Chickens are supposed to be pretty dumb. We frequently say as much.
“Like a chicken with its head cut off,” “dumb cluck,” the Henny Penny yarn ... all those sayings seem to put chickens well below humans in the pecking order of perspicacity.
Why, then, can I not figure out how the chickens are getting out of the outdoor chicken run?
We had about 20 chickens when last I counted.
I say, “when last I counted,” because every day, three of those birds are out and about when I venture to the chicken house inside the barn for the daily feed and water routine.
Some days, the rooster and one or two other chickens follow the gleesome threesome’s example and wander hither and yon, picking and pecking at the fall munchies in and out of the now-withered garden.
But just about every day, those three make it outside our fenced-in chicken run.
Now, our chicken run is not the world’s most secure prison. Made more than a decade ago out of now-rusted chicken wire fronted with 50-year-old (or older) lath-and-wire snow fence, it sags, slopes and slumps from the batterings of winter snowstorms, the bend-over effect of howling winds, and just general wear and tear.
We have patched it. We have reweaved sections of it. We have strung deer netting atop it.
Most of the chickens stay inside unless, as happens on most afternoons, we open a gate to allow them to roam freely in the hours after most eggs have been laid inside readily searchable nesting boxes.
But those three ... Arrgh.
When I go into the chicken house, calling “Chick, chick, chick!” and scattering handfuls of the scratch grain (mostly corn) that they love, the three outliers come a-running. I let them in, without thinking.
Then I stand there and try to discern which three are the escape artists.
Buff Orpington chickens are all a cheery tan in color, of about the same size, and not very distinguishable as individuals.
Ever seen a bunch of kindergarteners bundled up in winter parkas, scarves, pulled-down hats and clumpy boots? As a grandparent, I have sometimes been unable to pick out my own grandkids from a clomping, stomping bunch until I get close enough to recognize a specific squeal, giggle or yell.
Same with our chickens. Scurrying and pecking, scratching and clucking, they all look alike.
I plan to take a can of spray paint with me to the chicken house, and, as the escape artists re-enter, daub them generously with stripes of red, blue or whatever color is left from previous paintings of lawn furniture, etc.
That will clarify things, and perhaps indicate which birds are next in line for the stew pot.
But it still won’t show me how they get out of the chicken run.
Chickens can squeeze through openings that are far smaller than the cacklers appear to be.
I cannot patch holes or gaps that I cannot see. A complete rebuild of the chicken runs is a job that needs to wait until the warmer temperatures of next spring arrive.
I have “played detective,” of course. I stake out the chicken run, nonchalantly acting as though I am doing other outside chores. My wife spent the better part of an hour doing that one day last week.
The problem is that there are enough outside chores begging to be done that pretty quickly, I start to actually do an outside chore, and take my eyes off the chicken run.
A red-combed tan glob of feathers is strutting outside.
I mutter. I mumble. I say bad words. I renew my stakeout.
No wonder our police officers have difficulty in detecting lawbreakers, ranging from park vandals to drug dealers.
Oh, so innocent they act, these human and poultry-species evaders of law and order, when we are watching. Turn away, though, and they seize the seconds to do what we do not want them to do.
We do not want our chickens roaming freely in the mornings because that forces us to hunt everywhere for eggs. Confined, they use the nesting boxes. We do let them out in afternoons, when we can keep an eye on them because hawks, red-tailed and otherwise, regularly scope out the farm fields in our neighborhood.
I, a human, ought to be smarter than they, mere chickens.
Still, they get out, and I cannot figure out the “how.”
Who, then, is the “dumb cluck”?
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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org