Inside a bully beats the heart of a certain kind of chicken
By Lucie Amundsen
Lucie Amundsen, Duluth, is a graduate student and co-owner of Locally Laid Egg Company. She is also a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.
My 9-year-old, Milo, had a bullying incident the other day at school. He was knocked down, held to the snowy ground and taunted. They took his hat; they made him cry.
These days bullying is not swept under the rug with a "kids will be kids" attitude. There are statewide conferences and task forces, and schools are required to have policies and procedures. I've alerted the teacher and believe it will be well handled. After all, this is not a bad school, and these are not even bad kids; sadly, this is just life.
Milo arrived home a flurry of backpack, parka and splotchy tears, so upset he couldn't get words out. I nestled him in soft blankets with hot chocolate and listened between intakes of breath, "I (sniff) am be-ing (snort) os-tra-cized."
This is a good place to note that Milo doesn't really blend. He's small and ribsy for his age, has unusual interests like business trends and pelagic birds such as the Atlantic puffin — and uses words like ostracized.
We cuddled under the light of the Christmas tree, and I advised him not to give his tormentors a big reaction. "Just avoid them," I said, "but if you can't, whatever you do: Don't give them a good show." He nodded, and I let him put an ill-advised amount of whipped cream on his cocoa.
But this morning, I'm reconsidering. Out at our pasture-raised egg farm, harassment is simply part of animal makeup. We see it every day. Unlike most egg operations, we house our birds out on the prairie where they truly function as a flock — grazing on grasses, roosting to sleep and interacting with one another based on an established pecking order. Which is to say, we have our share of bird-on-bird violence.
Walking into the hoop coops, I see the archetypes at play. A large segment of birds sitting on nearby roosts are our Conformists, lay-ers somewhere in the middle of the pack who don't, excuse the expression, ruffle anyone's feathers. Sometimes they peck; sometimes they get pecked, but mostly they just stay out of the way.
Then, just as I bend into my egg-gathering crouch, arrives the Suck-Up, lighting on my shoulder or back. She'll remain there for the duration, singing her little coke-coke-coke song in my ear. There's one in every flock, office and schoolyard.
Inching my way down the line, I come upon the Untouchables of the hen world, huddled together in one bin. Perhaps they started life smaller, or maybe they were a slightly different color, but these skinnier birds are usually missing tail feathers, or have had their combs pecked down to reflect submission. When I gently toss one of these lower-caste chickens out of the nesting box, the rest of the micro-flock will hop out after her. They know they're safer together.
Lastly, there's a big Alpha Hen lounging in her own private nesting box. She's fat, flaunts a gorgeous red comb and puffs up to twice her size when she sees me coming. Taking me in with her beady side eye, she produces a low, broody growl. A growl! I'll admit it: It's unnerving.
With a quick, leather-gloved hand, I sneak underneath her before she pecks and give her a little lift — maybe you could call it a goose. There's a loud squawking protest, a rude whooshing of feather tips, and then she lands with a graceless thud and a Rodney Dangerfield look as if to say, "Well gee, you didn't have to get physical."
Watching this play out, it hits me that my advice to Milo may be wrong. I shouldn't be telling him to cower under the radar, taking comfort with the other puny, scared birds. Rather, he should seek out ways to unbalance that puffed-up bully and reveal the inner chicken within.
I never thought I'd be taking parenting advice from poultry. It's funny where one will seek counsel when concerned for a child. But if coop logic can somehow help Milo get through fourth grade with his love of business tycoons and seabirds intact, so be it.