This morning, about half an hour before sunrise, I perched on a concrete block next to the chicken house with one eye on my chickens eating their scratch and the other on the eastern horizon in the charming act of blushing. Far off in the distance I heard the call of a Canada goose and looked up to see a mini-V of just four geese flying toward us from the northeast.
“Here come your wild cousins,” I said to the girls. As the tiny formation drew closer, one of the honkers honked again, much louder this time. In complete synchrony, as if from a collective consciousness, the chickens stretched their necks to full length, a posture of total alertness, and began to sing in unison, a high-pitched trilling I’d never heard from them before. The sound was like a choir of Spanish-speaking sopranos stuck on a rolled “R.” They kept it up for ten or twenty seconds, and the longer it continued, the more wild and unearthly it sounded to me.
Neither the posture nor the song seemed characterized by a sense of alarm, but rather by a heightened awareness, a reflexive response to the call of the wild. I imagined it was something like the inchoate feeling I sometimes get when I remember something I didn’t know I knew, something seemingly ancient. The wild geese called and the chickens were compelled to answer from a store of primitive memory that preceded their domestication. How far back in time might this primitive connection go?
Modern-day chickens and wild geese are now of two separate orders (Galliformes, land fowl, and Anseriformes, water fowl), but this split did not occur until approximately 90 million years ago. How deep in the brain do such evolutionary memories reside? When my chickens heard the geese, did they tap into a foggy fragment of 90 million year old instinct?
Did they remember when they could fly for longer than 13 seconds and actually look kind of graceful doing so?