• Becci Pigeon

Happy International Respect for Chickens Day! (part 1)

In 2005, the fine folks at United Poultry Concerns declared 4 May 'International Respect for Chickens Day'. That means that 2021 is the 16th such day dedicated to the celebration of these funny, curious, clever, brave little birds who very unfortunately comprise about 99% of the land animals we kill for food each year and receive little to no legal protections whatsoever. (Learn about the inescapable truths of the egg industry and poultry 'production'.)

In the time it took you to read that last paragraph, approximately 20,000 chickens were slaughtered.

As an early tribute, we’ve collected 8 fascinating facts about chickens, which I’ll be posting in two parts:

1. Chickens are brave and loving parents. Though we now widely disparage chickens as being 'stupid' and 'cowardly', this stereotype is a relatively recent one. In fact, for thousands of years humans praised both hens and roosters for their courage and parental devotion.

Said Ulisse Aldrovandi in the 16th century:

[The rooster] is for us the example of the best and truest father of a family. For he not only presents himself as a vigilant guardian of his little ones, and in the morning, at the proper time, invites us to our daily labor; but he sallies forth as the first, not only with his crowing, by which he shows what must be done, but he sweeps everything, explores and spies out everything.Finding food, he calls both hens and chicks together to eat it while he stands like a father and host at a banquet inviting them to the feast, exercised by a single care, that they should have something to eat. Meanwhile he scurries about to find something nearby, and when he has found it, he calls his family again in a loud voice. They run to the spot. He stretches himself up, looks around for any danger that may be near, runs about the entire poultry yard, here and there plucking up a grain or two for himself without ceasing to invite the others to follow him.
rooster leading line of hens across narrow bridge over river
(Copyright 2006 by Auke van der Wiede)

Plutarch, in 1st century AD, praised chickens for their deep maternal love:

What of the hens whom we observe each day at home, with what care and assiduity they govern and guard their chicks? Some let down their wings for the chicks to come under; others arch their backs for them to climb upon; there is no part of their bodies with which they do not wish to cherish their chicks if they can, nor do they do this without a joy and alacrity which they seem to exhibit by the sound of their voices.

And Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns tells a story of what she observed one day while watching her chickens:

…a large dog wandered in front of the magnolia tree where [Eva] and her chicks were foraging. With her wings outspread and curved menacingly toward the dog, she rushed at him over and over, cackling loudly, all the while continuing to push her chicks behind herself with her wings. The dog stood stock still before the excited mother hen, and soon ambled away, but Eva maintained her aggressive posture of self-defense, her sharp, repetitive cackle and attentive lookout for several minutes after he was gone. (The Social Life of Chickens)

Ulisse Aldrovandi, quoted previously, must have been quite a fan of chickens, for he also said of mother hens,

“They would rather die for their chicks than seek safety in flight.”

2. That leads us to our next point: chickens can fly! The chickens that we raise for food, of course, never live long enough to be given a chance–at just 45 days old, they are still babies. And the breeding which causes them to grow at an accelerated rate results in enormously heavy breasts that would make it very difficult for them to fly anyway. That said, however, when they are able to do so, chickens do fly, and particularly like going up into the safety of trees to sleep. Battery-caged egg-laying hens who previously had never been outside in their lives will nonetheless fly up into trees at night. It’s been said that chickens are the least domesticated of animals and will eagerly 'rewild' themselves when given the opportunity.

3. So what are undomesticated chickens like? Well, chickens are descended from the Red Junglefowl, a member of the Pheasant family from Asia. Their domestication began about 5,000 years ago, a short time compared to cats (8,000 years), cows (10,000 years) , and dogs (at least 33,000 years.) Domestic chickens are very similar genetically to their wild relatives, and this is obvious in the aforementioned way that they quickly and easily adjust to a feral lifestyle.

five white chickens sitting up in the branches of a tree
Chickens love trees! (Copyright: United Poultry Concerns)

4. Chickens are smart--really smart! A 2012 study conducted by Andy Lamey of Monash University in Australia found that they possess ‘"primitive self-consciousness"’ as identified in human newborns and higher primates'. But that’s not all! Dr. Lori Marino, neuroscience lecturer at Emory University has even gone so far as to describe them as having 'Machiavellian Intelligence', stating that:

[Chickens] have the capacity to reason and make logical inferences, a capability that humans develop at approximately the age of seven. They perceive time intervals and may be able to anticipate future events. Chickens are behaviourally sophisticated, discriminating among individuals, exhibiting Machiavellian-like social interactions, and learning socially in complex ways that are similar to humans.' (source)

Dr. Marino goes on to describe the abilities of chickens to manipulate each other. Roosters will sometimes make a 'food call' to hens even when there isn't any food. Once the female birds arrive, the roosters can attempt to court them and even defend them against other males. However, the hens learn quickly, and will stop responding to the calls of roosters who pull this little trick too often. (Rooster who cried wolf, anyone?) Social strategies like these, which involve deception and counter-strategies, are very similar to the complex behaviors identified in mammals, including primates.

Dr. Chris Evans, Professor of Psychology at Macquarie University has also studied the intelligence of chickens for a long time. He found that chickens exist in stable social groups and can recognise each other by their facial features., and that they have a wide vocabulary, with 24 different cries that communicate various crucial facts to one another: for example, whether an approaching predator is travelling by land or by sea. He and colleague Dr. K-Lynn Smith received a Eureka Award for their work in 2010. From a New York Times article:

'As a trick at conferences I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys,' Mr. Evans said. Perhaps most persuasive is the chicken’s intriguing ability to understand that an object, when taken away and hidden, nevertheless continues to exist. This is beyond the capacity of small children. (source)

(Learn a few more fascinating things about chicken intelligence here.)

Four more fun chicken facts coming up soon!

In the meantime, it's time to speak out for chickens! Of course we are still under partial lockdown in the UK, so activism opportunities are more limited than they might usually be--but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of options. Take a moment to talk to your friends and family. Write a letter to the editor. Door drop some leaflets or if it's safe to do so in your area, do some outreach. And be sure to check out our blog post of loads of lockdown-friendly activism tips! Remind everyone that chickens are brave, smart, and sociable animals who protect their friends and love their babies just like we do.

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