One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, New Fish

This post contains graphic violence and nudity and may not be suitable for all audiences. Reader discretion is advised.

This is not a post about farming.

This is a post about our fish tank.

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Our fish tank

Ten years ago, Santa brought a fish tank for our girls. When they woke up on Christmas morning, it was sitting in their room, full of water and fish, and was an immediate source of delight. Being only an eight-gallon tank, we could only have about five or six fish at any given time, but that didn’t matter. The glowing light made for an excellent nightlight and the gentle bubbling sound proved quite soothing. Watching the fish swim in circles provided entertainment that lasted… well… about a week, give or take, before they completely lost interest.

That was ten years ago.

Since then, we’ve had countless fish for varying lengths of time. Some last years; some last days. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to which fish thrive in the tank and which don’t. We are mediocre (at best) about tank maintenance so, like most everything around here (poultry, bees, dogs, children, etc.), survival is purely Darwinian.

The most recent incarnation of the tank has been a relatively symbiotic situation involving two tetras and an algae-eating fish that’s been named “Dinosaur Fish” as a tribute to it’s behemoth size and lumbering movements. Dinosaur Fish has been with us for at least eight years and has proven unkillable, despite our benign neglect. We leave him alone; he leaves us alone.

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Dinosaur Fish

The tetras had been contentedly swimming in circles for about two years and then, one of them died. Feeling badly for the lone remaining fish, I decided to go to the store and get a couple new recruits. I picked up two mollies. I thought these vibrant orange beauties would make a nice addition to the tank and two would be perfect because I didn’t want to raise the ammonia level of the water too quickly.

We’d had the mollies about a day when one of the two promptly died. The next day, the other one also died.

I went back to the store and explained my dilemma. The woman there felt pretty strongly that there might be something wrong with my water. She suggested I get two more, see how they fared, and proceed from there. If the fish thrived, then it was simply an issue with the previous fish. If they died, then there may be an issue with my tank water. She told me to come back with a water sample.

I cleaned the tank water and then introduced the sacrificial lambs new fish to the tank. With the tetra and the new mollies swimming around in there, all seemed right with the world and I went about my day.

The next day, one of the mollies was belly up.

I scooped her out, flushed her reverentially, and wondered what the heck was happening.

Later that night, Dave said, “The tetra is dead. Wait… No… Not quite dead yet.”

And so I looked. It appeared that the remaining molly was eating the tetra. But, she wasn’t eating it like she meant to eat it, she was eating it like she meant to murder it. Fin by fin, brutalizing our sweet, circle-swimming tetra, for apparently no reason at all.

By morning, the tetra was dead.

And so was the molly.

And I was just about to give up hope for our little fish tank when Dave noticed something kind of amazing.

Next to the dead Molly was a tiny little orange fish. These little fish were all over the tank and so, it would appear, the molly’s last act on earth was to give birth to at least 13 (very hard to count) itty bitty baby fish.

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Mom? Mom? Mama? Mom? Mommy? Ma? Ma? Mama?

I did go back to the store with a water sample because now there were babies to care for and it seemed like the responsible thing to do. Inexplicably, the water tested perfect and there was no explanation for the murder by, and subsequent death of, the molly mama.

The working theory is that she killed the tetra out of some twisted maternal instinct (“Clear the way, bitches, my babies are coming!”) and that the sheer act of birth ultimately did her in.

Either way, we now have a tank FULL OF BABY FISH and we legitimately have to hope they don’t all survive because our little tank simply cannot handle that much fish pee.

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So much pee

To be continued…

 

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The Puddle Pond

Five or six years ago, Dave spent an awful lot of time digging out The Puddle.

We don’t have any natural water sources on our land, but the water table is relatively high. Every time we got any measurable amount of rain, Dave noticed that one spot in particular would continuously flood. So, that’s where he started digging.

And digging. And digging. And moving hunks of sod to build up one side. And having that sod wall collapse. And doing it again. And digging. And…

Eventually, he succeeded in establishing a respectable hole in the ground that would occasionally fill with water temporarily.

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Now, as horrendous planning would have it, our ducks and chickens reside in an enclosure that is approximately 100 yards away from the Puddle Pond. So, even though we had the snowiest winter in the history of the world, resulting in a profoundly watery “spring,” the ducks had heretofore been unable to enjoy any of it.

We fixed that yesterday.

It took some doing, but we dug out our old portable fence and ran it from one side of the enclosure door, through the woods, around the puddle, back up along the old pig shed, and back to the other side of the enclosure door. Then, all we had to do was open the door, and the ducks would make a beeline for the water.

Or not.

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What the ducks actually did was EVENTUALLY make their way to the door of the enclosure, get nervous, and go back in.

Finally, Dave got a bucket of chicken feed and shook out a trail of pellets from the door, into the new “run,” and almost all the way to the puddle. At this point, we closed the door to prevent any further wimp-outing and left them to their own devices.

It took about 30 minutes, but they did get around to checking out the new digs.

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When we got home later that night, we could hear quacking and splashing in the dark and when we woke up this morning, they were in full-on swim/bathe mode. We’re pretty sure they spent the entire night out there.

These guys are currently just about as happy as we’ve ever seen them, so the fact that the puddle is actively draining out and will likely be empty within a week is currently beside the point.

And I certainly don’t have the heart to tell them.

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Snowshoeing is for the Birds

We got 28″ of snow yesterday.

In the past nine days, we’ve enjoyed 43 hours of NOT having our power out.

Of course, it’s snowing again today and Dave is gone for 12 hours and the birds need to be fed and watered.

This is a job that is substantially easier for Dave (6’2″) than for me (5’2″). Trudging through over two feet of snow, I needed to make the first pass carrying a five-gallon bucket of chicken feed. It would be the second pass, however, that would prove the real challenge–dragging the running hose from the basement, through the snow, to the coop (about a 100 yard trek). So, today, I thought I’d enlist the help of some snowshoes.

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Try it, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

Slogging through thigh-high snow with chicken feed was fun and everything, but the party started to take a nosedive when I arrived at the coop door and couldn’t even get TO it, much less OPEN it. Without any tools available to me, I set the bucket aside, dropped to my knees, and started digging with my hands to free the door enough to get inside.

I was able to move enough snow to open the door about a foot. As I squeezed my heavily-padded body through the opening, I realized that I’d forgotten about the snowshoes. Halfway through the door, I was stuck—my feet were jammed under the coop door and my body was stuck on the other side.

And that’s when the GIANT PILE OF SNOW fell on my head and dropped down the back of my jacket.

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The door in question. The missing hunk of snow above the door is what ended up melting down my back.

I maneuvered until I was free, reached out and grabbed the bucket, and brought it to the birds, only to discover that they were totally fine on their food supply and I could’ve skipped this part altogether.

I dumped the superfluous food on top of the already-there food and made my way back out. Realizing that shoveling a path inside the coop for the hose would make my next task slightly easier, I grabbed the garden shovel* from inside the coop and dug a path (of sorts) repeatedly clacking into the buried snowshoes in the process.

Once the “path” was shoveled out, I trudged my way back to the house and into the basement to retrieve the hose. Wearing snowshoes in the basement made for high comedy as the complete absence of snow turned them into dangerous, floppy, Stumble Machines. Nevertheless, I got the water turned on, grabbed the hose, and started back to the coop.

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The scene of the crime.

I tried to follow the tracks I made on the previous journeys, but managed to run into similar resistance regardless. At one point, I simply sat down in the snow and yelled my frustration at Dave  the sky.

Finally back inside the coop, I dumped out the slushy, muddy water that was all the birds had to bathe in and filled their tubs with fresh, clean water. I repeated this inside both hen houses so that they would still have a place to drink and take baths despite the fact that the sky won’t stop falling.

I learned two things in this process: a) my gloves aren’t particularly waterproof and b) that watching ducks enjoy a tub of fresh water makes snowshoeing through two feet of snow worth it.

Almost.

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* Not meant for snow.

 

 

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What the Muck?!

When we sold our herd of goats last winter, we knew that we’d eventually try to move our ducks and chickens into the goat run. For one, we hated the thought of two sheds and a large, lovely pen sitting empty. For another, our flock was getting picked off, one by one, by predators; the whole free-ranging thing was backfiring big time.

The sheds were pretty clean when we moved the birds in. They probably could’ve used a clean-out, but moving all the birds in was a big enough project, so we skipped it.

That was last summer.

Since last summer, we have taken in 15 ducks and a handful of chickens from a friend who couldn’t keep her flock.  Adding those to the survivors of last summer’s massacre, we’ve currently got about 30 birds.

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Shit, shit everywhere…

Chickens roost; ducks don’t. This means that the chickens are pooping throughout the night in one spot while the ducks are pooping throughout the night in a different spot. THIS means that there has been poop everywhere, every night, for over a year.

Today, I started mucking out the coop.

I think it is safe to say there are few jobs as stinky, filthy, exhausting, and totally gross as an overdue coop muck-out. I would venture a guess that a septic-tank-clean-out-gone-awry would be right up there, but even that probably wouldn’t be quite as horrifying.

After about an hour of pitchforking pee- and poop-soaked hay into an ENORMOUS PILE outside the coop, I had only managed to dislodge roughly one-third of the putrefaction. At this point, however, I realized that I only had enough pine shavings to cover the area I’d completed and, were I to keep going, the floor of the coop would be bare until I could get more.

This was a weak and lame excuse to stop working and I saw right through it. Regardless, I took myself up on the opportunity to quit, covered the freshly-cleaned out section with lovely pine shavings, and stood back to admire my half-assed workmanship.

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Keep left.

I quickly realized that after one night of roosting above the clean and lovely bit that was mucked, the chickens would immediately undo much of my work. Since this particular corner of the coop is a favorite egg laying spot, I put up a chicken wire fence across the roosting bars on that side to prevent any nocturnal fecal vandalism.

Of course, I’ll have to finish the job sooner rather than later. While it is hard to work up much enthusiasm for such a task, there is a great sense of accomplishment when it’s finally done.

And, for some reason, the EXACT SAME muck, when moved to a new location, holds untold wonders for the stupid, stupid birds.

Sigh.

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A Mite Hungry

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Peaceful, bucolic shot of one totally annihialated hive

My hives died this winter.

This is the first time since starting my hives in 2013 that they haven’t survived and I’ve been anxious to know what killed them.

Bees in this country are generally in a hurry to be obliterated by one thing or another. If they’re not huffing pesticides in the big apiaries like teenagers around a bong, then they are prone to infestation, starvation, freezing, neglect, mold, moths, and mice–among other things. Those last three are typically not the cause of death, but rather opportunistic pseudo-parasites that move on in once the hive is already compromised or demised.

I once thought I lost a hive to wax moths and was informed that no, I lost a hive due to my own negligence and the wax moths would like to thank me for my inadvertent generosity.

Going into the winter this past fall, I ensured that my hives all had plenty of honey (the rule of thumb is 70-100 pounds of honey per hive) and even topped each hive with a bee patty for good measure in case it was a particularly mild winter and the larvae were peckish.

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She died searching for something to eat – also a typical threat from our teenagers

But here’s the thing about winter bees: it doesn’t matter how much they have to eat if they aren’t close enough to the food.

I knew this and yet I left the honey super on the bottom of the hive, rather than moving it up one. I was figuring the bees knew where it was and would situate themselves accordingly.

I was, once again, figuring wrong.

A sign that your hive may have starved to death is comb filled with “bee butts.” This will be a tremendously sad, bummer of a discovery if you love your bees as I do. The bees will be face down into the comb, having died during their desperate search for a snack.

img_1451While the Bee Butt Factor was high in my hives, there was also a small (but not insignificant) amount of white debris at the bottom of the hives.

While this could just be crystallized honey, and I think that it is, it could also be evidence of varroa mite infestation.

Varroa Mites are also known as Varroa Destructor, but whenever I hear that term, I envision a giant tick-like creature wearing a cape.

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I am Varroa Destructor.

Varroa are tiny little sinister dickheads who have absolutely no respect for personal space. They may be the most insidious of all parasites in their methodology.

To enter a hive, varroa literally hitch a ride on the body of a drone and enter right through the front door in a totally sinister piggyback ride. Once inside, the mite will seek out some young, sexy nurse bee and attach itself to her, sucking her blood while biding its time.

When bee larvae is eight days old, they emit a pheromone signal to let the nurse bees know it is time to cap their cells. The problem is that this same signal is registered by the mites as a signal to enter the cell, which they do, snuggling down into the royal jelly beneath the larva. If that weren’t despicable enough, the mites actually use a snorkel-like feature to be able to submerge themselves entirely and still be able to creepily breathe.

Once capped in the cell, the mite will begin eating the growing larva and laying eggs. There

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Stolen internet picture of two mites on a bee

are about five eggs laid–the first one being male and the rest female. These siblings then mate WITH EACH OTHER, making demented little inbred, cross-eyed mites, and emerge from the cell having mortally wounded the larva inside and embarking on their journey of Really Gross Destruction.

So, taking everything into consideration, I’m more convinced that I lost my hives due to Sloppy Beekeeping Resulting in Starvation than Sloppy Beekeeping Resulting in Varroa Mites.

I really need to work on my sloppy beekeeping.

Luckily, Friend Maggie Who Doesn’t Kill Bees is willing to help! She is going to set me up with a nucleus colony this spring so I can restart my hives and, if that weren’t enough, she is going to ensure it is a robust nuc that can potentially be split this summer.

I will try not to kill them.

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…like I killed them.

 

 

 

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You Gonna Eat That?

img_1292We have about 32 assorted birds on applewood farm at the moment.

We also have a casual restaurant that generates a generous amount of food waste.

Turns out, birds LOVE restaurant food.

Chickens love it; ducks love it; guinea fowl love it.

img_8016-lI’m sure geese would love it too, but we’ll never know because geese are jerks and they’re not allowed here.

It takes us about two days to fill a five-gallon bucket of food scraps so, every other day, the birds get their usual feed supplemented with everything from vegetable peelings and stems to leftover bread and french fries.

As long as there are no alliums (birds HATE onions, garlic, etc.) or citrus (also much-despised), the flock is noticeably uplifted on Bucket Days.

And, as long as the bounty is well-distributed all over the coop run, the birds seem to do an excellent job of sharing the goods. Everyone who wants some, gets some.

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Olga, rethinking her life choices

Except for Olga.

Olga lived for the past year in the rafters of the garage barn, along with the vast majority of the rest of the chickens. When something started killing all of our birds last spring, we modified the old goat run into a coop and moved all the remaining birds in.

Everyone stays there happily. That’s where the food is. That’s where the water is.

Olga, however, won’t be fenced in. She, apparently, needs to be free.

So she escaped the confines (and the warmth and the food) for a life on the road. Living on her own, she forages for bird seed that falls out of the feeder and, we imagine, is wicked thirsty most of the time. Typically, we find her lingering around the outside of the enclosure she rejected, most likely looking for a way back in.  God help us, however, if WE try to put her back in. She will raise the dead with her squawking and screaming and the neighbors will call to make sure someone isn’t being murdered.

Some nights, after everyone has settled in and Olga is back on her garage barn roost, we’ll grab her and carry her back to the coop. Invariably, though, she just finds a way out. We’ll keep doing it because we want her to be safe and cared for, but she’ll likely just keep escaping because that’s what she wants.

img_1298Everyone else will continue to enjoy the thrice-weekly goodies which, to this day, she has yet to taste.

Yum.

 

 

 

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Like Water Off a Duck’s Back

Recently, a friend approached me about taking in her ducks and chickens.

She was getting ready to move and her new digs wouldn’t allow for poultry. I mentioned that we had plenty of space for birds since our flock had been largely wiped out last spring, so it seemed a perfect solution for both of us.

Earlier this month, we had this text conversation:

Her: Were you serious about taking my ducks?

Me: How many are there?

Her: 11. I’ll buy you feed.

Me: If you could help with feed, we could totally take them. Are they Pekins?

Her: 3 Runners, 1 Pekin, 1 French Toulouse Goose, 2 Mallards, 2 Rouens, 1 Swedish, and I’m forgetting someone. There are about half a dozen chickens too.

Me: I’ll take ’em all but the goose. I hate geese.

Me: Hate hate hate

Her: Okay. Maybe I can find another home for him.

Me: Hate

Her: Yeah, he’s a dick. His name is firefly.

Me: All geese are dicks. His name should be Asshole.

img_1080So, with the ground rules being established, we proceeded with the adoption process.

She crated up all the birds and delivered them to their new home on applewood farm.

Having only had Pekins previously, I wasn’t familiar with all these other duck flavors. It took all of about 30 seconds for me to fall completely in love with the Runners. Unlike regular ducks, these guys stand up straight and run instead of waddling. They are hilarious and goofy and Jim Henson would have had a field day anthropomorphizing them.

The only discernible difference between the Mallards and the Rouens (that my untrained eye could find) was that the female Rouen has a splash of vibrant purple on her wing tips. Otherwise, I’d be hard-pressed to tell one from the other. The Swedish, on the other hand, looked like a Pekin that had a bottle of ink splattered all over it. The whole gang won me over fairly instantly; I guess I’m a duck girl.

It took about two weeks for the new ducks to settle into their surroundings.

At first, every time we went in to feed or water them, all ten of them would be huddled in their coop. If we went into the coop to flush them out toward the feed and water, they would flail spastically into one another, stumbling and running out the door. The minute we would come out of the coop, however, the whole motley crew would hurry back inside without ever getting anything to eat or drink. I had to hope they were finding sustenance when we weren’t looking.

The chickens had none of these issues.

All of the hens immediately made themselves at home in the coop and yard, scratching and pecking and behaving an awful lot like chickens.

img_1082We’d been alerted that, while unremarkable in every other way, one of the hens required something in the way of human affection as often as possible.

This particular bird will come right up to you when you’re filling a waterer or a feeder and simply stand nearby awaiting her cuddle.

We, of course, are happy to oblige.

Aside from Snuggle Chicken, the only need the birds really have that require much from us is The Watering.

Without a natural water source available to them or us, we have to drag our Extraordinarily Long Length of Hose from the house to the coop every time they need water, which is always. In the summer, we can leave the hose out and simply provide water as needed. In the winter, however, if we don’t roll the hose up in the cellar, it will freeze overnight and make it impossible to use. When the hose is set to “Impossible,” we must resort to lugging five-gallon buckets of water from the house and that, my friends, sucks really hard.

Ducks without water are unhappy ducks.

There’s not much they love more than swimming and bathing and splashing. Keeping a bath in freezing temperatures is generally impossible, so we try to do the next best thing…

img_1061We literally just stand and hold the hose while the ducks take turns walking through, or standing in, the blast of water.

The longer we do it, the more puddles and rivulets form from which all of the birds quite enjoy drinking. Nothing quite rivals the spray of the hose, though, and the ducks are impressively equitable–ensuring that everyone who wants a turn gets one.

Once I saw how much they enjoy it, it really just served to make me feel badly on days when my schedule wouldn’t allow for Sprinkler Time.

img_1057But, today is Christmas and I don’t have anywhere else to be. If anyone needs me, I’ll be down at the coop, watering the ducks.

 

 

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