I Know Just How Incredible Chickens Are: I've Spent More Than Thirty Years Getting to Know Them
May 4th is International Respect for Chickens Day and May is International Respect for Chickens Month. United Poultry Concerns launched this project in 2005 to celebrate chickens throughout the world and protest the bleakness of their lives in farming operations. This month is the time to do an action for chickens to educate others about the plight—and delight—of chickens and how we can help them.
The poultry industry represents chickens as mentally vacuous, eviscerated organisms. Hens bred for egg production are said to be suited to a cage, with no need for personal space or normal foraging and social activity. They are characterized as aggressors who, notwithstanding their proclaimed passivity and affinity for cages, cannot live together 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.
Photo of hens in industry trash bucket by Mercy for Animals
Over the years, we've 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. 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 from never having scratched vigorously in the ground, some hens take time 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 be clean.
Photo of Charity with Freddaflower & Zelda dustbathing courtesy of United Poultry Concerns
Carefully lifting a battered hen, who has never known anything before but brutal handling, out of a 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.
Dustbathing is a cleansing activity and a social gathering for chickens. Typically, one hen starts the process and is quickly joined by other hens and maybe one or two roosters. Soon they 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 and vigorously shakes the dirt particles out of his or her feathers, creating a fierce little dust storm before running off to the next activity.
One day I drove 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 limp 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.
Experiences like this have made me a passionate advocate for chickens. I do not seek to sentimentalize chickens but to characterize them justly. In the 1980s I wrote an essay about an abandoned crippled broiler hen named Viva who, more than any other single cause, led me to found United Poultry Concerns in 1990. It is hard for me to evoke in words how expressive she was in spite of her handicap and despite the miserable life she had had before I lifted her out of her misery and brought her home.
My experience with chickens for more than thirty years has shown me that chickens are conscious and emotional beings with adaptable sociability and a range of intentions and personalities. If there is one trait above all that comes to mind in thinking about chickens when they are enjoying themselves and pursuing their own interests, it is cheerfulness.
Chickens are cheerful birds, quite vocally so, and when they are dispirited and oppressed, their entire being expresses this state of affairs as well. The fact that chickens become lethargic in continuously barren environments, instead of proving that they are stupid or impassive by nature, shows how sensitive these birds are to their surroundings, deprivations and prospects. Likewise, when chickens are happy, their sense of wellbeing resonates unmistakably.