How the Chicken Evolved from Vicious Fighter to Backyard Companion

The success story of the humble chicken

Image/Jean-Marc Campaner/Pixabay

With the rise of the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, many people are becoming more self-sufficient. Home cooking and baking are on the rise and with that people are becoming more interested in providing for themselves and their families. Uncertainty about supply in the stores have led to vegetable and herb gardens becoming more popular. These practices are also more eco friendly, reducing transportation costs and packaging. This is of growing importance to today’s generation. Another field that is rising in popularity is home chicken raising. Providing meat, eggs, and companionship, chickens are the ideal backyard livestock.

Chickens are so popular in the U.S., it’s hard to believe they are not originally from North America and were once unaffordable. How did they make the transition from luxury item to KFC?

The origin of the chicken is still debated

It is thought that the chicken originated in parts of China and Southeast Asia and spread east through ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Although the nutritional value of chicken eggs was known, egg production was low and the primary interest in early chickens lay in the fact that they could be bred to be ferocious fighters.

Cockfighting became extremely popular, taking advantage of the fighting instinct in roosters. Gamecocks can be trained to increase their natural aggression, and the spurs on the legs are often enhanced with metal knives or gaffs. Often death of one of the animals is the result.

In ancient times, cockfights were held in temples, and the birds were regarded as sacred. The loser would even be offered as a sacrifice to the gods. Although illegal in the U.S., Louisiana was the last state to ban cockfighting in 2008, it remains a popular sport worldwide. There is even a yearly event held in the Philippines called the World Slasher Cup which has been in operation since 1963.

Chickens have long been worshipped as symbols of fertility and harbingers of the dawn’s rising sun. In fact, this trait of crowing with the sunrise led to a surprising place in architecture. A famous saying in the bible states that Peter would deny knowing Jesus before the cock crows. Early churches placed weathervanes adorned with the likeness of roosters to remind passersby of this prophecy.

From the Middle East and Africa, chickens moved northwards into Italy and Europe where they lagged behind the more popular poultry options of geese and pheasants.

These early domesticated chickens likely traveled with human companions on trade routes. Chickens do not migrate on their own, they stick to a compact territory, and do not fly or swim with ease.

Chickens make their way to America

It is theorized that the chickens we know today are the ancestors of one ancient bird- the red jungle fowl, scientifically known as Gallus gallus. From there, hundreds of lines have been bred, but those first chickens most likely traveled to North America on trade ships from both Africa and Polynesia.

Native North America did not contain chickens, only turkeys and ducks. Early family farmsteads kept a few chickens around, mostly for eggs and to keep pests down. Surprisingly, chickens can kill mice and even small snakes that wander into their territory. But before the protection of modern coops, and understanding of diet and disease, many chickens would not survive long. Lack of vitamin D during the winter months would remain a problem until the early twentieth century when understanding of this vitamin came into play.

Chickens at this time did not lay often, about 100 eggs per year, and their meat was not routinely eaten. Early chickens were left to scrounge for food in the yard and were not given a specific place of housing making them easy prey. It is no wonder that these early chickens died young and did not make for a popular livestock choice.

Technology brings about a change

It wasn’t until the 1920s that technology was able to advance the lifespan of the chicken enough to make it practical to raise them for large scale consumption. Vitamin D supplements meant that chickens could now be raised indoors and survive the winter. The birds gained attention as a potential meat source and small scale factories were built to house chickens in a controlled manner and streamline the process from birth to slaughter. With better overall health, egg production was increasing as well. Now it was possible to obtain about 250 eggs per year.

The next few breakthroughs were ones that affected the world on a global scale. The Great Depression of the 1930s closed down a lot of family farms and slowed down agriculture. Farmers took to raising chickens as an alternative source of income from the sale of eggs.

Then World War II hit and everything from nylons to bread was rationed due to shortages. The war effort demanded the majority of consumables, leaving families to fend for themselves. Victory gardens were encouraged; every family with a patch of land planted vegetables. With the gardens came an increase in backyard chicken raising. This was the first time it was realized that chickens could do well in smaller spaces like suburban backyards or city rooftop gardens.

No longer a luxury food source

Post-war brought about major advances in factories, industrialization, and understanding of health, diet, and disease. Chickens were about to benefit from these discoveries. Two things had kept chickens from being successfully raised indoors on a large scale. The vitamin D dilemma was overcome due to the manufacture of supplements. The addition of antibiotics to chicken feed fixed the problem of disease caused by overcrowding. Now chicken production could be increased and brought up to par with other livestock like cattle and pigs.

No longer worried about predators and weather, chickens could focus on eating. Better diet brought growth in body size and increased production of larger eggs. Advancements in technology meant that the price of both chicken meat and eggs dropped to the level that most families could afford. The invention of modern refrigerators in the 1950s also meant that families could buy chicken and eat it later, further increasing the demand.

Industry and backlash

The 70s brought about the beginning of the science of genetics. Now chickens could be bred for certain characteristics. Most people realized that chickens could either be good egg layers or were better suited as broilers to be eaten. This specialization could be further enhanced to the point that chickens could no longer stand up without falling over due to large breast size.

Soon factories began to push the boundaries of ethical practices. Breeding programs could produce a viable adult in a matter of weeks, lessened concern about disease spreading led to overcrowding, and vitamin supplementation meant that chickens never saw the light of day. Animal activist groups began to protest, and the public demanded better treatment, showing that they were willing to pay more for free range eggs and organic birds. By the early nineties, the consumption of chicken passed both beef and pork.

Into the suburbs

Today, the American Poultry Association recognizes 53 breeds of chickens. People have rediscovered the joy of collecting eggs in their own backyards. Check with local zoning laws for guidelines, but many city councils encourage the keeping of hens in a chicken coop.

Cleaning a coop is fairly low maintenance, daily manure scraping of well used areas like roosting bars followed by a once weekly bedding change and disinfectant wash will suffice. Bedding can be anything from straw, wood chips, or even dried leaves. Used bedding is a terrific compost material and chicken manure is perfect for fertilizing plants.

The ideal bird for a backyard coop would be friendly, quiet, resilient, and lay plenty of eggs. Some of the best breeds suitable for beginners include the Rhode Island Red, the Plymouth Rock, and the Leghorn. Eggs run in a variety of pleasing colors from brown to blue and gray. Many breeds, like the fuzzy topped Silkie Bantam do not require a lot of space.

Don’t worry about seasonal temperature changes. Chickens can tolerate temperatures below freezing and do not require additional heating lamps to warm the coop. The down of their feathers and the addition of a little extra straw is enough to combat the snowy winter months.

In the summer, give them shade, plenty of cold water, and freeze small bits of fruit for treats. Another way for chickens to beat the heat is to go swimming. Provide them with a small kiddie pool or water mister and watch them have a blast. Chickens are naturally friendly and provide good companions for both adults and children.

So considering adding chickens to your family as a source of eggs, entertainment, or if you are like me, to feel like a farmer controlling my family’s food source.

Dabbles in writing, occasional pharmacist. Loves to blend science with history. Fan of medical mysteries and always curious.

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