The Father of All Chickens – A Short Story of the Red Jungle fowl

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The Red Jungle fowl is an ancient bird said to have roamed the jungles of Asia as early as 5,000- 8,000 years ago. It sustained generations of mankind and appeared in early cave art in parts of SE Asia. The birds still run wild today. This tropical member of the pheasant family roams areas of India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even the Hawaiian Islands. The Red Junglefowl is the father of all chickens.

In July 2012, Dr. Alice Storey of the University of New England and her associates made a big discovery: the Red Jungle fowl was the ancestor of all modern chickens. This team of scientists studied the mitochondrial DNA of ancient chicken bones collected from a huge variety of geographical locations, including Spanish Colonial Florida, Europe, Chile, Thailand, and Pacific Islands. The results? Every modern chicken breed descended from the Red Jungle fowl. According to Science Daily, humans kept Red Jungle fowl as livestock 8,000 years ago. It’s believed that they were first kept for cockfighting. Later, they were used for religious reasons. Then, the Red Jungle fowl was raised for food.

Since then, hundreds of unique chicken breeds have emerged. Just how did one breed of jungle birds turn into hundreds of distinct chicken breeds? Swedish zoologists Daniel Nätt, Per Jensen, and associates tackled that question in early 2012. The results of their study were published in BMC Genomics. Nätt and Jensen studied how individual patterns of gene activity in the brains of modern chickens differ from the original gene activity patterns in the Red Jungle fowl. Throughout their research, they found that hundreds of genes showed distinct differences.  Domestication has led to a variety of epigenetic changes.  The greater amount of methylation in the genes of modern chicken breeds may have something to do with the huge amount of variation within the chicken species in such a short period of time.

The male Red Jungle fowl is even more brightly colored than its tame counterpart as well as larger. Deep red facial skin, a metallic-green tail, and orange or red crown and neck feathers make this fowl stand out. Females are smaller and a diminutive brown. In the wild, the Red Jungle fowl lives in small, mixed-gender flocks with three to five hens per each cock. Some groups have been spotted with up to twenty birds. Young cocks live in isolated groups of 2-3 birds. The Red Jungle fowl subsists on seeds, fruit, and insects. There are five subspecies of Jungle fowl recognized today. All varieties are extremely shy and will scurry or fly into underbrush for cover at any sign of danger.

An endangered species in some parts of the world, including Singapore, the Red Jungle fowl is affected by habitat loss. Poaching is also a problem, too. Yet inbreeding with domestic chickens is perhaps the greatest threat to this ancient species.  Many Red Jungle fowl held in captivity have turned out to be genetically mixed. The prevalence of this puts the breed at a great risk for extinction.

It’s an amazing opportunity for mankind to be able to examine the chicken’s early ancestor and its modern offspring side-by-side. There aren’t many chances in life to see evolution so distinctly. However, without some serious conservation efforts, this is an opportunity which will not be afforded to our grandchildren. The Red Jungle fowl’s future lies on the line…. What can we do to ensure that this breed doesn’t join the list of extinct species?

Domestication of the Chicken: Out of the Jungles of Asia and Into The Modern World

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Backyard chickens are all over the news these days. In towns and cities across the United States, people are fighting for their right to raise their own food. The United Kingdom has also seen a rise in the popularity of small-scale poultry farming and other European cities have legalized the practice as well. Have you ever stopped to wonder where this trend came from? Or consider that raising chickens was popular for thousands of years before it became unfashionable to have chickens pecking about one’s yard?

Photo by: Garrett Heath
Photo by: Garrett Heath

Between 5 000- 8,000 years ago near China, the first chickens were domesticated from a wild Red Junglefowl. The success of this breed couldn’t be contained; Chickens slowly became popular throughout other parts of the globe. Chicken bones have been discovered in the tombs of ancient European Pharaohs. The Greeks also portrayed chickens in their pottery around 500 BC. A bit later on, the Romans considered chickens to be oracles. 7th century BC Corinthian pottery features pictures of domesticated chickens. A 2007 study by The University of Auckland’s Department of Anthropology suggests that prehistoric Polynesians were the first to bring domesticated chickens to the Americas. Other studies claim that chickens arrived in the Americas with European explorers. Easy to care for and inexpensive to purchase, the chicken offered man quick and nutritious food. Chickens were vital to early American colonists striving to survive in a harsh and unforgiving new world. Pioneers brought chickens West, relying on their eggs and meat in a vast land.  Chickens were an important part of life. Regardless, these useful birds became popular wherever they were taken, raised for eggs and for meat and sustaining generations of humanity.

Today, there are more than 24 billion chickens worldwide, making it one of the most common domesticated animals in existence. Men have bred and changed chickens in countless ways over the years, creating birds that meet every requirement imaginable. There are breeds that do well in hot climates and those that thrive where it is cool. There are birds that do well living in confinement and those that do best in a wide, open yard. With hundreds of breeds in existence, there’s one to meet every need.

Industrialization brought about a lot of changes. As people moved to cities for work, raising one’s own chickens became less popular. People got away from farming, and likewise away from the source of their food. Commercial farming made the problem worse. It’s far more common today for chickens to be raised in huge, commercial buildings, living in cages or cramped together in tight quarters than to be raised on a traditional farm. Consumers turned to the supermarket for their chicken meat and eggs. Raising chickens was seen as unsophisticated and unfashionable. Many traditional heritage breeds almost disappeared from existence because of this dramatic shift.

In recent years, raising one’s own chickens has made a huge comeback. The ugly side of commercial farming has been exposed time and again and people have started paying attention and taking control of their own food. It’s no longer unfashionable to raise chickens, but instead rather hip. Whether for health, environmental, or economic reasons, caring for chickens is a popular trend in modern society. More cities are allowing chickens within their backyards each year. The chicken seems to be the ultimate comeback bird. With its long and varied history, it’s not hard to believe that this bird is here to stay.