Help! Small birds are eating us out of house and home!

bird feeder with lesser goldfinches

So–we thought it would be a nice idea to get a bird feeder.

We had resisted up ’til now because we figured any bird feeder we got would end up a squirrel feeder. Then we discovered this particular type of feeder, which is enclosed in a fine mesh, and meant to hold tiny seeds, like thistle seeds. This sort of feeder attracts small, seed-eating song birds, like finches, but doesn’t feed the mice and rats and squirrels.*

What could possibly go wrong?

We installed the feeder about a month ago, and were delighted to see house finches and tiny lesser goldfinches come to visit. (So were our indoor kitties, I might add!)

And then more lesser goldfinches came, and more, and more… and still more.

Apparently, lesser goldfinches are “gregarious.”

At this point we are hosting a continuous goldfinch convention from dawn to dusk. They’re cute as the dickens, but they are beginning to cost some serious money, because there’s so many of them as of this week that they are now plowing through a full feeder every day. As I type this, I can hear the squabbling outside the window which starts when the seed levels are low.

Now we have guilt–as well as pocketbook pangs. Have we created a monster? Are the goldfinches now dependent on our feed? Was it wrong to feed them like this in the first place? Are impressionable young goldfinches learning to live on handouts? Are we sparking a goldfinch obesity crisis?

Our yard does have more natural food sources, like native sunflowers and white sage gone to seed. Perhaps we should have left it at that? ( I suspect we’re not going to win any permaculture awards for our feeder.)

Bird people, help!

What are your thoughts on feeders?

Is it okay to leave the feeder empty sometimes? Does that encourage foraging, or is it just not very nice to be random about the filling?

Is there a cheaper alternative to Nyjer ™ seed that finches like? Perhaps something that doesn’t come from Africa? (argh!)

cat watching birds

Buck watching finches, thinking unkind thoughts.

*Seed drops, which could feed rats and mice, but sparrows are on clean-up crew

Your Beekeeping Questions Answered

Got a beekeeping conundrum? Wondering about how to get started? Want to keep bees the natural way? There’s an easy answer. Google your question with “Michael Bush.” Michael Bush maintains an encyclopedic website devoted to all-natural treatment-free beekeeping at www.bushfarms.com. And the folks at HoneyLove have shot a series of videos with Bush.

Bush’s advice is well outside mainstream beekeeping. Given the spectacular failures of the big beekeepers in recent years, I think it’s time well past time to look at alternatives.

004-Egg Ethics, Solar Food Dryers and a Question about Earth Ovens

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On episode four of the Root Simple Podcast Kelly and Erik discuss the tricky ethics of eggs and mayonnaise, what kind of solar food dryer is the best and we answer a question from Ed about earth ovens.

Plans for the Appalachian Solar Food Dryer can be found in an article on Mother Earth News.

We have a detailed post on how we built our adobe oven here.

If you want to leave a question you can call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected].

The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho.

A downloadable version of this podcast is here. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store. Note that it takes a few hours for the new episode to show up in iTunes.

In Praise of Poultry Staples

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A neighborhood chicken tragedy involving a coyote reminded me of an important coop building detail worth repeating:

Use galvanized poultry staples not staple gun staples to secure your 1/2 inch hardware cloth (and don’t use chicken wire–the gaps are so big that raccoons can reach right in and eat your poulrty through the wire). Poultry staples are nailed in with a hammer. I use a pair of needle nose pliers to hold the staple while I hammer it home. Regular staples rust and are not strong enough to keep out predators.

A last detail is to periodically inspect coops for possible weak points. I’m overdue for this. I’ve scared away a coyote twice now this year in our backyard (during the day!).

Chicks, Mayonnaise and Personal Responsibility

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Recently, an email from Farm Forward (which I believe is tied to PETA somehow) appeared in the Root Simple mailbox, saying, “I thought you and your readers might be interested in a new campaign Farm Forward just launched called BuyingMayo.com. We’re letting consumers know that baby chicks are killed in the process of making America’s #1 condiment: Best Foods & Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.”

Following the link, I found an emotional video pairing sentimental, sun-drenched images of a mom making a sandwich for her toddler with factory farm footage of dead chicks jostling down conveyor belts.

The website says,

Most of us don’t consider the treatment of baby chicks when we purchase mayo. And we shouldn’t have to: we should be able trust companies when it comes to preventing cruelty to animals.

Best Foods and Hellmann’s use millions of eggs each year to create their products. Since only female chickens lay eggs, Best Foods and Hellmann’s don’t have any use for the male birds. Their solution is to treat these chicks like garbage: they’re either ground up alive, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags.1

Nobody wants to see animals suffer, but some of the worst abuses occur where we least expect them. If we care about preventing cruelty to animals, we have to shine a spotlight on abuses that otherwise would be hidden. We’re calling on Best Foods and Hellmann’s to stop treating animals like they’re trash.

I agree with the broad facts. Male chicks are destroyed just out of the shell because they come from breeds developed specifically for heavy egg production, not for quality meat. Only the girls have value to us, but nature insists on giving us 50% boys. The practice of culling newly hatched males is appalling. It is wasteful, in the darkest meaning of the word. It is a blatant disregard of life. It denies that we have any relationship to, or responsibility for, these animals.

Nonetheless, my first impulse was to ignore this email, because I don’t understand why they are targeting mayonnaise makers specifically. I mean, I do, on one level, because OMG! Dead baby chicks in my mayo??!!!!  After all, what’s more sacred or beloved than mayo? These campaigns are fueled by emotion.

But the focus on mayonnaise alone seems to muddy the waters overall. The fault is not with the mayonnaise producers. The fault is with us. All of us who eat eggs.

Yet it seems that the activists are hesitant to point the finger at us, potential donors that we are, and say, “If you really care about this, change your behavior.” Instead, they give us a scapegoat to point our finger at and cry, “Chick murderer!”

They want us to convince Hellmann’s and Best Foods to solve the problem for us (or rather, one small slice of the problem), perhaps by reformulating their mayonnaise to be eggless (likely by adding weird stabilizers or–joy–monocropped GMO soy) or figuring our how to humanely source eggs on a vast industrial scale…er…somehow? My response to this is one big big eye roll.

It’s time to point fingers toward ourselves. But instead of letting the guilt gnaw at us, or living in denial, we can take positive action–such as:

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Party in the Bathroom!!!!!

buck close

The Continuing Saga of Living in a 900 Square Foot House with 3 Indoor Cats

Every time I enter the bathroom, no matter what I plan to do in there, or how long I’ll be staying, I have company: at least one cat, often all three, come to join me for an impromptu party.

Yes, I close the door. But Phoebe, our little heart-challenged female, is a genius. She understands the principles of force and acceleration and all sorts of things I don’t even know the names of, and can send the bathroom door swinging inward with one precise smack of her dainty black paw. If I do lock the door, she scratches on the other side in protest–tirelessly– making a noise so annoying that I have to submit and let her in.

The boys, Buck and Trout, being handsome but sadly thick, can’t even begin to open the door without her.

Phoebe is deeply bathroom obsessed, though, so the boys will never be locked out. Wherever Phoebe is, she comes running when she hears me entering the bathroom. Maybe she doesn’t hear me–maybe she’s set up psychic trip wires. I have no idea, but she always knows.

Originally she liked to roll around on the bath mat while I was in the bathroom, giving me a rare opportunity to pet her, since she often doesn’t wish to be petted, at least by me. She’s Erik’s cat, shamelessly biased.

More recently she’s expanded her Empire of Domination and has trained me to open the bathtub faucet to a drizzle. The running water is never less than thrilling. I wonder why cats tire of everything else (toys, perches, etc.) quickly but the faucet never loses its charm. And I can’t help but obey her every wish, because, after all, she’s dying (despite looking bright and fiendish, she is in heart failure) and she’s on lots of diuretics, so water is good for her. I am her tub slave.

cat drinking from tub

Phoebe says, “Hmm, the rate of flow lacks that certain je ne sais quoi, Fix it. Now.”

So, turning on the tub is my first duty whenever I enter the bathroom. If I don’t do it, she’ll stare daggers at me until I obey.

Next the boys rush in, probably having heard the water running. They each have their own objectives. Trout likes to jump into the bathroom window and balance there precariously, threatening the screen. I worry about the screen, but mostly I’m grateful he’s leaving me alone.

trout in window

Trout says: “I may pop this screen, or I may jump down and break all your toiletries on the counter or I may just stare at you for a long while.”

Buck is more interactive. Not to get all TMI here, but when I am in our bathroom, occasionally I will be found sitting on the toilet, contemplating the nature of the universe or what have you, and at such moments Buck jumps up on the sink, which is just to the left of the toilet, and begins purring at full volume.Why he is so happy and excited, I cannot begin to guess.

In that position he is very near my shoulder, and a little taller than me, which is somewhat disturbing. He wants to be petted there on the sink. If I ignore him, or don’t pet him enough, he bats at my head and shoulder, to remind me of my duty.

If this does not satisfy, he jumps to the back of the toilet, where he skitters precariously on the stack of trashy free publications and ham radio catalogs Erik insists on keeping there, rubbing his cheek against mine until an avalanche of slippery magazines sends him jumping for safety, and sends me scrabbling to keep the magazines from falling down my back.

buck in sink

Buck says, “What…are you leaving already?”

And thus ends another relaxing visit to the bathroom.

Update on Hedge Fund Billionaire Crispin Odey’s $250,000 Chicken Coop

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British hedge fund billionaire Crispin Odey has done for chicken coops what Laibach does for popular music. That is to say, take a simple form and do it up in grand dictator style.

Odey’s coop also managed to exceed Marie Antoinette’s fake farm in the questionable timing department. He got a lot of bad press for beginning his $250,000 marble chicken coop in the midst of an economic downturn. An article in the New York Times, A Hedge Fund Highflier Comes Back to Earth, indicates that Odey has had to do some damage control,

Never one to sit still, he is also repositioning his poultry palace, which he said had “morphed into a library.” So what is the deal with the coop anyway?

“For me it’s more of a folly than a chicken house,” he said, referring to the ornamental buildings that adorn some of the grand English estates of past centuries.

He gamely showed photos of the nearly completed structure on his iPhone. “Once I started thinking about what I wanted to have there, it was a Schinkelian temple.” Karl Friedrich Schinkel, he explained, was the architect who worked for the Prussian royal family, “and built almost all of that stuff you come across in Brandenburg and in Berlin.”

Mr. Odey pointed to a relief visible along one wall. “I have the chickens and egg having the age-old fight of who came first,” he smiled. “It’s carved in stone,” and there will be a Latin inscription, “Quis primus venit?”

Meaning?

“Meaning, ‘Who came first?’ ”

So is it a chicken coop and a library? Perhaps Odey is familiar with the poultry housing described in Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura. In this early Roman agriculture manual Cato details a live-in chicken coop that provides housing for a worker who collects the eggs and keeps predators away. Maybe he can read Cato while admiring his hens. Just look out for those peasants with pitchforks . . .

Bees Like Mochi

This viral video proves two things:

1. Bees like sugar.

2. Foraging bees aren’t likely to sting.

And I love the way this street vendor keeps on working. If this were the US, there’d be a major freak out, the fire and health departments would be called and an exterminator would show up to spray poison. If you keep calm and carry on you get your mochi and the bees get a free lunch.

Thanks to Winnetka Farms for the tip. 

The Sound of a Queen Bee

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Image: Wikipedia.

I have  a friend who wanted bees so when I got a call late in the afternoon on Sunday that there was a swarm in a tree nearby I threw my equipment in the car and headed over.

The swarm was about twelve feet up in a pineapple guava tree. I trimmed a few branches, stuck a nuc box (a kind of temporary hive box made out of cardboard) under the swarm and bumped on the branch.

I knew I had the queen when I noticed a group of workers fanning their wings on the outside of the nuc box. Fanning creates a cloud of scent that lets the other workers know where the hive is located. The other reasons I knew the queen was in the box was more interesting.

When I set the nuc box down on a wooden deck I heard a sound I’ve never heard before: what I think was the sound of a queen bee “piping.” The sound is the queen announcing herself to any potential rivals–sometimes there is more than one queen in a swarm–the other queen, if there is one, will respond in kind and fight it out to the death.

It’s hard to describe how awe inspiring it is to be in the midst of a swarm. To hear the queen made this rescue effort an experience I’ll never forget.

What is that black and orange bug in my garden?

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The suggestions on a recent “what’s this bug? post on this blog made me realize how hard it was to tell apart several common garden bugs: the harlequin bug, the bagrada bug, the milkweed bug and the boxelder bug. They are all flattish, orange/red and black, under an inch long, and seem to always be mating.

After doing the research, I really wanted to see all the bugs side by side, so I made this picture and this simple reference chart. It is now my gift to you. You are welcome.

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