Even More Answers to Questions About Chickens


Last week, we addressed which came first, the chicken or the egg. Then we answered five other burning questions about the fowl. Our series concludes today with four more FAQs.

How come chickens lay so many eggs? It's ridiculous.

Some birds lay a certain number of eggs at a time. These are "determinate" layers. Other birds, including the chicken, will keep laying eggs until they accumulate a satisfying nest's-worth. They are "indeterminate" layers, and if you keep taking eggs away from them, they'll keep laying more, forever dissatisfied. The more you take, the more they give. Still, it took modern breeding and lighting technology to get chickens to lay year-round. Hopefully chickens are as stupid as Werner Herzog says they are, or I imagine this situation would make for a rocky emotional life. [Image courtesy of Me, My Kid & Life.]

How many feathers does a chicken have?

Apparently, one man went to the trouble of counting all the feathers on a Plymouth Rock chicken. His result was 8325. No one seems to have bothered to verify this, which is fine.

I'm a Catholic and I'm confused: am I allowed to eat chicken on fast days?

In the 9th century, during Charlemagne's campaign to standardize Christianity in his Holy Roman Empire, it was determined that chicken was too luxurious and delectable a meat to be eaten on fast days -- and monks were disallowed from eating chicken ever, except during four days at Easter and four more at Christmas. In the 13th century things changed: Thomas Aquinas, all-star theologian, decided that chickens were of aquatic origin, and therefore could be eaten whenever it was okay to eat fish, which included fast days. The Church later reneged, and proscribed chicken once more. It just didn't seem right: chicken tastes too good for days that are meant to be unpleasant. The real question here is what God thinks about the matter, and it turns out we're just not sure.

Were roosters ever subject to unjust legal persecution?

Of course. To name just two examples:

Look up "sybarite" in your dictionary, and you might find a definition like this: "A person devoted to luxury or pleasure; an effeminate voluptuary or sensualist" (OED). In the beginning, though, Sybarites were real people who lived in the Greek city of Sybaris (in southern Italy) and were famous for dissolute living. In accordance with their reputation for lazy opulence, these Sybarites banished all roosters from their city, because roosters had the unpleasant tendency to crow in the morning and wake everyone up before they had slept off last night's debauchery. This law was an early form of smashing the alarm clock, and I'm sure a number of renegade roosters were beaten or murdered by bleary-eyed sybarites.

Perhaps the most evocative case, however, comes from medieval Switzerland. In the little town of Basle, a rooster had committed one of the few crimes a rooster can commit: it laid an egg. Medieval peasants never took kindly to unexpected, seemingly unnatural behavior; but since these noble Swiss believed in the rule of law, they gave the rooster a fair trial. The prosecution accused the rooster of upsetting the natural order in an act of viscous sorcery. The defense (yes, the rooster had a lawyer) could not deny that the rooster had, indeed, laid an egg, but did contend that no compact with the devil was involved. It was just an accident. Nobody listened to what the rooster had to say. And in the end, predictably, the Swiss had no choice but to condemn the bird for sorcery and burn it alive.

Considering that you can hypnotize a chicken about as easily as you can slip on a bar of soap, I doubt this Swiss rooster practiced many dark arts. Better safe than sorry, though.