I saw them a week ago
as we drove through Kansas,
long waves of Red-Winged Blackbirds flying
over fields of sorghum.
But I thrilled
yesterday morning
when I heard them,
the first time this autumn,
in the trees between
the farmhouse and the hermitage.
How can the simple, sweet, chippy sound
of a mass of Red-Winged Blackbirds
in the treetops
swell the heart?
It’s a sound familiar.
It’s the sound of community
returned.
It’s a sound of winter.
It’s a sound of home,
and for a moment or two,
my heart ached,
for I was packing the car
for a several-day stay
in the city.

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For two days
I’d watched three turkey vultures
terribly close to the chickens and guineas,
blithely making their way around the farm,
focused on grabbing seeds from grass
and pecking bugs out of the soil. One turkey
vulture was perched atop the Hackberry tree
at the back door of the farmhouse,
where chickens were busy foraging
in the wildlife plot.
One turkey vulture was atop a power pole
in the goat pen,
where a Cochin rooster spends much of his day.
Both vultures lifted those wide black wings
into the air
when I came near.
And then I saw at least 30 of them,
above the southwest pasture,
circling in the sky,
slowly moving south. I hoped
that as I drove away
those two didn’t return
to snag a snack for the road.

My angst then
at leaving the farm
with so much aerial action—
two Red-Tailed Hawks
have returned this week as well.
I hope they focus on mice
instead of chickens and guineas—
abated somewhat
when I met up with a city friend,
a city friend who lives in a busy
part of the city, and she
described the group of buzzards
above her house. Besides the buzzards
on the wing,
she’s been watching Monarchs
and those yellow butterflies
in her beautiful garden, enjoying
them before they flutter their way
south
to Mexico.

It’s heart-swelling season,
in country
and city.

Maybe it’s their story:
mom plucked from the nest
mere hours before they were to emerge
from the nest of eggs, instead
emerging in an incubator, the five;
growing up in an outside pen of the barn
to protect them from the adults, then
one eaten by a snake…
For some reason, I am enamored
with this clutch of teenaged guineas.

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Guineas are herd animals anyway;
they stick together as family
or groups. We have one adult guineaa single, whose family is actually
the three chickens it was raised with.
They still run together, along with a cat,
often,
who thinks he’s part of that family too.

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Now that they’re big enough to be in the barn
with everyone else,
these four are doing what guineas do:
running together, always. Roosting together.
There is one among them who seems to be leader;
who ventures first into the melee of chickens and guineas attacking
the freshly-spread scratch on the barn floor.
One large guinea adult or another
runs the young one off and it joins
its three siblings holding back in the distance.
They scramble
off together, that clutch of four.
It will take growth and a long time
before they are free of harassment.
Eventually, they’ll have less interference
from the others. One day, they’ll find their way
out of the barn (though we hope they’re bigger
when they do; not so ripe for prowling coyotes)
and have free range of the farm. But wherever
they go,
they will go together,
as one.
In the meantime,
in the barn,
making their way
through the heirarchy
of fowldom,
they have each other.

We have four roosters
these days. And so,
there are three chicks,
growing fast, safely
ensconced in a pen
with their two mamas
inside the barn until
they’re old enough
to defend themselves
against cats. Meanwhile,
Dads are out and about,
keeping their harems
safe,
and on their toes
for the next visit
from the rooster
who has assigned himself
to them.

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A few months ago,
we could have butchered the roosters.
But adding a few new members
to the chicken community (we hope
the three chicks are all hens) is a good idea
and these four roosters aren’t aggressive
towards humans. The ones who are
end up in the soup pot.
Too, we enjoy them;
roosters are beautiful creatures.

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They, along with the Guinea fowl,
make the farm sound
like a farm. Roosters are crowing
before dawn
when the little solar barn door
opens and they can climb out
into the free range of the farm.

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They crow most of the morning—
one rooster north of the house,
another on the south side,
keeping their flocks—
and the other roosters—notified
of their whereabouts,
I guess.
When the Guineas join in,
it’s quite loud. When the cacophony
builds, it gets my attention,
makes me smile out loud,
which brings me back
to this moment
on this farm
and the reminder
that I’m in good company.

Roosters stand
on opposite sides of the farmhouse
and call
loudly
to one another
as soon as the solar-operated barn door
opens and they dash away.
If I’m not out of bed yet,
I might as well get up.
I can hear the hens too,
clucking and pecking
at the watermelon rind left for them
at the back door.
In the lazy, summer afternoons,
all is quiet
as hens and roosters hunker down
in the dirt in the shady, breeziest
side of the barn.

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Getting eggs has been challenging
this summer. Snakes get into them.
And two hens have been brooding
over eggs for way too long,
allowing other hens to lay more,
which makes gathering them impossible.
So Ann has re-purposed
an old chicken tractor,
hauling it into the barn,
securing it against cats,
maybe snakes. She moved
the pile of eggs, one hatched chick
and the two hens into the pen.
They continue to sit and we hope
they hatch a batch. We’re not sure
if the single chick is nestled
under a hen in the nest
or not. Another chick, born earlier,
didn’t survive. We think a cat ate it.
Other hens can now lay their eggs
in new nests Ann has built for them,
on a stilted platform
from a re-purposed vertical feeder.
We hope it’s snake-proof.

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The five keets born in an incubator
within hours after Ann rescued the eggs
from the nest of the guinea hen
who met her demise in the teeth
of dog Sadie,
are all healthy and now living
in an outdoor pen at the barn.

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Life with poultry
and cats
and dogs
and snakes
and possums
and skunks
and coyotes
and hawks
and owls
requires endless
creativity.

We didn’t know there was a guinea nest.
When Ann discovered a dead guinea,
Dog Sadie, despite her anti-guinea-chasing training,
was suspect. It was the Pappa Guinea,
pacing around the nest,
who inadvertently showed Ann
the scene of the crime:
The couple had set the nest far
from the barn,
in tall grass,
out by the farm sign near the road;
the guinea Sadie killed
was a sitting hen.
We have watched male guineas
tend sitting hens for weeks,
then pace and cry out for days,
long after Mamma guineas
have hatched the keets
then given up on keeping them
alive. Keets seldom survive
the first few days of life
on the predator-laden
and too-tall, too-dewy-grass prairie, far
from their native African
savannah habitat.
This hen’s death was tragic. Then,
against the grieving Pappa’s wishes,
Ann removed the eggs
and put them in an incubator.
Within hours, there were keets.
Five.

Ironic, it is:
we might never have known
the family was there
had Sadie not killed the Mamma.
We wouldn’t have known to rescue
the eggs; the keets
wouldn’t have survived
out by the road
in the tall grass.

Pappa has gone back to the barn
and five keets
are growing under warming lights
in the house.

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We hope Pappa
recognizes them
when, a little while from now,
as teenagers,
they are moved to the barn.

I pace.
I cry out.
Life is, well…
tragic,
beautiful,
ironic,
mysterious,
surprising,
unstoppable.

 

Gathering eggs
is confusing these days.
When we see a pile of eggs
we’re never sure if a hen
is getting ready to brood,
so it’s tricky to know
whether or not to gather the eggs.
Ever since the gray Cochin hen
joined the flock two years ago
hens have been brooding
and hatching chicks. Again,
this year, she and three others
are sitting on nests of eggs.
So far, there are two chicks,
hatched by two hens,
or maybe just one—not sure.
We moved the two hens
and all the eggs
into a private suite
and soon there was one,
then two
babes.

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Now the Cochin is sitting
on an egg pile
and a Leghorn is sitting
on a nest of Guinea eggs!
Soon the Cochin may get moved
into the private suite, though
she’ll share it with the two moms
and two chicks
because they’re still too small
to be allowed in the big part of the barn,
where two cats also hang out
now and then. We’re wondering
what the guineas will do
if the Leghorn hatches keets.
Too, we’re wondering what the Leghorn
will do
when she realizes she’s hatched
guinea keets
instead of chicks.

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A week of warm February days
(really warm! In the 80’s
in some parts of Oklahoma)
and Ann has let the chickens
and guineas out of the barn
to free range.
They seem to be finding food:
grass seeds,
probably some insects
and the corn and seed I put out
for the song birds.
The fowl scratch and peck at the ground.
Two gymnastic squirrels
help themselves at the bird feeders,
chatter at the chickens and guineas
below.
Honey bees buzz around one feeder,
interested in the cracked con.
The cat that thinks it’s a chicken
watches from nearby.
Song birds stay away
until the chickens and guineas
and the cat
have moved on.
The oldest, white and brown rooster
charges across the yard,
chasing hens,
trying to round them up
into his little harem. Having spent
the last three months in the barn
with all sorts of sub-families,
they seem to have forgotten
that they belong to his flock.

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Finally,
by early afternoon,
winter shadows lengthen
in filtered sunlight
and, despite a squawking Guinea,
song birds return,
all:
Red-Winged Blackbirds,
Cardinals, Meadowlarks,
Chickadee, sparrows
the Goldfinches.
It’s 60 degrees
and climbing.