Chickens can count

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.

Good Rooster!

Saw something cute today.  The grapes on our front porch are forming but are not nearly ready.  That has not stopped the turkeys and chickens from eating them though!  Most of the low lying bunches are already gone but there are plenty just above turkey reach.  One of our young roosters figured out he could jump and grab a grape – and he was quite good at it.  But the cute part is that as soon as he had a grape he would call to one of the hens with chicks and hand her – beak to beak – the grape.  The hen then fed the grape to a chick.  This went on for a good 15 minutes.  When a rooster gives a worm or a choice morsel to a hen its usually in exchange for her “favors”.  But in this case there was no such quid pro quo.  Maybe he was earning brownie points for later.

Animal Emotions

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.

Return of the Hawks

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 Update

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.

Ospreys 1: Bald Eagle 0

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.

Animal Behavior Test You Can Try At Home

I have been reading the book “Illumination in the Flatwoods” about the wild turkeys raised by Joe Hutto.  For the most part I find his observations about wild turkeys to be spot on with what I have experienced with the domestic heritage breeds.  Its very interesting to me that there are such similarities.

One of the observations Mr. Hutto makes is that if he points out something for his birds by pointing with his finger they are smart enough to look at the object of his interest rather than his finger.   I never thought about this before but it is a very astute observation.  The birds know you are pointing something out to them – not that you are giving them something.  Interesting.  I decided to experiment with this with my domestic heritage birds and compare their response to my hound dog’s response.

To be fair the hound dog I engaged in the trial is somewhat lacking in basic intelligence.  Her name is Sheba and we somewhat jokingly believe she was denied oxygen at sometime in her birthing process.  Not the sharpest dog we have!  But she is a willing and enthusiastic participant for any endeavor (particularly if it can include squirrel killing).

Now to the experiment!  I was on my normal rounds feeding and my turkey hens were following hoping that I would step on some walnuts for them to eat.  At one point I stopped and pointed decidedly to the bare ground.  Every hen examined the ground – not my pointing finger.  I tried the same experiment on ground that had grass, leaves, and sticks (but no edibles) and each time the hens looked for what I was pointing to – not my hand.

I tried the same experiment with Sheba and she always looked to my hand/finger.  Interesting to see that the turkeys understood I was pointing something out to them but the dog thought my hand was to be the object of interest!  Try this at home!  I would be interested in hearing how many dogs understood the concept of pointing out an object of interest.

This fascinates me because Mr. Hutto associates the ability to abstract what is pointed to with intelligence.  He infers that this is a measure for the intelligence of a being – and turkeys do better than dogs in his trials!  I don’t know if I would go so far as to say turkeys are more intelligent than dogs but I sure do think they hold their own.  They may just not demonstrate intelligence the way we are used to seeing it.  But the cognitive resouces are there.