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Meet Laser Tag: My Urban Wildlife Manager

Laser Tag hanging out at the back door.

Laser Tag hanging out at the back door.

I started trapping and releasing the neighborhood feral cats a few years ago. It was important to me to stop the cycle of kittens I was seeing every six months or so. In fact, my cat Nomark is from a litter born in my garden shed. I was able to get his brothers and sister adopted and his mother was the first cat I had spayed (the current total is five, plus Nomark, his two brothers, and his sister).

I choose to take a certain level of responsibility for these cats afterwards — partially for their benefit, partially for mine. By encouraging them to stick around, they fill a niche by retaining their territory and keeping other, intact cats away. They also continue to do a great job of keeping the rodent population in check.

Laser Tag has taken advantage of this beneficial relationship more than any of the other cats; she spends 90% of her time in my yard now. I feed her and have built her a cat house so that she has a warm, dry place to sleep, and she repays me with mouse management. On more than one occasion, I’ve looked out on the back patio to see her playing with her latest catch.

She also seems to have a special relationship with another cat that we trapped, fixed, and adopted, Crouching Tiger. They spent time together when they were both roaming the streets and now they cuddle and rub through the glass door. Unlike Crouching Tiger, Laser Tag does not have a personality suited to being an indoor cat, so this is the compromise we’ve all worked out.

Laser Tag spending time with my boy cats.

Laser Tag spending time with Nomark and Crouching Tiger.

Special thanks to Lake Austin Boulevard Animal Hospital. They always take such great care of us and these, often less-than-cooperative cats.

Chicken Coop 2.0

The new chicken coop and garden.

The new chicken coop and garden.


After living with our starter coop for a little too long, I finally have a chicken coop that meets all of my, and the chickens’, needs.

I purchased some basic chicken coop plans online and asked my friend, who builds things for a living, to construct it for me. (Thanks, Andreas!) After discussing the design plans, we made some modifications to suit our needs better, such as adding the henhouse windows, the small, external chicken door, and the large, henhouse door that opens fully for cleaning purposes.

The main reason I decided to build a new chicken coop was because I wanted to be free from having to be awake every sunrise and at home every sunset. The new coop is completely predator proof so the hens can come and go from their henhouse to their enclosed yard at will. The human-sized door, external egg door, and automated watering system are just bonuses to the freedom and flexibility this coop offers, schedule-wise.

The old henhouse and yard. They've definitely upgraded.

The old henhouse and yard. They’ve definitely upgraded.

I sited the new coop in a spot in the yard where the swimming pool used to be. This was a good location because it was already level, in need of soil remediation, close to the shed that stores the hens’ food, and close to electricity if it’s needed in extremely cold weather. This spot also met the city ordinance requirement of being at least 50 feet from neighboring residences.

I oriented the coop itself north-south lengthwise in order to take advantage of the southern, summer winds. The henhouse is on the northern end of the coop to let the winter sun into the enclosed yard and, hopefully, act as a windbreak, protecting the hens from the cold, northern winter winds. I also plan on planting a couple of evergreen shrubs on the northern side of the coop to help protect the hens from the cold winds.

Yellow flags mark the site of the new coop.

Yellow flags mark the site of the new coop.

Here in Austin, keeping the hens cool is a much higher priority than keeping them warm in the winter and so I designed the coop with cooling in mind. The windows are on the north and south sides of the henhouse in order to channel the summer southern breeze through the henhouse, across the roosting perch. The ceiling of the coop is open hardware cloth to release heat. The trusses of the roof are spaced such that, when it gets cold, I can slide a piece of plywood between the metal roof and the hardware cloth ceiling of the henhouse, closing it in for winter.

An annual garden was placed right next to the coop, making it convenient to shovel the shavings out of the coop and into the garden for mulch and fertilizer. I can also easily let the chickens out to weed and till the garden prior to re-planting.

My favorite feature of this system though, has to be that the coop roof catches all of the chickens’ drinking water and dispenses it, on demand, via a a PVC and poultry nipple automatic watering system. The 125 gallon raintank fills in one, 3″ rain event and held more than enough water to keep my seven hens hydrated all summer long.

Welcome to my home.

Welcome to my home. Let me show you around.

The roof catches rainwater that is then piped into coop for the chickens' drinking water.  The windows are on the north and south sides to take advantage of prevailing breezes.

The roof catches rainwater that is then piped into the coop for the chickens’ drinking water. The windows are on the north and south sides to take advantage of prevailing breezes and keep the henhouse cool.

Hens drinking from the PVC, nipple watering system that is connecting to the rainwater tank.  The hanging feeder keeps the food clean and holds enough food for days.

Drinking from the watering system that is connected to the rainwater tank. The hanging feeder keeps the food clean and holds enough for about a week.

The Hen's entrance.  Entrance door closes and locks when necessary.

The hens’ entrance. Entrance door closes and locks when necessary.

Half of the henhouse opens for easier cleaning.  Shavings from the henhouse are swept onto the floor of the coop and then eventually shoveled into the garden.

Half of the henhouse opens for easier cleaning. Shavings from the henhouse are swept onto the floor of the coop and eventually shoveled into the garden.

The inside of the coop: Roosting perch, two nest bozes and the open-air ceiling.

The inside of the coop: Roosting perch, two nest boxes and the open-air ceiling.

The external door for collecting eggs.

External door for collecting eggs.

Plenty of perches, inside and out.

Plenty of perches, inside and out.

Passionflower <em>(Passiflora incarnata x cincinnata 'Incense')</em> planted at the base of the coop.  Will grow over the southern wall of the coop and catch the couple of inches of roof water that the gutter doesn't catch.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata x cincinnata ‘Incense’) planted at the base of the coop. It will grow up the southern wall of the coop, providing shade for the hens, medicinal yields for the people, pollen and nectar for the honeybees, and will catch the couple of inches of roof water that the gutter misses.

A big thanks to Bock for being such a great spokes-model for her new home. Totally unprompted.

Water Garden

Arrowhead, 'Georgia Peach' Hardy Waterlily, Violet-stemmed Taro

Left to right: Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), ‘Georgia Peach’ hardy waterlily (Nymphaea ‘Georgia Peach’) , Violet stemmed taro (Colocsia violacea)
Floating: Azolla (Azolla caroliniana)

I’d been warned that one of the nuisances of urban beekeeping is when your bees venture into your neighbors’ yards to drink from their dog bowls, pools, and/or birdbaths. Since I wanted to experiment with a water garden anyway, the idea was that this would also be a large, reliable source of water for my bees….Sadly, two months later, they have yet to use it. I have no idea where they are getting water but it’s not from the big, fancy water bowl I built for them. Plenty of other insects are using it, just not my bees.

Luckily, as with any good permaculture design, this wasn’t the only function that the garden was meant to serve. Most of the plants are edible, other neighborhood wildlife does enjoy drinking from it, and it’s attracted a resident dragonfly, an Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), who darts around the yard all day long eating mosquitoes and other unpleasants. Plus, it’s another 100 gallons or so of collected rainwater.

Fred, the Autumn Meadowhawk

Fred, the Autumn Meadowhawk

I used a 3-foot round, galvanized livestock tank for the garden. I think stock tank ponds might be a Texas thing, but they are a very popular Texas thing. I came across a really good blog post about building water gardens in stock tanks and, luckily for me, the author lives in Austin so I was able to use the same places for procuring materials, specifically Hill Country Water Gardens & Nursery.

The plants in the garden include: violet stemmed taro (Colocsia violacea), arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), ‘Georgia Peach’ hardy waterlily (Nymphaea ‘Georgia Peach’), cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), and, at the time the top picture was taken, azolla (Azolla caroliniana).

There are also five hardy goldfish in the pond. They eat algae and mosquito larvae, while contributing fertilizer. Turns out they eat azolla too.

I put the rocks in so that birds, squirrels and various sized insects would have access to the water. The plants and rocks are elevated on cinderblocks, which are positioned such that the holes are open, giving the fish places to hide from predators.

There’s chloramine in the City of Austin’s tap water, so I had to initially treat the water with a chloramine remover. Luckily, we’ve been getting enough rain since I installed this that I haven’t needed to add any more water to it yet, but once I do, rather than using city water, I’ll top it off with rainwater from the chickens’ rainwater barrel instead.

Pretty fancy goldfish bowl.

Pretty fancy goldfish bowl.

New Chicks

It’s time to add to my flock and so I decided to take my chicken knowledge up a level and raise hens from chicks for the first time. Since I eventually want to get a rooster and hatch my own chicks, I figure I better learn how to handle them.

I picked up three Easter Eggers. They’re supposedly very heat and cold tolerant, have sweet personalities, and will (fingers-crossed) lay blue eggs. I intended on only getting two but, after thinking about it, I decided three would be better, in case something happens to one.

Welcome to the flock, girls!

Chicks

Some of My Backyard Buddies

Inspired by the beneficial insect talk I attended at the Natural Gardener, I wanted to learn more about the creatures I have seen in my own yard.

The resident Anole saying hello from atop one of my citrus trees.

The resident Anole saying hello from atop one of my citrus trees.

Below is a list of some of my garden helpers and some reasons why they’re good to have around.

Anole

From the Galveston Master Gardeners, “There’s no need to worry about this lizard as it is not harmful to humans or your pets. In fact, if you’ve seen these lizards in your yard or home, it most likely means you’re not using pesticides that could harm it. In fact, these lizards are beneficial, as they do feed on a wide variety of small insects such as crickets, cockroaches, moths, grubs, beetles, flies and grasshoppers.”

Black-and-yellow Argiope

From the Galveston Master Gardeners, “They are carnivorous predators, attacking flying insects that get trapped in its web. Their orb web captures aphids, flies, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, wasps and bees.”

Butterflies (Monarch, Viceroy, Queen)

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed. Adults feed on nectar from numerous wild flowers. The monarch butterflies are distasteful to birds because of chemicals obtained from caterpillar feeding on milkweed leaves.”

Dragonflies

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Nymphs can be found in vegetation and hiding around underwater structures. Adults feed on insects such as mosquitoes, midges, flies and winged ants. They often follow the same path and return to a familiar perch.”

Earthworms

From the Galveston Master Gardeners, “Earthworms ingest soil and digest the organic matter as they tunnel, producing castings. The castings increase the nutrient level and organic level of the soil. Nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other nutrients are produced daily for the use of plants. The equivalent of about 1/3 lb. of top grade fertilizer is produced per worm each year.”

Fireflies

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Immature stages of lightning beetles are predatory on other small insects, earthworms, slugs and snails. Adults of some species are also predatory. Larvae and adults are active at night (they are nocturnal), and immobilize their prey by injecting them with inject toxic digestive enzymes before sucking out the liquefied body contents.”

Geckos

From the Galveston Master Gardeners, “[T]he Mediterranean gecko helps provide year-round insect pest control in our landscapes and homes by feeding on cockroaches and a wide variety of other insects.”

Green Lacewings

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Adults are poor fliers, active at night and feed on pollen, nectar and honeydew (the exudate of aphids and other sucking insects). Some species are predaceous as adults to a limited extent. The larvae, called “aphid lions”, are extremely carnivorous and predaceous on many soft-bodied insects and mites, including insect eggs, thrips, mealybugs, immature whiteflies and small caterpillars. Larvae have sickle-shaped jaws that contain tubes with which they can inject prey with a paralyzing venom and then suck out the body fluids. They can consume over 200 aphids or other prey per week.”

Ground Beetles

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Ground beetles are commonly encountered under stones, bark, logs and other debris laying on the ground. When disturbed, they run rapidly. At night they seek prey and some species are attracted to lights. Larvae are also encountered under objects or in burrows in the soil or under bark of trees. They feed on other insects both as larvae and adults. One group of species feeds on snails.”

Honeybees

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Mostly considered beneficial because they pollinate many fruits, vegetables and ornamental flowers; they produce honey, beeswax, pollen and royal jelly.”

Hover flies

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Adult flies can be found hovering around flowers, feeding on nectar and pollen. They are often attracted to honeydew covered leaves characteristic of infestations of sucking insects such as aphids. Legless larvae of these (Syrphinae) species are slug-like, adhering to leaf surfaces of infested plants while searching for aphids and other suitable prey (small caterpillars, thrips, etc.). Each larva can consume up to 400 aphids during development. Larvae of other species feed in the nests of ants, termites or bees, and others live in decaying vegetation and wood.”

Lady Beetles

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Larvae and adults feed primarily on aphids, but they will also feed on scales, eggs of caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects and mites. Adults occasionally feed on nectar, pollen and honeydew (exudate of aphids and other sucking insects).”

Paper Wasps

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Paper wasps prey on insects such as caterpillars, flies and beetle larvae which they feed to larvae. They actively forage during the day and all colony members rest on the nest at night.”

Praying mantis

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Wingless nymphs and adults feed actively on many pest and beneficial insects, including each other! Older mantids can feed on flies, honey bees, crickets and moths. They are not effective for the control of aphids, mites or caterpillars.”

Texas Toads

From herpsoftexas.org, “Bufo speciosus is nocturnal and burrows in the loose soil. It feeds on insects and other invertebrates.”

Know Your Allies: Beneficial Insects with Jeff Ferris

A couple of weeks ago, I went to an hour-long beneficial insect lecture at the Natural Gardener. The talk was given by staff horticulturist, Jeff Ferris (who I found out afterwards is also a permaculturist). I really enjoyed Jeff’s presentation style, he repeatedly reminded us that most horror movie plots come from the insect world.

Green Lacewing's lifecycle

Jeff Ferris explains the Green Lacewing’s lifecycle

I went into this not really knowing anything about the beneficial insects of Texas so it was definitely time well spent. Here’s some of what I took away from this talk:

  • The juvenile (teenager) beneficial insects are what you want in your garden, they eat most of the harmful insects. You want the adults around mainly to reproduce.
  • Harmful insects tend to be in groups, beneficials are often alone.
  • Beneficials are omnivores for the most part so pollen and nectar sources will attract them as well.
  • If the plant looks good, don’t worry about the bug on it. If the plant looks bad, worry about the bug.
  • Of the 980 species of spiders recorded in Texas, there are only two groups to worry about: the recluse and widow spiders.
  • To control Root Knot nematodes he recommended growing Elbon cereal rye as a “trap-crop” over the winter and turning it in one month prior to Spring planting. He also recommended spreading peel-and-eat shrimp shells. The introduction of the chitinous shells stimulates soil-dwelling fungi that feed on chitin. The fungi then feeds upon the chitin in the nematode eggs, killing them before they hatch.
  • I need to get a handheld blacklight. In addition to scorpions, tomato hornworms will also glow.

I plan on covering species specifics in more detail when I write about what I’ve seen in my yard so far and what I hope to attract in the future.