Avian Abode

That slime mold post is too gross to get top billing. So let’s move on to something more pleasant: our neighbors’ purple martin colony.

For all you non-ornithologists, the purple martin is the largest member of the swallow family — an agile, acrobatic bird that feeds on flying insects. Purple martins overwinter in South America and migrate north in the spring to nest and breed.

Now here’s where things get interesting: purple martins around found throughout the US but east of the Rockies, they are entirely dependent on humans for artificial housing. Without the construction of nesting gourds and martin houses, these birds would disappear in eastern states. (Reasons for their decline? Aggressive, non-native birds; prolific and opportunistic native species; and weather extremes that affect insects.)

Our neighbors Chet and Paula are purple martin supporters. Each year they hang several gourd clusters in their yard. Right now there are oodles of birds singing and plucking flies from of the sky.

Recently, Chet invited a few people over while he lowered the gourds for a nest check.

Brynn missed the “casual dress” memo.

But she contributed to the captive audience.

As Chet lowered the gourds, we discovered that a few nests were occupied by uninvited tenants. Squatters, so to speak, including a tiny swallow that fluttered out and onto the ground.

If not for the onlookers, I think that baby sparrow would have been evicted. But bowing to pint-sized presence, Chet put the fledgling back in its nest.

Fortunately most of the gourds housed purple martin families…

or families to be.

While the kids gazed inside, Chet and Paula took inventory of the babies and eggs. Meanwhile the parents perched atop neighboring poles, overseeing the activity. Once the nests were restored to their normal height, the birds returned. Business as usual.

Mutton Bustin’

Mutton bustin’: a rodeo event in which children ages 4 – 7 attempt to ride running sheep for 6 seconds.

On ranches out West, mutton busting is probably a useful skill. Cowboy kids grow up learning to rope calves, break horses — and maybe one day ride broncs or bulls in rodeos. Clinging to a high-speed sheep is good training.

But where we live mutton busting is nothing more than adult entertainment.

But dammit, it’s entertaining.

Before I post more photos, let me state these facts:

1. Martin and I polished off a round of cocktails. Judgment might have been impaired.
2. This was Cayden’s idea. He wanted to try mutton busting.

I didn’t remind him that our sheep are virtually impossible to handle, much less ride. And I didn’t mention that there’d be only one way off.

Instead, I advised him to dig his fingers in the wool and stay low over the sheep.

Martin and I exchanged looks. We knew who’d win this match. I hoped for no broken bones. With the kid aboard a sheep Martin opened the gate, officially launching the farm’s first — and possibly last — mutton bustin’ event.

Initially, the selected sheep hid under the herd, probably wishing this to end.

But then the herd bolted. Fast.

Cayden didn’t stay low, but he hung in there anyway.

He made it a good 20 to 25 yards aboard the speeding sheep…

…before things went amiss. He tipped to the side…

…and the sheep rubbed him off against the fence.

From the way he rolled, I knew he hadn’t broken anything. But he was crying. He lifted his shirt to reveal a swath of fence scrapes on his back.

“You did great! You’re okay,” I said hugging him. “You want an ice pack?” He shook his head still crying.

“Honestly Cayden, that was –hands down — the coolest thing I’ve seen all day,” I told him. “Any chance we can get you to do that again?”

Power to the Sheeple

Historically, the first weekend in May is laden with events. The Kentucky Derby falls on the first Saturday. So does Gold Cup — a popular Virginia steeplechase punctuated by partying and alcohol. This year, we stuffed Cinco de Mayo in there as well.
So if you didn’t have anything to do this weekend… what can I say? You’re a loser.
I’m kidding.
Martin and I didn’t attend any Derby parties and ever since these damn kids followed us home, we’ve tempered our boozy Gold Cup jaunts.
Besides, we had a better event penciled on the calendar: The largest and longest running showcase of domestic sheep and wool. In the entire USA.
The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

Seriously, folks, it’s a big deal.

This year the parking lot was chock-a-block full of cars and we parked in the hinterland of the fairgrounds… passing gaggles of tailgaters who claimed swaths of grass with their folding chairs. These party animals weren’t stoking sausages on a hibachi or passing beers from a cooler.

They were knitting.

The festival celebrates all things sheep-related, from the animals themselves to the products woven and spun from their wool, to lamp chops with jelly. In between there’s plenty of home-grown crafts and music — fiddlers sawing away while carpenters whittle wood…beside broom makers and women spinning wool… next to pens of angora bunnies and a booth peddling sweaters and socks.

We skipped the Border Collie demos and all of the competitions (the “Lamb Carcass & Performance Contest” was tempting). Instead we shopped the crafts show and browsed the barns, ogling the different sheep.

The breed variation is truly amazing — from traditional, tightly-shorn Suffolk sheep to small, primitive brown-shaded Soay sheep, to burly, heavily-fleeced Lincoln sheep from Lincolnshire. The barns smelled nice — like forage with a faint whiff of livestock — and hummed under industrial fans and the buzz of electric shears. Every so often vociferous bleating rang out from one pen or another.

 A fistful of Suffolks, ready for judging
Fuzzy, wrinkly newborn twins

It’s hard to imagine that more than 50,000 people trek to the Howard County Fairgrounds every year to celebrate a relatively dense, sedentary animal — void of personality — that displays absolutely no athletic prowess.

But there is something about this event that is pure and wholesome and entirely fascinating. There are no games, no rides. The entertainment is in the animals, the people and their crafts. And you can’t help but appreciate the hard work that goes into prepping these shaggy beasts or hand-weaving a rug.

Even the kids were entertained, gazing at and petting the stock, wandering the pens and stuffing their faces with carnival food.

Only Cayden and Hadley expressed mild disappointment the following day; they wondered what happened to the wolves. Yea, where were the wolves? Hadley piped up.

“What are you guys talking about?” I asked.

“You know,” said Cayden, “at the Sheep and Wolf Festival…”

Social sheep
Lamb gyros, lamb stew, lamb sausage, lamb fajitas, lamb pitas…
The kids opted for ice cream and products of the corndog variety.