Saturday, 24 November 2012

Galliformes 14: And finally…

Japanese Onagadori - tails can grow to 8m!
The last of this series should perhaps have been the first, as its Latin name Gallus domesticus is the source of the name of the whole order Galliformes – the ‘chicken-like’ birds. These are actually the commonest bird in Britain (115 million adults in mid-summer according to official statistics) and the British eat 877 million each year, plus a vast number of eggs. It is probably the main source of animal protein in the British diet, but production is notorious for animal welfare issues, especially around housing conditions for the birds during the few short weeks it takes for them to grow to a saleable size. Partly as a result, many more people these days are keeping chickens in their back gardens. Unfortunately, a desire to see their eggs produced in a more humane living environment is not always matched by a proper knowledge of medical care and diet, and concerns have been raised that these back garden birds may constitute a disease reservoir that may be a problem to commercial flocks. In addition, many cities now have large populations of urban foxes, which can be a serious threat to birds kept in open-topped pens, especially when the owners are at work.

Wild Red Jungle Fowl, India
Chickens were the first bird in the world to be domesticated, and derive from the wild Red Jungle Fowl Gallus gallus. There are three other species of Gallus alive today, all more or less similar in general habits and habitat. Red Jungle Fowl prefer a mixture of dense woodland and open ground for feeding on the usual pheasant diet of invertebrates and seed, spending most of their time on the ground. At night though they will fly up into trees to roost on branches out of the way of ground predators. Their domesticated descendants retain this habit, which is why hen houses need perches large enough for the birds to roost comfortably on.

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)
The domestic chicken as a result of its long domestication has of course diverged into a variety of breeds. Some are large, heavy birds bred for meat, others are good layers, and some are even bred for special feathers. A few breeds have hypertrophied brooding instincts, and are used for hatching the eggs of other breeds or even species. A few breeds, notably the Silkie, are unusual in that they have additional toes instead of the standard avian four – sometimes as many as six or seven on one foot. Many come in two sizes, a standard ‘normal’ chicken and a miniature form which is called a bantam.
Silkie Bantam

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:

That wraps it up for this large group of birds for now. Next time, some new arrivals!

(images from wikipedia)

No comments:

Post a Comment