Saturday, June 9, 2012

Celebrating the wild side of chickens

Our rooster Colonel Sanders is starting to show his heritage. More and more these days he is acting like a rooster, crowing and strutting constantly, "servicing" the hens every few minutes and at times pecking and flapping at our legs. His antics have cost him some friends, one of our neighbors even blogged about her bad encounter with the Colonel (when they visited our chicken coop while we were out of town). Whitney generally talks softly to him when he's like this and picks him up to calm him. Together they walk around the yard, while she talks softly and pretty soon his eyes are shut and she grins at me with the napping bird in her arms. My own reaction to his chicken dance is a little less compassionate: generally I tell him to buzz off and keep going about my business.
However, I recently read a really neat article in Smithsonian Magazine: How The Chicken Conquered the World which has me rethinking my attitude towards our Colonel. The chicken's lineage it turns out stretches back an estimated 10,000  years to the  Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) of Southeast Asia.

Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).
In the wild, the rooster acts like many other male critters, defending his harem, fighting other males and declaring himself the baddest of the bad to all that can hear. One interesting point about the chicken is that the hormone that causes most creatures to only mate at a certain time of year seems to be suppressed. This means the hens can reproduce (lay eggs) year round as opposed to say turkey and geese which only mate in the spring. This also means that the lucky rooster has to mate his hens year round to keep them fertilized and thus build the flock. This is probably a key to why the chicken was domesticated long before other fowl, since their eggs were available all year long. The eggs it seems were utilized long before their meat, which didn't become popular until relatively recently.
Another item I found fascinating is that long ago Roman armies would travel with a rooster, or cock as they are historically known. The cock was observed before a battle, and only if he had a good appetite did the army go into battle believing a victory was likely.
The rooster's courage was so revered in fact, that where it is still practiced cock fighting is the oldest form of sport. While in the US it is considered inhumane and cruel, in many places cock fighting is a traditional sport, and the victorious rooster is celebrated.
Like I said, it's a neat article and worth the time to read, but enough about the ancient chicken. Today the chicken is prized for it's mild meat and it's ability to lay eggs consistantly. Also the chicken produces more meat per pound of feed than almost any other domestic livestock, save only the rabbit. We have adapted the chicken to our needs so entirely that even in "free range" chicken houses often the birds don't range at all, choosing instead to remain by the feeder waiting for the next timer controlled ration.
So, after all that when I go outside and see our hens foraging about the yard, clucking with joy at the discovery of a worm or seed, and watching the rooster mount the compost pile to crow for the umpteenth time in a row, I am filled with pride. For these chickens, after all these centuries of domestication and human manipulation still know what it means to be a chicken. Could they survive in the wild? Probably not, but at least now when the Colonel puffs his neck and dances at my legs I have to stop and smile because, after all, he is doing exactly what he should be doing. Acting like a rooster.
The Dude: Colonel Sanders with his hens.


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