We’ve owned chickens for a few years now. They make great pets, and as long as you don’t get a cockerel, will happily live in a small suburban garden without upsetting the neighbours. Kids like feeding them, and the eggs are a great bonus, but chickens are not the amiable busy-bodies of the popular imagination. They are certainly worriers, like Chicken Licken, who thought the sky was falling down, but they are more inclined to scarper and leave you to be crushed by falling branches, than tell you a tree is about to come down on your head. You can see where Beatrix Potter got the idea for Sally Hennypenny, the prim and proper hen with the holed stockings in the story of Mrs Tiggywinkle, but chickens are far more slovenly than that. Don’t let the fluffy bottoms fool you, they don’t care about going barefoot. These are fur coat and no knickers girls.
Let’s start with the pecking order, that brutal, unforgiving chicken-y way of sorting out who is top hen, who gets the food first, and who gets beaten up. Chickens are hierarchical, like Cheltenham Ladies College meets Lord of the Flies. They peck, they drag, they gang up on new girls and make their lives hell. So fluffy, so prim and proper, so spiteful. And it is never truly sorted out, even years later. Peace may eventually fall on a chicken run augmented with new hens, but they never forget who is the in-comer.
Then there is food. Chickens will eat anything they have eaten before, and they will do it with such frenzied violence that it is gone in seconds. Give them something they don’t know, and they will hang back, waiting for someone to crack and give it a try. Who wants to eat poison, after all? But greed always gets the better of them. They will fight for food, and over food, and under food. Food is anything being carried by humans, or anything small that moves. Food is worms, green leaves, kitchen scraps, or frogs, torn limb from limb if they happen to stray into the enclosure. I discovered we had newts in the garden the day I saw one being ripped to pieces by three greed-crazed squabbling hens.
Chickens are the rapacious city traders of the domestic animal world, they are thieves, vagabonds, and highly disreputable highwaymen of the garden path. Contrast this with rabbits, the buddhists of suburban pet-dom, whose ascetic lifestyle places them at the top of a moral hierarchy of restraint. Rabbits are raw vegan dandelion eaters, whose highly evolved digestive system is nonetheless barely able to cope with their diet of grass and tree bark. Baby rabbits in the wild learn what to eat from their mothers, and they do as they are told. It’s just as well, because lots of things are poisonous to rabbits, and they are unable to vomit. Rabbits have to eat all the time, because there is almost no nutritional value in their food, and to make matters worse, they are hopeless at extracting it. As a result, rabbit urine is milky, because they can’t process calcium well, and they eat their poo, because it is easier to digest than the food was the first time. Rabbits have no fun.
Chickens, on the other hand, spend their days scratching for food, or just lounging, like a gang of robbers hiding out after a big heist. If they could play cards and smoke cigars they would. And yet these chickens are charming, chatty, and a pleasure to be around. Being mobbed by a flock of hens makes children giggle nervously, but there is no need to be scared. Luckily for us, humans are always at the top of the pecking order, and in fact when they see me, several of them crouch down subserviently. Evidently, they think I am a cock. My wife has declined to comment.