Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and cat in Portland, Oregon.
Watching chickens roam the range, it’s easy to see the origins of such terms as “bird brains” and “dumb clucks.” They’re small birds, after all, and they basically do the same things over and over: eat, drink, peck, fluff their feathers, harass each other, roll around in the dirt, lay eggs (yes, all three of our birds are finally laying eggs), and faithfully go to sleep on their roost when darkness falls.
If you keep chickens and you read the New Yorker bit last summer about animal behavior, you probably snickered in recognition at the imaginary dialogue between two free-range chickens:
“I think I’ll go walk over there for a while. Then I’ll walk back over here.”
“That sounds like a good time. Maybe I’ll do the same.”
“Hey, someone refilled the grain bucket!”
“Is it the same stuff as yesterday?”
“I hope so.”
“Oh, man, it’s the same stuff, all right.”
“It’s so good.”
“I can’t stop eating it.”
“Hey, you know what would go perfectly with this grain? Water.”
“Dude. Look inside the other bucket.”
“This . . . is the greatest day of my life.”
Here’s a quick list of The Smart and Dumb Things Chickens Do, based on totally unscientific observations in my back yard.
Smart: Our chickens won’t eat moldy food. (The mold thing happens to the feed that the clumsy birds knock out of the feeder; if they don’t peck it up soon enough, it molds and us hapless urban farmers have to clean it up.) The mold-awareness thing shows birds, at least, to be more savvy about food safety than most humans rummaging around in the fridge.
Dumb: If the chickens are out wandering the back yard and we dump some kitchen scraps into their run for them, they’ll dash excitedly over to the run to see what goodies have appeared. Now, since the birds are out of their run, the large door to the run is naturally open. But do they remember that there’s a huge open door at the end of the run? Nope. Instead, they stare at the snacks through the chicken wire of the run and do one of two things: peck at the food through the wire, or flap up and down the length of the run in chicken frustration. Eventually, they’ll head back into the run as dusk falls, and then excitedly discover the goodies all over again.
Smart: The birds won’t eat non-food. In other words, if they find, say, a bit of plastic or a paint chip or a cigarette butt in the yard, they’ll automatically peck it up — hey, it might be food, after all — and then, just as automatically, let go. This proves that birds are smarter, in this regard at least, than dogs, who will actually eat non-food in the hopes that their stomachs might extract some source of nutrients from, say, a rubber duckie.
Dumb: Even though they won’t eat non-food, all three birds will have to sample that cigarette butt in turn before rejecting it as a group. And if you’re tossing snacks to the birds — breadcrumbs, for example — as soon as one bird scores a snack, the other two will try to wrest it away, ignoring the hail of bread hunks falling all around them.
Smart: The birds spend a lot of time laying eggs. Forget what you’ve heard about fresh eggs in the morning — our babies lay at any time during the daylight hours. This means that you hear a lot of cackling going on in the henhouse, and the nesting box is usually occupied by a bird. But have we managed to catch a bird in the act? Heck, no. (My husband says that we shouldn’t invade their privacy. I say I want to see an egg being laid, darn it, and since when do birds have a sense of privacy?) The sneaky birds always manage to lay their eggs out of sight of prying human eyes.
Dumb: OK, so they’ve mostly gotten the egg-laying thing down, using the nesting box or the thick straw on the floor of the coop. But every so often a bird will doof, laying an egg out in the muddy run (not a good long-term place for nesting) or even dropping an egg from the roost — a fall of just a few inches onto a wooden board, but it’s enough of a distance to break an egg.
Are we complaining, though? Nah; we’re getting three eggs a day now, which seems like more than enough recompense for occasional avian addledness.
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Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry