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Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Politics of Dancing

An interesting dance of sorts has been occurring in pastures and paddocks all over the valley for the past couple of weeks. The steps go like this: the gentleman takes a deep breath, puffs up his chest and struts a few steps. Then he stops and slowly raises his arms up and out. Finally, he turns in a circle so that his dance partner can get the full effect of his burnished, bronze figure. The lady’s role is simple: she is to stand there nonchalantly watching this display, pretending that it has no effect on her whatsoever. Is this the latest performance of Max and Karina on “Dancing with the Stars”? No - it’s the annual spring mating dance of the wild turkey.
Unlike the Arctic penguin, who must display his ability to produce and care for an egg by finding and presenting the perfect egg-shaped rock to his beloved, or the North American loon, who apparently mates for life, the wild turkey of Eastern Ontario is rather shallow and promiscuous. (At least, that’s my take on the situation. My friends at the Ministry of Natural Resources may beg to differ).
The male turkeys, or Toms, gather around the female (I’ll call her Tina) and display their lovely feathers – much like a tanned, muscled male in a too-tight t-shirt at a beachside bar after midnight. They look rather desperate and quite foolish, if truth be told.
Tina chooses the best of the bunch (or perhaps it’s the one who makes her laugh the hardest?) and then goes off to lay an egg. The next day the dance continues, and she selects another male from the group. A second egg is laid in the nest.
This complicated process continues until there are close to a dozen eggs in the nest. Finally, Tina is satisfied that she has achieved the right mix of genetic material in her future brood, and settles down on the eggs. The warmth of her feathery bulk brings all of the patiently waiting eggs out of dormancy, and they begin to develop. They will all hatch at the same time.
In a few weeks, the dance will change. Many of the Toms will disappear in the hunting season that begins at the end of April. Some of them will end up in my freezer and on my dinner plate, after being lovingly prepared by my skilled hunter-gatherer.
The females will not be lonely, however, as they will have several chicks to lead around the fields and meadows that are their dance floor. Many times I have had to stop the car to wait for the congo line to make its way across the road.
The animals on the farm will occasionally engage in their own style of dancing.
Cody, our Gordon Setter, does a mean cha-cha. He paces back and forth (one, two, cha-cha-cha) in front of the patio door, asking to be let into the house.
After spying me crossing the barnyard with a bucket of some unknown substance (it is probably water but they aren’t taking any chances – it might be corn), the sheep rush in front of me and form barriers with their bodies in an attempt to trip me so I will give up the goods. This rather clumsy form of break dancing is very popular after a long winter with nothing to eat but moldy hay.
The barn cats can be found dancing cheek-to-cheek in a slow waltz in the waning sun on the back porch every evening.
Our promenade with Misty and Ashley across the barnyard every morning and evening started out as a bit of a square dance: greet your partner. Turn to the left. Now promenade.
Now that the ‘girls’ have settled in, however, they are taking turns being difficult to test us. Their latest trick is to walk halfway across the yard, then put it in park.
It is very difficult to get a Belgian horse to move when they are unwilling. We have researched on the Internet, consulted local experts, and tried every trick in the book. If the horse halts, I am instructed to glare forcefully at her hip in a predatory manner. Expert thinking is that the horse will sense me staring at her hip, and move the stubborn back legs to divert my gaze. This never works for me. I don’t take myself seriously enough to effectively dance the tango – not even the equine version.
Our most successful move so far has been the turnaround. If the horse won’t go forward, you pull her head back toward her tail until she turns in a circle. Once moving again, it is easier to direct her. And so the dance continues.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Vampire on the Fisher Farm

The farm holds many secrets. For example, who broke the hose from the loft, allowing half a ton of corn to pile up on the floor? Whose newborn lamb is that, sitting comfortably atop the old granny-ewe behind the wagon? And how many of these fat, fluffy yearling lambs are discreetly pregnant?
Most of these questions only remain mysteries for a short time. But occasionally we will encounter a conundrum that eludes us indefinitely. Which brings me to our latest mystery: Who bit my sheep?
Most of the sheep were already out in the barnyard nibbling on hay when I went into the barn last Friday. But as my eyes adjusted to the dim light I saw one lone ewe, standing in the corner. As I approached, she stepped out of the shadows and fixed her gaze on me.
“What? Why are you in here all by yourself? Sore foot? Sore tummy?” The ewe just stood there quietly as I examined her. Then I saw the fresh blood, tricking from two tiny holes on the side of her neck.
“What the?” I called the Farmer over to have a look. “She looks as though she has caught her neck on something…” I muttered uncertainly.
“No, that *bleep* Donkey has probably been biting again,” the Farmer guessed.
I immediately exonerated Donkey, pointing out that he has large Chiclet teeth – not the tiny, sharp incisors that obviously made these bites. Besides – I would like to believe that Donkey has matured and grown beyond his sheep-biting behaviour of the past.
I looked around the barn, under the manure spreader and up toward the loft. Do vampire bats live in Ontario? A skunk had been spreading his scent around the farm the night before. Could he be the culprit? Is there a rabid skunk somewhere in this barn right now, watching me from behind a bale of hay?
Upon closer examination, we noticed that the sheep had matching bites on the other side of her neck, as if someone’s jaw had closed down upon her.
“This was done by a coyote. A young, inexperienced one,” the Farmer deduced.
With sharp puppy teeth, I added.
“It must have happened a few minutes ago, because she has just now started to bleed,” I said.
Did the ewe high-tail it back into the barn after being attacked out in the pasture? Or did the bold young coyote pup venture into the barnyard to attempt a kill?
The episode had obviously given the ewe quite a fright, and she appeared to be in shock. She had escaped with just the bites to the neck, dangerously close to the coyote’s usual target, the jugular vein.
“I want to put her somewhere safe until she feels better,” I announced, herding the sheep through the door to the lambing area with my knees.
Once I had settled the vampire victim in a lambing pen with fresh hay and a dish of corn, I thought to check her ear tag. #338 is one of our senior ewes. She has given birth every lambing season for the past ten years. She has contributed many generations of lambs to our herd. This year she had one lamb but was unable to produce milk for it. She stayed in the pen with her baby (for their mutual comfort) but her pen-mate had to be the wet nurse. #338 is nearing the end of her tenure as a productive ewe. She is old and weak, and was probably dawdling along behind the herd, fairly easy pickings for a coyote.
But it was not her time. She had outsmarted the coyote, and perhaps Donkey had even come to her rescue, startling the wolf and chasing it away.
I put some tetracycline in the water bucket to ward off infection, congratulated the old girl on her great escape, and went back outside.
Ginger and Betty, the cows, were standing just outside the barnyard, staring toward the far corner of the field as if they were watching something. They held their position for quite some time. The Farmer grabbed his gun and went on walkabout. He didn’t find anything.
Donkey was at the other gate, staring at me. I called him and he just stood there, unmoving. He often does this when something dramatic has happened.
I walked up to Donkey, and checked him over. There was no blood on him. I wish he could tell me what had happened.
I gave him a pat on the neck, and turned to walk away. But before I left, I gently curled back his upper lip and checked out his chompers. Like I said: Chiclets.

-30-

Lambs at 8 weeks