I’ve had a small crew of chickens for a few years now. My wife says they’re the only truly useful creatures on the farm. They’re industrious, pecking all day at grubs and bugs, purposefully marching around the pasture. Aside from water and a handful of feed and corn each morning, they require little from me. At dusk, they hop up onto their roosts in the barn. In return, they supply all the eggs we need.
But Henrietta is different. Henrietta’s father is my speckled rooster Winston, a dignified, conscientious, even heroic creature whose leg got mangled when he staved off a hawk attack on his hens. Her mother is one of my tawny, unnamed Buff Orphingtons. Henrietta arrived unexpectedly last fall. The mother hen had disappeared, which sometimes means bad news. But my helper Annie soon spotted her in the garden, sheltered by a bunch of tall zinnias and warming half a dozen eggs. I tried to move the mom someplace more secure, but when she nearly pecked off my right hand, I decided to let her be.
We left her there for weeks, bringing feed and water as close as she would let us come. Only one egg hatched: Henrietta. The first chicken born on Bedlam Farm, she was gray and speckled, like her dad. She and her mother spent a few weeks in a snug little milk house, abandoned for decades and slightly decrepit, but perfect for a nursery. Annie and I visited daily, bringing water and assorted goodies—corn, birdseed, Cheerios.
Annie wanted to keep mom and chick in the milk house for a few months. She worried particularly about Mother the barn cat, who was hovering around the milk house with chilling enthusiasm. But I, playing the father who wants his offspring out in the world, freed Henrietta after six weeks. “She seems quite able to take care of herself,” I said.
Henrietta is the most recent subject of the unofficial study I’ve been conducting to see if how we treat farm animals can affect their personalities. Animals of the same species can behave very differently, yet there’s little research that explains why. Genetics is a factor, so are health and environment. And I’m coming to believe that humans can also shape the natures of domesticated animals, even creatures that seem to lack individuality.
My animals have space to roam and graze, shelter from the weather, first aid, and veterinary care when they need it. They have plentiful food and water and strong fences that keep them in and nasty critters out. Unlike many farm animals, they’ve also been continuously, even relentlessly socialized by humans. My farm is a highly unmechanized operation: People give the animals their food, bring extra treats, touch them, and talk to them, treat them gently. My cows, donkeys, and sheep meet visitors of all sorts, who invariably arrive with carrots and apples and want to scratch ears and pat backs.
Maybe that’s why some of these animals behave contrary to expectations. Elvis, my enormous Brown Swiss steer, is trainable, affectionate, and intelligent. To my surprise, and contrary to certain bovine stereotypes, he doesn’t simply eat, eliminate, and sleep. He has what I would call a life. He has relationships, pleasures, attachments.
So does my feisty little hen.
From the start, Henrietta was unusual, a hen of entitlement. None of the larger animals intimidated her one whit. She seemed to have some of her dad’s better traits: She looked people right in the eye, reacted to them, seemed curious and adventurous. She wandered off from the other chickens from time to time, and occasionally stopped by to visit me.
Our perceptions of animal personalities are shaped by our own cultural conceptions, too. We like animals that are “cute” or good-looking and that respond to us. I admired this assertive chicken, so I talked to her and tossed her more grain. But that doesn’t fully explain why, on a warm fall day when I was brushing hay and flecks of manure from the donkeys’ fuzzy coats, Henrietta hopped right up on Jeannette’s back and began pecking. Jeannette, my senior donkey, can be territorial and argumentative, but she seemed not to notice or care as Henrietta tidied up her back a bit, then settled down in that comfy spot for an hour or so, riding along when Jeannette ambled over to the feeder.
None of the farmers hereabouts, wise to the ways of poultry, had seen anything like it. One neighbor came by, watched, spat on the ground and said, “You’ve got yourself an interesting chicken there.”
The barnyard residents seem quite unruffled by Henrietta, though. She bounds onto the donkeys’ and sheep’s backs, pecks a bit at their coats and fleece, then rides along imperturbably. Except for the humans, everyone seems quite blasé about it.
Most striking is the … let’s call it a relationship that’s developed between Henrietta and the barn cat. Every evening, I bring out a can of cat food, and Mother appears mysteriously, from somewhere in the upper reaches of my vast dairy barn, for her supper. But one recent night, Henrietta came zooming over from the chicken roost, chased Mother from her bowl, and then, flapping her wings and squawking, drove her right out of the barn.
I was astonished when Henrietta proceeded to eat all of Mother’s Fancy Feast, while the cat returned to complain loudly from a rafter. Given Mother’s kill count of rodents and birds, I was astonished that Henrietta was alive at all. Now this pair interacts all the time. Mother hides in the barn, then pops down to startle Henrietta, who gives chase. Henrietta sometimes stages ambushes from atop a donkey, waiting for Mother to pass by in pursuit of some hapless mole, then swooping down.
It looks like they’re playing hide-and-seek or tag. My neighbors had never seen a cat run from a chicken; now they have. On the other hand, some nights Mother sleeps right next to Henrietta on a shelf in the barn. Though it appears they’re having fun, I know better than to anthropomorphize. They could well be at war. I’m not always sure there’s a difference, or that I’d recognize it if there is.
Nor can I really say what gives Henrietta such sass. Partly breeding, I think—her father’s Churchillian courage getting passed along. Partly, Annie’s tender care early on. If you give animals little reason to fight, compete, or cower, I’ve found, they often don’t.
But who really knows? Some things simply can’t be accounted for by human perception. Often, the best part of living on a farm is the mystery.