Tess Hits Water

[Tess hitting the water hard in Florida.]

Dogs, ducks, chickens—nature & birdy days in youth & memoir.

1978-Dalton, GAx

[Chicken boy: Georgia, 1978.]

I’ve always needed or at least wanted animals in my life. My memoir is crawling with them. As a daydreaming boy I loved reading stories about animals and ecosystems—maybe the genesis of my passion for nonfiction. I got in trouble at school for reading a book about turtles during class. At home, my bedroom floor was covered with animal skins, including that of a zebra an uncle shot in Africa. Atop my walnut dressers: an incubator stuffed with domestic duck eggs and aquariums shimmering with snakes and fish caught in nearby lots and ditches. Sometimes a free-ranging iguana or parakeet passed through.

I gave up the reptiles eventually. They were, well, too reptilian. Birds possess a warmth, maybe emanating from their feathers. There seems a reciprocal consciousness, even an interest, in their eyes.

Satellite Beach, Florida, where I grew up, was an earthly paradise, situated atop a scrim of sand between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Indian River, a broad estuary, to the west. Until my father’s almost-fatal heart attack in 1967, when he was 49 and I was twelve, he took us fishing and skiing in the river. I was grieving for the loss of the first home I’d known, our Georgia cattle ranch, but I took solace in nature. In winter, migrating ducks rode the river’s dark face, and lying in my bedroom at night I thought of them—each bird alone but all together and wholly immortal in their vast rafts. When I finally raised wild ducks in middle age, in Indiana, I felt them carry a piece of me into the sky when they took wing.

Richard & Tess2x

[Florida, 1981: Me & Tess.]

Such experiences helped draw me to Helen Macdonald’s acclaimed memoir H is for Hawk, reviewed in my previous post, about her training a goshawk to hunt. Her story kindled nostalgia for training my Labrador retriever, Tess, when I was a young newspaper reporter in Florida. I cast Tess into many a field and stream. We participated in a retriever trial near Tallahassee when she was still a pup, rapturous over fetching rubber bumpers. Later we hunted pheasants in Michigan and grouse in Indiana.

Mostly I hurled Frisbees for her—she ran flat-out from my side and caught them over her shoulder, like a wide receiver. Tess appears early in my memoir of farming, helping me court my wife. And then, in our children’s early years, she shuffles off the stage with an arthritic shoulder, the cost of our endless Frisbee game. Tess took me from youth to middle age.

I’m really a farmer at heart, and my interest in hunting faded as Tess did. On that pocket farm in Indiana, Tess supervised my rearing of laying hens, broilers, bantams, and mallards. As a poultryman, I grew to hate raccoons and to harbor mixed feelings about raptors. They fascinate me—they’re birds, after all—but they eat chickens and ducks. My chosen birds eat grain and peck at grass; birds that eat them, or that consume any flesh, strike me as deeply wrong.

O.E. GameX

[Macho chook: Old English gamecock.]

My next great dog love was Jack, a feisty canine id loosed upon the world. That termite was a far bigger presence in Shepherd: A Memoir than was Tess. He gave chase to groundhogs, which riddled our pastures with holes, and to chicken-eating raccoons and opossums. Just before we moved off the farm we had to have him stitched up from his winning fight with a huge possum. He was 12. I posted Jack’s obituary here five years ago. Overcome with grief, I tried to avoid sentimentality and surely failed. Most such accounts ask for unearned emotion, though it hasn’t stopped me from reading them.

In H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s love for her hawk’s killer soul rivets the reader. The goshawk, named Mabel, is gorgeous but, as Macdonald also underscores, more than faintly reptilian. To reward Mabel during training, Macdonald gives her treats of dead day-old chicks.

I know a fellow bird nerd when I see one. But give me, any day, a sleek mallard or a sturdy chicken with a yen for yellow corn. Or, in a pinch, a lovable dog.

[Tess & her beloved bumper.]

[Tess & her beloved bumper.]


  • Another fine post, Richard. Cats, dogs, and horses are my personal favorites, but I’ve had a pet sparrow (a wounded male named Pennywhistle whom I took into my home as a pet, doctored, fed seeds and cherries to, and pampered and spoiled, who also had a flying halter which supported him in the air and allowed him to fly again when I tossed him up and supported him). I’ve had parakeets and a canary. It was the oddest thing, but due to a second’s inattention on my part, which I’ve never been able to forgive myself for, one of the cats got hold of that canary (Hootah), who shared a cage with Pennywhistle at the same time. The odd thing was, though, after I buried the canary, the sparrow sang all sorts of heartbroken, longing little melodies that he’d never sung before, and that sounded like a cross between the two of them. It touched me immeasurably.

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      Victoria, that is such an interesting (and poignant) bird story. By the way, you have—or had as a child!—quite and talent for naming pets.

      • HI again. This was during my early thirties, when I had several pets. I miss my pets, but live in a condo now, and I’m unable right now to have a pet (like you, I draw the line at reptiles, which would probably be allowed, in cage, you know).

  • Janice Gary says:

    Pictures of Jack, please!

  • jzrart says:

    Wonderful post. When I was about eight years old(centuries ago) my little brother climbed up a tree and took a baby robin from its nest. At the time, It was believed that you should not put a baby bird back in the nest once it is removed. We raised “Robin,” and he flew after me outside and was a very special pet. He was killed when my mother accidentally dropped a board on him, not knowing he was on the ground next to her.

    This spring a male robin has been keeping me company as I garden, gathering worms and grubs as I disturb the earth. He gets quite closes and I imagine he is the reincarnation that other robin I once new.

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    What a nostalgic ramble through the animals in your life. Love the pictures! I will always remember the iconic description in “Shepherd” of you and Jack locked in all-out combat with the barn rats.

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