The drought has been as hard on wildlife as it has been on farmers. Our resident hawks and kestrels have gotten more and more aggressive with our chickens as the populations of mice, gophers and ground squirrels have declined. I cannot blame them for trying to make a meal out of my birds – they are hungry! Every creature must do what it can to survive.
The kestrel has been taking a young chick every couple of days from one of my light brown hens. This poor hen has lost all but one of her chicks. I have tried locking them up but the chicks are eager to explore and slip through chicken wire and under the edges of their pen as their mother and free-ranging chickens dig up the dirt. Once out the chicks are vulnerable to the kestrels and one by one they have disappeared.
Yesterday the last chick was out again so I decided to let it’s mother out to protect it. Not an hour later I heard a commotion and saw the kestrel performing some amazing air acrobatics in an attempt to catch the chick. He was being put through his paces by the hen who countered his attacks – throwing herself at the predator battering it with her wings and legs. It was quite a fight. The kestrel landed in a tree to rest only to have the hen fly up and attack him in the branches. I was able to scoop up the chick and return him and the hen to their pen. Even with my presence the kestrel stayed close by flying over my head to try and find out where the chick was hiding.
I felt very sorry for this wild bird as I knew it had to be extremely hungry to be this bold. I spent most of the day pondering how I could help it. Were there ways I could attract sparrows to open areas that would give it a better chance hunting them? Could I flush mice and moles from the ground in areas where the kestrel could grab them? If I put out strips of chicken would he take it?
In a weird sort of irony when I left the house this morning I was greeted by a present from one of my cats. A killed but otherwise untouched sparrow on my door mat. My first thought went to the kestrel so I took my “present” to an area I know the kestrel frequents and left it poised in a “natural” feeding position. I hope the kestrel gets it before the ravens do! I hope it provides a meal and a little more energy to hunt natural prey.
I must be the only farmer who is hoping for a few more field mice, moles, sparrows and small birds to raid my fields. My neighbors the hawks and kestrels need them!
I have learned that one rooster giving an alarm call can be anything from a true warning of danger to a ploy to get his hens to stick closer to him. So I am not too alarmed when I just hear one of them. But a chorus of alarm calls from roosters, peacocks (they honk), and turkeys (they putt) is a situation to pay attention to.
This morning the several roosters who frequent my porch and the mother peahen all started sounding alarm so I ran outside to see what was going on. At first all I saw was a blurr of beige and brown feathers as a hawk flew very quickly across our yard not ten feet from the house. It was very graceful and quickly landed on the tall walnut tree in our yard. It was a sparrow hawk – not much threat to a full grown chicken or peacock but it could make a meal out of young chicks.
As I was watching the hawk – who seemed unphased by my attention – a whole rafter (herd) of turkeys came running up to the house. There were about 20 turkeys in the group and they were giving alarm putts, had their tails spread out, and had their wings slightly spread in “attack” posture. And they were scanning the skies and trees for a predator. It was obvious they were intent on finding and dispatching whatever the intruder was. They spotted the sparrow hawk in the tree and immediately moved right below him, milling about while looking up and making threatening putts. A couple of them jumped on our lawn furniture to get closer and a few moved closer to the peahen with her peachicks and milled around them. This last move was very interesting to me because the peahen and turkeys don’t like each other. They don’t fight anymore but they barely tolerate each other’s presence. However it was obvious the turkeys were closing ranks and using their presence to deter a threat from the peachicks.
Eventually the hawk flew off and the scene turned to one of calm birds pruning and enjoying the early morning sun. I am not sure what benefit the turkeys get for being the swat team for the farm – maybe it teaches the predators to stay away and that is safer for the turkeys when their own poults are wandering around the farm. Or maybe they find it fun. Turkeys do have a great sense of fun and joy – you can tell they enjoy certain activities very much. But whatever the reason I am grateful because it helps keep my chickens safe and the hawks a welcome part of the farm.
Well, I don’t know for sure they can count but I have seen some very interesting behavior from the hens with chicks who have taken over our front yard. There are three chicken hens with six, five, and four chicks respectively. And one peahen with two peachicks. They have all decided that the front yard is the place to raise their chicks – there is shade and the “chicken spa” (our constantly overflowing swamp cooler that makes a little pool of cool water for their feet). They also get first dibs on the treats that come from the kitchen. While some hens will raise their chicks together this group has not and they compete for resources even chasing each other’s chicks away.
One of the mother hens is a tame hen named Blue. I discovered her setting on eggs in the big barn in a very dangerous place so I took the risk of moving her into my office to keep her safe. She took to the routine very well and was not distubed by the human activity around her. Once a day I would take her off the nest and put her outside and she did her duty, ate, and drank. (Once a day is typical for broody hens – they hold their “business” and only go in one big “broody pile” away from their nest.) When her chicks hatched I started letting them go outside but being the nervous grandma I have been bringing them in at night to sleep in a box in my office. The other hens and peahen were choosing good places for spending the night but Blue kept making bad choices so I worried about her.
Our routine is that first thing in the morning I open their box and Blue jumps up to be taken outside. Her chicks have started jumping up too so I can take Blue and two or three chicks in one trip. When the first group is outside I get the remainder – and here is where I think “counting” or something even more interesting is going on. Blue will wait by the door until I bring her last chick outside even if all the similar looking chicks from the other hens are right next to her. When her exact number of chicks have been put outside she starts to take them on their daily routine. Either she is counting and knows when one is missing or,even more interestingly, she recognizes each as an individual and knows when a specific one is missing. If she recognizes individuals (and I tend to think this is more of what is going on here) then we are talking a level of familiarity, recognition, and memory that humans don’t normally attribute to chickens.
I have also noticed that all the hens know the calls of their chicks and respond to them exclusively. If Blue’s chick is being chased Blue will respond and the other hens don’t. If the Buff Orpington’s chick is being chased she will respond and the others don’t. Very interesting that they know their own chick’s calls as well.
Recently I read about an author who is publishing a book about animal emotions. The write up said this author used scientific methods to study and “prove” that certain animals, cats and dogs were the study of her research, had emotions and could experience joy as well as grief. It made me wonder – have we humans gotten so far removed from interactions with animals that we have to “prove” something we should be able to immediately recognize? Yes, animals have emotions.
There has been a lot written about how the co-evolution of man and dog (and to some degree cat) has allowed our domestic dogs to understand our emotions, words, and even read our facial expressions. This works both ways – our species has evolved to understand dogs too. We can see excitement, happiness, fear, and other moods in dogs because we evolved to be able to “read” them. But our ability to read, or not read, an animal does not bestow emotions on it. Once you learn to understand the non-verbal communication of a species you can immediately see that many animals with different levels of intelligence experience emotions.
I have seen many emotions in different animal species. From the leaping, unrestricted joy of turkeys doing the “crazy turkey dance” on a cool fall morning to the deep mourning of a mare whose foal died before her eyes. Animals do have emotions – they just express them in ways most people cannot read. But watch them carefully and you will start to learn their “language”. It is both humbling and thrilling to know this is something we share with the animal kingdom.
Much to my relief our resident hawks are back! They must have had two babies this Spring and now the babies are flying and trying to catch everything on my ranch. The turkey and chicken hens are escorting their broods around the farm and every once in a while a call goes out and the young birds scatter. In a few seconds one of the “not so subtle” young hawks flies by screeching its disgust at our farm’s early warning system. Just wait till they pounce on something on the ground – the turkey hens seem very much in the mood to give them a wallop.
At first I did not know if these two young hawks were related to our resident pair (whom I had not seen for a while). But the other day I heard the turkey hens give a warning and I looked up expecting to see a miffed young hawk fly by – but none did. With the turkey hens still calling their warning I scanned the skies and finally saw a small spec of an adult hawk way, way, way up in the air. Since then I have seen the parents more often – all I have to do is follow the gaze of my turkey hens who seem to be able to spot satellites and sun spots. Well, okay maybe not those but they sure can see a high flying hawk. I think the parent hawks are “supervising” their youngster’s hunting forays. Its kinda neat to watch.
The bald eagle has not been spotted for a week – but neither have the ospreys. I think the eagle got his meal.
Margarita has been living in the house and front yard since her stroke a couple months ago. She sleeps in a box in my office at night and plays in a run in the front yard during the day. During the hot portion of the day I bring her in the house where she gets treats like Ritz crackers. She loves to stand in front of the swamp cooler and cool off. She will lay quite contentedly as the air flows over her much like the dogs do. Whenever I walk by she greets me with excited clucks but does not relinquish her cool spot to the dogs! When she gets lonely she finds me (usually in my office) and lays down by my feet, performs her daily feather grooming and just “hangs out” with me.
While Margarita’s loving personality has returned there are still a few residual changes from the stroke. The most notable are vocal “faux pas” – I call them her chicken tourettes. She has taken to trying to crow. She is not good at it. Rooster crowing is bad enough but a malformed and screechy crow is even worse. She is also using some chicken language inappropriately. For instance when I give her a treat she particularly likes she now clucks excitedly using the same vocalization a hen does when she is feeding her chicks. Or a rooster does when he is calling a hen to come eat a tasty bug he found for her. But its not Margarita’s intention to share the treat! When other chickens or chicks come up to get the treat she is advertising she chases them off. I think she just has a wire crossed. Her vocalizations do have a cute side though. She has taken to “calling” me whenever she sees me using the same “come to me” sound a hen uses with her chicks. She will call from her box in the office to have me take her out for the day. And she calls from her run in the yard when she sees me go in and out of the house.
And for those who may be wondering…..Margarita does have a nice pair of chicken diapers to wear in the house. I bought them from a lady back east who makes very high quality ones with very nice material. Margarita’s are black with a paisley type pattern. But she does not like wearing them. She has been very good about “holding it” as long as she can when in the house so I only make her wear the diapers occasionally.
One evening at dusk I was walking through the alfalfa field to change the irrigation when I heard a strange noise. It sounded like a cross between a frightened llama and a sheep baa. I spent several minutes scanning the almond orchard for what could possibly be making that sound. All of a sudden a bald eagle flew out of the tree canopy and in a dodgy manner started flying toward our main barn. In hot pursuit were two Osprey pestering the eagle the whole way. I can only assume they have a nest and the eagle was trying to make a meal out of one of their chicks. I hope he did not succeed.
I have seen the bald eagle everyday for almost a week now. It has me a little worried as it definitely is big enough to take a chicken or turkey. I am also worried about my hawks. Over the past couple years the pair of resident hawks have chased off any bald eagle that has come by. The hawks long ago gave up trying to take my chickens and instead stick to ground squirrel, gophers and moles. It is a nice arrangement. When we shoot squirrels we always leave them in places where the hawks will see them and get a free meal. I have not seen the hawks for a while and I wonder if something happened to them or if they just moved to a new territory. I hope they come back as they were a welcome part of this farm.