Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Chickens And Bullies

One of my hens was being bullied last week, and I had to take action.  She was showing all the outward signs of hen misery, standing hunched with her feathers fluffed in a corner of the shed.  I kept an eye on her for a couple of days and then realized that the other hens were pecking at her.

Now I want to make it very clear that my hen house is a Peck-Free Zone.  That doesn't mean that there isn't a pecking order, in which the top hen delivers mostly symbolic pecks in the direction of lesser hens who are showing too much interest in a certain worm or apple core.  But because I keep just a few hens in a large space my flock is not prey to the stresses that cause bullying.

Bullying among chickens (and here the delicately nurtured might wish to skip the next couple of sentences) can be a serious problem.  Once a bird gets hurt or appears weak the others will peck at it, plucking off not just feathers but bits of flesh, until it dies, at which point they will eat it.  Chicken bullying is such a horrible thing that every spring when the batches of fluffy, super-adorable baby chicks arrive in the feed store, the thought of the dangers of overcrowding prevents me from swooping up half a dozen of the little darlings and adding them to my flock.

Given the near-idyllic environment that my hens live in, I couldn't figure out what had prompted the abuse until I picked up the victim and saw that she had a partially frostbitten comb (this sometimes happens to chickens in winter) and somehow it had bled a drop or two, and the scent of blood had turned her sisters into ravening wolves.

I fenced off a corner of the shed and put her in it, along with food, some warm water laced with apple cider vinegar, and a heat lamp.  I had to prop a piece of cardboard against the fence because her bloodthirsty sisters were reaching in to peck her, and she was too stunned to move away.  But the warmth and the isolation and the vinegar all did their work, and in less than 48 hours she was healed and eager to rejoin the flock, who welcomed her back with open arms (hens have short memories).

There is no question that without intervention my bullied hen would have slowly succumbed to the attacks.  Likewise, it is a good thing that parents and schools have become aware of the effects of bullying on its victims, and are paying attention and taking action where necessary.  But sometimes I wonder if the definition of bullying has become so broad that it covers unpleasant but essentially harmless, sporadic interactions among children.  I worry that if well-intentioned parents overreact their actions may result in making the child feel even more vulnerable and helpless.

When I was in second grade, I had to wear an eye patch for a year to combat "lazy eye."  This ultimately saved my eyesight, but its short-term side effects were unfortunate.  One of the most popular girls in my class, a red-headed tomboy with a talent for making trouble, announced in the playground that the patch meant I had a contagious disease, and people should stay away from me. 

To say that I found this upsetting is to put it mildly.  I wept and wailed and railed at my parents and said that I never ever wanted to set foot in that school again.  Today, many people would classify this episode as bullying and would feel justified in speaking to the teacher or principal about it.  My parents, on the other hand, while they commiserated  and assured me that my nemesis was wrong in what she had done, did not interfere.  They must have figured that an occasional lesson in the school of hard knocks would not damage me, would in fact help me to acquire a thicker skin and enlarge my knowledge of human nature.

As it happened, the episode had a happy ending.  The errant girl mentioned what she had done to her father, who happened to be a doctor and who instructed her to apologize to me and to tell the other girls that my condition was not contagious. Shortly afterwards the redhead and I became friends.

I don't mean to minimize the damage that can be caused by prolonged, serious bullying.  In these cases, intervention is the responsible, the only thing to do.  But I do worry that sometimes we overprotect children--from germs, from falls, from unfair grades and unpleasant people.  But the world, unfortunately, is full of germs, falls, unfairness and unpleasantness.  And reasonable amounts of exposure to these evils is a kind of vaccination of which I would not want my own child to be  deprived.

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