The Dumbest Cluck on the Farm
For centuries the hen has been trying to raise a family—only to have her eggs eaten for breakfast. She gobbles super foods to grow up faster—and ends up in the oven quicker. The only way she gets even is by ruining tired businessmen who run off to the country to raise chickens
THE biggest part of one of the biggest industries in the world is supported by a game old female with skinny legs, a big bottom, flat feet and a look of indignation—the hen. She does more than her old man, because she not only makes a good meal, but does something he can’t do— lay eggs. But, not to distinguish between the sexes, the chicken provides Canada with almost four billion eggs and close to three hundred million pounds of meat a year at a total value of more than a quarter of a billion dollars. The wholesale merchandising alone of poultry products in Canada involves more than fifteen hundred organizations of packers, shippers and brokers.
The chicken has clucked and crowed its way to a high perch in the economic life of man. Its meat is so good that it’s usually reserved for festivals. Its eggs contain most of the vitamins for complete nutrition, poached, boiled, scrambled or raw, or submerged in ten thousand kitchen compounds from wiener schnitzel to layer cake.
Apart from being eaten its eggs are used as culture media in growing bacteria and developing viruses, as an ingredient of paints, varnishes, tanning, photography and textile dyeing supplies, soaps, shampoos and bookbinding. Chicken feathers are used for hats, pillows, cushions, mattresses, dusters and clothes and someone is now working on how to make soup out of them. The chicken has become so symbolic of good times and money in the bank that it provided the U. S. Republican Party with its campaign slogan for 1932, “A chicken in every pot.” It has taught man he shouldn’t count his chickens before they’re hatched, that his wife is sometimes no chicken, that he sometimes looks like a wet hen, acts like a mother hen, thinks like a dumb cluck, gets his feathers ruffled; that anyone who tries to wring Britain’s neck will find her some chicken, and that, in spite of his philosophical pretensions, he still doesn’t know which came first, the chicken or the
On ordinary weekdays, the chicken has its filmest roost in man’s imagination. A “nice little chicken farm in the country,” the little man’s bid for financial security and independence, has become the North American version of Utopia. More men have tried to escape reality by hiding out in the country with a hen than with movie stars in Mexican motels. Most of them, in both cases, have ended up disillusioned.
The elopements start when a man begins ogling a hen and thinking: “If a good hen raises twenty chicks in a season, why, next year, her family will all raise twenty more each, making 420; which will parlay into 8,400 the third year, b’gosh: 168,000 the fourth, and 3,360,000 the fifth, which, at only fifty cents a bird, figures out at $1,680,000.”
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
The man decides that all that will then be left to do is hire a manager, buy a home in Coral Gables and send the hens cards every Christmas.
But either the hen dies and the poor guy loses $1,680,000, or she lives and sends him back to the city, broke, baggy-eyed and wishing he’d never set eyes on her. One man can’t look after more than a thousand birds, and that takes him twelve to fourteen hours a day, including Sundays and holidays. If he hires someone to help, unless he’s an experienced operator who knows the poultry business from beak to bustle, the hired help makes more money than the owner.
In the meantime the hen is doing a lot of things to break up the honeymoon. She has more fads in food than a fat lady and has to have her meals right on time or she gets huffy and won’t lay. If she’s neglected she gets slatternly, turns into an old bag and sits around in dirty old feathers scratching herself. She never stops talking. Her idea of a man is someone who works like a dog. On top of all that, she’ll let herself get picked up by anyone who comes along, including such smooth characters as foxes, hawks, skunks, weasels and rats.
She’s full of troubles. She has trouble with her digestion, catches colds, consumption, cramps, develops worms, lice, erysipelas, cholera, leucosis, Newcastle disease, and everything but tight shoes. She complains bitterly if she’s left alone and has to have the company of at least five other hens, yet she will peck at a friend’s tail until it’s bare. She’s cannibalistic and, if she draws blood, her girl friends will join in and the four of them will eat the fifth, without even stopping to phone their husbands that they’re staying for another rubber. She has such a set of nerves that she constantly borders on hysteria. She’ll go into a flap so fast that experienced farmers always whistle and rap at the door of the chicken coop before going in. If a stranger is along, the farmer leaves the visitor outside while he goes in and tells the hens he brought somebody home with him.
A hen’s nerves are one of the headaches in chicken raising. A flock will panic in a matter of seconds and pile so deep in a corner that the ones underneath often suffocate. One night a skunk got into a coop on a farm near Omemee, Ont., through a small trap door that dropped shut and locked him in. Next morning the farmer found two hundred of four hundred chickens piled up in one corner dead. The other two hundred huddled in the opposite corner. The skunk was sound asleep in one of the nests, too full to escape.
The same farmer lost fifty of four hundred chickens by panic one night when the chickens were frightened by a cloth ventilating door blowing down.
In a big commercial poultry farm, where birds are raised in flocks of ten thousand or more to a pen, panic can result in a terrifying rush of twenty tons of living flesh that will shake a huge building as if it were hit by an earthquake. The profits from a whole flock can be wiped out in one terrifying minute.
Undeveloped chickens known in the trade as “runts” are one of the commonest causes of panic. The runt, living amid a flock of hens, leads the life of a short man caught in a girdle sale, getting batted around, pecked and elbowed up the aisle until one dull day he says to hell with it and starts running as fast as he can go. He races between the legs of the hens. One of them who
is dozing and thinking of her complaints, let« out a “WhooooOOOPS!” and the runt goes faster, knowing that he’s in for it. He ends up going so fast the hens can’t quite make out what he is and all start shrieking that Marge got jumped by a rat and the whole flock panics. Whenever a poultryman can catch a runt, which in a lyg flock is very seldom, he wrings his neck on the spot.
Although the hen has dozens of tricks to ruin a man who doesn’t treat her right, she’s a pushover for anyone who pays her enough attention and knows how to play on her emotions. Of all farm stock, she responds quickest to attention. She’ll clean herself up, and if medicine, such as the sulfa drugs, is shot to her through her drinking water the minute she shows signs of almost any of the manifold ailments to which she is heiress, she’ll usually snap out of it so fast that she won’t even have time to enjoy talking about ‘it with her hen friends.
She’ll work herself to a frazzle as
long as she can see. If the lights are turned on before dawn and left on after dark, for a period equivalent to the length of a June day, and the coop is kept at springtime temperature, she’ll try to lay an egg a day. Taking her eggs away from her as fast as she lays them only makes her more persistent. She supports one of the world’s biggest industries simply by her determination in t he face of staggering odds to present someone with a baby.
With frenzied self-sacrificing zeal she eats special laying mash and sticks to a menu of forced feeding that matures
her so fast that, whereas she’d ordinarily do nothing but collect autographs her first year, now if she’s six months old and not laying, she’s ready for the bride’s counsel. Although reports persist of hens laying three hundred and sixty-five eggs a year and more, poultrymen regard the individual hen show-off the way a coach regards a player who wants to score all the goals. The really significant thing is the Official Record of Performance, based on the laying average of a flock during a period of three hundred and five days, or ten months. Two hundred and forty eggs per hen on an ORP basis is a good show, but poultrymen are already talking of the four-hundredegg hen the way people talk of the four-minute mile.
Two hens today lay about as many eggs as three hens did twenty-five years ago. A Chilean hen has laid blue eggs for Easter. A Virginia hen has set on eggs into which dye had been injected and hatched fifty chicks colored like confetti. An *English hen in Little Torrington, Devon, laid twenty-one eggs in four hours, and a Rhode Island Red in West Liberty, Ohio, got so excited by U. S. editorials about American leadership that she laid two eggs a day for a month and died.
The hen has adapted herself to a life of unselfish service that is unequalled in the animal world. Even her family is now mass-produced. She gets broody now and then when, tired of cold-eyed promoters taking her for granted, she tries to settle down and raise a family. But the old way of the old girl fussing over her chicks is as outdated as the taffy pull. Now, by scientific formula, she gets one rooster to every fourteen hens, with one to spare in case one starts standing around blowing on his nails. Her eggs, of which sixty to seventy percent are fertile, are put in massive incubating machines.
The chick still gets out of the shell the old way, pipping a tiny hole with an egg tooth, a tiny projection on the end of its beak, till it has an end of the egg loosened as if it were ready to serve for breakfast. It works like mad for forty minutes, pushing on the cap, till it breaks out, falls flat on its face and lies there, like a woman after a hard washday, for five minutes before standing on its feet. About four hours from the time it first knocked a hole in the shell, it’s ready to start on a tight lifetime schedule, knowing no mother but an electric bulb, taught to roost by man.
The laying hen’s only comfort in all this is the knowledge that the males of her species, except for a few playboys she meets, are being pushed through life at the same mad pace. Modern rations will turn a baby chick into a three-and-a-half-pound bird in ten and a half to twelve weeks.
In intelligence tests such as those devised by the animal behavior laboratory of the American Museum of Natural History, the hen puts up a poor show. She persists in coping with novel situations in old unsuitable ways. If food is put behind a wire mesh fence that she can easily walk around she’ll make a spectacle of herself trying to leap through the wire, ruffling her feathers, squawking her indignation, looking as if she is blaming the weather, the men, her feet and the museum, and doing everything but go around the end of the fence. She doesn’t get many ideas, and she’s a flop at retaining the ones she does get, a fact she reveals in a maze test where she is required to find the way out of a system of passageways that lead to a number of dead ends with just one right way out. The speed at which an animal can work its way out depends on how well it remembers and gradually eliminates wrong turns. In the group with which a chick was tested, the rating was: 1, kitten; 2, white rat; 3, fish; 4, guinea pig; 5, chick; 6, turtle. The hen’s only comfort in seeing her child bring home such a poor report card was that in another similar test, a rat got out of his maze faster than nineteen blindfolded American college girls got out of theirs.
In another test, food is placed under one of several boxes which the hen can lift and look under. When she has found the food it is shifted to another
box, until she finds that, and from then on it’s moved back and forth between these two boxes at regular intervals. The chicken can never remember which one it’s going to be under next, forgetting which one it was under last as fast as a woman leaving her purse in a restaurant.
In a device called a puzzle box a bright animal like a raccoon will learn how to get food by operating a series of simple mechanisms, like pulling a cord and stepping on a pedal, but the hen couldn’t be more at a loss if she were working a gear shift. One hen, put in a puzzle box, whirled her head to pluck a feather and accidentally tripped a cord that released some food when she was supposed to figure it out by deductive reasoning. From then on she gaily twirled her head and pulled out a feather every time she wanted something to eat.
But the hen really shines when it comes to counting. If a row of kernels of corn are laid out and every third one left loose and the others glued down, she starts counting “One, two, three PECK,” passing up the two glued ones in every three and grabbing the third. She also has remarkably keen eyesight, and can tell the difference between squares, circles and triangles. If an owner puts on a new shirt or leaves off his glasses, she spots it right away and quite often panics, thinking that the clothes make the man and this new one is up to no good.
A Paragon of Productivity
She is a rank social snob. As soon as two or more hens get together they establish a definite peck order. The top hen has the right to peck every other hen without retaliation. In a flock of two hundred hens unidentifiable to man, one hen will be the head peck. The bottom hen sits around and gathers phobias. Two hens never live in the same yard without establishing their peck order. If two strangers meet they have it out on the spot. There are individual screaming revolts against the peck order, but never organized insurrection. Every new hen has to peck it out with all the reigning society queens before she’s accepted.
But, for all the hen’s faults, she’s been sitting on a clutch of sound domestic values since men first lashed a rock to a stick and started braining one another. Life isn’t made up of passing exams and winning personality contests and, like a lot of people who don’t show up so well at either, the hen’s been doing a lot more good than a lot of sharp characters like the rat, who has a good brain but puts it to a dubious purpose.
In a world gone giddy the hen, with the feminine disregard for logic of a woman walking amid the flying cues of a poolroom brawl to tell her husband his supper is ready, keeps right on laying eggs, a model of peace, order and sanity; she’s demanding and apt to get unhappy if she isn’t given plenty of attention but, if given a proper home and work to do, is a paragon of productivity and domesticity. In spite of being chased shrieking over the pages of old joke books she matches the breakup of marriage with bigger and better broods.
Who’s to blame her if now and then she relieves her long, epic, heroichistory with a bit of fun? A farmer recently noticed that one of his hens was going up on to a porch roof to lay her eggs. The rooster went up with her. When the egg was laid the two of them sat there almost smiling as it rolled off and smashed on the ground. All man can do is hope that she doesn’t pass on the idea to the rest of the hens.