Why did the chicken cross the road?

Well, good lord, everyone knows that! Don’t they?

Fifty years ago, I imagine, free-ranging chickens were nearly ubiquitous along small country roads. The roads maybe weren’t in as good shape as they are now; farms were small and numerous just about anywhere agriculture was feasible; and farmers liked to hedge their bets with a more diverse array of crops and livestock than one sees nowadays. I wasn’t alive then, of course, but I’m guessing that back then, anyone who had ever gone for a drive in the country would have had ample opportunity to wonder why in the hell the chicken crossed the road. That joke must’ve actually seemed funny once!

I know because when I was a kid we raised chickens for a number of years. We always had a few bantams and araucanas, including one or two roosters, but the rest — twenty to forty, depending on the time of year — were hens of a hybrid breed known as Black Beauties. Even before we put up the gate at the bottom of the mountain, there weren’t many cars on our somewhat scary, mile-and-a-half-long, one-lane dirt road, and those that did venture up — the meter man, the game warden, UPS before all their drivers became too lazy or, uh, chicken — didn’t drive over ten miles per hour. So when cars rounded the guest house curve and began the ascent past the henhouse, the chickens had plenty of time to do what chickens always do when an automobile approaches: run directly in front of it at high speed. A chicken might be a hundred feet from the road, but as soon as she sees a car approach, she’ll start running. The goal is to get there in time to cross the road just inches away from the front tires, flapping her wings for speed and cackling madly. If the driver is alert and steps on the brakes in time, her game of chicken will end safely with no loss of life or radiator grill.

Chickens, it seems, don’t have a whole lot going on behind those beady little eyes. Except for bantams, who retain much of the canniness of their wild ancestors, chickens are remarkably easy to hypnotize. Sometimes, when the devil was casting about for ways to employ our idle hands, one of us kids would get a yardstick and some chalk and draw a straight line on the concrete floor of the veranda. Then we’d go catch a chicken, soothe her until she stopped clucking, and lay her down on her side with one of her eyes level with the line. For some reason, this is deeply entrancing to a chicken — kind of like putting a person behind the wheel of a car on a long, straight road. She can lie like that for hours, perfectly still while people, pets and other chickens walk all around her. Then all of a sudden you’ll see her get up, shake herself, and walk away as if nothing happened.

We also found we could hypnotize a chicken by holding her upright in one hand at eye level and staring directly into her eyes. In half a minute or less, she’d become sufficiently entranced that you could carry her out to the old stump we used as a chopping block, place her head between the nails and stretch out her neck to its fullest extent with no fuss whatsoever. Again, though, this didn’t work on bantams, who always seemed to be able to intuit our intentions, and had a special kind of call that they only uttered on the way to the chopping block. It sounded disturbingly like “Help, help, help!” The roosters knew what it meant, too, and would come running over and try to screw up their courage to attack, charging as close as they dared and making what were presumably intended to be threatening noises. But we kept the bantams for meat, not for eggs. And if you can’t handle killing, you have no business eating meat.

I should add that it was my father — a lifelong pacifist — who acted as executioner up until I was around 16 or 17, when he passed the responsibility on to me with considerable relief. In late summer and early fall, during the poultry killing season (we also raised muscovy ducks), Dad would kill two birds a week, and Mom would clean them, sometimes with the help of one of us kids. The scary thing about killing a chicken is how much it thrashes about after its head comes off. The chopping block was situated right next to an old road scraper — an attachment for Dad’s small farm tractor — and we took advantage of its curved blade to deflect the flying blood from our clothes. Dad taught me how to hold the chicken’s legs in the left hand, bring the hatchet down with the right, then quickly swing the bird up and over against the scraper blade during the one- or two-second lull before the convulsive thrashing began.

We never tried letting them go to see if they’d run around — it wasn’t worth getting dirt on the neck, Dad said. Besides, it would have seemed callous and disrespectful. We used the neck meat, of course. Everything but the feet and the head, which seemed to retain consciousness for ten to fifteen seconds after it tumbled to the ground, the beak opening and closing soundlessly a couple of times before the eyelids slowly closed.

The end was swift, and I’m sure the shock of it prevented much if any suffering. We told ourselves that these chickens had lived a good life, unconfined except by snow in the winter — and even then, they had the whole, dirt basement of the henhouse to grub around and take dust baths in. Our motives for this arrangement weren’t entirely altruistic, of course. Eggs and meat from free-range chickens simply tastes better, not only because the birds get plenty of exercise, but also because, dumb as they may seem by comparison with human beings, chickens are smart enough to do what few humans can: balance their diet on their own. Even in the dirt under the henhouse they evidently found enough worms, insect larvae and other invertebrates to continue producing eggs with deep orange yolks throughout the winter.

I don’t know what it is about a car that provokes such panic among chickens, but panic is never a rational response to danger, even among people. I’ve seen panic attacks at close hand, and they’re scary, and a little awe-inspiring. The mind seizes up somehow — a form of paralysis completely opposite to trance or hypnosis. Breathing and circulation go into overdrive. As the etymology of the word suggests, panic was once associated with the groundless terrors people felt when they strayed too far from the safety of home and village: Pan was the god of fields and woods.

And of course panic is contagious, leading potentially to pandemonium. When one chicken started racing for the road, half a dozen others would quickly follow suit, and a mad rush for the safety of the henhouse would ensue. In commercial operations, this tendency to mass panic can lead to large pileups in the corner of a chicken house and dozens of birds smothering to death.

Even small flocks, like the one we used to keep, are too large for the physical and mental health of the birds if bad weather confines them to quarters for too long. Chickens are social birds with a strong tendency to keep themselves in line with a pecking order. As with human dominance hierarchies, this “order” regularly leads to the death of its most vulnerable members. The skin on a low-ranking chicken’s feet might split from frostbite, and the sight of blood would provoke another chicken to begin pecking. Chickens like the taste of blood. Soon, the unfortunate hen would be surrounded by a mob of her comrades, fighting each other for a piece of her increasingly bloody body. I saw this happen a couple of times, and was able to beat them off, but knew that I was only forestalling the inevitable. During the bi-weekly replacing of the old litter with fresh hay from the barn, we would occasionally find the partially eaten corpses of missing chickens. I suppose we lost four or five chickens a year this way.

If having a pecking order leads to such brutal results, how and why did it evolve? The easy answer is that, in the case of most breeds of chickens, naturally evolved traits have been distorted by inbreeding and the selection for certain traits disadvantageous to the long-term survival of chickens. But of course many species of fully wild birds have informal pecking orders, too. And though many human societies are quite non-hierarchical, such societies tend to be those at the simplest level of social organization: small, nomadic bands thinly distributed across a landscape. With higher population densities and more sedentary habits, hierarchical structures seem like an almost inevitable development, absent some mitigating ethos strongly valuing individual autonomy.

My theory is that hierarchies are common among social animals because social animals have a strong need for security, and a pecking order happens to be one of the easiest ways of providing it. The individual chicken knows her place, and if the tensions created by rivalry for higher positions in the pecking order threaten the solidarity of the flock, then miraculously a chicken at or near the bottom begins to bleed around her toes. Presumably, the experience of participating in the elimination of one of its least desirable members generates the same kind of positive emotional feedback that the citizens of a modern nation-state get from invading a much smaller country or howling for the elimination of some undesirable minority.

But we have strayed perhaps a little too far from our original question, haven’t we? I don’t know if we can make it all the way to the finish before the next car comes, but let’s get a running start. Our goal, let’s remember, is the other side — or the Far Side, for you die-hard Gary Larson fans. (And has the chicken ever had a more sympathetic champion?) Cars don’t go as fast as they otherwise might because the road is rough, and the road is rough because the road scraper is currently employed for, um, other purposes. But let’s not talk about that right now — keep your eyes on the goal. We can make it! Do it for the flock.

9 Replies to “Chicken”

  1. I can recall hatchet duty at my grandparents’ Kentucky farm so long ago. I always made a botch of the job and my grandfather would have to finish it for me (and for the poor chicken). Even then I was one of the few among my peers who had actually seen a headless chicken running about. I imagine today it is only a mythical phenomenon, much doubted by those who have not seen it. Just as free-range chickens must seem to cars that pass too quickly down country roads.

    BTW, I have always been suspicious of the etymology of the word panic. I’ve always thought that rural types were much too savvy about their environment to be frightened of it. But I’m sometimes defiant in that way.

  2. Humm, yes chicken memories. Part of me wants to raise chickens again but I think the part that keeps putting off buying the chicks is probably the chopping block. I suppose I should stop eating chicken too if I can’t handle that or maybe we could just eat eggs and let the foxes handle the older chickens?

  3. Pecking order…. In a wild environment, those “victim” chickens might well be able to flee, but of course they’d likely be eaten by something else.

    The Wiki article only hints at the reason why dominance heirarchies are so common: there are all sorts of situations where “everybody wants”, and they want to be first, just in case it runs out. But if everyone always *fought* to be “first in line”, you’d have lots of general brawls that would injure quite a lot of the flock/pack/tribe/etc — leaving them vulnerable to outside threats, diseases, etc. Similarly, if leadership itself was at issue, you might have each leader get killed by the rest of the group ganging up on them. Of course, the new “winner” would get the same treatment, until all the strongest members of the group have been killed off. (Oops!)

    A “pecking order” by whatever name, is a way to get those issues sorted out with a minimum of bloodshed — for example, any given individual needn’t even bother arguing with the leader until they can deal with the guy “just above” them. (Enforced by everyone in between!) When there’s, say, food to be shared out, the group doesn’t waste effort/blood fighting over it — or waste the food while they’re busy fighting! (E.g., trampled into the dirt, swiped by another species, eaten by the “sick one” who’s about to die anyway….)

  4. pablo –

    I’ve always thought that rural types were much too savvy about their environment to be frightened of it.

    Oh, I agree, absolutely. But I don’t think it’s the rural people who dream up words like “panic”!

    My original assumption was that the Pan—>panic connection originated in a belief that panicked people were actually possessed by the god. But the Online Etymology Dictionary has that story about frightening sounds. So I don’t know. I should look into it further.

    Ontario Wanderer –

    maybe we could just eat eggs and let the foxes handle the older chickens?

    Hmm, that could work if the foxes aren’t too insistent! With us, it was raccoons that finally wiped us out. We didn’t realize the extent to which our dogs protected the flock (and the gardens, from deer) until we had no more dogs.

    My statement that “if you can’t handle killing, you shouldn’t eat meat” now strikes me as a bit extreme, BTW. But I do believe we shouldn’t shut our eyes to what the commercial meat industry does — just as we have a responsibility to find out what our governments are doing in our name.

    David Harmon – Thanks so much for fleshing this out. I almost feel like copying your entire comment and appending it to my post as a footnote, but hopefully people will read the message string.

  5. Very surprising post that really drew me in. I didn’t think your line about “if you can’t handle the killing, you shouldn’t eat meat” is extreme at all. I think it’s 100% reasonable. I think all meat-eaters should understand that meat doesn’t grow shinkwrapped in a grocery store. We are too far removed from our food as it is, and it is getting worse every day. How many years before genetic engineering companies create a headless chicken? Don’t laugh, I’m being serious. It’s not science fiction anymore. A few weeks ago I was at a restaurant with some friends. One asked where the salmon was harvested. The waitress didn’t know but said she’d ask the cook. The waitress came back with a look of disgust and then steadied herself and said, “they’re cloned.”

    By the way, I liked the war invasion observations. Just wanted to go on record to say I hear you and I’d like to suggest a link between chickens and the war: chickenhawks.

  6. Zhoen – That was illuminating. Thank you.

    Curt – Ah, you have me thinking of the Far Side again — the cartoon enititled Boneless Chicken Ranch.

    I thought about chickenhawks, but couldn’t figure out how to work it in. Back in maybe 1975, I remember Grandpa — who spent the summers with us — actually taking potshots at a hawk that had tried and failed to make off with a chicken. We were all scandalized. As for the terms “war hawk” or “chicken hawk,” though, I don’t know how I feel about comparing human sociopaths with natural predators. I think the analogy helps make war seem necessary. Now, we could certainly argue about whether wars are ever necessary, but what ought to be indisputable, I think, is that the most natural and rational response to the threat of violence is fear — i.e. acting “chicken.”
    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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