4 February 2010
Peter Lennox keeps chickens, and they have taught him a great deal about behaviour, ethics, evolution and the psychopathic nature of modern ‘efficiency’
All chickens are not born equal. If a few more philosophers had had a little more empirical interaction with chickens, John Locke may have reconsidered his notion of tabula rasa, the idea of the incipient individual as a blank slate embarking on a course of self-authorship. Chickens are born with certain personality traits, and these endure in a remarkably stable fashion throughout their lifespans (which can be as long as 15 years).
Of course, chickens are not born fully mentally formed – you can watch them learn by discovery, doing, copying and sometimes even adapting and improving. Eventually, older ones end up teaching younger ones. You don’t see that in the battery farm, but put some in the garden and you soon do.
Watching chickens is a very old human pastime, and the forerunner of psychology, sociology and management theory. Sometimes understanding yourself can be made easier by projection on to others. Watching chickens helps us understand human motivations and interactions, which is doubtless why so many words and phrases in common parlance are redolent of the hen yard: “pecking order”, “cockiness”, “ruffling somebody’s feathers”, “taking somebody under your wing”, “fussing like a mother hen”, “strutting”, a “bantamweight fighter”, “clipping someone’s wings”, “beady eyes”, “chicks”, “to crow”, “to flock”, “get in a flap”, “coming home to roost”, “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”, “nest eggs” and “preening”.
You’ll even see that the boss cockerel tends to take possession of the highest point – the top of the heap. And the longer you watch chickens, the more you think of them as people rather than some strange alien species with feathers, beady eyes and a strange language. Squint a little as you watch them enact their various roles and you can see a brood of Sainsbury’s retail managers jockeying to maintain position.
Keeping chickens may not be the most efficient way to source eggs, of course, but then it depends on what is being measured. I benefit from eggs, mobile garden ornaments, endless amusement and companionship; I even learn from them. My nine-year-old budding evil-scientist son has learnt that evolution can go down as well as up, and that ground-feeding birds can, over generations, get larger and lose the ability to fly. He also discovered that rigging up a chicken catapult baited with corn can improve individuals’ flying skills, but is not likely to reverse the evolutionary trend and is very likely to get you into trouble. Fair enough: he also learnt to take care of them and understand their preferences and behaviour; he teaches them things, and they patiently go along with it as long as some tasty titbit is part of the deal.
Put that way, keeping chickens is a lot more efficient than driving to the supermarket for eggs of unknown heritage. Ours are great eggs with big golden-orange yolks that sit like perfect hemispheres in the pan. Hardly surprising, as these are gourmand chickens: they eat what we eat (chicken excepted, of course). They like sweetcorn, peas, pasta and rice. They love steak and cooked bacon rind. In the course of evolution, I don’t know where chickens developed a taste for cooked pig. Maybe a freak accident: a bolt of lightning; a forest fire; an unfortunate pig … They also like prawns, salmon, cake and bread, and ironically are rather partial to sage and onion stuffing. They are also fans of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, carrot tops, cabbage leaves, grass, shoots – especially the ones you’ve just planted. And they turn all this rather efficiently into eggs and excrement.