Friday, June 20, 2008

What's the Fuss?

I had just posted the last entry, when Luna started barking furiously, and I heard the unmistakeable screaming of a chicken in dire distress. I jumped into shoes, grabbed a light, and ran to the chicken coop. The desperate screeching and squawking continued unabated.

Normally (yes, this is a "normal" "everyday" experience in some seasons, I'm afraid...and around the full moon it's usually worse...) the squawking would have moved across the field as the fox or coyote ran off with its bounty, or it would have stopped with the bird's demise. But this time the squawking just went on and on, from the coop.

As I approached the coop, I could see that several birds were in the outer pen, acting agitated. All the sheep and the guardian llama were gathered close outside the chicken pen, watching. Eventually I got to where I could see into the coop. A chicken was screaming and beating its wings frantically, upside down, near the roost.


Somehow the poor bird had gotten ONE toe caught in a wire lining the wall of the coop, about 3 feet off the ground, and was hanging very unhappily by that toe. I quickly cradled her body, taking the weight off while I worked the toe loose. She flapped away into the yard, apparently unharmed.

How DID this come to be?

I ran the light around the coop, looking for clues. A shadow in a nest box rated a second, not a shadow but a skunk, huddled in a lower nest, staring back at me without blinking. He was so motionless, I thought I might be able to run back to the house for the camera. I laid the light on the floor, to encourage him to stay put. When I moved the light to floor, the hens all panicked and flew at the walls of the coop. Evidently the skunk had scared them in a similar fashion, resulting in the stuck bird.

Mr. Skunk was still there when I returned with the camera, as still as a statue. He remained motionless while I boldly crawled under the roost to get a close picture. I actually was holding the camera about 2 feet from the nest box for the above photo, and he never moved.

It was very late. I was tired. I decided to just go to bed and let Nature take its course. The skunk could choose either chicken food or chicken for dinner. I mean really, what was I going to do about it? Pick the skunk out of the nest box and throw him over the fence, and say "Bad skunk, go home now!?"

The chickens were all fine in the morning.

When J. and E. came for the livestock seminar on Thursday, they expressed concern about our potato planting activities. They had come Wednesday while I was at work, to plant a few more beds of potatoes in between the recently-planted tomato rows. "What's up with the southwest block in the southwest quadrant? Did YOU plant there, and forget to write it down on the bed map?" J. asked.

"No," I replied, puzzled. "I'm very careful to write things down...and I haven't planted any potatoes this week. What makes you think I did?" (The bed maps are our only record of what's planted where, so we keep careful track. The maps also include information about planting dates, varieties, sources, soil management, etc.)

"It looked like someone had dug all along the row, just like when we plant potatoes through the mulch. But nothing's marked on the map."

I thought for a bit. "Maybe the skunk?" I replied. I'd noticed skunk diggings in several of the mulched blocks. They like to look for grubs under the mulch.

"But they're in perfectly straight lines, right down the marked rows!" We all puzzled over that for awhile. Why would the skunk dig in straight lines?

Then I realized that was a block where we'd put very rich sheep pen waste only along the planting bed area, and mulched the paths between the beds with "unsheeped" old hay. Evidently the grubs were in the manurey sheep mulch, and not in the plain hay, and the skunk knew it. We all got a laugh!

All in all, I have a soft spot for skunks...have had, most of my life. Among other things, I like the looks of black and white glance around the farm gives you a clue about that!

When I was little Mom read us "Jimmy Skunk books" as bed-time stories, over and over again (M., does this surprise you?). There were many wonderful animal characters in Thorton Burgess's nature stories, but Jimmy Skunk was my favorite by far. Thorton Burgess really knew his animals, and in personifying them he vividly portrayed the natural animal's temperaments as a key part of the stories. (Sadly, his books have fallen out of favor, because his animal characters also portrayed racist and political stereotypes of his times.) Pushing the camera into the chicken coop skunk's face was thinkable mainly because Jimmy Skunk made it very clear when I was little that skunks are slow to anger, and would just as soon walk away from an argument. Treated with respect, they show an indifferent, detached, benign tolerance of just about anything. I have even brushed agianst them in nest boxes, gathering eggs in the dark, in the past!

My first (and pretty much last) childhood stuffed animal was a skunk. Mom sewed it out of velveteen for me for Christmas when I was about 5. I loved that skunk! Alas, it was left at a picnic area while travelling between California and Tennesee, and the loss was not discovered until many hours down the road. Probably the greatest loss of my childhood was the loss of that beloved velveteen skunk.

But now I've got the real thing. And he may be even cuter.

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