Hopefully, birders respect all birds on all days, but today is special – it’s International Respect for Chickens Day! Yes, it’s a real thing, and while the day is meant to raise awareness about domestic poultry and the often terrible conditions agricultural birds are kept in, it is also a good time to be aware that all our domestic birds are descended from wild birds. In the case of chickens, it’s the red junglefowl we need to thank for everything we love about chickens. But what do you know about the history of the original chicken?
The red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) is closely related to pheasants, and today is spread throughout the world in various domestic forms. Their natural range is limited to appropriate jungle habitats in southeast Asia, stretching from India to Indonesia.
Chickens are believed to be the first domesticated animal used regularly by humans, with domestication dating back more than 5,000 years, and partial domestication noted as early as 9000 BC. Domestication began in China and India but quickly spread with colonists, conquerors and pioneers. Genetic testing on fossilized bones has determined that red junglefowl were likely brought to South America by ancient Polynesian explorers, long before Europeans were exploring and colonizing the New World.
Despite their popularity today as livestock, the first chickens were not domesticated for the dinner table. Instead, chickens were initially domesticated for sport, and though it is now outlawed for cruelty in many areas, cockfighting remains the one of the oldest continually practiced sports in the world. In some cultures, the birds were also used for their feathers as ornaments for clothing or other objects. In terms of food, chicken is considered a respectful meat to serve to honored guests in many cultures, a status befitting this bird’s long and illustrious history.
Domestic chickens were at first pure red junglefowl descendents, but in time hybridization with the gray junglefowl created some distinctions between domestic birds and their wild cousins. Today, there are hundreds of domestic chicken breeds, many of which bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors, and dedicated breeders often focus on unusual characteristics such as unique shapes, feather plumes and postures to breed birds for poultry shows. But even thousands and thousands of generations removed, these birds still share genetic markers that trace back to the red junglefowl.
Because the red junglefowl has been associated with humans for thousands of years, it is no surprise that chickens are part of our culture in many ways. Different cultures have different connections to chickens beyond just food, including…
- Chickens sacred to religions or used for sacrifices and rituals
- Artwork depicting chickens, including in temples and other sacred locations
- Chickens associated with virility in men and fertility in women
- Educational chickens raised in classrooms and enrichment groups
- Chicks as a symbol of spring renewal and Easter
- Derogatory associations with cowardice, panic or foolishness
- Jokes and funny stories that revolve around chickens
- Domestic breeds as official symbols, including the Rhode Island Red as the state bird of Rhode Island and the Gallic Rooster as the national bird of France
While some associations depict chickens as honored and others belittle the birds, there is no doubt they are an inextricable part of human culture.
While the chicken is unlikely to ever go extinct, the same can’t be said for the pure red junglefowl that first introduced this popular bird to the world. Because feral birds and domestic chickens on the fringes of the red junglefowl’s range hybridize with wild birds, the genetic purity of wild chickens is gradually being lost. Conservation measures must be put in place to preserve the red junglefowl before the only way it can be added to a birder’s life list is on a plate, and having respect for chickens – today and everyday – is a good first step.