Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sharing space with the local wildlife

I am not surprised to be sharing chicken feed with a rat. It dug a nice little tunnel under the wire on the south side of the coop. I’ve contemplated putting out a trap during the nights when the chickens are locked up.

The rat doesn’t worry me as much as the raccoon in the neighbors’ yard. I first saw it at night crossing the road to the bushes at the side of their property. A few days ago, I saw it in their driveway when I went out to get the morning paper. I took a few steps closer, then stood very still. The raccoon slowly bobbed its head around, as if trying to catch a current of scent of something it could not see.

I’ve since read that raccoons’ daytime vision is good, so I was left wondering if the slow movements indicated a sick raccoon or if the animal was habituated to people. So far it does not seem to have entered my yard but it must have been close-- the dogs spend a lot of time coursing back and forth along the fence between that neighbor’s property and mine. I hope the raccoon avoids the dogs because I certainly want them to avoid it and any diseases it might carry.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Are your chickens happy?

Most people who have stood around watching chickens have seen them play what we call chicken football. A chicken finds a worm, calls out, “Wowser, a yummy worm,” and takes off running with it in her beak while all the others chase after her, trying to get it. There’s also a scientific term for it: worm running.

Scientists at Washington State University stood around watching a lot of chickens do a lot of running—17 flocks of 12 White Leghorns in each flock. They studied the chicks at 8-12 days old and at 68-70 days old. They used fake worms because all a chicken needs to trigger the behavior is an object that sticks out on each side of its beak and looks wormy.

The point of the study was to find out if there was any correlation between the bird that gets the worm and its rank in the flock. They did not find one. The study also noted that when a chick found a “worm,” she uttered particular sounds that called attention to the prize. The set of behaviors associated with worm running suggested that the chicks were not seriously competing for the prize. Instead, they were exhibiting “play behavior.”

One study cannot definitively prove that chickens play. But chicken keepers can declare that worm running is a game because we’ve seen the chickens at it and we find it very entertaining to watch them run full-out, switching directions so quickly that you’d think they’d fall over.

Given that unhappy critters don’t feel playful, the authors suggest—in more formal terms—that if you see your chickens playing football, they’re a happy flock.

Cloutier, S., Newberry, R., Honda, K., 2004, Comparison of social ranks based on worm running and aggressive behaviour in young domestic fowl, Behavioural Processes, #65, 79--86

Friday, November 2, 2007

photo of the slum

With Airedale butt.

Crested Polish Chickens

Polish chickens are like fluffy bobble-head dolls. Their heads dart around like those of regular chickens and their poof of head-feathers bobs in the opposite direction. One of mine has such thick feathers on her head that I'd have to lie prostrate on the ground and look up in order to see her eyes peering out from underneath.

For about a hundred years scientists argued about the relative intelligence of Polish chickens compared to others. Charles Darwin wrote about a crested hen that couldn't find her way back to her feeding station after he moved her a hundred yards away. Then in 1959 a scientist by the name of Requate trimmed the feathers of their crests and found that they reacted to stimuli (science talk for things like offering worms or making noises) in the same way as other chickens. I don't know if his results were confirmed. If his experiment can't be replicated, it's not valid science. He may have just been dealing with exceptional crested chickens.

So the mind of the Crested Polish chicken may still be a matter for debate. What's certain is that the shape of their heads is different. Their brains and skulls been studied extensively by two scientists at the University of Dusseldorf, Germany. Frahm and Rehkamper pose the age-old chicken-and-egg question:

"Does the feather crest eventually alter the shape of the skull and thus the brain, or are the alterations in brain shape the cause of the protuberance and the feather crest?"

Yet another profound evolutionary question to which we may never have an answer.