Winter entertainment

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I worry that my animals are bored.

What does a domesticated animal do all day? I understand the wild ones. They’re busy getting food, finding mates, rearing young, and attending Hunter Evasion classes. But pets and livestock have it easy. Food and water arrive on schedule. Mates, when necessary, are procured. Hunters are prohibited.

What occupies their minds?

In the summer, I worry less. The chickens are busy around the property, finding greens, chasing insects, and taking dust baths. Likewise, the cat goes outside to stalk chipmunks and eat things that will make her vomit on the rug. But in winter, everyone stays inside. The chickens are confined to an 8’x16’ run and, while the cat has marginally more freedom, she spends 80% of her time within three feet of the wood stove.

What are they thinking?

They can’t read, or talk. They can’t tell time, either, but are they doing the animal equivalent of watching the clock? Some animals certainly get bored. When you come home to find the toilet paper unwound all over the furniture, you know your dog doesn’t have enough to do. And I’ve heard stories about pigs that make me a believer in really good fencing.

But a cat? Chickens? Can you be bored witless if you’re pretty much witless to begin with?  I can’t imagine not being bored, if you can’t read.

This should keep them busy for about a month

Kevin’s been out of town for over a week now, so it’s just me and the animals. The cat gets fed and scratched, and I try to engage her in conversation; the only time she looks unhappy is when there isn’t a fire in the woodstove. The chickens, though, seem restless. They bunch up at the door when they hear me coming, and seem to want to mill around me even when I don’t bring them a special treat.

So, today, I bought them a Flock Block. A Flock Block is a 25-pound cube of compressed nuts, seeds, and grit, and it’s supposed to supplement their standard-issue feed as it “encourages natural pecking instincts to help reduce cannibalism.”

Mostly, though, it’s what passes for intellectual stimulation, if you’re a chicken.

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Comments

  1. I have never heard of a flock block, but i have used scrsatch grains to “entertain” chickens. So far as the cat goes, I agre with Eckart Tolle. Mr Tolle said something about having lived with several masters of Zen meditation, and all of them were cats. The cats around here certainly seem to qualify. Where did you get the Flock Block? Who made it?

    • Sorry. I just went back up and saw the embedded link. I just have to find out why my local ‘Mills’ failed to tell me about this. Could it be that chickens are not cattle, hogs, alpacas, llamas, or other giant herbivore customers?

    • And once more, and not just because the computer is acting badly and posting before I’m done, I hope you two folks take enough time off to have a really nice reunion. I don’t know what I would do without Debbie for more than a few days, but I would not like it.

      • Greg — There are other brands that make a similar product, and most feed stores I’ve been in carry something like it. And you’re right about the cats. They’ve been bred for millennia to do nothing with perfect contentment.

  2. I too have not heard of the flock block. My girls seem entertained enough to peck at the bird seed squirrels so nicely knock out of the feeders for them.

  3. Ironic. I just saw a flock block for the first time in the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog. I was scratching my head about it but I think I will give it a try. I wish I could say it is because I am concerned about my poor chicken’s mental state but alas I am more concerned about them pecking each other (or their eggs before I get them) to death. I joke that I have citified chickens because they won’t step a foot outside if there is white stuff on the ground. Can’t say I blame them really the were once jungle fowl after all.

    • Our chickens don’t care much for snow, either. Still, they’d venture out, most days. We generally don’t let them, since there’s no cover from predators and not much for them to eat.

      Definitely get yourself a Flock Block if you’re worried about serious pecking. It gives them an outlet.

  4. I was going to ask you how many chickens you have, since you have such a large run. I’m mulling housing over and trying to decide how to do it and where to put it. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Didn’t you write about the flock block before? in fact, I seem to remember you ran a pool to see when the girls would finish it. I remember that being fun. Either that, or my misspent youth is revisiting me.

    • We have 7, but our run could accommodate more — probably 16, tops. If you’re just looking for eggs for your own use, you could scale it way back and do 4 (I firmly believe 4 is the minimum for chickens, who are quite social).

      If you do go for 4, I’d do a 4×8 run (which is bigger than the absolute minimum, but I think hens are happier with a little extra space). Put the coop on one end (maybe 4×3), off the ground, so there’s a sheltered area underneath.

      When you’re ready to take the step, Kevin and I would be happy to walk you through what we did and how you could make modifications for a smaller flock.

      And, yes, I did write about the Flock Block last year, and made book on how long it would take the chickens to finish it. Jen at Milkweed & Teasel won some lovely hand-made sea salt! Maybe it’s time to have another pool …

  5. Animals can indeed get bored if under-stimulated! Witness the gorilla at the zoo and how her behavior changes when her environment is changed: http://www.radiolab.org/2007/jun/04/. Fascinating stuff. And on animals and language: http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2010/oct/18/wild-talk/

    • Thanks for the links. I’m absolutely, positively convinced that a gorilla can get bored. But, as you start looking at animals with less in the way of higher functions, somewhere, boredom stops being an issue. I don’t worry that our oysters are bored. Where’s the line?

  6. So how long WOULD it take to finish a Flock Block?

    I remember reading somewhere a proverb about how there’s this rock ten miles across. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to to sharpen its beak. When the rock is totally gone, a single second of eternity will have passed.

    Or something like that. Presumably the Flock Block doesn’t take quite so long to disappear. Otherwise, the company can’t be very profitable.

    All I can say is that if I did have to be reincarnated as a chicken, I know where I’d want to live.

    • Last year, they finished in a little over a month (if memory serves me — I’m too lazy to simply check), so they’re way ahead of the bird and the rock.

      Al, let’s just hope you don’t get reincarnated as a chicken. It’s not a fate I would wish for you.

  7. Entertainment for the livestock has long been an issue. Dad raised hogs, pasturing them during the summer. The winter hogs (he farrowed three times a year) got into tail-biting a couple of years. He started clipping the tails on new-born pigs from the winter farrowing, and a couple of years he set a bowling ball in the pen for them to occupy themselves with.

    And, of course, anyone that keeps hogs that lets them off concrete will usually be appending some kind of nose ring, to reduce the damage bored hogs do to fences and making burrows in dirt and mud.

    Doc Neumann talked about baling low-quality forage, including corn stalks and low quality grasses, for horses. I took his course on keeping draft horses some years back, and he explained that when keeping them in manger stall, it is better to feed lower quality hay, that they have to eat bunches more. The additional fiber keeps the digestion in better order, and the longer time spent eating keeps them occupied longer, and less time being bored makes for happier barns and horses.

    A couple of years Dad kept chickens and sold eggs. De-beaking was one strategy to reduce pecking problems.

    I did have to laugh at one of Mercedes Lackey’s “100 kingdoms” fairy godmother books, when our hero is given a drop of dragon’s blood – and can then speak to animals. When she worried about eating the chickens she had just talked with, she found that while cats and horses observed the world and people around them – the chickens just had “Cluck! Cluck!” to say.

    I have chickens in a large 8×8 coop, with a 10×12 covered run. Right now there are three survivors of the last seven I got (1 to possum in the coop, one to neighbor’s dog and two to unknown while ranging outside the coop). They notice where I am, and everything that moves around the place. They act different when the waterer runs empty, or feed gets low.

    After spending seven years in the US Navy, I have to assume that their days become what they are – that their attention span and interactions with the world become precisely what the daily routine is. Boredom wouldn’t be a big problem, since they would have few dreams or goals aside from waiting for the next feeding or check, the next sunrise or sunset. Maybe we could call it a ‘simpler’ life. Many people have done the same thing; we call their places of confinement ‘cubicles’.

    Cats, now, are sometimes hunters. Whether hunting for food, or just hunting for the next feed time, cats are often patient (unless I am late for feeding time). Cats just aren’t that well domesticated (even under US law). When bored, they will abandon the hunt, get up from the nap and check around for something interesting, or even find a suitable human to pester for a treat or interaction.

    • Brad, you’re WAY ahead of me. Pigs haven’t yet made it past our wish list, and draft horses are absolutely, positively out of the question (husband mine, are you reading this?).

      I love the comparison to the Navy. Structure seems to work up and down the food chain. In my many years writing about nutrition, one of the the things I learned was that we are absolutely creatures of habit, but all it takes is a conscious change in schedules and routines to make us creatures of an entirely new habit. If you’re hungry for breakfast at 8:00 every day, all you need to do is tough it out until 10:00 for just a few days, and then you’re not hungry until 10:00.

      Absent higher functions, I guess these are the kinds of things that get a chicken through the day.

      Thanks for you comment!

  8. Tamar,
    Your concern is exactly why I don’t have a fish tank. I had one once..set up by an old boyfriend..and pretty much from the moment he said “there..all set up” I worried about them being bored. They seemed bored. Or frequently I would ask..”Do you think they are happy?”. Which of course he would answer with something snappy like..”Who the hell cares..they’re fish!!!”. Which is why said boyfriend is not my husband…besides…I’m sure that one doesn’t make beer!

    Almost called today about wii bowling..but saw your post about kevin’s return.
    Come see me tomorrow..your pics are ready..tours at one..plan accordingly! (grin)

    • Beth,

      Fish occupy a strange place in the thinking of humankind. On the one hand, there is a presumption that they don’t think (thus cannot get bored). On the other hand, we learn their habits and preferences to hunt and fish for them (that is, we analyze their thinking).

      As for aquarium fish, generally they are too small to be accredited with much thinking capacity. I know the bettas (the siamese and other fighting fish) developed in rain forests, often in pools of water about one cup in size. The typical aquarium provides a lot of unexpected space for a betta. As for other kinds of aquarium fish, I think we can assume that the boredom they face is offset by the lack of predators and natural hazards of their native environment. Some few exotic folk get their fish direct from the wild; the rest of us plunk domesticated breeds and varieties into our tanks, fish that have never had an unconfined tank.

      Note that some fish require shallow water, other six to twelve inches down. Thus a ten gallon tank might have triple the apparent space, if you stock with top, bottom, and middle loving kinds, so they only interact at feeding time.

      Most fish are both predators and prey. As predators, they would experience the same need for patience, for waiting, as cats, and have the same ability to wait for something to happen, on a regular basis. Boredom is not something I worry about in a home aquarium. And I don’t put air-activated toys in the tank, unless I have children around that will be entertained for about two commercial breaks on TV. To the fish it is either ‘shore’, ‘hazard’, ‘predator’ or ‘food’.

      As for ‘happy’, I would look to see if they act happy – sociable, physically intact, growing some over time (flourishing), no obvious signs of stress or distress. About the same way you decide if your step kids or mother in law is happy, since you can’t ask them and expect a useful answer, either. I can look at or sometimes walk through a herd of cows or goats, and tell pretty reliably if they are unhappy. Stress has always been simple to spot in the aquariums I have kept over the years.

      If the fish respond promptly to feeding time, if they aren’t sick, if they are swimming in a manner they usually do, I would assume they are about as happy as fish get.

  9. I’ve wondered the same about our chickens and ducks. In fact, I even tried hanging up an old CD for them to peck at and gave them a ball to peck at, like they do for barn raised chickens. Clearly they weren’t that bored, or I have poultry that is solely food motivated, because they totally ignored them.

    How is the Flock Block held together? I was wondering if it would be possible to make one (I don’t think they exist over here), but I can only think of doing a kind of giant fat ball, like wild birds have. We’re not supposed to feed animal products to our birds, so it would have to be something other than lard. Veggie suet, perhaps…

    Re: cats; of our 3, 2 go out daily and come home for dinner when it gets dark. The other would spend the whole day on our bed, get up around tea time when the stove is lit to sit in front of it; sleep in front of the fire all evening; eat her dinner; sleep all night on the sofa; wake up to snuggle on our duvet again; spend the whole day on our bed…
    She clearly has quite a high threshold for boredom.

  10. Beth, I’ll led Brad handle that one.

    Brad, I think you should have a blog! That way, readers can come here to find out how not to do things, and then go to you for actual information. Thanks for the response.

    Hazel, I don’t know how they compressed the block. My guess is with a giant industrial-strength compressing machine, like the kind they crush cars with. They get 25 pounds of feed into a block that’s about 10-inches on a side, a feat I don’t think the average backyard chicken owner can’t duplicate.