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5 Questions You've Always Had About Chickens — Answered!

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On this planet, there are now more chickens than any other bird, and many, many more chickens than humans. Nevertheless, most people know very little about the fowl they devour nearly every day. Last night, we addressed which came first, the chicken or the egg. For the enlightenment of all, here are the answers to five more questions about chickens.

What were the first chickens like, and what activities did they enjoy? And how did they become the modern chicken we love to eat today?

The ancestor of all chickens was a feathered beast we call Gallus gallus, "red junglefowl," that lived in the shade of India and southeastern Asia starting a few million years ago. These primal chickens lived in flocks, and probably liked pecking around, laying eggs, and fighting. At least that's what we presume kept them busy: but who really knows how they felt about the whole thing. Humans may have domesticated their first chickens in Thailand as early as 7500 BC, but G. gallus domesticus didn't arrive in the Mediterranean until much later, between 800 and 500 BC. Such a delay is unjustifiable, and certainly doesn't speak well for early man's priorities.

After that, everybody was eating chickens and chicken eggs. The European chicken, however, tended to be a scraggly barnyard scavenger, dropping eggs where it pleased and swallowing whatever it could, until the 19th century, when larger Chinese breeds were imported and everyone got excited about "exotic" chickens. Europeans and Americans started breeding chickens like the fate of the earth depended on it -- observers called the fad "hen fever" -- and they came out with all sorts of fanciful, colorful, curious beasts. A couple of breeds pulled through as ideal barnyard birds, favored for qualities of egg-laying (like the White Leghorn) or meaty-succulence (like the Cornish). And it was these strains that became the placid layers, roasters, broilers, and fryers we enslave to our own ends today.

If they were so smart, what did ancient Greek philosophers have to say about chickens?

For all the respect he's been given over the years, Plato had a notoriously rough time distinguishing chickens from human beings. One day at his academy, the story goes, Plato decided to define "man"; he wanted to allow plenty of leeway for variation and unknowns, so he left his statement somewhat vague: man is a biped without feathers. In response to this, a cynical rouge in the crowd by the name of Diogenes -- a thinker well-known for living in a tub and aspiring to the simplicity of street-dogs -- presented for peer review a plucked cock. "This is Plato's man," he scoffed. Of course Plato had to revise his definition -- but only slightly: man is a biped without feathers, and with broad, flat nails.

The moral of the story: philosophy is no cakewalk.

You also should know that Plato's beloved mentor, Socrates, mentioned chicken in his famous (if confounding) last words: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?" Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing, so Socrates probably meant that he had been cured of some illness and had to thank the god for it. But what was the illness, and what was the cure? There's some controversy in philosophical circles over this. Was the illness unreason, cured by philosophy? Or was the illness life, cured by death? For our purposes, what matters most is that Socrates, the very egg of Western philosophy, had chicken on his mind just before he conked out.

I have excellent taste and refined moral sensibilities -- so what kind of chicken am I supposed to buy at the grocery store?

Chicken packages are dense with code, and sometimes it all gets thick enough to make a poor soul give thought to throwing in the towel. But persist.

Some words simply refer to age and weight: "broilers" and "fryers" are young (6-8 weeks) and weigh less; "roasters" are older (11-20 weeks) and weigh more. (Older chickens are supposed to have more developed flavor.) Most of the other words have to do with a chicken's diet or the conditions in which it lived and was untimely killed. Regular grocery-store chickens are reliably tortured creatures, kept in small cages, immobile, saturated with antibiotics -- lives that we good citizens would only wish on America's enemies. "Free range" chickens have some access to the out-of-doors, even if it's only a small outdoor cage connected with the standard small indoor cage. "Organic" chickens eat organic feed and are antibiotic-free. "Natural" can mean almost anything.

"Kosher" and "Halal" chickens are killed according to Jewish and Muslim law, respectively. Both are hand-slaughtered; and kosher chickens are also cold-water de-feathered, soaked, brined, and dried. These are two of the few labels that many tasters agree will actually make a consistent difference in the meat's flavor. A clean, hand-made kill, with good drainage (every assassin's goal), won't result in blot clots that can toughen the meat. And the brining that kosher chickens undergo enhances flavor so much that some cookbooks recommend you do your own brining of any non-kosher chickens you buy.

Finally, it's worth mention that different brands breed for different qualities. Murray's goes for high yield, low fat breast meat. Perdue wants a high ratio of meat to bone. Etcetera.

After all that, it certainly seems that most of us have little choice but to make a half-blind decision and stick with it. Life is very short, and there are many chickens to eat.

Is it true that the Republican Party wants to put a chicken in every American's pot?

hoover-radio.jpgWell, at least it was true. A 1928 Republican Party flyer did promise "a chicken for every pot" -- an idea they adopted from the French king Henry IV, who once wished that no peasant would be so poor as to lack a chicken in his pot on Sunday (for which he earned the tedious nickname, King of the Chicken in the Pot). The flyer was part of Herbert Hoover's presidential campaign; but Hoover never spoke the words himself, and it was his Democratic rival, Al Smith, who attributed this whimsical, easily-mockable statement to Hoover. The promised-chicken soon became a nasty joke as the Depression rolled in, and less people were eating less chicken, less of the time. It was a joke that Republicans couldn't shake for some time. Even FDR and Kennedy were known to make cracks about Hoover's chickens.

I'm not familiar with the current Party position, as far as chickens in American pots. I can only assume they'd rather we all had chickens than nothing.

Why is Werner Herzog afraid of chickens?

Contemporary German filmmaker Werner Herzog has won global acclaim for his artsy films (like Aguirre, The Wrath of God) and documentaries (like Grizzly Man). While explicit themes or ideas don't easily untangle from Herzog's weird, haunting imagery, everyone can agree on one recurrent symbol: the chicken. Even Dwarfs Started Small includes cannibalistic chickens and cock fight footage. Game in the Sand starred four children and a rooster, but wasn't released because Herzog felt the filming "got out of hand." And, climactically, Stroszek ends with a chicken dancing on tabletop for several minutes to a wild, hootin' tune.

What's the deal, Werner? Well, he explained in a 1974 interview, "chickens frighten me. I was the first to show that chickens are cannibalistic and horrible. What is most frightening about them is when you look directly into their eyes: what looks back at you is dullness, death and dullness." Watch enough of Herzog's films and you might consider your next chicken sandwich to be part of a noble crusade.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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