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You Goat Girl

By Tina Traster

February 15, 2007 -- The woman who sold me her house loved chickens. She kept three dozen hens and gave neighbors fresh eggs. The birds lived in a wooden coop but roamed around during the day. My next-door neighbor Ned tells me one of Dee's chickens waddled into his dining room during a Thanksgiving gathering.

It was at the June 2005 closing on our 150-year-old farmhouse in Rockland County that I first met Dee. While lawyers slid papers under our noses to sign, Dee and I clucked on about raising chickens.

"You've got to round up the chickens and get them into the coop before dark," she said. "They're easy prey for foxes and hawks. I've even lost a few to dogs."

Welcome to our not-so-suburban slice of suburbia. It's no accident my husband and I chose to live on an unspoiled, untamed, precipitously steep wooded parcel on a twisting mountain pass. We own about an acre, but our land abuts 400 acres of undeveloped forest. We passed on a manicured backyard with a picket fence and swing set and chose a habitat for wild turkeys, deer, chipmunks, rabbits, skunks, raccoons and a pack of coyotes.

Hawks wheel above the tree line, right outside my second-story windows. Deer graze at our doorstep. We've heard there are bobcats in the woods.

The move here from the Upper West Side has offered my husband, 4-year-old daughter and me a world where wildlife is outside our front door. We have little need to watch the Discovery Channel now. But living amid this animal kingdom has its ups and downs.

I've become attached to the deer. They feed at dusk and dawn, swishing their white tails when pleased with the pickings. When temperatures plummet and snow blankets our forest, I worry about their ability to forage. And in severe spells of freezing temperatures, many of the weak and elderly die.

The New York State Department of Conservation warns on its Web site that it's illegal to feed whitetail deer. I struggle with the urge to throw batches of apples into the woods. I'm relieved when I see a family of four intact.

Ever since we finished renovating our old farmhouse, we've talked about keeping chickens. We've read books and befriended chicken-rearing folks in town, surveying their coops. These suburban farmers happily share their eggs, which are small and lovely. No two are the same size. When you crack them, the nearly orange yolk floats on the egg whites like a rubber ducky bobbing in a bathtub. The eggs are delicious.

Still, it's easier to make a commitment to wild birds. We fill three feeders every other day with black oil sunflower seeds, having learned they give birds more protein than the fancier mixes. The tufted titmice, northern cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers swoop in the moment the feeders are replenished.

My husband, who's found his inner carpenter, built several nesting boxes for the tufted titmice, 6-inch slate-gray birds with a spiky crest. We've painted the boxes and hung them on trees. The tiny critters traditionally pull hair from sleeping dogs, cats and squirrels to line their nests. We're also scattering laundry lint for them to feather their tiny nests.

I'd like to build a barn on our property, partly because I'd use it to shelter a stray cat or two, but more important, I want a pair of pet goats. I would name them Baby and Johnny and hope for some dirty prancing. Our hilly land is perfect, but we need an ingenious and expensive 7-foot enclosure because goats are at least as clever as David Blaine.

Recently, the local paper reported the Village of Spring Valley in Rockland County passed an ordinance banning farm animals. The town told the DeGroat family to get rid of their goats and chickens. The DeGroats, who love their animals, and have had them for three years, are fighting this in court, arguing their animal-owning rights are grandfathered. I'm rooting for them.

Our town ordinance is tricky. It permits one horse or cow per acre and allows up to 25 chickens. It prohibits pigs and roosters but is silent on goats and sheep. We're told keeping goats might be OK. Then again, it might be challenged by a neighbor or pesky town official.

For now, we'll feed the birds and co-exist with the wild critters, delighting in their beauty and survival instincts. The idea of our small version of Old MacDonald's farm, on the other hand, will continue to percolate in our dreams.

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