This article is republished from The Sociological Review under a Creative Commons Licence. You can read the original here.
Imagine the sounds of a London morning: Tube trains screeching past; commuters jostling by; traffic filling the air. Then… you hear a sound that doesn’t quite fit: cluck-cluck-cluck. You shake it off, dismiss it as impossible. But then, it comes again… cluck-cluck-cluck.
What you’re hearing is one of thousands of hens living in gardens and allotments across London. Today, over one million households in Britain are keeping chickens and around one in every 20 of these birds is in London. But these chickens are not livestock; they are “pets with benefits”. As well as eggs, chicken-keeping offers educational potential, enhances wellbeing, and strengthens connections with nature. These birds are undeniably improving the lives of urban communities.
Chickens might seem out of pace with city life, but city dwellers are finding sanctuary and community by keeping chickens, forcing them to slow down and consciously engage with the city. In cities nature is often seen as supplementary to the primary function of the circulation and production of capital. Geographer Ayona Datta has written about how cities have had to become fast in the contemporary urban age. The introduction of chickens into the city is a challenge to fast-paced urban life, not only spatially but temporally. It forces those who live with and care for chickens to carve out spaces to slow down.
Chickens might seem out of pace with rapid urban life, but city dwellers are finding sanctuary and community by keeping chickens.
Chicken-keeping is on the rise in London’s middle-class neighbourhoods, as well as in community gardens, allotments, schools and city farms. Chickens are teaching children about where their food comes from and are involved in therapeutic programmes for NHS patients, have been placed in care homes for older people’s welfare and will soon be placed in prisons to help with wellbeing and anger management. Chicken-keeping has been linked with mood-boosting, combatting loneliness and isolation and even improving mobility. People are learning not only animal care skills, but also financial awareness through egg-selling. For its advocates, chicken-keeping is changing people’s worlds, starting in the garden.
These chickens are certainly transforming the city in small ways: coops are being built, runs constructed, chicken-friendly flora introduced, urban space landscaped, and new communities and connections being forged around them. Underneath this chicken boom, there is a desire to bring “the good life” into the city. I argue that for urban smallholders and domestic keepers, chicken-keeping is a response to urban crises over food provenance and quality, environmental ethics, and a growing unease with industrial agriculture.
Back to nature
While there are many unusual effects of chickens flocking to London, one of the most striking is their temporalities. Not only are these urban flocks forcing slowed engagements with a fast-paced city, but they are also part of a growing desire to “return to nature” through ideas of a simpler, rural life. This alternative vision doesn’t just feature chickens, it finds new ways – by returning to old ways – of keeping time with them.
Archaeological, genomic and historical evidence all point towards a long history of domesticated chickens. The earliest sign of domestication has been found in Neolithic sites in Northern China, dating back about 8,000 years, and domestic chickens were prolific in the Indus Valley by 2500 BC as leisure and game birds.
While many chickens would have lived in agricultural societies, they also have a unique link with urban societies. In Ancient Egypt, chickens were aplenty, probably after being brought from Mesopotamia; between 323 to 30BC, they became a dietary staple. As demand grew, so did the capacity for technological innovation, culminating in the Egyptian egg oven: an “ingenious system of mud ovens designed to replicate the conditions under a broody hen”. This was the beginning of a speeding up of galline life, which has ultimately led to this misunderstood bird unwittingly becoming the most prolific animal on earth.
Today, according to William Boyd, billions of chickens on the planet are bred and hatched to provide eggs and meat, growing twice as large in half the time that they did just 50 years ago. To speed up this process, a deep and intimate knowledge of chicken biology has been necessary – specifically in relation to their daily and annual body clocks.
Learning to Share Time
Chickens have incredibly accurate body clocks, keeping time not only with daylight, but also with the seasons. No one will be surprised to learn that the rooster gets up with the sun – but it isn’t daylight that alerts it to wake up. In experimental light studies, the roosters didn’t simply respond to light cues, but instead kept almost perfect time through their circadian clocks.
These long-forgotten galline alarms are not the only examples of chicken temporalities, with hens not only keeping a daily rhythm, but an annual one too. Chickens’ egg-laying patterns fluctuate with the seasons: autumn sees moulting and laying slows down, while spring sees an influx of eggs. These temporal observations were found in experiments to increase the productivity of egg-laying to speed up natural processes to keep industrial time.
No one will be surprised to learn that the rooster gets up with the sun – but it isn’t daylight that alerts it.
Many of the chickens in urban gardens in Britain are ex-commercial chickens, meaning that they were bred to lay daily eggs in barns or farms up and down the country. After about 18 months, when their production rates slow down, these hens are usually destined for chicken nuggets or dog food. However, organisations like the British Hen Welfare Trust are stepping in to rehome these birds into back gardens, allotments and community spaces.
In retirement, the chickens can slow down, with less emphasis on producing eggs to earn their keep. One person who rehomes hens told me that they kept getting ex-commercial hens because “chickens deserve a chance, I can help some chickens that I wouldn’t otherwise”. Another told me that once they’d rescued hens, they “don’t have a transactional relationship … they’re part of the family.”
While laying eggs is no longer a priority for ex-commercial hens, the legacies of a century of speeding-up is bred into their bodies. They have significantly shortened life spans, and often die of diseases related to the pressures of selective breeding and manipulation on their bodies, such as egg boundedness or heart failure. The legacy of industrial time is written into the cells of these chickens.
A gentle pace
In the urban garden, chickens entice people to slow down and rethink their daily habits, spending “more time on just being outside watching [the hens] do things”. In this relative freedom, chickens can perform natural behaviours, digging and pecking, perching on branches and bathing in the sun. This new mode of urban dwelling is cultivating, producing and reconfiguring more-than-human inhabitation of the city on new temporalities, as their bak-bak-bak song adds to the Anthropocene dawn chorus.
But this galline dwelling is not for everyone. While community gardens and city farms are homing chickens, living with them is reserved for the wealthy. Keeping chickens in a city like London requires having not only the time to do so, but also the money to own land in this expensive city.
The temporalities of chickens are not simply contained to the garden. In 2018, geologists Carys E. Bennet and her colleagues declared the contemporary broiler chicken “a distinctive new morphotype with a relatively wide body shape, a low centre of gravity and multiple osteo-pathologies”. They are “distinctive enough to make them a marker species of the proposed Anthropocene Epoch” and, thinking on a geologic timescale, the billions of chickens eaten each year have their bones disposed of, fossilised, mummified in the anaerobic conditions of contemporary landfill. The fossilised remains of these chickens will be found as a different species to Gallus gallus domesticus, the latest evidence of a human-altered nature in a 10,000-year shared history.
Understanding the chicken – the most exploited and manipulated of animals – offers much to ponder in these uncertain times. In the Anthropocene, humans determine the possibilities of other-than-human lives “through colonial dispersals, industrial agriculture, habitat destruction, and anthropogenic environmental change,” as human geographer Catherine Phillips put it.
Distinctive spatiotemporal patterns – both circadian and annual – have been exploited to speed up industrial chicken production, an embodied temporal manipulation that will be fossilized into the earth. In the urban garden, chickens can once again slow down – returning to their role as timekeepers and a connection to the natural world in cities usually devoid of these animal intimacies.
About the Author: Catherine Oliver is a geographer currently working with urban chickens and keepers in London as part of the Urban Ecologies project (ERC) in the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. She published her first book, Veganism, Archives and Animals(Routledge) in 2021. Dr Oliver writes widely about animals from a geographical perspective in academic and public-facing forums, focusing in particular on chickens. She can be found on Twitter at @katiecmoliver and her website is https://catherinecmoliver.com/
References and Further Reading
- Bennett, C. et al. (2018). The broiler chicken as a signal of a human reconfigured biosphere. Royal Society Open Science, 5(12), 180325. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.180325
- Boyd, W. (2001). Making Meat: Science, Technology, and American Poultry Production. Technology and Culture, 42(4), 631-664. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25147798
- Davis, K. (2009). Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs. Book Publishing Company.
- Ingold, T. (2013) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, Oxon: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203818336
- Landecker, H. (2019). A metabolic history of manufacturing waste: Food commodities and their outsides, Food, Culture & Society, 22(5), 530-547. https://doi.org/10.1080/15528014.2019.1638110
- Oliver, C (2021). Returning to the Good Life? Chickens and Chicken-keeping during Covid-19 in Britain, Animal Studies Journal, 10(1), 114-139. http://dx.doi.org/10.14453/asj.v10i1.7
- Phillips, C. (2020). Telling times: More-than-human temporalities in beekeeping, Geoforum, 108, 315-324. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2019.08.018