Chickens don’t seem to learn much from experience and sometimes I think we don’t either. My eleven year old son, Dave, raises bantams; a small, happy, egg-laying breed. He lets them free range in the daylight hours and at night they put themselves to bed. He heads out after sunset to shut and lock the coop door and in the morning let’s them out again. We lose a few over the course of the summer to hawks but we believe our chickens would subscribe to the New Hampshire motto of Live Free or Die.
Given Dave’s track record for remembering to bring home his trombone, or to practice, or to get his reading log signed, it is remarkable how diligent he is in remembering to shut them in at night. Even when he sleeps at a friend’s house he calls around dusk to remind us to put the chickens to bed.
It all seemed rather idyllic until the fox got wind of our bounty and one sad evening we heard a ruckus that became more familiar with time. The ducks and the goose began to honk mightily as they jumped into the pond. The roosters flew up to the coop roof to screech encouragement to the troops. The dog began to bark, and Dave leapt into action. But the hens mostly ran in circles and the two slowest members of the flock were taken before Dave and Hannah arrived on the scene.
It was the beginning of escalating ugliness. Having tasted both the chicken and the challenge, the fox grew greedy. Watching the pig fest on Wall Street I should have known what was coming. At least the fox had a reason: I knew she had a litter of hungry pups to feed and I’m sure our yard looked like a perfectly stocked pantry. Soon she was making regular pilgrimages. Dave reported seeing her on his way down to the coop almost every night. He, in return, was even more religious about getting them to bed before the sun went down. Then one fateful day while we were away and Hannah was off duty the fox came by in broad daylight and destroyed 19 birds in one gory swoop.
19 bantams! There is no reasonable explanation for this slaughter. It was as if the fox thought simply because she could, she therefore should, (as in “I’m entitled to”) take a 19 bantam bonus. It reduced our flock to one ornery rooster (who after that day was no longer so ornery, but followed the ducks around wishing he could swim), so not only was it a gross display of over-kill; the carnage left several chicken carcasses to rot, it was just plain short sighted: A little more restraint could have ensured generations of future meals from this flock. It was appalling, disgusting, discouraging, and just plain sad.
One might be tempted to blame the chickens; you’d think they’d learn. But a chicken has a small brain and an incredibly short attention span; within hours of an attack they are back to business as usual. In their defense, they’re used to four legged creatures like Hannah who mills about but never interferes with chicken business, and the cat who lurks but never lunges. Still, you’d think the harrowing experience of one or two fox attacks would drive home some semblance of wisdom. Chickens seem unable to learn – maybe it’s simple lack of brain power or the fact that they don’t usually live long enough to pass on whatever knowledge they’ve gained to future generations.
Dave was heartbroken. He couldn’t believe a fox would deviate from the rule book and strike mid day. As my Dad would say, “I guess she didn’t read the rule book!” Apparently unlike the guileless chickens, fox brains are better at adjusting to circumstance and bending the rules to take advantage of new opportunities. It was a hard lesson for Dave, but he too has learned. His current plan is to keep the new flock in the run during the ugly month of May.
If an eleven year old can learn so quickly, it’s curious to me why we grownups, have so much trouble catching on. Why, for instance, after experiencing the recent Wall Street massacre unleashed upon us by masters of unbridled greed, we are looking no smarter than chickens, venturing happily back out into the sunlight to peck around for scraps hours after the slaughter of flock mates, even as the Wall Street foxes with their billions in bonuses craft ever more wily plans for future mayhem.
Here’s what I’d like to say to the chickens: You need to learn the difference between a Labrador and a fox. There’s no point in trying to understand why or talking sense into them, just teach your friends and family to run like hell when you see one coming. Squawk all you want but do it while you run. Better yet, practice flying.
Here’s what I’d like to say to the fox: Shame on you. I understand the laws of nature, and I don’t begrudge your need to feed your family. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And a 19 bantam bonus should make you as sick to take as it does us to hear about. A 19-chickens kill is a disgrace. Even for a fox.
Here’s what I’ve said to David. You’re a good person. I like the determination and humility with which you shoulder your responsibility as protector of the chickens. Please stay in touch with your heart and your head and someday please help teach your children to be neither chickens, nor foxes, but evolved human beings with the potential to demonstrate through intelligence, compassion, and creative innovation that we can leave a positive legacy for future generations.