How the Hen House Turns: Awareness and Sympathy

Toffee the hen had a brush with death recently – luckily, the story has a happy ending. Courtesy photo
How the Hen House Turns: Awareness and Sympathy
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

They crowded around the stock tank as I lifted Toffee out, a patch of feathers missing from her neck. All of them were there ─ turkey; Lucy and Bobbi, the geese; DeeDee and Scooter, the dogs; the fours ducks; and the two remaining chickens.

They had gathered in response to my cries of protest. Toffee was the victim of another hawk attack, probably, and she was too heavy for the predator to carry off. Would she have survived if she hadn’t fallen into the stock tank?

I’ll never know, but I know sympathy when I get it. The dogs offered it with nudges and licks, and Lucy honked quietly as she watched me lift the old chicken from the water. Gwendolyn and Red, the young chickens, were more interested in the treat bucket that I had set down when I discovered the tragedy. Maybe sympathy goes with a slightly larger brain. The chickens didn’t seem to be aware of Toffee’s fate.

I watched awareness spring to life when my Gourami fish, Freckles, grew to be three inches in diameter. When she was small, she paid me little attention. At about 2.3 inches, she came to my fingers when I applied a pinch of food flakes to the water’s surface. Some months later, fully grown, she startled whenever I approached wearing a red sweatshirt.

Every winter, when I first wear my red stocking cap to the Hen House, Bobbi gives me what-for, and she keeps up the rude honking until I leave. After serving her breakfast! No gratitude there, just awareness of red on my head—some kind of ancient warning signal, I suppose. The chickens could care less. Again, no awareness.

However, chicken awareness knows no limits when it comes to the treat bucket. No matter the time of day, if I appear carrying a white plastic bucket, the chickens come running, all the way across the yard.

The dogs are particularly aware of human moods. Enthusiasm and praise go a long way toward helping them get back up when their arthritic hind legs give way.

Frustration or anger, when I aim it at the computer, upsets them. The evidence is in their drooping tails and worried looks, until I let them know I’ve put the axe down. The computer is safe for a few more hours. Human sadness also worries them, but they’re not sure how to react.

A friend once told me that birds don’t have an area of their brain devoted to conscience. Does that go along with awareness of these other emotions? Or are chickens simply focused on food? What are we focused on, chocolate? It’s hard enough to know what goes on in anyone else’s head, much less in heads with beaks or fins attached.