What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcastThe Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits AppleSpotifyYouTube, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every-other Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.

FACT: Before humans ate chickens, we treasured them as exotic pets 

By Rachel Feltman 

This fact started with an article called “How a shipping error 100 years ago launched the $30 billion chicken industry” by ​​Kenny Torrella at Vox, which is as wild and interesting as it sounds. But in an effort to not just crib this one fantastic piece of reporting, I decided I’d pull a few random facts from farther back in chicken history. My mind is blown. 

It turns out that the origin of domesticated chickens is hotly contested. Until recently, it was fairly widely accepted that people were breeding jungle fowl in Asia as far back as 10,000 years ago. There wasn’t any evidence of butchering that long ago, though, so some suggested the birds were bred for cockfighting, not for eating. The oldest signs of chicken bones that people had slaughtered and snacked on came from the ancient city of Maresha, which is in the Judean Lowlands and sat at the crossroads of trade routes for Egypt and Jerusalem during the Iron Age, peaking between 400 and 200 BC. 

But in 2022, an international group of researchers called foul. They used radiocarbon dating to confirm the ages of 23 of the proposed earliest chickens found in western Eurasia and north-west Africa. In addition to finding that a lot of bones were younger than previously thought, the researchers also showed that those 10,000 year old cock fighting bones were actually from pheasants. 

According to the new analysis, the oldest bones of a definite domestic chicken were found in central Thailand and dated to between 1650 BC and 1250 BC.

Based on the timing, which coincides with the rise of rice and millet cultivation in dry fields in that region, the researchers think domestication could have started when a few jungle fowl were tempted down from the trees and into human settlements by the abundance of free grain—sort of like the way the most docile wolves started hanging around human campfires. 

But we know based on the archaeological evidence that people didn’t start eating chickens for meat for hundreds of years. And according to the new study, as domesticated fowl spread across Asia and then throughout the Mediterranean along routes used by early Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician maritime traders, there was a clear pattern of the birds arriving several centuries before people started eating them

In early Southeast Asian sites, partial or whole skeletons of adult chickens were found placed in human graves. And in Europe, several of the earliest chickens, from around 50 BC to 100 AD, were buried alone or in human graves and show no signs of having been butchered. One grave chicken even showed evidence of a healed leg fracture, suggesting someone cared for it lovingly during its life. 

The researchers argue that these domesticated jungle fowl would have been some of the most colorful and friendly birds folks had ever encountered, making them sort of like pet parrots. So even if cultures didn’t actively revere them, it would have been understandable for them to see them as exotic and cute and cool to keep around. 

During the rise of the Roman Empire, we know that eggs became an extremely popular snack. It seems like the widespread adoption of chicken meat as a human food probably followed naturally from that industry. In England, chickens were not eaten regularly until around 1,700 years ago, and that happened at urban and military sites influenced by Roman occupation. 

The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week photo

Fast forward through the shipping error that started it all and a delightfully bizarre competition to breed the best possible chicken, and we come to the modern poultry industry. It’s… not great. Here’s what to look for on labels if you want to make sure your chicken is as ethically raised as possible. 

FACT: Sizing for women’s clothing is based on a whole lot of hooey

By Heather Radke

From the very beginning of my book research, I was certain that eugenicists must have had something to say about butts. They were, after all, obsessed with bodies, and obsessed with putting bodies in hierarchies. Butts are complex, fraught symbols and, by the time American eugenics had become massively popular in the early 20th century, they had become widely associated with racial categorization and female fertility, both major interests of the eugenics movement. Despite my certainty, though, it took a long time for me to find the connection between butts and eugenics. I read histories of eugenics, talked to archivists, and eventually interviewed a woman named Kate O’Connor, who was a PhD student at the University of Michigan studying the history of sterilization. It was in my interviews with Kate that I learned about two statues, called Norma and Normman. The statues were created by a gynecologist and a sculptor and were meant to be depictions of the most normal American man and woman—representations of bodies, and butts, that were perfect in their averageness. In order to attain this ideal for Normman, the creators mined army data and were relatively easily able to create a sculpture of an “ordinary American man.” Norma proved to be a much trickier project. At first it seemed there was no data set that offered a similar set of statistics for women that the army data did for men. But then, the sculptor and gynecologist found a WPA project, put together by a woman named Ruth O’Brien, that was designed to solve a century-old problem: the fit of women’s clothes. O’Brien had been trying to create standardized sizing for women’s ready-to-wear clothes. She sent “measuring squads” across the United States to measure thousands of women in order to design a system of sizes that would fit the most number of women possible. The squads took dozens of measurements and noted them all down to send back to O’Brien in Washington, with one exception. O’Brien had instructed them all to throw out data from non-white women. Her sizing scheme excluded women of color. For the gynecologist and sculptor, both committed eugenicists, this exclusion was a feature, not a bug — they were only interested in depicting the most normal white women. And that’s exactly what they did. They made a sculpture of the most normal woman with the most normal butt and displayed it in the American Museum of Natural history.

FACT: Parrots seem to really enjoy video chatting with other parrots.

By Chelsey B. Coombs

Pet loneliness is a huge problem because humans just can’t be there for their animals 24/7. There are over 20.6 million parrots kept as pets in the US, but they often don’t get enough enrichment like they would in the wild with a flock. That can lead to negative behaviors like pacing, excessive sleeping and vocalizations, feather-picking and even self-mutilation.
So scientists at Northeastern University, the MIT Media Lab and the University of Glasgow decided to create and test a parrot-to-parrot video calling system to find out if that could help.

During the introductory phase, the birds learned how to use a bell to ask their caregivers to video chat with other birds using Facebook Messenger. In the main phase of the study, a group of birds and owners would schedule a three-hour-long window in which they were all available to make and receive calls. During that time, the bell and the phone or tablet would come out, and the parrots could choose which of the other birds they wanted to call.

And it ended up being really successful! 100% of the caregiver participants said they believed their birds had at least a moderately positive experience, and some birds even learned new bird behaviors they’d never known how to do before. And while all of these calls were still facilitated by caregivers, this study could help inform new technology that would let parrots video call their friends whenever they wanted.