Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chicken Vision

Betty can keep any eye on me--and still see what's going on around her.
Our chicken coop is about 50 feet from the house. When I open the back door, the hens almost always come running to see what I've got. But what has surprised me is that sometimes I'll be inside the house, and will just look through the window or door to check on them, and they'll come running.

If I'm outside looking toward the house, I can generally see if someone is standing right in front of the window if I look hard enough. If they are standing back from the window a few feet, I can't see them.

But even if I stand a few feet back from the window, the hens will still come running. And then they'll stand there looking directly at me, cocking their heads and training an eye on me as if to say, "I totally see you."

If I don't come out, Violet and Mabel will hop up on to the step in front of the door and peer up at me.

At first, I didn't think they could really see me. But their expressions are so intent--and they aren't just looking at the window, they are looking at my face, and are maybe a little annoyed that they came running all that way and I'm still standing inside. There's an air of expectant impatience about their glare.

If I stop and think about all their scratching and searching for small bugs and seeds, it seems pretty obvious that they must have decent vision. Curious, I decided to read up on chicken eyesight. I'd always heard their eyesight was poor at night, but how well do they see during the day? Is it my imagination, or are they using their X-ray vision on me?

Turns out, chickens do see well. In fact, they see colors that humans can't. Recent research revealed that chicken eyes are better "organized" than human eyes, and that this means they can see color better than humans. According to the author of the new study on chicken vision, Dr. Joseph C. Corbo of Washington University in St. Louis (WUSL) School of Medicine:  

“'The human retina has cones sensitive to red, blue and green wavelengths. Avian retinas also have a cone that can detect violet wavelengths, including some ultraviolet, and a specialized receptor called a double cone that we believe helps them detect motion,' Corbo adds. Additionally, when eating colorful fruits such as berries, the creatures need to be able to distinguish between poisonous plants and the real deal." 

In fact, chickens can see things that are moving so quickly they would appear as a blur to humans, and they can keep one eye on prey while keeping the other eye on morsels of food. This would explain how Violet can gobble up oatmeal while giving Mabel the stink eye at the same time.

I look out the window with new, well, perspective, on my chickens.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Walking with Friends

Tybee holds the end of his leash while on a walk.
Lately, I've been walking with James Herriot.

I'm following a course through the old streets of this small Colorado town, my iPhone weighing in my pocket, my earbuds plugged in, as the voice of narrator Christopher Timothy brings the life of a Yorkshire vet into clear focus in my mind. I'm listening to the audiobook version of All Things Bright and Beautiful, and as I pass familiar houses, fence-lined yards, and early 20th century homes at the foothills of the Rockies, I'm seeing gray stone walls threading through green fields, Yorkshire farmers and their animals, and James Herriot's cast of affable characters.

Today, my 2-year-old Weimaraner, Tybee, walks along with me as I listen to the story of Herriot walking with his own dog. I understand the comfortable companionship the country vet feels with a dog at his side.

Herriot's real name was James Alfred (Alf) Wight, born in 1916. I was probably in junior high when I first picked up All Creatures Great and Small and entered the warmly painted world he recorded. He would have been a practicing vet at the time, halfway around the world, but near enough in imagination for me to feel the cobblestones beneath my feet and the warmth of equine muscle beneath my fingertips. I could see the expressions of animals and owners he described, and it was as if I rode along on his farm calls through the dales.

As an adult, I've re-read the series, and watched the BBC shows on DVD. And I've discovered the audiobook versions. You would think I'd get tired of the stories, since I've heard them before. But they are like those much loved family tales that re-surface around the Christmas dinner table and still make everyone laugh. I know how they'll end, but it's in the telling of them that I am captured and transported. I remember the budgies and the beagles and the shorthorn bulls; Tristan and Siegfried, and many of the clients he works with.

I walk with Tybee, and the air is cold, snow flitting from gray skies. Tybee was found somewhere in Kansas by animal control when he was about 5 months old. He was severely underweight, sick with canine influenza, and fleeing a cat with great sorrowful yelps. He gratefully jumped into the officer's van, then, through two foster homes and Mile High Weimaraner Rescue, found his way to us.

I would not say we have always walked in the most companionable way. He has tripped me more than once while walking or running. He's busy looking around, pondering the scenery, and he steps in front of me with uncanny timing, sending me sprawling across the asphalt, then looking at me as if he's wondering what I'm doing on the ground. A new game? An opportunity for play?

I've learned more body awareness when walking with Tybee. With Kipper, our Dalmatian, there are no worries. He's arrow straight in his gait and attitude. Tybee, on the other hand, wiggles and waggles his way along the road. He once ran into a parked car because he was so busy gawking at a stone lion in someone's yard.

We have ironed things out pretty well after a year of walks, and while he still gapes and meanders, I have grown accustomed to his ways, and he seems to stay out of my path more than he used to. It might be simpler to walk without him, but walks and runs would seem so one dimensional without a dog.

After our two Goldens became too old to accompany me, I felt a bit lost without them. It was lonely along the roads and sidewalks, and I missed their pure pleasure in the outing.

My dogs help keep me moving. If they don't get out, they get loony. If I don't get out I get cranky. When I get the leashes out to take Tybee or Kipper, Tybee bounces up and down and is completely unable to contain his enthusiasm. He'll try very hard to sit, then explodes into wildly goofy bounces before attempting to contain himself and sit. Which again lasts for about two seconds.

When we at last walk out the door and through our gate, there is a happy bounce to his walk. He watches cats, squirrels, and other dogs, notices people and strange statues in yards. The first time he saw a snowman, he shrunk away, backed up, and barked and growled at it. It is impossible to be in bad humor while walking with Tybee.

As we walked yesterday, I listened to James Herriot's description of walking with his dogs:

"This was the real Yorkshire with the clean limestone wall riding the hill's edge and the path cutting brilliant green through the crowding heather. And, walking face on to the scented breeze, I felt the old tingle of wonder at being alone on the wide moorland where nothing stirred and the spreading miles of purple blossom and green turf reached away until it met the hazy blue of the sky.

"But I wasn't really alone. There was Sam, and he made all the difference... He was to be my faithful companion, my car dog, my friend who sat by my side through the lonely hours of driving. He was the first of a series of cherished dogs whose comradeship have warmed and lightened my working life."

At that moment, I looked down at Tybee, who was clipping along in his characteristic long, disorganized, floppy strides, tongue lolling, ears up, expression open and happy. This dog that went unwanted early in life, hadn't had an easy beginning. He bears a nasty scar on one ear, and we have no idea how long he wandered the streets. Now he walks familiar streets with me, and has a soft bed and warm house. He has enriched and lightened my walks and runs, and I am glad for it. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Short Memories

Betty and Pearl in a staring contest.
Chickens have short memories. Pearl was clearly feeling back to normal, so I decided to put her back in with her feathered friends. But in the few days she'd been gone, I knew it was entirely likely that they'd completely forgotten about her. With chickens, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. There was a chance they'd treat her like a strange interloper from a distant flock and pick on her.

Poppy and Betty. Teenage BFFs. You rarely see one without the other.
I thought about waiting until it was dark, and all the hens were roosting and zoned out. Then I could sneak her back in and they'd all wake up in the morning and think she'd been there all along. As much as it makes me laugh to picture their morning reactions, this is really a chicken re-intro strategy. The sun comes up and suddenly there's an extra chicken, and I guess they all just figure they never noticed that one extra one before.

But it was a beautiful day, and I hated for her to miss it. So I thought I'd see what happened if I just dropped her in with the flock.

I put her down and she was clearly happy to be out of that bathtub. Her eyes brightened, her tail lifted to a perky angle, and her cheek feathers puffed out. She set to work looking for scratch right away. But then Betty, one of the big Australorps--probably twice her size--noticed her. She eyed her suspiciously, then swaggered up to her, and stood up straight and tall and arched her neck over Pearl. Betty thought maybe this was her chance to be top chicken over someone.

Pearl has always been nice to the Australorps, who (until Pearl's vanishing and reintroduction) were the new kids in the coop. I wondered what she'd do. Pearl is less than half Betty's size. But she drew herself up as tall as she could, arched her neck, and glared at Betty. They were eye to eye. They stood there for a minute or so.

Betty reached down and, as if testing the waters, pecked Pearl on top of the head, but not too hard. Pearl assertively pecked Betty back and Betty squawked, turned tail, and ran.

That settled that. Pearl went back to scratching and dusting herself as if nothing had happened, having reclaimed her spot in the pecking order. The other chickens eyed her, but pretty much left her in peace.

I checked on her throughout the day, and she was running, roosting, and doing all the normal chicken stuff. No one was picking on her. And she was a long ways from the hen that couldn't walk on Saturday. It was a relief to see her back to normal. She's a very kind chicken, but that doesn't mean she lets anyone push her small self around.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Eating Local

One of my favorite Christmas gifts this year came from my sister. It's a book called The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather. On the front cover it says, "How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week)."

Mather, a food journalist (and now senior associate editor at Mother Earth News), moves to her 650-square foot lakeside cottage in Michigan. Her book chronicles a year of change and eating local, with essays that not only tell her story, but cover food issues and offer some great recipes. (And hey, she spins and knits, too.)

I first became aware of the local food movement when I heard a radio interview with Barbara Kingsolver about her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I read it several years ago, and was impressed--eating local is not easy, and she did so for a full year.

We 21st century Americans are used to having access to any food we want, any time of the year. Bananas from South America don't exactly leave a small carbon footprint on the way to my door in Colorado. Eating only what's in season for your region, raised nearby, or has been canned from local produce the summer before is a huge challenge.

We try to buy local whenever we can, especially through the summer at the local farmer's market. Our small grocery store often has local produce and foods available. And we seek out opportunities to support local farmers.

Our Thanksgiving turkey was raised right up the road. He came from Long Shadow Farm, where we picked him up on the Sunday before the holiday from Kristen and Larry Ramey. They raise turkeys, chickens, and lambs, and sell produce and delicious canned goods. They have a booth at the farmer's market in the summer, and I relish the opportunity to pick up a few roasters or stew hens, and their locally grown produce.

And gracing our dinner table at Christmas we had home canned applesauce, pickles, and jams, and local wine from Blue Mountain Vineyards. (It was very nice wine. We'll look for it again.)

Not only are we supporting small, local businesses, and reducing our carbon footprint, but the food and wine was delicious, and a welcome addition to our meal. And I think that value is sometimes overlooked--that beyond the ecology and environmental benefits, eating local is richly satisfying.

Reading Mather's book, the simplicity of processes and the personal connection she has with her food is appealing. Our turkey was raised, handled, and processed by the people who sold him to us.  The food we canned, the wine we drank, the honey on our table and the cream on our pumpkin pie seem more... personal, and somehow enriched, when we know its origins.

When Mather writes about buying meat from a local, small butcher, or cheese from a local dairy, or when I dip honey from a jar that was filled just down the street, there is a sense of community that surrounds the food and the meal. And community and food are a natural culinary pairing.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pearl is on the mend...

Pearl, convalescing.
We've had a sick chicken in the downstairs bathtub all weekend. Pearl, L's favorite chicken, just wasn't herself Saturday morning when M went to let them out of the coop. She seemed to be having a hard time walking, and just wanted to roost on the ground. It wasn't too terribly cold, but she was fluffed up like it was sub-arctic out and she was trying to stay warm. Poor thing had the chills.

I scooped her up and took her into the house while M gathered some wood shavings and food. She almost seemed as if her legs were extremely weak or paralyzed. We gave her a bowl of yogurt, some water with vitamins and electrolytes (plus a splash of Bragg's apple cider) and her regular chicken feed. We have the heat lamp on in the coop, so I filled up a hot water bottle and settled it next to her.

All day long, she didn't really move much. I knew that she'd just laid an egg that morning, so she wasn't egg bound. Her crop was full, but not impacted. She was eating and drinking fairly well. But she clearly didn't feel well. I wondered if she had the same bug that Clover had back in November. Googling only added to my worry.

One very common chicken disease is Marek's--a virulent and highly contagious Herpes infection (it has a 100 percent mortality rate). Some chicks are vaccinated, but I didn't know if Pearl had been vaccinated or not since she came to us at about 15 weeks. One of the symptoms is paralysis, but she didn't seem to exhibit any of the other symptoms. And often the paralysis shows one leg stretched forward, and one leg back. This didn't seem to be the case either.

She had frequent visitors Saturday, checking to make sure she was warm enough and had food. By Sunday morning, she seemed to have improved and was gaining strength in her legs. Sunday night, she was clearly feeling better, and decided to roost on the side of the tub for the night.

Today, she looks good, but I'm keeping her quarantined a little bit longer, not wanting to expose the rest of the flock, and wanting to be sure she can hold her own out there with the big girls.

I had no idea chickens could be so fragile, but as I read about the various illnesses and diseases they can contract, I suddenly find myself behaving like a new mother, worried about the slightest oddity or deviation.

I cleaned out the coop this morning, adding fresh shavings. Violet and Mabel both wandered in to see what I was doing. Both were bright eyed, and the two Bantams and two Australorps both looked good, as well. I gave them fresh water, scattered some scratch grains, and watched them. It's supposed to be nice and warm today, and they are enjoying a day wandering in the yard.

Reading up on quarantines, I'm learning that Pearl may have to stay in isolation for awhile longer. Feeling bad that she's missing out on a good day in the yard, I take her a handful of mustard greens and a little more yogurt. Fingers crossed she'll be back with the other girls soon.