I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Noah Strycker entitled “The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds.” The chapter on chickens led me to reminisce about growing up on a farm where we kept laying hens, raised fryers, and ate lots of fried chicken.
By the year 2000, domestic chickens outnumbered humans by about four to one on this planet. Not only are they the most abundant bird species on earth. Chickens are the world’s most numerous reptile, amphibian, mammal, or bird, period (make that an exclamation point)!
Most don’t live very long but at any given time, our world hosts about 20 billion domestic chickens. The average North American eats more than fifty pounds of chicken a year (the equivalent of about twenty-seven individual birds). We eat a little more beef in a year and somewhat less pork.
Chicken as a meat has been depicted in Babylonian carvings from around 600 BC. In the Middle Ages it was the most common meat available, served most often as an ingredient in the so-called “white dish.” This was a stew usually consisting of chicken and fried onions cooked in milk and seasoned with spices and sugar.
During WWII chicken consumption in the USA increased due to a shortage of beef and pork. In Europe, consumption of chicken surpassed that of beef and veal in 1996, linked to consumer awareness of mad-cow disease.
In recent years, chickens have been bred to grow ever faster and bigger. Today’s six-week-old chicken is six times heavier than an equivalent breed in 1957 and has about 10 percent more breast meat. It has also been observed that today’s broilers have such well endowed breasts that they can hardly walk.
While chickens are often dismissed as stupid, they have taught us a great deal about social dominance in animals generally, including humans. From close observation of aggressive behavior in chickens, the concept of “pecking order” was developed.
Here is how the pecking order was discovered. As a six-year-old Norwegian boy, Thorstein Schjelderup-Ebbe (hereafter referred to as Thor) was tending his mother’s chicken coop outside of Oslo, he noticed something curious about the birds’ behavior. When any two hungry chickens met at the food tray, one would always make way for the other, patiently waiting its turn. Instead of fighting like unruly teenagers, the chickens formed an orderly line with minimal fuss.
Furthermore, the order was predictable. One particular hen was always the first to eat, followed by a second individual, then a third, and so on. At the water dish, their behavior was the same. If one tried to jump the line, it was attacked by pecks from the birds in front, and it quickly retreated. By the time he was ten, Thor was keeping his observations in detailed notebooks. He’d discovered that one’s place in line was based on aggression.
Thor began charting the aggressive interactions among the chickens, hoping to figure out, scientifically, whether his ideas made sense. When he tallied up his observations, a pattern emerged. The top bird, at various times, had pecked every single one of the other chickens in the coop, but had never been pecked in return.
In second place was another hen that had pecked everyone except the top chicken, and, accordingly, had been pecked only by that bird. This trend continued down the line until only one poor hen was left standing (barely); she had been pecked by every other chicken in the coop but never delivered a single peck of her own.
The alpha chicken always ate first, and the lowliest one always got the leftovers. It took Thor many years to accumulate these observations because his flock seemed so comfortable with their order that they rarely acted aggressively toward one another. Each bird knew its place. The lower-ranked hens accepted their status, and it was a fairly peaceful if unequal arrangement.
Thor’s theory of pecking order has become a basic concept in social hierarchy that has been applied in many fields. Currently it appears to be especially relevant to the White House staff.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.