Welcome back to Magnetic North where the gales of November seem to be giving us a break, at least for the moment. Fifty degrees due this weekend and the cattails around the pond have barely begun to pop.
But I’d know we are just weeks away from Thanksgiving even if it was as balmy as a summer’s day. All I have to do is look in my chicken coop. There I find walking, squawking calendars on legs. And let me tell you, in late fall my chicken coop is NOT a pretty sight.
For those of you who have never seen a hen in molt, count yourself blessed. I’m talking the human equivalent of fright wig hat hair with a touch of baldness and really bad eczema thrown in. It’s sad. Especially since - even though there are no mirrors in the coop - the hens seem to KNOW how really, truly awful they look.
They hang about inside on sunny days stuffing their beaks with scratch, also known as chicken candy. They artfully avoid the rooster’s clutches, leaving him to crow piteously well past sundown. And most tellingly of all, they quit laying eggs.
Now I know books tell us that molting hens don’t lay because they need to grow more feathers, and making both eggs and plumage is just too big a workload. That’s only part of the problem. My girls are mortified, not to mention chilly. Who among us could possibly produce an egg feeling like that?
The good news is that round about the holidays, just when I string up the Christmas lights on the coop window, the laying boxes will once again be cluttered with pretty brown eggs.
And those fully feathered-out white and black and rusty-gold galleons will sail about the chicken run - proud and perky again.
Sad to say, that will be the very time when we’ll expect to say goodbye to the mallard flock we’ve raised this year. Not that the ducks ever really come quacking at the door before they take flight and leave for the winter. For forever, really.
“That’s the kind of critter I like,” my husband, Paul, is fond of saying. “You give them a good start and they take off.” He just won’t admit how much he misses those daily walks to the pond to feed our little flock of 10.
This year we have a perfect pairing. Five drakes, the males, and five ducks, the females. Weird isn't it, how only the female of the species is called a duck. That would be like if only the females of our species were called humans. Hmmmmm. Now THAT’s something to mull over.
But back to the mallards. Signs of their imminent departure started popping up in October. The birds began testing their wings, flying just above the surface of the pond water from the inlet to the spillway. Next they’ll start venturing out over the browned meadow grasses. Making ever widening loops back to their safe haven among the cattails and duckweed lining the little pond.
For it’s there they’ve learned to evade the eagle and the fox. And there they’ve met the passing migrants, older mallards from faraway lands. As the pond ice forms and the young birds’ wings strengthen, the primal urge to follow these seasoned travelers becomes irresistible. And so, even if we faithfully set out the food, one day all 10 will be gone.
And that’s a good thing. Mallards are not domestic fowl, like chickens. They are wild creatures. I never give them names, never try to pet or tame them. Of all MY critters, these wild beauties are the least MINE.
But I’ll miss them even so. Their insistent quacking reminding us to “hurry up with that chow!” Their physical beauty. Is there any bird more striking than a drake mallard with that bottle-green head? And their antics, bottoms up as they cull the ponds depths for muddy morsels. That stuff I’ll miss.
Paul doesn’t admit to such soft, squishy sentiments. He always says, “Ten less beaks to feed,” then seeing my distress, “But I’ll bet some of them come back to nest next year.” So like a rooster. I mean, a guy.