Because I think we could use some fluff today considering the topic that’s dominating the news[1. I have Many Thoughts on this topic and will be sharing some of them soon, after the dust has had a bit of a chance to settle. Or you can check out my Twitter for more off the cuff responses.]. I am not kidding. If you do not find chickens to be an interesting topic of discussion, you should move right along, because chickens it is! And I’m not talking metaphorical chickens, but actual Gallus gallus domesticus, just to clear up any lingering confusion that may be present.
One of the consequences of moving out of town has been an increased frequency of chicken interactions. When I was living in town, the neighbours had chickens and I sometimes saw them, but I didn’t really hang out with the chickens very much, although one of the roosters would sometimes cruise over to debug my garden and sometimes we would sit together on the porch on sunny days. Here, I have my landlords’ flock, sometimes visible from my window when they’re in the pasture, and there’s also another flock belonging to a neighbour that I see when I go out walking. (She also has ducks and geese who are also awesome, but today we are talking about chickens, not waterfowl.) Additionally, when my landlords are out of town, I look after their chickens, which gives me an opportunity for many delightful hours spent in the art of chicken observation.
Chickens and I go away back. We always had them around when I was a kid and I participated in 4-H, so I’m also familiar with the wide world of showing chickens, in addition to knowing more about different chicken breeds than you might think is possible. It wasn’t until high school that we didn’t have chickens, and in fact when I first went out to look at my house, the chickens were one of the major selling points for me, because I like having them around.
People who don’t know chickens often claim that they have no personalities, no character, and no intelligence. None of these things is true. Chickens, like other animals, are distinct individuals. When they’re being factory farmed in a battery henhouse it’s difficult to get to know them and they don’t have much of a chance to develop individuality, but when you’re interacting with a small flock, you do get to know them as individuals and they get a chance to behave more naturally. They are different and they will interact with you differently. Yes, chickens do tend to cluster together and follow each other’s leads, but that’s a pretty natural thing to observe in prey animals, where you have safety in number.
Chickens are also problem solvers. Are they going to be balancing chemistry equations and developing cold fusion? No. But when presented with a problem, chickens will solve it. Chickens enjoy toys. They like puzzles and games. They will engage with any media present in their environment. The idea that chickens aren’t very smart stems from the fact that most people keep them in really bleak places and don’t give them a chance to develop any skills, let alone show them off. Chickens that free range tend to get quite creative and you can also see them working together to accomplish common goals when they realise they cannot do it alone.
Animal intelligence is a controversial topic, but I’d argue that comparisons across species are pretty meaningless, as indeed the question of ‘intelligence’ itself is dubious. Chickens, by objective standards, exhibit things like awareness of their environment, ability to identify and solve problems, and capacity for teamwork. Which is honestly ‘smarter’ than some humans I know. When I was growing up, all our chickens had names, responded to them, and had their own distinct personalities, all things that people claim chickens cannot do when they’re trying to suggest that they are somehow lower orders of life.
Try spending some time with chickens. It’s immensely cheering and soothing, as long as you aren’t the type of get all self conscious about the fact that you’re hanging out with chickens. Some people are, you know, and they don’t get very much benefit from interacting with chickens or other animals because they create barriers.
If you stand or sit still long enough, they will come over and investigate. Some flocks are more proactive and will run over to see if you brought food. The chickens will cluster and peck at your shoelaces, they will look up at you hopefully and seriously. They will make little noises, and let me tell you, people, chicken noises are the best. If you have not experienced chicken noises, the quiet murmuring of a flock content where it is and muttering to itself, you are missing out. There’s the wide range of sounds, for starters, and the sheer delight and exuberance some noises seem to contain. Chickens are excited about life. They like announcing new discoveries. They will, yes, crow about their accomplishments.
I always feel calmer after spending time with the chickens. Chickens are actually used as therapy animals (as are ducks and geese, for that matter), which just goes to show you it’s not just me that thinks being around chickens conveys some benefits beyond getting the occasional egg and having a handy alarm clock if there’s a rooster. Sometimes I go out among the chickens when I’m trying to work something out in my mind or I’m annoyed or I can’t bear being inside another moment. I start out stiff and irritable. Then they softly cluster around me and make inquiring sounds and peer at me and fluff their feathers and wander around, and I start to feel calmer. More focused. Whatever it was that had me riled up seems less important.