The cranes are here!

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There are so many benefits to living where we do now, including but not limited to lots of fresh, local fruit in the summer. But just now, coming off a long, dark winter, we’re most excited to see one of the true harbingers of spring: the greater sandhill crane on its annual migration between New Mexico and the Yellowstone ecosystem (northern Idaho and Montana).

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Greater sandhill cranes are big, gorgeous, elegant birds; adults stand about four feet tall and have a six-foot wingspan. They’re most easily recognized by their sooty gray coloring and the red patches on their eyes and head, and that they flock by the thousands. Their plumage can take on a rusty red sheen, because they often preen by rubbing their feathers with iron-rich mud.

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In Colorado, a flock of about twenty thousand birds gathers in February and March in the San Luis Valley, where they rest and forage before heading further north. About five thousand of these birds then make their way straight over Delta County, where we live, often stopping at Fruitgrowers’ Reservoir just to the east of our farm.

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Greater sandhill cranes are the oldest birds still living today; fossil records from two and a half million years ago indicate that they’ve changed hardly at all. Rock art and other artifacts in the San Luis Valley show that cranes have been important to the region’s people for as long humans have inhabited the area. Their annual migration is a sure sign that we’ve survived another winter, and spring is on its way.

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Sandhill cranes sleep in shallow, calm water to keep themselves safe from predators, so a reservoir like Fruitgrowers’ is a perfect stopover location. These birds are opportunistic feeders; they most often eat plants and grains, but they’ll also feast on invertebrates and small mammals, if available. The Western Slope and the San Luis Valley offer thousands of acres of fallow cornfields in which to forage.

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The cranes are most active at dawn and dusk when they “commute” to and from their daytime feeding grounds. The population along the Platte River in Nebraska is so large – half a million birds – that the cranes’ noise can drown out normal conversation. Sandhill cranes have a distinctive call, and the birds can frequently be heard even when they can’t be seen. The cranes are often spotted along the same transitory route in fall, but they rarely stop over in Delta County. Local experts believe this is because the reservoir is dry in the autumn, so there is no place to for the birds to sleep safely.

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Although sandhill cranes aren’t quite as demonstrative as the famous dancing prairie chicken, the birds will perform for their prospective mate. Sandhill cranes mate for life and can live up to twenty years, a remarkable lifespan for a wild bird. These cranes don’t nest here in Colorado but instead lay their eggs up north; the female typically lays two eggs and the male guards the nest. It takes a month for the eggs to hatch and two months for the chicks to reach maturity, although only one chick usually survives.

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We are thrilled to share space with these magnificent birds, and we look forward to their migration every spring.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing the cranes in huge numbers, the two best locations are Monte Vista in southern Colorado and along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Both are definitely worth the trip!

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Farm update: February 25

It hasn’t really been the most exciting week here on Quiet Farm, dear readers. We’ve been busy with boring but grown-up things like obtaining contractor quotes for electrical refits and game fencing (tedious), comparison shopping for auto insurance (horrible), changing oil in the cars (chilly), and taxes (the new 1040 is rather streamlined!). While necessary, none of those tasks make for very interesting tales.

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Like a real farmer!

Winter continues its slog. After another six inches of fresh powder we did finally see our bluebird sky again, which was a welcome change. N borrowed our neighbor’s tractor to do some plowing; we’ve also been out shopping for our own tractor and ATV, since our current Snow Management Plan – i.e. ignore it and hope it melts – is definitely not panning out.

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All this just to protect some vegetables!

This uninspiring pile of materials is the beginning of our game fence. We can’t install it until the ground is a little more workable, and the hungry deer are taking full advantage of their current unrestricted freedom. We thought seriously about installing the fence ourselves, but once we realized we’d need to rent heavy equipment (skid-steer, auger and probably some other complicated, expensive, possibly dangerous things) we decided to hire it out. It’s going to cost us many thousands of dollars, but some jobs should be left to the professionals. We hope the deer will learn to respect our boundaries.

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

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One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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A helpful guide to Quiet Farm wildlife

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Lots of people move out to the country to escape from society and get closer to nature. (We did.) This is all well and good, but more often than not that human-wildlife interface becomes difficult for both sides. On the Front Range, for example, dozens of black bears are killed by wildlife officials every year because they show little or no fear of humans and are regularly caught breaking into homes and businesses to scavenge for food. Many more are hit by cars. Mostly, this is because we continue to encroach on the bears’ territory, and because ignorant humans continue to place unsecured trash in places where the bears can access it.

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Here on Quiet Farm, then, one of our biggest challenges will be how to live in harmony with our local wildlife, rather than against them. For us, deer pressure will absolutely be the largest issue we face. There are thousands of deer in the nearby area, both whitetail and mule; we’re also surrounded on three sides by apple orchards, which attract deer and lots of other creatures who love fresh, crunchy apples, too. As we plan our vegetable beds for next season we’re still debating how best to protect those vegetables from the deer; these animals can do thousands of dollars of damage in one hungry night and we have no interest in opening an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

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The photos we didn’t take

N took a lot of remarkable photos during our round-the-world trip, but you won’t see us riding elephants, cradling sea turtles, posing for selfies with tiger cubs or swimming with captive dolphins. (We’ve certainly swum with wild dolphins in the middle of the ocean, but we don’t have the photos to prove it.)

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Animal tourism is all of a sudden a hot topic. Last year, SeaWorld announced that it would cease its controversial orca captive breeding program. In May, Ringling Brothers Circus performed its last show; ticket revenue had dwindled for years once the animal attractions were eliminated. And last autumn, TripAdvisor – one of the world’s largest ticket sellers for tourist attractions worldwide – announced that they would no longer sell tickets to most animal attractions. All of these stories, and many more, clearly indicate that knowledge about this topic is growing, and quickly.

A recent Oxford University study indicated that between two and four million visitors per year pay to visit animal attractions that are considered harmful to animal welfare. Most of this is done out of ignorance, not cruelty. If you’re an American tourist, for example, you might assume that other countries have strict standards for the animals’ health and wellbeing (even though America doesn’t). The reality, however, is that most animal attractions are in desperately poor countries, and the “trainers” might be impoverished people simply looking to feed their family. The possibility of strict regulations, competent oversight or of punishments meted out for violations, is laughable just about everywhere.

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As such, animal tourism was a major issue during much of our trip, particularly in southeast Asia. If you visit Thailand for the first time, one of the things you’ll notice quickly is that elephants are ubiquitous. They’re used in high-end art and on cheap tourist trinkets.

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Elephants advertise beer here too.

Their elegant silhouette can be seen everywhere, and nowhere more glaringly than in the racks and racks of tourist brochures found outside just about every restaurant and guesthouse in Chiang Mai, where these photos were all taken. (Please know that elephant riding and other abusive animal tourism is available all over Asia; we just spent the most time in Thailand and therefore found its constant and unrelenting promotion here particularly overwhelming.)

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Look at all the options you have! Definitely go for the cheapest one. The animals like it there best.

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Notice words like happysanctuary and home? These places are anything but.

Many people don’t know that elephants aren’t physiologically designed to be ridden. Despite seeming sort of like a giant, floppy horse, elephants’ spines aren’t built to support weight. Plus, elephants are fundamentally wild animals, and in order to be “domesticated” enough for tourists, they have their spirits broken. They’re also naturally social creatures with intricate familial relationships, and in these camps they typically exist in solitude. And adult females are routinely slaughtered in order to capture wild calves. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the idea. Elephants are not supposed to be a tourist attraction.

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Tired of this lecture? We haven’t even discussed cuddling tiger cubs yet! Tigers aren’t like house cats and they’re not thrilled about you pawing them. Most of the “tiger sanctuaries” in Asia sedate the tigers before letting the tourists in, just to ensure that the creatures are docile enough to avoid incidents. Oh, and sometimes they’re heavily involved in wildlife trafficking, too! Really some good people here. Absolutely give them your money.

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Don’t these look like fun? The animals are absolutely thrilled to have such an opportunity to enhance your vacation.

Or perhaps you’d rather donate your money a little closer to home, to a place like Lion’s Gate in Colorado, which recently euthanized all of its animals even after other sanctuaries volunteered to take the lions, tigers and bears. These people do not care a fig about animal welfare, and don’t let the cute pictures make you think otherwise. Animal attractions rake in billions of dollars every year, and since there is massive profit to be made from charging people to “experience” (i.e. unintentionally mistreat) animals, it will continue to happen.

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Could we discuss how animal tourism provides jobs and livelihoods in some of the world’s poorest countries? Of course. Should we talk about zoos, which in some places are top-notch research and breeding facilities and in other places absolute horror shows, especially when the population is starving? Sure. Maybe we can discuss the fact that – at least in America – we raise animals for food in horrifying conditions and most people aren’t particularly bothered about that so why shouldn’t we mistreat them for our entertainment, too? And in response to all those hypotheticals, I would argue: because we as humans are better than that. Or at least we should be.

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The advertisements for the animal attractions are literally everywhere.

People who visit animal tourism attractions are typically people who love animals. They want to get up close and personal with fascinating creatures they don’t often encounter, and they’re willing to pay for that privilege. But the Oxford study demonstrated that as many as 80% of these people will visit animal attractions and post positive reviews online, without acknowledging the risks to the animals’ health and welfare. They argue that they really love tigers – they were even born in the Year of the Tiger! – so just one selfie with a drugged tiger cub won’t hurt. Because it shows their social media feed how much they love tigers! It is simply not acceptable, friends. Just as the way America currently raises most of its animals for food isn’t acceptable, neither is this.

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If you made it all the way to the end of this post, thank you. We’ve written about this because we think it’s important and we hope you do too. Please, if you’re considering visiting any sort of animal tourism attraction – whether in the U.S. or overseas – do your research, and don’t just fool yourself with glowing online reviews. Use your common sense and ask yourself whether a large, predatory and naturally solitary animal like a tiger really wants to be handled by human beings for endless hours each day. Not all animal attractions are necessarily poorly managed or abusive, but the bad ones definitely outweigh the good ones.

We say it a lot, but vote with your wallet – refuse to support organizations or attractions that promote any sort of animal cruelty (looking at you, Tyson, Hormel and countless others). This is especially relevant if you’re traveling in the Third World, but as we know from films like Blackfish, we’re to blame here in the U.S. as well. We write a lot about animal welfare on this site, and that’s true not only for what we eat, but what we exploit for entertainment, too. How you choose to spend your money matters, always – and the recent policy changes from major companies like SeaWorld and TripAdvisor shows that they’re paying attention to your choices. Use those choices wisely.

Monkey hot pot

N was very keen on visiting the famous snow monkeys near Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. We traveled by train from our farm in the little mountains up into the serious mountains where at least a foot of fresh powder had just fallen. This is the largest skiing area in Asia, a network of nineteen different resorts spread over thousands of acres.

Snow monkeys, or more accurately Japanese macaques, are native to Japan and found all over the country, but nowhere do they behave like they do at Jigokudani. During spring, summer and fall, the nomadic monkeys have plenty of food high up the steep forest slopes and are rarely seen, but in winter they’re forced to search harder for sustenance. The park opened in 1964 after a local railway employee started feeding the monkeys in winter.

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These monkeys are known for their particular habit of bathing in the natural hot springs that also draw so many visitors to the area. Legend has it that one baby monkey decided to dip a toe into the hot springs and found it very much to his liking. He introduced his family to the wonders of the local onsen and the rest, as they say, is history. Once park rangers figured out that the monkeys would bathe in the hot pools during the winter, they built a small pool along a river with pathways where visitors can observe the monkeys at close range (for a fee, of course).

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What makes this place so special is that the monkeys are neither disturbed by nor interested in the human visitors. Visitors are told explicitly not to bring food either for themselves or the monkeys, and as long as that rule is followed the monkeys are perfectly happy to go about their daily activities unfazed by the throngs. Monkeys will walk right by you, sometimes climbing over you if you’re impeding their path, but they’re neither aggressive nor timid. It’s a remarkable experience – as close as possible to actually seeing animals living in their natural habit without the restrictions of a zoo, but safe for both monkeys and humans.

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The monkeys have carefully structured family groups and are constantly involved in small skirmishes, foraging and grooming. They also seem to love frolicking in the snow, followed of course by some relaxing hot tubbing. Seeing the monkeys in the hot pools is really funny, if only because they act so human.

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The best part about the experience is that while there were hundreds of people there, everyone was extremely respectful. It was very quiet and very peaceful; no one shouted at or harassed or teased the animals, and the pathways weren’t littered with trash. It is the only place in the world where these macaques can be observed so closely, and it was absolutely worth the travel effort to see these fascinating creatures.

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