A Fowl Society: On Human Behaviour in Chickens (and Vice-Versa)

The Venus of Willendorf. Shoes. Omar Khayyam. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Sewage. The feats and fames of humankind are many and diverse – but we remain, as ever, animals; and as animals we forever behave.


I was recently introduced to a group of chickens; and as I observed them I heard of their old wounds and the new disputes, their pains and their hungers. Within this coop, I was told, there was a strongly enforced regime of segregation between the old hens – with their thinning feathers and old scars – and the newcomer hens – full-feathered and soft-skinned. When these beautiful young chickens arrived, the older guard made it their mission to make their lives hell: they pecked at them, ran at them, clucked aggressively at them, and, worse of all, they prevented them from eating the grain. Starvation and elimination were their aims: nothing less than henocide.

An old-guard hen having her fill

And I thought: we humans behave no differently from these cruel hens. In Europe the chicken wire is being put up around the continent, and within the continent France flirts with the idea of ejecting any brown-feathered ones from the flock, and the UK has already voted for a ‘Brexit’ in the hope of reclaiming their right to bully out newcomers from the yard. In the US Trump wants to turn the newly arrived back over to the foxes, and in Australia we peck at the eyes of refugees coming to seek our protection, locking them up in battery cages on tropical islands.

A new-comer hen desperately pecks at the feed as an older hen is caught off guard

This comes as no surprise when you consider that we humans share the same brain, in fact, as these fluffy, small-eyed animals; the same reptilian brain stem inherited from the cold-blooded animals that crawled out of the goop. Only now on top of those reptilian receptors we have added some extra grey matter to allow us to, for example, grasp tools, craft poems, and cultivate gardens. But now, it seems, human kind is taking refuge once again in its instinctual reptilian responses, electing such bird-brains as Donald Trump to power to cluck, run, and claw at us with his red crest flopping about in the air.

And the hens I met have had their own fair share of authoritarianism, learning their bullying behaviour from their own Trump. A megalomaniac rooster was their tormentor for so long, a malevolent patriarch who would have his fill of the birdseed before allowing the females to eat; his heavy claw would scratch at the ground to warn them off, like a terrifying bang of the fists at the tyrant’s table. But this bully’s fate was the same as any other despot: the guillotine. Upsetting the egg-basket too much, his reign came to a bloody end and his masters enforced a feminocracy upon the pen.


Some of the older hens, however, may remember the golden years of the protective patriarchy, long before the years of tyranny under the despot king. Before him, you see, there was a gentleman rooster whose rule-of-thumb was ‘ladies first’. This cock, unlike his usurper, invited the females to come to eat by clucking away into the air as he went trotting around the yard, letting them known it was dinner time. Standing back, he would watch over the hens eating in peace, wait, then have a peck of his own. Generosity, altruism, gentlemanliness: all of this in a chicken.

It is undeniable, thus, that chickens have individuality. More than this, they have agency, and maybe even will. And humans? Maybe our ego is too often inflated into will, and the range of our will, in any case, is limited by chicken wire. Our agency underestimated and our animality unrecognised, we create battery-cage like conditions for ourselves and our animals. But perhaps by recognising the humanity of fellow animals and the animality of humanity, we can one day build a truly free-range society for both us and them, free forever of the tyrants who torment us.

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2 thoughts on “A Fowl Society: On Human Behaviour in Chickens (and Vice-Versa)

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  1. Superbly crafted piece Tim, but I think you are reading too much into the chook mentality. Surely the pecking order displayed by our feathered friends is instinctive and implanted into their tiny brains by nature as a means of instilling discipline and order. If this process did not occur there would be anarchy and the new chooks would rule the roost, thus turning the chook world upside-down. In any event the roosters should get off their feathered bottoms and police the matter. Chooks Rule !!!!


    1. Thanks for your thoughts Chris! You may be right, that their little society is instinctually preordained, but that still has implications for human kind: how can we channel the altruistic instinct shown by the gallant rooster, as opposed to the out-casting and bullying instinct shown by the hens and the tyrant rooster? That is the question.


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