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The Emotional Lives and Personalities of Backyard Chickens

Tove Danovich offers a moving tribute to the world's most numerous birds.

Key points

  • Chickens are highly intelligent, sentient birds with unique personalities.
  • A new book, "Under the Henfluence," encourages people to revisit how they treat these birds.
  • These sentient birds deserve respect and dignity.
Agate/with permission.
Source: Agate/with permission.

I recently read Tove Danovich's book with the eye-catching title Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them and enjoyed every single page in which she combines behavioral biology, history, and anthropology into thorough documentation of the lives of the world's most numerous birds. I love chickens and their unique personalities and Tove's books should make backyard chicken people and others think twice about what they're doing and why.1

Here's what Tove had to say about her enlightening new book.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Under the Henfluence?

Tove Danovich: When I got chickens five years ago, I started my journey into hen-keeping in the way I start most projects: by reading everything I could get my hands on. I read nearly everything on chickens that our library had.

But as I got to know the flock in my care and watched them grow from tiny chicks into gangly teens and then adult birds, I found myself wanting to read something that didn’t seem to exist. I love books about animals—but even though chickens are the most numerous bird on the planet and a popular farm animal, I didn’t feel like anything really captured "chickendom" today. As so often happens, I wound up writing the book I wanted to read.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

TD: I started off in journalism as a food writer and spent many years writing about food history and culture. Looking back, a lot of that work was about animal agriculture, which I find to be bad for animals, bad for workers, and bad for the environment in its current form.

My family was farmers and a branch of them still are, though not in animal agriculture. I grew up with an awareness of the disconnect between what farming used to be and what it is today. The way we talk about all animals is such a reflection of our own species but this is triply true for domestic animals.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

TD: Anyone who considers themselves a “chicken person” is certainly a major part of my audience—the book is definitely a love letter to chickens—yet I think anyone who regularly reads about wild animals or animal behavior and those who are interested in animal rights would also get a lot out of this book. I wanted Under the Henfluence to push people to be a little more curious and caring about these birds’ lives.

Quang Nguyen Vinh/Pexels
Source: Quang Nguyen Vinh/Pexels

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

TD: Toward the end of the book I quote from The Little Prince, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed” and if there’s one theme that can sum up the book, it’s probably this. The modern chicken is a human creation and therefore a human responsibility. People all over the world love and tend to chickens—but those small flocks pale in comparison to the 60 billion of them that we raise and kill for food in some of the worst conditions we keep any animal in.

It would be impossible to write a book about chickens without mentioning how they’re treated in agriculture, but I also didn’t want to dwell on it too much. Instead, I wanted to take the reader on a journey into chickens that mimicked my own path toward becoming curious about them and then falling in love with them.

People who don’t know chickens often write them off as “birdbrains” or think about the rooster who lived for months without a head—something that doesn’t speak highly of the species. But they are incredibly good at being chickens—and what that means can be fascinating if you take the time to get to know them.

Under the Henfluence is divided into three parts: Chickens at Home, Chickens on Display, and Chickens in the Wild. The first part is loosely concerned with who my chickens are to me; the second shows who chickens can be outside of their use as a food animal (I go to a place where people train chickens to do obstacle courses and another where they’re therapy animals among other stories); and the third is focused on chickens as a species.

The timescale essentially goes from when chickens were first domesticated 3,500 years ago until the present day to talk about the way their species and our relationships with them have changed over that time and the surprising impacts chickens have had on the culture at large.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

TD: There are some very well-researched and well-written books out there about chickens as food producers, books that report on how chickens are treated in agriculture, or memoirs about someone’s relationships with their flock—but I wanted to combine all those elements into one story. I felt that it was important to have all of that in one book because our relationship with chickens isn’t just one thing.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about these animals they will treat them with more respect and dignity?

TD: The book is, at its heart, advocating for the humane treatment of chickens. But most books that do that, the animal agriculture exposés, tend to focus the narrative on the terrible things that these birds go through. That’s all important but often doesn’t compel the people who need the information most to pick up the book much less make different choices or advocate for the animals. I fell in love with chickens because they delighted me and made me curious about their world; I hope the book does the same for readers.


In conversation with Tove Danovich, a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Ringer, Backyard Poultry Magazine, and many others. She is a former Midwesterner, turned New Yorker, who now lives in Portland, Oregon. Tova keeps eight chickens in her suburban yard and hopes to add more. Their Instagram @BestLittleHenhouse is more popular than hers. You can find her on Twitter @TKDano.

1) Alastor Van Kleeck. The Terrible Truths of Backyard Chicken Farming. In Hope Bohanec (ed.) The Humane Hoax: Essays Exposing the Myth of Happy Meat, Humane Dairy, and Ethical Eggs. Lantern Publishing & Media, 2023.

The World According to Intelligent and Emotional Chickens.

Empathic chickens and cooperative elephants: Emotional intelligence expands its range again.

Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken.

Rooster falls in love with special needs chicken.

Learning to Love Backyard Chickens.

United Poultry Concerns: Promoting the Compassionate and Respectful Treatment of Domestic Fowl

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