Posts tagged egg-layers

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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I Dub Thee Trixie

Over-Easy was your name.

When we brought home seven 4 week-old chicks, OverEasy was the most comfortable with us, climbing up to FM's shoulder

Over-Easy was only 4 weeks old when we brought her home. The little sparrow chick was happiest up high on FM’s shoulder.

On the day that we acquired you, FM won you over easily as you hopped up onto his shoulder to roost and, ever since, that egg-name stuck. At four weeks old, you looked more like a house sparrow than a chicken and we guessed that you had been sneakily laid in some unknowing chicken’s nest. But now, as you near the end of your first year, you have proved yourself to be a chicken, although one of unknown variety.

Here is a sample of a typical daily haul. Each egg can be easily linked back to its hen.  Over-Easy's is the top-most egg.

Here is a sample of a typical daily haul. Each egg can be easily linked back to its hen. Over-Easy’s is the top-most egg.

A restless spirit, you are endlessly searching, looking up, trying to get higher. As everyone else settles into the coop at night, you pace the walls, watching shadows. During the day, you leave the flock and explore the Queendom alone, searching, searching. Neurotic? Intelligent? Anxious? Who knows.

A few weeks back, FM and I saw that our daily egg count was low. After paying closer attention for a few days, we noticed that it was your tiny, perfectly round eggs that were absent from the next boxes. We set out on an egg hunt and look what we found:

What is that behind the tall grass?

What is that behind the tall grass?

11 eggs in a grassy nest. This is about 2 weeks of hidden eggs! Trixie indeed!

11 eggs in a grassy nest. This is more than 2 weeks of hidden eggs! Trixie indeed!

After we discovered your cache, you changed your strategy and began laying in the same next box as broody Sprout. And after we moved Sprout out to the broody pen, you laid eggs in a bunch of other non-conforming places – under the front porch, in the canning pot, beside the barbeque. I spend my afternoons trying to figure out your latest hiding spot – an endless game of hide-and-seek.

I had to use the butterfly net to scoop these three eggs out from under the front door porch.  Apparently, SunnySide likes this impromptu nest too!

I had to use the butterfly net to scoop these three eggs out from under the front door porch. Apparently, SunnySide likes this impromptu nest too!

This canning pot could not have been a comfortable place to lay.

This canning pot could not have been a comfortable place to lay.

And so she laid beside the canning pot, next to the barbeque.

And so she laid beside the canning pot, next to the barbeque.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the nesting places you choose so how can we predict your next move?

Get out of my car, Trixie! There will be no egg-laying by the accelerator!

Get out of my car, Trixie! There will be no egg-laying by the accelerator!

And so, I dub thee Trixie and I await your next ‘begawk!’ as a clue to today’s easter egg hunt.

We're on to you, Trixie!

We’re on to you, Trixie!

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Chicken Mathematics

6 +7 -2 +1 -1 -2 = 9 chickens. This math question contains 5 chicken stories.

Quite a lot has happened here in the Queendom since losing Chip in August. Too much for a lazy blogger. Upon losing Chip, we had 6 chickens (2 roosters and 4 laying hens). This is what has happened since then:

1) +7  We were given seven new chicks from Gavin at Holiday Farm, the same breeder who had supplied our first brood of Welsumers and Chanteclers. His pure-bred heritage flocks had intermingled and he no longer had pure breeds so he gave us seven “Heinz 57” chicks who were somewhere between 3 to 5 weeks old.

There are 7  baby chicks in this pile of feathers. They are about 4 weeks old and a mish-mash of inter-breeds.  Heaven!

There are 7 baby chicks in this pile of feathers. They are approximately 4 weeks old and a mish-mash of inter-breeds. Heaven!

These new chicks spent about a month separated from our flock before we tried integrating them. They had the fenced area around the garden shed where they scratched and pecked and could see the other six birds free-ranging nearby.

2) -2 FM came home from work one afternoon to find feathers scattered near the shed. Two of the new chicks were missing – Shadow and Sprout – but only the black and white speckled feathers of Shadow were apparent. Upon closer inspection in the fading light of the day, we found the remains of little Shadow’s body. We can only guess that the Red Shinned Hawk who occasionally passes through had flown into the garden shed and taken Shadow out. Their area was completely covered in netting, except for the top half of the partially opened shed door. It would have been some fancy flying for that hawk to get into the shed and then even more spectacular for it to get out with a chick in its talons.

All that was left of Shadow was this nauseating pile of feathers. The olny upside is that the hawk wasted nothing.

All that was left of Shadow was this nauseating pile of feathers. The only upside is that the hawk wasted nothing.

But where was little Sprout? She wasn’t in the shed with the others but there was no sign of her body or her white feathers anywhere. In complete darkness that evening, I called out and searched for her with a flashlight. I looked in all the possible hiding places around the house, shop and shed. The books all say that a missing chicken has simply been taken by a flying predator. We went to bed that night with heavy hearts, knowing that we had lost 2 chicks in one fell swoop.

3) +1 The next morning, as we were preparing to leave for work, we opened the garden shed door and carefully placed netting over the entire door to prevent further hawk snacking. Just then, little Sprout emerged across the yard from under the house porch. She had spent the night alone, in -5 ºC temperatures, under the porch. I had searched that space the night before but had not seen her. It is still a mystery to us about how she got out of the fenced shed area. Had she had been picked up by the hawk at the same time as Shadow? How had she escaped unscathed? How had the hawk done it? She had no cuts or punctures and was very happy to be back in her flock. Sprout is a lucky girl indeed.

Here are the six survivors, liled together in their garden shed home. Sprout, the lucky one, is the white chick on the far right.

Here are the six survivors, piled together in their garden shed home. Sprout, the lucky one, is the white chick on the far right.

4) -1 Last summer, we had trouble deciding which rooster would be top cock so we kept two of our last brood – Skana and Pingu. But, as those two boys became teenagers, their sex-drive went into over-drive, much to the chagrin of our hens. After observing the violence that too many roosters brings, we dispatched poor Pingu and the entire flock breathed a sigh of relief.

5) -2 As soon as our newest chick brood reached two months old, a funny sound came out of the garden shed early one morning. It sounded like air being slowly released from a pinched balloon. Little Radar and Big Cleo had begun crowing in response to Skana. It was a heart-breaking day for us since we had just got rid of Pingu. FM and I knew that there was no place for any more roosters in our flock. We decided to fatten them up and allow them to reach sexual maturity before they too would become our next chicken dinners. It was hard to keep our affection for them at bay over those months. Especially with Radar since he had such a gregarious chicken-ality with a Little-Big-Man swagger. At the ripe age of four months old, Cleo and Radar were lovingly killed.

Cleo - originally named Cleopatra, for her extensive eye liner, turned out to be a Roo, much to everyone's dismay.

Cleo – originally named Cleopatra, for her extensive use of eye liner – turned out to be a Roo, much to everyone’s dismay (especially his).

Radar was full of personality and had an awesome, long pointy tail that gave him his name. Bold and confident, he took charge of the flock from day one.

Radar was full of personality and had an awesome, long pointy tail that gave him his name. Bold and confident, he took charge of the flock from day one.

It feels like so many chickens have come and gone here at the Queendom. So far, during our 20 months of chicken keeping, twenty chickens have been part of our flock. Seven of those 20 have been roosters and 13 have been hens. Six roosters have been slaughtered, 3 hens have died of illness and 2 were killed by predators. I simply hope that our flock will hold fast at 9 for a good long time.

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Taking A Break

Imagine the reaction you would get if you simply didn’t show up at work for 4 months. Well, that is what both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum have done.

In late September, these two sisters stopped laying eggs, lost many feathers and refused to leave the indoor coop.

These two posed for this picture. Usually they are hunkered down with feet hidden and heads pulled in close.

These two posed for this picture since usually they are hunkered down with feet hidden and heads pulled in close. Tweedle Dum is on the left and Tweedle Dee is on the right. (and, just so you know, the filth on the coop wall is not poop but dried Gorilla Glue from the old shower insert)

Now it is the end of January and there seems to be no end in sight. They continue to lose feathers from different parts of their bodies and they stay roosted all day and all night. Dum laid one egg at the beginning of December but then stopped laying again. The only time either of them leave the coop is if FM and I forcibly scoop them and bring them outdoors. But as soon as they spy an opportunity, they run back indoors.

Tweedle Dum is reluctantly joining FM for a  post-run coffee on the porch. She is getting antsy here, ready to get back inside.

Tweedle Dum joins FM for our post-run coffee on the porch. She is getting antsy here, chatting away and getting ready to head back inside.

On weekends, we make a point of bringing them each outside to sit on our laps on the porch. Neither of these girls minds being handled and will sit quite contentedly and snooze – especially if the sun is shining.

Dee sat with me for a good long snooze in the sun. She watched the chicks and kept a close eye on our rooster, Skana, who was keen to jump her bones.

Tweedle Dee sat with me for a good long tme in the sun. She watched the chicks and kept a close eye on our rooster, Skana, who was dancing and singing for her, keen to jump her bones .

These two are from our original brood and are now a mature 22 months old. I read that chickens will go through their first hard moult during their second winter but I had no idea that it would last so long.

Look at those long claws! Since she hasn't been scratching for bugs and digging in the yard, her claws have grown longer than 1.5 cm!

Look at those long claws! Since she hasn’t been scratching for bugs and digging in the yard, her claws have grown longer than 1.5 cm!

This week, while reading Annie Pott’s Chicken, I learned that a natural moult can take five months. I also learned that denying food and water to a moulting chicken can shorten the moult and get them laying again. That is what is done in factory chicken farms but that kind of treatment has no place in the Queendom.

Even young Benny (15 months) is going through a moult, but hers isn't the full deal. She stopped laying for a couple of weeks but has already restarted. Egg production is down a bit, since it is dark 16 hours a day.

Even young Benny (15 months) is going through a moult, but hers isn’t the full deal. She stopped laying for a couple of weeks but has already restarted. Egg production is down a bit, since it is dark 16 hours a day.

My loyal followers will also note that I have taken about five months off from writing this blog. But, in my own good time, I have returned and so will the Tweedles. All of our employment contracts will be reinstated whenever we see fit to return to work. And nobody will mind if our productivity tapers down as well.  It’s all part of living in Chicken Heaven.

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Lessons A Chicken Taught Me

The unthinkable has happened. Chip, our favourite hen, died last weekend.

A typical scene when you arrive at the Queendom - a chicken scritch in action!

A typical scene when you arrive at the Queendom – a chicken scritch in action!

At the tender age of 17 months, she simply faded until her light snuffed out. Despite her initial recovery from our amateur crop surgery, she continued to have digestive issues. Our guess is that something was seriously wrong in her gizzard or intestines which continuously caused a back-up of fluid and food in her crop. Whatever the reason, she is gone now and we are both full of heart-ache.

The last photo I took of her in the Chicken ICU dog crate. She had lost colour in her comb, was disheveled from not preening and would look at us through one winking eye.

The last photo I took of her in the Chicken ICU dog crate. She had lost colour in her comb, was disheveled from not preening and would look at us through one winking eye.

She was just a chicken but …

She was one of our original six. We brought her home in a box, knowing only what we had read in books about chicken farming. She was the bright light of that brood, constantly surprising us with her ingenuity, memory and curiosity. She taught us everything we now know about raising chickens, and most of that is not written in books.

Here is what Chip taught us during her short but favored life:

Named Chip - short for Chipmunk.

Named Chip – short for Chipmunk. And look at that adorable tail!

Chickens are smart – When Chip was a chick, she figured out different ways to climb out of the brooding box so that she could roost up high. She would hop from a roosting stick onto the top of the chick waterer and then onto the top edge of the brooder. No matter how we configured the objects, she would figure a way out.

You can't keep a good girl down. She was like Houdini in that brooder box!

You can’t keep a good girl down. She was like Houdini in that brooder box!

Chickens learn from each other – Once settled inside the finished coop, Chip would slide down the roost supports on her feet, rather than fly down or hop from rung to rung. Soon enough all the other chicks were copying her and now, with two new generations of chicks, everyone gets off the roost in Chip-style. It looks as fun as going down a fireman’s pole. All the others looked to her for ideas and direction.

A communal Chicken Melt on the sunny porch.

A communal Chicken Melt on the sunny porch.

Chickens seek affection – I am a determined ‘scooper’, meaning that I scoop every chicken up into my arms each day, in an effort to get them used to being handled. One day, as we were sipping coffee on the porch, Chip hopped up onto my extended legs to roost. It was the first time that contact between us had been initiated by one of them. Soon enough, she would hop up and walk to my lap where she would contentedly snooze or chat with me. It became a daily routine that we both looked forward to and enjoyed. In the last weeks of her life when she was too weak to hop up, she would come and stand near my chair and wait for the daily scoop. Only since she has passed away have other chickens initiated the hop up, emulating Chip. I sure hope it continues.

During one of her first hop-ups.

Captured on film during one of her first hop-ups.

Chickens are brave – During the record-breaking snowfall of last winter, it was Chip who dared to leave the coop, walk through the pantaloon-deep snow (which she had never experienced before) in her bare feet in order to have a visit 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.

Chickens wield their power gently – Chip was at the top of our flock’s pecking order. She always got her way whether it was first dibs on fresh compost, top rung on the roost or keeping new chicks in line. Being neither large or aggressive, she managed her flock with simply a look or a curt ‘bwack’. We never witnessed her pecking or flapping at anyone else.

Chip going to check out the latest additions to our flock.

Chip going to check out the latest additions to our flock and to let them know who’s in charge.

Chickens are trusting – When Chip’s crop first became an issue of concern, we read that massaging it would help contents pass through. For weeks, she would tolerate our palpations even though I’m sure it was uncomfortable, if not painful. Even during the worst of it, when we tried to forcibly vomit her, she never lost her trust in us and continued to be as animated and affectionate as ever.

Completely trusting and unafraid, Chip would follow us anywhere.

Completely trusting and unafraid, Chip would follow us anywhere.

Chickens communicate – Chip knew that there was a communication barrier between us and came up with creative ways to let us know her thoughts. I tried to give her antibiotics by hiding them in her favourite foods – grapes, melon, cherries, tomatoes or strawberries. She was always able to sniff them out. She would give me a look before gently sharpening her beak on my pant leg to let me know “No way am I going to eat that” and “How dare I ruin tasty strawberries in that way?”.

She is smiling on the inside!

She is smiling on the inside!

Chickens forgive – During those last weeks of Chip’s life, we pulled out all the stops and tried every remedy. Since she was losing weight and unable to get enough food down, we resorted to giving her liquid food, antibiotics and de-wormer by gavage. Even after the traumatic event of having a tube stuffed down her throat, she would snuggle down to rest and snooze in our laps.

Typical weekend morning - bathrobe, coffee, porch and Chip

Typical weekend morning – bathrobe, coffee, porch and Chip

Chickens leave an indelible mark – When this chicken-keeping hobby began, I never thought that I would consider our chickens to be anything other than egg-laying livestock. But Chip taught us otherwise. She enlightened us to their intelligence and their companionship. She showed us that they can be as faithful as any pet. We were so lucky to have had Chip in our first brood since she loved us unconditionally and taught us to reciprocate. She taught me so well that I almost feel unable to continue without her.

But I will. I know now that I will keep chickens for as long as I am able, if only to search for that experience again.

It is hard to get anything productive done around the Queendom when your lap is busy with a chicken.

It is hard to get anything productive done around the Queendom when your lap is busy with a chicken.

Curious about everything and willing to try anything

Curious about everything and willing to try anything – even FM’s homebrew.

Thank you, Chip

Thank you, Chip!

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A Rose Among Thorns

After waiting and watching for three months, we have discovered that little, blonde Sunnyside is the only hen from our latest clutch of six eggs. Five of those eggs hatched, four of them are dark grey or black males and she is the lone blondie and the only female.

Her lot in life so far has not been an easy one. For starters, she had trouble hatching out of her pretty blue eggshell. Two days after the first chick had hatched, her egg finally had pips around the center but progress was very slow. After the recent issues with the school incubator, we took action.

Here, FM is helping Sunnyside out of her shell. The membrane had adhered to her fluff.

Here, FM is helping Sunnyside out of her shell. The membrane had adhered to her fluff.

Her leg is stretching out.

Her legs are stretching out but she was completely spent with the effort.

After releasing her from her confines, we tucked her under Tweedle Mum and hoped for the best. All has worked out just fine.

After releasing her from her confines, we tucked her under Tweedle Mum and hoped for the best.

She was so tiny even after she had fluffed up!

She was so tiny even after she had fluffed up!

All worked out just fine!

All worked out just fine!

The first family photo

The first family photo (around 3 weeks old)

Around the two month mark, her four brothers began showing signs of Rooster-ness. Their first attempts at crowing was the gender giveaway. Little Sunnyside never joined in with her own party horn and we knew then that she was a hen and therefore a keeper.

She is not a pure breed but a mix of all sorts.

As with our whole new brood, she is a mix of a whole variety of breeds.

Our guess is that she is mostly Ameraucana because her blue eggshell, her ear tufts and her prominent tail. Hopefully she will go on to lay blue eggs of her own. She is cute, tiny and timid but is managing to hold her own among her aggressive, domineering brothers. Tweedle Mum has now kicked all of them out of the nest and out from under her wings. As a result, little Sunnyside spends a lot of time alone since she has not yet been accepted in to flock with the adult hens and she avoids the aggressive hassles from the boys. She is very curious but I haven’t managed to ‘scoop’ her yet. She is as fast as lightning and a talented flyer!

I have already nicknames her "The Lorax" because of her fabulous winged mustache!

I have already nicknamed her “The Lorax” because of her fabulous winged mustache!

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