Where are the animals?
When people come out to the farm for the market, an often overheard question is “Do you have any animals on the farm?” Usually when this question is asked, the person doing the asking has certain types of animals in mind. They are usually thinking of “traditional” farm animals like cows, pigs, goats, and chickens. We do have some chickens at UBC Farm; these are the only “traditional” animals we have here. If you take the time to look around, however, you will find that our chickens are not alone…
The chickens have squadrons of avian compatriots, from large raptors to tiny hummingbirds. Many bird species are spotted on the farm; some are residents, some are just making a migratory pit-stop, and some stop by as an occasional rare visitor. Bald Eagles, Red-Tailed Hawks, Northern Flickers, American Goldfinches, and Rufous Hummingbirds are commonly seen here. There is even a self-guided birding tour with numbered stops throughout the farm. Maps and a list of birds seen at the farm can be found at the front gate.
Birds aren’t the only animals that fly, though – the arthropods are masters of the aerial arts as well – and among their number certain members of the Class Insecta are invaluable allies to us on the farm. Without the bees (both the native bumblebee species and the introduced European honeybee) to pollinate our crops, we would have to be out in the fields for hours at a time with small paintbrushes, hand-pollinating the flowers of many (if not most) of our crops – a virtually insurmountable task! So the next time you happen to meet a bee, remember to thank it kindly not just for the delicious honey, but for your fruits and vegetables, as well.
The chickens also have company in the forest and the fields. As with the raptors, the chickens don’t necessarily have the welcome mat out for all of their terrestrial neighbours, either.
Take the coyote, for example. The coyotes are probably the largest terrestrial animal found on the farm. They can sometimes be seen at the edges of the forest in the morning, watching the field crew – no doubt wondering what those crazy humans are up to now. They are also occasionally seen hunting in the fields during the day, but the most common “encounter” with coyotes is running across evidence of what they were up to the night before. Pawprints, scat, and dug-up fields are the most common clues, but lately they have been enjoying the melons with great gusto. Chewing up the irrigation drip-tape is also a perennial favourite coyote activity.
Smaller animals also abound on the farm, and the Order Rodentia is well-represented. Squirrels scamper in the forest (and love the compost bins), while deer mice and voles find luxurious habitat and plenty of food in the farm’s fields.
If you watch the chickens for any length of time, you will see them scratching in the dirt. They do this to search for food, primarily grubs and insects. This reminds us that not all animals live above the ground; many types of animals live in the soil here at the farm. Some are harmful, such as the larvae of many types of moths, and feed on our crops damaging them in the process. Some, however, are beneficial – such as the Ladybird beetles (ladybugs) that feed on aphids.
Another familiar denizen of the soil who benefits us greatly is the earthworm. These helpful creatures break down organic matter – which makes nutrients available to crop plants, in addition to loosening the soil – which allows air and water to flow freely, greatly aiding the growth of the plants living in it.
While we are thinking about life in the soil and how it influences the plants and other animals around it, we should perhaps spare a thought for the teeming multitudes of organisms in the soil that are too small for us to see with the unaided eye. A complex web of microorganisms is at the root of all life in the soil, and the health of these organisms determines the health of everything else in it. But that is a tale for another time…