Notes from Windward: #61

The Winter Update

part three

Anybody got a good recipe for peacock? Most flocks or herds have a structure in which the females are grouped in the center, while the adolescent males form an outer ring, an arrangement which helps protect the hens, does, cows, etc. from predators who are going to encounter the out-lying males first.

There's a band of a half dozen adolescent male peacocks who've decided that moving to Windward sure beats flying south for the winter. They make for colorful company, but as uninvited guests often do, they're wearing out their welcome.

The ducks get a winter ration of soaked grain, and lately they've been getting pretty tired of having the peacocks muscle in on their lunch. From a duck's perspective, peacocks are really big birds with a wickedly sharp beak, so the ducks usually beat a hasty retreat and let the peacocks eat their fill.

Peacock on the roof of Walt's wood shed
Now that the peacocks have been fattening up on our grain for a few weeks, we're figuring that it's about time to invite one of them up the hill for dinner, a project which I'm reminded of every time one flies up on top of my trailer and starts stomping around overhead while I'm trying to write.

One of the funniest things about the peacocks is to watch them doing their best to impress the duck hens and intimidate the drakes with their plumage displays.

All creatures that gather in flocks or herds have a keen interest in the pecking order and their place in it. The primary difference you see from species to species involves how the individuals establish and maintain their status within the group.

There are two primary ways that critters compete for status: agonic and hedonic. The first is the most common way; it describes a social ranking system that's determined on the basis of strength and power. Males fight with other males for primacy, and females compete in more subtle ways with other females for control. The winners get the best mates and food, and the losers do the best they can while maintaining the hope that tomorrow will be a better day.

Webbed feet make great snowshoes
The hedonic system has to do with ranking that derives from one's ability to show off and maintain the interest of the group. In situations which are stark and demanding, you see the agonic form of association, but when conditions are such that life isn't an every day struggle to survive, you start to see some hedonic social structuring express itself.

The reason that chimpanzees make good performers in the entertainment industry is because they're hedonic by nature. They gain status amongst their peers by performing, and they really do perform for the sake of the applause. Gibbons and baboons, on the other hand, are agonic. They dominate each other by threat of physical violence, and aren't the slightest bit interested in performing for the sake of the spectators. If they want your approval, they'll beat it out of you.

Well, the point of this is that ducks and chickens are agonic. The "sport" of cockfighting came about because that's what roosters do anyway. Left to their own devices, they'll fight each other to the death, and thereby maintain about a 5 hen to 1 rooster ratio all on their own. If you watch closely, you'll see that it's actually a 10 to 1/1 ratio; i.e. there's an alpha rooster in charge with a beta-rooster waiting in the wings for the day when the alpha-rooster slips up.

Nature produces males and females in equal numbers, and in migratory animals, the extra males provide cover and protection for the females. In territorial animals, extra males strain the carrying capacity of land, and so there's a lethal competition to see who gets "voted off the island." In the natural calculus, it's better for the genes if the available food supply is consumed by a hen laying eggs rather than by a non-breeding male.

In commercial operations that want fertile eggs, they maintain a 10 to 1 rooster/hen ratio since they don't need to keep a lot of "spare" roosters "on call." It turns out to be a fairly peaceable arrangement since each of the roosters knows which ten hens are his responsibility, and at a 10/1 ratio, they just don't have enough energy left over to fight very much.

Birds don't have much of a sense of smell, so they don't recognize each other by scent like dogs or cats might, but their eyesight is exceptional and they seem to know each other by facial recognition. Sometimes when a rooster is on top of a hen, another rooster will run over, lower his head and look at the hen's face from about an inch away. Sometimes he'll plow into the rooster and there'll be a big fight, and other times he'll just calmly walk away.

If a rooster dies in a fertile egg operation, they gather up his hens and separate them for a week before returning them to the flock because otherwise the established roosters will continue to ignore them. After a week away, the link between the hens and the "former" rooster will have been lost, and the hens will be accepted into other groups.

Ducks are also agonic, and like baboons, their societies are controlled by gangs of males who exert dominance over the duck-hens and run off the juvenile males. Early on, we did have some monogamous ducks who would go off together as a couple, but the coyotes and skunks are very fond of duck, so while that may be very romantic, it's not an effective survival strategy.

Peacocks are very hedonic. Their whole social dynamic has to do with showing off their plumage, and may the best set of feathers win. Whereas the roosters kill each other off in spur to spur combat, the peacocks do it indirectly. By growing this massive feather displays, they slow down their ability to evade predators who are ready and willing to cull out the surplus males. The females figure, with good reason, that the survivor with the biggest and best feather display is likely to be offering a pretty good set of genes.

Peacock trying to impress the drakes,
but they're not impressed
So, here's the poor peacock doing his level best to impress and intimidate the drakes through this massive feather display, and despite his very best effort, the drakes were so absolutely unimpressed.

We also see something similar when the bucks and rams tangle it up. Goats are very orthodox when they get down to the business of establishing dominance. It reminds me of a collegiate boxing match that's fought by very clear and binding rules, with referees and spectators there to insure that everything is done on the up and up.

The sheep remind me more of professional wrestling. You can turn your back on a buck and the worst thing he'll do is come over and rub on you in an effort to mark you with his scent. Without those pheromones, the does won't come unto heat, so the bucks never miss an opportunity to "share."

But don't ever turn your back on a ram. Like a gentleman, a buck will wait until you're ready to look him in the eye before hitting you, but most rams have no such scruples. They'll nail you from behind, and can do real damage.

That's one reason why we kept Lambie-Pie as our herd ram for so long, since his gentle and loving nature was something we wanted to breed for. We're pleased so see that his son, Warner, is a real sweetheart too.

Warner, son of Lambie-pie
More than once, I've seen a buck assume the proper fighting position, only to be side-swiped in the ribs by a ram. When that happens, it's as though the buck's sense of decorum is more injured than anything else. They'll often look over at you with an expression of "Did you see what he did? He cheated!"

And while the buck is getting all huffy about it, the ram will hit him again. At that point, the buck usually just leaves the field rather than lower himself to such unsportsmanlike conduct. Goats have a lot of pride; sheep don't.

Modern commercial animal husbandry has dulled the natural instincts of birds that the homestead used to depend on to raise themselves. With the use of incubators and brooders, there's no premium placed on the hen's ability to set, hatch and care for a brood of chicks, and so that ability has become very weak in hatchery raised birds.

Over the years, we've carefully selected for the hens who are good at the job of mothering, with the result that our birds are getting better at the task each year. Last fall, one hen hatched out a brood in mid October, and everyone shook their heads about the likelihood of any of those chicks making it.

Ginger and her winter chicks
We're surprised and pleased to report that this earnest little hen has been able to keep five of her chicks alive, quite an accomplishment given the challenging early winter we've all been through.

Well, I've rambled on quite a bit, so I guess it's time to wrap this up with the hope that winter's being kind to you. There's lots of snow and cold yet to enjoy before this winter's over, but whether it's a month more or two, there's always the assurance that this too shall pass and give way to the green hills of spring. There's such a deep and enduring comfort in that.

With best wishes from Windward,