Although, so far, April has been drenching with the showers for which it is so justly famous, there has also been an amplitude of the brilliant blue days necessary to getting the gardening juices flowing as Mother Nature wields her artful brush and starts to transform the stark silhouettes and gray tones of winter. First, the greening of the lawns and the clouds of daffodils that start drifting across their flanks, and the earliest stellata magnolias, with their white pinwheel blossoms born on bare limbs, creating magical, ghostly forms in the woods. Now the muscaris, so intensely blue, encircling the trunks of trees and lining woodland paths, and the fruit trees -- cherries and pears and crabs -- bursting into pastel bloom.. Soon, the dogwoods and azaleas and bluebells: a world of the purest white and green and yellow and blue imaginable. Make no mistake: spring has sprung!
This year, in part, our thoughts have turned to our birds. The farm would be a very hollow place without the scores of fowl we keep to enliven our precincts: chickens and ducks, geese and pheasants, pigeons and peacocks. Now is nesting time and the farm is flurry of noisy bustle as the females take to roost, the various husbands and aunties and uncles standing clamorous sentry about them. At this moment, our female whooping swan has decided to plant herself firmly in a quadrant of the cutting garden and elected to pick out all the blue pansies I planted in the central urn to better feather her nest. Our new female Australian swan has taken up a post in the protective curve of the lowest step to the lake pavilion, and we are rabid with excitement over that possibility.
Over any winter, however, there is always some attrition. Unpinioned ducks and geese fly off. Others fall prey to foxes and raccoons. Chickens and peacocks and pheasants expire from old age or a panoply of avian diseases almost impossible to detect. So, this spring, we are in the happy position of ordering some new friends for the farm from two of our favorite purveyors, the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa and Stromberg Chicks & Game Birds Unlimited in Pine River, Minnesota. Both offer an impressive assortment of eggs, chicks, and even full grown pairs of everything from racing pigeons to quail, guinea fowl, and turkeys.
This year, we're particularly intent on expanding our family of pheasants and ducks, and our intention is to purchase full grown pairs. Fowl of almost any sort mate for life, and the widow or widower of a lost bird is a plaintive sight indeed, so it pays to buy devoted couples: they'll be happier and so will you. We have transformed our former corn crib into a pheasant run, one which became sadly depleted after the rigors of the past winter, so we have set our sights on a pair each of Lady Amhersts, Red Goldens, and Yellow Goldens: all flamboyantly, even surrealistically colorful, the last two being exotically Chinese in origin.
In the duck category, we have fallen in love with White Crested Ducks, which sport a tamoshanter-like pompom atop their heads, so we ordered a pair of those, as well as some Chocolate and Fawn Runners, tall and slim and tipped forward like they're about to fall on their beaks, and a pair of startling black/green Cayugas. These will join the White Muscovies, Mallards, and White Pekins all ready on the pond, as well as our large family of White Chinese, gray Toulouse, Canadian, and White Emden geese.
It's easy to forget that birds are cold-blooded creatures (a friend says "like snakes with feathers"), so they can withstand winter temperatures with surprising ease with a modicum of shelter, open water for the water fowl, and a daily feeding. Our chickens, pheasants. pigeons, and peacocks we keep caged, mainly to avoid the tragic results of a chance meeting with a fox, raccoon or hawk, but our water fowl wander freely all year round so, if you have a pond or lake, give some waterfowl a try. And, of course, if you can keep chickens, there's nothing more appealing than a fresh from the henhouse omelette and the happy morning cacophany of a resident rooster.
Murray McMurray Hatchery can be reached at (800) 456-2380 or at www.murraymcmurrayhatchery.com, and Stromberg Chicks & Gamebirds at(800) 720-1134 or at www.strombergschickens.com. Both are happy to mail you a catalogue, which is almost as much fun to thumb through as getting a favorite seed catalogue this time of year. Happy Spring!