Was summer too hot for you?

Be thankful you weren't a chicken.

Because it has no sweat glands, a chicken perspires only through its mouth. And so, like a dog, on extremely hot days a chicken often appears in a constant state of panting. You want to terrorize a chicken? Dress up as a stagnant mass of swelteringly hot air and hover inside a chicken house.

With as many as 22,000 birds in a single house, huddled together as is their wont, the temperature inside the house will be significantly higher than outside. Typically, when outside temperatures exceed 80 degrees, a chicken may require fanning to maintain its normal body temperature of 107.5 degrees. When outside temperatures exceed 90, fans are not enough and chicken growers use their foggers--machines that spray a fine cooling mist into the air. When outside temperatures exceed 100, even with the fans and foggers going full tilt, the heat inside a house can rise beyond their efforts and some chickens may not survive it.

Case in point: On Aug. 20 temperatures on the Delmarva Peninsula reached 105 degrees.

The next week the wholesale chicken price was up 6 cents a pound.

Now, given all the chickens on the Delmarva--75 million in various stages of growth--the Aug. 20 loss of 350,000 chickens represents less than one-half of 1 percent of the total pool. Statistically insignificant, perhaps. With a broiler's life span less than 8 weeks from hatching to detaching, and more than 9 million birds processed each week on the Delmarva, it took but two weeks for the wholesale price to begin to slide back down toward the normal 50 cents a pound. (Life is cheap on the Delmarva.) But think about 350,000 dead chickens for a moment. Think about piling them one atop another in the living room, not to mention the Capital Centre.

Resisting, for the moment, the urge to recreate the best of "Laugh In" and tell some chicken jokes, 350,000 heat-dead chickens do prompt some questions:

For example, how does one dispose of the carcasses? Most chicken growers on the Delmarva have burial pits on their property--usually obsolete feed troughs turned on their sides and sunk about 10 feet into the ground--which look like bad metal sculptures.

Normal mortality rate for chickens is four-tenths of 1 percent. They are particularly susceptible to respiratory problems, perhaps prompting the famous slogan: A wet bird doesn't fly at night. A chicken may also have what seems to be a heart attack; chicken growers say they have seen birds leap into the air, squawk and drop dead on their backs. Frank Craig, director of health services for Perdue Farms in Salisbury, Md., says this is not a heart attack, but actually a lung hemorrhage. "Jumping," he says, "is just a part of the death struggle."

Are chickens that die of heat prostration packaged and sold in supermarkets as if nothing untoward happened? No. According to Bill Roenigk of the National Broiler Council, "You're dealing with a cadaver. First off, the color of these chickens--a dark red because the blood is still in them--is so offensive that no one would want to touch them. Secondly, it's illegal. Department of Agriculture inspectors see each chicken at the processing plant; these chickens would never be approved." (A cynic might ask: How can I be sure they didn't become roadside barbecue? Heh-heh-heh.)

When the chicken dies of heat prostration, does it go gently into that good night? Apparently. Craig says that typically the chicken is already lying down and panting heavily when its kidneys fail and it goes into a comatose stage. He says, "There is no struggle involved." No squawking. No deathbed confession. No last peck for old time's sake.

Do the living chickens mourn the departed? No. Living chickens seem unaware of the misfortune of their brethren. No tears. No strangled cries. Jane Thompson, a chicken grower in Berlin, Md., says, "They could care less."

Does a chicken have lips? (What are you, a wise guy? Get out of here, you knucklehead, and I mean it.)

In extreme heat, is any time of the day most critical? Historically, on the Delmarva most birds are lost around sunset, when the air tends to be most calm; that's the most difficult time to get cooler air circulating through a chicken house.

Are certain chickens likely to die first? Those closest to the end of the growing cycle. Dick Eaton, a field production manager for Perdue, knows of one grower who lost 4,100 chickens Aug. 20--just hours before they were to be trucked to the processing plant. But Craig says this is not because of any problem with their size, but because of the density in the chicken house. A house filled with 8-week-olds is in the most jeopardy on 105-degree days.

Would the birds be saved if chicken growers allowed more than eight-tenths of a square foot of floor space per bird, the current industry norm? There is debate on this. One insider, advancing the pocketbook argument, admits that if the floor space allowed each chicken were doubled, many more chickens would beat the heat.

"But," he says, "we only have a weather problem in summer--only a relatively few days each year. And if we doubled the room for the birds, we wouldn't be operating at peak efficiency in the houses, and chicken would cost a lot more than it does now."

On the other hand, chickens are natural flockers. Given 50 chickens in a house as big as Rhode Island the chickens would still huddle together in a corner. Craig says eight-tenths of a square foot has been arrived at through objective testing as "the optimal level for low mortality, high growth rate and maximum efficiency of converting feed to meat." He allows that the price of chicken would rise if floor space were doubled, but says that isn't the reason for keeping the space as is. "There's simply no useful purpose served by changing it," he says. "They have enough space now."

What are the problems then, besides extreme heat? Growers with less than state-of-the-art equipment. Growers who drag their feet. "You could be short a couple of fans at a critical time," says Bill Stephens of Delmarva Poultry Industry in Georgetown, Del. "Or you might not be as competent as the next guy. Some people don't perform as well as they should. But let's not lose sight of the fact that there's a point at which chickens die, and apparently it was reached, because 350,000 did die."

Why did the chicken cross the road? (I thought I told you to get out of here.)

Was there anyone who didn't lose chickens Aug. 20? Yes. Bill and Jane Thompson didn't. They were growing roasters for Perdue. They had 11,000 in each of 10 houses. They used their fans and foggers like everyone else, and like everyone else, they prayed. "When you got your equipment going there's nothing more you can do," Bill Thompson says. "They'll either live or die." Having done all he could, on Aug. 20 Bill Thompson left his farm and played softball. At 6:30 on the morning of Aug. 21, when the Thompsons walked out to inspect their chickens, Jane told her husband she "didn't want to go in there today"; she was "scared they'd all be laying down dead." Bill nodded his head and said, "I know how you feel; I have the same feeling." They went from house to house, and each house got better; the amount of dead birds was no greater than usual. When they left the third house, they were actually smiling. "We were very lucky," is how Bill Thompson puts it. "Very lucky."

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? (Out!)

Is this the worst summer ever for chickens? No. Overall losses so far this summer are 3 million broilers and 150,000 breeder hens. In 1980, before foggers became standard equipment in chicken houses, some 8 million broilers were lost to heat. "Foggers lower the temperature inside a house between 6 and 8 degrees," says Eaton. "You can grow chickens without them, but it's like playing Russian roulette."

What's the most amazing fact you know about chickens? By the time they are eight weeks old they weigh 43.7 times their hatching weight. If humans grew at the same rate, at eight weeks they would weigh 349 pounds.

Okay. You've been patient. Time for some chicken jokes. See if you remember these golden oldie punch lines: To get to the other side; roosters don't lay eggs; he was stapled to a chicken.

For these prices, who do you expect, Henny Youngman?