I am new to the appreciation of chickens, new to seeing them as anything more than the larval form of McNuggets, but I’m fascinated by these beautiful birds that I somehow never noticed until now. Here are some things I have learned.
First of all, there are a lot of chickens in the world, but it’s hard to grasp what the raw headcount of about 20 billion really means. With about 7.4 billion humans in the world, chickens outnumber us by almost three to one, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story because chicken lives are so short compared to human lives.
We eat about nine billion of them per year which works out to an average lifespan of only about 15 weeks but this is a situation where the average is misleading because the distribution of chicken lifetimes is what statisticians would call “multi-modal.” That means there are several things happening that a single average can’t capture. If you made a graph of chicken lifespans, what you see is several distinct bulges rather than something like the single bulge that would characterize a graph of human lifespan.
By far, the biggest bulge on the chicken-life graph would be chickens that are bred for eating. These birds are typically slaughtered at between six and eight weeks so they would show up as a very tall but narrow spike located just to the right of the Y axis, i.e., near the left side of the graph. Birds raised for eating so dominate the poultry world in sheer numbers that they are the main component of the overall average of 15 weeks.
On the other hand, hens bred for laying can do so for several years. How long varies by both breed and individual bird. When their egg productivity tapers off in mid life they become food themselves. There aren’t nearly so many of them but they live much longer, so they would produce a wide but much lower bulge centered near the middle of the graph.
You would have trouble finding the bulge left by the equally large number of males of laying breeds because they are almost invariably killed within hours of hatching; their lives are so short that the bulge describing them numerically would be a single-pixel-wide vertical line right directly adjacent to the Y axis. Unless your graph were in color, it would just look like the Y axis was slightly thicker than the X axis. These birds hatch in numbers approximately equal to the number of laying hens, so the line would cover the same total area as the area under the laying hen bulge. Thus, it’s theoretical height would be many, many times taller than would be feasible to display and those countless millions of lives would end up being indicated by little more than a small notation off in the upper left hand corner.
Underlying the three main bulges would be a long, wavering line low down on the graph sloping gently towards zero on the right side. That line would comprise all the worlds backyard and farmyard chickens, show birds and pets. It would fizzle down to nothing at about seven or eight years, the natural lifespan of domestic fowl in captivity (which is much longer than life in the wild.)
Despite the extreme multi-modality, the overall fifteen-week average is not a useless number. For one thing, it tells you that the typical human life of the biblical three-score and ten years spans approximately 233 chicken lifetimes. This implies that there are around 233*2.7=629.1 chickens in the world for each person over a human lifetime. At 3.75 pounds or 1.7 kilograms, that’s something like a metric ton of birds for every person on earth even if you allow for all those males born of laying breeds.
An average lifespan of fifteen weeks is incredibly short, given that their natural lifespan in captivity would be seven or eight years. (Cows, for instance take two years to reach full size.) Eating birds are bred to reach full size very young because it optimizes the “conversion rate” i.e., how efficiently chicken feed is converted into chicken. Chickens have one of the highest conversion rates of any kind of livestock, at about one pound of chicken for every two pounds of grain, but even so, the competition of the marketplace is ferocious and puts great pressure on commercial chicken farmers to raise chickens faster and faster.
There are economic trade-offs everywhere in life, but you can take the measure of a civilization by how willing it is to humanize the brute economics that underlie our existence; factory farming is clearly a place where we fall down egregiously.
This economic dynamic makes chickens as a group the victims of a perverse feedback loop that ill-serves the eaters of chickens as well. Despite the fact that older chickens are usually considered tastier by people not raised on super-young factory farmed chicken, people accustomed to such birds come to prefer their relatively bland meatiness and cook to those culinary properties. Thus, typical Americans tend to fry them in large pieces or roast them whole. Tastier, older chickens are better prepared as is done in Mexican, French, and other more traditional cuisines, which are adapted to birds with less and tougher, but noticeably more flavorful meat, as was typical of chickens when they came from barnyards. The relatively new mass preference for large, young, bland, chickens further motivates breeding and technology that produces ever faster-developing and less tasty chickens, further driving down their price and commensurately reinforcing the marketability of bland bulk and the economic incentive for yet more efficient factory farming. A high-tech broiler can be of age to slaughter in as little as four weeks.
One of the more grotesque aspects of the global chicken producing engine is a consequence of the fact that laying breeds, though they excel at turning chicken feed into eggs, are mediocre at turning it into chicken. This means that the males, other than the few that are needed for breeding, are regarded as a useless waste product and are summarily dispatched as soon as the chicks can be sexed. This normally happens within hours of hatching, by means of what is known in the trade as “maceration,” which is sub-second passage through what is basically a high-speed food processor.
Back-yard and farmyard chicken raising is an entirely different ballgame. These birds are not usually bred for hyper-fast growth and often lay for far longer than the lifespan dictated by an optimized chicken-feed to egg conversion ratio. The life of a yard bird isn’t necessarily a walk in the park but it’s not as if living in the forest is all beer and skittles either, what with just about every critter with four paws or wings trying to eat you alive. It is the fate of virtually all chickens, wild or domestic, to end up eaten one way or another but at least a yard bird (a) is dead first and (b) has a full feed trough and plenty of stuff to peck at until that dark and cloudy day inevitably arrives. It need not be a bad life for a bird.
That most domestic chickens are eaten makes it all the more remarkable that they were apparently not originally domesticated for food but rather for predicting the future. Prognostication and other religious and quasi-religious practices usually involve the death of the unfortunate bird, but the practice of eating them and their eggs is believed to have come later and in some places never came at all. Despite the ancient origins of chicken keeping, even today there are a number of cultures in the world that keep chickens for prognostication but either hold eating them taboo or only secondarily use them for food.
In the mainstream of homogenized US culture, the chicken is the most unromantic and utilitarian animal imaginable, but in the world at large, no animal, with the possible exception of the lamb, has a deeper association with spiritual practices.
Incredibly, the chicken’s linkage to prognostication seems to have arisen independently wherever they were domesticated, and far from disappearing, it continues to spread geographically to places where it was formerly unknown. Place like the United States, for instance. Immigrants from the Caribbean and elsewhere have brought the once exotic practice with them, and it is now increasingly common in many areas of the mainland. You can see the remains of magical and religious rituals involving chicken slaughter any day of the week just off the pathways along the NJ Palisades within blocks of where I live, barely two miles from Times Square NY. How much more must go on out of sight.
Regardless of whether chickens are eaten, the great majority of cultures that keep chickens use them for fighting. Humankind’s association with domestic fowl is older than history, and in many places the cockfight is deeply entwined with religious practice. Cockfighting is legal in much of the world and while it is illegal in all fifty of the United States and the District of Columbia, it is legal and commonplace in the American territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Our repugnance for it in the United States is ironic, to say the least, given that we invented and blandly accept the cruelty of factory farming and devote endless attention to bloody entertainments like boxing, MMA, hockey, professional wrestling, and gory films. Cockfights are not for me, and I’m glad we don’t allow them, but they are undeniably spectacular. The fighting cocks fly at each other, attacking by slashing with a spike-like claw that grows from each heel. Cockfights may or may not be to the death, but in some regions it is common to enhance the birds with prosthetic metal spurs, making the fights bloodier, quicker, and more deadly.
Another odd thing about our relationship to chickens is that the chicken’s reputation for extraordinary stupidity seems to be ineradicable despite much scientific evidence that it is undeserved. At least part of their apparent stupidity appears to be a result of the birds generally being kept in circumstances where their particular intelligence is not in play. Granted, chickens aren’t great problem solvers like crows and other corvids but they have remarkable visual intelligence. For instance, a chicken can recognize as many as a hundred facial expression. They easily recognize individual humans and show strong emotional preferences for particular people if kept in a condition where they deal with humans one on one.
One of the mysteries of chicken intelligence is that they also apparently recognize and favor good looks in people, although whatever is going on behind this empirical fact is, as far as I know, imponderable. I’m not sure how much research has been done on the nature of this phenomenon, but the obvious possibilities range from a true sense of visual aesthetics to the existence of something pleasing to chickens in the way beautiful people carry themselves, to something they detect in how other humans react to beautiful people.
Chickens are social animals, which argues for either the second or third possibility, but I favor the first. The brutal economics of natural selection does not throw out something as spectacular the plumage of the jungle fowl on a whim, so clearly there is something in the neurology of chickens that responds to their own beauty. Surely the claim that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is one of the fatuous of all widely spouted platitudes; beauty is as real as mass or velocity, just harder to capture in a simple number or vector, as are many other natural phenomena such as intelligence that we do not deny the objective reality of. Why should it be unbelievable that an animal capable of appreciating the nuances of jungle fowl plumage might also be capable of recognizing and preferring other subtle visual harmonies?
The belief that chickens are not beautiful is peculiarly American and more difficult to account for than our commitment to the idea that they are vegetable-stupid.
My evidence for the following claim is purely anecdotal—I can cite no sociological studies with titles like “Subliminal Hostility to Domestic Fowl Among North Americans—but I have noticed that a favorable remark about chickens to an American is almost invariably met with a harsh, even angry sounding comment about how incredibly stupid they are. Try on a few random test subjects—it’s strikingly consistent and chicken-specific even among people with little real world experience of chickens. You don’t get the same response for other animals. I’ve rarely heard anyone spontaneously comment unfavorably, let alone bitterly, on the intelligence of hamsters or cows, neither of which seem significantly smarter than houseplants.
There are some American chicken lovers but they seem to be an eccentric breed, whereas, in many countries, domestic fowl are widely bred for beauty much as roses are. The English, Japanese, and Polish, in particular, are notable appreciators of chicken beauty but the admiration and cultivation of chickens is a truly global phenomenon.
It is dangerous to generalize about national tastes, but the nations of the Earth do tend to have distinctive aesthetics when it comes to domestic fowl. The sensibility that bred the Japanese Onagadori, with that unbelievable tail (seen in the top group of pictures) clearly shares something with the aesthetic of the Koi. As incredible as that tail is, the come longer still.
There are innumerable English breeds, with very English utilitarian roots underlying each gorgeous extravagance. The English sensibility does not favor the purely decorative.
English breeders don’t typically go for the extravagance-for-its-own-sake that you see in the Onagadori. Theirs is the sensibility that bred the English bulldog, the grotesque appearance of which originally had a function (allowing it to grip and hang on to the tender nose of a bull to subdue it) but has since been carried to an extreme. Many of the classic English breeds are game fowl—fighting birds of great beauty like the gamecock to the left. Roosters like this can only live one-to-a-yard because they will quickly kill each other if not separated.
The Polish favor a cosmopolitan, couture-like avian beauty. The Silver Lace Polish seen in the top grouping and just above on the right is one of their most famous breeds. Polish fowl are above all chic, bred for the catwalk, with neither English functionalism, nor the anatomical extremes bred by the Japanese.
The black rooster pictured at the top is a representative of one of the most fascinating of all breeds of jungle fowl. It is an Ayam Cemani rooster from Indonesia. These birds don’t just have black feathers; they have black skin, wattles, eyes, and claws, and are entirely black inside as well, including their their flesh, bones, organs, eyes, and tongue. Every part of them is inky black except for their eggs, which are pink. The fact that they are entirely black, even internally where it can’t be seen, gives them a peculiar aesthetic density. No other animal that I can think of is the same color throughout unless you count transparent creatures like jellyfish, but transparency isn’t really a color in the ordinary sense. Indeed, uniform color is exceedingly rare for any living thing; as far as I know, it is a property that Cemanis share only with carrots.
Perhaps the most interesting bird in the top group of pictures is the trim looking little rooster which is a South East Asian jungle fowl, the bird from which domesticated chickens have descended over the last seven thousand years or so. With twenty billion of them scattered over every continent and climate except Antarctica, the jungle fowl may well be, in a Darwinian sense, the most successful land animal on Earth.
The bird on the right with the cankles is a rare Vietnamese Dong Tao chicken, which despite its grotesque beauty is raised primarily as a delicacy. The extraordinary size of their feet and legs make them difficult and labor-intensive to hatch and raise. The effort and care required makes them an extraordinarily expensive snack; such a bird might sell for as much as $1500 USD, which would be the better part of a year’s pay for an average Vietnamese worker.
Perhaps it is the flamboyance of chicken beauty that is off-putting to the American sensibility, which tends to shun the frou frou and favor functionality even more than the English. We like hounds more than poodles and tabby cats more than Persians. But who can say where aesthetic tastes come from? The more you look at domestic fowl, the stranger our national blindness to them becomes, especially since we eat more of them than any people on Earth.
I don’t know what the breed of the bird with the little girl is but it is a classic bad-ass rooster—pure attitude, a miniature velociraptor primed by evolution to throw down at the drop of a hat and fight to the death using the the inch-long spurs on his heels. The rooster is arrogant and a killer, but he has a keen sense of beauty and when he’s not fighting, mating as often as 12 times a day. It’s great to be young.
That little girl seems very much at home with barnyard fowl but the cover from The Classics Illustrated “Food of the Gods” by H.G. Wells (pictured at the top) haunted me for years when I was little. I realize now that it the story was intended as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on science but it was terrifying to me as a child. The eponymous food is the invention of a scientist studying growth. He designs it to stimulate the release of the then-mysterious hormone that controls growth and any animal that consumes it grows to enormous size. The scientist’s feckless farmhand assistants ignore his instructions and casually feed the substance to the chickens, and from there, rats, wasps, other animals, and even people consume it and disaster ensues.
Curiously, of all the animals and people that consume the food of the gods, it is the monstrous chickens that most people remember. Maybe we remember them most vividly because while wasps and rats are scary already, chickens are normally innocuous—the horror lies entirely in their excessive size. I wonder if they are the reason that I am only after so many years coming to appreciate the domesticated jungle fowl.