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History of the Backyard Chicken

The History of the Backyard Chicken

It’s been a long road for the domestic chicken. What were once colorful jungle fowl foraging in the leaf litter of a tropical forest have become laying hens and broilers bred selectively to produce eggs and meat for a huge global market.

The factory farm has replaced families raising chickens in their farms and in backyards.  Today’s domestic chicken or Gallus domesticus is somewhat bigger, less aggressive, and less self-reliant than the Southeast Asian pheasant-like fowl known as Gallus gallus.  If you are a backyard chicken keeper (or want to be one) and would like to understand how the chicken became what it is today and why, take a peek at its past.

Chicken Ancestors

According to chicken information sources, the domestic chicken had four avian ancestors—mainly the red but to a limited extent the gray, green, and La Fayette jungle fowl.   Some scientists believe the domestication process started in Thailand and spread to other parts of Southeast Asia.  Opinions on when this actually happened differ.  Some scientists claim the change started eight thousand years ago; other say as many as ten thousand years.   The jungle fowl of Southeast Asia were bred, not so much for their eggs or meat, but for their qualities as fierce fighters and for their colorful feathers.

Aside from Southeast Asia, there is archeological evidence that chickens were domesticated in various provinces of China around 5000 BC and in India between 4000 and 3000 BC.  The Silkie chicken, known for unique fluffy feathers, friendly disposition, and black meat and bones, was developed in China.  It’s meat is prized inAsiaboth for its taste and medicinal properties.  The Silkie traveled to the West via the famous Silk Route and was included in Marco Polo’s 13th century accounts of his travels in Asia.

Chicken Migration

It was in Egypt where chickens were first produced in great numbers for their eggs and meat.  Greek writers wrote about the eight-foot high, warm ovens used by Egyptians to hatch as many as 80,000 chicks in one batch.  Historians believe this development was linked to the fact that tens of thousands of skilled workers who were building the Pyramids needed huge amounts of food.  An ancient Egyptian breed, Bigawine, became famous as a good layer and still is in present times. For a long time however, mass production was the exception rather than the rule, as chickens were usually raised by rural families in their farms or backyards.

By 3000 BC, domestic chickens appeared in Europe (Greece, Turkey, and Ukraine) and in Western Europe by 1000 BC.  In Greece, chickens were first used for religious rites, for cockfighting, and for their medicinal properties (Think chicken soup).  However it did not take long before they  were being raised for their eggs and meat, and the city of Delos actually became a centralized chicken breeding center.  Romans learned from the experience of Greeks in breeding chickens. Columella, a Roman author, even wrote instructions on how to pick the best breeds, build the best coops, and other day-to-day details of chicken and egg production.

There is some evidence that by the first century BC, Romans had brought many crops and farm animals new to Britain, including Gallus domesticus.  Chicken information includes accounts of Roman soldiers eating boiled chicken and actual bones from chicken meals have been found in the village of Caerleon, South Wales.  Although their staple food was bread, poultry seems to have been a popular part of the diet of Roman soldiers, who introduced it throughout the Roman Empire. Britain later produced outstanding dual purpose traditional breeds, including Buff Orpingtons.

Excavations in Chile have shown that canoe-riding Polynesians brought chickens to South America, part of the New World, in 1000 to 1500 AD. Spanish explorers also brought chickens to North America in the 15th century.  Two centuries later, pioneering settlers from Europe arrived in the United States with chickens and raised them mainly for family consumption and for barter.  Java, one of the earliest breeds in the US was brought to the country from Indonesia in the 19th century. The Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks and other American-made breeds were developed in the US by breeders crossing several blood lines.  In the 18th century, chickens were introduced to the Australian continent by English ships.

Now Gallus domesticus can be found in all continents except the Antarctic.

Agricultural Revolution

From the 17th to the 19th centuries Europe experienced an agricultural revolution which paved the way for the industrial revolution. Production of both crops and farm animals rose sharply due to scientific breakthroughs, modern farm machinery, and improved farming techniques, including selective breeding of both plants and animals.   With access to enough food, the population expanded rapidly and people started to congregate in urban centers or cities, leaving the farm behind and taking jobs in factories.  However, small scale backyard raising remained the dominant form of chicken and egg production.  In North America, practically every family had its own flock of dual purpose breeds—good laying hens that were also meaty and good enough to eat.

Mass production became possible only by the 1930s, partly because of the discovery of Vitamin E and  Vitamin A which made it possible to keep chickens indoors, without natural sunlight and exercise. Antibiotics also made it possible to minimize disease caused by the overcrowding of chickens in cages. By using artificial daylight, chickens continued to lay eggs even in winter, when they would usually produce fewer eggs or no eggs at all.  Many farmers decided to shift to raising chickens because crops such as cotton were no longer profitable, while chicken meat and eggs were increasing in popularity as food items. This revolution sparked active crossbreeding of chickens in an attempt to create the best breeds of chicken for eggs.

Chicken Factory Farms and Beyond

To produce chicken meat and eggs efficiently (meaning maximum output at minimum cost), US corporations initiated factory farming in the 30s.  Chickens were bred to conform to the goals and conditions of factory farms.  Egg laying breeds have lost the brooding instinct and can produce as many as 300 eggs per chicken, including winter.  After a year or so, however, laying hens can no longer produce eggs at a rate considered profitable in factory farms. Many collapse and die from sheer exhaustion or are butchered and used as an ingredient in processed food. Normally, chickens have a life span ranging from eight to as many as 15 years.

Broilers, specialized meat producing breeds, were first raised in Delaware in 1923 from a cross of White Rock and Cornish birds. Today broilers in factory farms can convert as much as 20 percent of their food to fat and flesh and grow at an astonishingly rapid pace. They are ready for the market and can be butchered in a mere six to seven weeks.  Since many prefer chicken breasts and thighs, broilers are bred for larger than normal breasts and thighs.  So large in fact that many broilers collapse, unable to bear their own weight. Farmers have now developed the best chickens for meat and continue to factory farm meat birds.

Chickens were the first animals raised in factory farms in the 30s, followed by pigs and cattle in the 60s. Factory farming in Europe started in Britain after WW II and has since spread to the rest of Western Europe.  By the 80s Americans were eating more chicken than pork and by the 90s chicken became king.  Americans were eating more chicken than either pork or beef. In a few decades, factory farming has become the dominant system of production of food animals in the US and on the global scale.

More food and less expense.  These are the main arguments in favor of factory farming.  There are however many valid arguments against it: the pollution of the environment by large amounts of animal waste in one area, the inhumane treatment of chickens, the spread of diseases to both to animals and humans,  and the poor quality of food produced by factory farms.

Chickens, Then and Now 

Chickens, not raised in factory farms, forage for their food. They are omnivorous and scratch the ground looking for grass, seeds, small insects, worms and even frogs. They pick and swallow small stones that help in their digestion and in the formation of egg shells. Chickens forage even when you provide them with food. If they are prevented from foraging, they tend to become aggressive and peck other chickens.  Factory farms do not allow foraging. They do not provide the varied diet that omnivorous chickens prefer.  Instead the chickens are fed with mash because their beaks have been cut off to prevent fighting and injuries, a consequence of overcrowding. Chickens that forage tend to be healthier and produce better quality eggs that have less cholesterol and more nutrients.

Chickens prefer to roost and rest in tree branches where they feel secure from predators and can really relax. They preen, sunbathe and take dust baths frequently to stay healthy and clean.  Factory farming has no provisions for these things.  Chickens are confined in crowded cages that cause stress and can lead to aggression and even cannibalism.  Being confined to cages, the chickens are unable to forage, flap their wings, run around, stretch to their full height, and indulge in social activities such as preening, dust bathing, and roosting.  Hens are limited to laying eggs and are cut off from the entire reproductive cycle—mating, egg laying, brooding and raising their chicks until they can survive on their own. Roosters cannot fulfill their natural functions such as protecting the flock and mating with the hens.

Because factory farming has such negative effects,  more and more people are choosing to buy eggs and chickens raised in backyards and family owned farms, or raise the chickens themselves,  using humane methods that consider the chicken’s history and natural instincts and needs.  You too can join the many backyard chicken raisers who are writing a new chapter in the history of the global chicken.

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