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The Verge Review of Animals: the chicken supreme

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Come at me, turkey fanboys

Thomas Vlerick

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

Some people ask, what came first, the chicken or the egg? To me, that question is akin to asking whether basketball or Michael Jordan came first. The answer, in both cases, is that the later thing redefined the earlier thing to the point of fundamentally transforming it. MJ turned the sport of basketball into a global spectacle, while the chicken made the egg a universal staple of human diets everywhere. The smartphone came first, but it was the iPhone that made it matter.

hamburg chicken Ospr3yy / Wikimedia Commons

Now, don’t get me wrong, if I could be any animal on Earth, I'd still want to be human. But the chicken is a terribly underrated contender for being modern civilization's second most valuable player. For a full account of the chicken’s significance through the ages, read this wonderful essay in the Smithsonian Magazine. The short version is that chickens inspired the Greeks to defeat the Persians; fed ancient Egyptians and the Roman empire; and casually, almost accidentally, became the most-eaten meat in the United States.

How can you not love a mobile egg producer?

Seen purely through the utilitarian lens of human nourishment, the chicken is one of the most efficient ways to convert feed into protein. Farming bigger domesticated animals like cows, pigs, and sheep requires multiples times more water and grazing land. Even before we brutally crammed them into pestiferous cages and messed with their DNA, chickens were just awesomely good at producing eggs and healthy meat. Chicken is so healthy, in fact, that it gets the highest rating among meats in a US poll, 91 percent, from both nutritional experts and laypeople. So whether you trust the experts or not, there’s a settled consensus that eating chicken is good for you. And yes, it’s pretty delicious, too.

chicken Liz West / Flickr

But thinking of chickens merely as a walking foodstuff is reductive, telling us more about human exploitation than the qualities of our feathered best friends.

Chickens don't suffer from FOMO or undue shyness

The chicken also has the right attitude. When it gets up in the morning, like a one-foot-tall Donald Trump, the cockerel doesn’t question his importance or his right — nay, responsibility — to be heard, and he bellows out, in whatever croaky voice he has, his greeting to the world. There’s admirable tranquility in that unwavering conviction in one’s own self-worth. A cock doesn’t need the validation of being or sounding beautiful, he just does what he wants and can.

Similarly, chickens do not suffer from the 21st century human plague that is the Fear Of Missing Out. When people try to goad you into doing something stupid, they might say "don’t be chicken," but consider what that actually entails. Being chicken is to avoid danger at no cost to yourself — the chicken lacks the intellectual faculties to engage in the sophistry of imagining awesome scenarios that its life somehow lacks. This outlook on life is something modern humans could definitely learn from: focus on plucking corn kernels off the ground and avoiding the fragrant cowpat in the yard, and don’t fret about the wider world that’s beyond your control.

If humans conducted themselves like chickens, we'd see a lot less waste and destruction in the world

Lest you think I’m writing all this from a theoretical perspective, let me assure you that the domesticated chicken and I have known each other for a long time. I grew up on a farm where my grandparents looked after half a dozen cows, a few sheep and goats, the occasional pig, and a big brood of egg-laying hens. In retrospect, I probably shared an affinity with the chickens because, like them, I was scared of practically every other farm animal. Cows and horses could kick the incautious farm boy’s teeth out, the pigs still had some of their wild boar sensibilities about them, and the geese just hissed in a really scary way. Anyhow, the chickens were cool — they did their clucking thing, left me to do mine, and only ever became belligerent when I invaded their territory too much. In that way, the chicken can be said to be the model citizen of a libertarian society: satisfying its own needs and desires without infringing on those of others, and tolerating all but the most egregious infractions.

chick Alex Starr / Flickr

Beyond being a gregarious and accommodating species, the chicken also produces arguably the cutest offspring in the world. Take a look at a clutch of freshly hatched chicks and try to tell me those little fuzzballs are not Mother Nature’s most adorable creation. My childhood was surrounded by baby animals of every variety — and yes, I can confirm that kittens and puppies are indeed delightful — but chicks will forever remain my gold standard for darling preciousness.

Chicks are, empirically speaking, the cutest thing on our planet

Sure, not every chicken will remain cute once it grows up, but there are some strikingly beautiful subspecies, some of whom produce blue and green eggs and even have dark blue skin. To the best of my knowledge, and as evidenced by the cross-breeds that occur when a rooster of one phenotype gets loose among a flock of hens from another, chickens are pretty much up for whatever comes along.

Steven Johnson / Flickr

Passing judgment on other animals is a distinctly human bit of arrogance, but if we have to judge them, what makes an animal a good one? I’d say it’s the ability to cohabit the planet with others, allied to an efficient use of natural resources. Basically, a good Earthling is one that can live in harmony with the Earth, and I think the chicken passes that test. It might never produce the collected works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but it also won’t lead the planet into cataclysmic overheating with its burning of fossil fuels, as humans might, or with its incessant farting, as cattle would if given the chance.

The unsung heroes of modern civilization

The chicken is basically the hipster kid of the animal world: mostly harmless to others, it’s primarily concerned with its own narrow interests, and it’s generally looked down upon by other, supposedly more evolved species. I think both hipsters and chickens get a bad rap. Especially in a year like 2016, when the most memorable things people have done have been acts of cruelty and destruction against one another, we should be able to appreciate the value of an animal that knows and exists within the limits of its powers.

Chicken

Verge Score: 9

9

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Sisyphean optimism about life and the world

  • Yakitori, chicken tikka, Kung Pao chicken, etc.

  • Try baking an eggless cake; it’s just bread

  • Cute enough in infancy to cause spontaneous world peace

Bad Stuff

  • Too delicious for their own good

  • Not the cuddliest pets once they grow up

  • Might be busy preparing vengeance on us humans

Bonus animal review: