No Harm, No Fowl

The phrase “No Harm, No Foul” originated in the game of basketball.  It simply stated that if the actions of a player caused no harm to either another player or to the outcome of a play, then no foul should be called.  The phrase has now made its way into the common vernacular.

I am taking this phrase one step further.  The “fowl” I am referring to is of the feathered variety.

Since we have moved to the farm, many people have asked me why we don’t have chickens.  The answer is quite simple.  Because I don’t like them.

Well, okay, that’s not completely true.  There are some things about them that I like.  In fact, there are some things I love.  I love the cute, soft, fuzzy, peeping baby chicks.  I love farm-fresh eggs with their firm, golden-yellow yolks that make the pale-yellow yolks of store-bought eggs look downright sickly.  I love the look of the majestic rooster crowing atop the fencepost.  I love the look of the protective mother hen, scratching the dirt while her brood playfully frolics beside her. 

In fact, I love the look so much that I have decorated my kitchen with that look.

My mother was a chicken aficionado.  Every spring, she would drag my dad to a town an hour away from our farm where they would purchase approximately 250 new chicks of various breeds.  Within weeks, those “cute, soft, fuzzy, peeping baby chicks” would turn into squawking, feathered, smelly half-grown fowl.  When they had grown large enough to distinguish their characteristics, Mom would hand-pick 25 or 30 hens to be her “layers” for the coming year, and one or two roosters to lead them.  The rest were butchered and put in the freezer.  The old hens that no longer routinely laid eggs were also butchered and used for soup.  Mom shared the butchered chicken with family, and sold extra eggs to friends and neighbors.  Just as we had “Daddy’s mules”, we had “Mom’s chickens”.

Obviously, I shared my Dad’s love of all equine creatures, but I never shared my mother’s love of domesticated fowl.  So, what is it, exactly, that I don’t love, you ask?  Well, let me tell you, my dislike of fowl was established early, and runs deep. 

During the course of my childhood, I was chased across the farmyard by roosters, had my legs scratched and pecked by roosters who sneakily attacked from the rear, and was even held hostage in the hayloft by a maniacally crowing rooster who strutted and wildly flapped its wings at the foot of the hayloft stairs.  I was finally rescued by my dad who heard my frantic screams.

During my daily task of gathering eggs, I gingerly attempted to sidestep the juicy, smelly piles of chicken poop on my way to the coop where I hoped beyond hope that I would not either

A. get my hand pecked by a protective hen still on the nest, or

B. reach into an upper nest too high for a child to see into and grab a slimy, broken egg or a fresh pile of poop instead of the egg.

All of those things happened. 

But the worst was the butchering.  I still have visions of the madly-flopping, blood-spurting, headless chicken corpses.  I can still smell the steamy, wet feathers that stuck to my fingers.  I can still feel the slimy gizzard in my hand as I peeled off the lining.  Kentucky Fried, anyone?

With those kinds of childhood experiences, why on earth would I ever agree to fowl on my farm?!

Because I can’t say no to my family.

This is a photo of one of our granddaughters on the day we purchased six cute, soft, fuzzy, peeping baby ducks.  Domestic ducks.  Ducks that I knew would quite rapidly grow into adult ducks.

I had been begged by some of my immediate family members (You know who you are!) to purchase ducks for our farm.  Besieged and beleaguered, I finally acquiesced.  Fine.  One or two ducks, I said.

At the store, the salesman told me that one or two really wasn’t a good idea.  They need a flock, he told me.  At least six, he said.

I sighed.  Fine.  I bought six.

Fern was terribly excited about the new additions to our farm family.  She was equally disappointed however when I made it clear that picking up one of the babies in her mouth was not acceptable.  Fine, she told me nonverbally as she apologetically dropped her head – and the baby.

The plan had been to raise the babies to adulthood, then show them to our pond.  We figured they could roam the pond area during the day, then upon their return to the barn at night, we would lock them in one of our stalls to keep them safe from predators.

That was the plan.

The reality is that they didn’t “roam”.  They got fat, and lazy, and never waddled beyond our corral boundary.  To keep them out of the horse’s water trough, we set up a trough right next to the barn in which they could swim and bathe. 

Duck ownership quickly became a case of déjà vu.  They noisily quacked all day long and pooped everywhere.  The smelly, dirty water needed to be replaced daily. They dug in the mud with their bills and destroyed the grass in the corral that we had so painstakingly attempted to nurture for our horses.  One morning, I stepped outside for my chores and would have sworn it had snowed if it hadn’t been late summer.  The ducks had molted and feathers were everywhere.

Danny and I came to a decision.  The ducks had to go.  We did not reach this decision lightly.  Our animals quickly become family members.  Once a part of our farm family, always a part of our farm family.  We considered giving up on the ducks a personal failure.

We contacted some friends who lived on the outskirts of town.  They had a pond and we knew that they had, in the past, had some ducks.  They agreed to take them.

About a week after the delivery, I drove past their home and saw our ducks on their pond.  I thought they looked happier.

And I know we were.  No Fowl, No Harm.

(You want to read some more chicken stories?  Check out the April and October chapters of my first book, A Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Stand-Off

Wild Thing, You Make My Heart Sing

We have a large pond on our farm which is fed by a medium-sized creek.  It naturally attracts all sorts of wild animals.  Water fowl such as geese, ducks, cranes, egrets and pelicans all congregate at various times of the year.  Meadowlarks, quail, pheasants, turkey, owls, and hawks all nest in the prairie grasses or cottonwood tree branches.  We see deer, raccoon, badgers, beavers, coyotes, jackrabbits, cottontails, and muskrat, and most of these “wilds” raise their babies on our land.

I remember lots of wilds from my childhood years, but it’s only now, as an adult, that I have truly come to love and appreciate them.  And I have learned so much!  My parents taught me everything I know about raising and caring for horses, cattle, cats, dogs, pigs and chickens, but very little about the wilds.  What I know about them now, I have mostly learned from meticulous observation and a few carefully selected books on native Kansas wildlife.

I am not a hunter.  I have absolutely nothing against hunting, and it would be highly hypocritical of me if I denounced hunting as I savor another forkful of my tender, medium-rare rib-eye steak.

Having said that, Danny and I do not, however, allow hunting on our land.  The reason is simple.  We enjoy watching the wildlife more than we would ever enjoy eating it.  And the wilds are not stupid.  If they were hunted on our land, they would stop coming.  And they would stop raising their babies here.  (Danny took the accompanying photo of twin fawns.)

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A few years ago, one of my teenaged great-nephews was visiting our farm with his family.  He had just completed his hunter safety course and was anxious to put his new-found knowledge to use.  He asked me if he could hunt on our land.

I said, “Tell you what.  You can hunt anything that I haven’t already named.”

He said, “Great! What about those ducks on your creek?”  A flock of about fifty mallards had been congregating in a bend of our creek for several days.

“Oooooh,” I replied, with a disappointed look on my face.  “Sorry.  They’ve all got names.”

He looked quizzically at me for a few seconds, then the light bulb went on.  He grinned and shook his head.  He never asked again.

Sharing the land with the wilds has produced some interesting tales for the telling.  Here are a couple of my favorites.

Years ago, shortly after Danny and I moved to the farm, our dogs woke us in the middle of a warm summer night, barking furiously.  They sleep in an enclosed porch right off our kitchen, and when I arose to check on them, I found them eagerly jumping and whining, pleading with me to open the door and let them out.  So, I did.  I did not turn on the porch light first, I did not peek outside.  I just let them out in the dark.  Instantly, there arose a horrendous ruckus of barking, growling, porch chairs tipping, buckets rolling!

I quickly ran to flip on the porch light.  By the time I got back to the door, the intruder was gone.  The dogs were sniffing the porch, the hair on their backs still raised, but there was no indication of who our unwanted visitor might have been.

Several days later, I happened to walk past an upstairs window.  We have a two-story farm home, and this particular window was directly above the roof of the porch that had been the scene of the nocturnal disturbance just a few days prior.

There were muddy paw prints on the glass!  Paws shaped like tiny, human hands!  The paw print of a raccoon.

Suddenly, everything made sense.  Lured by the scent of our barbecue grill, a raccoon had visited our porch during the night, then, knowing it could not outrun the dogs, escaped by climbing to safety.  It shimmied onto the grill (I discovered later that our grill cover had shred marks on it.) then the porch rail, and finally the porch roof.  I shuddered when I realized that, had I opened the upstairs window that night, we would have had a raccoon in our house.  As much as I love the wilds, I’m not sure I want to share a bed with one.

This next incident happened almost exactly one year ago.  It was early spring, and the wilds were once again coming to life: on the move, out of winter dormancy.  I was doing my morning chores, and had just fed and watered the rabbits.  Our rabbit pen is situated very near our exterior barn wall, right next to the barn driveway pad.  I didn’t notice the pile at first.  When I finally saw it, I couldn’t recognize what it was from the distance of the rabbit pen.

Something was splattered across the driveway pad.  Was it the poop of some animal?  It was a darkish gray splattering of something roughly two feet across.  I walked up to it and bent down for closer examination.  My jaw dropped open.  It was…fish!  In the middle of our corral, what amounted to a five-gallon bucket of tiny fish had been splattered on our concrete, and was now frozen to it.  (Danny’s boot gives perspective to the size of the fish pile in this photo.)

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I stood there, staring, with my mouth open.  It looked like the fish had just dropped from the sky.  I remember looking up at the clear blue sky, my mind reeling.

I called Danny, who was at work.  He thought I was joking.  I assured him that I was not.

We puzzled on it for several days.  We called people that we thought might give us insight.  It was not a human prank.  Of that much we were sure.  So what animal did this?  Raccoons eat fish, but not that many! And if an animal retched it back up, it would look partially digested.  These fish were still perfectly formed, like they had just been seined out of the pond.

Finally, we got our answer.  About three days after I found the frozen fish, I happened to walk past our dining room window and, glancing out, saw a flock of pelicans on our pond! Of course! A pelican had seined our pond and collected a gullet full of fish.  The night before I found the fish, a fast-moving, hard-hitting cold front had blown through from the northwest.  If the pelican had tried to take off from our pond, it would have been blown directly over our barn.  Whether it had dropped the fish from the air, or whether it made an emergency landing and then dumped its cargo, we will never know.  But Danny and I know both rested easier once our fish mystery had been solved.

Raining cats and dogs, indeed.  At our house, it rains fish.

(I share a racoon story from my teen years in the October chapter of my second book Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Our Dog Ate the Easter Bunny!

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