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Magnetic North

Vicki with her angora rabbit, Peaches

Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives  on a 100-year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities 23 years ago.
She shares this special place with five cashmere and milk goats,  a dozen-plus laying hens, three talkative geese an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, six angora rabbits, a house cat , a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo and one very spoiled Bourbon Red turkey.
When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, knits, wanders the woods, balances rocks and, "when a fit of discipline strikes," dives into her decade of weekly columns for the old News-Herald in search of a book or screenplay or, more like, a sit-com.  Listen at your convenience by subscribing to a podcast.

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.



What's On:
Deer (Greg Gjerdingen/Flickr)

Magnetic North: Shore lunch observed

Welcome back to Magnetic North, a veritable smorgasbord for the birds and beasts of the field. At least the ones who hang out along the ribbon of highway hugging Lake Superior. 
Highway 61 is definitely the critter equivalent of those ubiquitous Mid-western all-you-can eat restaurants, only without the chocolate pudding plunked in the middle of the salad bar.
And oddly enough to my thinking, this particular road gets really bountiful right now, close to our human Thanksgiving. 
Fact is, that even though white-tailed deer get hit by cars and blown to smithereens by semis the year ‘round, rutting season seems to bring out the death wish in the herd. 
Even so, in 22 years of driving up here, I have hit only one deer, and then she simply kicked a dent in my bumper and ran off. Other than that I have killed only one partridge on the highway. This may well be my year for deer, though. For I find myself on 61 for hours at a time, several days and nights a week, visiting my husband, Paul, at the Veterans Home in Silver Bay. And believe me when I tell you that on the way to and from, I encounter many, MANY deer.
Some bound into my headlights. Some betray their presence in the ditch by the reflection of my headlights in their eyes. And others just stand in the road, deciding whether or not to die. This last bunch is the worst. Often, the animal looks at my approaching car and appears to run off the road. I say “appears” because usually, the dummy changes her mind - thinking perhaps, “Nah, winter is SO not fun!” -  and runs back into my path.
Having had this happen once too often, the second that I spot a deer, whether in the ditch or the blacktop, I start honking like a New York cabbie. It’s worked…so far, at least. 
Never content to spare only myself, if I do have a near miss, I then flick my headlights at oncoming vehicles. Someone once told me that flicking headlights on and off repeatedly is a well-known sign to others that deer are ahead. Sadly, a number of oncoming drivers misinterpret my flashing lights. These often give me yet another well-known sign, the hand and finger kind. Ah well, no good deed goes unpunished....
However, when all fails and deer does meet vehicle on 61, the end result is not only death and increased auto insurance rates.  For scavengers, it is answered prayer.
Last week, I passed such a roadkill/banquet in progress just as I pulled onto 61 from my road. A majestic bald eagle presided over the banquet of ribs, innards and all the trimmings. He appeared to be the reluctant host to a flock of shiny black ravens.
These were gyrating about, tearing off tidbits, flapping their wings with joy and generally having one whale of a time. The food fight in Animal House comes to mind.
The eagle, on the other hand, held himself erect, as if offended, if not slightly sickened, by the very presence of the ravens, let alone their boorish antics.
And why should he not be? Sharing the deer with a bunch of pipqsueaks was enough to spoil the great bird’s day. But all the unnecessary folderal? Really? 
It looked me like the human equivalent of being invited to a friend’s home for Thanksgiving and finding oneself at the children’s table. The very young and tired and cranky children’s table!
A more congenial scene greeted me on the narrow band of 61 in Tofte. Most of this stretch is nearly without any shoulder at all. So the smashed-up deer carcass resting on the lakeside edge of pavement could only be enjoyed by revelers if they sat partially in the ditch, facing the passing vehicles. This afforded a view of their heads. Which lined up like this: raven, raven, raven, fox, raven, raven, raven.
The birds were nearly as jumpy as the ones I saw earlier, but the fox had the happy look of one who’d just made it into the popular clique. It was one of those scenes that made me desperate to take a picture. But I will always remember exactly how it looked in my mind’s eye.
I must say that as much as I love seeing the nature turning death into life again, the reality of it all dampens my envy of the beasts; a state of mind that afflicts me always. Imagine how wonderful it would be to fly off the ground and hover weightless on updrafts of air. Or to run and jump like a deer. Or just curl up like a fox, warm as toast in my gorgeous coat, my bushy tail curled around my nose.
But then, I see the bunch of them eating. Eating cold, stringy meat. Studded with hair and gravel. My behind in a ditch, cars whizzing by. And the whole romantic image dies, another victim of reality.
And so, I’ll have to content myself with the human equivalent of the critters’ shore lunch. The unexpected gesture of having my meal tab picked up by a friend. The holiday invite. Or the wild raspberries hanging warm and juicy on bushes in my woods, just for me and me alone. Not a bad life. Not really, even without wings... or a fabulous bushy tail.

Airdate: November 8, 2012

A shot of the girls waiting by the coop

Magnetic North: Migration Station

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, migration central for the past month. Despite the hard freeze, gaggles of Canada geese devoured our lawn. Day after day. Frost after frost. Chowing down on the grass, still green and juicy under their blanket of fallen gold aspen leaves. And frustrating my two young domestic geese, Sophie and Olivia, by taking flight at dusk. 
The wild geese were in no hurry to migrate south. Not just yet. Every day at dusk they soared high above the earth, circling the meadow and landing, loudly with trademark honks on our little pond. There to float, sleep and dream the snowbirds dream of summer.
Sophie and Olivia, my new three-month old geese, watched all this with the fascination of all youngsters. They are African geese. In my opinion, the prettiest domestic geese I’ve ever seen. Predominantly gray, with brilliant white breasts, soft honey colored beaks and feet, with black toenails and eyeliner. Their wings, when spread are easily three-feet across. 
But that is just how they look. How they feel, a soft beyond soft, is their greatest feature in my book.
However, until the Canada geese showed up, Sophie and Olilvia didn’t know they were geese. How could they? Since arriving in their bread box-size bassinet in August, the two have seen only me and my yellow Lab, Zoe, plus our cat, chickens and an occasional two-legged and featherless human visitor.
And so, barring a mirror or a true biological mother, the two goslings assumed they were one of us. 
Paddling on their flattened clown feet next to me and Zoe, Sophie and Olivia make their appointed rounds. 
To the mailbox. 
To the goat corral. 
To the chicken and duck coop. 
And on occasion, when the new storm door sticks open a mite too long, even into our living room. This last destination is their favorite, because it always results in our old brown tabby cat, Basket, attempting to scale the walls and perch atop the ceiling fan. A sensible move for a cat faced with a bird three times its size.
But their inner goose emerged when first the goslings saw those handsome black and white honkers. Watched them rise like super sonic jets off the lawn. When that happened, Sophie and Olivia raced on their tippy-toes toward the pond, their beautiful white and gray wings spread wide and flap-flap-flapping, and their twin voices raised in song. Well, maybe song is too strong a word for a sound that resembles an accordion with the croup.
Sadly, they succeed only in crashing into the cattail marsh, wings tangled in rotting stems. Their big feet mired in muck. And their song strangled by the bitter pill of man’s interference with evolution. My poor adolescents plodded, utterly crestfallen, uphill to the house. A sight many would find funny. But not I.
What, I ask, is harder than seeing ones young first taste failure? Especially when it is repeated daily for weeks.
I suffered for them. And so, I let the storm door stay ajar on purpose and sacrificed my poor cat so as to raise the goslings spirits.
Does this smack of anthropomorphizing? Attributing human emotions to a bird or non-human? Guilty as charged.  And yet I think I know hope and despair when I see it. So what if Sophie and Olivia won’t do as we do,  tucking this failure away in their cocoa puff size brains, to root and grow into a crippling neurosis? I feel their pain, however fleeting.  And I know what soothes the ache. The sight of another creature having adjustment problems. Ergo, Basket to the rescue.
The largest census of honkers on our meadow and pond came to 17 birds. All chomping grass by day. Leaving their mini-cigar-shaped calling cards as they feasted. Then relaxing on the pond by night. But even as their numbers grew slowly throughout the autumn, they thinned suddenly. One day there were a dozen birds. Then six. Then the only two.
At last, even these left us. That day, the goslings burst from their straw bed in the garage, flapping out to greet their wild cousins, and finding only an  empty landscape. But they took it better than I expected.
No, my fledglings assume the “easy come easy go” attitude we humans envy. Life is good for them, given a bit of grain and grass and drink. It is in part this quality of peace that attracts me. Pulls me outside to tempt them close. To touch and sometimes even hold one of them close for a time. Stroking their soft neck feathers, searching their bright amber eyes for some hint who they are and laughing as they pull gently at wisps of my hair.
This is pure joy. In fact, for me, there is no more potent nostrum for bringing about a state of peace and calm. And, at times like these, I have to admit, I am grateful they cannot fly away. And I fanciful imagine that they are as well.

Swallowtails find a shady patch of ground and vibrate in the sheer joy of being

Magnetic North: Flutterbys Are Us

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Welcome back to Magnetic North where the air is filled with winged things, and not the kind with feathers!

No, I speak not of the dread mosquito, or black fly or no-seeum, but of butterflies. For some reason, the population of Monarch and Swallowtails is way, way up this season. With the first blossoming of dandelions on our backyard lawn, the burnt orange Monarchs literally swarmed above the ocean of yellow fuzz balls.

My granddaughter, Jane, stood in the cloud of Monarchs with her arms literally cutting through the waves of the jeweled insects above and around her. A photo op if ever there was one!

A few days later, the Swallowtails appeared. These are the mustardy gold butterflies with black tipping on their wings. As if being beautiful weren’t enough, the Swallowtails show off by grouping on a patch of ground, usually a sunny patch of gravel. Once a critical mass forms, the little darlings appear to vibrate in unison. Makes me wonder what’s going on.

Probably innocent enough. But even bugs have their kinky side, I suppose.

On the darker side, literally, we have the creatures of the night; the stunning moths gyrating around every porch light. For sheer over-the-topness, I choose the Cecropia moth--one of the biggies, only with more than size setting it apart from the pack.

This season, I inadvertently trapped a female Cecropia inside a screen window one night. Come morning, the outside of the screen was plastered top to bottom with males, half her size but all aflutter with hormones.

Only the Luna moth outdoes the Cecropia for loveliness. Every year at least one clings to our siding for the night, pausing until the noon sun hits her sea-green wings, allowing admirers to Ohhhh and Ahhhh over her long, droopy teardrop-shape wings.

Green, yellow, orange - it’s like fireworks without the hiss and bang. Tender awe.

Memorable. Even now, weeks later, I can look out on the back lawn, where dandelions are gone to seed and nothing fills the air but raindrops and a clear picture appears: my darling towheaded Janey, pirouetting midst the monarchs.

And while I would like to see only such pleasant scenes out my window, I am sad to report that my groundhogs are still with me. Not only are they tougher to trap than I’ve been told, but they too have been inspired by our early spring. Where there were two, there are now FIVE! And the little ones are even cuter than the parents.

Time to call my neighborhood trapper. Perhaps he can catch and release them where I so pitifully failed.

Other than that, I am in baby bird heaven right now. The turkey poults are a month old and my two are so tame already that they jump out of the brooder to be cuddled.

Add to that joy, I now have two just-hatched Buff goslings that miraculously arrived on the mail truck from Duluth on Wednesday. I give the Post Office mega-high fives for navigating the flooded roads and getting the birds here in time to get the food and water they so desperately need in those first few days. Of course, being geese, they stuck their scrawny little necks out and assumed a don’t-mess-with-me attitude right out of the carton. But after a few nights of watching TV in my lap, I’ll socialize them. With geese, that is even more important than making a dog people-friendly. Geese live 20-plus years.

How’s that for optimism on my part, huh?

Now if only I can train the little buggers to trim around flower beds and fence lines, I’ll be set for the next two decades!

Airdate: July 23, 2012

Wanted. Cute critter. Soon to be seen in the back of some unsuspecting tourists RV? Nahhhhhh!

Magnetic North: Groundhogs’ Day

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the neon yellow marsh marigolds embellish every pond and puddle, of which there are many after a week of incessant showers. Ah, May! These naturally formed nosegays simply shout to be picked. And yet, doing so reminds me to leave well enough alone. Because the blossoms wilt no matter how fast I plunge them into a watery vase. Some things simply won’t thrive in captivity.

A cautionary tale- totally wasted on this gatherer, I might add. Even though I learned about sustainable gathering as a Girl Scout. The one lesson on that score I absorbed, the hard way is that if I greedily snap off EVERY asparagus spear in the bed, there is nothing left to go to seed. Ergo, no tasty stalks next year. And still, that urge to best Mother Nature at her own game burns within. I’d settle for a draw. Just once.

Big Mama, it seems, cares not a whit about my pathetic human urges. For example, just when I put up a pricey electric fence between my voracious goats and my new rose bush, herbs and perennials, the Old Girl throws me a curve. Oh, it’s a darling, pudgy curve. My newest garden nemeses are wildly photographable, even more so than a goat. They have roly-poly bodies, itty-bitty legs, precious paws, beady black eyes, sweet little half-moon ears and begging-to-be patted reddish tummies. And the tails. Well, they are just too cute.

have here your basic groundhogs. Or woodchucks. Same thing. These are, to most civilized humans, nuisance creatures. True, there’s that coven of latter-day witches in Pennsylvania. The ones who believe that winter is truly over when a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil sticks his nose out of the ground. Baloney!

Groundhogs don’t give a toenail about temperature. All they need to bolt into action is to wake up and smell the first finger of day lily or strawberry blossom pushing through the freshly thawed earth. I know this, because lucky, lucky me, I am landlord to two of these critters. One under my chicken coop and one under my tool shed. And, frankly, I loved seeing the little fatsos puddling around their burrows until just last month. Only then did I realize that the day lilies next to the coop are still disappearing despite the goats being fenced up. Even worse, the toolshed floor is about to cave in on the root cellar below. Cute suddenly doesn’t cut it.

Searching for answers online, I found out how to catch the little criminals in my largest Hav-a-heart trap. Strange as it sounds, if the instructions I copied are correct, groundhogs are dumb as a box of rocks. Supposedly, all that’s needed is to block all exits except the one where the trap is placed. Even without a morsel of food inside, the groundhogs should crawl obligingly inside. We’ll just see about that.

Only one thing is keeping me from carrying out the plan. I can’t shoot them. After all these years, it would be like shooting my kitty, And, after all, they haven’t gnawed the head off a duck. Or sprayed me or my dog with stinky stuff. Plant burglary is bad, but hardly a capitol offense. No, relocation is the only sentence befitting the crime, But where to take them? Or, more to the point, to what poor sap’s property? I realize that announcing that I am about to dump a groundhog - or two - on some unsuspecting soul could land me in a world of hurt. Except for one thing.

In small towns like ours, trying to keep anything a secret is the best way to spread whatever one wants hidden broadcast all over town within an hour. It simply can’t be done. No, if you really want to keep something hush-hush, I suggest you blab about it all over town. The Blue Water Cafe, or standing in the checkout line at Johnson’s grocery store are good places to start. Something like this: “Hey, I just did something wild. You know those groundhogs that were wrecking my garden and outbuildings? Well, I caught them and dumped them in the back of a big white and black RV parked in the rec park. Hope nobody saw me!”

Believe it or not, no one will pay a bit of attention. Especially if you talk loud, like you are on a cell phone. It’s like being a mother of teenagers. You find that not only have you achieved invisibility, but your voice cannot be heard by the human ear.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the constant carping by Mother Nature has gone over my head all these years. Despite Her threats, punishments and outright bribes, I keep on doing exactly what She doesn’t want. I am sorry, truly I am, dear Mama, And, as usual, I count on your forgiveness. It is, after all, so much easier to get than permission. Am I right?

Oh, and by the by, groundhogs won’t give it up unless bribed with strawberries. Lots of strawberries.

This is Vicki Biggs-Anderson for WTIP with Magnetic North.

Airdate: May 30, 2012

Tommy Turkey

Magnetic North: Christmas in May for us Birdbrains

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, the destination for every migrating feathered beauty on earth - or so it seems to us birdbrains. By that I mean every bird lover, not just the watchers. 

Oh, like everyone, I watch the incoming warblers and Canada geese. I journal the date the first honker or Goldeneye duck puts down on our pond.

But watching isn’t enough for this kid. In addition, I feed, fawn over and dispose of vast amounts of income on birds that could never arrive in this climate on their own and, given the choice would probably live anywhere else - like Kauai or Key West.

I’m talking chickens, flightless egg-laying ducks, heritage turkeys and guinea hens. Ever since I retired the Christmas tree to the goat corral, I’ve pored over the poultry catalogs. It was a given that I’d replace dear old Tommy turkey, Paul’s pet gobbler. Some nasty beast feasted on the 5-year-old bird last fall.

The big problem with getting a duplicate turkey is that hatcheries have minimum numbers they will ship. My favorite nursery, Murray McMurray in Iowa, put the turkey order minimum at 15. That’s a lot of turkey.
So I resorted to our local Internet bulletin board and offered to raise 13 of the 15 for anyone willing to pay the price of bird, shipping and feed.

In less than two weeks, all 13 were taken by eager local folk eager to feast on “Heritage Bourbon Red” turkey next Thanksgiving.
Frankly, I imagine that a few will end up, like me and my tender-hearted husband, adding an irresistible bulky pet to their family and not to their freezer.

My other order included a few chickens, some extra laying ducks - having become totally addicted to their eggs for baking - and, fool that I am, two geese.

This is the first time I’ve admitted publicly that I have once again tried to house geese on our property. Our last pair, a pair of white Chinese, were universally hated by my friends, family and neighbors. This variety of goose is well-known for being aggressive, mean, loud and given to fastening on the nether regions of all. Even I, the Goddess of Food, was not spared in the end. But the end did come and I gave the pair away.

Buff geese, McMurray’s catalog avers, are different. Calm. Sweet, even. And so, I caved and ordered two Buffs. I’ll keep you posted as to the outcome. But just in case, I would be delighted to find a nearby Al-Agoose meeting. Just to help me set boundaries, detach and well, you know, survive.

All my flock is doing great, despite the recent appearance of a small timber wolf pack in Colvill. Three dogs have been taken, as well as my entire flock of eight guinea hens.

This wipeout was the first since old Tom got gotten. And it was total. All I found was one uneaten heart and eight mounds of feathers. But I would be fibbing if I said I mourned their loss. Guinea hens are not mean. They are not fun, either. They screech constantly. The males fight. Although they did, as advertised, eat so many ticks that for once in 20 summers here, neither Paul, nor I or our other pets lost a drop of blood to a tick last year.

But the guineas had a fatal attraction besides the tiny tick: freshly laid chicken and duck eggs. And that, as all egg-lovers will agree, is a capitol offense.

So I had three plans: build them a coop of their own, give them to unsuspecting folks and thus make lifelong enemies, or eat the little criminals.

I chose the last plan. In fact on the eve of their execution, I’d collected a number of tasty-looking recipes for guinea breast and gotten directions for butchering. My only qualm was the distress I imagined catching them would engender in my sweet ducks and always-hysterical hens.

So, thanks, you voracious wolves. Just know that should you return for any more grub around here, I am packing pepper spray, plus a Red Rider BB gun.

At this writing, I am also awaiting the birth of a few wild ducks and geese. If the pair of honkers haunting our meadow since March is nesting and the male mallards have gotten lucky, I’ll be on guard down by the pond 24/7 in a few weeks.  Just about the same time that the local deer start their new families.

With all of this to watch, the extra hours of daylight are barely enough to take it all in, let alone plot and plan for new arrivals in the mail.
But that day is coming, when the post office calls and announces: “Your birds are here - you ARE coming in soon, right?” Ha! I’d sooner skip Christmas morning!

Photo by Vicki Biggs-Anderson

A pink flower for breast cancer awareness, photo by Barbara Jean Johnson

Magnetic North: Vicki's experience with breast cancer

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In 2006 Vicki was diagnosed with breast cancer. This October she passed a major mile stone for any survivor—five years cancer free. October was breast cancer awareness month, and in honor of that Vicki is sharing the commentaries she wrote at the time of her diagnosis. Vicki would like to offer support to anyone out there dealing with breast cancer. You can contact her by email.

"Even in a dry summer—and this has been anything but dry—these wildflowers come, coloring our world so brilliantly"

Magnetic North: Humbled by Nature and Joy

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Ahhhhh, late summer, my favorite time of year, next to winter, of course. Now I can at last let go of any silly thoughts of completing major projects before the snow flies and just enjoy my critters, the meadow and my hourly popsicle snacks. Even in this heat wave—near 90 at our home in Colvill twice last month—I can still muster feelings of pure joy just by looking around.

For example, I see people are actually swimming in Lake Superior! Pretty much all along the shore between Grand Marais and Hovland, kids are paddling about and adults are soaking up to their earlobes in what in most years would be akin to a bowl of ice water. But when the cities, even Grand Marais, sizzles, Mother Superior almost always comes through with a few precious days of swimming in her near shore waters.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking Jersey Shore salt water warm—that would be a stretch. No, Superior relents in a typically Scandinavian way—brisk, authentic and leaving you longing for more.

‘Tis also the season of nature's purples and golds: the fuzzy-faced mauve of Joe Pye weed, the sleek grape Cool-Aid colored spikes of fireweed, the sunny bunches of birdsfoot trefoil and the in-your-face brass of black-eyed Susans. Even in a dry summer—and this has been anything but dry—these wildflowers come, coloring our world so brilliantly that even in the monochromatic months ahead I can instantly recall their lush brilliance.

Then, of course, there is the eventual relief from the heat. When the big rainstorm finally came, accompanied by far-off lightning and thunder, even my goats left their hot barn stalls to graze in the drizzle. And the mallard ducklings, now out in the run and about ready for the pond, were ecstatic as over four inches of rain fell inside of three hours. All the world was a kiddy pool for them. And for us, too, as we waited for the two roads between us and the grocery store to be restored.

Waiting for that rain, I thought of the thousands of backpackers in the nearby BWCAW and how they too were watching the weather, but with different motives than mine. The big questions in life for them boiled down to these: "To move on to the next campsite and risk getting soaked en route?" or "To sit tight?" Life gets simple on camping trips. Simple, but not necessarily without angst. This is a big reason we tend to envy the beasts. Ignorance can be bliss. But I am coming to the conclusion that, although we may chase it endlessly, bliss is a state that we humans can tolerate for only so long.

One of my favorite Peanuts strips circa July-August 1955/56 nails this sentiment perfectly. In it, Charles Schultz shows Charlie Brown and Patty staring at a starry sky, ala BWCAW.

Patty asks Charlie, "Aren't the stars beautiful Charlie Brown?"

"Uh, huh," Charlie Brown, philosopher of few words, grunts.

The next frame shows Charlie and Patty transfixed before a sea of stars. Silent. Taking it all in. And then, good old Charlie Brown turns his little soccer ball-shaped head away from the heavenly banquet above him and whispers in his sweetheart’s ear: "Let's go inside and watch television...I'm beginning to feel insignificant."

That's what too-close-for-comfort encounters with nature do to me, all right. For me, too much joy, like too long a dip in Lake Superior—even in 90 degree heat—is simply unsustainable. So I say, thank heavens for winter, popsicles and Direct TV.

Airdate: August 1, 2011

Photo courtesy of raysto via Flickr.



Magnetic North: Duck Days of Summer

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Welcome back to Magnetic North and the duck days of summer. Since last I recorded a column, over a month ago, I have been wet-nursing nine domestic ducks, I keep for their eggs, 20 mallard ducklings, I let loose on our pond to fly away in the fall, and ten guinea hen chicks. And I do mean WET nursing.

Ducklings are hands down the messiest baby birds on the planet. Whether mallards or domestic ducklings, all use their beaks like shovels, scooping up drinking water from their fountains and flinging it over their backs until not a drop is left to drink.

Keeping a ducklings pen dry is a futile, constant job. Thus, along with the duck starter, duck grower and assorted layette items needed, I also order ten bales of lovely golden straw to strew daily on the floor of their jumbo kiddy pool. Yes, kiddy pool.

For years I have brooded chickens and ducks and even turkeys and geese in a big blue plastic kiddy pool, covered by a brown tarp and fitted out with a heat lamp clipped to the underside of an old metal walker. It’s a dandy brooder, unless I go nuts and order more than a dozen birds at a time - which I always do, of course. That is why I now have two jumbos and one mini kiddy pool tricked out to grow happy hens and ducks.

And still, just about the time the ducklings are growing their pin feathers, the pools become soggy swamps of soiled straw within seconds of mucking them out and renewing their innards with clean stuff. And there is at least a month to go before I can put the mallards out on the pond without risking hypothermia - you see, since there is no mommy duck keeping them warm and in the process making their feathers nice and oily and water repellant, they need their adult feathers to prevent water from soaking them to the skin. High maintenance doesn’t even begin to describe raising wild mallards.

But this year I got a long overdue inspired thought: what if I chucked the kiddy pools and simply made a big compound out of straw bales? I could prop up the bales so that the waste water wouldn’t make them wet and useless for future use. Plus, I could expand the size of the compound easily at the first sign that the birds were outgrowing it. And so I did just that. The straw bales make lovely seating and I spend way too much time out in the garage now sitting and chatting up my kids as they drink/bath/eat and practice their quacks.

Putting in visiting time makes a difference with the guinea chicks I got this year for the first time ever. They seem to be born terrified. So it has taken a good month for them to quit freaking out each time I refill their food bowl. Define freaking out? Well, picture a dozen softballs covered with pretty speckled gray and brown feathers spinning out in all directions - mainly toward your face! Each feathered ball has two long pink legs with sharp claws and a pinhead atop a short, skinny neck. The beak on that head is open and a sound like fingernails on a blackboard and a joke cellphone tone comes out of it.
That would be a guinea freaking out.

So why, you ask, would I want such creatures? They eat lots and lots of bugs, especially ticks. They also pluck obnoxious bugs and slugs off of garden plants without digging up roots. They sound their earsplitting alarm if predators or strangers set paw or foot on the property. And their solid dark meat, I am told, is quite tasty. Now, if only I can resist giving any of them names, perhaps I can one day find out if that last item is true.

With the hottest days of the summer upon us, its unlikely that I’ll be given the guineas or ducklings much of my time. The garage is just too tropical and after twenty-plus years living here, anything over 75 degrees reduces my brain cells to primordial ooze. I figure that I’ll have just enough oomph to clean, water and feed them, plus do the same for the rabbits, chickens and goats. None of which earn their keep in any obvious way as do the tick-gobbling guinea hens.

The way I see it though, beauty is enough reason to have these critters. That and the endless supply of column material coming from coop and barn and pond.

For WTIP, the is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.


White-tailed deer fawn - photo by Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North: Mommie Deer-est and Other Worries

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where a day-glo yellow carpet of fragrant dandelion blossoms surrounds our farm - a joyous sight for this reformed dandy destroyer. 

After leaving the city and moving north I found recipes for both greens AND blossoms, the latter being deep fried and sugared.  Heaven!  But in the main, I just devour our dandelions with my eyes, starved for color as we all are after a winter that outstayed its welcome.

Returning flora and fauna are a major source of conversation, joy and sometimes angst in these parts.  On our little plot of earth, we have the returning waterfowl - several pairs of mallards and a Canada goose we raised a few years back.  She now hangs out around our pond with her mate.  If they have a nest tucked away in the willow swamp, Gramma Goose will keep you posted on the outcome.

The two fat woodchucks living under our tool shed/root cellar are busily grazing on sweet new grass and growing fatter by the hour. Missus Chuck takes her ease on a cedar log baskiing in the sun.  Meanwhile the Mister finds choice tidbits in the grass and works feverishly perfecting the many tunnels into and out of their two story critter condo.

None of my domestic animals are expecting this year, so I’ve been pining away for some kind of baby to fuss over.  And this morning, the Cosmos came across.  A reminder to be careful what I pine for.

Just off our deck, not twenty feet from the house, there lies a newborn fawn in a clump of meadow grass.  Alone.  I saw her just as she was curling up for a snooze, having been left there to rest while her mother went off to do who knows WHAT!

I am outraged.  Even though I have read that deer do this.  That the newborns are routinely left to sleep while the mother gads about. That the babies are without scent, thereby protected from detection.  That is, unless the fawn moves around too much - or is RESCUED unnecessarily by some control freak.  Not that I would do such a thing.  I would not.

I want to.  But I would not.  My senior dairy goat is in milk now even though she has no kid.  She just eats so much grass when it comes up that she bags up as if a kid or two was nursing regularly.  Maybe, the fawn could nurse on the goat.  Maybe the goat would accept the fawn.  Maybe pigs will fly.

No, I will not intervene.  Nature is this fawn’s momma and She will do with the little one as she will.  I’m fine with that.  But I’ll just stay here by the window until the mother comes back.  There is an eighty percent chance of rain today, so doubtless she’ll come back before the deluge.  Deer can tell when it’s going to rain, can’t they?

Oh, why did I have to look out the window just in time to see that sweet little spotted body, no bigger than a rabbit on stilts, the tiny nearly transluscent ears, and those eyes!  Two shining black pools of neediness?

I forgot that babies bring both joy and free-floating anxiety with them.  And waiting for this little one to be safe with her mom again brings back so many, many memories of other critter babes - some who had the happiest of outcomes and others who put yet another crack in my heart.

Spring always seems to bring equal measures of joyous returns and sorrowful losses.  This year, the marsh Marigolds clog every moist ditch.  But my much loved crimson red rugosa rose bush will not cover the south wall of the chicken coop with blossoms this summer - winter stole it from me.  The Jack in the Pulpits back in our woods by a crumbling footbridge are returned, however.  Six years ago, another harsh winter - one with more cold than snow - stole them away.  Stole them forever, I thought.  Being wrong about such things makes my day.

And so I go around the meadow and over the trails, cataloging the missing, the saved, the downed and broken and the unexpected.  Paul often says he likes to walk in the woods with me because I notice everything.  An exaggeration, but close to the truth.  It’s a gift.  And a curse.

Well, today’s burden, watching this fawn slumber in the grass, motherless it seems, is still upon me.  Mommy Deer-est is nowhere to be seen.  And the rain clouds are moving in fast.  They say it could really pour.  In which case any goose nest in that willow swamp might easily be washed away and the woodchuck condo is basically sited on an intermittent far joy is losing out to anxiety in this part of the woods.

Next week, I’m sure the news will be way different.  I hope.


Spring Peeper

Magnetic North: Jeepers creepers! Have you heard those peepers?!

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where getting a decent night’s sleep can be tough if you live within earshot of a lake, pond or big puddle. I refer, of course, to this year’s spring peeper invasion. Locals in my neighborhood swear they’ve never heard the little songsters so loud. I’d Google the purported reason why Cook County has the distinction of being peeper Woodstock for year 2011, but frankly I’m too sleepy to care. Maybe one of our resident frog listeners can tell me.

And yes, there are such folk. They do this in the interest of science, as the numbers and species of frogs are of concern. Surely peepers are of no concern at all, unless it is to prepare for more hearing loss among humans in the future.

We don’t often see our frog listeners, as they drive around in the dark of night, then park in someone’s driveway—motor and headlights off—and just sit listening intently. Dangerous business in some parts of this county. I’ve told a friend of mine who does this that if he must do it he needs to think up a better excuse than “I’m just listening for frogs,” when and if he is confronted by law enforcement or alarmed citizens.

But back to those raucous peepers! They set up their cacophonous concert a month ago. Beginning well before dusk, the peeps reach a crescendo—think the shower scene from Psycho—about 9 p.m. Then, the volume backs off and a chord resembling fingernails on a blackboard for the next, oh, I don’t know, eight or nine hours, takes over.

Small wonder we haven’t had any ducks or geese nest on the pond this year! They land and swim around for a while, but after the first hour of peeper song, the poor things take off.

Now, I know that many of you judge me harshly for this attitude. You love the sound of spring peepers. You could listen to it nonstop and year round. OK. I get it. There was a time when I felt the same. Now, after a month of fitful sleep and dashed dreams of new ducklings on the pond, I am over them. Possibly forever. Too bad. But, there are so many other sounds of the season that still delight.

The aspens woke up this week. Their new leaves rustle soft and blend with the whooshing, mumbling roar of the intermittent streams that surround our meadow. Beautiful sound even if it didn’t absorb much of the peeper cacophony. But it does do that, Hooray!

Speaking of beauty, I sure hope nobody missed that big, orange full-moon rising Wednesday night. It was so spectacular that I dragged Paul out of his favorite chair and away from his favorite TV show to see it. Sure enough, he said he had never seen one like that before. Everyone I know who saw it says the same. Another sign that this spring is truly special.

It hasn’t all been music and moonbeams at the farm. I made a mistake that cost a beloved rooster his life early this week. Buster, my black and white Delaware rooster was four-years-old and huge. He put up with a new rooster, Winston Junior, all winter, drawing blood only a month ago when the young cock apparently asked for it.

I put the new rooster in the barn, hoping to merge him with some retired hens out there, but day by day the handsome youngun’ got meaner and meaner, running at me, our dog and even visitors with hackles out and fire in each eye. Disgusted, I offered him up to a friend to butcher and eat.

Alas, two days before Winston’s last day he got another shot at Buster. My fault. I let the cooped birds out of their run so that they might feel the soft green grass between their toes and eat their fill of grubs. Inside of five minutes, Buster and Winston were sparring. But mainly, they were just menacing each other without actually making contact.

I felt a twinge of concern—a message I should have heeded—when I saw Buster turn tail and run into the woods just before I walked down the driveway to get the mail. Upon returning, Winston was crowing and Buster was missing. I found his body under a tree deep in the woods. Big isn’t any match for young, I guess.

And mean isn’t forever, either. Once competition was gone, Winston’s better angel came out. He doesn’t confront anyone. He simply crows, mates and runs around pointing out morsels for his girls. So much for my chicken wisdom.

The chickens are inside their big old run again, though. Just after Buster bit the dust, Paul spotted a Goshawk and two ravens jumping up and down, flapping their wings and making a huge fuss down by the pond. By the time I got there, the only clue to their frenzy were two duck feet and two wings. A wild female mallard got unlucky. And I got THIS message loud and clear: predators are hunting to feed their hatchlings, so coop up the chickens.

As lovely as green grass feels between the toes and as succulent as a tender slug may be, neither is worth a hen’s life. But then, not being a chicken, I COULD be wrong there too.

Airdate: May 23, 2011

Photo courtesy of David Allen via Flickr.