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Thoughts on chickens, eggs and vegetarianism

May 5, 2013

pernelle 2People laugh at chickens, make jokes about them, and sing comic songs about them. But there’s a great deal of innate dignity in a hen, although those who have never watched them might not believe this.

They don’t need a weatherman. My flock consists of several large and heavy birds who fly with difficulty, as well as several slim small birds who fly readily. The flyers prefer to roost outside their coop on fine nights. When rain is pending but has not yet arrived, the fliers choose to go inside with their heavier sisters for the night because they can feel the approach of a midnight storm hours before it arrives.

They have jungle-vision. Descended from wild jungle fowl of Southeast Asia, chickens have eyesight that penetrates the deepest shadow. They can see me inside the house moving around even when they’re outside in the blazing sunlight. When I stand in their enclosure and look back at the house, the windows appear to me to be nothing but flat black rectangles. But the hen’s vision pierces right through that blackness to perceive me inside the kitchen or walking around in the other rooms. I know they can see me because they rush to the fence and run back and forth, looking at me. If I wave at them from deep inside the house—even ten feet away from the nearest window—they can see it, and they begin calling to me and working themselves up into a tizzy.

They have distinct personalities. Yes, all chickens scratch in the dirt, and run excitedly when food is brought, but all of them do it in their own individual ways. Della is greedy and pushy, and obviously has the most velociraptor DNA of any of the birds in the flock. Queenie was never handled as a chick and is aloof and suspicious. But Pernelle and Brunhilde derive obvious pleasure by gazing closely into my eyes (practically nose to beak) and letting me stroke and handle them. Brunhilde likes to fly up to my outstretched arm where she proudly sits and bobs her head up and down, gazing at me. She is so proud of her one trick that she will do it four or five times in a row. Pernelle then gets jealous of this showing-off and pecks her peevishly.

It’s hard work laying an egg. Hens labor when they lay. Like women giving birth, some have an easy time and lay swiftly, while others toil in pain. Pernelle needs at least two hours of hard labor to push out each small white egg. During labor the hens hunker down, they pant, they endure obvious discomfort stoically. Near the end of the process they stand erect and push downward, gasping (I have heard them do this several times) in a series of three to five contractions, until the egg finally pops out. The first eggs of young pullets who have just begun to lay are often tinged on the outsides by a drop of two of blood. Think of giving birth to a baby every day; this is what hens have to endure for our eating convenience. In a state of nature they’d lay only 10 or so eggs and then stop and brood their eggs for 21 days to hatch their young; then after rearing their chicks they’d have a second or maybe a third batch later in the year. Humans have bred hens to continue ovulating over and over, their maternal broodiness suppressed. It’s not really fair on the birds, nor is it easy for them. I understand and appreciate the objections of vegans to eating eggs.

They view their eggs as their property. I always bring treats like fresh kale or clover or sunflower seeds to divert them while I’m emptying the nesting boxes. I try to hide the eggs in a pocket when I turn to leave, because whenever they see me with an egg in my hand, they look sharply at me, stop their feeding and run to look in the coop to see if their egg is still there. Then they turn and stare at me as I make my retreat. Occasionally they have come after me and tried to peck the hand that holds the egg.As I said, I now try to hide the eggs so the hens won’t notice when I remove them, because it makes me feel guilty every time they glare accusingly at me. They’re not stupid, they KNOW I’ve just robbed them.

They like collecting golf balls. Their adjacent nesting boxes are made from plastic milk-crates turned on their sides. I placed two golf balls in two of the crates, as a deterrent to their brief foray into eating their own eggs. The idea was that they’d peck the golf balls and get the idea that they were inedible and that therefore eggs were similarly inedible. One of the hens, I don’t know which, decided that it was messy to have two golf balls in each crate. So she used her bill to nudge two golf balls out of one crate and into the other one, thus creating a nice little clutch of four balls in one place. To do this she had to maneuver the balls down off the lip of one plastic crate and up over another lip into the adjoining crate. This cannot have been easy using only her bill to push with. Since the hens chose to rearrange their own space in this way I have respected their choice and left it like that.

Chickens are small warm-blooded dinosaurs. They possess much more intelligence than the average person thinks they possess. These quasi-reptilian creatures are a never-ending source of interest and entertainment. They have made me think serious thoughts about vegetarianism although I have not yet done anything about it. We meat-eaters cannot deny the fact that we snuff out the lives of sentient creatures with recognizable personalities in order to deck our dinner tables. That’s why I do the best I can to respect my birds and give them a good life.



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