Why Chickens Deserve Our Respect
Despite centuries of domestication, the call of the wild has always been in the chicken’s heart.
“I hear the universal cock-crowing with surprise and pleasure, as if I never heard it before. What a tough fellow! How native to the earth!” —Henry David Thoreau
Chickens are indeed native to the earth. Despite centuries of domestication—from the tropical forest to the farmyard to the factory farm—the call of the wild has always been in the chicken’s heart. Far from being “chicken,” roosters and hens are legendary for their bravery. In classical times, the bearing of the rooster—the old British term for “cock,” a word that was considered too sexually charged for American usage—symbolized military valor: the rooster’s crest stood for the soldier’s helmet and his spurs stood for the sword. A chicken will stand up to an adult human being. Our tiny Bantam rooster, Bantu, would flash out of the bushes and repeatedly attack our legs, lest we should disturb his beloved hens. (Although we do not allow our chickens to hatch chicks, in 2018 a hen and a rooster rescued from a cockfighting operation produced a surprise family, the hen having camouflaged herself in a wooded area of our sanctuary.)
Chickens Are Protective Mothers
An annoyed hen will confront a pesky young rooster with her hackles raised and run him off. Although chickens will fight fiercely, and sometimes successfully, with foxes and other predators to protect their families, with humans, however, this kind of bravery usually does not win. A woman employed on a chicken “breeder” farm in Maryland, berated the defenders of chickens for trying to make her lose her job, and threatening her ability to support herself and her daughter. For her, the “breeder” hens were “mean” birds who “peck your arm when you are trying to collect the eggs.” In her defense for her life and her daughter’s life, she failed to see the similarity between her motherly protection of her child and the exploited hen’s courageous effort to protect her own offspring.
In an outdoor chicken flock, similar to the 12,000 square feet, predator-proof sanctuary my organization United Poultry Concerns has in rural Virginia, ritual and playful sparring and chasing normally suffice to maintain peace and resolve disputes among chickens without bloodshed. Even hens will occasionally have a spat, growling and jumping at each other with their hackles raised; but in more than 30 years of keeping chickens, I have never seen a hen fight turn seriously violent or last for more than a few minutes. Chickens have a natural instinct for social equilibrium and learn quickly from each other. An exasperated bird will either move away from the offender or aim a peck, or a pecking gesture, which sends the message: “Back off.”
Chickens Have Good Memory and Strong Emotions
Most people I talk to are surprised to learn that chickens evolved in a rugged, tropical forest habitat filled with vibrant colors and sounds to which they contribute their share to this day. Many are surprised to learn that chickens are endowed with memory and emotions and a keenly developed consciousness of one another and their surroundings.
A newspaper reporter who visited our sanctuary was astonished to discover that chickens recognize each other as individuals after they’ve been separated. A friend and I had rescued a hen and a rooster in a patch of woods alongside a road in rural Virginia. The first night we managed to get the hen out of the tree, but the rooster got away. The next night after hours of playing hide and seek with him in the rain, we managed to snag the rooster, and the two reunited at our sanctuary. When the reporter visited a few days later, she saw these two chickens, Lois and Lambrusco, foraging together as a couple, showing that they remembered each other after being apart.
Chickens form memories that influence their social behavior from the time they are embryos, and they update their memories over the course of their lives. I’ve observed their memories in action at our sanctuary many times. For instance, if I have to remove a hen from the flock for two or three weeks in order to treat an infection, when I put her outside again, she moves easily back into the flock — they accept her as if she had never been away. There may be a little showdown, a tiff instigated by another hen, but the challenge is quickly resolved. Best of all, I’ve watched many a returning hen greeted by her own flock members led by the rooster walking over and gathering around her conversably.
Chickens Are Social
Bloody battles, which usually take place when a new rooster is introduced into an established flock, are rare, short-lived and usually affect the comb—the crest on top of a chicken’s head—which, being packed with blood vessels, can make an injury look worse than it usually is. It is when chickens are crowded, confined, frustrated or forced to compete at a feeder that distempered behavior can erupt. By contrast, chickens allowed to grow up in successive generations, unconfined in buildings, do not evince a rigid “pecking order.” Parents oversee their young, and the young contend playfully, and indulge in many other activities. A flock of well-acquainted chickens is an amiable social group.
Sometimes chickens run away, however, fleeing from a bully or hereditary predator on legs designed for the purpose does not constitute cowardice. At the same time, I’ve learned from painful experience how a rooster who rushes in to defend his hens from a fox or a raccoon usually does not survive the encounter.
Though chickens are polygamous, mating with more than one member of the opposite sex, individual birds are attracted to each other. They not only “breed”; but they also form bonds, clucking endearments to one another throughout the day. A rooster does a courtly dance for his special hens in which he “skitters sideways and opens his wing feathers downward like Japanese fans,” according to Rick and Gail Luttmann’s book, Chickens in Your Backyard. A man once told me, “When I was a young man I worked on a chicken farm, and one of the most amazing things about those chickens was that they would actually choose each other and refuse to mate with anyone else.”
Cruelty to Chickens in Food System
Sadly, the eggs of these parent flocks are snatched away and sent to mechanical incubators, so the parents never see their chicks. “Breeder” roosters and hens are routinely culled for low fertility, and also because “if a particular male becomes unable to mate, his matching females will not accept another male until he is removed,” explains the book Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production.
Little more than a year later, the parents who have survived their miserable life are sent to slaughter just like the chicks they never got to see, raise or protect, as they would otherwise have chosen to do if they were free.
The purpose of our sanctuary in Virginia is to provide a place for chickens who need a home, rather than adding to the population and thus diminishing our capacity to adopt more birds. For this reason, we do not allow our hens to hatch their eggs as they would otherwise do, given their association with the roosters in our yard. All of our birds have been adopted from situations of abandonment or abuse, or else they were no longer wanted or able to be cared for by their previous owners. Our two-acre sanctuary is a predator-proof yard with the wooded areas and soil chickens love to perch and scratch in all year round.
I broke our no chick-hatching rule on one occasion. Returning from a trip, I discovered that Daffodil, a soft white hen with a sweet face and quiet manner, was nestled deep in the corner of her house in a nest she’d pulled together from the straw bedding on the dirt floor. Seeing there were only two eggs beneath her, I left her alone. Not long after on a day in June, while scattering fresh straw in her house, I heard the tiniest peeps. Thinking a sparrow was caught inside, I looked to guide the bird out, but those peeps were not from a sparrow: They arose from Daffodil’s corner. Peering into the dark place where she sat, I beheld a little yellow face with dark bright eyes peeking out of her feathers.
I knelt down and stared into the face of this tiny chick who looked intently back at me before hiding himself and peeking out again. I looked into Daffodil’s face as well, knowing from experience that making direct eye contact with chickens is crucial to forming an affectionate bond with them.
From the first, a large red rooster named Francis visited Daffodil and her chick in their nesting place, and Daffodil acted happy and content to have him there. Frequently, I found him sitting quietly with her and the little chick, who scrambled around both of them, in and out of their feathers. Though roosters will mate with more than one hen in the flock, a rooster and hen may also form bonds so strong that they will not mate with anyone else.
Could it be that Francis was the father of this chick and that he and Daffodil knew it? He certainly was uniquely and intimately involved with the pair, and it wasn’t as though he was the head of the flock, the one who oversaw all of the hens and the other roosters and was thus fulfilling his duty in that role. Rather, Francis seemed simply to be a member of this particular family.
For the rest of the summer, Daffodil and her chick formed a kind of enchanted circle with an inviolable space all around themselves, as they roamed together in the yard, undisturbed by the other chickens. Not once did I see Francis or any of the other roosters try to mate with Daffodil during the time she was raising her frisky chick — the little one I named Daisy who grew up to be Sir Daisy, a large, handsome rooster with white and golden-brown feathers.
When I first started keeping chickens, there were no predators, until a fox found us. We built our fences after eleven chickens disappeared rapidly under our nose. The fox would sneak up in broad daylight, raising a clamor among the birds. Running outside I’d see no stalker, just sometimes a soul-stabbing bunch of feathers on the ground at the site of abduction. When our bantam rooster Josie was taken, his companion Alexandra ran shrieking through the kitchen, jumped up on a table, still shrieking, and was never the same afterward.
It was too much. I sat on the kitchen floor crying and screaming. At the time, I was caring for Sonja, a big white warm-natured, bouncy hen I was treating for wounds she’d received before I rescued her. As I sat on the floor exploding with grief and guilt, Sonja walked over to where I sat weeping. She nestled her face next to mine and began purring with the ineffable soft purr that is also a trill in chickens. She comforted me even as her gesture deepened the heartache I was feeling. Did Sonja know why I was crying? I doubt it, but maybe she did. Did she know I was terribly sad and distressed? There is no question about that. She responded to my grief with an expression of empathy that I have carried emotionally in my life ever since.
I do not seek to sentimentalize chickens but to characterize them as best I can, based on my observations and relationships with them over many years. In the 1980s, I discovered a crippled chicken named Viva all alone in a shed. My experience with her led me to found United Poultry Concerns in 1990. Little did I know as I lifted her out of the shed to take her home with me that it was the first day of the rest of my life advocating for chickens and their rights.
Compassion for Chickens
To afford this chance for chickens to live a cage-free life along with their chicks, we should show compassion to chickens in May in honor of International Respect for Chickens Day, which falls on May 4 every year. Most of all, we need to respect the lives of chickens beyond this day by ensuring that chickens are treated humanely, and by making better food choices, which involves a shift away from a meat-based diet toward a plant-based diet.