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Tetrapod Zoology


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Right now, there’s a giant blue chicken in Trafalgar Square


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I really like chickens. They are fascinating, beautiful, unbelievably diverse, complicated birds. I’m academically interested in them. Oh, and we should probably stop eating them. While in London recently for the Cryptozoologicon launch (yes, it went really well, thanks), the family and I went to Trafalgar Square. Obviously, I haven’t been there for a while, for I was surprised and delighted to discover….

…. a gargantuan blue cockerel, perched atop the Fourth Plinth. The Fourth Plinth was originally created for a statue of William IV but thereafter remained bare for over 150 years. Since 1999 it’s been used as a display stand for temporary pieces of art. Anyway, check out not only the size and stature of this amazing piece (it’s 4.7 m tall), but also the attention to detail, and the accurate, gravity-defying form of the comb and tail feathers. The piece was unveiled in late July 2013 and I’m kind of embarrassed to have only known about it for a few days. I have a great interest in giant, animal-themed pieces of public art.

Katharina Fritsch's Hahn/Cock, as seen from the other side of Trafalgar Square. Photo by Darren Naish. CC BY.

Fourth Plinth, with giant blue chicken. Photo by Darren Naish. CC BY.

So, what gives? Is this remarkable and wonderful piece a homage to the beauty, wonder, charisma and sheer significance of chickens, or perhaps of gallinaceous birds, or even birds or dinosaurs in general? Err, no, not exactly. Produced by German artist and Professor of Sculpture Katharina Fritsch, it’s said in some articles to be deliberately intended as witty feminist commentary on our portrayal of male significance through sculpture. In other words, as a reference to the tradition, I guess, of putting images of great MALE people up on platforms. Maybe I’m stupid, naïve or woefully male (or all three), but this didn’t occur to me at all – I would prefer to think that an enormous and beautiful statue of a giant cock is what it looks like. I’m not really a fan of the idea that things that look like things are meant to be oh-so-clever references to other things, but what the hell. However, online articles at BBC News say that it’s about “regeneration, awakening and strength” and it’s also said to be a reference to French sporting pride, so take your pick. Enjoy the gigantic blue male chicken, whatever you think it’s meant to be about.

One final thing. What sort of chicken is this exactly? Without seeing any of the bird’s true colours, I’m finding it hard to work this out. The comb is too tall for an Australorp (and that would be an unlikely choice of breed anyway)… could it be a Drenthe? Thoughts appreciated.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on chickens and other gamebirds, see…

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com!

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Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Gigantala 11:27 am 12/8/2013

    Well, chickens, like most pheasants, are animals that embody noxious gender roles: violent, promiscuous, harem-forming males that force females into submissive roles.

    Of course, in Galliformes, this has presumably been caused by the females themselves, given that sexual selection is the reason why roosters are who they are. While in humanity, this isn’t the case.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Heteromeles 11:33 am 12/8/2013

    After launching the Cryptozoologicon, you expect an artist to get all the details right? I admire your faith in human powers of observation.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tuned 4:09 pm 12/8/2013

    The title goes well with the one above it on the front page,
    “…Monkey Faced bats…”.
    Personally I prefer chicken (breast), but choking them ’till they turn BLUE seems extreme.
    X> (impish grin).

    Link to this
  4. 4. Arbeiter 4:47 pm 12/8/2013

    Ultramarine (trisulfur anion radical in sodalite zeolite) or Mayan blue (palygorskite intercalcated with indigo)?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Tayo Bethel 7:56 pm 12/8/2013

    LOL Stop eating chicken? Sounds like the startof a food riot … why should we stop eating chickens?

    Which breedof chicken is closest in appearance to the presumed wild ancestor(s)?

    Link to this
  6. 6. Tayo Bethel 8:04 pm 12/8/2013

    Oh–are there any good articles on the behavior of wild jungle fowl and feral or naturalized chickens?

    Link to this
  7. 7. darkgabi 6:40 am 12/9/2013

    maybe the meaning of the statue is not related to the statue itself, but it is intended to be a pun? “a cock on a pedestal”.

    stop eating chicken?
    sorry, not gonna happen.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Crown House 8:00 am 12/9/2013

    “I would prefer to think that an enormous and beautiful statue of a giant cock is what it looks like.”

    I agree with darkgabi: looks like a giant cock among other erect figures. ;)

    On the other hand, a “Tomb of the Unknown Chicken” sounds cool, too.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Yodelling Cyclist 9:45 am 12/9/2013

    This is actually France’s prototype Jaeger.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:08 am 12/9/2013

    I sometimes think that modern artists just fool the commoners. Make something random, say it is some fashionable ideology no-one would argue with, and be paid to have enormous kitschy stuff put into some public place.

    Obviously, this is an advertisement of French art housed in the National Gallery.

    This is a symbol of French and Continental imperialism over poor British Isles.

    And a comment of climate change, where sea rise (blue color) threatens traditional English way of life (symbolized by a farmyard cockerel).

    Can anybody invent also something related to terrorism?

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  11. 11. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:10 am 12/9/2013

    And, naturally, cryptozoologists in 200 years time will cite is as evidence of a giant fowl species roaming British Isles.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Heteromeles 10:45 am 12/9/2013

    True on that. It could also be a commentary on the age-old trend of putting erect great males on pedestals. Very subtle commentary, that.

    Now the artist will say it’s a commentary on ubiquitous public surveillance, just to be totally random.

    Link to this
  13. 13. naishd 6:08 pm 12/9/2013

    Thanks for comments, everyone. Lots of interesting stuff there. “why should we stop eating chickens?” (comment # 5). The more I learn about the behaviour and psychology of non-humans, the more I feel that we should not be doing the things to them that we are. Ethics and philosophy aside, there are substantial global issues associated with out increasing consumption of meat. I assume that this is well known. Check out the recent SciAm article here.

    Darren

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  14. 14. Tayo Bethel 8:11 pm 12/9/2013

    The notion of not eating chickens would be, ahem, highly unpopular all over the worl. To put it mildly. That being said,many of the atrocities committed against nonhuman animals are truly horrifying. Chicken and pig factories (are they called farms)? come to mind, as well as cockfighting (which is illegal but still practiced–I heard of a few people right here in the Bahamas who practice this blood sport).

    Any articles on chicken behaviour in the works?

    Link to this
  15. 15. John Harshman 8:32 pm 12/9/2013

    Clearly the chicken breed is Norwegian Blue. Lovely plumage, innit?

    If we’re going to eat meat, my understanding is the chicken is the least inefficient of common food animals, i.e. the most weight gain per weight of feed. So better you should talk about giving up beef. Archosaurs have so much to offer.

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  16. 16. Gigantala 8:48 pm 12/9/2013

    “I sometimes think that modern artists just fool the commoners. Make something random, say it is some fashionable ideology no-one would argue with, and be paid to have enormous kitschy stuff put into some public place.”

    I generally dislike pretension accusations. I actually think this is a pretty clever statement, even if the author was lying about it’s intentions.

    Link to this
  17. 17. naishd 4:08 am 12/10/2013

    On the we-should-stop-eating-so-much-meat argument, John (comment # 15) says “So better you should talk about giving up beef”. Yes, I’m with that. Didn’t think to mention it since the chicken comment in the article was a brief aside, not a properly considered argument…

    Dear humans: stop eating beef, for the sake of us all.

    Darren

    Link to this
  18. 18. darkgabi 4:58 am 12/10/2013

    yes, darren, there are lots of issues regarding eating meat. just as there are regards monocultures for all means: food, biofuel, paper, furniture and clothes making., etc etc. it all boils down to our massive amount.

    i understand and agree we should reduce eating meat. but stopping? no. also not nutrition-wise. what would be actually efficient, though, is we stop reproducing.

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  19. 19. naishd 8:26 am 12/10/2013

    Tayo (comment # 14) asks: “Any articles on chicken
    behaviour in the works?”. There isn’t anything planned but there IS a big article on chicken evolution, phylogeography and history that’s partly finished. One day I’d like to complete and publish it. One day…

    This is comment # 19.. four more are needed!

    Darren

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  20. 20. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:40 am 12/10/2013

    IMHO, from the point of view of animals, we should eat meat from humane farms (eg. I buy free-range eggs) and plant food from environmentally-friendly farms.

    If you look at food production, you should look not just at a cow or a soybean, but at the total cost of a full food production cycle. I wouldn’t recommend at all eating vegetarian soybean produced on sterile monoculture fields, sprayed with pesticides and rodenticides killing all the other lifeforms, imported to Britain using petrol etc. etc.

    Meat has it’s advantages. In Third World countries, producing meat is one of the easiest ways for rural communities to rise out of powerty. In Western countries, organic cow pastures support also other wildlife like rabbits, birds, insects, while monoculture fields support nothing but wheat or beans.

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  21. 21. naishd 9:19 am 12/10/2013

    Some of what you say is true and wise, Jerzy but, as a generalisation, humanity as a whole is eating too much meat: demand is rising (not just because population is rising, but because ‘more vegetarian’ countries like China and India are rapidly increasing their consumption of meat), meaning that land and resources are being lost to increased meat production. I’m not saying for a moment that soybean monoculture (or whatever) is a wise alternative, but that we should encourage people to stop thinking that they need to eat meat every day, at every meal.

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  22. 22. Tayo Bethel 11:37 am 12/10/2013

    If we ate less beef, half of our ecological problems would probably be solved. Cattle grazing is, to my mind, one of the greatest destroyers of open range land–just read the depressing stories about land use, rancher politics and wildlife in the American West for prime examples. Land that could be used to raise wild herds of bison that might, just might, be able to be harvested sustainably–meaning very, very sparingly–has not even been considered, bison being restricted to mere fragments of their former range thanks to fears that bison would outcompete cattle for grazing land that the cattle don’t belong on to begin with. …Sorry if I got a bit carried away–destruction of wildlife and wild land gets to me.

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  23. 23. Heteromeles 12:00 pm 12/10/2013

    If you want to eat meat humanely, I’d suggest eating insects.

    Link to this
  24. 24. naishd 12:02 pm 12/10/2013

    Agreed on the insects. And how are things coming along with those bacteria burgers?

    Woo-hoo, 23 comments. Something new real soon…

    Link to this
  25. 25. Heteromeles 12:33 pm 12/10/2013

    @Tayo: It’s worth reading up on Buffalo Commons if you think that ranching bison is a cure-all. Not that I have anything against bison–they’re wonderful animals and also delicious.

    The problem is, bison are politicized animals, as well as wildlife. Even where ranching bison makes ecological and economic sense, (white) people who would benefit from ranching bison are often loath to do so, because draining the Oglalla aquifer and fracking are, apparently, preferable to living there indefinitely. I’ll admit I don’t get it.

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  26. 26. Heteromeles 12:36 pm 12/10/2013

    @Darren: bacteria burgers? Pfui. Quorn.

    Link to this
  27. 27. BrianL 3:58 pm 12/10/2013

    Regarding chickens specifically a number of questions I’d be delighted to see answered:
    Are there any data on what happens when chickens go feral? Do they revert to wild form and if so, how long do they take to do so? One would think the likes of feral silkies would be very vulnerable to predation, but what if they live in a (essentially) predator free environment? Are silkies anywhere comparable to naturally occurring flightless birds as goes their feather structure? Also, are silkies flightless simply because of their feathers or are their pectoral muscles reduced as well? Given that silkies often have extra toes, does this apply to their manual digits too?

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  28. 28. Christopher Taylor 7:50 pm 12/10/2013

    @BrianL: The impression I’ve gotten is that truly feral, entirely self-sustaining populations of chickens are surprisingly rare (for instance, AFAIK there are none in New Zealand, and only on one small island in Australia). I’ve often wondered why that should be the case when some animals that are less often kept by humans are more widespread as ferals (peacocks, for instance). Things may be complicated by the definition game, admittedly: in many third-world countries, chickens (and other small livestock) are not so much kept as managed, so we may have to ask at just what point does ‘supported by feeding’ become ‘entirely feral’.

    While I don’t know the details, reversion to wild form in feral animals can happen surprisingly quickly (probably because feral populations, if they survive, face one heck of a selective curve). Even features that are seemingly absent from the domestic form may re-appear in the feral form. Feral pigs quickly regain the front-heavy wild form instead of the belly-centred domestic form. Feral sheep regain the ability to shed their wool instead of needing it to be removed mechanically. However, there are at least some cases of feral animals retaining domesticated features: rabbits on one of the New Zealand sub-Antarctic islands (I forget exactly which one, sorry) retained features of the French breed they were descended from back in the 1800s.

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  29. 29. David Marjanović 12:11 am 12/11/2013

    maybe the meaning of the statue is not related to the statue itself, but it is intended to be a pun? “a cock on a pedestal”.

    That doesn’t work in German, and apparently the statue was made with the German language in mind. But then, plenty of people know enough English nowadays to make it work… *shrug*

    Link to this
  30. 30. criswaller 11:55 am 12/11/2013

    As to the breed, if we are going Frence my guess is a Bresse- http://www.feathersite.com/Poultry/CGA/Bresse/BRKBresse.html

    Link to this
  31. 31. criswaller 11:56 am 12/11/2013

    Ack, no edit- that was “Frenceh,” of course.

    Link to this
  32. 32. criswaller 11:56 am 12/11/2013

    “French,” %*^*&^*&! Cold morning typing fingers….

    Link to this
  33. 33. Jerzy v. 3.0. 1:15 pm 12/11/2013

    There are many small groups of feral chicken in the Netherlands. A result to the fact that much of Netherlands is just huge area of connected towns and suburbs without much native vegetation and without any land predators. A weird para-ecosystem. There are also lots of exotic plants, bushes, trees and feral geese, ducks, parakeets etc.

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  34. 34. BrianL 2:24 pm 12/11/2013

    @Jerzy:
    I’m Dutch myself so I find some of what you say quite familiar. To be honest, I didn’t realise just how much of a uniquely Dutch landscape and what you call para-ecosystem there is. My personal impression is that feral and semi-feral chickens are more common in Belgium than they are in the Netherlands, but that might be artifactual. I’ve spent more time living near the Belgian border than I have living in the centre of the Randstad.
    As goes ‘without any land predators’, I wouldn’t underestimate the predation pressure of domestic cats. They tend to be very common throughout the Netherlands (and likely top predator in much of the country) and certainly are a serious threat to any terrestrial bird. I’d say they’re part of the reason why coots and moorhens are very common in most urban Dutch settings whereas you’ll find very few chickens or other non-swimming birds of the reluctant-to-fly-category.

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  35. 35. LeeB 1 5:08 pm 12/11/2013

    The speed with which domestic pigs revert to a wild morphology when they go feral has always interested me.
    I suspect it is an epigenetic change brought about by changed hormone levels when the pigs have to exercise vigorously to survive.
    The epigenetic change is passed on to the offspring of the pigs which then develop the wild pig morphology.

    Domestication presumably reverses these changes.

    LeeB.

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  36. 36. Dartian 2:58 am 12/12/2013

    Christopher:
    truly feral, entirely self-sustaining populations of chickens are surprisingly rare

    There are feral chicken populations on at least some of the Galápagos Islands (although people are working on eradicating them).

    there are at least some cases of feral animals retaining domesticated features

    Feral horses don’t seem to revert back to a tarpan- or Przewalski’s horse-like physical appearance, at least not particularly quickly. And feral dogs may become dingo-like after a number of generations, but rarely if ever do they become truly grey wolf-like (Darren’s written about this, IIRC).

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  37. 37. Chelydra 8:43 am 12/12/2013

    Chickens are established on Kaua’i to the point of being a nuisance animal. No idea how they impact the island’s ecology. They seem to have wild-type body shape and feathering, but a wide range of colors.

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  38. 38. emgrasso 9:26 am 12/12/2013

    A tourguide on Kaua’i said that many of the chickens that originally escaped due to storm damage were cock-fighting chickens. The body types of the escapees may have been closer to the wild form than a population of meat and egg chickens would have been.

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  39. 39. Christopher Taylor 3:04 am 12/13/2013

    Feral horses don’t seem to revert back to a tarpan- or Przewalski’s horse-like physical appearance, at least not particularly quickly.

    That’s a good point. This may correlate with my suggestion that such reversions were due to selective pressure: because they’re not usually bred for food production, the domestic horse morphology may be less ill-adapted for the wild than other animals.

    Chickens are established on Kaua’i to the point of being a nuisance animal. No idea how they impact the island’s ecology. They seem to have wild-type body shape and feathering, but a wide range of colors.

    The photos at your link definitely remind me of the general situation with feral pigeons, which also may retain a wide variety of colours but which rarely appear as actual pouters or fantails.

    Also, the comment thread under the images explicitly states that the Kaua’i chickens are fed by humans. Without wanting to move any goalposts, this does relate back to my ‘how feral is feral’ question.

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  40. 40. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:33 am 12/13/2013

    Feral domestics usually occur in areas with few predators, so there may be no selective pressure to lose domestic coloration.

    In case of horses, domestic horses descend from many populations of wild horses. Some were probably not like Przewalski’s horse or tarpans in the first place. Dotted coats are known from domestic horses and from Pleistocene cave paintings and ancient DNA, but not from Przewalski’s horses nor tarpan.

    A curious case is domestic horse’ long flowing mane. All wild equids have short standing manes, so this is thought of as domestication trait. But none of domestic or feral horse forms possesses or re-evolved a short upright mane.

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  41. 41. Heteromeles 10:39 am 12/13/2013

    @Jerzy: I suspect this also goes with the issue that feral dogs look more dingo-like than wolf-like. One could easily speculate that both dogs and horses show traits inherited from their now-deceased ancestral populations.

    As for the difference between feral, domestic, and wild it is a grade: at one extreme we have pets that are so coddled (“four-legged children”) that were we talking about non-human species they’d be called social parasites. On the other end we have wild species that will kill themselves rather than have anything to do with us. In between we have most wild species, habituated and tamed animals, species that forage around our cities, whether or not they are housed by humans (everything from rats and cockroaches to feral chickens, pigeons, pigs, dogs, and cats), working animals, and pets. The lines are more than a little arbitrary, and they do depend on culture and tradition too.

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  42. 42. Zoovolunteer 1:12 pm 12/13/2013

    As far as the flowing manes of domestic horses are concerned, I recall reading in a (now out of date) book on extinct British animals that there may be cave paintings of horses with flowing manes. In modern primitive breeds like Exmoors the mane falls over the eyes while grazing in the rain, keeping water out of the animals eyes, and the suggestion was that this was an old adaptation to high rainfall habitats, unlike the dry steppe and near-desert habitats occupied by living wild horses. Whether this is anything but mere speculation is another matter though. I know it is now agreed that horses became extinct in Britain at the end of the last glaciation, and all existing native breeds are of domesticated stock, even if they in practise live semi-feral lives.

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  43. 43. David Marjanović 6:49 pm 12/14/2013

    In case of horses, domestic horses descend from many populations of wild horses.

    How well is this actually known?

    Link to this
  44. 44. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:28 am 12/17/2013

    @43
    BMC Evol Biol. 2011 Nov 14;11:328. doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-11-328.
    Whole mitochondrial genome sequencing of domestic horses reveals incorporation of extensive wild horse diversity during domestication.
    Lippold S, Matzke NJ, Reissmann M, Hofreiter M.

    Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Feb 14;109(7):2449-54. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1111637109. Epub 2012 Jan 30.
    Mitochondrial genomes from modern horses reveal the major haplogroups that underwent domestication.
    Achilli A, Olivieri A, Soares P, Lancioni H, Hooshiar Kashani B, Perego UA, Nergadze SG, Carossa V, Santagostino M, Capomaccio S, Felicetti M, Al-Achkar W, Penedo MC, Verini-Supplizi A, Houshmand M, Woodward SR, Semino O, Silvestrelli M, Giulotto E, Pereira L, Bandelt HJ, Torroni A.

    …and references therein.

    Not surprising, because, even in modern times, wild and feral horses were caught, broken and ridden.

    Link to this
  45. 45. David Marjanović 2:44 pm 12/19/2013

    Thanks!

    Link to this

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