In September of 1945, a farmer in Fruita, Colorado missed out on a chicken dinner when his axe went slightly off target. The blade removed most of the chicken’s head but missed the jugular vein and part of the brain stem. “Mike The Headless Chicken” lived another 18 months and became a celebrity and a traveling sideshow sensation. I know, but look it up because it’s true.
Chickens have minimal computing power inside the lima bean they use for running their bodily functions, and there is precious little left over for higher functions. Yet there is enough for personality, affection, and at least a facsimile of emotions that can seem very human at times. Chickens can be quite adorable, and in the next moment intensely unpleasant – just like people.
Last spring we decided to raise some chickens here on the farm after being chicken-free for several years. The fearsome fowl that once lived here were game chickens, not very useful for egg or meat production, but great for eliminating pests. They were low maintenance, roosted in the trees and required little feeding.
I knew their days were numbered one morning after a sizable flock had perched above my wife’s car and spent the night, dropping what chickens drop, followed by some smartalek squirrels who chose the same location for feasting on hickory nuts, and sprinkling chopped nuts on top of what the chickens had left behind.
My wife rushed out of the house late for work only to find her car looking like a Nutty Buddy bar. The chickens started disappearing soon after that. We think it was owls or coyotes, but I’ll always wonder…
Last spring, after the third trip to the grocery store to find the shelves empty of eggs, we decided to get back into the chicken business. We knew the domestic variety we wanted for eggs would not be able to survive in the wild like our previous residents. We have owls, hawks, coyotes and bears, and everyone likes chicken. We needed a proper chicken house.
The baby chicks arrived on schedule. The chicken house did not. Weather, lumber shortages and a variety of adventures delayed construction, but baby chicks grow as fast as they eat.
They soon outgrew the dog kennel in the shop that was their first home. They outgrew two dog kennels after we divided the flock. They moved into the back yard into a hastily constructed nesting box attached to a rectangle of t-posts, chicken wire, tin and tarps. It looked like something from a Jeff Foxworthy joke.
The chickens kept growing and every modification to their temporary accommodations added to the delay in finishing their permanent home. One night a bear visited our chicken hostel. Bears like chicken. They like chicken feed. They don’t like electricity. A makeshift electric fence was added to the chicken shanty, and we stopped letting people see the back yard.
Construction continued on our permanent bear-resistant chickenopolis, inspired by my wife’s inability to get a full night’s sleep with the 4 AM reminders that rooster is rooster from outside the bedroom window. I was beginning to worry that our chickens might disappear again, starting with the roosters.
The rooster has several characteristics that are disturbingly human in their presentation. I think they have a genetic memory of that time when they ruled the earth as dinosaurs, and their current lot in life is a constant source of frustration. They are grandiose narcissists, like so many of our politicians and celebrities, and when the fight or flight switch toggles to fight, they are mindless and dangerous to themselves and anything near their size – like many humans.
Hens present the greatest expression of human-like characteristics. Some are friendly and affectionate. Some are ill tempered. Some are bold and adventurous and some are timid and…”chicken.” The roosters are obnoxious and slightly dangerous, but when there is a threat to the flock, real or imagined, they are frontline protectors.
Our flock came of age in a slightly cramped space that was barely big enough for healthy living with frequent changes of litter. They got some sunshine but saw very little blue sky, and the occasional escapee surely told fantastic tales of a mythical outside world. Their social/pecking order and their entire worldview was defined and delimited by a box about the size of a mini-van.
Moving day was an adventure when Chickenopolis was finally ready for residents. All the personalities came into play. The sweet and trusting birds, Rachael Ray, Hazel and Ellie Mae, allowed themselves to be gently carried to the barn and introduced to their new home. Rachael hopped right up onto one of the new nesting boxes and immediately went inside and began keeping house. She actually sang. I’ve never heard such a song from a chicken, but I know it was joyful.
Miz Drysdale, the head of the chicken homeowner’s association, screeched and complained all the way to the new neighborhood, and once inside continued to complain about her mistreatment for some time. Mr. Rumbold and Sergeant Pecker, our two roosters, transformed from berserking barbarians into docile lambs as they were carried by their legs hanging upside down, which is the safest way to transport roosters. The rest of the flock were enticed into a pet carrier with a few sunflower seeds and hardly noticed the journey while they jostled for position and grabbed as many seeds as they could.
We let the herd get familiar with their new home, several times the size of the old one, before releasing them into the large chicken pen outside. This was their first real encounter with the outside world and the big sky. First out the door were the roosters, who immediately began taking credit for the sunshine and fresh air. Next came our favorites, the henpecked ladies at the bottom of the hierarchy who like to be near us because they feel safe.
It took a few minutes for the flock, which had grown up in a box, to “un-box” themselves. At first they clustered together, gradually discovering their new freedom; then they began venturing out on their own or with their friends. Their new home is a radically different landscape with much more room and different sights and sounds. After a few days, there was even a new pecking order inspired by the new landscape.
All this “humanity” in a creature with a brain the size of a bean! More to the point, isn’t it remarkable how much animal behavior still exists in us, with our large brains, our technology and our civilization? It’s humbling. Or it should be, when the roosters inside our heads stop crowing.