We just know that chickens have existed for a long time but never the story behind them. In fact, there may be fewer people who know how they came into existence. There also hasn’t been much fuss about their history. However, as owners, it’s also beneficial to know the history of chicken.
The modern-day chicken’s history has been traced back to the Red junglefowl. Chickens are descendants of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) and three other closely related species. These species are native to India and Southeast Asia.
While scientists believe Red Junglefowl to be the progenitor of the chickens today, there are also traits present in modern chickens that are inherited by other breeds. For example, the contemporary chicken’s yellow skin is a trait of the gray junglefowl (Gallus Sonneratii).
The modern-day domesticated chickens we commonly see today are nothing like the Red junglefowl. These chickens resided in the thick and lush forest offered by the place they were in. Their color and pattern are red, gold, brown, orange, dark maroon, and metallic green and gray.
The shades of white and olive can be present too. Red junglefowl has distinct white patches located on both and either side of their heads. They are commonly distinguished by these patches, along with their grayish feet. These birds have a stringent pecking order or one dominating all and one submitting to all.
Chickens and Their Old Roles
So? Did these birds start off by directly being a favorite meal on the table, or were the different tides back then?
Chickens have been present as early as 1479. The Ancient Egyptian King Thutmose III mentioned them in his annals. He described it as “a marvelous foreign bird that gives birth daily.” It seems like they have received a high level of appreciation and compliment as they showed their remarkable quality of laying eggs every day.
In the earlier times, they were even deemed spirits by Zoroastrians. It was said that their cries reflect the struggles of the universe. They were also brought to battles to foretell whether the war would be won or lost.
Their cries are deemed necessary in these fields. Chickens were also used as sacrifices for deities, specifically by the Aryans. In simpler terms, chickens were literally considered holy. They are ancient fortune-tellers as well as symbolic creatures to some beliefs. During the 7th century, chickens have even become a symbol of Christianity’s most prominent religion in the world.
Keeping chickens in backyards and domesticating these creatures is dated back to at least seven thousand years ago. However, back then, they were not kept and raised to feast on the tables but for a totally different purpose.
Back then, the people used the aggressive nature of breeding males and their anatomical structure, having built-in natural weapons on their feet called leg spurs. They exploited these features and had the male chickens fight for entertainment.
Unfortunately, in every cockfight event, one or both the chickens end up getting injured or, in the worst-case scenario, dead. Today, cockfighting is still prevalent in some regions of the Earth and as a sort of gamble.
The ancient Greeks also have their way of using cockfighting to their entertainment and advantage. There’s a twist in the chicken’s role this time. This time, they are used as inspiration for young soldiers. It can be compared to modern-day action movies that encourage children to learn how to fight. In a sense, their purpose was quite familiar and exciting.
Chickens and Their Journey Around The World
In the second millennium BCE, the chicken population slowly spread to China and the Middle East. There, chicken was served to the royals as they were shipped and kept in royal menageries. This is also the time when chickens were used for religious rituals. Chickens then slowly captured the hearts of more and more people and reached farther places.
When chickens reached Egypt, a breakthrough in their existence sprung. As Egyptians started to raise these birds, they studied and observed how their egg-laying, as well as the incubation process, works.
Egyptians have learned that hens stop laying eggs as they start to incubate their eggs. Chickens warm their eggs up by being in a “clutch” position. The incubation process takes up to 21 days. This means they are not going to be able to lay new eggs for the duration. So, the Egyptians thought of a way to let the eggs hatch without having the hen stop laying eggs.
How did they do it? After their research and observation, they have finally come up with a way to artificially incubate chicken eggs. First, they prepare a space for hot ashes. Then, they placed the eggs in baskets and placed them on top of the hot ashes.
Now that they have found a way to keep hens laying an egg every day, people were able to produce more eggs and, at the same time, raise and multiply the number of chickens. This being said, the once special and served for royalty and the rich only food have become a very accessible and common meal.
While the Egyptians were busy doing their own thing, Phoenician merchants, on the other hand, also introduced chickens to Europe. There, they became one of the main characters essential to European livestock.
As time passed by, humans and chickens were almost inseparable. This means that chickens were basically with humans wherever. Chickens have made their way all around the world, establishing their undeniable fame.
Hen fever was a moment for chickens and chicken enthusiasts in the past. This moment was when Europe was preoccupied with trying to cross chicken breeds to create new ones. The phenomenon was believed to have been triggered when Chinese species were transported to England and were bred with the local ones.
After that one, farmers all over were very eager and curious as to what and how many more breeds they could create. This has also caught the attention of many scientists resulting in one of the most helpful chicken contributions to science, the Punnett square.
Hen fever was a doorway to many things. It was where new breeds were created, and scientific information was discovered. Then, poultry shows were established, inviting more people to the interest in raising and breeding chickens. Besides, who does not want an egg a day in their backyard:?
An Overview of Chicken Breeds
As time passed, the number of breeds increased and increased. People were partnering specific traits with other particular characteristics to achieve a breed that shares a part of the trait presented. And so, they were able to create egg-laying breeds, breeds that are good meat, and species for show. Here are some of the oldest chicken breeds.
- Dorking – This breed was one of those that came during the Roman occupation. Its history traces this breed back to England. This breed has five toes and is raised both for their eggs and meat.
- Dominique – This breed is popularly known to be the oldest truly American breed. In fact, they are named the first American chicken. They served multiple purposes as they were raised for their eggs, meat, and feathers. Their feathers are used for fly fishing lures. This breed is very easy to grow as well. They are calm and easy to keep as they are also not picky about their space. These chickens also do well in colder temperatures.
- Old English Game – From the name itself, people can tell that these birds have existed in earlier times. These are rare birds that are very aggressive. They are relatively smaller breeds and are not that much of a layer. If an owner is still starting to purchase and raise a flock, they may want to save this breed when they grow and have more experience because these birds are rare, and to top it up, they are expensive.
- Java – This breed is one of the oldest breeds and is currently endangered. And so, people are doing their best to do what they can to save this breed from extinction. This bird is quite distinguishable because of its body shape. Their bodies are rectangular and are sloping back. This breed is considered fancy and is seldom raised for their eggs because they are not that of a great layer.
- Chantecler – This breed is a rare one. They were the only breed to be hailed from Canada. Chandeliers are raised for dual purposes. They are good layers and can thrive in colder temperatures. If you want to multiply and raise some chicks, this breed is perfect for that because they are great mothers!
Knowing the history of chickens is beneficial to understand their behavior better, have better communication and knowledge about your chickens. Like humans, knowing their history allows for better appreciation of the species. This way, you grow closer to your flock, and you become more appreciative of their stories, experiences, and the good things about them.
Joseph Hudson has been raising chickens for over 15 years. In 2018, he completed the Agriculture & Natural Resources program at Mt. San Antonio College. He currently raises over 1400 chickens on his 7.5-hectare farm. He keeps sharing his experience on raising healthy and happy chickens on Chicken Scratch.