The Winter Update
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
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
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
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,
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.
but they're not impressed
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
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;
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
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
With best wishes from Windward,