Have you ever really known a chicken?

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From left: Martha, Penny and Luxanna contemplating the wider world and their place in it.

When I look at large groups of people; soldiers marching in formation or images of Chinese factory workers, I see the group. I see the uniforms and stoic expressions. I might wonder for a second about the guy who is a head taller than the rest, or the worker with a wry smile, but it does not cross my mind to think about the life of the fellow, fourth from the left, who looks the same as all the rest. When it comes to animals I’m even worse. I see cows or pigs or chickadees. But not chickens.

Our backyard has been home to half a dozen or so chickens for nearly five years. Some have been with us since the beginning, some are younger, and two were hatched and raised right here by a broody hen.

Every one of the birds has a distinct personality and place in the flock. At first glance they all look like chickens doing chicken things, but to my more familiar eye, they are individuals doing chicken things, more or less, but certainly with their own personalities and relationships.

Patty, a red hen, is one the of the old birds. Since she stopped laying very many eggs, she has filled out glorious feathers, comb and wattles, and I always think of her as a middle age woman in full strength and vitality, if not fertility. She climbs a full story up onto our raised deck every day at around supper time to receive a little treat of rolled oats or wheat berries. She peeks in through the glass door until someone obliges her. Patty and Lisa used to be practically inseparable, until Lisa had a mid-life crisis a few weeks ago, more on which later.

Patty’s new companion, though not bff, is Luxanna, another red hen. Luxanna is scrawny and always slightly unkempt looking, but one of our best layers. She spends much of her time exploring away from the others and has gone through periods where she decided to bed down on the woodpile, instead of inside the coop with the others. Luxanna is a plucky chicken.

Uhura is known for laying huge eggs and chasing the dog. She’s pretty vocal at times, especially in the morning before the coop door is opened for the day.

Martha is a pretty Barred Plymouth Rock. From the time she was a day old, she was slower and dumber than the rest. Martha has been voted most likely to be eaten by a coyote, as she does not seem to have developed any smarts over the years.

Our broody hen is Penny. A broody hen is one that will sit on eggs until they hatch, pretty much no matter what. The last two years we have indulged her maternal instinct and found fertilized eggs for her to raise. The other birds seem to understand her aggressiveness towards them when she is raising chicks, because they welcome her back without any hesitation when she returns to the flock.

Lisa is a huge, white, old bird. She recently broke up with her constant companion Patty, and moved into the portable coop with Penny’s brood from this year. We carried her into the main coop a few nights in a row, but she would not be deterred, so we let her stay with the youngsters, where she remains. The most remarkable thing about Lisa is her new hobby of crowing. Our young rooster is still practicing, but Lisa produces a respectable cockadoodledoo most mornings. Lisa has a violent reaction to the sight of me in red flip-flops. She has never explained nor apologized for the injuries she has inflicted on me.

Anyone who has ever had a dog or cat, or even a pet rat, knows that animals have personalities, feelings, and relationships. Of course it makes sense that other animals would have rich inner lives too, but it is a continuing pleasure to observe the daily dramas of a little group of birds.

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3 thoughts on “Have you ever really known a chicken?

  1. Great article. Just finished reading Temple Grandin’s book on Animals… very eye-opening for me. This article reminds me of her take on animal personality.

  2. Thanks Joy. It’s funny you should mention Temple Grandin’s book, because I just finished reading it myself. I really enjoyed it and find myself making connections with stuff she writes about and all kinds of things. No doubt this post was inspired, if not quite consciously, by reading her.

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