Despite what most people think, it wasn’t to get to the other side. That’s an urban legend.

For those living a more rural lifestyle, as I do, who have the pleasure of having chickens, this proverbial question suddenly makes sense. I came to that realization the other day experimenting with a chicken and my truck.

First, let me explain that I live on Hawaii Island and my 30-40 chickens are free-range in the truest sense of the term. They perch and lay wherever they want, and have acres of lawn to scratch for insects. They also enjoy eating coconuts opened for them and overripe bananas that dropped unnoticed by us humans. I say 30-40 because hens occasionally come out of the bushes clucking to newly hatched chicks.

We watch their behavior in this natural environment and have discovered that chickens are really a great deal like people. If you live with chickens you know what I mean.

You also know what happens when you drive your truck towards a chicken. How the chicken responds is truly baffling, because it seems so stupid that you would never have thought a bird could be so dumb and self-destructive. That’s right. They run across the front of your truck at the last second, making a near miss with your tires. At least, it’s usually a near miss. Other times it’s soup.

It makes you scratch your head and ask, “Why DID the chicken cross the road?” And since chickens are very much like people, what could this teach us about ourselves?

I decided to do an experiment and see, from a scientific point of view, what’s compelling the chicken to risk its life and make a last minute mad dash in front of a moving truck.

To do the experiment I used a 2006 Toyota Tacoma truck, white, with a slight dent in the rear gate but otherwise in good shape. Low mileage. Asking $5,000 obo.

Anyway, I waited until I saw chickens hanging around the side of the grass driveway. I got into the truck, turned it on, and proceeded to drive at about 10 miles per hour towards the chickens. My heart pounded as I contemplated the potential fate of my avian friends, but felt this experiment could reveal some deep truth so it was worth the risk.

There were 4 barred rock chickens scratching and pecking through the grass on the left margin of the driveway. Across from them, on the other side of the driveway, was the same grass, with no special food, animals, or other enticements. In fact, from their faces you couldn’t see the least bit of interest in the other side of the road. That is, until I came driving towards them.

As I came within a few feet of the birds, three ran away from the road, further towards the left. The other chicken decided to cross the road.

I must disclose that I did not wait to see if the event would prove fatal for the bird since I slammed on my brakes, ending the experiment. But it was a success in showing one thing. There was no reason any sensible bird would want to suddenly visit the other side of the road, an impulse which happens to coincide with the appearance of a moving truck. No, this experience showed that there was no real motive to get to the other side.

However, when you consider what the chicken sees, the solution may become clear. Imagine being ground level at the edge of a road with a truck coming down the road towards you. To a chicken, the truck is enormous. And for the time it takes to pass the chicken, the other side of the road is effectively cut off from view and accessibility. In other words, a truck barrier suddenly separates the sides of the road, denying the chicken access.

chicken crossing roadThe chicken sees the truck as taking away its ability to go to the other side. It doesn’t want to be limited and deprived of the other side of the road, and sees this challenge to its access as a reason to quickly run to the other side. “Do it before you can’t”, would be that chicken’s motto.

Sales people know that people are like chickens, and they have a technique where they make you feel the thing you want to buy may not be for sale, or may already have been sold, or that someone already said they wanted it but didn’t put a deposit on it yet. Boy, does that make people jump at the deal, before it’s too late.

The chicken didn’t have the foresight to realize that the truck was going to soon pass, and that the barrier from the other side of the road would not be around for more than a few seconds. All it could think about at those last moments before the truck passed was how important it was to be able to get to the other side, if, for some reason, the other side was suddenly better than the side you are on.

Which means that the chicken crossed the road because the grass may be greener on the other side, and you don’t want to lose the opportunity to get there in case you have the sudden impulse to do so.

Weeks later I repeated the experiment with the same chicken, who happened to be by the road at the right time when I was in my truck. I checked the other side of the road, and again there was nothing a chicken would want over there to make her dash across. Did she learn from her past experience that the truck would only block the road for a few moments? Will she realize that there is nothing on the other side of the road that justifies taking the risk of dashing in front of a truck at the last moment? Is she a wise chicken who will stand her ground, realizing that she did not have to respond to the truck?

I came within a foot of the bird as it looked at the truck coming, but this time it was different. She ran the other way, away from the road. Clearly, she was chicken. I concluded that a chicken chicken doesn’t cross the road.

The moral of the story, if applied to human affairs, is to not let the fear of losing opportunities lead you to making rash decisions, or you may end up as soup.

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Sydney Ross Singer is a medical and environmental anthropologist, author, and director of the Good Shepherd Foundation, located on the Big Island. Sydney is a pioneer of applied medical anthropology, and he is also the director of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease.