I was recently taking a walk through suburbia in Mesa when I spotted some backyard chickens. Mesa has a pretty liberal chicken ordinance, allowing up to 10 chickens for every half-acre until 2.5 acres, at which time there is no limit as long as there are no sanitary or noise issues. You can even have roosters.
Even after all these years, I still can’t look at a chicken without experiencing a spiritual remorse. This I believe - one shouldn't play at God - even with chickens.
I learned this during one of the sweltering summers of my youth - those months where you track oily footprints down a sidewalk as the fat melts right off your bones and seeps out from under your toenails. I associate hot, humid weather with Iowa childhood memories of summer vacation and idyllic days on the farm. Among my best friends were two dozen Rhode Island red hens and their chicks.
The chickens were an endless source of amusement. On a slow day, I would go out in the farmyard and hypnotize them. I never got them to do neat tricks like making the fowls think they were people and acting goofy, but I could put my poultry pals into a trance through several different techniques.
One modus operandi required holding a chicken’s head down and slowly moving a finger across the ground toward its beak. I knew it was under when its eyes crossed. I could release a hen and it would remain in a daze for a minute or more. After weeks of practice, I could get up to a half-dozen chickens lying zonked in a row by the back porch.
I was doing this one time when my Aunt Agnes came to visit. It freaked her out; I think she thought I was into some kind of satanic rituals. She told me to stop that or others would think we were circus people.
The chickens didn't seem to mind being hypnotized. They'd slowly drift out of their trances, snap their eyes back and wander off to look for more bugs to eat.
I'm afraid all my fun with chickens was not of such an innocent nature and I look back with a certain degree of guilt at the chickhood traumas I authored. One spring I decided to see what would happen if I switched a few chicken eggs with duck eggs.
The ducklings didn't seem to mind having a permanently beached mother and siblings. They took to the water anyway, though their adoptive hen would lose it every time a couple of her brood would go for a quick dip.
The chicks were another matter. They'd stop dead at the water's edge and no matter how much scolding they received, the chicks would refuse to jump in. They'd frantically pace the waterline peeping like broken pagers as their family left them behind. I repented and attempted to reunite them with their real families. I learned then the downside of playing God.
The chicks and ducklings slowly began to re-socialize with their true species as they grew older. But one chick appeared to have a permanent identity crisis. The young hen continued to spend much of its time with the ducks and the next spring she fell in love with a drake. It was a cross-species love that was not to be. The duck wanted nothing to do with an amorous chicken.
She pined away, an unluckiness in love that could be traced directly to my thoughtless meddling. All of this barnyard pathos went unnoticed by the rest of my family, but I suffered a silent guilt each time the dejected hen passed by me.
This I believe — one shouldn't play at God — even with chickens.
Dan Ehl, formerly a longtime editor of the Daily Iowegian, is now a retired journalist.