So Long Covid, Hello Summer

The relief I sense by the lessening grip of Covid-19 is palpable. Recently Trudy and I even attended a gathering of  friends, all vaccinated of course, and while we met and ate outside, none felt the need to wear a face mask. I felt like Mel Gibson’s character in the movie Braveheart with pent up emotion urging me to shout out, “Freedom.” Well, I didn’t actually do it, but I felt like doing it.

It’s been hard waiting out the pandemic but living on acreage undoubtedly made it easier for us to tolerate than for most folks who don’t have the space to spread out. Ice Storm Uri about which I wrote earlier, also took its toll on both our emotions and our ranch. And now summer is here and many opportunities are upon us!

The vaccination center in which we worked during the pandemic has now closed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t because we had vaccinated everyone, as only 38% of the local population received vaccinations. Instead it was because we simply could not fill appointments any longer. Hopefully the remainder of the local population will follow up with their doctors and receive Covid-19 vaccinations. Anti-vaccination sentiment locally has been waning, but I’ve been amazed and saddened to see a medical topic become so politicized. As if the coronavirus in question knows if someone votes for Republicans or Democrats? It really doesn’t care, as the virus only infects those who are vulnerable.

To further boost our beleaguered spirits, the serious dry spell has ended. We in central Texas had been listed as being in a serious drought. Hay was running short before the grass finally greened up. We’ve now had heavy rains over the last several weeks and lots of growth. The fields are lush and the hay is ready to be cut. The cattle are fat and the cows are dropping healthy and cute little calves. The stock ponds are full or nearly so and the creeks are flowing rapidly. The waterfall at Hidden Falls is as impressive as I’ve ever seen it.

 

Sugar Creek Waterfall on Hidden Falls Ranch, Fredericksburg, TX

The cool, dry winter had made the local cacti flower. The picture below was taken before the rains started. Various meanings are attached to the blooming of cacti but one is that it provides protection from danger and threats. Now that certainly fits with the pandemic and strange weather we’ve had. Also yellow blossoms suggest strength and endurance. Perhaps the flowering cacti provided encouragement throughout this past challenging winter.

Other meanings attached to flowering cacti suggest sexual attraction between two people, especially in the Japanese tradition. Hmmm, at my age this seems less likely. In any event the cacti flowered wonderfully just before the rains began, providing hope for a wet spring and summer, and well even at my age sexual attraction might still be a possibility.

Flowering Cactus

The greatest aspect of the waning pandemic has been visits with family and friends. Perhaps the high point for Trudy and me has been to better know our one year old grandson, Teddy. Travel has been a challenge due to the pandemic. Now we are seeing Teddy and his parents on a regular basis. And Teddy has learned to walk. New life, flowers, rain, and travel. Can life get any better than this? I hope your life has taken a definite uptick as well. FREEDOM!!!

Young Teddy

Blog Piece by Heather Cox Richardson

 

This May 1, 2021 offering is from Heather Cox Richardson who writes an excellent blog on a daily basis that focuses on political matters. Her work is well researched, reasoned, well written, and recommended. She can be found at https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com.

Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and professor of history at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians.[1] She previously taught history at MIT and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.[2]

Richardson has authored six books on history and politics. She is a founder and editor at werehistory.org, which presents professional history to a public audience through short articles. Between 2017 and 2018, she co-hosted the NPR podcast Freak Out and Carry On.[3] Most recently, Richardson started publishing “Letters from an American”, a nightly newsletter that chronicles current events in the larger context of American history.[4][5] The newsletter accrued tens of thousands of subscribers making her, as of December 2020, the most successful individual author of a paid publication on Substack.[6]

Her offering this time, however, is an entirely different topic, that being 10 famous American horses. I hope you enjoy this fine offering and credit Heather Cox Richardson and Michael S. Green for authorship.

Horses and humans have a long and close working relationship, surpassed only by dogs and mankind. While not used as extensively as they once work for work, horses continue to hold a fascination for many. I know Medicine  Spirit Ranch would not be the same without our riding horses, Fancy and Dandy. Of the following famous horses, my favorite is Secretariat. Which one is yours?

May 1, 2021

Heather Cox Richardson

May 1

 
   
   
 

In honor of this year’s Kentucky Derby (won today by Medina Spirit), I’m posting a piece my friend Michael S. Green and I wrote together a number of years ago on Ten Famous American Horses. It has no deep meaning… it’s just fun. It remains one of my favorite things I had a hand in writing, and I’m pleased to have an excuse to share it.

I’ll be back on the usual beat tomorrow.

1) Traveller

General Robert E. Lee rode Traveller (spelled with two Ls, in the British style) from February 1862 until the general’s death in 1870. Traveller was a grey American Saddlebred of 16 hands. He had great endurance for long marches, and was generally unflappable in battle, although he once broke both of General Lee’s hands when he shied at enemy movements. Lee brought Traveller with him when he assumed the presidency of Washington and Lee University. Traveller died of tetanus in 1871. He is buried on campus, where the safe ride program still uses his name.

2) Comanche

Comanche was attached to General Custer’s detachment of the 7th Cavalry when it engaged the Lakota in 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The troops in the detachment were all killed in the engagement, but soldiers found Comanche, badly wounded, two days later. They nursed him back to health, and he became the 7th Cavalry’s mascot. The commanding officer decreed that the horse would never again be ridden, and that he would always be paraded, draped in black, in all military ceremonies involving the 7th Cavalry. When Comanche died of colic in 1891, he was given a full military funeral (the only other horse so honored was Black Jack, who served in more than a thousand military funerals in the 1950s and 1960s). Comanche’s taxidermied body is preserved in the Natural History Museum at the University Of Kansas.

3) Beautiful Jim Key

Beautiful Jim Key was a performing horse trained by formerly enslaved veterinarian Dr. William Key. Key demonstrated how Beautiful Jim could read, write, do math, tell time, spell, sort mail, and recite the Bible. Beautiful Jim performed from 1897 to 1906 and became a legend. An estimated ten million Americans saw him perform, and others collected his memorabilia – buttons, photos, and postcards – or danced the Beautiful Jim Key two-step. Dr. Key insisted that he had taught Beautiful Jim using only kindness, and Beautiful Jim Key’s popularity was important in preventing cruelty to animals in America, with more than 2 million children signing the Jim Key Band of Mercy, in which they pledged: “I promise always to be kind to animals.”

4) Man o’ War

Named for his owner, August Belmont, Jr., who was overseas in WWI, Man o’ War is widely regarded as the top Thoroughbred racehorse of all time. He won 20 of his 21 races and almost a quarter of a million dollars in the early twentieth century. His one loss – to “Upset” – came after a bad start. Man o’ War sired many of America’s famous racehorses, including Hard Tack, which in turn sired Seabiscuit, the small horse that came to symbolize hope during the Great Depression.

5) Trigger

Entertainer Roy Rogers chose the palomino Trigger from five rented horses to be his mount in a Western film in the 1930s, changing his name from Golden Cloud to Trigger because of his quick mind and feet. Rogers rode Trigger in his 1950s television series, making the horse a household name. When Trigger died, Rogers had his skin draped over a Styrofoam mold and displayed it in the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in California. He also had a 24-foot statue of Trigger made from steel and fiberglass. One other copy of that mold was also made: it is “Bucky the Bronco,” which rears above the Denver Broncos stadium south scoreboard.

6) Sergeant Reckless

American Marines in Korea bought a mare in October 1952 from a Korean stable boy who needed the money to buy an artificial leg for his sister, who had stepped on a land mine. The marines named her Reckless after their unit’s nickname, the Reckless Rifles. They made a pet of her, and trained her to carry supplies and to evacuate wounded. She learned to travel supply routes without a guide: on one notable day she made 51 solo trips. Wounded twice, she was given a battlefield rank of corporal in 1953 and promoted to sergeant after the war, when she was also awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.

7) Mr. Ed

Mr. Ed was a talking palomino in a 1960s television show by the same name. At a time when Westerns dominated American television, Mr. Ed was the anti-Western, with the main human character a klutzy architect and the hero a horse that was fond of his meals and his comfortable life, and spoke with the voice of Allan “Rocky” Lane, who made dozens of “B” westerns. But the show was a five-year hit as it married the past to the future. Mr. Ed offered a gentle homely wisdom that enabled him to straighten out the troubles of the humans around him. The startling special effects that made it appear that the horse was talking melded modern technology with the comforting traditional community depicted in the show.

8) Black Jack

Black Jack, named for John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, was the riderless black horse in the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Douglas MacArthur, as well as more than a thousand other funerals with full military honors. A riderless horse, with boots reversed in the stirrups, symbolized a fallen leader, while Black Jack’s brands – a US brand and an army serial number – recalled the army’s history. Black Jack himself was buried with full military honors; the only other horse honored with a military funeral was Comanche.

9) Khartoum

Khartoum was the prize stud horse of Jack Woltz, the fictional Hollywood mogul in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. In one of the film version’s most famous scenes, after Woltz refuses requests from Don Vito Corleone to cast singer Johnny Fontane in a movie, Woltz wakes up to find Khartoum’s head in bed with him… and agrees to use Fontane in the film. In the novel, Fontane wins the Academy Award for his performance. According to old Hollywood rumor, the story referred to real events. The rumor was that mobsters persuaded Columbia Pictures executive Harry Cohn to cast Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. As Maggio, Sinatra revived his sagging film career and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

10) Secretariat

Secretariat was an American Thoroughbred that in 1973 became the first U.S. Triple Crown winner in 25 years. His records in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes still stand. After Secretariat was stricken with a painful infection and euthanized in 1989, an autopsy revealed that he had an unusually big heart. Sportswriter Red Smith once asked his trainer how Secretariat had run one morning; Charlie Hatton replied, “The trees swayed.”

 

Age and Wisdom

When recently  feeding out a steer (a Longhorn/Charolais cross), I decided to put his Longhorn grandmother, Bell, with him for company. This was to calm the calf that for the first time was separated from its mother and herd, and in addition to pamper Bell who was the first cow on our ranch and for whom I remain sentimental. She is now north of 25 years of age and in recent years has been becoming progressively skinny and competing poorly for food with the larger herd of Black Baldies.

Over the three months of fattening, like the calf, Bell gained weight and began to look much healthier. She relished the daily feedings of grain. When she would see me approach in the pickup, she would head straight away to the food trough with the steer following closely behind. When the calf was eventually fattened, loaded into the trailer, and taken to be processed, I opened the gate to reunite Bell with the herd.

But it seems Bell had developed an appetite for the finisher feed. Whenever I passed her for the next several days, she tended to track me hopefully with her plaintive brown eyes. I also observed her not feeding well on the still short Spring  grass, nor could she compete successfully when I doled out supplemental protein cubes. In short, she was once again dwindling.

I tried to feed her extra, but proved unsuccessful due to the other stronger cows showing up and running her off. This morning this unfortunate scenario reoccurred. I felt bad that Bell was unable to obtain more than a mouthful of grain before being driven off by the other cows and the bull. After my unsuccessful attempt I went about my ranch chores but continued to ponder if there was another strategy to supplement Bell’s diet. I eventually headed  back up the hill to where the herd resided.

But halfway up the hill, I found Bell standing alone. She seemingly had placed herself in this prominent position where I couldn’t miss seeing her but also located out of sight from the remainder of the herd.  I stopped and gave her a large portion of grain. She ate with gusto and without being molested by the other pushy cows, calves, or bull.

By guile and experience, Bell has found a way to obtain her extra feeding. I must admit being older myself, that I gained satisfaction at seeing the old girl outsmart the rest of the herd. Animals sense when another is slipping and afford them little succor. This old Longhorn had always been the smartest cow in the herd and for many years, despite not being the largest cow, served as the Bell Cow. When she eventually had to give up her rank in the herd, her daughter, also a Longhorn, took over as the Bell Cow. The Longhorns being smarter always led the Black Baldies to where the grass was best and the water plentiful.

Watching Bell this morning reminded me of the old saying that experience and guile can beat out the enthusiasm and vigor of youth. Once again, Bell the aged Longhorn proved this aphorism to be true.

Bell the old Longhorn is on the left and Cinnamon her daughter is on the right

Ice Storm Uri Hits Medicine Spirit Ranch

As if Covid-19 wasn’t bad enough, an ice storm hit Texas with the worst arcing around Fredericksburg. We were clobbered at our ranch and had to leave our home for two weeks due to lack of power and water. We were more fortunate than some in that neither we nor our animals were harmed. Others we know were not so fortunate. But what a mess the ice storm left with downed trees and branches strewn everywhere. I am told by those who have lived through hurricanes that the damage is very reminiscent of a hurricane. Below are a collection of pics taken following the ice storm.

A major challenge arose in keeping the horses and cattle with food and water. The ice storm dumped several inches of ice and snow on the pastures such that the animals were unable to get to the grass beneath the ice pack. The temperature dropped so low that the diesel gummed up such that the tractor would not run. This made it impossible to pull hay out of the barn. Instead we tied a strap around the hay bales and pulled them out of the barn with my pickup.

Water became a challenge as well, as the lines from the well to the water troughs froze. The water in the trough also froze but by using a sledge hammer I broke up the ice enough for the animals to drink. Eventually no water was left in the trough, but by then we were able to open the gates, allowing the animals to get to two creeks that had flowing water.

The ice on the road to the house became treacherous. After two harrowing trips slipping and sliding down the hill, I realized that the danger was simply too great to repeat. I began to leave the pickup in the pasture below the house and hike up the hill, entering the yard via the back gate. Such were a few of the novel challenges we faced.


Since weathering the ice storm and regaining power at our home, I’ve been spending much time chainsawing and hauling branches to our dump site or to various burn sites. Generally I also have taken a day a week to vaccinate folks at our vaccination center. To do so, required I update my medical license. Doing so turned out to be a pleasant surprise, as the State of Texas made it extremely easy to re-activate my license for the duration of the pandemic and at no cost. I never knew the State could move so quickly as my license update took only a couple of days.

Gradually the labor is returning the ranch to a more normal state. Regrettably we have lost many, many Live Oak branches and of less concern the junipers (what we call cedar). Both of these had foliage that collected up to an inch and a half of ice, followed by snow, breaking many limbs and entire trees. Am extremely grateful for my ranch hands who have worked hard ever since. One of the few benefits is that I’ve pretty well worked myself back into shape and have had to tighten my belt two to three notches. Anyone else out there wish to try the Hutton exercise plan and diet? You can join the plan at no cost!

Admittedly, the ice storm diminished my spirits big time. Seeing a beautiful piece of property become so terribly damaged was a blow to my equilibrium. Since then my spirits have oscillated but  are now on an upward trend. Thank goodness for good neighbors who took us in (the Norris’s) and kept us warm and well fed. Their mighty generator along with a clever addition of their diesel tractor adding to the generator kept us and the Davies’ family warm. It was like a prolonged sleepover and Happy Hour.

One of the most memorable events occurred for after we lost power in our home. The power line broke due to massive ice collection. Heck, I thought, we’ll just move into our guest house that still had power and water (the wells are powered by electricity). But after two days in the guest house and experiencing nothing worse than rolling blackouts, we lost power there as well. In fact the entire valley went dark that night. The temperature in the house fell to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We piled on the blankets but were still cold. To keep our dogs Bella and Jack warm and to keep Trudy and me warm, the dogs were invited into the bed for a group cuddle. Did you know the normal temperature for a dog is 101 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. It was like having two heaters in the bed with us. The following morning, we accepted the gracious invitation from our neighbors and left our very cold guest house.

Knowing we have such good friends, willing to take us in is a very good feeling. The catastrophic weather event ended up bringing three families much closer together than would ever had occurred without the storm. For family and friends we are most grateful. We now have new resolve to repair the damages at the ranch and strive for an even better future.

Wagging Dog Tails

One benefit of the Covid-19 pandemic (come to think of it, its the only one that comes to mind) has been additional time to closely observe our pets. After all we can only watch so many movies, read so many books, and discuss so many topics with our quarantine mates. Dogs especially can provide great distraction from our circumstances, although I likely look pretty strange trailing my dogs around watching and trying to interpret their tail wags.

Since dogs cannot speak, they communicate in different ways than humans. Dogs use their general body language, posture, bark, eyes, ears, muzzle expressions and especially their tails to signal their emotions and intentions and do this for both humans and other animals. Tail wags also signal how a dog feels about its environment. Parenthetically, did you know that dogs don’t wag their tails when alone, just like humans (for the most part) don’t speak when by themselves. So tail wags have meaning, but what do we really know about this oftentimes overlooked behavior?

John Gilpatrick has divided tail wags into five categories. The first is “The High and Tight” tail wag. Heather Luedecke, a certified dog behaviorist, says a tail held high signifies that the dog is about to move into a new situation. A dog with a tail held high and firm likely has apprehension. If the tail is held looser, the dog likely is feeling playful.

Little Jack with tail held high and still. May signal a degree of apprehension

The high and tight tail has best been demonstrated to me by Little Jack Kerouac, our rescue dog. He reliably demonstrates the high and tight tail whenever a UPS or FedEx truck arrives with a delivery. Little Jack streaks to the window, glares out the window not only with a high and tight tail, but with hackles up, and begins barking furiously. Little Jack really doesn’t like delivery people!

A second dog tail position according to Gilpatrick is “The Sweeping Broom.” Such a tail position is when a dog has its tail hanging low and stiff. Essentially this is the reverse from the high and tight tail to a lower held and stiff tail. As the dog relaxes, the tail will begin to move back and forth in a broad wag. Heather Luedecke says such positioning communicates that the dog means no harm and is demonstrating social appropriateness. This is an invitation to slowly approach the dog and scratch or sniff, depending on whether you are a human or a dog, In general a small tail wag indicates a welcoming gesture, while a broad tail wag indicates overt friendliness.

Notice How Little Jack’s and Bella’s broad tails wags are blurred due to their excitement

The third tail position of significance according to John Gilpatrick is the “Loosey Goosey” tail wag. A loose tail wag is a positive sign and means the dog is relaxed. The speed of the loosey goosey wag also may have meaning. A higher speed of tail wag usually means a heightened level of excitement. This, however, varies among dogs. Barrios points out that older dogs are sometimes less expressive with their tails than are younger ones. Experience allows dogs to better interpret what is going on around them just like it does for humans.

Meet the “loosey, goosey tail wag of our neighbor dog, Coco. She is the friendliest dog I’ve met and almost constantly demonstrates such a tail position and loose tail wagging while Little Jack has his tail held high and tight, likely signaling some degree of apprehension due to the larger brown Labrador Retriever

The fourth tail position of significance described by Gilpatrick is “The Charlie Brown.” Think of Charlie Brown’s dejection just after Lucy has moved the football. The Charlie Brown position is when a dog’s tail tucks up underneath its body. This positioning according to Luedecke describes the dog as feeling upset, frustrated, or anxious. Such a dog should be given space or else separated from whatever environment has prompted the tail positioning. Also when the tail of a dog moves from a neutral position to a lower one, this demonstrates a submissive attitude. We’ve likely all observed this tail position in a dog when it is being disciplined or else has been caught doing something that is forbidden.

The fifth and final tail position described is “The Shorty.” Not all dogs have long tails. Among these breeds with short, stubby tails are Pugs and English Bulldogs. In addition tails are cropped in Australian Shepherds, Cocker Spaniels, Rottweilers, and Yorkshire Terriers. Some 62 breeds of dogs are recognized by the American Kennel Club as having cropped tails. Dogs with short tails have increased difficulty communicating with other dogs as naturally they are harder to read. As such these dogs with short tails may demonstrate more distance-increasing behaviors such as growling, barking, or biting more quickly than do longer tailed dogs. One has to pay special attention to the stubby tail of one of these breeds and interpret as much information as possible.

What About Directional Tail Wagging?

An interesting experiment was carried out on dogs wagging their tail predominantly to the left side or right side. A neuroscientist, Giorgio Vallortigara and two veterinary doctors (Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi) conducted observations on thirty dogs who were each held in a cage equipped with cameras. These authors published a paper describing their findings in Current Biology. The conditions studied were when their owners approached, when an unknown person approached, when a cat was introduced, and when a dominant dog was presented.

The experiments revealed that when the owners approached their pets, eager tail wags showed a bias to the right sides of the dogs’ bodies. When approached by an unknown person, the dogs showed a moderate bias to the right side of their bodies but with less vigorous tail wagging. The approach of a cat created a slight bias to the right side of the dogs’ bodies, showing a heightened sense of interest in the dogs. The approach of an alpha dog gave rise to a bias of tail wagging to the left side of the dogs’ bodies. The predominant left sided tail wag indicated negative feelings. So in general a right sided predominant tail wag indicates positive feelings and a left sided predominant tail wag indicates negative ones

In illustration of tail wagging directional bias can be seen with Bella, our female Border collie. Bella turns out to be strangely jealous of my affection for Trudy, my wife. This jealousy becomes obvious whenever Trudy and I approach and hug. When Bella sees this happening, she races toward us, barking with a left side predominant tail wag. Her display indicates she is feeling negative, that is jealous about my showing affection for Trudy. Bella is clearly a one person dog. Fortunately Bella’s tail has a broad sweep to it, rather than a stiff, high held angry positioning. I interpret this as while she doesn’t like the female competition, she isn’t angry enough to signal aggressive behavior toward Trudy.

Our dogs communicate not only with dogs and other animals, but also with us. We humans need be aware of what their tails are signaling to us. Are they friendly, fearful, submissive, happy, playful? Those tail wags in our dogs are important not only for clearing objects off low lying tables, but also for telling us of their feelings, fears, and level of excitement. Wag on dogs!

Stump Spirit Thanksgiving

While I’ve forgotten exactly when or even why the local tradition began, the residents living on Blue Jay Way years ago began to decorate a particular stump nearby our common road. We call it, Stump Spirit. Tradition has it that those Denizens of the Way who decorate the stump, do so when no one else is around, often after the sun sets behind the hills and mystical spirits leak out of the hills and hollows (or perhaps, after having been imbibed).

While the stump mysteriously becomes decorated for all major holidays and special occasions, Thanksgiving has always been especially well represented. Look closely below for the chicken figure partially hidden behind the “Eat Mor Chickin” sign and the turkeys in their bibs, holding their eating utensils.

A turkey theme carries over from a prior year when a turkey with bulging eyes suddenly spots a gun toting hunter who is lurking behind a tree with turkey-cide intent .

Thanksgiving for the Hutton clan is about family and giving thanks for our bounties and good fortunes. During the year of the Covid-19 Pandemic, these plans unfortunately have had to change. Our Thanksgiving table will host vastly reduced numbers of people this year. This is painful for us all, especially for my wife, Trudy. Hopefully next year we will return to the large, raucous celebrations of prior years. Think of a cross between a Medieval banquet and Animal House.

The above image was taken a number of years ago when our grandchildren, Graham and Ramsey, were much younger. Nevertheless, I just had to work in a picture of our beloved grandchildren visiting an earlier rendition of a Thanksgiving Stump Spirit. Our efforts are meant to fashion a sense of place for our grandchildren, as well as for the older denizens of Blue Jay Way.

The Denizens of the Way are wonderful neighbors. A lot of creativity goes into decorating Stump Spirit or about anything else that stays put for awhile. Such was the case when a hired man’s tractor broke down in my pasture. It sat, and sat, and sat some more, waiting for its inevitable repair. Finally Fall arrived and the following enhancements to the tractor showed up. Now this is real pasture art!

Other holidays get their due. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day are marked by decorating the stump and its surrounds with American flags and patriotic memorabilia. The stump on Labor Day receives hard hats and related tools.

Halloween gets recognition with ghouls, ghosts, and goblins.

The slow parts of the year represent a creative challenge. This is especially true for the hot, sultry days of late summer. But even the dog days of summer often sees an occasional theme appear as demonstrated below.

The result of the collective efforts of those who decorate the humble stump is to bind the neighbors together in a feat of whimsy and friendship. It is fun. It allows for creative expression. The world needs more of this.

Those of us at Medicine Spirit Ranch and the Denizens of the Way wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving. Please be safe and stay healthy. The vaccine is on its way. Let’s all buckle down and continue to wear masks, social distance, and wash our hands until immunity to this virus is attained. Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday and continued good health!

Creatures of Habit

We all have habits or routines that we have fallen into, be we humans or animals. I’ve become more aware of these behaviors in my dogs following the death of our senior Border collie, Buddy. Little Jack, our erstwhile Texas Brown dog, following a suitable interval has taken to lying under the coffee table where Buddy exclusively laid.

Bella previously had adopted the routine of lying just outside “Buddy’s Office” which was a dog bed placed in a corner of the living room behind a decorative Oriental wooden screen. Buddy would nap in his office while Bella laid just outside the entrance to his “office”. Now she has left her prior “secretary’s spot” just outside and sleeps on Buddy’s prior dog bed in the “office”.

Buddy in his younger days

I suppose this means Bella’s period of mourning has passed. I am convinced she sorely missed Buddy after his death. She just didn’t act like she normally did. She was still anxious to ride in the pickup but frankly acted droopy. Of course Bella was the same breed of dog as Buddy and had always had her big friend around. This was quite a change for Bella, not nearly so much for Little Jack.

Bella enjoying a ride in the Gator
Little Jack in his favorite place (note the two pillows)

What gives? I know we all have our preferred places at the dinner table, favorite comfortable chairs, and habitual coffee mugs. In the case of my dogs I had assumed their “habits” were a dominance thing. That is, even at his advanced age Buddy was the dominant dog and had the favored spots in which to snooze. For the most part, the other dogs did not intrude on his space. Toward the end of Buddy’s life, I noticed Little Jack begin to take license with Buddy’s spots. But just maybe, like humans, these were learned routines that they had fallen into.

My two horses will almost always go to a specific end of the trough and await my pouring of their portions of feed. The chosen spots may in part be because Fancy, the Paint horse, will dictate the end of the trough she wants and run the gelding, Dandy, off. I assume she takes a glance at the mounds of feed and, if his feed looks more attractive and catches her eye, she none too subtly “relocates” him. Yes, this sounds like a dominance thing.

Fancy, our dominant female Paint horse
Dandy while larger than Fancy, tends to defer to her (the secret to a happy equine marriage?)

Other dog behaviors exist as when my dogs watch me get dressed in the morning. They particularly scrutinize me when putting on my ranch clothes, but not so when I pull out the golf togs. In the case of ranch clothing Bella becomes very excited and begins to bark vigorously. Her behavior proves quite annoying for me and Trudy. Little Jack’s role is to come between Bella and me and attempt to block her from excitedly jumping up on me. Both dogs clearly recognize patterns to my dressing and have their separate routines as how to behave.

With cattle I have also noticed a feeding “pecking order.” Quite predictably certain cattle (the younger Longhorn and one or two of the Black Baldies) will head pall mall for the feed sack as I begin to pour. They stake out the beginning of the feed line. Other cattle jostle for intermediate feeding positions with the calves and certain Black Baldies ending up at the end or in the case of younger calves not in line at all. I always attempt to make a particularly long line of range cubes so that all the cattle will feel comfortable getting in line for the range cubes. Clearly an ordering exists in the bovine food line.

You may not be able to tell us apart. but we sure know which of us are in charge

I’ve assumed this behavior in cattle was an act of pure dominance. Those will horns have a clear advantage, if not too old to do minor combat. Why some of the full grown Black Baldies end up as “Tail End Charlies”, I don’t know. I’ve assumed they are not quite as big or strong or perhaps were from a smaller herd when they joined my herd and haven’t been completely accepted as yet.

I would love to hear comments from readers as to the behaviors of their animals and how they mirror or interact with their humans. Remember our pets are always studying us, just like we study them.

If you haven’t already read my book, Carrying The Black Bag: A Neurologist’s Bedside Tales, please consider picking up a copy. It is available via Amazon or your local bookstore. It is a fun read, demonstrates a lot of humanity and courage from patients, and has been well reviewed. I would welcome your thoughts.

Carrying the Black Bag book

A Longer View From Medicine Spirit Ranch

When I established my blog many years ago, I hoped a focus on a tranquil rural lifestyle that emphasized animal behaviors, natural beauty, and an attitude of positivity would create a few tranquil moments for my sometimes harried blog readers. Views From Medicine Spirit Ranch also provides the opportunity for me to share my thoughts and ruminations with my wonderful and highly indulgent readers. This blog tries to provide a sense of normalcy that comes from both less stressful rural living and from the close contact wild animals, stock animals and pets afford us.

Come on Rancher Tom, you must know my wants and needs.
What about a Gator ride?
Or a ride in the pickup?
Bandit who not only provided great emotional support and distraction, but also relocated two busy, unhappy professionals to a new retired life in the Texas Hill Country (a story as yet to be fully told)

Well, 2020 has proved to be anything but normal. The Covid-19 pandemic has swept our nation and world, impacting life in ways no one could have imagined. Additionally, we are in the midst of a hard fought presidential election in the USA with rancor unrivaled in recent memory. These two major stressors have unsettled most of our lives and given rise to our existential angst.

One advantage that comes from sitting on a hill in rural Texas is observing the world as it unspools its events on a grand stage. This is not to say we in the countryside are immune to what is going on around us, as such is certainly not the case. Nevertheless, we may not be as constantly bombarded or impacted as severely as those who live in denser population centers or who are more influenced by modern goings. I like to think of myself as a retired cowboy sitting on his hill, viewing the world through a broad lens.

The birth of rational thought occurred well over a thousand years ago with the teachings of the Budda, Confuscius, and Socrates. Each of these great thinkers were willing to depart from established dogma and the comfortable allure of the old ways to establish trust and belief in human rationality. These great thinkers advised trusting in what we can determine, rather than relying on sacrifice, incantations, and the old traditional ways. This rational approach took courage to follow and rattled more than a few cages.

In some ways the establishment of the USA shows a similar trend. Even the American Revolution had about as many people who favored maintaining the American Colonies within the British Empire, as it did revolutionaries, wishing for self-government and American liberty.

Our American experiment has lasted about 250 years and has vacillated between progressive eras (think emancipation of the slaves, women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and civil rights) and periods where more traditional-minded voters needed time to incorporate, assimilate, and at times roll back progressive instincts. Such swings of the pendulum undoubtedly helped to establish a semblance of societal equilibrium.

I view the partisan views of the Covid-19 pandemic in the USA in this light. The coronavirus doesn’t care if the party in power has a “R” or a “D” on its lapel. The coronavirus is entirely nonpartisan in whom it attacks. It is an equal opportunity pathogen. Speaking of the pandemic in partisan fashion simply leaves me mystified.

Worrisome is the fact that science has been disparaged to the benefit of fitting a political dogma with anti-science screeds, disparagement, anti-physician bias (“idiots, self-serving as they make more money if people die”). Even more surprising is that during this partisan year, some people accept such disparagement and even push for avoidance of frustrating mitigation strategies to establish “herd immunity.”

Dr. Paul Klotman, President and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine, took on the Dr. Scott Atlas’ of the world by issuing a prediction, based on current data, that such an approach to abandoning proven mitigation strategies until our population is vaccinated would lead to over 1.2 million American deaths. This calculation is three times the deaths that occurred to Americans during World War II and also during the Spanish Flu pandemic. These are huge and shocking numbers.

Lets also keep in mind that the coronavirus will continue to circulate and science does not yet know how long immunity will last, be it naturally acquired or vaccine induced. Just imagine what such a deluge of Covid-19 patients on our health system would cause.

For starters our hospitals and health care providers would be overwhelmed. People with other illnesses in need of hospital treatment, would not find services available, leading to secondarily related deaths. Routine healthcare and screenings would be diminished. Such an outcome for our country and for our public health strikes this retired physician as totally unacceptable.

Knowing that we all suffer pandemic and political fatigue, I harbor no illusion that I understand how the American election will turn out or the extent of change relating to Covid-19 that will result from the election. While I hope for a healing of our partisan divide along with a strong uniform national policy for mitigating the pandemic, Tuesday’s election will determine our course forward. Following the election let’s hope our citizens can unite behind our common beliefs in America. Let’s be prepared to move ahead.

Our national experience in historical terms is fairly short. We are bound by our amazing Constitution and our Declaration of Independence and much less so by ethnic, religious, and common experiences. Let’s believe in our American system with its rights, freedoms,values, and responsibilities. Lets be prepared to heal the political divisions, no matter who is elected President, and look forward to a brighter future than has been the year 2020.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to write about those rural aspects that fascinate me and look forward tp sharing those stories with my indulgent blog readers.

I must confess to a special distraction that has enthralled both Trudy and me this year- the birth of a new grandson- Teddy O’Neal. There is nothing like new life to provide an uplift for sagging spirits. This gift has greatly benefited our emotional equilibria this year.

The newest calf on Medicine Spirit Ranch (young Teddy in his Halloween costume)

Please continue to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus by wearing a mask, by social distancing, by avoiding crowds, via hand-washing and, yes, DO NOT FORGET TO VOTE.

Buzzards and Vultures

What a joy to publish a guest blog piece  from a friend and true expert on bird behavior. The honor is even greater and more personal as Dr. Rylander was one of my principal professors when I attended college and majored in Zoology. What a surprise when Dr. Rylander and I learned that following our retirements that we had both chosen Fredericksburg, Texas, as a place to live. He is the author of Behavior of Texas Birds, published by the University of Texas Press.

One of the nearly constant sights over our ranch is the presence of vultures languidly circling high above. Little did I understand the differences of the two types of vultures that we see, although always being amazed by their graceful flight and efficient clean up of roadkill along our rural roads. Dr. Rylander makes their presence more meaningful and enjoyable to view than I had ever considered. Enjoy!

 

Guest Blog Piece by Kent Rylander, Ph.D.

Growing up on a farm during the late 1940’s, my brother and I called them “buzzards” – those large, black, hawk-like birds that soar in circles high overhead, or that stand on the highway by a road kill and fly away lazily if cars approach too closely. Even today most farmers in Denton County call them buzzards, and some still shoot them because they think they’re hawks or that they transmit diseases.
Later, when our parents gave us a field guide, we learned the preferred name, “vulture,” a term ornithologists introduced to distinguish our vultures from the unrelated African buzzards. We also learned that two species occur in Texas, the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture.

Black Vulture on the left and Turkey vulture on the right


Overhead these two vultures might appear to be the same species because they are so similar in general appearance. However, a closer look reveals that the Turkey Vulture is very light on the wing and rocks gently back and forth as it effortlessly soars for hours; it rarely needs to flap its wings. In contrast, the Black Vulture’s body appears too heavy even for its broad wings. Indeed, Black Vultures must flap and glide just to stay aloft even at high altitudes where thermals are strong.


The “personalities” of these two species are related to their different body types. Both have keen eyesight and regularly search for carrion while they soar high above the ground, but they differ in an important way. The Turkey Vulture’s large wing to body ratio allows it to fly low over the ground and locate small animals such as snakes and rodents. It also has a sense of smell, which almost all birds, including the Black Vulture, lack because olfaction is useless for an animal that spends most of the time in the air.


More than a century ago Audubon claimed he demonstrated olfaction in Turkey Vultures by placing a dead animal under a sheet next to a realistic painting of a carcass. A vulture flew down to the painting but ignored it, then pulled the carcass out from under the sheet.


Although Black Vultures can’t locate small carcasses because they must fly high to stay aloft, they compensate for this limitation by watching Turkey Vultures forage low over the ground. When a Black Vulture sees a Turkey Vulture feeding on a small carcass, it drops down and drives the Turkey Vulture away. The Turkey Vulture seems to accept being bullied by its much heavier and stronger relative, even when both are at a large carcass.


Is the Black Vulture more aggressive because its size enables it to be a bully, or is it basically just a more aggressive animal?


The answer to this question lies with the young, fluffy white fledglings, which hatch and live in small caves in cliffs and rock formations. When a person approaches a Turkey Vulture fledgling, the young bird cowers and retreats to the back of the cave; but when a Black Vulture fledgling is approached, it hisses and lunges at the intruder.


So when we look up and see Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures soaring together, ostensibly cooperating while looking for a well-deserved meal to share, we know that, thanks to their genetics, they’re not foraging together because they’re friends.

Survivor Duck

Years ago my neighbor and I shared a brood of Rouen baby ducklings. They were delivered by mail, raised in cages, and eventually when ours were grown walked by Trudy down to our nearby stock tank. Actually to Trudy’s surprise the following day she found that they had walked back to our back fence, and she had to again walk them back down to the stock tank.

These Rouen ducklings became big breasted and flightless ducks. While they can manage to fly for very short distances and at a foot or two above the water, they essentially are flightless. What we had not counted on was that these flightless ducks became particularly vulnerable to varmints, such as raccoons and coyotes. Sure enough, one by one, the ducks disappeared without so much as a suspicious pile of feathers being left behind. That is, all of the ducks but one, this being a male Rouen duck.

This is not MY Rouen duck, as he is currently moulting and not very pretty. This picture of a male and a female Rouen duck is taken from the internet


I’ve named thislone lone duck, Survivor duck, for obvious reasons. But what wasn’t at all clear to me was how this duck managed to dodge the predators and live when all the others had been lost early on. He has now been without any of his fellow ducks for some three or more years. How in the world did he manage this feat of survival?

As is my routine very morning, I head to the stock tank and throw out feed for Survivor Duck and for the bass and other stocked fish in the tank. Almost every day Survivor Duck paddles over to me and enjoys his breakfast. His ability to pluck the pellets from the water always reminds of of a sewing machine. His head simply flies up and down so fast that it becomes blurred.

He has become so used to my presence that he is almost tame. He will waddle along the ground a step in front of me and eat the feed that I throw either on the ground or in the water. I doubt he would let me approach him close enough to pick him up, but it would be close.

On the days when Survivor Duck doesn’t appear, I always fear he has become the latest duck to meet with a grisly fate. But within a day or two, I see him churning through the water toward me, as I open the duck box and begin to throw out feed.

My answer to this nagging question of how he has survived came not long ago. As I approached the stock tank, I scanned the pond and did not see Survivor duck. But Suddenly my eyes were drawn upward to a flying duck at around fifty feet. I watched it fly the length of the stock tank. As it approached overhead the duck banked to the right and made a long lazy loop out over the edge of my property and my neighbor’s property only to complete the circle back over the stock tank.

The duck flew toward me, lost altitude, extended its feet like orange skids, and landed in the water not more than twenty feet away. To my amazement it was Survivor Duck. Our so-called flightless duck had become proficient at flying. No doubt this ability explains his remarkable ability to avoid any duck devouring predators. I can now attest that there is at least one Rouen duck in the world that is NOT flightless.

Perhaps this just goes to prove that when faced with special challenges, this duck learned to evolve and adapt. Hmmm, may be there is a lesson here.