An image problem in the hen house

The little laying flock that we kept when I was a child had a hard time in the cold. Chickens at the bottom of the pecking order would have big bald spots because so many other birds would vent their frustration at the weather by pecking feathers off other hens.

I have not seen this happening among our laying flock, and I don’t want to. When an extension service webinar suggested toys might distract birds during bad winter weather, I thought it sounded like a great idea.

When the temperature hit 10 below, I enlisted the children to build the toys suggested by the extension service. My children were to attach pop cans to string and put pebbles inside. I was to hang the cans inside the coop so the birds could peck them and make them swing.

My 11-year-old daughter rules over all smaller creatures with a firm and caring hand. When we found three cans we could use as chicken toys, and one of them was a beer can, she felt concerned. Of course the chickens wouldn’t be drinking beer, she acknowledged, but it’s our duty to provide them with a wholesome environment, and beer décor just doesn’t fit in with that.

We have to think of our customers too, she added. People who buy our birds like to visit the chicken coop, and what would they think if they saw a beer can hanging there among the hens? They might not understand. They might think we were encouraging unhealthy habits in the flock.

I was more concerned about the other cans. They were Coke cans. I am a die-hard fan of health food, like my father was before me. As a kid, I watched in admiring wonder while my friends drank pop and ate white bread in their own homes. I promised I would do things differently when I grew up, but instead I somehow became even more enthusiastic about health food than my parents.

This means, among other things, that we hardly ever buy things like pop, with one major exception. We keep Coke in the house for medicinal purposes. Seriously — Coke and an Advil cure my migraines every time. I have noticed that my husband and son simultaneously need migraine cures when they are building something together, but I’ve decided to overlook this.

What if our customers came over to see how we raise our chickens and saw Coke cans hanging among our free-range organic-fed birds? A good portion of our customers buy from us because they are just as excited about healthy food as I am, and those cans might make them wonder if we are really on the same page.

I calmed my girl’s concerns and my own by saying that nobody’s going to visit our coop in this frigid weather, and when it warms up, we’ll take the cans down so that the birds don’t grow bored with them.

When I went out to the coop and tied those cans up where the chickens could peck them, they ignored the cans completely. They walked around them as though they weren’t even there. Maybe they showed more interest after I left. Maybe they felt the need to be discreet, like I did when I was a kid guzzling pop at a friend’s house.

(This was published in the Northfield News on Saturday 2/26)


  1. I’m suspecting they’re working, but I can’t really tell because when I’m there they don’t pay much attention to the cans. They just pay attention to me! What makes me think they’re working is that one can migrated about a foot to the south, and all the cans are looking a little dented.

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