Miniature Dinosaurs on My Hilltop

Sep 9, 2013

Credit umich.edu

From the time I toddled until I finished 3rd grade, I called oil boomtowns dotting Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico home. During those years my family lived in this stark and beautiful region, my dad would bring me bits of petrified dinosaur skeleton he found near rig locations where he worked. These bones-turned-stones gripped my imagination until I added a dinosaur tooth and a dinosaur coprolite or fossilized doo to my rock collection.

When I became a mom, I dragged our two little girls to the Panhandle of Oklahoma so they could walk where dinosaurs once trod. Preserved tracks in a dry wash provided a 3-D snapshot regarding the size of the monstrous creature that meandered this trail millions of years ago.

Outside Kenton, Oklahoma, the girls stood in trash-can-lid-sized impressions that made my daughters’ tiny feet look like freckles. Then my little explorers discovered that no matter how far they stretched their legs, they couldn’t take a step as big as a dinosaur could. Even my extra tall legs didn’t match that long-dead creature’s stride.

Ancient three-toed footprints embedded in sandstone agitated my brain until I realized they looked like a jillion-time magnification of chicken prints scattered about my yard. This made me wonder if my flock and the vanished reptiles thundering about in my imagination shared other similarities.

After visiting Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park, Colorado, I realized many scientists agree that dinosaurs and birds share common characteristics, including scales, feathers, gizzard stones, and  egg laying. Both sleep head tucked under arm or wing and have common brooding behaviors. 

After learning about these mutual features, my view of my cackling clan changed. Instead of only seeing egg-laying machines snagging tasty insects to recycle into golden yolks, I saw tiny dinosaurs stomping across our hilltop.

Did dinosaurs roam their habitat much as chickens do, alert to the slightest motion of a food source? Were some of these vanished reptiles as easy to please as my hens about what they ate?  The girls love their grain, veggies, a crunchy grasshopper, or a stale slice of bread. However, if one of them spies a mouse in the chicken house or yard, chaos erupts as they all join the fight to devour fresh meat.

Did dinosaurs roost at dusk as hens do? If so, did a group of them gather side by side, chortling reptilian, “Good Night, John Boys”? Did their good nights sound like supersonic versions of my flocks’ cozy bedtime clucks?

Regardless of how dinosaurs spent the night, hens running toward a meal reveal an ungainly two-legged, top-heavy gait many short-armed reptiles shared. The girls’ epic culinary battles provide a glimpse of the noise and violence one might experience watching a dinosaur food fight. I wonder if the monstrous beast who left its tracks in an Oklahoma arroyo wiped its food-crusted mouth back and forth across the landscape as my chickens do to remove beak gunk.

My red-combed ladies’ conscientious brooding over tiny fluff-ball young demonstrates a tenderness that would amaze viewers when magnified in much larger dinosaurs. It’s hard to imagine such gentle care from a creature whose name means “terrible, powerful, wondrous” lizard.

Dinosaurs may be extinct, but my hens provide a glimpse into this distant world. Seeing my ladies’ three-toed prints in mud makes me wonder whether future paleontologists will question what kind of dinosaurs lived on my hilltop in some distant era.