On Why I have Chicken Wire Surrounding the Bird Feeders

This, is Gaia.

Gaia in a box

She’s been mentioned here more than once. She is my rescued 3-legged orange tabby. She is a wonderful cat, and full of personality. She loves to cuddle and give kisses.

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She’s a fan of boxes, attacking toes in the night, and likes to lay in the sun.

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But Gaia has a problem.

protesting an empty bowlGaia is a glutton.

Seriously, this cat eats everything. She’s a big fan of toast and chips. She’ll eat peas, carrots, lettuce, spinach, mint, the insides of pumpkin carvings, cheese and all forms of gluten and meat. If you leave an unwatched plate she will swipe something off it. If something drops on the kitchen floor, she’s on it. She will grab a cookie out of your hand while enroute to your mouth. She will appear out of nowhere and lick up your ice cream bowl. She eats flies, termites, craneflies and worms. I’ve found her sneaking in the chicken pen more than one time to scavenge for toast and pizza crusts. If you’re in the kitchen, she’s right next to you, begging for whatever you’re cooking. If her bowl is empty of crunchies and you walk by her without filling it, she will angrily swipe at you with her one paw, or flip over her food bowl, glaring at you, in protest.

begging cat

Granted, we encouraged this bad habit. Her pitiful meows and the ” I’m a cute little kitty who lived in a shelter and only have 3-paws” looks get us everytime, and we (ie- husband) feed her little bits. But lately, Gaia’s food cravings have turned to eating birds. The first time it happened, I assumed it was a freak accident and I was slightly proud of her- my handicapped cat, with a  bell, managed to get a bird. But then it continued. This past week alone she got 3, 2 of which she ate. The 3rd, a tiny little Timouse, I was able to save and put it out of harm’s way until it flew away.

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Cats kill an average of 1.4-2.7 BILLION birds a year. I am not ok with one of my creatures contributing to that statistic. She spends most of her time under the bird-feeders, just waiting for her next victim. This behavior has to stop. But there is no training of cats, and this one has no judgment of right from wrong.

waiting for birdsHer strategy, which unfortunately is very effective, is jumping and knocking the birds out of their feeder, then promptly eating them. How she gets her fat ass off the ground and jumps as high as 6 feet to the feeders is beyond me, but she does it. So enter my solution: create a barrier of scrap chicken wire and rabbit fencing around the bird feeders so she can’t jump up and grab them.

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It’s totally working. Now, she just sits outside the janky fence, staring at the birds. But she can’t get them. For now, the birds are safe.

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Natural Weed Control

Weeds are considered undesirable because they steal water, space and nutrients that would otherwise go to plants you intentionally want to grow- like edibles or flowers. Many weeds actually useful, like dandelions, purslane or plantain, are highly nutritious, a useful medicinal herb, or may provide food and habitat for beneficial insects. But some, like Bremuda grass, are invasive and will easily take over.

On my half acre farm, I have lots and lots of weeds. In general, I have a pretty nonchalant attitude towards them, and they don’t bother me to much. The roster of weeds that I’ve identified in my garden include blackberries, foxtail, bindweed, burclover, dandelion, dock, ground ivy, groundsel, mallow, plantain, purslane, sow thistles, spotted cat’s ear, a variety of grasses, which of course, includes Bremuda grass. Because I’m essentially starting from scratch on my land, I don’t have the time, money, or strength to create all the garden in one swipe, so I’m working in sections. I let weeds do their thing until I start working in that area, then declare war and give my best effort to eradicate.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on clearing the area around the fruit trees. With the epic drought we are in, I don’t want to share any precious water with greedy, weeds. In a conventional garden, one might just spray the whole area with Round-up or some other herbicide to clear the weeds, and call it done. But I use a different, healthier approach: chickens, cardboard and lots of mulch.

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hen on fresh weed pasture

The first step to my weed removal is to release the chickens. Using a concoction of chicken wire sections and bits of old rusty hog wire, I create a super janky fence enclosing a weeded area but exclude the fruit trees and the handful of plants that I’ve established in the area. By blocking off the tunnel which normally directs the birds to the back half of the yard, I can direct the chickens inside the weed enclosure. After a few weeks of their eating, scratching and dust bathing, the area is pretty much cleared of weeds.

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chickens hard at work, ready to be rotated to new space
chickens hard at work, ready to be rotated to new space

After removing the fence and setting it up in the next area, I lay down cardboard over the now bare dirt. Making sure the pieces are overlapping and there is no exposed soil, I then cover the cardboard with a layer of wood chips.

laying down cardboard rake mulch

Normally we buy wood chip mulch by the yard from Sonoma Compost, and used it on our garden paths. Its cheap, but its a pain in the ass to drive out there, but the other day, I noticed Davey Tree trimming the trees under the power lines down my street. After a friendly hello and a quick conversation with the crew, I ended up with a pile of mulch in my front yard. These chips are a great mixture of shredded leaves and wood pieces, which I think are more desirable to the woody chips we get from Sonoma Compost for mulching around the trees.

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pile of free mulch

This process is known as sheet-mulching. While it isn’t a 100% method, it drastically reduces them. The layers of cardboard and mulch block the weeds from receiving light, and therefore kills them. The cardboard will break down in a matter of a few months, and eventually, in a few years, the mulch will break down and be absorbed into the soil. Double bonus for me, as I’m on the constant mission to amend my soil with organic matter to increase fertility and improve drainage.

Honestly, I prefer the lush green of the weeds over the brown layer of chips. I’ve left some of the larger clumps of grass that the chickens weren’t able to decimate, because I didn’t want to cover up all the habitat for the ladybugs, who are slowly arriving. Hopefully, next year, after the sheet mulching has eradicated most of the weeds, I can add a layer of soil and plant cover crops and flowers to create a bank of habitat for beneficial insects.

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newly sheet-mulched area

Homestead Happenings

Well, hello there! My New Years intentions of regular posts was foiled by me succumbing to the plague. I’ve still got a lingering cough, but have otherwise recovered, thanks to a giant pot of 100% garden-to-kitchen turkey and veggie soup, Chinese herbs that taste like dirt, and lots of naps with the kitties on the couch.

But a homestead stands still for no one, despite sickness, and lots have been happening the past few weeks. While I was asleep, Matt started working on the fence on the West side of our property, and as soon as I was recovered well enough to hold the level, started helping.

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This side of the property actually has a fence, if thats what you would call the hog and barbed wire, and random bits of wood concoction. I’m pretty sure its original to when the area was developed, and has stayed standing mainly by the fact the wire is growing THROUGH a series of oak trees. Despite its jankyness, its kept the dog in, but only because the dog is well behaved. She could easily jump over, push under or probably go thought it if she really wanted, which is why she isn’t allowed to be outside if we aren’t home. But it would be nice to allow her to go out as she pleased, giving us more freedom for day adventures, so we are prioritizing getting this side more secure.

Thankfully, the haone rainstorm we had in December softened the ground, making digging the holes possible (not easy, but possible). We had a handful of materials salvaged from when we took down the shed (snaps to me for not throwing anything away!!!) that we’ve reused, and the neighbor has split some of the costs on buying additional materials. So far, we’ve got about 50 feet of solid fence up, and an additional 60 feet or so of posts set.

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And apparently, its now Spring in Northern California, and the garden has burst into bloom. While its super nice to sit outside in the sun, the knowledge that we are in desperate need of rain and the lack of 40 degree weather means we aren’t getting the chill hours we need for fruit trees, makes it a bit hard to enjoy it.

The quince bushes are in full bloom. I have a bank of paperwhites in the front yard, my hardenbergia that grows on the chicken run is blooming and, and I have flowers on my borage. My antique pink rose never went dormant, and is now covered in flowers. Most of the fall planted broccoli has bolted, leaving the brassica bed awash in yellow flowers. The magnolia tree across the street has flowered, dropped the blooms, and is now leafing out. I saw an ornamental plum in full bloom on the side of Hwy. 12 the other day. Lovely, but not ok for this time of year. I feel concern deep down in my soul, and know that things are not right. And yet our government denies climate change…..

bolted brocolli hardenbergia rose

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The nice weather means the wildlife also thinks its Spring, and the yard is alive with little birds and bees. You can actually hear the buzzing of the bees on the quince bushes the moment you step out the back door. The flock of wild turkeys that plague my street have also reemerged. I walked out my front door the other day to find 16 of them, eating my front “lawn”. The feather patterns on a handful of them is distinctively different, meaning they’ve bred new blood into the family, or they’ve joined forces with another flock. As I’m typing at my kitchen table, I can see two toms on the roof of the next door neighbor: looming like prehistoric weathervanes. If said prehistoric weathervanes destroyed your garden. And tried to attack you as you get into your car.

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We rotated the chicken’s free range area, and they are enjoying the new patch of weeds and fresh dirt to dig in. We had a light molt this year, and a batch of new layers, so we’ve kept in eggs the whole winter, getting about 6 a day. Just the right number to keep us supplied and be able to occasionally sell, gift, or use as tip to my esthetician.

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And now I’m off to go dig more post holes! As always, I love to hear from you! What’s happening where your at? Are you having normal Winter weather?

Signs of Fall

We still have a month until the autumn equinox on September 23, but it sure feels like fall started early! The mornings have been misty and the sky is a lot less bright as I do my evening walks though the yard.

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Tomatoes are harvested daily and all the pumpkins and winter squash are relocated from the vines into the pantry. For the past month, my counters have been covered in rotating trays of pears, apples, cucumbers, and tomatoes. The canning pot has taken up its late summer semi-permanent spot on the stove and I’m regularly turning out batches of preserved goods.

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The leaves on the fruit and walnut trees are turning yellow and starting to fall, creating a carpet of yellow around their base. My persimmon tree is so fully loaded the branches are touching the ground. The drying beans are also turning color, the plants slowly dying back, and I’ve stopped watering that bed to facilitate faster drying. Fronds from the asparagus are browning and the red berries are standing out like glowing ornaments.

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My mind and body is making the shift as well. While our mid-days are still warm and bright, in the evenings I’m sensing the urge to curl up with knitting needles and tea. The high path of the summer sun is shifting, and without its bright light beaming in my window first thing has made me start to sleep in longer. I’m no longer wanting cool refreshing foods but craving heavy winter foods like roasted squash and cheesy gratins. As my friend Diana recently said, “I want rain rain rain and pumpkin!”. I’ve heard (i.e.- read on the interwebs, so it must be true!) that Starbucks has already released the iconic seasonal pumpkin spice latte.

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The chickens have noticed the change as well, and I’m getting significantly less eggs than I did a few weeks ago. Yesterday, only 5. The one turkey left from a raccoon massacre at the pallet palace, who’s taken up residence with the chickens, is growing nicely.

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I’ve been mostly preoccupied in the kitchen, trying to get pound and pounds of pears and tomatoes into jars, but I’ve slowly been working on transitioning the garden into the winter growing season. Eggplants and pepper that never really did anything have been pulled, as well as spent squash vines and the dead tomatillo plants that gave up promptly after forming husks but never set fruit. Hopefully within the next few weeks I’ll make some more space and get kale and beet seeds in, soon to follow by brassica starts.

Late summer and autumn is my favorite season, with the busyness of harvest and I’m reveling in the change of the weather! How are things where you are? What do you love best about fall?

Tour de Pallet Palace, aka Turkey Shanty Town, aka Why you Never Throw Anything Useful Away

About a month ago, we rather impulsively got baby turkeys. For the first week or so, they lived in a dog crate in the middle of our office. They were then upgraded to one of those giant boxes you see outside the market with watermelons in it. But last weekend, the turkeys were re-located outside to the enclosure they will reside in until the fall. From there, they will be relocated into the freezer or my belly.

Thus, introducing, The Pallet Palace, also known as Turkey Shanty Town.

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This shanty structure embodies the pure definition of janky, one of my favorite words to describe the quality of many things.

pallet turkey pen

This is also an excellent example of why you should never throw something away. Built mainly from shipping pallets , we were able to extend the pen a bit farther by also including lattice (that we took from a friends trash pile almost a year ago, because I knew one day we would have a use for them!), and screened framed sections (originally pulled out of a dumpster, that we used to make a chicken pen at the apartment, and subsequently the disassembled and moved with us). Most of the slats on the pallets were spaced to far apart for these now-pigeion sized turkey chicks, so we stapled sheets of cardboard on the inside. The shade roof is comprised of scrap 2x4s (saved when we demoed the shed) which supports very thin sheets of ply-wood (which we pulled up from our kitchen floor in prep to lay hardwood), another piece of lattice, and a roll of that wired bamboo/strawlike fencing that easily falls apart (which appeared in the garage one day, I’m assuming from when Matt helped his mom move). The remainder of the open space is covered by pieced together sections of bird netting.

how to build with pallets

On the inside, they have a more enclosed space, created by throwing up a piece of scrap plywood saved from building the hen house. In this little nook, we have a heat lamp that we turn on at night, because I’m not sure if they are large enough quite yet to go without, and also to give them a refuse from the sun or possible wind.

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One awesome feature of this pen is one of the screen panels that we pulled from our old chicken coop still had hinges on it, so it got attached to a pallet, added an eye & hook as a latch, and now we have a door! I’m very thankful we saved this piece in particular, because figuring out HOW to get into the pen was our biggest concern. We can’t stand up in the pen, but we certainly have easy access to fill the water and food.

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If your concerned that our shanty town means our birds are living in squalor, fear not! They have constant access to water and food. They have green grass to eat, a place to dirt bath, and both a spot to sit in the sun or in the shade. I’ve tried tossing them greens from the garden and fallen apricots, but so far they are not impressed.

feeding turkeyThe location of this pen was intentional, aligned with our raised beds to the North end of the garden. I’m hoping their pecking and scratching will help eradicate some of the weeds while their poo fertilizes the ground, as this spot is the future raspberry patch. After this turkey adventure, if we decide that we can put up with their stupidity and want to continue raising them, we will build a more attractive, and much less janky structure. Until then, I’m going to assume it won’t rain until butchering time, and my turkeys will be as happy!

turkey, month old
Broad Breasted Bronze turkey, about one month old

 

Everything You’ve Wanted To Know About Lard, including How To Render It

Lard is the fancy word for melted down, and then solidified, pig fat.

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I, like the mass of my, my parents and probably my parents parents’ generation, knew very little about lard. As stated by Pete Wells in Food & Wine magazine “the phrase deep fried in pure lard is shorthand for morbid obesity.” But for a thousand years, lard was what people cooked with, and there is no arguing that the generations in the past that ate lard as part of a traditional diet had less cases of diabetes and heart issues. So why did this all-natural food get such a bad rap and became associated with fat and disgustingness? NPR featured a segment last year on “who killed lard“, which touts that “lard didn’t just fall out of fashion. It was pushed.”

In the beginning of the 1900’s, lard was big business. It was a by-product of the meat packing industry and it sold well. But also in the early 1900’s, because of the newly invented lightbulb, there was a decline in the demand of cottonseed oil (which produced oil for use in candles). Procter & Gamble, who owned a bunch of these failing oil factories, paired up with a chemist to find a new use for the oil: hydrogenate it and make a product that could be used like and looked like lard, Crisco. This lab invented vegetable shortening was created for one purpose, to replace lard. There as already a growing public concern for the conditions in meat packing houses, as exposed in the exploitive 1906 book “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, and by using creative advertising that claimed lard was horrible and Crisco was pure, “poor lard didn’t stand a chance”. The evidence against it continued thoughout the decades, with scientists in the 1950’s claiming that the saturated fats in lard caused heart disease.

But after decades of getting a bad rap, lard is making a comeback. It contains just 40 percent saturated fat, while butter has nearly 60 percent, and has 45 percent monounsaturated fat (the “good” kind of fat, also found in olive oil and avocados). It is now known that the hydrogenated fats (also known as trans fats), such as in the form of shortening and margarine, raise cholesterol and cause other health problems.

However, don’t just run out and buy a tub of lard at your local market. Most of the commercial varieties of lard are made by hydrogenation, which means the fat molecules are chemically changed to make the fat solid at room temperature and prevent it from spoiling (I’m pretty sure we had the one same jar of Crisco in the pantry for the entire duration that I lived with my parents…). This prevention of spoilage is great, but the process unfortunately means you get trans fats, which puts the bad cholesterol in your body, while blocking the good kind. You may as well just use that uber old tub of shortening that’s hanging out in the back of the cabinet.

The easiest way to get this healthy fat is to make it yourself. Which is why when my parents had their two heirloom Tamworth pigs butchered, I had them make sure to have them save all the fat bits. When we visited them for the Thanksgiving holiday, we spend a day rendering the fat down to make delicious, nutritious lard.

tamworth piggies

The fat from these piggies came from the butcher in the form of long strips, frozen in a giant ball in a bag. Having it mostly frozen actually made it easier to chop up, as melting fat makes everything slippery, fast.

pile of pig fat

The first step is to cut up the fat into manageable pieces. If you are buying the fat from your butcher, see if they will grind it for you. We tried grinding it thought the meat grinder attachment of the Kitchen Aid, but since you have to cut the pieces small anyways, it was more of a pain in the ass than just chopping. If you have a decent grinder, make sure to try it! If you have to cut it yourself, have a good knife and roll up your sleeves. Enlist someone to help you. Dad’s are the best.

chopping lard

Then, put the fat in the biggest, heaviest pot you have. Add a bit of water, to coat the bottom, so the fat won’t burn before it melts. Set on a medium-low heat. Because we were dealing with such a large quantity, we used both a stock pot and a giant Le Creuset dutch oven. The stock pot seemed to work the best.

pot o fatStirring regularly, wait for the fat to melt. Adjust heat to keep at a very barely simmer, or whatever temperature your stove gives you to keep the fat melting without getting to crazy. If you are working with a small amount of fat, you could wait for it all to melt and be done, or if you have a lot, like we do, add more solid fat as the level in the pot drops.

simmering pot of fat

Enlist someone, like your enthusiastic husband, to help you stir. Make sure to get the bottom of the pot, you don’t want the fat bits to brown or burn.

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It took about 7 hours total to chop, melt, and strain 25 pounds of fat. Make sure to take frequent breaks so you don’t go crazy.

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Ladle off the liquid fat as it melts. Pass though a fine strainer, cheesecloth or a coffee filter.

straining lard

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Pour in clean containers, such as mason jars. I used wide mouthed pints so the lard can be stored in the freezer.

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Once all the fat has melted as much as it can melt, you will be left with something called “cracklings”. They are pretty much chucks of fat that have been deep fried in fat for the past few hours (sounds like a treat at the county fair, right?). Drain on a paper towel lined tray and save for future use. They don’t actually taste like much, but have the texture of bacon bits, but without the smoky flavor. I froze mine in a single layer on a cookie tray then stored in a jar to be added as toppings for soups. Or ohmygod…maybe Mac & Cheese?

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Once the jars are filled, store in the freezer or the fridge. I’ve read that you can store it on the counter without issues, but I’d be safe and keep in the fridge. Frozen, it will keep for pretty much the rest of time. It will become solid and creamy white when its cooled.

The 25 pounds of fat we melted down came off of one pig, and yielded about 30 cups worth of lard. The process didn’t produce a really strong or noticeable smell, but after waking up the next day I could definitely notice the smell of fat in my hair, and quickly took a shower.

Use your lard in place of shortening, butter or melt it down to replace vegetable oil. Its particularly great in pie crusts. I’ve been using it with great success to caramelize my onions.

Have you cooked with lard before? What did you think?

And on a totally different note…if you are an old follower of this blog, yes, I’m back! I’ve moved back from my self-hosted site back to wordpress.com. I missed the community and wanted to save money on hosting 🙂

In which we attempt to hatch some eggs

This, is Creepy Bird.

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Creepy Bird is broody. Broodiness is a hen’s desire to hatch eggs. You can tell when a hen is broody because she won’t leave the nest. Normally, if you reach under a laying hen, she’ll run off in a hysterical cluck. Broody hens will peck at your hand, puff out their feathers and growl. If you manage to get her off the nest and throw her out, she’ll remain puffed and low to the ground. Some breeds are more likely to brood than other breeds. Unless you are breeding and trying to hatch, broody hens are pretty much useless. They don’t lay while brooding, so you’re egg production drops.

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I tried everything I could think of to break her of her broodyness: promptly removing eggs, throwing her off the nest, removing the nest, locking her out of the pen away from the nest. After a week, I felt bad for her and gave up. I decided if she was determined to sit there, she may as well sit on something.

A message out to my urban farming network hooked me up with 10 fertile eggs.

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Surprisingly,  eggs don’t have to be rushed while still warm from being laid to get under a hen (or an incubator, if you are hatching the modern way). Saving up eggs is part of the natural incubator process, and they go dormant to give a hen time to accumulate a full setting before she starts to brood. Eggs can be stored for up to 6 days without noticing a significant decrease in hatching success.

Its best to separate the broody hen from the other layers. Its possible that the other chickens will squeeze in with her and lay their egg, getting mixed in with the clutch. Another hen could also take over the nesting box while the broody is getting food, and then stressing the broody when she returns. I set up our “chicken quarantine unit”, which is a large metal dog crate thats great when introducing new pullets, in the corner of the hen house with a nesting box, food and water. At first I put the eggs in an empty nest and moved the hen to the box, but she was not having that. She promptly left the full nest in a fit and returned to the empty box she’s been sitting in.

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I marked the fertile eggs to ensure they don’t get mixed in with our fresh eggs. If she gives up, you don’t want to accidentally crack a rotten egg or half developed embryo into your frying pan!

So I stuck the eggs under her, and then moved the box with her and the eggs into the separate pen. She ruffled down on top of the eggs and used her wings to tuck them under her. It takes 21 days for eggs to hatch, and its possible that she’ll give up half way through, but I’m hoping we’ll have some babies. October 13th is marked on the calendar as our due date!

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And why the name Creepy Bird? She’s got orange eyes, which Matt thought were creepy. This is what happens when you let men name things……