Friday, July 13, 2007

Junglefowl: Another Look

Junglefowl are the ancestors of domestic chickens. They evolved to walk through the jungles of southern Asia, an environment as infested with predators as any on earth. A variety of cats, snakes, primates, raptors, and more, are always on the alert for a hot little snack, not to mention the creatures lurking in their drinking pools, waiting to snatch them. In this situation, the birds evolved into a unique and remarkable species.

Walking, instead of flying, and foraging in the leaf litter for insects, young plants, fruits, lizards, mice, spiders, and other edibles, their bodies became heavy, their legs strong. This, of course, is the reason humanity considers them excellent food. Since they were so voraciously hunted by predators, in addition, they had to evolve an accelerated reproductive cycle, which profits humanity too; imagine how many eggs are eaten around the world each day.

The result is a species in which the individuals stick together in hierarchical flocks in a united effort to protect eggs and chicks. For the alpha males. that means fighting for the protection of a good territory, repelling and warning of predators, guiding the flock, and helping the hens to find food and safe nests. For all these things a quite variable vocabulary is used. (For example, the birds fly into the trees when the alarm call for dogs is given, and run for cover when the approach of a hawk is announced. The examples of communication in my stories illustrate their communicative capacities to some extent). The beta males support the alpha, play, try to breed the hens, and help find food for the chicks. When a rooster finds a special morsel, he always calls to the hens to come and partake of what he has found; the better the titbit, the more excitedly he calls.

From their first excursion close to their mother, the chicks are fed by her. At first they eat only what she indicates. Since she has sat upon the eggs for three weeks, she is in need of food herself, but since mother and babies eat foods of different sizes, she is able to feed herself while looking for food for them. Within days, the chicks, squealing in excitement, are chasing each other around with insects too large for just one, until their combined efforts tear it into pieces small enough for them all to eat. What they learn in the first days of their lives seems to affect them forever after.

In my experience newly hatched chicks imprint not only on their care-giver, but also upon foods they are given, their environment, (whether jungle, open forest, garden, or another), and the learning from all their experiences. Hens appear to adore not only each chick, for which they will fight to the death, but eggs as well. If a hen unexpectedly finds another's egg, she will often caress it with beak and breast for a few minutes before going on her way.

If the alpha male is threatened, the beta-males come to his aid, and vice versa. Hens become very attached to their mates, and sometimes mate for life; if a hen is killed, the alpha male, or the rooster who was closest to her if it is a big flock, will look after her chicks. Thus they have close and loving social lives ranking with those of social mammals.

In the wild flock I have been watching, the hens produce chicks about the same time, about every three months. Though here we lack the great terrestrial predators, there are so many rats and cats who take the chicks out from under their mothers at night, that usually all the babies are quickly lost. People's dogs roam the jungle in packs killing any hen without adequate cover with a single bite through the thorax, just for the fun of it. Some hens appear to succeed in finding particularly safe nests, and manage to raise three or four little ones at the most, but what is more common is a family of from seven to thirteen chicks disappearing within a few days. The mothers try each night to force the babies to come up into the trees with them because of the dangers on the ground, but as long as the little ones are unable to fly and climb up, she flies back down while it is still light enough to lead them to the nest. After about six to eight weeks, they are left increasingly on their own as she becomes reproductively active and recommences egg laying.

These birds are shiny, partly iridescent, and soft, clean to the touch and sweet smelling. References in literature to the filthy feathers of hens are expressions of bias, or the results of the shockingly poor way domestic hens are often housed by humanity. I have noticed repeatedly that the only time a dying bird will make the effort to try to move is after excreting, to stay clean. I keep birds who cannot walk on beds of netting, which allow their excretions to fall through, leaving the bed, and their feathers, clean.

The spectacular males of the species are renowned fighters, an ability that possibly evolved through defence of hens and chicks from predators. Before humanity developed its sneering attitude towards chickens, roosters were considered symbols of courage and power, the only bird who could kill the tiger. This legend is not as far-fetched as it seems, since the birds aim with stunning speed, power, and long, needle-sharp spikes at the eyes of their opponent.

The alpha male acquires an entourage of hens and juveniles, and is always on the alert for danger. His sons help him and the hens, as well as trying to mate the hens whenever his attention is distracted. The hens run to him for protection, so his ability to maintain his leadership is constantly tested. Hens with chicks are respected and young males tend to stay around them helping to feed the babies. Later, the juveniles may become the beginnings of his own flock.

Fights between roosters are generally squabbles between brothers or cousins which don't last long (right). The weaker or just more timid bird quickly runs away. Young males choose a favoured area, where they spend some of their time crowing, and which eventually becomes their territory if they can keep it. The alpha male roams the entire area, which can be as much as a square kilometre as far as I have been able to tell here, depending on the terrain. Due to the individual's experience and capacities, and depending on the current power struggle, friendships, the territory is in constant flux. Some birds move long distances daily, and others do not. As the alpha male and his entourage moves slowly, foraging, through the favoured regions of his grown sons, these younger relatives stay with him for awhile, until he moves on. He crows from time to time as he moves, announcing his presence. These older, powerful alpha males seem to avoid fighting, and will visit in each others territories without conflict. This may be because by that age their spurs have become needle-sharp and about three centimeters long. Their fights can result in serious wounding, usually to the head and eyes, but the breast and wing joints are also targeted. Each rooster and his circumstances are different. Some are lacking in ambition and avoid fighting all their lives--some of these roam vaster territories than the aggressive ones, by roaming quietly, and remaining on the periphery of other flocks.

When the alpha male is hurt, grows old, or weakens for other reasons, he is likely to be killed in the battle that ensues for the leadership of the flock, because he will never give up. Having kept track of a few of these terrible battles, I can say I have never seen such long-term single-minded determination, courage and spirit as shown by some members of this species. Sometimes badly injured former alpha males become loners. They will adopt lost chicks, or help hens with small babies, but avoid contact with other roosters, and they do not crow. The roosters' famous aria declares "I am here!" and those who don't want to attract opposition over that remain silent. They usually die of starvation due to being handicapped by their injuries.

Cock fighting is the unacknowledged national sport of Polynesia, and continual attempts are made by boys and men from all over Moorea Island, to steal the long term residents of my bird hospital. They bring their own experienced rooster, with a cord attached to his leg, and when they hear a wild bird crowing in the jungle near the road, or manage to approach my flock unseen when it is out of sight of the house, they throw their own cock into the vicinity. Since this bird is a stranger, the resident rooster challenges it, and a fight ensues. As the birds leap, kick and twirl, the targeted cock becomes hopelessly entangled in the cord, whereon the thieves pounce on it, untangle it, and put it in a sack. Just this type of capture often results in the death of one of the birds. The stolen bird is not well treated, and soon dies in a fight or through injuries, stress, and neglect. When I rescued one of mine, he was being kept in mud underneath a laundry basket so small he couldn't stand up in it. It had rained all night and he was covered with mud, and shaking with cold. He had not been fed or given water. While children play at cock fighting, there are big cock fights held by serious players, in which a lot of money is involved. While some of them are poor, professionals and businessmen play too, so cock fighting is not confined, here, to the poor.

I have sometimes been able to recover the stolen birds through getting to know the cock thieves and their mothers. But not always; the more serious thieves make sure they get clean away. Its painful to know a bird that I saved and love is being tortured to death with the approval of the society. The law against cock fighting (and cruelty to animals) is not enforced. Stolen birds die, and more are sought. The practice leads to a black hole of suffering, and appears to influence the population to have no care for these magnificent and intelligent birds.

There is no reason why a junglefowl or chicken is less worthy than a parrot, dog, dolphin, (dolphins are also middle predators), horse or cat. They are as intelligent as any other bird.

And remember, if you hear anyone sneering at chickens, you can mention that chickens were already dinosaurs when them and their dogs were only mice!

Ila France Porcher © 2006