I (Fail To) Capture the Chickens
By Ronnie Blair
My family kept chickens in the mid-1960s. They laid eggs in a chicken coop in the barn behind our rental house in Kentucky, but spent much of the day clucking and strutting around our yard, easily avoiding me whenever I approached.
One day when I was 6 or 7, I decided for unclear reasons that I simply must capture one of them, using a method I likely copied from a Hanna-Barbera or Warner Brothers cartoon. I found a cardboard box in the house and I propped up one end of the box with a stick. I tied a piece of kite string to the stick and stretched it out so that I could situate myself far enough away to avoid alarming any unsuspecting chicken that approached. I took slices of Sunbeam bread and broke them into tiny pieces, creating a trail of crumbs that would lead my unwary prey inside the box. At that point I would jerk the string, the box would fall, the chicken would squawk, and I could boast triumphantly that I had captured a furious and flapping hen or rooster.
I did not have a plan beyond that.
Once I laid my trap my excitement grew as, sure enough, one hen became intrigued by the bread and pecked at it, perhaps not believing her good fortune in discovering this delicious and easily accessible snack that had manifested itself long past breakfast time. She gulped down bits of bread one by one, and with each succeeding gulp drew closer to my ingeniously constructed contraption. She arrived next to the stick and her head bobbed in and out beneath the box. I waited. Another step or two and she would stand completely underneath the box and I would execute my plan, exulting in my triumph over my less-than-wily opponent.
Suspicion grew in the hen’s lima-bean-sized brain, though, and she refused to cooperate further. She hovered tantalizingly close to where I calculated she needed to be for my mission to succeed, but some force stopped her from taking that final step beneath the box to finish off the last bread crumbs. Had she, despite my cunning, figured out the trap? Did my strange apparatus send some alert through the hen’s version of a cerebral cortex? Did her brain house more sagacity than I had anticipated? What a shrewd creature. By this point my little-boy patience, limited even under the most agreeable circumstances, dissipated and I made a fatal error.
The hen poked her head beneath the box one last time. Crucially, most of her body remained outside the box’s shadow. Still, judging that this might be the best chance I would get, I yanked the string, setting the physics of my trap into motion. The stick was dislodged, the box dropped, and the startled hen frantically pulled back her head with a panicky squawk, escaping my clutches. The agitated creature raced away, putting distance between herself and my trap, which seemed less elaborate with each passing moment. Perhaps as I watched her retreat, I recalled that Wile E. Coyote always failed as well. At least, in my miscalculation, I had not plunged in panic from a cliff after momentarily defying gravity.
Dejected but not defeated, I propped up the box, scattered another trail of Sunbeam bread, and waited, determined to do it right this time and not get trigger-happy––or kite-string happy, as it were. Lesson learned, I no doubt thought.
The hen, wise to my treachery, ignored the bread this time. The other chickens also steered clear of the trap, either because they had witnessed and learned from her flirtation with captivity, or because they were innately more prudent than she. No amount of waiting mattered. The box, the stick, the kite string, the Sunbeam bread, and I were soundly defeated, outwitted by a cautious hen who now understood the risks inherent when scheming boys appear bearing cardboard boxes.
Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.