Our continuing public service for those trusting souls who think animals are cute and loving: a full week of the horrifying truth.
I grew up on a small farm where we raised chickens. I didn’t always think they were repulsive. When I was around 10, I had a 4-H project for which I raised chickens from the get-go; we already had a laying flock but the project was part of my training as a farm kid. Baby chicks are some of the cutest babies on earth, so soft and light you hardly knew you were holding them, making inquisitive little squeaks — eep? eep? When I turned the lights out on the brooder, where they spent the cold nights, they’d peep like crazy EEP EEP EEP then all fall asleep at the same minute. Eventually they grew up and began laying – or swanning around being roosters – and only then did I take a good look at their eyes. They looked back with no interest; in fact, change our relative sizes and they could kill me or not, they didn’t care. If you don’t believe that T. Rexes evolved into birds, just look into the cold, mean, stupid, reptilian eye of a chicken.
And those eyes were windows to loathsome souls. The pecking order was real, and once the least of them got pecked enough to draw blood, usually around the head, then a deep madness swept the flock and they pecked the head and eventually the shoulders bare and bloody. Sometimes they pecked the weak one to death. The Farm Bureau called it cannibalism. They told us to put some green stuff on the cannibalized chickens’ heads but it didn’t stop the cannibals. Those hard, strong beaks had blood on them.
I don’t remember a lot else about them or their behavior toward each other. It’s true that the famous Susan Orlean is happy, as are an increasing number of city people, to be keeping backyard chickens. It’s also true that the charming Sarah Zielinski* and Carolynn Smith cite research showing that hens are protective of their chicks and that chickens in general communicate information about dangers and environment to each other. The communication, according to the researchers, is a sign that chickens are quite intelligent – intelligence which the researchers are honest enough to point out that the chickens also use to lie, cheat, and steal.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether Sarah and Carolynn had actually met** any chickens, and so to check my memory of chickenly wickedness, I asked LWON’s Christie, who raises them. I quote her in full: “Yes, chickens are the meanest creatures I’ve ever encountered. They are horrible, horrible, horrible to one another. They peck relentlessly at one another, pulling out feathers, and pecking at heads and wattles until they draw blood. They’ll peck and squawk at the weak ones to prevent them from getting food. The roosters knock down the hens and peck at their heads and backs when they mount them to do their business, and they flap and fly at one another and spear each other with their spurs. Chickens really don’t have a nice bone in their bodies.”
At least – and this is a trigger warning for vegans and anyone soft-minded enough to consider chickens fellow creatures – they’re really good to eat.
Bonus for the bloodthirsty: the phrase, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” is literal. When you cut a chicken’s head off with an axe, you have to throw the body away from you fast because the autonomic nervous system keeps the chicken thrashing around for a few minutes, flinging blood over everything. The henhouse always had splashes of blood on the one corner where the chopping block was. When I was a kid, I thought this was neato; but I don’t any more.
UPDATEs: *I spelled Sarah Zielinski’s last name wrong in the original draft. No writer, and especially no writer with a last name like Finkbeiner, should ever spell anyone’s name wrong; and I’m sorry for it.
**Not only have Zielinski and Smith been around chickens, but Smith is an actual chicken researcher and has in her back yard two chickens which her daughter loves. The Snark Week backlash begins.