Thursday, October 9, 2008

Micro disasters

Somebody seems to have decided to run the world like a very fast paced bad TV advertisement.  

My attention keeps getting jerked from one desperately important perspective to another.

Iceland is bankrupt.  Pakistan may be next- with very unpleasant consequences.  Executives, and lawmakers, in the USA demonstrate conclusively that they are incapable of learning.  25% of all the mammals on earth are now considered to be at risk of- extinction.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...  (For you youngsters, that's supposed to be a humorous clich√© segue phrase.)

We've had our own serious and distracting disasters this past week.  Tiny, in the grand scheme of things; not going to make headlines in the New York Times; but - disasters.

Maybe it was just one disaster.  But it has two parts.  And in the light of the world handbasket epidemics, all the more disastrous for us personally- we lost a lot of resources, and replacing them is not easy, nor guaranteed.

As readers here know, we've been working on establishing a flock of guinea fowl- for multiple reasons, none of them trivial.  And; since at this latitude the general consensus is guineas are not reliable parents, we added 30 chickens to the mix- chosen from breeds known to be good "setters"- to help us increase our flock next year.  And, we'd been working on training our new farm dog/watch dog, since March.

Here's Bruce, behaving himself beautifully.  I introduced him to the birds very carefully, very intentionally, and with plenty of guidance as to the expected behavior.  No chasing, no harassing allowed.  At the time the chickens were added to the outdoor pen, the guineas were being trained that this was home, and to come back for the night time.  This was done by turning an increasing proportion of the guineas outside to range free, but keeping a few in the pen all day.  All the chicks were kept in at this point- they were just awfully small to be on their own.

In early September, everything was going perfectly, and we started just opening the door to the pen in the morning.  All the birds, guineas and chickens, would explode out; clearly enjoying the freedom to fly up into the trees (guineas only) and eat all the grass and bugs they could get (more grass than I expected).  But- we only gave them new "feed" at sundown- and they would cheerfully be back, and waiting for it.  At first we had to herd them into the pen; they couldn't figure out where the door was, and would just endlessly try to walk through whatever side they were on.  But in a week or two, they learned to know where the door was; now they all pile in entirely by themselves (except for one or two persistent dolts).  

Bruce was performing his chores beautifully; on watch outside all night, and happy to do it.  The occasional bouts of barking at 3 AM got to be a comforting sound, not disturbing- he was busy keeping the raccoons out of the supplies of feed and groceries.  And away from the poultry pen.  When I went to feed the birds at sundown, he was always along, and would without prompting lie down at some distance from the guinea racket and chicken hustle, and just casually watch it all.

However.  One day as Spice and Smidgen were walking back from work in the greenhouse, with Bruce along- the guineas appeared on the path- and apparently in a spirit of play, Bruce charged- grabbed one- and shook it.  Dead.

This is how farm kids learn about life and death- it's right there, in front of you.  By this time Smidgen had already seen a few guinea keets and chicks die; so it certainly wasn't any kind of trauma for her; more excitement.  Sad- but mostly she was angry at Bruce.  "Damn dog!"  Yep, kids repeat everything.

So; onto the chain, for Bruce.  We tried a trick recommended to us by a professional dog obedience trainer- we tied the dead guinea around his neck, where he couldn't reach it.  Sometimes, he said, that will teach them to leave the poultry alone.  And I spent more time, working with him and the birds.  

He went back to being perfectly well behaved around them.  Perfectly.

The chicks were all out and free-range now, and thriving.  They're so different from the guineas in their behavior, it's a huge amount of fun watching them, and watching the two species interact.   The guineas started out being afraid of the tiny chicks; but have changed now to bullying them over food and space.  The chickens, however, are going to eventually be much bigger than the guineas- so it'll be interesting to see where it all ends up.  They actually share space and food with little real fuss; once the guineas are full, they don't bother the chickens at the feeder.

Little by little, guineas and chickens were ranging farther and farther from home base- foraging over quite a few acres, and still faithfully coming home to roost at night.  The first time I went out at midday and couldn't find a guinea, or a chick, anywhere, it was kinda scary.  But there they all were come evening; 9 white guineas, 17 dark; 11 Buff Orpingtons; 12 Dominiques, and 9 bantam Brahmans.   Day after day.

Then- we started to lose one now and then.  One guinea- all we found was a pile of widely scattered feathers, 1/4 mile from the pen.  Beelar and Spice thought it looked like an eagle strike.  Then a Dominique didn't show up one night.  Then a week later, an Orp failed to show.  Then two days later, another Orp was missing.  I was afraid.  I looked at Bruce, and asked- "Bruce- do you know anything about the missing chickens?" - and he looked quite sneaky, in reply- would not meet my eyes.  That's something I'd noticed in plenty of other situations; he normally had no trouble looking me right in the eyes, for quite a long time.  No threat in it, on either side; just both of us looking at the other; connecting.  He was fine with it.  But not this time.

No proof anywhere; and of course I know the legend of Gelert.  You really don't want to assume anything.  

Last Sunday was Spice's and my 6th anniversary.  So we combined a little shopping in the big city with a treat at our favorite Chinese buffet for lunch; intending to be back on the farm in time to put the birds to bed- at sunset.  They really seem hardwired about sunset- if you get there 15 minutes late, the guineas will be up in a tree; and not coming down tonight, not even for food.  The chickens will be inside their shelter- and not coming out for food, either.

We got back in time, to be met by a cheerful- obsequious even- Bruce- and - no chickens, anywhere.  Guineas up in a tree, which is common enough.  Then Spice started to find them-  dead chickens; scattered all over.

I started picking them up.  We found 15 corpses- scattered over 2 acres.  Some of them very cold and stiff; some still warm.

There was no question who was to blame.  Bitten and ripped at the neck.  A few partially eaten- over the whole day.  It could only be Bruce- he wouldn't have allowed any other predator to be there.  Indeed, all I had to do was hold up a dead chicken, and look at him- and he slunk off into the thick firs.  Betrayal.

At first it looked like 100% of the chickens were gone.  Then I found one banty hen, hiding in the pen house.  Then one Orp came carefully, slowly, out of the woods.  15 minutes later, a Dominick.  Over the next two days, we had 7 left; but two more died later.   2 Orpington cockerels, 1 Orp hen; 1 Dominick and one banty hen.  I think; the Dominick sometimes acts a bit roosterish.  Not a lot of mothering capability there.  The chicks had been totally terrorized; they refused to come out of the pen for 2 days.

As much as I enjoy working with, and watching, these animals, none of them are pets, or a hobby.  They are part of our plans for future enterprises- doing critical pest control for us in our crops, and perhaps providing eggs and some meat.  And they're not free- birds, and dogs, cost real dollars and real hours; both irreplaceable.

All the dog people I talked to agreed.  This is not fixable; not trainable.  Bruce was killing for fun, and kept at it, for hours.

A sad and miserable experience, all the way around.  We'd started naming the chickens- there was one Spice called "Houdini" - because he would always sneak out of the pen, at any opportunity.  He's gone, though we didn't find him.

There was one guinea missing, too.  But only one.  Looks like the idea I had that the guineas are fairly well able to take care of themselves is working out, anyway.  The chickens could all fly- I'd seen them all do it; but they never spent time in the trees the way the guineas do.

So, Bruce is gone.  No real options there; this is a farm.  Recriminations galore, of course.  Did I fail to train him properly?  I'll always wonder, of course.  The other dog people I talk to say no, I did it right.  It's just sometimes- the dog can't be trained.

I'm partly thinking of E.T. Seton's "Wully, the Story of a Yaller Dog".  A true story.  And there are some significant parallels- Bruce was a mix of 4 breeds; not exactly a pure mongrel, but he certainly had the extraordinary "common sense" Seton attributes to them.  And there were signs of some other "wild" traits.  (note: in Seton's day, it was generally agreed that the jackal had provided the starting material for domestic dogs; now we know it was the wolf.)

It's all probably easiest on Smidgen.  She sees the dead birds- which she has helped raised, helped feed, and understands; no, Bruce cannot come back.

Tomorrow, I'm picking up another puppy.  We need a dog- farm dog/watch dog.  Right now.  That temporary poultry pen is toast, if some night soon a big coon, or a couple coyotes decide to tear into it.  Smidgen is looking forward to it.  The adults are thinking of weeks of poopy papers, and chewed electric cords.  Bruce was introduced to the birds when he was big, and they were small; this puppy will be introduced when it is small, and the birds adult sized, and feisty.  Maybe that'll help.

Total cost, so far- about $1,000 cash in purchases,  vet fees, feed- not including the hours.

And a lot of heartache.  I loved that damned dog.  And trusted him.


Anonymous said...

So sorry to hear about the loss of poultry and dog. That's heartbreaking.

I am about to give unsolicited advice, which is something that always makes me feel uncomfortably close to rudeness, but here goes -

Have you looked into getting a purebred livestock dog? The major problem with mixed breed dogs is that you just can't know what you'll get in terms of temperament. Getting a stock dog from good working lines can be expensive to start out with, but in the long run it saves time and money over hoping to just get lucky with a mixed breed. Plus, you'll have the breeder's help in training advice and such.

Here's a USDA pamphlet on dogs that gives a review of working livestock guardian dogs:

The pamphlet very sheep-centric, but I've known people who have had great success with using these dogs for guarding everything from alpacas to poultry.

Nancy M. said...

I am so sorry for the heartache Bruce has caused. The lost chickens and guineas are bad enough, but to have to get rid of him, is sad. But, I totally understand.

I couldn't have a dog around that was killing my chickens and guineas. I was luckier than I thought with my dog, she only bothers the chickens when they try to eat her food. She is great for keeping other predators away.

Good luck with your puppy!

Heather Jefferies said...

I am so very, very sorry about the dog and the birds. We haven't had a problem with dog and birds yet and I'm hoping we never do because I absolutely understand the choices and consequences and I'd cry over both.

EJ said...

Sorry to hear about your disaster. Here is someone who made the same mistake:

Why risk unfenced domestic animals interacting with dogs? It seems like recipe for disaster, with one unknown - when the dogs will revert to their natural instincts. Yes, people have and do keep dogs with animals for years in many different situations. But it is risky and the domestic animals are prime prey. By forcing the animals to share spaces we as farmers are setting them up in a situation they would never choose.

More unsolicited advice:
Spend your next $1000 on fencing instead. Peace of mind and safe lives all around.

Greenpa said...

Nettle- not to worry, the advice is welcome. I have thought of purebreds; it's a long conversation. Partly it's the money; partly it's the fact that most of my neighbor's dogs (real farmers all) are not purebreds, and their problems are few, so it certainly can work out. Bruce was a 4 way mix; maybe too much. We're bartering with the shelter for the next dog, and they're full right now, so I'll have plenty of choice. I'm hoping to shoot for a simpler cross- with herding in there.

I confess to a predilection for hybrids. But- if this next one doesn't work out, I will probably try a purebred next... :-)

Greenpa said...

E - advice welcome, as always- :-)

but- in our case, the fence would obliterate the reasons for the poultry- we NEED them to range over many acres, eating both ticks and weevils that get into our crops. It's the whole reason to have them.

And- on my way to town here, I drive through dozens of Amish neighbors farms- all of the with dozens of chickens roaming free, into the pig pen, in with the cows, in with the horses. And they all, absolutely have dogs.

I think frankly a part of it is STARTING a relationship like this from scratch; the birds don't understand dogs, and the dogs don't understand birds. For my Amish neighbors- the animals grow up together; parents teaching, both dog and bird.

I think their failure rate is pretty low. My birds are sure as heck educated about dogs now, anyway.

Connie said...

Oh, you gotta hate that stuff. I agree though, a dog killing birds for fun just won't stop.

I'd agree with nettle on a livestock dogs. The think is you can get a good farm dog fairly cheep. Sometimes you see Aussie/border collie crosses. Or German Shepherd/ collie crosses. Or just someone whose puppies have outgrown the cute and round stage and really need to get going.

My collie is a PITA but she never even thinks of harming the chickens.

Anonymous said...

Hi Greenpa,

Long time lurker here. You have my heartfelt sympathies....we lost a number of chickens to a dog who, like Bruce, would lie just near them while we were near. Never even looked at them. (In retrospect, that should have been our tipoff). We made the mistake of trusting her outside with them for an hour, and she killed three of them. (She would have loved to have gotten more, but they hid).

Incidentally, based on that little experiment, we decided that Speckled Sussexes are a pretty decent bird for avoiding predation. Three dominiques died, and two Black Australorps were injured, though not mortally. We have disproportionately more Speckled Sussexes in our flock than either Doms or Australorps, and not one S.S. was even touched. Fortunately, we didn't have to make the choice you did---instead, the beagle became an "indoor" dog and we watch her like a hawk. Which IS a huge pain in the neck.

Just thought I'd pass along my sympathies, and our experiences with Sussexes.


PS We're having the tick problem too. After forty years of never seeing a tick [SE Michigan], we now have them all over us and our dogs for the entire month of June. Yech. If it lasted much longer than that, I'd be tempted to try those (annoying) guineas.

WILDBLUESbysus said...

So sorry to hear about Bruce. Good that Smidgen takes it well. My husband's daughter recently had to get rid of her two dogs for killing her neighbor's chickens. They were adult dogs and hadn't gotten into mischief since they were pups, until one day...

Anonymous said...

All very sad. I got a Fila Brasiliera puppy once when he was 8 weeks, pedigreed, to run feral pigs and the neighbor's goats off of my nursery and vegetable patch. My son insisted I do this, it was all his idea. The puppy was about the size of a spaniel when I got him and later grew very large as the Filas do, he was 165 pounds and wide, but lean. He attacked and drove off humans who entered the house when I was not there. Yes, he ripped flesh. He was actually only afraid of one thing, and the thieves did not know that nor did I. When he was about two years old I was disabled and had to hire a person to help me clean the house. I asked, since I would not be at home while she worked, do you want me to keep the dog chained {he required a 2000 lb test bull cable}so he does not bother you. She assured me she was not impressed by "Perrito". Later she showed me the trick. She would simply wave a dirty mop at him and he would slink off. He hated it.
This dog was raised with my ratter cats, you know, the cats that live in the house and hang out near it waiting for the rats. He believed he was a cat. He loved the cats. He snored, loudly. I would come home, he would be in the LR snoring, {I did not bother to ever close my front door, never mind lock it} with the four cats laying on top of him rising and falling like on a harbor cove dingy.
I do not know the experience of others, but the dog was extremely intelligent, and a friend who was a professional, trained him for me when he was 6 months old and told me he was the smartest dog he had trained.
I am very sorry to hear about the chickens and the badly employed Bruce. Bad Dog, Bruce.
On the other hand, Guineas Rule.
I hope they are eating ticks for you.
Finally, I don't recommend the Fila as an indoor dog. Really big, they shed short hair, but most of all they are drooly and they drool and shake at the same time, so the walls get a drool swirl on them. Only because I live in a cabin in the forest was he OK in the abode.
But as a farm dog in the tropics they are great. They only live ten years. Perrito has passed on. The cats miss him desperately.
Oh, to those who think all dogs fear large pigs, he was an exception. He apparently never learned that in Dog School. And the feral pigs were not really sure what the hell he was so they ran. He did occasionally catch one and kill it and eat it.
When I first saw this I was amazed.
Filas are used to hunt jaguars, which I had previously doubted, but I believe it now.

Unknown said...

Oh, Greenpa... my condolences on the disaster at your house. Those 'micro disasters' still hurt like the dickens.

We have a Great Pyr that we got as a puppy, and training him to NOT PLAY WITH THE SHEEP was a really big job - and very risky. There was always the chance he wouldn't 'get it' ... we know that he has turned into the good guardian he is through a combination of training and luck ... and we're very grateful for the luck. Any time you train a new livestock dog, there's always the chance that this particular individual won't work out like you expect... and you know that hearts will be broken if that's how it goes. My heart goes out to you all, and I wish you all the best with the new puppy.

The only unsolicited advice I have to add is the possibility of a muzzle as a training tool. We used one with the GP and it was a hugely successful tool - we could not possibly be with him outside all the time, and we couldn't risk him biting or pulling wool off the sheep just because he was unsupervised ... so we muzzled him when he coudln't be watched, and unmuzzled him when we were around. As he got more responsible, he got more unmuzzled time. That way he did not develop horrible habits while unsupervised, and the sheep were safe. His ability to stop predators was impaired, to be sure, but his bark was not impeded and that was really the thing that kept the coyotes away.

He has turned into a great guardian, and we're thankful for it. My biggest suggestion to anyone training a livestock dog is to have a muzzle on hand (one that fits, so with a puppy get a few sizes!) and use it as a preventative if you have any suspicion that it might be needed. Better to head it off early if you can.

All the best to you and yours!

Sage said...

sympathies for your losses, both bird and dog, but you couldn't keep him after his actions.

Hope the next one works out better, you might consider a watch goose for the birds as an alternative the romans used to use them to watch over their flocks as they would sound whenever their was a problem and they are usually very feisty.

EJ said...

Perhaps you could talk to your neighbors about which types of dogs/methods they use. Maybe they would consider a trade of trained dog for?

Carla said...

Greenpa - So sorry to hear of your troubles, and that Bruce did not work out for your homestead.

Back in my "earth muffin" days (the 70s), I was living in northern Wisconsin - a recently single parent on a 40-acre place with 2 little girls, a dog, a cat, a goat and about 40 chickens.
The dog's buddy - belonged to neighbor across the field - was not fed enough (I could see his ribs) but I couldn't afford to feed him & didn't want that to get started.
When I found some dead chx I knew Simon (mine) & Rusty (neighbor's)had done it - Rusty because he was hungry & Simon because Rusty was doing it. Being quite naive & angry, I got out the .22 & shot a few rounds over Rusty's head - never saw him on our property again. Tied a chicken around Simon's neck & left it for a day or so. Never found another dead chicken. And I penned them up in the coop every night. Not saying I never lost another chicken - just never found any/the evidence.

So, sometimes the chicken-around-the-neck thing works & sometimes it doesn't. Hope things work out better this next time.

Hank Roberts said...

Too damn bad.

Any chance of getting an older dog that's already known safe? Maybe one ready to 'retire' from a bigger working farm?

Eliane said...

Really sorry to hear about this. How awful for you. Good luck with the puppy.

tansy said...

we went through three generations of chicken killers before we got one that leaves them alone. all three were part australian cattle dog. we tried everything you did too. sorry bruce turned out that way.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I'm so sorry to hear about this. I understand that you need a working dog, and I also understand how hard it is to let a dog you love go. I don't think you should blame yourself, though, since all training bets are off when there's blood around, at least in my experience.
We once had a dog on the farm (a sled dog of my cousins) that got out of his pen and killed a whole bunch of bunnies. All the bunnies were an "accident" because people like to drop off bunnies they don't want anymore in our pen at night. Often, our all male or all female bunnies will mate before we realize there's a new one in there. So the loose dog took care of the problem, essentially, but it was a massacre and sad.
Our dogs will kill a chicken here and there, but we've actually decided that the dogs do more for us than the chickens, so we kept the 13 or so dogs on the farm and got rid of the chickens.
Good luck with the new pup.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Oh by the way, I want to second the chicken around the neck technique carla mentioned. It has worked for our old english sheepdog and golden retriever.

Unfortunately, no matter what we try and no matter how many times he gets sprayed, the sheepdog will ALWAYS kill skunks and try to bring them in the house. He's been skunked at least 2 times a summer every year for the last 13 years.

Anonymous said...

What happened to Bruce? Where did he go?

Greenpa said...

Abbie- we did try the chicken around the neck on Bruce- it SEEMED to work for him. But it didn't last. I've heard from others, too, that it can work; we'll keep it in the arsenal.

Anon- Bruce's future is a little uncertain; we were able to find a friend in the city with a fenced yard, and kids- but he's used to a wide-ranging freedom; and he's certainly headstrong. If he doesn't work out there, they'll have to find a shelter for him.

Greenpa said...

RC- great story! A FILA! I've heard they're a real handful. We have a LOT of visitors here; I'd be afraid of a breed with such a rep for fierce protectiveness. Delilah has plenty of protective genes; but hopefully, being a cross, and female, we can keep it under control.

Jen Myers said...

Oh I'm so sorry about your birds and the dog. As a kid our chickens spent most of their time in the green house and the fenced in garden, only taking over the whole yard when the dog was inside...of course we were city folk :)

Hope the new pup is doing well.

Unknown said...

The best method I've found to train dogs is to put 12 pennies in an empty soda can, tape the hole. Whenever a dog does something you don't want them to do, shake the can at them & howler a forceful 'NO'. If they continue the 'bad' behavior throw the can to land near them & 'NO'.
All our dogs are stray mutts & they stay a respectful distance from our chickens. All our chickens are mixed breeds as well - they seem to be smarter than the pure breeds.

Why not use colloidal silver for virus, bacteria & fungus?

Best of luck!

To ALL who share our circle, our universe, our love, our trust.
May I always be found worthy.
Gratitude & Thankfulness to All of Us
Look at everything as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with joy & glory.
Thank you for YOU, ALL!

Susan Och said...

I was reading Dog Fancy(or some such magazine) in the vet's office last week and I saw that it is possible to do a DNA test on a mutt and find out what breeds it is descended from. It was cheaper than I would have expected ($120). I'm not sure I'd spend that much on mere curiosity, but it may be a good idea when you are investing that much to produce a working dog.

The test only identifies the 100 most prevalent breed in the US, so any sample could come back as a percentage of "unvalidated breed", or mutt, so that puts you right back to square one. I wonder what would happen if you did a big test of a lot of US mutts, whether we still have a large percentage of indigenous dog DNA in the US.

Greenpa said...

Susan- yeah, that's pretty cheap! Makes me think of a cartoon I saw in "American Scientist" a while back; guy on the street with a placard: "Will sequence DNA for food". ha ha.

I think there's tons of interesting questions uninvestigated about native domestic animals. This pup we've got is DIFFERENT from any other dog I've had or been familiar with; she really does climb, everything. I've wondered about the mutt dogs in Hawaii, too- how many have still got Polynesian dog genes? Quite a few, I think. And is the Maine Coon Cat actually related to the Norwegian Forest Cat...

lots of fun waiting there.