August 1, 2012
I was born on 8th December, 1993, the year of the Chicken*.
Ever since that fateful day, I have embarked on a pilgrimage with one purpose and one purpose only – to turn my awful predicament on its head by freeing Gallus gallus domesticus from all the unfair stereotyping it is caged by.
You see, chickens are not exactly held in high esteem by the general public. True, they make a splendid meal when oven-roasted and complemented with caramelised onions and garlic sauce. But as an animal, they are seen, at best, as silly birds that can’t fly and, at worst, as poor, pathetic poultry that squawk stupidly and flap around frantically, constantly repapering their enclosures with a thick layer of brown feathers.
When compared with other members of the Chinese Zodiac, you can see why chickens may not have the most favourable of reputations. There’s the Dragon – powerful, majestic and wise; the Horse –elegant and a reliable companion; the Tiger – a brave, graceful yet devilishly cunning hunter; and there’s the chicken – the bird-brained fowl that can’t even fly to save its life.
The word “chicken” is practically synonymous with “coward” in modern usage. I think Mrs Tweedy from the charming 2000 British stop-motion film Chicken Run rather accurately sums up society’s unfortunate sentiments towards the fowl. As she so eloquently put it to her fumbling husband, “They’re chickens, you dolt! Apart from you, they’re the stupidest creatures on the entire planet!”
This rather unhealthy negativity surrounding the chicken is such that it has even masked the undisputable fact that the chicken is, in fact, the closest living relative to the Tyrannosaurus Rex. “How the mighty have fallen!” you might exclaim. How could the towering King of all Lizards, the 40-foot-long predator that roamed the earth 65 million years ago, be reduced to this diminutive, feathered creature that so often pops up, grilled and sliced, in your plate of Caesar salad**?
In this article, I hope to enlighten you to the fact that chickens are by no means dull organisms. While lacking the physical grandeur of an extinct dinosaur, they are actually subject of a whole host of interesting scientific facts, surprising historical anecdotes and a philosophical question that has baffled thinkers for centuries.
Their usefulness to humans
The very first argument I came up with many years ago to defend the poor bird was quite simply its immense usefulness to us, humans.
For starters, the success of chickens in kitchens cannot be contended. From the chicken wings we clamoured for as children to the honey-roasted chicken steaks so universally adored, these birds have, without doubt, served our palates well.
Lesser known, perhaps, is the creativity with which my Chinese ancestors treated the animal with in the kitchen. Chicken feet are but the least bizarre on the list of seemingly unpalatable dishes the Chinese indulge in. The heart, liver, kidneys and tongue are all edible to us folks, as is the brain – a rare delicacy. Chicken blood is, of course, drained, congealed and then served in soups. One of my best friends in Hong Kong has a particular partiality to chicken testicles, and is always sure to order a plate of them each time we go out for hot-pot dinners. The remaining bones are then used to make the most excellent of soup bases – as they say, “Waste not, want not”.
Chickens also produce an array of useful by-products. Take eggs for example. Forgetting for a moment that egg yolks contain just about the highest concentration of cholesterol of any food, eggs are an incredible source of nutrients, comprising the most complete battery of proteins of all foods nutritionists have come across.
In the West, eggs are boiled, fried, scrambled, poached and even steamed. Predictably, though, the Chinese are a step ahead in terms of creativity. Salted eggs are a commonplace in East Asia, as are tea eggs – brown in colour and veiny in texture, but delicious nonetheless. The thousand-year egg is arguably the most foreboding of egg variations in terms of looks. It is a semi-translucent brown with a creamy, black yolk, and is prepared by burying the egg in clay infused with a mixture of wood ash, quicklime and salt for several months.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the Chinese have united their creativity and wits with their sometimes unscrupulous business mind-set to manufacture fake chicken eggs. But for the lack of a tiny air bubble present in real eggs, the synthetic eggs are practically indistinguishable from the real thing – that is, at least, until you start turning blue and sprouting extra arms from you belly-button.
Meat, organs, bone and eggs have all been stripped down so far. That leaves just the outermost layers. Chicken skin, when not eaten, can be used to make leather, and chicken feathers, both in the East and the West, are used to make feather dusters. Western children might remember them being used for cleaning purposes. Chinese children will more likely associate them with corporal punishment – the thin end for beating, the other end for torturous tickling.
I hold that the chicken may well be the most multi-faceted animal of all and, among the entire animal kingdom, only the sheep comes close to rivalling it, providing us with tender meat, sheepskin leather, woollen jackets, milk, cheese and experimental subjects for high-profile cloning experiments. Let this be some consolation for my brother, born two years earlier than me, in the year of the sheep.
The abundance of chicken-themed scientific facts
Another great aspect of the chicken is quite simply how many useless but remarkable scientific facts you can spout out about the animal.
– The belief that chickens can’t fly is a misbelief; chickens are perfectly capable of flight – just for short periods of time. The Guinness Book of World Records puts the longest flight time of a chicken at 13 seconds, and places the farthest distance flown at 301 feet, meaning that the Olympians of chickens would just about make it across a football field without interfering with an on-going match! I confess I am glad, though, that the script-writers for Chicken Run decided to ignore this particular fact. It would have made for a much shorter and far less exciting film.
– It comes in handy to know that there are more chickens than humans on the planet – in fact, they outnumber us four to one. As you plough through yet another useless factoid on chickens, there are over 25 billion of them in cages hatching plans of vengeance on humanity, attempting to escape from chicken pie factories, and trying to break various poultry-related world records.
– It might interest you to know that an unfertilised chicken egg (the sort you eat for breakfast) is in fact one single cell. Counter-intuitively, the yolk is not the nucleus, but rather a giant nutrient storage tank within the cell (the actual nucleus is the tiny disk on the side of the yolk). This means that the egg of an ostrich (incidentally, another close relative of our friend, the T. Rex) is the largest single cell known to exist.
– You may consider that state of semi-wakefulness most usually experienced during early-morning classes as being half-asleep. Let me tell you: chickens sneer at your idea of “half-asleep”. They are able to put themselves into a state called “unihemispheric slow-wave sleep”, whereby one cerebral hemisphere goes to sleep and the other half of the brain stays awake! This allows the bird to rest half its brain while (absolutely literally) keeping one eye out for predators. Unihemispheric slow-wave sleep is also seen in some dolphins and whales. Instead of napping for short periods of time or snoozing at the surface of the water, certain species can slumber for days on end by keeping one side of their brain conscious (and one eye open) to surface and breathe periodically.
– How can an article on biology be complete without mention of genes? It turns out that the chicken was the first bird to have its genome sequenced. Scientists have found that its genome is made up of 78 chromosomes (packages of DNA), whereas each human cell only houses 46! Still, it is no match for the hermit crab. At a whopping 254, the crab contains more than twice the number of chromosomes chickens and humans have put together. Fortunately for us, though, the number of chromosomes an organism has is no measure of its complexity. Otherwise, it would be disturbing that a chimpanzee has the same number of chromosomes as a potato, or that the single-celled amoeba has more chromosomes than a human being!
The urban myths surrounding the chicken
I think, deep down, everybody knows how remarkable an animal the chicken is. As a result of our subliminal reverence for it, chickens have a tendency to crop up everywhere in popular culture.
“Cock-a-doodle-doo” – the rooster’s crow at the crack of dawn. That is, in English, anyway. In French, it’s “cocorico”, in Spanish – “quiquiriqui”, in Thai – “ake-e-ake-ake”, in Icelandic, allegedly – “gaggala gaggala gu”. Personally, I think “Err-uh-errrrrrrrooooo-uh” is a far more accurate representation, and find myself baffled at the bizarre representations the various countries around the world have chosen.
But the point I’m trying to get at is that roosters don’t crow at the crack of dawn at all! Despite what numerous authors and cartoon producers have been trying to indoctrinate us into believing, roosters do not have some mysterious ability to detect the sunrise and act as some farmland alarm clock. Rather, they crow all the time. They crow when they see other roosters, when they feel threatened, when a bright light is shone in their faces, when they want to mate, when they’re hungry and, perhaps most of all, when they’re being slaughtered by Mrs Tweedy.
Like most animals, roosters have a biological clock called the circadian rhythm which dictates when they go to sleep and when the wake up. If their rhythm is upset, they’re just as likely to crow in the middle of the night (as many sleepless farmers would know) as they are during any other time of the day.
Another common myth is that when chickens cross-breed with turkeys, they give birth to little “turkins”, which are supposedly mouth-wateringly delicious. Unfortunately, despite admirable persistence by farmers and scientists alike, turkeys and chickens remain stubbornly incompatible. There exists, however, an American dish consisting of a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey, called a “turducken”.
The idea that chickens might be able to mate with turkeys isn’t as outlandish as one might think. Animal hybrids do occur. The most common example is probably the mule – a cross between a female horse and a male donkey. Other hybrids are rarer, and tend to have more comical names. The zorse, for example, is the product of breeding a zebra with a horse, the yakow is a cow/yak hybrid, and the liger boasts a lion father and a tigress mother (the tigon is vice versa).
The final myth is that all chickens can survive without their heads. The disproof for this widely perpetuated myth is quite simple – simply remove a chicken’s head and see how long it lasts. Countless people have attempted to behead their chickens in hope of being the proud owner of a headless chicken, but all attempts thus far have ended in failure – and spectacularly messy failures at that. However, there is more than a grain of truth in this urban legend, and the true story that sparked it all off is a fascinating one.
With regards to the story of Miracle Mike, I believe the phrase “the truth can be stranger than fiction” comes into apt usage. It is one of those rare occurrences in science where a story commonly believed to be a hoax is, in actual fact, the complete truth.
Miracle Mike, more commonly known as Mike the Headless Chicken, was – as his name suggests – a headless chicken. The miracle about the cockerel is that he managed, astonishingly, to stay alive and well for a whopping eighteen months after parting from his head.
Upon the chicken’s beheading on 10th September, 1945, farmer Lloyd Olsen was rather astonished to see that Mike, as opposed to falling limp and as most roosters do after having their heads removed, refused to die and end up on his owner’s dinner plate (in case you’re wondering, yes, roosters can be eaten; they just tend not to be as tender as the hens we most commonly consume).
Aware that many who heard the story would consider it a hoax or scam, farmer Olsen took Headless Mike to the University of Utah to have his story authenticated. Upon examination, it became apparent that, thanks to the American farmer’s poor aim, the rooster’s head had not been completely severed. The axe had missed the jugular vein, and left an ear and the brain stem intact. It was later revealed that a conveniently-located blood clot prevented the bird from bleeding to death upon departure from most of its head.
Miracle Mike was an instant celebrity and spent the rest of his life on tour with a two-headed calf, earning obscenely large amounts of money for his owner. His story was even published the following October in LIFE magazine. He was fed through his oesophagus, being given water and milk via an eye-dropper and, occasionally, kernels of corn to swallow. After one-and-a-half-years of headless survival, Mike passed away. Some sources say he choked to death on his own phlegm, others say he simply couldn’t breathe properly and suffocated. In the city of Fruita, an annual festival is held in honour of Mike, whereby a number of chicken-related games and competitions are held, such as the “5K Run Like a Headless Chicken Race”.
Mike’s case does sound unbelievable and, despite a huge surge of copycat chicken beheadings reminiscent of the French Revolution in its bloodiness, nobody has since managed to reproduce a headless (or almost headless, for that matter) chicken that has survived for more than a day.
For those still doubtful about the authenticity of Mike’s heedlessness, some of the following cases of brain loss in humans might just change your mind about the necessity of a complete brain for survival.
Take Phineas Gage, for example, whose neurological mishap predated Mike’s head-loss by a century. The 25-year-old was working with explosives when a three-and-a-half-foot-long iron rod was propelled clean through his head. After vomiting out “half a teacup full of brain”, Gage was patched up by his doctor and recovered in a matter of months. In his remaining twelve years, he was remarkably healthy for someone who had lost most of his left frontal lobe though, admittedly, he did suffer from a drastic personality change, spurring intense discussion among neurologists about the role of certain parts of the brain in human behaviour.
Similarly astounding is a surgical technique called hemispherectomy. In certain forms of the most extreme, untreatable cases of chronic seizure, half the brain is removed from the patient’s skull. This radical procedure is seen as the single most invasive surgery in existence. Incredibly, patients not only survive with just half a brain, they continue to lead normal lives. Loss of vision in one eye and paralysis in one arm is common, as is some speech difficulty (usually following the loss of the left hemisphere), but there is minimal change in personality and intelligence. The younger the patient, the higher the chance of a full recovery.
Another lovely example of someone functioning with very little brain is a 44-year-old married father of two who, after experiencing a weakness in his left leg, was given a CT scan and put through an MRI. Doctors were completely flabbergasted, to say the least, when they discovered the man had very little brain. Due to a childhood case of hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid had compressed his brain to a thin sheet plastering his skull. Remarkably, with less than a third of the usual brain volume, the French civil servant had an IQ that, while extremely low, was considered within the normal range.
So maybe a chicken staying alive after losing the majority of its brain is not that far-fetched after all, especially taking into account how much simpler and how differently-structured the chicken brain is when compared to our own. Still, with nothing but the brain stem intact to maintain only the most basic of bodily functions, one can’t help but wonder if Miracle Mike could truly be considered “alive” after his little accident. On that philosophical note, we shall move on to my final reason for considering the chicken to be such an intriguing animal.
The Chicken or the Egg
If an egg is laid by a chicken and a chicken is hatched from an egg, which one came first? This part-philosophical, part-biological conundrum that has plagued thinkers for millennia is one that has a surprisingly straightforward answer.
In evolutionary terms, chickens are a very recent animal. The red junglefowls from which chickens were bred were egg-layers, and so were the earlier birds predated the junglefowl. The more ancient reptiles laid eggs, and so did the amphibians before them. The lobe-finned fish that first ventured onto land reproduced by laying eggs, as did the all the fish it left behind in the ocean. In a nutshell, eggs were around for half a billion years before the chicken, so the answer is: eggs came first.
That, of course, is not the answer you were looking for. To keep more in the spirit of the apparent paradox, we might want to rephrase the question to “Which came first, the chicken or the chicken egg?”
Well, in this case, we need to ask ourselves what we mean by “chicken egg”. If you define it as “an egg from which a chicken hatches”, then the answer would be that the egg came first. Two not-quite-chickens mated and the female laid an egg that contained the genetic material we would now consider a chicken’s. Since genes don’t change after fertilisation, the egg must have been a chicken egg – which obviously came before the chicken it fostered. On the other hand, if we take “chicken egg” to mean “an egg laid by a chicken”, than the answer is quite simply the reverse – the first chicken egg would have been the first egg laid by that first chicken. Q.E.D.
A question more worthy of today’s scientific minds, in my humble opinion, is whether DNA or proteins came first.
The DNA carries the information necessary to manufacture proteins, yet proteins make up the molecular machinery capable of assembling DNA. We have a true paradox here – neither could have existed without the other, so which came first?
The answer is that neither came first. It is RNA that was the true precursor of all life on earth. RNA, while simpler in structure than the more stable DNA, is capable of both information storage and self-replication. It is thought that RNA may have been the first molecule of life to emerge from the primordial world three-and-a-half billion years ago, leading to the emergence of DNA, proteins and the whole host of other organic molecules that form the basis of life now.
That’s quite enough about chickens now, I think
If, once upon a time, you ever considered chickens not to be the most interesting creatures on the planet, I sincerely hope that I have succeeded in changing your mind.
There is no doubt in my mind that these fowls have, through the centuries, been a huge influence on the evolution of society and on human cognition, shaping the world as we see it. On the off chance that I am mistaken, well, I’m sure we can all agree upon the fact that they do, at least, make for intellectual dinner conversations.
*In the English translation of the Chinese Zodiac, the sign is more typically referred to as the year of the Rooster. However, since the originators of the Chinese language saw no reason to differentiate between chickens, roosters, hens, cocks, cockerels, capons, chicks, chooks, yardbirds and domesticated fowls, I see no reason to complicate the matter.
**You might be interested to know that the reason why crocodiles taste like chicken is that birds and dinosaurs share a close common ancestor, and dinosaurs, in turn, are anatomically very similar to modern-day reptiles.