The industry must convey the message that hens are distinct from companion species to defuse the misperceptions.
— Simon Shane, Editor, Egg Industry
The poultry industry represents chickens bred for food as mentally vacuous, eviscerated organisms. Hens bred for commercial egg production are said to be suited to a caged environment, with no need for personal space or normal foraging and social activity. They are characterized as aggressive cannibals who, notwithstanding their otherwise mindless passivity and affinity for cages, cannot live together in a cage without first having a portion of their sensitive beaks burned off – otherwise, it is said, they will tear each other up.
Similarly, the instinct to tend and fuss over her eggs and be a mother has been rooted out of these hens (so it is claimed), and the idea of one’s having a social relationship with such hens is dismissed as silly sentimentalism. I confess I have yet to meet a single example of these so-called cannibalistic cage-loving birds.
Over the years, we have adopted hundreds of “egg-type” hens into our sanctuary straight from the cage environment, which is all they ever knew until they were rescued and placed gently on the ground where they felt the earth next to their bodies for the first time in their lives. To watch a little group of nearly featherless hens with naked necks and mutilated beaks respond to this experience is deeply moving. Because their bones have never been properly exercised and their toenails are long and spindly for never having scratched vigorously in the ground, some hens take a few days or longer learning to walk normally and fly up to a perch and settle on it securely, but their desire to do these things is evident from the time they arrive.
Chickens released from a long siege in a cage and placed on the ground almost invariably start making the tentative, increasingly vigorous gestures of taking a dustbath. They paddle and fling the dirt with their claws, rake in particles of earth with their beaks, fluff up their feathers, roll on their sides, pause from time to time with their eyes closed, and stretch out their legs in obvious relish at being able to bask luxuriously and satisfy their urge to clean themselves and to be clean.
Carefully lifting a battered hen, who has never known anything before but brutal handling, out of a transport carrier and placing her on the ground to begin taking her first real dustbath (as opposed to the “vacuum” dustbaths hens try to perform in a cage) is a gesture from which a trusting relationship between human and bird grows. If hens were flowers, it would be like watching a flower unfold, or in the case of a little flock of hens set carefully on the ground together, a little field of flowers transforming themselves from withered stalks into blossoms. For chickens, dustbathing is not only a cleansing activity; it is also a social gathering. Typically, one hen begins the process and is quickly joined by other hens and maybe one or two roosters. Soon the birds are buried so deep in their dustbowls that only the moving tail of a rooster or an outspread wing can be seen a few feet away. Eventually, one by one, the little flock emerges from their ritual entrancement all refreshed. Each bird stands up, vigorously shakes the dirt particles out of his or her feathers, creating a fierce little dust storm before running off to the next engaging activity.
Early on as I began forming our sanctuary and organization in the 1980s, I drove one day from Maryland to New York to pick up seven former battery-caged hens. Instead of crating them in the car, I allowed them to sit together in the back seat on towels, so they wouldn’t be cramped yet again in a dark enclosure, unable to see out the windows or to see me. Also, I wanted to watch them through my rearview mirror and talk to them.
Once their flutter of anxiety and fear had subsided, the hens sat quietly in the car, occasionally standing up to stretch a leg or a wing, all the while peering out from under their pale and pendulous combs (the bright red crest on top of chickens’ heads grows abnormally long, flaccid and yellowish-white in the cage environment) as I drove and spoke to them of the life awaiting. Then an astonishing thing happened. The most naked and pitiful looking hen began making her way slowly from the back seat, across the passenger seat separator, toward me. She crawled onto my knee and settled herself in my lap for the remainder of the trip.
The question has been asked whether chickens can form intentions. Do they have “intentionality”? Do they consciously formulate purposes and carry them out? In the rearview mirror I watched Bonnie, that ravaged little hen, make a difficult yet beeline trip from the backseat of the car into my lap. Reliving the scene in my mind, I see her journey as her intention to reach me. Once she obtained her objective, she rested without further incident.
Intentionality in chickens is shown in many ways. An example is a hen’s desire not only to lay an egg, but to lay her egg in a particular place with a particular group of hens, or in a secluded spot she has chosen – and she has definitely chosen it. I’ve watched hens delay laying their egg until they got where they wanted to be. Conscious or not at the outset, once the intention has been formed, the hen is consciously and emotionally committed to accomplishing it. No other interpretation of her behavior makes sense by comparison. Sarah, for example, a white leghorn hen from a battery-cage egg-laying operation who came to our sanctuary with osteoporosis and a broken leg, was determined, as she grew stronger, to climb the front stairs of our house, one laborious step at a time, just so that she could lay her egg behind the toilet in the bathroom next to the second floor landing. This was a hen, remember, who had never known anything before in her life but a crowded metal cage among thousands of cages in a windowless building. I was Sarah’s friendly facilitator. I cheered her on, and the interest I showed in her and her wishes and successes was a critical part of her recovery, both physical and mental.
These days in the morning when I unhook the door of the little house in which eight hens and Sir Valery Valentine the rooster spend the night, brown Josephine runs alongside me and dashes ahead down to the Big House where she waits in a state of eager anticipation while I unlatch the door to let the birds who are eagerly assembled on the other side of that door out into the yard. Out they rush, and in goes Josephine, straight to the favorite spot shaped by herself and her friends into a comfy nest atop three stacked bales of straw that, envisioned in her mind’s eye, she was determined to get to. Why else, unless she remembered the place and her experience in it with anticipatory pleasure, would she be determined day after day to repeat the episode?
In her mind’s eye as well is my own role in her morning ritual. I hold the Keys to the little straw Kingdom Josephine is eager to reenter, and she accompanies me trustingly and expectantly as we make our way toward it. Likewise, our hen Charity knew that I held the keys to the cellar where she laid her eggs for years in a pile of books in a cabinet beside a table I worked at. Unlike Josephine, Charity wanted to lay her egg in a private place, free of the fussing of hens gathered together and sharing their nest, often accompanied by a rooster boisterously crowing the egg-laying news amid the cacophony of cackles.
Charity didn’t mind my presence in the cellar. She seemed to like me sitting there, each of us intent on our silent endeavor. If the cellar door was closed, blocking her way to the basement when she was ready to lay her egg, she would pace back and forth in front of the window on the opposite side of the house where I sat at my desk facing the window. If I didn’t respond quickly enough, she’d start pecking at the window with an increasing bang to get me to move. By the time I ran up the steps and opened the cellar door, she’d already be standing there, having raced around the house as soon as she saw me get up. Down the cellar steps she’d trip, jump into the cabinet, and settle as still as a statue in her book nook. After she had laid her egg and spent a little time with it, she let me know she was ready to go back outside, running up the steps to the landing where she waited until I opened the door, and out she went.
Do events like these suggest that the chickens regard me as a chicken like themselves? I don’t really think so, other than perhaps when they are motherless chicks and I am their sole provider and protector, similar to the way children raised by wolves imprint on and behave like wolves. I see the ability of chickens to bond with me and be endearingly companionable as an extension of their ability to adapt their native instincts to habitats and human-created environments that stimulate their natural ability to perceive analogies and fit what they find where they happen to be to the fulfillment of their own needs and desires.
The inherently social nature of chickens enables them to socialize successfully with a variety of other species and to form bonds of interspecies affection. Having adopted into our sanctuary many incapacitated young chickens from the “broiler” chicken (meat) industry, I know how quickly they learn to recognize me and my voice and their own names. They twitter and chirp when I talk to them, and they turn their heads to watch me moving about or away from them. Living in the house until they are well enough to go outside if they ever can, they quickly learn the cues I provide that signify their comfort and care and establish their personal identity.
This is not to suggest that chickens are unlimitedly malleable. Mother hens and their embryos have a genetic repertoire of communications that are too subtle for humans to decipher entirely, let alone imitate. Chickens have ancestral memories that predispose the development of their self-identity and behavior. Even chickens incubated in mechanical hatcheries and deprived of parental influence – virtually all of the birds at our sanctuary – behave like chickens in essential ways. For instance, they all follow the sun around the yard. They all sunbathe, dropping to the ground and lying on their sides with one wing outspread, then turning over and spreading out the other wing while raising their neck feathers to allow the warm sunlight and vitamin D to penetrate their skin. Similar to dustbathing, sunbathing is a social as well as a healthful activity for chickens, where you see one bird drop to the ground where the sun is shining, followed by another and then another, and if you don’t know what they are doing, you will think they had died the way they lie still with their eyes closed, flopped like mops under the sun.
I’m aware when I am in the yard with them that the chickens are constantly sending, receiving and responding to many signals that elude me. They also exhibit a clear sense of distinction between themselves, as chickens, and the three ducks, two turkeys and peacock Frankencense who share their sanctuary space. And they definitely know the difference between themselves and their predators, such as foxes and hawks, whose proximity raises a sustained alarm through the entire flock. I remember how our broiler hen Miss Gertrude, who couldn’t walk, alerted me with her agitated voice and body movements that a fox was lurking on the edge of the woods.
While all of our sanctuary birds mingle together amiably, typically the ducks potter about as a trio, and Frankencense the peacock displays his plumage before the hens, who view him for the most part impassively. The closest interspecies relationship I’ve observed among our birds is between the chickens and the turkeys.
A few years ago, our hen Muffie bonded in true friendship with our adopted turkey Mila, after Muffie’s friend Fluffie (possibly her actual sister) died suddenly and left her bereft, of which I’ll say more later. Right from the start, Muffie and Mila shared a quiet affection, foraging together and sometimes preening each other very delicately. One of their favorite rituals was in the evenings when I changed their water and ran the hose in their bowls. Together, Muffie and Mila would follow the tiny rivulets along the ground, drinking as they went, Muffie darting and drinking like a brisk brown fairy, Mila dreamily swaying and sipping, piping her intermittent flute notes.
Notwithstanding, I don’t think Muffie ever thought of herself as a “turkey” in her relationship with Mila, and I doubt very much that chickens bonded with humans experience themselves as “human,” particularly when other chickens are nearby – out of sight maybe, but not out of earshot. (Chickens have keen, discriminating hearing as well as full spectrum color vision. Chick embryos have been shown to distinguish the crow of a rooster from other sounds from inside their shells.)
Chickens in my experience have a core identity and sense of themselves as chickens. An example is a chick I named Fred, sole survivor of a classroom hatching project in which embryos were mechanically incubated. Fred was so large, loud and demanding from the moment he set foot in our kitchen, I assumed he’d grow up to be a rooster. He raced up and down the hallway, hopped up on my shoulder, leapt to the top of my head, ran across my back, down my arm and onto the floor when I was at the computer, and was generally what you’d call “pushy,” but adorably so. I remember one day putting Fred outdoors in an enclosure with a few adult hens on the ground, and he flew straight up the tree to a branch, peeping loudly, apparently wanting no part of them.
“Fred” grew into a lustrously beautiful black hen whom I renamed Freddaflower. Often we’d sit on the sofa together at night while I watched television or read. Even by herself, Freddaflower liked to perch on the arm of the sofa in front of the TV when it was on, suggesting she liked to be there because it was our special place. She ran up and down the stairs to the second floor as she pleased, and often I would find her in the guestroom standing prettily in front of the full-length mirror preening her feathers and observing herself. She appeared to be fully aware that it was she herself she was looking at in the mirror. I’d say to her, “Look, Freddaflower – that’s you! Look how pretty you are!” And she seemed already to know that.
Freddaflower loved for me to hold her and pet her. She demanded to be picked up. She would close her eyes and purr while I stroked her feathers and kissed her face. From time to time, I placed her outside in the chicken yard, and sometimes she ventured out on her own, but she always came back. Eventually I noticed she was returning to me less and less, and for shorter periods. One night she elected to remain in the chicken house with the flock. From then on until she died of ovarian cancer in my arms two years later, Freddaflower expressed her ambivalence of wanting to be with me but also wanting to be with the other hens, to socialize and nest with them and participate in their world and the reliving of ancestral experiences that she carried within herself.