Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fairly Odd Science Projects

This is apparently how mating chickens look when its done heterosexually. I deeply regret that I never snapped a shot of Maggie Lou in action. My cell phone didn't even have  a camera back then.

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last! (with apologies to the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King). The hospital has sprung me with the understanding that I need to stay in my condo until Monday. Now, onto more pressing matters . . .

My friend Megan, with whom I grew up from the time I was nine until we finished high school, and with whom I'm still in regular contact, lived with her family in a home on the very edge of our town's city limits. In fact, while their home itself was in the city limits, the majority of their rather large back yard was not within our incorporated city, and was therefore exempt from city regulations controlling the possession of farm animals. The family owned a few horses, a donkey, several hens and sometimes a rooster, a couple of sheep or pigs from time to time depending upon what kid in the family had what project for 4-H or FFA, and Megan's mother raised calves. It's apparently common practice to separate calves from their mothers when they're a day or so old. Various individuals around the dairy farming community --  often stay-at-home wives supplementing their family income -- sort of "foster parent" these calves until the calves are old enough to not need to drink milk any longer and can eat grass and hay and whatever else it is cows are supposed to eat. (I read somewhere that corn really isn't great for cows, but I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that bit of information; I need to ask my Godfather, Uncle Ralph.)

Megan was less involved with any of the farm animals on the premises than were her three siblings. 4-H and FFA were not her cup of tea. She was more into playing her flute and competing as a member of  academic decathlon teams , mock trials, math Olympics, and other academic pursuits. We rode her horses on rare occasions, though riding horses was pretty far beyond my comfort zone. My Uncle Ralph had a horse I trusted not to take off at breakneck speed with me on its back.

I had no such confidence in any of those horses Megan's family owned. I suspect every damned one of the family's horses  was trained by either Evel Knievel himself or one of his protegees.One of the tamer horses once jumped a fence that separated the horse pasture from the tennis court  and ran with Megan's older brother on its bare back, clinging to its mane for dear life,  through the streets of our town until the horse finally deposited her brother onto the steps of the First Baptist Church. The horse continued its run through the town and onto the university campus, terrifying bicyclists and narrowly avoiding multiple auto accidents, until it finally found its way home and jumped back into the pasture. After that adventure, Megan's dad had all fences  surrounding the horse pasture extended two feet higher than they had previously been. And please keep in mind that Megan's brother was actually at least moderately skilled in western riding techniques, as opposed to someone like me, who was more suited to riding a carousel horse than one that actually lived and breathed.

I like horses -- love them, even. I think they're beautiful, majestic animals. I never miss one of the televised triple crown events.  I just don't particularly want to ride them. Horses and I have reached a tenuous understanding. I agree not to climb on their backs as long as they promise not to climb on mine. Megan's father could never understand my complete ineptitude where equestrian skills were concerned. "You were practically an elite gymnast!" he exclaimed. "You should have great balance on a horse."

I just shrugged because I didn't know what to tell him. I totally sucked at riding horses and had no great explanation for it. I learned many years later in a motor learning class that riding a horse requires a motor skill known as waist differentiation, which is similar in a way to balance, yet is its own separate skill. In any event, I may have great balance, but I possess poorer-than-average waist differentiation. An additional factor was that none of the gymnastics apparati that I used had minds or wills of their own. There wasn't the slightest chance that the balance beam would race out of the gym with me on it and run through the town until it found the steps of some church on which to drop me.  With Megan's family's best-trained horses, there was a better-than- average chance that even a skilled rider was not going to end up at his or her intended designation riding one of those beasts.

I mentioned that Megan's family also kept chickens, mostly for the fresh eggs. Every now and then they would allow a rooster to mature so that the occasional egg would be fertilized and the herd (I don't think groups of chickens are properly referred to as herds, but that's what I'm calling Megan's family's chickens) would be perpetuated, but mostly they wanted hens to lay fresh eggs. Someone took the vast majority of  the little male chicks away and we never gave any thought to their probably not very happy fates. 

Anyway, there was generally only one rooster around at a time if there were any at all. What they did have, on the other hand, was a hen who thought she was a rooster and very much behaved the part. She would attempt to mount the other hens and have her way with them as they awkwardly flew about the coop in effort to avoid her. The hen who wanted to be a rooster (Maggie Lou; Megan's mother named all of her chickens) was our introduction to gender  identity issues, homosexuality, and the like. Megan's father would not have been caught near a church if they'd been giving out free horses trained by Evel Knievel or his protegees, but Megan's mother and the children faithfully attended the First Baptist Church, where homosexuality was believed to be a cardinal sin, or at least a major one. (I don't think First Baptists have cardinal sins.)  

This presented a bit of a dilemma in Megan's family, as how could homosexuality always be a choice if a chicken had found that lifestyle?  Everyone knows that chickens are inherently stupid animals even as birds go. If you've ever had a college course where you had to train a chicken, you understand the meaning of the word frustration. Chickens have very small brains and are not capable of the thought processes required to decide whether to pursue a heterosexual lifestyle or an alternative one.

The main reason Megan's mom kept Maggie Lou around as opposed to frying her for Sunday dinner was that she was a great egg producer but didn't have much in the way of maternal instinct and didn't sit on her eggs, so it was really easy to collect them each day.

It was my idea that we could turn Maggie Lou into a project for our biology class. Megan's dad thought we should simply videotape Maggie Lou doing her thing, but I felt that a video lacked the dramatic effect we needed to achieve a maximum score on the project. Our classmates and teacher needed to see  with their own eyes a live performance of Maggie Lou attempting  coitus with a few of the other hens.

One morning we loaded up Maggie Lou and three of the least passive hens --  Little Lotta, Jeannette, and Ellie May --  into chicken cages. Megan's older brother drove us to school in her pick-up truck and helped us to carry the chickens to our biology classroom. Our teacher, while not the worst excuse for an educator that  I've ever endured, would have preferred that everything we learned about science be accomplished with science books, writing utensils, and paper. He wasn't a hands-on sort of teacher who got off on mixing liquid from different beakers together and heating  the mixture up until it exploded, or even on dissecting fetal pigs. Live chickens in his classroom for a day was something that wasn't in his lesson plans, and he always followed his lesson plans to the letter. Yet we certainly couldn't carry them from class to class, and he was the one who okayed the project in writing -- we had his signature right there on the proposal -- even if he hadn't actually bothered to read just what it was that he was agreeing to before he signed it.

Megan, Claire (who was also involved) and I left the chickens in our biology teacher's classroom against the loud protests of Mr. Zweichert. When we came back nearly two hours later for the next period (we were on a modified block schedule) the chickens had been moved into the hallway. Zweichert claimed someone in his earlier class had been allergic. I'm highly skeptical of his claim, as the kids in the earlier class said that Zweichert was developing some sort of nervous tic, and his face twitched every time one of the chickens squawked.

Mr. Zweichert decided our project should be first so he could be over and done with the damned chickens. Claire read our hypothesis, which was a wordy explanation that gender attraction is not in all cases a choice or likely even learned behavior. (No roosters had been on the premises in Maggie Lou's brief lifetime.) Remember that this was long before the days of  Caitlyn Jenner or probably even Chastity  (Chaz, isn't it now) Bono, so Claire's proposal caused a few gasps and giggles even in the major high school of our relatively educated university town.  We were breaking new ground here.

I let the conventional hens out of their cages. They mostly just quietly walked around the classroom exploring their surroundings. Then Megan freed Maggie Lou from her cage. She first went after Ellie May, who flew to the top of a lab table where three girls were seated  in effort to avoid Maggie Lou's advances. The girls screamed, as did two other girls at an adjacent lab table. (I don't know why we even bothered with the pretense of  lab tables. We never did one single thing resembling a laboratory procedure all year.) Then Little Lotta caught Maggie Lou's attention. When Maggie Lou attempted to put the moves on Little Lotta, Little Lotta sort of flew/hopped onto the teacher's lb table at the front of the classroom. I've never seen a man so afraid of two chickens - and these weren't even those fighting roosters you read about than exist in the farming communities of the San Joaquin valley where lost of Mexican-American immigrants live. They were just plain old hens, albeit one with allegedly a bit more testosterone than the other two. Zweichert screamed and ran out of the room, and the entire class followed except for Claire, Megan, and me. Just before we could round her up, Maggie Lou took a giant crap on Zweichert's grade book. Megan's brother drove the hens home during his lunch break. He compensated himself for the effort by not coming back to school for the final period of the day. i'm not sure what he told his mother. attendance policies were pretty lax back in the day.

Zweichert didn't give us the 100% we expected on our project. Our written portion received full credit, but he said that he had to deduct point for the mayhem we had created. I argued unsuccessfully that a few screaming girls and one cluster of chicken poop on a grade book did not equal mayhem, but Zweichert was not swayed. Fortunately, everything else we did for a grade in that class was based on books, paper, and writing utensils, so I still ended up with the highest grade in the class.

I would tell you about the experiment two years later in physiology where we fed equivalent doses of Immodium and Exlax to one of Megan's mom's calves to see which drug was the stronger of the two, but someone would probably report me to PETA and my blog would be permanently shut down.


  1. Glad you're out of the hospital! That is one wild story! As you know, horses got me through adolescence. I got to the point at which I was pretty good on a horse. However, I can't turn a cartwheel to save my life.

    1. i remember that horses were practically your life for awhile. I thought of you as I typed the story. It's sort of a classic thing for adolescent girls to love horses, but, depending upon the girl's particular circumstances, owning a horse or even having regular access to one isn't as common as one would think. I can ride one particular horse my aunt and uncle keep on their farm (they have others that are trained to be used for rodeo sorts of events, but I wouldn't try riding one if you paid me to do so). I can canter or lope or whatever it is you do with the gentle horse they have. I have to have a horse that has the same exact goal in mind as I do and can read my mind. Put me on any other horse, and I'm probably soon going to be on the ground and not necessarily on my feet.

      I admire and envy people like you who ride with ease, but I would never be one of such people even if I took lessons twice a week for the next eight years.

    2. Horses are very sensitive to the people riding them in my experience. They can tell if you are nervous and many horses take that as the go ahead to do whatever they want. I feel like there is an inherent quality in some people to be able to read animals emotions (not like an animal psychic, which is bs in my opinion) but reading little motions in the ears, etc. that makes horseback riding and dog training easier. I've been good at this since I was a kid (the neighbor's cat loved me and met me at the bus stop every day and followed me home) despite the fact that we never had pets. Meanwhile my husband lacks this quality, so it is pretty funny to watch him try and tell our dog to do something and the dog completely ignores him and then I get up and tell him the same thing and he immediately complies. No one taught me it is just something that came naturally. It helps with kids as well lol.

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