Joe Eaton calls “Fowl!” A Review

I know it’s a lost cause, but the sloppiness of the publishing industry continues to sadden me. Editing is a lost art, like scrimshaw. Likewise copyreading and factchecking. Latest case in point: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler, from Atria Books. Lawler is a science journalist with impressive credentials, including contributing-writer status with Science. His acknowledgements mention an editor, Leslie Meredith, but I find it hard to believe he or she did any actual editing. This book, which, as an admirer of the domestic chicken, I opened with some degree of anticipation, is so riddled with major and minor errors that I refrained from throwing it across the room only because it was a library copy and I did not want to pay for its replacement.

Where do I start with this mess? What a squandered opportunity! Lawler refers in passing to the pecking order in domestic chickens but doesn’t mention Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, the Norwegian biologist/psychologist who introduced the concept. Fascinating recent research on chicken cognition and behavior, much of it in Australia, is ignored. Having spent considerable time in the company of chickens in the last few years, I can tell you that their social life is more complex than you might think. Complex, hell: it’s a soap opera, with a strong tincture of Game of Thrones. I’ve witnessed chicken coups; it wasn’t pretty. You wouldn’t know that from this book, though.

The discussion of pre-Columbian chicken remains in South America and the Polynesian role in their introduction is confusingly written, and I suspect not just because the data is confusing. And there’s no mention of the wild chickens of the Kaua’i highlands, descendants of birds that came to Hawai’i in the great voyaging canoes and still close to the original red jungle fowl stock.

Chapter 8, “The Little King,” is a particular treasury of howlers. Lawler is talking about the shifting image of the rooster in medieval Europe: “Magical amulets displaying fierce creatures with snake legs and a cock’s head date back to Greco-Roman times, and were popular among ancient Jews and Persians as well as medieval Christians.” Snake legs? How can you write “snake legs” and not immediately think, “Wait a minute”? How could “snake legs” make it through any kind of editorial process? I don’t think he’s referring to the vestigial hind limbs of some boas and pythons, or the legs of ancestral snakes. Did he just mean “reptilian?” Or “scaly?” All bird legs are scaly, more or less.

But let’s move on. Then there’s this: “Scientists have been struggling since Aristotle to understand the mechanisms that determine whether an animal is male or female. The Greek philosopher believed that the hotter the sex a man had with a woman, then the greater likelihood that a resulting fetus would be male. This is not as absurd as it sounds, since temperatures can play a role in sex differentiation among some animals. The hotter the nest during incubation of alligator eggs, for example, the more likely than males will result.” Lawler may be right about what Aristotle believed, based on my recollection of Armand Marie Leroi’s recent (and excellent) book The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. And he’s right about nest temperature and the sex of hatchlings in alligators, an effect also documented in turtles and some lizards. But not in birds! Not even the megapodes, whose eggs are kept warm by rotting vegetation or geothermal heat. Besides, doesn’t he get the, um, metaphorical nature of “hot sex?” Ancient joke: “Do you smoke after intercourse?” “I don’t know; I’ve never looked.”

Still in Chapter 8, he mangles the names of a couple of dinosaur taxa and says Triceratops had feathers on its tail. Nope. That was Psittacosaurus, a basal relative of the giant horned dinosaurs, and the tail ornaments in question were bristles, not the true feathers of some theropod dinosaurs and their modern avian descendants.

Lawler recounts the rise of the American poultry industry in some detail, but inexplicably omits the saga of the Jewish chicken farmers of Petaluma. California enters the book obliquely, in a reference to how the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II deprived the industry of most of its skilled chick-sexers. If true, this is remarkable, and I’d love to know more about this professional specialization.

I was shaking my head and muttering as early as page 10, on which we learn that all but two of the world’s 49 pheasant species inhabit the jungles of South Asia. Leaving aside the Congo peacock, a biogeographical outlier, it’s true that all other living pheasant species are Asian. But from the range maps in the definitive Pheasants, Partridges & Grouse by Steve Madge and Phil McGowan, the distribution seems as much East Asian as South Asian. A couple of species are endemic to Japan, not a notably jungly country; others restricted to scrubland in the Himalayas. I’m not even sure Lawler got the number of species right.

I could go on, but that would be beating a dead chicken. All right, just one more, in the context of poultry-raising among slaves in the antebellum South: “Since black women often did the cooking in plantation kitchens, West African foods like okra and kale crept onto plantation menus.” Kale? This man doesn’t know the difference between kale and collards! (Collards, of course, are only West African by adoption, but that’s another story.)

Joe Eaton is a science and natural history writer based in Berkeley, California.

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