Learning life lessons from a chicken doesn’t seem very likely, but that’s exactly what I experienced while caring for my backyard flock. Admittedly, I had some expectations around raising chickens, but learning from them was definitely not one of them. The truth is, many times, the most meaningful lessons are found in the most unlikely places.
Recognize the Value of Community
From the day they are hatched, chickens seem to innately understand the importance of sticking together. Only when they lay eggs or brood chicks will hens stray from the group cluster. Where one goes, the rest are soon to follow…foraging together, moving as one unit, from one end of the territory to the other. There is safety in numbers, and when the rooster sounds the alarm, they all scatter in a flurry of squawks and feathers. It happens as if by some brilliant, top-secret, strategic plan of organized chaos, making it hard for a predator to choose a target. Lots of individuals working in a united way for the good of the group is a good plan for both chickens and humans to follow.
Forgive and Forget – Choose Your Friends Wisely
As with their human counterparts, various personalities are displayed among the group of individuals. Some members are less tolerant than others, but in the end, they seem to figure out how to live together, in relative harmony, forgiving the random “crankiness” of the less patient members. Letting bygones be bygones is the norm. After a ‘tiff’, they don’t hold a grudge. When it’s over, it’s over. However, they do have great memories and very clearly try to avoid the hens in the group that are less than cordial. They seem to be pretty good at forgiving and forgetting an offense, but they are also picky about who they hang out with -which seems like sound advice to me.
Practice Selfless Love
One of the most surprising things about chickens is the sacrificial behavior that is displayed among individuals. When food is presented, the dominant rooster will ‘call’ his hens to the food, vehemently motioning with his head, frantically scratching the ground with his feet until he is satisfied that all his girls are aware of the offering. He guards his harem as they eat, never taking a bite, until they have finished. I’ve never met a chicken that didn’t like a big, fat, juicy bug and even in the face of such a wondrous treat, the rooster will step aside and let his girls eat the highly prized morsel.
Roosters are always on the lookout, ever-watchful for predators. A rooster’s whole life is dedicated to caring for and protecting the flock. His eyes continuously dart back and forth and up and down, looking for any new signs of danger. He is ever ‘at the ready’ to stand down anything that threatens his precious girls.
Likewise, a mother hen’s dedication to her chicks is nothing short of inspiring. When a hen ‘goes broody’, she is ready to start a family. From that point forward, there is nothing else on her mind! Every ounce of her intention is set on hatching and caring for her chicks. She is not opposed to taking on another hen’s eggs for hatching (the more the merrier?) and will sometimes intentionally roll someone else’s potential chick-children into her nest. For the next 21 (or so) days, she will sit on her nest, leaving it for only short periods, once or twice a day, to drink and eat. During this time, a hen will not venture far from the nest and will lose considerable weight. Some have even starved to death from being so dedicated to the process. The broody hen will pull out her own breast feathers, using them to soften the nest. Her bare skin, against the eggs, creates the perfect, temperature/humidity controlled environment for a successful hatching.
After the chicks are hatched, there is no better place to be than tucked safely underneath a Mama hen’s wings. Hens protect their chicks with ferocity. The old expression “like a mother hen” is used in reference to a human mother, who is very protective of her children. I’ve seen more than one mother hen raise herself up, flapping the air in a threatening way to ward off anything (large or small) that dares venture too close to her young. In my mind, such a deep level of caring for babies is nothing short of heroic, so if someone accuses you of behaving “like a mother hen”, you should most certainly take it as a high complement!
There are many poignant stories of mother hens, who literally sacrificed their own lives for their young. Years ago, I read an account of one such hen, who was found amid the smoldering remains of a forest fire. A firefighter came across her blackened, half-burned body, on a smoking, forest trail. When he kicked the charred remains off the trail, four baby chicks scattered from underneath her. She could have fled from the raging fire, saving herself. Instead, she chose to gather her chicks underneath her wings and she faced the inferno with a selflessness that most of us can’t even fathom.
Chickens are calmly alert. In a word, they are totally present in any given moment. Endlessly, their time is spent ‘scratching up’ new possibilities. It is amazing how quickly they all react when a big, juicy ‘bug-opportunity’ arises! In a matter of seconds, a quiet moment of tranquil foraging can be replaced by a tornadic blur of feathers and beaks. One would never guess the level of alertness that lies just under the calm.
Chickens are also great communicators. They use a variety of specific vocalizations which convey some pretty important messages to each other. From a mama hen’s delightfully quick, “Cluck, cluck, cluck”, which calls her chicks to dinner (see link below to hear a sample of that call) – to the rooster’s intense warning signal for everyone to “Run for dear life!”, the communication is clearly stated. And the others, who are obviously good listeners, respond in an instant, intuitively understanding that it can, quite literally, be a matter of life or death.
After a long day, there is nothing sweeter than hearing the ‘trills and coos’ of content birds on a roost. It is as if they perch, reciting their bedtime prayers to the Creator of all good and wonderful things…offering up thanks for the bounty of a beautifully simple life.
Perhaps, if we understood the importance of being present in our moments, noticing and embracing the unexpected, humble wisdom that life offers, we would also find ourselves at the end of a long and busy day, cooing our contented thanks to the Creator of all good and wonderful things…for the beautiful gift of a simple life.
Click on: “It’s Dinnertime!” -to see a short film (less than a minute) that I created a few years ago of one of my mother hens calling her babies to dinner.
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For more inspiration on “Being vs Doing”, read this article by my good friend, Lisa:
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