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My parents' geese

My parents’ geese

My parents have a lovely flock of pilgrim geese: I think these geese are mostly a hobby, but I suppose if society ever falls down, Mom & Dad could probably ramp up production and live on them.  The geese spend most of their time in a big pond in a field next to a pretty meadow (which in turn is next to an oak forest). The birds play and frolic and pursue their goose romances all the while conniving against one another like Roman patricians.  They practice a very intense form of goose politics (goosetics?) which involves lots of self-aggrandizing honking, aggressive jostling, and occasional political murders.  The ganders even look a bit like Roman senators with haughty hungry expressions and cloud-white plumage in place of togas (although the females are gray and slightly gentler).

Pilgrim Gander

Pilgrim Gander

Today’s flock has reached a parity point where new hatchlings replace unfortunate geese lost to the hardships of nature, society, and misadventure, but it was not always so. The first generation of geese arrived as gormless puffballs in the mail.  With no elders to teach them of coyotes, foxes, weasels, hawks, owls, and bobcats, they had to learn some hard lessons on their own. But even once they learned to survive against the wild animals which live in the forest, they still had a lot to learn about the world (like how to fly).

LG the Canada Goose

LG the Canada Goose

This is where a very strange character enters the story.  One day a wild Canada goose landed on the pond with a female mallard duck.  It became obvious that this unhappy duck was the unwilling paramour of the goose, but whenever she tried to fly away from him (I am calling this goose a he, but who really knows?), he would leap into the sky and coral her back down to the pond with his mighty wings and expert flight skills.  This weird pair kept to themselves and my parents watched their dysfunctional relationship with bemusement, christening the big strange goose as “LG” (which is short for Lonely Goose). One day a vast flock of migrating ducks landed on the pond, as they made their way to some rich wetland.  When they flew off, the mallard female joined them, and LG could not find her among the throng so she escaped and rejoined her kind and her further adventures are unknown.

My mother feeding LG

My mother feeding LG

LG however stuck around and began to insinuate himself into my parents’ flock of ignorant catalog-bought adolescent domestic geese.  At first they were standoffish and he was sadly alone at the bottom of the gooseatics hierarchy, but soon he was whispering in ears, teaching useful life lessons, and plotting against less-popular geese. When he moved into the middle of their society he was able to teach them to fly.  I have a distinct memory of LG flying from the farmyard down to the pond with the pilgrims flying after him. He landed gracefully on the pond and bobbed scerenely on the water as the pilgrims crash landed pathetically into the mud and the fields like the aftermath of some WWI aerial battle.  Indeed, flying lessons were not without casualties and my mother’s favorite pet goose swerved into a barn in order not to fly into her (which illustrates a degree of self-sacrificing care).

l8

Once the flock knew how to fly, LG ascended to the top of the hierarchy and he has been a top goose ever since.  At first my parents were afraid that he would fly off with the whole flock and the domestic geese would all turn feral, but the opposite seems to have happened.  Who knows what LG’s real back story is?  He has a hole in his foot and he looks somewhat old.  I speculate that he spent his life flying back and forth between the Arctic Ocean and Alabama until one day he saw a farm pond where he could retire and work his wiles on perfectly naïve geese. Geese live loooong lives (they can get to be more than 30 years old) so this may be true.  Or maybe he is some sort of bird-sanctuary renegade or just a big human-loving freak.

Whatever the case, these days LG has a special pilgrim goose girlfriend whom he looks after when she is nesting.  He doesn’t seem to be fertile with pilgrim geese and they raise broods of pure pilgrim goslings… but maybe it’s best not to pry too closely into other people’s domestic arrangements.

LG leading the pilgrims!

LG leading the pilgrims!

LG is mean as a serpent to the other geese (aside from his mate, with whom he is exceedingly tender) however he is very adroit at managing the humans in his circle.  He enjoys eating corn out of people’s hands (which most of the domestic geese will not do) and he tolerates being petted.  He is a very weird, weird wild animal.  I kind of love LG, and I always get angry when people badmouth Canada geese for defecating on golf courses or aggressively chasing dumpy middle managers into mud holes.  He makes his own way in life.  If he ever got tired of his girlfriend and his minions and being hand-fed corn he still has mighty wings and he could fly back to the enduring freedom of the sky above, but I really think he has retired and settled down.  I still wish he could narrate his biography, but I guess his friendship will have to suffice.

Rabbit-with-spots1220

When I was growing up, my family went to the feed store one spring to buy something (farm equipment? wire, grain? rakes? cowbells? I just don’t remember).  The store had a big pen filled with “Easter bunnies” for low, low prices, and thanks to their endearing cuteness, my sister and I had to have one. My long-suffering parents were deeply reluctant, but in the end they agreed, provided the bunnies stayed in hutches outside.  We went home with two adorably cute little rabbits (and a bunch of wire for building pens).  It was the beginning of a very painful lesson about the ambiguous nature of domestication. Rabbit-lovers may want to stop reading.  In fact everyone may want to stop reading.  Not all animal stories have happy endings.

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were raised in large walled colonies in ancient Rome (like snails!) but they were not properly domesticated for the farm until the middle ages.  Wikipedia half-heartedly quotes a date of “600” (presumably 600 AD).  Goats, pigs, and cows were domesticated about ten thousand years ago—long before the first cities rose—so the rabbit is a newcomer to farming life.  Not until the eighteenth (or maybe nineteenth) century do we have any records of rabbits as pets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rabbits we obtained from the feed store were certainly not raised as pets but as stock (the fact that they were sold at the feed store was a real clue). We already had cats and dogs and birds inside, so the rabbits had to live in wire pens with little straw lined nesting boxes.  For a while the bunnies were sort of stuck in a limbo between being pets and being livestock, but, as people who have real pet rabbits can tell you, rabbits don’t really love being held and they have an ambiguous relationship with children. They are also gifted escape artists and extremely devoted to producing more rabbits.  We had some litters of baby bunnies (did you know that stressed out rabbits eat their young? You do now) and we also had some rabbits that went renegade.  We tried to catch the escapees at first and we did catch some (even domestic rabbits can run like the wind) but ultimately we resigned ourselves to the fact that a certain number of rabbits would go “Watership Down” and never return.  Eventually something must have got them: the highway, the foxes, the hawks, the coyotes, the bobcats, the owls, the weasels—who knows?

19063_000_3513

So in the end we wound up with hutches filled with rabbits that had to be fed and watered and tended to.  In the summer they would occasionally die of unknown causes (heat, stress, disease?).  I have extremely unpleasant memories of putting on rubber gloves and carrying a stiffened decomposing rabbit covered with flies over the hill to dig a shallow grave.

You can probably see where this is all heading. On a farm filled with delightful & personable animals like dogs, cats, ponies, and turkeys, the rabbits did not cut it as pets.  The cards had been hopelessly stacked against them from the beginning.  And so eventually they became rabbits for the pot.  It turned out that slaughtering rabbits was a task which I was shamefully unequal to as a child.  Jim Bowie might have slapped me around until I toughened up and became a frontiersman but my dad just sighed heavily and did the butchering himself (sorry Dad, I’ll take care of it next time).  Thereafter we found that the Amish neighbors were happy to slaughter rabbits in exchange for a share.  Rabbit fur really is soft and warm and we had a bizarre mud room filled with tanned pelts (although I am not sure what we ever did with them).  Rabbit meat is particularly delightful (especially with creamy sauce) and we had lots of savory rabbit curries, which are even better than they sound.

rabbit stew

rabbit stew

So what is the point of this story?  I am sure it will not endure me to other animal lovers (although I beg you all to stay with me–I am an animal lover too).  Maybe it is a simple story about domestication.  I like meat, but I have not forgotten where it comes from (and I can understand the point of view of vegetarians–but it isn’t my point of view).

honey_bee_by_snomanda-d5cub8b

Sad news from America’s apiculturists: nearly a third of domestic bees in the United States did not survive the winter of 2012/2013.  Before 2005 the winter loss rate was between 5% and 10%, but after that year, colony collapse disorder, a mysterious affliction which caused domestic bees to fly away and never return, ravaged the poor honeybees. Losses of 30% became common.  Beekeepers were somewhat hopeful that the worst of the scourge was passing after the winter of 2011/2012 (when losses fell to 22%) however apparently that year was anomalous.  At least it seems that this winter’s losses were not the result of classic colony collapse disorder–rather than flying away to nowhere the bees stayed put in their hives. Yet the insects they were sadly weakened and diminished and the attenuated hives proved unable to start new broods in the spring and just withered away.

WHY? (No seriously--why?)

WHY? (No seriously–why?)

This is a huge and perplexing problem.  At least a third of our food supply is dependent on the hard-working yellow and black pollinators.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake—as are our favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  This past year a number of studies indicated that neonicotinoid insecticides were partly to blame for bee losses (along with vampiric varroa mites, a decline of wild flowering plants, greedy beekeepers who overextend their hives, and a bacterial disease horrifyingly named “European foulbrood”) but the compounds are non-toxic to other animals and immensely lucrative to big chemical companies.  In Europe the compounds were banned this year, so comparing European bee hives with American ones in coming years should at least help us understand the problem.

Some scientists have also suggested that a lack of genetic diversity in domestic bee populations is also contributing to the problem.  Maybe we need to go online and find some new life partners from around the globe for our hymenopteran friends.  The infamous Africanized killer bees seem like they have some immunity to some of the issues behind bee die-offs.  Maybe we need to come up with a better name for those guys and see what they are up to this summer.

Sigh...so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Sigh…so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Aurochs Fighting Wolves (Heinrich Harder)

About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in India, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa first domesticated cattle. Although the domestication of goats and swine occurred earlier, cattle have a more central role in human history—they were sacred to many of the first civilizations in a way which goats and pigs were not.  Cows and cattle are still highly esteemed today.  In India cows are sacrosanct and not to be harmed, but, in herding societies like Texas or Argentina, the creatures are arguably even more important. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion head of cattle grazing the green earth today.  They collectively outweigh all of the humans on the planet.  Of that immense herd, what percentage would you guess are actual wild cattle–forest dwelling primogenitors from which the domestic cattle descended?

Domestic Cattle

That number would be none.  The aurochs, (Bos primigenius primigenius) the ancestral cow, went extinct in Poland in 1627. It was the second recorded extinction of an animal (after the hapless dodo).  The aurochs were not defenseless dodos: the animals were magnificently muscled giants with wickedly sharp lyre-shaped horns.  An adult male aurochs would have stood nearly 2 meters (six feet) tall at the withers and weighed over a ton.  Living in swampy and wet wooded areas which they grazed for grass and the occasional fruit, aurochs shared some of their range with the wisent, the Eurasian bison. Aurochs were domesticated in various different parts of the world around the approximate same time.  Unfortunately for the wild species, they soon found themselves competing for land and resources with domesticated cattle while still being hunted by human hunters.

Aurochs Cave Painting (ca. 15000 BC)

Julius Caesar evocatively described aurochs and their hunters in the 6th chapter of The Gallic Wars writing “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” Aurochs feature in some of humankind’s most stirring early artworks showing up in cave paintings throughout Europe and on the Ishtar gate of Babylon (where they share company with ceramic lions and dragons).  For all the respect that people had for aurochs, the herds began to fail fast, and populations winked out one by one in the wild redoubts of Asia, Africa, and Europe as civilization and agriculture spread.

Aurochs Mosaic on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (ca. 575 BC)

The last aurochs lived in Poland, which was remarkable for the remote and untouched wildness of some of its forests and for the game loving policies of certain Polish kings, who tried to keep aurochs and wisents alive in order have formidable trophies to hunt.  Unfortunately disease and parasites from domestic cattle had weakened the last herd beyond saving.  Even with the royal threat of a death sentence for anyone killing an aurochs and with gamekeepers to look after the last individuals, the last female slipped away from natural causes in the mid-17th century.  Her remains were reverentially kept by the royal house but they were stolen by Swedes during the havoc of the Swedish deluge.  In one respect it was a sad end to a mighty animal.  In a more real respect, cattle, the direct descendants of aurochs are everywhere and are doing great!  They outweigh any other single species on the planet except perhaps for krill.

RIP Aurochs

I haven’t written about colors or about mammals for a while.  In order to brighten up your day with some endearing animal pictures, I have decided to combine the two topics by writing about the color fawn. This color is a pale yellow brown which is named for the delicate coloring of fawns (baby deer).  Actually the fawns of most species of deer have fawn-colored bellies while their backs are a darker brown with delicate white stipples.

A Fawn-colored Alpaca

The color fawn is often used to describe domestic animals such as cows, alpacas, and rabbits, however the animal which is most likely to be fawn is humankind’s best friend, the domestic dog.  Great Danes, chihuahuas, French bulldogs, boxers, and bull mastiffs are all often fawn-colored–as are an immense number of mixed-breed dogs. Some scientists speculate that the ancient wolves which were first domesticated in the depths of the ice age may have had yellowish fawn-colored coats (as do some extant sub-species of smaller southern wolves).

Pug Puppy

Mastiff Puppy

French Bulldog

Anatolian Shepherd

Great Dane

According to the stringent rules of dog-shows fawn dogs must have black muzzles, so yellow labs do not qualify.  However, judging by the photos returned when one image searches fawn dogs, it seems that many dog-fanciers are untroubled by precise use of the term.

The color fawn is also used to describe clothing.  Although today the color is not at the apogee of fashion, there were times when it was.  Since it was particularly appropriate for riding clothes, there are aristocratic eras when the color was regarded as the pinnacle of elegance and so it is not uncommon to come across 18th century portraits of foppish aristocrats wearing a veritable rainbow of fawn.

Portrait of David Garrick (Thomas Gainsborough, 1742, oil on canvas)

Wild Turkey Poults

During February and March, tom turkeys beguile hens with their magnificent gobbles and vivid visual displays. Shortly thereafter the hens begin nesting. Not only are turkey eggs larger than chicken eggs, they are covered with delicate brown speckles and tend to have a more acute taper on one end than chicken eggs do.  The turkey hen constantly broods her eggs leaving only briefly to eat.  When she is sitting on her nest, the hen is extremely vulnerable to predators.

Turkey Eggs

A month later, turkey poults emerge from the eggs.  The tiny poults punch open the egg with egg teeth (sharpened ridges on the beak which quickly vanish as the young turkeys begin to grow). Wild turkey poults leave the nest about a day after they hatch.

Bourbon Red Turkey Poults on a farm

Wild turkeys face a terrifying host of predators including bobcats, raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, coyotes, armadillos, weasels, crows, owls, hawks, bald eagles, and a variety of snakes. To cope with this list wild poults quickly develop limited flight capability and begin roosting in trees two weeks after they hatch.  Domestic turkey poults need substantial warmth to thrive and must be kept under a hot lamp and never given cold water.  They need medicine supplements to prevent infection from chicken diseases and special calcium supplements to make up for the minerals which their wild cousins get from the bugs and arthropods which make up the bulk of their diet.

Day old Narragansett Turkey poults (photo by Cackle Hatchery)

One of the most endearing traits of poults is the way in which they imprint on their mother and then follow her around.  This trait is identical in domestic turkeys: when we ordered poults during my childhood, the little fluffy birds imprinted on me.  Thereafter they would follow me around the barnyard peeping–which was very cute but made me worry about their well-being (imprinting being a two-way street).  The young turkeys were affectionate and endlessly amusing.  Indeed the Aztec trickster god Tezcatlipoca was strongly associated with turkeys because of their playful tricks and the deity was said to sometimes manifest as a turkey.  In the picture below, Tezcatlipoca even looks a bit like a strutting Tom.

A Turkey and Tezcatlipoca. Do you see the ressemblance?

Domestic Tom Turkey Gobbling (Photo by WildImages--Charlie Summers)

It has been a long time since I put up a turkey post.  In a way this is appropriate, since people other than hunters and farmers usually only think about the majestic fowl around holiday time when the sharp axe comes out (or–more likely—when one wanders over to Krogers to check out the price of Butterballs).  Meanwhile live turkeys have been slogging away through the long winter.  For farm turkeys this has meant dull days perched in dark coops huddled together for warmth while living on daily water and grain hand-outs from the farmer.  For wild turkeys the winter is more like a Russian war novel.  The wind, ice, and snow are enlivened by desperate hunger and by fear of omnipresent predators stalking through the bare trees of the frozen forests.  The cold nights are filled with the howl of the wind and the coyotes while the days are filled with desperately scraping the dead ground for remnants of food.

But that was winter–spring is here, and with it, mating season.  This time of year highlights one of the signature features of turkeys wild and domestic—gobbling.  In fact today’s post is really an auditory one.  Here is a movie of a Tom turkey gobbling!

The gobble is rightfully the most famous turkey vocalization.  It is similar in nature to the humpback’s song or the deafening yodel of the siamang: a magnificent declaration of self which proclaims dominance and health to females. This ululating yodel alerts all nearby hens to the fact that an alpha male tom turkey is in the area and is at the top of his game (it also lets rival males know where to go for a fight and hunters where to go for a meal, so it is a true and heartfelt declaration of bravery and lust on the part of the issuer).

Gobbles are hardly the only turkey vocalizations.  Turkeys both wild and domestic are extremely garrulous characters and produce many different calls for a variety of reasons.  Here is a list of the more common turkey vocabulary from the national Wild Turkey Federation.  By using a variety of tools and the full range of the human voice a tiny number of truly expert hunters can produce most of these noises, however turkeys are clever enough that they don’t usually fall for such guile.

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