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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tic-Tac-Toe Playing Chickens

Spoiler: This story has a happy ending.

The sign in this photo at the Chinatown Fair at 8 Mott Street, is missing a very critical word: Chickens. The sign used to read: World Famous Dancing & Tic-Tac-Toe Chickens. Since the 1960s, a number of dancing and tic-tac-toe playing chickens have been home here. Chinatown Fair was originally a museum. In Manhattan's Chinatown (2008) by Daniel Ostrow, there is a 1958 photo showing Chinatown Fair located at 7-9 Mott Street with an amusement arcade. Reference is made to Clarabelle, a scientifically trained chicken. According to the book, she was trained to play tic-tac-toe when Chinatown Fair relocated across the street to 8 Mott Street. The shop evolved to a gaming shop; today it is a popular video gaming arcade.

According to a story in the New Yorker from 1999, chickens were trained in Hot Springs Arkansas, by Animal Behavior Enterprises, started by Keller and Marian Breland, both psychologists. After Keller's death, Marian married animal trainer Bob Brailey. Dr. Marian Bailey was one of B. F. Skinner's earliest graduate students.

Animal Behavior Enterprises trained chickens to walk tightrope and trained dolphins for Marineland. In the 1970s, the Bailey's produced a couple hundred "Bird Brain" chickens who, with the assistance of a primitive version of a computer, could play tic-tac-toe without losing. One was installed in Chinatown Fair in 1974.
There was also a Dancing Chicken, which was a sadder situation - claims have been made that it danced because of electrical shocks to a metal plate on which the chicken stood.

But the real attraction was the tic-tac-toe playing chicken. For fifty cents, you could match your wits against the chicken. The chicken was housed in a glass cage which taunted, "Can you Beat This Bird?" Backlit letters indicated "Your Turn" or "Bird's Turn." If you won, you got a bag of fortune cookies.

The New York Times ran a story in 1993 about a chicken named Willy when he died in a heat wave after two years of service, replacing a previous chicken that lived to be eight. The owner was uncertain about replacing the bird, but a tic-tac-toe playing hen named Lily did eventually appear.

In 1998, there was an article in the Poultry Press which tells the story of the release of Lily, the last tic-tac-toe playing chicken. The rescuer, in a plea to owner Mr. Samuel, was able to win Lily's release on January 29, 1998. After a few days in the rescuer's apartment, Lily was moved to Massachusetts to live with other rescued animals. Read the story here.

Chinatown Fair no longer has any dancing or tic-tac-toe playing chickens :)


Anonymous said...

I love your blog.

Yes," Free Lily", the story is touching.

Stefan Jansson said...

I don't think I have ever seen a scientifically trained chicken doing anything.

Brian Dubé said...

Steffe - I only remember this chicken when I first moved to the city. It was a novelty. Concern for the conditions for this chicken were raised very early. Surprised the owner of the gaming shop volunteered to give the chicken up.

custom fortune cookies said...

As far as I know here in India, many chickens are still trained for dancing and fighting and once a year chicken dancing and fighting competition is organized in local areas and the winner (the owner of the chicken) is presented with the prize money ranging in thousand dollars.