A perspective on chickens in honor of International Respect for Chickens Day, May 4/month of May
by Karen Davis, Ph.D., president, United Poultry Concerns
A fellow activist once asked me if I believed chickens don’t mind watching and hearing other chickens being killed in their presence. He asked because a farmer had told him they don’t. He questioned the credibility of this claim from a person who would do such a thing. Was it true?
Lest anyone think chickens don’t mind seeing and hearing other chickens die violently in front of them, or be grabbed by a predator or otherwise traumatized, nothing could be further from the truth. As a chicken sanctuary director for more than three decades, I have witnessed the effect on chickens of a hawk or a fox and the terror these predators inspire in the birds, including the aftermath of trauma.
I learned the hard way back in the early days of keeping a few rescued chickens in an unfenced yard. (Those naïve days are long gone, and our 12,000 square-foot sanctuary is now fully predator-proof.) One of our chickens, Ethel Murmur, a Cornish-cross hen we rescued from a slaughter-bound truck spill in northern Virginia, was in the yard one Saturday afternoon, next to the porch with her friend Bertha, when a fox stole Bertha and left her dead in the woods.
Before this, Ethel Murmur was so vigorous and full-throated that we named her after the famous Broadway singer Ethel Merman on account of her imposing character, ample physique, and big voice. Afterward, Ethel Murmur was never the same. She stopped making a joyful noise, stopped yelling for attention, and could hardly walk. Her whole body shriveled. She died a week later. Although she herself had not been attacked, she had watched the attack on her friend, and could not recover.
Another situation arose one morning when I put our brown house hen, Alexandra, outside with her bantam rooster companion, Josie. It was spring and the kitchen door was open wide. Suddenly, Alexandra ran shrieking through the door into the house, jumped up on a table, and could not calm down. I cried, “Alexandra, what happened?” Panic stricken, I raced outside. Josie was nowhere. Once again – a fox.
As for chickens not minding watching members of their flock being killed by a farmer, a man once told me how a small flock of chickens he and some others were keeping on a commune he belonged to at the time were slaughtered in front of each other by a member of their group. Three hens and a rooster who were previously friendly fled the scene. They disappeared for more than two weeks, before reappearing, timidly, and never again trustingly. Their behavior following the slaughter was totally altered, the man sadly said.
In nature, chicken parents will confront a predator by first pushing their chicks into foliage for safety behind themselves. Puffing out their feathers and spreading their wings wide, they will charge the predator while sounding alarm calls.
One May day, when a pair of our hens and roosters produced an unexpected family, the tiny chicks squeezed through the wire fence to the other side, then peeped piteously at being stuck there. Shrieking and dashing about, unable to reach her chicks, the frantic mother hen instinctively flew straight up into my face when I approached her. (I rescued all five chicks and sealed the openings.)
A natural animal in captivity
When questioning the emotional complexity of farmed animals, we need to remember that a farmed animal is essentially a natural animal in captivity.
A chicken is a being whose physical environment and bodily deformations imposed by exploiters have not eliminated the fundamental instincts, sensitivities, emotions and intelligence in this bird, whose evolutionary home is the tropical forest.
Like their wild cousins of the tropics, domesticated chickens sensing a predatory threat in a yard during the day will typically react with choral uproar, fight, flight, and hide behavior.
Chickens in a state of abnormal, chronic fear and severe, inescapable captivity tend by contrast to become very still and quiet, evincing what psychologists call learned helplessness –– behavior exhibited by individuals enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control, even if their senses are on high alert. They may develop tonic immobility, a condition researchers call “a fear-potentiated response” to being restrained in a chicken who knows she or he is going to die.
“Chickens are empathic creatures”
I am confident that chickens are empathic creatures who are capable of experiencing not only the imminence of their own death, but the emotional tones of dread and dying in others trapped in a violent setting such as an industrial slaughterhouse, a live poultry market, or a cockfighting ring.
I do not doubt that they sense when they themselves and their conspecifics are in mortal danger, as shown by their ready response to danger in diverse environments.
My view is reflected in some preliminary scientific studies cited, for example, by evolutionary biologist Dr. Marc Bekoff in “Empathic chickens and cooperative elephants: Emotional intelligence expands its range again” in Psychology Today.
The day after Josie, our little rooster, was grabbed by a fox in front of Alexandra, I was filled with grief and guilt. “Why oh why did I let them outside yesterday morning unprotected?” I sat on the floor and could not stop crying.
Here then came big white billowy Sonia, whom we’d rescued with Josie and other chickens from a filthy shed in back of a shiny farmers market in Leesburg, Virginia, across the living room floor.
She rested her head against me and began purring softly over and over. My sorrow deepened with love for this being, who maybe knew or did not know why I was weeping, but who sensed my sadness and rose from where she was sitting to plod across the floor to comfort me in this moment of empathy that we shared in the tragic world.
Respect for Chickens Day & Month
Tuesday, May 4th is International Respect for Chickens Day, and the entire month of May is International Respect for Chickens Month.
During this month, we urge people to do a kind action for chickens that lets others know who these birds truly are and how we can help them by expanding our own empathy to include them.
For ideas about what you can do, please see Do a Kind Action for Chickens in May – and Every Day.
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. Her latest of many books is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl (Lantern Books, 2019).
SHARON PAGE says
I had 6 ducks with a predator-proof pen, but I also used to let them roam while I was at work on my 10 acres at the end of a dead-end dirt road. I had them for pets and for eggs, but mainly to practice herding with my Border Collies, who competed in sheep & duck herding. I thought they could escape predators because they were light-bodied and could fly (low) for about 100′ at a time.
After over a year without any issues, I arrived to see they had gotten attacked. (I found later it was an elderly yellow Lab that lived a mile away.) The had dog killed 3 ducks, 1 was missing, presumed dead, and 2 were alive, but both with dislocated hips. I took the 2 live ducks to the vet for their hips, but the repair didn’t work. They eventually adapted and learned to walk normally, but I had a $300 vet bill. We found the dog’s owner (a city attorney), and he only legally had to pay $3 per duck, but did pay the entire vet bill voluntarily.
I’m not into anthropomorphizing, but the two survivors never got over the trauma. They would not leave the pen area even under my supervision, were hypervigilant, even 6 months later, and even after I got them another 5 duck friends to blend into. I never used them for herding practice after that, of course, and feel responsible for having taught them to feel unafraid around dogs. After the attack, I immediately built a predator proof day-pen, and only let them on the grassy lawn under supervision.
One fun afterword is that the presumed-dead duck–which had a unique marking–showed up on a private pond 1/2-mile away from our house and was raising babies with a wild male mallard. The home owner noticed that the female didn’t fly and spent 24/7 in the water to keep safe from predation, so had been putting out food for them.
Jamaka Petzak says
One of our flock, an all-white hen, always sat with any of her sisters who was going to pass, and stayed with her afterwards until I came out and got the departed.
I’ll never recover from the massacre of all but four of our remaining flock shortly before I left our land, by canids, either dogs or coyotes, both of which were numerous in our area. The people we bought from, who originally cared for the flock, had put an electric charge around the chicken’s yard fence. We disconnected it, thinking it might be a danger. We learned too late that it was — a danger to those that would predate on them. The four survivors were adopted by a neighbor who kept them with her hens (companions) right before I left.
Karen Davis says
Dear Animals 24-7, thank you very much for posting my article about the responses of chickens to various kinds of traumatic events happening in their presence, including the chronic trauma of imprisonment in the squalor the chicken industry forces them to live in.
We have to keep showing people that chickens are CONSCIOUS individuals, that they are alert and ready to respond to significant events affecting themselves and their families and flock members. At the same time, while a hawk or other nonhuman predator involves trauma for chickens, they have evolved ways to actively protect themselves from these acute dangers, whereas the chronic, inescapable traumas our species inflicts on chickens is not in their evolutionary experience, and there is nothing they can do to help or protect themselves.
Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns. http://www.upc-online.org