By Joo Chia
Chickens are the most abundant bird species on Earth, at a population of about 22 billion and counting, all thanks to intensive farming practices.
Broiler chickens, farmed for their meat, are slaughtered between the ages of 6 to 14 weeks old. Otherwise, they could live to 6 years if allowed to live out their natural life expectancy.
Layer hens, farmed for their eggs, have their life expectancy drastically reduced from 7 to 2 years, especially if housed in cages. This shows the amount of stress and suffering they have to endure their entire lives, with the sole purpose of their existence being to serve mankind, who unfortunately has little regard for their wellbeing whilst they are alive.
Despite its large population, most people have little to no contact with these unique birds, until they are served scrambled egg or Buffalo wings.
It’s no wonder (and very sad) that most people see these birds as unintelligent, dull and unfeeling.
The diversity in their personalities
If you ever have a chance to keep chickens as pets, or observe some chickens in the wild, you will start to see them the way you would see your pet dog or cat – with their bizarre antics and distinct personality that is unique to each creature.
Some chickens are gregarious and adventurous, and indulge in human company, while others are cautious and observant, preferring to keep to their flock.
Chickens are flock birds, and understand the pecking order. Their personalities and behaviour are very much shaped by their social standing in the flock. So if you are keeping chickens in the backyard, make sure there is a good number for company, as they do not do well on their own.
Cognitively advanced and highly intelligent birds
With chickens, there is never a dull moment. They are curious animals, always sticking their heads into piles of leaves, digging around for worms or just checking stuff out. They love stimulation and anything new to explore. When left to their own devices, they would get creative, and start to entertain themselves with anything they could get their beaks on. Like many other animals (humans included), they are intrigued by their own reflection.
Chickens can tell individual birds apart in their flock, even the baby chicks know their mother’s call from the time they hatch. Mother hens teach their chicks survival skills from young, from recognising safe foods to avoiding predators.
These intelligent birds take cues from one another in their social setting, and can vocalise in more than 20 distinct voices, each with a different sense and purpose.
When bored or stressed, chickens display frustration by pacing back and forth, and calling out in whiny voices. But in factory farms, there is nowhere for them to pace. So sometimes they run into other chickens, or simply try to go underneath another bird. Imagine being squashed up in a crowded elevator 24 hours a day, every single day of your entire life. Going mad is an understatement.
Empathy for creatures close to them
Chickens can get emotionally attached to a few others in their flock, and exhibit signs of anxiety or distress when something traumatic happens, like death. Especially if they grew up together, the stress from dealing with the loss can become too much to bear, such that they sink into depression, and lose the will to live altogether, in extreme cases not unheard of.
We have the choice
The cognitive abilities of these highly misunderstood birds raise sobering questions about the way farm chickens are reared. Frequently exposed to sights, sounds and smells of the pain and suffering of creatures around them, it can only be torturous because of how sensitive these birds are in being able to empathise with the distress of others.
The fact that their existence is the sole result of human needs does not mean we can dismiss these cognitively advanced creatures. To bring life into the world just to have them suffer for us, is sadly something that only humankind is capable of.
But it does not have to be this way.
We may not be able to change the world in an instant, but we can change ourselves. Each small step matters. For every single person who makes a conscience decision in his or her eating habits, an average of 27 chickens each year will not have to suffer.
So let us embrace the vegan lifestyle, and continue to show the vegan way to people around us.
Book: How to Speak Chicken, by Melissa Caughey