“The Owl Critic”

“The Owl Critic”

Several years ago, two barn owls set up housekeeping in the hayloft of the old barn at my place. From seven eggs, the pair hatched four owlets, but they weren’t safe. The nest had been made on the top of a stack of square hay bales in a corner, but a crafty raccoon or possum must have found them, as one day the little ones had simply vanished. I was sick about that, and asked my friend Mike Mothersbaugh to build a nesting box for the owls, and mount it high up on the north wall of the loft, where no nasty varmints could get to it. Following a design from the conservation department’s website, he completed the job as requested, and every once in a while I climb the stairs in the barn to check for signs of occupants. Finally, this summer. . . success!

While it was fascinating to watch the progress of the little white fuzz-heads with the big dark eyes, I tried to keep my visits to a minimum so as not to disturb the family. Each time, though, I would speak softly to the owls, telling them how honored I was that they’d chosen my barn as their home, and how perfectly beautiful they are. Some days they would listen to me, tilting their heads to one side or the other from a perch far above my head, doing a little bob-n-weave move to bring me into better focus. Soon there were at least two fledglings–maybe three–out and about with the parents, learning to fly in the hayloft and later moving outside at twilight for hunting lessons. I learned about the various sounds they make, and what they eat (lots of mice and voles!) and examined the odd-looking pellets they cough up after they’ve digested all the nutrients from their prey. Captivating and shy, these barn owls have me enthralled. Maybe it’s because of a favorite poem that my sister and I memorized as children. I hope you’ll like it too . . . it’s a Hoot!

The Owl-Critic                                               

by James Thomas Fields (1817-1881)

“Who stuffed that white owl?”

No one spoke in the shop,
The barber was busy, and he couldn’t stop;
The customers, waiting their turns, were all reading
The “Daily,” the “Herald,” the “Post,” little heeding
The young man who blurted out such a blunt question;
Not one raised a head, or even made a suggestion;
And the barber kept on shaving.

“Don’t you see, Mr. Brown,”
Cried the youth, with a frown,
“How wrong the whole thing is,
How preposterous each wing is,
How flattened the head is, how jammed down the neck is —
In short, the whole owl, what an ignorant wreck ’tis!
I make no apology;
I’ve learned owl-eology.

I’ve passed days and nights in a hundred collections,
And cannot be blinded to any deflections
Arising from unskillful fingers that fail
To stuff a bird right, from his beak to his tail.
Mister Brown! Mr. Brown!
Do take that bird down,
Or you’ll soon be the laughingstock all over town!”
And the barber kept on shaving.

“I’ve studied owls,
And other night-fowls,
And I tell you
What I know to be true;
An owl cannot roost
With his limbs so unloosed;
No owl in this world
Ever had his claws curled,
Ever had his legs slanted,
Ever had his bill canted,
Ever had his neck screwed
Into that attitude.
He cant do it, because
‘Tis against all bird-laws.

Anatomy teaches,
Ornithology preaches,
An owl has a toe
That can’t turn out so!
I’ve made the white owl my study for years,
And to see such a job almost moves me to tears!
Mr. Brown, I’m amazed
You should be so gone crazed
As to put up a bird
In that posture absurd!
To look at that owl really brings on a dizziness;
The man who stuffed him don’t half know his business!”
And the barber kept shaving.

“Examine those eyes
I’m filled with surprise
Taxidermists should pass
Off on you such poor glass;
So unnatural they seem
They’d make Audubon scream,
And John Burroughs laugh
To encounter such chaff.
Do take that bird down;
Have him stuffed again, Brown!”
And the barber kept on shaving!

“With some sawdust and bark
I could stuff in the dark
An owl better than that.
I could make an old hat
Look more like an owl
Than that horrid fowl,
Stuck up there so stiff like a side of coarse leather.
In fact, about him there’s not one natural feather.”

Just then, with a wink and a sly normal lurch,
The owl, very gravely, got down from his perch,
Walked around, and regarded his fault-finding critic
(Who thought he was stuffed) with a glance analytic,
And then fairly hooted, as if he should say:
“Your learning’s at fault this time, anyway:
Don’t waste it again on a live bird, I pray.
I’m an owl; you’re another. Sir Critic, good day!”
And the barber kept on shaving.

More Than One Type of Red Bird

More Than One Type of Red Bird

Cardinals are such beautiful birds, and we see a lot of them here in Missouri, throughout the entire year. And while I adore seeing them at the feeders that hang over my front porch, there are other red–or at least partially red–birds that are just as fun to watch. Their plumage might not be quite as spectacularly scarlet as the ever-popular cardinal, but let’s take a look, all the same.

The photo featured above was taken yesterday near the bank of a cove on the Lake of the Ozarks. The picture isn’t crystal-clear, but I was sitting inside a screened-in porch when it was snapped. My cousin had recently filled the feeder outside, and we saw the ubiquitous sparrows, cardinals, goldfinches, a tufted titmouse, a nuthatch, and this purple finch. Why it’s called a “purple” finch when the parts that aren’t brown are so obviously red is beyond me! But it was a cute little thing, and seemed determined to get its fair share from the buffet. I don’t see these birds often at home; maybe I need to invest in another kind of birdseed to attract them.

One of the types that does show up here, however, is this Red-Bellied Woodpecker:

Frequently seen carrying his prizes back to the nearby cottonwood tree on my front lawn to hoard for later consumption, this bird is very vocal, and no longer allows my presence nearby to disturb his enjoyment of a meal. From inside the window or the storm door, I can stand within 10 feet of him, but if I’m outside on the porch, I sit about 18 feet away. Again, it’s a mystery as to why the name of the bird focuses on the belly portion (which has barely a dusting of red) rather than the top of the head and the back of the neck. Granted, he’s maybe not quite as striking in appearance as a Red-Headed Woodpecker, but he bigger than a Cardinal, and rather comical in his behavior. Until recently, I was unaware that they typically have two of their four toes pointing forward, and the other two backward, which better enables them to maintain a vertical stance while clinging to tree bark. Maybe that’s why he always perches on the feeder like this, with his tail tucked underneath for balance? I also learned that the repeated tapping they perform on trees is called “drumming”, and that they use it to help them find insects inside the bark, sort of like the way we might thump on a wall with a fingertip, our heads cocked to one side, listening for the difference in sound when trying to locate a wall stud before hanging a picture. A woodpecker might also drum to announce his territory to others, or a pair of them will sometimes use this method to communicate with each other. The smaller Downy Woodpeckers around here seem to favor the suet block, but this guy is an expert at picking out the peanuts from the feeder tray. Birds are such fascinating creatures!

What’s your favorite bird to watch? Is there anything new showing up at your feeder this year? Leave a comment, and enjoy the show!

A Fowl Story

A Fowl Story

Supper at the kitchen table was tradition at my parents’ home, a meal we all ate together, and one in which we (mostly) ate what we were served. Mother was a good cook, and her constant efforts to provide us three nutritious and tasty meals each day must have been exhausting. The discussions around that table could be interesting, educational, and often amusing. Daddy regularly kept us entertained with jokes and poems and stories of all kinds, but the one I’m thinking of this week actually came from one of my siblings. Here’s hoping one of them will chime in with a comment below and take the credit they deserve! The story goes like this:

Once Upon a Time, there was a state-owned zoo that was famous for its dolphins. The dolphins looked like the dolphins from any other zoo, and they acted the same, and learned the same tricks from their trainers. The special thing about this particular school of finned wonders was that the same set of dolphins had been there as long as anyone could remember, since the zoo had first opened a very long time ago, and none of them died. People began to say they were Immortal!

Well, obviously, this created some interest from the scientific community, and a team of marine biologists were sent in to make a study. The only difference they could pinpoint about the porpoises, was that they ate primarily a certain type of young seagull at specific feeding times each day, and that this habit had never varied in all the years of record. The scientists told the zoo officials at the state house that as far as they could tell, as long as the dolphins received their regular diet on time, every time, they showed every sign of being able to live forever.

Late one Sunday, however, as their devoted keeper approached the arched stone bridge leading across to the porpoise pool with the cages containing their evening meal, he encountered a dilemma. The zoo’s prized male lion had escaped from his cage, and was stretched out, napping in the last rays of sunlight that had warmed the bridge, blocking the path. What to do?! If the keeper woke the lion, it might attack him. If the dolphins failed to receive their regular dinner on time, they might die. He had to think fast. In a flash of brilliance, he recalled that the seagulls loved to eat little fish.  The keeper grabbed a bucket of shad, tossed them gently but quickly into a trail leading up to and over the sleeping lion and on over the bridge to the pool. Then he released the seagulls, who followed the trail of fish over ol’ Leo and into the waiting reach of the dolphins. All was saved!

The next day, however, as word got out about this episode, the police came and arrested the zookeeper.

The charge?

“Enticing Young Gulls Across a State Lion for Immortal Porpoises”.

(yes, I hear you groaning . . .)

And while it might be the longest set-up for a pun I’ve ever heard, keep in mind, I still remember it, more than 40 years later. Surely that’s worth something!

Got a favorite pun? Leave a comment, and Happy New Year!

Henny Penny

Henny Penny

During twenty years of having laying hens on the farm, only twice have I encountered the issue of an overgrown top beak. When my late husband Larry kept pigeons (Pensom rollers – show birds), it was not unusual for the upper portions of their beaks to grow long and lap over the edge of their lower beaks, but this might have been due to the fact that they were not allowed outside to forage and peck around in the gravel. The chickens here, however, are outside almost daily. That’s why I was a bit surprised to notice this hen one day last week.

Chickens kept in a coop or pen with at least a partial concrete floor, or that have some exposure to graveled areas, have ready abrasives to help keep the fingernail-type material of their beaks in trim. As they hunt and peck for seeds, bugs, worms and greens, the frequent scrapings of their rigid mouth material against the surrounding rocks seems to prevent the problem of overgrowth. Exactly how the hen got into this condition, I don’t know. Perhaps she’s a delicate eater. Regardless, with a top beak that long, she would soon be having a problem being able to eat at all, and a little careful pruning was in order.

After doing chores at the barn, I picked up the troubled bird and brought her down the hill to the house. She graciously posed for photos before the procedure, and sat fairly still in my lap as I used nail clippers to remove most of the excess material from her upper beak. Not having a metal nail file to hand, the coarse side of an emery board was employed for the final shaping and smoothing, and then a few “after” pictures were taken for comparison. Bless her heart, this little hen didn’t even doodle on me. What a gal!

Since the Ordeal, I have read that some folks put a cement block or a piece of sandstone in their chicken pens to provide the birds with a tool to prevent this problem. The enclosed pen outside my coop has an older concrete floor with several rough areas, so you’d think that would suffice. Who knows? If not for that, I might be trimming beaks right and left. While it would be a small price to pay for all the nice fresh eggs they provide and the bugs they eat, I’m putting a landscape block or something like it onto my shopping list for the next time I’m in town.  Just in case!

DSCN4191

Beautiful Bird

Beautiful Bird

In spite of the fact that the weather is warmer and many plants are budding out–even blooming–I am still in the habit of filling the bird feeders that are suspended from my front porch overhang.  Sure, there are bugs aplenty crawling and buzzing around already (the winter wasn’t as bad as expected), but I enjoy watching the cardinals and sparrows and finches so much, that I just can’t resist filling the feed troughs that bring them close to my front windows.  Besides, they provide hours of entertainment for Tripod Jack, who loves to perch in his carpeted “kitty tree” just inside the dining room window, and the busy birdies keep him from trying to monopolize my desk or computer keyboard quite so much.

So, perhaps it was Divine Intervention or just pure luck that saw the feeders empty a few days ago, when I glanced out of the glass of the storm door and saw something large on one of the branches of the cottonwood tree.  Just a small sapling when we moved to this farm back in ’92, the cottonwood now towers above the house, a mere 30 feet or so from the porch and the bird buffet.  But the object I saw was fairly low in the tree, and the size of it must have been what caught my attention; it was considerably larger than the usual winged visitors who are so often in those branches.  Using the zoom feature on my camera, and staying just at the edge of the doorway and on the inside, so as not to frighten the newcomer, I snapped several pictures.  Alternately preening and studying the area, the sleek gray head turned around almost completely backward, the clear golden eyes focused intently in my direction.  I know you’re watching me! it seemed to say.

Watching me, watching him

Later, I took the time to research exactly what type of bird this is.  That it was in the category of Birds of Prey was obvious.  The Missouri Conservation Department has some great information on their website, and I started there, then moved on to a search for various types of hawks that frequent the vicinity.  Two choices stood out:  the Sharp Shinned Hawk, and the larger Cooper’s Hawk.  The coloring and markings of these two types are very similar, according to my reading, and they’re not always simple to tell apart.  In the case of this specimen, I am thinking it is a Cooper’s Hawk, partly due to the size, and partly to the shape of its head, and the way the lighter neck feathers sort of wrap around toward the back.

Here’s a link to one of the websites I used in my attempt at identification:  https://www.audubon.org/news/a-beginners-guide-iding-coopers-and-sharp-shinned-hawks

Take a look at it, if you have time, and let me know your opinion.

And in case you’re wondering why it was a good thing there was no bird seed in the feeders?  Well, hawks don’t eat bird seed, but they just love to take little songbirds out to dinner, and I bet you can guess who pays!

 

DSCN4043

Pecking Order

Pecking Order

Bird watching is a hobby that demands so little for what we can reap in return.  This time of year I try to pay more attention than ever to the little cedar feeders that are suspended from the overhang of my front porch roof, keeping them stocked with a steady supply of food for the wild birds. When the landscape looks barren and brown, I figure the birdies can use a little extra help in the meal prep department, and their antics can be pretty entertaining.  As I am sitting here typing this, I can glance out the windows to my left and see sparrows, chickadees, cardinals and snowbirds (a.k.a. dark-eyed juncos), all jockeying for position at the buffet stations provided for them.  Now and then a bluejay shows up and tries to convince them all he’s the Boss, but they all get their fair share eventually.

On decent days–meaning it’s not raining and there’s little or no snow on the ground–I let the chickens and guineas out of their pen to forage, even in winter.  Of course, they have grain in the feeders inside their coop every day, but by nature they love to roam around the yard, hunting and scratching for tasty tidbits.  I figure happy hens lay healthy eggs, and it makes a noticeable difference in the feed bill when they’re able to get out and about.  Recently a couple of the younger Highland Brown hens have occasionally found their way onto the front porch, where they clean up the loose seeds that have been scattered by the wild birds during the day. After tossing that freshly killed rat snake (see prior post “Unwanted Gifts”) onto the top of the concrete steps after measuring it, and then finishing my phone call inside, I returned to the porch with the intention of removing the thing to the ditch, only to find it halfway down the throat of a brave little hen already, and another hen running up to see just what sort of big fat worm her friend had found.  The chickens have a pecking order amongst themselves, with Rojo the Rooster as the obvious ruler.  Even the guineas don’t challenge him!  IMG_2551

While the farm cats and the barnyard fowl all coexist with no squabbles, the cats most definitely have an unwritten hierarchy.  Last summer a new tom cat wandered in from somewhere, and the whole balance went Kablooey.  Sammy, the youngest of my bunch, began challenging the newcomer to fights, even though Sam and all the other kitties here have been “fixed”.  Seeing Sammy getting the stuffing knocked out of him, Wally jumped into the fray, and the next thing you know I’m doctoring wounds on two cats, and trying to decide whether to run off the stranger or try taming him, so I can get him to the vet for neutering.  It’s taken a while, but finally the last few weeks I’ve been able to pet the new guy (now named Louie), and can pick him up and carry him around with no problems.  He’s not as aggressive toward the other cats, and has learned to keep his distance from Mary Alex (the Queen of the Outdoor Cat Community, just ask her!)  IMG_2403

Of the three inside the house, Tripod Jack wants to think he is Top Cat.  Once in a while, the older gal Pepper has to put him in his place when he gets a little too rambunctious in his play.  They both have their bluff in on poor Sugar Baby, who won’t stand up for herself, no matter how many times I tell her to give it a try.  They’ve all been together for years, with Jack being the youngest at seven.  And yet, it was just this past November that I was finally able to capture them all in one photo.  Bet you can guess which one is Jack.

It’s the same routine with the horses in the pasture.  Since there isn’t a stallion in the herd, one of the older mares seems to think she’s in charge.  Even Bindi the Very Good Dog has recently taken to putting on airs a bit, since I adopted a bird dog, Jethro Bone-dean, from the shelter in town.  All in all, it turns into quite a show.  It’s no wonder that I haven’t watched a soap opera in years!

If you’d like an email alert when new posts are made to this blog, use the link in the upper right corner of the screen to Subscribe.  It’s free!

 

Do You See What I See?

Do You See What I See?

Here’s a guest post from my friend Melissa Yost.  It was meant to fill in while I was gone to Scotland, but I failed to follow through on pre-loading.  Thank you, Melissa, for contributing!

“Do You See What I See?”

Please do not be alarmed. This is not a big box retail store premature ejaculation of Christmas before the end of October, let alone Thanksgiving. I am a believer that Christmas begins with    Advent. This post could have easily been titled ‘You Say To-may-to, I say To-ma-to’. I am shamelessly taking advantage of the title to make two points. Bad me. But I digress.

I direct your attention to the photos above and below:

cascadethistle

Now, I ask you. What do you see? Fields of wild flowers or weeds. Nature in all its splendor and diversity or a blight on the face of a respectable suburban neighborhood worthy of numerous citations from local government agencies. I did not catch any photos of the Gold Finches taking advantage of the seeds nor the Swallowtail and Monarch butterflies sipping nectar. However, I think you can see where I’m going with this. I am proud to say, this is my yard.

By happy accident, I was unable to keep up with the demands of my large garden. I had no choice but to let some beds go wild. As a result, I have never had so many colors or drifts of blooms, the likes of which gardeners spend years cultivating. I did not water. I did not spray insecticides, fungicides or herbicides. I did not fertilize. The result is a pantheon of color and variety of huge proportions. My yard has never seen so many feathered or winged visitors.

As to those pesky village inspectors who have repeatedly cited and tried to fine me?  I finally put them in their place with two simple words:  Wildflowers and Nature-scaping. And as a daily reminder of nature’s bounty, and my own self-admitted contrary nature, I am rewarded with the sight of sunflowers gone wild on the sides of highways and roads, along with the thistles, chickweed and choke vine in my yard. And truth be told, even the rag weed is beautiful.

 

 

How’s Pickins?

How’s Pickins?

Growing up in the suburbs, I was fascinated with the flocks of laying hens kept by my aunties who lived in the country.  Going out to the chicken house with a basket or bowl for the eggs was a privilege that never lost its charm.  Even now that I’ve had my own birds for many years, it’s still a bit of a treasure hunt to gather the fresh eggs each day.  But even beyond that benefit, there’s just something wonderful about having a flock of my own.

Presently, I have nine hens, one rooster, seven guineas, and one lone pigeon.  (The pigeon is another story altogether!) This particular group of chickens were gifted to me when my friend Dave D. was moving out-of-state and wanted them to have a good home. The barnyard birds love to patrol the lawn, hunting and pecking for tempting tidbits of bugs and greens.  It keeps them happy and healthy and cuts back on the feed bill to allow them this pleasure.  It also provides me with a sense of peace and well-being to see them out there, meandering about, scratching the surface with their feet now and then in search of something tasty.

In the spirit of tradition, the rooster is called “Rojo”, (that’s pronounced ro-ho), which is Spanish for “red”.  My Uncle R. had a rooster by that name.  Why the hens belonged to Aunt K and the rooster was said to be Uncle’s property, I haven’t yet figured out, but it may have had something to do with the original Rojo’s demeanor.  As in, he couldn’t have gotten much meaner.  (The rooster, not my uncle).  As kids, we were afraid of Rojo.  On our way out the back door, we’d grab either a broom, a bucket of water, or a poor unsuspecting cat, and if the ol’ buzzard–er, rooster–was nearby, one of us would deploy whatever item of self-defense we’d picked up by hurling it at him, whereupon we’d take off running before he could peck our feet or legs, both of which were usually bare all summer.  Sometimes this worked better than others.  I would swear that bird hid, barely beyond the corner of the house, just waiting for us to exit.  He never bothered Uncle, though.  Maybe he knew he couldn’t peck through the tough leather cowboy boots and blue jeans, and didn’t waste his efforts in the attempt.

By contrast, however, my own Rojo is neither vicious nor vindictive.  He will come a-runnin’ if one of his hens utters any kind of distress call, and he’s not what you might call a snuggler, but he’s gentle enough as roosters go.  I like to watch him navigate the yard with his “girls”.  I’ve fed them long enough that when I go outside, they all hurry to gather ’round me, just to see if I’ve brought them anything special from the house, which sorta makes me feel guilty when I don’t.  Which reminds me . . . I gotta go shred some cabbage.  It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind!

IMG_0739