The Chicken Parable

by Milo Clark

May 10, 2004   


Out here in the rainforest of nontourist Hawaii, feral chickens have us as friends. A couple years back, a neighbor moved away leaving behind some hens of unknown provenance. About then the high decibel Coqui tree frogs imported from Puerto Rico multiplied exponentially with vocal prowess to match. Anti-Coqui pundits insisted that chickens would eat the little frogs or, at least, their eggs.

Some friends in the Hilo uplands were bothered with their feral chickens eating them out of flowers and garden. We took their chickens. They turned out to be three young as yet full-fledged roosters and three hens. Chirpy, as we would call him, got badly beat up by his siblings. We put him in a cage to recuperate. Runty and Redneck grew up and acquired voice. Runty went to a neighbor. Redneck, the magnificent, was found dead one day. Chirpy is now No. 1. The hens get their tail feathers battered regularly. Where they lay eggs remains a mystery.

The basis for an experiment should be evident by now. Hypothesis: Add chickens, reduce, if not eliminate, Coqui. Roosters also may be noisy at times but life is compromise and balance.

In succeeding months, results became apparent. Chickens, if they eat Coqui at all, make little dent in the frog populations. Roosters and hens do what comes naturally. Some eggs become chicks. Some chicks become chickens.

Black, Grey, Mom and other hens dutifully show up from time to time trailed by numbers of cute little multi-colored chicks: some mostly yellow, others striped greys, the balance darker greys and blacks. Those chicks who survive would, in their time, show up as roosters in training or, eventually, hens trailed by more chicks. No change in Coqui density, other than increase, was noted.

The feral chickens of rural Hawaii are dramatically unlike those fat, white bird folks seen in Hollywood films or TV dramas. Their color schemes are magnificent. I look at them and discover new miracles of coloration. They are simply wonderful. I'm told that those gorgeous roosters imported for fighting get loose and spread genes widely and randomly. The results are spectacular. Cracking reds, oranges to make a monk envious, yellows like a sunflower, iridescent blacks, plus mixes and matches galore. New discoveries of color each day. We watch them in amazement and awe.

We are unplagued by mongoose, so the chicks are mostly done in by feral cats. A clutch of a dozen may end up with two, three or no survivors. The mother hens do an amazing and impressive job. They shepherd, if that is a proper analogy, their broods with care and concern. At the least threat or if nap time, the mother hen spreads her wings and puffs herself up into a comfy shelter and sinks down over her brood.

The chicks are early shown the chicken two step: Two steps forward, scratch, scratch, two steps back, inspect the area carefully for worms, bugs or whatever may delight chick appetites, repeat again and again. Before chicks have wings, they perfect the two step.

As the chicks disappear one by one over time and before getting big enough to gang up to defend themselves, the mother hens calmly go about their nurturing. They offer a parable. No matter how bad it may get, life goes on. Hope springs eternal and instinct will prevail. Lose a few, make some more.

Some of the chickens are more aggressive than others. One or two will come up and peck at our toes to insist on a proper ration of hen scratch cracked corn mix. The whole bunch will do huge cluck-ups, big flap-arounds, whirl and twirl games, boy-girl acts and a wonderful array of chicken behaviors. More fun than TV by far. More entertaining than reading or radio.

Bright and early most mornings, up start the roosters. Far away, nearby, mid-range and then mix it up. I can depend on Chirpy, Yellowneck, Gimpy and the adolescents from the gangs of three or nine and the neighbors' big guys to gather outside my window and do choruses from chicken operas. Come'a down now and feed'a us immediately or we will break your eardrums. Convincing.

Human history is chicken life in parallel. Millions are born, many die naturally. Others get blown apart, hacked to pieces, burned at the stake, pulverized and smashed, snatched by tigers, clawed raw by bears. People go on doing whatever they do. Some cocky roosters beat up on others, savaging them in obedience to rituals beyond pecking order clichés. After noises of lament; pieces are picked up and the puzzle worked out.

Bush, too, will pass.

Viva Teresa!

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Published May 10, 2004
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