Running around in circles — it works for birds

Geese flocking in snow, with duck

Laughter relieves stress and so each night when I went out to close up the birds for protection from the nightly predators I had plenty of stress relief at the duck pen where all the young ducks were. Usually we keep some geese in with the ducks to help with the protection racket so they all mill around and eventually go where they are supposed to. These young ducks were surplus that were eventually going to the butcher and because we had a shortage of nighttime pens, we left them out. Their response to our presence was to go around and around in a big circle, quacking away. I had expected that they would scatter to all corners, similar to chickens when they are startled, so that a predator would be so confused figuring out who to get that they would miss getting any of them. We never did lose any of those circling ducks, and surmised that the owls and raccoons prowling around must be so busy laughing at the ducks thinking they were safe because they were going around in circles that they forgot to eat them.

The ducks were right and I was wrong when it comes to avoiding predators. This is the season where we see the huge flocks of starlings in the evenings as they get ready to roost, turning as if they were one, thousands of birds at a time at speeds reaching 40 miles per hour and more in a densely packed group. Our ducks move much slower than the starlings but they still swirl and change directions faster than we can keep track of. Scientists have had theories over the years as to why birds display this flocking behavior and how they can possibly communicate so swiftly, faster than the eye can see. The Romans thought the gods gave clues about things in the future through the birds’ flight. Scientists in the early 1900’s talked about “natural telepathy” or a “group soul.” Finding food, finding mates, but most of all protection are thought to be the main reasons.

Lots of animals travel in herds or flocks and predators generally pick off the weak ones that fall behind. A carnivore attacking a large group of prey would mean that the predator would have more chance of being injured. A swirling mass of ducks would disrupt any careful stalking of one’s dinner and likely lead to a good chance of being trampled in the mud while trying to subdue the next meal. When we try to catch just one bird, we have to separate them out of the masses a few at a time until we have a more manageable number to work with.

Thanks to computer simulations and high speed photography, those huge flocks of animals, from a battery of barracudas, a dazzle of zebras, a mob of meerkats, a brace of ducks to a murmation of starlings are becoming easier to understand. A starling apparently can pay attention to the 6 or 7 starlings around it with the distance in front and back more important that distance to the side. That prevents them from being distracted by birds farther away. A few birds spot a predator, initiate a turn and the turn spreads through the entire flock. Sight is definitely one means of communication; possibly sound or the feel of the air flow from the other birds are other signals. This flocking behavior takes practice and the slow learners will be the ones to come up missing at the end of the day. Sure enough if we separate six or seven ducks out from the flock we can pick out which we want with greater accuracy.

We humans also display flocking behavior according to some researchers. “In many ways, human beings behave like flocks of birds or schools of fish,” says Nicholas Christakis, co-author of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Thanks to the Internet we have a new flock to hang out with, and research tells us this is a good thing. Chatting online is better than parking in front of the TV, for being part of a larger group helps memory, recovery from strokes and overall health. It decreases depression if you are communicating with people you know (although if you are using the Internet to meet new people it increases depression and feelings of isolation). Studies of flocking behavior have been applied to the stock market, to fashion, to politics. Next time you feel like you are going in circles don’t feel so bad, for there may be some actual benefit to it. Enjoy your time on Facebook guilt-free for while it is not quite as good as chocolate and a good book, it has its benefits.
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Spiders, socks and scrapbooks – winter on the chicken farm

Locust Lane winter geese and the odd duck

Dear Chicken Lady,  I’m getting all the bird pens ready for winter so the snow stays out and the birds stay in. I’m afraid I’ll be so bored this winter with nothing much to do. What will I do? Sincerely,  Dreading winter

Dear Dreadful, Gosh darn it, you’ll be begging for boredom by the New Year. The joys of winter will be many. We won’t scare you with the perils of snow; just know it means extra work. The spiders will not have learned that they can cease decorating in the barn so the cobwebs will annoy your husband who will want them cleaned up (and even though you tell him to have fun, you will be the one to get the new filters for the shop vac). You can repair hoses that cracked last summer, kick and repair wagon tires after untangling the long pieces of twine that wound up around the axle, and fight the mice for control of feed containers.

Indoors, you can check belts and hoses on your washing machine. It is an essential piece of winter equipment, as you will be slipping on ice, landing in mud, soaking every pair of gloves and mittens you own. If you could also figure out how to wash the dogs in the machine you could probably make a fortune. Why wash the dogs in the winter? Study up on the miracle of the canine sensory organs, because they will continue to find rotten eggs and rotten anything within roaming distance and share their joy with you.

Locust Lane winter dog

You can darn your lovely striped socks, and enlarge your rubber-band ball for use in the summer mouse season. All the raccoon pelts you saved can now be turned into coonskin caps and muffs (a must have on the fashion scene this year). Keep up your scrapbook of great moments in the bird pens, clip coupons to save every penny for treats for your birds – the list is endless! I make lists of things to do in the coming season. This year, I will make a list of places to keep lists so I can find them. They really are more useful that way. If you get bored in the winter, you need to reexamine your commitment to the life of poultry enthusiast because you are just too doggone out of the loop. Sincerely,  Chicken Lady

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Other birds at Locust Lane: Turkey Vultures and Owls

Turkey Vulture, Locust Lane 2011

Our R&R time this week has been spent watching birds other than our resident poultry. Our dogs hate crows so when they chased them out of the pasture next door I figured their job was done and they would return. Not so, for they kept barking and running back in the woods necessitating an in-depth investigation.

Overhead a kettle of turkey vultures was circling, and the smell of decay was in the air. Not too far off the road, a deer carcass was swelling in the sunshine with clouds of flies buzzing around it. This meant the dogs were banished to the house while I tried to see how close I could get to the vultures.

Turkey vultures flying, Locust Lane, 2011

They are incredibly ugly birds unless they are in flight where they soar for hours on the thermals holding their wings in a distinctive shallow V shape. Along the Lake Michigan beach they will play for hours, never seeming to need to stop for food. Next door they soared, at least 14 in their group, while one or two went to work on the deer. I got close enough to see several on the fence with more in nearby trees and several in the air.

A single vulture can eat an estimated 111 pounds of carrion a year, a job the Indians revered the bird for. The Cherokee called them the Peace Eagle as they kill nothing but do a necessary clean up job. Their digestive system can reportedly kill even anthrax bacteria, performing an important job of cleaning pathogens up out of our environment helping to prevent the spread of disease. They urinate on their legs, to help them cool off and again to kill bacteria they may have picked up standing around on the carcasses they eat. Their heads are bald, possibly to help prevent carrying disease around in feathers. Given a choice, the turkey vulture or buzzard prefers meat from herbivores avoiding the carcasses of other meat eaters such as dogs. If there is a shortage of meat they will eat pumpkins, grass, leaves, rotten fruit and seeds but given the human tendency to drive in big cars that kill a variety of smaller creatures, there is usually plenty for them to eat.

They are a peaceful non-aggressive bird but if you manage to get close to them you will most likely regret it as they protect themselves by vomiting, which given their meal of rotten meat will not smell any better than the carcass it came from. They enjoy a bath and sunbathing, spreading their wings wide as they face the sun. Come fall, birds tagged in Wisconsin were tracked to South America as they migrate by the thousands south through Central America forming a “river of raptors”, a magnificent spectacle.

Exhausted from stalking the much-maligned vulture, I welcomed the chance to stretch out in bed, windows open thanks to the cool night air. We can hear the ducks and geese all night, talking along with an occasional rooster crow but when they start yelling you know something is wrong. It could be an opossum or a raccoon wandering through that tend to leave the geese alone and ducks also, if there are geese in with them.

Or it could be an owl, most likely the barred owl searching for dinner. We have had them kill a turkey but ducks are usually the largest bird they take. It seemed like all night I heard the owls, eight loud hoots at a time right outside our window with another calling not far away. There are only two kinds of owls who hoot, the barred and the great horned owl. Most common is the barred owl and that was who we found in the live trap in the morning.

Owls are good right? They eat voles and mice, lots of rabbits, weasels, large bugs, pigeons and other animals we would rather not share our gardens and poultry with. But this owl had enjoyed duck dinner, the flock having seven ducks fewer by the time we figured out who was the culprit. Turkey vultures may seem gross and ugly yet they are protected by law from hunting. Not so for the owl who is far more common that you would suspect, some estimates being there is one every mile.

Some cultures hold the owl to be a symbol of wisdom. Owls and their eggs are used in medicines, to cure alcoholism, to improve your eyesight or to make your hair grow. The Barred Owl, also know as the Hoot Owl, Eight Hooter, Rain Owl, Wood Owl and Striped Owl could foretell death or the approach of a witch or even tell you how to plan your travel depending on its hoots. This particular owl, not wise enough to stay away from our bird pens, was moved to a new home because its hoots predicted death for ducks.

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Hissy fits Geese

Geese lecturing a duck, Locust Lane, 2011

Dear Chicken Lady, I like all the stories you tell about geese but I’m kinda scared to get them for our barnyard. They always seem mean and hiss at me.  Sincerely, Scared of their hissy fits

     Dear Hissy Fit, Of course they hiss. I’ll bet you’ve had coworkers who hiss, a spouse who hisses at times — and I guarantee if you have kids, you and they have done plenty of hissing at each other. It’s all about who is top in the pecking order and is a finely tuned dance of power. There are times you know not to hiss back to your spouse or fellow employees but there are also times when you spread your wings, stretch your neck and hiss louder than anyone else and it seems to work. If you haven’t ever tried it you should. It is a very satisfying feeling. You just have to test your boundaries, and that’s all the geese are doing.

There are very few times when they will actually attack — when they are defending a nest or have become mean from being teased too much by dogs or kids. If they’re not attacking, just hiss back. You are bigger and louder, and while you don’t have much to intimidate with in the way of wings, beak or even a long neck, you size means you win. We don’t have any problems with our geese. They do their job of eating grass, we do our job of providing water and supplemental food and all is well.  Sincerely, Chicken Lady

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Chicken talk

Conversations, hen and chicks, Locust Lane, 2011

Dear Chicken Lady,   My baby birds are growing up. They are getting really ugly and some of the chicks are starting to make some terrible sounds sorta like they are trying to crow. Please tell me they’ll get better because I don’t think I can live with a chicken that sounds or looks like that. Sincerely, Need My Ear Plugs

Dear Plugs, We are all familiar with the story of the ugly duckling that grows up to be a beautiful swan, but not much has been written about the sad appearance of a growing young chicken. Their soft down has been replaced by patchy feathers, their little round bodies that unfolded out of the egg have gotten big and awkward atop those long bony legs, and the sounds they make –  oh my goodness.

A chicken can make over 200 distinct sounds in its quest to communicate. The young cockerel learning to crow is one of the most ridiculous of those sounds that Mother Nature has come up with. A mature rooster’s resonant call to the world rolls out of that larynx and reverberates throughout his empire for any excuse whatsoever. He may be calling his hens, warning other birds away from his harem, greeting the morning, afternoon, evening or night, or just proclaiming his presence to all. The young cockerel produces a few short hoarse croaking sounds rather than the eloquent call of the rooster and practices constantly. As those hollow stemmed appendages protruding from the chick’s skin begin to resemble the fine feathers we know and love, becoming a soft elegant coat, and the proportions change from adolescent gawkiness to a mature well proportioned bird, so will those hoarse sounds turn into liquid notes of command.

Researchers have discovered what any of us chicken farmers could have told them if they bothered to ask. They concluded that another one of the 200 sounds, the “tck, tck, tck” call a mother hen or rooster uses to announce the presence of food represents just that, and is not merely a reflexive trigger to call others to the hunt for food. Chris and Linda Evans of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia found that different alarm calls the chickens make can let the other birds know where an intruder is coming from.

Guys, raise a few chickens and you will soon realize their wondrous abilities and be inspired to get more – many more – and we will help. We have a few to place in new homes for anyone ready to delve into this new and rewarding world of the chicken. Yes, they are not quite at their mature beauty, still rather ugly –  but that changes rapidly. Expand your world and raise chickens

Mother hen and babies, Locust Lane, 2011

.  Sincerely, Chicken Lady

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Discouraged? Is it literature or chickens?


Rooster surveying his domain at Locust Lane.

E. B. White said, “I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.”

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Chicken Hugs

Proper way to hold a chicken -- this one is being blow-dried before being shown at the Fair.

Dear Chicken Lady, Would you please tell my mom that I am not going to get sick from hugging my chicken. She’s so soft and fluffy and so much fun to catch and hug. Mom says I can let her sit on my lap but to quit hugging her —  but if I do that she runs away from me. Besides it’s fun to pretend I’m a chicken and cackle at her and flap my arms except Mom tells me to grow up and go clean the chicken coop. I’m tired of being bossed around all the time. Sincerely, Chicken Hugs Won’t Give Me Bugs

Dear Hugs Give Bugs, It’s true, your chicken is probably way nicer than your mom a lot of the time. If you really were a chicken though you would be henpecked a lot worse by the other chickens than your mom manages to do to you. Listen, you can hug your Mom, you can hug your Dad, but hugging your chickens and brother is not a good idea. Brothers are out cause they usually have cooties, and the chickens, – well chicken hugging is a bad idea, not because you’ll get bugs from her but because she can’t survive a nice big hug even though Sesame Street’s Big Bird can. Big hugs mean your bird can’t breath as a bird’s sternum, or breast bone has to be able to move to pump the air through its lungs.

We breathe by inhaling and exhaling, but birds have a type of circular breathing, with their lungs always inflated. They have air sacs, even in their hollow bones, that the air flows through, keeping fresh oxygenated air flowing all the time through the lungs, making their breathing way more efficient than ours. Kenny G might be able to do that on his sax, a didgeridoo player might be able to do that, but birds are by far the best circular breathers, a trait they share with crocodiles and dinosaurs. The mammal’s motto of “Good air in, bad air out” means old and new air mix as we breath in and out. We would have had a tough time back in the day of the dinosaur when oxygen levels were lower. The birds’ efficiency in breathing means they can do tasks that require a lot of energy and oxygen such as flying. Your chickens may not fly much but they still need to keep that sternum free to move.

Hugs are good for mammals such as all family members, friends, and pets except the avian variety. If you see a large purple, singing, dancing dinosaur on the street who answers to the name of Barney it is probably safe to assume hugs are in order. Same goes for a large yellow awkward looking talking bird but otherwise please refrain from hugging birds, dinosaurs, (especially T-Rex), or crocodiles. What you can do with a bird is play momma bird for them. Let them hide under your arm, your hand, your chin just like they would take shelter under the wing of a momma bird. They will calm right down even if all they can hide is their heads. Baby birds may go right to sleep for you after a few chirps and cheeps.

If you are determined to hug a chicken, there is a deal on Amazon for a rubber chicken that you hug and an egg will pop out. They are reasonably priced and you might even be able to gross out a few friends with it. And by the way, your Mom is kinda right for you can host a few curious bugs from a chicken infested with the crawling creatures. They won’t stay on you very long though as the chicken flavor is much more to their liking. Sincerely, Chicken Lady

Dear Readers –  in case you do come across a bird that has been overhugged go to : for information on doing CPR on birds. This site recommends chest compressions as well as mouth to beak breaths so use great caution when performing this CPR technique. [You should know that the various farm folk at Locust Lane have had some successes with chicken CPR. Contemplate the possibility of needing to do this when you’re thinking of how nice those fresh eggs would be.]

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Chickens at the Alaska State Fair

Toothed fungus, Alaska State Fair, August 27, 2011

Eggs hatching at Alaska State Fair, August 27, 2011

When you think “Alaska State Fair,” chickens aren’t the first creatures coming to mind. Yaks, maybe (there was one). Llamas, goats, dairy cows, sheep. And everyone knows that Alaska grows some of the biggest cabbages in the world, weighing in at one hundred pounds or more. But people around Southcentral Alaska from Palmer, Wasilla, Anchorage, and the surrounding farmlands and woods do raise chickens for food and fun. And if you raise, or can find, something living, it’s likely that there will be a category for displaying it at the State Fair. Here’s a sampling of what we found on a chilly Saturday, when the termination dust (aka snow) powdered the distant peaks of the Chugach Range, and the birch leaves showed yellow on the Palmer Hay Flats.

Award-winning hen, possibly a Campine? August 27,2011

Giant veggies, Alaska State Fair, August 27, 2011

Rooster at Alaska State Fair, August 27, 2011

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Herding chickens and birthdays

Unherded chickens

Birthdays are about as easy to control as a herd of chickens. They happen, like it or not, just as chickens happen to move however they wish, with no regards for your desire to move them in a calm orderly group to a new pen.

Chicken herding requires a net, and proper attire for you will be down on hands and knees, fishing the recalcitrant fowl out from under the shelves, under the workbench, out of the boxes of nails it just knocked over on the straw covered ground, or out of the broken light bulbs that shattered as they flew high on the ledge to escape your attempts at an orderly transfer.

Birthdays can’t be netted and caged to control them; they happen, like it or not and you will move on to a new year despite any attempts to avoid it. Eventually you learn chickens don’t herd well and you might as well load them in a pen on the wagon and pull them to their new home. Birthdays might as well get loaded into history and you better pull your weight on into the new year.

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Swap Meets



An Amish woman and her husband trying to buy a breeding pair of geese. Determining the sex of a goose requires close examination.


We met up with Chicken Lady at an Indiana swap meet on Saturday, a curious mix of flea market, animal market, pet shop, and party. We arrived late, a little before noon. Many of the vendors were folding their tents and stealing away to enjoy the sunny afternoon someplace other than a hot mowed hay field (the occasional corn plant that had popped up amid the short grass suggested that it was probably a corn field a couple of years ago, and would likely be again next year). They were taking with them guns, saddles, steers’ skulls, deer heads, beads, antiques, cheap bright jewelry, and pot holders. The animals not sold would go home with them too – the mice, rats, guinea pigs, gerbils; the chihuahuas, pink hairless dogs, and black Lab puppies; the geese, ducks – babies and grownups, chickens of every sort, doves, pigeons, parakeets, finches, and pheasants. They would take their RVs where they had spent the night, their Harleys, the pickup trucks, and horse and buggies; their tents and lawn chairs and tarps; their boxes and tables and cages. By the time we left at 12:45, we joined a steady stream of cars and trucks, and the grounds still looked full.

Here’s what Chicken Lady had to say:

Dear Chicken Lady, Help, help, help, we have too many birds. I’ve put up signs at the feed store and pet store, listed them on Craig’s list, told everyone I know they could have some, and still have some left over. How on earth do you get rid of all your birds without having to eat them? Sincerely, Chickens Are Eating Me Out of House and Barn [August 14, 2011]

Dear Eating Out, This is a tough time of year to find a home for your birds that aren’t good enough to keep for show or breeding yet an important job to get done as winter approaches. Everyone else also has birds to get rid of as the county fairs are mostly all finished, and with kids going back to school, the work force is diminished. We highly recommend the swap meet circuit, a flea market for birds. Sadly, our favorite one is done for the season but there are more coming up if you are willing to drive a few hours away.

We make the trip to one of the Northern Indiana swap meets four times a summer to meet up with fellow swappers and spread the joy of poultry around the countryside. Our principal poultry peddler packs up pens Friday evening and after the midnight hour, works his way south through the Amish countryside, passing horse and buggies with lanterns even in the wee morning hours until he arrives at Wolf Lake’s rolling hills where he and hundreds of other professional swappers set up their stands, and wait for the first rays of sun to bring the eager hordes of bargain hunters. He pulls in in the middle of the night to find a good spot in the middle of other campers, some in tents, some in cars, some asleep, some with lanterns sitting outside playing cards. Once the canopy for shade and rain protection is set up, there is an hour or so left for restless sleep, interrupted by headlights of other arriving cars or eager shoppers with flashlights or the latest in bargain finding apparel, a baseball cap with LED lights on the brim, looking for the deals they want to go to first in the morning.

Bargaining begins in earnest around 5:30 as shoppers arrive pulling their wagon of empty crates, or pushing a stroller of empty boxes, small child toddling behind. Often the earliest shoppers are fellow swappers looking for bargains to take back to their stand where they will resell them for a higher price or take to the next swap meet. Many of these guys travel a multi-state area to all the swap meets and animal auctions, buying and selling as they go. Other shoppers will be kids with their APA Book of Standards in hand, looking for a good bird for their fair and a few are hoping to find a bargain bird for the upcoming fall poultry shows. Many are just families looking for a duck for their pond, a hen for fresh eggs, a new puppy for the kids.

The Amish will be there, horse and buggies tied up at the front, some to sell and some to buy. Fathers lead their families up and down the rows, wife and children following behind, the exception being the marriageable daughters who dance along ahead, suitors tagging behind. Some of the Amish boys who are maybe 10 years old or so will make the rounds, a roll of bills tucked in a pocket, and a charming smile, trying to make use of youthful appeal to garner some deals (it works too).

There are far fewer animals there than there used to be with mostly chickens, rabbits and dogs for sale these days. Due to more frequent checks by the Department of Natural Resources, exotic animals are less common (but can be found at sales that specialize in such) so this swap meet has become a place to buy just about anything else. Cleaned out your garage or attic? There is a spot for you to set up. Got a load of rifles you want to sell? This is the place. Garden produce, perennials, old VCR movies, handcrafted oak shelves, really tacky shell figures with more glue gun glue than shell showing? Bring it on. Biker gear, canned goods, baked goods, beautiful old banjo, row boat, anything and everything except cages and cage supplies, that being monopolized by the owner of the property who reserves the right to sell those for all the shoppers who will need a home for their new animals.

Swapping consists of cash exchanged for whatever although some swapping of goods goes on. A few people take our phone number and call later on wanting to get better quality birds than what we took to the swap meet. Our friend who has given us peacocks and guinea hens, emus and rheas goes for the thrill of the bargain, once purchasing some ducks that he was going to go back for after he finished shopping. He forgot to go back for the ducks, but still had a good day, the excitement for him coming from getting a deal, and taking orders for others who want him to bring back some new treasure. Have an elephant ear for energy, stand in line in front of the porta johns, feel the sun’s rays as your skin turns redder and redder, and call it a day. Sincerely, Chicken Lady

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