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Chicken 101

MY LIFE seems inextricably and somewhat mysteriously involved with chickens. It all began some 20 years ago when a classic little old lady approached me in a feed store and said: ``You have such a kind face, would you like some bantam chickens?'' Conscious of a con-in-the-making but mildly flattered and recalling my wife's stories of the bantam chickens she had had as a child, I said, ``yes.'' I followed the little old lady's directions to her house, which was a kind of impromptu aviary with feathered creatures everywhere, indoors and out. She gave me a cock and two hens.

After a few months of bantams it struck me that if I was going to keep chickens, I might as well keep full-sized chickens that laid full-sized eggs.

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Soon I was knee-deep in chickens and chicken byproducts - eggs, etc., and a fascinated student of chicken lore. Through the ``American Standard of Perfection'' (surely a wonderful title), the bible of the poultry world, I discovered that there were 41 approved breeds of chicken (not to mention bantams) from around the globe, and an almost infinite number of ``varieties.'' For example, the breed of Hamburg has six: gold-spangled, silver-spangled, gold-penciled, silver-penciled, white, and black.

In the midst of accumulating chicken lore I discovered that a colleague of mine, Charles Daniel, a young biologist, also kept chickens. We shared chicken lore and then decided it would be interesting to teach a course together on the remarkable history and the interesting physiology of the chicken.

Quite innocent of any intention to offend, in the spring of 1972 we advertised the course on the chicken and rounded up some students. Our task: everything known or that could be discovered about that intriguing fowl. The students were divided into teams according to their interest in some particular aspect of the chicken - the anthropological aspect, the chicken in literature and art, cockfighting, etc.

In the solemn and self-important atmosphere of the academic world, the course became an instant scandal. A ripple of dismay ran from the freewheeling West to the proper East. Anathemas were pronounced; edicts issued. Meanwhile, at least initially unaware of the furor, Charles Daniel and I and our students sailed blissfully on, learning together all kinds of fascinating things about chickens and, not incidentally, about humans (particularly the wicked things that humans have done to chickens to ``maximize profits'').

When the course was over, we wrote a book about all the things we and our students had learned about chickens. It was ``The Chicken Book.'' Published originally by Little, Brown (1975) it was favorably noted by reviewers and still finds responsive readers. One unanticipated consequence was that friends, whenever they saw chicken artifacts, however grotesque (indeed the more grotesque the better), bought such artifacts and gave them to me.

There were numerous other consequences. A German film critic named Jon-Stepjen Fink wrote a book called ``Cluck! The True Story of Chickens in the Cinema.'' In it, he was kind enough to refer to our book as ``the single most important modern document of the destiny shared by chickens and human beings.'' The author rates Hollywood movies on the basis of the appearance in them of chickens. A philosophical major emphasis (such as often occurs in Woody Allen movies) rates as a ``Four-Chicken Movie''; lesser emphasis One- or Two- or Three-Chicken Movies.

So much for the academic and literary side of the chicken. What might be called ``the chicken side'' - the actual raising of and caring for chickens - is equally enthralling. Chickens have lots of natural enemies - hawks, foxes (as we well know), skunks (eggs and small chickens), possums, dogs, children, raccoons (their most relentless and terrible enemy), and, in the West, coyotes and bobcats. The keeping of chickens is thus a form of warfare against the predators of chickens, and many a night my wife and I, aroused from blissful slumber by the terrified scream of a chicken, have tumbled out of bed, she with the flashlight and I with shotgun, to defend our feathered charges or, stumbling down the hill to the henhouse, making various colorful observations on the way.

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Given the length and intensity of my involvement with chickens, it was doubtless inevitable that when I had finished my rather substantial history of the United States, I should turn to the task of portraying chickens in all their multiformity in a variety of media. Portraying chickens is, happily, not a crowded field; I suspect that I have made a substantial start toward dominating it. Long ago Betty MacDonald wrote an engaging book called ``The Egg and I.'' If I am ever tempted to the autobiographical mode, I shall title the work ``The Chicken and I'' (lavishly illustrated by the author).

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