Joseph Barber on The Chicken

The Chicken coverInherently social creatures, chickens are enjoying a renaissance as prized members of many households and small farms. From feathers and flock formation to imprinting and incubating, The Chicken by Joseph Barber provides a comprehensive, richly illustrated guide to understanding how chickens live, think, and act both alongside people and independently.

How did you get involved with chickens?

When I finished my undergraduate degree in London, I was hooked on the subject of animal behavior, and knew I wanted to continue studying this subject. I even came across the perfect PhD project that was focused on researching cheetahs in the Serengeti. You cannot get much cooler than that in terms of an animal behavior research project. However, I wasn’t even close to being qualified for research in this environment given that the most fearsome animal I had worked with at that point was a bank vole (and no, they are not fierce!).

Instead, I found a research project focusing on the social behavior of laying hens at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Professor Marian Dawkins. This was an amazing opportunity to work under one of the foremost experts in behavioral research. It also meant I had to get up close and personal with chickens. In fact, the chickens at Oxford were the first chickens I had ever really interacted with, and they were a little terrifying at first—what with their beady eyes and dinosaur-like legs. Over the three years of my research, I certainly developed an appreciation for these birds and their strong personalities. What I never learnt to appreciate was their desire to pull the hairs on my legs as I was cleaning their enclosures.

But really, a whole book about chickens?

My PhD research focused on the social behavior of chickens. This subject area represents a tiny slice of what makes chickens so interesting (yes, a slice of the chicken pie, if you like that sort of thing). The various chapter authors in this book all bring their own amazing expertise in terms of discussing the evolutionary history of the birds, their anatomy and physiology, their complex behavior, their treatment in captivity, and the delightful range of appearances and characteristics of the many breeds of chickens that exist. In other words, there is so much to learn about chickens that there is probably no single person who knows everything there is to know.  More importantly, the reason for this book is to encourage people to develop their own appreciation of chickens, especially people who might be considering having their own backyard chickens.

Why have backyard chickens?

Well, because the plentiful supply of eggs you can get will taste far better than intensively farmed eggs you buy, and can give you great satisfaction in terms of bringing food to your table from your own backyard. Even if you didn’t want eggs, chickens can be wonderfully fun to watch as they wreak havoc on the bugs and vegetables you have in your gardens. You can find many online retailers selling the most exotic chicken coops you can imagine if you want to get really fancy, and the possibilities for posting chicken-related pictures on social media are endless (#drinkingwithchickens on Instagram as an example).

Any interesting chicken stories or facts?

Based on my experience, if you hold a chicken under your arm whilst wearing a lab coat, and if you keep your keys in your lab coat pocket, then the chances are high that you will end up with chicken poop on your keys. Also, if you study chickens for 3 years, everyone will buy you chicken-related gifts for your birthday and any and all other celebrations. There are just so many chicken-themed gifts that can be bought at any time of the year. To be honest, I think it made all my relatives very happy that I studied chickens, because they always knew what to buy me! And finally, chickens don’t fly very well, but they have still have the ability to generate significant lift when motivated. A single hen who freaks out at a sudden sound or movement can trigger a superabundance of flapping birds trying to get away from whatever it was the first bird thought was worth fleeing from. This explosion of feathered fowl and sawdust can be terrifying for a human caught up in the midst of it whilst innocently gathering eggs from the nest boxes.

So, why did the chicken cross the road?

It is definitely important to ask this. From a research perspective, a potentially easier question would be “how would we determine why the chicken crossed the road?” Since chickens cannot tell us the answer directly, we only have their behavior to go on to figure out an answer.  What we are interested in as animal behaviorists is what is it that motivates a change in behavior. Is it something internal, such as hunger, or something external, such as the sight of a predator or something that other members of the social group are doing? Chickens tend to perform a lot of socially facilitated behaviors—that is, they tend to do what other birds in the flock are doing, at the same time and in the same location. It is easier to spot predators if there are lots of eyes scanning the environment. So, chances are high that most chickens cross the road because they are simply following the chickens ahead of them. As for the first bird who crossed it—perhaps she was actually riding on the back of an alligator who was chasing a clown who lost his wallet in the laundromat which just happened to be on the other side of the road.

After reading this book, will I stop wanting to eat chicken?

My PhD research and the topic of the class I teach at Hunter College both focus on animal welfare. This is a hard subject to define easily, but one way to think about welfare is to consider whether the animals we house in captive environment can cope with the challenges they face in these environments. If our farmed animals experience pain everyday because they are housed on a hard concrete surface, or if they are frustrated because they cannot perform a behavior that they are highly motivated to perform, then these would be examples of poor welfare. In these cases, the animals are faced with negative experiences that they cannot overcome. The more we understand about farm animals, the easier it becomes to see where their captive environments are not set up to meet their various needs. There are certainly farming practices that turn people off intensively farmed food once they learn about them. This book provides great insights into the life of chickens, and so can be helpful to people as they think about whether the meat or eggs they eat come from an environment that they feel is welfare friendly or not. With a little research, it is absolutely possible to find local farmers who rear animals in a way you would hope they would be reared. Indeed, if you have chickens in your own backyard, you can be far more certain that the eggs you eat come from well-appreciated birds reared in an environmentally sustainable manner!

Joseph Barber is a senior associate director at the University of Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York.