A Bizarre Deformity and the Plight to Survive

Various birds gather at the water tub for a morning sip!
Various birds gather at the water tub for a morning sip!

I am a morning person.  Up early, smile on my face, and toting one of my favorite morning phrases, “The early bird gets the worm”, I am off and running just as the sun is making its appearance over the horizon.  Usually, this is a quiet time for me, watching nature come to life. I notice dew drops of moisture on the ground that twinkle in the sunlight. I hear birds chirping and bushy-tailed squirrels scampering about. I see the red fox taking the animal trail out into the deep woods, and Daisy deer showing up at the water tub for a long drink of water after a night of running about… or whatever it is that deer do at night!

Through my observations of nature in the morning, I have discovered the best time to photograph birds and most wildlife is between 8:00 and 10:30 a.m.  It is then, when the sun is peeking over the tree tops, that the bird population bustles with activity.  And it is this time of morning when I see all sorts of bird species in the woodlands around and below our home, and this time of year when I take note of the winter bird population.

Several years ago I began taking part in the “Oklahoma Winter Birds” survey, in order to better educate myself about the various winter species that frequent our area, and to learn more about their habit, diet and feeding behavior.  Ultimately, my biggest hurdle was in learning to identify each species.  At first, I often found that difficult.  For instance, there are eight species of sparrows in Oklahoma during the winter months.  To a birding novice like myself, comparing and contrasting traits of sparrows was confusing.  I tended to get overwhelmed, unless I took a photograph where I could positively identify which sparrow I was looking at, and memorize it.  After six years of participating in the survey, I still have to refer to the guide to identify many of the various sparrows.

One of my favorite bird species is the Tufted Titmouse.  We see them year-round here. Their shrill and happy call alerts me even before I see their small, but stout bodies.  The large eyes, short beak, and pointed crest of the titmouse makes it easy to spot them from a distance.  So yesterday morning, as I headed down the slope to the canyon bottom below and heard the titmice chattering away, along with chickadees, robins, a couple of nuthatches, and a lone woodpecker in the distance, I was especially delighted.  It appeared to be a busy morning at the corn feeder and water tub, and a perfect morning for photography!

I had a feeling I was being watched... sure enough this little guy was peeking at me from his cozy knot hole.
I had a feeling I was being watched… sure enough this little guy was peeking at me from his cozy knot hole.

As I have learned over the years, photographing wildlife requires a lot of sitting and waiting.  To get beyond noticing the pain in my buttocks or my growing impatience at not seeing subjects all around me now, posing wonderfully for my camera, I try to concentrate on observing all that is going on around me, even the little things like insects, rather than focusing on how cold I am (especially this time of year).  Yesterday, the weather was a bit breezy and chilly so I located a sunny spot in which to sit and lean against a tree.  With no dew on the ground, moving around was noisy; the crunch of leaves and snap of twigs announced “human approaching” to all of the woodland creatures.  But thankfully, my zoom lens allows me fairly close proximity to my subjects, even when I cannot manage getting near them physically.

Squirrels are especially frisky and entertaining acrobats during the winter months.
Squirrels are especially frisky and entertaining acrobats during the winter months.

This particular morning, I managed a few shots of various birds but nothing truly interesting caught my eye and I ended up with many disappointing shots.  Birds moved around a lot, flitting from branch to branch, and tree to tree.  They often turned and hopped and rarely presented an opportunity that offered the perfect pose.  I would be lucky to wind up with anything that provides much detail and is sharply focused, much less  beautifully posed.

After focusing on the various birds flitting about me, I got side-tracked for a time observing a little squirrel peeping out from just above me, tucked in a little knot hole in a dead tree.  Then, far above me, I captured a different squirrel performing his acrobatic movements, as he flew through the air from one small branch to another.  “My, these tree rats are entertaining!”, I thought.  Then suddenly, I heard the flutter of wings nearby.  A tufted titmouse had landed on a slender branch just next to me!

The horrifying curve of the beak was the first thing I noticed viewing the titmouse through the camera lens.
The horrifying curve of the beak was the first thing I noticed viewing the titmouse through the camera lens.

I carefully pivoted to my right for a better angle and quickly snapped a photo before the little fellow could fly away.  It was through the lens of the camera as I framed this first shot, that I noticed a peculiarity.  Something was wrong with the titmouse’s beak. I watched him for a short time as he darted about the area near me.  He seemed to drink water from the tub just fine, maybe taking a bit longer than one might expect, but then I often observe birds taking their time and just resting at the bird baths.   I managed several decent photographs before the little grey “mouse” finally flew away.

Afterwards, I chose to discontinue my quest to meander in the woods looking for additional photo opportunities.  I wanted to go inside the house and research the oddity I had observed with the titmouse’s beak.  I had many questions in mind about this beak deformity.  Was it genetic?  Could an accident have caused it?  Was it due to a disease?  Was it a common sighting?  I just had to know!

Once online, it did not take me long to discover that what I had just photographed was not a rare sighting.  Since the early 1970’s, several organizations have been conducting ongoing research into what is now called, “Avian Keratin Disorder”.  It seems the affliction affects adult birds, not the young and, therefore, does not indicate a genetic problem.  The deformity doesn’t seem to come from a virus or a bacterial source.  The birds researched seemed to have a normal diet, and did not seem to lack in nutrients.  Most afflictions show up regionally among certain species and, not being widespread, rule out disease as a cause.  One might think an obvious indication would be environmental contamination, but research in that area has not yet identified a clear contaminant.

My friend looks back to assure I do not mean him any harm.
My friend looks back to assure I do not mean him any harm.

To gain a deeper understanding of the beak structure, I researched further; discovering that a bird’s beak consists of bone overlaid by a horny structure made of keratin.  Keratin is the same protein that makes up hair, feathers, fingernails, and claws. Like nails, the horny material constantly grows and wears away.  Deformities like the one I observed in my titmouse friend, result from a sudden acceleration in growth of the beak, in some cases nearly twice as fast as normal.  Yet, the underlying bones show no evidence of abnormality. Various groups are currently performing testing and studies to pin-point the cause of what might be going wrong with the keratin-producing cells.

In my research, I also noted that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Project Feederwatch” and the US Geological Survey are encouraging birding observers to fill out surveys and document sightings of birds with beak deformities such as the one I observed.  So today, I did my part by filling out the observation reports and attaching photos of the tufted titmouse I had photographed.  Still, I felt helpless in a way.  I knew my little friend had learned to adapt to his strange beak during the summer months, somehow managing to capture enough insects to keep him alive.  But, in winter, titmice tend to eat seeds, acorns, and small berries, using their beaks to break and pry them apart in order to get at the nutritious “meat” inside.  How would he manage this in the cold winter months ahead, with such an awkward, curved beak as his primary tool?  And what about proper preening of his feathers?  Accessing the preening gland with a bird’s beak is essential in waterproofing feathers and keeping clean.  Since feathers help to insulate from the cold, preening is a necessary activity.  How would my little friend manage this task with a such a beak?

My friend takes time to get gulps of water. I made a mental note to keep the water tub filled to the brim to make drinking easier for my little buddy.
My friend takes time to get gulps of water. I made a mental note to keep the water tub filled to the brim to make drinking easier for my little buddy.

As always here on the ten-acre ranch, we will keep our bird feeders filled with seed this winter.  We will keep the water tub filled in the canyon, and likely have a couple of heated bird baths at the back porch as well.  I have also discovered a couple of easy-to-make recipes for homemade bird suet to help my feathered friends make it through the winter.  And these things will provide my little titmouse friend easy access to food and water and give him the best chance at life in spite of his deformity… even though I know, ultimately, that his chances for survival are slim.

But what has hit home with me the most about all this, is the realization that our treatment of the environment has everything to do with the long-term survival of all living things. Reading the information put before me last night, it was apparent that decades of broadcasting pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, not to mention other sources of widespread environmental pollution, is taking its toll on our earth and its occupants.  Yet, we think little about the outcome of our hapless ways, the ill effects of “convenience”, and the utter ignorance of our decisions.

Freaks of nature and oddities do not always just happen or occur as coincidence.  But, only briefly noticing these things in others, we keep on living as if we are untouchable and invincible.   And so it is that I fear that nothing will change until we, too, experience deformity in our own species, and finally begin to understand their plight to survive.  Or has this already begun…?

Nature never seems to show emotion about deformities. I wonder how he has managed to survive all of this time.
Nature never seems to show emotion about deformities. I wonder how this little fellow has managed to survive all of this time.

© Day by Day the Farm Girl Way…


49 thoughts on “A Bizarre Deformity and the Plight to Survive

    1. I had the camera on the action setting because there is no other way to get lucky to capture such a shot! Most of my squirrel photographs come out blurry when I attempt a jumping and leaping shot. You might enjoy earlier posts about “Frosty”, an orphaned squirrel we raised. On the sidebar, “Looking for a Specific Topic?” type in “Frosty” in the search box. What a delight he was! I must have hundreds of photos of him!

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  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful, albeit sad, post. I especially like the photo of the squirrel – I do miss my little pet squirrel. That’s exactly how he used to greet the morning from his log!

    As for the titmouse – there’s a lot to think about, and a lot to explore. I’m just too sad to write much, but I will be thinking about this, and finding a way to share the information. Thanks.

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    1. I have been sad about this too. With the first winter blast approaching this weekend, I find myself worrying and wondering how this little titmouse can survive. I am thankful for his presence. If for no other reason than to bring about awareness of his plight.

      Squirrels are such a joy! I know many people do not like them and consider them rodents, but they are so entertaining, and hilarious! I find myself delighted by them any time I walk through the canyon woodlands!

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  2. You captured some amazing photos! Although the tufted titmouse has an obvious deformity, he/she is a beautiful wonder to look at. More amazing is how he has learned to acquire the necessities of life (food, water, preening). So often in life we tend to get “hung up” on the defect, and wonder how one can possibly survive. But just as there are people with conditions we observe as “abnormal”, many of them go on to live life in an amazing and inspiring way; just as this titmouse is doing. We don’t always know what we’re capable of, until we’re handed the challenge.

    Big Sister, you amaze me every time you care for an injured or orphaned being of nature. Many, if not all, have been a challenge. You didn’t always have everything a mother dear, or a mother squirrel, etc.. would have come equipped with, LOL, but you rose to the challenge every time. I am inspired by your love of nature & photography, and your ability to bring them together to harmoniously. And like so many others, I see your true gift in writing, and I look forward to reading each and every story.

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    1. Oh, Baby Sister, you are always so kind and complimentary. I noted some real importance in what you commented, ” So often in life we tend to get “hung up” on the defect, and wonder how one can possibly survive. But just as there are people with conditions we observe as “abnormal”, many of them go on to live life in an amazing and inspiring way; just as this titmouse is doing. We don’t always know what we’re capable of, until we’re handed the challenge.” While I became sad watching my little titmouse friend, I was also amazed and inspired by his seeming adaptation to his deformity. What a beautiful and inspiring little fellow!

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  3. Very well done. We have these lil guys around all through the year as well but I have never seen anything like this one’s beak. Of course, I don’t have a zoom lens or even a camera to put it on. Finally, someone else who is amused by the antics of squirrels. They are so graceful as they appear to fly from limb to limb. Now I am ready to start collecting pictures for my wildlife picture folder (sub-folder “Farm Girl.)”

    Hey, I love your new gravatar – smiles are infectious!

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    1. Thank you Louis! You might want to check out “evilsquirrel13” (who commented above)! I checked out his blog and thoroughly enjoy what I’ve seen so far. Squirrels are such a delight, and very entertaining! They are often difficult to photograph, but every once in a while I get lucky!

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      1. I just did take a look and thanks for the link. I am beginning to think that it is these same red fox squirrels that love to eat the siding off of my cabin in WV. Cayenne pepper spray works for a while but by the time I make it back up there new chewings are always discovered. Any suggestions besides vinyl siding? That stuff doesn’t look very woodsy.

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        1. Other than keeping constant vigil, I don’t know of any good ideas. When we’ve had trouble here, I usually make my presence known and scare them off. I know you’re not at the cabin all that much so I don’t know what the answer is. I know their teeth grow about 6 inches a year, so that’s a lot of gnawing to keep them under control!

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  4. Lori, I am always amazed by your photography. The little squirrel is so darling! Conversely, I am saddened by the poor bird’s beak. This condition happens to caged birds and poultry too. At least our kept birds can have their beaks filed and shaped to correct for this anomaly, but as you said, what chance does this bird have? Truly sad. ~Lynda

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    1. Thanks for this information! I did not realize this condition was something that happens to caged birds or even poultry. I also did not know beaks could be filed and shaped! Isn’t it amazing what we learn and what we teach each other as a collective, nature-loving group?

      I get lucky, being in the right place at the right time, and I’m fortunate to have a good zoom lens. It was a splurge FD and I made some years ago, and it has been worth every penny!

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  5. Lori, I haven’t even read the whole post yet, but your title sort of panicked me and I scrolled down to see the pictures of the tufted titmouse. I’m sad to see him like that, but I guess it’s encouraging that he’s lived long enough to grow to adulthood already. He’s obviously found a way to make sure he gets enough food. Let’s hope that continues. But what I really wanted to tell you is that I’m reading a wonderful book now called “The Bluebird Effect”, by wildlife rehabilitator Julie Zickefoose. Her stories of caring for abandoned baby birds are fascinating and heartwarming. I’m SO grateful to people like you and Julie for what you’re able to do for animals. Your sister is correct in her comment above: You really are an inspiration to all of us!

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    1. Oh, thank you Kim! And I have “The Bluebird Effect”… I ordered it just after it became available! A friend from Kansas who works to help deer herds in her area told me about it. She knew I would love it. I could relate to many of Julie Zickefoose’s experiences… especially the bonding that happens with wildlife that we help. There’s just no way to explain how it feels when “love” is returned!

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  6. Poor little fella. I wonder if that beak could be shaved down some to make it more regular. Sweet of you to keep his water filled, but that is who you are. If I was a critter I’d be heading to your neck of the woods for sure.

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    1. Mike, I wondered the same thing. However, I’m sure catching him would be traumatic and I’m more than an hour from an avian veterinarian. I saw the little fellow again yesterday, in the woods. He was trying to get a berry off of some type of shrub, and was eventually successful. I also saw him working around in the grasses and leaves, likely hunting insects.

      Well for sure I’d see that you were taken care of! I wonder, what kind of critter would you be?

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          1. All of that works for me and I would alert you to danger by chirping and provide, and receive, warmth in your pocket where I would snuggle and sigh deeply.

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  7. Aw :/ that’s so kind of you to take extra precautions for him. He probably needs a bit of help not being “nature’s strongest”. Like Mike I wonder too whether a vet could help him..

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    1. I acquired the avian vet information this morning. I will give them a call later to see if it’s even possible to help the little titmouse. Not that I worry about federal law, but I’m quite sure it’s illegal to capture a wild bird, and for that reason alone, a vet may not legally be able to assist. I will still put food out and take care as I can. We spend a lot of money on bird seed in winter, not to mention deer feed, and corn for all of the critters. We look at it as entertainment… watching the antics of wildlife while feeding. It’s wonderful to know we can help in some small way. Winter months are hard on all wildlife.

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      1. I have no idea what the regulations are to be honest, but would be sad that they keep you from helping a bird, but are not there to assist either when an animal gets mistreated by bastards. In Belgium we have as good as NO animal regulations, it makes me sick. That’s so amazing of your family 🙂 i’m sure the animals are very thankful!

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        1. The one permit I couldn’t get when I started rehabilitating wildlife was the federal birding license. The government requires 500 hours of avian study, and 2 years of apprenticeship with an aviary facility of some sort. I am in a rural area so training and an apprenticeship would be costly and very time consuming. I can rehab non-migratory birds, but migratory birds must be delivered to an aviary-type rehab. They could only be in my possession for the time it took to transport. Since this little titmouse seems to be managing on its own for now, I doubt it would be considered a rescue bird or a rehab specimen.

          I daresay, I would do what needed to be done, rules or not, if a situation arose. I’m not much of a “rules” person when it comes to the welfare of wildlife. Government rules are ridiculous much of the time. I care about animals… I do what is necessary.

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          1. It really warms my heart that you say that, I wish everyone felt the same way. I would do the same thing, sadly enough though living in the city I can´t barge in on a store that sells animals and steal them all. But it´s really frustrating to see how horrific animals get treated here. Called the police on a family with a dog last year, almost got kicked out of the appartment by my attendant.

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          2. How sad… I never gave it much of a thought that in other places in the world, animals didn’t have rights or laws protecting them. It often seems overwhelming but it’s a start to do what we can as individuals to make changes in the way we treat animals, and nature as a whole. Bravo to you for at least attempting to help that dog!

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    1. Thanks! I often find these moments of sitting with nature and “listening” teach me much about life that I never considered. It’s always great to be able to research something and help others to have understanding.

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  8. Hi Lori, Your post is thought provoking. You were wondering whether humans have had to deal with deformities as a result of changes to environments as a result of human activities. The answer is ‘yes’! I am thinking of the more extreme examples such as radiation and chemicals such as agent orange which cause birth defects but there are other examples of disease and illness such as cancer ‘hot spots’ where it is suspected environmental contaminants are to blame.
    I can relate to the frustration of trying to identify various bird species….the most common breed of bird at times is the ‘little brown bird’ which is nondescript, has no distinctive markings or physical features and which flits to and fro and bobs about in the bushes or undergrowth.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Margaret. I’m not sure people make the connection of possible environmental toxins and contaminants in relation to cancers, autoimmune disorders, or diseases. Often people just assume it “happens” to them and do not look for a cause. I wonder, sadly, if it came to obvious deformities in appearance like, being born with one eye, or deformed fingers, feet and hands… visible signs that affect how we are accepted by others, that perhaps some real attention will be given to changing what we are doing to our environment. I had even read that birds with these beak deformities, often do not find a mate. Even in the animal world, the need to procreate and carry on a strong gene line is important. Obviously, the animal world isn’t capable of finding a solution, but we are. I hate to think what it will take for people to become very concerned and make changes to the way we live.

      I spent hours last summer trying to find a name to a species of moth that I photographed in my Summer Tanager post. I submitted my photo to “Butterflies and Moths of North America” but never heard back from them. It really bothers me when I cannot identify something I’ve photographed! I’m interested in every little aspect of nature!

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, Maria! I am fortunate to live on a little piece of land that is teeming with wildlife! I am all the time being sidetracked by nature, when I have work to do… but that’s part of the enjoyment!

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  9. Words can’t convey how much this entire post strikes a chord with me, and “like” is definitely not strong enough. I have to leave it at that or I’ll end up writing a five page reply of appreciation!

    Titmice are one of my favorites as well, although since moving from the suburbs to downtown I don’t see them at home anymore. I do see them at work, though. 🙂

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    1. Thanks Sid! I have to admit I never thought much about deformities in nature until I saw this little fellow. It breaks my heart really. The past two days have been bitter cold here and I find myself putting out more berries and seeds, working to keep the wildlife water tub clear of ice, in order to help this little bird survive.

      Five pages, eh? At least no one can accuse you of not being thorough!!

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  10. Absolutely fascinating, Lori. You’re such a font of information–I love the stories you bring us. And how cool to be part of the research going on about these deformities.

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    1. Thanks Sandy… I always hope I present material in an interesting and educational format. If it weren’t for me getting sidetracked each day with that camera, I might miss a lot of fascinating messages from the critters. Seriously, when I just sit quietly and listen, there is always something to learn.

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    1. It’s funny how some people know exactly what they want in life and stick to it. It runs deep in their spirit. As a young farm girl, I dreamed of the city life. I never made it to the big city, I made it to some medium-sized cities that were still situated in rural areas. It contented me enough to travel to the big cities though. Now that I have rediscovered my country girl roots, I enjoy it more as an adult than I did as a kid. I hope you achieve your dream, my friend! Even to have a couple of acres to enjoy and raise your own vegetables and fruits is just amazing! I wish you well in your endeavor!!

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      1. Thanks so much. I’ve always wanted the country life. Here we have some beautiful countryside and I love to go to it. We have castles here, I have one just 20 mins away in the car, I tend to go and just walk the grounds. It’s magnificent here in the countryside and especially historic lands. I realize that America is just a new nation compared to England and doesn’t have the years and years of history. But there is just something about rural America that just does it for me. I spent my time in Tennessee this summer, and so fell in love. Coming back from America though I did feel grateful for our history and monarchy and all the things about the uk that is absent in USA. However that doesn’t change the simple fact that I long for the American country. I’m actually going to America for a whole year next year, working at varies ranches, travelling alone, cannot wait.

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        1. How fascinating to be able to travel and have a “working ranch” experience along the way! I have a nephew who did this for a time and just loved it… I think he was in Australia. He also spent time in Nepal working at an orphanage. I hope your experience is rewarding. Do you know your schedule? Where you will be working? Is it a particular program you will work under or are you doing this on your own? I wish I had the courage to strike out like that when I was younger! I admire you for doing so!

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          1. Yeah it’s gonna be so good. It’s not just ranch work tho, like at one point ill be I’m Las Vegas working in a hostel etc. it’s a scheme called workaway… But basically you have to do everything on your own, workaway just provides you with hosts but ill be staying with some people who I have just met as well.
            I know the places I am going but am leaving It open and indefinite for now as I hope I can find more. But so far, my journey goes:
            California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, fly to New York for Christmas, then Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia.
            But in various states ill be going to different places within them.
            It’s funny actually.. As a young girl I was always the kind that would grip moms leg and hide behind her In any situation. Scared out of my skin at anything new… So when I went alone to Tennessee in summer everyone was stunned as even the confident people around me wouldn’t do it. I’ve become very brave through troubles at home etc and grew up very fast. I’m glad of that though, I’m going to have incredible memories at such a young age!

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          2. I am so proud of you for venturing out on this great journey! What a wonderful life experience it will be, and to be sure, you’ll have incredible memories! I hope you will blog about it and share with all of us this exciting time of your life!

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          3. My husband, FD is a big Sooner’s fan. I’m originally from Nebraska so I maintain being a “Husker” fan… but it’s a good rivalry between us. I am not much into football or sports. As for the Kings of Leon, they are originally from a beautiful part of Oklahoma, much more scenic than the area I live in. Regionally, Oklahoma is quite diverse in landscape.

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          4. Oh that’s cool. Much of England are besotted with KOL 🙂 I am looking forward to getting to know more about you and your wonderful life reading your blog and I hope you’ll read mine.

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