Underneath every bird's feathers lies the quickening heart of a velociraptor.
And sometimes it shows. As the Associated Press reports:
As more states move to ban restrictive livestock cages, the campaign to free egg-laying hens from cramped cages and shift them to pens animal rights advocates call more humane could be poised to unintentionally boost deaths among those birds.
Researchers say decades of breeding to make the white leghorn hens that lay most of the nation's eggs more productive have also boosted the birds' territorial instincts, making them prone to pecking attacks so fierce they're often called "cannibalism."
Scientists and egg producers warn that deadly skirmishes that start with feather-plucking and turn into bloody frenzies when a bird's pecking breaks a flockmate's skin will increase if those same aggressive hens are moved from small cages with five to 10 birds to open pens that can hold dozens.
Animal rights groups want those pens to replace the small "battery cages" they call cruel because hens are so confined they can't even spread their wings.
Seven states have passed laws that will eventually ban or limit different types of livestock cages. Two of those states — California and Michigan — have passed laws that will eventually ban battery cages for chickens, as has the European Union.
The fact that chickens are vicious little bastards is not exactly news.
Cock fights are predicated on the idea, and yes they still occur the world over, whether in a ring and watched by betting men, or unseen in the gloaming light of the chicken coop.
And, of course, chicken cannibalism has always been with us.
The above ad is from 1939, and is trying to cure the problem by fitting chickens with little spectacles to block their vision when they raise their heads. The glasses were held in place by pushing a metal pin through the chicken's beak.
Of course these spectacles were rejected, as was the idea of keeping massive numbers of egg layers in "free range" houses where cannibalism was highest and where eggs were soiled, spoiled and smashed.
Instead, we went to individual cages, with a small number of birds in each cage, not because this was cheap or in a desire to be cruel, but because when raising 200,000 egg-layers, an investment in cages prevents chickens from being cruel to each other.
Of course, all of this massive chicken-and-egg production is predicated by a simple fact: We no longer live in the age of schooners and candles.
While backyard chickens may work for some, they do not work for most and never will.
Here's a fact: 70 percent of all Americans -- 210 million people out of America's population of 300 million -- actually live in urban areas which comprise just 2% of America's land mass, and 60 million Americans live in our core central cities.
And guess what? Backyard chickens are generally prohibited in those areas and not without reason. People don't pick up after their dogs; you think they are going to pick up after their chickens? You think chicken shit, chicken feed and chicks don't attract rats by the barrel? I assure you they do. So, yes, backyard chickens can work for some (generally folks who treat their birds as pets and who never actually take one to the pot for food), but they will never work for most Americans.
Meanwhile, out in forest and field, far from farm theory, it is the cruel season, as fox predate turkey chicks, goose nests are decimated by flood, fox kits are buried under the plow, rabbit scrapes are torn apart by bushhogs, and hawks pluck small birds while still alive to feed to their always-hungry chicks.
In Asia, where the wild chicken, called the jungle fowl, still roams, more than 65% die before they reach the age of three months.
Life is short and harsh, and rarely idyllic outside of the parameters of a farm yard.
Of course this is as it has always been. Chickens lay a lot of eggs for a reason -- they are supposed to die by the trainload, and yes most of those short lives are supposed to be miserable (i.e. death at an early age from disease, flood, weather, and predation).
This is not a matter of opinion, but of fact. Food chains exist for a reason, and so too do rates of reproduction, which are the response to the Call of the Wild.
If you know the fertility rate of an animal, you also know a lot about its mortality, and the relative "value" that Mother Nature places on any one of its lives. A whale or an elephant then, is more important than a human (and generally has a less miserable life), and so it goes down the chain to cow, chicken, and stink bug.
The job of a chicken, then, is not to be happy, but to be a self-sustaining food source for other animals. That is the purpose of the chicken and why it was put on earth.
And on that score, they are doing very well. In fact, they are doing grand.
Is there any animal in America that is more common than the chicken?
From a purely Darwinian point of view, they have been a great success. Not only have they taught man to house, feed and water them, but they have taught man to police their coops to mitigate chicken-on-chicken violence.
And when death does come (and it must), the death is as swift and as pain-free as possible.
Only a human would consider this failure. A chicken, I suspect, does not.
But don't take my word for it -- go to a commercial chicken house and open the door, and see how many chickens rush outside. Not a one, I will bet.
A chicken may be bird-brained, but they know where their bread and water is, and they know the value of staying with the flock, and they know the value of a roof in a world full of hawks.