It’s not every day you get to make a chicken this mad. She puffs out her black feathers, doubling her size, which is a big problem in the tiny dirt-packed chicken run–you don’t have much room to work. Careful now! Watch your soft hands as you scoop up the chicks! She is coming for you with that menacing strut, and her sharp ‘bwoks’ mean one thing:
Don’t say I didn’t warn you, human.
The month-old chicks, meanwhile, are disorganized in retreat, a flurry of peeping and fluff. You track them–one at a time–until they corner themselves by the fence. Each successful grab sets off that chick’s top-level alarm cry, so you set it in the box and close the lid quickly, trying to muffle the sound. This doesn’t really work. The chicken mama is at your heels, but you’ve got the three you came for, so you brush past her sharp beak and get out.
Clang! The chain link gate bangs on its frame, just in time, and her indignant clucks are now futile. “Sorry Mama,” you say, pulling the cheeping cardboard box into your chest, “today is show-and-tell. I’ll bring them back in a few hours.”
And you do, after three unwilling chicken ambassadors have educated hordes of squealing children. “Two fingers, gentle please!” you instruct, again and again. The poor chicks call for their mama, but she is several miles away, so you stroke their soft backs. “Shh…” you tell the kids, “they’re just babies.”
A few hours later, you bring the box back into the run, and the chicks know where they are before you open the lid. They scramble out, peeping their tale of survival. Is that right? Mama replies, Oh poor babies. She clucks over them like, well, like a mother hen. With her beak she breaks up crumbles of corn into dust, pointing to it with an emphatic ‘tuck, tuck, tuck, tuck.’
Comforting noises and beak-sized nibbles. The chicks are glad to be home.
And you settle into the green plastic chair on the far side of the run, needing a rest after the school visit. In the background are city noises you barely hear anymore–sirens, traffic rumbles, and a truck backing up somewhere in the wide valley. Still closer is the chatter of birds, calling from treetop to telephone wire. If you isolate one call, in one tree, you can hear the response from across the street.
You close your eyes and listen to the flying birds.
And soon there is a light scuffle, and the flightless birds are near your feet, settling in for a nap on the warm earth. Mama calls insistently at first, then reducing her volume to a gentle scold. She spreads her wings and sits, and the chicks disappear under her feathers. Her trill, low and steady, sounds like a kitten’s purr. The peeping subsides. Hush, she reassures them, I won’t let that big mean lady take you away from me again.
You smile, and sigh. Show-and-tell number two is scheduled for next Tuesday. “Sorry Mama,” you whisper, “but I have chicks too.”
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