Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Beauty of Instinct

Not too long ago, we had a very cold and blustery day around here. It was so windy, the gate to the chicken coop blew shut, and when I went to put the chickens up for the night, only five of them were in the coop. So I went out to look around the bigger enclosure and couldn't see them at all. Now, if you know how much like pets these chickens are, you can imagine my terror in thinking that several of them had been eaten by one of the local raccoons or killed by another dog or some other such terrible fate. I went back up to the house for a flashlight and took a closer look around the pen, when I finally spotted them.

There's an oil barrel up against the back wall of the chicken coop, and all five of the chickens had somehow managed to wedge themselves into the space between the barrel and the wall. They were stacked on top of each other, and this space is about the only place in the enclosure with a roof over it, so they were even mostly dry from the rain. When I picked up each of the hens to carry them back to the coop, they were dry and toasty warm from being all stacked up like that. The funny thing about chickens is that when it's dark, they shut down like little robots that have been switched off. I couldn't even get them to walk up into the coop, so I had to stuff them through the coop door one at a time. Once in the light of the coop, they finally woke up enough to flap up to their perch.

I've noticed some other instinctual things about the chickens, like how they're all silent and still on their perch when I go to close the coop up at night, but as soon as the door is closed and they're secure, they all hop down from the perch and go to get some food or water. But until that moment of safety, they all remain perfectly still, you wouldn't even know there were chickens in the building at all from the quietness within.

Now I know chickens are almost as dumb as the boards they perch on. If they're out in the big enclosure and one of them goes back into the little pen, they often can't figure out how to get back out again. The door is, of course, in the same position it's always been in, but they don't seem to remember. They'll pace all around the cage with an expression like "how did that other chicken get out there?". But they have their instincts, and those instincts are pretty good at preserving them in many circumstances.

People, on the other hand, have lots of brains - tons and tons of grey matter that lets them think about all kinds of interesting stuff. But our instincts for self-preservation and benefiting our flock are just about zero. It seems like every day there's another news article that shows that what the "extremeists" have been saying all along (about the energy crisis, global warming, blah blah blah) is probably going to look like a picnic compared to what's really going to go down. Wheat shortages, rainforest mowed over for biofuels, ice melting and sea levels rising, gas prices soaring, jobs diminishing, the "recession" that no one wants to call a recession looming over everyone's heads. A woman (who commutes 90 miles a day) interviewed in an article about rising gas prices says she'll have to cut back on her Starbucks to save money for gas, politicians continue to talk about biofuels as if they'll save us, no one at all mentions the big "C" word - Conservation.

We're headed for the abyss, and unlike a sensible chicken we still fail to do the right thing.

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