Animal Nature

Image by fred1st via Flickr

We are down 50% in our poultry population as I’ve related before–one loss by disease and one trauma loss from the herd. But thankfully, my favorite bird has been spared, she along with her former chief rival. They’ve been forced to get along since they are the last survivors on the island, the one a mere dumb chicken, the other, a kind of lap-dog avian soul-mate. We get along.

Dionne, the black hen, would not put much meat in a pot. She’s a wiry type, maybe half the other hen’s weight, but ten times smarter–if such a term can be used when referring to yard-birds. She follows me around like the family dog and tolerates close contact. If I sit down on the railroad tie wall along the walk into the garden, she hops up beside me. When no one’s looking, I give her a quick pat, which does nothing for her but is a gesture of kinship and connection on my part.

But I am being used, and I have no illusions about that. We have developed a kind of feeding guild and I am nothing more than the source of an easy snack. But she’s at least smart enough to have made the association between stimulus (me anywhere in sight) and response (my turning logs, cinder blocks or boards to uncover yummy things like crickets, earthworms and especially pill bugs.)

She doesn’t need my help finding things to eat, but I confess, I enjoy watching the efficiency with which she consumes those items. Pill bugs are especially fun to watch, and she makes a characteristic “cooing” cluck that is unique to the taste of pill bugs. I imagine it a kind of “thanks” for the treat, and I marvel at the accuracy with which she manages one-peck-only per target, her accuracy near 100%.

I’ve learned there are no random pecks, and have come to watch carefully for the tiny worms (even large nematodes), slugs or insects that would otherwise be invisible to a human eye. She machine-guns that beak under that lifted board and every peck is a speck of living lunch. We move from log to rock to board at least once a day. She has me well trained.

Meanwhile, I have noticed a new behavior of our indoors critter as well. I am a cat-napper, and prefer several ten-minute naps during the day curled up on the love seat here in the room where the computer is. The dog may be asleep in the next room or lying just a few feet away, but when I get up from my chair and ease into nap position on the love seat, the dog gets up from where he was napping, comes over where I am, and lies down smack against the place where I rest.

I know he is hard wired to do this, me the alpha male and him the submissive subordinate. It is, I suppose, a pack instinct to rest where the leader of the pack is resting; he always faces the opposite direction, giving us an early warning should we be attached by another pack.

I know he must do this. But in his eyes, I like to think I see it: he also wants to do it.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. You are very fortunate to be both in a pack with dogs and flock with chickens. That is a well rounded life style!

  2. Yep, that chicken has you trained. Good chicken !!! Keep up the good work……….

    and yes, give that dog, Tsuga, a good meaty bone…..a local butcher should be able to provide such……

    Hello to all, and to all, take care !!!!


  3. Lovely camaraderie with two other species. I’m certain that there is love between you and both, and between dog and you. Who knows, maybe your little black chicken is capable of warm feelings for you, too.