Learning How to Speak Bird

Did you know that in this very moment, there are tens of billions of birds held in captivity? Worldwide, “commercialized” chickens alone outnumber us by a ratio of nearly seven to one. That’s seven chickens for every human on the planet, more if you consider apartment hens and backyard flocks, a growing trend in many cities and suburban areas.

Despite its astounding prevalence, avian captivity as a phenomenon remains all but invisible, something most people hardly even think about, let alone talk about.  (And frankly, those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo would prefer to keep it that way.)

An eleven-year-old me and my first “pet” rooster, Bonnie. Roosters like Bonnie are perhaps the most invisible captive birds in modern society, with the majority silenced shortly after leaving the shell. Those remaining survivors are often labeled nuisances and banned in municipalities, and some find themselves shredded alive for bloodthirsty sport. A lucky few find their way to loving flocks or to sanctuary

The deafening silence surrounding bird captivity is what inspired me to find my voice and more recently, to undertake a five-year study on “Poultry, Parrots, and People” in order to delve into the psychological aspects of bird confinement.  What I discovered is that while the motivations underlying avian captivity are as varied as the species we keep, most share one theme in common: commodification at the expense of the birds.

Parrots, for example, are often sought for their beauty and companionship—aesthetic friendship for purchase at a pretty price.  Yet beauty fades and relationships are complicated, leaving many parrots left to languish alone—or worse.  By contrast, the chickens, ducks, geese, and other species we refer to collectively as “poultry” are not considered in post-industrialist society as individuals at all so much as means to an end: feathers, eggs, and flesh measured most efficiently in dollars per pound.  The end result is the same for poultry as it is for parrots—or worse.

Psychology informs us that commodification is, in essence, a form of objectification, a psychological projection that inflicts harm on an unfathomable scale, both to birds and to us as their captors. Peeling back this Cartesian projection reveals its irrational nature, for humanity’s collective lack of consideration for living, breathing birds is a strange paradox given that our affinity for avian beings is an ancient one, steeped in rich symbolic potency informed by the experiences of countless generations. So why is there currently such a wide schism between our perception (and treatment) of the birds we encounter in day-to-day life and those of our imagination, the sacred metaphorical images that speak in the universal language of the archetypes?

Perhaps in holding the tension of these opposing forces, we have forgotten a third thing, the one at the heart of the matter: The birds themselves.

Meet Pimento at the age of one month, a young Ameraucana chicken who would later grow into a brave and beautiful hen. Pimento stars in the 30-minute film “A Bird Tail”, which chronicles her adventures living in a diverse, multi-species flock.

In my experience, if you spend enough time with a bird, you will begin to see the true colors of their character.  They are nothing short of magnificent, far brighter than any feather.  The birds i’ve known are sparkling and imaginative and playful, sometimes generous, always curious, and oftentimes rude.  They are individuals with their own personalities, just like you and me.  (I guess it turns out the species divide might just be another one of those pesky psychological projections.)

Cocoa awaits the results of her X-ray, and the news is not good. Modern “layer” hens have genomes that have been manipulated by humans to ramp up egg production year-round. Instead of the dozens of eggs laid annually by her wild ancestors, today’s hen can lay hundreds and as you can imagine, this wreaks havoc upon their reproductive systems. On Cocoa’s X-ray, we discovered 1) an ectopic egg stuck inside her abdomen and 2) that we were too late to save her.

With these newly-honed avian eyes I can see it is no longer enough to speak about birds; we need to learn to speak with them, to include their voices in the conversation.  This realization inspired me to create the short film “A Bird Tail”, narrated from the perspective of a backyard Ameraucana hen named Pimento, one of the many avian loves of my life.  I invite you to watch the film, to get to know Pimento and to fall in love with her, too.

Because isn’t Love the most motivating force of all, stronger than psychological projections like objectification and speciesism?  Surely our love for all living things compels us to take flight in the face of immeasurable odds, to get our hands dirty, to learn how to speak for (and to!) Birds and other animals—beginning with telling the Egg-Truth about eggs, for instance.

So I implore you, dear reader, to seek your catalyst.  Find not only your voice but the courage to wield it, to crow until you’re blue in the face, until you’re absolutely certain you’ve woken every

Sleeping

Neighbor.

Billions of silenced birds depend upon it.


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Egg-Blog contributor: Elizabeth M. Burton-Crow, Ph.D. currently works at the Depth Psychology Program, Pacifica Graduate Institute. Elizabeth does research in Philosophy of Science, Ecopsychology, and Trans-species Ethics. Her current project is 'Poultry, Parrots, and People: Exploring Psyche Through the Lens of Avian Captivity'. Dr. Crow is also a facuity member of The Kerulos Center for Nonviolence