Collective (Chicken) Consciousness, or What I Learned from Sal and Dominique
I have revised the old joke.
Why did all the chickens cross the road?
Because one did.
Chickens do what other chickens do. They go where other chickens go. I believe they think what other chickens think. Even as two-day-old chicks, who might have thought, based on yesterday’s experience, that all of life consists of being shipped in a box full of straw and hand warmers, it’s visceral and instant. Huddled under their brooder lamp, peeping and looking around, the second one of them takes an exploratory peck at a spot on the newspaper, the whole crowd rushes over to do the same, stepping on each other’s heads if they have to, to peck that exact same spot. Not to copy the behavior and apply it elsewhere – to do exactly what the other one did.
As we introduced our first group of chickens to free-ranging, I noticed they moved as a kind of cloud, driven by two polar extremes. Sal, who runs towards things, and Dominique, who ran away, screaming OhMyGodWe’reAllGoingToDie!!! The rest of the chicken cloud moved with whichever of these two poles was most magnetic at the moment, following Sal’s inquisitive charge until Dominique’s panicked, screaming retreat flipped a switch and they changed direction.
A sensitive reader may note that Dominique appears in the past tense. Sadly, her dire, terrified view of life was justified – at least for herself. She was the first of our chickens to be eaten by something, carried off cleanly one day without a trace. (We suspect a coyote.) She spent most of her life running in blind terror, from nothing at all. And then….
Interestingly, since then, the next chickens we’ve lost have been our next-most-timid-and-terrified. Two were taken by hawks. Another strangled herself in a fence, probably while panicking over something. (Chickens. I love them. But they’re not all the smartest.)
Sal is different. When she breaks from the group, she moves with purpose, all senses alert. Let the others come if they want (“We do! We do! Where are we going?”) – she is on the move, towards something that seems great. Or at least tasty.
Deep thoughts, and lessons from the chickens. Maybe there’s safety, and/or comfort, in the crowd. But to move at all, someone has to be the spark, in some direction. Let it not be that I worry all my life and then perish in the jaws of a coyote. Sal is still with us. I’m with Sal.