Election Time

The last few months have been a blur, and I apologize that it’s been so long since I’ve managed to put up a post. I spent the summer and early fall doing voter microtargeting models and analysis. Then, beginning a little over a month ago, things heated up with CNN. As I’ve noted before, I’m part of CNN’s decision team; we’re the analysts you see in the background, studying the way the vote comes in on election night, and who ultimately decide when to project the outcome of particular races.

In the weeks leading up to election night, we would regularly rehearse with simulated data; most of us simply connected via conference call and computer for this. Then, we all spent the weekend before the election in Washington, DC for studio rehearsals. Finally, we were of course up all night on Tuesday the 8th. I got back to my hotel around 4am, went to bed at 4:30am, and managed to get a couple of hours of sleep. Since arriving back home, it’s taken until now to get fully caught up on sleep.

There have been some interesting happenings on the farm in these past months. One story in particular, about a sheep, I’ve been wanting very much to tell. It’s a bit involved, however, so it hasn’t been easy to put a post together. I promise to get this up for you soon.

Back to the election. I’ve been a student of politics, and a fan, my entire life. I live for the campaign experience, and for me election night has long rivaled Super Bowl Sunday. To say that this particular campaign was the most unusual of my lifetime would be a gross understatement.

If the subject interests you, you’ve no doubt read all kinds of analyses about how Donald Trump managed to surprise so many. I think this story from the Los Angeles Times gives a good, highly readable overview of how the candidate coalitions changed this time around, and how the Trump victory was a matter not so much of his mobilizing previously disaffected voters as it was of Democrats failing to turn out for Hillary Clinton the way they had for Barack Obama. For a good story about how Trump flipped the state of Michigan in particular, I’d recommend this one from National Review.

Virtually all of the commentary you will read (including what I’ve linked to above) focuses on vote patterns at the county or state level. Those are fine as far as they go, and certainly help give the big picture, but they share a common problem: counties themselves are often very diverse, both politically and demographically. Looking at how a county as a whole votes can miss a good part of the story. Later this winter, I plan to put together an analysis of Michigan vote patterns at the township level; townships are much smaller, more homogeneous, and closer to the level of the individual voter.

In the meantime, the county where I live (Ingham) is an interesting example. It includes a large urban center with a significant minority population (the state capital, Lansing), Michigan State University (East Lansing) and its affluent liberal neighbor (Meridian Township), semi-suburban bedroom areas at the fringe of Lansing proper, and many highly-rural townships and small towns (one of which is home to our farm). In all, Ingham County has twenty-one separate administrative jurisdictions which tally and report votes independently, and for which Census data are available.

Ingham County is much more Democratic than the state’s median, and Democrats routinely sweep countywide elections. It’s hardly a bellweather for anything, and it’s not a microcosm of the state or the nation. Still, Ingham’s intra-county diversity makes it an interesting place to study, and I think the preliminary township-level results give an instructive look at what happened in the state (and country) at large on Tuesday night. Think of what comes below as a first step in my larger analysis of how changing vote patterns flipped Michigan from the Democratic to the Republican column.

First, a quick overview: Ingham had 208,586 registered voters going into the 2016 general election. A total of 136,160 ballots were cast, for a turnout rate of 65.3%. This was up slightly from 63.5% in 2012. Much to my surprise, given how much we’ve heard about the unfavorability of both parties’ nominees, the percent abstaining in the Presidential race actually declined (from 2.4% to 0.9%). However, the percent of Presidential voters choosing a third-party or write-in candidate did increase sharply: from 1.7% to 6.9%. As a result, although turnout was up, and nearly 5,000 additional people came to the polls, the number of votes for major party candidates actually decreased by over 500. The Republican ticket got 952 fewer votes than last time, and the Democratic ticket improved by 419.

Countywide, the 2012-to-2016 vote totals are very similar. Trump got 35.3% of the two-party vote, down only slightly (-0.6%) from what Romney got. (Because we’re talking about shares of the two-party vote, Clinton is of course the mirror image; she improved by 0.6% over Obama.) But how the candidates arrived at these totals is different from how the 2012 nominees did so — and I think tells an interesting story about what makes this election as a whole quite different.

Let’s start with the county’s one big urban center: the City of Lansing. Lansing accounts for 35% of the ballots cast in the election. Nearly one-third of the city’s adults are black (22%) or Hispanic (10%). Interestingly, Donald Trump got 128 more votes here than Mitt Romney did — but the big story is on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton won 954 fewer votes in Lansing than Barack Obama. In other words, she was unable to mobilize the urban component of the party’s coalition as effectively as Obama had.

In this year’s election commentary, much has been made of Trump’s support from working class whites (especially those living in more rural areas). Ingham County has eleven jurisdictions which are (1) highly rural, (2) almost entirely white, and (3) in which the percentage of adults with a college degree does not reach 25%. Using this as a rough definition of “rural, working-class white,” in these eleven jurisdictions Trump rolled up 1,115 more votes than Romney — and in some cases posted double digit improvements in his share of the two-party vote. These areas had been open to voting for Barack Obama; he scored 1,239 more votes here than Hillary Clinton was able to manage. Clearly, Trump’s appeal to rural, working-class whites was real — and made a notable impact on the coalitions he and Clinton assembled.

So, where did Hillary Clinton make up the difference? In the highly-educated liberal enclaves of East Lansing and neighboring Meridian Township. In East Lansing alone, Clinton garnered 1,310 more votes than Barack Obama, more than cancelling out her decline (from Obama’s total) in the rural working-class jurisdictions. Trump’s total was down 412 votes (or 3.8 percent of the two-party total) from Romney’s in East Lansing. But by far the biggest swing was in bordering Meridian Township, where 60% of adults hold a college degree. Clinton improved by 1,440 votes here over Obama, while Trump got nearly 1,300 votes fewer than Romney (for a 6.3% smaller share of the two-party vote).

The pattern was similar, but to a lesser degree, in the more Republican Williamstown Township, the next jurisdiction out from Meridian. Here, fully half of adults hold a college degree, and the median income is the highest in the county. Romney won Williamstown Township with 53% of the two-party vote, but Trump narrowly lost it (winning only 49.8% of the two-party vote).

There are some additional jurisdictions in Ingham County which are rural but with more adults holding college degrees, or less rural but with a good number of working class whites. In these jurisdictions, both candidates tended to be down a bit from their 2012 counterpart, or they did basically the same as the 2012 nominees did. While not exactly “suburban,” these tend to be bedroom communities (or within fairly easy commuting distance) to Lansing, such as Delhi Township and the City of Mason.

The full table of results:

Ingham Results.jpg

Obviously, given that Clinton improved slightly over Obama’s performance in Ingham as a whole, this county’s usefulness in explaining Trump’s statewide improvement over Romney is limited. As much as Trump improved in rural, white working class areas, there just weren’t enough such voters in Ingham County to keep pace with Clinton’s improvement in places like East Lansing and Meridian Township. Fortunately for Trump, statewide, there were more working class whites and fewer college town voters than in Ingham County. That’s why this analysis is meant as a simple preview, and is more suggestive than definitive. Still, these shifts in voting patterns (even in a Democratic stronghold such as Ingham) give a good hint as to how the party coalitions in Michigan changed this year.

On a less scientific, and more purely on-the-ground observational note: Trump’s victory didn’t surprise me very much. Especially down the stretch, both campaigns were treating the state as if it were in play. A lot of money was being spent here, and the candidates were making more visits than we usually see in a Presidential year.

The biggest “early warning” indicator to me, however, was the observable difference in enthusiasm between supporters of the two candidates. It wasn’t just a question of yard signs, though that was part of it. My daughter and I spent a lot of time this summer and fall on our bikes out on rural roads. We were struck by more than the sheer number of Trump signs (especially compared to the paucity of Clinton/Kane signs). People were also making their own homemade Trump signs. Some of these were HUGE. Also, out in the country, it’s not uncommon to see flag poles in people’s yards. What is unusual is to see a Presidential candidate flag flying on a flag pole — and we saw a lot of Trump flags. I’ve been a student of politics my whole life, and I’ve lived in a lot of different places. But I confess that I’ve never before seen someone (let alone many someones) literally flying a flag for a candidate.

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But the most colorful anecdote is something that happened just around the corner from where we live. In late summer, one of our neighbors put up a sign in her yard which read, in large all-caps, TRUMP THAT [FEMALE CANINE]. Then, in smaller print at the bottom: “Before It’s Too Late!” I’ve obviously cleaned up the language; I don’t use words on the blog that I wouldn’t let my kids use. Suffice it to say that it shocked our family that someone would put something up in their yard which was so provocative. And, given the provocative language, I expected that sign to get torn down within a day or two. After all, every election year, political signs get torn down all the time.

This one didn’t. Day after day, we drove past that sign. Then week after week. Still there, still taunting every Clinton supporter in the township (and this was a fairly well-traveled road). When the sign had remained in place for two weeks, I suspected there had been a serious shift in the electorate — because in any other year, the passionate supporters of any other candidate would have destroyed a sign like that within hours. Or possibly within a day or two at the most. Instead, this sign remained up for two full months. And when it did finally disappear, shortly before the election, the owner took to the local Facebook page to express her anger that someone had taken it. Turns out, she’d bought that sign herself. In the comments on her post, a large number of people commented as to how much they’d liked it.

Let that sink in for a moment: she bought the sign herself. Don’t campaigns usually supply yard signs? When was the last time you heard about someone passionate enough to buy her own campaign sign? As I thought about it, I realized those Trump flags I’d seen flying must have also been purchased. (Turns out, you can still buy them on Amazon. And they’re not that expensive.) The more I reflected on this, the more I realized just how much of a “voter passion gap” was emerging in my state’s rural electorate.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying: I wasn’t terribly surprised when I saw the Michigan votes roll in for Trump last Tuesday. Once I get the more complete township-level analysis put together this winter, I will share it here on the blog.

September Soundtrack

September is one of my favorite months. The really hot temperatures have largely subsided, but the weather is still very nice. The first leaves on the trees are beginning to turn and tumble to the ground. Harvest is rolling in, and we’re feasting on fresh vegetables every night. Freshly-butchered chicken is on the grill any time we want it. The lambs are growing up, reaching their potential. Fleeces are filling out. Football is back. The baseball season – and playoff hunt – is going down to the wire.

September is also a time of melancholy and of introspection. Summer seems to have vanished in a flash. Much of the year is gone, but much remains to be done. And September is often a month of transitions and new beginnings, especially with school starting. Feeling the cool morning air, I’m often taken back to the beginnings of new school years in my youth. Just yesterday, when my daughter and I were out on our bikes and got passed by a large tractor, the smell of unfiltered diesel exhaust connected straight back to what I remembered from 1970s school buses. It was like no time at all had passed, as I was immersed in a familiar — and reassuring —childhood aroma. The bus is here. It’s going to take me home.

So, I don’t find it surprising that there seems to be more popular songs about September than about any other month. Yes, there are lots of songs about holidays or seasons that happen to take place during other months. But tell me … right off the top of your head, how many songs are there about December as a month? (Songs about Christmas and Winter Wonderland don’t count.) I really like GNR’s “November Rain,” but how many other popular songs even mention that month by name? Even the hit songs about summer don’t usually mention any particular month.

There’s something about September that has inspired quite a lot of emotional expression in music.Let’s count down the list of my own personal favorites:

#7 September (Earth, Wind and Fire). Attend any major league baseball game at this time of year, and I bet you’ll hear this one blasting over the stadium sound system at least once between innings. There’s nothing quite like it to get you on your feet, clapping your hands, and hoping your team can still win enough games to snag a playoff slot. And even if you’re not at a MLB game … who can resist the song’s terrific, psychedelic seventies music video? There’ll never be a cloudy day as you rock out to this one.

#6 See You in September (The Happenings). This one has been recorded several times, by different artists, but this version from 1966 is my favorite. Living in the days of instantaneous (and constant) communication, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always that way. I still remember saying goodbye to friends for the summer, and knowing you weren’t going to see them again for months. No Facebook updates. No emails. No tweets. Getting a letter or two in the mail was a really big deal. This song captures, really nicely, the angst of being separated for a few months (even the glorious months of summer) from a young romantic love or crush, and wondering what the person will be like when the new school year finally starts. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I certainly had my own experiences with this 25-30 years ago … and song brings back a lot of memories of those earlier days.


#5 Come Monday (Jimmy Buffett). Admittedly, it does not mention “September” by name, but it’s the only song I know of that specifically mentions Labor Day. I always have it my head all weekend at this time of year. This is by far my favorite Jimmy Buffett tune, as I think it so nicely captures the feelings of sadness as summer comes to a close. I set it to loop over and over again yesterday as I cleaned my office and prepared to make a fresh start after the holiday weekend.

#4 September Morn (Neil Diamond). Now we’re getting even more emotional and introspective. But what I like most about this song is how — like the smell of diesel exhaust — it always takes me straight back to the crisp mornings of fifth grade, watching from the window of a big yellow school bus as the semi-rural scenery rolls past. The song came out in 1979, and the station my bus driver listened to played Neil Diamond all the time. When I hear those mournful strings, I can practically smell the black vinyl of the bus seats, and feel the coolness of the window against my nose, as I wonder what the new school year will bring.

#3 Wake Me Up When September Ends (Green Day). Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the song about his father, who died of cancer in September of 1982, when Billie was ten. The sense of loss permeates it; anyone who’s suffered a significant loss will find this song resonates deeply. The artistry with which he connects the loss of his father with the general sense of loss many of us feel in September is simply masterful.

#2 September (Daughtry).  This is almost my favorite song on the list. It’s by far my favorite official music video of any song on this list (and one of my favorite music videos, period). The introspective lyrics, about time going by but memories still remaining, mixed with images from old home movies (clearly shot around the time of my own childhood) always give me chills. What I personally find most powerful comes late in the song, when he says “you know we had to leave this town.” For those of us who grew up with the sense that we had to leave our hometown to find all that life had in store for us, and don’t really have regrets, but do sometimes reflect on what could have been had we chosen differently … this really captures the emotions all tied up in the experience.

What I find especially moving is the visual he chooses for this section: speeding through a tunnel. Every time I watch it, and hear “you know we had to leave this town,” I go straight back to the Interstate 90 tunnel running east out of Seattle. Early on a summer morning in 1991, that was me — starting a cross-country trek in my burgundy-colored 1983 Volvo coupe, college diploma and all other worldly possessions jammed in the trunk, getting ready to launch my career in political polling.

#1 The September of My Years (Frank Sinatra).  Sinatra has long been one of my favorite performers, and no one has a voice quite like his. I became a fan of his at the age of eleven (long story), and I’m still a fan today. All I’m going to say is: the older I get, the more I appreciate and truly love this song. I can’t think of any other commentary to make. Just close your eyes and listen, and you’ll know why it’s my favorite song about my favorite month:

Hope you all have a terrific September!

Great Book Reviews

My novel, Full Cycle, has gotten some very nice reviews this summer. In addition to what readers have posted at Amazon, Mark Livingood at The TandemGeek’s Blog recently put up a terrific review of the book. An excerpt:

Full Cycle struck me as being a very compelling, life’s lessons story of believable proportions.  In other words, all of the characters seemed very credible and real.  I suspect the latter may be because there’s apparently a lot of Christopher Blunt’s life experiences captured in the story and its characters.

For tandem enthusiasts, yes… a tandem bicycle is very central to the story and the account of the main characters introduction to and riding experiences on the tandem was something that will resonate with all tandem riders, large and small.  And, small is the key to this story: it’s ultimately about a father and 12-year old son pairing up and taking on the annual Seattle to Portland (STP) ride.  The story offers a great perspective on how a tandem can build on strong family relationships between parents and their children as well as how cycling can play an important role in the modern family.

Earlier this summer, the Cascade Courier, the newspaper of the Pacific Northwest’s largest bicycle club, ran this wonderful review:

Cascade Full Cycle Review

Full Cycle is available in print at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and in Kindle format at Amazon.

Safely Penned

A few days ago, we made the decision to put Mother Duck and her surviving ducklings in a garden pen. One week ago today, she’d hatched ten little ones. They all did fine the first couple of days, but then began disappearing. As much fun as it had been, watching the little duck family free-range all over the property, we didn’t want her to lose any more of her brood.

Wednesday afternoon, I got one of the pens cleared out; we turned the pullet chicks loose, and consolidated the Cornish Cross meat chickens into our other pen. Next came the challenge of actually catching Mother Duck.

I began looking for her, and immediately got confirmation of my decision to move them to a pen. Four of her ducklings were happily swimming in  a puddle behind the barn, completely unsupervised. Mother Duck was about 50 feet away, with her other three ducklings, honking and quacking for the four missing ones. She seems to have walked off from the puddle, followed by three, and hadn’t realized that the other four had ignored her. And, naturally, the four were continuing to ignore her. (Wouldn’t you, if you were having a grand old time swimming?)

The four swimmers were easiest to catch, so we put them in the pen first. One of the Yeoman Farm Children then helped me catch Mother Duck. That was quite difficult, because she’s a fast runner. Eventually we tired her out, and were were helped by her wanting to stay fairly close to her other three ducklings (one reason we didn’t put those three in the pen right away).

I carried Mother Duck to the pen, and Helper Kid carried the three ducklings. The transfer to the pen went smoothly. I made sure she had plenty of water and high-protein feed, and that the pen was secure.Duck In Pen.jpg

One of the seven ducklings did end up dying; we’re not sure what the cause was, but one morning when I came out for chores, it was simply laying dead in the pen. But that happens; baby birds are fragile. The other six have been thriving. Mother Duck isn’t thrilled about being confined, but I know this is the right move. She’s taking really good care of the six, brooding and keeping them warm at night. We’re able to get good feed into them. And none of them is getting lost in the high weeds.

Free Range Ducklings

This past weekend, we got a real surprise: a mother duck had made a nest high up in the hay bales, in the upstairs part of our barn. Her eggs were way back in a jumble of bales, at least six to eight feet off the ground. There’s no way we would have spotted her — and that was clearly her idea. For the last month, as we went about our business, she was silently watching us and incubating her eggs.

What finally gave the location away? Saturday evening, as our oldest daughter went out to do chores, she heard the unmistakable chirping of baby birds. She climbed up on the hay bales, and got a good idea of the nest’s general place, but it was too dark to see anything. She came to find me, and I brought a flashlight to investigate. This is what we were able to uncover:

Duck Nest Aug 2016

We counted at least four little ducklings, but didn’t want to disturb the nest for a complete count. We figured we could do that in the morning.

Just looking at were the nest was located, we knew Mother Duck would need help getting her brood down to the floor. That didn’t stop her from trying to do it herself, though. When I came out early Sunday morning, she was perched on the edge of a hay bale, surrounded by a swarm of nine fuzzy yellow ducklings. Some of the little ones were already trying to descend the hay. With one of the kids helping, we snagged all the ducklings and put them in a cardboard box.

The problem was, Mother Duck had retreated deep into the jumble of hay bales. I couldn’t reach her. The solution: I began dismantling the stack of bales. Soon enough, she surfaced. But before I could catch her, she squawked in protest and flew to the floor of the barn. In a flash, she squeezed out the door — and then flew down to the back yard, where a half dozen other ducks were foraging on windfall apples.

Great. Now we’ll never find her, I thought.

One of the other kids was down in the driveway, and suddenly noticed something: somehow, a tenth duckling was running around. We had no idea how it had gotten all the way down there, but it was peeping like crazy from under one of our vehicles. It took quite a bit of ingenuity (and teamwork) to get the duckling out from under the car — and then catch it before it went back under. But at last we did, and added Number Ten to the cardboard box.

Mother Duck was still off with the other ducks. Suddenly, I realized the solution was not to find or catch her. It was to let her natural instincts lead her back to her brood. I put all ten of them in the middle of the driveway, where they could be easily seen and heard. The ten stood close to each other, peeping loudly. I walked away, and watched from a distance. Sure enough, within moments, one of the ducks broke away from the apple tree and walked with determination toward the driveway — quacking with authority the whole way. Once on the pavement, the ten rushed toward her. A minute later, she had them all in a row — and headed back to the apple tree.

Mother Duck Aug 2016

I thought about catching all of them, and putting them in a portable garden pen for the mother duck to raise. That’s what we did earlier this summer, when a duck hatched out eight little ones. Generally speaking, our ducks have not been nearly as good at mothering as the hens have been. We inevitably lose a lot of ducklings, but very few chicks. This time, though, I decided to let Mother Duck give it a try. It was a Sunday morning, and with getting ready for church we didn’t have a lot of extra time. We were planning to spend the whole rest of the day visiting family. Plus, I didn’t have a pen available for them. And besides, I figured we have such a crazy number of ducks, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we lost a few ducklings.

When we came home that evening, Mother Duck was doing a fine job. She still had all ten, and they were following her lead everywhere. She’d even found some nice places to hang out with them.

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The ten of them survived Sunday night, and were busy foraging when I came out on Monday morning. Maybe this time will be different, I thought. I took several little breaks from work during the day, and checked on the ducklings. Mother Duck was taking them all over the property, and I was worried some couldn’t keep up. But around lunchtime, she still had all ten. And they were happily swimming in a big puddle behind the barn! Way too cute. Now I was really glad I hadn’t put them in a pen.

Swimming Ducklings

However, Tuesday morning, I began to reconsider. When I came out that morning, I spotted Mother Duck under the apple tree — but she had only nine ducklings. I counted again. And again. Hmmmm. Not good. I checked on her several times that day, hoping she’d have found Number Ten. No such luck. Nothing but nine, all day.

Then, this morning, I didn’t see Mother Duck at all. I did my chores, then went looking for her in the pasture. I found her, way out with the sheep, with her ducklings struggling to keep up in the high weeds. And there were only seven.

The problem is that, as dedicated as Mother Duck is, she simply is not the fierce defender of her brood that Mother Hen was. (And this is true of all the ducks and hens we’ve seen hatch out broods.) If we, or any animal on the farm, even came near Mother Hen … watch out! She would puff herself up, cluck angrily, put herself between the chicks and the intruder, and then go straight at the threat. She could even make our dogs turn tail and run.

The mother ducks are nothing like that. They quack with authority, and the ducklings follow, but they don’t really stand up to potential threats. They squawk louder, and run faster, seemingly hoping that the predator can be led away from the brood. When I had the dogs out in the yard yesterday, that’s exactly what happened when our border collie approached them. Mother Duck simply got louder and ran. Most of the brood followed her, but that didn’t stop the dog from picking up a straggler in his mouth and trying to play with it. I stopped him, of course, and scolded him — but Mother Duck should’ve been the one going after him.

This morning, when I discovered she was down to seven, I decided I’d seen enough. I wasn’t sure how she was losing the ducklings, but I strongly suspect one of the four barn cats is the culprit. Regardless, I knew needed to put the whole duck family into a secure pen.

We have two good pens in the garden, and they’ve been occupied all summer. But the two dozen or so Buff Orpington pullets are easily large enough to be turned loose. The remaining birds (mostly Cornish Cross meat chickens, and a few turkeys) could be consolidated in a single pen. I’ve been chipping away at butchering those chickens anyway, so the conditions won’t be crowded for long.

I’ll let Mother Duck continue to free range with the ducklings for the next few hours. She doesn’t seem to lose any of them during the day. This afternoon, we’ll see if we can catch her and get all of them secured.

That’s certainly what we’ll be doing with any duck hatchlings going forward. As fun as it’s been to watch them these last few days, and as cute as the spectacle has been, our Ancona ducks unfortunately just aren’t fierce enough to get the job done without some help.

Graduation Day

Remember those five chicks which the Buff Orpington hen hatched out in mid-June, and which she has been doing such a good job raising free-range? I’ve been swamped with an avalanche of work, (sorry about the mixed metaphors) and haven’t been able to post an update lately, but the chicks continued to thrive and roam the property all summer long. They got to the point where they all roosted together with their mother on the various rungs of a ladder out in the barn at night, which was pretty cute. They were lots of fun to watch during the day as well. They foraged every imaginable place, and would sometimes come past at the most unexpected times. I often heard Mother Hen’s instructive clucks (and the chicks rustling in the weeds of the garden) through my window as I worked, and it never failed to put a smile on my face. It gave an amusing sense of randomness to the summer, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

And then, early this past week, mother hen suddenly decided that she’d done all she could do. Like the parent who releases his hold on the child’s bicycle seat, and watches proudly as the kid continues to pedal down the street, Mother Hen’s job here was finished. One day the whole little family was foraging together. The next day, it was just the five chicks. They looked a little lost, and a little uncertain, but continued doing what they’d always done — and going the places they’d always gone. Just now, Mother Hen was no longer with them. It was admittedly a bit poignant, kind of like watching kindergartners climb on the school bus for the first time. But seven weeks is a long time in the life of a chicken, and they were ready to face the world.

All five of the little ones have continued to roost together at night, in various parts of the barn. They don’t always forage together as a group during the day, however. Sometimes three of them will go one way, and two of them will go another direction. It makes me wonder how long it’ll be until the five of them completely separate from each other. For now, it’s nice seeing them stick together at least some of the time.

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What’s most striking, though, is the reminder of how different the animal kingdom is from us humans. Our family ties are, of course, lifelong. Even those of us who’ve moved far from home tend to keep in touch with our families, and think about our parents every day. But with birds … when the mother hen’s job is done, it’s done. That’s it. She turns her back and moves on. As incredibly dedicated as she was to her chicks, and as fiercely protective as she was of them (even putting herself in physical jeopardy when the dogs or we humans came too close), she was motivated by instinct — not the self-sacrificial love of a human parent for a child.

This isn’t a criticism, and isn’t meant to take anything away from the job the hen did. She was magnificent, a true joy to watch, and didn’t lose a single one of her chicks.  It’s simply to say that this week’s “graduation ceremony” got me thinking about just how special we humans are, and what a blessing it is that we have the opportunity to share the bonds of family love for our entire lifetimes.

Everything’s Ducky

In late June, we had a mother duck hatch out eight ducklings. Cute as it was, watching them waddle around the property, we’ve never had much long-term success with ducks brooding their ducklings free range. (Chickens, on the other hand, have tended to do an excellent job.) The mother duck tends to get moving too fast, and tends to plow her way into weeds which are too high for the little hatchlings. The little ones get lost, or picked off by barn cats, and the next thing you know … no ducklings are to be found.

So, Mother Duck and her little ones basically spent the month of July in a 4 x 8 portable pen in the garden. They had a grand old time, eating weeds and bugs. We also gave them some high protein supplemental feed, so they grew quickly.

Last week, I decided they’d had enough time to mature and bond with Mother Duck and each other — and they were certainly big enough and strong enough to keep up with Mother Duck wherever she might lead. They had pretty much fully feathered out, and there was no reason for them to remain confined. Besides, we needed the pen for a batch of Cornish Cross meat chicks. It was time for the duck family to go free range.

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A couple of the Yeoman Farm Children helped me catch the ducklings and mother duck; even in such a confined area, ducks are so hyperactive and high-strung, they can be difficult to grab. We eventually managed to do it. I handed the ducks over the garden fence to one of the kids, who turned them loose in the area right behind the barn.

Mother Duck promptly bolted for the sheep pasture, with a duckling or two behind her. The other six ducklings took off in four different directions, all squawking and quacking as they did so. The kids and I managed to track down a few of them, but the others worked their way into the garden and into some very thick weeds. When I tried to reunite the newly-found ducklings with Mother Duck, I couldn’t find her. She’d already vanished into a crowd of other ducks in the pasture.

A handful of other ducklings had congregated near the barn. Still incredibly high-strung, they nervously ran away as I approached carrying their stray hatch-mates. I set the other ducklings down, nudging them toward the larger group. They somehow connected, and then squawked together while looking very frightened.

I decided the best thing for me to do would be to walk away, let them calm down, and let the situation sort itself out. That proved wise. When I returned to the barn that evening, Mother Duck was back — and surrounded by a pack of seven ducklings. They were all as high-strung as ever, but together. I worried about the eighth duckling, and wondered if it was still lost in the weeds somewhere.

The answer wasn’t long in coming. Listening carefully, I could hear the distinctive squawking of a young bird in distress. Ducklings and chicks have unmistakable ways of calling for their lost mothers. This one was clearly coming from the high weeds in the garden, and I figured I had just enough daylight remaining to find it.

It wasn’t hard to home in on the sound — but as soon as I approached, the crazy duckling took off deeper into the weeds. The harder I tried to catch it, the more desperately it tried to stay away. I must’ve chased the thing around for 15 minutes before finally pouncing on it when it stopped to rest. I carried it triumphantly to the barn, the duckling squawking in protest the whole way. I eventually found Mother Duck, but she and the rest of the brood began running away when they spotted me. So, I gently tossed the eighth duckling in their direction; a moment later, the entire brood was again together.

The next morning, Mother Duck and all eight of the ducklings were still together — and they’ve remained so ever since. All day long, they forage across the barnyard. Every night, they pile up for sleep in the barn. Each morning, when I come out to tend the sheep, Mother Duck and her brood are there to greet me.

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It doesn’t get much more ducky than that.