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I am a mother, a teacher, and a nature lover. I grew up on a mountain we called Owls' Knob in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The first seven years of my life were spent living in a log cabin, far from a store or streetlight, without electricity or running water and after twenty years of travel, I returned to the abondoned homestead. Now I live on a hill by a small lake and work at a public garden. These are stories about nature written from a women deeply influenced by place.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Bird in the Hand...

I recently visited some friends at their lovely little southern farm in Mena, Arkansas. They grew a bountiful garden, bursting with burp-less cucumbers, long peppers, and fat crook-neck squash. Upon arriving I was intimidated by the family of pit bulls that greeted us with loud barking and mild growling; however, within minutes of watching them lumber about the yard without bothering the duck or the chickens I realized they were part of the family. The friendly duck that waddled around quacking softly allowed me to pick it up and enjoyed being petted; in fact, it gave off a satisfied quake with each stroke. A flock of chickens, mostly Arkansas travelers, were kept either in a large pen beside the garden or in a chicken tractor built out of fencing and an old trampoline frame. Young fledglings roamed the yard in the daytime and were locked up at night. However, the aggressive nature of this species forced one brave soul to rescue baby chicks from their own mother before the adults pecked the infants to death. Baby chicks were kept in a cage in the garage under a heat lamp.

Arkansas Traveler Chicks

While watching the baby chickens I noticed a nest overhead, perched on the edge of a florescent lamp in the garage. In the nest resided four baby nuthatches. The wild chicks were beginning to get wing feathers and had most of their body feathers already. They pushed and shoved to gain more room in the crowded nest. Every few minutes the mother or father would fly into the garage with a bug in its beak. Though the parents were easily startled, they braved our presence to feed their children. It seemed like a strange place to build a nest, so close to human and pit bulls, but perhaps they saw as more as protectors than as predators.
White-Breasted Nuthatch Nest

The following day two baby chicks were found on the cold concrete floor of the garage with the pit bulls. I’ve always heard that if you pick up a baby chick and put it back in its nest its mother will reject it. Supposedly this is because she disapproves of the scent your hands left on her baby. But without a choice my friend scooped up the baby chicks and put them in an large plastic ice cream tub lined with the cloth of an old undershirt. We discussed the reasoning behind the chick’s evacuation. Perhaps the tiny nest was too small for all four chicks and the smallest were rejected from it for space reasons alone. Under this presumption, no one touched the chicks unnecessarily. They were kept in the plastic container on the Arkansas traveler chick cage, just below the nuthatch nest.
To our surprise, the mother nuthatch did not reject the babies who had fallen from the nest and been touched by human hands. She continued to feed them inside the plastic container just as she fed the two still in the nest. By the next day the two chicks in the nest gained the strength to fly off. It only took another day of maturing for the two chicks in the plastic container to fly onward as well.
Baby White-Breasted Nuthatch Chick

It makes sense that if there is not enough room in a nest and the mother bird kicks the runts out so the stronger may survive, then if you put the runts back in the nest as competition the mother bird will just continue to reject the runts and fight for her stronger babies. Likewise, if a mother decides the nest is not safe and abandons the nest, replacing the chicks will not bring her back any more than it will send her away. I see how this myth began but I believe it is just that, a myth.
Has anyone else out there heard of similar or contradicting stories?
This picture was taken by Trina Turner
and those are Joe Loyd's hands.

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