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Up until last year, my horse riding experience had been minimal and sporadic. I had been on several trail rides as a child and attended “horse camp” for two weeks when I was 12 years old. As an adult, I had been trail riding perhaps a handful of times, and I had previously tried a few lessons at a nearby stable. My minimal exposure was enough for me to learn that I enjoyed riding and would like to spend more time doing it on a regular basis.

The opportunity for me to take up riding presented itself last January when a friend suggested a package tour of Scotland in the Fall. While the tour wasn’t strictly about horse riding, the itinerary listed it in the activity options several times. And so my new goal was formed: become a proficient rider by October.

I had some knowledge of what to expect by looking at the websites of the stables mentioned in the tour materials. All except for one noted that riding was done in English tack. (The exception also offered English, but noted that it was the only stable in Scotland offering Western riding, too.) While all of my trail riding had been done in Western tack, I had really liked riding in English tack during my horse camp experience and I had used it during my limited experience with lessons, too.

Finding a local stable that teaches riding in English tack isn’t very difficult in the Chicago area. Hunter/Jumper and Dressage instruction are all done in English-style tack and all of the stables I was finding in the area that offered lessons offered instruction in them. However, I knew that if I had to drive an hour or more in each direction for lessons I would not be likely to enjoy them or keep them up. That helped me narrow down my choices to two stables that were in fairly close proximity to my home.

I had actually taken some lessons at one of those two stables about five years ago. Back then I had a loosely formed goal of learning to ride so I could incorporate it into a vacation, too. However, I couldn’t commit to a time frame for my goal since there was too much in flux in my life at the time. (I was getting divorced and needed to get used to living on a single income.) I also was not enjoying the lessons at that stable. While I had inquired about lessons at the other stable, I had been told they weren’t taking any new students at the time, so I dropped my lessons and went on with my life.

Because of the Scotland vacation, the opportunity to take up riding had presented itself again and this time I was ready to pursue my goal. I knew that I had room in my budget, and the ability to commit the time needed for lessons.

First, I thought I’d ask for some recommendations and feedback on my goals and how to reach them from other riders. There are message boards on the Internet for everything, but I found it intimidating to wade into the forum because I just wasn’t sure where to post my questions. So I directed my questions to a blog I read where there had been some mention about horse riding in past entries and comments. That was a big help and confidence booster for me to move forward with my plan.

Next, I visited the stable where I was considering taking lessons. It was not the one where I had previously lessoned, but the one that had told me five years ago they couldn’t take me on as a student. I went on a week-day before lunch, hoping it would be less busy so I could chat with the people working there and I could look the place over. Happily, I found the receptionist very welcoming and was told they could offer me lessons. I was encouraged to walk through the stable and watch a lesson in progress, as well as given some advice on where to purchase equipment, too.

Before I went to my first lesson I purchased the basic equipment: a riding helmet, a pair of riding boots, gloves, and breeches. There are many options for boots, gloves, and pants so I tried on several types of each. All riding boots should have a small heel to help keep your feet from slipping back through the stirrup, and a non-rugged sole (which could catch in the stirrup and keep your feet from sliding free easily). I ended up purchasing paddock boots, which are short boots that stop just above the ankle.

While they were pricier than I had planned, I purchased a pair of microcord breeches/riding tights because they allowed ease of movement, were well-fitting, yet they didn’t chafe.  They not only perform very well for riding they look good on me, so I don’t feel weird when I run errands before or after riding. (Although, I sometimes worry that the hair and odor that clings to me after riding may be a bit off-putting!)

A riding helmet is an absolute necessity. While it’s possible to show up at a stable for your first lesson wearing whatever pants you want and less than ideal shoes, you must have a helmet on your head before getting on the horse. The stable where I ride does have helmets available for loan during lessons, but I wanted to buy my own so I knew that I had a helmet that fit me perfectly and was comfortable. The sales person helping me at the tack store recommended I get a ventilated helmet, and she was definitely spot on. During the summer months, I could get very hot while riding even with the ventilated helmet.

For the first two months I took two 30-minute lessons a week. I started to really see improvements when I added a third weekly lesson. I’m not the quickest kinesthetic learner. For me to learn a new physical activity, I have to be able to break it down and work it slowly and repeatedly. Three times a week seemed to be the minimum I needed to improve my posture and my conditioning.

I did make my goal of becoming a proficient enough rider for my trip to Scotland. And I’m continuing to ride three times a week while I’m figuring out my next riding goal.

Dress in layers. Lots and lots of layers.

To go to the office today, I add a pair of wool tights under my slacks, and put on my warmest sweater (the one with both wool *and* Angora in the yarn) over a turtleneck. (Turtlenecks were very popular at the office today.) Over my tights, I put on a pair of thick wool hiking socks just for the commute. Before going outside, I add the outer layers: a wool/cashmere blend cowl pulled up over my mouth, 3/4 length down coat, shearling hunter’s hat with ear flaps down, and a pair of thrummed mittens. (If you’re allergic to warm animal fibers like wool, alpaca, and Angora, I feel very sorry for you.) Pull up your hood if you have one; you want to block out as much blowing cold air and snow as possible, but also be careful when walking with your hood up as it limits your peripheral vision. (And as a driver, be aware that people bundled up so much have issues seeing you, so slow down!)

Wear sturdy, water-resistant boots that cover your leg to mid-calf (at least).

Unless you are a small child and can be carried around, you will need to deal with this when you encounter it.

Slushy street

A minor bit of street slush.

Not all taxis or cars pull up flush with the curb. If you’re taking public transit or spend any time at all walking anywhere, you will undoubtedly ruin your expensive fashion boots in a month. Forget Uggs (or Ugg-like footwear) and dressy “riding boots.” Think Bogs, Kamik, or Sorel. Tuck your pants into your boots so they don’t get wet and salt stained. Stand back from the curb when there is a pool of slushy water near it. Passing cars and buses have been known to splash that junk over the lower portions of pedestrians who are standing close to it.

In the neighborhoods, beware the sidewalks.

Some property owners are jerks and don’t ever shovel their walks. (Yes, it is the law but there is no enforcement of the fines.) Others are not able to shovel early in the day, so you will likely need to slog through snow on your morning commute. Even attentive shovelers can’t always keep the sidewalk clean enough that it doesn’t have the occasional icy patch. Freshly fallen snow over ice can lead to some really ugly consequences, so learn to shorten your stride and distribute your weight more evenly over each step. In other words, walk like a duck.

I left the house at 6:30 this morning and only one place had its sidewalk clear at that hour. I mostly walked in the street, despite the traffic. Chicago’s major streets are *always* well attended because we kick people out of office if they don’t keep the streets clean in winter. (Too bad we are inured to corruption and don’t demand more honorable behavior from our politicians, just snow-free streets.)

In the business district, beware the buildings.

It’s uncommon to get hit with ice falling from the tall buildings, but there have been enough incidents that these signs spring up all over the Loop during winter.

Caution falling ice

Litigation deterrent…er, I mean warning sign.

Take enjoyment from simple outdoor activities, like shoveling.

Maybe you are a renter or live in a condo so you think you won’t need to clear snow. If you own a car, though, you will need to shovel at some point. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to have indoor parking. You can still get stuck driving down a side street before it’s been plowed or getting out of your garage into the alley. (The otherwise excellent street plowing crews deal with side streets last, and don’t do alleys at all. Chicago instead lets the garbage trucks “press” the snow down in the alley as they collect trash, which is the closest they come to plowing them.) Or maybe you’re tired of hearing someone spin their wheels helplessly over and over and over again as you’re trying to concentrate on a book or go to sleep, so you throw on your many layers and water-resistant boots, and go out to help. Either way, you may need some ibuprofen and Icy Hot (and perhaps a slug of whisky) at the end of the day.

Learn about “dibs” and be wary of those who tenaciously cling to it.

Yeah, it’s not legal but you don’t want to be the victim of retaliation. This could include getting chased by someone wielding a shovel if you so much as touch the stuff marking a dibs spot. More ominous things like a busted windshield have been known to happen.

Look for the “silver lining” in the weather.

“Six more inches of snow on the way? At least it’s warm enough to snow!” (An actual quote from a friend.)

“Single digits and below zero wind chills? At least it’s sunny!” (A quote from another friend.)

“The temperature is going to be 3 with a wind chill of only -20 tomorrow morning? I can deal with that.” (I said this to B last night.)

“It’s above freezing AND sunny? OMG, it’s a miracle!!” (Or it’s April…possibly both.)

Move to California.

And although it’s not strictly about winter, there are many winter anecdotes on this list.

Eating my way through Scotland

What better day to talk about food than the day after a huge feast? (I hope all my American readers enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving!) eemusings commented on a previous post that she wanted to hear more about the food I ate in Scotland. So it’s time to dish up the details. *hee, hee, hee*

I had one big constraint on my diet: I had to avoid cow milk, cream, and cheese. Way back in my late twenties I had realized that cow milk and cream caused problems for me, but a little lactose replacement usually helped. Unfortunately, earlier this year I found out I have diverticulitis. In the months since that diagnosis, I’ve discovered that eating lots of cow dairy causes enough irritation in my gut that it flares up. So it was important that I avoid cow dairy as much as possible on the trip. (I wasn’t the only person who had dietary constraints on the trip. My roommate and friend A was avoiding most high cholesterol foods like red meat and butter, as well as sugar. And there was a woman in our group that was so deathly allergic to gluten, beef, and eggs that she carried an Epipen.)

Before heading over to Scotland, I read up a bit about what types of foods I may encounter and developed a short “wish list” of things I wanted to try. Unfortunately, my cow dairy issue made it impossible for me to try cullen skink, which was a very popular (and delicious sounding) soup frequently on the starter menu. However, kippers and haggis were at the top of the list. I love oily fish like sardines, mackerel, and even anchovies. I’ve eaten canned kippered herring here, but it was nothing like the  kippers I enjoyed at breakfast many mornings. They were smoky, crispy, salty, and absolutely delicious!

Kipper

One of our tour guides suggested that those of us who liked kippers should also try Arbroath smokies, but the few times I saw them on a menu they had been cooked in milk. :-(

I tried haggis on my first night in Scotland and found it very good, too. Apparently the spices and seasonings used in haggis can vary quite a bit from place to place, and the restaurant where I first tried it used lots of warm spices. The richness of the organ meats and texture of the oats still came through and made it a truly memorable dish. On Isle of Skye I had vegetarian haggis with my breakfast. While still very tasty, the lack of organ meats made the texture and mouthfeel quite different.

I expected the food to cost more than it does here in the States and budgeted accordingly. Also, this was a luxury tour and the hotels where we stayed and dined reflected that. Eating dinner at the same hotel where we were staying was usually the most convenient option because we were in country lodgings and not cities or large towns with lots of restaurants in walking distance. There were a few times that I ventured out via cab to other villages or into town to dine, but often I just ate at the hotel with the group or with A, who usually just wanted to be “in for the night” after a day of activities.

Full breakfast was always included with our lodgings and it was possible to really fill oneself up, too. Typically there would be cold breakfast items on a buffet table available for self-service: pastries, cereal, yogurt, cheese, cold cuts, and fresh or stewed dried fruit. Cooked breakfast items on the menu always included oatmeal porridge, as well as egg dishes such as eggs Benedict (usually with smoked salmon instead of ham/bacon), scrambled eggs, or “full Scottish breakfast.” The latter usually included fried eggs, sausage, bacon, grilled tomato, and black pudding (blood sausage).

As much as I really need protein at breakfast to keep me going, that was way too much heavy meat for me so I never ordered the “traditional” full Scottish breakfast. Bacon in the UK was very different than the bacon in the US. It was much more like ham or the true Canadian bacon I used to get in Toronto.

I usually ordered eggs at breakfast, and my lack of critical questioning of the preparation method led to problems only a few days into the trip. I’ve been making scrambled eggs at home without milk for so long that I forgot that it’s usually standard practice to add it. At the Lake of Menteith Hotel I had been eating scrambled eggs with smoked salmon every morning for breakfast, and I had also knowingly cheated on my no dairy rule one night by eating sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

(But oh my goodness, the gloriousness that is sticky toffee pudding made me want to cheat again and again! The tour organizer also became a big fan of sticky toffee pudding, despite being a self-confessed chocoholic. Although she had traveled to the UK several times, she had never tried this dessert. I was pleased to convert her and vicariously enjoy it through her.)

By the time we arrived at our hotel near Inverness (the famous Culloden House just outside the city), I had realized the error of my ways and knew I had to increase my dietary vigilance. I went to bed that night with a hot water bottle (such a quaint feature to find in our room!) clutched to my aching gut, and a firm resolve to both not let any cow dairy slip past my lips and increase my intake of high fiber foods. Obviously, the apples I had brought with me and was consuming every day were not enough. Luckily, I discovered how delicious stewed dried fruit can be the very next morning at breakfast.

I’m not sure if the challenges I was having finding greens and vegetables (prepared without cream) was due to the posh menus at the places we were staying or if this was typical of the Scottish diet in general. On the one hand, I admired the fact that the restaurant menus reflected the season, with lots of root vegetables accompanying the mains. On the other hand, I desperately missed greens and salads. I had expected to find kale, at least. Indeed, I did see kale growing quite thickly in fields in the southern parts of Scotland, yet when I was talking to one of the friendly Scots later in the trip about those fields she said they turned the sheep into them during the winter.

Besides growing lots of kale for animal fodder, the southern areas in Scotland also cultivated a lot of fruit, especially berries. We noticed hoop houses filled with dwarf fruit trees and bramble fruits, and our bus driver told us that strawberries and raspberries were heavily cultivated in the area. Once we entered the highlands we saw mostly animals (sheep and cattle) grazing instead of cultivated fields.

But back to the meals!

Breakfasts were not only ample, one could really feast during lunches and dinners, too. I noticed that many restaurants offered two to three course fixed price meals for lunch and early dinner, just like in Spain. I took advantage of one such special at a restaurant in Inverness. The concept behind The Joy of Taste – a restaurant operating by principles sounding very much like a co-op — intrigued me, so I took a cab from Culloden House into Inverness to enjoy a delicious dinner by myself. My starter featured seared calf liver served over a bed of delicious salad greens (yay!) and my main course was duck served with lots of broccoli, courgette, and saffron potatoes. Dessert was a polenta cake made with honey and bramble berries. That was one of my more memorable meals in Scotland, although the relatively low cost was offset by the price of the taxis I had to take to and from Culloden House. (I stretched out my enjoyment of Inverness that evening by walking along the River Ness for a bit before returning to the hotel.)

That wasn’t the first time I had duck while in Scotland. It seemed to be the more popular form of poultry in the country. The menus frequently featured beef, lamb, pork, and fish, but rarely offered chicken. Considering how ubiquitous and popular chicken is in the US, I found this rather remarkable. Another difference between US and Scotland was in the cuts of pork. The most common cut of pork I saw on menus was not chops, but fresh pork belly. (Although I did enjoy a starter of some braised pig cheeks at Cross Keys pub in Kippen).

Scotland is a land with an extensive coastline and many, many fresh water lakes and streams. (I was constantly amazed at the number of gushing springs and waterfalls I saw from the window of the bus as we drove through the Highlands. There was water everywhere.) Fish and seafood of all kinds were plentiful on menus. I dined on fish and chips twice during my trip, but tried to keep my consumption of fried fish minimal. Salmon — both fresh and hot or cold smoked — were also featured quite a bit. I suspect most of it was from the fish farms we frequently saw along the sea lochs and coastline and not wild caught, unfortunately.

As we arrived on the west coast, we found that the local specialty was langoustines, which were tasty little crustaceans, although they took a bit of work to eat.

Langoustines!

Oh, and as for beverages, I enjoyed both ales and wine with dinner, but of course enjoyed the whisky the most. :-)

Evening libation

Glorious Scotland

Fair warning: this is going to be a photo heavy post!

Scottish countryside can be stark, but it is stunningly beautiful. On our second day in Scotland, our group had a walking tour of Edinburgh. Our guide — a warm and knowledgeable gent who looked stunning in his kilt, tweed jacket, and hat (but I sadly can’t recall his name now) — told us we were in the least beautiful part of Scotland. We scoffed. On our return to Edinburgh at the end of the trip I recalled his words and acknowledged to myself how right he was.

Blue Scottish Sky

I expected that the weather would be cool and wet, but we enjoyed mostly clear weather and several days with bright blue skies.

Priory vault

This was a splurge vacation for me which featured luxury accommodations and fine dining. My friend A and I saved a bit of money by sharing a room, but it was still one of the mostly costly vacations I’ve ever taken. I think it was money well spent.

Sam the Gypsy horse

We covered a lot of territory in the 15 days we were there: Edinburgh, Lake of Menteith, Stirling, St. Andrews…

West Sands

The Cairngorms…

Bringing in the sheep

Inverness and its surrounds (including Loch Ness, Culloden Battlefield, and Clava Cairns)…

Setting sun

Isle of Skye…

On Isle of Skye

with its fabled Black Cuillin mountains…

Cuillin Hills

and lastly a charming country town in Argyll where I saw famous whirlpool, lots of local wildlife…

Grey seals

rode a small but sturdy horse up and down hills for many hours…

Me riding Arran

and may or may not have been assaulted by a spectral presence in the 16th century house at which we resided.

I would love to return to Scotland some day. Until then, I have many fond memories…and a small amount of whisky to enhance them.

Special photo

Slàinte

Photo details. (To see larger photos or the entire set, just click on a photo and it will take you to the Flickr set.)

  1. Edinburgh
  2. Inchmahome Priory, Lake of Menteith
  3. Castle Rednock, Port of Menteith
  4. West Sands, St. Andrews
  5. Leault Farm, Cairngorms
  6. Clava Cairns, outside Inverness
  7. Sligachan, Isle of Skye
  8. Portree, Isle of Skye
  9. Gulf of Corryvreckan, Argyll and Bute
  10. Cuillin Hills Hotel, Isle of Skye

The problem with allowing a long lapse in blogging is that it’s hard to figure out where to pick up. So I’m just going to write about a few of the memorable things that have been going on the past month and a half. Gulp! I really did not plan on not writing for so long!

Back in September when I last wrote, I was preparing for my trip to Scotland in October. First, though, I got sick. It was just your run-of-the-mill upper respiratory infection: congestion, sinus headache, sniffling, sneezing, and fatigue. I stayed home from work and telecommuted for the two weeks before my vacation, and I scaled back my activities and went to bed early at night to get more sleep. By the time I left for Scotland, the cold was mostly gone, but I brought some decongestants and nighttime cold tablets with me just in case.

Scotland was phenomenal. Amazing. I loved its bleak landscapes, fresh food, crisp weather, and friendly people. I will have a post about Scotland another time since it is worth a thoughtful write-up. However, I never quite completely got rid of the cold and it actually worsened just past the halfway point of the trip. I had a couple of days where I kept my activities low and went to bed early, and I started recovering again.

I got home and kept my early turn-in time of 8:30 or 9:00 PM. I continued to telecommute the first week after I returned, and by the second week I was feeling much improved. Then yesterday I was knocked down again: stuffed up, sinus headache, fatigued, and my right ear plugged right up. So today I went to immediate care and had an exam. The doc examined me and listened to me talk about how I had been battling what seemed like the same upper respiratory infection for about seven weeks. I’ve never had a fever or chills, just a nagging set of symptoms that keep flaring up after periods where I feel some recovery.

I’m starting on some antibiotics and prescription nasal spray, and I’m hoping to finally kick this thing to the curb for good. I’ll continue to keep my activities fairly light, but I won’t become a total slug. For example, I skipped riding today, but I’ll do so on Wednesday for sure. I’ll likely skip the gym tomorrow, but I hope to be there next weekend.

Riding is the other significant activity in my life the past several weeks. I have improved so much in just the past two months, and the riding I did in Scotland provided me some great experiences. I cantered, not just once, but quite a bit. Of the four riding excursions I took, only one did not include any cantering. (Of course, that one didn’t include much beyond just walking at a very slow pace for an hour. Ugh.)

Since I’ve been back, I’ve cantered on Finn (my share board horse) twice. I need improvement in my cantering seat on him, but it’s difficult because the stable manager does not want Finn to do a lot of cantering, so we only do one or two canters in a straight line in the arena during my weekly lesson. That’s not a long enough stretch to do much beyond have the following thoughts move through my body/mind: “Whoa, I’m cantering! I need to sit deeper. Oh, it’s time to stop!”

There’s much more to write about, but I need to pick up the practice of blogging more slowly, so I’m going to stop now. Say hello or welcome back if you read this! While I mostly blog for myself, it’s nice to know when others are interested in what’s going on in my life or have something useful to say.

Shaping up

As I was walking home from the gym last night I was hailed by a car. “Miss! Excuse me, miss!” I turned to see a car with two guys in it. “Yes?,” I asked. “You have a great a**!” “Uh…thanks,” I mumbled.

I was briefly angry with myself for being so polite and lame in my response, but then I decided that I shouldn’t be. Why was I blaming myself for the years of cultural conditioning that led me to try to be polite when confronted with boorish behavior?

Also, truthfully, I do think my butt has become much more toned since I’ve been riding twice a week. I didn’t start riding so I could get a better behind, although it’s a side benefit that I’m happy with. Horsies and a firmer backside?! Count me in!

I’m only a month away from my big goal — riding in Scotland — and while I’m a much better rider than when I started my lessons in March, I won’t be able to do all things I’d like. I really wanted to be able to canter, but I have hardly done any cantering to date, and likely won’t be ready to do so before I leave.

I haven’t written very much about my horse-riding experiences (although, I haven’t written very much at all the past few months). When I first had the idea to take lessons so I could ride during a 16-day trip Scotland in October, I asked the experts over at Grumpy Rumblings for some advice on what skills I should concentrate on building in preparation. While I was excited by my progress in June, by the following month my aged body had revealed to me that I needed to do yet more work.

Since the last week in July, I’ve been in physical therapy twice a week to work on my left foot, ankle, and calf, and I’m definitely improved. I’ve noticed such a difference when walking, in fact, that during a follow-up visit I asked the doctor if she thought I could try running again. Her answer was to wait about two weeks before I started again, very slowly.

My left ankle still gets fatigued when I’m posting the trot for more than about five minutes. I’m working on building up my ability to do it for longer, and have the approval of the physical therapist to push it a bit more each time I ride. It’s mostly because of this unaccounted for set back that I haven’t been able to learn to canter yet. My instructors (I’ve been working with two different ones) have wanted to see me balanced and steady in the saddle before having me learn to canter safely.

Just in the past few weeks, I’ve decided to look at other options for improving my riding. I talked with the one instructor about share boarding a horse instead of riding different school horses all the time. (For those who don’t know, share boarding is basically like leasing a horse, or sharing the expenses of keeping a horse with a private owner or the stable.)

My thinking is that if I can learn to ride well — to find my balance and work through my physical challenges – on one horse, that will help me when I’m given the opportunity to ride different horses. Also, if I share board, I can ride at times that are less busy at the stable (such as mornings) and spend my riding time focusing on building my skills instead of dodging other horses. While it’s great to learn to work on a horse around other riders, at times I find it much too demanding to be trying to figure out how to avoid others while I’m trying to work on my own riding. 

The other change I’ve already started as of today is working with just the one trainer. Over the past few months, I’ve worked with five different trainers. Mostly I’ve worked with only two: one during a weekday lesson, and one during a weekend lesson. There have been a few times when one or the other trainer was out and I worked with a substitute, which is why I’ve been with so many. This week I decided that I should stick with just the one trainer for now, and changed my riding schedule to accommodate that decision.

I also got to ride a new horse today, a big gelding named Finn. I think he may just be my share board horse. I’ve ridden several school horses by now, and never sat one as well as I did on Finn today. He’s the largest horse I’ve ridden (a Percheron cross), and is somewhat mouthy (trying to gnaw the stable door, the bit, and nip at my shirt), but I was able to put his bridle on (he was already saddled when I got to the barn), lead him out to the arena, and ready him for riding without any issues. Once mounted, I urged him up to a trot with little effort, caught the correct diagonal quickly, and posted the trot with relative ease. Riding this morning with only one other person in the arena was lovely, too.

I still have some details to work out before I take the leap into share boarding, but I’m so glad to have the option open to me. And I’m really eager to get back on Finn again, too. :-)

Way back in 2007 when it looked like chicken keeping was going to become illegal in Chicago I became a sort of spokesperson to local press. I was interviewed on the local public television news program, and was also interviewed for print articles in some major newspapers. I’m OK with the fact that my 15 minutes of fame are well over now, but when I do still occasionally get interviewed about keeping chickens in Chicago my favorite pithy tagline is “Everybody likes chicken dinner” by way of warning people about predators.

While I’ve dealt with raccoons and raptors regularly enough that they no longer surprise me, a couple of weeks ago I had to deal with an unusual predator: a mink.

To put the attack into perspective I first have to note another event that happened recently. The same neighbor who discovered my little rooster in the woods, found another chicken in the neighborhood recently. (This guy’s ability to spot chickens is phenomenal.) The poor chicken refugee had actually been placed in a box and dumped in the alley behind my house. The chicken found its way out of the box and hid behind another neighbor’s trash can, which is where the keen-eyed neighbor spotted it.

When dealing with an unknown bird, it’s never a good idea to mix it into your flock right away, so I placed the bird in a separate coop I keep around to quarantine or isolate chickens. The coop is one of my original Eglus, which are handy little coops that are quite safe for chicken keeping…if you close and lock the coop door at night.

On this particular night about two weeks ago the weather had been very pleasant and I had the windows open. At about 2 AM, I was woken by a chicken alarm call. I dashed outside in my PJs and some sandals, grabbing the keys to the coop as I ran. There’s a street light not far from my yard, so as I approached the coops I could take in a disturbing sight: the refugee chicken laying very still in the Eglu run, accompanied by lots of scattered feathers; a hen standing in the run of the big coop crying the alarm, and my little rooster laying very still on the bottom of the run next to her.

I unlocked the full-sized door to the run and flung it open, then stood there trying to figure out what had taken down two chickens and was causing the hen such panic. As I started to enter the run area, I saw something dark moving around under the ramp up to the roosting area. It had a body like a weasel, but a black pelt that gleamed in the low light. I screamed and stepped back out of the run. I needed that thing to get out of the run as quickly as possible, and it had moved in a direction away from me (thank goodness!) and closer to another exit. I quickly unlocked and opened the side exit the critter had moved towards, then dashed back to the house for a flashlight and to rouse B and the dog for back up.

By the time I got back outside with the flashlight, trailing B and Hannah dog, the critter was gone. The distressed hen had dashed out of the run and retreated towards the safety of the house, while the other three hens remained inside the roosting area. I grabbed a long stick and started probing around the run to make sure the thing was truly gone. At first I was too frightened of it to step into the run for a good look with the flashlight, but I finally managed to do so.

It was definitely gone, so my next task was to figure out how it had gotten in. There are several doors and entrances on my coop/run combo, but every single one was padlocked shut for the night. I probed around on the coop floor and found the likely entry point: a small depression in the floor of the coop. The critter had dug its way into the coop.

My coop is skirted with 1/2-inch hardware all the way around the outside…except for one small section. There’s a built-in feed storage area and when the coop was raised into place we lined that storage area with 1/2-inch hardware cloth. Stupid me to think that lining the area and skirting the area would accomplish the same thing. For two years the coop has withstood night-time predators like raccoons, but it wasn’t enough protection from a vicious mink who was OK with doing a little digging to get some tasty chicken.

I hastily added some heavy concrete pavers around the vulnerable area, retrieved the frightened hen and put her in the roosting area, and then turned to the grisly task of dealing with the dead. Except the rooster wasn’t dead! When I went to move him, he stood up and walked a few steps before pausing. His head and neck were covered in blood and he was unsteady, but he was alive! :-)

The refugee chicken was not so lucky. I tried to turn the body so I could figure out how it had been killed. I couldn’t see any marks on it. Then I finally maneuvered it to a better angle and shined the flashlight on it. The head was completely missing. I found it the next day inside the coop. Apparently mink and weasel are known for decapitating chickens and leaving the bodies behind. They kill for blood and sport.

I went back to bed because there wasn’t much more I could do at that time of night. I only slept lightly, though, and decided about an hour later to go back outside to check on the situation. I found the rooster sitting in the run. He didn’t have enough energy to go up the ramp into the roosting area. I didn’t want to leave him there, so I brought him into the house to clean him up and assess the damages.

Chickens don’t actually have a lot of blood in their bodies and he had lost quite a bit. When the mink had entered the coop, Little Roo (that’s what we call him since he’s a bantam rooster) had taken his role as protector of the flock very seriously and engaged with it. The mink had bitten up Little Roo’s head and neck and apparently stunned him, which is why he was laying on the ground when I arrived outside.

I rinsed off blood and soil that had caked onto the side of his head, then I placed Little Roo in the dog crate in the basement with some water and covered the crate with a blanket. After about two more hours of sleep I had to get up and get ready to go to the office. As much as I would have liked to stay home that day, I had a very important meeting and was not going to be able to re-schedule it. I scrambled an egg for Little Roo and gave it to him to eat with some leftover cooked grains, then left for the day.

When I arrived home that evening, my first order of business was to bury the decapitated chicken. Then I had to address the deficiency in the coop security. I did NOT want to be woken up again in the middle of the night because of a predator attack. With B’s help, we added more 1/2-inch hardware cloth skirting to the area lacking it. I also walked around the entire coop/run, looking for any other areas that seemed susceptible and testing how well the wire was attached to the frame. Everything else was fine.

While I was working on the coop, I had several neighbors stop by to ask what had happened. Everyone was worried about Little Roo, who has apparently become a neighborhood favorite. One would think that a creature that starts making noise as early as 4:30 AM would not be so beloved, but apparently my neighbors admire his moxie.

Meanwhile, Little Roo was still resting in the quiet and calm of the basement. He seemed weak and wasn’t eating or drinking very much which worried me. By the time I had finished all the outdoor chores, it was nearly dark outside and past the time when the avian vet office was closed. But the very next day I was telecommuting and so I called the vet’s office and got a time slot to bring Little Roo in.

Yes, I am a softie when it comes to my chickens. I just couldn’t stand to see this brave little rooster die when it seemed like it would be easy enough to get him examined and perhaps even patched up.

I had to leave him over the weekend so he could get fluids and injections of vitamins and antibiotics, but he was ready to come home on the following Monday. I kept him in the basement isolation area for a few more days before returning him to his “ladies.” He promptly chased them all down and pecked them to re-establish his place at the top of the flock. Then everyone settled down and continued with life as usual.

My coop appears to be secure now since it’s been nearly two weeks with no attacks. And while Little Roo still doesn’t have his crow back to normal, the flock has been restored to a stable place.

As for the refugee chicken, while I feel bad that it’s life was ended so traumatically it wasn’t long for this world anyway. It was not a laying breed and was instead what is unofficially called a “meat chicken;” a breed commonly found shrink-wrapped in plastic in supermarket coolers across the world. These breeds often develop health problems if a do-gooder tries to keep them alive past their usual life span of about 8-12 weeks. I was planning to take it to the live poultry butcher so it was going to wind up someone’s dinner one way or the other. Too bad the mink beat me to it.

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