Showing posts with label Chickens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chickens. Show all posts

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Chickens and the Origins of Flight

Observing all the different uses our free-range chickens put their wings and feathers to has led this week to some speculation about how flight evolved. Chickens are particularly instructive in that they are not capable of full-fledged flight. They are, however, capable of wing-assisted hops--to reach the top of a fence, or to flutter upwards from branch to branch as they climb to their favorite roosting spot. And in the morning, when they descend, they use their wings to break their fall to the ground. Back when we were picking the chickens up and holding them, it was a delight, and convenient, to just toss them into the air and let them flutter softly down.

Their wings provide adjustable warmth, fluffed to varying degrees to match the cold of a particular night. That capacity to manipulate their feathers for warmth translates well to any micro-adjustments feathers make to optimize flight. As mentioned in a post describing a hawk attack, the strong quills of a chicken's wings also provide an incredibly light-weight, multi-layered armor, any portion of which can be shed so that a predator, thinking it has a firm grasp on the chicken, finds itself instead holding only a feather or two while the chicken escapes. That multilayered defense serves as well to shed the rain. Feathers also are mobilized for a powerful display, spreadable to make the chicken look bigger to potential predators, or more attractive to a potential mate.

After observing a chicken, flight can seem like an afterthought--a bit of serendipity that came to pass after wings and feathers gradually developed for a host of other purposes, each adaptive use enabling another in a positive feedback loop that ultimately led to the purity of flight.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Charismatic Chickens Explore Their Wild Side

For a long time, our chickens stuck to the straight and narrow. They lived as everyone expected them to, spending their days scratching and pecking at bugs and worms in the yard, nibbling seeds off the grass, turning all that foraging into eggs, then dutifully returning to the coop each night to sleep, or whatever trance-like state chickens attain while roosting.

We in turn would dutifully feed them, open and close the coop door each day and night, and gratefully, somewhat guiltily, make off with the eggs. My respect grew for these gentle Araucanas, going about their days, so purposeful, so competent, so giving in their convenient repackaging of nature's abundance. When arctic air swept through, they would roost in the unheated coop as always, then step spryly out of the coop the next morning, impervious, as if antifreeze coursed through their veins.

The relationship started to change, though, a year or so ago. Perhaps the four chickens had depleted our yard's supply of wild food. They discovered they could cross over the back fence, and find fresh gleanings in the town park. I began getting reports of the great delight they were bringing to kids and parents. Then they ranged farther afield, three doors up to our neighbors' backyard, where they could gorge on birdseed spilled onto the ground from the birdfeeder. They still dabbled in our tray of standard issue chickenfeed from the farm supply store now and then, but you could tell their standards had changed. They were developing new tastes, new friendships.

They continued returning each night to sleep in the coop, and continued supplying eggs. We thought ourselves so lucky, to be reaping the harvest of eggs and pleasant anecdotes these beneficent creatures produced. They were like salmon, feeding broadly, then returning with an uncanny homing instinct to feed us generously. But then one of the chickens stopped showing up at the coop at dusk. We worried that a hawk might have gotten it, but our neighbors would report seeing it during the day. Another chicken disappeared altogether, considered gone for sure until a neighbor on the other side of the park sent word that it had adopted her yard. She loved how it would come running to her when she brought it food and water. I tried to retrieve it, but the chicken clearly did not want to be caught.

The freedom of coopless living ultimately seduced them all. Our coop lay abandoned by the birds it was meant to protect. We'd spot them sporadically, in front yard or back, or up at the neighbors' as they made their daily rounds. No one knew where they were roosting, nor where the eggs, if any, were getting laid. We thought of catching them and closing them in the coop for a few days to get them back into old habits, but in a way they've outgrown that old domestic servitude, the grind of laying egg after egg to serve the master. They've discovered an old forgotten resourcefulness, awakened dormant capacities deep in their genes. It seems a dangerous life, unprotected at night, and yet they survive. It helps that the foxes don't get up this way, and raccoon sightings are rare.

Last week, I had been up very early and was just heading back to bed at 7am for a brief doze when I heard a blood curdling screech just outside our bedroom window. I ran outside with a coat over my pajamas and peered into the bushes. A coopers hawk burst out, flying right past me and up to a tree nearby. Such magnificent creatures they are. I peered more closely at the ground next to the house and saw the brown chicken, motionless in the window well. Surely it couldn't have survived such an attack, but then its head suddenly popped up. It jumped up out of the window well, gave me a quick look, then disappeared under the shrub. It had lost a few feathers, but otherwise looked fine. The feathers of a chicken, I'm realizing, provide not only magnificent insulation and some modest flying power, but also serve as a shield that confounds predators' attempts to penetrate it. The predator ends up with a feather in its mouth while the bird scurries away, and the rachis--that stiff central stem of the feather--serves collectively as body armor.

Of course, if I hadn't shown up, the coopers hawk would have ultimately had its breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we would have grieved. The chickens' choice of freedom comes with risks.

Just a few days ago, my daughter reported that the chickens were now roosting at night in an evergreen shrub at the corner of our house, eight feet up from the ground. It's comforting to know they are near. Each evening, I stop by to say hello,

and leave food nearby, under a recycling bin that got broken being used as a target for backyard lacrosse practice, then got partly consumed making trail signs for a local preserve, and now has a new life keeping rain and snow out of the chicken feed. There's collected rainwater to drink in the fillable-spillable tub in the backyard.

If a big snowstorm comes, we may pluck the sleepy chickens from their roost and put them in the coop for the night. We're letting them make up their own life as they go along, which may include a return to the coop. Yesterday, I saw the brown chicken walk over and disappear into the coop. Later on, I stopped in to find two fresh eggs, the first laid there in months. Maybe that's how a chicken says thank you if you save its life.

UPDATE: After six inches of snow fell, the chickens looked like they were going to stay up in the bushes all day, to keep their feet warm. We plucked them down and closed them in the coop for a couple days until the snow melted (this winter's like North Carolina, not New Jersey).

Any hopes that two days in the coop would rehabituate them to returning there each night were dashed, however. A few pecks at the cracked corn in morning light and they were back to their accustomed rounds,

then roosting again in the bushes next to our house for the night. It's interesting to see how they keep their feet warm while roosting, by squatting down so their feet disappear under the puffed up feathers.

Eggs from our "Easter egg chickens". In a new twist, the egg on the right has two shades of green.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When a Coop Flew the Coop

The time came last week to move the chicken coop to the back of the property so that we could start beautifying the patio next to the house. The move came after months of careful planning and procrastination. The project was a good opportunity to use some of that used lumber scavenged from the local curbside kmart over the years. The chickens came over to check on progress, and to look for any grubs my large mammal activity might have stirred up.

Fortunately, the former owners had fashioned a platform of concrete blocks, used 50 years ago for a rabbit hutch.  We are simply carrying on an agrarian and can-do/do-it-yourself tradition established by the original owners. With serendipity as my co-pilot, I found that the pieces of the old coop could easily be unscrewed from each other and fit very well in the new location.

Even with serendipity, it took a couple days to make all the old coop parts fit together in a new configuration. It helped that the repurposed skylights didn't fall over and break, despite multiple close calls. Natural light is important in a coop, especially during winter when the chickens tend to stop laying if daylight isn't sufficient.

With most projects like this, there's a magical moment when the new space becomes real, when the end comes suddenly into sight, and all the hours spent feel worthwhile. Now all it needs is a few boards screwed over the openings, to keep any night predators out. With some interior decorating, what fowl could resist?

Well, the chickens and ducks were so habituated to the old coop that we had to carry them over to the new one each evening. After the third or fourth night, they finally bonded with the new coop and made the journey themselves. There's been a call for a coat of paint, though the weathered look has its charms.

Now, if we could only convince Buttons to lay in the coop, rather than hiding her eggs behind the hay pile. Sometimes we think one or another fowl has stopped laying, only to find a surprise somewhere in the yard after several weeks.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Chickens and Wildlife

Introduce poultry into your backyard, and you may find yourself starting to scan the treeline with something beyond mild curiosity. Chickens and ducks are just about the most edible pets you could ever own, as the local wildlife are well aware. Predators can come by land or by air, by night or by day.

Vigilance is key, as this Pekin duck well knows. Any time I see it tilt its head sideways, the better to train a keen eye on the sky above, I will follow its glance upward to find a hawk, vulture or plane passing over.

When our 12 year old finally talked us into getting chickens, and then ducks, I wondered how all the undomesticated nature we'd been cultivating in the backyard would react. Would the poultry intimidate the mourning doves that had hung out next to the minipond at various hours? Would the chickens chow down on beneficial insects as well as the ticks?

Though having these birds in the backyard may be reducing visits by wild birds, their presence has heightened our awareness of wildlife in other ways. Recently, noticing the Pekin duck training an eye skyward, we looked up to see the tiny speck of a hawk hovering high above. Suddenly, the hawk folded its wings and began a slanted, accelerating straight-line dive. As with lightening, we were relieved to see we weren't the targets. It disappeared into the trees several blocks over. None of this we would have seen if not for the duck's signal.

By Night
A year ago, we started with four chickens, and now have two. The first was lost during the one and only night we forgot to close them in the coop. It was very traumatic for my daughter, who had named all four and been giving them loving care. But she worked through the trauma and the sense of responsibility, and the next day was able to channel it into making a beautiful grave with the shape of a chicken fashioned out of bits of rock.

Raccoon or Fisher?
We thought a raccoon had likely done the deed, in part because I found the head of the chicken far from the body. But in ten years I've only seen one wayward raccoon in our yard, and my neighbor reported she had seen something that night that she thought moved more like a fisher than a raccoon. I associate fishers with large tracts of north woods, but an internet search yielded news of their return to New Jersey. They are large members of the weasel family and one of the few predators smart and agile enough to take on porcupines. Princeton's animal control officer, however, offered no encouragement to this speculation that fishers might be afoot in the area.

By Day
Having lost a chicken in the night, we thought they'd still be safe if allowed to run free in the yard by day. This illusion was shattered late in the fall, when lack of foliage had made the yard more exposed, by a Coopers hawk in a mid-afternoon attack. That, too, was traumatic, all the more so because it seemed to sentence the remaining chickens to perpetual confinement in the coop and a small fenced-in run. It didn't help to find a big red-tailed hawk perched fifteen feet above the coop one morning, patiently awaiting breakfast. Word had clearly gotten out.

Since then, however, we've slowly relaxed our vigilance and shifted back to letting them out during the day. A friend with chickens in Kingston said he decided that the happiness of his chickens exploring the yard is worth the risk of an attack, and he's never lost a chicken that way. We've gravitated towards that philosophy, despite an unnerving visit one day from a coopers hawk that brazenly perched on our fence, just forty feet from where we stood, to check out the scene. It flew away before I could take a photo, and hasn't come back.

A couple fish crows also took an interest for a day or two, lingering in the trees above, conversing, trying to make sense of our backyard poultry scene, seeming to look for an angle that would benefit them. Fish crows are the sort of crow that says "uh-uh" all summer, as if telling you that whatever idea you just had is a bunch of hooey.

A week later, still wishing for a photo of a Coopers Hawk, I saw one land on the Westminster Choir College driveway.

It was carrying a small bird, and posed long enough on the pavement for a bit of point-and-shoot documentation,

before flying off in the direction of the crossing guard.

By chance this photo caught the shift in perspective that comes from having chickens, from the urban environmentalist's cultivation and observation of a benign nature to more of a rural farmer's awareness of nature as both magnificent and threatening.