by Megan Wilde
1. Where do chickens come from?
The post office, of course! Every year, hatcheries send millions of newborn chicks through the mail. The only caveat is that you usually have to order at least 25 at a time so that the babies can keep each other warm in their perforated shipping boxes. Once they’re in transit, chicks can survive for three days without food or water, thanks to the egg yolk they eat before they hatch. That’s just enough time for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver them from hatcheries in the Midwest to places as far away as Hawaii and Alaska.
2. Is there really a pecking order?
Absolutely. Chickens establish a social hierarchy from an early age by pecking each other. The birds at the top of the order get pecked the least; the birds at the bottom get pecked the most. Roosters usually rank the highest, though occasionally an alpha hen will dominate. Meanwhile, the low-ranking hens have the most difficult time getting food. On the plus side, they’re often the most attractive mates.
When a chicken is added or removed from a flock, the other birds can become extremely disturbed, pecking furiously at each other in an effort to reestablish their places in the hierarchy. In fact, new chickens sometimes get pecked to death. For this reason, farmers will often sneak in new birds in the dead of night. When the flock wakes up, they simply assume the new birds were there all along.
3. What is pasty butt, and how do I prevent it?
Chickens have a multipurpose hole for excrement, eggs, and mating called the cloacal vent. If this hole becomes clogged with excrement—a condition known as pasty butt—a young chicken can get backed up and die. Without a mother hen to clean them, baby chicks raised by humans are particularly susceptible to pasty butt. That’s why chicken keepers must be vigilant in monitoring and cleaning their brood’s bottoms.
4. How do chickens survive in the wild?
They don’t, really. Chickens are thought to have descended from Red Jungle Fowl in Southeast Asia, and they were probably domesticated around 3000 BC, first for cockfighting and later for eggs and meat. Having been bred and coddled by people for millennia, modern-day chickens can’t make it on their own, mainly because they're prey for so many other creatures. The short list of animals that love chicken dinners includes raccoons, skunks, hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, mountain lions, rats, and weasels. Weasels are particularly voracious chicken eaters. They can devour dozens of birds in one night, and in their feeding frenzies, they often decapitate more poultry than they can eat.
5. Is it difficult to catch chickens?
Yes. Trying to chase down loose chickens can often be humiliating. Chickens can run up to 9 mph, and they have the ability to fly into trees. They can also zigzag like professional football players. Worse still, if one starts to panic, the whole flock will scatter. Hooks and fishing nets can be helpful in grabbing a chicken, but the easiest way is to pluck one from its coop at night, when it’s sound asleep.
6. How do I hypnotize a chicken?
The chicken mind is an easy thing to control, and chicken handlers have found several ways of hypnotizing the birds. Here are three surefire ways to make a chicken very, very sleepy:
• Hold a chicken’s head under its wing and gently rock its body.
• Hold a chicken upside down and wiggle a finger in circles around its beak.
• Stare intently into a chicken’s eyes.
Generally, they’ll stay spellbound for several minutes, or even hours, until a loud noise snaps them out of their trance. Scientists think this state is a form of tonic immobility, a defense mechanism in which animals “play dead” in order to shake off a predator. Hypnotized chickens can be pretty useful, though. Former Vice President Al Gore recalls using them as doorstops during his childhood days on his family’s farm.
7. How do you stop chickens from killing each other?
Believe it or not, this is a big problem. All chickens will naturally peck at other chickens, especially if they’re bored or overcrowded. And once the pecking starts, it often won’t stop until one bird is dead. Chickens actually love the taste of chicken! Plus, they’ll flock to peck at anything red, including blood and raw skin. So when a bird gets injured, it becomes even more of a target.
How do you bring order to the coop? On large farms, handlers try to prevent chicken cannibalism by trimming the birds’ beaks. Another tactic is to clamp tiny goggles onto their heads, which impairs their vision and prevents them from seeing each other well. And to stave off boredom, farmers often give chickens things like cabbages and tin pans to play with, or let them range free.
Mating can also be deadly for a chicken. Occasionally, a cock will mount a hen too vigorously, leaving bald spots and claw marks on her back, known as “rooster tracks.” The injured hens then become subject to cannibalism. To avoid this, farmers strap little aprons, called hen saddles, to their hens’ backs, which allow the chickens to have protected sex.
8. I’ve heard roosters don’t have penises. Is that true?
For all our talk of the birds and the bees, this answer somehow tends to get glossed over. It’s true that roosters don’t actually have penises. Instead, a rooster’s reproductive organs are neatly packed inside its cloacal vent. When he’s ready to mate, he grabs hold of a hen’s neck and jumps on her back. When their vents touch—in what’s called a cloacal kiss—the rooster deposits his sperm. Hens release about one egg per day, and one “kiss” can fertilize her eggs for up to a week. But even if there isn’t a rooster around, hens will still lay eggs. In fact, most store-bought eggs are unfertilized, because they have the same nutritional value as fertilized ones.
9. So, what exactly is a gizzard?
Chickens can eat almost anything—table scraps, cat food, gold, even Styrofoam—thanks to a wondrous organ called the gizzard. As chickens forage, they eat small pebbles and store them there. Then, when the gizzard muscles churn, these tiny bits of stone act like teeth to pulverize the food. If chickens are raised entirely in cages, they must be fed gravel for their gizzards to work.
10. Are chickens magical?
Perhaps. Throughout history, various cultures have kept chickens for divination and religious rites, and some still do. Ancient Romans believed strongly in using chickens to foretell the future. There was even a public flock that authorities maintained specifically to predict affairs of state. If the roosters dropped some food when they emerged from their coop in the morning, good things were in store for the Republic.
Today, the Azande tribe of Sudan uses chickens like Magic 8-Balls. Basically, they poison a chicken and ask it questions. If the chicken dies, the answer is yes; if the chicken lives, the answer is no. Similarly, in Cambodia, cocks are believed to be messengers of the gods. Lastly, some orthodox Jews use chickens in a ceremony leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Participants swing the birds around their heads three times as they pray, transferring their sins to the fowl. The chickens are then ritually slaughtered and given to the poor.