How the Hen House Turns: 40 Years with Dogs and Domestic Birds

40 Years with Dogs and Domestic Birds

Los Alamos

Have you ever seen a duck shiver? Mrs. Ritz and Mr. Kiebler (my nine-year-old miniature mallard quackers) shiver when the temperature drops to 14 degrees F.

It’s very scary–especially when they are part of the family–especially when the weather news predicts another nighttime low below twenty degrees F.

For another night Bobbi goose will have to put up with Mrs. Ritz and Kiebler, the Khaki Campbell duck family of three, the chicken Gwendolyn, and an 11-year-old turkey, whom my granddaughters call Little Bear (because she survived two bear attacks.)

Bobbi is best pals with her adoptive mother, Lucy goose. No problem there, but she will have to share the straw with the entire gang in the Hen House because it is kept at a cozy 42 degrees, thanks to an oil heater and a south-facing Trombe wall.

Lucy the goose relaxing in a tub. Courtesy photo

For the xeriscaped yard’s sake, I was happy to receive that wet spring snow last week. However, I don’t look forward to shoveling out the birds’ pen one more time.

I can’t leave the snow all over the ground. The birds’ feet could get frost bitten, because they rapidly trample the snow into ice. Then their bathtub water slops over the edge, creating more threat.

I don’t need to add broken geese legs to my winter challenge. Straw works well to prevent slipping. I scatter it on the wet icy ground, and it soon gets stuck tight with all the splashing going on.

The reason for so many bathtubs: Every morning, first thing, before they grab a bite of lay pellets or alfalfa (but not before they grab a few pieces of cracked corn), the geese and ducks race for their big black bathtubs to wash up. (See Lucy’s picture here somewhere.)

They scoop up water with their wide beaks and use the short feathers on their round heads like wash rags–you know, those small pieces of towel your mother used to load with soap and scrub you off with–before body wash was invented.

Goose heads make great wash rags. It’s amazing how their necks turn and twist around like that. The two white geese and five ducks keep their shiny feathers spotless, even though their pen be muddy from the melted snow–even though they might get unlucky sleeping under the turkey roost.

When the temperature is just below freezing at dusk, which is bedtime for domestic birds, Mrs. Khaki, Mr. Campbell and their baby, Puddles, have a terrible time making up their mind where to sleep. But if the temperature has dropped below freezing in daylight, they dash past territorial Bobbi into the Hen House. Smart birds. Their outdoor nest box is a separate structure, but it is not free from all freezing drafts.

What amazes me is the long-term avian memory for the comfort zone. If the first winter temperature threatens to fall below 20 degrees F at night, even the little birds, Mrs. Ritz and Kiebler, given the choice, will rush through their open fence, ignore Bobbi, and climb into the Hen House to sleep.

Lucy’s adopted daughter Bobbi goose never poses a serious threat to Kiebler and Mrs. Ritz–maybe because Lucy goose also raised them. But that is another story. You are probably wondering how we evacuated all the birds during the Cerro Grande fire in 2011. That’s the next story.

The story of Lucy’s amazing parenting will have to wait. And what is this about urban chickens? Stay tuned.

Editor’s note: Dr. Neeper is an avid student of sustainability, steady‐state economics and the impact of cosmology on issues of science and religion. She and her husband Don Neeper live in Los Alamos with a friendly menagerie of dogs, fish and fowl.

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