Monday, February 4, 2013

A Chicken with a Problem

     I call her Crystal because of her cloak of translucent feathers, white as powdery snow, and because of her particular problem, which could cost her her chicken-life.
     It all started when I commissioned someone to rent a pick-up truck and collect horse manure from the farm where my son with autism takes therapeutic horseback riding lessons.  Like all gardeners in this area, I need manure to enrich my sandy, nutrient-poor Floridian soil before I install a spring garden.  The chickens do their part, but their droppings are so high in nitrogen they'll burn my plants if not seasoned for a year.  So I resort to horse manure, which matures into black compost in a matter of months.
     How was I to know that as soon as the manure started piling up in the southwest corner of my one-acre garden,  the chickens wouldn't be interested in anything else, it seemed, ever?
     After I open the gate of their sprawling coop-and-run home each evening at five o'clock, the chickens spend their free-range hour or two roaming all over the hillock of manure.  At sundown they rush like a panicky bunch of Cinderellas back to the coop.  They must appear, to birds overhead, to be like rats swarming a garbage heap, or ants taking down a cache of grits, so singlemindedly do they hustle up and down, scratching, nosing and kicking dirt in all directions.
     There is a strange tick-tick-tick-tick sound they make when they've captured something good, right before ingesting it.  But I'm hard-pressed to see what the "something good" in manure is--they're so quick to gobble it.  It's clear they're eating things--and lots of them.  Nevertheless, when I use a hand-rake to inspect the subsurface of the pile, or if I pick up handfuls of crumbly dirt and run it through my fingers, I see nothing alive or edible.
     Once, a split second before it disappeared into her craw--because she lost her handle on its encasement--I saw in one hen's beak the brownish pupa of the soldier fly, whose maggots break down organic material and infuse soil with beneficial bacteria.
     Another time, I thought I saw at a chicken's feet the pink, thread-like forms of red worms, who breathe through their skin and need oxygen to live, and therefore stay near the top of compost piles, eating debris and churning it out through their tiny gizzards.  Chickens have a nose for these worms and are able to snatch them from their tunnels before they have a chance to retreat.  Or, perhaps they have a special sensitivity in their feet, like robins, and can feel the vibration of worms underfoot, so they know exactly where to snoot them out.
     Which brings me to Crystal.
     A healthy appetite for worms and larvae is one thing, but when a hen overrides her instincts to stay safe, there's a problem.  Crystal won't leave the manure pile, not even after all the other hens have settled into their sleeping perches in the coop.  Crystal, her pure-white feathers a bull's eye for hungry owls (who do have excellent vision, by the way), pokes frantically in the hill of manure long past dark, unless I pick her up and carry her, as I might carry a crazed child, to safety.
     Even after I deposit Crystal in the coop, she maneuvers herself between my boots and scoots out the gate again, high-tailing it for the manure pile, and I am forced to chase her down, again and again.  It's no use talking to her as I would my dogs, with that sternness that makes them meek:  "Crystal, stay!  Stay!"  She doesn't care what I say, and seems unmoved by emotion--chickens aren't prone to obedience, except, in most cases, obedience to their biological cues.
     There's something in the manure pile that has triggered a serious compulsion, and Crystal can't control it.  Do hens have addiction centers in their pea-sized brains?
     Addiction is a complex disease that involves biochemical, physiologic and functional activities.  We are only beginning to understand, with the help of structural MRIs, the kinetics of drug distribution in the human brain.  MRIs register the radiofrequency energy of hydrogen atoms in water molecules.  The MRI machine generates a magnetic field that pulls hydrogen atoms into alignment, then sends a pulse of radiofrequency energy their way.  The protons in the hydrogen atoms resonate in response to this burst of energy, and reflect the energy back when the pulse stops.  The MRI is like a camera for this energy, and translates it into an image of the area under scrutiny.
     Researchers have discovered, using MRIs, that people who are chronic abusers of drugs have smaller prefrontal lobes than non-abusers.  They also have a smaller proportion of white matter to gray matter in their frontal lobes (Schlaepfer et al., 2006).  In addition, the gray matter in the right midfrontal lobes of addicts has less density than in non-addicts, and this finding has been correlated with an inability to "switch mental gears" (Kim and colleages, 2005).   Alcoholics have less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, and cocaine users' brains demonstrate enlargement of the basal ganglia, similar to those of schizophrenics who have been on antipsychotic medications.
     There are two imaging studies that shed light on the anatomy of hereditary addictions.  One is a study by Hill et al., 2001, in which it was found that children of alcoholic parents have smaller amygdalas than those whose parents are not alcoholic.  Since the amygdala is that part of the brain which regulates emotional experience, it's possible that children of alcoholics inherit a vulnerability to alcoholism that may lead to difficulties in processing emotions.
     A study by Thompson et al., 2004, revealed that methamphetamine users have smaller hippocampi than non-users.  The hippocampus is responsible for memory storage--a small hippocampus may correlate with a person's inability to remember and be affected by negative consequences of prior amphetamine use.  Abstracts of these studies are available on the National Institutes of Health website, and data for this post was culled from, a site I use because it has practical information for clinical practitioners, like me. 
     Does Crystal possess an amygdala and a hippocampus?  Most certainly, she does--we humans are not so different, anatomically, from our fellow creatures.  Does Crystal have a smaller prefrontal cortex than my other hens?  Or less gray matter compared to white matter?  Are larvae, worms, and unidentified chemicals in the manure pit acting as addictive substances for Crystal?  Is she unable to override their effects, not even with environmental triggers, like the decreased light at dusk?  Does Crystal need an intervention?
     It is my job, now, to function as Crystal's white matter and hippocampus.  As is the case with all addicts, her addiction will kill her if she doesn't get treatment and if she isn't protected from the substances which are addictive for her.  (Hawks swarm overhead, waiting for an opportunity to snatch a distracted hen and serve it up to their hatchlings for dinner.)
     Crystal's intervention will be my responsibility.  Every evening at dusk, when my other chickens waddle back to the coop, stretching their necks and looking about in a way that suggests a healthy anxiety, I will tromp to the top of the manure pile and scoop Crystal into my arms--feeling her soft feathers as they ruffle against my skin, marveling at her lightness and her sweet smell--and carry her to the far corner of the coop.  That way I'll have a head start while she gets her bearings, and I can run out and latch the gate before she beats me to it.
     At least, in the case of chickens, addiction treatment isn't so hard.  


  1. Addiction, to drugs, whether alcohol, cocaine, speed, or whatever, even sex may be or is inherent to some, though most humans will not admit an addiction to sex, especially sex as it seems the forbidden or hidden, as it is meant to be can not be ignored, hence the addiction. Chickens, or Crystal perhaps, obviously is unable to ignore the manure pile, while some people can not ignore the different physical attributes of people, meaning some think there is always something better. Implies that love is lost to some, unfortunately. Glad I am not a chicken!!!

  2. The errors in this post are as follows:

    There are two "a" in the antepenultimate line of the seventh paragraph.

    "Snoot" is used incorrectly in the final line of paragraph seven. As a transitive verb it means: "snoot·ed, snoot·ing, snoots
    To treat haughtily: a couple who were snooted by the headwaiter.
    [Dialectal variant of snout.]"

    "Bulls eye" in paragraph 9 should be "bull's eye."

    Later, you made the opposite mistake. "MRI's" Repeated misuse of possessive apostrophe when the noun is a simple plural in paragraphs 12-13.

    You see, we pay close attention to what you write because it is so very interesting, because we care and because maybe we are addicted to writing correctly.

    Wouldn't you think natural selection would take care of chicken-addicts like poor Crystal? For that matter of fact, how is it that humans have survived and passed on this trait?

  3. Correction to your comment: you missed an apostrophe and an ess in the first line: two "a's"--didn't you? I used the word "snoot" in its first meaning, a nose. While it's not standard English to use snoot as a verb, as it is for "nose" (as in "nosing around the thrift shop," I like snoot better, because of its sound. I like it better than "snoop," too, because Crystal is brazen, not chicken-hearted, as snoop implies. Certainly you couldn't have missed the most common meaning of snoot, when you looked it up, and the one that must have drawn you to it in the first place: "Snob."

  4. You made the same mistake I called you on several times just now in your correction of my supposed mistake! How embarrassing for you! You wrote, two "a's". Why must you insist on using a possessive apostrophe for a simple plural? This is an illiterate mistake!

    However, I do applaud you for having corrected the "MRI'Ss" multiple mistakes in your post above, and you don't need to worry about thanking me.

    What I wrote might be odd or misleading but it is not at least wrong. I did not add the 's' to my 'a' on purpose. It would have been still more confusing. The mistake was you used "a" two times. Now "as" would have been incorrect and would have appeared to be a different word. I could have written 'two "a"s' I suppose, but that is uncommonly ugly. If I had been you, I would have written "a's" but that would, obviously, have been wrong. So what to do?

    Your logic defending your use of 'snoot' baffles me. If I were attracted to snoot because of its supposed connection to 'snob,' I would object all the more to your applying it to a chicken. Chickens are blind to class distinctions. It is unfair to chickens, and especially to poor Cyrstal. The poor dear has enough substance abuse problems without accusing her of snobbery.

    But quite apart from this, what does a phony adoration of those supposedly superior to one's self because of their social class ( the classic English definition of a 'snob') have to do with being a stickler for English usage and grammar? That makes no sense.

    Perhaps you are using the word 'snob' in the American sense? The American definition of 'snob' looks downward: rather than admiring her social superiors, the American snob despises her social inferiors. But then you would be suggesting that lower class people misuse English more than upper class ones do, because calling attention to these mistakes would be a way to call attention to their inferior social status. That sounds pretty snobby to me! And alien to my way of thinking.

    1. Please check out Daily Writing Tips-- the rules regarding apostrophes. It is correct to use an apostrophe to form the plural of a lower case letter, as in "a's." Who, did you say, should be embarrassed? The hasty (but committed) blog writer, or the grammar snob?

  5. It's my guess that you are a queer bird.

    1. Good guess, Rinker.

    2. Blogs are not great literary works, nor are they intended to be. They are akin to the letter, which one wrote, in the old days, to people who took an interest in one. Just as you would not waste time correcting grammatical errors in a letter from, say, a friend who was spending time abroad, or your father, it seems strange to correct errors in blog posts. That said, I'd like to point out that your usage of "chicken-addicts" is wrong. The term before the hyphenated "-addict" should be the addictive substance, as in "cocaine-addict," whereas your usage seems to refer to those with an addiction to chickens.

  6. I'm happy I did okay. Now that is an old expression from before my generation. I remember my grandmother using it. In those days, most people had chickens so immediately knew the meaning.

  7. "Snoot" is a grandmotherly word that I, too, recall from my childhood, and it was used in the same manner I used it in my post. Since chickens don't have noses--but do have nostrils and an olfactory organ--snoot, in the idiomatic way I used it, still seems appropriate. It will take another generation or two for its common meaning, akin to "smell," to hit the grammar-snob-written dictionaries that think they dictate proper usage. I wonder if You Guessed It might be scouting around for employment as a copy editor. If so, call a publisher. Blog writers can't be bothered, busy as they are writing blog posts every day.