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Chicken-pluckin’ Controversy

March 2023
1min read

The article on the history and sometimes bizarre whims of tornadoes, “The Winds of Ruin” (June/July, 1978) by C. W. Gusewelle, noted that researchers had never found “real proof” to confirm the prairie legend that the great winds sometimes pluck chickens clean. Joseph G. Galway and Dr. Joseph T. Shaefer, meteorologists with the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, Missouri, have written in to disagree. “While it is not the mission of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center to record tornadoes which deplumed fowls,” they say, “enough events of this phenomenon have been documented over the past one hundred and forty years to warrant acceptance. …” Rather than deny the reality of such weird incidents, they continue, most investigators have tried to find out just how they occur. One such indefatigable researcher was Professor Elias Loomis of Western Reserve College in Ohio, who in 1842 attempted to simulate the tornado’s plucking power using a cannon, then meticulously recorded the results: “The gun was charged with five ounces of powder, and a chicken just killed added for a ball. As the gun was small, it was necessary to press down the chicken with considerable force, by which means it was probably somewhat bruised. The gun was pointed vertically upwards and fired; the feathers rose twenty or thirty feet, and were scattered by the wind. On examination they were found to be pulled out clean. … The body was torn into small fragments, only a part of which could be found.”

Science marches on. Still, no one since Professor Loomis has come any closer to determining precisely what happens when chicken and tornado meet. Are the feathers simply blown off by the three-hundred-mile wind? Is the electrical field in the funnel’s vicinity or reduced atmospheric pressure inside it responsible? Or does the bird’s anxiety (understandable) in the face of the big wind cause it to molt instantaneously? Whatever the cause, that they do get plucked seems amply documented.

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