This month has been really, really busy with life in general, off-farm work obligations, Jewish holidays, an art exhibition, and a special farmgirl’s eighth birthday. On top of all that, we got new chicks!
Here’s the backstory…
Animals all over our neighborhood relocated this summer as a result of extensive and ongoing road and sewer work. After spending the second half of the season watching seedlings get trampled to the ground, giant half eaten tomatoes left to rot, and corn eaten off the cob while it was still on the stalks 5 and 6 six above the ground, we bought a trail cam. The Spurgeon General caught a series of images that shed light on the nightly garden parties happening out back.
Three raccoons torment a rat in a trap.
In addition to the raccoons, skunks, and opossums that were eating our crops, we had rats. Rats?! They nibbled on tomatoes on the vine and they dug tunnels under our chicken coop and shed. The tunnels were so prolific they shifted the flow of water around the chicken run causing rain to seep in, creating the first foul smells we had related to chickens in the three years since we started keeping them. It was time to (temporarily) clear the coop so we could rid the rats by taking away any food source and shelter the hens were providing.
We spent a lot of last winter talking about the next step for our hens. They were approaching three years old (the average age heritage birds’ egg production seriously slows down – from November 2017-March 2018 we got ZERO eggs) and we always said we wouldn’t keep chickens that weren’t laying. But what then?
We had a few choices – kill them and bury them, butcher and eat them, send them someplace to retire, or give them to a friend to do… whatever she pleased. I personally had no interest in eating them. On the small scale we farm, the hens were our pets as much as our farm animals. They ran to the back door for treats when I opened it and followed me around when I called them.
I’ve learned a bit about chickens these past years. Meat chickens are slaughtered anywhere between 21 and 170 days old (that’s 3 to 14 weeks). This is surprising for folks who regularly who eat a lot of poultry. Noone wants to think they are eating such young creatures, but we are… Our hens were over 3 years old. You do the math. They were old by meat eating standards so even if I wanted to cook our girls, they would only be good for stock or stew and I don’t care nearly enough about either to do the work it would take to clean them for that. And, again, I couldn’t imagine consuming them myself.
In the end, we felt fortunate that Stratford Ecological Center agreed to take them. They would retire on a “real” farm with a bunch of new chicken friends. Maybe…
When flocks of chickens mix, the pecking order is disrupted and has to be renegotiated. The one time I tried to add girls to our mix so difficult to watch – like mean girls in a school cafeteria, but with blood – that I vowed never to do it again.
Also, Stratford has roosters and I couldn’t help thinking in putting our girls in with them was like putting 50 year old women in a brothel. As expected, they were spotted and stalked from the moment they were introduced to their new home.
Check out the beautiful white breasted cockerel – far side of the fence – scoping out our girls, near side, moments after they made their debut on the scene.
I was also reminded at drop off that they could be culled anytime, as early as this week. And still I left them there.
I have spoken with many friends and family about this scenario. Many of these folks are poultry eaters, few chicken keepers. I like to think they learned something through our conversations – about the chickens they eat and the hens that lay their eggs. Most thought I did the right thing taking them to the farm to retire. You gave them a chance to live a little longer, they contended. You didn’t kill them, they applauded. But at what cost? And at what quality of life?
I have long loved Stratford as a place children and families in Central Ohio can go to learn how food gets to their plates, and how a small group of people can preserve a piece of land in the midst of a real estate development boom. But the current space they have setup for their chickens pales in comparison to our backyard full of trees and flowerbeds to forage and take dust baths.
I’m grateful for the time I had with R2D2, Dot, and Golden Honey. I appreciate every egg they laid for us. And I’m sorry I didn’t have the strength to kill them quickly and peacefully, to be the cause of their “one bad day.”
Last night I had the honor of sharing a story at the 43rd Pecha Kucha (PK) Columbus. It was based on an experience I had this past spring which I blogged about in Rabbit Roller Coaster.
For those unfamiliar with PK, speakers create 20 slide Powerpoints and set the slide transition timer to 20 seconds. So you have 20 seconds to talk about 20 slides for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Sounds like a nice chunk of time but it flies by! My presentation wasn’t flawless and I cursed a few too many times, but I’m proud of my efforts. I had a good time and I hope that I got some folks thinking more about where their food comes from and the trials farmers go through to get it to them with my photographs and my remarks.
I’m posting a video of the presentation here for people who couldn’t make it out to the event. I’ll be writing more later about the experience of prepping for and delivering the talk on Art Education Outside the Lines. It was a creative experience I relished and would encourage others to try. Pecha Kucha is a great venue for our stories about farming and how our food gets to people’s plates.
Special thanks to those mentioned in this story including:
Before you read any further you should know this isn’t about some tinkerlab project where we build a ride for rabbits. This is about the emotional ride I took this week with a couple of baby bunnies, their mother, and my family. It’s a story that starts with birth and ends with death. It’s a story that makes me sick to recount, a story many people won’t want to hear, and yet I feel compelled to tell it. Consider it a microscopic glimpse into the tough choices farmers have to make in getting food to your table.
Farewell to the winter tunnels.
Saturday morning Cora and I went out to dismantle the winter row tunnels, take care of some seeding, transplanting, and watering. Thompson (our farm dog) came with us. After about two minutes, Cora called, “Thompson has something!” I went to investigate and found him nosing what looked like a vole. I praised him for catching the seed thief before realizing it was actually a baby bunny, it was alive, and it had siblings. Thompson was being really gentle, the way I’ve seen him in the past after the couple of times he’s killed something. It always reminds me of Lenny in Of Mice and Men. It’s like he just wanted a playmate and can’t understand why the creature before him won’t return his gestures. This time though, the bunny was fine if a bit startled.
The nest, as found. The tray is the one farther from the camera in the image above.
Time simultaneously sped up and slowed down. A million thoughts raced through my head. First, this is a vegetable farm and rabbits do not belong on vegetable farms. Next, oh my gosh they’re cute. Stupid fucking cute. Why do they have to be so cute? Then, how can I get rid of them? Can I get rid of them? Should I get rid of them. If I get rid of them, Cora will be devastated. Five minutes ago she didn’t know they existed and now they are all she can see. I can’t get rid of them. What am I going to do?
Dan came out to help me assess the situation. He agreed that they were unwelcome guests but assured me we would figure out what to do. I texted with a neighbor and CSA member who is a park ranger. She advised us to keep Thompson away from the nest and leave it alone. The mother would come and nurse at night and in a week or two they would be gone. Would they really? I had a hard time imagining that if they started life grazing on my greens that they wouldn’t want to take up permanent residence. We decided that for the time being we would leave them alone.
Spring tunnels with bunny nest in the middle.
We got on with other chores but at lunch and into the evening I was glued to Google trying to learn as much as I could about wild rabbits breeding habits as well as their general social structure. I learned a lot but had questions that remained unanswered. Mothers visit their young in the nests about 5 minutes a day to nurse (that’s two feedings totaling five minutes!) and then they take off. They are often pregnant again by the time their litter is ready to leave the nest. All this lines up with the reputation rabbits have as heavy breeders born to wreck havoc on Farmer McGregor.
I had a harder time finding out what happens to the babies once they leave the nest. Do the young maintain any relationship with their mothers? Do they live in their mother and father’s warren or join another? What percentage make it that far and how many are eaten before they have a chance? In retrospect I realize I was trying to figure out if they had emotional attachments to their young of if it was just about survival.
I sent messages to a few farmer friends asking what they would do. One responded, “I mean, rabbits don’t really come up here because my dogs kill them pretty quickly. . . You have a few options, but you can’t leave them, they will ruin a fair amount of product.” Others offered, “I would kick them out. Rabbits are just not compatible with vegetables.” And “Without doing any research on it, I would get them far away from my garden. Please let me know what you decide. Good luck.”
I was tormented by the question of whether I should try to save the life of a creature who had caused me trouble in the past and I was nearly certain would do so again. Oddly enough, the mother rabbit didn’t touch any of the plants near where she made the nest (check out the top photo). Still I have too many bad memories — the time I transplanted hundreds of beets then found them all chewed to the ground the next day. The pea shoots munched all along four rows. But I also liked the spirit and advice Tammi Hartung offered in her work on wildlife-friendly vegetable gardening. I picked up a copy of her book at the OEFFA conference and I liked her ideas for figuring out how to live with, rather than fight against, garden pests like rabbits. The Chef’s Table episode on Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan offered another example of gardening in harmony with nature.
By Sunday the bunnies had opened their eyes which meant they were about 10 days old, days away from starting to venture from the nest in search of solid food. The clock was ticking. And they were getting even more cute.
And then it started to rain, really hard and I decided to cover the nest with burlap. To protect them. “Did you make them a tent?” a friend asked incredulous when I posted this image on Facebook. What the fuck was I doing?
That night I read about a strategy for moving the nest – 5 feet every two days – that would still allow the mother to find the babies and nurse them. I figured they were about 15 feet from the gate and if I could just get them on the other side of the farm’s fence, I would feel better. Monday afternoon I gave it a go. Cora and I made a ring of flour around the nest and Tuesday morning checked to see if there was any sign the mother had been by. Sure enough, part of the circle was kicked around and the babies were sitting up more alert than ever.
Cora had been picking them up which I originally thought was a terrible idea for various reasons, but once I learned it wouldn’t prevent the mother from taking care of them and experienced for myself the joy of holding them, I let her do it. I knew it would make saying goodbye harder however and whenever that had to happen but also that this might be a once in a lifetime thing. Wednesday morning she picked one up and it scratched her. She was mad and sad. I was kind of glad — seemed like the perfect opportunity to remind her these were wild animals that would be on their own soon.
Wednesday afternoon when I went to move the nest again, Thompson came with me. I’m not sure why and this is one of the parts of the story I kind of regret. But another part of me feels like it was the right thing to do, from a vegetable farmer’s perspective. As I prepared to move the bunnies to their new home, Thompson nosed the nest, again, ever so gently, but enough that two of the wee ones went running out of the nest, under the fence that was about 6 feet away. We never saw them again. Thompson chased the third around for a few minutes. And I let him. I decided I couldn’t tell him not to chase this rabbit if I wanted him to chase rabbits away in the future. He’s been so good with the chickens that I have no doubt he might make friends with rabbits. He had already been in the farm yard with me half a dozen times since he’d located the nest and paid it no attention. I was worried he was loosing his edge.
My mother-in-law came out as this was happening and was very upset. With me. I won’t go into the details of our interaction here but I will say that her criticism of my actions only made me feel worse about something I was already uncomfortable about. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing but I also wasn’t sure I was doing the wrong thing. I was sure I didn’t need anyone watching over my shoulder while I did it. In the end, Thompson didn’t kill the bunny. I was fairly sure it must have been injured but put it back in its nest and waited to see how it was doing in the morning.
That evening I determined to take the bunny to the wildlife center where he would either be cared for or fed to an owl. In the meantime, momma rabbit came around for an early evening feeding. It was strange. The sun was still up. It was the first time I had seen her all week. She was hanging around the yard outside the farm. Hoping I might catch her going to the nest I hung around a few minutes. Quiet and still. She didn’t move. After twenty minutes later I went inside for dinner.
When I went back after dinner, she was inside the farm boundary. She saw me and froze. I went one way, she went the other. This dance when on for a few minutes until she tried to escape by running straight through the chain-link fence. And there she stayed, half on one side, have on the other. She was stuck and we saw no easy way of helping her out.
We gave her some space and time to try to work herself back out the way she got in but she kept charging forward. That was where her story ended. She probably ruptured her internal organs. Awful.
While she was stuck I thought of other farmer friends who probably would have shot her to put her out of her misery or slit her throat and cooked her for dinner. All I could think about was the baby bunny and how hungry he was going to be by morning. If he lived that long.
I had trouble getting to sleep that night. And the next. I didn’t grow up “hunting, fishing, slaughtering livestock & butchering them” like one friend from whom I sought counsel. He candidly told me that “letting a dog kill a rabbit has no moral weight for me.” I’m on board with Thompson catching rabbits and other rodents. I’m just not sure I want to play such an active role next time.