Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Chicken Bullies

Third time’s the charm. At least I hope it is when it comes to chicken bullies. I put the puff-headed chick back in the pen with the other chicks one more time. The puff-headed chick is slang for the Golden-laced Polish pullet who will eventually be an egg-laying member of our brood if she survives adolescence.

The first episode was a month ago. The chicks were barely a month old, but most of them already had a thick coating of feathers and were working on their flying skills (they don’t realize genetics is against them on this). My youngest child came running in the house to tell me there was a bloody chick.

Shit. I didn’t say this out loud, but I thought it. A bloody chick means the other chicks have determined who’s the weakest of them all. Chickens are cruel animals. The term pecking order is not some cute farm saying, it’s real. The order and the pecking.

When I reached the pen, it was easy to spot the injured bird. Golden-laced Polish chicks are nearly white with big puffy feathers on their heads (hence “puff-heads”). Her bottom was bright red and featherless. The other chicks had pecked out all her tail feathers and were now working on the skin. If I didn’t act fast, they would kill her. Why do people think chicks are cute?

I pulled out the injured chick, dowsed her butt with hydrogen peroxide, and dried her off with a clean towel. Then I set her up in her own digs, scrounging around for an extra waterer and feeder. Most of what we own is already in use since we currently have two Pack-n-Plays full of chicks – one in the garage and one in the barn.

There was no more foul (ahem) play in the garage pen, and I kept a careful eye on the pen up in the barn.

A week or two later, when she was all healed up, I nonchalantly placed the puff-head chick back in the garage pen while I distracted the other chicks with fresh food. One day later, it was my daughter announcing there was a bloody chick in the garage pen. Shit. Again.

Now it is two weeks later and I’ve just placed the healed up chick in the pen up in the barn. Maybe these chicks are a nicer bunch. Maybe they won’t see her puffy head as a weakness. It’s only been a few hours and so far everyone is playing nice.

I am not at all convinced it will go any better this time. Like human bullies, chick bullies strike when authority is absent. Research on bullying says poor problem-solving skills, low-academic ability, or a marked physical weakness such as obesity are some of most common reasons victims are chosen. All chickens have poor problem solving skills due to their inherent low-academic ability, so I’m assuming it’s the puffed head.

There is something universal rather than species specific when it comes to bullies. They’ve been with us since the dawn of time. I see evidence of it all over the animal kingdom – amongst dogs, horses, and chickens, so I have to believe it serves some kind of purpose.

I suppose it helps the stronger animals survive. Survival of the fittest and all that. But we are surviving now, almost too well to judge by the girth line of most of us humans. And my chicks had plenty of food and water. It’s deeper than survival.

When I’m told about a bully at school, sometimes I’m shocked. I know that kid. I know his/her family. They’re nice people. How can that child be a bully? They’re sweet and cute – just like my baby chicks.

In the past decade or so since Columbine, there have been many anti-bullying efforts embraced by schools nationwide. A quick search of the internet turns up dozens of anti-bullying programs, curriculum, and facilitators – many with a hefty pricetag. My children’s school has signs in the hallways declaring the school a “bully-free zone”. And yet the bullies persist. The shootings continue. The problem is not solved. Research says there aren’t more bullies now than there were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. It’s just that now we talk about it.

What makes a bully? Experts say it’s kids who have a need to feel more powerful or kids who experience a bully-friendly atmosphere at home. How can any home be bully-friendly? More reading revealed what it means to be bully-friendly. A bully-friendly family has members who are quick to grow angry, belittle each other, and/or use cruel teasing as a method of manipulation.

TV shows encourage meanness too. Look at all the popular shows that make fun of other people for their looks or lack of talent. People are shunned, voted off, and fired for entertainment. I’ve always detested reality shows, now I have one more reason. Kids see this stuff celebrated, so what kind of conclusion will they draw? When we model judgment and cruelty as acceptable, can we really expect them to behave differently?

I remember as a kid, I watched as others were bullied, silently thinking “thank god it’s not me.” Now when I hear the stories, I think “thank God it’s not my child.” My own kids have been lucky so far with bullying, but I worry. My youngest child has no hair, my oldest plays D & D, and my daughter prides herself in dressing differently than her peers. They could become targets.

I can never be sure which chick starts the bullying, but once they see blood, all the other chicks join in the bullying. By not speaking up or standing up, we effectively do the same thing.

I know I’m not the only parent who tells my kid to keep a low profile in potential bullying situations. I instruct them to listen to their headphones or read a book on the bus, don’t engage other people. And there’s more to this than dodging a bully, it’s really self-preservation. If only one person stands up to a bully, that person can become a target.

Social pressure is a powerful force. We have collectively made it unacceptable to smoke, pick your nose in public, leave dog poop on the sidewalk, or drive drunk. The power to eradicate, or at least, reduce the presence of bullies is in our hands. What will it take to make everyone stand up to bullies? What will it take to make bullying unacceptable rather than inevitable?

Experts say there’s nothing we can do about bullying. It’s a fact of life. We need to dispute that. Instead we underline it with expensive curriculums, television shows that model bullying, and lip service like posters and slogans. Adults like to tell stories about the cruelty they experienced when they were young, as if it’s a right of passage. Meanness is never funny. The humor comes at someone’s expense.

There doesn’t seem to be any kind of anti-bullying curriculum for my chicks. I just have to keep a watchful eye on the pecking order. They are hard-wired to pick on the weakest. But are we?

Imagine if it were different. Imagine if we evolved.

Postlude: The injured puff head chick did fine for four days, but then was killed by the others on a beautiful afternoon this past weekend when no one was looking. When I went to retrieve the body, the other chicks ran right over her like she wasn’t there. No remorse.

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