Avian Matters: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

Andrew LawlerAlright. So which came first? The chicken or the egg? You’ll be able to find the answer to that in here, but this little video in an article from Brain Pickings does a good job, too.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? is, as the cover says outright, the “Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization”. I was pretty surprised even just reading the introduction: the chicken is the most widespread bird globally, which lives in every nook and cranny of the world except for one continent (Antarctica, though empire penguin chicks have caught diseases that come from chickens still) and one state (Vatican City). Once I consider it, it makes sense, but given how widespread they are, shouldn’t we see live chickens running amok a bit more often than we currently do?

The noticeable absence of the (live) bird that most populates the world is a bit concerning, and this is the case just about everywhere unless you happen to work as a butcher or in the poultry industry, and while sermonizing is not what Lawler does in this book (nor is it my intention here!), he does touch upon how little we actually get to see, and therefore think about, the chicken as a bird as opposed to as meat – which in turn means that we also don’t think too hard on how the development of the chicken for larger breasts and more meat for less feed has led to the possibility of chickens that are in perpetual pain throughout their short lives because their skeletal structures are incapable of keeping up with the rapid growth of their bodies. Lawler even describes an episode where roosters took out their frustrations on hens, sometimes killing them, either because their enlarged breasts prevented mating, or because they were unaware of the courting dance. It’s not the first creature we think of when we say this, but perhaps “short, nasty and brutish” should describe the lives of chickens instead – though in truth it’s due to the short, nasty and brutish lives of people!

Anyway. Lawler does a pretty stellar job taking you from place to place as you follow the chicken on its journey from becoming domesticated to becoming found worldwide as he moves from continent to continent and from time period to time period. The irony here is that even as the chicken is becoming ever more widespread and consumed, the Red Jungle Fowl is ever more threatened by pollution of their gene pool due to matings with domesticated chickens, to the point that even though Red Jungle Fowl still exist, there are precious few that have purely wild genes.

A Chicken Followed Me Home! is another chicken-focused book, and this one would be great for children, or even just before tackling a full book about the chicken and how the unlikely candidate that is its ancestor (the Red Jungle Fowl) managed to become as widespread as it did. And now, because we know how the chicken made its way around the world and invaded our lives across the globe, let’s explore a couple of ways to enjoy all that it offers us!

Maybe you think cookbooks shouldn’t be making their way into a series about birds, a series that is a celebration of birds? Well where else should I be exploring cookbooks that teach you how to cook chicken, duck, and other birds, but in a series about avian matters?* Continue reading

Avian Matters: Bird Sense

Tim BirkheadBird Sense is all about, well, bird senses. The senses of birds. The way birds sense the world around them, in a slightly different way than The Thing with Feathers, which I’ll discuss a bit in more detail below. Interestingly enough, Birkhead covers more than just the five human senses, including magnetic sense as well as – whether you agree that this is a sense or not – emotion.

If anyone has ever read Nagel’s What is it Like to be a Bat?*, you might be thinking, “well, there’s really no way to understand what it’s like to be a bird” (unless you read the paper and didn’t come away from it agreeing with Nagel), and I suppose you’re right, to a degree: we’re not birds, after all, so no matter how we try to simulate what we think are their experiences of the world around them, there is really no way to know what it is to be a bird.** But it’s not quite strictly speaking necessary, is it? While Birkhead doesn’t provide a complete physical theory of bird senses, he certainly tries to help the reader understand what it is like to be  bird, from the senses that we share with them (to a degree) – smell, sight, touch, taste, hearing – to those we have no such access to, such as magnetic orienteering. And then there’s the fact that each species has different specs (it’s kind of like those infographics where you can draw out the shape of the strengths and weaknesses of each creature, and every species would have a different shape).

The writing is quite easy to engage with, and Birkhead presents a lot of the information straightforwardly, making this a great read for those of us who have precious little background in the natural sciences or of how birds work! There are anecdotes taken from Birkhead’s own experiences interspersed with information from studies about bird senses, and Birkhead does a great job making the information accessible. You’ll also learn about the history of our understanding of each of the senses – such as how the accepted explanation for bats being able to navigate in the dark was, for a time, due to touch rather than sound – and how that understanding has changed over time. Also, fun fact: did you know certain birds (e.g. oilbirds and a type of swift) also use echolocation, albeit at a lower frequency? Which tells us also about how perhaps birds have physical limitations to how their hearing might be adapted, because these birds are unable to sense smaller obstacles in their flight trajectory than a bat might be able to.

I personally also found that this was a nice companion to Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? by Andrew Lawler, as I was reading these side by side and happened to read the latter half of the chicken book after reading the chapter on Touch, which made everything about the practice of debeaking all the more brutal.

There’s also an interesting Quanta article on hyperuniformity in chickens’ eyes, if you’d like to know more about chicken eyes and vision.

Now we’re going to move onto The Thing with Feathers, which also covers in part some bird senses.

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Bronze Age Civilizations and a Fascination with Archaeology

I’ve always had a fascination with archaeology and ancient civilizations, and hopefully I’m not alone!  It’s a subject area that I enjoy reading about, and there’s always something to learn. Do you also have a fascination with the past? Are there any time periods that especially interest you? Today, let’s have a quick look at the Bronze Age.

In an ever-more interconnected world, what lessons can we learn from the past? I recently re-read Eric H.  Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which examines why a number of civilizations collapsed in the Late Bronze Age using archaeological research. One thing is clear – the interconnectedness of these civilizations meant that if one of them experienced natural disasters, warfare, or another factor that negatively affected them, then others would also become affected. Cline provides interesting information about these societies, based on current research, and includes the Egyptians, Hittites, Mycenaeans, Assyrians, and others, who interacted and relied upon one another.

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