Saturday, November 24, 2012

Aliens in my backyard

One of my favorite authors, Stanislaw Lem, has as a recurring theme the utter impossibility of really understanding and communicating with aliens if we ever meet them.  I agree with his assessment, based on personal experience.  I didn’t need to travel to Solaris or Quinta meet an alien mind.  They roam our property in the bodies of sheep and goats and chickens, and though I’ve become somewhat familiar with their patterns of behavior, I can’t say I truly understand them.

The most alien are the chickens.  This sort of makes sense, given the evolutionary distance between humans and avians.  I appreciate their eggs, I appreciate the pests they consume, I appreciate the fertilizing effects (if not the aroma) of their poop, but I just do not get the chicken mind.

Chickens are social creatures, and the bedrock of their society is ruthless hierarchy.  If there are sixteen chickens (as we have here), there will be one chicken that fifteen chickens have free license to abuse.  It’s pretty easy to identify this bird, and the ones that can be freely picked on by twelve, thirteen, or fourteen other chickens.  They are the ones with ratty, reduced, or completely destroyed tails and pecked patches on their necks.  

We have one bird, number sixteen of sixteen on the order, and her rank had been apparent for some time.  However, a week ago the alien minds of the chickens went a little bit too far; when I came by in the evening to shut the birds up, I found this poor Lakenvelder cowering in a nest box, the walls smeared with blood.  The chicken was staggering, grievously wounded. She had no tail feathers, revealing the mangled, bloody nub of its tail.  Her skin from the top of her head to her upper neck had been completely flayed off, leaving a portion of her skull exposed, and she was still bleeding heavily.  I quickly got a small dog crate to put her in, and she gave an unnervingly un-chickenlike scream as I picked her up.  Amazingly, she is healing, and has a good appetite, but she still looks like hell. 

Here is where my understanding fails.  This is within normal for chickens.  It doesn’t matter if the flock is stressed or not, crowded or not, fed or not, all one breed or not.  It’s part of the chicken psyche, an occasional outcome of the pecking order. There are all sorts of things that have been tried to mitigate a problem that can reduce flock yield by 15%, ranging from beak trimming to contact lenses to a kind of hot sauce that you can put on a bird's back to make it distasteful to its “superiors.”  But the trait can’t be eliminated.  I know this is not totally alien to the human mind—ask any dalit--but it’s alien to me, and I’m happy to say that I can’t relate to it. 

Our birds have started laying eggs, and this brings up another annoying facet of the chicken mind.  Not only are they prone to cannibalism, but they will also eat one another’s eggs.  I’m not sure that our birds do this, but I did find one egg that had been broken.  I can’t tell if it was pecked at or merely trod upon, but it has me worried.  The lore among chicken growers is that once they develop a taste for egg, they can never be cured*. 

I suppose this isn’t totally out of the range of human experience, but at least infanticide (and infantophagy) within a group is pretty universally frowned upon.  The practices are found in some mammals, but the motivation is probably different (e.g. males of harem species killing the offspring of their predecessors, presumably to free up mates to receive new genes).

That said, there are aspects of the chicken psyche that, while I find completely alien, I would kind of like to experience. 

Perhaps driven by egg-eaters, some of our hens have started to lay their eggs in our hay-storage area.  I was only alerted to this by a soft clucking noise coming from a narrow space between bales this morning.  Shining a light into the space, I saw a buff-colored chicken butt.  I left it alone and set to feeding the sheep, and when I returned there were two chicken butts crammed into the space.  A little later, there was the celebratory cackling that heralds the arrival of an egg into the world.  Only one bird was there, but she was still firmly planted there.  I was able to stick my hand under her, and lift her up and out of the stack of bales—and here she demonstrated the state of consciousness I’d like to experience:  she seemed to have achieved the Buddhist ideal of the empty mind.  Her body was still, she was not especially responsive to pretty dramatic stimuli (like getting bodily picked up and squeezed between two bales of hay), and she had a peaceful expression and made a contented purr. 

Maybe a lama can achieve this mental state, but it’s still alien to me.  Maybe it’s the yin to balance the violently hierarchical yang of the chicken mind.  But the serene, empty mind is my human mind’s projection onto the mental state of the sitting hen—what's really going on in there is alien, unknowable.  Given the evolutionary history of our barnyard chooks, it makes me wonder what consciousness would be like if dinosaurs evolved in that direction.

Deep thoughts about shallow minds?  This video is relevant.

*I heard one story of a chicken owner who discovered that her hens’ eggs were being eaten—she found broken shells and consumed yolks.  She didn’t want to get rid of her whole flock, but she couldn’t watch them all the time to tell who was the culprit.  One suspect after another was turned into soup, sometimes on flimsy evidence, but the eggs—produced in ever-diminishing numbers—continued to be eaten.  She was down to the last couple of birds when she discovered that the ovivore was her dog, who had figured out the latch to the coop.

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