i find it interesting how many people i meet who are deathly afraid of the average hen. at first i was perplexed, but the longer i know chickens (and now ducks), the less i am chagrined at the monkeybrain twitch that causes people to read “poultry” as “thunderlizard” and do without, thank you very much indeed.
i feel, in fairness to chickens, that i need to preface my scathing takedown of their species by pointing out that my flock, roosters included, are a peaceable bunch. if i put a chair out in the yard in fine weather, i am sure to have a hen or two perched happily on my knee within a few minutes making cheerful chuckling sounds and wiping their beaks companionably on the knee of my trousers. i’ve had very few interflock battles, even with a couple of chronically pathetic denizens who could easily be pecked to death but haven’t been yet.
that said? chickens have absolutely been known to peck each other to death. when the late, great felicity came barreling out of the woods at us that fateful evening several years ago that led to chicken-keeping as a hobby, she was a bloody mess, pecked seven ways to sunday. she’d clearly come from a warlike flock, perhaps too tightly packed into too small a space. maybe just a bunch of bitches. it happens. after pecking a flock-member to death, these vicious birds have then been known to eat the corpse. apparently, chickens taste just like chicken?
i also have one hen, now one of the aforementioned pathetics, who was terrifying in her heyday. she would gouge at hands to get rings, or sometimes just for the sheer pleasure of hand-gouging. she would go broody often and violently, protecting even pretend, invisible eggs with her hand-gouging specialty. i’ve lost a fair bit of blood that way.
several years ago, we had a large bird of prey swoop in and try to leave with my blind barred rock, gloria. fortunately for gloria, she is a fat, fat hen and the predator wasn’t able to carry her off. also fortunately for gloria, one of her flock came barging in and fought the predator away. by the time i got to the partridge rock that had saved the day, her head and neck were covered in blood and i thought she’d probably gotten her death blow in that battle. minutes later, having washed off all the blood, i couldn’t find a mark on her. i don’t think any of that blood was hers at all. i dubbed her “falcon biter” and my admiration for her as an individual went way up. she died suddenly early last fall and a few weeks ago, i found a welsummer hen dead and half devoured under our birdfeeders with only some large wing tracks in the snow to tell the tale.
i was horrified recently at the systematic stalking and killing of my silkies by my two young ducks until a coworker shared some grisly stories of rotten, awful ducks just as bad as mine. velociducktors.
chickens just don’t stop to think. i’ve seen signs that they do actually think (falcon biter’s heroic self-sacrifice aside, i have three black australorps who know that human + shovel = worms for all and mob me every time i move a shovel), but they don’t stop to do it. it starts when they’re little fluffers in the brooder, picking up a tiny twig of peat moss and running madly, squeaking, as if to say “i have a thing! a thing! a thing! i have a thing!” and then realizing too late that all that running and squeaking has revved up the rest of the brood which is now intent on having a thing, too. that thing. now. the thing-chick will often drop the thing and pick up another thing (a non-thing, in this case) and then let another chick take the non-thing, leaving the thing-chick free to go back and get the real thing. ingenious and incredibly stupid all at once.
sadly, i’m not sure that ducks think even on the fly. at least, mine don’t. now that the silkies are safely away (which doesn’t keep the ducks from lurking on the other side of the wire and quacking loudly just to make the silkies jump), they’re quite good birds, timid and loudish and generally pretty dumb. the appeal of ducks is their doofus-y charm, i think.
poultry move quickly, look too closely, and have pointy bits on front and underneath. they’re always on the lookout for food and i suppose it’s easy to see how some people fear that the food found might be them should that beady eye stop where they are standing.