no uncertain terms, that they were going to get in the car and drive her little squirrel to the nice lady’s house and feed the baby deer.

He got back on the line. It was difficult to understand him with his teeth gritting so loudly, but I made out that they would be leaving shortly for my house. I had saved the coup de gras. Are you sure,” I asked slow enough for even a PHD on vacation, to understand, “That it is indeed a squirrel?  I want to have the proper formula ready and it would be different for, say, a possum or a chipmunk or a bunny.”

I’m sure there was spittle flying around his phone as he growled. “It’ a squirrel, damnit. I know a squirrel when I see one.”

“Ok,” I said cheerfully, “we’ll see you in about 20 minutes. Do you need directions?”

I could feel him roll his eyes and curse ever coming to a backwoods place with so many ignorant country people for his precious vacation. “No thank you. I have On Star.” He hung up.

OOOOOOH, ON STAR. Now I’m impressed

I busied myself getting an intensive care room ready for the squirrel if he should require it. Actually, intensive care means that I put a heating pad in the bottom of the cardboard box, but it sounds good. I mixed formula for what I assumed would be a red squirrel and watched Martha Stewart until I saw the shadow of a huge SUV with Detroit license plates block the sun from the window. I met them on the porch.

The daughter was adorable in her matching sun hat and shorts ensemble. It was pretty obvious that her sunglasses cost as much as my bib overalls, T-shirt and shoes, combined. She came skipping up the steps and plopped on my porch swing. Daddy came sauntering up next. He didn’t use the railing. I think he was afraid he might get dirt on his Geoffrey Bene shirt. (I don’t think my car cost as much as HIS sunglasses)  He glared at my slobbering Labrador who was eager to do his happy-lick-lick dance and shoved an L. L. Bene shoebox under my nose. “It’s in there” he sneered as he took out a bacterial wet wipe from his pocket and washed his hands.

“Thank you”, I smiled and looked to his daughter. “Come on honey, you can pet the deer while your daddy fills out the paperwork”. The child was squealing with joy as the fawns licked her face and hands. I got out my record book and asked him to spell his name. I entered it and he reminded me, twice, that I had omitted the DR from in front of his name. After I finished with the address and phone number (and he reminded me about the DR again) I opened the box containing the “squirrel”.

I looked up at his well tanned face, “What kind of doctorate do you have?

He puffed up and looked down on me. “Economics, of course. Why do you ask?”

“Because,” I deadpanned, “I wondered what kind of education you need to have to tell a squirrel form a mouse.”

I couldn’t help it. I started to giggle. I’ve never seen a man’s face get that particular shade of red, before or since. He stood there, opening and closing his mouth like a fish in the bottom of a rowboat as his little daughter bounced in the back door.

Is my squirrel ok? What will you do with it when it grows up? Will you let it go free like my daddy says you will? Can I see him again, can I, can I?” She was literally dancing with excitement around me feet.

I told her that even though it might have LOOKED like a squirrel,  it was actually a mouse. I reasured her that even if it was just a mouse, I would take care of it anyway. The only problem would be that the mouse would be so tame that it couldn’t be released back into the wild and someone would have to take care of it for the rest of it’s life.  At this exact moment, I looked downcast and said, “It’s too bad that I don’t have a little girl of my own to take care of a pet mouse  as pretty as this one will surely grow up to be.” As she was peering sadly into the depths of the shoebox, I asked, “How long will you be here on vacation?”

“Oh, we have the whole summer here. We rented a big house on Lake Michigan and we aren’t going home till August. Are we Daddy?”

The fish face turned ashen white as Dr Hildibrand realized what I was going to do next. It was like a train wreck in front of you. You see it happening, but you are powerless to stop it. All you can do is hope you get out of it alive.

I’d let him live, but not let him off easy.

I put my hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “If I feed the baby mouse milk until it can eat seeds and cookies and all sorts of mouse stuff by itself, would you like to come back and take it home with you to live? You must remember though, it can never be released to live in the wild or it will die and he will need lots of special mouse food and fun mouse toys.” At this, I smiled beatifically up at the good doctor.

He stood there with the look of a condemned man meeting the preacher at the cell door. His adorable, but spoiled little girl threw her arms around his legs and chanted “ThankyouDaddy! ThankyouDaddy! ThankyouDaddy!”  He let out a long sigh of resignation.

I like a man who recognizes when he has been beaten by a master.

We spent the next 45 minutes feeding the mouse with an eyedropper and putting together a mouse cage for her to take home till the mouse was ready to live in it. Finally I wrote my phone number on the inside of the little girls shoe so she could call and check on his progress. (Phone numbers written on paper can get lost you know). It was time to send them off in their gas guzzling SUV so they could finally go boating.

As I was waving good-by, I heard the lovely sound of thunder.

I hate raising mice, but sometimes, gosh, it’s worth it.

I am a Raccoon Whore

100_8680

 I have often said that the reason I don’t take raccoons is that it’s like loosing your virginity. You gave in once, why say no the next time.

I said yes once this summer, then again and now,well, I admit it….I am a raccoon whore. I just can’t help myself.

Number three is snuggled with her stuffed moose in my studio now. She is little and still on the bottle so she has more time to worm her way into my heart. It’s those soft little hands that hold my fingers. It’s the shoebutton nose and eyes in that adorable mask. It’s the little “Whoot” that she greets me with. Oh it’s all too irresistable. How can I even think of putting her outside with thoes other coons from the wrong side of the woods?

I’ll have to wait a few weeks after she hits the stage where she screams and poops and eats like a pig looking for an acorn in a mudhole. (Raccoon babies like to wear their food….for days.) When I’ve had to wash her every time she eats and clean her cage on a daily basis….when I’ve had to scrape coon slop and coon poop off the walls….when every thing I own is covered with tiny, dirty handprints….well, maybe then I’ll put her outside. But for now, please someone stop me before I coon again.

Do Not Disturb any Further

I was sitting with a cup of coffee this morning (sitting is a rarity this time of year) and heard voices in the yard. I looked out and there were two women and three children in my yard, hanging over the fence, trying to coax the fawns to come to them. I tried to be polite at first and asked them what they were doing. They said they were driving by and saw my gardens so they stopped at the curb to look at them. Then the kids noticed the ducks in the pond and they decided to get out of the car to see them. From there, they noticed the other gardens and saw a fawn in the back yard. “They just wanted to pet him” they said. “And isn’t this the “rehab Center” that SO-and-so brought the bunnies?”
My patience was slipping like butter in a hot pan.
I explained to them that this was private property and that I would never consider invading their privacy in their yards. One of them chimed in that “I shouldn’t make it look like a park then”.
For a moment, I considered going for my garden trowel and giving them the “trowel of Death” threat. But instead, I told them to leave and not come back without knocking on the door and getting permission first and I went in the house.
I had barely closed the door when one of the children knocked and asked if he coud go in the back yard to see the deer. All patience evaporated.
I am ashamed to say that I had some very ugly words with the mothers.
What the hell is wrong with people? Usually, my patience holds out till August. I ran out early this year. It seems as though people are getting more and more demanding every year. They expect me to take the place of Critter Control so they don’t have to pay to have possums, raccoons and skunks removed. They want me to drive to Rapid City to pick up a baby bird the cat brought in. They expect to bring their aunts and uncles and brothers friend from Alaska to visit the animals they brought ANY TIME THEY WANT. (Honest to God the brother’s friend thing was just last week and he was CREEPY)
THIS MY HOME! It is a sanctuary, not just for the animals, but also for my and my family It’s not public. I do not get paid for this and I do NOT have to put up with their shit. MY FRENDS come to visit (and then it had better be to visit me as well as the animals). THEY CALL FIRST. I LOVE having my friends come. I DON”T LIKE strangers running about my yard. If you don’t even know my name….KEEP OUT.
And yet, there has been the most incredible outpouring of support for what I do this year. For the first time many people have left donations for the animals they bring. The girls from the dance studio held a wonderful fundraiser for me this spring, that allowed me to continue what I do (even though they say it was just a good excuse for a party). These are the people who make it worthwhile. They are genuinely concerned for the animal’s welfare. I love educating them about the different animals and often invite them back to see their animal’s progress.
So I guess it all work out in the end. It’s all about balance. The good people and the bad. The animals that survive and the ones that don’t. The tears and the joy. It’s simply what I do and I love it.

I Will Not Feed My Children to the Cat

It’s baby bird season and it seems as though someone calls every day with some feathered beak that needs feeding. Every time I get almost everyone to the point of release and out of my studio, another half dozen come in. Right now, it’s mourning doves and cedar waxwings. I love the doves, they are quiet gentle birds. You feed them with a syringe and they are happy for hours. The wax wing is a different story.

I have a new mantra and I recite it several times a day and several times a night. I will not feed my children to the cat… I will not feed my children to the cat… I will not feed my children to the cat. No matter how much I want to, I will not feed my children to the cat.

It reminds me a spot a few summers ago, when I just could not keep ahead of the birds.

It all started when someone called me from the local resort and wanted me to come get some baby birds on the golf course (there are 5 golf courses at this particular resort). The caller claimed that her boss found these baby birds and wanted somebody to come get them NOW. I explained that I prefer people to bring the birds to me and if they did I would be happy to take them. She said, “well he’s on a golf outing you know”. I counted to 10 under my breath.

“Oh of course” I said with all the sarcasm I could muster. “How could I possibly think MY time was as important as a GOLF game?” I heard giggles on the other end of the line. She said she would get back to me. I returned to work in the garden.

Ten minutes later the phone rang again with the same voice on the other end. “Well,” she said, He can’t possibly get away from his game, but you can pick them up on the sixth hole.”

I took a deep breath and dug up bit more sarcasm, “Gosh, I hope they aren’t in the way on the sixth hole, because it will snow in July before I run all over a golf course looking for those birds. Believe it or not, I do have other things to do. Tell your boss, that when he comes in to pee or get another beer or has lunch, he can just bring the birds in with him.”

More giggles on the other end. “I’ll call back”, she said. I went back out to the garden once again.

Twenty minutes go by and I’m thinking that the birds are a non-issue now and the phone rings again. I know who it’s going to be.

“Yes?”

“Someone is going out to get the birds. The will be on a towel at the pool.”

“I hope they enjoy their day at the pool. I’m not coming to get them. It doesn’t work that way. It works like this…you find the birds, you call me, you bring the birds out to me and then I take care of them”

“I’ll call you back”

At this point I’d have done anything to keep her from calling back. I gave up. “Ok”, I said. You win. I’ll come and get the birds on my way into town. Have them in a box by a door.”

“They will be at the pool on a towel.”

“They will be in a BOX and someone will have them in their POSESSION or I will NOT come to get them.”

“Ok”. She said then nothing but a dial tone.

As frustrated as I was I figured that I could drive around to the backside of the pool, grab the birds and still make my appointment in town. I headed for the house.

“Ring… Ring… Ring”

I held my breath and gritted my teeth as I answered the phone. It wasn’t her. It was someone calling from a local tattoo parlor. They had a bird too. They couldn’t bring it out either. I started breathing so deep that I thought I was going to hyperventilate. Ok, two sets of birds. I could do that.

I changed clothes, slid my feet into a pair of cheap and uncomfortable flip-flops and ran out the door. I got to the resort and the access road to the pool was blocked off. I parked in handicap parking in front of the health club. (Hey, let’s be honest here. What were the chances that all the handicap parking would be needed at the HEALTH CLUB?) I left the car running just in case I needed a quick get away. Inside, I discovered that I was two buildings and a tennis court away from the outdoor pool.

My appointment in town was rapidly approaching. I set off at the best trot a 50 plus-year-old rather chubby woman could muster. “Oh Owwwww!” I forgot about the cheap flip-flops. “Ok, I’ll just slow down”. I finally made it to the pool and tracked down the person with the birds. All three homely fuzzy birds were in a vodka box lined with a very expensive golf towel. I carried them all the way past the tennis courts and through two buildings.” Damn cheap freaking flip flops!”

At last the car was in sight. So were a tow truck and two burly security guards.

“You realize that you can’t park here without a permit,” said first security guard.

“Yes I know, I was making a pick up” I said holding up the vodka bottle box with the birds in it.

“Then you should have used the sewice dwive.” Said security guard two with a slight lisp. I started to breathe deeply again, my right eye began to twitch. They probably thought they were turning me on. “You know. I could wite you a ticket for pawking here with out a puwmit.”

I was breathing way too deep and way too fast. I was getting dizzy. “Look”, I said. It’s 90 degrees and I have just run all over this stinking place in cheap flip flops chasing after some stinking birds that someone from here called me to come and pick up. I’m hot and I have a blister the size of Rode Island. You go wite ahead and wite me that ticket, but you better be prepared because I KNOW what I’m gonna do with these birds when you’re done!”

The tow truck driver, obviously and older and wiser man, took the security officers by the arms and counseled, “Boys, I don’t think you want to screw with this lady. Her bumper sticker says “Caution: Driver just doesn’t give a damn any more”. Let’s not find out what exactly that means. Then he winked at me.

The birds and I drove off peaceably and unmolested or ticketed.

I went to my appointment and by the time I got back to my car, all five birds were screaming their heads off for food. I turned the radio up and ignored them as I drove to the tattoo parlor. There they had a young blue jay waiting for me. I like blue jays; I wasn’t disappointed and could feel my mood lifting. As I walked out the door, the young man with enough metal studs in his face to confuse a compass said. “Thanks for picking him up. The cat was pretty pissed off when I took him away”.

Whenever a cat touches a bird, whenever a cat even looks at a bird, the bird dies. Oh not always right away and not directly from his injuries, but he dies anyway. Cats have a bacteria in their mouths that as soon as it comes in contact with a small animal or bird sets off a chain reaction of massive septic shock. It’s like being bitten by a poisonous snake, sooner or later; it’s going to get you. In the case of cat spit on a bird, The bird has a maximum of 24 hours to live.

“How long ago did the cat get him?”

“Oh, yesterday afternoon. But he’s been doing really good since then”

I was hoping he was talking about the cat, because the bird didn’t look like he was feeling all that great.

On the way home the blue jay keeled over in the box. One down, three to go.

Now, one of the problems with baby birds is that for a certain length of time, you can’t really tell what they are. At that stage, we call them UFO’s (Unidentifiable Fuzzy Object). You can make some good guesses at what they are, but it usually takes the appearance of some feathers to be sure. I suspected these to be starlings and they were the last birds I wanted to raise…. Or so I thought.

As soon as I got home the phone was ringing again. Someone else had two baby birds, but at least they were willing to bring them over. They also thought that they were starlings. “Oh well, I already have three”
Several hours later they finally arrived and instead of two baby birds, there were FIVE baby birds. Oh boy, EIGHT baby birds to feed. I started soaking kitten chow.

The easiest thing to feed a baby bird is soaked kibble, either dog or cat. I like kitten chow as it is very high in protein. I remember my mother always tried to feed baby birds we brought home bread soaked in milk. They always died too. I wonder how that tradition ever came about. Though birds DO have breasts, they have no nipples. No nipples…no milk.Birds do not drink milk, but that’s what everyone thought you should feed them. It didn’t take me long to figure this out and used to mix up boiled egg, grains, peanut butter and olive oil for nestlings, but dog or cat food is so much easier and I always have it on hand.

The first night was tolerable; I popped bits of wet kitten chow into their wide-open mouths about every hour till I went to bed. The next morning though, I could hear them from upstairs. It took my sleep-blurred mind a few moments to process exactly what had woken me up at dawn. I went down and fed them. By the time I got dressed, they were hungry again. I fed them till they stopped screeching and made coffee. They were hungry again. This went on from dawn to dusk. Every time they heard a noise or saw a shadow, they thought they should be fed. We started tiptoeing around the house and speaking in hushed tones.

Within a few days I could tell that none of the birds were feathering out like starlings. The set of five was developing soft gray plumage and the three younger ones were coming in blue black. Starlings are always black with whitish speckles. I’d have to wait a bit longer to see what they were. There was one thing I knew though; they were getting on my nerves.

Every time the five started to scream, it would make my skin crawl. I would go in to feed them and the noise would match the decibel level of an old lawn mower…in a small room. They would finish eating and I would somehow feel sad. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then in a flash, it came to me.

When the great towers fell on 9-11, the television coverage of ground zero was constant. The world watched while they searched for survivors with heavy equipment and trained rescue dogs. Every once in a while they would stop all the equipment and listen for sounds of trapped survivors in the collapsed buildings. The only sounds were the whistles of the emergency locators on the gear the firemen buried in the rubble. The sound the birds were making was the same sound. The sound of lost heroes. No wonder it made me sad. Thankfully, the birds only made that sound for about a week. Then they moved on to a new screech that was more like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It wasn’t long before I realized that the gray birds were cowbirds and the black birds were grackles. Two of the most destructive and obnoxious birds in the wild. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. Usually only one or two at a time (they must have thought that the starling parents were real suckers and gave them the whole family). The cowbird eggs hatch with the host birds eggs, but the cowbirds grow much faster. They will take most of the food that the parent birds bring and crowd out the smaller nestlings. Soon all that is left is one or two very large, very fat cowbird fledglings. Grackles at least raise their own young, but travel in large flocks and are capable of emptying a bird feeder in the blink of an eye. They are noisy and far from pleasant sounding songbirds. Combine the two and you have an eardrum rupturing, nerve-shredding, head splitting experience.

I felt like Quasimodo with the bells of Notre Dame when he grabbed his head and cried “The bells! The bells!” With us it was “The birds! The birds” Evil thoughts started creeping their way into my head. A little voice was whispering in my ear. “Cats. Cats eat birds. Just call the cats…. Here kitty, kitty, kitty”

“NO! I WILL NOT FEED MY CHILDREN TO THE CAT!” I will chant it as often as I need to. “I will not feed my children to the cat”. They will be grown up soon and fly away. I can do this. Only a few more weeks.

Ducks and Geese and Eggs, Oh My!

100_4610

 I am witness to the most amazing act of nature this morning. The Rouen Duck hatched 8 ducklings yesterday, one was weak, so it is in my studio in “Intensive care” (a box with a heating pad). The remaining babies remained with her in her house all night and this morning when she tried to bring them out the four geese, whether out of curiosity or competition crowed the babies and pecked at them. They became separated from their mother and I had to run out in my nightgown to intervene. I cashed off the geese, much to their indignity. They remained on the hill honking and complaining. The mother duck got everyone back in their little log cabin and peace was restored to the yard.

I continued with my chores and realized that it was rather quiet in the back yard ( a relatively rare occurrence). I went out to check and the mother duck was walking her seven babies around the area to get them acquainted with the water and food situation. This is perfectly normal behavior for the first day out for ducklings. What astonished me, was that the older female goose, who is sterile was right there with Momduck, carefully nudging the fragile babies to keep in the group. They would stop for a moment and she would very gently groom the tiny ducklings. Momduck seemed perfectly happy with the situation and all the other geese were kept at bay. Even if another larger duck approached the group, the elder goose would snap and hiss at them, before going back to her nanny duties.

We took in this goose and several others from a feed store that had mistakenly received a double order. The white geese tend to be a bit aggressive (well, a LOT aggressive) were destined for the freezer, but I have always had a soft spot for Toulouse geese. They are stately and gentle and truly beautiful birds with their soft gray plumage.

We kept the pair, hoping that they would breed and we’d still have meat for the freezer. Unfortunately, she has never laid a single egg. We kept het though as company for Pap-Pap, her mate. Now I am so glad I did, she may be very useful in protecting the wild ducklings when I put them out in the yard.

I have observed benign interspecies contact before, but never one stepping in to help and protect another’s offspring. Now, they have returned to the little cabin and the safety of the nest. The tender old goose is stationed in front of the door keeping watch. What a lovely old girl.

This isn’t my first rodeo with waterfowl, read on……..

                                                                        Lucy and Ethel

 

I have a long history of getting or requesting strange Birthday presents. I asked for ice skates once…. I got the puppy from hell…I asked for a peacock another year… I got a dozen chickens. Well, you see how it goes. One year though, I actually got exactly what I asked for…geese.

I have always loved the stateliness of large gray geese. They have an almost regal way of holding their heads atop of those long slender necks. I love the way they seem to view the world with detached distain as they casually work their way from one place to another. They don’t waddle like ducks; they stroll with majesty and authority. I had often watched a gentle pair of old Toulouse geese at a local nursery where I shopped for plants in the spring.  They would work their way around the property

carefully weeding between the plants and bushes. They never chased customers or honked loudly. They were like beautiful, living garden ornaments… I think they were drugged.

The next spring as my birthday approached, I announced that the only thing I could possibly want was a pair of lovely gray geese. My husband cringed and asked if I wouldn’t like diamonds instead. No, it would simply have to be geese. Diamonds couldn’t possibly compare. He dutifully drove me to the local feed store to order goslings from their catalogue. The salesman smirked as he wrote the order and receipt. We thought it odd, but then, so was the salesclerk.

  I couldn’t wait to tell everyone what my birthday present would be. It surprised me when everyone I told how excited I was to be getting geese, would give me an incredulous look and say, “Are you crazy?”  My  mother and sister reminded me of the horrible white African geese that my grandfather brought home to weed the strawberries. The huge birds ate all the strawberries and then proceeded to terrify my siblings until they would no longer go outside. No one (including my grandfather) ever opened the front door without first looking to see where the “Honkers” were before dashing to the car. The nasty birds ruled the yard with a reign of terror that would rival any street gang. The property was soon devoid of decorative vegetation and covered with streaks of “goose-graffiti) After he death,  the family hired armed mercenary solders to dispatch them the evil horde. Long after the geese were gone, my brother would try and frighten me with stories of how the “Honkers” would get me if I didn’t behave. Since I was too young to remember the geese, I always assumed that “Honkers” was just another word for the “Boogeyman”. 

Every time someone would tell me of some horrible experience of being chased by giant geese with three inch fangs and talons, I would assure them that I was getting Toulouse geese and they are known for their gentleness and good natures. I taped up a photo from a magazine showing a small child with a tiny stick herding well behaved flocks of Toulouse across the peaceful French countryside. I’m now convinced that, just outside the photo frame, were several large men with clubs and shotguns protecting that child.

 By the time the goslings arrived, I had totally convinced myself that my geese would be gentle and sweet. They would weed my garden, eat harmful bugs and playfully bathe in my goldfish pond. I could hardly wait to pick them up.

James and I drove to get them on the day of my birthday. (I don’t need to tell you how old I was, we’ll just say I was old enough to know better) Since gender is rather tough to distinguish in goslings, they are normally sold as “Unsexed or Straight Run”.  Basically, this means that you get whatever they scoop up from a bin of hundreds of day old hatchlings at the goose factory. We surmised that if we ordered three geese, we would have a good chance of getting at least one female and one male.

 As the adorable little balls of gray fluff were boxed up and handed over, we noted that the salesclerk was outwardly giggling.

“Ya ever had geese before?” he asked as James handed over what seemed to be a rather large amount of cash for birds that fit in a shoebox.

“No,” he replied in that certain eye-rolling way he has perfected. “They are her birthday present”

“Some present” snorted the clerk. He nodded in the direction of a display of tall rubber boots. “ Better get her some of them boots over there too.”

We heard sniggers from behind the counter as we left, but ignored them as we took our new babies home. Oh how adorable they were! Of course, we drove all the way home with the open shoebox on my lap. The goslings looked up at me with tilted heads.  Their expressions were quizzical as they examined us with shoe button eyes. Jim would reach over occasionally and stroke one of the downy backs and a little “peep, peep!” would be voiced. How could these magical little creatures ever grow up to be anything, but the lovely birds in that idyllic photo?

Once home, we all took turns holding the babies to begin the bonding process. We wanted our geese to consider themselves pets, not poultry. We snuggled them to our faces and reveled in their softness. Finally, reluctantly, we relinquished them to their new brooder pen so we could go to a romantic birthday dinner at a local restaurant. Levi would stay home and “goose- sit”

Half-way through the appetizer, reality tapped us on the shoulder. Jim’s phone rang. It was Levi. He was hysterical. Jim signaled for the waiter and a take-out box as he handed the phone to me. Even after all these years of practiced crisis management, it is still difficult to understand my son when he is hysterical. After guiding him through several deep breaths in a paper bag, he managed to relay that one of the goslings had stuck his head through the mesh of the brooder and get stuck. When it pulled its head back, it gashed its neck. Levi swore that he could see it’s “trachea and guts and EVERYTHING!”  As we left the restaurant with our prime rib stuffed in a Styrofoam box, I expected the worst. I assumed that if the gosling was not already dead, I would be faced with euthanizing it.

I had tears in my eyes as I opened the top of the brooder, expecting the worst. . There were still three apparently healthy goslings pecking at the food. Odd, I thought. I picked each one up and examined them carefully, no blood, no guts.  When I checked the third and largest of the three, I discovered a tear in the skin on its neck.  Birds have very thin and fragile skin, especially when they are young. It punctures and tears fairly easily and an injury looks much more severe that it actually is. This was definitely the case.

The separation in the outer skin was about an inch long, but the membrane protecting the muscle tissue and blood vessels was intact. I cleaned it with some saline solution, used a bit of antibiotic and sealed it back together with super glue. It took longer to remove the superglue from my fingers that it did to repair the bird’s neck. By the time I was finished and came out to the kitchen, my husband and now calm son were eating my prime rib. They left me the cold baked potato. Happy birthday.

The goslings grew rapidly and followed me all over the yard.  We delighted in watching them chase bugs through the grass and play in the goldfish pond. They would splash and flap and dive under the water to swim in circles as though they were flying..  They would lie in my lap to nap and call for me if I was out of sight. Word spread around the neighborhood about “That woman and her geese”. It wasn’t long before the local grade school asked me to bring my babies to the third grade class room. When I put them in the basket for transport, it looked like a picture postcard as they peeked over the side. They were perfectly behaved when we got to the classroom. I showed the children how they would follow me like I was their mother and gave them a brief history of the Toulouse breed. When it came time for questions, the goslings were walking up and down the tables  gently nibbling papers and children’s outstretched fingers.

One shy little boy raised his hand. “Mrs. Gaskin” He drawled, ‘My daddy says that a goose’s mouth is connected directly to his butt. Is that true?” Just then, two of the goslings decided to prove him right. They didn’t even squat to give warning. They just let fly with warm, wet, goose poops! Children scattered in all directions. A chorus of “EWWWWWW” was heard. The geese thought this was all part of the show and immediately took advantage of it. They ran up and down the tables flapping their wings and peeping. Papers fluttered through the air and the last goose let loose.  The teacher and I both grabbed for geese and paper towels.

One little girl stood frozen in place, her eyes round as saucers as she pointed to her math book. “Goose poop! Goose poop!” She cried and started to gag. I know when it’s time to leave and beat a hasty retreat. An aide rushed the retching girl to the restroom as the teacher walked me to the door. “It’s always interesting to have you come, Mrs. Gaskin” she said with gritted teeth.

 It’s a brave teacher that invites me to her classroom twice.

I thought about the feed store salesman on the way home. I was beginning to understand his comment about needing boots. Of course, it is true that any animal’s mouth is connected directly to the other end. In most species, there is a lot of territory between the two, but I have come to seriously reconsider that fact when it applies to any creature with feathers. Especially geese. Geese get big. The bigger the bird, the more they eat. The more they eat… well, you can do the math.

By the end of summer the geese were fully feathered with flawless gray and white feathers.  They strolled around the yard with all the grace and majesty I had expected.  Still thinking of me as their mother, they paid me homage as they bowed and chattered in my presence. Everywhere I went within their yard, it was like a parade…I was queen followed by, two dogs and three geese. Unfortunately, when I would leave their yard and enter the house, it was always by the same door at the back deck. Since that was where their leader exited, well then by golly, that must be where their leader would reenter. You can’t play “follow the leader” without the leader, so you wait for her….at the door…..on the deck. Now, think back to the discussion about in the previous paragraph and you see the problem.

The back deck was getting slick. It started to smell. We took to washing it off with the garden hose once a day, sometimes twice. Every time I would see my wonderful husband standing there with the garden hose, I knew he loved me. He hated those geese, but he loved me enough to put up with them. I finally decided that I could solve the problem and protect my marriage by installing a low fence separating the deck and back door from the rest of the yard. Problem solved. The geese could no longer hang out on the deck waiting for their queen.

By now we realized that we did indeed, have both male and female geese. The two girls developed the characteristic large soft flap of skin and feathers on their stomachs that would cover and incubate eggs when needed. The male looked more like he was wearing “bloomers” with his full feathery legs.  Larger than the females, his voice was starting to change from the peeps and chatters of babyhood to the loud honk of a gander. There was a period of about three weeks when he sounded like an adolescent boy answering a telephone. It would start out as sort of a soft “Nooonk” and then squeak and squawk until he managed to lower it to a loud clear “HOOOOOONNK!” Once he mastered the”honk”, there was no turning back….or peace and quiet.

Now that we knew what sex the birds were, it was time to give them proper names. Up to this point, we were simply calling them Goose, Goose and Goose. It was easy. I could call them all with one word and they would come running. It was however a bit difficult to refer to a particular goose without separate names. Each was distinguishable by small variations in their appearance.  One of the females had a bit of white feathering around her orange beak and seemed to always be getting into trouble (remember the brooder incident?). We named her Lucy. The other smaller female was shy and followed Lucy’s lead. We called her Ethel. The large, loud male who continually tried to control the girls, was of course, Ricky Ricardo. Lucy, Ethel and Ricky, It fit well.

Winter was mild and the geese did well in the snow. We would laugh at the tracks they made though the blanket of white.  With their wide feet and low keels, it looked like little snowplows had made paths throughout the yard. I actually appreciated these paths as they made it easier for me to navigate without high boots. Long before the weather warmed and buds began to green, Ricky decided it was mating season. Overnight, my gentle loving gander became a tyrant. He no longer considered me his revered mother either. In his eyes I was a potential mate! If I was just another of his harem, then my husband, of course was a male rival. It got ugly. James took to carrying a stick, a LARGE stick. He would slide open the back patio door and shout “I’m coming out and I’ve got a STICK!”

Our neighbors began to avoid him.

 All day, Ricky would either pace up and down the fence line or stand and protect his girls (who by now were building nests in the raspberries). As long as Jim stayed away from the geese or me, he was protected by his stick. He left it up to me to go and collect the eggs that were rapidly piling up in the nests. When I researched the Toulouse breed, it mentioned that they were “good” egg layers. When I went back to the book, I realized that “good” meant about 50 eggs a season. Multiply that by two and you get a whole lot of goose eggs.

At first, I delighted in the eggs. I put the large snowy white ovals in wooden bowls on the counter. They looked so attractive that I decided I would start blowing out the insides and making a permanent display. Nearly every child has blown out the insides of an egg in school, Cub Scouts or Brownies. I remembered it as an easy process. You poke a tiny hole in each side of the egg, put your lips to the shell and blow. The white and yolk come squirting out the other end. It’s a piece of cake.

 Let me tell you that goose eggs are a lot thicker shelled than chicken eggs. You have to get a DRILL and DRILL a hole in the shell. You better make that hole a BIG hole too, as the yolk and white in a goose egg are also a lot DENSER than chicken eggs. I drilled that first egg, put my lips to the shell and blew. I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head.  Like the wolf at the Little Pig’s house, I huffed and puffed and BLEW. My ears popped. I tried again. I got dizzy and saw little lights floating around the room. Finally I took a bamboo skewer and tried to scramble the egg inside the shell. I blew some more and at last, the egg came trickling out of the shell into the bowl.

After about the fourth egg, I knew I couldn’t keep it up without risking a stroke. I came up with the idea of using the very large hypodermic syringe that came with our turkey fryer.  It seemed a pretty simple and  ideal solution. Drill the hole, slip in the needle, hold it tight to the opening and push the plunger. The air went in much faster than the egg came out. I pushed harder. The egg exploded. Just about the time I was standing on a chair cleaning  raw egg off the cupboard doors, my husband walked in. He looked up at the egg dripping off the ceiling fan and said “Eggs for dinner again?”

Goose eggs were piling up. Still too early to let the girls to start incubating them, I kept collecting them from the nests. I tried cooking them, but once cooked they tend to be rubbery and have a distinctive “goosey” taste. My family grew suspicious of any egg I put on their plate, especially if smothered in cheese or salsa. Goose eggs are wonderful for baking, but how many cakes can you make? I scrambled them for the dogs. We quickly learned that the only thing that smells worse than what the goose leaves on the deck is what is passed by a Labrador when he eats scrambled eggs. Finally I resorted to cooking them and putting them in the freezer to use for raccoon and fox food in the summer. I gave everyone I knew bowls of hollow goose eggs for Easter. It was a relief when it was finally warm enough to let them incubate the rest.

Ethel was a rather noncommittal about setting her eggs. She would wander off the nest for hours at a time, then go back and stare at them as if she wondered who had put them there. Lucy however, took to motherhood like the proverbial duck to water. She spread the flap of skin and feathers over the eggs and tucked them in with her beak. Frequently, while she sat, you could hear this low chatter in her throat. We used to say she was humming to her babies. I began to feed her at the nest so she wouldn’t have to leave. She would take brief breaks to wash and rehydrate her feathers in the wading pool before returning to her post. I had no idea how her eggs were progressing, as every time I approached the nest she or Ricky would be snapping at my behind. I stood back and let nature take its course.

After a few weeks, Ethel gave up entirely on her nest and went back to waiting for a session of follow the leader, but Lucy became even more dedicated to her task. One morning I looked out the window and she was off the nest. Hoping to check the eggs I ran out (armed with the STICK) to peek. It was half empty with several broken shells scattered in the straw. Eggs had hatched! Across the yard I could see the  geese near the garden with three little puffballs stumbling behind them. It was a new version of the parade and I was not welcome to participate.

If a goose is protective during mating season, it is nothing compared to a goose with goslings. It became unsafe to venture into the back yard without the Stick. Even then, you didn’t want to turn your back and never, never bend over. Friends stopped coming to sit on the back deck. Getting to the garden became an ordeal. The dogs were peeing on the floor in front of the doggy door. One day I came home to find

my elderly neighbor trapped in the garden by angry hissing geese. The poor woman had come over to pick some peas I had offered. When she arrived, the geese were not in sight and she neglected to pick up the STICK at the gate. Luckily the garden is fenced in, but the geese stood sentry at the only exit. She wasn’t happy by the time I rescued her.  I would rather face down 24 pounds of aggressive goose than that old lady. Something had to go.

Since Ricky was the worst offender and the most aggressive, we decided to find a new home for him. I put notices on the bulletin board at the feed store. “Free, Toulouse Gander, one year old”. The only response I got was unsolicited comments from the salesman who had sold us the goslings in the beginning. I was getting desperate (and bruised). At last, a local farmer called to request Ricky for his flock of females. We jumped at the chance. We even convinced him to take the six week old goslings. When he came to pick them up, I noticed that he was wearing  high rubber boots. Ah, this was a man who knew geese!

Lucy and Ethel never even searched for the goslings or Ricky. I think they were relieved to see them go. As soon as the truck backed out of the driveway, the girls were begging to get into the goldfish pond for a swim. Who needs kids and men when you can have a nice, quiet bath? Peace was restored in the back yard.  All anyone needed to keep the girls in line was the occasional small twig, like the child in the magazine photo. I finally had my pastoral view of handsome gray geese strolling casually through the back yard. Summer passed and we settled into another winter. Spring came and I coped with the seemingly endless supply of goose eggs. I was over my obsession with the shells by then and the eggs went directly to the frying pan and freezer.

Like the year before, Ethel had little interest in brooding her eggs, but Lucy did her best with a nest of infertile eggs.  Birds will stop laying as soon as they feel they have enough eggs to incubate. If you want your hens or geese or ducks to continue producing eggs, you simply keep removing them from the nest. I had enough goose eggs, so I let her set. She dedicated herself to the nest for about 4 weeks and then decided that if they weren’t going to hatch, she’d rather be eating raspberries.

I waited a day or so before removing the now spoiled eggs to make sure she had given up on them.  I didn’t want her to return to find someone had stolen her babies. Unfortunately the beagle didn’t care. Like any good beagle, Jenny likes anything that smells bad. Rotten eggs smell bad, real bad. That’s like perfume to a beagle. Jenny raided the nest and stashed eggs all over the yard. One of the eggs she deemed most special, she brought into the house. There, in the living room, she battled with the classic rotten egg dilemma. Was it better to roll in or eat?  Somehow she managed to do both.

I don’t think there are words in the English language to describe exactly how the house smelled. I can tell you that it was like a thick fog hanging in the air. I was upstairs at the time and checked under the beds and in the closets for dead and decaying bodies. There was nothing, so I went down stairs. As I descended the stairs, I passed through the aforementioned fog. It’s a good thing that it took my breath away as I’m not sure I would have survived a second inhalation.

After hours of scrubbing the dog and the carpet, there was only an odd sulfur smell clinging to the furniture and me. I quickly took a shower and drenched myself in cologne before my husband came home. I was in no mood for the commentary that I know would be forth coming if he smelled the egg.  When he walked in the door, he was presented with a sparkling clean dog and perfumed wife.  He kissed me, patted the dog and sniffed at the air.  I somehow refrained from striking him when he looked me in the eye and said “Dinner?”

There were several times that summer when someone would shout “Jenny’s got and egg!” and we would all dive for cover as if someone had thrown a live grenade. She managed to make those eggs last into mid September. Late in October, when the morning frosts were heavy, but not yet turned to snow, I looked out the bedroom window and noticed that Ethel was lying in the leaves with her head tucked under her wing. They frequently spent the night in that particular corner and I assumed she was still asleep. Lucy was standing next to her and I didn’t think much about it.  I did think it strange when they hadn’t moved by the time I finished breakfast and went out to feed everyone else.  Walking over to check, Lucy looked at me and gave a low shuddering cry.

Ethel was dead. I’m not sure exactly what the cause of her death was, but it was sudden and happened in her sleep. She had been perfectly fine and acting normally the evening before, now she was gone and Lucy was distraught. Geese live a long time and form strong bonds; these geese had grown up together and were as devoted as mates. I buried Ethel and let Lucy through the inner fence by the deck. I sat with her and she allowed me to stroke her broad smooth back. After a little while she wandered back to the area where she and Ethel had been the night before.  She stood with her head down and repeated that long low sound over and over.

Lucy refused to eat and would only take little sips of water. She ignored all her favorite treats and even though the weather had warmed again, she showed no interest in her pool. One beautiful sunny day, I went out to try and get her to eat and she was too weak to stand.  She was dying of a broken heart and there was nothing I could do. I thought that at least I would let her die in one of her favorite places, so I carried her to the goldfish pond where she had played so often with Ethel. As we sat on the ground, she placed her head in my lap. We stayed there for a long time in the sun while I stroked her long neck. I had some grain and bread in my pocket that I had planned on trying to feed her earlier and she worked her head near it. She made a few weak nibbles through the fabric and I pulled out the bread and offered it to her. She ate it! I scooped out the rest and let her take it out of my hand. She raised her head and looked at the pond and I gently put her in the water.  It was weak and half hearted, but she took a bath.  I ran in a got more food and she ate and drank her fill. Later, I helped her out and returned her to the back yard.

She no longer languished in the last place she saw her friend. Now she stood by the back door and waited for me to appear. I had been part of her flock before and was a part of it again. All the devotion she showed to Ethel was now transferred to me and  she refused to eat or drink unless I was with her. It wasn’t long before she had regained her weight and was healthy again. Her dependence on me gradually lessened and she returned to the back yard. Life went on and one cold day in February she was joined by a white Pekin Duck.

 

                                                                        Quackers

It was bitter cold and we had about a foot and a half of snow on the ground, the day  someone called me about a duck needing rehabilitation. I assumed it was a wild duck, probably a Mallard that had been injured. I asked for details and the caller told me that the duck had been found in an abandoned apartment. “Apartment?” I asked “how did it get in there?”

“Well” He said, “we were evicting the renters for not paying the rent and when we discovered they had already left, we went into the apartment. The duck was in the bathroom.”

Still envisioning a wild duck, I said “Bathroom?”

There was a sigh on the other end of the line and the voice replied, “Yup, the bathroom. It looks like he’s been in there a long time too.”

Confused, I asked just what kind of duck it was and how he thought it got in there. What he then described sounded like someone’s pet Pekin duck. I convinced him to drive it out to me and when it arrived, I realized that it was indeed a domestic Pekin. Normally, these ducks weigh 6 to 10 pounds and are snowy white. This poor duck was so filthy you could barely discern the color and it weighed less than three pounds. As soon as I picked it up to examine it I could feel its keel (breast) bone poking out through its feathers. Its eyes were dull and sunken and the skin was peeling off his webbed feet. No one knew how long that poor bird had been locked in the bathroom, but the landlord said that it had drunk all the water out of the toilet bowl.

Doubting that it would even survive, I brought the duck inside and made it a warm bowl of mashed grains, scrambled eggs and water. It ate every bit of grain and after drinking its fill tried to wash in the water bowl. Encouraged by its stamina, I filled the bath tub with lukewarm water. Ducks only float because they have oils on their feathers to make them waterproof. This traps air in the feathers and keeps them on the surface of the water.  This oil also keeps the ducks dry on land and the air insulates them from the cold. To maintain this state, waterfowl constantly groom their feathers to clean them and spread this oil (from glands on their backs and under their wings) across their entire bodies. A clean duck floats like a cork, a dirty duck sinks like a leaky row boat.

He was very dirty duck and in a short time sank in the tub. Knowing I couldn’t make the situation any worse, I got out the baby shampoo. I always try to avoid removing the natural oils on waterfowl with any kind of soap as this means that the duck will have to be kept warm and dry for as long as it takes to restore the oils. To keep a duck warm and dry in February meant that I would have a duck in the house.  It was not a prospect I was terribly excited about.

Splashing and quacking loudly, the duck soon had the entire bathroom and me soaked.  We dried off with towels and then I took the hairdryer to him. By the time we were done, he looked like he had been through a high wind, but he was clean and dry.  I set up a pen for him in my studio and he walked right into it. Now I realized that he had probably been raised inside the apartment and lived in a small cage till he was abandoned. We named him Quackers and proceeded to fatten him up.

 

Over the next month or so, Quackers not only gained several pounds, but groomed his feathers into a sleek finish of pristine white. He would quack excitedly whenever I would come in the room and waggle his little curled tail feathers. The weather had warmed a bit by then and I decided it was time to move him outside. I carried him out and put him on the now snowless ground. He didn’t know what to do. He seemed terrified of the open space.

The fawn pen next to the house is covered with opaque plastic in the winter. It is used as emergency shelter for any animals that may need it. It has a tin roof and a thick layer of clean straw on the floor. If any animal needed this shelter, it was Quackers. I moved him into the pen and he relaxed as soon as he was contained in something resembling a room. I put a low piece of fencing in front of the fawn pen door so he could look out and meet the other occupants of the yard without being harassed. Lucy, being the nosey sort, immediately came to investigate. He eyed her suspiciously, but held his ground.

Every day I would coax him out of the pen and into the yard. He would walk on the grass like it tickled his feet and was constantly looking up at the sky as though he were looking for a ceiling. Eventually, I removed the fence and allowed him free range to come and go. He started following Lucy about, even though she generally ignored him as if he were a species beneath her. Though he had a shallow wading pool at his disposal, every few days he would follow and Lucy to the goldfish pond. It’s a good sized pond and they could splash and swim to their hearts content. As soon as they were done, Quackers would go and stand at the gate to be let back into the back yard. He had found a home and he liked it.

Later that spring, I was at the feed store and knowing that I take in animals, they asked me to take an extra duckling that somehow got put with a shipment of chickens. Nobody wanted it and it was just sitting there alone peeping pitifully. Of course, I took it home with me. What’s one more duck? That, my friend, could be considered famous last words.

The new duckling grew rapidly and soon joined the flock in the back yard. Its only problem was that it had been brooded with a batch of baby chicks and was never quite sure if it belonged in the pen with the chickens or loose in the yard with Lucy and Quackers. I loved looking out the window and seeing the large stately goose, the fat waddling Pekin and the little gray and white duckling trying to keep up. By autumn the new duck had her adult feathers and there was no curled feather on her tail. How perfect! We now had a male and a female duck.

The snows fell and melted and early that spring the female duck disappeared. Just when I thought something had happened to her, she reappeared,  then disappeared again a few hours later. I would only see her briefly a few times a day, just long enough for her to eat and grab a quick wash in the wading pool. I had been picking up goose eggs for weeks and realized that the duck must have a nest.

 I searched all over the yard to no avail. I checked under the smokehouse, in every pen and under every bush. No nest. Finally I waited till I saw her at the feed dish and hid behind the chicken coop until she had finished. Glancing around as if checking to see if any one was watching, she made a beeline for the pile of brush waiting to be burned in the fire pit. She went to a small opening between the sticks and wiggled through. I peeked inside and found a nice hollow where she had piled straw and leaves to make her nest. It was just out of reach, so I couldn’t tell how many eggs she laid. We started referring to her as Momduck.

April arrived and with it, a terrible snowstorm. The wind howled and temperatures dove to the low 20’s. I knew the nest would probably freeze and the eggs would be lost, but there was nothing we could do. After the storm abated and the weather cleared,  Momduck was hanging out with Lucy and Quackers once again. The eggs were dead. Other things took our attention and we forgot about the nest in the brush pile.

Unfortunately, the beagle did not forget. Since I was picking up the goose eggs on a regular basis, she didn’t have access to her normal source of bad eggs.  She kept an eye on the abandoned duck nest though and when the timing was right; she started bringing in rotten eggs. We burned the brush pile.

By now, I realized that Momduck was pulling her vanishing act again and I started searching for the new nest. It took days of watching, but I finally found it under the low hanging branches of the gooseberry bush. I must have walked right past it a dozen times in my prospecting, but never found it till I noticed that Quackers spent a lot of time standing by the spot. I peeked in the nest while Momduck was taking a bath. Fifteen eggs! I wondered how many would hatch.

Every day I would creep out to the bush and peek at the eggs. Usually, Momduck was sitting on it and would express outrage when I would gently lift her to check the progress. One day, as I reached under her to raise her up, I felt warm, downy bodies. Not wanting to disturb the hatching I went back to the house and waited. By morning she was waddling about the yard with thirteen baby ducklings behind her.

 No one was allowed to get near the fuzzy yellow babies. Not Quackers, not Lucy, not me. Momduck herded and led them about calling them to her whenever she perceived a threat of any kind. At night she tucked them under her wings to keep them safe and warm. She was the perfect mother. Perhaps a bit too perfect, by the end of summer we had a whole lot of ducks running about the yard. We were faced with a difficult decision. Do we try to give all the young ducks away or do we eat them?

 I have always felt that eating meat brings with it a responsibility to the animal providing it. I know how factory farms operate and feel a pang of guilt whenever I think of the conditions the animals are kept in. My animals are raised in near ideal environments, with lots of fresh air, chemical and antibiotic free feed and the freedom to scratch in the dirt and do what animals like to do. We had raised a few chickens and butchered them in the past, so we knew how to do it. Topping it off, there was the fact that, well, I like duck.

 I would never even consider eating an animal that had been raised as a pet, but livestock is different and thirteen ducks qualify as livestock. I decided that as long as the ducks were raised with respect and compassion then dispatched and butchered humanely, yes…I could eat them. (There might be a twinge of guilt, but like I said, I really like duck. Lucy, Quackers and Momduck were pets, but the others had to go.

There are certain times that it is easier to remove the feathers on a duck than others. At the age of 7, 12.5 or 18 weeks there are the fewest pin feathers. A pin feather is a regular feather that has not grown out yet. The only reliable method of removing pin feathers is with a pair of strong tweezers or pliers. Since we couldn’t remember the exact date the ducklings hatched , we did what we called a “Test Duck”.  My dear husband dispatched the duck, dipped the carcass in boiling water and… wait a minuit… remember the oil on a ducks feathers? It makes them waterproof and the hot water couldn’t penetrate the feathers to loosen them. We added a few drops of dish soap and swished. Now we had a thoroughly wet duck carcass and James began plucking it while I looked up recipes for orange duck. I waited a long time. Eventually, I wandered out to see how it was going. The duck was still not  naked and the husband was getting testy. It obviously was not one of those “window of opportunity” weeks.

We brought the pimply and pin feather covered carcass in the house. I spent the next hour with the tweezers making it look less like a porcupine and more like the crispy brown roasted duck in the recipe book.   I rubbed it with spices. I basted it with orange juice. I roasted it in a hot oven for the required time. The smell wafting from the kitchen was heavenly. At last, it was time for dinner… It didn’t exactly look like the photograph, and the total operation took four hours longer than I expected, but it was orange duck. I could handle the guilt for something that tasted so good.

A week and a half later, we tried a test duck again and this time it was much easier. Before long we had 13 ducks in the freezer and the yard was quiet again. The next year a fox took the first and second nest from Momduck. It appeared that she was done laying and I ordered 12 ducks from the feed store. The day after my ducklings arrived, I realized that Momduck was nesting again. By the end of the summer we had over 26 ducks in the yard. I filled my freezer, my son’s freezer and had some left over for Christmas presents. I decided to trust Momduck from now on and never order ducks again. I’ve stuck to that….sort of.

 

 

                                                       The Rouen and the Mallards

 

Nearly every year I get in a few orphaned wild baby ducks to foster. I usually end up keeping them in the house till the can hold their own outside. I’ve tried integrating them into Momducks broods, but she has no desire to foster Mallards and chases them away form her babies. Once they are fully feathered they can usually join the backyard flock and hang around till the wild ducks start flying migration in the fall. Since we live near a sizeable millpond, large flocks fly low over the yard in their migratory patterns. You can hear their raucous quacking on the pond from our house. It doesn’t take long for the young Mallards to notice.

When the first flocks fly over, the orphans cock their heads and look up at the sky.  As the autumn progresses more and more flocks fly in to rest on the millpond. The yard Mallards run the length of the property from fence to fence following them. Occasionally a wild duck, perhaps on that has been raised by me in the past, will land in the yard or the goldfish pond. This causes great excitement from my ducks both fostered wildlings and domestics. Usually when the visiting Mallards they take off again, some of the young fosterlings will fly off with them.  The young ducks will come and go from the yard for a few days till at last, they attach themselves to a migratory flock of Mallards and head south.

In the middle of June last summer, I got a frantic call from someone on their cell phone. She had just witnessed a family of ducks trying to cross a busy street and a car had run over the mother and two babies. There were still five ducklings by the side of the road and the caller didn’t know what to do. I told her to scoop them up and bring them  out to the house. When she arrived, I could tell that she and her teenage daughter were still upset. They related the story of how the valiant mother duck had tried in vain to gather up all her babies and protect them from traffic with her wings.  You could see their anger as they told of a man in a pick up not even attempting to slow down or avoid hitting the little group. They had watched in horror as he callously ran them down. Now the ducklings were orphans and they worried how they would survive.

Momduck had recently hatched a brood and I tried to sneak the mallards in with her babies. I swear she is the only duck who can count. Just as soon as she noticed that there were five extra ducklings, she chased the interlopers away. It looked like the orphaned Mallards would stay orphans. I prepared a spot for them in the house where they could be warm and protected. They did as well as any baby duck, spending their time splashing in their water dish and generally making a mess. I expected that within a few weeks they could be moved to a pen outside.

Every summer, the nearby village of Fife Lake has a weekly Farm Market on Thursday evenings. More party than market, it features bluegrass music, cheap hotdogs and neighborly conversation. Usually there are a few tables of produce, homemade goodies and occasionally a few chickens, ducks or rabbits. On the Thursday after the ducklings were orphaned, we noticed that one of the farmers had some ducks for sale. One was a large quiet female Rouen. Rouens are large quiet ducks that very closely resemble the wild Mallard only half-again as large and cannot fly. They are the most popular meat and egg laying duck in France and most of Europe. I thought back to that magazine photo of the Toulouse geese I had seen years before. On the page after the geese photo was a pastoral scene of a provincial farm pond with, of course, Rouen ducks. I was sold.

I batted my eyes at my ever patient and gullible husband. He sighed and said, “Well, mom duck is getting pretty old…” I smiled and quickly dug out the six dollars required and tucked the duck in the basket I had intended on filling with spring greens from another table. Who needs salad when you can have a DUCK?

We took her home and I temporarily put her next to the baby ducks while I fixed up a holding pen for her. By the time I returned for her she had climbed over the barrier and was eating with the ducklings. Curious, I stood by to watch what would happen. The ducklings all gathered around her peeping excitedly. Unbelievably, the Rouen lifted her wings and let the Mallards crawl under. From that moment on, she had a brood and the orphans had a mother.

They spent the whole summer together. They followed her about as she taught them to chase bugs and hunt for fat, tasty slugs. I let her walk them to the goldfish pond to swim and splash. She watched as they flapped their wings and tried to fly. By the time the wild flock started migrating, the ducklings were fully grown and fine looking Mallards. I was curious to see if they would take flight or stay grounded like a domestic duck (domestic ducks, for the most part, have had the capability for flight bread out of them).

At first, they would run from the front fence to the back fence, following the wild ducks. As they ran, they would flap their wings. Each day they grew stronger and faster. Then on a cool crisp day, one by one, the mallards left the ground. They looked surprised that their feet were no longer running and pumped their wings to rise higher in the sky. The Rouen earthbound watched as her fosterlings circled the property and flew off to the mill pond.  I wondered if she would miss them when they were gone, but when the last Mallard left, she simply waddled over to Quackers and Momduck and joined their flock.

They have been together since, like the Three Musketeers…”All for one and one for all”.

Since I wrote this, three years ago, we have lost the original Momduck and Quackers to neighbors dogs. Tragically they were mortally wounded and needed to be released from their suffering. Though they have been replaced with two new Pekins, they have never been replaced in our hearts. The new ducks seem to lack in personality and the female shows little interest in sitting the eggs she lays. Luckily, she learned to lay them in the Rouen’s nests and they hatch all the same. That loving brown duck is color blind and loves them just the same. Things all even out in the end. Perhaps she should have her own name now. I think Guan Yin. The Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion.