Rosey is bored. She’s practiced bug catching but hasn’t had a chance to go on a real hunt yet. Her house is too small for flying and her most recent goal to jump twice her height onto a storage bin finally yielded success, the challenge behind her.
Just this morning with a great clucking and fury she jumped, wings spread and then fell. So she tried again and again until finally she bent her knees deeply, stretched her neck and hopped all the way until she reached the top.
She clucked so that the other birds turned to look. If she could smile it would have been a toothy grin as she first pranced along the rim of the bin and then stood looking out over the aviary and through the open window at the yard beyond. Rosey was for all the world a proud chicken.
It turns out chickens are known for boredom and overcoming it with various fetes of valor are common. It’s like having a room of toddlers without toys. Baring something cooler chickens will improvise. Ours will steal the rim off their food dish and play keep away. The little silkies are pro at this game being smaller and quicker with hopping skills most rabbits would envy. They grab the rim and run for it..little downy, grey feathers bouncing and feathered feet dashing and jumping hurdles to the designated finish where they are either tackled for the prize or they drop it.
They also have a wide array of play fighting games which look like scenes from West Side Story with animated dance offs involving foot stomping, chest bumping and some various neck swagger. The two roos are really poetic about it with a complicated set of moves which continue until one pretends to lose interest and wander off. The winning guy struts for a second and if he’s really bragging he might let out a small crow and see if the girls notice. Most of the time, they don’t.
To see it you might think they watch too much reality television. It looks like something you might see at a bar on “Jersey Shore.” They may carry ancient chicken wisdom in their DNA, but these guys are kids and play is their job.
Cabbage on a string is a big hit with chickens for those of us who want to keep maximizing the fun quotient. They are known to gather around and peck it like a pinata. The silly seven definitely need this in case keep away, play fight and bounding storage tubs in a single hop can’t hold their interest.
Chicken boredom has been called anthropomorphism by some who insist only humans feel no matter how many brain studies and behaviorists have presented solid proof. Science can be a frail competitor next to myth.
But chicken farmers know that a bored chicken is less likely to lay the same quantity of eggs and may, if crowded as they need two square feet per bird, get into real fights or pluck out their own feathers from shear frustration. So to meet their “yield” requirements they have studied ways to create things for chickens to do.
We tried the often touted “oyster shells” for eating and bathing. Now how an original,natural born chicken might crack open an oyster is anyone’s guess but chicken people swear chickens are all about it. So we dutifully created an oyster shell bathing area. Rosey ran not walked and covered it with sawdust and kept the other kids away. We thought maybe she wanted it to herself but no, she didn’t want anyone near it.
The we remembered, on the day dear Forest Beautiful, a black feathered and gentle chicken died he had first bathed in the shells, Rosey had done it too. We hadn’t used them sense. The shells didn’t kill Forest, he died from taking a bad fall and hitting his head. But we wondered if Rosey had somehow connected the events. She was especially depressed when her friend died and had been bringing him food in hopes he’d awake. She seemed irritated the shells were back so we scooped them out. The silkies were temporarily disappointed because they had been playing in the dust before Rosey could knock them away and bury it. But some meal worm hide and seek cleared it up.
Memory whether accurate or not becomes a predictor of our future. Rosey’s memory tells her oyster shells are a dangerous thing.
The collective human animal memory might tell us that chickens do not get bored or have complex emotions, that memory is a predictor of our current and future actions. Memory can be a faulty thing formed from rumor, or a brief glimpse chock full of unchecked assumption. It may also lead to tradition which becomes an ingrained way of operating based on an original faulty memory. The cycle is less than promising if not examined. I can tell Rosey that oyster shells did not kill her friend but she feels convinced. That’s how it can work.
The chickens are unaware that they are allegedly not complex. They are entirely unaware that they are not bored or playful (according to someone who crams fifteen in a box the size of a small cage) so they are currently embroiled in a keep away game that looks surprisingly like football played with a meal worm and on the sidelines is Rosey who jumps in whenever she wants and tackles the guy with the worm.
So now I have a new shopping list which includes a substitute for oyster shells and a nice rope for hanging a cabbage. I consider myself lucky to not have a memory about chickens so that I can discover them in the reality of their world as it is.
If I didn’t see that chickens played I would have missed the dancing and the meal worm football and I might have let a false memory rob me of this awe. What a loss.