Animal of the Month : Smew Duck

Female (left) and Male Smew

The Smew is a striking little merganser found primarily in Eurasia (mostly Russia and Scandinavia), though some sightings have placed them in British Columbia, Alaska, and even the state of Washington. These sightings are fairly rare, however. Since no other duck in North America or even Canada looks close to the Smew, getting them mixed up with another species of duck would be impossible. They summer on lakes and slow rivers that are filled with fish. In the winter, they head to more sheltered coastal areas or inland parts of the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and Northern Germany.

During the nesting season, the female Smew looks for a woodpecker hole or other holes in trees, much like a wood duck will here in North America, in which to lay her eggs.

The female has a brown/red head, white throat and white cheek patch. Penciled lines cover her chest. Her mate is a bright white overall with black patches on the face and head, sides, and back. He also has some penciled lines on the sides of the breast and flanks. Both males and females have the signature pointed looking bill of a merganser.

The Smew is a diving duck that eats fish, larvae, and insects. In our aviary here at Lifesprings Farm, a special treat is dried mealworms and the friendly little ducks will almost get underfoot as they wait for their mealworms to be tossed into the water.

The Smew, or Mergus Albellus, is a lively little merganser that is not only beautiful, but is also lively and fun to watch. A bonus is its friendliness.

Babies in the Aviary

We have begun our summer season in the aviary and this year’s hatch is looking good. I thought I would share with you some of the little birds that are growing fast. There are still birds laying, such as the Baikal Teal. Jeff showcases this beautiful duck in his latest YouTube post at: https://youtu.be/37TPgDwgaOg

Mandarin Ducklings

Wood Ducks
Smew Hen with Ducklings
Pheasants and Quail

Visions of Spring Dancing in my Head

Basil

I have visions of spring gardening dancing in my head for real. Today is sunny but cold, only a high of 23o F. Spring doesn’t reach the zone we are in, 4b, until sometime in May. However, the dreaming goes on and with it, semi-plans memorized or put onto paper (or into a computer).

During my dreaming time this morning, I got out two of my favorite pieces of garden helps. The first one is a garden planner that I got from Hoss Tools. What I love about it is that I can easily see the best date to start most plants for transplanting. I tend to start peppers and onions sooner, as they take forever to grow. I am fortunate because we have a greenhouse, albeit a small one. If you don’t have a greenhouse, don’t despair. You can use a sunny windowsill and rotate your plants daily (the plants will try to reach for the sun and will need to be turned so they can grow uniformly and not get leggy).

The planner also has first outdoor planting dates. We get our last frost sometime around the end of May. Most people up here don’t plant frost sensitive stuff until June 1 at the earliest. I am always in a hurry and put seeds in the ground about the 25th of May. Frost doesn’t hurt plants that haven’t emerged from the ground yet. For assurance this year, I have purchased fleece ground cover for the early days. In the past, we have used buckets and blankets to cover plants. The blankets always crushed plants and the buckets worked as long as we remembered to put a rock on each one. One drawback to using the row cover or blankets is that frost can often still make it to the plants if the covering is touching the plants. I wish I had known that when I was younger.

This planner also has companion planting ideas, such as putting pumpkins, melons, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, peas, and beans in the same area. I am planting my friend’s heirloom parsnips (seeds passed down for generations in her family) this spring. I have never grown them before. There is no parsnip setting on the planner, so I will assume they can be treated like carrots. I watched a YouTube video by Charles Dowding on the subject of planting parsnips. I recommend it highly.

Something else that I like to pull out each spring or late winter is This Shumway’s Handy Culture Book and Canning recipes.

I have no idea when this was published!

My dad had a dairy farm in Indiana for years and this was his booklet. He always ordered his garden seeds from Shumway and he swore by that company. When my dad passed into Heaven in 2020, I inherited most of his farm and garden books. I absolutely love the advice this booklet gives. Keeping on the parsnip theme, here’s an example:

The Parsnip requires a rich soil and frequent cultivation. Parsnip seed being slow to germinate it is advisable to mix a little Turnip shaped Radish seed with it before planting. The Radish will be up in a few days, allowing Parsnip to sprout more freely. In small beds lay a flat board over the rows for about a week, this will hold moisture and prevent ground from caking, insuring satisfactory results.

The canning recipes in the back are pretty much in the form of a canning table. I think a lot of the guidelines concerning safe canning have changed a bit over the years. However, it’s still interesting. And speaking of interesting, I think the ads in the booklet give an clue as to how old this booklet really is:

An ad in Shumway’s Handy Culture Book and Canning Recipes

I hope you can get out there and get a garden started this year, whether it is a tiny one or a very large one. And don’t forget to dream.

My Version of Garden Planning

Tomatoes and Sweet Corn Ready to Transplant

At this time of year, every homesteader or prepper seems to be planning their garden. They use charts and other tools to perfectly plan what they want to put in the space(s) that they have along with just where each plant will be.

I’m not that organized. Last year, I put a lot of information on paper. I decided what to plant, where I wanted to plant it, and when to either start it in modules or straight in the ground.

Let me just say, that was *almost* a waste of time. In the end, I did calculate what veggies I wanted in the garden (and in the greenhouse) and I did put on paper the best times to start them, whether as plants to later transplant, or sowing straight into the ground. I just didn’t go as far as getting a lovely diagram of my dream finished.

Keeping the log of what I was growing and when to start, was a good idea. It helped me to not forget something when the actual time came to get growing. I can recall past years when I would remember that I really wanted to plant that new variety of cucumbers but forgot that I had the seeds, or I would forget to get peppers started early enough and by the time the first frost came in the fall, my beautiful pepper plants were already done for before they had even begun producing.

This year, I started to pencil my garden rows on a drawing of my actual garden space to realize that I don’t have room on paper to put everything I want in there. Hmmmm. Funny how that works. In reality, I am about to fill out a chart that tells me what I want to grow this year, which garden in which to put them – raised bed in the outside garden (I only have one so far), in the ground in the outside garden, in grow bags spread around the upper garden or around the greenhouse, or in the greenhouse itself. My greenhouse only has two raised beds in it and given that it’s only about 10 feet long and about 8 feet wide, I must be selective. Usually, I grow tomatoes, shishito peppers, and basil in there.

I always record what I grew and when I started them and then transplanted them. If something did not germinate and/or transplant well, I record that too. I always intend to record what varieties produced well and for how long, but somehow I get too busy and forget. I do, however, remember when I’m planting in the spring that this variety or that one did not do well in previous years.

I hope you have your seeds ready to go this year and are as eager as I am to get started. Gardening is my passion and it often keeps me sane. I’m praying for a good year, but who knows? We don’t have control of the weather. We do have control over our attitudes and our willingness to work hard. This week I’m going to plant some peppers and onions in modules and keep them warm in the house. Later, as they emerge and the greenhouse warms up a little more, I will move those plant starts out there. I will, at that time, begin other starts with a late May/early June planting time in my mind’s eye. Will I succeed? I don’t know but I plan to give it my best shot.

Wishing you the best with your gardening this year.

Animal of the Month – Tufted Duck

Tufted Duck

The Tufted Duck is a Eurasian duck that , in the winter months, is usually found across Asia, Europe, and Africa. It is a diving duck that will sometimes reach the eastern and western coasts of North America during the fall and winter migrating season, but this is lesser common. During the breeding season, they will go as far as Siberia and Iceland.

Tufted Ducks are somewhat smaller than mallards and the males are solid black with white sides. They also have a “tuft” on the back of their heads. Females are brown with a bit of white on their bellies. They might have a “tuft” as well, but can also have none. Their legs and feet are black as are their broad bills. Tufted ducks are sometimes confused with Ring-necked Ducks and scaups. They sometimes interbreed with Greater Scaups, which can be confusing for those trying to identify them.

We have found the Tufted a great species to raise in an aviary. Diving is their second nature, so they require ponds or pools that give them ample opportunity to dip under the water. They are not aggressive and get along well with other species. Of course, we do not have the small shellfish and crustaceans that these ducks so enjoy in the wild, but we have found that they will eat mealworms and duck pellets.

Birdwatch Ireland has a nice website with basic information but especially nice photographs, as does Animalia.

New Season – Swap Meets for 2021

We are happy to say that we will be at the following swap meets this fall of 2021:

September 11, 2021 – Montrose Orchard, 12473 Seymour Road, Montrose, MI 48457

September 18, 2021 – Shipshewana Trading Place, 260-768-4129

October 9, 2021Kent County Youth Fairgrounds, 225 South Hudson St., Lowell, MI 49331

October 16, 2021 – Shipshewana Trading Place, 260-768-4129

We will have many different birds at the swap meets – please be sure to visit our For Sale page to see updated prices.

Animal of the Month – Canvasback Duck

Canvasback Duck

The Canvasback Duck is a relatively large diving duck that is successfully raised in private collections, though its natural habitat is lakes and marsh areas across North America. In the winter, they migrate to the coastal shores and some inland lakes that do not freeze over. In the summer, they can migrate as far north as the Tundra.

Canvasbacks are diving ducks, so they dive in shallow water to feed on the bottom. Their diet consists mainly of vegetation such as plant tubers and seeds, as well as pondweeds, wild lettuces, and wild celery. On occasion, they will also eat mollusks, insects, and small fish.

Here at Lifesprings Farm and Aviary, we have found that they love it when we throw dried mealworms into the water for them to retrieve.

Identifying Canvasbacks is fairly easy, though they do resemble a Redhead Duck. Canvasback Duck females are a pale brown and gray, and have dark eyes. Breeding males, however, have white bodies with black on the chest and the rump. Their heads are a chestnut color and their eyes are red.

According to The Cornell Lab, their size is somewhere between a crow and a goose. They can weigh anywhere from 30.4 oz to 56 oz. Not only do they look similar to a Redhead, but they are nearly the same size, with Redheads being slightly smaller.

This summer in our aviary, we have hatched and are raising some Canvasback ducklings that we will have available for sale later in the season. They are a fun bird to watch dive and play on the water. Keep watching for further updates on the sale pages.

Of Farm Animals, Compost, and the Results of it All

Composting makes all the difference in my garden. This year, we used well rotted goat/sheep/chicken/rabbit manure and bedding as well as green wastes from the kitchen for the majority of our homemade compost. Other items we tossed in from time to time included paper, coffee grounds and untreated coffee filters, wood chips, weeds pulled from the garden, etc. The compost then sat for almost a year before we decided we really should use it.

In the photo above, you can clearly see where the compost is already thrown down and where it has not. Since putting this down, we did brush the compost off of the leaves of the cabbages and broccoli that you see in the picture. A good watering came next. We are in no way done with laying down the massive amount of compost we accumulated over the year (it’s actually been very hot here so it’s been slow going), but we will get there. We collected the waste material used in making the compost by a large round area fenced in with chicken wire. We would just fork it all in there and let it be. No, we did not turn over the compost regularly – or even at all.

Dorper Sheep

Animals, such as sheep and goats, provide manure that is great for composting and then for use in the garden. Chickens and rabbits do too. However, the only manure you want to use straight off without allowing to break down well would be rabbit. Chicken manure is very hot and will scorch your plants if not allowed time to really compost well. We do not have horses so we have no experience with their manure, but we have used well-composted cow manure in our raised beds (mostly in the greenhouse). Cow manure can be too high in nitrogen for some plants. If using composted cow manure, you should probably add a little wood ash to balance it out.

Animals on a homestead are essential to the entire ecosystem. Without them, the land would have to rely on chemicals created in labs to fertilize and put nutrients back in the ground. Erosion would occur and people would suffer with poor nutrition as well as famine. I recommend watching the documentary “Biggest Little Farm”. It’s entertaining but oh so informing and inspiring.

This year, our summer has been busy. We have hatched out more pheasants, ducks, chickens, and quail than in the past few years. The Lady Amherst pheasants did not lay for the second year in a row, but the Golden pheasants and the Silver pheasants did well. We hope to see some of you at the swap meets in Shipshewana, Indiana and those across Michigan this season.

Incubation – When to Incubate Eggs and When to Leave it to the Birds

Incubating Chicken Eggs for a Trial Run

At Life-Springs-Farm & Aviary, we have fired up our incubator for a trial run. Every spring about this time, we thoroughly clean and disinfect our incubator and hatcher using a reliable disinfecting spray made for incubators. Once that is done, it’s time fire them up and make sure they come up to, and stay at, the correct temperatures (roughly 99o F). Also, humidity needs to be kept at 55%. For the humidity control, we use only distilled water in our machines. Our incubator automatically turns the eggs so we don’t have to do this by hand. If your machine does not do so, you will have to turn them yourself at least four times a day. Another rule of thumb is to candle the eggs (put a candler or flashlight against the egg to see inside, sort of like an egg ultrasound but with light) when the time is getting close to be sure that the eggs are viable and not rotten.

Our trial run is done with chicken eggs – we raise Buttercups (a type of Leghorn) and Speckled Sussex. Chicken eggs hatch out in roughly twenty-one days. Once they are “pipped” – that moment when the chick is beginning to hatch, we move the eggs to the hatcher. Any baby bird must go through a drying off period before being placed in a brooder. After a day or so in the hatcher, they go into the brooder with chick feed, clean water, and a heat lamp (we use infra-red bulbs which discourage picking at each other).

The main use for our incubator is to hatch out pheasant eggs, as the mothers are not the best at sitting. These take about twenty-three days to hatch. The humidity should be about 51% and the temperature 99o F. Some breeds might take a day or two more and others a day or two less. Again, once the egg is pipped, it is moved to the hatcher. We have put pheasant chicks in the brooder with chicken babies because the chickens help the pheasants learn to eat.

Duck Nesting Boxes

The ducks we raise – wild species such as Wood Ducks – are allowed to stay in the nests until they hatch, as they do best with the mothers sitting. At that time, we must be on top of our game to get them out of the nest (wait until they are dry but haven’t jumped out of the nest box) and take them to a brooder. Once the babies jump out of the nests, they are very difficult to catch and can actually slip out of the netted sides of the aviary.

If you want to learn how to hatch domestic species duck eggs, Cornell University has a great website at: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/animal-health-diagnostic-center/programs/duck-research-lab/hatching-duck-eggs.

Last week, we had a number of baby Wood Ducks hatch. They are now in the wet brooder (a brooder with a heat lamp, dry area, and small swimming area) and doing well. If the weather is decent for us up here in the cold north, we should have a great year hatching and raising ducks, pheasants, and quail. For those of you hatching out your own broods, we wish you the best for a productive season.

Animal of the Month – The Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck

The Mandarin is a bright and colorful wood duck from Asia, primarily China and Japan, but they are also found in Siberia and North and South Korea. They are Asia’s counterpart to our North American Wood Duck. Easy to raise in captivity, the Mandarin is a duck that is becoming more and more in demand by collectors.

The male Mandarin Duck is easy to identify, as his plumage is a bright orange, purple, blue, with patches of black, green, and white. The female Mandarin is actually a bit larger than the male and is brown, gray, and white. She looks very similar to the North American Wood Duck female. Males will “plump” themselves up during mating season in order to become more attractive to the females.

Mandarins nest in hollow trees and will use nest boxes if they are provided. They lay about 10 eggs on average. Their natural habitat is found in marshes in or near wooded areas. Once their babies hatch, they drop out of the nests and begin swimming.

Mandarin Ducks are omnivores and they love mealworms and small fish. They also love seeds, greens, and grains, making it pretty easy to keep them in an aviary. As long as they have food, clean water, and suitable nesting, they will be happy.

We did not get a good hatch last year due to an unexpected late freeze which affected the eggs. The 2021 season looks promising right now, but be sure to keep your eye on our sale pages in the days ahead.

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