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At the Hernando County Fair, the wisdom of chickens

I found an online forum that asked just the question I had in mind — "What is the average brain size of a chicken?" — and provided a perfectly satisfactory answer:

"Very small.''

Isn't that all we need to know about creatures that scientists recently revealed, to nobody's surprise, are one of the dinosaur's closest modern relatives?

As a matter of fact, it is not, said Kierstin Doyle, 9, of Brooksville.

Kierstin's name didn't appear on any of the entries at the Hernando County Fair's youth poultry show. But she's from a chicken-raising family and, walking down the line of cages Wednesday morning, she pointed to the birds she had helped feed, water and name.

Two of them are Polish frizzles, a breed with feathers that grow out and forward, as though their rumps are pointed into a gale.

Kierstin named the reddish, or "buff,'' hen Rusty. Her white counterpart — which went on to win a best-of-show award for Kierstin's 6-year-old sister, Constance — is called Crystal.

Agriculture people usually name only animals they especially like, and Rusty, Kierstin said, is her favorite.

"She's really, really docile,'' Kierstin said. "I think she likes being held because she'll just sit there and let me do it.''

Kierstin, whose parents keep about 40 chickens, said she notices that a lot of them have distinct personalities. Some go crazy when she feeds them leftover grits, and one of their hens clucks excitedly at the sight of Kierstin's grandfather.

Why is that? I asked. Because he gives her a lot of attention?

"No, because he gives her beer,'' Kierstin said.

Kierstin reminded me of my own oldest son, who raises hens for the eggs and who would no more consider eating one of his buff Orpingtons than he would our ginger tabby.

Then there's my youngest, for whom a plate of hot wings presents roughly the same ethical quandary as bag of popcorn. Like most children — or most Americans, really — he hasn't had to think about where his food comes from.

That's one reason Wednesday morning in the livestock barn was a lot more pleasant and rewarding than the midway mob scene of Ten Buck Tuesday.

The barn was shady, cool and smelled of sawdust and hosed-down concrete. Steers dozed, roosters crowed and all around was the reassuring sight of kids taking responsibility — carrying feed buckets and brushing livestock.

Not all them are like Kierstin, who looked horrified when her father, Ron, talked about one of the family's turkeys that's "going to be our Thanksgiving.''

We don't have to hug or name our animals, or refuse to eat them. But all these young people will learn that chickens are not entirely brainless and that pork chops come from an animal as smart as a dog. They'll learn respect, in other words, which should make them more receptive to a lesson I wish 4-H and FFA would push a little harder: that the livestock in this country deserves better than the abysmal treatment that, by and large, it receives.

Constance isn't like her sister. She shook her head no when I asked her if she had any trouble eating her family's chickens, or chickens in general. Having cared for them, she's got a lot more right to that decision than most of us.

At the Hernando County Fair, the wisdom of chickens 04/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 9, 2009 7:59pm]
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