Often caricatured as birdbrained, the humble chicken can be trained to walk across a balance beam, identify colors and shapes, and perform other complex tricks. That is, if you are smart enough to teach the bird. “The average hen will tolerate you in exchange for treats and is generally pretty good-natured, but her patience is thin. She does not crave your approval the way a dog does.… Chickens require more finesse,” writes Tove Danovich, who, in Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them, makes a good case that chickens are underestimated and undervalued.
The book’s release comes at a propitious time: Increasing numbers of people are contemplating chicken ownership as a hedge against recent egg shortages and high prices. Danovich may convince you to take the leap. Initially, she considers chickens to be little more than expendable egg producers. But after she acquires her first three chicks and gets to know their individual personalities, her appreciation deepens.
Danovich’s experience with her flock leads her to explore a range of chicken-focused subcultures. In Washington State, she learns that professional animal handlers gain insight into how animals think by training chickens to make their way through intricate obstacle courses. For context, Danovich recounts the fascinating history of stunt chickens, including those that once played tic-tac-toe in arcades throughout the United States. At the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, she informs us, chickens are among the animals counselors use to attract students to the school’s mental health center.
Then there’s one of the country’s biggest poultry shows, the Ohio National, which brings 8,400 birds to Columbus annually. There, chicken lovers revel in the beauty of breeds like Quails d’Anver, which have “small delicate faces except for their large black eyes and fluffy beards that puff out like someone tucked an oversize scarf into a winter jacket. Their legs seem short because of the birds’ habit of holding their wings at a downward angle, swept back like coattails.”
Meanwhile, Under the Henfluence also tells a parallel story, that of our inhumanity toward chickens. The most recent studies suggest that red jungle fowl began to forage in the rice fields of Southeast Asia some 3,500 years ago and may have been domesticated for cockfighting purposes rather than for food. At some point, people figured out they could manipulate the female birds to lay more eggs by removing the ones in their nests. In the wild, red jungle fowl produce 10 to 15 eggs a year in one or two clutches. Today, factory-farmed hens are bred to produce upwards of 300 eggs a year, depleting themselves in the process. Even if you are not eating chickens themselves, eating their eggs makes you complicit in a brutally efficient system.
Under the Henfluence makes a moral case for raising chickens at home so they can have a better life, but, Danovich acknowledges, it is hard to avoid compromises along the way. During a visit to a hatchery, she is confronted by the realities of industrial animal husbandry. The hens there, whose lives mirror those of chickens that produce eggs for consumption, pale from malnutrition after producing hundreds of eggs; to protect against diseases, they are housed in a windowless barn that is clean and ventilated but still reeks of rotten eggs. After their first year of life, the hens are sold to egg farms, and they are “retired”—an industry euphemism for “killed”—by the time they are two. (A hen’s natural life span is six to eight years.)
Commercial chicken production, with its mass incubators, also strips away other aspects of self-actualization: hens don’t brood or raise their chicks, a skill for which they are renowned, and chicks miss out on mothering, which negatively affects their brain development.
Danovich eventually adopts two “battery hens”: laying birds that have been confined to cages. These rescue animals, which she names Thelma and Louise, show signs of physical trauma. Thelma is so severely debeaked that she can’t eat plants off the ground, and Louise’s neck is bare as a result of losing feathers from stress or being pecked by other hens.
Most surprising to Danovich, who notes that chickens can make 30 different sounds, including the avian version of a purr, is how silent they both are. “Watching them was like watching an animation of a chicken, as though they were just going through the motions,” she writes. As the two hens slowly regain their health and learn how to live as chickens instead of egg machines, we rejoice with her.•