|Japanese Onagadori - tails can grow to 8m!|
|Wild Red Jungle Fowl, India|
Wild Red Jungle Fowl were domesticated perhaps as early as 7,000 years ago, probably in Thailand. From this centre they fairly rapidly spread north into China, and eastwards as the ancestors of the Polynesians spread out into the Pacific. Some bones that appear to be pre-Columbian chickens from Peru suggest that there was a limited contact with South American peoples – certainly sweet potato cultivation spread westwards across the Pacific well before European sailors arrived.
The story of chickens in the west is also complicated. It seems that rather than spreading from India, chickens were taken west direct across central Asia, arriving in Turkey by perhaps as early as 2500 BC. From there they were taken around the Mediterranean, eventually arriving in Celtic Spain and southern France by around 1500 BC.
But why were chickens so popular? After all, they need a lot of care and protection, and need to eat grain, which makes them direct competitors with people. One major reason was egg production. A diet composed only of carbohydrates from grain is insufficient, and chickens are very efficient convertors of grain into animal protein and fat. Although they were eaten of course, especially as they went off-lay as they got older, there was another reason to keep them, which today is illegal In Europe and North America but until only a few hundred years ago was the most widely followed ‘sporting’ activity on earth – cockfighting. As with all male pheasants, male chickens are highly aggressive towards each other, and grow lengthy spurs on the lower part of their legs to use as weapons. In cockfighting these natural weapons are often augmented with metal additions, and two birds are matched against each other in fights which often go on to the death. It would be nice to say that the bans in England and the US, and eventually elsewhere, were due to humane considerations but it seems more that people objected to the betting on the outcome, which was often large. Even today cockfighting is widespread in South East Asia and also much of South America and the Caribbean.
It would be wrong however to say that cockfighting is the most inhumane thing people have done to chickens – modern battery farms are far worse (but don’t involve bets). Despite some moves to regulate housing conditions and the provision of access to fresh air, the typical modern domestic chicken live a pretty short and miserable life. This is actually a fairly recent development over the last 50 years or so, as modern production methods depend on large energy inputs in the form of lighting and heating. Without these, especially lighting in the winter, it is impossible to produce cheap chicken meat and eggs as when exposed to short day lengths birds will usually stop laying and go into moult.
|Transylvanian Naked Neck (really, that's what its called)|
Today some breeds are more or less exclusively bred for appearance rather than their original purpose. For more information on keeping chickens check out the Poultry Club Society website here: http://www.poultryclub.org/
That wraps it up for this large group of birds for now. Next time, some new arrivals!
(images from wikipedia)