Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Marauding bobcats and duck mysteries

Since my last post, it's been quite busy around here. On Saturday morning, there were three bobcat attacks on chickens (that we know of); I witnessed one of the attacks, which happened so fast I didn't have time to get a photo. Good grief, are these cats speedy! Ironically, at the time I was starting to clear out some blackberry and thimbleberry bushes, in an area where we suspected the bobcats were hiding out, waiting for some innocent (OK, clueless) chicken to stray too near. I heard the turkeys start up their ground-predator call, and looked up just in time to see a large bobcat jump out of the bushes and tall grass about 60 feet from me and grab a New Hampshire pullet. I have to admit that, although I was naturally upset that another of our birds was attacked, I also felt an awe for the beauty of this animal and the speed and efficiency of its attack and retreat.

At the same time, David was down in Sequim, taking another of our hens (don't laugh) to the vet. It had clearly been attacked by a bobcat also, and had a deep laceration across its shoulders. David had tried to close the wound with Superglue, but it was too difficult to get the edges of skin to stay together. It's a valuable laying hen, so he took it in to get stitched up. The vet also gave us a solution to use to clean the wound several times a day.

I ran in and called David right after the attack I saw, and he headed home. I went back out, with something of an adrenaline rush going on, and my camera in hand, on high alert for more signals from the turkeys that the cat was still around. (I assumed that while I was inside telephoning, it probably ran back into the woods, although I was only gone barely two minutes.) When David got back and had put the stitched-up hen inside, he came back out and we decided to try to flush the cat out of hiding, if it was still there in the bushes.

It took only a minute. I was on the south end of the area in question, David on the north. He started hacking his way through the berry bushes with the Swedish brush hook, and suddenly a large bobcat emerged from the bushes about 30 feet from me. It saw me and changed direction, racing away to the west toward the edge of the canyon, the most likely place here for its den to be located. Although I had my camera on and ready to shoot, I only managed to get a very blurry photo; man, that thing was fast! I also noticed that its feet made no sound at all as it ran. Amazing creature.

Shortly after this, I noticed one of our two New Hampshire roosters walking a bit awkwardly. He also seemed to have some loose feathers around his shoulder. Being somewhat hypersensitive to bobcat attacks at the time, I had David catch the rooster so we could examine him. Sure enough, puncture wounds on both his shoulders! The poor thing was clearly in shock. We brought him inside, and for the first day or so we didn't know if he would make it.

At this point, we looked at each other and decided that whatever else was on the agenda that day, we needed to make it a priority to do what we could to protect our birds. Over Saturday and Sunday, we cleared an amazing amount of berry bushes and low-hanging tree branches out the area, mainly around where I had seen the latest attack. We don't expect to completely eliminate the problem, but we figure we need to do what we can to make it harder for the cats to sneak up on the birds.

Like I said, it's been a busy few days.

A bit of good news: we believe we've solved the mystery of what's made some of our ducks sick recently; we'll know for sure when we get test results back from the WSU Avian Health lab. There has been an enormous flush of mushroom growth around here lately; we found some large mushrooms in the front yard, right next to the duck yard, where the ducks get food and water before being closed in their coops at night. The mushrooms showed clear signs that the ducks had been nibbling on them. (We have never seen the chickens or turkeys show the slightest interest in mushrooms.) One of the two ducks we've had inside the past few days died suddenly the other night, and we sent it off to the Avian Health lab for a post-mortem. We should know soon, but we feel pretty confident that the mushrooms are the culprit.

Naturally, we've gone over the entire area that the ducks have access to and removed all the mushrooms we could find. We still have one duck in rehab in the living room, and she seems to be slowly recovering, thank goodness. Her legs are still partially paralyzed, but we've been massaging them and taking her outside to swim in a tub every day. The physical therapy seems to be helping, and we're very thankful that she seems to be on the road to a full recovery.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Busy night in the ER

About the time we were finishing up with tucking in the birds for the night, David came up the hill from the bog calling, "Doctor Vicki to ER, stat!" This can't be good, I thought. We already had a Khaki Campbell duck (possible poisoning) and a New Hampshire pullet (yes, another bobcat attack) in the living room. I was really tired, having had a rough night Wednesday with this annoying relapsing/remitting 'flu thing; I just wanted to make a hot drink and sit by the wood stove.

Well, I did get to sit by the wood stove, but sadly, without the hot drink. David came in and handed me a Blue Swedish duck, which he had found down by the edge of the bog barely able to walk. He set up a box for it (he's getting pretty quick at that), we settled the poor duck in it, and resigned ourselves to facing the question: What the heck is going on with these ducks?

Since the newest patient seems to be showing the same symptoms as the Khaki duck, which has been in the ER for about a week now, we definitely suspect some kind of poisoning. The Khaki, thankfully, is showing signs of recovery. We started with her by giving her Epsom salts dissolved in water as a laxative, hoping to flush out any remaining poison before it was absorbed by her system. Later that day, she was eating, and pooping, and seemed more alert, so we were encouraged. Her legs, however, were very weak and she wasn't able to stand up. We couldn't tell if she was suffering some sort of paralysis or if she was just weak.

We've been taking the Khaki outside just about every day for some physical therapy, fresh air and sunshine. We put her in a small watering tank with enough water in it so she could swim if she wanted to, but shallow enough that she could put her feet in the bottom and try to walk while being supported by her own buoyancy. She seems to like this a lot, and is slowly getting better. So, we plan to follow the same protocol with the Blue Swedish duck and hope for the best.

The question remains: What is going on here? The two most likely possibilities (from our non-expert point of view) are botulism or some kind of heavy metal poisoning. Ducks spend a lot of time dabbling in the mud and grass, and could easily pick up botulism from decomposing vegetation around the bog, or even lead poisoning if they swallowed some old birdshot or other ammo; we don't hunt but the bog is not far from our shooting range. It's also possible the ducks have been exposed to something carried by wild ducks. Most of the wild birds around here (we've identified 62 species of wild birds so far) are migratory, but there are still a few Mallards and Mergansers, at least one Kingfisher, and a pair of Great Blue Herons on our ponds.

Oh, and the New Hampshire pullet that was attacked by a bobcat: David found her huddled under a car, clearly in shock. Once we had cleaned her up, we found a large puncture wound on one shoulder. So far it doesn't seem to be infected, so we have her near the wood stove to keep warm and dry. She's eating and drinking now, so we're hopeful she will be OK. Incidentally, where does that "mad as a wet hen" thing come from? We've bathed plenty of chickens, getting them soaking wet, and not once have we had any fuss from them. Actually, they seem to like the warm water (and probably the attention, too). Now, if you said, "Mad as a wet Siamese cat on her way to be spayed," that I could believe!

Well, these birds are certainly keeping us busy, and we're learning a lot. If anyone has suggestions about what might be going on with the ducks, please, please let me know. We're a bit anxious at this point about where this is going to end. Even with birds that aren't pets, it's distressing to see them suffer, especially if we can find a way to prevent the problem. We definitely feel this as our responsibility, and the three birds in our living room are depending on us to do our best for them.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bobcats with chicken breath, and other bedtime stories

The past couple of days have been quite exciting, in a man-versus-jungle sort of way. After seeing a large bobcat out near the edge of the canyon in the morning, we later saw what appeared to be a mother bobcat and at least one of its babies. Evidently it was the day to train young Bobby to hunt. David actually saw the youngster grab a chicken and try to run off with it. It had to hold its head up high to keep the chicken from dragging on the ground, hampering its escape attempt by affecting its ability to see where it was going. David made some noise close to the kitty, who immediately dropped the chicken (which was apparently unhurt other than losing a large wad of feathers) and ran into the berry bushes.

Meanwhile, I was stationed, with my camera, about 40 yards away on the south side of the black walnut tree, expecting the mother bobcat (with or without Bobby) to head that way. Sure enough, Mama came out of the brush about 25 feet from me, just the other side of the tree. She saw me right away and shot off across the shooting range into the berry bushes on the north side of the hill. Alas, I wasn't able to get a photo, she was too quick; I live in hope, however.

Looking around the area where young Bobby had grabbed the pullet, we discovered several piles of feathers, all looking like they came from the New Hampshire pullets. We will have to do a head count tonight when they're all tucked in, to see how many we might have lost; hopefully very few. We do realize, though, that we need to do some serious strategizing as far as predator control is concerned.

Bobcats like to hunt at the edge of the woods, sneaking up on their quarry and staying under cover until the last minute, then jumping out to grab the unsuspecting prey. We've actually witnessed this, even in our front yard; the birds start squawking, we take a look, just in time to see a cat jump over the fence, snatch a chicken in its mouth, then leap back over the fence. It's amazingly quick, and honestly, we have to admire the beauty and grace of these animals, even if we don't always appreciate their lunch choices.

Keeping in mind their hunting habits, we are continuing our efforts to clear away the brush, low-hanging branches, and all the nettles, bracken ferns and other vegetation that grew like crazy during the mild, wet weather of last spring. We figure we'll at least make it harder for the cats to sneak up on the free-ranging birds. Short of completely confining the chickens and turkeys in fenced areas, which we really don't want to do, this seems to be our best strategy. It's helped a lot just to do some reading on the subject, to understand the hunting habits of bobcats and other predators. We also plan to hatch more birds in the spring, to account for occasionally sharing some with the native wildlife.

This afternoon, when it's warmed up a bit, I will be back out there with the sickle, pruners and Swedish brush hook. What the heck, I can always use the exercise.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Getting ready for winter off the grid

Yesterday morning we had our first frost: 31F. Around October 10 has been average for this event, although we were surprised two years ago when it came three weeks early (to the extreme detriment of my later bush bean crop). It was a beautiful sunny morning, though, and yesterday's high temperature was 65F. Gorgeous.

As you know, we live off the grid. This does make some difference when it comes to caring for the animals over the winter, but not as much difference as we had anticipated. The main thing is to keep the water in the drinkers from freezing. Lots of people use heated (electric) waterers. Frankly, even if we had that option, it would be problematic just because of the area that the birds range on; the drinkers are quite spread out. We simply add warm water to them first thing in the morning, check them frequently through the day, and try to position them in the sun whenever possible. Yes, it's a little extra work, but we're out there checking on the birds regularly anyway, which is always a good thing to do.

The other thing poultry owners worry about in the cold weather is keeping the birds warm at night. Should you heat the coop? How cold is too cold for chickens? Generally, we've dealt with this simply by choosing breeds known to be cold-hardy. Most chicken breeds actually do not require artificial heat until the temperatures get well below 0F. The one thing to be watchful of, though, is your roosters, especially with breeds that have large single combs: they can be vulnerable to frostbite, as roosters don't tuck their heads under their wings at night like the hens do. Over the past two winters, we've had plenty of days of single-digit lows, but have had no problem with frostbite (our roosters are single-comb New Hampshires).

It has occurred to me that living off the grid has probably motivated us to be a bit more creative in some ways; for example, not using heated drinkers just because we can. Of course there's nothing wrong with using them, we've simply found that there are easy and cheap alternatives to a lot of things that we might take for granted if we had full-time electricity. And hey, I actually enjoy cutting firewood to heat the house! Ours, I mean...


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Turkeys as guard animals??

 The black bear in question, just outside our front yard.

Well, yet another new experience with our Midget White turkeys this morning. Just a little while ago, around 9:30 AM, I was in the living room, about to start my writing practice for the day. David had gone upstairs to take a short nap, and it is usually fairly quiet this time of day.

After just a few minutes, the turkeys started making noise in the front yard. Most of the flock of 19 was out there, and they were making that particular noise that we've come to recognize as their warning that a predator was on the ground nearby. (Usually when we've heard this sound and checked it out, it turned out to be deer. They make a very different noise when an aerial predator is overhead.) I stood up and looked out the window, and I could see the flock on high alert, standing still with necks all stretched upward in the same direction, loudly sounding the alarm. I figured there were deer on the other side of the split-rail fence, munching on vetch; lately we've seen a doe and her two fawns in that area frequently.

I opened the front door to get a better view; since David was trying to sleep, I was hoping to get the turkeys to quiet down. I couldn't believe what I saw: a good-sized BLACK BEAR just at the north end of the front yard, about 75 feet from where I stood. It was walking right up into the yard, and all the turkeys were just standing there, squawking loudly, making no move to get away.

I called up to David, and at the same time grabbed my camera and headed upstairs. I hoped to get a photo before the bear left, and I knew I'd have a better vantage point from upstairs. The bear, hearing me call to David, turned away and headed back toward the road and the edge of the canyon. I was just in time to get one decent photo before it disappeared into the trees (I'll post the photo soon). By then the turkeys were beginning to calm down.

I, on the other hand, was having a bit of an adrenaline rush; this was only the third time we've actually seen a bear up here, and both the other times it's been down by the pond, a couple hundred yards from the house. Our property is bordered almost entirely by State land, with our nearest neighbor two miles down the hill, so naturally we have lots of wildlife around. It is very surprising to see a bear so close to the house, especially in the middle of the morning.

It seems to me that it wasn't until this year that we became aware of the turkeys' early-warning systems. We were familiar with the roosters calling out to the hens when an aerial predator was about, warning them to get under cover (an amazing sight to witness), but the turkeys are very consistent in letting us know when a ground visitor arrives. We've even seen the turkeys chasing deer out of the yard!

As we head deeper into the autumn, and the food sources so plentiful in summer become less abundant, we will be keeping our eyes open for hungry predators who show interest in our birds. And we're very grateful for the efforts of the turkeys to help in that process.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

October chill in the air

OK, so it's not surprising that October chill is in the air, considering that it is, in fact, October. The low temperature was 34 this morning, and it was frosty down in the lower pasture where the pigs currently live. It's gorgeous and sunny now, though. I'm going to finish up some new nest boxes and put a roost in one of the coops for the young Nankins that are ready for it by now.

A strange thing happened yesterday afternoon: One of the Cochin banties was sitting on the old split-rail fence, wheezing, sneezing and generally sounding pretty terrible. David caught her after chasing her around for a while, and brought her inside. She was gasping and didn't seem interested in eating or drinking anything. We decided to keep her warm and dry and see what happened. Just a few hours later, she was quiet, not wheezing or making that painful-sounding noise. We kept her in overnight, and she was quiet all night, then seemed pretty perky this morning. David let her out the back door, and she seems to be OK so far. We're guessing she either ate something that slightly poisoned her, or possibly had some kind of allergic reaction to something. Very strange.

This is a good example of why it is a good idea to regularly walk among your birds, looking for little signs of trouble like coughing, sneezing, odd behavior, abnormal-looking poop, that kind of thing. With the number of birds we have, it would be pretty easy for something to spread around if we didn't catch it early enough. It's also a good reminder that one thing that you can easily do to help ensure your flock's health is to make sure their feeders and drinkers are kept clean.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Duck intensive care

Last night when David went out to close up the duck coops, he found one of the Blue Swedish drakes under the willow tree, apparently unable to walk. The duck had just come up the hill from the bog with the other ducks, then for some reason just couldn't make it all the way into the duck yard.

So David brought him into the house and put him on my lap, asking me to take a look. The poor guy tried but couldn't quite even stand up, and seemed very weak. It was obvious something was wrong, especially since he was totally quiet the entire time; we heard not a single quack or any noise at all from him. I looked him over and couldn't find any obvious trauma like broken bones or bleeding. He was just quiet and weak. I offered him some water, and he dipped his bill into it, but couldn't seem to swallow.

That, I thought, was a clue. I felt around his throat and down to his crop, wondering if perhaps his crop was impacted with something (not uncommon in poultry). It would explain why he was having trouble swallowing, and why he wasn't quacking. Judging from his weakness, presumably he hadn't been eating for some time. The crop did feel full and a little too firm.

Going pretty much on instinct, I gently massaged the crop, trying to loosen whatever it was in there. After a little while the lump did seem to be a bit softer. Then, when I offered him the dish of water again, suddenly he dipped his bill into it and swallowed! That was encouraging.

David called up our friend Jaye from the Northwest Raptor Center in Sequim, to ask her advice. She said just keep massaging the throat and keep the duck warm. We established him in a box next to the wood stove, gave him a dish of water, and just kept an eye on him for a while. He drank quite a bit of water, which made me suspect he hadn't been able to swallow for quite some time. (Ducks drink copious quantities of water every day, so they can quickly become dehydrated.)

The duck made it through the night, always a good sign. I might try him on a little food today and just see how it goes. You know, I probably should be embarrassed to admit this, but I do like having birds in the house!