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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dawn ride, dog deafness, and Crossbill birds

I headed out on my mountain bike before dawn today, with my powerful bike light guiding me and an almost full moon still high in the sky. I stuck to side roads near my house. By 7AM, the sun began to illuminate the hills to the east.

Below, a meadow gradually became brighter but the moon still shone. On the right, the alpenglow is making the veil of clouds covering the Continental Divide turn purple.

I love being out as the day dawns. The colors inspire me and the quiet is peaceful. As the neighborhood awakened, I started seeing lots of friends driving to work. One opened her window and shouted: "You go girl! You're my hero!". I pedaled a little faster after her inspiring words.

After a short ride, I took my dogs out for some exercise. We cross-country skiied on 'our' trails. My oldest dog, S, is 13 yrs old, and usually marches along behind me whether I'm hiking or cross-country skiing. He no longer plays chasing games with the other dogs so he doesn't appear often in my photos. So, I took a picture today to show off his handsomeness!

We adopted S three years ago. His former humans (my brother and sister-in-law) taught him to always stay behind them on the trail. This training is now causing us some problems because S has become totally deaf. Occasionally, he wanders away from us, and we don't notice right away. We put a bell on him to help us keep track of him but he doesn't always move vigorously enough for the bell to ring loudly. He's starting to worry us because he can't hear us call him when he wanders. We're considering using an interesting feature of an electronic collar, a vibration mode. In this mode, it vibrates like a cell phone when we press a remote controller. We're thinking of training him to look for us when his collar vibrates (and rewarding him with treats for coming to us). This could work on the trails as long as he's not too far away - and he's never gotten far away yet. Do any readers have experience with deaf dogs to share?

K has a different and funny behavior that we're working on eliminating. She loves doing recalls so she 'hides' by staying absolutely still, and she'll only move if I use the magic words 'K come'. No other cue works. Below, she's playing her game. On the left, the zoom on my camera is at 5X (you couldn't pick her out of a photo with no zoom), and, on the right, it's set at 15X. Because she's brown, she blends in well when stock still. This is K's method of training us to do more recalls. I don't always want to do more recalls because I have a huge celebration for each one that takes up to a minute to keep her recalls very strong. Consequently, if we do a recall every couple of minutes (as K would like), we don't make much progress on our hike/ski. I've started responding to K's 'hiding' by saying 'Bye bye' - and departing. She gets no treats for following but she always does.

Today, and on other days since late December, I've seen large flocks of Red Crossbills for the first time in a couple of years. Below, the yellowish bird is a female, and the red one is a male. The reason for the name 'crossbill' is obvious from the photo. These birds are nomadic, following the best crop of pine, spruce, and fir cones around the region. Our Douglas Fir trees have been covered in Crossbills in recent weeks.

The crossed bill is a very cool feature. This specialization lets these birds pry open a cone using their beak-closing muscles. They squeeze their partially open beak into a crevice on the cone, and then they fully close their beak. The crossed beak pries open the crevice in the cone and exposes the seed inside. In most animals (including us), the jaw (or beak) closing muscles are much stronger than the jaw (or beak) opening muscles. Think about how much more strongly you can close your mouth than open it. So, it's an advantage to be able to pry open cones using the beak closing muscles as the Crossbills can do.

It's fun to unexpectedly see these colorful birds in mid-winter. Most of our birds either live here all year or migrate extremely predictably every year. I could set my calendar by the arrivals of the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Cordilleran Flycatchers, or Hermit Thrushes in the spring. By contrast, I never know when I'm going to see these Crossbills!


  1. I don't have any good advice for you on the deaf dog thing... when my S dog started losing his hearing as he got up there in years, we just had to be extra careful to keep an eye out for him. When we needed to call him, we would have to jump up and down and wave our arms around in the air to get his attention. (And that is why I'm glad that we don't have many neighbors/witnesses.)

  2. I do the arm waving and jumping up and down thing just like you! Thanks, I appreciate your input.

    I saw our vet yesterday, and she thinks that we're seeing signs of "cognitive dysfunction' (doggie Alzheimers or plain senility) and wants us to try a drug anipryl) to see if he stops his wandering plus some other new behaviors we're seeing. We're thinking about it.

    Today, I put a louder bell on him and gave him lots of treats for simply staying with me. Almost no wandering - and when he did start to wander, I heard it right away. Maybe those changes will help us keep him safe.


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