How the Hen House Turns: Personhood

How the Hen House Turns: Personhood
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

Over the years—40 of them, more or less—the Hen House gang has made one thing quite clear. Persons, conscious beings, dwell inside the feathers and behind the beaks of birds who dwell there.

K-Lynn Smith and Sarah Zielinski agree with me. Their article ,“Brainy Bird” in Scientific American, February 2014, pp. 62-65 ‎tells us that scientists have learned that a chicken “… can be deceptive and cunning … possess communication skills … signal its intentions … make decisions based on prior experience … and empathize with those in danger….” These “cognitive traits” bring us right up against the “ethical implications” of our farming practices.

The problem—we are omnivores. The vegan diet of my granddaughter gives her mother a constant challenge to be sure she gets enough vitamin B12. Here in the west, we probably eat more meat than we need. Also, the world’s appetite for protein is growing—but the issue here is how we can ensure a decent life for the birds we eat, and the egg-layers.

The authors of “Brainy Birds” point out that the chickens’ dominance system—the pecking order—was discovered in the 1920s. Studies at UCLA have recently defined 24 different poultry sounds, including “eeee” for danger from above (hawks), clucking for ground predators, and “dock dock” for food.

Decades ago, our Rooster Peeper tried with varying success to share his food, calling the hens with the “dock dock” sound, along with his “come hither” sideways dance, called tidbitting.

In the 1990s, detailed studies using digital auto-recordings and virtual reality TV showed that chicken calls could be very subtle and were “functionally referential.” I confirm their findings every time I take the scrap bucket to the Hen House gang. Their reaction to its contents varies, telling the others whether or not their favorites (iceberg lettuce and melon rinds) are offered.

Smith discovered at Macquarie University in Sydney that lesser males quietly modified their tidbitting, including swinging their wattle, to secretly (i.e. silently) seduce females without provoking the alpha rooster.

Fowl empathy was made clear when chicks reacted as if “threatened by a harmless puff of air.” Nearby hens also got upset, as did Hen House hens when a crow threatened one’s chicks, even First Turkey’s chicks.

Given the chickens’ wild ancestor, the red jungle fowl, who had to survive the predators of south Asia, we should not be surprised at their intelligence. The good news is that California now requires improved housing for egg-layers, and Australians are competing for costumers by advertising their “positive conditions” for raising food stock animals.

Overcrowding brings us cheaper drumsticks, while chickens’ ten-year life span is drastically shortened and selected for incredibly fast growth (like our Hen House broiler chick Meatball, described in an earlier column).

Is there any real need for meat chickens to suffer during their six week existence? Or is there a greater need for us to be more respectful of other conscious beings?