I am the proud new mother of four hens (thankfully I didn’t have to lay their eggs myself, we adopted them from a neighbor who had an overabundance of chickens in his urban backyard). Predictably, our girls provide us with eggs and offer hours of amusement as we observe their bird-brained antics. But an unexpected benefit of keeping chickens is the insight they have given me into the origins of some of the great idioms in the English language. I can answer the question which came first the chicken or the egg? The chickens came first, delivered in a cardboard box. But of course, this is a situationally specific answer, the larger philosophical debate will continue to rage. Less than 24 hours after their arrival the largest one flew the coop while I was at the office. We tried to console our disappointed children about their chicken loss when a neighbor walked up with our runaway bird under his arm. He had retrieved her as she wandered down the block. Why did the chicken cross the road? Our neighbor, a more established chicken owner, had the answer: she still had all her feathers. He advised that we needed to clip their wings.
The next morning, away from a discarded pile of clipped chicken wing feathers, the girls moved en mass (birds of a feather flock together) to their water dish. I noticed that the black and white speckled bird suffered from her low status in the pecking order. When she tried to dip her beak in the water, the others literally pecked at her and skittishly she backed away, waiting for her turn. All of this would be enough to make anyone brood, so she eventually retreated into the henhouse (which is not guarded by a fox) and laid an egg amidst a series of clucks and squawks.
In order to support their impressive daily ovulations, I provide them with chicken feed (which is very cheap) which looks like ground up grains. Everyone knows they can’t chew tough stuff, because of the scarcity of hens’ teeth. The boys always want me to catch one so they can pet her. But you know the hens are chicken and they run away in fear. When I do finally corner and grab one, we stroke her a bit, but by the time we let her go, her feathers are ruffled.
As our flock is not coed, the eggs are not fertilized, so I won’t be counting my chickens before they hatch, and the girls won’t have little ones to take under their wings. And now that we have named them and grown fond of them as our pets, I expect that I will have no experience of one of the greatest of chicken idioms, that of one of the girls running around as a chicken with her head cut off. I will be content to contemplate my new appreciation for how to talk chicken over an omlette.