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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Carnival of the chickens

Four chickens huddled together, braced themselves, then marched out as a pack, tails up, heads poking forward with each step of their orange legs. A stray hen scurried out from another corner of the yard, peeking warily over her shoulder, and the four biddies reacted as one: squawking, clucking, shushing and finally herding and prodding the stray hen back into the group.

It could have been our own backyard.

Instead it was on stage, at a rehearsal of my daughter’s ballet company’s production of “Carnival of the Animals.”

“That chicken dance is spot on,” I told my daughter who, for the record, is a swan.

Observers — and impersonators — of animals look for the telltale movements or postures that differentiate a chicken from, say, a duck. Or a swan.

Wing movements differ bird to bird — a flying crow muscles its wings in a forward motion, almost like swimming, while woodpeckers fold their wings back to their bodies midflight and drop before they start flapping again. Turkey vultures hold their wings in a shallow V-shape when they’re soaring, while eagles hold their wings flat. You can spot a slow-flapping heron even when it’s high in the sky by the way it pulls its long neck back into an S and trails its legs behind it.

Our ballet chickens didn’t really cluck, but they huddled, scurried and scared like a real flock and, like actual hens, expressed shock and delight at the appearance of an egg.

That’s one of the curious things about keeping hens. You’d think an animal that lays an egg almost every day would take it in stride. And some do. Others squawk and fuss so loudly we have to run out to the hen house to make sure no foxes are on the prowl.

“You won’t believe what happened out there,” the human investigator will report upon returning to the house. “A hen — are you sitting down? A hen laid an egg. That’s right. An egg.” The investigator will hold it up for the rest of us to see, and we’ll express great surprise and shock, and wonder aloud if it is perhaps the first egg that ever was laid.

We love our hens, but we don’t fool ourselves that they are great thinkers.

But their quirky behavior is fun to watch. The roosters will scratch the ground, uncovering bugs and tender sprouts, crow for the hens to gather and then step back, chest puffed out and strutting a proud circle around his pecking flock.

If a hawk flies overhead, the rooster will make a guttural sound that causes every hen in the yard to freeze — midstep or midpeck — until the danger is gone. It’s comical to see a hen frozen on one leg, head down, sure that if it doesn’t move no one can see it.

Which is not that dumb. Hawks have good eyes but they are high up and what they’re looking for is movement. On a bright day, the slightest shift by a mouse or squirrel or chicken will be magnified by its moving shadow, and the hawk will drop from the sky so fast the little animal won’t know what hit it.

I’ve seen young hens swooped up and carried off by hawks and eagles. Once I chased an immature bald eagle with a young black hen in its talons, trying to get a good grip as I shouted “Drop it! Drop it!” like a rude spectator at a Little League game. And like a spooked 8-year-old outfielder, the eagle did drop it. But the hen didn’t make it or, more truthfully, it did make it — to the soup pot.

Another time I saw another immature bald eagle swoop into the open bay of the barn where our teenaged flock was hanging out, grab one and carry it off around to the back of the barn. I ran after it shouting and throwing sticks and rocks (with as much aim as an 8-year-old Little Leaguer) until the offending bird dropped my bird and flew into a tree. I approached my downed hen cautiously, expecting evisceration, and was happily surprised when she jumped up and ran away, unharmed.

With brains so small, hens always seem to forget trauma quickly, whether from a marauding coyote or a neighbor dog, a circling hawk or a biking boy.

Soon enough they’re back to their yard work, poking for worms in the piles of manure and garden soil, perching on the ledges of the ox stall, chasing each other across the flower garden or pecking through the seeds under the bird feeder.

And we’re back to our work, and our observation of the birds, wild and domestic.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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