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Now and Hen

Her name was Gunther. I first met her when we were both quite young. I was in fifth grade and, over the course of the subsequent three years, Gunther would figure prominently in my life. I learned a lot from her during those years, though she was less than articulate and not too bright. Gunther was a chicken.

Gunther was among a group of orphan chicks hatched in a grade-school incubator. When the teacher sought adoptive homes for the little peeping critters, I pressed my parents for a chick. I made the necessary deals and guarantees of care to get their agreement, and the animated, fuzzy ball of down moved into a large wooden cage in my bedroom.

Determining a chick’s sex was beyond the skills of anyone in my family. I guessed that she was a he and named the chick after a cop on an early ’60s TV comedy show, Car 54, Where Are You? I can still remember that moment of revelation and wonder when I found the first small, white egg that ultimately clarified the gender question.

Gunther would perch on my shoulder, holding on with bright yellow, scaly feet, bobbing to retain balance. She went through a gawky adolescence from which she emerged as a full-feathered white leghorn with a thickening red comb atop her head. My parents thought she was getting too big for my room and so I moved her out to the backyard, where the bottom of her cage was removed. The cage was placed on a weedy patch of lawn, and soon she was busy scratching and pecking away the lawn, the weeds and any bugs that wandered by. We lived on the California coast and the temperate weather allowed the bird to stay outside all year.

While Gunther was not very sharp, I did find one thing she could do well. A cousin had showed me his college psychology book that contained instructions on how to hypnotize chickens. I brought Gunther into the garage, drew a three-foot line of chalk on the concrete floor, and pressed her beak to it. Her eyes fixated on the line, and when I let go she kept her beak to the concrete. I left the garage, walked around the house and when I returned she was still bent down staring at the chalk line. I had hypnotized my first chicken.

Soon after this experiment, my family moved to a small ranch in a nearby coastal canyon where most resident families kept small flocks of chickens, primarily for eggs. Out on the ranch, Gunther got a larger area to run around in, but soon had to contend with an additional dozen chicks, which eventually grew into 11 egg-laying hens and one pint-sized rooster. I was in charge of the chickens. Care for the chickens was fairly simple: Give them food and water, collect their eggs and occasionally clean out the chicken house.

Gunther never adapted to chicken culture. She was a good layer, often laying an extra-large egg each day and announcing it with verbal fuss. But, she minimized her interactions with the other chickens, retaining a certain aloofness. She refused to roost with them at night and would perch on top of their little chicken house to sleep. She seemed to operate outside of the coop’s pecking order. She was noticeably larger than my other chickens and could easily defend herself when necessary, even from the aggressive amorous assaults of the group’s tiny bantam rooster.

Chickens are not very smart animals, but they have been clucking, crowing, scratching and laying eggs around humans for some time. Like other birds, their evolutionary precursors were dinosaurs. If one searches back around 300 million years ago, a common ancestor for both humans and chickens may be found.

It is believed that domesticated chickens (also known as Gallus domesticus) emerged among the wild jungle fowl of Southeast Asia. The earliest archaeological evidence for the domestication of Gunther’s predecessors goes back more than 5,000 years to the land where India and Pakistan now exist. Evidence of chickens has also been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to around 2,000 B.C.

Some “chickenologists” believe that the fowl’s domestication may have been fostered for cockfights, as well as for its egg-laying and meat attributes. The domesticated bird appears to have diffused quickly along ancient trade routes in the Old World. Chickens migrated to the New World aboard the ships of European conquistadors and colonists.

As chickens spread around the world, local varieties emerged. Gunther was a white leghorn, a breed that originated in Italy. The breed is known for its high- volume egg-laying hens and it produces much of the large-white egg offerings in U.S. markets. White leghorns are also a preferred variety for research.

During the 20th century, chickens shifted from being primarily for egg production to include a growing emphasis on meat production. It was also during the last century that chicken and egg production developed into mechanized industries involving huge flocks of birds. As chickens became industrialized and concentrated into massive numbers, the risk of disease, negative environmental effects and instances of animal abuse also rose. Some chicken diseases—like salmonella—can infect humans, and cause large numbers of people to become ill each year.

Today there are more than 14 billion chickens on the planet. A major genome project is busily completing a map, due out this fall, of the animal’s genetic structure. Researchers are also using chickens to conduct experiments that explore their dinosaur past. David Stern, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, believes that in the next 50 to 100 years “you might be able to alter the DNA of a chicken . . . to reconstruct something that looks more like a dinosaur.”

Today, a black-and-white photo of me and Gunther sits silently on a nearby bookcase, invoking memories of simpler and safer poultry times.

—Tom Nattell

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