Dr. Baum’s Articles on Pet Health Care: Roosters, Bird Brains and Wine Fights in Italy
At the suggestion of a former lab partner in vet school, for the past thirty years I have eschewed the use of alarm clocks and have been lucky enough to accustom my body to awaken gradually as light filters into my bedroom. As an added bonus, I discovered that at the first crack of dawn, the birds, facilitated by their brain’s overdeveloped pineal body, would begin a gentle serenade, which replaced the jarring effects of the mechanical noisemakers.
Two of my classmates gained a rather different perspective. Every year the embryology department would incubate several dozen fertile eggs. In order to provide the students with specimens to follow the anatomical development of the chick embryos, the incubation process would be interrupted for a few of the eggs each day. Slides would then be prepared which would allow the students to sequentially observe how the body formed. In this way we received a panoramic view of fetal development.
On this particular occasion, there was an oversight and some of the fertile eggs were mistakenly allowed to hatch. The resulting bounty of baby chicks presented a dilemma as to their collective fate. A number of students offered to adopt and raise the chicks, but adopting a baby chick is a wild card, for it is almost impossible to determine the sex of one so young, as the external genitalia of male and female are identical. So it wasn’t until three months later that my friends Connie and Jack realized that they had adopted a baby rooster. One morning, as the dawn’s first light entered their loft in downtown Ithaca, they were jarred from their sleep by a raucous “Cock-a-doodle-doo.” From that day on, try as they may, they were unable to suppress their boy’s instinctive behavior, for once there was light, if they so much as rustled their sheets, the cacophony began. The situation became too much to bear, and soon our feathered friend found himself taking up residence with other members of his brood on a farm on the outskirts of the city.
While this anecdote may provide some amusement, history tells us that this physiological ability of birds to be sensitive to the effects of light actually helped change the destiny of a nation.
During the Middle Ages the city-states of Florence and Sienna waged a low intensity border conflict that went on for five or six hundred years. At stake were the fertile lands of the Chianti region, an area renowned for its vineyards and the red wine that was produced there. Eventually both sides grew tired of the conflict and negotiations resulted in an ingenious plan. Each side would select a horse and rider to start at their respective town centers at the crack of dawn. The boundary was to be set at the exact location at which the opposing riders met. Each town sent an emissary to the other to monitor the start of the mad dash, but neither side felt comfortable basing the start on the subjective frailty of a mere human being. They decided that the true arbiter of the dawn would be a rooster whose first crowing would signal the riders to begin. The emissaries were there simply to make sure that the horses and riders each began on their respective rooster’s cue.
The Florentines proved to be the craftier of the two rivals. They preselected a black rooster whom they had surreptitiously kept in complete darkness for three days prior to the start of the great race. The resulting sensory deprivation brought on by the darkness had left the black Florentine rooster’s pineal body throbbing with desire, and when he was finally placed in the town square to greet the sunrise, he crowed a full half hour prior to his counterpart in Sienna. With this half hour advantage, the Florentine horse and rider were able to claim seventy percent of the land between the two towns, thus insuring Florence’s economic prosperity and influence.
Today, as Florentines sip their Chianti and look upon the black rooster that graces each bottle’s label, its not too hard to imagine them wanting to crow about the ingenuity of their ancestors as they lift their glasses and say, “Salud!”