It appears I ruffled the feathers of chicken lovers when I wrote recently – actually many times – that the chickens I know are not smart – “dumb” was the word I used. I wrote that in my life with chickens (many chickens for more than a decade) I observed that everything in the world wants to eat them, and chickens are dumber than all of them.
I got a good number of polite but clearly upset and offended admirers of chickens pointing out that chickens are not dumb and asking that I reconsider my repeated descriptions of them as not being bright. I got a number of eloquent and impassioned stories about the intelligence and loyalty of chickens and in great and illustrated detail. It is touching for me to know how many people love chickens, and follow their behavior closely. It is wonderful to be reminded that there are groups of people who love almost everything, including idiosyncratic writers.
I have been thinking about this and I want to do the whole thing justice without knuckling under to one of the many thin-skinned animal cultures online and in the world. I am fond my chickens – we have a rooster and three hens. I cannot honestly say I love them as I do the dogs and donkeys. But I am fond of them and I treat them well, I hope I end up in as well designed a residence as their coop. Chickens remind me of Labs in a way. They are very smart about the things they care about – food, mostly, and judging from Strut, sex too. But they don’t seem brilliant about anything else.
This does not mean they are dumb. Chickens are industrious and energetic, generally peaceable if you don’t get in the way of their eating. They stay out of the road and avoid Frieda if they see here coming. They are very adept at finding warmth and their bodies are efficient eating and pecking machines.They are agile at squeezing under fences and through gates. They do not get lost or wander too far from the coop. They eat bugs and ticks and flies if they can catch them. They find shady and sheltered spots in which too nest. They are sensitive to the shadows of hawks flying overhead and stay near the trees and shelters. They lay eggs, of course, at least in general terms. They parade around with authority and dignity and try and mind their own business.They have learned the importance of the camera at Bedlam Farm and seem happy to pose for me, as long as I don’t get too close.
If it might be a disservice to call them the intellectuals of the barnyard, it is perhaps a bit flip and inaccurate to call them dumb. As a writer, I concede that I can find better words than “dumb” to describe them, although I love the things-that-eat-them line. As I read over the impressive list above, I realize I’ve had many dogs who could not do as many things well as chickens do.
So I take the point from the friends of the chicken, and there are many. Writers are taught not to label things, just describe them. I’ve got it.