Brow Beat

How the Heck Does That Chicken in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Do Math?

A chicken in front of a wall of tin plates with numbers painted on them.
The Calculating Capon, the Pecking Pythagorean, Gallus Mathematicus.
Netflix

The new Coen Brothers movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a brilliant deconstruction of literary, artistic, and cinematic visions of the American West, smashing together bits and pieces of Jack London, Andrew Wyeth, Gene Autrey, and even Luigi Pirandello to ask—and mostly leave unanswered—troubling questions about the stories we use to paper over the void. The most troubling of these questions is posed in “Meal Ticket,” the third chapter—the movie is structured as a 19th century anthology of adventure stories—and represents the first time the Coens have tackled one of the great questions that has bedeviled humanity for millennia: “How the heck can a chicken do mathematics?”

“Meal Ticket” stars Liam Neeson as an impresario touring the Rockies with a one-wagon show during an indeterminate winter somewhere between 1868 (the broadside Neeson papers over with an ad for his show) and 1873 (the supposed publication of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). Neeson’s first, last and only attraction is “Professor Harrison: The Wingless Thrush,” an armless, legless man played by Harry Melling who recites speeches, poems, and dramatic monologues from “sources various”—Shakespeare to Shelley to Lincoln—while Neeson collects the money, provides the sound effects, and does all the things you’d have to do in the 1870s to enable a man with no arms or legs to travel around the Old West: transportation, nutrition, evacuation, and so on. As their audiences dwindle in the cold, Neeson stumbles on another act that’s still drawing a crowd: the “Genius of the Barnyard,” a chicken who can do arithmetic. Here’s the part of the routine we see in the film:

Now that’s a show worth going outside in the middle of a Rocky Mountain winter to see. But how is the chicken doing it? Since William Lindsay Gresham checked out, the world’s foremost expert in traveling exhibitions, trained animals, and assorted trickery—or at least the foremost expert not making a living as a carny or card sharp—has been magician Ricky Jay. He’d be the person to ask what was going on with Buster Scruggs’ calculating capon, as playwright David Mamet explained to the New Yorker in 1993:

“I’ll call Ricky on the phone,” Mamet says. “I’ll ask him—say, for something I’m writing—‘A guy’s wandering through upstate New York in 1802 and he comes to a tavern and there’s some sort of mountebank. What would the mountebank be doing?’ And Ricky goes to his library and then sends me an entire description of what the mountebank would be doing.”

In fact, Jay and his work were a likely inspiration for “Meal Ticket.” The “Wingless Thrush” has more than a little in common with Matthias Buchinger, a man with no arms or lower legs who nevertheless toured Europe performing magic and playing musical instruments in the early 18th century; Ricky Jay’s book, Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living” by Ricky Jay, Whose Peregrinations in Search of the “Little Man of Nuremberg” are Herein Revealed singlehandedly rescued Buchinger from obscurity. Unfortunately, Jay died a few weeks ago, so there’s no way to ask him whether or not a mountebank in Colorado around 1870 might have exhibited a mathematical chicken without exploring a whole other realm of carnival trickery. Nevertheless, his writing provides a tentative answer: No.

Animal acts are ancient—just ask Christians lucky enough to get front row seats at the Colosseum’s Lion Show—and trained animal acts are not much younger. Touring animal acts are a later development, and touring animal acts in the American West, another still, but the Coens are still well within the realm of possibility here. Chang Reynolds’ history of western circuses is essentially a history of transportation: the first circuses travelled to California by ship; the interior opened up along with the railroads. But a one-wagon, one-chicken, no-tent show wouldn’t face the same challenges, and Dan Costello’s circus, the first to use the transcontinental railway, travelled through Colorado by wagon in 1869 (although the weather and bad roads cost them one of their elephants). So there’s no reason there wouldn’t have been a medicine-show sized animal act touring small towns. And that act, if it existed, could easily have featured animals doing math: there was a positive craze for educated animals in the first half of the 19th century. Here are just a few of them:

• Munito the Learned Dog
• Munito the Learned Dog Who Started Touring Again After a Few Years’ Break, During Which Time He Somehow Changed From a Water Spaniel to a Poodle
• Minetto, the Dog Whose Name Seems Deliberately Designed to Confuse People Who Wanted to See the Much More Famous Munito
• Monetto the Faithful Dog With Yet Another Easy to Confuse Name
• Toby the Sapient Pig (exhibited by Nicholas Hoare, the same man who cooked up Monetto; he also ghost-wrote a memoir on Toby’s behalf)
• The Incredible and Astonishing Learned Goose (another Hoare act)
• The Unrivalled Chinese Swinish Philosopher, Toby the Real Learned Pig (Not a Nicholas Hoare production, although he could hardly complain about the name after the whole Monetto thing; Toby later became a generic name for learned pigs.)
• Pinkey the Wonderful Intelligent Goose
• The Scientific Pig
• The Amazing Pig of Knowledge
• The Incomparable Bitch
• The Inimitable Dick

And that’s before even getting into learned horses, who were commonplace enough that many of their names are not recorded, although the term was also used for horses who would perform tricks and feats of skill, not just horses who imitated human intelligence. But some of them could do math like “Meal Ticket’s” chicken, as seen in this remarkably detailed account of a learned horse act from 1838:

The first feat of the animal was, by word of command, to stand upon two casks, resting his fore-legs upon a large one, and one hind upon a smaller. But here comes the test of his intellectual powers: he is desired to pick up a handkerchief, sticks, and a whip, and to ring a bell fixed to the wall. Afterwards a pack of playing cards is introduced, with which he seems well-versed, and particularly in the game of cribbage; these are placed upon a board on the floor; on receiving orders, he takes up the card desired and delivers it to his master between his lips. Many answers to questions were requested by the company, such as the cards required to make fifteen, and other numbers, also the card containing the score of each number—all of which he carefully delivered to his master. The alphabet on cards was then introduced; these were indiscriminately placed upon a board; the Christian and surname of any person present is given him, when, at a glance at the letters, he picks them up, and gives them to his master—all done without trick or deception.

That last part about tricks and deception is obviously some kind of trick or deception, but there’s little reason to doubt that the act appeared as described—the business with the cards is taken from the original Munito’s act, and there are any number of ways to accomplish it, most of which would not require teaching an animal to read. But there’s one species that doesn’t show up much in 19th century accounts of educated animals: gallus domesticus. For one possible explanation, here’s director Werner Herzog:

If you wanted to make a living exhibiting animals behaving intelligently, you could hardly set yourself a more difficult challenge than using chickens. Even if you succeeded, the main appeal of acts like Munito and his many imitators was the idea that a dog was human enough that it might be capable of human-like thought. No one makes that mistake with a chicken, and in the vanishingly rare instances where a trained chicken showed up in the press, the emphasis was on its rarity and the skill of its trainer, not the native intelligence attributed to the Munitos and Tobys of the world. Here’s an account from Iowa’s Prairie City Index of June 14, 1872, which gives some insight into the appeal a mathematical chicken act would have had at the time, to audiences and impresarios alike:

We have seen trained hogs, trained mules, trained horses, etc., but it remained for us to witness a trained chicken. Our eyes were gladdened by just such an insect this week. Bob Worden was the trainer. This chicken can do things which it would be impossible for any other bird to attempt. Ben hasn’t told us whether he intends to travel with Mr. Chicken or not, but we would advise him to do so, as with his talent and that of the chicken he can make himself independently rich in a short time.

Bob Worden and Mr. Chicken don’t seem to have struck it rich, and if any other chicken Svengalis became independently wealthy, they didn’t advertised. The age of famous trained chickens doesn’t really begin until the 1880s, when a black minstrel named Bob Mack added a live rooster named “Little Dick” to his existing “Barnyard Follies” act, in which he wore a giant rooster costume. Here’s the Baltimore Sun’s account of an 1881 performance, which does not leave the impression that Little Dick was a college graduate:

Bob Mack, formerly of Haverly’s Colored Minstrels, gives his clever imitations of a barnyard rooster, and a genuine rooster of the game species has a bout with him, struts around and crows lustily in defiance, and makes again for the gigantic counterfeit of his kind, crowing occasionally and bowing to the audience in return for their applause.

Bert Williams later recreated Mack’s costume for the 1910 Ziegfeld Follies, and John Bubbles recreated it again for Barbra Streisand’s vaudeville-themed TV special The Belle of 14th Street as late as 1967, but Mack’s experiments in educating chickens didn’t cast the same long, weird shadow his costume did. The accounts of chicken acts in the decades that follow are few and far between, and the attraction in all of them is not that the chicken is behaving intelligently, but that it has learned to do any tricks at all. In most cases, however, the chicken hadn’t learned to do any tricks at all: One carnival hand made his name with a “Dancing Chicken” act created by sticking transparent scotch tape to a chicken’s feet so it would try to kick it off; more sadistic hucksters just made the hapless birds stand on an hotplate. (Chickens did eventually find their own niche in the performing arts; unfortunately it was in the geek show.) A mathematical chicken act, however it was achieved, would have been as much a wonder in 1930 as 1870.

And yet when a trained chicken appears on screen in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it doesn’t register as strange to a 21st century audience. Partially, that’s because people have a vague sense of educated animal exhibits without knowing the specific animals who were educated—but mostly it’s because we lived through the golden age of trained chickens, which began in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Arkansas. Calvin Trillin told the story in more detail for the New Yorker in the 1990s, but Marian and Keller Breland, a couple who both studied operant conditioning under B.F. Skinner, founded a for-profit company called Animal Behavior Enterprises that trained all kinds of animals to do unlikely things, from basketball-playing racoons to mine-clearing dolphins. Their most famous experiments, however, were with poultry.

The Brelands ran a theme park in Hot Springs called the IQ-Zoo where they showed off their animals, but their bread and butter was designing portable exhibits with pre-trained animals that could be rented by the week for use in carnivals, fairs, and so on. Their first client was General Mills, who in 1947 rented out “the egg laying chicken, the piano playing chicken, and the dancing chicken, and possibly one or more units consisting of one trained hog each” for $200 a month to use at trade shows. An egg-laying chicken doesn’t sound all that remarkable, to be honest, but by 1955, the price was up to $350 a week for “Down Beat the Drummer Duck” or “Joe Bazooka, the Rabbit Cannoneer”—shipped complete with a pre-trained animal and all required props and equipment. This business model was not practical with more traditional trained animals. A list of ABE acts from 1954 includes a complete routine called “Priscilla the Fastidious Pig” that they note had not been used in 3 years because “pig grows up fast and becomes too heavy to transport.” So: chickens.

The Brelands seem to have been the first trainers to fully combine the older tradition of “educated” animals with poultry, beginning with an act known variously as “Hendini,” “The Quiz Chicken,” or “Bird Brain” in which a barker would ask a chicken yes or no questions and the chicken would indicate its answer by illuminating lights marked “Yes” or “No.” The chicken really was trained to pull a ring that would turn on the appropriate light, but it had no idea it was answering questions—hidden lights, secretly controlled by the operator, indicated to the chicken which answer to give. Arkansas native Charles Portis must have seen a version of this at some point, because his great 1966 novel Norwood features an appearance from “Joann the Wonder Hen, the College Educated Chicken,” who, despite having a mortarboard attached to her head with a rubber band, answers the protagonist’s yes or no question by dispensing a slip of paper reading “Charity Endureth All Things.”

A later variation of Hendini, “The Mathematical Genius,” is the closest thing to the act depicted in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but it has as much to do with math as Joann the Wonder Hen had to do with college. The chicken stood in front of a dial with numbers going from zero to five, the barker would ask it math questions, and the chicken would peck the dial to advance it, one digit at a time, until it reached the correct answer. As with Hendini, the chicken had no idea what it was doing: it had been taught to peck the dial until it was fed, and the pitchman secretly released the food when the dial advanced to the correct answer. As the instructions made clear, this was a delicate operation, requiring perfect timing and careful calibration of the dial and the spring that moved it. It did not, however, require a chicken who could do math. But the novelty of chickens who could not do math soon wore off, and the Brelands moved on to their most famous contribution to chicken pedagogy: chickens who could not play tic-tac-toe.

The chickens who could not play tic-tac-toe were a natural step in the progression away from “acts that a poorly trained barker could screw up” and the larger historical progression away from “paying human beings to do labor.” By 1970, Animal Behavior Enterprises was in the business of renting coin-operated animal attractions—the chicken in Norwood is inside a coin-op machine—where, for a dime or two, an animal would do its trick. From “The Kissing Bunny” to “The Drumming Duck,” and “Charlie Chance, the Gambling Rabbit,” these devices offered limitless entertainment for anyone who wasn’t bothered by the sight of an animal living in a vending machine. Chicken-enthusiast Werner Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek has a shot that pans depressingly across nearly the complete ABE catalog before showing “The Fire Chief Rabbit” and “The Dancing Chicken” in action:

At the left end of the line of vending machines, obscured by the change booth, you can just make out an ABE tic-tac-toe chicken machine. To see one in action, however, you have to turn to a filmmaker who is less horrified and more amused than Herzog is by the stupidest parts of American culture: David Letterman. In the mid-1980s, he brought one of these machines to his show—judging from the fortune cookie sign, from the same place in Chinatown where Calvin Trillin caught the tic-tac-toe chicken bug—and made one of his audience members come up and lose to a chicken on national TV:

You can probably guess from the footage how this machine works: the chicken “chooses” its move by pecking a tic-tac-toe board in its cage which is partially obscured by a privacy screen, labeled “Thinkin’ Booth.” In reality, the chicken doesn’t know what move it is making: it knows to peck the tic-tac-toe board whenever it lights up, while a computer handles the actual tic-tac-toe playing, and the privacy screen keeps the player from noticing that the chicken’s pecks don’t correspond to its tic-tac-toe choices. One of these machines is in the Smithsonian—presumably without its chicken—and their popularity and ubiquity gave educated chickens the “I thiiiiiiinnk I’ve heard of that” cultural currency they enjoy today.

Which brings us back around to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. ABE’s mathematical chickens could give the correct answer only if it was a number between one and five, and they did this not by pecking the correct number, but by pecking in the same spot over and over until secretly signaled to stop. The Coen brothers give us a calculating capon who can specify numbers between 1 and 25, and who does it by walking to the correct number and pecking that number, and only that number, in full view of the audience. The unobstructed view rules out the kind of light system employed in Hendini—which, remember, used those lights to get the chicken to pick one of two options, not one of twenty-five—and although the barker’s ostentatious use of a bell suggests he is concealing some kind of sound-based signaling, the numbers are so closely packed together that it’s hard to see how any kind of “stop” signal from the trainer or a confederate would translate to choosing the correct number. But even if we assume the Coen brothers’ chicken is somehow receiving an unambiguous signal, undetectable to the audience, that specifies exactly the right plate to peck—which is how the educated animals who spelled things out with playing cards did it, however that signal was sent—the act would still be five times as complicated as anything anyone’s successfully trained a chicken to do. Choosing to use a chicken, rather than the dog or horse or pig who might actually have been able to pull off the routine, makes the contrast between the chicken and the Wingless Thrush that much sharper, and makes it all the more damning that Neeson sees them as basically equivalent.

There’s another possible reason for this choice, too: Neeson purchases the chicken and the bell, but not the cart with the numbers. Chickens aren’t exactly Clever Hans when it comes to observing context clues, so if an act like the Genius of the Barnyard did exist, the signaling mechanism would be hidden in the cart, like the lights in Hendini and the tic-tac-toe machine were. There’s nothing on screen that indicates Neeson has actually bought the secret to the trick—and even if he has, and plans to retrofit his own cart with the necessary machinery, it seems unlikely that a chicken, a species not known for mental flexibility, would perform as well in a similar-but-not-identical setup. Neeson has most likely done what he’s done to no benefit at all, which means the true spiritual ancestor of the Genius of the Barnyard isn’t Munito or Hans or Toby or even Pinkey the Wonderful Intelligent Goose, but a different performing animal: Michigan J. Frog.

Or maybe the chicken knows math.

Correction, Dec. 10, 2018: This piece originally misspelled actor Harry Melling’s last name.