It’s Almost Chick Time

chicken print in snow

chicken print in snow

I just received the most recent catalog from McMurray Hatchery If you’ve never received one, it’s a poultry porn magazine. I seriously lust over some of the beautiful bird pictures. (Alas, no centerfold.)

The wish book chock full of glossy pictures of chicks, and chickens, waterfowl, turkeys, game birds, and all sorts of equipment to make life with egg layers easier. I am always fascinated by the variation in the breeds: color, the demeanor, the size and weight. Chickens range from bantams to giants.  The smallest of the small chicken breeds are the  Malaysian Serema (their eggs are the size of marbles, and the chicks are the size of your thumb. As adults, they may weigh about a pound). The largest, the Jersey Giant (roosters can be as tall as 26 inches, and 15 pounds, while hens only slightly smaller).

(I’ve learned a few things over the years. When a bird is described as “lively” or “good forager” they are hyperactive. I prefer breeds with traits of “calm“, “quiet“, “easy“. )

Egg colors are great. In the past I’ve had both Cockoo and Black Copper Marans, which lay the darkest eggs of all. Eggs, depending on the breed, range from light green, shades of brown, pink, blue, as well as, colors that range from pure white, to a slight yellow cream tint.


Marans Egg

To me, for beauty, you can’t beat a yard full of Buff Orpingtons for their golden feather

Walking Hen

Buff Orptington

color and big, wide, squat beauty. Of course, I’m bias, my favorite chicken (ever) was Buffy, the Buff Orpington. She was my gardening buddy and would escape the chicken pen flock, to hang out with me in the yard.  Buffy really liked it when I was digging in the dirt. With each shovelful she would examine the contents for the hapless worm. For a chicken she had a lot of personality. I still miss her.

There is something tempting in the idea of an assorted box-full of new, tiny, peeping chicks showing up at the post office early one morning.

The downside is that the minimum order is 25.

I think it’s just human nature to want pets with a purpose:  eggs.

After all, humans domesticated these birds about 8,000 years ago, specifically to collect their eggs, consume their meat, and also use their feathers for decoration or bedding.

A Little Chicken History

Chickens are classified as members of the super-order Gallaonaserae (fowl), most commonly Galliformes (chickens, quail, and turkeys) and Anatidae (in the order Anseriformes), that we call waterfowl (domestic ducks and geese). Poultry also includes other birds, also killed for their meat, such as pigeons, quail and doves, and domesticated (or quasi-domesticated) birds such as pheasants.The word poultry comes from the French/Norman word poule, which comes from the Latin word pullus, which means a small animal. The Romans also considered rabbits to be in this category, but they didn’t lay eggs.

(Every child knows that the Easter bunny hides Easter eggs, though. Maybe the Romans were onto something?).

It is debated, but most poultry historians agree that the source of the domesticated chicken (Gallus domesticus) was the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus). Red junglefowl are wild chickens still found in parts of Southeast Asia. They are a tropical member of the pheasant family. Junglefowl are spectacularly colored, with reds, blues, golden, and bright orange mixed into their plumage. The male birds are more upright and thinner than what we have come to associate with chickens—the former have skinny drumsticks and not much white meat.


Red Junglefowl

It is thought the red junglefowl was hybridized with the grey junglefowl (Gallus sonneratii) to create a more docile domesticated bird

Domesticated chickens are calmer, less aggressive, and less likely to forage (go off looking for food). They are larger and heavier and lay more eggs (larger and sooner) than their wild cousins.

Austronesian populations are thought to have hauled chickens along on their trek across Asia and Oceania, dropping off chickens along the way. Certainly the Polynesians brought chickens to Easter Island (where they were housed in chicken coops made of stone).

Some have speculated that there were multiple, separate domestications. There are genetic differences between certain breeds of chickens. It has been posited that another fowl similar, or related, to the jungle-fowl may have been native in other areas of the world. The reasoning is that there are far-flung regions where domestication occurred, in areas isolated by mountains and other barriers. Is it reasonable to assert that the Southeast Asian fowl were the same ones domesticated in China (around 5400 BC) and in the Indus Valley (2000 BC), or was there another progenitor of our modern domesticated chickens?

Archaeologists have found chicken bones in many parts of the world. Domestic chicken bones have been found (dating back to 6000–4000 BC) in China (Yangshao and Peiligan), Pakistan (3000–2000 BC), Europe (3000 BC), and the Indus Valley (2500 BC). The chicken is spoken of in written texts of China, Egypt (18th dynasty), and the Persian Kingdom of Lydia (in Asia Minor) and Greece (500 BC).

Domesticated chickens spread along the spice routes into Central Asia (to what is modern-day Iran), to all the Mediterranean coasts, to every corner of the Roman Empire, and into Africa and elsewhere. The Polynesians carried chickens (and pigs) wherever they went. The strength of the chicken migration was further advanced because, unlike many other domesticated animals, chickens traveled well.

The Roman army used chickens as oracles that determined fate by how they flew, how they fed, and which direction they walked. Chicken fortune-telling was a complex process. There were volumes of information outlining the way to read the omens.

And what better oracle than one you can eat?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s