These feathered friends have been with us a long time – some of the earliest records of chickens date back to 10,000 years ago, where the birds are believed to have originated – in China.
Chickens come from Southern Asia and were originally jungle fowl. Humans quickly realised that they were good birds for domestication and there are signs of humans keeping chickens back as far as Egyptian times.
Legend has it that the Ancient Greeks first adopted chickens – some soldiers having found two cockerels fighting by the side of a road, were enthralled by their determination not to give in to each other and thus were inspired to adopt them.
The Roman soldiers also liked to take chickens along with them, believing that if the chickens had a hearty appetite, then this was a good omen for victory!
Indeed, although you’d think that chickens were originally kept for food or eggs they were initially adopted for fighting. Cock fighting is an ancient practice that has thankfully now been largely outlawed in most of the world.
Humans didn’t come to find that chickens could be a good food source until approximately 400 BC; although the popularity of the consumption of these fowl only became widespread in the 20th century, when chickens were farmed on a larger scale and became a mainstream part of the human diet.
As for chicken eggs, well, mankind first developed a taste for these 1400 BC – does that mean the answer to that age old conundrum is that the egg came before the chicken?
There are now almost a mind blowing 26 billion (yes that is billion not million!) chickens in the world – so they outnumber us! Some are kept for food (known as broilers) and some are kept for egg production (known as layers – of course).
A staggering 136 million chickens meet their fate every day – showing how the world has a voracious appetite for their meat. Approximately 50 billion birds are raised for food each year – making chickens the most common domesticated fowl in the world.
The eye watering figures keep going with eggs – there are estimated to be approximately 77 million eggs laid each year in the world, with each chicken laying one egg on most days.
So why do we love chickens so much? Well, they’re relatively easy to rear and to keep and so unfortunately for them, they are a cheap and viable source of food for us. With chicken meat being light and adaptable, it has been embraced by many cultures and cuisines and the same is true for eggs, which are a revered food source around the world.
So, should we regard the poor chicken as just a source of eggs and meat for us? Far from it! Chickens are now more and more popular as pets and many are appreciated for their charm and personality. Furthermore, there are many keen chicken keepers who offer a home to rescue chickens (often chickens whose egg laying days are behind them) and allow them to live out their lives peacefully.
Although we think of chickens as farm animals, as mentioned, they originated as jungle birds and came from the jungles of South East Asia, where they like to roam around, pecking at the ground to find their preferred food. Chickens are omnivores and like cereals, insects and even small lizards! They like to swallow grit and small stones, which are lodged in their gizzards and help to grind down food for them – clever hey!
It’s also believed that natural antibiotics are picked up from the soil by chickens – these help to combat salmonella – something that Edwina Currie (a UK politician) fell fowl of (pun intended ha ha!) when she broadcast that salmonella had been found in chicken eggs. This was because chickens had been factory farmed (cruelly in my opinion) and not allowed to peck in the dirt as they would do naturally and hence were not able to pick up the natural antibiotics in the soil – humans pay attention – don’t meddle with what you don’t fully understand!
There are now 100s of breeds of chickens – coming in many different colours and sizes from the Jersey Giant claiming the prize of the largest breed of chicken weighing in at up to almost 6kgs (13lbs) to the comparatively tiny Malysian Serama Bantum, a lightweight at a mere 500g (1lb). The most popular chicken breed varies depending on where you are in the world; eg in the USA it’s the Rhode Island Red and in the UK it’s the Orpington; while in Australia it’s the Australorp; in Russia it’s the Russian Orloff, whilst Italy favours the Ancona and so the list goes on. Personally, I have a soft spot for the Silkie, which is a fluffy ball with some impressively feathery legs – very cute.
Hens are good mums and we even use the term ‘mother hen’ to express an outpouring of the maternal instinct. Indeed, hens can become ‘broody’ where they incubate their eggs determinedly awaiting the arrival of chicks and will only be satisfied once their fluffy little, cheeping cuties have arrived. We associate chicks with springtime (Easter in Christian culture) and with the arrival of new life.
So engrained our chickens in our society now that we have adopted phrases derived from their characteristics: eg we refer to someone as “cocky” when they’re getting too big for their boots (deriving from a strutting, proud and strong willed cockerel); hen pecked (female nagging); crowing (bragging); egg on your face (feeling foolish) – I’m sure you can think of some of your own!
Although you might assume that chickens aren’t the brightest bird in the coop – you’d be wrong. Research has found these intelligent fowl have more brainpower that a human toddler, being able to distinguish between 100 different faces and can even tell the time from the sun! They can produce up to 24 different clucks to communicate with each other and love to play and even sunbathe (wise birds!)
Being birds of a feather, they like to flock together and have a distinct pecking order, so they know their place! Roosters woo their hens with a little dance (a bit of funky chicken!) So, if they can trip the light fantastic, they’ll be popular with the ladies!
Chickens – the most popular birds in the world! Hope this blog has given you a chuck-le or two!!