Facts & Myths: Chickens

I once wrote a few articles for Listverse in an attempt to earn money from research... then I discovered they were basically rewriting everything they accepted anyway, and had a very limited idea of what they wanted. ANYHOO, this was one of the weirder things I compiled to test on them, which they rejected; so now I'm including it here for your reading amusement!

Ah, the humble chicken... how poor our world (and diet) would be without it. Given how common chickens are to most cultures in the world now, it shouldn't surprise anyone to discover our fowl friends are involved in our history, our folklore, and our future!

Cocky Greeks

It's been said the sport of cockfighting was started by a Greek named Themistocles [524–459 BCE]; and if he didn't start it, he certainly did the most to promote it! One day as Themistocles was leading an army off to fight the Persians, he ran across two roosters battling. He stopped his troops for a moment, and pointed out to them that these roosters did not fight for their gods, ancestors, glory, freedom, or even for their children... they fought simply for victory; and so he encouraged his soldiers to focus only on winning in battle and not any of the other worries that could distract them. His troops were victorious that day against the Persians, and to commemorate this victory Themistocles declared an annual cockfighting festival to be held from then on in Athens. [Link 1]

Wisdom from Pliney

Pliney the Elder [23-79 CE], Roman statesman and scholar, tells us: "The cock was designed by nature to announce the dawn; by singing they awaken men. They are skilled astronomers. ... They duel with each other to determine who will rule, with the winner strutting proudly and the loser forced to serve; a conquered cock does not crow. ... Cocks carry themselves so proudly that even the noble lion is afraid of them." Just so you know. [Link 2]

A Very Naughty Rooster

In 1474 in Basel, Switzerland, a rooster was taken to trial for the very serious offense of laying an egg... which is a serious offense because an egg laid by a rooster is the first step to breeding a monster known as a basilisk, which is so poisonous and deadly it can kill simply by looking a person in the eyes. For this unforgivible crime, the rooster was sentenced to be burnt to death as an example to any other roosters that might be getting ideas! [Link 3]

Bacon Stuffed Chicken?

In 1625, English philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon was riding in a coach with a friend when it occurred to him that snow, which was all about him at the moment, might be used to preserve meat as well as salt. Not the sort to put off a good idea, Bacon called the coach to a stop near Highgate Hill in London, England, bought a chicken from a woman and had it gutted, and then Bacon stuffed the carcass with snow himself. The chill from this made Bacon so ill that he was immediately taken to the Earl of Arundel's home in Highgate; but his condition only worsened, and he died a few days later. [Link 4] This incident is now said to be related to reports of a ghostly figure said to be seen in the Highgate area... but not of Francis Bacon. Instead, there are said to be reports of a ghostly white chicken! [Link 5]

Which Came First?

"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" is now an overused idiom that implies that some things have no clear beginning... but where did it begin? Blame is usually assigned to Greek philosopher Aristotle [384-322 BCE], who is said to have proposed that all creatures must have been divinely created for eggs could not exist without birds and birds could not exist without eggs; therefore neither came first. [Link 6] Of course, snarky know-it-alls can now point out that dinosaurs and fish were laying eggs before anything like a chicken ever existed, but the term 'chicken and egg problem' will still describe a situation where a condition is needed to reach a result, but the result is needed to reach the condition. [Link 7] No matter when or where the conjecture started, probably the best rendering of the problem was a rhyme created by Mary Mapes Dodge in 1875: [Link 8]

Bumble, bramble, which came first, sir,
     Eggs or chickens? Who can tell?
I'll never believe that the first egg burst, sir,
     Before its mother was out of her shell.

For the Birds

In 1871, Sanford Baker patented springs to be attached to a chickens' legs to prevent them from scratching the ground; the springs forced the offenders to walk forward instead. C.C. Schlid patented a spring to attach to a chicken's beak that would prevent them from pulling feathers out, which must have been a problem on his farm. Apparently, chickens need to exercise more: so William Manley invented a treadmill that forces a chicken to walk while feeding. E.J. Shanahan created an invention to discourage hens from attacking eggs which consisted of an electric plate that would zap hens if they tried to get a egg placed on it. And in 1903 eye glasses for chickens were patented by Andrew Jackson (not the president), to prevent chickens from pecking each others' eyes out. [Link 9

Surprisingly Sprightly

On September 10, 1945, Mike the rooster should have been dinner. Mr. Olsen, on orders from his wife, took Mike out back and chopped his head off, which Mike apparently didn't notice. Due to a stroke of luck, enough of Mike's little chicken brain remained intact for the rooster to go about most of his usual activities, minus the half of his head that had a face. [Link 10] Olsen, no fool, quickly figured out how to preserve this unique specimen and took the headless fowl on the road, and Mike lived an additional eighteen months, during which time he actually put on weight! [Link 11]

Now, if you're one of those people who're saying "sure, everyone knows about Mike," then I'll do you one better: he wasn't the first headless chicken displayed, just the best known. On November 12, 1904, Biddy was one of a number of chickens being prepared for dinner (by having their heads chopped off, of course). She managed to outlive the other hens though, and horribly scared the maid at the Belvidere Hotel. The proprietor of the hotel, Herbert Hughes, quickly found a way to feed the headless hen with a syringe, and put Biddy on display for the crowds to see until her death on November 30. She could walk, flap her wings, and adjust herself on her perch, which is better than most could do without a head! [Link 12]

A Walk on the Wild Side

It's been an old wives tale for many years, but in 2011 the story was well and truly confirmed. Jim and Jeanette Howard of Huntingdon, England, suspected something was wrong with their pet hen Gertie when she stopped laying eggs. Shortly after she started to strut around the garden and crow... then she put on weight... then she grew wattles under her chin... her feathers turned dark... she developed a scarlet cockscomb on her head... in short, SHE became a HE. As it turns out, hens can become roosters -- which is what the old wives used to say -- but so far no roosters have become hens. Although hens start with two gonads - undefined sexual tissue - they only usually develop their left gonad into an ovary; the right one stays undefined. Under the correct stimulation, like the stress of a disease for example, this undefined gonad can develop into a testes... and cause the hen to undergo a one-way sex change, which results in a female chicken that looks and acts like a male. The Howards have re-named their pet Bertie, by the way. [Link 13]

Return of the Chicken

Sometime a few weeks previous to March 12, 1994, when the incident appeared in the Sunday Star newspaper of Auckland, New Zealand, a woman named Kay Martin was chatting over a drink with a friend when they both heard a chicken squawking as if in distress. They looked outside but saw no chickens... then Martin realized the sounds were coming from her own kitchen. Specifically, they were coming from her oven which contained a chicken she had put in to roast a half hour earlier! Martin and her friend pulled the tray containing the chicken from the oven to discover that steam from the stuffing was blowing through the still-intact vocal cords in the carcass' neck; she chopped off the neck. We're also told she hadn't cooked chicken since; anyone surprised? [Link 14]

Cluck to the Future

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future: it's fantastically abundant and produces water as its waste product when used for fuel. However, it's very hard to store enough to drive a car a decent distance before you have to fuel up again. For example, a 20 gallon tank of hydrogen at room temperature would only let a car drive about a mile; you could get more in the tank by making the tank cold, but then you have to fuel whatever makes the tank cold, and it all quickly becomes unhelpful. Still, it's such a great idea... and chicken feathers might be what makes it possible to use this fuel effectively in the future. Chicken feathers, which are a waste product that's basically free, are largely composed of keratin; and when keratin is heated for precise times and at precise temperatures, they develop a porous surface area that can absorb a tremendous quantity of hydrogen gas in a smaller area than it would normally occupy. Using chicken feathers converted this way, the same 20 gallon tank of hydrogen would hold enough of the gas to drive a car 80 miles! [Link 15]

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