Archive for the ‘menagerie’ Category

Project #263 – Genji Costume for Mary

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

My chicken Mary is special. Well, not “special”, but extraordinary. She’s not as big as her sisters and her feathers are a little more red than what is usual for a Rhode Island Red, but she also has a unique ability to tolerate having her picture taken. While Catherine and Elanor will peck and squawk when compelled to stay still, Mary takes it all in stride. Catherine and Elanor will walk immediately out of view range of my cacmera, but after being put back in place once or twice Mary will just stay and wait until you are done. She’s behaved this way ever since we adopted her as a wee chick.

I decided to press my luck today to see what we could accomplish with Mary’s unusual amount of patience. I decided to enter her in the New Yorker’s Critterati Contest, a competition to see whose pet makes the most convincing literary figure.

I swear that I’ve never dressed up a pet before; I’ve always felt bad for dogs in sweaters. Mary has never worn a hat before, at least not a real one. I don’t know, I felt…compelled to see if I could pull this off.

I decided to make a chicken-sized Genji Monogatari costume. There would only be two pieces needed to set the character and both were relatively easy to make. The hat took a few minutes to fashion out of felt and a rubber band. The robes were a cinch to make out of scrap fabric. The question would be whether they would fit and whether Mary would tolerate wearing them without freaking out.

I waited until nightfall; Mary is a lot more comfortable being handled after dark. Saralinda was on hand to assist and hold up the background. After some initial resistance, Mary acquiesced to wearing the costume.

She really knocked it out of the park. In fact, she did so well that I was kind of freaked out that she could stand still for that 5+ minutes while wearing something completely foreign to her. I took lots of shots while my friend Saralinda held a posterboard behind her.

We took a video just to show how still and regal she was. That, and to prove that we didn’t just Photoshop a hat onto a picture of a chicken. I ended up really apologetic because her stillness was just so eerie.

Of course, she was happy to toss off the costume herself the second we stopped taking pictures. She was compensated handsomely in the end.

*UPDATE* Mary was one of the winners chosen by the judges! Yay for Mary!

Project #253 – Needle Felted Chicken

Monday, October 12th, 2009

We’re out in sunny, warm San Diego for the wedding of a friend. Is it just me or has Southern California improved a lot since the 1990′s? Maybe I didn’t know about such cultural highlights as the Vietnamese Sandwich or the Hawaiian Crepe, but they are definitely making this trip worthwhile. Magnifique!

I always struggle a little bit to find projects to do while we travel. Clark and I prefer not to check bags and it can be a little difficult to come up with something where at least one of my tools won’t get confiscated by airport security.

Luckily I discovered needle felting. The needles seem to be A-OK for carry-on luggage. Of course, I missed my chickens, so I decided to make a little mini-version of one of them.

I made little puffs of wool and used my barbed needle to mat them together into one solid piece. Unfortunately, it ended up looking like a matted fur-ball. Essentially, that’s what a needle felted sculpture is, but I’d prefer if they didn’t look it so much.

My second try involved wrapping the wool around a little wire scaffolding, which kept all of the fibers laying in the same direction. The result was much improved.

Project #246 – Visionary Ideas Talk

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Well, we didn’t win the Visionary Ideas Contest, but Mary the Chicken was pretty well behaved on stage and she made a lot of friends. Clark, Mary and I were photographed together as part of a potential book that will be made of all 8 talks. Then I was filmed giving the talk with Clark and Mary assisting. Hopefully, I’ll be able to obtain copies of at least one of those things for this website later.

UPDATE: No video from the Waffle Shop, yet. They had a few issues with syncing of the audio and video, so I wasn’t able to get a final copy. In lieu of that, below is the final edited text version of my talk. It’s nuts, but much better with a live mooing chicken.

We all know that the United States is stuck in a severe recession.  There might be good news here and there about the economy, but most of us are still feeling the worst of it.  It’s starting to look like the collective intelligence of human kind is tapped out. We are just running out of ideas. 
Now, what if I told you that there is a vast untapped source of intelligence on this planet?  What if I told you that we have at our fingertips a nearly 100% unutilized workforce numbering in the billions that will literally work for peanuts?  I’m talking about our animal brethren. 

Think of it.  We’d have huge, cheap workforce to help rebuild our economy.  America would once again have a manufacturing workforce that would be competitive, salary-wise, with the rest of the world.  Additionally, we’d have enough helpers to care for our aging population and help defray the rising costs of Medicare.

Plus, animals are a source of information that we are only just learning how to put to use.  Think about the vast amounts of engineering knowledge possessed by the average beaver or carpenter ant, and imagine what we could to if we could apply that energy and insight to our own crumbling infrastructure.

Imagine of how many human jobs that would generate just in the care, management and training of this new population of workers.  We would once again return to our status as the world’s workshop!

Now, the one way to build these new relationships is on a being-to-being level.  That is, we must learn to communicate with animals and get them to communicate back with us.  This trans-species conversation could spur on better human stewardship of the environment, more understanding for endangered species, and help teach pest animals to be more considerate.  Just think of it, instead of cluelessly trying to preserve certain rare animal species, we could just ask what they need or why they aren’t breeding.

But are animals capable of the higher order brain functions needed to communicate with humans?  Consider this: the computer on your desktop at home has about the same intelligence capacity as a frog.  It has a number of bits in its memory chips comparable to the number of neurons in the frog’s brain.  Your computer has the power to correct your spelling and grammar as well as look up words in dictionaries containing millions of entries. Not only that, your computer has the capacity to let you play games, do your taxes, and remind you to send your mother flowers for her birthday, among millions of other tasks it is capable of performing. We are not asking the average frog to do your taxes, we are asking it to have a simple conversation and comment on the weather and the quality of the pond water, something the average computer is capable of doing.

Certainly, we have had other friends in the animal kingdom who have already learned to converse with us, for instance Koko the gorilla or Alex the African gray parrot.  Additionally, it is a historical fact that Alexander Graham Bell taught his family dog how to talks, including teaching it how to say “How are you grandma?”  Now, that is an entire sentence uttered by a dog.
Now, if we capture the advances of the last century into understanding of how language works, as well as many advances in the technology for computer assisted language learning, we will have a training process that is less work-intensive and more effective than ever imagined.

Now, how is this done?  There are several layers of functionality to a language and we teach them according to their layer of complexity.  That is, any language must be learned first phonetically (sounds), then lexically (words), then morpho-syntactically (grammar), and, finally, pragmatically (intention and discourse structure).  By tracing along this pathway, starting with sounds and words and ending with conversation, we can teach nearly any animal to communicate with us from the humble grasshopper to the mighty elephant.  If they can’t make noise, we can also teach them Morse code or Braille as a way of communicating, replacing the phonetics step.

Of course, we practice what we teach.  My husband and I care for three Rhode Island Red chickens who are currently undergoing lessons basic lessons in phonology and lexicology.  They have brains the size of walnuts and yet the are keenly aware of the goings on in their tiny backyard.  They are very curious and therefore good training candidates.

We took a cue from Mr. Graham-Bell and his talking dog in order to train our chickens.  In order to prepare his dog for speech he first trained it to growl continuously before teaching it specific sounds.  We used peanuts to encourage the utterance of specific phonemes through operant conditioning.  We knew off hand that they could say ‘buk buk’, which gave us two important consonants,  Through a system of rewards we managed to get them to say ‘rrr’, ‘mmm’, ‘nnn’, and so forth until they were prepared to form words and then sentences.   From there, we will be training them to work as press operators in plastics production down at PNI Plastics in McKeesport where they have already been offered entry-level jobs.

We can apply these principles over and over again in order to build our new workforce.  Through this we can introduce a golden age of prosperity and environmental stewardship for our nation.  God bless America!

Also: Pictures! (I loved the one with Clark and Mary)

Peanut Time

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Project #239 – Fake Chicken Eggs

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

In order to get chickens to do what you want, sometimes you have to play to their instincts. Chickens naturally prefer to lay eggs in a nest that has already been used. It’s better to use a nest that has been proven safe rather than taking a chance and building a new, untested one. Most people take advantage of this chicken behavior and put out fake eggs in a place of their choosing. Otherwise, free-range chickens will just lay where they please and their humans are left playing a real-life Easter Egg hunt.

But why fake eggs? Why not use real ones from the supermarket? Chickens are curious and they have a way of discovering that real ones, even hard-boiled, are delicious. Once they go down that path it’s hard to make them stop. They’ll peck at the fake ones and then ignore all eggs because those first few sure weren’t tasty.

Our chickens are almost old enough to start laying eggs and we’d prefer that we got a first crack at them. I decided to make a few test eggs out of polymer clay and see how they worked for the chickens. Polymer clay is expensive, so I decided to make two with different materials in the center to see which worked best. I wrapped my clay around a ping pong ball and a large marble and then baked them at 215 degrees F for 30 minutes.

The marble egg came out just right, but the ping pong ball one exploded right before I pulled it out of the oven. That’s too bad because we have a lot of defunct table tennis balls sitting around the house that are dying for a purpose.

I’m going to make at least two or three more and add them to one of our nesting boxes. The funny thing is that these are supposed to work even if a chicken has never seen an egg. There is supposed to be something about round objects that trigger a nesting instinct in those little peanut brains.

Project #237 – Chicken Palace

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

After weeks of work we finally have a fully functional and permanent chicken coop. It’s two stories, almost all of the wood is recycled, and all together it provides more than 6 square feet of space for each of our three animals.

The chickens knew that it was built especially for them. Before we finished their new residence I placed Elanor the chicken on the roost to see if she would be comfortable. She grabbed on with both feet and refused to let go, not even to go to sleep in the kitchen for one of the last times with her sisters. So, we let them all sleep in their incomplete chicken coop, and they haven’t stopped loving it since. Each night they take the ramp to the second floor and hop one by one onto the roost. They are especially keen on it now that they have a roof and protection from predators.

Clark did all of the construction. I helped with the painting and chicken wire. The top box was made of a box-like wooden coffee table that we got for free from Construction Junction. The posts holding it up were old stair posts that we got for 25 cents each.

It looks good, and I hope it lasts for years and years.

Project #232 – Half Baked Idea Speech

Monday, September 14th, 2009

I ran across an interesting announcement via I Heart PGH, the Waffle Shop will be holding a speech competition for visionary ideas. For those of you unfamiliar with the Waffle Shop, it’s a place to buy breakfast and a talk show. The examples of visionary ideas they gave were not very conventional (“a way for animals to run governments”, “a cloning system that reinvents history”), so I came up with my own half-baked, impractical idea and sent it in.

How to Teach Animals to Speak the King’s English

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if animals had better manners? Deer would no longer leap in front of cars on the highway, ants would await invitations before attending picnics, and the insult of pigeon poop would be a distant memory. The only way to encourage animals to embrace politeness is on a being-to-being level. That is, we must learn to communicate with animals and get them to communicate back with us. The trans-species conversation could spur on better human stewardship of the environment, more understanding for endangered species, and help teach barbaric-mannered animals to be more considerate.

But are animals capable of the higher order brain functions needed to produce the King’s English? Consider this: the computer on your desktop at home has about the same intelligence capacity as a frog. It has a number of bits in its memory chips comparable to the number of neurons in the frog’s brain. Your computer has the power to correct your spelling and grammar as well as look up words in dictionaries containing millions of entries. Not only that, your computer has the capacity to let you play games, do your taxes, and remind you to send your mother flowers for her birthday, among millions of other tasks it is capable of performing. We are not asking the average frog to fill out a 1040, we are asking it to have a simple conversation and comment on the weather, something a the average computer is capable of doing.

Certainly, we have had other friends in the animal kingdom who have already learned to converse with us, for instance Koko the gorilla or Alex the African gray parrot. Additionally, it is a historical fact that Alexander Graham Bell taught his family dog to say “How are you grandma?” Now, that is not only functional and polite, but also respectful of the elderly.

There are several layers of functionality to a language. That is, any language must be learned (in ascending order of complexity) phonetically (sounds), lexically (words), morpho-syntactically (grammar), and pragmatically (intention and discourse structure). By tracing along this pathway, starting with sounds and words and ending with polite conversation, we can teach nearly any animal to communicate with us from the humble grasshopper to the mighty elephant.

Of course, we practice what we teach. My husband and I care for three Rhode Island Red chickens who are currently undergoing lessons in elocution and table manners. They have brains the size of peanuts and yet the are keenly aware of the goings on in their tiny backyard and are prone to gossip, a habit we are trying to mend.

We took a cue from Mr. Bell and his talking dog in order to train our chickens. In order to prepare his dog for speech he first trained it to growl continuously before teaching it specific sounds. We used pumpkin seeds to encourage the utterance of specific phonemes. We knew off hand that they could say ‘buk buk’, which gave us two important consonants, Through a system of rewards we managed to get them to say ‘rrr’, ‘mmm’, ‘nnn’, and so forth until they were prepared to form words and then sentences.

I propose to teach these methods in detail to a live audience. I hope in the end help spread good grammar and fine manners throughout the animal kingdom and build a new era of communication.

Project #211- 10 Minute fence

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Our old backyard fence was never very good. I never really took a picture of it, it was supposed to be temporary, so I had to collect an image of it from one of my video clips. It was far too short and the chickens technically could have flown over it months ago, but chicken psychology being what it is, they never cared to test that boundary until we started pasturing them on the other side. Once they spent a few days grazing from the comfort of their mobile pen, their territory magically expanded to include the land on both sides of the fence and suddenly they realized that they could come and go to either side as they pleased.

Chickens are perfectly legal in Pittsburgh, except when they are “fowl-at-large”. That is, fowl unencumbered by a barrier, free to go where they like. Our chickens never cared to leave our yard, but the fence-hopping had to be curbed immediately.

We built our new one out of wire fencing and metal fence posts, the kind usually used to keep deer out of vegetable patches. The posts can be installed in a few minutes with the application of a shoe to the the flanges and pushing the lower part of the post a foot into the soil. The fencing then be strung across and held in place by built-in hooks on the posts, and finally, cut to size.

I installed our fence using my dainty hands and feet in less than ten minutes. We have plans for a gate, but for now we just unhook and rehook the fencing when we need to get through.

***

BTW, I never made a formal announcement of it, but our two ducks are now back living at the farm from where we purchased them and the chickens. Their persistent ability to wake up our entire block with loud, echoing quacks everyday precisely at 6:00 am, weekends included, lead us to our decision. This farm is run by someone who won’t eat fowl of any kind and we like to think they are happier now and have lots of boyfriends.

Project #194 – Farm Animal Designs

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Today I woke up at 4am to finish something for testing this morning. I’d worked a full day and a little more by lunch time. I’m kind of sick of these days where I’m too tired to actually rest and spend most of the day zombied in front of the TV or on the internet. I need to do things while my work schedule is flexible. I need to go and see things outside of my house.

So, I went to the county fair, the county fair three counties away. I went to the Fayette County Fair. I’d never been to a real county fair, one with livestock and blue ribbons. My hometown only seemed to have fairs that were related to civil war reenactments.

There were so many things on display in competition. I never knew that fairs gave out prizes for best hay.

Holy crap, there was a lot of livestock.

I took a special interest in the rabbit & poultry pavilion.

It was teeth-vibratingly loud in there as each of the roosters attempted to out do each other.

Blue ribbons only went to the giantest of a particular kind of livestock. This duck was the size of a suitcase.

I couldn’t imagine any of my chickens tolerating such a tiny cage for a week. I am raising princesses…or maybe chickens with higher standards.

Still, I took lots of pictures that I’ll be able to use later for screen printing or fabric design.

Project #191 – Chicken Illustration

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

I’m thinking about overhauling the look of this site and using some of the things from my everyday life, like my chickens. They’re pretty photogenic for animals that can’t stay still.

I drew up a simple little swf of one of the chickens. I figured that it would be easy to animate them stooping down and pecking or have them flap their wings, or something. However, I overestimated my animation skills. By a lot. So now I just have a chicken that blinks.

But I will have my revenge and I’ll have a chicken doing…something…eventually.