Enjoying the Night Sounds

The country has its own set of unique night sounds. Unlike the city, where the sounds of traffic and people talking in whispered tones are pretty much mundane and expected, country sounds vary night-by-night. In fact, the noise of scurrying, shrieking, chirping, and trilling all add to the appeal of a night in the country. Of course, everyone knows about the crickets, but I assure you that the country has much more to offer than that.

The night before last, we hear the songs of coyotes. Some people get this picture of Wile-E-Coyote, super genius, and that’s not even close to what a real coyote is like. Even though they have been known to kill farm animals, we’ve never actually had a problem with coyotes. It’s far more likely that a raccoon, fox, or weasel will kill our chickens. Coyotes yip, howl, and produce a sort of sing-song chaotic sound that’s interesting to hear. We can listen to the coyotes for hours and only become a bit concerned when they get near, which they seldom do.

Sometimes we hear a rabbit’s shriek when a raccoon, fox, or weasel manages to sneak up and get it. The first time you hear the shriek, you wonder what could make such a horrible sound—high-pitched and chilling to the bone. The sound is meant to be piercing and warns other rabbits in the area to get away. A smart predator gets the rabbit without allowing it to make a sound so that it can get other rabbits in the same evening. When we hear the shriek, we know that it’s an unlucky hunter, or perhaps a young one.

Last night, we heard an entirely new sound. Never before have we heard the mating calls of owls. Yes, we’ve heard the terror inducing scream of the screech owl or the harmonious hoot of a barn owl, but never a mating call. It took a while for me to realize what I was hearing. The male started things off with a quick repertoire of hoots that sounded more like Morse code than an owl—dot-dot-dot-dash (the number 4). As the sound got closer, I heard a female reply with a more standard (and less frantic) set of hoots. However, even the female provided hoots in sets, rather than singularly as is usual. The two kept hooting at each other until I could hear that the loudness of the hoots was the same, then the couple flew off to parts unknown.

Our woods are packed with wildlife, much of which comes out to play at dusk. The night sounds tell us that the woods that seem devoid of much life during the day really do have a considerable host occupying them. All these sounds of life keep us entertained and some make us wary. There are times when our dogs warn us of intrusions we must investigate carefully. The night is when our world comes alive with life of all sorts. What kinds of sounds do you hear in the night? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Keeping Your Animals Healthy in Hot Weather

It’s incredibly important to keep your animals cool in hot weather. Just as you need to keep your cool, animals need to keep cool too. The same sorts of heat-related problems that affect you, affect your animals. However, there is one important difference. Unlike you, your animals have no way to communicate that they’re hot. Sometimes people misread the signs until the animal dies, which is incredibly sad.

You might think that air conditioning would solve all of your problems. However, I’ve noted that some animals, like some people, don’t do all that well in air conditioning. So, besides being incredibly expensive, you could end up doing your animals more harm than good. There are better options for keeping your animals cool.

Water, lots of it, is an essential element in keeping your animals cool. The water should be kept fresh at all times, which means changing the water three or four times a day for most animals. It helps to put the water in some sort of bucket, instead of a water bottle. Yes, the bottle does keep the water cleaner, but the animal can’t access the water when you put it in a bottle. Think about your methods of keeping cool. When you want to stay cool, just drinking water doesn’t do enough most of the time, you want to put a little on your body too. Animals like to have water for more than just their drinking needs too.

Cats seem to be the least affected by heat in our experience. You need to allow them a cool place and lots of water. Don’t be surprised if you find the cat lying in the bathtub, on the shower floor, on your tiles, or anywhere else there is a smooth cool surface. Placing the water near this surface means the cat expends less energy finding something to drink. Cats will overheat rather than splash water on themselves. Sometimes you need to give them a helping hand (hoping that they don’t scratch too much in the return). Cats prefer cool, not cold, water. Running water (as in one of those bubbler bowls) is better than stagnant water.

Dogs seem to like a bit of a breeze and copious quantities of water. Sometimes our dogs will lie right in front of a fan in order to grab some breeze. Many dogs also love ice. We’ll put ice in their water bowls to get the water ice cold. Our border collie is especially adept at grabbing ice cubes and grinding them up. A big issue is keeping your dogs quiet in hot weather. A dog will hurt itself, rather than disappoint master. Master needs to understand that and keep the dog as quiet as possible. Misting your dog does seem to help. In fact, I don’t know of many dogs who don’t enjoy getting completely wet during hot weather (try one of the many dog pools available on the market). Some dogs don’t do well in air condition. I know that our beagle gets a sinus condition from the air conditioner.

Rabbits do well in air conditioning for the most part and we’ll bring our most vulnerable rabbits inside during especially hot weather. Bucks need the cooling more than the does do (a buck can become sterile if he gets too hot). Younger rabbits need cooling more than older rabbits. It’s essential that you not keep rabbits together during extreme heat. For some odd reason, they’ll pile on top of each other—hastening the inevitable. We’ve tried freezing drink bottles (mostly full of water with a little air gap at the top) and placing them in the cages. It works quite well. The rabbits will lie next to the bottles and use them for cooling. Expect to go through a number of these bottles. The rabbits also seem to delight in chewing holes in the bottles.

Chickens apparently don’t sweat. They actually fan out the feathers to allow for cooling and will pant much like a dog does. We’ve tried misting the chickens with mixed results. However, we have discovered that chickens will cool themselves by wading in cold water, leading me to believe that chickens cool themselves through their feet. Spraying the feet also seems to have a good effect. Once I discovered that chickens hate to get their feathers wet, but delight in cool feet, I was able to redirect the spray from a hose to more effectively cool them. We have also employed fans to help the chickens cool themselves. They’ll sit in front of the fan, feathers fluffed, gathering as much of the breeze as possible. Chickens don’t seem to do well in air conditioning. Chickens do need more fresh, cool, water than most animals do and expect that water to get quite dirty between refills.

The one constant that we’re finding is that eating generates heat. We’re finding that withholding food until the evening hours seems to help every animal we work with to stay cooler. In fact, chickens will often die immediately after a meal when the weather is too hot from a heart attack (a condition known as flip). Wait until evening, when it’s cooler, to feed your animals during the summer and you’ll keep them a lot cooler during the day. As an alternative, try feeding your animal in the extreme morning hours (before the sun rises, if possible). Don’t feed your animal during the hottest hours of the day.

The point is that you must discover how your animals get cool. Each animal will also have personal preferences. Observe your animals closely to ensure it stays cool in a way that works with its body type. Some animals like misting, others don’t. Some can tolerate air conditioning, others can’t. Water is always a primary ingredient to keeping your animals cool and making that water accessible is incredibly important. The number one thing we’ve found out though is that animals will also try to tell you in a non-vocal manner when it doesn’t like the manner of cooling you’ve chosen. Find something that works. Let me know about your experiences with animal cooling at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Building a Brooder Box/Rabbit Cage Combination

It’s important to provide any animals you care for with comfortable surroundings. In past years we always placed our chicks in cardboard boxes and then recycled the cardboard box when we placed the young chickens in chicken tractors (see the Getting Started with Chickens post for details). There are a number of problems with using a cardboard box for your chicks:


  • The box sits on the floor so the chicks are exposed to some level of cold.
  • The box traps moisture, making it hard to keep the chicks completely dry.
  • Chicks can become crowded as they grow.
  • Keeping the box clean is difficult because the cardboard isn’t very tough.
  • Chicks can escape when they peck through the side of the box.

With this in mind, I decided to build a brooder box this year. I wanted a permanent place to grow our chicks that would be easy to keep clean, provide a dry environment, and keep the chicks secure so nothing would eat them. The box also needed to provide plenty of space. The only problem is that a box used strictly to raise chicks would sit idle for most of the year. Normally, the chicks stay in the cardboard box between four and six weeks, so building a brooder box just for that purpose would be a waste of time.

I got the idea to build a combination box. Our rabbits are normally weened from their mothers about the same time as the chicks go to the chicken tractors. So, I created a combination box—one that would support both chicks and rabbits so that the box would remain in use for most of the year. With this in mind, the bottom of the box would have to use hardware cloth so that the rabbit droppings would drop through. When the box is used for chicks, a plywood insert provides a solid bottom that is easy to clean. So, I build a 4′ × 8′ bottom.


Notice how the 2 × 4’s are put together. They act as runners to make the cage easy to move around, yet provide stability. I had thought about putting the cage on wheels, but adding wheels would have been expensive and would have kept the cage too far off the ground for the rabbits to grab grass that pokes up through the bottom. In addition, given that we have no flat ground on our property, the cage would have a tendency to move around on its own. The bottom is covered with 1/4″ hardware cloth that I salvaged from the chicken coop some friends helped me tear down (see the Starting a Chicken Coop post for details). Keeping the bottom this high also keeps the chicks warmer because they aren’t feeling the effects of the cold floor. Any dampness also goes through the hardware cloth to drain off away from the chicks.

The sides are built using 2 × 4’s and are covered with 1″ × 2″ hardware cloth. I chose to make the sides 30″ high to ensure that the chicks couldn’t fly out too easily without having to cover them too early. In addition, the high sides would keep drafts off of the chicks during their early development. The high sides also make it less likely that predators will easily access the rabbits we put into the cage later.


Once I had all four sides put onto the cage, I started creating the inserts. Young chicks are incredibly susceptible to drafts. You have to keep them warm. In addition, the young chicks would actually do better in a smaller space. So, I added the 1/2″ plywood floor first, and then created four inserts for the sides so that the chicks would start with a 4′ × 4′ area like this:


After the chicks grow large enough that they no longer need the heat lamps, we can remove the four inserts and let them roam around in the full 4′ × 8′ cage.


The box is large enough that I can simply shovel out the newspaper once it’s no longer useful and put in new. The birds remain completely dry and their environment lets them get plenty of exercise. We keep about half the cage in sunlight during the morning hours so that the birds can choose to bask in the sun or relax in the shade.

An interesting thing happened with this new brooder box. Our chicks grew significantly faster and didn’t even go through the usual “ugly” stage as their feathers came in. The new brooder box has performed well beyond expectations and we expect to get many useful years out of it.

My next post will show how the cage is used for rabbits. It’ll have a removable roof in place and the plywood floor will be gone. In the meantime, let know if you have any questions about the chick (brooder box) configuration of the cage at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Easter Bunnies (Part 2)

You may remember my previous post about Easter Bunnies. At that point, they were hairless and barely recognizable as rabbits. Since that time, our Easter bunnies have continued to grow. After about three weeks the little rabbits will begin jumping out of the nest box. We call them “poppers” at that point. From that point on, the babies begin eating food on their own. It takes between 1 and 1½ months for the doe to ween the babies. At that point, the babies are more or less independent, but still spend plenty of time with mom (who continues to groom them).

The babies are a little over 2 months old now. Mom will remain with the babies for another week or so, and then we’ll remove her. We’ll keep the babies together because they’re used to being together. Keeping the babies together for now will reduce stress. Here’s how the babies look now:


Yes, it’s pretty amazing to see how fast they grow. There are six babies in here. We’ll separate them according to sex once they get a little bigger and put them in separate cages.

Some people wonder why we use such heavy cages. The rabbits are kept outside so they get fresh air and sunshine. (The nest box in the back of the cage is big enough to accommodate all of them in bad weather.) Because the rabbits are outside to be in a healthy environment, they’re at risk from predators. The other day we came home to find two dogs after the rabbits. So, the heavy cages aren’t there to keep the rabbits in, but to keep the predators out. You don’t want you bunnies eaten by any of the huge number of predators that feast on them, so it’s important to build sturdy cages well off the ground.

I’ve had a few people ask what we feed our rabbits. They do get rabbit pellets as one of their main dietary items. However, in addition to the rabbit pellets, we feed them garden scraps, grass hay (grass that we’ve let grow a little long and then raked up), corn (to help them keep their teeth ground down and to provide needed fat), oats (to provide needed fiber), and sticks from our apple and pear trees (a treat that also helps keep their teeth ground down). Each of the cages also has a salt block with minerals (the red blocksnot the solid white ones). We make sure that the rabbits also have clean water (they tend to dirty it by sitting in it at times).

The picture doesn’t show it, but bottom of the cage uses a much smaller mesh (½” × ½”). Otherwise, the rabbits would quickly become footsore and could get infections from cuts. The mesh allows fecal matter to pass through. We wash the cages regularly to keep them clean.


Easter Bunnies

Spring heralds many things at our homestead. Of course, you’ve already seen the flowers, Early Spring – The Garden and Orchard, and budding trees. Today’s post is about our Easter bunnies. Because they require so little space, we raise rabbits. Each spring the does are bred and usually have their babies around spring. The gestation period for a rabbit is between 28 and 35 days, with 31 days being the average. We’ve found that our rabbits will often time the birth for a warmer dayjust how they know is a mystery to us, but the weatherman could probably take a few clues from them. The first clue we have that the does are about to have babies is that the does start pulling hair and fluffing it up in their nest box like this:


The doe usually has her babies within 24 hours of pulling her hair, but I’ve seen it take a little longer. We normally watch the nest box carefully after the hair pulling to try to determine when the babies are born. We’re extremely careful not to disturb the babies at all for several days after the birth. After that, we gently pull away a little of the hair using a stick (human scent will keep the mother from taking care of her babies). Here are the two day old babies of Rocky Raccoon (she has raccoon markings on her face):


These babies were quite active and healthy, so they were a little hard to catch with the camera, but you can see them under all that hair. We were quite careful not to touch them or anything in the nest box. Afterward, we carefully covered them back up because they can take a chill pretty easily at this point.

Whether we get a look at all depends on mother bunny. If she looks at all concerned, we leave the babies completely alone. Some mothers will thump to show their displeasure at our peeping. Normally, they’ll let us take a look a bit later, usually within a few days. Happy Easter from the farm!