Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review of Home to Roost: Chasing Chickens through the Ages

Home to Roost is Bob Sheasley’s meditation on his research about chickens and their relationship with humans through the ages. The book is a fascinating and seemingly comprehensive examination of cultural beliefs about chickens and historical practices. For example, did you know that:

* Chickens were originally domesticated for cock-fighting. Cockfighting was especially popular among the aristocracy in Europe, but also in the U.S. Henry VIII, George Washington and Ben Franklin were enthusiasts.

* Many cultures used chickens for divination. In Cambodia and Thailand, shamans broke open the eggs to study patterns and colors while the ancient Greeks and Romans read chicken entrails. The Etruscans employed a less violent method, using chickens almost as living Ouija boards. According to Sheasley:

A temple priest would scribe a circle on the ground, make the letters of the alphabet around it, and place a kernel of corn on each letter. Inside the circle, he would position a sacred chicken. “Who will be the next emperor?” the priest would ask, or some such urgent question. As the chicken, wise and hungry, began eating, the priest paid rapt attention. And a remarkable thing happened: The chicken produced a sequence of letters, which the spellbound Etruscans found profound” (p45).
(I’m planning to try this game in the summer!)

* The Egyptians were mass producing eggs in 3000 BC! According to the Greeks, the Egyptians “built incubators of clay bricks that could brood up to ten thousand chicks” (p73).

Sheasley also examines contemporary issues and research, discussing problems with commercial chicken and egg production, the value of labels such as “cage-free” and “free range,” and reports studies finding, for example, that chickens put on weight faster if exposed to classical music.

I was particularly interested in the section on chicken mating practices. Sheasley reports that there is remarkable amount of research devoted to this. Apparently, hens are more discerning than they might appear. Researchers found, for example, that they can differentiate between roosters' calls that they’ve found food, and learn to ignore the liars. About 40% of the time, according to an Australian researcher, roosters’ calls are false.

Sheasley notes that researchers found that hens “wanted an honest rooster,” but more than that, wanted a brave one. Besides learning which calls for food are true, hens learn which alarm calls are reliable. Such calls were found to be the “strongest predictor of rooster success in mating” (p136).

Canadian researchers also studied whether hens preferred rougher broiler roosters or gentler roosters of layer breeds. They found that while different hens preferred different roosters, as they matured they generally preferred gentler roosters.

Frighteningly, broilers, bred to put on weight quickly and grow abnormally large breasts, and then genetically engineered in an effort to strengthen their hearts to better withstand this aberrant growth pattern, were found to be the most violent in their treatment of hens. They are excessively rough when mating, and some even attack and kill hens.

Sheasley weaves all this chicken lore with his experience of chicken-keeping in rural Pennsylvania. Written in a rambling style, reminiscent of a stroll down a country lane on a warm afternoon, and including imaginary conversations with Ulisse Aldrovandi, a 16th-century Italian scholar and naturalist, Sheasley’s treatise is a enjoyable read for anyone interested in history, culture, and chickens.

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