Archive for April, 2015

Some disturbing news

she finds out

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Naked aspens

Not yet in leaf. Naked white skeletons against the blue sky.





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The feathers are coming in at a rapid pace. They no longer look like cute little duckies. They look like moth-eaten little raptors!









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The autumn olives are in full leaf. It’s not incredibly warm yet. Yesterday, we were in the 40s nearly all day.

But it is turning spring.


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I had Muscovy ducks when I was kid. The first one came from a place where they had taken over a creek bed in Lewis County, West Virginia, and they had bred up into near plague proportions.

The owner’s line was, “They are free if you can catch ’em!”

And my grandpa caught my first Muscovy.  For some reason the duck imprinted on two hyperpredatory dogs, who strangely accepted the little peeper as a pup.  However, the little duck didn’t follow canine decorum around the feeding bowl, and Frito the elkhound went to discipline his charge.  And the little Muscovy was no more.

The next duck came from a poultry fancier who hatched out her ducklings under a “banty hen.”  This duckling was only a day old when I got her, and she strongly imprinted upon me. She followed me everywhere, running hard to keep up.

She was named “Chester” under the assumption that she was a male, but then the next spring she started laying eggs.

So much for that name!

She lived for several years, but she eventually met her demise from a predatory dog attack.

These ducks were just pets. It didn’t even cross my mind that anyone should eat a duck.

I also didn’t even know the proper name for the species. I thought they were “whispering” or “quackless” ducks.

I actually thought that was their name.

And the fact that I couldn’t tell the gender of my duck after she matured really showed my ignorance. A Muscovy drake is a massive creature with lots of nasty caruncles on the head. Chester was a petite duck with a gentle little pipping call.

I’ve generally not thought much about these ducks, but because I’m interested in ducks again, I am starting to realize some things about Muscovy ducks.

Muscovy ducks have the potential to save the world.

I know that might sound like a grandiose claim, but allow me to explain what I mean.

Muscovy ducks produce a dark red meat. Their breasts have been compared to beef in terms of flavor and texture, and in a world that is under siege from belching, farting, forest and grassland destroying cattle, the Muscovy duck could hold the key to producing a red meat that is much more sustainable that cattle ever could be.

A Muscovy drake can weigh more than 10 pounds at only 90 days of age, and it can reach that size eating very little grain. Indeed, in warmer climates, they can get a lot of their food from foraging alone.

They also breed very easily.  Pretty much all you need is a drake and some hens, and they will start laying eggs and hatching ducklings. In Florida, the canals are full of these ducks, which are now almost like aquatic pigeons. They can raise three or four clutches a year, and these clutches can have 15-20 ducklings in them.

They do very well in warm climates, and if we want people in developing countries in the tropics to have a sustainable source of red meat, the Muscovy duck could be a really important resource.

Now, it is well-known that the world’s current consumption of cattle is unsustainable. We can’t grow enough grain to feed them, and we just don’t have enough pasture to run them. Cattle produce quite a bit of methane, which means they are part of the climate change problem. If the whole world starts to eat beef like North Americans do, we are asking for an ecological disaster.

Muscovy ducks might be a way of getting a “beef substitute” that is truly sustainable.

Of course, these ducks do have their problems. They don’t do well in the coldest places in the world. They also can be vectors of poultry diseases.  They also can go feral and displace native waterfowl.

However, they still have the potential to provide a much more reliable source of red meat than cattle do, and this is something that needs to be considered within the framework of sustainable development.

If we do, these ugly ducks might hold the key to saving the world.





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They are big

Big ducks:


Little baby Rouen isn’t a little baby anymore:


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The leaves are just starting to bud out.


Redbud is in bloom:


An April shower looming in the distance:


A cottontail in the green grass:


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The morel of the story…

Is this were so good to eat!


Morels are an April delicacy in West Virginia, and this time of the year people do go “mushroom hunting.”

Other than these five, I’ve encountered only a single other morel though.


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Feathering out


The ducklings are getting large and feathering out. The duck on the left of the photo is the little Rouen that hatched out, and the big pekin on the right now quacks when demanding food. (It’s a girl!)

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Attack Dog Training

German shepherds are one of the most common breeds in the world. I am not opposed to people keeping them and breeding them. Some of these dogs are wonderful family pets. Others are superior law enforcement dogs.

But what I do oppose is total hypocrisy in providing analysis about different breeds of dog.

I have not mentioned on this space before, but I am deeply skeptical of the research put out by Merritt Clifton of Animals 24-7. Not only does he get a lot of breed history wrong– his sloppy use of the term “molosser” is enough for me to question anyone’s expertise about dogs– but he actually engages in pseudoscientific claims about the behavior of breeds he happens to like.

Most people know Clifton for his tireless campaign to prove to the world that “pit bulls” are walking time bombs that are just about to explode at any moment.  Anyone who questions him has been targeted as a “pit bull apologist” or a “pit bull nutter.”

But Clifton himself is one hell of an apologist. Just not with pit bulls.

In his analysis of dog bites from 1982-2014,* Clifton makes some interesting claims about German shepherd bites:

German shepherds are herding dogs, bred for generations to guide and protect sheep. In modern society, they are among the dogs of choice for families with small children, because of their extremely strong protective instinct. They have three distinctively different bites: the guiding nip, which usually does not break the skin; the grab-and-drag, to pull a puppy or lamb or child away from danger, which is as gentle as emergency circumstances allow; and the reactive bite, usually in defense of territory, a child, or someone else the dog is inclined to guard. The reactive bite usually comes only after many warning barks, growls, and other exhibitions intended to avert a conflict. When it does come, it is typically accompanied by a frontal leap for the wrist or throat.

Because German shepherds often use the guiding nip and the grab-and-drag with children, who sometimes misread the dogs’ intentions and pull away in panic, they are involved in biting incidents at almost twice the rate that their numbers alone would predict: approximately 28% of all bite cases, according to a recent five-year compilation of Minneapolis animal control data. Yet none of the Minneapolis bites by German shepherds involved a serious injury: hurting someone is almost never the dogs’ intent.

There are several Clifton’s claims. The first is he conflates herding dogs with livestock guardian dogs. Herding dogs really don’t guard sheep, and the German shepherd’s ancestors were herding dogs. Instead, they engage in predatory behavior that is modified through selective breeding and training. Everyone who lives in a rural area knows that untrained collie-types are a major problem for people keeping sheep and goats. With no training to modify their behavior, they often surplus kill stock. Livestock guardian dogs, by contrast, bond with the stock and protect them. They are selected against exhibiting predatory behavior, and although these dogs sometimes do become predators of livestock, it is not something that anyone would breed for or tolerate within those strains. With herding dogs, though, it is often a tricky balance between herding and hunting.

Note that I said the German shepherd’s ancestors were bred for herding. The modern GSD has not been bred exclusively for this behavior for over a century. If you want an idea of what the original GSD was like, you will have to go to eastern Germany’s Harz Mountains and look for a mid-sized herding dog called Harzer fuchs, which means “Harz fox.”  GSD were partially developed from the Thuringian sheepdog, and the Harz Mountains extend into Thurginia. This dog is actually an active herding breed, but Germany itself has many regional variants of sheepdog. This one just happens to look a lot like the standard German shepherd and is probably similar to the Thuringian type of dog that was crossed into the GSD.

The dog we call a German shepherd dog today, though, has undergone a radical transformation from the sheepdog. One cannot ignore that the dog we call the GSD today was largely the brainchild of a German cavalry officer named Max von Stephanitz. Stephanitz used prick-eared sheepdogs from southern and Eastern Germany, and very quickly began to standardize them and develop them as generalist working dogs. He founded the  Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde in 1899, and his club began developing the breed as the ultimate working dog. There was a heavy emphasis on breeding the dogs for personal protection and military purposes, and a strong selection away from bite inhibition behavior.

German shepherds bite people. His decision to arbitrarily create three categories of German shepherd bite is just weaseling. No credible ethologist or animal behaviorist would recognize these distinctions. GSD have been bred for personal protection and law enforcement. When they bite, it has nothing to do with herding.  I bet there aren’t 200 GSD in all of North America that are used for herding stock, but there are thousands that are bred for protection work and sport and for law enforcement purposes.

What Clifton has done is really good example of legitimizing violence. German shepherds are generally thought of as dogs belonging to the police or a good conservative family, while pit bulls are the dogs of the nonwhite underclass. When a pit bull bites, it is a thug dog. When a German shepherd bites, it is the good shepherd.

In essence, the German shepherd is the equivalent of ” the good guy with a gun” we often hear right wing extremists talk about.

Clifton is treated as an expert on dog bite issues. I don’t know why. I will leave it to more qualified people to make analysis about pit bulls, but I can tell you that German shepherds should not be given a free pass when it comes to dog bite issues.

I am not an expert, but I do know enough about dogs to know when someone is just making stuff up.

Clifton is not giving an intellectually honest answer when he gives his German shepherd apologetics.

I write this not as someone who wants laws against German shepherds, but I can tell you that everything Clifton does is about making law on pit bulls and other “molossers,” which, I’ve pointed out, is actually bogus term.

All I am saying is consult the ethology literature on herding behavior, and read the actual history of German shepherd dogs. They are derived from herders, which is true, but they haven’t been bred exclusively for that behavior in well over a century. A German shepherd is a dog that has been bred to bite people, preferably under control and training. But an untrained, reactive GSD can do a lot of damage to person, just as any big dog could.


*Clifton, Merrit. “Dog bites and maimings, US and Canada: September 1982 to December 31, 2014.” Animals 24-7.


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