I love our chickens. I do. When we first got them, I expected to like them, but I really have come to love these funny, feathered little girls. Not only that, they’re far more interesting and intelligent than I ever would have guessed. Here are some life lessons I’ve learned while watching chickens:
Is someone genuinely pecking at you or simply trying to help rid you of gnats? Know the difference. On a particularly warm, muggy day, I noticed the girls were pecking at one another’s faces. This concerned me for about half a minute, until I realized they were simply trying to keep the gnats away from each other’s eyes (and gain some bonus protein, to boot).
We all know it can become annoying to get unasked-for advice. There is definitely a point where the gnat-pecking becomes more irritating than beneficial, but keep in mind that your helpers are essentially trying to chase away your problems. If they have your best interests at heart, there may be some value to their pecking. Chickens know the difference; I’ve seen the proof.
Avoid trouble makers whenever possible, but if you can’t hide out in a coop, puff up your chest and spread your wings. Daisy is a lovely chicken, but she’s at the bottom of the pecking order in our little flock. At least I think so. On a couple of occasions, the other girls have given Daisy a hard time, so what does she do? Avoid them. She hangs out near the nesting boxes while they’re in the run area, or vice versa. The extra space usually helps and, within a few days, the others have unstuck whatever’s in their craw and things are fine again. Sometimes, though, Daisy turns the tables. She’ll chase another hen to steal something yummy from its beak or she’ll be the first to confront our dogs if they get too close. She may be mild, but our Daisy is a force to be reckoned with when she’s in the mood.
Avoiding trouble makers can be a useful tactic. Cut them out of your life to whatever extent you can, detour around their drama whenever possible, and when there’s no room to take flight, go at ’em with head forward, chest puffed, and wings spread wide!
Stand up to those bold, rooster types. I don’t have any stories to share here, simply because we don’t have any roosters. Regardless, you and I both know the type: loud, bossy. If they start flapping in your direction, let them know where you stand. Flap your wings back, crow if you must. Of course, some of these bold, rooster types may be trying to disguise some kind of deep-seated pain or insecurity. If so, blustering back at them won’t help and it’s probably time to try a gentler hand.
Know when to coo and when to squawk. Cooing is for friendly interactions, of course, for day-to-day small talk and the exchange of pleasantries. When your needs just aren’t being met, however, you might have to do some squawking to be heard. My girls coo at me every morning, when they’ve just woken up and come downstairs. (They have a sort of modified-armoire/town house in the garage for overnight safety—yes, I’m an overprotective chicken mama.) By mid-morning, however, they’re squawking loudly, insisting on being let out into the sunshine. What can I say? It works.
Keep things in perspective. Chickens use one eye for distance, the other for close-up detail. It’s important to pay attention to the finer details of life, but don’t forget to keep an eye on the big picture. My girls can spot a tiny spider crawling over a blade of grass just as easily as they can locate a hawk circling high in the sky. Both perspectives have value and it’s important not to neglect one for the other.
Don’t be afraid to try something new, it could turn out to be spaghetti. Sometimes our girls get leftovers, but the day I dumped a small pile of spaghetti in their outdoor run, they gave it a, “What the…?” look. Trust me, they did. The stuff seemed to be a glorious collection of worms, maybe, but not quite…. Anyway, the first who was brave enough to try it, ended up with more yummy noodles than the others that morning. Point is, you never know what you’re going to like. Something that seems no better than a pile of worms could end up being delightful.
There is some flexibility in pecking order, but not much. With chicks, pecking order squabbles begin at a very young age. Some seem to be born leaders; others, followers. That said, pecking order is not set in stone. If you want to move up, go for it. Just be prepared to fight your way there and be ready to fight to keep your spot. Hmmm, maybe being in the middle isn’t so bad after all.
It’s perfectly fine to roost permanently on the lower rungs, but prepare to be dumped on occasionally by those on top. Remember this, too: some of those roosting on the top rungs had to deal with somebody else’s crap before they could work their way up. It’s all about what your goals are, what’s important to you. Like I said, if you’re all right with remaining on a lower rung, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. You just might want to scoot off to the side a bit.
If you happen to be a chick at the lower end of the pecking order, you still have options. Let’s face it, if bullies sense weakness in another, they can become relentless. So it is in the chicken world. In my opinion, if you’re a picked-on chicken, maybe the best thing to do is give yourself some time to heal your wounds. Then, preen your feathers, head out, and strike up some new friendships, either among those at your end of the pecking order or within another, gentler flock.
If you’re one of the leaders, you’d better lead well. The survival and well being of the flock depends on the leaders. If you’re at the top and see a chick shivering out in the cold, you’d better go and get it, so you can lead it back to warmth and companionship. We all know the quote about power and responsibility and it’s a popular saying for good reason: it’s true. The ones at the top should be setting the best examples. Don’t look to the politicians on this one; the chickens have much better advice.
Stay low and spread the word at any sign of danger. Lately, I’ve read of more than one attack happening upon an innocent victim in broad daylight, while bystanders stood by and did nothing. Really? Do something. Avoid danger whenever you can, but when you can’t? Spread the word, work as teams, defeat the danger! There is strength in numbers and none of us should ever forget it.
Want to stay warm? You’re going to have to get close to your neighbors. Chickens cuddle up together when it’s cold at night and spread out again in the day’s warmth. The lesson I take from this, is that while we should all be comfortable and content being individuals, there is warmth and safety in community. We might not want to get overly close to everyone around us, but others have value. Distancing ourselves too much from the flock can leave us vulnerable and out in the cold.
Violet and Daisy
Choose a partner who will protect you when predators move in for the attack. You want a mate who has your back. Roosters tend to have their ladies’ backs a little too literally, hence the need for chicken saddles. Ouch. I’m not referring to this (nor am I suggesting you seek such behavior in a partner). What I do mean, is that a rooster will take on a much larger predator–with only his claws, spurs, and beak as weapons–in order to protect his feathered females. Sure, this is the kind of bravery romance novels are made of, but in real life, shouldn’t you know your mate will be there when the going gets tough? I think that’s when we all need our roosters most.
Remember who gives you your treats. No pecking that one. Enough said.
For the Mama Hen in all of us: Love your chicks equally, but treat them as individuals. Also, show them how to survive, introduce them to the ways of the world, and then let them explore it on their own–all the while keeping one eye on them and the other on the lookout for hawks and foxes. Above all, keep those babies safe and let them know they will always have a warm place by your side. They’ll be happier chicks for it.
Go for what you want. No one’s going to offer you that worm. Get in there. Don’t wait by the sidelines, hoping someone will hand over your hopes and dreams. Dart in, dash in, stride in boldly. Grab hold of your goal. Then, if someone tries to steal it from you, hang on tight and refuse to let go!
You are who you’ve been since hatch day (more or less). Accept it and be happy. Our hens might look almost identical to the average viewer, but I can tell them apart by sight. Some are larger, some smaller; some have light feathers, others darker. Some have small, neat combs, while others (Daisy) have permanent bed head or look like they’re wearing a punk-rock mohawk (Rosie). These are observations, not judgments. There is no body-shaming among our flock. Not only do they vary in appearance, but they also have different personalities. Rosie loves to chat and answers each time you ask her a question. Daisy is quiet and sweet, though she happens to have a bad-a$$ looking rooster spur on one leg. Hyacinth is quiet when you hold her, but the first to yell when she wants to go outside. Violet, since her earliest days of life, has loved to sing. She also, equally, adores long baths and attacking paper towels. Honestly, if she spies a towel in your hand, she turns herself into a little golden ninja.
These girls are who they are and we love them each for it. Too bad society hasn’t figured out this one yet.
Violet, our bathing beauty
A final lesson I’ve learned from watching chickens: take care of yourself. Rest well, eat healthy foods, enjoy the sunshine, and live life on chicken time whenever possible. Our backyard chickens rise with the sun, spend the day eating, drinking, socializing and keeping an eye on one another. As soon as it starts to get dark, they go up and tuck themselves into a cozy bed for the night. Chicken time, chicken life. It suits them well enough and, if you ask me, these are some wise chicks.
Do your pets have any wisdom to impart? Go ahead, you can ask. I won’t tell. You’re more than welcome to comment with any personal insights into animal or human nature. Or, if you just have a funny pet tale to tell, we’d love to hear it! Bonus points for links to pet photos!
Hyacinth, Daisy, Rose, and Violet–the year we tried, unsuccessfully, to create an American Gothic-themed Christmas card