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by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Treaties with wildlife

Halloween, no matter what the publicists who litter my email inbox with improbable information say, is not around the corner.

I know this, because there are no pumpkins in the field yet. And if the hungry deer get their way, there will be no pumpkins at all, except for whatever grows on the volunteer vines climbing over the compost piles and the garden edges.

The solar charger that fires the electric fence around the pumpkin patch is working poorly because of the dry weather (dry soil requires multiple grounds, apparently more than we put in) and the deer do not seem to respect a fence with little or no charge.

Frankly, we think the deer should show a little more respect. It’s not like we haven’t been feeding them for years. The ox respects his electric fence, whether it’s plugged in or not, but maybe oxen are more apt to listen to reason than deer are.

There seems to be a healthy crop of deer this year. In fact, there seems to be a healthy crop of all sorts of wildlife this year: rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, songbirds, squash bugs, hawks. Often we are faced with balancing our love of living in a wild place, where we can watch the wild animals, with the practical need to keep them out of our cultivated places.

We make rules for the animals, but they don’t always follow them. Chickens are totally off limits, we tell the foxes and coyotes, who are supposed to understand that they should live off mice and chipmunks. The squirrels can share the birdseed, but I’d rather not have them sharing the chicken food in the coop. The deer are welcome to nibble bushes and weeds at the edge of the woods, but they are supposed to stay out of the gardens.

Squash bugs? I see no earthly use for them, and refuse to strike any bargains. When I find them — big, flat and gray — I crush them. If there are a lot, I knock them off the zucchini leaves and into buckets of soapy water, the same killing technique we use for potato bugs.

A couple of sharp-shinned hawks showed up last week, where the chicken yard meets the woods. These are small hawks that prefer dense woods. They also like songbirds, and sometimes they’ll venture out of the woods to hang out near a bird feeder. (If that happens in your yard, the easiest way to discourage carnage of the birds you are supporting is to take the feeder down for a week or two. The hawks will find somewhere else to do lunch, and your birds will come back when you put the feeder back.)

When I first noticed the hawks, I was intrigued. They flew from the woods into the tallest pines behind the ox shed, where I could hear them — a shrill, squeaky cry — but barely see them. “You can eat voles and chipmunks,” I told them. “Don’t touch my chickens.”

My husband says he’s seen them catching voles and swears they are showing off for the cat, who seems to be on vacation from his vermin-catching job. And sharp-shinned hawks are really too small to catch chickens. Full-grown chickens, anyway.

But last week our most maternal hen, a redheaded half-wild banty, hatched out eight or nine chicks. Most are light-colored, which makes them easier targets for hawks and owls, and the presence of our sharp-shinned friends made us nervous. So we sent the kids out to catch the banty and her babies, and to make them a nest in an old stock tank in the bay of the barn. Some old fencing made a safety roof, and hopefully the hen can raise her brood undisturbed. Sometimes treaties are not enough.

As for the foxes, we’ve reached a detente in recent years and haven’t lost chickens to them. The dogs keep the chipmunks and squirrels out of the chicken coop, usually.

The deer? There must be a new crop this year who don’t speak English. They refuse to listen to reason.

Which means we need more rain. Rain will not only help the tiny pumpkins the deer have missed grow big by Halloween, it will also add enough moisture to the ground to make the solar charger work again, keeping those deer out of the pumpkin patch.

Last week someone stopped over to let us know she’ll be looking for a few hundred pumpkins by Halloween.

My son, who cannot yet see the coming of the new school year, can’t imagine anyone thinking about Halloween. “Does she think pumpkins are in season?” he asked, stunned.

“She’s just planning,” my husband explained. “She might have to look around to get enough.”

I had a better explanation, one I got from those publicists. “Halloween is just around the corner,” I said.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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