There is no right or wrong way to be a chicken. This does not mean all chickens are the same — far from it; the variance can be great. I bring a group of slightly awkward, yet fully grown, laying hens to my farm at the same time every year. Though they have been raised organically, they have never seen sunshine, felt the rain fall, eaten greens and bugs or even luxuriated in a dust bath before. To the chickens that are already here, they seem so very strange when they arrive. They do not know how to eat their feed; they are used to it mechanically coming down daily, in narrow little troughs, from the ceiling of the massive shed they were raised in. They are startled by the noise of the water running fast over stones in the stream, and by the jump of a frog in the grass next to them. They run, warbling and shrieking, to take shelter when they see sheep for the first time.
Every year, for a few weeks, there are two very distinct types of chickens at the farm. And then gradually over time, they merge and become one again. Such that by the following spring, when a new set of “retired” shed-laying hens arrives, from the same place as the prior year, last year’s chickens have no recognition of the weird behaviors they see in the new arrivals, nor any memories of their own shed-confined lives.
There is no chicken law or ordinance that requires them to adopt the same behaviors as the chickens who are already here. There is no force, no judgment and no consequence for non-compliance. Instead the new chickens adapt to their changed surroundings because this adaptation comes with its own rewards. They begin to forage for wild foods and enjoy their new diet. Their feathers fluff up and they look healthier. Their feet slowly change from an insipid, “kept-indoors” white to a bright sunshine-golden yellow. They become reconnected to the land and they are free to range, instead of living in close, cramped quarters with thousands of others. As dusk falls, they know when to begin the march back to the barn to roost, in part because the other chickens show them the way, and in part because it is an instinct ancient as the deep rock bed the barn is built upon, that just now begins to stir in them. They are building a new life by returning to the old ways, which have become new once more.
There is no right or wrong way to be a chicken. There is, though, the help of others who have already traveled the freedom path who can model the new ways. There is also a natural awakening of internal instincts that can be followed. Behavior change has its own positive feedback loop; living in a new paradigm, which is more beneficial for the planet and whichever specific creature is changing their behavior, can have a positive ripple effect, such that every little change that every newly freed little being makes matters.
Etienne White lives where the land meets the sky on a farm in Iowa County where she raises grass-fed, Old English Babydoll sheep, as well as pastured chickens, a happy farm dog, a wily barn cat and her two spirited children. She works at the intersection of marketing and sustainability, leading efforts to create mass consumer behavior change, for the greater good of both people and planet.