History and Breeds of the Chicken

Wild-chicken habitat was the jungles of Southeast Asia— Burma, Laos, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia—as well as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and

China. The oldest chicken remains date from 31 million years ago. Four species of the wild jungle fowl are known: the red, gray, Java, and Ceylon jungle fowls. All of these species are good flyers, have beautiful feather colors and patterns, and can still be seen in the wild. The red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) was the main source for domestication, which was done around 2000 b.c. Old Chinese records indicated that in China domestication took place around 1500 b.c. In Malaysia red jungle fowl were kept in captivity long before that. There, roosters were captured or hatched for timekeeping in the jungle and for cockfights. They also became part of religious practices as sacrifices to the gods and often replaced human sacrifices. The chicken was not domesticated for eggs or for meat because the red jungle fowl laid only eight small eggs in a clutch and their 500-to 1100-gram carcasses were stringy and inedible.

The domesticated chicken (G. domesticus) moved westward from India to Persia and South Russia, from there to central and western Europe, and then south to the Mediterranean and North Africa. The oldest Greek picture of a chicken on amphorae is from 500 b.c. The first Roman records of cockfights are from 200 b.c.; earlier Roman history makes no mention of the chicken. The New World (the Bahamas) got its first chickens from Columbus while the U.S. mainland got the chickens 150 years later from the settlers.

The domestic chicken went through intensive breeding, and as a result hundreds of breeds exist. Because the chicken is a beautiful and in many cases exotic bird, most breeds were bred for showmanship and sport. Cockfights were highly popular around the world, in particular in Rome and in Byzantium. In the United States cockfighting used to be very popular, but it is now prohibited in many states. Abraham Lincoln got his nickname "Honest Abe" because he was a reputable cockfight referee.

Egg consumption became more common after breeding increased egg size and the number of eggs laid. Yet egg laying remained seasonal (spring). Chicken meat started to be consumed after the Greeks on the island of Kos developed a feed formula that fattened chickens. The technology remained unknown for many years until the Romans spread it throughout the Old World after conquering Greece. Around 100 b.c. eggs and chicken meat were staple foods throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.

The first commercial breeds for eggs and meat were pure breeds. The most common breeds used are the White Leghorn, an Italian breed used for white shell eggs, and Rhode Island Red, used for production of brown eggs. New Hampshire Red, White Plymouth Rock, Cornish, and British Light Sussex are often used for meat production. At the beginning of the century the dual-purpose breeds were popular because they provided high-quality meat and eggs. As intensive production took place, however, specific breeds for meat and eggs were developed separately for greater efficiency. In broilers, fast growth rates, improved feed-to-meat conversion ratio, white feathers, white or yellow skin, and year-round production were the main breeding goals. In 1935, about 16 weeks were needed to raise a 2.8-lb broiler with a feed conversion ratio of 4.4 lb feed per 1 lb live weight. In 1994, 6.5 weeks were needed to produce a 4.65-lb broiler with 1.9 feed conversion ratio. Laying hens went from 131 eggs per year in 1925 to 260 to 300 eggs in 1998. These are small birds with substantially less meat than broilers. About two dozen commercial breeders now supply most of the commercial meat stocks.

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