In the Chinese zodiac, 2017 is the Year of the Rooster, which means there’s never been a better time to dispel a few stereotypes regarding chickens. I’ve rescued, fell in love with, and bonded with numerous chickens throughout the past 18 years. Working with these beloved birds has given me an insight into their intelligence and affection, and I am now a firm believer that they are like feathered dogs capable of language, profound relationships, family, friendships, and deep understanding. Here are three things I’ve learned working at farmed animal sanctuary The Gentle Barn that most people don’t know about these intelligent creatures.
On recognizing their names: Many years ago, we had a rooster named Charlie who was gorgeous, macho, and adored by the ladies. At night, however, instead of roosting in the barn with the others, he chose to sleep on the ground in the corner of the barnyard. Because chickens cannot see once it is dark, and I feared for his safety, every evening I would go get him to bring him to a coop where he was safe until morning. One night I had friends over while I was putting the finishing touches on the evening feeding routine. As a joke, I called Charlie to come to me because I was tired and dreading crossing the yard to get him. My whole life I had heard that chickens were not so smart, so even though I called him, I didn’t expect him to understand. Much to my surprise, as soon as I had called him, Charlie came running to me as fast as he could. I was blown away! Each night thereafter I would call Charlie and he would run to me, and with a kiss and a hug I would put him to bed in his coop for the night.
On communicating with other chickens: Charlie was one of the first chickens to show me that the stereotype about these birds is wrong. Through him, I learned that chickens are, in fact, intelligent and generous and have a diverse language. Every time I would bring treats to the barnyard, Charlie would make a very specific sound to summon the ladies. The hens would come running as Charlie watched proudly while they ate. I’ve also learned that mother hens make a very specific sound to signal danger and that their babies dive under their wings when they hear it. Our chickens hang out in the barn on cold days and speak to each other in hushed tones, narrating their day and gossiping among themselves. In my experience at The Gentle Barn saving hundreds of chickens, I have seen that chickens have a highly developed language and communicate quite clearly with each other.
On being affectionate: I have known many chickens during my time at The Gentle Barn, but a few stand out as being so affectionate that their capacity to love and be loved is undeniable. I had a chicken named Strawberry who loved being held. She would fly at me when she wanted to snuggle, and I would have to drop whatever rake I was carrying to catch her. Most days I would do my chores with one arm with a happy, sleeping hen in the other. Similar to Strawberry, Ambrose was a bossy, proud rooster who also loved to be held. When he was feeling affectionate, he would peck me softly on my leg to ask to be picked up. He wanted to be carried so often, and for hours at a time, that I fashioned a baby sling to hold him while I worked in the barnyard. Finally, there’s Jasmine, who was only a few days old when we saved her from certain slaughter. She was too young to live in the barnyard without a chicken mom, so she lived in my house with me for five months. Jasmine sat in our laps when we watched TV, slept in bed with us, followed us around the house wherever we went, and sat perched on my shoulder in the car. I had an entire bedtime ritual with her in which I would sing and pet her as she fell asleep, and if I tried to cut it short, she would not go to sleep. She would sleep only if I sang the entire song and pet her for several minutes.
Ellie Laks is the founder of The Gentle Barn and author of the book My Gentle Barn, creating a sanctuary where animals heal and children learn to hope.