Updated: Apr 28, 2020
It’s strange how we pick up certain expressions. From the time I was a little kid, one of
the worst forms of derision was to be called, “Chicken.” The quickest way to get a fight
started was to use this name against a target of ridicule. The implication was always
that a chicken was a coward or lacking in courage.
As a youngster, I never questioned the origins of the label nor did I challenge the idea
that to be chicken was in some way inferior or otherwise lacking in desirable
characteristics. That concept held until I had what intellectuals like to call a “paradigm
shift,” an abrupt change in thinking.
Many people have never really known a chicken, I mean the feathered bird commonly
found on farms. I have been fortunate to be around chickens much of my life and have
formed a close bond with several. One of the more memorable was Liza, for she was
responsible for one of my true paradigm shifts.
Liza was a Japanese silky bantam. She was about half the size of the average barnyard
hen, but big in her love for life as well as her indefatigable determination. Her feathers
were snow-white, fluffy—almost fur-like—and perpetually disheveled. A patch of
feathers perched atop her head like a comical crown. Her dark eyes sparkled with life
and, as I later realized, a great depth of chicken wisdom.
One aspect of her life, however, seemed to elude Liza: motherhood. She laid eggs
regularly, tiny bantam eggs not much larger than marbles. But her diminutive size put
her at a great disadvantage with the other chickens, and the larger hens always
crowded her out of the nests before the required twenty-one-day incubation period.
As the eggs hatched, the new mothers would introduce their brood to the world around
them. Much to the dismay of the hens, Liza would attempt to take over the duties of
mother, even to the point of “chick-napping” the youngsters. As a result, she took a
great deal of abuse from the other hens when they would eventually lose their patience
and drive Liza away with pecks and blows from their feet and wings. But Liza would
always return and, with a calculated display of casualness, inject herself back into the
pastoral scene of family oneness.
I felt compassion for Liza, sensing how desperately she wanted to experience
motherhood. I attempted to help her by making a nest away from the others. Liza
readily accepted it and began laying eggs. However, I soon discovered the eggs broken
and the contents eaten, either by a possum or a skunk. Another time the eggs simply
disappeared, evidence that a snake had dined out.
Liza began exhibiting signs of great distress. She erratically checked empty nests,
unsuccessfully attempted to bully the larger hens, and clucked in a strange monotonous way. Realizing that something had to be done, I constructed a miniature chicken
house, complete with all the amenities: food, water, and a private nest that would be
the envy of any chicken’s eye. The sides were covered with safety wire to keep out
Liza settled into her new house and immediately began depositing eggs in the nest at
the rate of one a day until she had six. She then went into the “setting mode,” plucking
feathers from her breast to line the nest and expose her warm, moist skin to the eggs.
She assumed that patient air of waiting, sitting on her six precious eggs, clucking in a
no-nonsense tone that signaled a purpose in life.
Finally, in the time prescribed by that universal clock, the eggs began to hatch. The
baby chicks were unbelievably small. It was difficult to count them, for they seemed to
disappear almost immediately into the fluffy feathers beneath Liza’s wings and breast.
And never was a mother more devoted, more thrilled, or more suited to the task at
hand. Liza fairly glowed with the pride and joy of motherhood.
I kept the little family in their confined space for a few days, reluctant to allow them out
into the real world, filled with so much danger. Liza pleaded with every motion of her
body and every blink of her shining, dark eyes to take her new family out into the
world. She paced back and forth at the door until I gave in and opened their lives to a
world filled with green grass, the warm, moist earth, and more juicy bugs than most of
us care to know about. Where I saw danger, Liza saw only opportunity.
True to my expectations, Liza was the ideal mother. She showed her little family the
very best places to search for seeds and grain. She demonstrated the correct method
of rolling and kicking in the dust to properly protect the skin and feathers against
parasites. In an instant, she could turn from the coddling, soft mother into a
screeching bundle of fury if perceived danger came within her circle of protection.
From sunup to sundown, she was tireless in searching out the very best for her brood.
I felt quite good about the perfection of it all—the absolute order in God’s universe, the
demonstration of life as it should be. I took pride in the care I had given in assisting
God and Liza in this rather difficult task. It was during one of those moments of
reflection that I was shocked into a broader understanding of our true relationship with
As I stood one morning, looking out over the field beyond our kitchen window and
absently watching the scattered groups of chickens going about their routine, I saw the
entire community of chickens freeze. Every motion and every sound seemed to stop in
“mid-cluck.” Whatever form of communication was used, it was instantaneous and
unquestioned. The total population of chickens scattered across the field reacted with
one mind as a blur of feathered bodies dived beneath any available cover:
wheelbarrows, woodpiles, bushes, and small trees. I knew this activity indicated the
close presence of a hawk.
Then, something caught my eye. It was Liza! Snow-white, a standout in any field, she
reacted instinctively as all the others had. All movement seemed to grind into slow
motion. As if in a different dimension of time, I saw the sweep of a dark shadow
streaking across the ground, on a direct line of convergence with Liza. I saw the look
of panic in Liza’s dark eyes as she started to run for the overhang of the chicken house.
Suddenly the same thought struck us both. The babies!
I vicariously lived the agonizing moment with Liza as she broke stride and turned back
to the six tiny chicks still pecking in the grass, oblivious in their infancy to the event
happening around them. With one command from Liza, the babies instantly rushed
beneath her outstretched wings. Liza settled in over them, flattening into the grass as
much as possible. The look of panic was gone. I have tried to interpret the expression
I saw come over her. Was it resignation? Perhaps surrender? Or was it releasing and
putting the outcome into the hands of a higher power?
Into my field of view from the window came a brown bolt from the sky. The shadow
and the patch of white blended almost instantaneously into one point. The hawk had
struck with such force that an explosion of white erupted from the ground. Then with
the grace and beauty of God’s creation and without breaking stride, the hawk continued
on. A trail of white feathers fell from clutched talons as the hawk disappeared through
the trees. It was over.
Stunned and amazed at the swiftness of change, I left the kitchen and headed for the
point of impact, hoping that perhaps the babies had survived the hit. As I slowly and
reluctantly walked toward the spot, I was impacted by the immensity of what I
perceived to have happened. I had just witnessed a chicken perform a deed that would
make headlines if the same act had been performed by a human. I had observed an
individual make a truly life-and-death decision. Liza had overcome the so-called
survival instinct and, with precision of forethought, offered her life for another. The
phrase entered my mind, “No greater love.”
Perhaps behind my thoughts was a lurking fear. Would I have measured up? Here was
a creature that many educated and philosophic people have declared not only to have
no soul, but to be without the capability of thinking or reasoning. Yet, Chicken, judged
and found lacking by humans, had just performed the supreme heroic and selfless act.
I had just experienced a shift in consciousness. I had just observed that the courage
and integrity of Chicken was unsurpassed and beyond reproach. I was humbled for
myself and for my species.
I stood looking down at the pile of feathers in the grass and weeds. Leaning over, I
gently probed for any of the tiny fragile chicks that might be in the grass. As I touched
the mound of feathers, a startling and unexpected thing happened. The pile of feathers
sprang to life, and an angry and nearly nude Liza, with a ruffle of her few remaining
feathers marched off with her family as if nothing had happened. The hawk had
missed, apparently misjudging the depth and thickness of her protective coat just as I
As I watched Liza and her chicks calmly continue with their routine of the day, I realized
that I could never think of a chicken in the same way again. I now see them for the
individuals that they are, and yet I feel the oneness that we all share. I was able to
experience, if only for that split second of terror, a moment of total togetherness with
Liza. I was able to feel through Liza a spiritual relationship with the Creator, that
shining moment when we recognize our true potential and the spirit of God working in
each of us.
Not everyone will have to make such a dramatic decision as Liza. But at some point in
our lives, we will all have an encounter with our hawk and we will each have a choice
about how we face that hawk. I believe I was set an example, and I hope to confront
any situation with the grace, dignity, and confidence in God that I witnessed in Liza. I
know now that I would be honored to be called Chicken.