Terence Blacker: The many benefits of living life the poultry way

Hens who want to breed fluff out their feathers, an approach occasionally tried by humans, but rarely with the dead-eyed determination of a hen
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The Independent Online

It has been known for some time that we have only to look around at the natural world for solutions to some of humanity's trickier problems. Hippies have been droning on about this for 40 years or so, inviting us all to live like dolphins, whales or rabbits.

In the 1990s, business gurus began to get the message and compared management to hunting with wolves or swimming with sharks. Last year a brilliant book called Animals in Translation extended the idea, showing that the way different species communicate and behave can help humans to live more balanced, fulfilled lives.

Yet, surprisingly, no one has yet turned to one of our most familiar domestic animals in this quest for wisdom. Indeed, that marvellous and underrated bird, the chicken, has mysteriously become a byword for stupidity, panic and lack of basic social skills.

Not for long. Soon needy people everywhere - managers, life coaches, and people who just feel generally miserable and unfulfilled - will be turning to the henhouse for guidance. A current work-in-progress Running with Chickens: Living Life the Poultry Way will reveal how, while they may lack mankind's intellectual sophistication, chickens can, in their simple, honest, clucking way, help us all towards a natural, organic wisdom.

Management of the young, as done by chickens, has a structure which humans would do well to emulate. When first emerging from the henhouse in the morning, chicks are encouraged to tear about the place in a mad, an-ants-up-my-arse sort of way, flapping their wings, jumping up and down in a doomed attempt to fly, and occasionally squaring up to one another in a mock fight. After a few minutes of this silliness, they return to their mother who keeps them close to her for the rest of the day with a quiet, occasional clucking sound.

As they get older, the other hens and the cockerel will go through a phase of chasing the chicks about and beating them up, but in a caring way so that, when they reach full chickenhood, they are respectful yet fully formed as individuals. Who could deny that, as an upbringing, the poultry way is more evolved and sensible than our shambolic human model?

The hens themselves live out their days with enviable integrity and usefulness. Those without chicks concentrate on feeding. If they are not in the mood for sex, they avoid the cockerel. If they are, they allow him to jump on them while they continue to peck corn. When it comes to multitasking, human females are simply not in the same league as chickens.

Hens who want to breed fluff out their feathers and refuse to move, an approach occasionally tried by humans, but rarely with the dead-eyed determination of a hen. If broodiness happened to be a problem, a hen is content to be picked up and have its lower parts dipped in a bucket of cold water until the urge for procreation has passed - another useful, practical lesson for womankind.

The cockerel, unlike the human male, has discovered that one priority should rule its life: dignity. First thing in the morning, he will allow himself to do a randy little wing-stretching dance around his hens, a bit like a matador executing a pass around a bull. Apart from that, and regular no-nonsense acts of sexual activity, he will concentrate on looking important, in control and alert. Being seen to eat corn with the hens, for example, is considered supremely uncocklike; his job is to watch out for any passing fox. Only when the hens are taking a dust-bath, or are looking the other way, will the cockerel take a brief, surreptitious snack.

The entire flock is aware of the pecking order, a social order that runs itself with only the occasional altercation, after which a slightly revised hierarchy will be in place. There is no whingeing, no need for Asbos, counselling or chicken agony aunts. There is personal contentment and an atmosphere of peace and harmony in the henhouse.

It is time for us all to take the poultry way of life a lot more seriously.

Miles Kington is away

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