Tag Archive | bird behavior

One Lucky Duck

This morning while I was doing chores I heard a loud, insistent peeping cry coming from the area of an apple orchard about 150 ft from the barn.  Just two days ago I put the newest chick hatch in the barn and the babies are now 10 days old.  Fearing one had somehow gotten out and been chased, as any mother would, I went searching for the baby.  Closing in on the peeping brought me to an area of grass up to 3 ft high, part of the hayfield.  As I got near, the calling stopped.

I stood for a bit and heard the cries again, coming from the grass.  So I searched all through the tall grass making mother hen noises, but the baby didn’t respond.  I stopped and waited.  Tiny muted peeps sounded very near.  Finally I found the source, hidden in the grass.  A baby duck!

What in the world is a tiny duckling doing so far from any water?  There was no mother duck in sight or earshot.  The baby appeared perfectly healthy with no sign of injury.  It was a strong, active bird, taking every opportunity to try and slip from my hand.  This duckling was too young to survive on its own.  It didn’t even have any feathers, only down.

Before calling the wildlife rehabilitators, I decided to investigate on my own.  The nearest water was our farm pond, about 300 ft away.  I had seen ducks there during the spring, but had never seen a hen with a brood in our pond at any time.  This seemed unlikely since the pond is only 1/6 acre, not very large.  

Cradling the duckling, I hiked to the pond.  All appeared quiet.  The only birds in evidence were a pair of very angry red-winged blackbirds loudly scolding.  I was undoubtedly getting far too close to their nest hidden among the cattails.  Suddenly there was movement in the flotsam on the far side of the pond.  Then a hen mallard duck and her brood emerged from the weeds.  What do you know?!  A family of ducks was calling our pond home!

Careful to move slowly and not frighten the ducks, I carried the baby to a spot close to its mother and released it.  The duckling practically flew across the surface of the water, it swam so fast, peeping all the while for mama.  And mother duck called back with a low quacking.  Soon the family was reunited.  That baby was one lucky duck!

The best explanation I can find for having a duckling so far from its mother was that a predator, likely a bird such as a hawk or raven, picked the baby up off the pond.  Using the same survival skills it demonstrated while I was restraining it, the baby may have played dead causing the predator to relax its grip.  The little duck could then twist and slip from the predator’s talons to drop into the tall grass.  Far from mom and the pond.

The duckling is one of many wild birds that I have saved from imminent death over the years.  It has been my privilege to also rescue an owl, a bald eagle, a hummingbird and several song birds. I’m delighted to have wild ducks live at our pond.  What fun it will be to watch them grow and to share the sight with my granddaughters!  I was thinking of taking my kayak out in the pond for a paddle, but I guess that will have to wait.


Feather Picking and Chicken Coats


Hens with bare backs from feather picking

Most anyone who has kept chickens knows that the terms pecking order and hen pecked have roots in real life.  The dominant hens in the flock pull the feathers out of all the others.  Every hen plucks the rooster’s beautiful hackle and saddle feathers because they flutter and catch the eye.

Feather picking is not a sign of missing nutrients or over-crowding.  It is the way dominant hens control the other birds in the flock.  If the most aggressive pickers are removed, others just step into their places.  Chickens are not nice animals, they are vicious, hierarchical creatures who have evolved a very tough society over millions of years.

Some believe it is the roosters who pick the hens bare, but it is mostly the other hens–in my experience.  Rooster feather damage is seen on the elbows of the wings and at the top of the head.  You can tell which hens are the feather pickers because they tend to have the most feathers.  In the photo above, the dominant hen is the silver at front left.  She is mostly feathered and is also wearing a chicken bit.  Some of the other hens participate in feather pulling, but she is the worst culprit.


Feather picking culprit

Chicken bits are loops of metal that attach into the nostril holes and go in the mouth, like a horse bit.  This is supposed to prevent the hen from grabbing feathers by keeping the jaws separated.  it doesn’t work for very long.  The hen quickly learns how to position her beak to catch feathers using the bit.  Also, the metal is very soft and the beak soon wears through until the mouth can close again.


Bit clinching pliers, new bits and a used bit


The hen’s beak quickly wears through the soft metal bit

A hen doesn’t need all her feathers to survive, but they are nice for preventing sunburn, keeping warm and keeping cool.  Naked hens are also unsightly.  There are breeds of featherless chickens.  These are food birds and having no feathers makes cleaning their carcasses much easier.  I think these birds are pretty pitiful and ugly.  I prefer my hens with feathers.  So, what to do about those bossy hens and feather picking?

Once the problem starts, a chicken keeper must act quickly or feathers will disappear in no time.  Within a week, a hen can be going bald.  There are dozens of remedies for feather picking.  I’ve tried many of them.  Bits don’t work.  I won’t try blinders, which impede the vision right in front of the chicken wearing them.  My free range birds need to see as well as possible in the event of predator attack.  The various concoctions recommended for smearing on the victim chickens don’t work well.  The chickens end up cleaning off a lot of whatever is put on them.  The bully hens also either develop a liking for the taste, or they just ignore the coating, because the picking continues.


Hens wearing their new coats

I’ve found what seems to be working best for my flock:  chicken coats.  These provide a barrier that protects the feathers.  Many variations on this idea are available.  People knit, sew or crochet little jackets, vests or sweaters.  Chicken attire is cute and probably works ok, but cloth can be hot and gets dirty fast.  A wet, soiled scrap of fabric is unhygienic.  I don’t want to have to continually catch the birds to change their clothes.

A product called Chicken Armor is available and I ordered a bunch to try.  The little coats are made of vinyl so they are lightweight and strong.  The material can be hosed off, if necessary.  It does not absorb water so the chicken stays dry.  The coat fits loosely over the back to allow good air circulation. You slip the chicken’s wings through the arm holes and set her free.


Hen with hand made coat.  Note the feather loss at the wing elbows, that is where the rooster stands when he mates.

Before I ordered the Chicken Armor, I made a coat out of a thick, waxed paper and duct tape.  It was somewhat heavier than the vinyl version turned out to be, but it did stay on and worked well.  The hen who wore it started growing new feathers right away.


New feathers growing in under the coat.

So far the coats have done a good job.  A few hens manage to get them off.  After putting them back on once or twice, the coats stay on.  The hens actually seem to like their clothes, it must feel nice to get the blazing sun off the back.  And to not have feathers ripped from them.  The coats have a roughened upper surface so the rooster can get a grip for mating.

I will need to put some coats on the roosters as well.  All the hens enjoy pulling the boys’ feathers.  My roosters are so kind they will allow their feathers to be yanked out.  Here is a link to the Chicken Armor site to learn more:  http://www.chickenarmor.com/

I have not received any consideration for endorsing this product.  I’m sure the company has no idea I even mentioned them.  When I find a superior product, I like to share.


Surprise Snow


Mother Nature had a surprise for us this second day of spring:  a morning snow shower with about 2.5″ of white stuff.  All the snow had melted and the ground was drying out nicely.  Looks like we’re back to mud for a bit.

The snow is hard on newly returned migratory birds.  A flock of around fifty blackbirds descended on the feeder this morning.  These animals are smart and wary.  The slightest human movement sends all the birds flapping for cover.

a4They sit in the trees, wait and watch for humans.  When the coast looks clear, one bird will fly down to the feeder and start spilling seeds on the ground.  a2Soon, all the birds hurry back to feast.  They watch the bird on the feeder, he is the lookout.  At his warning, they scatter to safety again.a1

Poor things.  They must be starving after the long flight.  There is very little for them to eat here this early, even if the ground is bare.  We go through a lot of birdseed this time of year.  Things are so tough, the red-winged blackbirds scrounge at the feeder until warmer weather provides their natural food.

I suppose if we did not feed them, the migrating birds would return to more southerly areas to wait for spring.  I hate to take away the food because the cardinals and other winter birds that count on us would go hungry.  So, in spring we lay out a smorgasbord for the ravening flocks of grackles and blackbirds.

Intrigue at the Bird Feeder


Mr. Cardinal

During the last couple months, an intrigue has developed at the bird feeder.  This romantic tangle involves the resident cardinals. As the temperatures warm globally and here in central Maine, cardinals have moved their winter territory north until they now stay here at the farm year round.  For several seasons a mated pair feed on our sunflower and safflower seeds all winter and nest in the spruce hedge in spring.  The male fills the May air with his lusty songs of love.

Sadly, in November his female flew into one of our picture windows and killed herself.  Otto, the intrepid tracking German shepherd, spotted her poor body and I buried her under a spruce. A dark time for the cardinal.  He visited the feeder on his own.  I wondered where cardinals go to meet chicks.

Three weeks ago, he showed up one morning with a new lady friend.  She is a fine, healthy bird who has shown no tendency to fly into glass.  They seem to still be in the courtship stage.  The male moves toward her and she flits coyly away, only to stop on a branch and preen herself.  They appeared content.


The new lady

The scandal started late last week.  Another female arrived!  She hangs back in a nearby tree, watching as the first female feeds. When that bird flies up into the branches, the other swoops down onto the prime spot under the feeder.  Mr. Cardinal is captivated by both ladies.  I wonder if he is hedging his bets for plate glass roulette by keeping two females?  Or, perhaps the second is another who has lost her mate and just hangs around for the company.


The spare

They will need to sort it out, because as spring arrives, one must move on.  Female cardinals are very territorial, especially at nesting time.  Often, they attack their own reflections repeatedly, thinking a rival is infringing.  In the meantime, it is good to know there are plenty of lady cardinals out there for the lonely heart.

Chick Adventures


The Ameraucana chicken fledglings are three weeks old in these photos.  They are just beginning to explore the big world beyond the enclosure where they were kept safe as hatchlings.  The chicks stare out from the safety of the barn into the great green world.  The lure of grass, sunshine and tasty bugs helps them overcome their fear of the unknown.

Sunlight streaming through the barn door makes a wonderful place to stretch out.  Chickens originated as jungle birds.  The love of warmth is in their genetic code.  The little guys plop down wherever the sun is bright to spread their wings and absorb the heat.  Their response to sun seems automatic.ck3
Hatched in early May, these chicks are growing fast. Their fully feathered wings and relatively light-weight bodies make them good fliers. I have to cover any buckets holding water to avoid calamity. Chicks have accidentally flown into water buckets in the past and drowned. Because they are not swimmers, they panic, inhale some water and quickly succumb. The same thing happened to a wild turkey poult in my horses’ watering tub last year. Very sad.ck2

These young chickens grow more brave every day.  In a gang, they adventure farther from the barn and discover new places where they can hide quickly if danger threatens.  Soon their sixteen little siblings that hatched last week will join them in the barn.  With plenty of exposure, the two ages of chicks will come to tolerate each other.  When this winter arrives, they will be friendly enough to form one big flock.

Congress of Crows

Here come the crows! Every morning and evening, large numbers of crows fly over our home. I have seen more than a hundred on occasion, flapping in groups or long bands. They are moving to or from the nearest major town, Waterville, where they spend the night.  We are situated seven miles from town, and apparently, along a main crow flyway.

As predictable as clockwork, the morning exodus from town brings the birds over us just about sunrise, or one-half hour after the skies lighten.  So, it takes a crow approximately a half-hour to go seven miles–as the crow flies.  In the evening their numbers fill the air above us perhaps an hour before full dark.  This phenomenon occurs every day, no matter the season.

Researchers have found that crows tend to congregate in roosting areas mostly during the fall and winter.  The rest of the year they break off into smaller breeding and family groups.  It is mostly the younger crows that gather in large quantities to spend the nights together, in congresses, as big raucous groups of these birds are called.  (Can’t imagine why something making high levels of noise with little accomplishment would be called a congress.)

Our crows’ routines seem to vary from what researchers have discovered.  The season makes little difference to their behavior.  They fly to the warmer, lighted city to spend the night and spread out each morning to hunt and scavenge.  I have seen their loud nightly urban gatherings in the tops of leafless oak trees in fall and dead tall trees during other seasons.  Pity the poor home owners living near these congresses, they must get a rude awakening every pre-dawn.  The crow’s call is one of the most piercing and far-carrying of birds.

Among all animals, the crow’s intelligence stands out.  Parts of their brains are as large, by body volume comparison, as our own.  Corvus brachyrhynchos, the American crow, has the same smarts as any of its many relatives around the world.  These crows have learned that intown is warmer than the country for sleeping purposes and the bright lighting used in cities provides a chance to spot the owls that prey on crows.  Many towns have mature trees evenly spaced in large clearings (parking lots, lawns and parks,) providing great vantage points for vulnerable roosting crows to spot predators.

Their brilliance and ability to survive on the foulest of carrion gives crows a distinct advantage. I suspect their species will continue to flourish long after we humans have brought about our extinction. Finding a new safe sleeping place will be a puzzle for them once the cities go dark. As they observe our destructive behavior from on high, I imagine the crows have already set their avian brains to the problem.