Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/September 1888/Mental Traits in the Poultry-Yard

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THE instincts and ordinary habits of the common barn-yard fowl have been closely studied and exhaustively discussed, but it is otherwise with the almost human emotions and mental processes which are sometimes to be observed in the poultry-yard. The mere searcher for knowledge will discover them with difficulty, but they are easily found by an eye which sees with the long familiarity of companionship. Many summers of fond intimacy with the poultry of a western New York farm long ago convinced at least two boys of this fact. Living in Buffalo, the writer and a brother, who was an inseparable companion, boarded through the whole or a part of several seasons, sometimes six months together, on a farm in Orleans County. Our time was entirely our own, and, as we found little companionship among the busy country lads, many days might have hung heavily on our hands had we not been wholly content to spend the greater part of them among the chickens and the turkeys; only one season, we added ducks. Our parents had taught us to love and observe Nature, and we were well read for our years in natural history. What was of more importance, we had been led from early childhood to be exact and painstaking in all things. Our play with toys was tiresome to most boys by reason of its carefulness. Under such circumstances it will not, perhaps, be thought strange that either of us could tell every fowl, young or old, toward the end of each summer, by its name and nearly all of them by their cackling. Usually there were about one hundred on the premises. We not only knew their general appearance as we would familiar faces, but I think there is no doubt that a glimpse of even the half of any head in the barn-yard would have been enough for instant recognition. We knew every hen's nest, when the egg-yield was two dozen a day, and my brother could promptly and with certainty sort out ten dozen eggs and tell which hen laid every one. When there were twenty half-grown cockerels on the farm we could readily name any one which crowed out of sight. Poultry, hens as well as their more pugnacious lords, always keep a well-defined scale of authority in force. Not one out of fifty is ignorant of its superiors and inferiors. A brood of young chickens will often settle all this business, while yet little more than fuzzy balls, by a series of really cruel fights. We never missed these exhibitions of infantile ferocity if we could help it, and a particularly savage young fighter was immediately a marked object of our admiring interest. He was usually given a long name out of the copious vocabulary of our chicken dialect, a form of speech which always amazed those who chanced to overhear it. We counted it one of the least of our duties to keep accurately informed concerning all changes of rank, and to know at any time just how many others every fowl on the farm could "boss," and how many, in turn, "bossed" it. From the old sultan, who acknowledged no rivals, to the forlorn "scrub" of the youngest brood of chicks which had fought out their station, there were no exceptions. These facts, which might easily be multiplied, will suffice to account for the exceptional observations of our long experience as poultry-lovers.

We early learned that our pets had striking individuality. In this broad fact we found ample reason to note with interest rather than surprise the after-discoveries of almost human traits which made them a never-ending delight. There were young roosters all fuss and bluster from the first, while others were singularly quiet and wary, just as some hens were solitary and suspicious, and others were trustful in the extreme and wretched without much company. These traits were not only inherited, but could be discerned very early. Two or three of the bravest hens on the farm would always, after "stealing a nest," with our permission, bring out a brood of young fighters as much like their mother in habits as in appearance. We could only guess at the descent in the male line. In one case of this kind, where a fine hen was left with but a single chick after the casualties of the first few days, we managed to make the little fellow so conceited and pugnacious that he would fight chickens twice his size, and more than once before he was weaned he tried to whip his mother. This we did by throwing food to a larger chicken, beginning with one which we knew to be cowardly, in such a way that it would get the morsel while its tail was turned toward our little champion. Immediately another tidbit, dropped in front of the victim, would make it appear to be running away at the very time that it was getting all the food the other wanted. He soon showed his disgust by pecking the retreating form of the hungry chicken, and we never let the object of his wrath turn until he was very sure that it was afraid of him; then, if it showed too much pluck, we could always tempt or drive it away in time to make our little pet think it was really conquered. The tiny victor was as proud as if he had been four times as big, and got his fill to eat as his reward. By a long course of this sort of training his audacity became only less remarkable than his courage and fierceness in fighting. With other young roosters, until they were nearly half-grown, the same tactics usually succeeded in bringing on a fight. Often we started a "feed" with one, the confident master, and the other, the uneasy but intimidated subject, and ended it with the positions reversed, after a bloody struggle. In this test the difference in disposition was exactly what it would have been in human beings under like conditions. Some were eager to venture a peck at the apparently yielding tyrant, and would quickly jump at the conclusion that he was overthrown. But the confidence with which a cockerel of this sort chased his indignant but hungry master was only exceeded by the briefness of his resistance when the outraged victim of our tricks was allowed to turn and fight. Young roosters of another stamp could only rarely be deceived into mistaking the movements of a superior in rank, but when, after long and careful manoeuvring, in which the one of us whose business it was to keep away a swarm of hungry spectators generally grew very tired, the subject did conclude that he had somehow changed places with his former tyrant, there was a fierce fight, and the rebel often won. It was the old story of the terrors of pugnacity, hard to arouse, and the strength of purposes slowly formed.

It is in fighting that some of the most curious traits are manifested by fowls of all kinds. Notice the coops of Cochins and brahmas in a poultry-show, and you will find many of the cocks with combs bloody and scarred from pecking one another's heads. They thrust their necks out between the side of the coop and the first slat in front and clumsily punish each other. In long rows of coops of games, placed in exactly the same way, not a peck is given. It is not that the slow and easily whipped Asiatics are fonder of fighting than the ideal gladiators of the animal world, but simply that no game-cock will put himself at a disadvantage by getting his head in reach first. When game-cocks look out, it is through one of the middle spaces. Fighting is too serious a business with these high-spirited birds to be mixed with foolishness. Other breeds than games, however, occasionally produce natural fighters that show remarkable cunning. A light and graceful young dominique, one of the proudest and most intelligent of our pets, belonged to a neighbor, but was very fond of coming over to a barn-yard which was about as near his home as the house where we boarded. He was very reluctant to endure punishment in fights, but he was also loath to retreat before any antagonist, and dearly loved to have us feed him and "bide and doctor wi' 'im," as the Devonshire farm-hand put it. The consequence was, that he would try a round with any foe, and if he found himself overmatched he generally managed to retreat with a brave show of fight and get off without much loss of blood or prestige. One day he was attacked by a turkey, and at the very beginning of the combat he happened to light on its back. No descendant of the race which lived, in a wild state, in terror of the downward swoop of the great horned owl, can bear to be attacked from above, and the turkey cried for quarter at once. The lesson of the easy victory was not lost, and thenceforth the young cock fought turkeys with evident relish, always managing to reach their backs, and so routing them with ease and celerity. Our best rooster, however, was too strong and heavy to suit him, and encounters with this hard fighter were very unwelcome. While one of us fed the visitor, the other would catch the home champion, and by taking him around to the farther side of the barn let him enter the barn-yard on the trespasser's line of retreat. Of course, there would be a fight, and it was difficult for the jaunty intruder to make his escape in good order without many severe knocks. After a time he always kept a sharp watch on the dangerous corner of the barn-yard, and at any suspicious noise in that quarter he started for home in great excitement. At last he almost entirely ceased to visit us. In the cellar of a house in Buffalo, where a number of chickens and two or three turkeys which had been brought up from a farm on Grand Island were kept until wanted for the table, I once saw a young black Spanish cock fight and win a bloody battle with a very large gobbler. The turkey tried to escape his vindictive conqueror by taking refuge upon a board partition at least four feet high, between two empty coal-bins. There he stood and stretched his long neck out as far as possible. The victor flew up beside him and tried in vain to reach his head. Then he wasted a few savage pecks upon the gobbler's heavy wing, and gave that up in disgust. At last he appeared to study out a plan, and deliberately flew straight for the turkey's head, seized it with his beak, and hung on as long as possible. Then, dropping to the ground, he contentedly mounted again to the side of his terrified victim and repeated the punishment. This he did the third time, with perfect system, and would have gone on indefinitely had I not interfered to save the wretched bird. An Indian could not have taken more delight in torturing a vanquished foe. The most remarkable exhibition of cunning in cock-fights, however, that came under my observation, was witnessed in the barn-yard of a farm adjoining our Orleans County headquarters. There were three old roosters on the place, and they had divided up the territory instead of holding each one a certain rank in all of it. The cow-stable and a corner of the barn-yard adjacent belonged to a big clumsy partridge Cochin, the horse-stable and the grain-barn to a cock more black Spanish than anything else, and the end of the barn-yard farthest from the stables, with the house door-yard, to a white Leghorn. There were neutral zones, as the diplomats say, between every two divisions, and these were the scene of some sharp fighting and a great deal of crowing and hostile manoeuvring. One day the Cochin and the white Leghorn met in the barn-yard, and the latter began his usual tactics of worrying his enemy, taking precious care of himself all the time. He was never fond of hard hitting, but trusted mainly to trickery. The big Cochin would stretch his neck up, now and then, and thunder out a ponderous challenge, and every time the agile Leghorn made a quick rush, sometimes going six feet, and knocked the helpless Asiatic nearly or quite off his feet before he could stop crowing or lower his head. When the victim recovered, his foe was invariably out of reach. At last the white rooster was given a taste of his own clever tactics. He had been crowing freely with impunity all the time, but suddenly, as he began another shrill taunt, he was startled by a rush like his own and knocked over before he could get into position for defense. After that the Cochin never missed a chance to use this artifice in fighting, with other cocks as well as the white Leghorn. He had acquired skill as truly as any general ever did.

An amusing test of the difference of disposition in barnyard fowls may be made by placing a piece of looking-glass against the trunk of a large tree, and laying a train of corn in front of it. Some hens will discover what they all take for a new arrival with mild curiosity and merely look at it intently, perhaps peering around behind the tree, and then walk quietly away. Others peck the glass angrily and insist upon fighting, while a few nervous females show much the same noisy excitement that seizes upon most hens when they spy a snake. We tried the valiant old autocrat of the farm-yard with this trick, and he was at once roused to fury. Dropping his head when some ten feet in front of the glass, he began the cautious advance by parallels, which every one familiar with poultry has seen before a fight. But, of course, he soon lost his enemy by moving too far to one side. After crowing fiercely and looking around uneasily for a few moments, he returned to the train of corn, and almost instantly saw the strange cock nearer than before. More stealthy approach, another failure to keep sight of the foe, and greater excitement, and a third time he began to eat, only to be startled by the hostile presence nearer than ever. At last he worked right up to the glass and braced himself for the shock of combat, the counterfeit, of course, following his every movement with ominous celerity. There was one fierce peck at the angry head in the glass, and then a crash, as our infuriated champion hurled himself against his likeness, breaking the glass into a hundred fragments. The mingling of astonishment, rage, and triumph in this bird's appearance, as he whirled about, startled at the cracking noise, and bewildered by the total disappearance of his enemy, was comical to behold. Then he rushed around behind the big pear-tree, evidently thinking that the cowardly stranger might be hidden there. Not finding him, the victor strutted about, too excited to eat, and crowed long and loud over his unprecedented triumph. The other cock was entirely wiped out of existence, and our old fighter, who would crow defiantly in our arms whenever he found himself being carried off the premises, knowing from experience that a set-to was coming, could scarcely credit his senses.

Of the many feelings which human beings and poultry have in common, one is the sense of mortification. On a fine summer morning a group of cockerels, of various ages, were lounging about in the door-yard, when they began a crowing tournament. Some of the smallest and most humble stood contentedly on the ground, but soon one flew upon the carriage-step and crowed from that elevation. He was promptly eclipsed by another, who gave vent to an exultant challenge from the top of the hitching-post. Then the proudest and handsomest of them all walked a few steps with an air of conscious superiority, and flew straight up to the highest bar of the reel of a reaper near by. It was a simple reel of light horizontal bars, not connected with the rake, and revolved very easily. While the young dandy's wings were still flapping in triumph and he had not yet begun to crow, the reel turned under his weight and lowered him swiftly to the ground. Without a sound the crestfallen rooster walked away, too ashamed to look around. We often enjoyed a still more amusing exhibition of this sort on the part of the proudest old cock on the place. He was a very gallant Mormon, and intensely self-conscious when among the hens; but if coaxed off by himself, on a side of the house where no other fowl was in sights he could be easily frightened out of his dignity. A hat thrown at him would send him squawking around the corner of the building, his plumage disarranged, and his whole appearance eloquent of blind terror. We always managed it that he should run straight into a group of hens, and the desperate haste with which he choked down his wild cackling and began to murmur amorous nothings to the ladies of his harem was only less ridiculous than the instant change in his whole appearance, which became that of a pompous and leisurely sultan. He generally overacted a little, making an extra display of his careless gallantry and elegance to show how absurd it was to suspect that he could have been in the least alarmed. A laughable instance of similar mortification in the biggest turkey on the farm was noticed one late autumn day, when this great gobbler and numerous others, much younger and smaller, were eating grass and strutting in the door-yard. Just as the old gobbler spread his tail for a tremendous strut, a young turkey stepped quickly up behind him and pecked sharply at the small spot of skin exposed in the center of the big fellow's great fan of feathers. It was evidently done through a mistaken notion of the object tested, but it hurt the victim's pride terribly to have such liberty taken with his person. Down came his tail, and he walked off in injured dignity, conscious that he had been involved in something ridiculous.

A disappointed barn-yard fowl is often as cross as if it could show its temper after the manner of human beings. The big dominique rooster that smashed the looking-glass was a very good-natured fellow with hens and young chickens, and he seldom resented having kernels of corn, no matter how many, snatched out from under his beak, when it was done in a fair scramble. But if he had begun to crow, and a kernel was unexpectedly dropped where he certainly would have got it, had he not been so busy, it was too much to see his share taken away by any other fowl. He frequently pecked the offender as soon as he could stop crowing, and showed general ill-temper for a few moments. His indignation was so amusing, that we fell into the habit of teasing him in this way, until, at last, the old fellow began to practice choking down the rest of his crow when corn was thrown in front of him. Gradually he managed to stop more and more quickly, and in the end he would swallow his voice with a gulp, and snatch a bit of food as promptly as if he had not been crowing at all.

A half-brother of this rooster learned very quickly to crow for corn, once for every kernel. He used to stand before us and crow as regularly as clock-work, always stopping for his reward, and never expecting a second kernel until he had crowed again. When almost satisfied, he waited much longer between times, and at last walked contentedly away. A black hen once showed almost equal intelligence in learning, not how to get food but how to be relieved of some which she could not help carrying around on her feathers. In the barbarous eagerness of boys to bring about fights, we often daubed old hens that held high rank and had many discontented subjects, with mud or anything else which would disguise them. On one occasion we dyed a speckled cock red with carpet-dye, glued a stiff, high comb of paper on his frost-amputated stump, and tied up his wattles under his throat. This overdid the business to such an extent that the other roosters fled from him in horror, as if he had been a hawk, and the Devonshire farm-hand, looking at him in amazement, exclaimed, "Byes, what fresh bird have ye brought about here?" Mud failed on the black hen in question, and we tried common paste, never thinking of one result—it turned the poor hen's feathers back, like those of a frizzled fowl—and, after we had done our best to wash the paste off, she was still in a sad plight. Many of her inferiors whipped her badly, and at last she became broken in spirit and made no resistance. Then the other hens began to eat the paste off her feathers, and the poor bird would deliberately walk up to her former subjects and stand patiently to be eaten clean. In time she recovered her beauty, but never her lost rank.

Nations, shorn of their prestige or territory in one quarter, often "seek compensation" in another, where their neighbors are weak; and brutes in human form, after being whipped in a drunken fight by other men, sometimes soothe their wounded pride by beating their wives at home. So it is with poultry. A cock, chased by one of higher rank, will often vent his spite upon the first half-grown cockerel that comes within his reach, and even bully hens around until he recovers from his own humiliation. From that allied weakness which makes men bluster most when in greatest fear, hens that are weak enough at other times, are savage toward young roosters, sure soon to become their masters. They chase them with noisy fury, and try in every way to intimidate them, carefully avoiding a trial of strength, however, as long as possible. When it comes, they collapse into shrieking submission, with laughable suddenness. When a hen simply ignores a young cockerel, he usually encounters much more serious resistance, and sometimes has to fight hard for victory.

Hens are harder to deceive, in some respects, than many women. They flock up to a rooster with eager freedom, when he is eating busily in silence, while they are very shy of heeding his most artful invitations to a feast, real or imaginary. When he eats they know there is something good, and that he is not thinking of entrapping them; but when he shakes his head up and down, picking up morsels in his beak and calling as a hen calls her chickens, they understand the amorous and deceitful ways of their lord too well to approach him rashly. Some cocks play comparatively few tricks, and they are much more trusted than others which are as insincere as seductive. Neither is the average fowl easily humbugged, on the other hand, by attempts to conceal a real feast. It is amusing to observe the calm, careless manner of a hen which has caught a mouse, as she walks off toward a secluded spot, making the same contented, nothing-to-do noise which is her ordinary note of idleness. This, of course, happens only when there is a chance that no other hen saw the mouse caught. But usually some quick-witted sister will at once "smell a mouse," and steal quietly up behind, not infrequently announcing her coming by snatching at the coveted dainty. The poultry yard is always on the alert for a valuable discovery on the part of one of its inmates, and ready to put a sort of highway-robber socialism into practice at a moment's notice.

The foregoing plain statements of fact are but a few of the many proofs which the writer has seen of the existence in common barn-yard fowls of a degree of intelligence usually attributed only to much, higher animals. Surely they show something far above the instincts familiar to all students of Nature. The sense of mortification in an individual has only a distant relationship to the rare instinct which makes chickens that were never out of the heart of a great city, and could not possibly have seen a more formidable bird than a pigeon, skurry for shelter when the far-off cry of the common hen-hawk is imitated in their presence. It is impossible for the bare narration of anecdotes to convey that certainty of intelligence and human emotions which early gave my brother and myself a sense of nearness to our farm-yard pets. We saw the countless little tricks of manner, the changes of expression, the indefinable consciousness which can never be appreciated save by those who, like ourselves, will literally live among unconfined and well-treated poultry. The purpose of this tribute will be served if it shall raise the reputation for intelligence of the barn-yard fowl, not indeed to the level of our belief, but somewhat above that on which the reader has heretofore placed it. The lesson is the oft-enforced truth that the greater part of what has been held by the majority of mankind to be exclusively human belongs only in less degree to the lower animals as well.