Birds do it

At the age of eight, Francie the Duck (Ret.) began turning into a drake. For eight years she had unquestionably been a hen, brown-feathered, egg-laying, but then she went through the change and now, two years later, her head feathers have a greenish tinge, her neck is thicker, her tail feather curls, her feet have turned orange. She has all the secondary sex characteristics of a drake.

What’s odder: her behavior has changed as well, and dramatically. Over the last year she took to watching over the two other remaining ducks when I let them out in the yard. While they grazed and hunted bugs, she kept an eye out. As a hen she had never shown a lick of interest in watching out for anything; she was the most devoted bug-hunter of the flock, but now she thought it more important to stand guard.

Two weeks ago a fox killed one of the remaining hens, the only time in ten years I’ve lost a duck to predation. Since then Frank (as we now call her) has watched over the last hen almost constantly. When Saffy swims in the pool I made of a stock tank, Frank stands on the rim and watches for danger. When we toss cracked corn or split cherry tomatoes into the pen for a treat, Frank holds off the chickens so Saffy can eat. They’re inseparable, like an old married couple.

Waterfowl often mate for life, and I’ve heard stories like this of geese, but never before of ducks. It’s good that they can still surprise me after all this time, and it’s the first time in a decade, honestly, that I’ve seen the ducks behaving as if they really cared about one another beyond the simple instinctive need to stay in a group. Were I inclined to extrapolate lightly from birds to humans, I might say: Chalk one up for men. Or at least for butch lesbians. Or I’d make an argument for gay marriage. But nature is complicated, and so are we, and we see in it what we have eyes to see.

This summer a red-bellied woodpecker brought her baby to the feeder outside my study window. It’s a small and sheltered feeder to which a number of species are comfortable bringing fledglings, and because I fill it every day the birds know that, when they can’t find anything to eat, they can always go there. Sometimes the babies hop around on the ground peeping; sometimes they cling to the bark higher up the dogwood tree while their parents bring them food. The juvenile woodpecker did the latter, hopping in circles round the trunk while his mother ate a seed, mouthed another, and fluttered up to feed him.

After a week or two the juvenile, still scruffy-headed and lacking the bright red plumage of his parents, was ready to use the feeder on his own. While he perched, his mother waited and watched where he had waited, a quick flutter up the tree. And the youngster, imitating his mother, not only fed himself successfully but occasionally brought his mother a seed, feeding her just as she had fed him.

Were I inclined to extrapolate lightly from birds to humans, I would observe that when my daughter made me dinner for my birthday last weekend, I appreciated the meal more than any fancy restaurant plate or magazine-cover cake.

Chickens are more entertaining than I expected them to be. After years of keeping ducks I had developed a bit of snobbish pride about the matter, especially as I watched backyard chicken coops grow fashionable. But where my Campbells rarely take an interest in me except to squawk in my direction when I don’t keep to what they consider the appointed schedule, the chickens follow me around looking for handouts. They turn their bedding on their own, which is convenient for me. They also toss half the straw in their house out the door every day, which is a little less convenient for me, but at least it’s new and different annoying animal behavior.

What I find entertaining, of course, they take entirely seriously. To keep them occupied and me entertained, I rearrange the fallen branches in the poultry yard every week or so, and the chickens decide which is the best perch. Some days they argue over it; other days they sit in a row like turtles on a log. We are having a debate right now about which of the youngsters is the baddest chicken of them all, because the biggest pullet is not the best flyer. The former struts and flaps; the latter sits quietly on a perch she can’t reach. The other day it was the open door to the henhouse, while the big bird glared from the ground.

Of course, I’m the baddest chicken of them all, but they conveniently forget that when I’m not around.

This need to find a high perch is instinctive and protective, if you except their complete unwillingness to use the perches I actually built into their coop. When dusk falls the chickens simply go into their house and huddle in heap in the corner. Since I’m going to close them in it’s as effective against raccoons and foxes as anything, but one evening I went out to shut the door to the house, took the first step onto the stairway out the back door, and nearly tripped over three Buff Orpingtons who had nestled against the top riser. I hadn’t securely closed the gate to the poultry yard, and they’d found the highest spot available without actually flying into a tree (which, for the most part, they haven’t figured out how to do).

Less protective is what saved them in this case: after dark they go limp. I suppose if a chicken is high in a tree, out of a predator’s easy reach, then stillness and silence is her best camoflauge. But I simply scooped the Orpingtons up, two under one arm and one under the other, and carried them down the stairs and out to their own house. They barely made a peep. Ironically, had they picked a better hiding place for the night, I might never have found them. Their strategy worked, but only by chance.

Were I inclined to extrapolate lightly from birds to humans, I would remind you that all is vanity, and that we aren’t nearly as smart as we like to think we are.

But, like I said: It’s complicated.