Flannery’s First Birds: Chickens in History and Popular Culture

Flannery O’Connor’s first brush with fame at the age of five was an interesting foreshadow of things to come in her life.  In an act that seems very fitting given her later life, she had taught a chicken to walk backwards, and her older cousin, Katie Semmes, called the news who published the story. This started Flannery’s association with birds that would follow her for the rest of her life, as her home of Andalusia would become a menagerie of chickens and other birds, the animals becoming part of her brand.  Flannery, through her appreciation of fowl of all types, joined millions of people throughout history who have appreciated chickens for religious ceremonies, companionship, and as a source of food. 

Domestication of what we now call the chicken started around 10,000 years ago in South Asia and Oceania, where humans began working with the Red Junglefowl.[1]   As civilization grew and spread, the chicken spread with it. Mesopotamian tablets mention chickens by 2000 BCE, chickens appear in Egyptian tombs by 1850 BCE, and by 850 BCE they are a large part of Roman society.[2]

Roman state of a woman holding a chicken and a basket. Object and Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 09.39, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/248132?where=Roman+Empire&ft=chicken&offset=0&rpp=40&pos=1

Romans had a particular fondness for the Chicken. As a society, it was a source of food, but it was also used in rituals of divination and fortune telling. Roman Historian Titus Livy records this as a speech given by Appius Claudius Crassus, “What else then does he do, than abolish auspices out of the state, who, by creating plebeian consuls, takes them away from the patricians who alone can hold them? They may now mock at religion. For what else is it, if the chickens do not feed? If they come out too slowly from the coop? If a bird chaunt an unfavourable note? These are trifling: but by not despising these trifling matters, our ancestors have raised this state to the highest eminence.[3] Their behavior was used to determine the outcomes of battles and other strategies needed. Publius Claudius Pulcher, a commander in the Roman army, was even reported to have been charged for treason because he threw chickens in the sea when they did not give him the answer he wanted.[4]

Chickens were brought to the Americas by two separate groups, Pacific Islanders and the colonizing Europeans.[5] But it quickly became an important part of life there. Chickens were mostly used for their eggs. Eggs were a reliable source of sustenance, used alongside other procured meats and vegetables. When they were too old to lay, or were not useful for that task, they could be consumed for their meat. Technology, marketing, and increasing classification standards of the Victorian Era allowed more people to breed chickens and sell eggs on a large scale.[6] The chicken industry changed again in the early twentieth century, with the focus shifting from the selling of eggs to the selling of meat as a primary industry.[7] Meat production continued to grow, as did American consumption of the meat. Last year, the National Chicken Council estimated Americans ate around 98 pounds of chicken per person.[8]

Aside from food consumption, chickens still have a place in religious culture around the world today. Zoroastrianism honors the chicken as a symbol of protection from evil. Santeria uses chickens in their religious practices, sacrificing them as offerings for spirits and ancestors. Christianity also uses the motif of the rooster as a symbol of forgiveness, and as a reminder of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus. 

Chickens also cut their place in popular secular culture. People call those who are acting scared “chicken,” people who are freaking out about nothing are emulating “chicken little,” and those who are running around frantic and disorganized are said to resemble “a chicken with its head cut off.” Rooster sounds are used in films and cartoons to symbolize the morning and rising sun. The chicken motif is also used in stores to make decor seem more rustic or welcoming. 

Photograph of Flannery with her father watching chickens in their yard. 2019.1.54, gift of Louise Florencourt.

Flannery’s chickens were constant companions throughout her life. Sally Fitzgerald wrote this of Flannery and her birds in the introduction to Habit of Being, “She had doted on chickens from early childhood, and now the long love affair with her flock of peafowl, and attendant Muscovy ducks, Chinese geese, and one-eyed swans began, and she wrote constantly of these.”[9] And Flannery thought of herself as living her life “between the house and the chicken yard.”[10]Chickens were a part of Flannery’s whole life, and she joined the masses of those who love the chicken. 

[1] Jerry Adler, Andrew Lawler, “How the Chicken Conquered the World,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 12 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-chicken-conquered-the-world-87583657/

[2] ibid

[3] Titus Livius, The History of Rome, (London: Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Covent Garden), 444.

[4] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Publius Claudius Pulcher.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 18, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Publius-Claudius-Pulcher.

[5] Adler, Lawler

[6] Glenn E. Bugos, “Intellectual Property Protection in the American Chicken-Breeding Industry,” The Business History Review Vol. 66, No. 1, (Spring 1992), 131-132

[7] Ibid 137

[8] “Per Capita Consumption of Poultry and Livestock, 1965 to Forecast in 2022, in Pounds,” Accessed 07/28/2022, https://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/per-capita-consumption-of-poultry-and-livestock-1965-to-estimated-2012-in-pounds/

[9] Flannery O’Connor, Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), 13.

[10] Ibid 437

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