Ghostwood Farm

Accidents will happen.
February 7, 2013, 10:16 pm
Filed under: Chickens, Farming, Wildlife | Tags: , , ,

When I was in North Dakota (1999-2001), my summers were spent at Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge. Lake Alice is a truly amazing place. It lies just north of Devil’s Lake, a relatively famous walleye lake and a very interesting place in its own right. But Lake Alice is in a completely different class.

Lake Alice is (was?) a very large hemi-marsh. This means that it is approximately 50% open water, 50% emergent vegetation (largely cattail and bulrush).  In addition to huge numbers of breeding ducks,  Lake Alice also supports hemispherically-important breeding colonies of such colonial waterbirds as Franklin’s gulls, eared grebes, Forster’s and black terns, and black-crowned night-herons. Part of my job was to map these waterbird colonies. This involved canoeing and/or wading around the periphery of each colony with a GPS unit while being attacked, pecked, mobbed, and, shit upon.

It was GREAT.

I cannot say I loved every moment of it, but close. They were long days, some hot, some cold, all wet and smelly. North Dakota winds are something that must be experienced to be believed, even in summer. It was a beautiful place and an amazing experience that not many people, even people in my line of work, get to have.

However, there was death everywhere. Ducks were dying of botulism, which naturally occurs in the anaerobic conditions at the bottom of  marshes in the prairies. Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water. The water at the bottom is basically free of oxygen. Botulism thrives in these conditions. It gets into snails, which get eaten by ducks. One botulismed snail won’t kill a duck, but the toxin bioaccumulates in the duck’s body. Eventually, it makes them very sick. Frequently this manifests as “limberneck,” a lack of control of the head, which results in the bird drowning before it dies of the poison. Then, the flies come. The maggots, like the snails, are unaffected by botulism, but they accumulate the toxin. Other ducks eat the maggots, die, breed more maggots. It’s a vicious cycle that is amazingly destructive in hot years with low water, and kills at least some ducks every year.

The ducks,  in the final throes, would sit on the dikes. Most of the time, their nares (“nostrils”) would be full of leeches. On more than one occasion, I pulled leeches out of the nares of ducks and they would perk up, suddenly able to breathe. On other occasions, I wrung the necks of ducks that were suffering and clearly not going to recover. It was pretty horrible.

I understand that the French called Lake Alice “Lac au Mort.”

So, on one occasion, I was in a colony of Franklin’s gulls and Forster’s terns. It was late in the summer, probably the end of July. These two species tend to nest together in large colonies. The young birds were learning to fly, careening around the place. There was one juvenile bird that was swimming alongside the canoe. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t fly, until I realized he only had one wing. In place of the other, there was a healed wound with a chunk of bone sticking out of it. It had been eaten, probably, by a turtle or a northern pike. I let it go–it would freeze to death in a few months, but it was otherwise healthy and I couldn’t bring myself to kill it.

I do not believe I will ever forget one particular image: Hanging in the “fork” of a cattail, where the new growth was emerging, was a juvenile gull. It was dead and had been for a while. It had simply tried to land and hit the cattail with the bend in its wing, gotten stuck, and hung there until it died. Accidents will happen.

I have told this story countless times in my professional life to illustrate two things: that accidents are a serious cause of mortality among wildlife, and that nature is not all beauty. Nature is beautiful, awe-inspiringly so…but she’s a cold bitch too, and she’ll kill you as soon as look at you, usually in a horrible way. “Red in tooth and claw,” indeed.

I was reminded of this bird on Friday. I pulled into the driveway after having been in Memphis all week (more on that soon). I looked back to the chickens and saw what looked like a bird in trouble. I jumped out and ran back there, and what I saw was horrifying: Buzz Butch, the Sebright bantam rooster, was dead. He was hanging by baling twine over the wall of the greenhouse. Apparently, his feet had gotten tangled in the twine, which got caught on the greenhouse bench, and he went over the edge. He appears to have flapped and flapped until the stress or exhaustion killed him. It must have been terrible. Accidents will happen.

His loss was an important educational moment for me. There is no more baling twine loose in the barn or the greenhouse or near the coops. It won’t happen again. It’s too bad that Buzz Butch had to pay the price for me to learn it. Rest in peace, Buzz Butch. I’m sorry.

Buzz Butch.

Buzz Butch.