(Full links to the Theological Bestiary series can be found by clicking the "Ornitheology" option in the Full Series list on the blog's sidebar)
The chicken is perhaps the most widely known bird on the planet, because it is almost universally domesticated for meat and eggs. It also happens to hold a prominent place in the biblical narrative, and to be a potent symbol in later Christian art. But before we get to that, here's a few things you may not have known about the common barnyard chicken:
- Every domesticated variety of this bird (which can vary widely in size, plumage, and behavior) are derived from a single species: the red junglefowl (with some possible contribution from the closely related grey junglefowl). This species, Gallus gallus, is a common wild bird native to Southeast Asia. In fact, so striking is the clear similarity between the wild bird and its domesticated progeny that one could easily mistake a red junglefowl for a barnyard chicken. From the beginning, it appears to have been domesticated for its fighting abilities (cockfighting became popular throughout the ancient world in the two millennia before Christ), as well as for its meat and eggs. The red junglefowl is uniquely suited to egg-laying, because its reproductive cycles are significantly exaggerated in frequency: in its natural habitat, this was an adaptation that enabled junglefowl to take advantage of the copious fruiting cycles of native trees and bamboo, and as a domesticated bird, this frequency of egg-laying naturally translated to benefits for its human masters. From its center in Southeast Asia, the junglefowl was domesticated (perhaps around 8000 BC) and became common in southern and eastern Asia; it was introduced to the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin by at least 2000 BC, to Egypt before 1000 BC, and to sub-Saharan Africa before 1000 AD. As such, the common chicken colonized the world well before the political forces of global colonial empires did; in fact, there's even a theory that chickens may have been introduced to the Americas from Polynesia well before Columbus' arrival in the New World.
- Chickens have a widespread reputation for not being particularly bright; but, like most birds, they tend to have a good awareness of their surroundings and are well-adapted to finding means of survival in many different conditions. As a child in Texas, I often marveled at how ingenious the chickens could be in finding ways to knock down the birdseed intended for cardinals and pyrrhuloxias (usually by smashing their heads against the bird feeder): a technique that must have taken some significant problem-solving skills, as I've observed that it seems to be beyond the pigeons who currently try to raid my feeders. (I actually grew so attached to chickens that, for several years thereafter, I refused to eat any chicken meat at all.)
- Another common misconception is that roosters only crow at sunrise. Anyone who has been around roosters, however--say, trying to sleep in a tent in an African village, with roosters close at hand--will attest to the fact that roosters crow whenever they feel like it, day or night, but especially when you would like to keep sleeping.
- Every single year, in the US alone, we kill more chickens for meat (8 billion) than there are people in the world.
- Back in 1945, there was a famous chicken that was apparently able to live without its head. This chicken, Mike, had had its head chopped off as part of the regular slaughter to harvest meat at a Colorado farm. But this particular chicken kept kicking and running around, far longer than is normal for a beheaded chicken (and a little bit of headless running is not abnormal). It ultimately lived for eighteen months without a head, and its owners gained some significant fame and a bit of pocket change by taking it on the sideshow circuit. Apparently enough of its brainstem had been kept in place to enable its survival (though naturally without its higher brain functions), and its owners kept it alive by giving it food and water through a dropper.
- Because it was so often bred for cockfighting, the chicken became known throughout the Mediterranean world for its fearless valor. It was highly regarded both for its selflessness (a rooster is often said to call his hens to eat first if he finds some good food) and for its bravery (the Greeks held that even lions were afraid of roosters). It often appeared as a symbolic animal for mythological figures renowned for their courage, like Ares and Heracles. We even have an English word for a preening sort of brash self-confidence, derived from the rooster: "cocksure." In the Roman Empire, chickens were often used as oracles, used to interpret the "auspices" for answers as to whether any given decision was good or bad.
In the Christian tradition, too, chickens played an important symbolic role. They appear prominently in two places in the Gospel narrative. First, Jesus refers to the motherly instinct of a hen trying to protect her chicks when he looks out over the city of Jerusalem--he, like a mother hen, had often wanted to gather his people up and protect them from the dangers that were to come (Matt. 23:27). The second instance, recorded in all four Gospels, is the famous scene in which Jesus predicts that Peter will betray him three times before the cock crows, which Peter indeed does.
Because of this famous story, the rooster became a symbol both of repentance and of Peter himself. It came to stand also for vigilance and watchfulness. In Maronite Christian art in particular (that is, one of the ancient churches of Lebanon), the rooster was used as a symbol of the soul's quickening in response to God's grace. A little bit later on in church history, Pope Gregory the Great ordained the rooster as a primary symbol of the entire Christian church. (Note that in this picture, a print in the Vatican from around Gregory's time, the rooster is endowed with a halo.)
So, when next you see (or eat) a chicken, remember the repentance of Peter, and the sins that we have committed, but that we do not have to bear because of the great sacrifice of our Lord. May we, too, like the rooster, be fearless in our pursuit of God, always ready to sound the call to spiritual wakefulness, and eminently useful to the service of our Master.
Just for fun, here's a bit of classical music from a wonderful 17th-century violin composer, Heinrich Ignatz Frans von Biber, whose Sonata Representiva makes his instrument imitate a hen (as well as a cuckoo, frog, cat, and several others).