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What the “Arrested Development” Chicken Dance Really Says About the Bluth Family

The dysfunctional Bluth family returns this Sunday with 15 new episodes of the canceled sitcom Arrested Development via Netflix. And you know what that means: more chicken dancing!

Arrested Development is built on recurring jokes but one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of all is the Bluth family chicken dance, deployed to taunt other family members, usually Michael, “the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.”

Almost every Bluth has a uniquely horrible chicken dance. Will Arnett, who plays Segway-riding illusionist Gob has revealed the origin of his aggressive interpretation. Jessica Walter, who plays toxic mother hen Lucille, calls her version “a little bit tipsy.

But maybe there’s more to the dance than meets the eye. How do their movements correlate with those of real fowl? And would real chickens help us better understand the Bluth flock?

To get an expert’s take, I grilled chicken behavior specialist Janice Siegford of Michigan State University.

Is it possible to understand what prompts chicken behavior?

Yes. Certain behaviors are characteristic of courtship, for example a rooster trying to entice a hen or demonstrate fitness over another male. There are certain ways that hens behave to challenge other hens and behavior that indicates if they accept that the other hen is dominant or if they are going to challenge her. Hens will also pick at food to show their chicks what to do, and call to get their chicks to pay attention.  If the chicks don’t listen they will call again louder, kind of like a parent with a toddler. And there are different warning calls for different predators – one for a hawk or something aerial versus one on the ground. Roosters will make a warning call more if they are with hens than with other males.

What do the various Bluth chicken dances indicate? Gob’s was the first to debut, so let’s start with that one.

Gob’s dance involves kicking his legs back and forth and lots of motion with his feet. Sometimes hens and roosters will use the motion of scratching on the ground to give some aggressive posturing. The male may use pretend foraging, scratching at the ground to intimidate.

Younger brother Buster claims there is a flaw in Gob’s dance: Chickens don’t clap.

Unfortunately, chickens don’t clap. They may stretch their wings or fold them but they would never bring them in front to clap.

All right, so Buster has a point. How about sister Lindsay’s dance?

That one is kind of interesting. She is doing something that looks fairly similar to a rooster courtship waltz. They put one wing up and the other one down and dance around the hen, almost like a Mexican hat dance. There is definitely leg motion [with real roosters]. Maybe not as extreme as what she does, but there is leg motion. I’d have to say [her dance] looks most like a rooster courtship dance.

Lucille’s “a coodle doodle doo” dance is heavy on wing movement. What does that indicate?

A hen might hold her wings out that way with their head held up high as an aggressive display. The part where she kind of bobs her head up and down, that is something a hen or rooster might do to attract chicks to a good food source.

It’s hard to imagine Lucille performing such a maternal gesture. Michael, played by Jason Bateman, is probably the strongest parental figure in the show. His impression isn’t a dance per se but he does do a squawk over the phone in one episode.

That actually sounds a lot like a hen getting ready to lay an egg. The squawk at the end there, they call that a gakel-call. A hen will do this when trying to find a good place to lay an egg. As they are getting ready, they wander around and look for a nest site for about an hour, making that noise, being kind of restless.

Well, the Bluths are a restless flock. How about the last Bluth to unveil his dance,  patriarch George, who calls “coo coo coo chaw” while thrusting his arms out asymmetrically?

That one is kind of crazy. I am not sure about him. I cannot think of when a chicken would do that combination. I would think that chicken might have gotten into a toxic substance. Or maybe a chicken off its rocker.

How do real chickens cope with family members in close quarters, as the Bluths often find themselves?

Chickens are definitely very social so they tend to be more fearful and stressed when they are on their own. We generally don’t have intact chicken families, but there is a critical flock size where they can easily work out the pecking order, so to speak: Who is most dominant, who is most submissive. In a slightly larger group where they can’t figure out who is supposed to be where in the hierarchy, you see a lot of pecking of feathers. When a group gets really large, you don’t see much fighting because they can’t keep track. It’s recommended to have a rooster in the group to help minimize the hen to hen aggression, but if you have too many roosters, you get rooster to rooster aggression.

So what is the ideal flock size?

If you look at the ancestral species, the red jungle fowl, they usually have a small group, never more than 20, with hens, chicks and a rooster or two.

The Bluths are housing developers, albeit failed ones, and your research looks at housing too, right?

Since 2008 I have done a lot of work with how [chickens] respond to different housing systems, cage systems, aviary systems that are more open, or free range systems. As we give the birds more space, do they actually use the nest box or the perch the way we think they will? Do these new systems improve their welfare or do they cause different problems?

Small cages can prevent the spread of disease and other problems. In big systems there is more chance to more around but also more chance to spread disease and for a chicken that is likely to get picked on, more birds to pick on her. Sometimes when you have a hen that starts to get picked on, everybody knows about it and starts to pick on her, almost like human bullying. When you put all these birds together, they are not always nice to each other.

Is there anything else about chickens that you think people, including fans of Arrested Development, should know?

When we look at chickens, we often think of them as simple, and not very bright, but they actually are. They are capable of quite a bit of learning. It seems that not a lot of personality comes through that little beak, but there is a lot of individuality. They are capable of more than we give them credit for.

-Brad Scriber