From Dinosaur to primitive bird to… supermarket discount? Although chickens thrive as a species – in the sense that billions of them roam the earth, accounting for about 80% of the global population of domestic animals (Barbato, 1999) – what do the ways that we treat our stock of uniform chicken meat production today say about the development of our culture?
Chicken is the omnipresent food of our era, crossing multiple cultural boundaries with ease. It has a mild taste and uniform texture – argued to be the perfect base for developing flavors of almost any cuisine. A metaphor for emotional comfort is not titled “Clam Chowder for the Soul.”
Today chicken culture stretches beyond raising chickens to include the production and distribution of chicken works that create or reinforce a wide range of cultural effects. Ingold explains when animals are brought into the fold of human societies they become objects of ownership, inheritance, purchase and exchange. Thus, they are important living relationships that we derive our personal and cultural identities from.
Sure that’s nice, but also it makes sense in practice! How do your relationships with other animals – or lack thereof – make sense only in YOUR CULTURE, (our culture today)? have those relationships influenced your personal global understanding and even, perhaps, your behavior? It’s our collective personal global understanding and behavior that influences our culture.
My global and cultural understanding comes from growing up with Chickens. Although my parents no longer have many chickens, my Great Aunt and Uncle are spending their retirement days with chickens to provide delicious eggs to our family general store, Red Hill General Store. My meaning of chickens comes from the common sense values passed down in Appalachia. The kind of values that built Red Hill General Store as a place for practical products. The simple story of our domesticated chickens in 2013 and illustrates that, perhaps, domestication is not an event but an ongoing process fueled by the collective interactions of individuals and their chickens. These time-tested farmers still know how to preserve food with a pressure cooker.
Now, let’s get back to the bigger story of Chicken’s natural behavior and it’s effects on humans –
“Hey, there’s a pecking order around here you know!”
Although wild and domestic chickens are raised in different circumstances, when permitted natural expression the two remain very similar in social behavior. In the wild, chicken tend to flock together in group with a dominant rooster and one or more hens. The ‘pecking order’ of their hierarchical society is very important to chickens. In the wild, the rooster is the protector of the hens, chicks, and territory of the group. Hens too have individual rankings in their flocks.
It’s all about size and looks…
Courtship behaviors of importance include crowing, waltzing (the way a rooster circles a hen with his outside wing lowered), wing-flapping, and titbitting (a food-related expression of a rooster calling to a hen while he pecks at items of food). In addition to sound and courting expression, attributes of the head and neck convey information about identity and rank. The size and color of combs are determined by levels of hormones, thus providing clues to the dominant rooster status. A hen’s mate selection may be influenced by comb appearance, eye color, spur length, wing-flapping displays, or anti-predator alarm calling (Potts, 2012, p. 42-43).
Humans and birds are awake in the light of the day when the light-sensitive cone cells of our eyes allow our brains to interpret the world in color. Primitive humans and birds have a common value for color allowing us to determine the ripeness of fruit, for example. Patterns and colors in the plumages (the layer of feathers that cover a bird and the pattern, color, and arrangement of those feathers) of chickens facilitate recognition of members of their own species, just Hokie maroon and orange allow us recognize the football players for Virginia Tech….
The color we find pleasing we use as decoration for ourselves and our surroundings. Natural selection has favored the development of colors and patterns to meet needs of fowl for attraction of a mate and defense of a territory, and camouflage for protection from enemies. In many ways we share such needs and such benefits of color. Most mammals cannot see color. The beauty we recognize in the colors of birds might be looked upon as a celebration of our uniqueness.
Stephens, L. (1991) p.96 – Main groups of feathers of the fowl and the color of the particular regions vary based on individual and breed genetics.
To have one’s “chicks in a row” is a verbal expression of the visual impression of organization provided by a view of a hen being followed by her chicks in single file behind her. “running around like a chicken without a head” to describe ineffectual panic is another visually-understood phrase of contemporary American. The impact of “bird words” on our language and culture is immense, though at times the link to birds has been lost and only the expression remains.
Several links between birds and humans seam to draw us together.
1. the meat and eggs they provide us
2. their colorful plumage that we admire and often use to decorate our own attire
3. their down feathers that we use for insulation, and other feathers that we’ve used as writing instruments, to fletch arrows, to fan royalty, and to dust our homes
4. their hollow bones which we have at times used to produce tools and even flutes with which to emulate their songs
5. their ritualistic courtship behavior
6. their attentive parental care
7. the vigor of their territorial defense
Our captivation with birds might also be from deep within our being—things we don’t really share with birds, but we can imagine as sharing: emotional things such as love, hate, fear, pride, sadness, and hope. As one book title s it, “Hope is the thing with feathers (V. Evans, Birds and Humans, 2004).”
The prodigious and ever watchful hen was, and still is, worldwide symbol of nurturance and fertility. Eggs hung in Egyptian temples to ensure a bountiful river flood. The lusty rooster (a.k.a. cock) is a universal signifier of virility —but also, in the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, a benign spirit that crowed at dawn to herald a turning point in the cosmic struggle between darkness and light. The rooster plays a small but noteworthy role in the Gospels in helping to fulfill the prophecy that Peter would deny Jesus “before the cock crows.” The only implication was that the rooster marked the passage of the hours. This secondhand association with betrayal probably didn’t advance the cause of the chicken in Western culture (Lawler & Adler, June 2012).
Chickens have impressive memories that are capable of recognizing 100 other chicken faces and familiar birds after months of separation. The domestic chicken can remember humans and have been seen to turn away from the features of people they do not like (Potts, 2012, p. 39). The red jungle fowl and its close family are known to be the genetic ancestors of the domestic chicken. Red jungle fowl habitat distribution can be seen in the map below.
Junglefowl are shy and secretive if born wild and allowed to mature that way. With terrestrial, aquatic, and arboreal predators Junglefowl are very alert. The jungle fowl prefer brushy or forested areas to peck around in and run away if approached since quick flight is not always an option available to them. In very rural areas, local “domestic” fowl look suspiciously like their ancestral stock and are “half-wild.” In India, the hens that peck around in every village and in every yard are called desi hens. Exotics like the Rhode Island red are not unknown and are highly prized, but most of the chickens one might meet in their travels though Asia have been half-wild desi hens (Caras, 1996).“My Pet Chicken” explains, “Rhode Island Reds are held in such high esteem that they’re the official Rhode Island state bird. They were once hugely popular in America, though they declined right along with the small farmer. Today they’re making a comeback in small flock owners .They’re the do-everything bird: they lay exceptionally well, they’re valued for their meat, they’re extremely cold hardy and hardy in general.”
It is likely that no single people or culture actually domesticated the chicken, but rather the fowl just became the chicken in Asia civilizations. One theory on the origin of chicken domestication suggests before domestication, humans hunted fowl for food and to use its colorful feathers, probably black and red, as decoration and in religious ceremonies. The best feathers would have been used to denote rank and affiliation in some human cultures – just like they do in chicken culture. Feathers, unlike plants and most things from nature which deteriorate in time, can be shared from generation to generation if they are handled with care and reverence (Caras, 1996).
We still desire beautiful chicken feathers today. Here are some modern-day genuine chicken feather earnings:
Then there are the rich and valuable eggs. As soon as early humans found them they must have sought them – the ultimate delight for the hunter/gatherer. What motives were first keeping fowl around is unknown. Perhaps it was easier to keep them than to catch them. And fowl are a multiple-crop animal. First there is their highly appetizing meat, and then there are feathers and eggs. There is sport, too and the significance of cock fighting to human culture has already been discussed. Lastly, there is their use in sacrifice and other ritual practices like foretelling the future (Caras,1996).
Birds are known to be more susceptible to atmospheric changes and they have been looked to for weather predictions as discussed in Poultry Science, Chicken Culture by Squier (2011) discusses the notion of ‘Augury’ that is, “the art of divination by observing the behavior of birds.” Augury originates from the Latin word “augurs” or Romans who had the duty to watch the pecking order of sacred chickens, when an important political or military imitative was in progress, to see if the gods approved. Augury for hundreds of years has been understood as a supernatural phenomenon, as a moment of divine inspiration as a result of being mindful to what you see. Augury is a type of knowledge making about the present and future gained through intimacy with animals (p. 19-20).
No bird has been so important to humans as the chicken—nor so selectively bred. Varieties have been developed not only for meat and egg production and for fighting, but also for eggs of specific shell color, ability to tolerate crowding, and for many fancy plumages (V. Evans, Birds and Humans, 2004).
There are at least two hundred breeds and varieties of domestic chickens on record. However, most of them are now extinct or extremely rare. The first poultry show we know of in the United States was held in 1849. Midst the voluminous breeds good for meat and egg, there are some proper oddities (Caras,1996).
The Japanese phoenix has an admired tail.
The great days of the farmyard chickens have passed and today’s descendants of the red jungle fowl subjected to a new system of factory farming in which humans do not exist at all.
Factory farming of poultry now provides considerable protein to populations around the world. During the last two decades of the 20th century factory farming of chickens was producing more than 20 billion broiler chickens per year (V. Evans, Fowls and Pheasants (Phasianidae), 2004). To provide food for just a large city, millions of chickens are killed and shipped every day. Indeed chickens are one of man’s most valuable and readily available sources of food. Yet inestimably more attention is bestowed to chickens when they are dead than when they are alive. Is this total indifference to well-being the ultimate separation of humans and our deeds?
———————————————————— Other chicken things:
The rooster occupies the tenth position of the Chinese zodiac. Humans born into the year of the rooster are said to be hardworking, strong-willed, confident, out-spoken, good time keepers and enjoy being the center of attention. The characteristics also includes their hate for criticism of themselves though they can be inclined to find fault with other people.
The Italian Renaissance ornithologist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, wrote of mother hens in the 16th century: “They follow their chicks with such great love that, if they see or spy at a distance any harmful animal, such as a kite or a weasel or someone even larger stalking their little ones, the hens first gather them under the shadow of their wings, and with this covering they put up such a very fierce defense-striking fear into their opponent in the midst of a frightful clamor, using both wings and beak-they would rather die for their chicks than seek safety in flight. . . . Thus they present a noble example in love of their offspring, as also when they feed them, offering the food they have collected and neglecting their own hunger.”
One Cosmic Egg by Marat Ivanov
A world egg or cosmic egg is a creation myths of many cultures and civilizations linking the egg to birth. The idea, Potts explains, “embodies the idea of a silent universe, all at one bursting into activity and chaos.” The yolk in some stories forms the ground and its white the sky (or vice versa). The first written record of the cosmic egg occurs on Egyptian papyrus and is likely connected with Thoth, God of the moon, who hatches the egg himself or emerges himself from the egg (Potts, 2012).
The egg symbolized in Ancient Greece the belief in the Greek Orphic religion that the universe originated from within a silver egg. The first emanation from this egg, was golden-winged Phanes who is a personification of light and once emerged created the rest of the gods. Phanes means “Manifestor” or “Revealer,” and is related to the Greek words “light” and “to shine forth” (West, 1983).
The egg has a long-standing tradition of being honored during ceremonies welcoming spring and the arrival of new life. Before eggs were available year-round, the spring equinox marked the availability of fresh eggs. The egg was celebrated as a symbol of fertility during the Spring equinox, representing the rebirth of life in the new season. Later, eggs came to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, merging the traditions and symbols of the pagan Spring festival with the Christian celebration of Easter. Even the name of the holiday is a derivative of the Spring goddess Eostre. Eggs have been colored as symbols of life for thousands of years. In China, red eggs are given to children on their birthdays to foster long life and happiness (Potts, 2012) .