A few years ago, my wife built a backyard chicken coop, and we sent away for five baby chicks, each of a different, wonderfully named breed: Barred Rock, Cochin, Australorp, Buff Orpington and, believe it or not, Red Sex Link. They arrived in a box in the mail. Their status was ambiguous from the start. Were they really members of the household? We never, after all, allowed them into our house, once they’d got past the chick phase. Were the chickens — named, by our daughters, Pepper, Barney, Sunny, Lemon Soufflé and Princess Catkin — pets? Yes, in a sense: We cared for them and found them good company. And to answer the question that we were regularly asked: No, we never had any intention to eat them. These were primarily birds bred to lay eggs.
But they seemed to belong to a different category from the one occupied by our cats and dog: sequestered outside our house, in their coop, in an attached fenced-in run, and in the greater backyard itself, three circles of increasingly unhoused space in which they could explore and peck, hunting frantically for insects and worms. Our mammal companions, spending much of their time inside with us, had come to seem like family members, domestic and domesticated, even almost (a little?) human. Not only did they have four limbs, but they also had varieties of intelligence and interest and awareness that seemed, for all their differences, in some sense parallel to ours.
The chickens were stranger, more thoroughly foreign. Gorgeous in their various fluffed-up, colorful plumage and their proud strutting; soft and surprisingly warm to the touch; charming in so many of their odd behaviors, as when they would seek out patches of dry dirt to take a “dust bath,” digging it up and coating their feathers. The chickens appeared to lie on the other side of some evolutionary line, which indeed they do. Sometimes I sensed a hint of that reptilian heritage in the birds’ nervous, beady glance and their rushes of sudden movement. And the mysteries and gift of the egg laying: to produce an external egg daily that we would go out in the morning to gather, often still warm to the touch! We considered the chickens female — “the ladies,” we would call them sometimes — but their relationship to anything like mammalian gender felt very loosely approximate.
In their flock behaviors, too, they seemed profoundly different. I even came to feel that in some meaningful sense, the chickens were not fully individuals in the way we considered ourselves and our other household animals to be. To say this could seem to denigrate them, but that sense itself speaks to a problem: that so many of our standards of respect, dignity and value are linked to individuality and autonomy. To be a person, or personlike, is to be understood as a single being. How different to be part of a flock and to have so many of one’s behaviors and motivations filtered through the group dynamics of that collective. Flock allegiance seemed always paramount for our five birds, guiding and propelling them, most notably as nightfall approached, when they all, as if on cue, began heading back toward the coop. Once they found their way inside, they would spend the night nestled together, perched all in a row.