February 13, 2017
In Eastern Ontario turkey vultures arrived in 1969. We didn’t know what these strange birds were. Thinking it was a goose, my room-mate from Toronto shot one. That was my one up-close encounter with this spectacularly ugly bird. Its beak was strange. I could see through it: a big hole for nostrils with what must have been scenting equipment lying below the holes. But the consistency of the beak was even stranger. It reminded me a great deal of my thumb nail, flexible and not very thick.
A Canada Goose would be a more formidable predator than this critter.
While commuting to Smiths Falls for my first teaching job I began to pay attention to these ungainly birds after I noticed how a pair had figured out Hwy. 15 traffic. A tasty bit of carrion lay on the pavement near the centre line on an open section of road. These two evidently had decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to fly away from their feast every time a car came by. They simply stepped across the centre line to the other lane and waited for me to pass. That was pretty smart.
Turkey vultures always loved the buildings on the farm, especially the tall Victorian house jutting up from the side of the hill. I gradually realized that the expert sail planers were using the air currents for altitude. A couple of loops around the roof of the brick house on a hot day and the bird would be off on his afternoon glide. The lazy birds love to glide, and put considerable intelligence into perfecting their craft.
Many years later I was forced to abandon the barn on the property when the foundation collapsed but the timbers still held the thing in place a few feet downhill from its original position. It was too dangerous to enter. Expecting a quiet abode due to the diminished activity, a pair of ravens spent the late winter building a nest somewhere on the second floor, but then they abandoned it because I persisted in mowing the lawn around the barn. A family of vultures sat on the peak of the smooth metal roof of the barn and pondered these developments. Eventually they decided that my wife and I were harmless, though they made themselves scarce if strangers came around.
So for the last three years we’ve gotten to know a group of five turkey vultures. It’s clear their evolutionary advantage is their brain power. They recognize human faces. They observe. One of the summers I conducted trench warfare with the local raccoon population over a stand of sweet corn in my garden. After I had live-trapped and euthanized sixteen raccoons and had harvested a mere three dozen ears of corn, I gave up. By that time the vultures had learned that if I started my UTV and drove it down the hill to the garden, game was afoot. They’d be circling my carcass-dumping ground in a distant field by the time I got there.
Waking up in the morning is a chore for turkey vultures. The sun gradually thaws them out and they extend their wings a little bit and they seem to freeze there. Then the wings go out a little further to let the dew dry off. Much later, someone will try a tentative flap or two. Eventually one will catch a breeze and lift off the peak of the barn.
Then one morning I watched a sleepy vulture put a foot wrong and begin to slide down the long, smooth slope of the roof. He didn’t panic and flap, just controlled his slide, gained speed, and gently lifted off in a glide. From then on more and more of them tried this approach at the first hint of a breeze in the morning. They seemed to get a big kick out of their playground slide.
This year it was clear that someone was nesting in the barn, rather than merely using it as a roost. That fact slipped my mind when I needed a trailer wheel from the abandoned barn, so I wiggled through a collapsing door, hopped four feet across a chasm onto the rickety second floor, and with some trepidation located the trailer wheel. I heard a scuffle behind me and turned around to see a large turkey vulture frantically trying to fly straight up and over a beam 14′ in the air, and then make her way across two other similar beams and down through the open door to the other bay of the barn.
Turkey vultures don’t look all that big when they’re 200′ in the air. Inside an empty hay mow, trying to escape, the same bird is huge.
After the insult to his mate, the largest of the birds circled me steadily whenever I was outside the house. Then I guess he forgave me.
A couple of months later the barn fell down. It was far from sudden. At first it sounded like a heavily-loaded farm wagon being towed down the paved hill road, over bumps, but with no wheels. This went on for about fifteen minutes, amid a great cloud of dust. It had been very dry. The lime mortar in one section of the wall must have failed and the wall fell apart.
The vultures were quite perturbed about this noisy re-location of their home, but they continued to perch on the collapsed roof for several days, then one by one they went away. Except for one. She maintained a vigil over her lost nest for two weeks to the day. Others came back to visit her, but I don’t think she left to feed or drink, though I wasn’t watching all of the time. And then she was gone.
I should mention in conclusion that I detest pigeons because of their filthy habits. Our turkey vultures were very tidy birds: there were no streaks on the steel of the barn roof, even after years of summer roosting. As neighbours they were polite and clean. While up close they were far from beautiful, when aloft they moved with grace and elegance.
Not bad neighbours at all.
February 12, 2017
Over the last week I’ve been up to my elbows in barn demolition, a massive, high-budget job. The excavator arrived Tuesday and worked until mid-morning Friday. The knoll below the barn foundation is now festooned with hewn 35′ ash timbers on display for buyers.
The rest sits in massive piles: crumpled metal shingles, hay and broken wood, barn boards, choice hardwood accumulated over 40 years, roofing boards, rafters, feeding racks, old hay, and so on.
My immediate job was to rescue as much of the hardwood as I could in the face of the onslaught of the excavator. Of course everything was icy, and my landing area was uphill from the work site. My two 35 hp tractors have implements on them and couldn’t tow. The ancient trailer-hauler, the Massey-Harris 30, wouldn’t spark.
In desperation I pressed the little Kubota into service. It starts very well in winter. Its 4WD system with turf tires grips surprisingly well on icy snow. With trailer-loads of lumber it needed low range to climb the hill, but balked only on one occasion with an overloaded 6X11 tandem. Turned out the Massey Ferguson 35, even with the help of sand, couldn’t get the load up the hill, either. I had to use the winch.
The icy surface the 21 hp Kubota had worked on routinely was more than a conventional 2WD tractor could handle. The short wheelbase of the B7510 and its hydraulic drive made complex manoeuvres much easier in the frigid north wind around the lumber piles. With assorted lengths on every load, I’d move the trailer between piles, leaving the little diesel to idle while I worked.
With an excavator on site it’s easy to maintain a rubbish fire: just start it up, reach over to a pile, grab a bucketful with the thumb, drop it on the fire. It’s a lot more work to do the same thing with a pair of gloves and a pitchfork. I’m reluctant to risk one of the loader tractors on the barn-floor burn area for fear of damage to the calcium-loaded rear tires. The Kubota’s non-loaded tires would be much easier to repair, if punctured. If I mounted the winch on it, I’d have pulling power, as well as a very rugged 5′ blade on the back. This seems a brutal job for the lawn mower, but one fall the little Bolens pulled a lot of cordwood out to the logging road. It couldn’t tow a log, but it would sit crossways on the road and winch with the p.t.o. quite effectively.
January 31, 2017
The family pool vehicle is a 2008 Scion xB, purchased used from the Smiths Falls Honda dealership when we collectively decided that my mother’s beloved Honda CRV was too old for her to drive safely any more. Mom and I picked the car because it was the easiest thing on the lot to get into and exit because of its height-adjustable front seats. Very few cars for sale in North America have height-adjustable passenger seats.
The Florida-import posed a few difficulties for Mom in that the heater controls were counter-intuitive to an elderly person used to her Honda. Nonetheless, it was mechanically sound and she drove it until her eighty-eighth year.
Then the car became a pool vehicle, used primarily for ferrying Mom around, but also available when another family car was out of the country, broken down, or on loan to a friend. It had proven a favourite to leave in airport parking lots, for example.
Understandably, a machine this low on the depth chart would sit for considerable periods of time between uses. It’s always been pretty reliable. It needed ignition coils and plugs last year, but that’s been it.
But then it started to sputter when I was turning around after a visit to the Scott Island Ferry. Barely got home. Error codes blamed cylinder #3, then #2, Then 1, 2, 3 and 4, finally settling on 1 and 2. What the???
I went back to United Auto Parts in Smiths Falls where I had bought the coils and recounted my tale of woe to the guy in there who is both older and balder than me. I asked if there was some magic solution which would make the fuel injection system work, because I had no idea how to fix fuel injectors, and a new computer was too expensive.
“I use Sea Foam.” He walked over to a counter and handed me a can. “It’s very quick. Put it in and run the engine for ten minutes and see.”
I tried it and it worked. The Scion is restored to service again. I still don’t know what the problem was, but it was somewhere between fuel and injectors, and it’s better now. So I guess this is a testimonial to one of those products that line the shelves of parts stores which I have never noticed before.
January 25, 2017
Sean Spicer seems determined to protect Donald Trump from his own fabrications. This requires a level of intellectual dishonesty inconsistent with the correct use of English grammar. Look at the sentence below which I culled from today’s Toronto Star:
“He believes what he believes based on the information he was provided,” said Spicer, who provided no evidence to back up the president’s statements.
The use of the noun clause what he believes indicates a relatively sophisticated intelligence in that it indicates a willingness to deal with a known unknown.
But then comes the dreadful passive construction based on the information he was provided. Nobody believes the voice who utters a clunker like this. It’s a childish attempt to hide either the facts, or the lack of facts. It’s a passive “The front window was broken” when only the active “I broke the front window” will do.
So what’s wrong with Spicer? He uses the passive voice. The information he was provided will not do it. The White House Press Corps, the American People, and certainly we, Canadians, will have no use for him until he uses the active voice exclusively and he shows the source of every single bit of information which crosses his podium.
It’s all in the grammar.
January 24, 2017
If Trump’s crew continue with their program of alternative facts, what if journalists created an alternative president? What could Trump do if CNN, BBC, CBC, Reuters and other media outlets reported thoughts and activities of Mike Pence as though he were already Head of State? How long would it take for White House sycophants to catch on and switch their allegiance? A gradual increase of Pence standing could lessen the load of expectations for which Trump is clearly not prepared.
If world leaders denied standing to Trump and looked instead to Pence, could the Donald’s lies and loose-cannon rants be contained before he does any real damage? A figurehead president, Rapunsel-like, could live out his term away from the White House, pressing buttons on a mere video-game representation of World politics, and given his lack of interest in real input, remain none the wiser.
Over the years the Tower of London has housed kings and pretenders in similar fashion. This is not a new idea.
January 20, 2017
Today conditions were perfect for a bit of exercise, so I began to gather up slash left over from the trimming job on a stand of ten-year-old white pines.
Last fall a contractor offered the trimming in return for the pine needles which he sells in Toronto for wreaths at Christmas. The crew came back a couple of weeks later and dutifully trimmed the stubby branches off the trees, but I decided if I got a chance I’d clean up under the canopy so that I could mow it once or twice a year.
Five loads of branches transported to a burn pile were enough for today. If the weather holds I’ll get back at it. There’s little danger of running out of branches to gather in the near future: these rows are 700′ long.
Of course the best part is the unloading: just back up to the pile and flick a lever. The trailer dumps itself. A little overcapitalized? Maybe, but it’s fun.
January 15, 2017
A few years ago I let a Netherlands blogger post this. Last time I looked it had received 8000 hits. Europeans and South Africans seem particularly interested in driving on a huge sheet of glare ice.
Later on in life a man may forget the name of his first love, but he will never forget the intimate details of his first new car. Mine was a yellow 1973 VW Beetle Custom. I chose the Custom model rather than the Superbeetle, because I was skeptical of those newfangled MacPherson struts — thought they were a fad, and CV joints looked to be a maintenance nightmare.
The Beetle was a great car on the road, especially after I replaced the stock bias-ply tires with oversized radials. The thing was amazing on ice: just how amazing I was to discover one Sunday afternoon in February.
The Big Rideau had watered up in mid-winter, leaving a triangular, five-mile expanse of perfectly glare ice. This was too much to resist. Gingerly I drove on at Portland and worked my way up through the gears, getting the feel of the unfamiliar car on the unfamiliar surface. Everything seemed quite well balanced, so I got up into 4th gear and settled into a cruising speed at what I considered the limit of adhesion, 68 miles per hour.
A Ford Courier with a cement mixer in the back came up behind me and then pulled ahead. This would not do. Determined to catch this upstart, I gradually sped up. The Beetle complained, squirmed a bit, then, resigned, settled in all the way up to 80. All of the sudden everything let go at once. There was no gradually-increasing oscillation which normally leads to a spin-out with a Beetle. Nope. All of the sudden I was spinning like a top.
This was quite an interesting sensation: on a zero-traction plane, you go from a vector of 80 mph north to a similar vector counting in about sixty revolutions per minute. I’d never spun that fast or for that long. I started to worry about oil pressure, so I shut the engine off and shifted into neutral. Still spinning, not even slowing, I turned on the tape deck. It worked fine. I was still a mile from any shore and still spinning, so I just settled back and enjoyed the ride.
Eventually the back wheels caught up and the Beetle coasted to a stop. The Ford Courier was long gone over the horizon. I started up again and continued my tour. A new Corvette blew by me, and I chose not to take up the chase. After about an hour of glare-ice driving and a tour to Rideau Ferry and back I had a pretty good feel for the car. 68 miles per hour remained the optimal cruising speed on ice.
The Beetle served us faithfully for ten years and 130 thousand miles. Then it received new floorboards and lived with my cousin for another three. Its only ill-effect from its many off-road adventures was that when we sold the car it was 1 ½ inches longer than when it was new. My dad’s horses had had to tow it quite a lot, sometimes out of ditches, and sometimes like a toboggan over the snowdrifts to the ploughed road. A couple of times I buried the thing while driving on the crust. Once, disgusted, my dad made me wait until spring to recover it. I had to use my wife’s Datsun for a month until the snow melted. What a grouch!
We got rid of the Beetle when our new son arrived. The Rabbit was much safer, but useless off-road. My dad could hardly contain his relief, but two months later he bought his new grandson an army surplus Jeep to drive around the farm.