Acid trips and egg songs: welcome to the weird world of chickens
When people say, “I love chicken,” they probably mean something different than when I put the words “chicken” and “love” together. Anyway, I would never say, “I love chicken.” The plural makes all the difference. Next time you sit down at a restaurant, try saying, “I’d love to eat chickens.” Sounds wrong. Right?
I no longer order chicken, or chickens, in restaurants. Six years ago I became one of those city farmers who name their chickens after I brought home a flock to live in my San Francisco backyard. They enjoy a pretty nice life sitting in the sun, destroying my lawn, taking dust baths, laying eggs, chatting with each other, and hunting for bugs. Sometimes I like to sit in my yard and watch the chickens being chickens, a refreshing change from watching people being people.
As the years have passed with chickens (not chicken) in my life, I wish I could say I truly understand these great-great-great-grandchildren of dinosaurs. They can be strange creatures, with their swiveling eyes and herky-jerky steps. But as the mystery of being a chicken grows larger for me, so does my admiration for them. Their many unique qualities daily wake me from the ho-humness of regular life. Here’s a short list of why chickens make me so happy.
Forget chickens crossing a road - watching them run is hilarious. Watch a chicken run and it’s as laugh-out-loud funny as watching John Cleese do a silly walk. Want more funny chicken stuff that can go head-to-head with any cute cat video? Here you go. Please share if you’d like. Cat videos are so 2015.
They aren’t Einstein, but they’re not bird-brained either. This can be a hard case to make because, of course, chickens are not rocket scientists. And yes, okay, okay, they have small brains. But whatever neurons are firing in those bird brains allows them to do math, like add and subtract, and recognize shapes. They have really good memories. They can remember up to 100 other chickens along with the people they like, and don’t like, even after spending many months apart.
They can also be taught to play the piano (here’s one playing, “America the Beautiful”) and ride bikes, which I love so much that I gave Gwen, the heroine of my children’s book about a chicken, her own bike. With sparkly tassels, because a chicken would like that.
Still don’t believe they’re not ding-dongs? Take the BBC’s word for it. After reviewing a series of behavioral studies, the author concludes that not only are chickens not stupid, they are “remarkably intelligent.”
I have observed that, as with people, some chickens have more going on upstairs than others. My favorite chicken Alice somehow always figures out how to get to the good food no matter how many fences and blockades I construct. She also regularly uses her eggs to get what she wants.
Recently she walked past me while I was working, disappeared for an hour, and then popped up again, retracing her path to the yard. Later, we found one of her usual stunning green eggs, right in the middle on my daughter’s bed. I concluded it was Alice’s way of thanking my daughter for all the treats she gives her and, in a more Machiavellian maneuver, eliciting an onslaught of more hen goodies. She is also quite wily, hiding her eggs all over the garden instead of in the nesting box. I will never know for sure, but I suspect she’s trying to keep her treasures out of my greedy hands.
A skeptic might posit that these behaviors signal she’s more of an odd bird than an intelligent one. I’m happy to concede to both. Alice is an eccentric, clever chicken. Anybody who has met her is dazzled by her winning and curious nature.
They sing a crazy song after laying an egg. Wouldn’t you? Their language also includes up to 30 trills, peeps, clucks, cackles, squawks, growls, and calls that communicate affection, contentment, anger, fear, danger, lustiness and more.
Being a chicken is like being on LSD all the time. You can’t even begin to imagine what chickens see, unless you’ve dropped acid and had a good trip. Then you may have some sense of what they see all the time: the entire world in pulsating, vibrant technicolor. In more technical terms, this means that while people have trichromatic vision and see three colors (red, blue, and green), chickens have tetrachromatic vision, which means they’re sensitive to four wavelengths that include red, blue, green, and ultraviolet light. That extra special wavelength makes the world really trippy.
If you saw the world through a chicken’s eyes, you’d also be able to detect the smallest object, like a pill bug waiting to be plucked from the moist brown earth, which makes a delicious chicken snack. Some more freakish features: Each eye can move independently, which accounts for why chickens can look a little...off. They also have three eyelids and a 300-degree field of vision without even moving their head. This allows them to see in advance what could potentially swoop down on them, giving them plenty of time to run.
They’re gourmands. It’s pretty common knowledge they are omnivores, but they are also very picky eaters. My chickens’ favorite things to eat are dried mealworms, spaghetti, grapes (cut in half, please), corn on the cob, and yogurt. By the way, watching a chicken eat yogurt is almost as funny as seeing a chicken run. Because, you know, they get all that yogurt on their beak, then they run around trying to wipe it off? Anyway, it’s funny.
They can purr like a cat and cuddle kind of like a dog. It takes time to earn a chicken’s trust, and not all of my chickens like being held or petted. My chicken Fullerton will not abide my overtures. She’s a standoffish bird. But if you sit near chickens and let them get used to you, they tend to enjoy sitting on your lap and being scratched behind their ears and neck. The cuddliest of them will purr, too.
Their earlobes can signal the color eggs they lay. To clarify: if you’re picturing a chicken with Alfred E. Newman ears, well, that’s funny. But chicken earlobes are flat against their head and very small. Often, tan earlobes indicate they’ll lay tan-shelled eggs. White earlobes, white. There are exceptions: hens with red earlobes usually lay eggs in shades of brown. The Silkie, a weird, very small, and wonderful breed, has blue earlobes and lays light brown or almost white eggs. So earlobes are a helpful but somewhat imperfect guide to egg color.
They have a great sense of timing. These birds know in a freakishly precise way when to do what. Breakfast is a chicken’s most important meal of the day. If I’m late with their feed and mealworms they’ll cluck at me, annoyed, and pace in circles. My chicken Summer, the leader of the brood, will peck at me, gently. Except for the time she really nipped me. I’m not late with breakfast anymore.
Chickens feel things, deeply. My chickens exhibit the full range of what we think of as human emotions. Given so many animals experience a broad range of emotions we should really stop using the expression “human emotions.” They are joyful in moments they’re let out of the run and scamper into their favorite spot in the sun. They are fearful. It is heartbreaking hearing them squawk and search for cover when my son’s dog tears after them. They can be fiercely protective. Summer, my head girl, is a firm mother hen who herds her girls into the run every night to keep them safe from predators. They are upset when another chicken is sad, and share in each other’s happiness, too. When one hen starts singing after laying her egg the other chickens often join in.
As with any animal, chickens possess qualities that may not be human-like but in no way makes them lesser. Just different. (And you try spotting a pill bug several yards away to your left without turning your head!) Just because they aren’t human doesn’t mean they don’t want what all sentient beings want, the chance to live their lives the way they were meant to be.