Sunday, June 24, 2012

Swallowtail Caterpillars

Believe it or not, in a mere 1.5 months, I will graduate with a master's degree in professional accounting. Then I start work as an auditor with a Big Four accounting firm at the end of August. And probably (reluctantly) start studying for the CPA exam.
Meanwhile, a fun new "project" has come along lately that I thought you might enjoy: eastern black swallowtail caterpillars!

We started noticing the caterpillars on our lone dill plant in early June. LOTS of them.

Everything was cool until they started turning black and dying, one by one. Finally, I saw a spined soldier bug (stink bug) killing one. And then another. And then several more.

Predatory stink bugs can be helpful because they eat pest caterpillars and many other undesirable insects. But they don't care that we think swallowtail butterflies are pretty. So Byrd and I decided to remove the caterpillars to a safe place, and let the stink bugs find something else to eat.

We ended up with 34 caterpillars in various stages of growth. But where were we going to keep all of these caterpillars?

So Byrd, in true Byrd fashion, went way overboard and built them a fancy caterpillar castle.

First was the base. It is plywood and wood trim that rests on a big square plastic pot. In the four corners, he made four little vases out of PVC. In the middle is a big hole.

Dozer didn't understand what we were up to, but he enjoyed laying on the garage floor and getting the occasional hug and baby talk.

"What d'ya mean, 'who's your sweet bubby boy'? Is that a rhetorical question?"
Though the garage is still kind of new for all of us, Dozer makes a really great "garage-buddy" dog. He finds a comfy spot on the floor and just hangs out there. Even if the garage door is wide open and someone's walking past the house (with their dog, even), he doesn't care at all. Just sits there.

Next, Byrd made the top part, and wrapped it with window screen wire. You can see the underside of the plywood, where the PVC vases are screwed in.

So what's that big hole for? It's for a potted plant that the caterpillars can eat. I wanted to be able to swap out the plant that goes in the middle, depending on what was available.

Swallowtail caterpillars eat plants in the wild carrot family: dill, fennel, parsley, and Queen Anne's lace.

We only have the one dill plant, and because it's later in the summer now, dill isn't available at the nurseries. Parsley is in season, however. So we bought a whole bunch of parsley and put them into pots that would sit in the center hole.

You're thinking, hey, that's a neat idea! Well, it turned out to be kind of a dumb idea, because I soon learned that 34 caterpillars can eat one of these pots of parsley to the ground every day!

Here's what the caterpillar castle looked like right after we put all our caterpillars in.

Live young parsley plants are, frankly, too expensive to keep buying every day. After we ran out of live parsley on the fourth day, I bought some bunches of organic parsley from the grocery store.

At 99 cents for a bunch that lasts a few days, I can live with it. And the caterpillars don't seem to mind. I just trim the stems and pop the parsley into the PVC vases.

Today, we only have 1 of these 34 caterpillars still as a caterpillar. The rest have turned into chrysalides!

Some of the caterpillars pupated on the screen of the castle.

And some of them found a spot on the wood. Swallowtail chrysalides are either green or brown, and it seems that they try to pick the color that matches most closely to the surface where they settle down to pupate. Camouflage!

We had a problem with about 10 of the pupas; the caterpillars decided to use a parsley stem. In the wild, it would probably be okay for a caterpillar to pupate on a fairly sturdy stem, but our parsley was cut, and it started to wilt.

The droopy parsley stems cause the chrysalis to hang upside down, which isn't good for it. We had to zip-tie the wilty stems on to a stick, so the chrysalides can stay upright until the butterflies are ready to emerge.

They'll spend about 2 weeks in the chrysalis before emerging as big Swallowtail butterflies, which we'll release into our garden. The good thing about chrysalides is that they don't eat/poop constantly.

So we're almost done with Caterpillar Batch 1.

Now comes Batch 2!

Last Saturday, Byrd and I watched a swallowtail butterfly neatly place tiny little green eggs on the dill plant.

In four days, the eggs hatched into microscopic black caterpillars.

I tried to get a picture of one. Can you see it there? This is a two-day-old eastern black swallowtail caterpillar. It is at a stage called "first instar." Instar is the stage of the caterpillar's growth.

When the first instar caterpillar sheds its skin, it becomes second instar. Swallowtail caterpillars go through four instars before pupating.

I wanted to leave the caterpillars on the dill plant for as long as possible. But today, most of the caterpillars had reached second instar, and they were starting to get eaten by soldier bug nymphs, which look like tiny, bright red beetles.

So I removed the little caterpillars to one of our aquariums.

I counted approximately 55 caterpillars in Batch 2!

Can you see the difference between first and second instar? These caterpillars have shed their skin once, and now have more orange color.

We will probably keep these little guys in the tank for the first week. When they're larger, we'll move them into the caterpillar castle.

Hopefully, by then, Batch 1 will be butterflies.

But that's not all. Today we saw another swallowtail butterfly laying her eggs all over the dill! In another week, we will have Batch 3. :O

By the end of summer, we'll probably have raised and released over 100 butterflies. Totally worth it!

Here's a random shot of Star, since she didn't get to be in this blog post for any other reason. She had some crazy upright ears going on.

"What're YOU looking at?!"

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Homecooked Meals

I'm in a short recess between semesters, and of course, I can't actually take a break for some stupid reason, so I've taken on a bunch of projects. One of which is my new plan for feeding the dogs: homecooked meals.

You may remember that last year's raw food experiment was a failure, for a number of reasons. For example, I'm a germ-o-phobe, and it bothered me to no end to watch the dogs put their paws all over raw chunks of meat, then walk around our house. I was baby-wiping their feet after every meal.

Also, Star hates raw meat. Hates it. When offered raw meat, she runs off, hunched over, head down, tail between her legs—as if we just offered her a beating.

But commercial kibble has its share of problems too. The recent food recalls. The mysterious shortage of rabbit that makes it impossible to keep Dozer on a rabbit-only diet. The 25-lb bag of food that costs nearly $60.

So I'm compromising. I'm cooking.

I bought six chickens at the store last weekend.

It's really difficult to cram six chickens into the fridge. I got three in the meat drawer, and three where the milk should go.

Waaaaiiit a minute, you're saying. Isn't Dozer allergic to most meat proteins? Isn't that the point of the special, expensive, impossible-to-find rabbit-based kibble?

Well, here's the thing. We didn't experiment much with the food allergy. The dermatology/allergy vet started us on the rabbit-based food, and things improved, so we assumed that rabbit was the key.
  • Dozer was originally eating Natural Balance Limited Ingredient kibble of various flavors, and he was reacting to it. The meat proteins varied, and the starch/binder was usually rice or potato.
  • With the derm vet, we started him on Royal Canin Veterinary Diet, which is rabbit and potato. He was still getting staph infections, but it was much improved.
  • Then we switched to Instinct—rabbit and tapioca—and the staph infections cleared up.
  • Instinct then ran out of rabbits, so Dozer currently eats Natural Balance Alpha, which uses a combo of lamb, chicken, and rabbit, and the binder is chickpeas. He's still doing great.
So I wondered, why isn't Dozer reacting to the chicken and lamb in the Alpha?

Perhaps, it's not actually a meat protein allergy, it's a starch/gluten problem. That is, perhaps Dozer is allergic to starches like grains, rice, and potato, but does fine with gluten-free binders like tapioca and chickpeas.

Makes sense to me.

Under this theory, I could switch Dozer to some non-rabbit-based, gluten-free dog food, which would be easier to find. Trouble is, most of the foods made with gluten-free binders are still RIDICULOUSLY F-ING EXPENSIVE. But, yes, I am considering this possibility.

In the meantime, I'm testing the theory that home-cooked meals might be a cheaper solution.

I cooked four of the chickens at once. I wanted to cook all six, but my pans weren't big enough.

These chickens are nothing fancy. Wash them off, rub some olive oil on them, put them in a 425-degree oven for about 1.5 hours.

Don't they look good?? Yeah, we thought so too. So we ate some chicken for dinner! In fact, it was kind of awesome, because with only one chicken, Byrd and I would fight over the dark meat, but this time we could each have our fill of legs and thighs.

Dozer stood next to me in the kitchen and drooled while I pulled all the meat off the chicken bones for storage. (Cooked chicken bones are NOT safe for dogs to eat.)

I got a total of 8 pounds of meat off the 4 chickens. And that was after we ate at least a pound ourselves for dinner. The chickens were $5-6 each. It comes out to about $2.50-$3 per pound.

I think the kibble probably costs just a little bit less. :(

But then again, I've never seen the dogs so excited about their dinner.

Recently, we also found a new dehydrated dog food that is gluten-free and rabbit protein, and it smells delicious when you add hot water. It's about the same price as kibble. But storage is much easier because the bag is smaller, yet it still makes the same amount of food as a big bag of kibble. Modern technology!

Currently, we're doing a hybrid sort of meal. The dogs get kibble as a base. They get a serving of re-hydrated food, some cooked chicken, and a supplement. They also get various snacks during the day, like cottage cheese, egg, or chicken livers. I won't pretend it's a balanced meal, but at the moment, it's an experiment to see what they can eat without Dozer breaking out with staph and Star running away like a coward.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to foster a litter of pups

As revealed in a previous post... I'm fostering five German Shepherd mix puppies that are five weeks old.

At this age, all day and all night, they play, eat, sleep, and potty. I'll keep them for three weeks, until they are neutered. Hopefully, they'll all be adopted during the pre-adopt period, and their new families will pick them up immediately after their surgery.

L to R: Buttercup, Lily, Sweet William, and Dandelion. Daisy is not in the shot.
If you've been following the blog for a while, you may remember my last litter of foster puppies. (Read about them here, here, here, here, and here.)

Today I want to answer the question: what does it take to foster a litter of puppies? Short answer: a LOT of time, energy, and money. Yep, even though the foster organization is covering all the medical expenses, it still costs a surprising amount of money to foster! The food, toys, and utilities (mostly, running the washing machine every day) are all on me.

Also, you need a spare room that can be ruined. In my case, the upstairs bathroom will some day be remodeled. Until then, it's a great "nursery." If the puppies gnaw on the cabinets or poop on the wall, it's no big deal. Other benefits to a bathroom: I have a sink in the room—great for filling water bowls and cleaning—and the floor isn't carpet.

The daily work is extensive. The pups constantly need fresh food and water and a clean potty area.

This is what I see every time I check on the puppies (every couple of hours):

The puppies are excited to see me—because they've spilled all their water (no-tip bowls are pointless, they put their paws into the bowl no matter what, then "walk" the water everywhere) and eaten all their food, and they know I'm about to hook them up.

L to R: Dandelion, Sweet William (on bottom), Daisy (on top), Lily
Just outside the bathroom, I have a cleaning station ready: an empty kennel, a pile of newspaper and butcher paper, a bucket and bleach, and a trash can.

Every couple hours, I change the puppies' paper. Even in the middle of the night: I change the paper at 2:00 AM and 6:00 AM. The puppies make the biggest messes during the day when they play on the newspaper. They mostly sleep at night, so I don't have to change the paper as frequently. Four-hour gaps are okay, so I can get some sleep!

Newspaper is worth its weight in gold to a puppy foster! I go through a 1-foot stack of newspaper in a few days. It's a perfect size when spread open, and it's absorbent.

My dogs were more interested in this pile of newspaper than they were interested in the puppies. :-/
I just recently learned that our local newspaper, the Austin American Statesman, has a bin of day-old newspapers destined for recycling and free to take. It's a bit of a drive to go downtown, but totally worth it to get all the newspaper I could possibly need. (Prior to this, I was digging through the paper recycling bins at our local recycling center.)

My dad also donates his and his neighbor's newspaper. The Wall Street Journal that I get from him covers a lot of area and doesn't have a lot of useless ad pages.

I bought a 1000' roll of butcher paper from Sam's Club for $20. This goes under the newspaper. It makes cleanup very quick. Every day, I cut about 15 long pieces off the roll.

Once a day, I do a more thorough cleaning. The puppies all go into the empty kennel so I can pick everything up off the floor, vacuum, and wipe the room down with bleach water.

I run a load of puppy laundry—towels, stuffed toys, blankets—every day, on the "sanitary" setting. I have a LOT of old towels, so I have half of them clean / used in the puppy room while I'm washing the other half in the machine.

Aahh, fresh paper on the floor and in the shower! The puppies go back into the room after everything is clean.

Five seconds in, someone already peed on the paper.
These puppies have decided to use the shower for pooping (most of the time, anyway). I don't know how they figured that out, but it works to my advantage. The shower lip keeps them from romping wildly through the shower, and therefore they don't play in the poop. Much.

Eating kibble.
Hanging out. Already a mess in there.
Buttercup. Teething. On my hand.
Lily. Teething. Also on my hand.
Lily didn't quite make it into the shower, so she's just peeing down the side... ah, puppies...
And that's just the daily work! Weekly, all the puppies get a bath and a nail trim. Also coming up: a three-hour round trip to the medical clinic for their vaccinations, and the pre-adopt work (photos and bios for each pup, scheduling potential adopters to see them).

I can only foster once in a while, and this is only my second litter. Some people foster litters all the time. I have no idea how they do it! I need a LONG break to recover. :)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Puppy fever

Something is wrong with me.

Three of five new foster puppies
The other two, sleeping behind the toilet
I was all like, hey, I have an exam and a presentation coming up, I've just gotten over being sick, I'm having trouble getting to the housework and website work, I'm prepping for a garage sale next weekend... Really, how much harder could it be to add some five-week-old puppies? Hahahaha!

Actually, what I really said was, I can totally foster ONE puppy for this ONE WEEK (spring break).

And my foster group was like, cool, we do not have one puppy for one week.

And I was like, but I gotta get me a foster puppy something bad.

And my foster group was like, cool, we have five puppies for three weeks?

And Byrd was all like, NO NO NO no no awwww yes all five please now now now.

And I was like, damn it.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Must touch you.

Star has somehow come to believe that she is only allowed on the bed if she is touching one of us.

Glancing at me to see if I'm "satisfied" with the level of contact.
I am at a loss to explain how she developed this superstition.

"I'm touching! I'm touching!! Don't kick me off!"
If you tell her to get off the bed, she frantically adjusts so that even more of her body is draped over you.

"Noooo! Is the paw not enough??"
"Okay, how 'bout... my whole head!"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

We are not amused.

Last weekend there was this tiny stray dog in my backyard.

I took her straight to the vet for a microchip check. No luck.

She was cute and shy, but also extremely dog-aggressive. As in, she wanted to attack the neighbor's German Shepherds through the fence, and also took every opportunity to start a fight with my dogs.

So I closed her up in our bathroom when I wasn't taking her out to potty--and kept her on a leash when she was outside, so she couldn't charge the fence. Separation is possibly the best method of dealing with dog-aggression.

Dozer could have cared less. He ignored the obnoxious little dog and all of her growling threats toward him. As long as he can walk away from another dog, he will.

Star is more complicated. She really likes to tromple all over other dogs. If the other dog is a playful little puppy who's into rough play, it works out great for both dogs. If the other dog is aggressive rather than playful, the interaction can turn sour, and a little dog is obviously at a disadvantage.

I kept Star in a down-stay whenever I had to take the little dog out of the bathroom. Star restrained herself admirably, even though she clearly wished that the stray could be a tromple-buddy. She kept play-bowing to the little dog from her down position across the room, which was a sweet gesture but only sent the little dog to the end of her leash with a ferocious roar.

Anyway, after walking the entire neighborhood asking people if they recognized the dog ("Nope"), posting Found Dog notices on Craigslist and the local animal shelter websites, and making posters, it happened that the dog started barking in our bathroom... and I immediately recognized the bark. Yes, folks, I can hear a dog bark and I can guess which neighbor's dog it is.

There is a neighbor a few houses down with a solid fence, so no one can see the dog she has, but you can hear it barking during the day. This little dog's bark sounded the same.

So I managed to get the dog back to its owner in about 24 hours.

Usually I would suggest a microchip or a collar, but this neighbor doesn't speak English very well, and I don't know enough Spanish to do more than to tell her that her car is yellow, or ask whether her head is made of cabbage. So unfortunately the responsible ownership tips had to be left out. I did manage to say that "tu perro recibe un bano" (still not sure I said what I meant), and she said Gracias.

This was quite possibly the most dog-aggressive dog I have ever had the displeasure of temporarily housing. I think it serves as yet another important reminder that dog-aggression can be a problem with dogs of any shape, size, breed, or mix—and further, that the triggers and consequences of dog-aggression are different with EVERY dog. Every dog is an individual and should be evaluated as an individual.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The grass is always greener...

... in Texas "winter."
Holy cow, that grass is green.
We plant rye grass every fall, to cut back on mud during our "rainy season." It's cool, soft, and gorgeous. And sort of ironic that I have to mow the lawn every weekend in January. (We don't mow in the summer because the grass is dead.)
"Throw the ball!"
"MY ball!"
"He's kind of a jerk, but I love him."
This was our weekend project. Since we now have a garage, we can tear down this old shed. In three "easy" steps...
A little later, we moved into the new garage to do some work. Dozer made himself at home in a large plastic tub that had some old blankets in it.

"If this isn't my dog bed, why do I fit just right??"

He fell asleep in the plastic tub.