Especially hens. Picking and pecking. Sneak attacks from behind. And the not-so-subtle side push: the art of casually and demurely knocking an unsuspecting hen off her perch with one’s hip while she is roosting.
Whoops. So terribly sorry darling. I must have slipped.
Indeed, hens can be downright vicious in their attempts to be the dominant hen. The one that gets to sleep next to Heir Rooster.
The feminist part of me hates that hens behave this way. I want them to evolve-up and stop this immature and hurtful behavior immediately.
We females need to treat each other with respect!
We must stick together and have each other’s back!
Don’t misunderstand. Roosters can be incredibly aggressive as well. But usually only in their pursuit of sex. The young and immature rooster, especially, will often corner his potential mate and violently pin her to the ground with his beak while he has his way with her. The more mature rooster will at least take the time to woo his lady first, and give her the opportunity to say yes before pouncing on her. And though I don’t appreciate or condone the cornering and pouncing behaviors, I can’t help but notice that the hens keep coming back for more.
To each their own, right?
Except, what if those ‘normal chicken behaviors’ are causing harm to a loved one?
It all started during a conversation about chickens over lemonade on my neighbor Ulinda’s front porch last summer. Ulinda and my farm-mate, Pat, were discussing ordering chickens through the mail. I’ve never held much interest for chickens, though I do appreciate their eggs. Horses are my true passion. At least until this particular conversation got started.
“Mail order chickens?” I asked incredulously.
“Yep,” the two of them say in unison, not even registering my disbelief as they continue chatting about which breeds they intend to order.
“That is just not right!” I say, with all of the righteousness therapist tone I can muster.
“They’re chickens,” Pat says, laughing. “People do it all the time.”
“People used to sell human slaves on a regular basis,” I fire back indignantly. “And Hitler used to load up humans in cattle cars and haul them to concentration camps. Just because people ‘do it all the time’ doesn’t make it right.”
“Yes, but it’s the only way to ensure that the chickens will arrive healthy and disease free,” Ulinda defends pragmatically. “If you buy them locally, they could have Salmonella, or other deadly diseases. All it takes is one sick chicken, and you can lose the whole batch.”
“Well, I can see how that might be true,” I concede. “But from an attachment perspective, it’s just plain wrong to send them in the mail. How would you feel if we packed up human babies in boxes and shipped them out for adoption?”
“But they’re chickens, Rox” Pat says again, like this answer explains everything.
“Chickens don’t feel emotions like humans do,” Ulinda adds. “They don’t bond like humans do either.”
Like hell they don’t, I want to yell. But I keep my anger in check. They are just chickens after all.
“Every animal bonds.” I argue vehemently.
But the logical part of me isn’t quite so sure.
According to scientists, snakes don’t bond. And neither do fish. At least as far as we are able to measure. But I have always suspected that the current beliefs about animals and bonding is due to our limited technology: just because we can’t measure love doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Someday, as technology improves, I know I will be vindicated. In the meantime, I wrack my brain for trivia on animal bonding, in order to defend the noble chicken.
I do know for certain that mammals bond, because mammals have the same middle brain structure as humans. Which means, contrary to what zoos and mass killing-facilities would like you to believe, all mammals have the capacity to feel the same core emotions that we humans do: happiness, sadness, fear/surprise, and disgust/anger. This is a scientific fact that most humans aren’t made aware of. Because it would be inconvenient to know the truth, given the way we “handle” most livestock.
But what about birds? I know they imprint on whomever raises them. We’ve all seen the images of little baby birds following loyally behind the most unlikely mothers – including human male mothers.
But do birds actually bond? I am not entirely sure.
Ulinda senses my uncertainty and pounces. “Chickens don’t bond. They imprint. There is a difference.”
“What’s the difference?” I ask, testing her knowledge base.
“I’m not quite sure,” Ulinda ponders. “I would think that imprinting is about dependence. Whereas bonding is more about connection.”
“Humpf,” I snort, in true Scottish-German fashion when we can’t come up with a viable argument.
“What I do know,” Ulinda continues, “is that all fertilized eggs come with a yolk sac. When a baby chic is born, it feeds off this yolk sac until the rest of the babies are born. In this way, the mother hen can continue brooding until all of the babies are born. The company I order from does a very good job of simulating this process. They deliver the chics right after they hatch, complete with yolk sac, and a warm dark resting area. Just like in nature.”
“Well, that’s all good and well. But it’s not the same as being born with their mama,” I reply in a last ditch effort to sway them.
“It’s how it’s done,” Pat chimes in, trying to reassure me. “They’ll be fine.”
But I am not reassured. All I can imagine is a little baby chic bouncing around in a cardboard box inside a Fed Ex truck, terrified and alone. Clearly this is NOT the same as breaking out of a shell while being nestled under mama hen’s warm soft belly.
In my mind, these two experiences are worlds apart. The problem is I don’t have any scientific evidence to dispute this issue with my very intelligent women friends.
“Fine then,” I say, giving in against my better judgment. “We can try this mail order chicken plan. But I don’t like it one bit. And I intend to prove to both of you that chickens do indeed bond!”
And this is how Ms. Bonita Viviente Mireya came into my life: In a mail order cardboard box, with sixteen other baby chics. Two of which got smashed like pancakes during the journey.
Oh well. They’re just chickens.
Ulinda agrees to keep the babies at her house until we can get a coop built.
“Make sure you hold them regularly,” I remind her. “Don’t be trying to sway the experiment in your favor!”
“Of course,” Ulinda agrees. “I will take good care of them.”
And to give her credit, she does. But A few weeks after their arrival we get a very distressed phone call: A skunk got into her chicken coop, and killed all but three of the baby chics. Pat and I rush over as soon as we get the news.
What we find is a chicken coop full of feathers. Ulinda kindly disposed of the bloody body parts before we arrived.
The three remaining baby chics pace anxiously around their pen, little eyes darting furtively in every direction. Only one of the remaining chics is physically unharmed – though it is clearly traumatized by the attack. One of the babies is limping and dragging a wing, most likely due to a broken hip, we surmised upon closer inspection. And the other baby chic, Ms. Bonita, looks like she narrowly escaped getting her head bitten off. She has a bloody ring around her neck, and her right eye is swollen completely shut.
As we survey the damage, the healthy chic suddenly runs straight at Ms. Bonita, pecking her hard on her damaged eye. Ms. Bonita doesn’t even see it coming, and squawks in terrified alarm, flapping her little wings as she tries to get away.
“Hey!” I yell instinctively. “Cut it out! She’s been through enough already!”
“They’ve both been picking on her since the attack, “Ulinda says, matter-of-factly. “Chickens do that you know. They pick on the injured ones. They will kill her if we don’t get her out of there.”
“I’ll take her home with me then,” I say spontaneously, already feeling protective of this little one-eyed survivor. I know all too well what if feels like to not feel safe in your own home. To have to be on guard, 24-7. It is not a life I would wish for anybody. Even a chicken.
And this is how Ms. Bonita Viviente Mireya, beautiful little surviving miracle, became a part of my family. And how she came to be the only surviving chic from her brood. Her remaining two siblings were killed a few days later by crafty magpies who figured out how to get into the coop through the chicken door. Bonita’s siblings disappeared without a trace.
Gone forever. Just like my brother Joey.
I place Bonita in a plastic tub with a towel on the bottom. She barely moves. For two days she refuses all food and water. I worry that she will perish if I can’t get her to eat. I know that regular skin-on-skin contact is the prescribed treatment for premature babies who have to live their early days in hospitals. So why wouldn’t it be the same for baby chics?
I live on a shared farm, so I can’t rightly run around without a shirt on. And I don’t feel comfortable leaving Ms. Bonita alone either. She might lose her will to live.
So I put Ms. Bonita in my bra.
It is the perfect solution. And she appears to agree. Whenever I try to roust her out, she gets very upset, flapping her wings and peeping loudly.
I carry her everywhere with me. Even to work. But after a few sideways glances at my suddenly size Double-D chest from my curious colleagues, I realize that perhaps keeping Ms. Bonita in my bra is not the most professionally appropriate solution.
Not to mention the poop factor.
I devise a wrap out of a wool scarf by tying the ends together and draping the scarf diagonally across my shoulder. My new contraption allows Bonita to stay warm and close to my chest. And it provides easy access for me to reach her when needed. Problem solved.
The sideways glances at work have stopped, though the muffled laughter continues to echo down the halls, along with whispers of “crazy chicken lady.”
But I didn’t care. Ms. Bonita’s comfort and well-being is all that matters to me now. I don’t know if Bonita has bonded with me. Though her loud protests in response to me trying to remove her from her heart-sling would indicate that she might be. But what I do know is that I have clearly bonded with her.
Bonded like a big fat brooding mama hen.
Don’t mess with my Bonita, or you will pay the price!
Just ask Bella, my German Shephard. She has been ousted from her number one position by this little one-eyed chicken. It is clear in Bella’s eyes that devouring Ms. Bonita would solve this dilemma immediately. Her whole body shakes as she desperately tries to control her primal urges. But her love for me is stronger than her urge to kill. Dogs are mammals. Mammals bond.
After a few days of being nestled in my bossom, Ms. Bonita begins to show signs of life. In a few more days, with a little encouragement from mama, she tentatively begins venturing out into the great big world of my tiny agency office. At first, she only stays out long enough to poop and eat before scuttling back to the safety of my chest. But with time and trust, she begins to explore the world around her for longer periods. She even let’s a few of my clients hold her while we talk. These are profound healing moments for those of us who understand what it’s like to be a trauma survivor. Especially early childhood trauma. Witnessing Ms. Bonita’s journey from surviving to thriving gives all of us a little extra hope that healing is indeed possible in this often cruel and heartless world.
One of these client’s generously offers to donate a young hen and rooster to our farm, so that Ms. Bonita will not have to be alone. But Mr. Hermoso and Ms. Blanca come from the same brood, and they are tight. They refuse to let Bonita perch with them.
One night in desperation I stealthily attempt to sneak Bonita onto their perch after the pair has gone to sleep. Hermoso awakes with a startled screech that sends Bonita flying. I try again the next night, and this time, Blanca does the fancy side-push maneuver, sending Bonita spiraling to the ground. After several failed attempts, I give in and build Ms. Bonita her own perch. At least they aren’t attacking her. And she gets to share the coop with them.
Poor little Bonita. My heart aches every time I see her look longingly from her perch at Hermoso and Blanca. I know she badly wants to be a part of their clan, but she doesn’t know what to do. How would she? She has spent the majority of her life with a human, a dog, and a cat who thinks she’s a bird (that’s a whole other story I will save for another day). No wonder she is so confused.
I feel the pain of her isolation. I remember all too well trying to fit in after my brother Joey died. At the age of ten, I moved with what was left of my family from a progressive Southern California city, to a little cowboy town in Colorado. A place where girls had to be girls, because boys and men ruled, and animals quivered in fear.
I didn’t have the faintest clue how to fit into my new world. Inclusion and protection had always been an automatic benefit of being Joey’s little sister. Everybody loved Joey. And they also knew that if they messed with me, there would be hell to pay. But after Joey died, I was left to fend for myself in a world that was nothing like where I had come from. In California, girls got to do all of the things that boys got to do. But not so in rural Colorado.
I learned this the hard way the first time I stood in line to take my turn on the bucking barrel. When the boys couldn’t force me out of line, they took great pleasure in doubling up on the wires, sending me flying face first over the front of the barrel. But they underestimated my grit. Time and time again I proudly ate that Colorado dirt. And to matter how badly it hurt, I would dust myself off, and get back in line for the next round.
Over time, the boys grew to accept my presence among them, but in a weird distanced sort of way that made it clear I would never be considered one of them. I didn’t even try with the girls. I knew I would be ostracized for refusing to wear the frilly dresses, or play their silly little flirty show-off-to-the-boys games. How I longed for the security of my life with Joey at my old school. And what I wouldn’t have given for just one supportive adult to teach me how to navigate my new world. But the teachers and playground monitors looked the other way.
Kids will be kids.
And chickens will be chickens.
Pat and I decide to order a few more hens closer to Bonita’s age from the same mail-order company. Somehow mail-order adolescents feels slightly better than mail-order babies. And it’s in the spirit of helping Ms. Bonita, after all. It’s amazing how quickly we seek out the small gray nuances that justify our actions.
“None of us are pure,” Ulinda says.
So very true.
I watch over my new brood like a good mama hen should.
The hens fight for status on the perch and in the chicken yard. I stand by, ready and armed.
“No bullying allowed!” I yell as I madly dash after the offending adolescents, spraying them with a stream of cold water from my squirt bottle. “Nobody gets to pick on anybody in this family! And I mean it!”
Laugh if you will. Bullying is hurtful. To all beings. And absolutely unacceptable.
My guardian efforts eventually pay off. The hens begin to settle in. Of course, there is always the occasional skirmish, and a well-directed side-push here and there that sends one of them tumbling to the ground. But I can live with this. No major harm is being done.
My chest swells up with mama hen pride as I watch my Bonita learn how to hold her own with the others.
My little girl is growing up into a beautiful and healthy young chicken.
Do chickens bond? I honestly don’t know. I would like to believe that Ms. Bonita’s evening ritual of preening my hair and pecking my cheek are signs that she is indeed bonded to me. But what I am absolutely certain about is that I have clearly bonded to her. We humans are wired for bonding. With all beings. And because of this, I believe it is our responsibility to care for the beings we bond with by creating a healthy and safe place for them to not just survive, but to thrive.
Of course, this is often not as simple or as easy as it sounds.
TO BE CONTINUED…