The JungleVine® Research Retreat is in Luang Prabang, Laos.
JungleVine® (Pueraria phaseloides) growing at the JungleVine® Research Retreat
Just two years after bringing JungleVine® stems to our site and inserting them into the bare ground, the vine was thriving and had spread more than 300 feet. Before JungleVine®, the site was barren; the topsoil had been removed for the construction of a building.
JungleVine® cuttings poked into the barren ground quickly took root.
Big Boy and the Free Range Chickens at JungleVine® Research Retreat
Big Boy, our dominant male chicken, was bred is for fighting, yet he loves to be held and petted, especially by me as I've been his buddy since he was little. He's exceptionally gentle.
His gentleness extends to finding nests for his girlfriends to lay eggs. When one is ready to lay, for a couple of days he'll lead her around to show her what's available. He'll get inside the best alternatives and arrange bedding before calling for her to enter. Usually she finds the first places not to her liking, and they continue an exhaustive search, narrowing the possibilities to one or two nesting sites. Then it can take several hours of his calling and her re-inspecting before she makes up her mind.
A neighbor's rooster used to be dominant and was really popular with the hens. Every morning he'd come over at dawn and stay until it was nearly dark. Early one day Big Boy confronted the then dominant bird. There was a brief battle that ended with Big Boy briskly chasing the other towards the river. The following morning the neighbor's bird returned, and Big Boy attacked him relentlessly, again chasing him away, this time never to be seen again!
When they were young, Big Boy and his "sister" (the brown hen in the image) slept in a large old suitcase, which was on a concrete/ceramic table on the porch. Every day as the sun was setting, they'd fly up to the table top but would not hop in by themselves, insisting that either the Khmu or I put them inside and close the cover.
Once while I was sitting inside the building but did not respond to the hen's incessant calls to be put to bed, she eventually marched through the door & jumped up on my shoulder! This was a brave thing to do because all of the birds from a very young age learn that no chickens are allowed inside.
Because I have played "fighting" with him, sometimes he'll follow me around trying to engage. Nearly 3 feet tall, when he strikes at me, it's in kick boxer style with contact occurring near my waist. He's so powerful that he nearly knocks me down. One time when I was stooping and engaging him, a claw got me on the bare arm during a lightning-fast strike & caused a significant contusion.
Both he and his "sister" were brought from the countryside by the Khmu when they were a few weeks old. She also has fighting instincts and is the dominant female. Other chickens are more afraid of her than him, or so it seems. She likes to lay about a dozen eggs before hatching them and is an excellent setter.
Sometimes the Khmu will add other hens' eggs to her nest. However, the survival rate decreases quickly if there are more than 15 eggs. She's successfully brought to life 16 of 21 in a single nest.
Big Boy probably is valuable because of his physique and love of fighting. A number of his predecessors with similar gaming characteristics were stolen, so he has his own special security arrangements. I wonder whether he could successfully defend himself from a would-be thief who got close enough.
All of the Retreat chickens are free range. Although he can fly, as can many of the others, the habitat is sufficiently expansive, variable and attractive that it is rare for them to be interested in leaving. Until a chain link fence was installed last month, they sometimes roamed down the steep deep ravine on the east side of the property.
They like the JungleVine® a lot. Its leaves are their third favorite food [after leftover cooked sticky rice and fresh taro leaves (taro is tapioca aka cassava--scientifically Colocasia esculenta) and the JungleVine® Research Retreat has lots of it planted sometimes growing to be 20 feet tall].
We feed the fowl uncooked low-quality sticky rice and finely ground corn which are purchased. They also enjoy scraps from the kitchen plus raw garlic, chiles and bananas. Until chicks are several weeks old they are given special manufactured food that at first is a course powder but increases in pallet size as the chicks grow.
In addition to providing nourishment, the JungleVine® serves as a cool shady place to roam. Now that some of our vine is a couple of years old, there are lots of old leaves decomposing underneath, which attracts insects that are fun for the chickens to scratch for and serve as a non-vegetarian dietary supplement. For the younger chickens, a large insect becomes a game when they chase after their brother/sister that has it & try to steal it away.
Usually the baby chicks are taken from the mother when they are a day or two old and then live as broods in large translucent plastic paint buckets for at least 10 days. Compact fluorescent bulbs under the buckets provide supplemental heat as needed, with the temperature regulated by changing the area of the bucket top covered by cardboard or shipping bag fabric.
When chicks are large enough, a brood is taken out of the bucket during the day to play in a domed bamboo cage. We begin letting them out of the cage for an hour during late afternoon when they are about 5 weeks of age. Domestic-type cats emerge from the jungle when there are chicks around and are a threat to the small birds. The domed cages provide protection against cats and hawks.
Most of the chickens are taken to the Khmu's village about 15 miles away on the other side of the Mekong after they are 9-12 weeks old. There he has established a project to which I've personally provided micro-finance venture capital. It has capacity for approximately 500 chickens, which are free-ranged in a large fenced forested compound. They will be sold to restaurants in the town and to thousands of Chinese who will be living in a "new" city being constructed near the Khmu village in connection with building a bridge across the river and the high-speed rail line that will connect China & Singapore.
Eventually the Khmu will take Big Boy to competition with the expectation of making lots of money. Chicken fights supported by wagering remain popular in northern Laos. Unlike cock-fighting elsewhere, the combatants are not fitted with sharp artificial claws and beaks, and the fights are not usually fatal. Both males and females fight.
Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) growing at the JungleVine® Research Retreat
The Scourge of the Yellow Vine
The JungleVine® we planted at the JungleVine® Research Retreat had grown in strong and vigorous. It was thriving. But then an aggressive pest moved in. We call it simply yellow vine or golden vine.
The yellow vine invader is strange and prolific. It has no leaves, but does have occasional miniature flowers if you look closely enough. These drop seeds into the air, and the wind carries them allowing the vine to spread.
Some Lao call it the "air vine" because they do not spot the rare places where it emerges from the ground. It spreads rapidly--growing as much as 10 feet each day. It doesn’t seem to require sunlight. It sucks the fluids out of every type of vegetation it encounters by wrapping itself around stems and leaves, eventually killing most. Bamboo seems to be resistant, as are some large fruit trees (in part). It does not like JungleVine®, but it will attach itself to it when there is no alternative. It leaves nasty black stains on your hands and is very fragile. The Lao do not know much about it, but I've spent enough time working with it to know that the only way to kill it is to kill whatever it is attached to. Our fowl will not eat it, although the rabbits showed some interest.
Parasitic yellow vine (Cuscuta spp.)
The yellow vine is a parasite that causes problems throughout the world. It is a species of Cuscuta, sometimes called dodder, hellbine, strangleweed, or goldthread. It has very little chlorophyll of its own, so it attaches itself to a host plant, coiling tightly around and pressing itself into its host. It then steals nutrients and nourishment from the host plant.
“It was raining for a week while I was away and it [the yellow vine] was growing up as fast as a crazy zombie plant!” – Lao associate Sack
To fight the invader, we cut out everything that had been attacked. After removing the nuisance yellow vine, we're pleased to report that the JungleVine® is quickly reestablishing itself.
In the summer of 2017, an esteemed American scholar visited Laos and learned about our work. Read more here.