Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Life and death on the farm

(I wrote this last year)

When you take care of animals, you get to experience a part of life that most only hear about.

This morning, as I was cooking breakfast, my oldest son called to me and showed me the rabbit that he had caught. It was one of the gray rabbits that had escaped, and likes to be free range rabbits, thank you very much. This one, however, let him walk up and pick him up. Very strange.

So, I told him to take the rabbit to his mom so they could put it into the pen. Mary, noticed that the rabbit was rather lacking in energy, put it into a dog cage that we use as a 'rabbit tractor' in a grassy shaded area.

I went to see the rabbit later, and suggested that if the rabbit isn't feeling well, that we should lower the waterer so he can get to it easier.

Unfortunately, the rabbit was laying on its side. It didn't look like it was going to be getting up.

So, I told Mary that we aren't doing it any favors by letting it lay there and suffer. If we wanted to force-feed it water, we might be able to save it. It's doubtful, though. I asked her to take the rabbit over to the place where we had cut down some cotton wood trees that were dying, and interfering with the growth of a nice maple tree.

When I met her there with the ax and hatchet, Mary told me that the rabbit felt like it was going into convulsions. I took it and tried laying it on the stump and, sure enough, it was quivering. Best get this done quickly.

The stump wasn't big enough for the purpose, so I laid the rabbit on the downed trunk of the tree. One quick chop with the ax took its head off very cleanly. No big drama -- the head fell to the ground, and that was it.

I had to stand there for a second, though. I have no problems with the idea of killing an animal, and am very pragmatic about the situation. Still, actually doing the job is a solemn occasion. I don't take it lightly. It's not something I like to do, but something that I need to do. If I have to take a few deep breaths before going on to the next thing, so be it.

We had already piled up a bunch of sticks and used the hot fire to burn up a white plymouth rock hen that Mary had found dead in the run (probably a hawk). Mary stood there with the two pieces of rabbit while my oldest son and I collected some dead pine branches that I had cut from the trees.

I cut them up and piled them on the coals, Mary laid the rabbit on the highest part of the pyre, and the rabbit (along with any pathogen that might have killed it) was burned up.

And so life goes on.

Later in the day, I heard some peeping in the young chicken pen. They weren't the usual chirps from baby chicks, but a different sound.

Keets! The keets weren't scheduled to hatch until tomorrow, but some obviously have. I called to the kids and we went out to the pen, expecting to catch a glimpse of the keets under the broody hen.

But let me back up a bit here.

We have three guinea fowl -- one hen and two cocks.

A couple months ago, I found an egg laying in the path that goes around the run. So, miss guinea is laying, but isn't letting us know where the eggs are.

Later, I found her nest with five guinea eggs and a collection of chicken eggs. I took the chicken eggs and left the guinea eggs.

Eventually, she laid an even dozen.

In the mean time, one of the white rock hens had gone broody. That is, she was sitting on eggs, and getting all grouchy and puffed up at anyone who dared to try to steal her babies. I did anyhow, and left her with a bunch of plastic eggs...

Until one day, about four weeks ago, I made her a little nest in a plastic dog house (like a dogloo) that was inside the young chicken pen. I collected all the guinea eggs and replaced them with golf balls (in an attempt to fool the guinea; but it didn't work). I put the eggs into the nest I made in the dog house, installed the hen, blocked the door, and let her stew over the situation overnight.

The next morning, she demonstrated her independence by moving the eggs to another part of the dog house. She sat on them just as tight as you please, though.

And so it has been for the last four weeks. She would get off the nest once a day to eat, drink, and leave a big blop somewhere in the pen, and go back to setting.

Tomorrow was supposed to be the due date, but I heard the peeping today. I ran up to the pen and saw the young chickens picking on a keet. The mother hen was sitting tight on the eggs. She wasn't going to abandon her post for the one wayward guinea keet.

So, I rushed in there and rescued the poor little baby. Just then, my wife came home, so I sent the kids to call her over.

Meanwhile, I went and found three more keets outside the dog house.

A mother hen has a characteristic cluck that she uses to call her babies. It works really well with real chickens, but the guineas don't have the instinct to recognize the clucking. It'll be interesting to see if they learn it.

I put the four keets back in front of the hen, and they happily went under her. Those instincts, at least, are working fine.

A hen will happily hatch and raise whatever you set under her, so there were no worries on that account. She can't help it if the guineas want to commit suicide, though.

So, I got a piece of mobile home skirting that Mary had collected from someone's junk and used it to block the door of the dog house. It covers the bottom half of the opening so that the keets can't get out, but the hen can. I also put one of those waterers that use a quart mayonnaise jar into the dog house. Tomorrow, I'll be putting in some turkey starter. Guineas need the extra protein, and it won't hurt the poor emaciated broody cluck (who had to set for an extra week to hatch guineas) to have some extra protein.

While I was at it, I peeked under the momma hen. It looks like most of the eggs have hatched already. Already, the hen has done a much better job than that incubator we bought earlier this year. When it comes to hatching eggs, it's hard to beat a broody cluck with a mere machine.

And so there we have it -- a day on the farm where one animal cashes in its chips, and a bunch of new babies are born.

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