Poultry in Motion
(for Judy and Zoey)
I see the day shift is under way; the chickens are in the yard, scratching and pecking around. They belong to the nice family next door. Judy is a New Hampshire Red and Zoey is a Barred Plymouth Rock, and they’re both very pretty. “Awww?” they inquire, “Is there anything good here?” They’re laying hens, but never get laid (roosters are banned in the city limits, for obvious reasons). They first appeared one morning in August 2012. My cat Max must have never seen a chicken before, because he instantly went to point, like a birddog. Then he got down real low, in the stalking position, and followed them everywhere they went. At one point he ran up to them, to see if they wanted to play. “Awk –buck-AWK” they cried as they scattered, wings flapping. Max (who is more of a bus than a cat) is very laid back, not a bad bone in his body. He was clearly disappointed as he finally lay down in the grass and rolled over on his back, one paw plaintively extended to them.
The common chicken, gallus gallus domesticus, developed out of the Red Junglefowl, a very handsome bird. They were first domesticated in Asia, Africa, and Europe, but for cockfighting. The meat and egg benefits were discovered later. The earliest known writings of them are from ancient Egypt, circa 1500 B.C., as “the bird that gives birth every day.” There’s an apocryphal tale that Socrates, as he was succumbing to the poison Hemlock, asked his friend, “Crito, I owe a cock to Aesclepius, will you remember to pay the debt?” There are more chickens — 30 billion — on Earth right now than any other single species of bird. Fortunately, fewer and fewer are used for fighting.
The word comes from Old English ‘cicen,’ and continues to have a wide variety of usage in the English lexicon. When I was growing up, women’s groups were often referred to as hen parties, and husbands were hen-pecked. Chicken was a slang term for a young woman, then it became shortened to chick, as in “Chicas — muy calliente!” An older woman might comment that she was no spring chicken. It’s also a name to disparage someone’s courage, as in “What’s the matter, McFly, chicken?” As for the connection between ‘cock’ as the male, and a part of the human anatomy, that’s part of a different discussion, but I would think that somewhere along the way a rooster was involved.
My little vegetable garden was already well along when the chickens arrived, but last year I had to take some precautionary measures. They always hang out together, so I made sure they were somewhere else when I planted, then I rigged up a combination of rabbit wire and mesh to keep them out, and it worked. They have the bad manners of dropping a load wherever the urge hits them, but it’s good fertilizer for the veggies. And it’s very considerate of them to kick all the dead stuff from beneath the bushes all over the sidewalk, so it’s easy to pick up. You can’t get a leaf rake in there. A good friend once told me that people who let their chickens run free and also feed them, aren’t doing it right. My yard is teeming with big, fat, juicy earthworms, grubs, mealworms, and all kinds of crunchy snacks. Kind of makes your beak water, doesn’t it? I always keep a container with water outside for them, and often give them a few pieces of bread or crackers as a treat. Now every time they see me they come running up. I guess that proves that conservatives are right — if you give someone something for nothing, they’ll quit working. Unless, that is, human beings have higher aspirations than chickens.
They have some odd habits I don’t understand. Sometimes they get it into their heads to lay their eggs in the bushes somewhere out of sight. Last summer Martha came over asking me to look around for eggs, as they’d quit laying in the coop. After a little foraging in the undergrowth, there it was — the mother lode. I ran over to Martha’s and told her to bring a big container and her camera. There were twenty-six eggs in all, about two weeks worth, and I got half a dozen for my efforts. The shells are a light green, with bright orange yolks, and very tasty, too. Eggs will keep quite awhile if it doesn’t get too hot. When you think of it, the egg is the perfect food storage container. Besides, there’s a way to tell if they’re okay. Put an egg in water. If it sinks, it’s alright, but if it floats, it’s bad. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
A lot of people think chickens are stupid, and I used to think so, too, before spending some time on a farm. They make good watchdogs, did you know that? Chickens know a lot of things. They sense a storm coming before we do, and they start running for the barn. One day last summer I was out working on the yard, and they were over in the corner, scratching around. All of a sudden they bolted in opposite directions, seeking shelter beneath some shrubbery.. What the heck? I remembered there are eagles in the area, and looked up just in time to see a huge seagull flying low over the yard. Big wings overhead — usually bad! They can’t handle quantum physics (neither can I), but a chicken will never swindle someone out of their life savings, either, which I’d say elevates them above us.
Who would have thought that we’d ever domesticate the dinosaur, just like Fred Flintstone? For that’s what birds are, you know, they are the culmination of saurian evolution. If you doubt that, look a bird in the eyes, and note that piercing reptilian stare. Try and picture some great plodding beast of the Jurassic. tall as a cell tower, shaking the earth with each step. Now imagine it looking up at the sky, dreaming of flying. Of course, their brains were the size of walnuts, and weren’t capable of such lofty thoughts. Nevertheless, the idea was, um, hatched, and embedded into the genetic matrix over millions of years. The Pterodactyl was the first experiment in flight, but over more millions of years the bones hollowed out, scales became feathers, and boom — archaeopteryx was born. From it came everything else from the eagle to the blue-footed booby, and the heroines of our story, Judy and Zoey.
I wonder if these two have any idea how good they’ve got it? The vast majority of their brethren spend their lives is cramped, filthy conditions, and are routinely given Prozac to reduce their stress (which means we’re getting a dose when we eat them). Basically, they live in chicken Hell. As I watch these two girls, they seem pretty content with everything. We know that animals feel emotion, but on how deep a level is more difficult to determine. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say these are fairly happy chickens.
I kind of wish I could go back in time and talk to me as a child. I’d love to see his young face light up as I told him that as a reward for being a pretty good kid, when he got to be an old man he’d get to be friends with some dinosaurs that live next door.