Saturday, January 31, 2009

more in response

Doug very kindly replied to my post. Read more at the link below. (I didn't mean to come off so nasty, but I agree with TC that I sounded in assault mode.)

Friday, January 30, 2009

In response

to Doug Green, “What Chickens?”

Whenever I run across someone who was reared or did some rearing on a chicken farm (and there are a surprising number of such folks), their assessment of the birds inevitably runs to the negative. They declare the birds stupid, mean, dirty, and stinky. I’m sure they are speaking partly from resentment of the chores they were required to do, but they are also speaking from fact.

Fact: Take any animal (including humans) and house it in cramped quarters, keep it bored, and treat it like crap, and yes, you will end up with a stupid, mean, dirty, stinky creature. Like, duh.

Let’s start with poop. People poop doesn’t smell so great. In fact, some of it is downright puke-inducing. Light a match, turn on the fan, it still stinks to high heaven. Ditto for dog poo. And who in their right mind would take a bunch of dogs, throw ‘em in a big cage with shavings on the floor, leave ‘em there, and not expect to faint at the result?

Don’t even get me started with cats. I’ve been working with cats my whole life, love them dearly, but not only is their poo foul in the extreme, their pee is The Smell That Will Not Die. Ever.

Now, let’s address danger, shall we? No doubt, any chicken, let alone a spurred rooster, can inflict some damage. This is serious, and a responsible chicken owner will take precautions. A pet hamster can also inflict damage, so a responsible hamster owner wouldn’t stuff it in the face of a two-year-old. You don’t have to win a Nobel Prize to figure these things out. And if you’re going to own an animal, you oughta know what makes it tick. Otherwise, you have no grounds to be upset when it doesn’t behave like a cartoon.

Meanwhile, the stats on dog bites and fatalities go up and up every year. Still, there’s all that “man’s best friend” stuff. Not that I have anything against dogs (well, nothing more than their smell, their destructive tendencies, and of course, their poop). But give me a break. This is an animal that kills more than a couple people a month in the U.S. alone. When was the last time you read about someone being mauled to death by a chicken? (Okay, I admit, it would be embarrassing, and the family would probably cover it up. But still!)

Intelligence: Doug’s reference to “just birds,” demonstrates an all too common lack of familiarity with birds. I spend a lot of time with a lot of different animals and respect them all, but hands down, birds are the most interesting. They have an intelligence that transcends anything we normally expect from “pets” (and that probably extends to reptiles as well, though my experience there is limited to a few lizards and a box turtle—who has more soul in her eyes than most of the educational administrators I encounter).

Oh, I forgot to mention barking/crowing. So roosters are loud? Try a dog that doesn’t stop the entire time its owner is at work or out on a date. At least a rooster has hours. And if you keep them inside at night, it’s no biggie.

The problem, I think, arises when we expect our animal friends to conform to the cardboard picture book we grew up with. Fluffy the Kitten will hiss and pee on things from time to time; Sammy the Dog will eat your favorite shoes . . . and the bread cooling on the counter . . . and the expensive chocolate truffles your significant other got you for your birthday; Chicken Little—or any bird—will disappoint you on occasion. Not because she’s stupid or mean or demonically possessed, but because she’s fallible. As are we all. And thank goodness for it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

How Esme Got His Name

This is actually a repost of my reply to Rebecca O'Connor's query: So what’s the story behind your parrot’s name?

My “parrot” is actually a chicken. He came to me as an orphan, just a couple days old. Of course, at the time, I had no idea if I was dealing with a he or a she, but thinking positive, I decided to assume it was she; plus, I very superstitiously figured it would help encourage development in that direction. Or at least wouldn’t hurt.

So this little cheeper looked like a penguin–black with white “diaper”–and I like Spanish, so I thought maybe Ping├╝ino. Well, that’s as hard and awkward to say as it looks, so I needed something else. I looked up “tuxedo” in my Spanish dictionary: esmoquin. Hmmmmm, maybe Esme? Like the JD Salinger story? (Only now it would be with love and squawking?)

Names are important, though, so I had to be sure: I checked the dictionary again. Esmerarse: to take care; to do well.

And thus Esme became my first (but not my last) inappropriately named rooster. He’s a sweetheart who will ring his bell to get my attention, loves to play fetch, and follows me everywhere. Sometimes he’s just “Es” for short, but I can’t imagine him having any other name.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


So much going on right now . . . but the chickens are good. Sami is getting bigger, getting better at crowing. He's still a baby though. They all are.

Trying to get back into writing by taking a creative non-fiction class. So far, not feeling incredibly creative, but I think the exercises are good for me. I think . . .

Today, I was doing some research for a piece where I'll intertwine the sound of my grandmother saying grace with Vin Scully announcing a game. Researching a baseball transcript was simple compared to trying to reconstruct what Fern used to say. I can remember snippets but not the whole thing, and since I felt like I needed a little more, I spent most of the afternoon using key phrases to google prayers. Found some useful stuff, but this of course is my favorite:

There once was a cock and a hen,
Who gave lunch to a goose in a pen.
"Good Lord" said the goose,
"Bless this food for our use
And us to thy service. Amen."

Fern never said that, but she did have a lot of chicken figurines and crockery (which I inherited), so it's somehow fitting. And probably how I ended up with a lot of live chickens.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


So I'm spending way too much time on twitter these days, and no one was posting anything new, so I decided to do a search for "chickens." Needless to say, I found oodles of good stuff, the greatest hits of which appear below:

Charlie_Edwards: Brilliant post by GD colleague: Predictions for 2009: we count our chickens before they’re hatched. Literally: (expand)
about 1 hour ago · Reply · View Tweet

StevenWalling: Okay, I keep chickens, but this is the worst sound I've ever heard.

StarBlush: AAFP : the guy who frakked his chickens

zuhl: Update re: vegan thing. Unable to carve out a "bacon exception" for myself. Made offer to "be nicer to chickens" if I can keep leather shoes
about 6 hours ago · Reply · View Tweet

amberlrhea: I'm not feeling good today. I need to feel better. But how, I don't know. We saw chickens at the Oakhurst Comm. Garden and that helped.

stuartchurch: One of our chickens (Margot) has decided that this is a good week to start moulting. I don't think she thought it through properly

caleb_moore: If chickens drove, I would be driving around like a chicken with my head cut off, but they don't, so I'm just driving around a lot.

RobinWedewer: Lost the chickens. Found them way, deep in the woods. We had to have a talk about their reckless behavior.

robwhisonant: @TerriCook Yes be afraid, be very afraid. The smaller they are the meaner they get. Trust not the small chickens. Now I sound like yoda! :)

gnerland: Is it a good omen to wake up on New Year's to find 3 chickens in your backyard?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

forgive me, feather...

Okay, so this post is really a cheat 'cause I don't want to lose track of an article that relates to my enduring desire to overly examine and intellectualize every aspect of my birds' behavior:

In this case, the writer is reporting on a researcher's work determining what actually inspires a seagull chick to peck at mama's beak (and thus receive a tasty barf-meal). It's a wonderful read whether you care about the explanation or not, but my ham-handed summary goes something like this: Baby Gull isn't looking for Mama Gull, but rather is hard-wired to get really excited about anything elongated with a spot of high contrast. (Please read the article for the fascinating details.) Curtis (the author) is excited by this work because it demonstrates "elastic triggers" in biology, and he sees mind-boggling (to my mind, anyway) applications to computer programming/software design. (Are those the same thing?)

Anyway, for me this is really exciting because it helps explain the behavior that I observe with my very cloistered and domesticated roosters (in contrast to what I recall with the more free-range roos from the ranch). And that is the response to what I'll call the "hawk trigger."

At the ranch, once in a while, a call would go up. It's been so long since I've heard it, but let's just say that it sounds like anxious, urgent, rusty trumpets. The sound is far, then gets closer and closer, as roos that are nearer pick up the call. Every time, I would look up, and eventually a hawk would appear.

Now the social cooperation in this example is impressive enough and worthy of its own discussion, but when I started taking my flockless home-raised roos outside, I noticed a similar, untutored, wariness of the sky. There's a sound that a worried rooster makes that is unmistakable, and what's interesting is that it can be set off by a butterfly or an airplane or a crow . . . or a hawk.

So I used to spend a fair amount of time with each, outside, looking at the sky (roos are great bird-watch partners), going, "oh, that's a crow. . . . oh silly, that's a little bird . . . ohhhhhhhhhhhhh, that's a hawk." But the hawk appeared only occasionally. It was clear that they were reacting to something, which could or could not be a hawk, but which in any case was something to be watched (the hawk trigger).

I had become so accustomed to this "oh, that's a crow" conversation that a couple of days ago when Fleck totally freaked out in the yard--flapping about and squawking as though he were battling an imaginary opponent--I looked up into the nearby trees expecting to see something really really scary in the branches. I turned my head a bit further south, and there it was, the threat: a Metlife blimp (for the "if" in life).

Needless to say, a blimp looks nothing like a hawk--unless we're talking elastic triggers. So chickens (especially roos--that's another story: heads-up time of roos vs. hens) are hard-wired to see something moving over them in the sky as a threat. And my guess is that a flock is a lot better than I am at refining that "instinct" to focus on hawks and not butterflies.

It also helps explain why I can herd a cocky cock with a broom or dustpan raised overhead--same trigger. It may even explain the submissive behavior that occurs when something (another roo, my hand) is immediately above a bird (let's play dead?).

And of course what's also important is what this says about our own behavior. (We gaze at the t.v., the computer, the cell phone, because "nature" told us that light is good?)

Light a candle. Happy New Year.