Baby It’s Cold Out There

Our first really cold spell of the season is upon us.  NOAA’s weather map this week showed a color I rarely see in “our neck of the woods”.  A light, almost translucent blue color that ominously matches my memory of Snow Miser’s long fingers in the 1974 Bass/Rankin stop-motion animation film A Year Without A Santa Claus.  Our neighbors to the northeast as well as Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio are also in this icy clutch of blue on the map, which represents a wind chill advisory.  It is only 9:00 am as I write and the chickens’ water, changed at 7 am, has already frozen solid.  I suspect I will be making several trips with fresh water today.  So, yes, baby, it’s cold out there.

I always marvel at how animals survive this kind of weather.  Of course, some hibernate, and some can stay underground (below four feet the temperature stays around 55° F).  What about the animals that must venture out to find food?  When I went out to get some wood off the porch, I heard the distinctive tapping of a woodpecker looking for food.  It took me a minute to find him, and in that minute my fingers, with gloves on, got painfully cold.   It was a pileated woodpecker.  Wow!  Out there looking for insects in the cold air, and in a manner that does not at all seem painless.  I prefer to catch my insects by hand!

Animals have numerous adaptations for surviving winter weather.  An adaptation can be behavioral, structural, or physiological.  And within the category of behavioral adaptations – at which we humans excel – the adaptation can be learned or instinctual.  For example, blinking is an instinctual behavior/response to something coming toward our eye.  Birds coming to our feeders, and especially the ones stealing cat food from my side porch, represent learned behavior.  In this latter example, the behavior is also quite brave as the cats’ food bowls are very close to the cats’ sleeping bins.  I guess the benefit – a high protein, easy food score – outweighs the risk of being caught by a cat.  And it seems they are right because my cats are older and rather lazy, though I still see Thingy bringing home mice occasionally from the lower field.

One of the best-known behavioral adaptations to winter weather (or food shortage) is migration.  While I think this behavior is amazing, and scientists are still learning about the cues animals use, it is the animals that stay behind and remain active that really amaze me.  It is much easier to imagine spending the winter somewhere warm, if not the onerous task of getting there, than it is to imagine spending the winter living in the subterranean or the subnivean zone and needing to venture out for food.  Of course, I can’t grow a thicker layer of fur, or lower my body temperature and metabolism.  I don’t need to change my skin or hair color to hide from predators in the snowy world.  And that’s not just because of climate change; I couldn’t do that even before the winters where I live started receiving less snow.

I have often read where people feel that science takes the wonder out of nature.  I emphatically disagree.  The more I learn about nature the more awestruck I become and the more questions I have.  Here are just a few wows I have learned recently:

Delayed fertilization in bats.  Copulation occurs in the late summer and early fall when the male bats are at their fittest, not in the spring when they would be at their weakest.  Fertilization occurs as soon as bats emerge from dormancy. It is thought that this gives bats an advantage to develop fully before the next cycle of dormancy.

Delayed implantation in bear, fisher, marten, river otter, mink, and long-tailed weasel.  The further development of a fertilized blastocyst is arrested until conditions are suitable for healthy development and birth.

Communal denning.  Snakes, squirrels, raccoons, and opossums are known to share dens with each other and with other species, sometimes even with other animals that would be a predator or prey under warmer conditions.

White winter hair not only acts to help camouflage, but also has more air spaces, therefore more insulative properties, because of the lack of melanin.

Snowshoe hares and weasels do not accumulate winter fat to stay warm.  The hares need to stay lightweight to help escape predators in the snow, even though those big feet are acting as snowshoes.  Weasels need to stay slim to enter the small tunnels of rodents, their main winter meal.  Weasels do not even keep a winter den, but rather eat in the den of the prey they have caught – nature’s example of a progressive dinner!

The adaptations I was already familiar with: variations of hibernation, torpor, and aestivation; and acquiring a thick layer of fat, are no less amazing to me.  In cold weather, heat becomes the currency of survival.  Humans are not the most efficient at creating and storing heat despite our numerous and arguably ingenious behavioral adaptations to survive in the cold.  The igloo is probably the most efficient dwelling we have ever created.  We cannot maintain our body temperature well without burning external sources of stored energy.  I cannot structurally or physiologically adapt to cold temperatures, nor can any of us. We have circumnavigated the evolutionary processes in place before we started wearing clothes and migrating all over the world, building huge shelters that are much harder to keep warm than an underground chipmunk burrow.  I do feel more comfortable in my den than I imagine I could in a chipmunk burrow for the winter.  But do we really understand all the social and ecological costs of our need for heat?  Because I worry about our consumption of energy, from both a global perspective and my family’s finances, I keep the thermostat on 54° F during the day and 60 ° F at night, and I keep the woodstove burning.  I add layers of wool instead of fat (well, maybe a little fat), and wander outside often to try to catch a glimpse of animals busily surviving the cold.  I think I even get a little warmth from the “magic” I find.

Coyote or dog scat?  Pirate has been coveting some deer parts he found so it could be dog.

Coyote or dog scat? Pirate has been coveting some deer parts he found so it could be dog.

I think this might be fox scat.

I think this might be fox scat.


Another point of view

After writing about perspective last week, I have been haunted by the notion that I did not consider all perspectives in the case of my killed chicken.  I don’t mean considering all the collective human perspectives on food procurement, but rather the perspective of a co-predator (if we choose to be omnivores), the hawk.

I am not mad at the hawk.  I believe the trite, but true explanation that it was just doing what it needs to do to survive.  If anything, I am mad at myself.  I knew the hawk was around.  I had seen it several times in the last few weeks.  I am usually cautious about when I let the chickens out, trying to be home at least, or better yet working in the yard.  But I was more cavalier that day, and choose to take a walk.  I wonder where the hawk was sitting, and watching, as I walked up the road putting too much distance between Halcyon and myself to be of any threat to its intentions.

If it thinks like we do, did it think today’s my lucky day?

Putting ourselves in others’ shoes is a good exercise, something we are hopefully taught at a young age when we have slighted another child or when we feel an injustice has happened to us.  Putting myself in the paws and claws of the species that live at Halcyon is one of my, perhaps futile, goals of this blog.  How could I possibly know what another animal is thinking?  In reality though, do we always know exactly what our friends and loved ones are thinking? We are not always right when we try on their shoes, but the effort is important.  All I can do is try to think like a hawk.

The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a large bird-of-prey.  It has a wingspan of 38-42 inches and can weigh up to four pounds.  Females are on the larger side of this range and males on the smaller side.  They are brown with a white chest and rust-colored tail.  They build their nests at the edge of a stream or field and prefer wooded habitat next to open areas.  Although, since it is distributed widely throughout the Americas, red-tailed hawks utilize a wide range of habitats.  Halcyon, albeit a small, piece of land in the midst of similar broken up parcels, is very good habitat for hawks.  We have a small wooded area, open fields, and a stream.  Throw in a few tall, dead black locust trees for perching and it is even better.  Add four large chickens contained in an open air space and it is downright perfect.  No wonder it was hanging around.  No wonder it was planning its kill.  Wouldn’t I want some easier prey if I were a large bird that needed to eat?

I am glad the hawk is here.  I wonder if it will stay nearby for the spring and find a mate.  What a gift I would be given if I were lucky enough to observe a mating ritual.  I try to imagine the thrill of soaring and falling through the air as hawks do together during their aerial courtship acrobatics.  Copulation usually occurs after these aerial antics. It does not take too much imagination to sense their whole courtship and mating to be much more exciting than the box turtle oh thank goodness I bumped into another member of my species, we better do this sex I wrote about last summer.

I have no reason to think the hawk that killed my chicken will leave because I stole its meal. We have plenty of small mammals available, and hawks have been here for years.  So while, I cannot really put myself in its shoes (talons), I think I can appreciate that Halcyon is a good place to live and hunt for wildlife. If I were a hawk, I would have tried for the big birds in the large, semi-trapped space too.

I had a friend reply to my post that I owed the hawk a meal since it had worked hard to procure my chicken.  It had spent time scoping out the territory and planning its move.  Perhaps.  I can certainly understand hard work.  I have worked hard in all my jobs, and lazy people easily frustrate me.  I worked hard to raise the chicks, my husband works hard to provide for our needs, and for the twice as expensive, non-GMO, soy-free layer feed that I buy – and the girls love.  Chris and I both worked hard to build their coop, adding its chore to our already busy summer days.  I admire those that work hard, and so I admire the hawk.  But she was my chicken, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I owed her to anyone or anything.

Chicken Matters

It was not a dark and stormy night, giving me any sense of foreboding.  It was not even a bright sunny morning, creating a need to change up the plans.  It was just a normal day, a little on the gray side perhaps, but normal.  Get some writing done, get some work done, let the chickens out for a few hours, take a walk, get the chickens in, make dinner, enjoy family, etc.  This was a typical normal day.  Normal days flow by nicely, too quickly perhaps, but nicely just the same.  Until that is, I went to take a shower and looked, as I always do, out the bay window at my girls.  A large, beautiful hawk had landed in my garden.  No! A large, beautiful hawk was standing on one of my chickens!  I reacted very quickly.  I think the scream was something like, “A hawk got one of the chickens!” as I raced downstairs and out to the garden.  I did not even take time to put shoes on, which is unusual if you know how hard it is for me to walk around without shoes.  As I got to the garden gate, the hawk took off, my chicken in its talons for a second, and then he dropped her and was gone.

Her neck was cut and bleeding and feathers were already torn from her shoulder.  There were so many feathers lying about. Were the other girls OK?  Chris and Mauri had joined me by now.  Chris found one chicken in the coop and I spotted the last two under a chair in the corner of the garden.  I gently returned them to the coop and locked them in.


With misty eyes, I stared at this chicken, which had been so alive just a short time ago, recalling how her antics made me laugh, how she clucked and chased after her sisters.  I think our conversation went something like this:

Me:  We should bury her.

Chris:  The dogs might dig her up.

Mauri: Bury her in the garden.

Me:  I need shoes.  I’ll get the shovel.

Shovel in hand, shoes on feet, I returned to the kill site.  Chris said to me, “We should eat her.  It would be a waste not to.”

There was a brief Google search via iPad to find out if one could eat a hawk-killed chicken, but all we found was that it was illegal to eat a chicken hawk.  This provided a little comic relief, but the question hung in the air, should we eat her?

Many people have asked me if we are going to eat the chickens.  People have strong feelings about this.  These feelings range across a spectrum from no way to it’s the only way.  And within those sentiments are various reasons for or against:  “I couldn’t eat a pet; I’d become a vegetarian before I’d kill an animal; I’ve done it before and I just don’t like the messy process; it’s not a big deal, I used to help my grandmother; and, I want to know where my food is coming from.”

I am not here to judge anyone’s decision about this.  I have thought a lot about it and I personally admire the camp that wants to know where their food comes from.  This camp cares for the animal while it is alive and does not take its death lightly.  While I did not plan on eating my chickens – I want their eggs for many years – I do dream of raising goats for brush control and meat.  If I could not process and eat this chicken, how would I ever handle a goat?  In other words, did I have the guts to do this?

So I found myself saying, “OK, if you help me.”

I had watched a You-tube video on killing and processing chickens once because I was curious.  A suburban girl before moving to Halcyon, I had no real sense of how it was done.  So I knew the scalding and removing of feathers came before the evisceration.  I removed the feathers and Chris gutted her, while Mauri read instructions from the iPad.  I imagined experienced farmers shaking their heads at our lack of skill and knowledge.  Seriously, you had to look it up on your iPad?  But I think we did pretty well for the first time.  When we were done she looked like a chicken I would buy at our local butcher’s shop with her pale creamy skin and cold, headless body.  Only a few broken feathers, stuck in their follicles, reminded me of the warm, black-feathered body she was earlier that day.


And I thought:  I didn’t actually kill her.  This was easier because of that.  Do I thank the hawk for this initiation?

While my nice, normal day had certainly been interrupted, I would not call my chicken’s death a nightmare – for me at least.  I was sad about it.  I am sad about it.  However, a couple of weeks ago I was reminded how quickly the flow of normal days, of normal life, can become real nightmares when I received a call from Mauri.  She was calling from the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. While traveling home for winter break with two other students, they were hit by two tractor-trailers – it was the fault of the first truck driver who did not stop.  It does not matter the details now, except to say that it was a serious accident, one that could have resulted in serious injury or death.  What matters is that she suffered only some understandable emotional trauma and a stiff neck, which is responding nicely to exercises.  What matters is three college students are alive and well and went home to their families.

Her accident gave me a perspective reset.  All the things I had wanted to do for the holidays that I did not get to, that might make me crabby, did not matter.  All that mud the dogs keep bringing in does not matter.  There are constant reminders all over our house of renovations still needed.  They do not matter.  Even our lagging energy over the holidays because of catching the flu on top of a stomach virus does not matter.  The holidays are a perfect time to not take family and friends for granted.  That’s what holidays are about.  They are not about how perfectly our house is decorated, or if all the meals are perfect.

And so, yes, I am sad about my chicken.  I will think of her every time I see the other three.  I will wonder if they miss her.  I will think about how we ate her flesh, about how her body grew from a one-day old chick to the large bird she was five months later.  I will think about how much I loved her living in my garden.  I may always get a little misty-eyed.  I am realizing that perspectives also range along a spectrum.  How do I think about my chicken when my daughter’s accident is still so present in my mind?  Yet, I can’t just lump the loss of my chicken with my dog’s muddy paw prints. So where does my chicken fall on this perspective spectrum?  I’m not sure.  But I just can’t bring myself to say it doesn’t matter.