Was it a goatsucker?

The white-throated sparrows are moving through. They’re one of the few birds that sings while migrating. In this case it’s the “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” or if you’re a Canuck, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.”

I also saw a cedar waxwing this morning and heard some other bird that sounded like a goat — “baa-a-a-a-a-a.” There are a few birds around with a trill call — dark-eyed juncos (also sing occasionally while migrating) and chipping sparrows — but they’re too melodic and long. Guess I’ll have to bring the binoculars along tomorrow and see if it sings again.

Sure is nice to be able to look up bird songs on the Internet. When I learned them I used cassette tapes of Peterson’s field guide. It required lots of fast-forward and reversing to find the right bird.

There is a class of birds, the nightjars, sometimes called “goatsuckers” because of ancient myths that they sucked milk from goats. Around here, we have nighthawks and an occasional whippoorwill, but I reckon it was something else.

One of my pet peeves …

… is when A-list movie stars do voiceovers on commercials — people like Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, George Clooney, and now Julia Roberts. As if the bazillions they make for every movie aren’t enough, they have to rake in another pile of money that used to be passed out to poor nameless schmucks who made a living doing voiceovers.

I understand the appeal. It’s good advertising because when you as a viewer hear a familiar voice, and then figure out who it is, there’s a sense of discovery, a momentary positive feeling from figuring something out, and that positivity gets transferred to Brand X by association. 

Great move from an advertising standpoint, but it’s just another example of the rich getting richer and the inequality between the haves and have nots getting worse.

And if you’re a movie star, I’m sure it’s hard to turn in a cool million for 30 seconds of work.

In the old days there was a phrase for it: “selling out.”

Rain, sap, goats

Diane went to Chicago with some old friends to see Cedar in her play, so I had a quiet weekend at home with Leif. Not so much with Leif, because he tends to do his own thing most of the time, so I was by myself quite a bit.

Planned out a new goat and chicken house for them to use while I tear down the old coop and add on to the barn this summer so we have a proper space for them all. Pulled out a bunch of fence posts from a pasture we don’t use anymore. I’m going to use them to fence in some trees by the house, where hopefully the goats will eat some of the buckthorn. Went to Menard’s to buy some materials.

The shelter will have space on the bottom for the goats to get out of the elements, and a coop on top for the four laying hens and the rooster. I’ll keep my broiler chicks in the coop, and when they’re finished I’ll tear down the coop and build the barn addition.

Took a walk around the property each day and didn’t see many birds. The only new ones were brown thrasher (seems early), a sapsucker, and a savannah sparrow singing. Also saw a broad-winged hawk soaring and an immature bald eagle by the river. 

Boiled down the last of the sap, put it in jars and sealed them. Cooked a chicken in the crock pot. Made gravy. Watched British mysteries on Netflix. Jack Taylor, Inspector Lewis.

We got a lot of rain last night, an inch or more. Then in rained much of the day today, so I didn’t build my chicken/goat house. Instead I washed the couch cushion covers, mopped the floor, and cleaned out the sap buckets and taps and tubes.

And applied for jobs.

Tomorrow I start my final week of school before finals. I’m glad it will be over.

Hermit thrush day


The first time I heard a hermit thrush sing was in Yellowstone where I spent a summer on a peregrine falcon release in 1989. I remember hearing the strangest bird song ever and following it until I found the bird. I first mistook it for a Swainson’s thrush, and it was only months later that I realized from the song that it had been a hermit.


I heard them again on my three month walk through Minnesota with Jim Larson in 1990. I remember sitting on top of one of ridges on the Superior Hiking Trail, looking out over the birch and fir forest, and hearing several of them calling back and forth down below. In 1992, I found some hermit thrush nests in the Chippewa National Forest when Diane and I had summer jobs looking for nests for a U of M grad student. And heard them sing again.

Since moving here, I’ve experienced hermit thrush day just about every year. I don’t keep good track of my bird sightings, but I know it’s usually around this time of year — early in the migration, before the leaves come out, after the song sparrows and red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks and bluebirds come back, around the same time as the yellow-rumped warblers (which I also saw yesterday).

Here’s a link to the hermit thrush’s song.



We do get wood thrushes nesting (and singing) down here. They’re a close second to the hermit, and I feel lucky to hear them on my morning walks in June. They won’t return for another month or more, though. In the meantime, I may see a Swainson’s or Gray-cheecked thrush or Veery. Some of my favorite birds.



Not a very eventful day of birding, but every time the hermit thrushes come through is special, and watching a flock of pelicans made it even better.


Here’s my list:

Birds 4/20

white pelicans riding thermals high in the sky
two chickadees in a leafless young ash
hermit thrushes low in the woods, russet tails bobbing
eastern phoebe bobbing tails too
mourning doves flying in a pair
flickers, white-rumped, golden-shafted
scads of robins
hoards of juncos
song sparrow whispering, then singing loud
canada geese honking across the river
wood ducks scared up from a puddle
mallards, too
red-winged blackbirds, raucous chorus
yellow-rumped warblers with yellow sides
a flock of brewer’s blackbirds
sandhill cranes making a racket
blue blue jays in a green white pine
kestrels back at the nest box
a winnowing snipe


Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself

Photo on 4-17-14 at 12.43 PM

The chicks arrived together. I can’t remember how many I ordered, but I think it was 50 broilers and 10 or 15 layers. I ordered white egg layers to add to my flock of brown egg layers, which has dwindled to four plus the rooster.

The next few weeks will be way too busy, as I feed and water them several times a day and clean their pen in the basement until they’re big enough and it’s warm enough to move them out to the coop.

For now they’re in the kitchen

I played a gig in the Cities last night and spent the night at John’s house. After rolling in at 12:30 a.m., my eyes popped open at 4:30. “Oh no,” I said. “My chicks are coming today.” I was awake for another hour wondering how I was going to drive home, pick up my chicks, get them set up in the basement, drive to St. Cloud to take a test, and then head back to the Cities to see John play his gig tonight.

At 7 my cellphone rang. It was the post office. “Your chicks are here,” she said. I know from experience that postal workers aren’t crazy about chick season. The constant peeping is enough to make someone go … well … “postal,” as John said with a hearty laugh, pouring me coffee this morning. Easy for him to laugh.

It took forever to get out of Minneapolis, with an inch of frozen slush on the roads. The snowstorm last night was yet another insult after a winter full of them — the worst winter in memory for many of us (though our memories aren’t necessarily reliable).

Yesterday I drove 20 on the Interstate halfway from St. Cloud to Minneapolis. By Monticello the roads were a little better, and in the northern suburbs it was raining. I wandered around the West Bank before I sang some songs on a radio show and then played at the 331 club in Northeast. Then another bar for another band, and the fitful night of sleep.

I decided to skip my test (the prof throws out your low score) and call this a chicken holiday. I’ve also learned from experience that you can’t spend too much time getting your chick nursery set up properly.

Which brings me to the title of this rumination.

Why do I do this to myself?

Short answer: After watching too many videos showing where chicken nuggets and beef and bacon and cheese and eggs come from, I decided that if I was going to continue to eat meat, I wanted to know where it came from — and ideally I was going to learn all the gory details of animal husbandry.

Since we live in the country and have owned horses, dogs, and cats for years, raising broiler chicks wasn’t a stretch. However, when you’re a true-blue suburbanite like me, you don’t necessarily have what it takes — regardless of how long you’ve lived on a gravel road.

I won’t share the details of my multiple failures in animal husbandry — first with chickens, then with goats — but I’ll tell one tragic story that was more fate than failure. Last summer, when the broilers were about half grown, and I had them outside in the chicken run, a horrible storm came through in the middle of the night. In the morning, five of them were dead or dying, soaked and lying in the mud. I gutted them on the tailgate of the pickup and put some of their meat on the grill, and the rest in the freezer.

Suffice it to say that not all of my flocks and herds have lived long enough to be butchered. I know I’m not alone in this, but it doesn’t make it any easier when you watch an animal — however fragile and unfit for life — die due to your own negligence, miscalculations, or bad luck.

But that’s part of the deal.

I’ve come to believe that if you’re not willing to face the reality of meat eating, you shouldn’t do it. And this is another thing I know from experience: Many people can’t stomach the thought of eating a chicken they raised and butchered, yet they’ll eat chicken nuggets daily without thinking twice about it. To me, that’s wrong.

Which is why I went hunting last fall and shot a deer (another story I’ll tell some other time). And why I try to filet at least a couple fish every year. And why I bought three goats last fall, and why I’m thinking of eating them, or their offspring, or selling them for others to eat. And why I went beyond just raising chickens last summer and actually butchered half of them myself — until I ran out of time and fortitude. And why I’m taking a chicken holiday again today.

wpid-img067And why I’m glad the Amish moved in next door. I have a feeling I may need them someday. This morning, driving home down our barely-plowed road, I saw Melvin Schmucker and his wife pass in their horse-drawn carriage. I had been asking myself (and my peeping chicks in the front seat) why I make my life so difficult, and I had to smile as they trotted past.

To be honest, I haven’t lived up to my values. I sneak a piece of pepperoni pizza now and then, or a couple slices of bacon. I’ve succeeded in eliminating a lot of the factory-farmed meat from my diet, although I still indulge in cheese and milk products. When I go out to eat, I usually order vegetarian or fish (which has its own set of ethical dilemmas).

I also don’t plan on butchering my chickens myself this year. I’m really bad at it, and it’s not a nice job, and there are people who make a living doing it for people like me, and I’m happy to support them. And maybe I can help support my new neighbors.

In the end, I may do what may be the most ethical thing in an age of climate change: go vegan.

I love grains and legumes and veggies and fruit, so I could probably make it work. The problem is that I like to raise some of my own food, and I’m the world’s worst gardener. I’ve learned that I’m better with animals because they’re a lot harder to ignore and neglect. One mistake and you’re burying them. To me it’s easier to feed chickens than weed the garden.

For now, I press on, a person who doesn’t like to work working way too hard in some ill-conceived attempt to live more ethically.

And I do enjoy the peeping of chicks.

Photo on 4-17-14 at 12.36 PM #3