How would a chicken doing math sideshow work?
December 3, 2018 12:44 PM   Subscribe

In one of the shorts of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs there is a scene of a sideshow where a chicken seemingly answers math questions from the crowd by pecking a metal plate with the answer on it. Was this a real sideshow at any time? How would it work?

It seemed like something that would have existed, but I cannot find anything about something like it online.

For anyone who has not seen it, the chicken is on a tiny stage with twenty four small numbered metal plates hanging behind it. The crowd yells out math problems, the impresario repeats the problem, and the chicken walks up and pecks the appropriate plate.

I can come up with answers to how it could have worked. Secret feed, moving plates, sound from the plates, genius chicken, etc., but I am interested if there is an actual historical way this type of sideshow worked.
posted by Regal Ox Inigo to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't know if it was ever done with chickens, but this seems like a take on Clever Hans.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:47 PM on December 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

Oh, it was definitely real
: A hidden calculator does the math, and lights a hidden light (or some other indicator) that only the chicken can see -- the chicken is trained to peck that indicator to get food, it's not thinking any harder than that. See also tic-tac-toe playing chickens.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:52 PM on December 3, 2018 [11 favorites]

I recall seeing a calculating chicken back in the 70s, probably at some tourist trap museum like Ripley's Believe it or Not, and the setup was similar to AzraelBrown's link. The Buster Scruggs chicken setup was far more elaborate than I recall. We had chickens at home and envisioned being able to teach one of our own to be a calculator, but failed to note that there might be a trick to it and gave up, thinking poor old Pecky was just a failure at basic arithmetic.
posted by sageleaf at 1:46 PM on December 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

If you want to see a live sideshow chicken the Reptile Gardens in South Dakota may have one. They did in 1998 and the exhibit list looks about the same today, so...*shrug*
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 7:11 PM on December 3, 2018

Just to add that the truth about the chicken makes the Buster Scruggs short all the more tragic: The Tall Man is so gulled by the chicken that he pays good money for it, even though all the magic is in the cart. He throws Professor Harrison into the drink thinking the chicken is going to be his new meal ticket, but it won’t do anything that normal chickens don’t do. Meanwhile the original chicken guy will buy a new chicken for a fraction the Tall Man paid and keep going on with his show.

Just rewatched it tonight. My favorite thing the Coen Brothers ever did.
posted by ejs at 7:20 PM on December 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yeah, that episode was so tragic in such an American way. I thought about it for days after.

Anyway, this was also done with horses. In fact, one math-solving horse owner did not realize himself how the horse was solving problems. He believed his horse could really do math, stomping his foot until he arrived at the correct sum. Scientists got involved, and realized the horse was paying attention to subtle visual cues the owner was giving unconsciously. They turned the horse away from it's owner, and the math solving ability disappeared.
posted by xammerboy at 8:56 AM on December 4, 2018

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