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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Uniting the Flocks

It's still summer, and very hot outside, with occasional downpours of rain. The peaches are ripe. The apples and pears are still hard. It's summer, but as far as Sword is concerned, summer is almost over. Next Wednesday, she goes back to school. Bow and I will miss having her around all day, though Bow will never admit it. In preparation for school, Sword is now facing a difficult task: uniting her flocks.

Sword has been maintaining two separate groups of chickens all summer. The class of 2010, which were mere chicks this easter, and the class of 2009, three laying hens and a rooster. At first the little chicks were obviously too young to be introduced to their older counterparts. Then they grew. Now they are all about the same size.

Everytime they were introduced, the older hens, especially the most hen-pecked of them all, would viciously attack the pullets. The young pullets, for their part, would run off and try to escape. They never stood their ground. They never fought back. "They don't know how to fight back," Sword told me, "because they never peck at each other. They are always nice to each other. It's because I picked them out. The ones you picked last year were mean."

It's true. Sword picked the youngest, most helpless looking chicks when I gave her the chance to do so. The previous year, I picked the biggest and healthiest looking specimens. I was afraid that the younger, smaller looking chicks might die on us. I was looking for good layers. Sword was looking for good pets.

We have the most domesticated of domesticated birds. Sword picks them up and hugs them, and they allow all that. Because she was afraid to leave the two generations of hens together, even at night, Sword would pick the pullets up one by one and deposit them each in a bird cage inside the hen house at the end of the day, so that they could be safe from the others even at night. Every morning she would take them out of that cage, one by one, and put them in our separate outdoor chick enclosure. When we went away for four days, Sword had to train Lawrence to do the same in her stead.

But now she is going to be at school all day. She will still have chores with the chickens in the morning before she boards the school bus, but there won't be time to maintain this apartheid. So this morning, Sword united her flocks.

When she came to the pens to report on her efforts, Bow, as is his habit these days, jumped on the closest metal door and made such a racket that I couldn't hear a word Sword was saying. He has taken to making such displays every time someone new enters the room, and it can be rather annoying and distracting. It is clearly an act of aggression, and he can't seem to help himself, as even being sprayed with water is not much of a deterrent. As a result of all this interference by Bow, I had to leave him for a moment and go to Sword's room to hear her report. "The younger hens have gone in to the hen house and the older ones are in the yard. The door to the hen house is open, but they don't want to come out. Sometimes the rooster goes in to look at them, but they pretend not to see him and look at the wall or get really busy eating a bug."

"But they're not hurting each other?" I asked.

"No. The big brown one wanted to, but I punished her, and she stopped."

"Good," I said and went back to Bow. He was sitting on the potty, waiting for me to wipe him. If I leave him alone even for a minute, he always takes this opportunity to use the potty. I can't walk away for any length of time. Bow and I spend all day together, but every single time someone else comes into the pen area, he creates a great big racket and tries to scare them away.

Is aggression in chickens, in chimps or in humans, in-born or learned? I think it's a little of both, and the degree that it is in-born varies from individual to individual. Selection of the less aggressive individuals over the more aggressive can also work to tone down the aggressive instincts of the group as a whole. Are all chimpanzees aggressive? Well, yes, compared to humans on average. Are they all equally aggressive? No. Is all the aggression only a matter of nurture? Clearly, not. Bow and Sword were raised together in the same environment. He's much more aggressive than she is. But on the other hand, he is much less aggressive than he could be. He can be very sweet, and he does exercise great forbearance in his relations with me and Lawrence.

Is there a future for chimpanzees and humans together? There might be, but the aggression issue has to be dealt with. To some extent, it's a matter of nurture. But it is also a matter of selection. If a chimp is too aggressive to deal with, then fewer people will deal with him. It's as simple as that.

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