The chicken shrink

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Psychologist Dr Nicola Davies ponders the relationship between humans and chickens, and concludes that they are good for us in lots of ways

Did you start with one chicken, before telling yourself that one would get lonely so you’d better get another? Or, perhaps you started with two, only to convince yourself that they would eventually get bored with each other, so you’d better get a few more? If this sounds familiar, you aren’t alone. We look at the psychology behind why people enjoy keeping these feathered fowl as pets - as well as the numerous benefits you can draw from tending to chickens.

A growing trend

Dr Lucie Byrne-Davis, chicken collector and psychology lecturer at the University of Manchester, says of chickens: “They aren’t really a pet in the traditional sense because it can be difficult to actually pet a chicken and carry it around like other house animals. Unlike dogs and cats, a chicken doesn’t seem to reciprocate the affection.” Indeed, at first glance chickens might not seem to fit the bill as far as pets are concerned. However, look a little deeper and there are numerous benefits to keeping chickens that provides insight into the psychology behind the human-chicken relationship.

Social benefits

You have probably found that your chicken collection has sparked many a conversation. Byrne-Davis says: “There is a bit of a desire to have a talking point – people always ask about them and it is fun to be different.” The reason she and her husband decided to get chickens in the first place is that they wanted a pet, and liked that chickens would be something ‘quite different’. In this sense, chickens provide a means of developing attachment while also allowing the handler to learn how to foster relationships with other individuals.

Nutritional benefits

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When people start collecting chickens, it often begins with pondering the economic benefits of access to free eggs. Byrne-Davis agrees that this is one of the greatest benefits of collecting chickens. Apart from the money you save, eggs that come straight from your garden are much healthier than those purchased in the supermarket due to the reduced stocking time and more control over what the chickens are fed. You can see the difference by the yolk of the egg - while supermarket eggs are a bright yellow, eggs from garden chickens will be of a darker colour – indicating higher nutritional value.

Stress relief

Keeping pets of any sort has been found to be beneficial for a person’s mental well-being. Although most studies on this matter concern cats and dogs, the fact remains that an emotional connection with any pet can alleviate stress. In the case of chickens, this may not result so much from a sense of companionship, but from the eccentric form of entertainment that chickens provide. As simple-minded as they may appear, chickens have a rich personality and are often fun to observe. Watching chickens is a natural way of releasing the feelgood hormone serotonin.

Free therapy

Chickens are excellent listeners - they never judge you and you can unload your deepest thoughts and feelings to them without fear of being mocked or criticised. This gives you the opportunity to talk through any problems you are experiencing, which often allows you to gain perspective and realise a solution to your problems. Yes, chickens are great self-therapy and cheaper than seeing a professional counsellor!

Connecting with nature

For Byrne-Davis, tending to chickens satisfies the instinctive bond between humans and nature – also known as biophilia. “It seems special to be so connected to nature,” she explains. It also allows a person to reconnect with and reminisce about the simpler past when people grew their own food and owning chickens was commonplace. Chickens then become the anchor that tethers us to nature and reminds us of what is most important. The simple pleasure of keeping chickens could be the centre you have been searching for to discover who you really are and what your priorities are in life.

Easy education

The ease of tending to chickens, when compared to the duty of taking care of other pets, can be appealing, says Byrne-Davis says. There is occasional maintenance work such as collecting eggs and clipping wings, but these are simple tasks that are relatively easy to carry out. This makes them particularly good pets for children to start learning about responsibility and caretaking. Indeed, chickens provide a unique learning opportunity. Byrne-Davis says: “Having chickens as pets provides a good learning point to talk about life and animals and the kids love eating the eggs from the garden.”

According to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, there were around half a million chicken keepers in the UK in 2011. This trend in keeping chickens continues to grow, in part due to some of the psychology outlined in this article. Delicious eggs, stress relief, and a fascinating topic of conversation – keeping chickens is rife with benefits not immediately clear to everyone. In particular, at the end of the day, a unique nourishing relationship can exist between people and their pets - whatever that pet might be.

But are you an ADDICT?

Keeping chickens can sometimes become obsessive, and the hobby can begin to take over your life. Sam Bowles, from East Sussex, is a self-confessed addict, and offers a salutary warning….

It sneaks up on you, slowly but surely. It starts with the desire to have a few hens for nice fresh eggs. All innocent and nothing to worry about. You enjoy owning your own little piece of the ‘good life’ and you get to know your funny, quite charming new pets. Slowly you spend more time with them, picking them up, hand taming them and giving them names. The first eggs are cause for celebration – as if you had never seen eggs before! You are delighted with your ‘girls’ and you proudly tell everyone all about your new pets and their great achievement. The eggs are ceremoniously cooked and enjoyed. It’s great having hens. You tell yourself - this is all perfectly normal.

The telltale signs

A little time goes by and you delight in your girls and the pleasure they give you. You read books about hen keeping, buy magazines – after all who wouldn’t want to read all about their new hobby? Piles of the said books and magazines start to take up large areas in your home. You talk to lots of people and find out that there is a whole community out there – all with the same interest as you and all just as eager to talk about it! The internet becomes a great place to find out so much more than you ever imagined. A whole range of breeds are out there – how exciting! Then, your girls that you bought ‘just to lay eggs’ are suddenly not quite enough. After all, there are some amazing breeds out there – wouldn’t it be nice if you could just have a few more? Well, now the thought is in your head you decide it just has to be done – but which breed? Searching for just the right birds becomes your main target. Forget the chores of modern day life and the family – new chickens are much more important! You desperately try to engage others in your household to join you in your quest.

Out of control

You now have a lovely flock of different breeds. All of them being pampered and adored. Birthday and Christmas presents are hen based – gifts of pictures, tea towels, china hens and egg cups galore along with cards and even wrapping paper! It knows no bounds. Your conversations usually end up with chickens. Your friends and family start to look a bit panicked whenever you appear – fearful of perhaps having to hear, yet again, about your darling girls’ antics or your latest thoughts on perhaps having a go at breeding or showing your hens. If they are caught they often end up looking glassy eyed and start finding excuses why they must immediately do a very minor and grim job.

Your hens give you so much pleasure, so you do everything you can to keep them happy. Suddenly you realise that your life just wouldn’t be the same without them. That’s when you understand that it’s happened and it’s too late. YOU ARE ADDICTED TO CHICKENS! In which case – Welcome to the Club.