a heartfelt tribute to the communication capabilities of chickens, and one "Little Chickie" in particular, from Jenny Sue Hane ...
“Indeed, but are they truly incomprehensible? In my experience communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe that these are qualities that we have in sufficient measure.” (Captain Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Episode 102 “Darmok”)
It may surprise you to learn that the thing I associate most strongly with that quote is a chicken.
Even among bantams, she was a runt – the smallest of the batch of chicks we had purchased from the local farm supply store. So she became known by default as “Little Chickie.” (I tried to give her a more dignified name when she got older, but it never stuck.) Ironically, though, she had one of the boldest personalities in the flock, even from a very young age. While the other chicks nervously crowded under the heat lamp, Little Chickie went exploring. If I left the door to the coop open, she would march right out into the feed room to eat the wheat spilled on the floor. Once she discovered how appealing the feed room was, I could hardly keep her inside; I was forced to pick her up, put her back in the coop, and hastily shut the door before she sprinted out again. This unique behavior earned Little Chickie quite a bit of special attention from me and other members of my family.
Once the chicks grew older, we let them into the outdoor run that adjoined the coop. While passing through adolescence, they entered a very friendly phase, during which they seemed to enjoy using me as a roost. If I sat in the run with my knees drawn up in front of me, various members of the flock would take turns sitting on them. Occasionally, one would even attempt to fly onto my back if I was bent over. Little Chickie continued to be very personable, and learned how to beg. I referred to her and another hen (dubbed Speckles) as the “queens of complaining,” because their voices were generally the loudest and most frequently heard when the flock called to me. (The sound I identify as “complaining” is a loud, drawn-out, repeated squawking, which generally means that the chickens are discontented and want something.) The chickens learned to recognize me by sight, and perhaps even by voice; either indication of my presence could provoke a burst of complaining from the direction of the run.
Once they became adults, the chickens were no longer as inclined to sit on me, and some grew more wary and reluctant to be approached. Little Chickie remained very tame, probably because of the frequent handling she had received as a youngster. She was undoubtedly one of my favorites in the small flock, and was perhaps rather spoiled. Like the others, she especially enjoyed being let out of the run to wander and forage in the back yard. I did this often if the weather was good and I could give the chickens a modicum of supervision.
I vividly remember one day in particular; no date is attached to it, but it must have been in the fall. I was walking along the path outside the back yard when I spotted Little Chickie on the other side of the fence. When she saw me, she came up to the fence; I stopped briefly to watch her, then continued down the path, passing out of sight behind a large salal bush. Little Chickie immediately began to complain loudly. I stopped and called to her, waiting to see if she would follow the sound of my voice around the bush. As soon as she came in view of me again, the complaining stopped. I was used to having the chickens complain to me when I was present, but this seemed different.
My curiosity piqued, I resolved to get into the back yard, and took off at a run for the gate at the bottom of the hill. Again, Little Chickie became plaintive when I passed out of sight behind the garage; when she saw me coming up the yard, she hurried to meet me and became quiet again. I squatted in the path and stared at her. “What do you want?” She milled around my feet, emitting the endless stream of small muttering sounds common among hens. She couldn't tell me exactly what she wanted, but she seemed confident in my presence. I waited there for a moment, but she didn't leave. All I could think of was the fact that, when I let the chickens out that day, I had shut the run door – preventing them from getting back in. It occurred to me that she might want to get back to the nest boxes. (Chickens can be a little obsessive about where they prefer to put their eggs.) I headed for the run to see if opening the door would make her happy. Little Chickie tagged at my heels, hustling along on her short legs if I ever got too far ahead. Sure enough, when I opened the gate, she bolted inside and made for the chicken house.
Maybe a chicken trying to tell me that she wanted to go back in her run – and not being very obvious about it, at that – doesn't seem like much of a feat. A dog probably could have done it better ... but that's just the point. One doesn't expect to have that sort of interaction with a chicken. Bridging the communication gap took both of us. Little Chickie identified me as the one who was able to meet her needs, and came to me. I deduced what she wanted. This understanding may have been rudimentary by human standards, but it was special. I felt as if we had achieved something new; a barrier of some sort had come down.
I think it was only a few weeks later that she died.
Little Chickie abruptly fell ill with something that gave her terrible, yellow or green diarrhea. We had some chicken medications on hand, but my mother warned me that she had seen this disease before, and it did not respond to treatment. I couldn't do much except try to make Little Chickie comfortable and see if she got over it. On the fourth day, I came into the chicken house and found her in one of the nest boxes, head lying limply over the edge.
On the day I buried her body, it was pouring down rain. I did it anyway, because if you wait until it isn't raining in western Washington, you'll never get anything done. I dug the hole in the low part of the woods behind our yard, where we buried all our pets. The ground was so saturated that it rapidly filled with water, like a tiny well. I had to place rocks on top of Little Chickie's desiccated body to get it to sink to the bottom. At the time, it seemed rather undignified, but in retrospect, perhaps it wasn't. Though famous men of old were fond of their funeral pyres, there seems no more fitting tribute for a creature of the Pacific Northwest than to be buried in water.
As for me, I cried a little, quietly, and got over it. Or so I thought. A curious sense of emptiness filled me. Christmas came and went, but I didn't enjoy it properly. I even found it difficult to pray. Life wasn't what it had been when Little Chickie was in it. In the end, her death produced the longest and most profound grieving period I think I've experienced over anything. I said little of it to anyone. Who was supposed to feel depressed over a chicken? In time, things began to feel normal again. But I can never forget her.
Years later, I discovered that perhaps all of this shouldn't have been such a surprise, after all. Chickens are remarkably sophisticated communicators; rather than simply representing their emotional state, some of their calls express definite information about the environment, and other chickens respond to them in a non-reflexive way. As of 2006, such a feat had yet to be verified for any other non-primate species. In fact, one researcher says he likes to trick conference-goers by presenting the mental abilities of chickens without mentioning the species. They often suspect that the animal being discussed is a monkey.
For me, though, the ability of chickens to communicate and form social relationships is not simply book knowledge. This, then, is a tribute to Little Chickie ... a creature no doubt beautiful in the eyes of God, as you were in mine ... for giving me a better glimpse into your world, and showing me that barriers to communication can be overcome if we try hard enough. Even if the one on the other side is a chicken.
(sincere thanks to Jenny, who has shared other excellent posts with us, for this tribute; photos credit 123rf.com)