On International Respect for Chickens Day, Try Thinking About Them Differently
By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
“I hear the universal cock-crowing with surprise and pleasure, as if I never heard it before. What a tough fellow! How native to the earth!” — Henry David Thoreau1
Chickens are indeed native to the earth. Despite centuries of domestication – from the tropical forest to the farmyard to the factory farm – the call of the wild has always been in the chicken’s heart. Far from being “chicken,” roosters and hens are legendary for bravery. In classical times, the bearing of the rooster – the old British term for “cock,” a word that was considered too sexually charged for American usage2 – symbolized military valor: the rooster’s crest stood for the soldier’s helmet and his spurs stood for the sword. A chicken will stand up to an adult human being. Our tiny Bantam rooster, Bantu, would flash out of the bushes and repeatedly attack our legs, lest we should disturb his beloved hens.3
An annoyed hen will confront a pesky young rooster with her hackles raised and run him off. Although chickens will fight fiercely, and sometimes successfully, with foxes and other predators to protect their families, with humans such bravery usually does not win. A woman employed on a chicken “breeder” farm in Maryland, berated the defenders of chickens for trying to make her lose her job, threatening her ability to support herself and her daughter. For her, the “breeder” hens were “mean” birds who “peck your arm when you are trying to collect the eggs.” In her defense of her life and her daughter’s life, she failed to see the comparison between her motherly protection of her child and the exploited hen’s courageous effort to protect her own offspring.
In an outdoor chicken flock, as in our 12,000 square-foot predator-proof sanctuary in rural Virginia, ritual and playful sparring and chasing normally suffice to maintain peace and resolve disputes without bloodshed. Even hens will occasionally have a spat, growling and jumping at each other with their hackles raised; but in more than 30 years of keeping chickens, I have never seen a hen-fight turn seriously violent or last for more than a few minutes. Chickens have a natural instinct for social equilibrium and learn quickly from each other. An exasperated bird will either move away from the offender or aim a peck, or a pecking gesture, which sends the message: “Back off!”
Bloody battles, as when a new rooster is introduced into an established flock, are rare, short-lived, and usually affect the comb – the crest on top of a chicken’s head – which, being packed with blood vessels, can make an injury look worse than it is. It is when chickens are crowded, confined, frustrated or forced to compete at a feeder that distempered behavior can erupt. By contrast, chickens allowed to grow up in successive generations, unconfined in buildings, do not evince a rigid “pecking order.” Parents oversee their young, and the young contend playfully, among many other activities. A flock of well-acquainted chickens is an amiable social group.
Sometimes chickens run away; however, fleeing from a bully or hereditary predator on legs designed for the purpose does not constitute cowardice. At the same time, I’ve learned from painful experience how a rooster who rushes in to defend his hens from a fox or a raccoon usually does not survive the encounter.
Though chickens are polygamous, mating with more than one member of the opposite sex, individual birds are attracted to each other. They not only “breed”; they form bonds, clucking endearments to one another throughout the day. A rooster does a courtly dance for his special hens in which he “skitters sideways and opens his wing feathers downward like Japanese fans.”4 A man once told me, “When I was a young man I worked on a chicken farm, and one of the most amazing things about those chickens was that they would actually choose each other and refuse to mate with anyone else.”
Sadly, the eggs of these parent flocks are snatched away and sent to mechanical incubators, so the parents never see their chicks. “Breeder” roosters and hens are routinely culled (killed) for low fertility, and because “if a particular male becomes unable to mate, his matching females will not accept another male until he is removed.”5
Little more than a year later, the parents who have survived their miserable life are sent to slaughter just like the chicks they never got to see, raise or protect, as they would otherwise have chosen to do if they were free.
I hope this essay will encourage you to do an Action of Compassion for Chickens in May in honor of International Respect For Chickens Day May 4, 2022. Most of all, let us please respect the lives of chickens every day and encourage our friends, family and coworkers to join us in sticking up for chickens and, of course, not eating them.
1 William Crain, Forever Young: How Six Great Individuals Have Drawn upon the Powers of Childhood and How We Can Follow Their Lead. Turning Stone Press, 2021, p. 23.
2 Page Smith and Charles Daniel, The Chicken Book. Little, Brown and Co., 1975, p. 51.
3 Although we do not allow our chickens to hatch chicks, in May 2018 a hen and a rooster rescued from a cockfighting operation produced a surprise family, the hen having camouflaged herself in a wooded area of our sanctuary. When one day their five little chicks, at the time so tiny, got stuck on the other side of the wire fencing, the mother hen was so distraught, wild and shrieking that she flew straight up into my face and scratched me with her claws. We quickly reunited her and her babies and fixed it so that those chicks could never again squeeze through the wires!
4 Rick and Gail Luttmann, Chickens in your Backyard. Rodale Press, 1976, pp. 456-46.
5 Donald D. Bell and William D. Weaver, Jr., eds. Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production, 5th ed. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002, p. 641.
Listen to Karen’s International Respect for Chickens Day 10-minute talk in her New Podcast Series: Thinking Like a Chicken - News & Views!
KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her books include A Home for Henny; Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless ‘Poultry’ Potpourri; Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry; More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality; and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. Karen’s latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation – Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl.