Smith: Zen chicken |

Smith: Zen chicken

Barry Smith

My chickens recently taught me a valuable lesson about expectation, self-imposed limitations and the very nature of truth.

Here’s how it’s set up at my house: The chickens have a deluxe fenced-in coop where they spend their evenings protected from things that would do them harm. In the daytime they reside in a playpen type of thing. This handcrafted (I used power tools!), barely-portable day coop is about 6 feet by 12 feet and fully enclosed in chicken wire everywhere except the bottom. It’s like one of those screened covers that keep the flies off your cake. For chickens. But it’s no chicken prison — it’s roomy and breezy and has roosts and all the things that chickens need for a happy and harmonious existence, except for neighboring flower beds to destroy, which they seem to live for. Every day or so, we move it slightly so it’s covering fresh lawn waiting to be scratched beyond recognition.

The trick, though, is getting them from the main coop into this day coop. As relatively new chicken-havers, we are definitely learning as we go, but we’ve figured out the best and most effective way to do this.

First of all, it’s definitely a two-person job. My wife stands at the door of the coop, waiting for my signal. I stand halfway between the coop and the day-coop, whistling and shaking a bag of treats. I’ve trained my chickens to come when I whistle. Given that the only other animal at my house is a cat, I thought it would be nice if something doesn’t ignore me when I call it. The whistling gets them worked into a frenzy. They’re literally hurling themselves against the chicken wire in anticipation. When my wife finally flings open the door, they come busting out like they’ve been fired from a shotgun. And they’re headed right for me — a dozen stampeding chickens.

That’s when things get intense.

I continue to whistle and shake the bag, but now I’m running toward the other coop, with chickens following. Well, mostly following. Along the short journey, other things catch their sharp little eyes, and some of them peel off. The chicken attention span is about as short as mine — and I realize that’s a bit insulting to chickens. Moving even faster, I get most of them into the coop with a final toss of a handful of treats and then start to deal with the stragglers. Some of them are cooperative. Some of them (Miss Peckinpa!) act as if I’m radioactive despite my having raised them from tiny little balls of fluff. So we chase chickens around, also a two-person operation, until they are all rounded up and secure. Whew. It can take half an hour some days, but it’s just what has to be done.

But recently Christina was away, so I had to do this job solo. Impossible! It is really a three-person job, and we are doing our best to make do with two. So, what to do? If I open the door myself and start running and whistling, it’ll just be me by the time I reach the other coop, and then I’ll have to spend the rest of the day rounding them up. I don’t have time for that. I have important things to do. Probably.

So, out of necessity, I take a different approach. I open the door without too much hoopla and throw down a handful of treats (organic corn chips — my chickens are hippies). They all gather at my feet, eager for more. I then walk at a normal pace, shaking the bag, whistling, eating a few chips myself, and then stop to throw down another handful and wait for them to gather. Using this method, we make our way slowly and calmly across the yard and into the other coop. No chicken left behind. Centered and focused, rather than running around like a chicken with my head — well, you know.

This, it was immediately clear, is the way to herd chickens. In an instant that other method — the “right” method — seemed ridiculously ineffective.

And that was a profound moment for me. Something that I thought was one way, absolutely and irrevocably, turned out to be not only different but exactly the opposite. What else am I doing in my life that could benefit from a 180? Where else could deliberate calm be better than frenzy? How much of what I think works is actually the worst way of going about it?

Thanks, chickens. You’ve given me some good things to ponder. The eggs are awesome, too.

(Next time: A box full of bees teaches Barry a valuable lesson about running and screaming while flapping your arms.)

Barry Smith runs on Mondays. More at


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