Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Welcome back, Bob

2013: our most recent (and probably last) goat babies

Nothing to do with cooking, but here's a book recommendation: David Quammen's Spillover, about diseases that jump from animals to people. Sounds deeply unpleasant, but it's not at all. I grabbed it after we got back from vacation to try to understand what's happening in West Africa and it pretty much took over my life for a few days. I read until it fell from my hands at night and picked it up in the morning before getting out of bed. I can't justify writing at length about Ebola and SARS on a cookbook blog, so I'll just tell you this: Quammen is curious not just about ghastly emerging diseases, but about the scientists who track them down in African bat caves, Australian horse paddocks, and the forests and high-end hotels of Southeast Asia. He's written an engrossing, illuminating, and thoroughly excellent book with more plot twists than most detective novels. It's even funny, in places. You should read it. 

Friday morning, I got to the section on Lyme disease. It turns out that small parcels of land, like residential lots, are ideal habitats for the tiny mice that carry Lyme. Why? Because they're poor habitats for the mid-size predators (foxes, coyotes) that eat those tiny mice. I had just read this and was silently agreeing about the importance of predators when -- uncanny, uncomfortable coincidence -- our chickens began to shriek. 

I ran outside and found outraged, screeching hens in the trees and on the rail of the deck and the roof of the coop. I followed their collective gaze and found a bobcat in the corner of the yard. We haven’t had a bobcat in the yard in over a year. It's been wonderful because the chickens can range freely and safely. It's been bad because: rats. We don't have an infestation or anything, but every week or so. . . During the spring of 2013 when a bobcat was paying daily visits, we didn't see a single rat. It was striking.

I'd like to pretend otherwise now, but it was too well documented on this blog: I hated that bobcat. He (or she) killed three chickens in a single day before I could lock them up. He used to strut around our yard and eye me contemptuously as I yelled and threw things at him. We were waiting for Natalie to kid and I could well imagine what this animal would do with newborn goats. I considered many options for getting rid of the cat, but before I could follow through with any of them he abruptly stopped coming around and all was well.

I ran this new bobcat off, then coaxed the chickens into the run with some leftover chiffon cake and latched the gate. It must have been a young cat because it hadn’t managed to kill a single hen. Standing there, I realized that all my feelings about bobcats had changed. We don't have any pregnant goats and I could do with fewer rats. I could do with no rats. Plus, I'd just read Spillover.

Most importantly, though, I'm finally ready to stop with the free-ranging chickens. Really ready. I know it's nicer for chickens, but I need a break. For the last six years, hens have had the run of the place, digging up my ranunculus bulbs, laying eggs in the ivy, eating the rhubarb, "decorating" the patio. We gave up trying to grow any vegetables. A few chickens invariably tried to roost in the trees and bushes which meant fishing them out at night, but we couldn't always find them and every few months something gory and noisy happened at 2 a.m. and Mark and I went running outside, half asleep, to chase away raccoons or skunks with a shovel, the hose, rocks, whatever was handy. I once threw a can of paint at a raccoon. We nursed more than one savaged chicken back to health with nothing but Neosporin and little bowls of yogurt while keeping her in a box in the kitchen. Talk about zoonotic disease risk. 

This is just a long-winded way of saying that I've been wanting to confine the chickens for some time, but lacked the heart. The bobcat was the excuse I'd been looking for. It's for their own good!

So, that's a change. More changes afoot, bigger changes. Isabel is applying to colleges this fall and tomorrow Owen joins her at the high school. Already nostalgic for our easy summer.
freshman  
Back to cookbooks in the next post.

46 comments:

  1. Ah, you're at Swan.

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    1. Yes! I was wondering if anyone would recognize. I took him there for the first time last week, for breakfast, because he loves oysters. My father took me there when I was about his age. What a place.

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    2. What a good Mommy you are! I thought it had to be really early there since it didn't look too crowded. Did you and your father have oysters there? What about Isabel? Go back late November when our local crab is in season.

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    3. I think when I went with my father -- it was so long ago! -- we had crab. That's what I usually do. It was about 10:15 a.m. when I took Owen and they'd opened earlier than their stated opening time. Unfortunately, Isabel doesn't like seafood, not even crab.

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  2. Ivy is rat heaven. We had a lot of domestic cats in the neighborhood back then so they weren't a problem but occasionally one would scurry down the driveway.
    Congrats to the high schooler! Time flies.

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    1. Prior to the previous bobcat, we DID have a little infestation -- you'd see a few out at a time, brazenly eating the chicken food -- and then, suddenly, they were gone.

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  3. For some reason, I thought you had cats. Are they not mousers? Or am I confused?

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    1. We do have cats, but they can't seem to handle the rats. They've dragged them inside from time to time, but don't seem to control them 100%.

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  4. I uses to have my ninth grade biology students read Quammen's Song of the Dodo. He is incredible. Good luck to your ninth grader (who is probably lucky not to have to have Song of the Dodo for required reading; I was young and naive back when I required that reading). I agree that free birds are a source of steady low level stress punctuated with high drama. Sounds like a good decision. And good luck with the college app and decision making process!

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    1. What a great teacher! If I'd read a book like that in 9th grade I might have paid more attention in science classes. There was so little context for all that material. Now I regret not paying more attention. (I started Song of Dodo last night. It will keep me busy for quite a while.)

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  5. I have been wondering about that bobcat, but this is a different one, yes? The excitement never ends at your house, or not for long. Owen looks quite mature for a 9th grader! I hope things go well for all of you with these changes. Never fear, your readers love all of your stories, not just cooking stories.

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    1. Owen is really big for his age -- he's not even 14. Early developer, apparently. I think it has to be another bobcat. The one we had before would have taken a chicken before I could get out there.

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  6. I like the cookbook coverage, but I love the family anecdotes/animal husbandry/book reviews every bit as much. But it's cute that you think you have to mollify your readers with a promise to return to some sort of purported theme ;)

    I started confining my hens to the back half of the back yard about six months ago and they are perfectly happy, and my patio looks better--that is, better than it did with chicken poo all over it, but less beautiful than it did when there were big colorful hens strutting around on it. But now they can't kick the redwood mulch out from under the driveway hedges, can't steal Mama Cat's breakfast, and we don't have to wipe our feet as carefully when we come in from the patio. A win-win. We found that 3' deer netting strung across the yard was adequate to keep them in the back, but of course it would do nothing to discourage a bobcat.

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    1. Have your chickens ever gone into the cob oven?
      It is sort of sad, really, having them locked up. It's lovely to go out and see chickens enjoying the world, scratching and taking dirt baths and perching in trees. I tried clipping their wings once to keep them from flying up into the patio and "garden" portion of the yard, but it didn't work. I don't know. Maybe I'll relent when/if the bobcat vanishes. I could relent until spring and restart the garden then.

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  7. Our first summer with hens we gave them the run of the yard. And they destroyed it. Then for three years we gave them their own space in the back of the yard. And a coyote moved into the neighborhood and killed them all. Now they are completely enclosed in about 66 square feet. It's a little sad, but the coyote isn't going anywhere.

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    1. Killed them all? At one go? Aaargh. We had that happen with some neighborhood dogs early on and it was devastating.
      They do destroy a garden. The mature plants seem to fare ok, but anything new is promptly dug up.

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    2. Killed them all. At one go. I came out just after she (I'm guessing) had killed them. She stared at me brazenly then trotted off. I'm pretty sure she was planning on carrying them off, maybe to her pups. It was spring after a bad winter.

      Horrible conversation with the kids, "Sweeties, I've got some bad news about the chickens." "Oh, no. Which one?" "Um…"

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    3. Ohhhh. That is sad. I remember breaking the news to Owen after our first round of chickens was killed by the dogs. They're heartbreakers, chickens. After a while we stopped letting ourselves get so attached.

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  8. Do you have coyotes in your area?

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    1. Yes. We've seen them in the middle of the day in our town, but never too close to our house. That would test my shaky newfound love of predators. I bet a coyote could do some serious harm to a goat.

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  9. If Owen gets any more handsome you're going to get cougars in your backyard!

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    1. I think he's going to get another buzz cut -- that should keep us safe for a while.

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  10. It's a rare cat that can handle a rat - they're too big and aggressive. Snakes are far more effective. Unfortunately, snakes will also eat chicken eggs and chicks. They can slip through the chicken wire quite easily - until after they've eaten your poults! The list of things that kill chickens seems endless. Free range is a nice idea, but penning them is safer.

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    1. Agree. I'm in the Backyard Chickens group on Facebook and every few days there's a report from someone who is devastated and furious because predators -- often neighborhood dogs -- have come in and eaten their free-ranging chickens. The responses are amazing and extreme, invariably telling the chicken owner to shoot the dog!!! I think this is so misguided. You can stand on principle and insist that your chickens will free range on your property, damn it, and all intruders will be shot. But dogs can't help themselves and if your chickens aren't penned, you'll just keep killing dogs and alienating neighbors -- and losing chickens. It's sort of funny I've come around to this way of thinking because I was so angry about the dogs that killed our chickens all those years ago. Live and learn.
      There are snakes around, but I have, happily, never seen one.

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    2. I read your quick review of Spillover when we nominated books at our book group last week for the coming year. You are a very persuasive reviewer - the book made the cut. This is a group that gets into devastation and moral quandaries. Last year we had the Emperor of All Maladies, and this year we will also be reading Five Days at Memorial. You have never steered me wrong on your book picks.

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    3. I just finished Quammen's Song of the Dodo -- another one about devastation and moral quandaries and really good. Five Days at Memorial! I wish all books of nonfiction were that gripping. If you ever have any recommendations, I'm always looking.

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  11. Thank for the Spillover recommendation. I'm a bit concerned about it as I live in Brisbane. Under a major fruitbat flyover zone. We've always been casual about mangoes that were a bit preloved by the bats and totally way too casual about cleaning up fruit they have discarded from the palms. As of today, it is gloves in the garden to clean that up and any veges or fruit that look like a bat paid attention to them is going to be composted. Or burned. With a flame thrower.

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    1. I take it you've read at least the first chapter of Spillover. . .

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  12. And am suitably terrified...

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