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Dealing with Unexpected Thanksgiving Guests

I almost forgot to tell y’all this story. On Thanksgiving Day the husband and I went out to do the chores in the morning and discovered two black vultures had locked themselves in our chicken pen.

The chicken pen is normally left open at all times so that the poultry who sleep there can get in and out to free range at will. The day before Thanksgiving had been cold and drizzly, and we’d tossed some leftovers into the pen so the chickens and guinea fowl could get a good meal and stay dry. Among the leftovers was a chicken carcass, which is probably why we ended up with a pair of vultures.

They were beautiful and by far the calmest of the birds who have gotten trapped in our chicken pen. Once a juvenile Coopers Hawk got in there and couldn’t get out because our three game roosters were taking turns beating the crap out of him. Another time a crow got in and then, despite the vaunted intelligence of corvids, couldn’t figure out how to go out the door he’d just come in. Both the hawk and the crow were upset and panicking, although admittedly the poor hawk had reason to panic what with the roosters trying to kill him.

The vultures on the other hand were very mellow. They didn’t get upset until we got within about eight feet of them. The rest of the time they hung out, preening and exploring and pecking things. We opened the door for them and left them to it, and they continued to hang out on the ground right next to the open door. They preened, they took dust baths, they pecked at the empty feeder. I was starting to feel guilty because here it was Thanksgiving and they’d been locked in all night and might be hungry, so I found them the rib cage of a rabbit carcass we’d roasted and tossed it in to them. They thought food delivery was pretty good.

A few hours later, however, their idyll came to an end when our flock of guinea fowl discovered them and ran them out of the pen. Six guinea fowl are, apparently, able to terrify two young vultures into submission. Who knew?

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I shouldn’t mention having a boring life

…because then the universe will decide to get me, even in a minor fashion. Spoiler: the following story ends well.

Yesterday on my way home from work I took the back way, as I often do because it’s shorter and the speed limit is lower so I use less gas, but it’s enough shorter that I don’t lose any time going home. It’s a lovely winding road through a lot of woods, and I was about three miles into it when I saw a big brown bird on the road ahead of me, and then a flash of white as it spread its tail feathers. A bald eagle!

No clue what it was doing there, it might have just nailed some small furry thing because it was struggling to get back into the air but didn’t look broken. As my car got closer, it quit worrying about whatever it was working on in the road and flapped heavily up to a tree branch above the road. And then as my car got really close, it went SWOOPFWOOSHZOOM back to the road, passing right in front of my car.

Three things happened at that point, pretty much simultaneously: I slammed on my brakes (because I have no idea what happens if you hit a bald eagle with your car but I’m pretty sure it involves being stripped of your citizenship and exiled to Canada, and anyway, I didn’t want to hit it!), my eyes bugged nearly out of my head, and I said “AAAAAAAA!”

The eagle landed in the opposite lane, grabbed a dead squirrel, and flapped heavily off into the forest. After giving me a dirty look — did it think I was about to try to steal its dead squirrel? I hyperventilated for a few minutes and then continued on my way home. It took a while for my eyes to stop being all bugged out, though.

In other news, my friend Gowan has a website now! You can find it right here. Gowan is freakin brilliant, I have a necklace she made that I wear on days when I want to feel gorgeous and mysterious. She is also an organic farmer, and is blogging farming, among other things. You should totally check her blog out, because it makes me want to quit my job and stay home and grow vegetables.

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This is the kind of thing that only happens to me, Turtle Edition Part II

So I have a bunch of telcons today at work which meant I ducked out around 0820 to grab food for lunch. As I’m driving by an area that’s being developed, as in “all of the lovely second-growth forest cut down and the trees burned in big piles before the ground is totally leveled and a big-box store is built on it” I see three guys standing around looking at a small lump on the bit of road they’ve built. It’s a turtle.

Eastern box turtles, as people who have read my EBT posts before know, live their entire lives within about 600 feet of where they hatch. If you move them away from there and do not prevent them from trying to go home, they will try, and they will most likely die. And if you destroy that little patch of second-growth forest, well, they die. Slowly and painfully, since they have no idea where to find food and water and places to hide.

You know where this is going, right? I mean, what else was I supposed to do? Of course I pulled over and grabbed a box out of my car and smiled cheerfully at the nice gentlemen staring at the turtle and said “Let me just grab him real quick.” And then before they could recover from their confusion over a cane-wielding redheaded lady in a long skirt stealing their turtle, I hopped back in my car with him and drove away.

He’s very pretty, his front legs and head are marked with a vivid salmon-pink and he has bright, bright red eyes. Currently he’s hanging out in an Amazon box under my desk with some leafy greens from my salad. Sigh.

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This is the kind of thing that only happens to me, people edition.

Dear diary:

Yesterday I kidnapped PawPower.


Anyway, she was coming through Charlottesville on the train with a 6 hour layover so the plan was to have dinner and hang out with dogs and meet chickens and then get her on the train home. Except that while the phone told us the train left at 2115, it actually left 10 minutes earlier. This is possibly the first time in the history of Amtrak that a train left somewhere early.

Today, therefore, I am dragging the patient Pawpower to a chicken swap, because that is the kind of hospitality we display here in Virginia. “Welcome to Virginia, let us kidnap you and take you to chicken swaps!”

Meanwhile Zille tried to kill Daniel this morning, Sid is refusing to eat his breakfast, and there was a HUGE white tail buck hanging around the back acre when we let the dogs out that had a staring contest with Beowulf. The world continues apace as I explore my new role as kidnapper.

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Happy post time!

As characterized by the bluebird of happiness:
My body, from the chest up; I am wearing my Aida t-shirt and a fetching red paisley bandana.  One arm is slightly outstretched, and cradled in my hand is a small poofy blue chicken (more a bluey-grey really) who sits and calmly regards me.

And I’m going to be REALLY lazy and do it with links to my husband’s blog. HA!

1) Jeremiah Swakhammer survived the winter and is in fine form.

2) OK, so, back in Feb 2010 when Daniel came to visit, we went up to DC and wandered around the mall and there was a white squirrel and I didn’t believe him at first when he said “Hey, a white squirrel!”

But today we saw a white squirrel across the street, and Daniel got a picture! There’s also a black widow spider pic on that page so click cautiously if spiders bother you.

Also I should note in reference to the whole White Squirrel in DC thing that he had been joking around about wildlife and whatnot previously, so it was not TOTALLY out of left field for me to at first disbelieve his assertion that there was a white squirrel. I’m just sayin.

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Spring is officially here!

Yes, yes, the temperatures have been getting steadily warmer for weeks and the bulbs we planted last fall have put up actual leaves and might decide to do flowers some day, and the first official day of spring has already passed. But as I know from growing up in northern Illinois, the official first day of spring often has nothing whatsoever to do with actual spring.

Actual spring, however, has sprung. Or to be more accurate, it has peeped! That’s right, the Spring Peepers are calling! And you can click right over there to the Virginia Herpetological Society page and hear them. Right now they’re not yet up to the “hundreds of frogs” level of calls, but there’s more than one of the plaintive little buggers out there peeping his little amphibious heart out.

I really love the frog calls that I get to hear here at the Manor. We also get the Gray Treefrog here, the Hyla versicolor one, and if you click over to VHS page for Hyla versicolor you can get an idea of what my back yard sounds like in the spring since they managed to capture peepers on that same recording. And we get the Upland Chorus Frog, who comes out earlier than the other two to make querulous creaking noises in huge numbers.

Screw the calendar, it’s not spring until the little frogs sing.

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Box Turtle Questions

I swear I get more box turtle hits off google…

“box turtle problem in my yard”
You probably do not actually have a box turtle problem. If you have box turtles in your yard, what you have are handy little beasts who will take care of your slug and snail problems for you, as well as keeping your hostas trimmed back. Please just let them be and enjoy the little buggers. This is, of course, provided they are wild box turtles wandering through. If a previous home owner has left you a legacy box turtle, well, that’s a whole nother pile of herpetological difficulty, now isn’t it. I highly recommend The Box Turtle Care and Conservation Webpage, run by Tess Cook, and also the super helpful and friendly people over at the Yahoo group Tess runs.

“relocating eastern box turtles”
“returning eastern box turtle to wild”
I keep harping on this: it’s difficult and the turtle is unlikely to survive it. If you cannot provide for the turtle yourself, the best bet is for you to find a wildlife rehabber or turtle rescue who can take the small scaly stalker in. It’s possible to relocate an EBT, but it involves knowing where the turtle is at all times and making sure it’s finding food, water, and the good hibernation places. Odds are good that if you’re trying it without slapping a GPS tracking device on the turtle and following its movements daily, the turtle will just die.

It’s far better to leave them where they are if at all possible, if they’re already in the wild. If this is a pet turtle who has lived in captivity for many years, you should just find it a home prepared to deal with the requirements of a pet box turtle, or a turtle rescue, seriously. Don’t sentence the turtle to death just dropping it in the woods somewhere.

“eastern box turtle safe to touch”
Well, for whom? You are unlikely to get diseases from the turtle unless you lick it, and you will have to go out of your way to get bitten by one, seriously. On the other hand, the turtle is going to find it stressful and unpleasant and that’s just mean. The best rule with wildlife is look, but don’t touch, and Eastern Box Turtles are wildlife. Unless the turtle is in imminent danger of death, just leave it alone, please.

In fact, if there’s one rule I wish I could get everyone to absorb re: turtles, it’s JUST LEAVE THEM ALONE. They take an enormous amount of specialized care to keep in captivity. You don’t even want to know what Jeremiah Swakhammer’s enclosure cost. They’re much, much better off living their little turtle lives in the wild as the Big Sky Turtle intended, without being petted, picked up, prodded at, chewed on by dogs, or otherwise harassed. Just let the little scaly bastards be.

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I will spare you the suspense: all my limbs are intact.

So this morning there I am, choogling along to work in my CRV, dressed in my cute work clothes from The Fifth Collection: a long linen A-line skirt and a button-down linen shirt with a pink tank top under it. Also, I was wearing adorable shoes. I got down to the little lake and saw what might have been road kill in the middle of my lane, slowed down a little, got closer, and realized it was a snapping turtle.

A freakin snapping turtle, of fairly consequential size. I would estimate its shell at about a foot long, which means that by the time you get done adding in tail and FEARSOME SNAPPING HEAD, it was probably two feet total. Did I mention it was sitting in the middle of my lane? I couldn’t just leave it there, so I got out of the car, grabbing a sweater, and after carefully looking and listening for cars (it was 0535 so there weren’t any) I stepped in front of the turtle and flapped my sweater at it, hoping to herd the sucker safely to the side of the road.

Nope. It stuck out its neck and FEARSOME SNAPPING HEAD and was all “HISSS! I EAT YOUR TOES.” Um. Not the desired reaction. I stomped at it. “I EAT YOUR TOES CRAZY WOMAN.” Sigh.

So I ran around behind the snapping turtle and grabbed it by the tail and lifted it til its front toes barely touched the ground and started dragging it fairly rapidly toward the side of the road. This is not a nice way to move a turtle, incidentally, but I like having ten fingers and ten toes. Except snapping turtles are heavy, and as I got it to the shoulder of the road (I could hear a car coming by now) my arm sagged and it got at least three legs on the ground.

Did you know snapping turtles are WICKED FREAKY FAST about spinning 180 degrees even if you have ahold of the tail? I did not until today. Ahem. I shrieked and jumped backwards, luckily still holding onto the fearsome snapping beast’s tail, which jerked it back around so it was no longer facing me but was now unfortunately between me and the car. Whoops. Tactical error.

Luckily the one car had gone by and I couldn’t hear or see any others, so I darted around the turtle into the road while the turtle made various terrorist threats behind me.

But coming home from work, there was no dead snapping turtle in the road, so I feel safe declaring this one a chelonian wiktory, even if it was a lot more adrenaline than I needed at that hour.

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This is the kind of thing that only happens to me.

My Mom is buying me a new side door, so this morning a gentleman came out to measure for it. And lo, he was a very nice man, and we were chatting while he measured and Tink was out there with us and as it turns out the door-measuring gentleman also likes animals, and moves turtles out of the road. In fact, he said, he had one in the car because he’d stopped for it and hadn’t been able to move it because of traffic, and could he release it here?

But i already have a hamster and two little rats, which they actually don’t take much of the space but I like to pay my full attention to them, they are just like small dogs, so sweet and want so much attention and need lots of care. I was thinking of buying them a new house so I could move them to one of the best rat cages I’ve seen so far and it doesn’t take much space so I could put them somewhere up and keep the turtle down.

Oh dear. The problem is that Eastern Box Turtles have a home range, and if you take them out of it, they will try to get back and most likely die on the way if they are four inches long and adorable. Even a healthy full-size adult box turtle will probably die if it’s been moved more than a quarter mile from home.

There’s a group in, I believe, Pennsylvania that relocates them to a nature preserve, but they do it by installing GPS tracking devices on the turtles and making sure they stay where they’re supposed to and find the food and hibernation spots. Soooo…. I took the turtle in. I had some gear from poor departed Clover, my Russian Tortoise who was killed by the cats, after which I swore that there would be no more small pets. Circumstances however have conspired to make a liar of me. Obviously I am going to have to get cracking on the outdoor turtle habitat I’ve been talking about making for the past year or so.

And yes, of course I took pictures. The turtle has been christened Jeremiah Swakhammer, after an intrepid and armor-clad character in Cherie Priest’s book Boneshaker. It’s a good book, and also I happen to know that Cherie is fond of turtles and will probably appreciate having this handsome little devil named for her character.

A small Eastern Box Turtle sits, totally boxed up, next to a thick ergonomic keyboard. The keyboard's bottom edge with no keys is perhaps two-thirds as tall as the turtle's shell, with keys it is very nearly the same height. From this angle you can see the arch of the front opening, and the turtle's plastron, which is ivory with darker brown markings on the edges of the scutes.

A top view of Jeremiah Swakhammer's shell, which is about 4 inches long. The shell is a dark, rich brown, with bright gold markings. The dorsal scutes have gold shapes reminiscent of a curved capital E, the shapes on the lateral scutes are more abstract but vaguely similar. The peripheral scutes have little flame-like gold markings on them.

Jeremiah Swakhammer, partially unboxed, looks dubiously at the camera. In fact, his look is fairly indignant. His eye is a dark brown, and his face and front legs are black with little dots of yellow on them. His beak and lower jaw are more the ivory color of his plastron.

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Finally, one that wasn’t in the road.

Shortly after lunch, Beowulf wanted me and the Best Mom Ever to know that there was something weird out in the yard. We ran to the window to look and didn’t see anything except…what looked like a rock, wandering toward the woods. Turtle! I lamented that we’d eaten all the strawberries the night before and bolted out the door with the camera. I have rescued fifteen or more off the road around here, but this is the first time I ever had some leisure to get a good look. She was most obliging, too, not bothering to box up since I didn’t touch her (although I was tempted to take the cobweb off her back, but figured she wouldn’t appreciate it).

An Eastern Box Turtle looks at the camera from an indifferent and thin bit of lawn.  Turtle faces always look angry.  Her eyes are a deep orangish-red, set in a striking face of bright yellow with black lacing.  One foreleg is forward, caught in the act of taking a step, and the same bright yellow scales with black edges can be clearly seen on it.  Her shell is a dusty black with darker, orangier yellow markings on the scutes in patterns suggestive of alien handprints.  Her shell is also mildly deformed, the sides tucked and a bit steep rather than being smoothly domed, with clear growth ridges on the scutes.  The edges of her peripheral scutes are rough and damaged.  She has clearly been crawling through a cobweb, the remains of which are caught on the back of her shell along with bits of detritus.

A top view of the same turtle, showing the darker yellow pattern on the top of her head, clearly damaged scutes at the edge of her shell, especially in front, and one extend back leg, which is black and scaly and looks a little as if it is wearing ill-fitting trousers.

Still the same turtle, this time viewed from behind.  From this angle, you have a fetching three-quarters view of her face as she keeps an eye on the photographer.  You can also see that her tail is tucked to one side, which marks her as probably female.  Another charming detail visible from this angle are the two yellow racing stripes that run down each black back leg.