There are over a dozen major calendars used throughout the globe—Hebrew, Chinese, Ethiopian, Islamic, Persian, and of course, the Gregorian which is what the majority of us use for legal and business purposes. However, there is another type of calendar of sorts. One that follows no movements of the sun and moon, no auspicious numbers, no designation of standards, yet thousands have faithfully followed its dates and seasons for millennia. I’m talking about the calendar of nature to which those of us in agrarian endeavors often follow.
How would you feel if your calendar were a moving target with some seasons longer than others, that seem to go backwards at time, skip around at others, or worse yet, fail to appear at all?
Welcome to farming.
This was on my mind after I walked down to the barn this week and saw the first heron of the year on the pond. Herons don’t randomly show up. For it to land on the pond, the pond itself must have what the heron wants: food. That means that turtles, snakes, fish and other small critters are starting to poke their heads out from winter. Along with the herons the Bald Eagles arrive because—you guessed it—Bald Eagles eat herons. I don’t even have to see the great birds of prey because the livestock guardian dogs will tell me they have arrived with their specific intruder alert barking as they race across the pasture following the silhouette in the sky.
On social media, Spiral Path Farm began counting down the weeks until their first harvests begin with an image of stubby red rhubarb buds peeking through the ground. I went outside to check on mine and yes, there they were, too. But nature’s calendar is still a bit wonky as I have not spied any groundhog activity despite their official day now over three weeks passed.
The birds, though, are my favorite bellwethers of changing seasons. Occurring now is the telltale sound of woodpeckers excavating nest cavities in which they will lay their eggs. As I walked under the big maple tree by the barn the ground was littered with wood chips and dust. Looking up, an assortment of holes started and abandoned for different spots on a dead spur were evident, a few possibly deep enough to house a clutch of eggs.
The Great Horned Owls have been quite active. They make an assortment of vocalizations that few would immediately recognize as an owl. The Barn Owls who nest in the abandoned silo have yet to be seen or heard. They are extremely territorial and a few times each year I get buzzed by them on my walk back to the house from the barn at dusk. The first time it happened I screamed like a little girl. While the rush of air off the wings so close and unexpected is startling, I now understand they are simply asking for some privacy.
Like clockwork, the fledgling owlets will take their first flight out the top hatch on the full moon in late July/early August swooping from the silo across the hay field to the woodlot. Back and forth they will fly with their parents learning to hunt mice, voles and other small critters that live in the grass.
Several years ago after the young had fledged, I went into the silo to see their nest. A perfect owl feather had been left behind. I snatched it up and wore it in my hat the following Sunday to market. But the reaction to my adornment wasn’t what I expected.
“Hand over the feather and I won’t make a big deal of it,” said one of my regulars.
“No way, this came from the owls in the old silo. It’s mine,” I joked back. But the gentleman wasn’t joking. He pulled out his Federal Wildlife Marshall’s badge and informed me that I was in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. When he told me what the fine could be for my offence I quickly relinquished the feather. He then educated me on which feathers from wild birds I’d be allowed to wear in my hat. Fortunately, wild turkeys were safe. They, too, have a timetable on the farm, but more of a daily routine.
Tom (male) turkeys in the wild have harems and territories. I have counted as many as seven groups some years. One male will begin gobbling at dawn and they will go down the line and back several times. This ritual will be repeated in the evening, too. Without looking at my iPhone, a clock or a watch, I can hear when it is time to wake up in the morning or finish up my daylight projects.
But my favorite migrants are the hummingbirds. Last summer was a banner year for the tiny iridescent precision flying nectar drinkers with me filling the two feeders every other day to meet their demands. I’ve learned what flowers they like best and try to surround my house with them. Like the wild turkeys, the hummers are fiercely territorial with epic open-air battles. One flew into my house and refused to leave despite all the windows and doors being open. I learned that hummingbirds, like the chickens roost when it gets dark making it easy to snatch them off their perches.
There will be Blue Birds and Baltimore Orioles, Red-winged Blackbirds, crows and buzzards. When the hay gets mowed the Barn Swallows with swarm scooping up in mid-air all the flying insects that rise from the sheared grasses. I was heartbroken when contractors who rewired the electricity in the barn had to remove all the mud thatched nests the swallows had built on the beams. Would they return? Indeed, they did rebuilding their nests in exactly the same spots.
While I am forced to follow standardized measures of hours, days, weeks, months and years, it is nature whom I prefer to alert me to the passage of time.