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Archive for January, 2011

Here I am reporting again from that troublesome border between human and beast. Should you not think the border is particularly problematic, consider the case of the backyard chicken.

Last year Brunswick passed a law allowing in-town homeowners to keep chickens. My daughters were thrilled, as I knew they would be. They love animals.

I’ll say it again: they love animals. Did they want chickens? Badly. Eggs? Yes. Did they want to feed, chase, cuddle with, and otherwise harass the chickens? Yes. Did they want cute silky chickens with furry legs, handsome wine-colored chickens, chickens with stained glass feathers? Absolutely.

Did they want savory chicken stew with homegrown carrots and potatoes? No. Emphatically no. Not open for discussion. Never. Ever. We were not going to kill our chickens.

At first I thought this might be OK. I knew chickens only laid eggs for a few years, but I didn’t think they had a particularly long life span after that. It wouldn’t be so bad to allow them to live out their few short retirement years, scratching dirt, eating slugs, learning to knit and doing all the fun things they never had time for.

That was my plan until my husband said, “Seriously, how long does a chicken live?” Oh, not that long, I ho-hummed. Then I went and looked it up. Ten years was not uncommon, fifteen not unheard of.

Well, that was a game-changer. I was in this for the eggs, for the unique pleasure that comes from growing your own food. I wasn’t in it for a scant two years of omelettes followed by eight years of paying to feed a flock of lawn ornaments.

Uh, kids, can we talk? They promptly burst into tears, imagining the future slaughter of their future beloved pet birds. We can’t get chickens, I said, if we can’t take them to the butcher when they’re done laying. Then no chickens, replied the kids.

And so we talked. We talked about chicken intelligence (would they know we had betrayed them?) We talked about knowing where our food comes from. We talked about being vegetarian. We talked about eating eggs and meat. We talked about bacon. We talked about looking our food in the eye. We talked about respecting the lives of other creatures. We talked about honesty and hypocrisy. Nothing too heavy, really.

Then we rested. In the car, the next day, they said, let’s talk about the chickens some more. At bedtime they had even more questions. I couldn’t answer most of them. I could, however, hear the little gears turning in their heads.

My youngest daughter held out the longest. She has, in fact, some reasonable credentials in the save the animals department. Even the lowly tick I pulled off her back last summer had to be taken into the garden. It was just trying to eat, she observed. I didn’t say whose garden I put it in.

I recalled a conversation with her a few years back. We were planting a raspberry bush and came across by far the largest grub I have ever seen–a truly disgusting creature, fully the size of my thumb. It was the type of thing that evil villains in sci-fi movies put into their victims ears, you know, to eat their brains. I placed the grub, too horrible to squish, on the lawn and went back to my planting.

A while later my daughter noticed the grub was gone. Maybe a bird ate it, I said. But, she protested, that would be so sad! You like birds, I said, with calm, impenetrable parental logic. They have to eat too. Yes, she replied, but they should eat grubs we haven’t met yet.

Doesn’t that just say it all? Our obligations to those we know are inherently different than to those we don’t know. Sometimes that’s as it should be. We can’t attend to all of humanity the same way we care for our friends and family.

But it’s also true that many of the world’s problems stem from our inability to connect our actions to their consequences, especially when those consequences occur in far off places to people and animals “we haven’t met yet.”

This is why it’s so wonderful for kids to engage with the world in ways that begin to light up the path between action and consequence. The eggs we get from the market, even the free-range, organic, super-happy-singing chicken eggs, are eggs that come from chickens that will likely be slaughtered as soon as their laying years are done. Most farmers can’t afford to support unproductive birds.

My girls have decided to go ahead with the grand chicken experiment. I worry a bit that I’ve talked them into something they really don’t want to do. After all, they told me right from the start that they’ll be mushed when we kill the chickens. If it turns out to be terribly traumatic, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Yet, raising chickens shines a flood light on at least some of the issues surrounding what it means to eat animal products. It’s a rare, honest interaction with the world–perhaps something we should be doing more often.

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A roomful of owls has a special feel before you’ve glimpsed even a single feather. Pondering those huge serious eyes, it’s nearly impossible to suppress rampant anthropomorphizing about the wisdom, pride and intelligence of these mysterious birds.

Owl collage, Carl Newmark, age 8

In this room, the owls are lined up in seven solid wooden cases of amusingly different sizes, ordered from big to small like a toddler’s game of blocks. I imagine the little box at the end of the row must house a northern saw-whet owl, considerably shorter than a banana, and, at about seven inches, a hair too tall to claim the title of world’s smallest owl.

The very tall case at the other end of the row poses more of a mystery; perhaps a great-horned?

What is most intriguing to me, is that the crates are utterly silent. These birds, ranging from top predators to imps the size of tin cans, are not giving anything out for free. We just have to wait.

We are piled into the final of four live owl presentations at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm Nature Center in Falmouth. The show has a waiting list. People love owls.

It is indeed a saw-whet that comes out first. Owl experts, Mark and Marcia Wilson, host the event. The couple have state and federal permits to keep live owls, which is otherwise illegal. The owls in their care are unable to live in the wild owing either to injuries or because they were born in captivity.

As she introduces each owl, Marcia teaches the owl’s call to a young person she selects from the audience. Marcia hoots first, the kid hoots back, the owl looks bemusedly from one to the other. Owls don’t hoot during presentations.

My 9-year-old daughter, Rae, is called up to learn the hoot of the saw-whet. Only it turns out to be more of a whistle than a hoot. Rae has trouble with her whistle but she pulled one off, flushed red with excitement. The saw-whet, she told me later, while unbearably cute, had a demonic gleam in its eye when you got up close. Even the little ones are predators.

Out of the next, slightly larger boxes come two eastern screech owls. These owls come in two flavors: slate-gray or bright fox-red. Siblings from the same hatch can sport either color. The Wilsons bring out one of each, looking like identical twins dipped in different dye lots. Eastern screeches have short compact bodies and huge “ear tufts,” making them look rather comical. Owl’s ear tufts have nothing to do with ears; their real ears are located under feathers on the side of their heads.

As the boxes get larger we meet a friendly barred owl and the stately great-horned I was expecting.

But, it’s the next owl that makes the biggest impression on me. Owl people often tell you that when you look at an owl you should imagine being a mouse. This, you understand, is intended to control the rampant anthropomorphizing I mentioned earlier, to get you to understand that these are not the benevolent, magical letter carriers of Harry Potter books, but fearsome hunters that swallow their prey whole and spit up the skeletons. It’s called mouse-o-pomorphizing.

I tell you, though, what comes out of this next crate requires no imagining. Mouse or no, I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of this bird. It’s a snowy owl.

Maybe it’s having a bad day, maybe it’s just plain old ticked off that humanity is in the process of melting to puddles its arctic homeland, but whatever the reason, it comes out hissing like a goose. Except that it isn’t making any noise. Its shoulders are hunched, its head down, its beak open, its wings raised. It glares. It flaps. It’s panting a little because, apparently, the room is too hot. The doors and windows are open, I have a down vest on. It’s mid-December.

Snowys in the arctic like to relax on bare windswept tundra with nary a bit of snow or ice to snuggle up against. Anecdotally, geese will sometimes nest close to snowys because the owls are so effective at driving off other predators such as foxes. During the non-breeding season, snowys are almost entirely silent.

Finally there is just one, very large, box to go. This bird is a breathtaking tapestry of tans and browns, in bands and spots, stripes and lines, topped with huge pumpkin orange eyes. It’s the largest owl in the world, and the only non-native in the group: a Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo in Latin, for you word people out there). They can have a wingspan of 5 feet and weigh nearly 10 pounds. This chap sits peacefully as Marcia spreads his silky feathers.

Owl feathers look like velvet; they are designed to silence the birds’ powerful wing strokes, allowing them to sneak up on dinner. A goose wing feather, in contrast, has a rough, spiky construction. There’s simply no need, the Wilsons point out, for a goose to sneak up on the clump of grass it is planning to eat. Ha! Gotcha!

Too soon it is over and we stand to go. My girls bubble up, saying, “Thank you! Thank you for taking us!”

My father loved birds. I’ve always thought of my interest as a gift from him. I’m not a real birder; I forget my binoculars, I don’t have a life list, I can’t tell one sandpiper from another, and just forget about identifying warblers — but seeing birds makes me happy.

The red cardinal out the window is still a treat, hummingbirds in the garden are still thrilling, and remembering the hoopoe that I saw in Spain 20 years ago still fills me with joy. What better gift could you give your children than something that makes them smile with delight nearly every day, for the rest of their lives?

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