A Day in the Chicken Lab

Vigilant male chickens at Macquarie University (courtesy of K-lynn Smith)

While I’m in Australia, I’m staying with a friend, K-lynn Smith, who is an animal behavior scientist at Macquarie University. She studies chickens. And on Tuesday, I put myself at her disposal as a free lab assistant. When I made the offer, I had no idea what I’d be doing, but I wasn’t disappointed when she told me that I’d be chasing chickens.

Well, that’s not exactly accurate. The goal of the day was to rearrange the chicken population, moving groups into different enclosures, combining and resorting some groups, to make room for the six-week-old chicks and their moms and dads that had been in smaller pens (growing families need bigger homes). Since I couldn’t touch any of the chickens, I did a lot of carrying and standing in place to discourage the birds from going into certain directions while my friend and her students did the actual capturing and moving. But for me, it was a fun day (if a bit tiring) out in the sun. And a reminder that a lot of grunt work goes into any scientific discovery.

The general goal of K-lynn’s work is to understand the evolution of communication and cognition in social species, using chickens (Gallus gallus) as a model. (Specifically Golden Sebright bantams, which are an ornamental breed developed in the 19th century by Sir John Saunders Sebright, a chicken breeder whose 1809 pamphlet on breeding domestic animals influenced Charles Darwin.)

If you’ve ever seen pictures or video of chickens being raised to eat, with hundreds or thousands packed into small spaces, the enclosures for K-lynn’s birds seem like chicken paradise. There’s tall grass, trees, a building or two for shelter, and plenty of food and water.

And if you stop and listen to the birds, you’ll hear a conversation more complex than a simple “cluck-cluck.” There are calls to say there’s danger and other calls to say there’s food. They make sounds when they meet others in their group and to claim their territory. There are at least 24 different sounds chickens make–a female even makes a sound when she lays an egg. Some calls are combined with movements, like head bobs, with a chicken picking up and then dropping food.

And did you know that chickens can count? That they prefer human music to discordant sounds? And they can even tell a Picasso from a Monet?

Knowing all of this didn’t stop me from eating chicken at dinner today. It does make me think, however, that we should care more about how our chickens are raised. But that’s a more weighty issue than I want to tackle on what should be a vacation.

Manly’s Disappearing Penguins

Penguin Pose

I wouldn’t have thought that Sydney, Australia would be a natural home for penguins. Sure, they’re found inside Taronga Zoo, but I was surprised yesterday, while on my way to the beach, to find signs near Manly Wharf saying to watch out for penguins.

The colony of fairy penguins (a.k.a. little penguins) used to number in the hundreds. Just a few years ago there were 60 breeding pairs. This month, however, there is just one breeding pair with one chick (and I didn’t manage to see any of them). This colony seems doomed to die out, despite efforts by the government to protect it.

What did them in? Manly, famed for its beach, is heavily developed and the penguins lost a lot of their habitat. Their nesting sites were disturbed, and since breeding is the main reason they came to Manly, that disturbance surely didn’t help the population to grow. But one of the biggest problems was predation by dogs and foxes. The danger was so great that snipers were brought into the town in 2009 to try to protect the little birds.

Elsewhere in its range–which stretches across southern Australia and over to New Zealand–fairy penguins appear to be on the decline, but that decline isn’t fast enough to have scientists worry yet.

I’ll probably have more luck finding wild fairy penguins in someplace like Phillip Island near Melbourne.

What Could Be More Annoying Than Pigeons? Cockatoos

If readers haven’t figure it out yet, I’m headed to Australia soon. I’ve been there before, and one of the places I’m looking forward to visiting again is the Royal Botanic Garden in downtown Sydney.

Sulfur-crested cockatoos in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney (photo by Sarah Zielinski)

This being Australia, the wildlife is different from gardens in the United States. Sure, there are pigeons, but the more annoying birds in the Sydney gardens were the sulfur-crested cockatoos. In the U.S., these birds are long-lived and demanding pets with a loud, distinctive call (adapted to the needs of wild birds calling across forests) and a penchant for chewing wood. In Australia, these birds are often pests that destroy crops and timber structures.

The Royal Botanic Garden has plenty of signs warning people not to feed the birds and other wildlife. As explained on the garden’s Web site, there are several reasons for this rule:

  1. Human food is not healthy for the animals and can even be deadly. Birds that eat too much of our food can suffer from bone deformities, increased susceptibility to disease, and a reduced ability to deal with cold weather (and it does get cold there in the winter).
  2. Feeding the wildlife makes the animals lazy and more dependent on humans than their own abilities.
  3. And handfeeding makes for aggressive animals.

That last point can be seen firsthand if you are stupid enough to feed the cockatoos. When I visited the garden, I watched as one tourist handfed the cockatoos and her friend photographed them. It was cute until the woman feeding the birds couldn’t get rid of them. They landed on her arms and head and wouldn’t leave no matter how much she swatted at them (kind of like what’s going on in the video below).

It’s not as if you need to lure these birds with food to get a good photo of one. These cockatoos feed on the ground (they like seeds and insects) and all it takes is a little patience to get a great shot.

The Koala: The Bear That’s Not A Bear

If you’ve watched anything on BBC America in the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen the commercial promoting tourism to Australia. One scene (at 0:39 in this video) has had me thinking. A woman sings, holding a koala, “There’s nothing like this bear.” And then a man behind her comments, “That’s not a bear.”

A koala at Sydney Wildlife World (photo by Sarah Zielinski)

Indeed, koalas, despite being sometimes called koala bears, are not bears. They are marsupials and more closely related to kangaroos and wombats than grizzlies and polar bears. But the first European settlers on the continent, some 200 years ago, knew nothing about marsupials at the time. They saw a fuzzy animal that kind of looked like a bear, so they named it a bear. (“Koala” likely derives from an aboriginal word that means “no drink.” The animals get much of their moisture from the leaves they eat, as well as from dew and rain, so they’re not often seen directly drinking water.)

Koalas, once prized for their fur, were nearly hunted to extinction in early 20th century but the species has largely recovered. Estimates of population size range from 80,000 to hundreds of thousands of animals, and the IUCN lists them as a species of least concern. That said, koalas have been threatened in recent years by urbanization, habitat destruction, and outbreaks of chlamydia.

Like sloths, koalas have a low metabolic rate and a low activity level to match–they’ll spend 16 to 18 hours a day motionless, mostly sleeping. Most of the rest of the time they’re eating eucalyptus leaves (or those of a few other tree species), slowly chewing them into a digestible paste.

An individual koala may appear to be a solitary creature, but he’s actually part of a larger koala society. Each animal has its own territory that overlaps with that of his neighbors’. If a koala dies, his buddies won’t take over his territory for a year, when his markings have faded away.

And koalas are noisier than they appear in zoos–males bellow to establish dominance and find other koalas, females bellow as part of sexual behavior, and mothers and babies make clicking, squeaking, and murmuring noises when communicating with each other. All koalas, too, will make a cry like a screaming baby when under stress.

Despite their cuteness, koalas are not pets. Not only is it illegal to own a pet koala, but even if you had one, their diet of eucalyptus would be difficult to provide on a regular basis and a hungry koala is a vicious koala. (One koala proved mean enough to beat off a group of thieves who were trying to steal if from a zoo.)

Kangaroos and Wallabies (And What the Heck is a Wallaroo?)

On my last trip to Australia, on a drive from Sydney across the Blue Mountains to the Jenolan Caves, I spotted what I thought was a kangaroo as we passed through acres and acres of tree farm. My friend slowed the car so we could get a closer look. “No,” he said, “that’s a wallaby.”

The author petting a kangaroo (or is that a wallaby) in Australia.

From far away, to the uneducated eye, kangaroos and wallabies look much alike (as do wallaroos, which are sometimes simply called kangaroos). These animals all belong to a family of marsupials called macropods, which are characterized by their large hind legs and feet (macropod means “big foot”) and long, muscular tails that they use for balance. Not all macropods hop, but kangaroos and wallabies do; they can store elastic energy in their tendons and use that energy to literally put a spring in their steps.

Generally, kangaroos are the largest species of macropods. They can grow up to eight feet tall and weigh 200 pounds. They usually live in open areas, where they can use their big, strong legs to reach great speeds. Red kangaroos, for example, can hop up to 35 miles per hour. The smaller wallabies, meanwhile, are more suited to forest habitats. The animals also differ in coloring and in their teeth, through I wouldn’t recommend getting close enough to check. (There is only one reported case of a human being killed by a kangaroo, but several people have been severely mauled by the animals.)

Before Europeans colonized Australia, there were some 53 species of macropods on the continent. Since then, six have become extinct and another 11 reduced in population size. The smallest species and species with specific habitat requirements and smaller ranges were the most affected, less able to recover from predation and habitat destruction. Meanwhile, some of the largest species have grown so numerous they are considered pests–during dry times they will compete with sheep and other livestock for feed and water, and they are involved in hundreds of car crashes each year. Like deer here in the United States, hunting is often encouraged to control the kangaroo population (the meat is exported to dozens of countries around the world).

I got a closer look at macropods a week into that Australia trip, on a day tour through the Daintree rainforest, north of Cairns. Next door to the cafe where we stopped for lunch someone was keeping a couple wallabies and a kangaroo in a fenced in part of their yard. The animals were old and blind and friendly, happy to let us pet them in exchange for carrots and other fresh veggies.

When I got back to Cairns that evening, and I walked from restaurant to restaurant looking at the menus and trying to decide what to eat, I quickly decided that I had to decline the “taste of Australia” dish offered by many of those places. Those plates included a number of Australian animals, including crocodile, emu and sometimes camel. Kangaroo was also one of those meats and, after my experience with the animals, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat one, pest or not.