Sally the ChickenPhoto by: Earthfire

— By Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —

Sally the hen gave an outraged squawk. I had nearly stepped on the tip of her right toe. But really; she parked herself, all spread out in the early morning sun, directly in the office doorway and I did do my best to avoid her as I carefully stepped over her lounging body. There is just no pleasing some hens. It was me who accommodated her after all. I could have asked her to move, though I believe the thought that someone would do that never occurred to her. She was there first after all and thus it was her right to remain undisturbed.

Sally prefers her hamburger grilled. I discovered this when some friends coming over for dinner put their meat on the grill. She already showed a taste for raw meat, following close behind whoever is carrying the wolf feeding bucket in hopes something might be dropped. This particular evening she was hanging around the picnic table as usual and I ill-advisedly reached over, pinched a small piece of the hamburger from my friend’s plate and gave it to her. She seemed astonished at the deliciousness of this new taste. She raced around animatedly, looking for more. (Please note she has all the organic chicken feed she could want plus 40 acres of grass and bushes filled with bugs not to mention the delectable droppings in the horse and bison pasture).

Seeing how much she enjoyed it I even more ill-advisedly gave her another piece. With a great flapping of wings she flew up and landed on the picnic table, looked around, and flat-footed her way its whole length directly to my friend’s plate and was about to peck at his burger when he was forced to take defensive action by moving his plate.

In general Sally knows no boundaries. When the office door is open during the summer months she enters the office freely and stalks past our two German shepherds as she looks to cadge a morsel from the indulgent staff. This motivated them to put up a sign, “ No Chickens in the Office,” but Sally ignores it. She has also recently discovered the house cabin whose door is open on hot evenings. If I don’t let her out early enough (5:30 am on summer mornings) I hear her outraged squawks and feel pressured to comply. To my own bemusement I do, no matter how tired I am (“Got to get up and let Sally out”). She is waiting impatiently on the other side of the door and runs past me, a mere doorman, on her way to forage and plunder. She lets me know its time with great indignation, with no sense of her size or position in life—no sense at all that she is “just a chicken” (from many humans’ point of view). Which of course anyone who meets her quickly realizes. She is a personage, as we all are when allowed to fully express ourselves. Though some of us assert ourselves more strongly than others and Sally is one of those.

When I say there is no pleasing some hens it is worthy of thought. Are there basic personality types that are universal across species? In the book The Man Who Walked Through Time, the author spent a lazy afternoon lying belly down on a sandy beach in the Grand Canyon observing the tiny flies around him. He began to notice that their flight had a pattern. They flew within a circumscribed perimeter and as the perimeter moved some were daring, forging new areas, others followed, and some lagged behind. I spoke of this to my esteemed old etymology professor who said, ”What an interesting idea!” Human development researchers have noted a similar three patterns in human infants shortly after birth.

I wondered—just how does it work, a chicken managing to put social pressure on a human (and the weak human responding). What’s the mechanism, that we respond even across species? Sally is a very unappreciative bird, accepting all as her absolute due. Yet people go out of their way to please her. Inconvenience themselves to do so. Is that response to dominance universal too?

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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