Posts tagged backyard pond

Freedom Has a Price

If you were given a choice between living your life in the safety of a cage or being given the freedom to roam free, which would you choose? It seems like a ludicrous question to ask of people but what is the answer when you are keeping chickens and ducks? At the Queendom, we have opted for freedom. In the ~1500 days that we have had our free-ranging flock, we have lost only two hens to predators and had one near-miss. In light of those statistics, it seems criminal to keep these birds caged. Deep down, we know that we could lose our whole flock in a single day. But we believe that our flocks are living the most natural life that livestock can live and that, even if they were all killed, at least they lived well.

But our philosophy has recently been put to the test. In the short span of 16 days, we lost our entire flock of ducks. Seven ducks and one chicken (Trooper) gone. Picked off, one by one, until there were none.

In May, FM came home with six Runner ducklings who had been incubator-hatched in a local classroom.

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So tiny, so fluffy, so cute!

Less than a week old, they moved into a box in our computer room and instantly became our favourite hobby. Being Runner Ducks, they were given names of significant running races that we have done – Plain, Stormy, Bighorn, DV (Diez Vista), Tor (de Geants) and Bock (who was named after beer). They eventually were moved into the garden shed and then into the Duck Palace.

Moving Day! At three weeks old, we moved them out to the garden shed where they began their adventures with foraging and swimming.

Moving Day! At three weeks old, we moved them out of the house and into the garden shed where they began their adventures with foraging and swimming.

Always moving together as a unit, these six flightless ducks would call to us when we arrived home from work, would run over to us if they were out of food and would all jump into the pond together to show off their swimming skills.

Cathy and Wade bonded with our new ducklings during their visit in June.

Cathy and Wade bonded with our new ducklings during their visit in June.

We introduced them to swimming using an under-the-bed storage box in the front yard. They loved it and would paddle for hours!

We introduced them to swimming using an under-the-bed storage box in the front yard. They loved it and would paddle for hours!

Despite being endlessly handled and cuddled by us when they were young, they became wild with age. They took to our pond like ducks to water and it quickly became impossible to contain them or even get near them.

Up until July, the ducks were very hesitant to swim in our 1 acre pond, despite their obvious love of the water. Here, FM is trying to encourage them to wade in the shallows.

Up until July, the ducks were very hesitant to swim in our 1 acre pond, despite their obvious love of the water. Here, FM is trying to encourage them to wade in the shallows.

They still relied on us daily for food which we provided in the Duck Palace but they preferred life on the water, only using the Duck Palace in passing and never as a shelter.

The Duck Palace, complete with removable sides and roof was designed and solidly built by my own FM. See all six ducks handing out in the storage bin.

The Duck Palace, complete with removable sides and roof was designed and solidly built by my own FM. In this pic, all six ducks are hanging out in the storage bin wading pool.

It was a day of celebration when the ducks finally went into the Duck Palace to find their food.

It was a day of celebration when the ducks finally went into the Duck Palace to find their food. (Stormy and Bock)

I bought a third hen once they became sexually mature, trying to even out the male/female ratio, but the addition of Silverton only made them more wild as they tried to escape her efforts to join the flock. I stressed nightly about them sleeping out in the open and I tried everything to lure them to safety but nothing worked. As the wild weather of Autumn gusted and stormed, I lay awake wondering how they would survive each night.

One of my only pictures of all seven ducks. The new addition, Silverton, has the black beak.

One of my only pictures of all seven ducks, moving fast as usual. The new addition, Silverton, has the black beak.

And then it happened – the first day of a 16 day massacre. We came home from work to find Trooper, our recently rescued hen, dead on the driveway. The rest of the chickens were all in hiding and the ducks were in a panic. But only five ducks were there. After an hour of searching, we found DV’s body partially pulled through the back fence with his neck eaten (a similar death to that of Trooper) and Silverton has simply vanished. These were daylight killings and our initial guess was raccoon (since a mink couldn’t carry Silverton off without a trace, could it?).

Thirteen days later, we woke up to find only two ducks left. Three had been killed over night. This time, there were two distinct piles of feathers (Tor and Bock) but no trace of Stormy’s dark plumage. We found a solitary wing and a well-cleaned spine and keel bone in different parts of the yard. These deaths were so different from the others – nighttime vs daytime; feather piles vs bodies; mostly uneaten vs completely cleaned carcass. This time, our conclusion was owl or some other bird of prey.

Two days later after work, FM greeted me on the front steps to deliver the news that the last two remaining ducks were gone. Almost empty with grief, we went to see the massive pile of feathers that we assumed was both Bighorn and Plain together. Again there was no body, just feathers – so many feathers. Another daytime kill. As I wept (again), I began to clear out the Duck Palace. I heard a quiet quack and turned to see Plain scoot out from under our pond bridge. She had been in hiding up until she spotted me. All alone and terrified. She would not come close and could not be lured with food. Instead, she stood on the wildlife viewing platform and quacked, crying out for her Bighorn. I tried to get to her, knowing that her days hours were numbered. I can still hear her desperate, lonely call as she quacked for him through the night.

The next morning, she was gone. Without a trace. I still search for her, needing proof that she isn’t just hiding from us again though it has already been more than a week.

Seven ducks and one chicken. Four daytime deaths; four nighttime deaths. Two bodies; three piles of feathers; three vanished with no trace. FM and I can’t agree on the predator. He believes that an owl is responsible for most of the deaths, if not all. I think that a variety of predators are to blame – raccoon, owl and perhaps the bald eagle that has been around lately. We don’t have fox or coyote on the island but other possibilities (although far-fetched) are bear, cougar or mink.

I interrupt this tragic story with a picture that warms my heart - ducks and homebrewed beer on a sunny afternoon.

I interrupt this tragic story with a picture that warms my heart – ducks and homebrewed beer on a sunny afternoon.

Having a small flock of ducks was wonderful while it lasted. They were sleek, beautiful and hilarious. Watching them was endlessly entertaining. They were so young that we didn’t get a single egg. But I don’t think I can handle trying again. We were responsible for them but failed them and it cost them their lives.  But, back to my philosophy about freedom … they were as free as can be and it was good for them while it lasted.

Cuteness embodied!

Cuteness embodied!

In my next life, when I come back as a chicken, I will choose the life of freedom that is offered in the Queendom. My days will start with the crow of my rooster before sunrise in the darkened indoor coop. The click of the timer will illuminate the red heat lamp. The whirring sound of the automatic chicken-door opener will be my signal to hop off the roost and head outdoors. Depending on the season, I will have up to sixteen hours to do as I choose on my five acre piece of land. I may wander, scratch, preen, snooze, peck or hunt as I see fit. If I feel like it, I may return to the coop to lay an egg. There are many great hiding places to go if my rooster announces danger and I know which one is close by. As dusk approaches, my sisters and I will make our way home to the safety of our coop, hustling in before the chicken-door shuts tight for the night, so that we can do it all again tomorrow. At any moment, a predator could wander through or fly overhead and it could all end but until then I’ll choose to be free.

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Snow Day!

As the day winds down, the snow just keeps falling steadily. It has been snowing heavily for a couple of days now and the accumulations are shutting everything down. And, although the local forecasters keep claiming that the storm is over, we have proof that we are still in the thick of it. No end in sight, says me! We are sitting at 28 cm at our place so far. I’d like to break 30 cm, at least.

A thick white blanket covered everything!

A thick white blanket covered everything!

As the day wound down, FM measured the snow in a bunch of places. This 28 cm reading was the deepest.

FM measured the snow in a bunch of places. This 28 cm reading was the deepest. But it continues snowing!

The Queendom came to a stand still today:

No work – A district-wide snow day closed all the schools in the valley. FM decided not to risk a challenging drive in and attempted to work from home (between outages!)

No power – Truthfully we have had power some of the time but it was out for a chunk of the morning, out again for a few hours in the afternoon and then just as we were thinking about cooking dinner. Out here, no power means that our well water pump doesn’t work so our water supply is limited to what is left in the pressurized tank. It also means that our septic pump cannot pump UP to the field so you better limit your grey water and flushing. The good news is that the power outage was not due to one of our fallen trees. The other good news is that FM dusted off the generator in order to brew up a second espresso this morning!

Everywhere we looked was beautiful!

Everywhere we looked was beautiful! We sipped tea and read in between walk-abouts.

No heat for the chickens. The two read heat lamps in the coop are out so it cools down pretty fast in there. These birds are hardy but Tweedle Dee is in a full moult right now and has lost most of her feathers. With sparse feathering on her wings and about half of her usual down, she is practically trembling. It baffles me that this would happen to her in the winter. I’m thinking of sneaking her inside beside our wood stove. (Don’t tell FM)

Taken in the days before the snow, you can see her bald patches and chicken skin showing.  Brrrr.

Taken in the days before the snow, you can see Tweedle Dee’s bald patches and chicken skin showing. Brrrr.

No light in the coop and this makes the birds CRAZY! A few months ago, the power went out so I headed out to check the chicks. There was mad flapping and crashing and begawking going on as they flew around in a panic. Ever since, I have left a battery-powered night-light inside which gives them a little glow.

Florentine is the only one brave enough to peek out at the storm.

Florentine is the only one brave enough to peek out at the storm.

And on the fun side:

Snowshoeing instead of shoveling! Our driveway is LONG and there is no way we’d consider shoveling it but tramping the snow down with snowshoes was pretty fun. We managed to drive one car out to the end of the drive for easier escape tomorrow. The car acted like a snowplow and left a smooth center between the tire ruts.

After sinking deeper than my calf-high Bogs, I realised snowshoes were really in order.

After sinking deeper than my calf-high Bogs, I realised snowshoes were really in order.

There is no way to shovel this on. Using the car like a plow had a similar effect.

There is no way to shovel this one. Using the car like a plow had a similar effect.

Hot Tubbing – Aren’t we glad we opted for the wood-fired variety! We spent hours in the tub over this snowy weekend.

It's hard to read but that thermometer reads 106!

It’s hard to read but that thermometer reads 104° F (40° C)!

Is there a better place to enjoy a snowfall?

Is there a better place to enjoy a snowfall?

Creative Cooking – We had to pre-thaw a tub of homemade chili in the hot tub and then transfer it to a pot on the wood stove. We warmed up some of B’s Foccacia loaf and had a candle lit dinner for two.

FM floated the chili container in the hot tub jsut long enough for it to loosen.

FM floated the chili container in the hot tub just long enough for it to loosen.

We already had the stove cranking out the heat so warming the chili and foccacia was simple.

We already had the stove cranking out the heat so warming the chili and foccacia was simple.

You gotta roll with the atmosphere that nature provides.

You gotta roll with the atmosphere that nature provides. FM is sipping a scotch while waiting for his rustic dinner.

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A Winter Wonderland

The snow-less, cold snap finally snapped this week and we joyfully received a refreshing dump of snow. About 15 cm of dusty, dry powder now covers everything around the Queendom. Following on the snowfall’s heels was a clear, bluebird day with temperatures plummeting to -11° C. I took a gentle trudge around the place and am almost speechless at its unbelievable beauty. That white blanket of snow blissfully covers up the bare, mucky, unkempt land that we call home. I, for one, would love snow cover year-round.

The gentlest of breezes would send snow puffs down from the trees. The pond is frozen solid, too!

The gentlest of breezes would send snow puffs down from the trees. The pond is frozen solid, too. Should I attempt skating?

This is our flock’s first experience with snow and they are not at all sure about it. When I opened up the coop, they all hustled outdoors in their usual way but, as soon as they reached the snow’s edge, they balked (or I should say they ‘bawked’). Although the new chicks were truly curious and unafraid, Tweedle Mum quickly called them back inside and everyone spent the morning on the roost under the heat lamps of the coop.

Tweedle Dee is completely unsure about the new white blanket.

Tweedle Dee is completely unsure about the new white blanket, despite the cleared pathway across the drive.

My loyal followers know that I will do just about anything for my hens and this sort of challenge appeals to me – and I had no other pressing issues at hand. So I cleared a path from the coop to the porch of the house, where they often sit in the sun or hide underneath. I sprinkled scratch down the new pathway and sat back to see who would take the bait.

Did I shovel the driveway? NO! But I did shovel a path for my girls. Who wants to be cooped up anyway?

Did I shovel the driveway? NO! But I did shovel a path for my girls. Who wants to be cooped up anyway?

Tweedle Dee stood for a long while at the gate, eyeing the snow and the path, but didn’t dare venture out. So much for the Chantecler breed being a frost-hardy Canadian heritage breed!

Of course, it was Chip who first dared the pathway and spent a leisurely day puffed up in a sunbeam on the porch.

Lured by scratch and a chance to sit on my lap, Chip was the first to brave the snow.

Lured by scratch and a chance to sit on my lap, Chip was the first to brave the snow. From her first days with us, she has always proven the most adventurous, fearless and willing.

The others waited for her all-clear call and then joined her. As far as I’ve seen, none has dared to step into the pantaloon-deep snow banks on either side of the pathway. It looks like we’re raising some chicken chickens!

Chip, Peeps and Tweedle Dee eventually braved the new experience. Tweedle Mum and the chicks soon followed. If you can get one chicken to do something, the rest will copy and follow along.

Chip, Peeps and Tweedle Dee eventually braved the new experience. Tweedle Mum and the chicks soon followed. If you can get one chicken to do something, the rest will copy and follow along.

Here they are, running back to the coop at the end of the day.

Here they are, running back to the coop at the end of the day. (They were moving fast!)

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Left For Dead (almost)

It was a glorious sunny Saturday and we spent the entire day outdoors, either reading and sipping coffee on the porch, admiring our free-ranging chicks or puttering about the Queendom. But all afternoon, we were bombarded by the screeching of two adult Ravens. The screeching seemed to be mostly taking place over the back fence of our property but these ravens circled and cried from a wide variety of treetops in the neighbouring properties as well.

Around 4 pm, FM went on a fact-finding mission. As he wandered along the back fence, the ravens’ cries became much more alarmed. As expected, we soon spotted a baby raven, a fledgling, hopping along a pile of fallen trees on the far side of our pond. Taking heed to its parents warnings, it hopped and attempted to fly away but ended up in the pond. With wings a-flapping, it managed to climb onto the shore and hid at the base of a tree. FM skirted widely around the fledgling and retreated to the house. We surmised that the little one must have either fallen out of her nest or was just a slow learner when it came to flying. The screeching calls lessened as the evening wore on and we didn’t give it much more thought.

The next morning, I awoke from a lovely lie-in and looked out onto the pond just as FM, in his house coat, was walking purposefully across the island bridge, carrying a big black bird by one wing tip. It was the baby raven. FM had been trying to read on the front porch but those adult ravens were cawing so ferociously, it had caused one of our resident mama ducks to panic. FM went to investigate and found the baby raven completely submerged in the pond with only part of her head out of the water. He pulled her from the pond and found that she was completely stiff and most likely drowned.

As he set her on our kitchen porch, we tried to figure out what had happened. We looked for a wound or some indication that she had been killed by a mink or raccoon, but we could find nothing. She was completely rigid, as if rigor mortis had already set in. Her neck was at an unnatural angle, tilted up so high that her head lay on her back. We looked at each other, both thinking “what do we do with a dead baby raven?”.

And at that moment, her wing twitched. She wasn’t dead but she was well on her way. She must have accidentally flown back into the pond either last night or this morning. We can only guess how long she must have been stuck in the pond water, struggling to swim to the edge and eventually submerging with exhaustion with her wings fully spread. She had managed to keep her beak above the water level but that made her neck cramp and stiffen as she became hypothermic.

FM picked her up and we walked far away from the pond, onto a grassy section of our front yard. We set her down, got a micro-fibre towel and focused on drying her chest down as much as possible. Then we left her, upside-down, stiff and spread eagled, in the full morning sunlight in the middle of the grass.

For the next 30 minutes, we kept our distance, sipped our coffee, watched her and listened to the wild cawing of her parents. They were keenly aware that we were touching their baby but they never dive-bombed us. We looked up to see the baby on her back, still stiff and spread-eagled, but kicking and struggling to move. When we got closer, we could see her eyes looking sharp and bright. FM got a small cloth and covered her eyes in hopes of reducing her sense of panic. Her down had dried and she was looking much more bird-like. She had a bit of mobility in her wings and, with help, was able to fold them. Again we left her to warm up in the sun.

Soaking wet and completely stiff with cold, we set her down in the full sunlight. We towel dried her as much as possible and covered her head in an attempt to calm her while her feathers and down dried.

Soaking wet and completely stiff with cold, we set her down in the full sunlight. We towel dried her as much as possible and covered her head in an attempt to calm her while her feathers and down dried.

A while later when we checked on her, she was clawing at the air and flaring her tail. As we approached, she made her first noise – a loud and alarmed caw. She was unable to right herself and kept rolling onto her back. Her feet were flailing around, trying to get a hold of anything. I put my finger on her foot and soon found that her grip was very strong! I picked her up and repositioned her but she was still unable to hold herself upright. I tucked the various blankets under her breast and managed to prop her up, manually placing her feet under her. Her position wasn’t stable and I thought that she would probably topple over so we left her to get a larger towel that could support her.

45 minutes later, we found her mostly dry but upside down and panicky. She was unable to right herself so we propped her up on the towels and got her feet underneath her.

45 minutes later, we found her mostly dry but upside down and panicky. She was unable to right herself so we propped her up on the towels and got her feet underneath her.

From the kitchen, we could hear her calling out and soon her parents returned and began call back. Before we could even get a towel, she began hopping away.

As we watched her from the kitchen porch, she suddenly stood up, started calling out to her parents and hopped across the grass, down the driveway and across the road.

As we watched her from the kitchen porch, she suddenly stood up, started calling out to her parents and hopped across the grass, down the driveway and across the road.

She hopped towards taller grass and small shrubs and then began her trek down the driveway, with her parents encouraging her all the way. We last saw her at the end of our drive on her way towards the 25 acre property across our not-busy street.

What an amazing thing to witness! Surely she would have died if FM had not pulled her from the pond. Her miraculous recovery, from drowning and hypothermic to regular chick, took all of two hours. That’s another win for the Queendom!

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A Makeover for Our Pond

The pond is the crowning jewel of the Queendom. Our front room looks out over it and, from the comfort of our couches, we can watch the birds, ducks and other beasts who frequent its tranquil waters. It is approximately 1 acre in size and is home to salamanders, water scorpions, at least three species of frogs, thousands of aquatic bugs and, most recently, a red-eared slider turtle. FM and I have spent many a summer evening floating around it in our inflatable dingy, enjoying lemony G&Ts.

When we arrived, there was a pathetic-looking sunken dock that the previous owners built to encourage swimming and launch kayaks. The dock was fixed to the shore and could only be accessed by negotiating a steep, slippery bank. As the water level changed throughout the year, the dock varied in its level of submersion.

Barely Afloat

Barely Afloat (no surprise, considering the downpour!)

Sometimes it appeared to float, tempting you to venture out onto it, only to have your weight cause the entire far-end to sink and cast you off balance. From quite early on, FM and I decided that the dock was a hazard and we chose not to use it.

Neither useful or beautiful, this dock had to go.

Neither useful nor beautiful, this dock had to go.

But the dock had one redeeming feature – ducks and birds love it. A mama Mallard taught her brood of 13 to clamber up onto it and preen in the sun.

A perfect place to preen and snooze.

A perfect place to preen and snooze.

A kingfisher used it to spot salamanders.

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A female Kingfisher rests between feedings.

A Lesser Yellowlegs rested there during a migration.

A sandpiper stopped by on his migration in 2012 and 2013

A Lesser Yellowlegs stopped by on his migration in both 2012 and 2013

An enormous American Bullfrog sunned himself there (until he was humanely evicted).

This is an invasive species of frog that is descimating a wide variety of pond life in BC and is killing off native frog species. It can eat ducklings! If you see one, eliminate it!

This is an invasive species of frog that is decimating a wide variety of pond life in BC and is killing off native frog species. It can eat ducklings! If you see one, eliminate it!

The fact that the dock was water-logged, sat barely at the water level and a bit of an eye-sore made it useless to us but enticing to many others.

On a sunny day in the fall, when the pond level was low, FM somehow managed to pull the dock out of the pond. We let it sit on the bank and dry out for sometime. Next, the decking boards were removed from the frame in the beginnings of a complete demolition. But, as it sat there on the shore and we kept looking at it through the winter rains, we realized that the dock frame was the right length to make a perfect bridge over to our inaccessible island.

By using a number of round pencil posts, I was able to roll the whole dock frame over to the narrowest crossing and, together, we were able to muscle it into place without falling in. The decking boards were reattached and *alakazam* we finally had access to the island.

With the dock frame rolled into place, we were able to replace the decking boards and finally access the island!

With the dock frame rolled into place, we were able to replace the decking boards and finally access the island!

In no time at all, we were digging up that colony of alders, tending a bonfire and making plans for an island sitting area.

But what about the ducks and birds that used the dock? FM had the ingenious idea of building a waterfowl viewing platform that we could see from inside the house. Initially he attempted to pull out the one post that had secured the dock but he was not able to extricate it from the muddy clay bottom of the pond. He decided to build a simple cedar plank platform with a hole in the center which fit over that post.

This simple structure floats freely around the post.

This simple structure floats freely around the post.

Et voila – the waterfowl viewing platform came to be. Already we have had a family of wood ducklings and another family of Merganser ducklings snuggle and sleep there under their doting mothers.

A female Wood Duck with 8 ducklings loves to spend her nights on the platform

This female Wood Duck with her 8 ducklings loves to spend her nights on the platform

A female Merganser has recently shown up with her brood of 7 ducklings.

A female Merganser has recently shown up with her brood of 7 ducklings.

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And Then There Was One

Four days ago, early on Saturday morning, FM and I gazed over the pond while sipping our freshly brewed coffee and we noticed a new brownish lump on the far side. Upon closer inspection with the birding scope and binoculars, we discovered that a Mama mallard duck was snoozing on the bank with ten ducklings beneath her.

Mama and her ten ducklings on their first field trip to the Queendom

Mama and her ten ducklings on their first field trip to the Queendom (apologies for the blurriness)

Snoozing on the shore

Snoozing on the shore

Needless to say, the rest of the weekend was taken up with watching the little ones jump, swim, snooze and eat. By our estimates, these ducklings were about a week old. They had probably hatched by the pond next door and were out on their first field trip. Already quite independent and given a wide range, they could often be seen at the opposite end of the pond from Mama.

The brood doing laps of our island

The brood doing laps of our island

Late on Sunday afternoon, the new family trekked back over the bush to their old pond and FM watched as a bird of prey, perhaps a hawk, swooped down in their direction. He could hear the panicked squawking of the Mama duck but couldn’t see what was happening. After the main ruckus had ended, he could hear Mama duck making a new sound – a pained or injured kind of quack. FM quietly climbed over the back fence and began a stealthy bushwhack through the brambles and marshy gloop that edges our property. Eventually, he was able to see the Mama duck hunkered down in the brush with a number of ducklings around her. His guess is that she got injured while trying to protect her brood.

Meanwhile back at the Queendom, there was one duckling swimming alone on our pond. Having ignored Mama’s call to head back home, he had continued swimming circles in our pond, oblivious to the drama happening to his family. After a time, his plaintive peeping could be heard, but there was no answer. Mama duck didn’t return for him and, as night fell, we could no longer see or hear him.

Not a duck or duckling was seen on Monday and we both feared that Little Gaffer had not survived the night. Although temperatures have risen a bit over the past few days, we were scraping frost off our cars less than a week ago and we have not yet reached the frost-free date of the Farmer’s Almanac. It would have been a cold night to be out there alone, dressed only in fluffy yellow down.

You can only imagine the delight I felt this morning when FM hollered, with a mouth full of toothpaste, something that sounded like “He’s back!”. Sure enough, there was Little Gaffer, scooting around the pond, hunting bugs and jumping clear out of the water. Somehow he has survived two nights on his own. There is still no sign of Mama duck and his nine siblings and he continues to appear oblivious to their absence.

Little Gaffer's Big Adventure

Little Gaffer’s Big Adventure

But, just as I have been writing this, our resident pair of Mallards – childless this season – have flown in and begun their ritual of dabbling and preening. Maybe they will take pity on Little Gaffer, adopt him and teach him the ways of the duck. (Or maybe they will become all territorial and chase him off). Either way, today is a day to celebrate survival in the wild!

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