Hen with chick on her back with other chicks around her, amongst plants

Backyard Chickens, and the Interconnectedness of All Things - Part 1

Part 1 of a Series | Approximately a 5 minute read. |Originally published Oct 3rd, 2018, at PermacultureNews.org.

This 3-Part Series starts off with our cultural lack of  understanding about our place in the web of life, which is at the root of why our efforts to address ecological destruction aren’t working yet.

If you were mainly interested in chickens, stay with me – I’ll get onto backyard chickens in the second part of Part 1, and then I’ll stick almost entirely to chickens for the rest of the Series.

Please note, though, that this is not a “how to take care of chickens” Series (you can find those everywhere).

This is about how to appreciate chickens as more than just egg-layers and garden-scratchers. And, by extension, how to appreciate any living thing beyond just its immediately apparent functions.


We need a better appreciation of our connectedness to all of life

I’ve been reading some of Charles Eisenstein’s writings.

In his books and articles, Eisenstein points out that regardless of how hard we work in a piecemeal way or on a superficial level to address the social and ecological challenges we face, collectively we are still missing a fundamental piece of the puzzle.

The missing piece has to do with our culture’s ways of interpreting reality, and our place in it. This piece must fall into place before deep change can occur on a broad scale.

Ecological destruction and social upheaval will continue until we as a culture experience a fundamental change in the way we view our place and role on earth, and our relationship with the rest of life.

“Our stories are powerful. If we see the world as [inanimate, and able to be reduced to separate parts], we will kill it. And if we see the world as alive, we will learn how to serve its healing.”

Charles Eisenstein, Initiation into a Living Planet

So long as we continue to hold onto a (now obsolete) scientific worldview that says we are alone in the universe, we will continue to place ourselves above and apart from nature, and to prioritize our own well-being at the expense of other lifeforms.

Throughout the 21st century, new science has been emerging that says we are not alone. We are inextricably interconnected with everything else in the universe, and we endanger any other living thing—be it a cloud of insects, a wetland, or a forest (they are all living entities)—at our own peril.

When we modernized people, as an entire culture, come to know the truth of this “story of interbeing” (as Eisenstein calls it), then our behavior, institutions, and forms of government will change, collectively. This will be the level of change that we so desperately need. 

What do chickens have to do with all of this? (And why is there a whale picture here?)

Whale cow and calf photographed from above, swimming in open ocean

To address this urgent  need for a better appreciation of our connectedness to all of life, you could do something dramatic. Like, for example, go to sea to study and protect the whales.

(I read recently that scientists have discovered and counted cells in whales' brains that prove, scientifically, that whales experience complex emotions like romance and grief.

Not to discount the important and valid work of scientists, but really? We need scientists to tell us such things? Isn’t it evident that an animal like a whale can feel love and grief, joy and sadness, without counting their brain cells?)

Dragging myself back to the topic at hand, the trouble with trying to do something dramatic like go to sea to protect the whales is that for most of us, whales are not very accessible – and this is where backyard chickens come in.

It’s better to start small than to be overwhelmed with the enormity of it all, and never start at all. Backyard chickens are accessible enough to help us facilitate the deep, fundamental, but really oh-so-simple change we need to make.

Backyard chickens can do more than put real food on our tables, help us in our gardens, and help us free ourselves from our dependence on supermarkets and industrial agriculture. They can also help us attend to the mostly silent, suppressed and hidden, lonely, hungry, lost, confused part of us that is tired of being separate from nature and longs to be reconnected.

I could, of course, cross out the word "chickens," and replace it with bees, or herbs, or guinea pigs, or milking goats… you get my drift.

Grey hen and two tiny chicks

I’m starting here with chickens, because chances are you have access to a space (your own or one nearby) that’s big enough to have chickens in it.  (At least, better than the chances of your having access to whales.)

Also, chickens are on my mind because at the moment we have 3 hens sitting on eggs, and 4 hens raising little chicks at our place.

As you may already realize, there’s nothing like mother hens and baby chicks to catch the eye and slow down the mind of a modernized human being.

What broody hens have taught me about chicken smarts

I used to think all chickens were alike, were not very smart, and didn’t have much to do but scratch up garden beds and compete with each other for the food they found there. I’ve changed my mind.

Hen and chicks in nesting box

I now think that chickens have distinct “"chickenalities,” are much more complex and social than I realized, and are, in some ways, very smart.

It was broody hens who first began to open my eyes. And then the more I watched broody hens, the more I began to see chicken smarts everywhere I looked in the flock.

A broody hen is one who feels its time settle down on a nest full of eggs and incubate them. (You probably knew that already, but just in case you didn’t.)

Broody hens are also sometimes called “clucky,” because when they get off the nest to go for a drink, a snack, or a dust bath, they cluck as they walk – a special, gentle, metronomic clucking that’s timed with the hen’s walk. When she walks slowly, she clucks slowly. If something makes her hurry, the clucks speed up.

Why do broody hens cluck? Because when the chicks are hatched they’ll follow their mother, and find her if they’ve lost her, by listening for her clucking.

The hen also clucks, softly and gently, as she returns to the nest and re-settles herself over her eggs. Why does she do that?

I imagine that once they reach a certain stage of development, the chicks inside the eggs can hear the mother. Maybe they’re already imprinting on her voice, memorizing that particular voice out of many in the flock.

Hen with chick peeping out

So, the hen creeps ever-so carefully back over the eggs, without breaking any. She hitches the skin of her breast forward, lodging its soft folds over the eggs, shivering her fluffy lower feathers down around them and bringing them into direct contact with the special patch of warm, bare skin that’s just for warming eggs and chicks. (Hens that are not broody don’t have this bare patch.)

There she sits, still and patient, with only brief sojourns for food, water, and toilet breaks. While she incubates them, the hen keeps her eggs rotating and turning, so they are all evenly warmed.

A broody hen can even move her nest. One hen of ours, very recently, moved her entire clutch of eggs from where we had placed it, to another spot about a meter away. Why, and how, did she do that? I don’t know. But I'm sure she does.

When she hears her chicks preparing to hatch, the mother hen sits even tighter, not leaving the nest at all for the 24 to 36 hours it takes for all the chicks to hatch. Her feathers and skin hold the humidity and temperature just right for the emerging chicks, and we never know what’s happening under there until dry fluffy chicks poke their heads out to greet the world.

Coming up...

In the next article, I'll talk about the uniqueness of each family of mother hen and chicks, and then what happens as the bond between mother and chicks begins to weaken as the chicks move toward maturity.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}