Over the past year a number of creatures oozed, hopped, crawled or slithered by for tea. I was happy for their company and we had enchanted tea parties. Their manners were excellent except for Ms. Toad who peed on me as I was helping her be seated. She assured me it was an accident.
This junco dad (right) is raising a much bigger cowbird baby. Cowbirds are called brood parasites because the mother will lay her egg in another species nest, displacing a host egg, then disappear and let the foster parents do all the work. A cowbird egg usually hatches in less time than other birds and the baby gets bigger faster and starves out the other nestlings.
The junco dad in these pictures has been feeding this fledgling for a week, as well as the weeks it was in the nest. He is getting tired of the constant pestering for food. Although he takes his responsibility seriously and continues to feed, he occasionally takes a lunge at the baby. The cowbird should be self feeding by now but there is a problem - the upper mandible is too short. It stops just after the nostrils. He can't pick up seeds. It's like eating with one and a half chopsticks. I've been waiting to see if he would adapt and figure out some other workaround but so far begging is his main solution. There is seed on the ground as well as the feeders and yesterday he learned that it is easier to eat from the ground than from the hard surface of the feeders because he can push his lower beak in a bit until the upper mandible can grab a grain of millet, so he is adapting. The father, after a week, has stopped feeding him and now the cowbird must figure out how to live life with this mutation.
Although cowbirds have a bad reputation and people dislike them, I can't blame the baby for the negligence of the parents, although I know this bird will grow up to copy the behaviour that is so frowned upon. Other species of birds rob nests and eat other birds and we don't think they are terrible. I think with cowbirds we put our own social mores on them. They are not monogamous and they do not stick around to raise their young so we judge them. They used to follow the buffalo herds and were transient so they couldn't stay in one place long enough to raise a brood. Snubby is alive and at my feeder and is interesting. I'm not going to wring his neck so I may as well enjoy him. And I got a blog post and a few of decent photos out of this cowbird's dilemma and his long suffering junco dad.
-several days later- Snubby is eating seeds from standing grass. I sprinkle food on the ground for him. He hangs out with the chickens now and is not afraid of me, probably because he was raised just four feet away from me at my window feeder so he is used to my movements. He's always around and looks me in the eye while I talk to him. He spotted his dad today and went to him begging but got chased off. The dad has cut the cord and Snubby is on his own. He looks like a female at this point but they usually do when they are young so it's hard to tell. I will continue to call it a he.
-another day passes- I am now under constant surveillance. At 6am there his is peering in the window. I go outside and he follows two feet behind. I am accompanied to the outhouse. Yesterday I was napping in my reclining lawn chair and Snubby perched on my knee. He flies from window to window following my movements through the house. He is too short to see in the door so he stands on the step and jumps up to window level again and again like he's on a trampoline. This is all because I tossed him three meal worms yesterday. Since then he has had about 15 more. I'm rationing them because he needs to find food on his own and also the meal worms will run out and I am afraid he will then feast on my eyeballs. He waits on a shelf by the door outside and when I open the door there he is ready for his treat. He learned so fast. Birds are such sharp cookies.
-and another day passes- Snubby now perches on my feet and nibbles my foot through the holes in my shoes. This is new behaviour.
-next day- Snubby has disappeared and I woke to a cat hunting at my feeder. Snubby had two close calls with this persistent hunter earlier in the week and I figured it was just a matter of time because Snubby is unwary and hangs out on the ground. I got up at sunrise every morning to chase the cat away because that's when it hunts but I slept in today and fear the worst. Knowing a bird is a privilege and I was looking forward to seeing how the relationship would evolve. But if Snubby was eaten at least he/she won't be laying eggs in anyone else's nests next year.
Here is a little video of Snubby waiting at the door for meal worms.
On Easter Monday my older house rabbit died. Buzz was my companion in the house for 8 years. She used a litter box and didn't chew wires, though she did eat the tassels off the rugs. She was an excellent companion and each time I looked at her a hundred times a day I'd get a surge of pleasure. I miss her gentle spirit around the house and her enthusiasm for treats. She loved to shred phone books and devour boxes. Buzz is survived by fellow rabbit, Beasty Wieners, who is seven.
I used to have a mattress on the floor where I slept and both rabbits slept with me. Waking up to bunnies in the bed is funny. I'd scrunch over to the one side so they could use the bed as a runway and they charged full speed up and down, leaping and twisting in the air like little lambs. It's a fun way to wake up - if it weren't 4:00 in the morning.
Buzz was a lionhead rabbit, a smallish breed with short body hair and a mane of longer fur around the head. Her mane wasn't pronounced because Beasty ate it. She also ate all her whiskers. Beast always kept Buzz well groomed and trimmed. Even on Buzz's last day Beasty Wieners spent much of the day grooming her. I knew she was in good hands.
Buzz had a fairly peaceful death. She seemed to want my attention and I'm glad she didn't hide. She ate dandelion greens right up to the last day when hand fed and was even dragooned into a short game of chase by the Beast on her second last day. When the time came she scurried into her tunnel and died there. This breed lives 7 to 10 years so she was in her golden years. Because of this and because of the stress of the noisy ferry ride which would terrify her with all the dogs and strangers and commotion I felt it would be kindest not to subject her to any heroics at the vet when likely nothing could be done anyway.
Buzz and Beasty Wieners were spayed which makes it easier to litter train, and makes them less likely to fight with each other. Introducing rabbits is tricky, you could have a bonded pair or a fight to the death. You need neutral territory so when I introduced Beast to Buzz 7 years ago I used my neighbour's entryway and sat wearing oven mitts and gumboots and holding a broom for over an hour, prepared to intercept if the fur should fly. Buzz was aggressive at first but was asserting her dominance. Beasty just wanted to eat the broom. Eventually they turned their backs on each other and groomed and I knew it was a match. I took them home where they were inseparable and over the next 7 years their bodies were almost always touching. They especially enjoyed sprawling by the fire in winter, and lying in sunbeams in the summer awaiting raisin deliveries.
Lionhead rabbits shed like huskies and I save up the fur every winter. In spring I put it on a rocky outcropping in front of my window. Soon chickadees and yellow-rumped warblers come for the fur to line their nests. It's the only time I see these birds up here but they come for this bit of fur every spring. This year after Buzz died I put out the fur I'd collected over the winter and the birds came and gathered great wads of it in their beaks. I like to think of those cozy chickadees in their fur lined nests. Buzz was a bright and gentle spirit and it seems fitting she should live on in this way.
Here is a picture of Buzz snoozing in her litter box.
When your chickens eat millet and cracked corn lots of wild birds join in. I built a feeding table so I could feed the chickens underneath to keep the grain dry, and sprinkle food on top for the birds. Mostly juncos come year round, with a few sparrows and towhees. There are seasonal visitors like the gang of red-winged black birds dining at the buffet table just now. They will stay throughout the spring and summer and raise their young here. In the summer grosbeaks come for a few weeks and add a little colour. Crossbills drink from the bird bath.
One year a flock of pine siskins (small gregarious finches) came for the summer. I sat by the feeder with a handful of sunflower seeds and waited. They are a fairly tame species and they put up with my slow movements as I offered them seeds. It only took a day and when some took food from my hand the others felt it was safe. For the rest of the summer every time I went outside finches would land on me. They went off to have families and brought their babies back to feed them. One time a mother and her baby were in my hand and there were sunflower seeds in my palm. The mother would give a seed to the baby, then jump around on my fingers warning other birds away, then she'd turn around and give another seed to her baby, then jump around defending the perimeter again. Slowly I brought up my other hand, stroked her back and said, "you are such a good momma," and she allowed this. I was repairing my power system batteries one day with a pine siskin on my shoulder, one on my arm, and one on the top of my head. They offered all sorts of advice (clean the contacts, top up the water, tighten the nuts.) They must have been males.
A sharp shinned hawk hunts at the feeders and I get to see it swoop in after smaller birds. It usually misses, but once it caught a junco in its talons three feet away on the feeder at my window. These windows where I sit are like a big screen T.V. tuned to the nature channel. Deer and sheep wander through eating the flowers, raccoons come at night, beautiful chickens parade about by day, ravens keep an eye on us all. The yard is always animated. It's hard to stop staring.
Here is a little video of the junco feeding frenzy. You can stop watching halfway, nothing new happens after that, but I left the whole video for those who are mesmerized like I am.
The farmhouse door opens as though by a gust of cold and the mother, at the cook stove stirring porridge, turns to see the neighbour girl is there, in her hand-me-down dress and thin coat, her boots and bare legs, her sharp black eyes. "Ma said daddy might have killed himself with the gun in the shed. She wants somebody to go see."
The mother turns to her oldest boy, eleven, "You go look. Go see what happened."
The boy and the girl cross the fields. The hard crust of snow holds each step briefly before they break through into the softer underbelly. The crust pushes the boy's trouser legs up and rasps against his shins. The girl's legs are already raw.
"Why don't your ma go look," he says.
"She don't want to."
The boy breaks off a chunk of crust the size of a shovel blade and sends it skimming over the surface where it shatters against a post. He whistles lightly through his teeth a song he heard on the radio. He thinks it's called Nine Pound Hammer and he has tapped its rhythm all week, with his spoon on his porridge bowl in the morning, with a nail on the on the milk pail in the barn, with the axe handle on the lake ice where he goes each morning before light to break the new skin and draw water for the house.
He snaps off a stem of teasel and holds it up. "If it was dark and we had to see we could light this for a torch.
"Wouldn't burn long," says the girl. "Burn out before you got to see what you meant to see."
"I'd smear it in bacon grease. It'd burn like a candle," he says.
"Then the fat would melt and run down your arm and you'd get burnt."
He shrugs and throws the weed into the bushes.
Coming out the other side of the sumac meadow they see the house. It leans slightly. Smoke rises from the chimney. A bony mongrel barks four times, it's breath hanging over it like thoughts.
"In that." The girl points to a shed across the paddock. It has a plastic window and a sheet metal roof. It has one set of tracks leading too it.
He sends another disc of crust skittering across the surface. "I'll go look," and the girl waits behind, hugging her thin arms around herself.
Placing his feet in the girls fathers footsteps he makes his way toward the door. His awareness circles him. He feels his raw shins burn, he feels winter in his nostrils and on the precise round surface of his eyes, the strain in his groin as he tries to match his step to this man's longer stride, the scrape of the door where the floor has heaved up, the muscles beneath his eyes pull into a squint in the dim shed.
In the house the girl's mother sits with a cat in her lap. Her fingers are still and light on its fur. She stares out the window into the bones of a lilac bush. The boy says, "It's a real mess, missus. There's blood and stuff all over the walls and floor. He done a real sure job of it." He doesn't know how else to say it. She looks slowly through the room as if fingering through fog - the upper edge of wainscoting, dusty jars of plum preserves and pickles on a shelf, the map-like edges of a water stain on the wallpaper, coming to rest on a blow up punching bag with foolish painted features and weighted in the bottom to keep it popping upright with every blow. It was the only gift for the children that Christmas.
"His last breaths are in that dummy," she says.
Returning home across the fields the boy retraces his footsteps, gathers them in, cancels them.
(This piece was written some years ago for our local Arts Festival. After seeing a number of psychiatrists of varying abilities over the years for treatment of depression and bipolar disorder I felt I had the experience to offer some helpful hints to others seeking help.)
If your psychiatrist's name is Dr. Gonnorago do not call him Dr. Gonorrhea.
When your psychiatrist asks you to chart your moods for a week, do not draw a line graph that includes outlines of duckies, piggies and cows.
If you mostly wear pajama bottoms for pants, do not wear them to your appointments, even if they are your "going out for good" pair. Ditto the mismatched socks.
When you are hiking into town along a highway for an appointment and find a stuffed grouse nailed to a perch on the side of the road, by all means put it in your knapsack to add to your home decor. Do not, however, respond to your shrink's inquiry into the efficacy of your medication by reaching into your pack, retrieving the grouse, and saying, "I keep giving him the anti-psychotics like you said, but he still won't admit he's stuffed."
When you are at home chopping wood and find three gigantic grub worms the size of cocktail weenies, put them in the unused stool sample container you've been saving for a rainy day. Punch a hole in the lid for air. Put the container in a large envelope and leave it at your doctor's office with a note that says, "I figured out what's wrong with me. See enclosed stool sample." It's worth it.
When the only time we hear about schizophrenics and manic depressives in the media is when one kills somebody, remind the general public about the millions of us who would do no such thing.
If you're in the psych ward and find a copy of the "Buy, Sell and Trade" in the garbage, read the ads in the livestock section, but don't keep calling the guy in Bowser and ordering homing pigeons. He won't deliver.
Should you have the strange fortune to watch your psychiatrist go insane before your very eyes, and she's sitting on the floor in front of you yelling, "YOU ARE TURNING PEOPLE AGAINST ME. YOU TURN PEOPLE AGAINST ME. I DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH MONEY. I DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH MONEY," step out onto the hot, dusty sidewalk in the blazing noonday sun like a gunslinger in a Western. Blow across the barrel of your finger pistol. Say, "My work is done here."
When you've tamed a flock of finches that land on you whenever you are outside, don't tell your shrink that you sit in the yard, head in hands, weeping, and covered in songbirds. He won't buy it.
Clear up common misperceptions about clinical depression and bipolar disorder. Severe clinical depression is not "the blues." It is not like grief. You cannot pull up your socks and snap out of it if you would only try. You cannot think your way out of a severe episode any more than you could think your way out of schizophrenia, a stroke, or a seizure. It is not rational. You may no longer see in colour. You may become unable to speak or move. It is a severe and terrifying brain disorder often involving misfirings of neurons and neurotransmitters and blah blah blah blah until you finally kill yourself. Or worse yet, live.
You'll drink chamomile tea and St. John's wort tincture by the gallon. You'll try high dose vitamin therapy and essential oils. You'll go to naturopaths, homeopaths, and even a few psychopaths. You'll meditate and exercise. You'll go off wheat, sugar, dairy. You'd eat slug slime and dung beetles if it would help. But if nothing provides enough relief and a decent psychiatrist finds just the right drugs to balance your brain chemicals to give you some peace, take the goddam things.
Send that psychiatrist a thank you note on a homemade card with a photograph of dead mice you stuffed into a tiny Volkswagen. But don't add, "P.S. Mice will do anything I say."
Always remember you get by with a little help from your friends. Okay, a LOT of help from amazing friends. They'll sweep up your smashed dishes, launder your filthy clothes, make you bathe. They'll build your chicken coop, your house, your rain catchment, your life. They'll give you land, buy you a trailer, build your road. They'll feed you, house you, massage you, include you. They'll save your life again and again and may not even know they are doing it.
The mental healthcare system is crazy in itself and can be harmful. But if you educate yourself and define your expectations, it can be useful. If you can't stand up for yourself, and who can during the worst times, you'll need an advocate. Mine is my friend, Kathy. She'll never let them drag me off and lock me away. She prefers to do that herself.
Nobel prize winner Alice Munro is my favourite author. In 2002, when I finished reading another collection of her stories, I was moved to write her a card of appreciation. It read: Dear Alice (may I call you Alice?), Regarding the collection "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" - Unbe-fucking-lievable. You are the master and you can put that on your dust jacket and smoke it.
Alice wrote back. Read the card below to see her reply in her own handwriting. I'll wait...
So my words were on Alice's refrigerator. I was thrilled. I showed the card to everyone and joked that I wished I had a fridge to stick hers on, or at least a fridge door. Someone took that seriously and word went out in our little community that I needed a fridge door and there were several offers. I was afraid people would start leaving their broken down appliances in my yard. I put a note on the gate, "No fridge doors today, please."
Later in the year I felt compelled to write to Alice again when a robin I was caring for pooped upon a book of hers. I took a picture of the robin with the book and mailed it to her with some dumb caption about a book worth shitting on. I meant it as a compliment but sometimes only I get my jokes. The way it was worded it could only be taken as a criticism, and a rude one at that, but I noticed too late. I have always felt bad about that. Maybe it's time to write Alice another letter - we have unfinished business.
Now that Alice is a Nobel Prize winner I've pulled out her card from where it lives between the pages of the Oxford Canadian Dictionary under M and I'm showing it off once more.
No fridge doors please.
People of a certain vintage remember where they were and what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. I remember the moment I heard Saturday mail would no longer be delivered in Canada. It was summer and I was a kid in the garden eating peas from the pod. Someone in the house heard it on the radio and conveyed the information. It was sad news. I was afraid we'd lose rural mail delivery altogether. I loved walking out the lane to open the creaking metal door and maybe there would be treasure: a parcel, a postcard, a favourite magazine. There you are out in the sunshine on a country road in your cut off jeans and bare feet, cicada buzz threading the air, and you reach into this magic box and retrieve a surprise. Sometimes in mailboxes with ill fitting doors the surprise you found was a nest full of starlings. My neighbour's mailbox contained a nest so the mail lady tucked the letters carefully beside it each day and the starlings hatched, grew up and fledged. My friend and I would take turns reaching in and the baby birds would swallow our fingers. This is what we did for entertainment in the country.
I love it when people get creative with their mailboxes and spotting one that is attractive or unusual is always fun. So this year I made my own. I kept with a simple design because it works best for packages (hint hint) but had some fun with the painting. It has magnets for a closure and four coats of paint. I will plant daffodils around the base. Nowadays there aren't many letters. Movies from the library's excellent 'Books By Mail' service are my main thrill, plus the occasional internet shopping item, but half the fun is the 12 minute hike through the forest anticipating the surprises that might be waiting in the magic box.
One of my fortes is making scenes with dead mice and photographing them. These mice were killed by friend's cats and left cosmetically perfect. They'd be frozen until their debut. I screwed the camera to a tripod and documented the process of making the picture "the Bath" from beginning to end and here is that photo essay.
A small garden had to be planted. I transferred tiny flowering plants from the bluff and woods and made a garden of different mosses with a backdrop of mint and sweet woodruff. Everything had to bloom on the same day so timing was critical. I nestled the porcelain bathtub into the garden on four smooth stones from the beach and let the plants grow up around it for a couple of weeks so the scene would look natural and lived in. Then I waited for it to bloom.
In the meantime a ladder had to be crafted from an arbutus branch and lashed together. Luckily I am a Girl Guide and can do these things.
The little garden had to be watered every other day by dipping a watering can into the swamp and carrying it up the hill.
A perfect mouse had to be chosen. There were over 30 contestants. I'd been collecting and saving them in the freezer for over a year.
The mouse was glued to the ladder and clamped with clothes pins and bulldog clips until the glue set.
Much hand washing during the whole process.
Pollywogs were caught to populate the bathtub. Millipedes were wrangled to crawl up a leaf and curl in the moss. The millipedes behaved admirably during the shoot. The pollywogs, however, failed to surface at the required time.
When the garden bloomed there would be two days when it was at its peak. Then I had to wait for the light, so the mouse went into the freezer on her ladder until the right sunbeam came along. Throughout the day I tried different light, each time transferring the mouse and ladder back to the freezer to await the next opportunity. Finally in the evening the sun came through the branches to illuminate the scene perfectly. I clicked the shutter for a minute or two and then the sunbeam was gone and so were the millipedes.
Afterward many hours were spent in post processing on the computer to tweak the colours, crop, and bring light to the parts of the picture I want to emphasize. The picture came out of the camera rather dull but I brought back the colours and the warmth of the light in a program called Lightroom.
To see more mouse scenes look on this site under http://www.raineyroost.com/mice.html
Pearl died whilst dust bathing in the sunshine on Saturday. She was fine in the morning, then suddenly she was dead. She was 10 or 11 years old. I guess she had a heart attack or something.
Pearl was one of the best broody hens and had many clutches over the years. Within days of hatching her eggs I could let her free range and at night she'd bring all the chicks back to the house and squawk at the door. I'd open it and she'd march in and jump in her banana box and the chicks would follow. It is so helpful to have such a reasonable broody hen, she knew the drill and made it easy for me. I never had to run around trying to catch them. Pearl got her name because she was so broody she sat on an oyster shell when there was no egg available. I couldn't let her hatch eggs often or I'd have too many chickens so most of the time I was trying to make her unbroody. She laid for 8 years.
Pearl was a silver-laced Wyandotte bantam. Each feather was white with a black line around it. She had a chronic leg condition that I had to treat with salves so she was used to my ministrations. She had a good life and died doing what she loved. She is survived by her sister Tiny, and many friends of varying species.
Jay Rainey is an artist living with chickens (outdoors) and house rabbits (indoors and litter trained), on an island in British Columbia, Canada.