Nature and Environment
News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

Life With Canines

Two of our German Shepherds

In many of my blogs for Mother Earth News over the years I have mentioned life with our canine family members. This blog is about some specifics of that life with our canine family members and what we have learned about and from them. Life in a small cabin can be confining but our three German Shepherd Dogs have adjusted well and do not cramp our freedom of movement in any way. Our dogs are all inside dogs and it is rare that we get in each other's way.  

Not Professional - Just An Observing Parent

I am not a dog trainer, dog psychologist or canine behavior expert in any respect; however by living in such intimate proximity with our dogs I have observed them carefully over the years and arrived at insights into their behavior. What I have observed may not be consistent with other canine behavior or with other breeds; however, our dogs have provided me a definable insight into their behavior and needs.  

Drawing Conclusions From Careful Observation

Having been long time canine custodial parents who very carefully observe those in our care we have been able to draw certain conclusions from those observations. How many dog parents have their dogs around seeing them everyday and fail to carefully observe them with the intent of determining their individual characteristics and habits? When we identify why they act and behave as they do we are then in a better position to be a better custodial parent that meets their needs more fully.  

Dogs - Vital Part Of Homesteading 

I simply can’t fathom living remotely as we do without having dogs as an integral part of our family. Beyond using their superior sense of smell and hearing to alert us about what may be lurking around outside they are excellent companions inside. We chose the German Shepherd breed for their intelligence and ability to solve problems as well as their numerous other traits. When on leash outside and confronted with a predator they will hold their ground but not charge or have a barking fit which can quickly escalate into a serious situation.  

Canine Virtues

I have observed that our dogs are patient, loyal, constantly trying to please, considerate, respectful, protective, intelligent and entertaining.  Another virtue is that our canine friends have unprecedented love for their pack members. They love us and each other more than they love themselves and if necessary would sacrifice themselves for us. In the encounters we have had with bears, mountain lions and coyotes they have stood their ground while silently evaluating the situation and waiting for instructions from us.  

Canine Communication 

Each of our dogs has a different personality but singly they are all protective of us and with their high intelligence are able to quickly and accurately evaluate situations. When it comes to communicating with them they have a rather large vocabulary and accurately understand what we want of them. They have their own way of communicating with us and by observing them daily as we do we understand them the majority of time. Bozwell will come and sit right in front of me staring me in the eyes and I’ll start the litany of words (potty, eat, treat or what do you want?) and wait for his response. The other two will use essentially the same technique to communicate.  

Canine Humor 

Our now deceased Ben had a sense of humor that was borderline prankster. When I would put my socks and boots on he would come up and put one of his feet on the toe of my sock while awaiting my response. Our Echo is equally a jokester but in a different manner. Our Sarah, now deceased,  was fearful of just about everything when we adopted her. We finally helped her overcome her fears but it took extreme patience and time plus observing what worked well for her. Just watching her and her antics always made us laugh.  

Canine Evaluation Of Visitors/Strangers 

Another benefit of living with dogs is their nearly infallible ability to judge people. When our dogs do not like or trust a person we don’t either. If they position themselves between us and the other person we are far more alert than usual. If they go to a place where they are watching the visitor/s intently we know they have detected something they don’t like or trust about that person. No visitor gets into our home without a thorough sniff test. Over the years we have found their judgement of people to be spot on.   

Keeping Our Canine Family Healthy

Our dogs are senior and  we can tell when they need pain relief because we have observed them so carefully over the years. Bozwell has arthritis and is on supplements for same. He also has allergies that require other supplements to help keep them in check. We have a special spray that we apply in the house monthly to keep dust mites at bay as he is highly allergic to them. Bozley is very active and enjoys good health for his age. Echo has a litany of problems that we deal with as they develop: recurrent sebaceous cysts that need to be surgically removed, dental problems, a neck problem that requires quick administration of pain relief and muscle relaxants. He is currently recovering from a slipped disc in his lower back that happened when his back feet slipped out from under him on ice. He also has a progressive eye problem.  

Responsible Canine Ownership 

All of our dogs are rescue dogs and came to us with problems or developed them since we adopted them. Taking care of their issues is responsible ownership for them and their health issues and what a dog caretaker should do to provide them a long, healthy and full life. Our canine family is such an integral part of our family we want the very best for them which includes keeping vaccinations current and regular veterinary visits. We work closely with our dog’s veterinarian and keep the veterinarian aware of any suspected problems. Their love for us is unconditional and we can show our love by properly caring for them in return. I should also mention that we spoil them endlessly.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their life with their German Shepherds go to their blog site at:

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Inviting Chickadees Into The Orchard

Black-capped Chickadee
Where we live in Canada, an orchard in late spring is a polar opposite to an orchard in midwinter. In spring the colour green predominates and bird songs tickle the ear. Life is everywhere. In contrast, a winter orchard is silent, bare, and white. Life seems to be absent.

But those barren wintertime appearances are deceiving. Hidden within the trees, wearing camouflage for protection, are insects in various stages of development. They are awaiting the return of warm weather so they can complete their life cycles.

Unlike the vast majority of their avian neighbors, kinglets, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, choose to remain overwinter rather than migrate to warmer climes. This handful of hardy birds performs a valuable service to an orchard by feeding upon the hidden insects that in turn feed upon the trees/fruits. These resident birds control insect populations by preventing outbreaks and enabling the trees to recover from insect damage. In essence, these birds maintain a balance within the orchard community. Any orchardist tending a healthy, naturally-inspired orchard should happily welcome these hardy little sprites.

Interestingly, these same birds are able to live in a mutualistic relationship with one another during the winter months. While feeding upon similar fare, they each use a different method of finding food which prevents direct competition, but instead allows them to form a loose flock that enjoy the protection of multiple eyes looking out for predators. The woodpeckers (downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens) tend to work their way up the trunk and main branches, working over the bark to find pupae or adult insects hidden within the bark or boring into the wood to retrieve a morsel from within the tree. Nuthatches (white-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis) work on the main trunk and branches too, but they avoid direct competition with the woodpecker by proceeding upside-down, head first, and finding any insects the woodpeckers missed. The black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor), and golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) forage on the smaller branches and on the buds at the end of twigs.

One can entice this group of birds into an orchard during the winter by hanging suet and setting up a feeder with sunflower seeds. The curious chickadees will soon find the offerings, and since they have a remarkable memory*, if they know an orchard is a place to find food, they will visit often, bringing their flock mates with them. Keeping the feeders well-stocked will keep the birds within the area and give them plenty of opportunities to search for hibernating insects on the fruit trees.
Chickadee at Feeder

Chickadees are not well-traveled; these little sprites spend their entire life within roughly one square kilometer. If an orchardist provides nesting sites as well as winter suet, the chickadees could remain throughout the year and continually re-visit the orchard to hunt for insects. Leaving old snags and wooden fencing enhances an orchard’s attractiveness in the eyes of a chickadee; dead and decaying limbs are easy sites for the birds to excavate their nests. Chickadees will also use nest boxes more readily than other birds in the mixed winter flock and a properly sized boxes placed in the right location may soon be inhabited. On the checklist for property hunting chickadees is a cavity that is 4 to 15 above the ground, receives sunlight 50% of the day, and is along the edge of a forested area.  

Building plans for chickadee nest boxes are easily found. I like the triangular design from the Empress of Dirt or the plans for a box from using a single 4 foot piece of 1x6 from Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve. If you make a nest box, please use untreated wood. Red cedar is a great choice and will last the longest out in the elements. A helpful trick to attract chickadees to a nest box is to put several inches of wood shavings into the nest box so the chickadees can fulfill their urge to “excavate” a nest by removing the shavings.

* Chickadees hide seed and other food items in different places throughout the winter and are able to recall thousands of hiding places months later.

Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.