Lessons from the Little Red Hen

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the expression “take them under your wing”? I can tell you from personal experience that this particular piece of advice has been adapted from the farm, and for good reason. Last week, just after we finished culling our poultry flock and I successfully convinced the kids that “the pretty one” hadn’t suffered, I found this quote:

‘Don’t wait for someone to take you under their wing. Find a good wing and climb up underneath it.’ – Frank C. Bucaro

Thinking about chickens and childhood, I came to a puzzling question. Why would anyone believe that the word chicken is synonymous with “being afraid?” Obviously they have never been in our yard on a typical summer day! Until that fateful day last week, we had 13 young roosters who did exactly what they wanted, when they wanted, and certainly not what we wanted. What they wanted most was to get out of their pen. Every morning they squawked and carried on until we opened the doors to freedom. Often, it took all five of us to get them penned in the evening, sometimes leaving several stragglers behind till morning.

They left lots behind for us too. Even though it’s more humane to let them free to go foraging for food, we quickly discovered that 21 chickens do “go” everywhere. Their droppings were a nuisance, the wood chips were scattered, and my plants were permanently disrupted. But there isn’t an unwanted bug on any of our garden plants. 

Besides the flowerbeds, this last bunch of renegades especially liked our garage. Quite often we leave the garage door open slightly for the cats, but chickens are quick learners too. No space was too small for them to explore. Watching a chicken crawl under the garage door makes me wonder why I can’t look more sophisticated crawling under the pasture fence!

I remember our first brood that hatched two years ago before my dog feasted on Hector, the rooster, for lunch. Henrietta, a little red hen, was an excellent mother. This family unit decided that the tree outside of our second story bedroom window was perfect for their evening roost. At the exact same time every night, she would fly up to a sturdy limb approximately ten feet off the ground. One by one the baby chicks followed. The first two, the bravest, got the preferred place perched between her legs, balanced precariously on the limb, out of sight. The next two – one on each side – peeked out from under her wings. The stragglers squeezed in as close as possible for the long night ahead. The proud rooster stood guard atop a nearby limb, crowing loudly every 10 minutes at first light.

We watched all summer as this ritual was repeated nightly. We were amazed that Henrietta could continue to accommodate her brood, despite their ever-increasing size. Even when the chicks were older, they still preferred the protection of her wing. Our second experience with baby chicks this past summer wasn’t quite so entertaining. Even though all five hens shared the job of incubating the eggs, they fought constantly over final ownership and rights to boss hen. One hen reigned queen and claimed most of the 27 baby chicks as hers, even though it was impossible for her to manage them all. The other hens appeared to be in depression, but they never quit trying.

I learned that we didn’t need to worry about any of them. If the baby chicks wanted warmth and protection, they found a good wing nearby and climbed up underneath it.  It might be wise for all of us to remember this technique….and the “chickens” who weren’t afraid to try it!

Contact Kristine Ranger at 517-974-5697 or kristine@knowledgenavigators.com