Letter from Birdland: Beware of the species 'Canis gluttonus'

This morning, Ursula ate my sandwiches. Yes, she did. I try to be careful about leaving my dog alone with sandwiches, but these were in my lunch bag and pushed to the back of the counter.

I left the room for only a moment to grab my backpack, and when I came back, I saw an apple rolling across the floor. What's that doing there? I wondered.

Then I saw Ursula, lying with her head on her paws, just as if she had been lying there all morning. She looked up at me and actually yawned. Then stretched. My eyes traced a line from the apple to the dog to my poor lunch bag lying on the floor to my sandwich container hidden way back in her puppy corner.

Circumstantial evidence, but I knew what happened.

Ursula is not a bad dog. In fact, she can make herself very useful. She is affectionate and kind. When I feed her and her cat friend, Shiva, she will nudge Shiva with her nose and bark excitedly, telling her, "Come on down to the basement! Hurry up! She's scooping our food! It's time to eat!"

She waits patiently until I tell her, "OK," and then she makes quick work of her breakfast.

Ursula is very amusing and congenial. She will happily play fetch all day with a ball or a Frisbee or a stick. She's not particular. If you can throw it, she will go and get it for you and drop it at your feet.

Ursula also is very protective. She has kept the chickens mostly safe from varmints for several months now. If she sees a predation threat, she will do her best to put the whole yard on high alert — running and barking and charging until that fox or opossum or hawk thinks chicken dinner doesn't sound so tasty after all.

Yes, Ursula is a very good dog, but she's programed to eat whatever food she can find. If I'm foolish enough to leave my sandwiches on the counter, they're really fair game, even if she's already eaten.

If I think I can leave a big pile of food for the chickens, I'm sadly mistaken if I think Ursula will leave a few morsels for them. No such thing as trickle-down doggy-nomics in Birdland.

Compost is another problem. The bucket fills quickly, and ideally I could just dump it in my outdoor compost pile. Chickens are omnivorous and very happy to eat leftover crusts of bread, apple cores and wilted cabbage, all the while scratching and stirring the pile into a rich humus.

But if Ursula sees me with the compost bucket, she will lie in wait, and as soon as I turn my back, she is in the middle of the pile snapping up the best parts while the chickens wait from a hopeful circle for whatever she might leave.

The problem is, she doesn't leave any and doesn't do half so well at the real work of the compost pile, turning it over and letting the worms turn grass clippings, leaves and other debris left into soil. Ursula isn't really hungry; she just acts hungry because she is greedy, while the chickens spend their entire day with their tails in the air, scratching out a living, picking out bugs or greens to fill their bellies.

If I want to sit out in the yard on the Adirondack chair and toss treats to the chickens, I come prepared with doggy treats I can throw far away on one side to keep Ursula busy, while I lightly toss chicken treats on the other side of the chair.

Even so, it doesn't work for long. Not only is my dog easily lured by what others seem to be enjoying even if she has plenty already, she is also intimidating. The chickens are nervous around her and run for the cover of the Jerusalem artichokes as soon as she comes back looking for the next treat.

Maybe tomorrow I'll just put her in the house first as I scatter the scraps of bread so that everybody gets some.

Scatter beauty; vote for peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the balance and cycles in the world and in her own backyard. The Next Birdland Writing Retreat is Nov. 17 at First Mennonite Church in Urbana. You can find registration information at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Hays can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of The News-Gazette, 15 Main St., Champaign IL 61820.

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