Fowl Play is Good for Education

Yesterday, as I prepared to leave for the gym, I glanced out of the window in the general direction of our chicken pen. Something caught my eye. Looking closer, I noticed a thin black line moving purposefully across the lawn from the woods towards the pen. A black snake. A big one. It had to be almost six feet long. I knew its purpose. It was heading for the main coop in which our chickens customarily lay their eggs. Fresh eggs for dinner, or so it thought.

I slipped on some shoes intent on intercepting the serpent before it reached its goal. By the time I got there, it had already slithered through the fence of the pen and had secreted itself somewhere within the long grass. I couldn’t see it and didn’t relish the prospect of treading on it inadvertently. The original plan of killing it with a shovel was becoming complicated. Opting for Plan B, I removed the eggs from the coop and shut the doors. Retreating to the deck from whence I could get a bird’s eye view, I looked in vain for the reptilian trespasser. Then it emerged, slithering with criminal intent towards the coop. Finding the doors closed, it began to search for other ways in. I watched with fascination as it stretched five feet upwards, silhouetted by the yellow paint.

All the time, as this drama played itself out, I wished that my ten-year-old daughter had been home to enjoy the show. It would be the best sort of natural history or biology lesson, learnt straight from nature herself. No books necessary.

And the show’s not over. The snake, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, will be back. And when he returns, we’ll be waiting. In fact, I’m keeping an eye on the lawn and the chicken pen even as I write, my desk being so positioned that I can always see the sweep of the landscape as I work. Apart from the aesthetic benefits, it also has the practical benefit of enabling me to keep an eye on things. I’ve seen a hawk swoop down on a chicken and, on more than one occasion, I’ve seen foxes stalking. The battle cry of “Fox!” has the same immediate impact on our family as the cry of “Fire!” would have. Everyone springs into action. On one occasion, my wife and I sprinted after a fox as it retreated towards the creek and the woods beyond, chicken in mouth. On that occasion we won, the fox panicking and dropping its prey, the latter of which was a little shocked but otherwise none the worse for wear. On other occasions, we’ve returned home to find piles of feathers as the tell-tale evidence of a successful fox raid.

A few weeks ago, upon letting the chickens out in the morning, I beheld the sickening sight of a mostly devoured mama hen and no sign of her three cute little chicks, all of whom had been eaten by raccoons in the night. We had made the fatal mistake of forgetting to lock them in the night before. Painful lessons learned.

Lessons learned. Life and death. God’s creatures living in God’s Creation. Man living with God’s creatures as he has done since time immemorial.

The patient reader will have gathered that I relish the drama that keeping chickens and ducks has brought to the life of our family. It’s not about saving money on eggs, not least because it would still be cheaper to buy our eggs from the supermarket or, better, from friends. It’s about the quality of life for our family and the quality of the education it affords our homeschooled children. Broody hens sitting patiently on eggs. Mama hens and newborn chicks, and the way that they interact with each other. Roosters, and the way that they interact with their harems of hens, and with each other, and with us. Ducks, and the way that they interact with each other, and with us, and with the chickens. Predators. Responsibilities. Changing the water. Cleaning out the duck pond. Cleaning the coop. In all weathers and all seasons of the year. A life-cycle. Doing as our ancestors have done, so that we might be in communion with them and understand them better. I have, for instance, an entirely new and deeper appreciation of the fable of Chauntecleer and Pertelote in Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” now that I understand chicken behavior from first-hand experience.

It will be evident that I believe that this sort of “fowl play” is beneficial to the education of children, not least because the “play” is of the dramatic as well as the recreational sort. I believe, furthermore, that it should be incorporated within conventional school settings, whenever possible, so that those children, especially urban children, who would otherwise not learn these direct lessons from nature might have the opportunity of doing so. I recall, as a child at elementary school in England, that we kept various creatures in the classroom or on the school grounds, which added something special to the educational atmosphere and experience. I would even venture to suggest that some of the more radical Catholic colleges should consider adding chickens and ducks to their campus experience. Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire once did so. Giving the student body the responsibility of caring for the animals would bring students together in a common task, whilst connecting them directly to the common things of God’s Creation.

Yes indeed, and pun fully intended, fowl play is good for education!

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

Copyright © 2018 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.

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