Ask the Chicken Philosopher

by Olivia DeLane

Dear Olivia,
Recently (or, it could have been months ago – I’m really not certain, since I have little grasp on the concept of the passage of time) I returned home to find one of my coopmates, “Blanche”, smashing some of her fertilized eggs. I was absolutely appalled. She had too many eggs to take care of, she said, so she needed to get rid of some. Well I’ve been raised to believe that life begins when the egg is laid, not when the chick hatches. So, I told her that breaking a fertilized egg is wrong. If she has too many, she should just slip some of them into someone else’s nesting box, since they probably won’t notice anyhow. Or, maybe she shouldn’t be giving the roosters a reason to crow after sundown, if you catch my drift. Blanche told me to mind my own business and I haven’t spoken a word to her since. Olivia, is it murder to intentionally smash a fertilized egg? Is it OK if the hen couldn’t possibly raise that many chicks? Every time I see Blanche’s face I feel nothing but disgust. Even if what she did is not wrong, am I wrong to not want to have anything to do with her because of it?

Sincerely,
“Shocked, Appalled and Distressed”
Rolla, MO

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Dear SAD,
The question of when life begins is obviously very difficult and one that I could not possibly answer in a way that would satisfy everyone. As we all know, a mature, well-nourished hen with ample access to water will lay about an egg per day, regardless of whether the eggs have been fertilized or not. (If not, the egg will never develop into a chick, so those ones are really just proto-omelets). A fertilized egg can develop, but only if the mother incubates it. She must initiate development by ‘brooding’, or sitting on her eggs to warm them and periodically turning them as they develop. If incubation is not done, the embryos will not develop and the fertilized egg will simply never become chick.

So, a hen might lay a dozen or so fertilized eggs over the course of two weeks, but they will not even begin to develop until she incubates them for about a 21-day period during which she does not eat much, drink much, or even stop to take a dust-bath. They will then all hatch within a day or two of each other.

The action you observed is called ‘ovicide’. In chickens it is usually accidental or a result of a calcium or protein deficiency in the diet. Supplementing a hen’s diet will usually correct this behavior if it is persistent. Hens are not particularly territorial, so different females will often share the same nesting site without any trouble and are tolerant of each others’ chicks. If chicks are being killed, it’s typically because of overcrowding or because younger hens have been introduced to an established group of older hens. Chicks don’t need much care beyond being given food, water, warmth and fence to keep predators away. So, if everyone has enough comfortable space, the problems from overcrowding should diminish too.

Some bird species, though, have been observed to intentionally engage in ovicide and even infanticide. Among the wattled jacana, a tropical bird, it is the males who brood and a female will sometimes attack other females’ eggs or chicks, killing them to induce the male to mate with her.

Infanticide has been observed in many non-avian species too, including essentially every human culture. In some cases, these killings are active, such as the religious sacrifices conducted by the Inca or ‘mabiki’ (literally, ‘weeding the garden’), the smothering of unwanted children practiced in feudal Japan.

Many times, though, human infanticide has been more passive, such as the practice of ‘exposure’. Oedipus, you might recall, was left by his parents on a hillside to die. And according to legend, Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, who were left in the woods to die but supposedly raised by wolves. Marco Polo observed exposure in China. (Due to the one-child policy, sex selection is believed to still occur today in China, but mostly in utero, through illegal use of ultrasound, not infanticide.) And the Icelandic folk song “Móðir mín í kví, kví” is about a young mother who is haunted by the voice of the now-dead infant she had abandoned outside, forgiving her for what she did.

So, though you are greatly distressed by the ovicide you observed, know that far more clear-cut instances of infanticide are and have been commonplace in the non-chicken portion of the animal kingdom. The practice of exposure and other forms of infanticide only began to die out with the spread of Judeo-Christianity and Islam throughout the world (both of which prohibit the killing of those who have been born) and were known in some places up until about the 19th Century.

I think your distress is derived from two parts: The belief that infanticide is morally wrong (especially in a society with ample resources). And, secondly, that ovicide is morally equivalent to infanticide if you believe that life begins when the egg is laid.

I don’t think anyone could argue against the first part. But regarding the second, the question I think that must be addressed is not ‘When does life begin?’, but rather ‘When does the right to life begin?’. The first question is purely biological, but the second is an ethical one. And it’s understandable that for such a complex issue there might be a reasonable amount of room for legitimate disagreement as to its answer. You seem to have your own. But so does Blanche.

As to whether or not it is right for you to refuse to speak with someone with whom you disagree so vehemently, I say you should associate with whomever you please. So, no, you should not feel bad about shunning your former friend over an issue that is this important to you. But perhaps if you are willing to openly discuss the source of your disagreement with each other in a respectful manner, you might be able to find some common ground and renew your friendship.

Best regards,
Olivia DeLane, Chicken Philosopher

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Olivia DeLane has a Master’s certificate in normative ethology from Gallus College, a non-accredited online institution. Her writings are for entertainment purposes only and should not be misconstrued as being for any other use. Olivia’s first book ‘The Chicken or the Ego: Finding Your Purpose by Asking Yourself Life’s Biggest Philosophical Questions‘ spent 30 weeks on the New York Times’ best-seller list for alternative self-help titles. Her second book, ‘Shacking Up: The Pleasantly-Plump Girl’s Guide to Finding Yourself a Rooster who isn’t a Turkey‘ will be published in September.

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