Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Counting Chickens

This morning we moved the hens to their new pasture in the field in front of the house. First we set up the portable fence in the new spot, then we moved the chicken tractor, the shade shelter, the pullets' food dish, the hens' food dish, and the water dish. Next we went to herd the hens, who by now were wandering all over the field, into the enclosure. The four fat Buff Orpingtons clustered together and ambled serenely towards their new home. By the time we went back for the three pullets, however, they were nowhere to be seen.

The last time we had herded chickens the grass was short and sparse. Now, however, it was thick and, in spots, chest-high. The pullets, being small and less tame than the hens, had simply vanished into it. My husband and I waded fruitlessly through the field a while, and then I said, "it's time to get Wolfie."

Wolfie has helped me locate chickens before. He finds them under bramble and thicket, pins them down with his mouth and holds them for me. It's a pretty fraught scene: the chicken, with good reason, screams bloody murder, and I scream "GENTLE! GENTLE!!!" at Wolfie. Although he's never broken the skin, he's no Lab, and a "soft mouth" is not necessarily in his genes.

This morning, I let him out and gave the official command, "CHICKENS! Find the chickens!" He dove into the grass where the old enclosure had been, ate a couple of hen poops to get himself in the mood, and went looking. Pretty soon he flushed the two Rhode Island Reds. My husband caught one and put her in the pen, and we watched in dismay as the second one fluttered off in the direction of the woods.

"Wolfie, with me!" I called, "find the chickens!" and plunged into the woods. I like to wear dresses in the summer, and that is what I had on today. Remember that scene in Walt Disney's Snow White where she's lost in the woods and the trees reach out and grab her dress? That was me this morning, stepping through brambles and over fallen logs, looking for that chicken. But I couldn't even tell where Wolfie was, much less the chicken.

Eventually Wolfie lost all interest in the woods and took off in the direction of the new chicken pasture. "No, Wolfie!" my husband and I yelled from across the driveway, "over here! Find the chicken!" And he, being a good dog, came to us, and sniffed around a bit more and suddenly gave one of those leaps and nose-dives that wolves do when they're catching mice--and there was the Barred Rock. I persuaded him to let me have her and deposited her, none the worse for wear, among her sisters. Wolfie followed me over and circled the pen a couple of times, looking intent.

But the Rhode Island Red that had taken off towards the woods was still unaccounted for, so I made Wolfie go with me in the direction where I had last seen her. His heart wasn't in it, though, and he kept running back to the pen, and circling it. "Yes, I know. Those are chickens. But I need the other chicken. Find the other chicken!"

Poor Wolfie. As I led him yet again towards the woods, I remembered what I had read in a book about search-and-rescue operations: "Trust the dog" the book said, and proceeded to tell several anecdotes in which the searchers, sure that the lost kid was going north-northeast, kept scolding the dog for going south-southwest, until they gave up and followed the dog, and found the kid.

"Trust the dog!" I told myself as I followed Wolfie once again towards the pen. While I was there I tried to check on the two rescued pullets to see if they were o.k., but the grass was so tall inside the fence that I couldn't see them.

I called Wolfie off from circling the fence and made him come with me towards the woods. By now the sun was high, my legs were bleeding, and Wolfie was panting hard. It was clear to me that he was through. "Maybe he's not a high-drive dog," I thought, and scolded myself for being disappointed as I watched him go to the front door and ask to be let in the house. After all, I told myself, what can I expect of a dog that is only asked to find chickens once every couple of years?

For the next couple of hours, I worried about that pullet. Our woods are rife with carnivores, both furred and feathered, and I knew she would not survive if she stayed out all night. After lunch, I wandered down the driveway, looking with despair at the tall grasses on either side and at the woods beyond. As I passed the chicken pen I stopped to say hello--and there, under the shade shelter, looking perky, were all three pullets!

There are two possible explanations for this. One is that we and Wolfie flushed the missing pullet out of the woods and she ran to the field next to the pen, where Wolfie forced her to squeeze through the bottom of the fence (which doesn't sit exactly flush with the ground) and into the arms of her sisters. That would explain his persistence in circling the pen, and his lack of interest in searching elsewhere once all the hens were together. It would also confirm my belief in his natural brilliance.

The other explanation is that, after we gave up the chase and went into the house, the errant pullet came out of the woods and, like a heat-seeking missile, crossed the side field, crossed the driveway, circled the fence until she found an opening, and pushed her way in.

According to Occam's Razor, the simplest hypothesis is usually the correct one. So which is the simpler explanation: the intelligence, persistence, and homing instinct of a pullet, or the intelligence of Wolfie? You tell me.

5 comments :

  1. Great dog, great story QQQ. We'll definitely be by this summer ;-)

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  2. Clearly the answer is a), to wit, Wolfie is brilliant and should be trusted.

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  3. Elizabeth, I thought you'd see it my way.

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