Brain Cookies

Here’s the Thing: Dispatches from a Small Midwestern Town

Posted on: June 4, 2018

Poultry PopPsy

Chickens aren’t stupid. They live in constantly quizzical state and notice everything. But here’s the thing: their brain is only about the size of a thumbnail. This limits their thinkiness, to say the least. A relief, really. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable living in such close proximity to tiny dinosaurs that employ logic and complex problem-solving skills. I don’t even know Chris Pratt, which is disappointing on several levels.

But I digress.

Chickens seem to rely on instinct and habit to make what few decisions life presents them. Take, for example, where they choose to lay an egg. I have seven chickens, six of which lay (the seventh, sweet Dave, has gone dry and plump). Those six chickens have five laying boxes from which to choose.

They all lay in the same box.

As you might imagine, this can cause a traffic back-up. Imagine a line of chickens, legs crossed, hopping from foot to foot, waiting for the current occupant to finish brewing up her daily egg. This is not a wholly inaccurate description.

Now, another animal—say, one with a brain even slightly larger than a thumbnail—might recognize this situation as unnecessarily problematic and respond by picking any of the other available boxes. Not chickens.

Chicken experts claim you can influence chickens’ laying geography by using decoy eggs. Usually this is done to discourage a chicken who’s developed a penchant for a more “au naturel” laying experience: under the deck, maybe, or in the food trough. A decoy egg, such as a terracotta replica or even a simple golf ball, can show a wayward layer the proper place to conduct her business.

Why does this work? Perhaps it stimulates the brooding instinct. “Oh look,” the chicken says to herself, “an orphan! I must snuggle it with my butt fluff,” and so the needful is accomplished. But this is mere speculation on my part. If anyone can fathom the psychology of this phenomenon, it’s the chicken herself. I must not have the right kind of close, trusting relationship with my chickens because they have not shared the secret with me. I am mildly hurt by this, until I remember that they are chickens and incapable of human speech.

I resigned myself to a nonDoolittlean fate and bought two terracotta eggs to test the phenomenon for myself. The eggs cost $5: a reasonable investment to satisfy my curiosity. I slipped one egg into each of two ignored laying boxes and retreated to the house, whistling innocently so the chickens would not suspect my subterfuge.

The next day, I discovered real eggs alongside the decoys in both baited boxes. Surprisingly, there were no eggs in the previously popular box. I collected the real eggs and moved the decoys to different boxes. Same result the next day: real eggs laid alongside the decoys and nowhere else.

Aha! The trick works: decoy eggs influence laying patterns. But the original problem—the traffic jam—isn’t really solved. They’re still waiting in line to lay. The only thing that’s changed is how they pick which box to wait for. To untangle the traffic jam, I’d have to try a decoy in each box.

But really, $5 was my limit.



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