Green Garbage Salad

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So this is what I’ve been eating whenever I have the chance to: Green Garbage Salad. I suppose Kitchen Sink Salad would be a nicer name. At any rate, it’s about all we have from the garden right now, but it’s also about my favorite thing to eat.

Let’s start with the fact that I didn’t plant nearly enough mesclun this year. Or rather, what I thought was enough didn’t come up so well. So I have a small garden box with mesclan mixed with some kale and some mache I’d forgotten I planted, but we’re not overrun with salad like I’d hoped. One night, disappointed by my sorry harvest, I walked around the yard with a paring knife and grabbed pretty much anything green. Now I make this mixed salad constantly.

Whatever mesclun is ready goes into the salad spinner. And the mache (also known as corn salad), which is a great, low-lying green that you cut off close to the ground.

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I also take some leaves from the sorrel plants that are threatening to take over the yard. I love sorrel because it’s a perennial, so I don’t have to plant it again. Trouble is, other than pesto I really haven’t used it much. Until now.

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I also grab some kale leaves. The white moth caterpillars have decimated some of the kale, but I have a couple of plants that don’t look like Battenburg lace, so I’ve been eating off of those. My method for getting rid of those caterpillars is to pay the kids 5 cents a caterpillar to pick them off and drown them, which appeals to both their kid fascination with death and their greed. I need to get on that this year.

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I have some chard lining a spot in our front yard, and the leaves are still smallish and tender, so I pick a few of them. And some arugula; can’t forget arugula.

After washing all the greens, I rip up the mesclun, mache (really just separate the leaves of the mache), and arugula; and then I julienne the kale, sorrel, and chard. Then I toss on some dried fruit like cranberries or blueberries, some Parmesan, maybe some seeds.

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Although I started making this because I didn’t have enough salad greens, I love the different tastes mingling together: the spicy arugula, the almost tart sorrel, the heady kale. Mache and chard both have very gentle, fresh flavors. With a couple of spoonfuls of Nora Ephron’s Vinaigrette, even if a certain girl is feeling grumpy and tired from an afternoon of swimming, you’ve got yourself some good eating.

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Meet the New Girls

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(Dixie, Joe, Sally, Millie, Cocoa, and Isabella.)

As you might remember, our first season of raising ducks ended rather tragically. Diamond, the lone survivor, is still living the high life at our friend Sharon’s house. She’s now joined by five other ducks, seven chickens, and three dogs in their urban farm Shangri La.

This winter we debated whether our weak hearts could risk getting broken again, but we ultimately decided it was just too much fun to have ducks, and we succumbed. Our half-dozen girls should be laying by around July or August. So, armed with the kids’ duck portraiture, I thought it was time to introduce the new girls. 

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Joe

Joe is a Pekin and a few weeks older than the other girls. If it pleases the court, our hands were tied with Joe. We had ordered five new ducklings and innocently went to Tractor Supply to pick up their supplies. And it was Chick Days at Tractor Supply. That big bin of tiny yellow ducklings was too much for me and the three kids. We only wanted one duckling, knowing we had five more coming in a few weeks. Tractor Supply has a strict two-minimum rule on duck purchases, and the woman running the Chick Days area wasn’t going to bend it for me. But another customer was buying a raft of ducks and chickens at the time, and I quietly pulled her aside and asked whether she would take an extra duck if I bought two. So a clandestine exchange was made in the parking lot, and we came home with Joe. Tom named him because, unlike the sexed ducks we were getting from the hatchery, he (or she!) came from a straight run, meaning gender wasn’t determined. Tom figured we could call the duck Joseph or Jolene, depending on what ultimately emerged. We’ve continued to refer to him with male pronouns, but I’m starting to suspect Jolene is a more appropriate name.

I figured if Joe was a boy, we’d have fertilized eggs, which can last longer. If Joe was a girl, we’d just get more eggs. I didn’t want to risk getting two straight-run ducks, however, because having two males in a house of girls is just asking for trouble.

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Dixie

Dixie is also a Pekin. These are big ducks that are often thought of as meat ducks, but we’re not going to eat Dixie. Or Joe. We got her because we loved my friend Sharon’s sweet Pekin named Sasha, Pekins are stunning with their big white bodies, and Pekins are great layers; it’s rare to have a breed that is both good for meat and good for eggs. They’re lousy mothers, however, so in nature have been known to just lay eggs all over the place, never gathering them up and sitting on them. That factoid from our duck book has made Max and me giggle more than once. I’m hoping Dixie will learn what her nesting box is for and that I won’t have to forage for her eggs. When I describe the Pekins, I get blank stares until I say, “You know, the Aflac duck.”

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Isabella

Isabella is a Khaki Campbell, a lightweight duck that is one of the best laying breeds. Last year we had two Khaki Campbells:Khakadi and Anais. They were right as rain with the laying and had pleasant, albeit slightly skittish, personalities.

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Millie

Millie is a Gold Star Hybrid, bred to be a prolific layer. If the stars align, Millie could lay more than 300 eggs this year, which is hard to believe coming from her little body. She looks a lot like a Khaki Campbell, but has some interesting dark feathers on her wing tips, and the feathers on her head have a beautiful nuanced color play. Pretty Millie.

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Sally

Sally is a Blue Swedish. Last year we had two Blue Swedish ducks: Sophia and Diamond. Sophia died in the first predator attack, but Diamond is thriving in her new home. Blue Swedish are middle-weight and fairly laid-back ducks who, when they get past the flurry of new egg laying (when we were getting about an egg per day), lay about 100 to 150 eggs per year. We love Sally’s coloring: Her chest and face is speckled, unlike our previous Blue Swedish ducks who sported solid colors in these areas.

Cocoa

Cocoa is a camera-shy Chocolate Runner, a lightweight duck with a classic wine-bottle shape. Because of the way Runners hold their bodies, they don’t waddle so much as run. If you saw the movie Babe, you’ve seen a Runner in action. (Cocoa, however, doesn’t talk.) When Cocoa was a tiny duckling with tiny wings, she looked really comical next to her friends. While the other ducks sat lower to the ground and looked like ducklings, Cocoa stood upright, resembling a human with no arms. Cocoa is tiny, and it’s hard to believe she could ever squeeze out an egg, but Runners are also prolific layers, so we could see up to 300 eggs from her in a year.

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We’ve changed some of our security measures with the girls (more about that later) to try to prevent what we experienced last year. That said, we know that having waddling creatures in our backyard, which is right by a river, is a risk. It’s a risk farmers take every day, and one that almost every backyard poultry raiser has had to deal with in one way or another. We know we can mitigate the risk, but we’ll never be able to totally eliminate it. Seeing them forage in the yard or splash in their pool or come running for mealworms (our new herd-the-ducks method), and anticipating the wonderful eggs they’ll provide in the fall, I’m glad we took the leap and brought these girls home.

Welcome, Girls!

The Backyard Ecosystem

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(A lonely side garden, which held two dead bushes and some scrap when we moved in, is now home to dozens of pounds of pending potatoes.)

When I was on a recent trip, I left Phil what used to be referred to as a Honey-Do list (who comes up with these things)?, with the top item, starred and underlined: Hill Potatoes.

We’re growing a lot of potatoes this year. Every year we grow a few more, and this year we not only have some thriving ones I rescued, sprouting, from our pantry in the spring, but a couple of official varieties from Seed Savers Exchange. The one I’m most excited about is an all-purple number called Adirondack Blue. The four-year-old down the street who loves all things purple and sparkly was fascinated when we were planting it; she’s coming back to help dig them up in a couple of months.

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(See the touch of purple on the leaves of these Adirondack Blues?)

But hilling potatoes. If you haven’t planted potatoes, here’s the routine: You put a piece of potato, with a couple of eyes, in the ground fairly shallowly. The eyes start growing greenery that emerges from the ground, at which point you bury (hill) the greens to a couple of inches. You can do this several times to create a good mound that the underground potatoes can grow in. Later in the summer, two weeks after those greens have died, we’ll dig potatoes out of those hills. It’s all very exciting and treasure hunt-like.

So armed with his honey-do list, Phil went to our compost bin of aging kitchen scraps and our compost pile of aging garden waste and grabbed wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow load of dirt to hill the potatoes. Because I went overboard on potatoes this year, it took pretty much all of our usable composted dirt to finish the job, but since compost is renewable, starting from ground zero is really what you want.

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(It’s not the prettiest part of our yard, but it the compost corner does a lot of hard work.)

A few years ago, when we were just starting to garden, I had about lost it with the huge pile of leaves Phil had been piling for years in our back corner. One weekend I was planning to finally deal with the pile in the manner I learned when I was growing up: Bag them and leave them on the curb for the garbage man to take to the dump. I was also planning to go to Home Depot and get hundreds of pounds of plastic bagged dirt to fill the raised garden beds I’d just made. But when we dug into the leaf pile, we found that just below the surface of leaves was the most amazing, loamy soil. I filled the garden boxes with that soil and crossed two big tasks off the weekend to-do list.

While we live on just a small suburban lot of around a quarter acre, I’ve started noticing that the backyard is slowly becoming more self-sustaining with fewer trips to a garden shop to support my garden habit.

  • All of our kitchen scraps go into our compost bin, get turned periodically, and produce rich black dirt, teaming with earthworms.
  • Likewise, all of our yard waste (leaves, pulled plants) go into that leaf pile I raged against and slowly break down into great garden soil.

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(Garlic Jungle: Thriving in beds fortified with compost and covered in straw for the winter.)

  • The used duck bedding, rich with nitrogen (IF you know what I mean) gets either added to the leaf pile or used as a kill mulch to break down over the winter. To expand our garden, in the fall we’ve been laying down about 10 layers of newspaper and putting a thick layer of duck straw or composting leaves on top. This matter breaks down over the winter, and in the spring, the plot is ready to be planted. The expanding strip of garden next to our driveway began as turned-over sod, but the last couple of installments have been accomplished with kill mulch, and the mulch is MUCH easier, believe you me.

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(Well, hi, there, Dixie. Thanks for the kill mulch!)

  • When I want to give the ducks a treat, I grab a couple of pitchforks full of garden compost, which is always full of the insects and worms the girls love, and let them go to town. Between their snuffling for bugs and tromping the pile, the compost disappears in their enclosure, and the protein goes to making richer eggs for us in the fall when these girls start laying.
  • We’ve been trying to plant more butterfly- and bee-friendly plants like butterfly bushes, lavender, and garlic chives to keep the butterfly population safe and to bring more pollinators to our garden.

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(A butterfly bush about to bloom.)

  • Because I’m not yet ready to have beehives in our yard, we’ve been putting out bee houses, like this Mason bee house, to attract more bees. Mason bees don’t make honey, but are apparently 100 times the pollinators of honey bees; and word on the street is that they’re very gentle and don’t sting. I’ll let you know.

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(A new Mason bee house, waiting for occupants.)

When I was sitting on a plane recently, I stared out the window and started daydreaming about the day when we get farmland. And then I realized no one but me and Sylvia wants a farm, and the desires of a five-year-old can be fickle. But even if we never actually have a farm with tractors and horses and threatening calls from the mortgage company about our late payments, I figure we’re sort of building a mini-farm here, conveniently located a couple of blocks from Starbucks.

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Soap Love

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While I didn’t have true New Year’s Resolutions this year, I came up with a list of four skills I want to try and maybe gain some proficiency in during 2013. The list included basic woodworking (so I can make this headboard), pie-making, soap-making, and charcuterie.

I’ve made soap once before, from a kit. And, freaked out by having seen Fight Club, I drafted a friend with a Ph.D. in Biology, who wasn’t as afraid of lye as me, to co-make the soap. Jenny did about everything that directly involved lye, and I cheered her from the sidelines. When I realized it was actually pretty simple, and the chances of blinding yourself fairly remote if you just take a few precautions, I bought soap supplies and planned to make all our soap.

This was two years ago, and I had since talked myself back into thinking it was a dangerous hobby.

And then, inspired by my friend Sharon, who has turned into a one-woman soap factory, I got up the courage one day and, well, I made soap. I’ve now made four batches in the last month or so, and spend a lot of time daydreaming about what kind I’ll make next. Saturday night, after I got Sylvia to bed, I asked Phil to take a few pictures to show the process. (This is not a soap-making tutorial; just a document of what I did. Definitely find a good resource if you’re wanting to make soap.)

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First, I have learned to measure everything that isn’t caustic early on. I think the measuring and laying out of supplies, as well as cleanup, is about the most time-consuming piece. Actual hands-on soapmaking takes about 20 minutes. So I measure the water that the lye will be added to, as well as all the oils. If I’m adding fragrance, I measure that out and put out any other additives. Pretty much when I actually get down to soapmaking, all I have to measure is the lye.

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Then I melt down the hard oils. The recipe I used Saturday night uses vegetable shortening (Crisco), coconut oil, and olive oil. I measure the olive oil into the pot that I’ll make the soap in. I measure the Crisco and coconut oil into a microwave-safe container and heat them in the microwave until they melt.

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Now comes the scary part, or at least the part that frightened me away from soap making for years. Measuring the lye. You can’t see it, but I’m wearing eye protection as well as gloves. A lot of soap makers get cavalier after doing this for a while, but I’m always going to go the route of Safety First. The first time I measured lye without my Ph.D. soap-making buddy, my gloved hands were shaking as I opened the bottle. Fortunately, lye comes in crystals, so it’s fairly easy to work with and measure; I thought it would be a powder that could puff up and disfigure my face for life. In reality, you’d have to work fairly hard to burn yourself, especially if you’re wearing gloves and nerdy eye protection.

Once you measure the lye, you slowly add it to the pre-measured lye water, stirring until it’s completely dissolved. I was making this soap with a relative in mind who has a sensitivity to fragrance, so I wasn’t adding essential oils. Instead, I experimented with using green tea for the lye water; I’ve also done this with chamomile tea. Because I’m so new to this and every batch is an experiment, I was intrigued to find that the green tea turned dark brown when the lye was added to it. Who knew?

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One word of caution that every soap resource will scream out: You always add lye to water, not water to lye. Going in the opposite direction could cause a literal explosion, in which case burning yourself with lye would be a more realistic possibility.

Anyhoo, once the lye is added to the water, the lye water gets really hot and slight fumes can come off; I mix it in the sink in front of a window, and keep the window open a little to get some ventilation. You want the lye water to cool down to somewhere between 90 and 110 degrees. You can wait this out, or you can do like I do and add cold water and ice to a pan that the lye water container sits in; this will cool it down in about five minutes.

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Once the lye water is between 90 and 110 degrees, you add the melted solid oils to the liquid oil (making sure they’re also between 90 and 110 degrees), and then slowly pour in the lye water, so that it doesn’t splash.

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Now you get to blend the whole mixture with an immersion blender. This is a fun step because the soap transforms from this sort of liquidy clear stuff to a creamier mixture. You’ve hit what soap-makers call “trace” when lifting the blender (with it turned off!) leaves a sort of trail on the surface of the soap.

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At this point, I add in any fragrance oils and additives. While I wasn’t adding fragrance oils to this batch, I did put in some calendula petals–which, sadly, pretty much disappeared in the brown soap. Live and learn.

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Then I poured the soap into the lined soap mold, cleaned up, and waited until the next day to unmold the soap and cut it into bars. The bars have to dry for three or four weeks before they’re used; this eliminates some of the moisture and makes a harder, longer-lasting bar.

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A couple of resources I’ve loved as I’ve gotten started:

  • The book Smart Soapmaking is a tiny, self-published book of soap wisdom. This finally got me over my lye fear. Also, she is the first person to say that the lye water and oils need to both be in a range (90 to 110 degrees), but not the exact temperature. Almost every soap resource I’d read to this point claimed that those two things must be the exact same temperature, which can cause some real anxiety. I only have two hands.
  • I used this simple recipe for the soap I make here, with two changes. I upped the coconut oil by one ounce and decreased the olive oil by one ounce, as I found the original recipe made a fairly soft bar. Also, I doubled the recipe, as my cool new soap mold holds four pounds, and this recipe is for two pounds.

And now I’m off to do a little wood-working, pie-making, and charcuterie.

Guerilla Library

007When we lived in Brooklyn, space-strapped neighbors would often shed extra items by leaving them on their stoops. It was a lot less trouble than a trip to Goodwill or organizing a stoop sale, and just about anything you left was picked up by a neighbor. Phil and I found and subsequently left a lot of books this way. The only downside to this informal stuff swap was that we were all trained that anything on a stoop was fair game. So when my landlord and his kids were out playing, got hot, shed their jackets on the stoop, and went for a walk, they came home to an empty stoop.

I’ve missed this neighborly swap culture since we left, so was thrilled on Saturday when I took the long way home from dropping Max off at a friend’s house and found this front-yard, weather-proofed informal book swap a few blocks from our house. When I got home, Sylvia and I found a few books to donate, got on our coats, and took a walk.

I left an extra copy I had of the best book I read last year, The Fault in Our Stars by Indianapolis resident John Green. To say “I had an extra copy” sounds passive — like I just noticed two copies on our bookshelf. Actually, I’d recently seen a copy of the first printing that Green famously signed, and re-bought the book. So sorry, neighbors, your copy is not signed.

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Sylvia left a couple of her board books she was finished with, thus expanding the offerings into the sippy-cup set.

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With tons of books on my shelf and Kindle that I haven’t yet read, I was willing to just drop off some books and go, but Sylvia insisted on picking out a book for herself.

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We headed home, but we’ll be visiting often to drop off gems we want to share with neighbors. In fact, once the duck coop is reinforced for this spring’s new residents, maybe I’ll try my own hand at woodworking and add a Central Avenue branch to the guerilla library.

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The Ordinary and the Extraordinary

Last Thursday, December 13, was Tommy’s Peace program, what in the old days would have been called our Christmas music program. Sometimes these music programs happen at nearby high schools in the district, but this one took place in Tom’s school. I was meeting Phil and the kids, and Phil warned me on my way from work that the gym was packed; when I arrived, I stood in the back huddled between a grandma and a business-suited dad for a while, and then I was able to find Phil and the kids and squeeze in with them by keeping Sylvia on my lap.

The kindergarteners played instruments. Tommy’s primary group sang and signed “Peace Like a River.” The secondary students did a great rendition of “We Go Together,” from Grease, with Hand Jive-like hand motions. The newly formed glee club squeezed into the available space and worked through their dance moves to “The Way You Are,” featuring an opening boy solo that about killed me, he was so sweet and earnest, and a closing, Glee-like bring-it-on-home girl solo.

Right before the last song, “Joy To the World” (the “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” version), Tom’s music teacher said to start the tape, and after a couple of notes of opening music, the tape went flukey; we all looked at each other, patient with these kind of technical issues in an elementary school music program. And then the flukiness segued to “Gangnam Style,” and suddenly a group of kids we hadn’t noticed was in the front, dancing in unison, Gangnam Style. Teachers joined in. The dozens of students on the bleachers hadn’t been in on the joke, orchestrated by a fun-loving fifth grader named Frankie, but started dancing along, too. I looked over and saw Tommy, who alternates between exuberance and reticence, swinging his arm in the air in carefree circles. The kids’ sponteneity was as moving as if they’d done a quiet version of “Silent Night” and lit candles.

After that happy interlude, the kids did all sing “Joy to the World.” Tom’s principal, who has been with the school for years and brings her therapy dog to school every day, got up to thank the parents for showing such support we packed out the gym. Her voice caught a little, something I’d not heard in six years of our kids attending the school, when she recognized “these wonderful children” and how they’d done such a beautiful job. After the program, we went to Steak and Shake, Tommy’s restaurant choice; he got to choose because he had been the performer. It was a beautiful, ordinary night in years of our having children. Nothing extraordinary, and yet completely extraordinary.

The next day, as events unfolded in Connecticut, I wondered how many parents had had similar ordinary, magical nights with their children. It’s impossible to hear of the tragedy and not to think of the Christmas lists compiled, the Elves on the Shelves moved after bedtime, the little quibbles over Minecraft houses, the uncomfortable seating at a packed music program.

Raising kids is a hassle. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s exhausting and infuriating and expensive. They’ll push your buttons and pluck your last nerve. But it is also awe-inspiring. My heart is so broken for the parents who lost kids or whose children had to witness and experience things no child, or adult, should have to.

I left work a little early Friday because I had to see my kids. I got home and there was nothing different from any other evening when I come home: Sylvia ran out to greet me, Max was looking at his iPod Touch, Tom was playing with a friend. All ordinary, and all extraordinary. I’m so thankful for this gift, and truly hope the families in Newtown find some little bit of peace this season.

The Harsh Fall

So instead of Cindy writing this post Max is.  I am writing this to inform all of the readers that we have had a very sad week.  This week, since Thanksgiving was coming we decided to go to Michigan were my mom grew up and have Thanksgiving there.  But the day before we left my mom tried to put the ducks away and they wouldnt go in the enclosure. So my mom tried four times and they still wouldn’t go in. When my mom went out the fifth time one of the ducks was on the deck standing alone. She was alive but they never did that. My mom went inside, got a flashlight and looked around. She found another duck running across the backyard torwards her.  Then she found two ducks dead five feet away from each other. My mom ran inside and called my dad. We think that it was a weasel that killed the ducks. They both picked up a shovel and carried both of the ducks and burried them.

After that we went to Michigan and gave the duck sitter strict instructions not to let the ducks out. They duck sitters did there job and did not let them out of the enlosure.  On Sunday, my mom let them out of the enclosure because they really wanted to stretch their wings. Then Sunday, I came home from a sleepover and was going to put the ducks in there enclosure and I heard quacking and thought they would be fine but I turned my head and there was a hawk eating Khakadi. I screamed and ran in the house and told my parents. They ran outside with me, Tommy, Sylvia. I ran over to my neighbor’s house and told them what had happened. Our neighbor Bob came over with his two metal rakes, and we eventually scared the hawk up into a tree. We grabbed Diamond and ran to the enclosure. Once she was safe inside we called my mom’s friend Sharon. My mom asked her if Diamond could stay with her and her animals for the the winter.  We took her over that night and all in all Diamond seemed pretty happy with her new friends.

We are very sad that we lost three ducks we loved, but we’re happy Diamond won’t spend the winter alone. She has three ducks and seven chickens to keep her company, and a pond to swim in. She seemed very happy after her hard week.