The newspaper ad was irresistible to my wife Kety. "White Leghorn Laying Hens - $7 each." We were paying up to $15 for laying hens, so this seemed like a real bargain. But, as most of us learn in life, you usually get what you pay for. This was no exception. When Kety arrived, she was shocked to see 17 hens and 3 roosters penned up in a small cage. The hens were horribly void of feathers in the rear, an indication of 'spousal abuse' that occurs when hens and roosters are cooped too closely. The poor things were cage raised and thus had never learned how to scratch for food. Had I been there, I would have walked away, but Kety is made of much more tender stuff than I.
Introducing the new hens to our spacious wooded area was pretty traumatic for the dozen hens that Key had 'liberated'. Terrified of the other chickens, they clustered together in a dark and remote area of the woods among brambles.
One assumes that all living creatures prefer freedom over confinement, choice over the dictates of the master. But, observing this new flock it became apparent that they were terrified of the wide open spaces and had no idea of how to wander beyond the very narrow limits of the space their collective bodies occupied. After a few days, the first one died. We had never had a chicken 'just die'. Sure, we had deaths, but it was always the result of predator attacks. It occurred to me that since they would not roam, they probably had not drunk any water from the various pans and water dispensers placed throughout the woods. So I had to bring the water to them - and they drank like they were indeed dying of thirst! Since they didn't seem to know how to scratch and the desolate shelter they chose to hide in had little in the way of stuff to eat, I also had to bring them food. Two more died.
I consulted with one of my poultry expert mentors. He explained that due to the confinement these birds had known most of their existence, they had never built up any immunity to the scores of parasites and bacteria that my other hens were exposed to from birth. Their immune systems were probably undergoing shock and I could expect a high mortality rate as their bodies attempted to adapt to the new environment.
I mused over this. Being the cynic and political animal that I am, I could not help frame my observations in the context of human events that had been disturbing me recently. I became aware that the Katrina disaster had actually levied a much greater toll on parts of Mississippi than it had on the over publicized tragedy that afflicted New Orleans. It seems that the Mississippi residents, a more self-reliant and less urban lot, banded together and took control of the situation; providing relief and rebuilding largely by themselves and with little assistance (or interference) from the Federal Government. To the contrary, most of the New Orleans residents seemed incapable of doing a thing to help themselves. They were utterly dependent upon their political masters for food, relief, shelter, re-location, rebuilding. Kind of like my white leghorns!
Although chickens aren't capable of much intellectually, it was clear that these poor creatures, deprived of freedom of movement since they were hatched, had become totally dependent upon a human overseer. All their natural instincts had been thwarted or denied. Given the freedom to roam and choose from almost unlimited diet options, they waited for the commercial chicken scratch that was doled out in small quantities. To live in liberty, which, while a much better life than that from which they were rescued, required some initiative. No, (and it's not really their fault), they preferred a much less attractive lifestyle that guaranteed substandard diet and substandard shelter. A sad situation for any chicken....or human, for that matter.
Fortunately, the surviving nine hens seem to be making the transition. They are starting to roam, cautiously and for only very short periods. They are starting to re-discover the art of scratching for bugs. And their missing feathers - that inglorious sign of their former miserable coop syndrome - are starting to regrow. If they ever fully recover from the shock and complete their restoration, I hope they will start to lay eggs again and become productive members of our little chicken society here. If they make it, that is, if an animal with a pea-sized brain can learn to live in productive liberty, I suppose I can nurture hope for some of my 'coop-bound' fellow citizens as well. Live free or die!