Each morning I do my worldly, neighborly and constitutional deed … that’s when I pull the string the neighbors/renters have on the chicken coop door to pull open the latch that frees maybe 30 chickens of various and dubious layer breeds, two turkeys and little “Woody.”
Most of the old hens quickly gather around food leftovers thrown over the tall fence, which for some seem the highlight of the day. Sometimes the turkeys join in, especially if I had made jalapeño poppers the night before. For some odd reason the two turkeys, now nearly fully dressed for Thanksgiving, love the inner jalapeño stems with all the clustered seeds. They lift the stem high in its entirety with their beaks before seemingly swallowing the whole thing in one quick gulp. It almost makes one wish for a gizzard!
Those younger chickens? Those reared this summer and are now just beginning to lay eggs, each so small you nearly need two to fill a slice of toast, rush helter-skelter past the older hens munching on those food scraps, across the huge horse pen toward the distant fir trees, wings flapping, squawk squawking and legs pumping as if there is no tomorrow. It’s as if they can’t believe they’ve been freed from their overnight imprisonment!
Woody? Well, Woody does the same thing, right along with them. He runs on his webbed feet with wings flapping and squawking weirdly differently than his perceived sisters. Woody, you see, is a male wood duck and is thoroughly convinced he’s a chicken. Imprinting perhaps created the issue, a process described by experts.
Not a one of us knows exactly how Woody became lost before becoming part of the flock. Every spring for the past several years two wood duck pairs appear suddenly in the grove next to the chicken coop and pen to seek out nesting trees. It’s a laborious real estate affair taking much time, consideration and duck conversation before a decision is made and the eggs laid. So this is likely the beginning of Woody’s story.
He just didn’t drop from the sky, or the heavens if you wish, but from a nesting tree somewhere in the grove. Perhaps he was left behind as either the drake or hen herded and hustled the newly jumped from the nesting tree to the nearest wetland just over the hill from the grove. Woody either became lost or couldn’t follow directions. Hannah, the teenage daughter of the renters, found the lone duckling that was all down and hopelessly lost hunched in the grass and burdock, and placed it among the chicks in the brooder for safe keeping. There was a question of his eventual survival.
The thought was that as soon as dear Woody matured and bolted out some real feathers that he would fly away to join his likenesses in one of the wetlands, Big Stone Lake or the damed waters in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge several miles due south of Listening Stones. As his mates, those little chicks the renters eyed for future egg production, grew bit by bit and were moved into ever larger confines until they were large enough to fend for themselves with the big hen flock, so was Woody. During all this time he was quite covert in making public appearances, of showing himself to those strange human elements that seemed to lurk at times just outside those various brooding pens.
Then the time arrived for the big merging of the flocks. At first, Woody held close to the hen house. While the old hens and the turkeys rumbled past the gate to bigger pasture and the daily food drop, the recently feathered hung close to the enclosed pen. Gradually, though, their fear abated and they followed the old hens outside, and once past the gate, they would flap and bustle in a dead run past the munching, squawking old hens and the four horses toward the back of the pen.
At first, Woody would walk along the interior chicken-wire fence trying to figure out how his many sisters and companions had discovered such freedom. Then, one day, magically, he actually followed them through the gate. Like them, he would then run full speed with wings flapping toward the nonchalant horses. “Woody,” said Hannah, “isn’t the sharpest chicken in the pen.” Well?
One of those mornings, a few weeks ago, something strange happened. While running and flapping Woody actually went aloft. He didn’t fly far. Not even to one of the two large wetlands just over the rises. He rose just over the fence and landed somewhere outside, then waddled over to the enclosure where he quacked and pranced in panic for a few hours until Hannah arrived to care for her horses and to put the chickens in for the night. She captured the little Woody and reluctantly put him back with his “sisters.” Where he has stayed contentedly ever since.
The entire endeavor was to safely get him to a point of maturity that he would, well, fly the coop. We see how that worked for the wholly misguided and imprinted Wood Duck. This entire endeavor hasn’t exactly gone by plan.
Woody, it seems, wholeheartedly believes he’s a chicken. Even if he doesn’t sound like a chicken, walk like a chicken, or even fly like a chicken. His one accidental flight apparently simply wasn’t enough to convince him differently. For some reason the “imprinting” has stuck. Perhaps this comes down to a simple solution … placing a mirror in the coop.