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Rediscovering Animals 

Jealousy Amongst the Beasts

Lucy, Bobbi and Turkey Two (Little Bear)

This column is about jealousy, which turkeys are not. They simply demand attention and swipe bites of sandwich when they get a chance.

I hate to complain, but it’s only been a few short decades since animal behavior scientists could publish words like affection or empathy in their scientific papers, thanks to Frans deWaal and others on the Discovery Channel and PBS broke the ice.

All good soap operas should deal with jealousy once in a while, instead of relying on poor communications to turn the plot. I’ll deal with it right up front, right now, while Bobbi goose rapidly attains status as the dominant personality in the Hen House. Jealousy is the most prominent driving force of Hen House sociology. I watch it every day, amazed.

Dogs are the most jealous of critters. DeeDee, being the most alert of our two canine family members, can’t stand to watch me murmur sweet nothings to the birds of the Hen House.

There doesn’t need to be any food involved. If I kneel down to talk to young Bobbi goose and scratch the bottom of her neck, I immediately have two wet noses nudging my hand and wet tongues washing my face. DeeDee and Scooter can’t stand to hear me sweet talk the baby goose without getting some for themselves, and a neck massage to go with it.

Baby goose Bobbi also has a jealous streak, and it prevented my making friends with Motley and Lance, the ducks Ms. Ritz raised one spring. When Bobbi scarped the melon rind I held for her, I tried offering it to Motley. The yellow and black hybrid duckling cocked his head and looked at me straight in the eye as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Still, Bobbi wouldn’t ever stand for my approaching Motley with the leftover Honey Dew rind. With her raspy complaint she’d get between us, and sometimes Lucy would join her, as if to protect their treat from such lowly beings. Lucy acts the same way toward the chickens, so I’m reduced to squatting at the chicken wire barrier between the wet nursery and the dry hen/turkey pen, holding one melon rind in one hand for the chickens while the other hand holds a rind for the geese.

The ducks watch, but not jealously or longingly, not even very interestedly. I think they know it’s a hopeless cause. They even give way to the geese at the ponds. Taking turns, I call it.

But the real reason the melon rinds don’t interest them is probably because their bills aren’t made for scraping out bites of fruit. It took Lucy some time to master the art, and she can scrape out a bit with the tip of her beak or chew up the entire rind with the serrated edges of the back of her beak. No problem. However, it’s taken Bobbi some time to learn the technique, and she still doesn’t get it. Or maybe her beak or jaw muscles are not strong enough yet. She can sure pick apart the little green apples that fall into the pen, so maybe she just isn’t motivated by the taste of Honey Dew melon.

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Martha’s Belly

Selective breeding has done a real number on layers and broilers—chickens, that is. The layers I’ve had, poor things, don’t live long after a life laying a two-ounce egg every day or so, even in winter, after they reach six months. Modern chickens are living examples of how rapid evolution can be. At two years of age they sit around one day and fall over dead the next. Or they walk around like they’re carrying a load, and are put to sleep by sympathetic vets who can tell a rampaging cancer from a stuck egg, At least death comes quickly to the kindly birds.

Some vets don’t know much about chickens. I discovered this shocking fact some time back in the 1970’s, when Martha started walking around splay-legged, like a bird with a loaded diaper. I drove her, with her suspiciously balloon-shaped abdomen, to the vet ten miles down the road. The young vet extracted some clear fluid from Martha’s belly and admitted to being somewhat puzzled. I suggested I would be willing to pay for an x-ray, and the deed was done. In the x-ray, to our horror, we spotted a very clear dark object framed by the l-shaped bones of the overloaded chicken.

“How much would it cost to have that removed?” I asked

The answer was also shocking. $100 was real money in the 70’s. Sadly, I took Martha home, but something about that x-ray bothered me. When I deposited the sick chicken in the back yard, she ran off to greet her nest mates, apparently relieved at having escaped major surgery.

I ran for the bookshelf still loaded with text books from my college days and found the basic zoology text. There it was, on page 108, a simple anatomic diagram of a domestic chicken, a familiar dark spot framed nicely by the l-shaped bones of leg and pelvis. It was labeled “gizzard.”

I laughed out loud, then smirked knowingly to myself and gave myself ten brownie points for not calling the young vet with the good news. Martha lived another happy six months before she succumbed to her mysteriously bloated belly.

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Universal Emotion: Relating to Animals and Aliens

Now that we’ve reviewed Rob Dietz’s “encouraging scenes from the steady state” in his recent guide to the future Dietz and Dan O'Neill Enough Is Enough, we should move on to the other issues that the books in “The Archives of Varok” address. We are running a comment contest until June 20—a set of books going to the most thoughtful ideas about two issues.

The first issue is directly related to the Hen House theme of our responsibility to animals that we adopt. Also to those who live near the Hen House and keep the mice under control, like this friendly rattlesnake who lived at the Seismosaurus Site and warmed himself around the generator. He politely let me take this picture, but only if I stayed back exactly 3 feet.

My reviewer at the Los Alamos Daily Post asked the best question so far--could an extended family, including aliens and humans, really work? The mixed family of The Archives surely do have their problems, and though they’ve met them head-on in both A Place Beyond Man and The Webs of Varok, there are more to come in the next volume, Conn: The Alien Effect, to be released early this summer.

I’d like to believe that we humans have matured to the point where we could appreciate the alienness of other beings. We’re doing much better with animals now, since Temple Grandin shared her experiences with us in her book Animals In Translation, New York: Scribner, 2005.

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Bullsnakes--Friends of the Hen House

Rescued Bullsnake

I could use a few more bullsnakes. (We called them garter snakes in California.) A lovely long one lives under the dog igloo where Kiebler and Ms. Ritz reside, but he has not been able to keep up with the mouse population, now that they have learned not to drown in the ducks' bathtubs.They scamper away into the ground when they hear me filling the water tubs. They don't bother anything, and they don't eat more than their share, but it means I have to be careful how I handle things. I don't want to encourage hanta virus.

This Friday the Los Alamos Daily Post will publish my column about the rattlesnake we met while working on a Seismosaurus dinosaur site here in New Mexico. As a result, I heard from Jan Macek, who has published her snake rescue stories on Animalrescuechase.com. Here is her bullsnake story from that site. Her "rattlesnake" story appears as a comment on today's other blog, below.


Skinny Bullsnake
by Jan Macek

"I should explain that I have a great love for reptiles especially snakes and do free educational snake programs. Snakes, especially in New Mexico, and elsewhere, don't have much of a voice so I try to give them one. Early Nov. 2010 I got a call from a lady who told me that her kids had found a snake stuck in a hole. When we got to the site, sure enough, there was a bullsnake head protruding from a hole. Somehow, a bullsnake had gotten into a gopher hole but for some reason, the hole had caved in and the snake couldn't get out. We live in the mts of NM and the nights were getting cold so if this snake hadn't been rescued when it was, it would have frozen in the near future. When I dug the snake out, I discovered a very skinny bullsnake about 5 ft. long. I have had him for almost 5 months and he will not eat on his own. I have had to tube him with turkey babyfood to get this system ready for food items. He will not eat on his own so I have had to assist feed him with large (frozen/thawed) pinkies and fuzzies. I am hoping he will eat on his own in the future. I am not sure what happened to him but I suspect that he was someone's pet for many years and then he was let go and couldn't fend for himself. I had been hearing about this large bullsnake all summer and it is strange for so many people to see the same snake in the same area all summer. I should have known that this is not normal for a snake. I don't know if he will survive but I do know that if he does, he has a forever home with me. This picture was taken right after he was rescued. He looks the same after 5 months because one can"t stuff a snake in order for them to put on weight quickly. It has to be done slowly. Reptiles, deserve the same compassion as we give our 4 legged pets."

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The Balance of Consensus and Regulation Continued

Lucy the goose and adopted daughter Bobbi think they own the Hen House. Hence, in winter I have to enforce a regulation: "Everyone sleeps in the Hen House if the nighttime low is 23 degrees F or lower. Everyone! Not just Ms. Ritz and Kiebler, the English call ducks Lucy raised; not just Gwendolyn the chicken, who hops up with turkey to roost; everyone--even the three large Khaki Campbell ducks."

They all know what to do. When freezing temps threaten, they all head for the heated Hen House and duck (literally) passed Bobbi to the back of the warm shed. No need for my waving or gesturing to make the point. Even birds prefer a warm place to sleep.

It's another example of balancing regulation with consensus, an essential in making the steady state work and establishing it in the first place. That kind of balance is common in nature, I suspect. I'll have to think about that. But I have seen it work with my motley collection of domestic birds.

Another example: Every species has raised chicks of a different species, adapting to the consensus that the young need care. Adjustments are made to accommodate size differences without complaint, but only if the timing is right. When it isn't, regulation raises its ugly head. Example: Try giving a chick to a turkey who has only set for two weeks out of the required four.

Amongst my birds, the balance is maintained, through gentle warnings and only an occasional loud argument. I have to admit that I also count heavily in the consensus, and--yes--on the regulation side too, when needed.

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A Review of Pi, Dogs, Geese and Family Values

Cary with DeeDee, Bobbi and Lucy. The chickens are lost in the shadows.

Yesterday we saw the movie "The Life Of Pi"--a thoughtful exploration of religion and meaning and the animal mind--a masterful use of 3-d to express nature's power and human fragility and beauty without going over the top too often. The effects did not steal too much story time, just a little, with lengthy storms. What impressed me most was the director's restraint 1) in leaving the large questions unanswered, and 2) letting the human be a human and the tiger be a tiger.

Tigers are not dogs, nor are dingoes or wolves, though they share genes with domestic dogs. I suspect coyotes' tameness/civilized gene packages may be changing with their urbanization as dogs' did. The many nuances of eye contact tell the tale.

Geese also do eye contact, but it's very hard to read, maybe because their facial muscles don't attractively contract the orange ring that encircles their eyeballs. Or maybe I lose the eye contact in the constant honking they do when faced with a creature who leaves them puzzled.

My geese--Lucy and Bobbi--honk every morning at the three ducks, establishing their dominance over the favored area in the pen. Then everyone quiets down to do their morning washup, using their fluffy heads as very effective washrags--which bring me to the point of this blog--the concept of family. Dogs are family. They've had 50,000 or more years to refine their tameness gene cluster. They understand my emotional outbursts, and I understand theirs.

I don't understand goose Bobbi, as Pi failed to understand the tiger. We meet on a primitive level all right--the level where hunger and safety and dominance are clear, but Bobbi is also family. I am committed to her well being, to her health, her happiness. (I do believe she has such a thing.) Geese hate being handled, so I don't try to pet them, and I restrain them only when I must, to tend to a torn toenail or to put them into a dog crate for a fire evacuation. I provide shelter from the cold, and I will never prepare Bobbi's carcass for Christmas dinner--because she trusts me. She eats corn and Honey Dew melon rind from my hand. In fact, she expects goodies to appear every afternoon at 4, for she follows me to the pen when I come out with the kitchen scrap bucket. She doesn't know I'm a carnivore and never will, for I will never stalk her. She's a creature of schedule, like most animals, but she's puzzled. She hasn't got me figured out. I'm not quite flock. Lucy knows that; she was raised by 4H girls. But Bobbi hasn't learned what family is. Yet.

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Two Duck Marriages--Of Sorts

Tomorrow is launch day for THE WEBS OF VAROK, and here I am talking about ducks instead of gorgeous, funny aliens. It may not be obvious at first, but as you get into WEBS you'll see that it's all related, the issues I'm talking about here. They just get a little more serious in WEBS because they involve humans--and you know how humans are about such things. For a sneak preview go to
ArchivesofVarok.com or my blog on Goodreads.

So--two duck marriages, sort of: Colin Tudge uses the term in his wonderful book THE BIRD, (Another find in Hamilton Books) so I've decided I can, too.

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A Wedding, Thankfully

One more quote from "1001 Funniest Things Ever Said:"
(Hamilton Books) Eddie Cantor : "A wedding is a funeral where you smell your own flowers." Well, not quite. In this season of holidays, I remember our New Years Eve wedding. I Really Enjoyed it, in spite of everything that happened, which, luckily, struck me funny at the time.  Read More 

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Being Thankful For Smiles

Another bit of wisdom from Hamilton Books.
This time it's a quote from Charles Gordy in "1001 Funniest Things Ever Said": "A smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks."

DeeDee, my Pointer-Heeler after-the-fire-sale rescue dog birdsitter, smiles. Yes, she does. She's got a big one. Most dogs smile, sort of, but Dee Dee's lips curve up at both ends as her jaw drops open in a joyous, unmistakable grin. It happens when I approach the dog den (my art room). It makes her irresistible. Scooter's smile is not so obvious, but its' there, with a generous wag of her tail. Of course, some dogs don't smile with anything but their tail, but check out their eyes. It's a rare dog that doesn't add at least a quick, hopeful glance to their tail wagging.

That glance is the first thing we were told to reward in dog school. it's also the first thing to look for in a puppy up for adoption, especially if you hope to train the dog for a significant job, like bird-sitting in a yard next to a canyon where coyotes dwell. Puppy shopping also involves rolling young canines over with one hand to see if they bite you, tolerate it, or look you in the eye with a quizzical expression that says, "What's next mate? Can I go home with you?" That dog is a sure bet. He or she will care what you want and how you feel, at least, and will be a good student if rewarded for trying and never punished for coming to your call.

Smiles are a good bet for us, too, sometimes the best bet we have. Happy Thanksgiving again.

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A Digression--of Sorts

It's election day. My adolescent duck, Puddles, a purebred Khaki Campbell, is finally learning she can't go through the chicken wire fence to get to the pond. Now she knows, sometimes, that she must turn away from the pond and go around the fence to get out of the pen through the door. Then, and only then, can she waddle up the path to the pond.

Do you suppose we could all take a lesson here? Too often our brains want to take the direct path to the pond--whatever that represents--like, for example, a stable, equitable future with rewarding jobs for all. People need jobs, so grow grow grow--money and business, anything. Batter down the fence to get there if necessary. Our brains are so focused on the pond, they simply can't see any open doors that might lead to the pond by a different route.

I couldn't "teach" Puddles to go away from the pond in order to get there. If I tried to usher her around the inside of the pen to the door, she would panic and run and eventually get there, but she wouldn't have learned anything. Several times she had to do it herself--actually turn herself around by trial and error, if her memory failed, and get out the door to the pond. Only then did she learn to take the indirect path on purpose.

So it is with us humans, even the candidates, as we decide, or not decide, how to vote. We see the pond we want, but we haven't yet learned that the chicken wire fence called growth is not the way to get there.

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