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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Valley Resident Deported...

No doubt you've heard it said that the criminal returns to the scene of the crime. That commonplace phrase lends credence to the truth of the matter, the matter, in this case, being the "egg missing in broad daylight." It turns out I didn't have to puzzle over the mystery long. No need to hire a private investigator or arrange for a video camera stakeout...the brazen perp returned to the chicken run the very next day. There he was in all his gray glory, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, scurrying about "in broad daylight," a trespasser clearly embarrassed at being discovered in the chicken run.

I never did see the squirrel's escape route; I was too into the moment wondering just what means of prestidigitation a squirrel could employ to make a grade AA egg vanish without a trace. And the squirrel had to be the culprit...too coincidental, a vanished egg and a gray trespasser. To corroborate my suspicions, I needed to do a bit of forensic research, and where better to find evidence of squirrels behaving badly than the internet. Video after video on You Tube showed squirrels raiding hen houses, cradling the eggs in their forelegs and sashaying away with them; some robbers had no qualms about scooping an egg from beneath a setting hen and then making their getaway. I learned, too, that squirrels eat all sorts of eggs...apparently shell and all.

Once Mr. Bushy Tail exited the chicken run, he nonchalantly parked himself on a round of firewood and flipped his tail at me a time or two, gestures I interpreted, if not obscene, certainly defiant. Murderous thoughts crossed my mind and I was tempted to return with the shotgun and ventilate the gray varmint's thieving hide. Experience told me the culprit would most likely be gone by the time I returned for revenge, so I wandered to the house mulling over my options. I had to do something: my breakfast poached eggs were in jeopardy.

Now my environmentally sensitive friend Nancy L is an old squirrel trapper going way back. I fired off an email to her in which I made clear my problem and in less than two hours she appeared on our deck carrying a live trap baited with a stale peanut. After educating me to the mechanical workings of the trap, she left it along with a brusque directive that should I catch the thief, I was to transport it a few miles up Ben Howard Road, release it where it would be someone else's problem. Under no circumstances was I to let it loose on her side of the river, nor was I to release it in the park by the bridge. Her opinion was there were too many squirrels in town already. Later that afternoon I set the trap and placed it on a scrap of plywood just beyond the chicken run.

The next day, around noon, we returned from an errand in Everett. First off, I went out to check my "trapline" and found it full of squirrel, eyes as big as saucers, tail inflated whisk-broom size. Let's just say there was a frenzy of activity in a very small space, Mr. Bushy clattering around in the trap like rocks in a can kicked down the road. I placed the gyrating trap and the incarcerated in the bed of the truck and with Nancy L's "Take him way up Ben Howard" still fresh on my mind, headed north.

Six miles later I found an abandoned road approach next to a grove of budding cottonwood, a small wilderness any squirrel would love. I carried the trap to the edge of the grove, set it down and opened the trap. The squirrel shot out and vanished into the brush like a wisp of gray smoke.

I would like to say "and that's that," but this morning there was a pair of gray gangstas foraging for birdseed under our backyard maple. I baited the trap with a fresh stale peanut, reset it, and there it sits...awaiting its next passenger.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Curious Case of the Egg Missing in Daylight...

I awoke in the middle of the night thinking about that egg, one of those little mysteries that should make life interesting, but not so interesting it   keeps one from a good night's sleep. The mystery started out not as a mystery at all, an anomaly, rather: a single egg beneath the chicken coop, not in one of the two nest boxes where the girls usually leave payment for their room and board. Accidents happen, I thought. Maybe one of the ladies was taken short: the egg was on its way and the nest box too distant for deposit. Like on the evening news: those roadside freeway birthing events where impatient baby declines hospital and delivery room and opts for an impromptu roadside "coming o". There was precedent for a mislaid egg: when the girls were pullets, one of them laid the first egg under the coop, a "pullet surprise," you might say. But if memory serves, that first effort was the only "extra-coop" deposit for the two-year olds.

I passed by the chicken coop in mid-afternoon and noticed the egg lying all by its lonesome next to one of the coop post supports, thought it a bit odd, but an egg's an egg, right? I would have to enter the chicken run to retrieve it and thought I'd wait until I let the girls out in late afternoon for their daily free ranging.

Later that evening I went to gather the eggs, fully prepared first to enter the run, hunker under the protective netting and scoop up the errant egg. To my surprise, the egg was gone, nowhere to be seen. No trace that it was ever there. No eggshell debris field. Nothing. Vanished. Thus the mystery of the missing egg. It had so disappeared I began to question my sanity. Had I ever seen the egg in the first place? Yes, I had: twice at least, its presence so real, I even hatched a little plan to retrieve it. But as the old saw states: the best laid plans of mice and men....

The little mystery was too big to keep to myself, so I shared it with my wife and we became team Sherlock Holmes/Dr.Watson of the Valley, bent on solving the case. Motive, of course, would be food, hunger, sustenance. That's what the chicken scenario is all about, right? Heretofore we had been the only principals in this arena. Now, however, it appeared we had competition. But we were clueless: no yolk spatter, no shell casings left scattered about. Footprints? Obliterated by chicken feet. The crime scene had been sanitized. And this was not just some thief that came and went in the night, but a brazen act perpetrated in broad daylight.

No suspects in custody, so we conducted a virtual lineup. Topping the "most wanted" list were rats. Unlikely, we thought, a rat could carry an egg out of the run. Weasels are egg suckers, leave shell behind. Skunk? A striped kitty leaves a dis-stinky calling card. 'Possums...not likely because of their size and the secure construction of coop and run. Crows and jays are human-wary, and we're around the place most of the day. Squirrels? They're nut marauders and vegetarians as far as we know, and how could they roll an egg down the coop ramp without breaking it?

The investigation is on-going. As of this post none of the above are beyond suspicion. And given the   season, even the Easter bunny has not been ruled out.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Pollen...By the Basketful...

Despite the calendar's proclamation, spring has yet to arrive here in the Valley. At last the pussy-willow is blooming out--almost a month behind schedule. Last year at this time leaf buds were greening on the bush by the compost heap out back. Now the catkins are flush with golden pollen and the bush a frenzy of bees looting their golden plunder. The gold rush is on and the bees are desperate to stake their claims.Weather permitting, of course. The late winter pollen has come and gone: alder, hazelnut, crocus... all sluiced away by rain. The spring pollen supply is essential to spring buildup, the protein boost needed to ratchet up egg laying and brood rearing. And now the bees are playing catch-up.

Just what to call our pussy-willow these days? The spouted twig I planted a half dozen years ago is now twenty feet tall, thus it seems an insult to call the willow a "bush." What height must a plant reach before it qualifies as a bona fide "tree" escapes me. A pussy-willow tree? Surely we have one now.

Pollen. "Bee bread" I've heard it called, the bees' protein source. Mixed with sucrose, whether it be nectar or sugar refined from cane or beets, it becomes the essential pap for larval sustenance, crucial nourishment for young bees destined to become the work force that will gather the summer's nectar for the season's honey crop.

Pollen collection is solely the jurisdiction of the worker bee whose hind leg is especially designed for the task. The concave configuration of the third leg, the corbicula, which is surrounded by a bulwark of stiff hairs, serves as a basket for pollen loads. Fore and middle legs "rake" the pollen to the hind leg where the sticky substance is formed into a pollen pill.
When its two "baskets" are flush with pollen, the laden worker beelines it to the hive where its two-pack payload is tamped into cells for future use.

I had hoped to trap some pussy willow pollen this spring as there is a demand for local pollen; some allergy sufferers believe pollen is nature's panacea for spring allergies. A delicate shade of pale gold, pussy-willow pollen is pleasing to the eye, especially when packaged in glass containers. The bees are relieved of the fruit of their labors by means of a pollen trap, an especially designed device that forces the pollen-laden workers to enter the hive through a small gauge mesh.

As they crawl through the wire one leg at a time, the pollen pill is dislodged from the "basket" and tumbles into a muslin-lined collection tray where it is harvested by the beekeeper. It is always with a slight sense of guilt that I deprive my bees of their beebread and butter and am careful not to be too greedy. Two, three consecutive days at the most I restrict the pollen flow and then allow the pollen bearers full access to the hive. This season's weather embargo on pollen foraging has sidelined my pollen collecting. Perhaps in a month or so from the maple and dandelion, but by no means now.

This pollen trail has led me astray of the post's original intent. The Ripple wonders if anyone in the blogosphere would consider it possible to compute the total annual pollen yield of a twenty/thirty foot tall pussy-willow tree. Yield in pounds would be preferable, but if the metric system is your measurement of choice, I''ll settle for an estimate in kilos.

For the beekeeper who wishes a bounty of pollen for his bees' spring buildup, I suggest he plant a pussy-willow or two in his landscape. Pussy-willow is easily rooted: half a dozen twigs in a water-filled quart jar or a pot of wet sand will do the trick. When planting the rooted twigs in their permanent location, exercise a bit of caution: willows are vigorous plants and will easily take over a garden spot if not kept well pruned. Please note, too: willow root systems are "divining" roots; they seek out water, so don't plant a willow near a septic drain field as the system most certainly will become root bound.

I would recommend using willows only in horticultural pursuits...not advisable to put a pussy-willow to use in the manner Imogene Herdman suggests in the delightful Christmas story The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The fractious little urchin bullies the prim and proper Alice Wendlekin ("I am always Mary"), whose role Imogene covets, with the scare tactic: "And next spring when the pussy-willows come out, I'm going to stick a pussy-willow so far down your ear where nobody can reach it. And it'll sit there and grow and grow and grow, so for the rest of your life there'll be a pussy-willow bush growing out of your ear."

Bad enough to have to prune and trim one's ear. And to endure all that humming and buzzing every spring. But for pollen-starved bees, what an unexpected windfall.