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In Fowl Territory

Don't look now, but chickens are taking over the world. They plan to make steak and shrimp obsolete. They've got a plant in the White House. They outnumber people 4 to 1. Total conquest can't be far behind.

May 06, 1997|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Things the Colonel never told us about chickens:

Some wear red contact lenses. Ancient Romans thought the birds were psychic. The male possesses such a voracious sexual appetite that its nickname is slang--in several languages--for a human sex organ.

Also, and this is the alarming part, they might be taking over the world.

Long ignored by the Pentagon, the beaked creature has quietly scratched its way to the top of the food chain, installing a Tyson-bankrolled politician in the White House and overtaking beef in popularity.

Although some experts believe the McNuggetization of the planet is just a fad, others predict poultry's conquest will be total, thanks to scientific experiments involving mutant superbirds and chicken that tastes like steak or shrimp.

"It's going to rule the globe," says Richard Lobb, human spokesman for the animal's powerful lobbyist association, the National Broiler Council.

Among the frightening developments:

* Chickens now outnumber people 4 to 1.

* A National Poultry Museum just opened in Kansas, the heart of cattle country.

* The California Legislature recently invited a giant chicken mascot into its chambers and bestowed the bird with a commendation.

* Cow meat has hit new lows, with the once-mighty Big Mac slashed to a pathetic 55 cents, and much of bankrupt Hamburger Hamlet being swallowed up by Koo Koo Roo, an L.A.-based chicken chain.

* Newspapers report a disturbing pattern of chicken assaults against innocent humans. (Well, actually, we found only one article, but that's probably because the birds have seized control of the media.)

*

Relations between chickens and Homo sapiens have always been uneasy.

From humble origins in the jungles of Southeast Asia, the pullet was initially domesticated thousands of years ago not for food, but for cockfighting.

The feathered Evander Holyfields were also recruited for fortunetelling. According to "Poultry Oddities" (Stromberg Publishing, 1992), Roman soothsayers drew an alphabet on the ground, dropped corn pellets on each letter and then noted which ones the rooster picked, sort of an ancient version of the Ouija board.

In Germany, gypsies predicted the sex of a baby by having the pregnant woman incubate an egg in her cleavage. The gender of the hatched chick was said to match the fetus.

From there, encounters with humans got progressively weirder. In an Ohio town, according to "Poultry Oddities," hens strolling after sunset were required to wear tail lights. And at a Philadelphia ball, one couple showed up wearing live chickens as headgear.

In reaction, the wily beast has moved to consolidate its power. One of the boldest steps was electing poultry-industry puppet Bill Clinton, a longtime friend of Arkansas chicken tycoon Don Tyson.

Of course, Clinton isn't the first president to fall under the bird's spell. Andrew Jackson and Rutherford B. Hayes actually allowed fowl to live at the White House, according to poultry historian Loyl Stromberg of Minnesota. And Abraham Lincoln supposedly earned the nickname "Honest Abe" because of his reputation as a fair and impartial cockfight referee.

Still, something about the approaching millennium seems to have galvanized chicken pride. In 1990, the beady-eyed creature officially surpassed beef as America's most popular meat (80 pounds per person a year, triple the 1960 consumption rate). And conspiracy theorists suggest that recent outbreaks of mad-cow disease in England and mad-pig disease in Taiwan are all part of a chicken coup d'etat.

*

None of this might matter if the chicken were a fuzzy, friendly little creature. But, in fact, it's Mussolini with wings.

"If you put 100 birds in a pen," says poultry expert Dick Creger, "they'll soon establish a pecking order." Literally.

The No. 1 hen can peck any of the other birds, but they can't peck back. The No. 2 hen can peck any bird except No. 1, and so on until each fowl is ranked. Those at the bottom are in danger of losing their lives--unless the hens are seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.

In the 1950s, scientists discovered that red light soothes the savage chicken. Normally, when a beak battle draws blood, the sight of the gash causes other birds to gang up on the wounded party and peck it to death. In red light, the hens can't see the blood, so they stay docile.

At first, farmers installed scarlet lightbulbs in chicken coops, but it was too dark for human workers. Next, someone invented red spectacles, but they kept falling off.

Now, Al T. Leighton, a former poultry sciences professor at Virginia Tech, has patented red contact lenses for chickens. So far, about 100,000 birds have tested the tiny plastic disks, Leighton says.

When the late syndicated columnist Mike Royko heard about it, he asked: "How do you teach chickens to put their contacts on and remove them? Won't chicken coops be filled with chickens bending over and looking for dropped lenses?"

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