Sunday, April 6, 2008

chickens really seeing red

Leftcoast Mom has been chuckling her way through a great little book recommended to her called Book of General Ignorance, a compendium of all kinds of challenges to what we've held as truths all these years:
  • Magellan the first man to circumnavigate the globe? wrong.
  • Baseball invented in America? wrong.
  • Henry VIII had six wives? wrong!
(correct answers at the bottom of the post).

The little factoid that caught my eye was the challenge to conventional wisdom that bulls are infuriated by the color red. Bulls are actually color-blind, and it's the movement of the bullfighter's cape the causes the bull to charge.

The animal that really reacts to the color red? Chickens!

Turns out that when a chicken bleeds, other chickens in the flock peck at it obsessively. If left unchecked, a flock can be depleted rather quickly as the chickens go at each other. Poultry farmers have a keen sensitivity to this, so they'll do what they can to prevent it. Enter a company called Animalens:
The traditional solution is to trim the chickens' beaks with a hot knife so they are blunt and cause less damage. However, in 1989 a company called Animalens launched red-tinted contact lenses for egg-laying chickens. The early results were promising -- because everything looked red, the chickens fought less and needed less feed because they wern't so active, but still laid the same number of eggs.

The egg industry operates on a tiny profit margin of about 1.6 percent. There are 250 million egg-layers in the United States, 150 milion of them on just fifty farms. Red contact lenses for chickens promised a tripling in profits.

Unfortunately, fitting the lenses was fiddly and labor-intensive. Deprived of oxygen, the chickens' eyes degenerated rapidly, causing pain and distress. Falling foul of the animal rights lobby, Animalens withdrew the product.
Thus concludes another entry in Book of General Ignorance.

If you like this kind of stuff, there's over 250 pages of it to pour through. If you'd rather just know the answers to the teaser questions at the top of the post, they are: Henry the Black, England and two (four if you're Catholic). Want to know why? Get your own copy :^)


kathi d said...

If seeing through red is really that beneficial, couldn't they just make little red celluloid helmets or sunglasses for the chickens?

Melanie K said...

and little red pants--that way we can bring them in the house, too :)

Matthew said...

Do most roosters not have a big crown of red on their heads'?

I question this information.

ThomasK said...

Good observation, Matthew. All chickens have combs, that fleshy growth on the top of the chicken head. While both male and female chickens have combs, the males have a larger comb. Depending on the breed, the comb may look different in shape and even in color. While most are red, some breeds have purple combs.

So why even have combs? They cool the chicken down. Blood circulates between the comb and the wattles (those fleshy jowel things on either side of the beak).

And why don't the red in the combs and wattles attract attention? Likely because they're expected to be red. It's the uncommon red (blood on feathers or feet) that attracts attention and sends the chooks into a frenzy.


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