Possum assassins, certain death and a Thanksgiving miracle…

possum in chicken coop

'Trapped' • an early pastel • 16x20in • private collection

It felt like CSI: Drammen Valley this week….

  • Possums in the chicken yards
  • the disappearance of Pbiddy
  • a pile of white feathers

…and none of the chickens know nothin’. It didn’t look good.

But first, some background…
(NOTE: Click any photo to enlarge.)

The Saga of Pbiddy

The saga of Pbiddy (Pea biddy=pea hen=female peafowl) started early this summer when Hilary called to say she had a single peachick that needed a safe haven. I had 4 broiler chicks who had just survived an especially tragic shipment of (mostly dead) chicks and we thought that maybe Pbiddy could find comfort with them here. These 4 broiler chicks–who after their miraculous survival became my Superchicks–and Pbiddy hit it off great. She stopped peeping almost immediately upon being set down amongst her brawny cousins.

brown speckled peachick stands out next to bigger yellowish broiler chicks

The Broiler chicks quickly outgrew the delicate Peachick (far left). Click to enlarge photo.

When the new Crested chicks (Buff Laced Polish, Golden Polish, White Crested Black Polish, Mottle Houdan, etc) arrived, I figured I had better move Pbiddy to that brooder, since the broilers would eventually be processed by summer’s end. And when they did go away, Pbiddy would be all alone. I set her in with the smaller Polish chicks, and she cheeped and cheeped at being moved away from her family; she was not happy.

The next morning however, there were no peachick sounds. And, she was nowhere to be found. I looked all over, around the brooders, and then counted the different groups. Hmmmm, there are 16 turkeys? There should only be 15…. omg there she is! Pbiddy had jumped the wading pool wall, right into the turkey poult brooder, and evidently liked it much better this way. She was very very quietly blending in with her new brethren. She picked her own family this time, and you have to admit, she almost looks like one of them. Is it a coincidence that she settled down with what looked like her own kind? Hmmm, I’d always been told peafowl weren’t very bright.

Peachick nestles in with turkey poults. Feather pattern of the 2 species is strikingly similar.

Hard to find, isn't she?

I wasn’t going to move her again, even though I dreaded the day that the turkeys would be going to the processor (as she would be abandoned once again), but for now, I just wanted her to be happy and calm.

The turkeys grew huge (these were Broad Breasted Bronzes this year; no diminutive heritage breeds), so they quickly outgrew Pbiddy, but remained close to her, often seeming to shelter her next to their huge-breasted bodies on the low roost.

Harvest and abandonment

When the turkeys went off to Twin Cities Pack (along with 15 broilers that I got later in summer) in November, I felt awful for my little peahen. She was soooo lonely. That’s it, I decided, it’s time to acclimate her to the big girls! So I started moving some of the grown Polish hens (smaller than Pbiddy), a small, White Polish cockerel and the Superchicks (I mean they’re Superchicks, right? I couldn’t take them in with the rest of the broilers) into Pbiddy’s pen and yard. This way, it was her turf, and perhaps she wouldn’t be pecked to death (when I tried putting her in with the crested a few weeks earlier, they had just rushed her and started pecking her like mad: “Intruder! Intruder!!”).

When they were all moved in, nobody attacked her. It was ok. Superchicks turned out to be gentle giants when added to another flock. If they didn’t want somebody near, they just stood tall, puffed their chests out, and scared anybody away with their size. No vicious pecking, just attitude and stance.

Mature pea hen walks in front of juvenile pea hen

Gracie the Guardian

Making friends

Pbiddy was out of sorts and hung out in the yard, even roosting on a branch outside in the pen at night instead of inside the barn with the others. The next day–Sunday I think it was–I went down to look from afar and analyze the situation. There, at the end of the run, Pbiddy was looking through the fence and touching beaks with Gracie (from the big henyard), the pea hen!! They were communicating through the fence. It was so touching and I felt hope. The peafowl seemed to recognize each other as their own kind. Maybe they’re not really stupid.

oil painting by S.V. Medaris of white chicken in front of peacock

George, looking pretty in 'Upstaged by a Chicken' • oil on panel • 5x7in • 2009 • private collection

That afternoon, I picked up Pbiddy and brought her into the big henyard. I waited behind a tree until Gracie was in the vicinity. I quickly, quietly, gently shoved Pbiddy onstage, around the front of the tree. Gracie looked at her and made the connection. Pbiddy, exhausted from the sleepless nights and stress I think, quickly stepped over near a pile of brush and settled down and closed her eyes. Gracie clucked and stepped over and around the little hen, cocking her head this way and that, standing up and looking around and just circling her and surrounding her. She marched this way and that, head down, looking very intense and officious. The others steered clear.

George (the peacock) came near to investigate, but stayed on Gracie’s other side, allowing her to keep her watchful force shield of protection around little Pbiddy. It was as if Gracie had taken her in and was protecting her.

I watched my–slightly bullying–Barred Rock cock just stand there, frozen, one foot in the air, facing Pbiddy but looking between me (behind the tree) and Gracie (on the other side of the new hen) and he almost seemed to be weighing his options. After what seemed an eternity, he put his foot back down and walked away. I just love to watch the body language between all of the birds–the subtleties in communication are fascinating.

peahen, peabiddy, woodcut, relief print, S.V. Medaris, hand-colored

A woodcut I made of this scene, the following year: Peahen on Guard • hand-colored woodcut • 26in x 37in • 2012 • edition of 10

All is well

That evening, I found Pbiddy hunkered down in the corner of the yard, not yet knowing that all the birds go in the coop at night to roost. I waited till just after dark, so I could pick her up and take her into the coop. If I’d tried to “herd” her into the coop, she undoubtedly would’ve flown off, frightened. That is a typical peafowl response–choosing flight over fight when cornered. I carried her into the coop, and set her down, up high on the roost. Later that night, I peeked into the coop and saw that Gracie had moved over and was roosting right next to her. Awesome!

Next day seemed great–Pbiddy was out in the yard, eating with the flock and getting to know the yard.

That night (Monday), I put her in through the chicken door, hoping she would “get” that that’s where you go at night.

Something wicked this way comes…

Tuesday morn after chores, I left for work in town. Working into the afternoon, I almost left early for home just to be sure I’d be there right at dark to make sure Pbiddy made it into the coop safely, but I got caught up in a current project and didn’t leave the office ’till 6 or so.

closeup of possum face, a pastel by S.V. Medaris

By the time I got home, it was very dark (daylight savings time makes it dark around 4:30-5 these days). I went down towards the henyard, sort of surprised at the utter silence–usually George or somebody else hears me coming and lets out a cry (or a cock’s crow) of alarm. Nothing. I turn on the flashlight at the gate, and point it to the usual spot in the henyard where Pbiddy would wait at night. Nothing. I notice the waterer is swinging slightly, which means…oh sh_ _…and I shoot the flashlight around, and there!–eyes flashing as I sweep the light past, it’s ghostly white body dimly glowing in the blackness–a possum! And then, up in the tree–another! And then, way over there, in the flight-netted yard where the turkeys were (and now Polish and Superchicks live) another!!! “Bastards!” I whisper, “What did you do with Pbiddy!!??” I quickly call up to James on my cell “Possums, 3, hurry.”

Vengeance and grief

After the possums were quickly shot, we looked everywhere for the little peahen. We found a pile of white feathers in the far pen, where the Polish and Superchicks were–one of the white crested Polish no doubt. Poor thing. All the live chickens were in good shape, though frightened and scattered, so they only got 1 chicken it looks like. No blood or gore anywhere else. Looking for a camouflaged bird in the daytime is difficult. Looking for it in the black of night with a flashlight is futile. We gave up.

James said, “You know, maybe she flew off to escape and she’ll come back when she knows it’s safe.”

“I bet she won’t!” I grumbled. “Peafowl are stupid, don’t you remember? And I kept moving her from pen to pen, yard to yard…she was probably totally confused.” I was so bummed out.

I looked all around for her next morning early in the light of day, but again, trying to find a camouflaged animal who doesn’t want to be found, is next to impossible. I gave up and went to work since I had a deadline that day. I took a short break around noon to see if she was anywhere. Nothing–not in the coop, nor henyard, nor dogyard (I was looking for anything–bloody remains–anything just so I could know what happened), nor anywhere around the circumference nor scans over the pastures.

All day, I thought about those wicked possums and how I would carve a really evil blockprint of them. I would show everybody how evil they were! “Bastards” I kept muttering to myself, every time I looked away from work and rested my eyes from the computer screen. I was a bit obsessed. It’s just really hard when you work at taking care of something–even if it’s months, it’s still hard–and just after everything seems perfect, it’s snatched away from you and disappears off the face of the earth.

A Hallmark (holiday movie) moment

That night (Wednesday, Thanksgiving eve), dejected, totally bummed, I went down to the coop to close up. After a quick glance in the henyard to be sure no predators were wandering around, I closed up the pens in the barn first. I just didn’t want to look in the coop and be reminded of the loss. The Polish and Superchicks were back to normal, walking right over the scattered pile of white feathers as if nothing had happened. I walked in the chicken yard and closed up the chicken door.

Then (big sigh), I opened up the walk-in door of the coop to collect an egg or two in the nest boxes. I decided to look along the roosts again for the upteenth time just to be doubly, triply, absolutely sure there was no Pbiddy here, and so I turned around. And omg omg omg there she was–roosting calmly right in between the other hens as if nothing was amiss “Just us chickens…” she seemed to be silently telling me.

Juvenile pea hen roosts in between 2 larger chickens (hens) on the bar

Just us chickens...

Turns out peafowl aren’t so stupid after all.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
All content ©S.V. Medaris

Book Launch Party for CLUCK…

…buk, buk, book party of the year!

green cover of book featuring chicken in a circle

Book Launch Party for Susan Troller & S.V. Medaris by Itchy Cat Press
When: Tuesday May 24, 5-7 p.m.
Where: Harmony Bar, 2201 Atwood Avenue, Madison (608) 249-4333

Please come to our book launch party for CLUCK: From Jungle Fowl to City Chicks at the Harmony Bar. We’re celebrating with Lake Louie beer (made just up the road from Itchy Cat Press) and Harmony’s tasty pizza. (Sorry, no chicken wings.)

Help us celebrate the publication of our colorful illustrated book on the romance and foibles of raising chickens.

You can discover the “Joy of Chix” and the “Zen of Hens” and maybe even learn to dance the funky chicken! Sue and Susan will be there to share some eggcellent stories and autograph your copy of CLUCK.

Don’t miss the buk, buk, book party of the year!
Caroline & Frank
Itchy Cat Press

Birds in Art 2010

Ran screaming around the house when I found out this morning via email. Dogs wagging tails, but looking concerned, until they realized I was ok. Ivan (the Pyr, the guardian of all), plunked down in my computer room to keep an eye on the situation to be sure I was alright…. I made it in Birds in Art this year. Can’t believe it. Only made it once before with On the Run in 2005, and I submit work almost every year (since 2002). Anyway, the relief-printed pull-toys made it in this time–that’s why I’m so excited–it isn’t the medium I usually submit to Birds in Art.

box with 2 pull-toy chickens

"Back in the Day, Poultry Edition" • mixed media assemblage (hand-colored relief prints, wood, acrylic, farm journals from 1800s) • 27" tall

For those who aren’t familiar with this event, Birds in Art is an international, juried show they hold every year up in Wausau (WI) at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. There really are wildlife artists from all over the world who come to the opening celebrations, so it’s a pretty amazing event. Every year, many of the Master Wildlife Artists from years past show up, so it’s really thrilling to meet them in person. Some of the Master Wildlife Artists from years past have been Carl Brenders, Robert Bateman, Guy Coheleach, Maynard Reece, and many others (including Owen Gromme in 1976–the first year). Andrea Rich was the Master Wildlife Artist in 2006, and she is one of my all-time favorite woodcut artists–really incredible work.

So, Back in the Day, Poultry Edition will be at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum for this year’s Birds in Art Exhibit, opening weekend Sept. 11, 12. Public opening on Saturday, Sept. 11, details to follow at my exhibits page.

Do Chickens dream? Or have nightmares?

Sure seems that way…. I went down to the chicken coop to close up the other night (“close up” means closing the chicken door-to prevent intruders, collecting eggs, checking the waterer, generally checking on the girls). I flicked on the light when suddenly I noticed this startling movement in one of the nesting boxes. One of my “Blondies” (White Crested Black Polish) was dramatically swinging and lunging her head around, it looked like she was in complete agony–beak sticking straight up in the air, with her head and neck winding and convulsing around as if she was posessed. Seizure? Bitten or chewed on by something and she’s in agony? About to die and writhing in agony?

I quickly went to her and grabbed her out of the box to see what was wrong, she squawked and then suddenly stopped moving. I looked at her, and she looked at me. I set her down on the coop floor and she just stood there, little conversational chicken grunts, questioning. I picked her up and she just looked at me as if I was the one with the problem. I put her back in the nest box, and I swear she gave me a look that said “Leave me alone and let me sleep. Jeepers cripes you scared me!”

WTH??!?

So, unless she starts having regular convulsions, I’m gonna assume now that chickens have nightmares. She did look like she was in pain, and she IS the one that all the others peck on her head (I’ve had to spray the top of her head with antiseptic and isolate her when they make her head bleed). She looks like one of those monks from the Middle Ages who shaved the tops of their heads. I’ll try to remember to add a photo here. So maybe she was dreaming they were pecking her head and she was trying to get away?

Here’s a painting of what the White Crested Black Polish hens (from the “chicken-by-the-window” series) look like:

Young Hen of the Whitecrest Family

Young Hen of the Whitecrest Family • oil on linen • 10" x 8" (canvas size)