From ancient empires to modern economics, veteran journalist Andrew Lawler delivers a sweeping history of the animal that has been most crucial to the spread of civilization across the globe—the chicken.
Queen Victoria was obsessed with it. Socrates’ last words were about it. Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur made their scientific breakthroughs using it. Catholic popes, African shamans, Chinese philosophers, and Muslim mystics praised it. Throughout the history of civilization, humans have embraced it in every form imaginable—as a messenger of the gods, powerful sex symbol, gambling aid, emblem of resurrection, all-purpose medicine, handy research tool, inspiration for bravery, epitome of evil, and, of course, as the star of the world’s most famous joke.
In Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?, science writer Andrew Lawler takes us on an adventure from prehistory to the modern era with a fascinating account of the partnership between human and chicken (the most successful of all cross-species relationships).
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Chicken Confidential: How This Bird Came To Rule The Cultural Roost
Chickens: Home to Roost
The birds produce 100 million tons of meat and lay more than a trillion eggs a year.
By Christopher Leonard
I first gained a grudging respect for chickens back in 2001, when I was working on a small farm in Hawaii. One of my tasks was to kill the feral birds that came down out of the woods and marauded the vegetable beds. I was given a pellet gun for the task, and I became obsessed: I lay in wait for the wild chickens like a sniper. I hunted them in the trees where they roosted. I chased them down dirt paths and fired wildly.
But in all my weeks on the job, I never killed a single chicken. As far as I know, I never even grazed one. I discovered that jungle fowl are quick and lithe and can jump in a 15-foot-wide flapping arc. The birds appear suddenly, then melt into the underbrush. I had always thought of chickens as stupid birds, but they bested me.
My grudging respect blossomed into full-blown awe as I read Andrew Lawler’s fascinating and delightful “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization.” These days, chicken is on every table, so it seems boring. Mr. Lawler’s globe-trotting tour shows that the bird has played a remarkable role in human history—and will almost certainly continue to do so.
Right out of the chute, Mr. Lawler impresses us with the bird’s ubiquity. There are more chickens alive today that there are cats, dogs, pigs, cows and rats—combined. Only one continent is poultry-free, and that’s because an international treaty bans live chickens from being shipped to Antarctica in order to protect the local penguins from disease. Chickens accompanied explorers on their sea vessels (around 1200, Polynesians carried poultry on their double-hulled canoes as they sailed to Easter Island and Hawaii), and scientists at NASA have studied how we can take the birds to Mars, presumably so we’ll have something to eat once we get there. Perhaps most important, chickens play a pivotal role in feeding our growing populations: Chickens produce 100 million tons of meat and lay more than a trillion eggs a year.
The author, a veteran science journalist, is bent on tracking down the particulars of this creature’s history, no matter where they might take him, including Venezuela, Indonesia, France, Kenya, Italy and Vietnam. What unfolds from this exhaustive reporting is a story not just large in scope but surprising in its details. Each chapter focuses on a different facet of the chicken’s impact on the world. An early chapter, for example, discusses the medical aspects of the bird from the earliest medicine men, who believed that chicken parts could cure everything from migraines to bed wetting, to the modern-day pharmaceutical industry, which uses chicken eggs to make flu vaccines. (It takes three eggs to make each dose.)
One of the most shocking facts is that humans most likely did not domesticate chickens in order to eat their meat or eggs. Several thousand years ago, people in Asia started catching and keeping wild jungle fowl for two key reasons: religious ceremonies and cockfighting.
Yes: Cockfighting is one of the primary reasons people have kept chickens around. Even today, cockfighting remains a religious rite in Bali and big business in the Philippines. (In 2008, Louisiana became the last state to ban it in the U.S.)
The cockfighting scenes in the book are alone worth the price of admission. In Bali, Mr. Lawler is peer-pressured into betting a pile of local currency on a supposedly sacred cockfight: “Within one minute, my money—worth about five dollars—is in another man’s pocket and a skinny man at the curb is plucking the dead bird for the winner to take home to cook. There is no priest or blessing or prayer.” Readers will laugh—and want to buy Mr. Lawler a drink.
But there is a spiritual dimension to our relationship with the birds. Mr. Lawler lays out a long catalog of cultural markers that chickens have left on civilization, from broken pieces of ancient Egyptian pottery decorated with domesticated fowl to the tombs of early Christians in Rome, some of which were emblazoned with depictions of chickens engaged in “sacred combat.” Chinese texts discussing chickens date back to 1400 B.C., while the creation myths of Yoruban tribes in West Africa involve a giant chicken that scratched at the Earth to form valleys. After reading this book, one expects to find a chicken lurking in the background of every religious painting and artifact.
Perhaps inevitably, the chicken’s primary role slowly shifted from one of ceremony to one of commerce. It seems that people couldn’t help noticing that the birds they had kept around for cockfighting produced delicious meals far more cheaply than other animals. They also procreate heroically.
Mr. Lawler doesn’t say so explicitly, but the chicken seems to have been an early driver of both democracy and free-market capitalism. In West Africa, for example, the chicken business might well have helped upend a hierarchical, cattle-based society around 650. The key source of wealth and social status among the Kirikongo people at the time was cattle—until the chicken came along. The bird was easy to raise, and it allowed the masses to engage in commerce and conduct important animal sacrifices. Instead of killing cattle for ceremonies, people substituted the birds, making chicken blood one of the world’s first disruptive technologies.
From the earliest days, in other words, the chicken was a decidedly middle-class animal. Mr. Lawler shows how this story repeated itself across the world over the ensuing centuries. In the colonial United States, for example, raising poultry was one of the few ways that entrepreneurial slaves could earn money. In the Philippines, breeding the birds is a way for middle-class entrepreneurs to chase riches in the national pastime of cockfighting.
As his story moves closer to the present day, the author uncovers a surprising story about the role that Southern women and minorities played in spearheading the U.S. chicken industry. White men dominate today’s poultry corporations, but the industry was born thanks to the enterprising efforts of women like Mollie Tugman and H.P. McPherson, who started raising large flocks of birds around 1909 in North Carolina. The men were focused on other crops, but McPherson was soon spreading the word that profit margins on chickens were fatter than butter, milk or vegetables. As she put it: “There is little excuse for a woman to be without money if she has room to raise poultry.” By the 1940s, these women had built a business healthy enough to draw the attention—and envy—of the old boys’ club. In 1951, the “Chicken of Tomorrow” convention in Fayetteville, Ark., drew together the nation’s best poultry breeders to derive the best line of genetics for a fast-growing bird. No women or minorities served on the Chicken of Tomorrow committee, even though they basically invented the business. Today the same dynamic is at play. More than half of the nation’s 250,000 poultry workers are women; half are Latino, and an estimated 20% are undocumented workers. Today, the American chicken industry employs about 300,000 people and churns out 37 billion pounds of meat a year.
It is challenging to tell a story so sweeping, and Mr. Lawler’s narrative grows confusing at times. During the first half of the book, I sometimes felt as if I was chasing the author around a crowded outdoor market while he darted from stall to stall, examining interesting curios. But the book picks up momentum in the second half as Mr. Lawler traces the evolution of chickens into a truly industrial animal.
Much has been written about the cruelty of modern chicken farming, but Mr. Lawler provides convincing, specific evidence. Nine out of 10 egg-laying hens, for example, spend their lives in wire “battery cages,” where several birds are crammed in so closely that they cannot spread their wings. “Vicious pecking, avian hysteria, mysterious deaths, and even cannibalism are often the result,” Mr. Lawler writes. Thanks to intensive breeding that emphasizes the production of high-profit breast meat, today’s chickens grow so fast that their heavy breasts strain their skeletons—the bird’s bones evolved to carry a far slenderer torso. There is also strong evidence that they live much of their lives in pain: One study found that chickens prefer feed that is laced with painkillers, likely as a way to self-medicate their aching joints.
The birds are also far more intelligent than we give them credit for. They can recognize human faces and avoid the people who treat them poorly. Mother hens are expert at roosting, protecting their young and hunting for food, yet the “battery cages” where we keep them are too narrow to allow them to move side to side. I didn’t realize until reading this book that the natural life span of a chicken is 10-20 years, since birds raised for food mature in about six weeks, at which point they are slaughtered. Laying hens live somewhat longer, but considering life in the battery cage that might not be a gift.
One of the Filipino cock fighters that Mr. Lawler interviews early on in the book argues that his business is more humane than the U.S. poultry industry because the fighting birds are well cared for, live long lives and die quickly. Before reading “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” I would have thought of this as rank self-justification. But the argument becomes uncomfortably hard to refute after considering the life of a factory bird.
—Mr. Leonard is the author of “The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeoverof America’s Food Business.”
Ewen Callaway relishes a study tracing the chicken’s eventful march from Asian jungles to global ubiquity.
The chicken is the Swiss army knife of livestock. Since its domestication in Southeast Asia as early as 18,000 years ago, the bird has been religious sacri¬fice, pet, research subject, fighting machine and, of course, dinner. The Victorians paid enormous sums for exotic breeds, and in the 1960s, NASA imagined the birds feeding Martian colonies. Around 20 billion are alive at any one time, bred to meet global demand. Science journalist Adrian Lawler explores the chicken’s multipronged place in human civili¬zation in his rip-roaring, erudite Why did the Chicken Cross the World?
Genome data and resemblance have pinpointed the red jungle fowl Gallus gallus — a furtive bird that roams the subtropical forests of southern Asia — as the wild ances¬tor of Gallus gallus domesticus. The birds are considered one species, because unions between them still produce fertile offspring. A few thousand years of separation is an evo¬lutionary blink of the eye, too brief to create reproductive barriers.
Scientific efforts to unpick the origins of the domestic chicken are muddied by the fact that few, if any, living red jungle fowl are free of the genetic vestiges of their ancestors’ romps with domestic chickens. The last purebred jungle fowl on Earth may reside, as Lawler shows, on a farm in the northeast of the US state of Georgia, rather than in a forest in Malaysia.
That is down to ornithologist Gardiner Bump. In the 1950s and 1960s, faced with a shortage of game birds in the US south¬east, Bump set out to populate forests with imported wild red jungle fowl. He paid trappers to collect eggs — the more remote the better, because he wanted purebred birds — and deliver them to US hatcheries. The birds never thrived, and the US govern¬ment pulled the plug on the programme in 1970. Descendants of Bump’s birds survive in a handful of flocks. An evolutionary geneti¬cist has sampled their blood, in the hope of discovering what truly sets chickens apart from their wild forebears.
From their initial domestication, Lawler traces the chickens’ journey to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, where the earliest known depiction of the bird was made, and then on to Polynesia and South America, where DNA from ancient chicken bones offers conten¬tious evidence for a pre-Columbian trans- Pacific chicken trade. The author does not dwell on such controversy for long. For much of the book, science has a supporting role to history, ethnography and even advocacy.
Lawler’s discussion of cockfighting is among the book’s most compelling material. In ancient Greece, Babylon and China, pit¬ting roosters against each other was embed¬ded in religious practice. Now mostly illegal, it still thrives in parts of South America and Asia, especially the Philippines, as Lawler demonstrates with a harrowing dispatchfrom the World Slasher Cup in Manila. He shows cockfighting as the brutal pastime it is, while recognizing it as an important chapter in human–chicken relations.
Chicken’s mealtime ubiquity dates from the twentieth century. African Americans and Jewish immigrants brought the bird into US cities, and farmers who had once viewed chicken-keeping as women’s work survived the Great Depression thanks to income from the birds. But wartime rationing of other meat put chicken on every plate. First held in 1948, the US Chicken of Tomorrow contest was con¬ceived by supermarket chain A&P (and later sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture) to improve the efficiency of poultry production and expand the fledg¬ling market. Before the contest, chickens bred for meat took 70 days to reach an average of 1.4 kilograms. Modern birds take 47 days to reach 2.6 kilograms, and they convert feed to meat 50% more effi¬ciently (although many spend their lives in chronic pain because of the extra body mass). US chicken consumption is now four times what it was before the contest.
Readers of Michael Pollan’s The Omni¬vore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006) or Chris¬topher Leonard’s The Meat Racket (Simon & Schuster, 2014) will know the rest of the story. Leonard used the term “chickeniza¬tion” to describe the ‘vertical integration’ of meat production developed and per¬fected by conglomerates such as Tyson Foods, whereby farmers have no owner¬ship or control over the flocks they breed, which often number tens of thousands of birds. Americans eat more chicken meat per capita than any other nation, but the rest of the world is catching up. China sur¬passed the United States in overall chicken consumption in 2012. Meanwhile, the mass culling of chickens across Asia to stop an avian-influenza pandemic shows that chicken health is a global concern.
Lawler is not the first to denounce the inhumane treatment of the animals or to raise the red flag about bird flu. But his perspective as a science reporter gives fresh insight into the problems created by the ubiquity of chickens — as well as possible solutions. Especially compelling is the profile of Janice Siegford at Michi¬gan State University in East Lansing, who is studying how to improve the welfare of chickens bred for food (‘cage free’ label¬ling is no guarantee that a chicken does not suffer throughout its life). Lawler rec¬ognizes that modern chickens — perhaps unlike genuine red jungle fowl — are here to stay. Who knows, maybe they will one day make it to Mars.
The title tells all in this comprehensive account of how an anti-social south Asian fowl became the world’s favorite food… Wondering how it is that such a bird has become so ubiquitous in so many manifestations (from McNuggets to occupying Col. Sanders’ buckets), the author embarked on an epic journey of his own to libraries and universities (where he interviewed various authorities on the bird), cockfights in the Philippines, the jungles of Vietnam, the factory farms now processing the birds for mass consumption, and the animal rights activist who keeps but does not eat her chickens. Lawler also takes readers on a trip into deep history, showing us the natural history of the bird, the difficulties archaeologists have with them (their bones do not often survive long sojourns in the ground), and the religious significance of, especially, the rooster. Lawler examined the chicken carcasses that Darwin studied, and he quotes a Hamlet sentry who mentions a rooster. He tells about some long-ago uses of bird parts—e.g., the dung of a rooster could cure an ulcerated lung. We learn about weathervanes and how the bird has been roosting in our language: “chicken” (coward), “cock” (well, you know) and others. The author instructs us about chicken sexual unions and about the intricacies of the egg, and he eventually arrives at the moral question: Why do we treat these birds with such profound cruelty? He also acknowledges that chickens’ waste and demands on our resources are nothing like those of pigs and cows. A splendid book full of obsessive travel and research in history, mythology, archaeology, biology, literature and religion.
The chicken, like all domesticated animals, was bred from a wild ancestor: the red jungle fowl, a shy pheasant so distrustful of humans that it seems a very unlikely candidate for domestication. Science-writer Lawler begins this absorbing survey of one of our most important cross-species relationships with a look at the endangered jungle fowl, and from here, he tracks the chicken’s journey as it slowly spreads throughout the world. Lawler speaks with numerous archaeologists, scientists, and farmers to tease out what we’ve learned about when the chicken was domesticated, how it was traded among ancient civilizations, and how it came to symbolize so many attributes in both religion and daily life. The chicken’s place in medicine, both ancient and modern; the major role cockfighting had in the spread of the bird; and the development of the Fancy (or “hen fever”) in England and its implications for Charles Darwin’s ideas about natural selection are all embraced in Lawler’s witty, conversational book. Finally, the emergence of the mass production of chickens and eggs in modern factory farms is examined for both its role in the rise of more universal consumption of cheap protein and as fodder for the animal-rights movement. Readers will get to know the bird behind the McNugget.
In his first book, journalist Lawler offers an encyclopedic examination of the chicken’s ever-growing and complex role in societies and civilization, tracing the bird’s migration across countries and cultures, from its role as a “rare and royal bird” in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to its current status as the product of industrial farming, which can be traced back to the Chicken of Tomorrow project launched in the U.S. at the end of WWII. The chicken plays many roles, ranging from mere foodstuff to a symbol of light and resurrection in some religions, as well as its key role in creating the flu vaccine that has helped millions. The bleaker sides to this narrative are handled bluntly—specifically, Lawler covers the intricacies and significance of cockfighting in certain cultures and provides an unflinching portrayal of the conditions in which commercial chickens are raised. Throughout, he maintains an objective stance. Readers are sure to come away with a deeper understanding of—and greater appreciation for—an animal that’s considered commonplace.
TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER: History, science, fun facts fill ‘Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?,’ a chronicle of the barnyard animal on which we depend so much.
You are the ruler of the roost.
Your nest is feathered just the way you want it, you’ve got a little nest egg, nobody’s henpecking you, you’re the cock of the walk at home, and now that you’re an empty-nester, you do what you want. Life is good.
And if anybody calls you a big chicken, you might want to thank them. See why in “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” by Andrew Lawler.
Take every dog, cat, pig and cow on Earth today, add in all the rats and what would you have? A big mess, that’s for sure, but that assemblage would still pale in comparison to the worlds’ birds – and that includes some 20 billion chickens.
“…the chicken,” says Lawler, “is universal…”
So how did that happen? How did an ancient, wily jungle fowl become common in barnyard, breakfast, and boasting?
The short answer is that scientists don’t exactly know. They’re not even sure which came first: the bird to us or us to the bird. They do know that the chicken crossed the world because “we took it with us” a long time ago but, though it can trace its ancestry back to the dinosaurs, the remains of ancient chicken dinners are rare.
Chickens can come in many shapes, sizes, and colors: you can get a palm-sized pet pullet or a gigantic monster-chicken to ruffle the neighbors’ feathers. Gallus gallus domesticus is on all continents (except Antarctica, where they’re banned) and in all countries (except Vatican City, where there’s no place to keep them). Wherever they’ve gone, they’ve adapted quite well – so much so that scientists found chickens near Chernobyl that are able to shake off radioactive toxicity.
We, of course, eat chicken before it’s born and after it’s dead. We use it in medical treatments, fertilizer, crafts, and religion. We made the chicken into an epithet, a riddle, a mania in both London and America, and livestock that once ensured egg money for slave and housewife alike.
And its future? Well, let’s just say it could be out of this world…
It may seem hard to believe but author Andrew Lawler says that there are people today who’ve never seen a chicken outside grocery store or restaurant. This book may make them want to change all that.
Indeed, “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” is a whole flock of fun. Lawler mixes science and history with a good amount of barnyard peeks to show that the lowly fowl is not so foul; in fact, researchers have proven that chickens are no dumb clucks. Lawler also takes us on a trip to see where the bird has gone, then he investigates where it’s going by visiting large corporate processors. That makes for a well-rounded, informative, and highly enjoyable book.
Definitely, farmers and backyard coopers will like this book and if you’re an animal lover or a Big Chicken, you’ll want to bring it home to roost. For you, “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World” is a book you’ll crow about.
“Prize-winning journalist Andrew Lawler takes on the world in this elegant and engaging paean to poultry. Part travelogue, part scientific history, all rollicking good fun, this marvelous journalistic exploration scours five continents to bring us a deep appreciation and understanding of our uneasy relationship with one of nature’s most fascinating creatures. Astonishing.”
— Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture
“Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? is an eye-opening journey that restores the chicken to its proper place in human history. You’ll be surprised by how much you didn’t know.”
— David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs
“This fast-paced and well-written book reads like a detective story. Who would have guessed that the humble chicken’s exotic past would make such a fascinating tale full of high-stakes intrigue? If you want to be educated and entertained–move this book to the top of your reading list.”
— Wenonah Hauter, author of Foodopoly
“Surprising and delightful. This engaging and provocative book tracks the chicken’s transformation from gorgeous red jungle fowl to today’s highly engineered animal.. A fascinating read that adds to the mounting pile of evidence that animals, even chickens, are capable of much more than we usually think.”
— Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel
“This is an appealing, beautifully written exploration of an important, but hitherto neglected, major player in our history. I’ll never think about chickens the same way again.”
— Brian Fagan, author of The Attacking Ocean
Rulers of the roost
by Greger Larson
Like Keyser Söze, the enigmatic criminal mastermind from The Usual Suspects, the temporal and geographic origins of the domesticated chicken are mysterious and unresolved. In addition, although we think we understand it, we perpetually underestimate the chicken’s role in human culture and history. Luckily for us, Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? wakes us from our ignorant dream, detailing one surprising fact after another that ultimately reveal a grand truth: that chickens are everywhere and are inextricably linked to the emergence and maintenance of human civilization.
Although there are four closely related wild jungle fowl species, domestic chickens descend primarily from just one: the red jungle fowl. The bird’s propensity to hybridize is a theme that pervades every stage of the chicken’s journey across the globe. Wild populations of red jungle fowl have been subjected to such pervasive admixture with domestic fowl that some have speculated that truly wild populations may no longer exist (1).
There are now more than 20 billion chickens on Earth—more than the combined total of cats, dogs, pigs, cows, and rats. There are at least three chickens for every individual human, but as their numbers grow, “they have paradoxically become less visible.” Lawler points to the recent escalation in demand for chicken meat as one possible explanation for this phenomenon.
According to Lawler, Americans now consume four times as much chicken as they did 60 years ago. To meet our growing appetite, breeders have selected for faster growth and more rapid rates of feed conversion. Birds are now harvested only 47 days after birth—23 days earlier than chickens reared in 1950 and 2.6 pounds heavier.
The commercial poultry industry has evolved such that the average consumer interacts only with the constituent parts of the bird, either as shrink-wrapped carcasses in supermarkets or as anatomically ambiguous meat at restaurants. This disconnect between chicken as animal and chicken as food has allowed commercial producers to meet our demand for cheap protein, through questionable husbandry practices that remain exempt from animal welfare legislation.
This “cowardly reckoning,” as Proust called it (2), on the part of the consumer has also led to a shift in the way the bird is generally perceived. Idolized and venerated since their domestication (if not before), the derogatory terms “birdbrain” and “chicken shit” only entered our lexicon in the mid-20th century, when commercial poultry production began to scale up.
Although it’s clear that we hold little regard for their intellect, chickens have influenced numerous defining events in global human history. Perhaps, then, chickens are not best equated with Keyser Söze, but with Forrest Gump.
For instance, although many people know that On the Origin of Species opens with a chapter about domestication, few realize that Darwin spent considerable time studying the morphology and impressive color variation in chicken breeds. Chickens also played a major role in initiating and sustaining the economic independence of both slaves and women in 19th-century America. (Because the bird held so little prestige among white male farmers, blacks and women were allowed to raise flocks and sell eggs and meat.) There was even a cockfighting pit in Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre, and proceeds from cockfighting licenses and bird sales in the 19th-century Philippines generated more revenue than tobacco, the country’s biggest export. In more recent history, chicken eggs have played a crucial role in the development and production of vaccines that prevent flu viruses from erupting into pandemics.
Perhaps the clearest evidence that chickens have thoroughly infiltrated our daily lives rests in their influence on our language and humor. People are cocky and henpecked, and we brood and crow. We walk on eggshells, hatch ideas, rule the roost, fly the coop, get our hackles up, consider our place in the pecking order, appear cockeyed, and run around like chickens with our heads cut off. We receive French hens on the third day of Christmas, ponder the motivation of chickens to cross the road, and wonder whether the chicken or the egg arrived first. If we are assigning fictional characters, modern humans are Jon Snow and we know nothing (3). Despite our ignorance, the chicken has experienced a recent measure of success. The prestige of an animal can be correlated with the year its genome was sequenced, and the chicken has bragging rights over the dog, pig, cow, cat, and chimp.
Lawler’s book goes a long way toward restoring chickens to their respected position within human history and our modern world. Both chickens and people will benefit as a result.
1. A. T. Peterson, I. L. Brisbin, Bird Conserv. Int. 8, 387 (1998).
2. M. Proust, Swann’s Way (1913).
3. G. R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (Bantam Books, New York, 1996–2011).
Cry fowl! Why the apparently humble chicken actually has plenty to crow about
Andrew Lawler’s book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? documents the virtues of our most important source of protein
Pervasive, mundane and bland, chicken is the magnolia paint of the meat aisle: a pedestrian, if practical, choice. But according to Andrew Lawler, its ubiquity belies a significance that we ignore at our peril. “The chicken has assumed this huge [influence] as the most important source of protein for humanity without people really giving a lot of thought to the chicken itself,” he says.
Setting the record straight, Lawler’s latest tome recasts the chicken as a “feathered Swiss Army knife” – a bird that has fuelled cultural, economic and scientific growth for several thousand years since the shy and skittish red junglefowl of Asia became domesticated, picked up a dash of grey junglefowl genes and ultimately – by means of an unlikely sounding postwar breeding contest called the “Chicken of Tomorrow” – became the broiler of today.
But, Lawler reveals, the chicken’s appeal stretches far beyond its recent culinary coup. Besides serving as an early-morning alarm clock, the bird also acts as a pest-control agent, while its body was used throughout antiquity in a plethora of remedies – and still is.
“There are things already on the shelf such as anti-wrinkle creams that are created from a rooster’s comb,” he tells me, referring to Pfizer’s penchant for white leghorns. Eggs are also valuable; besides their nutritional worth, they are used in their millions to produce our annual flu vaccines, as well as offering a means to explore embryo development and even test theories of how birds evolved from dinosaurs.
Yes, in just one of many fascinating (chicken) nuggets, Lawler explores the efforts of geneticists to tinker with chicken embryos so that they develop teeth and even snouts. “The value I see is simply understanding that the chicken is descended from these creatures,” he says.
It’s not his only foray into the bizarre. Indeed Lawler believes he has found an explanation for the legend of the basilisk, a terrifying serpent said to hatch from an egg laid by a cockerel. Monsters aside, the broody male, he says, might have been a gynandromorph – a quirk of genetics in which the chicken has the “plumbing”, and appearance, of both male and female. “It is clear that in medieval times there were people who observed what looked like a rooster laying an egg and now we know that actually it’s possible,” he says.
Speaking to Lawler, it’s hard to remember that we are talking about the two-a-penny chicken. But then, as he points out, the bird hasn’t always been the epitome of banality. The domesticated fowl was revered for millennia, not least for its prowess in combat – a trait that was exploited in sacred rituals and ultimately led to its spread across the globe. “Gradually that turned into a way to gamble and then people began to trade the fighting cocks around south Asia as they do today,” he explains.
But as the chicken becomes ever more popular, Lawler believes the future of the red junglefowl is at risk. “Because they are the same species they are very vulnerable to losing their pure genetics to domesticated chickens,” he says, explaining that could not only hinder our study of the bird’s domestication but also erode a useful genepool should the domesticated bird fall foul of disease. The success of the chicken is undeniable – but it might yet come home to roost.
Reprinted from theguardian.com
Chickens: How a creature that can barely fly became the world’s most migratory bird
It is our biggest source of protein, a feathered medicine chest and a marker for human exploration, and yet most of us don’t give fowls much thought
Add up the world’s cats, dogs, pigs and cows and there would still be more chickens. Toss in every rat on earth and the bird still dominates. The domestic fowl is the world’s most ubiquitous bird and most common barnyard animal. More than 20 billion chickens live on our planet at any given moment – three for every human. The nearest avian competitor is the red-billed quelea, a little African finch numbering a mere two billion or so.
Only one country and one continent are fowl-free. Pope Francis I regularly dines on skinless breast bought in the markets of Rome since there is no room for a coop in the tiny state of Vatican City. In Antarctica, chickens are taboo. Grilled wings are a staple at the annual New Year’s celebration at the South Pole’s Amundsen-Scott Station, but the international treaty governing the southern continent forbids the import of live or raw poultry to protect penguins from disease. Even so, most emperor penguin chicks have been exposed to common chicken viruses.
These exceptions prove the rule. From Siberia to the South Atlantic’s South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the chicken is universal, and Nasa has studied whether it could survive the trip to Mars. The bird, which began in the thickets of South Asian jungles, is now our single most important source of protein, and we are unlikely to leave the planet without it. As our cities and appetites grow, so does the population of, and our dependence on, the common fowl. “Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens,” the American economist Henry George wrote in 1879, “but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.”
Antarctica: Plenty of penguins, but not a chicken in sight (AFP/Getty) Antarctica: Plenty of penguins, but not a chicken in sight (AFP/Getty)
Until recently, I never thought to ask why this creature, out of 15,000 species of mammals and birds, emerged as our most important animal companion. My reporting took me to archaeological digs in the Middle East, Central Asia and East Asia as I pursued the question of why and how our species abandoned the quiet hunter-gatherer life in favour of bustling cities, global empires, world wars and social media. This mysterious and radical shift to urban life that began in the Middle East six millennia ago continues to transform the earth. Only in the past decade, for the first time in history, have more people lived in cities than in the country.
When I heard that excavators working on an Arabian beach had evidence that Indian traders had mastered the monsoon to sail across the open ocean more than 4,000 years ago, I pitched the story to a magazine. These adventurous Bronze Age sailors inaugurated international trade and helped to spark the first global economy, carrying Himalayan timber and Afghan lapis lazuli to the great Mesopotamian cities as Egyptian masons put the finishing touches on the Giza pyramids. In my pitch, I mentioned to the editor that, along with remains of ancient Indian trade goods, archaeologists had uncovered a chicken bone that might mark the bird’s arrival in the West. “That’s interesting,” the editor said. “Follow the bird. Where did it come from? Why do we eat so much of it? What is a chicken, anyway?” I agreed, reluctantly, and a few weeks later I arrived in a seaside Omani village as the Italian archaeology team working at the beach site were returning from an afternoon swim in the Arabian Sea. The chicken bone? “Oh,” said the dig director, towelling his damp locks. “We think it was misidentified. It probably came from one of our workmen’s lunches.”
Since chickens didn’t pull Babylonian war chariots or carry silks from China, archaeologists and historians have not given the bird much thought, and anthropologists prefer watching people hunt boar than feed fowl. Poultry scientists are fixated on converting grain to meat as efficiently as possible, not in tracing the bird’s spread around the world. Even scientists, who appreciate the importance of animals in the making of human societies, tend to overlook the fowl. Jared Diamond, the author of the bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, relegates the chicken to a category of “small domestic mammals and domestic birds and insects” that are useful but not worthy of the attention due, say, the ox.
Underdogs and unsung heroes are journalistic red meat. The chicken is so underestimated that it is legally invisible. Although its meat and eggs power our urban and industrial lives, it is not considered livestock – or even an animal – under American law if raised for food. “Chickens do not always enjoy an honourable position among city-bred people,” EB White noted. If they thought of chickens at all, it was “as a comic prop straight out of vaudeville”. Although Susan Orlean declared the chicken the “it” bird in a 2009 New Yorker article devoted to the popular backyard-chicken movement, the dog and cat retain their joint title as the most beloved pet.
If all canines and felines vanished tomorrow, along with the odd parakeet and gerbil, there would be much mourning but minimal impact on the global economy or international politics. A suddenly chickenless world, however, would spell immediate disaster. In 2012, as the cost of eggs shot up in Mexico City after millions of birds were culled due to disease, demonstrators took to the streets, rattling the new government. It was dubbed the “Great Egg Crisis”, and no wonder, since Mexicans eat more eggs per capita than any other people.
The same year, in Cairo, high-priced poultry helped to inspire Egypt’s revolution as protesters rallied to the cry: “They are eating pigeon and chicken, but we eat beans every day!” When poultry prices tripled in Iran recently, the nation’s police chief warned television producers not to broadcast images of people eating the popular meat, to avoid inciting violence among those who could not afford grilled kebabs. The chicken has, quietly but inexorably, become essential. Although it can barely fly, the fowl has become the world’s most migratory bird through international imports and exports. The various parts of a single bird may end up at opposite ends of the globe. Chinese get the feet, Russians the legs, Spaniards the wings, Turks the intestines, Dutch soup makers the bones, and the breasts go to the United States and Britain. This globalised business extends to Kansan corn that plumps Brazilian birds, European antibiotics to stave off illness in American flocks, and Indian-made cages housing South African poultry.
“A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing,” Karl Marx wrote. But analyse it and the commodity turns into “a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”. As I pursued the chicken’s trail around the world, I found it full of surprising metaphysical and theological implications. Emerging from the Asian jungle as a magical creature, it spread around the globe, performing as a celebrity in royal menageries, playing an important role as a guide to the future, and transforming into a holy messenger of light and resurrection. It entertained us as it fought to the death in the cockpit, served as an all-purpose medicine chest, and inspired warriors, lovers, and mothers. In traditions from Bali to Brooklyn, it still takes on our sins, as it has done for millennia. No other animal has attracted so many legends, superstitions and beliefs across so many societies and eras.
The chicken crossed the world because we took it with us, a journey that began thousands of years ago in South-east Asia and required human help every step of the way. It slept in bamboo cages on dugout canoes moving down the wide Mekong river, squawked in carts pulled by oxen plodding to market towns in China, and jostled over Himalayan mountains in wicker baskets slung across the backs of traders. Sailors carried it across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, and by the 17th century, chickens lived in nearly every corner of every settled continent. Along the way they sustained Polynesian colonists, urbanised African society, and staved off famine at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Charles Darwin drew on the chicken to cement his theory of evolution, and Louis Pasteur used it to create the first modern vaccine. Its egg, after more than 2,500 years of study, remains the premier model organism of science, and is the vessel we use to manufacture our annual flu serum. The common fowl was the first domesticated animal to have its genome sequenced. Its bones ease our arthritis, the rooster’s comb smooths the wrinkles on our faces, and transgenic chickens may soon synthesise a host of our medicines. Raising the bird also offers poor, rural women and their children vital calories and vitamins to keep malnutrition at bay, as well as an income that can help to lift struggling families out of poverty.
The animal remains a feathered Swiss Army knife, a multi-purpose beast that provides us with what we want in a given time and place. This plasticity, which makes it the most valuable of all the domesticated animals, has become useful in tracing our own history. The chicken is a kind of avian Zelig, and since it is an uncanny mirror of our changing human desires, goals and intentions – a prestige object, a truth teller, a miraculous elixir, a tool of the Devil, an exorcist, or the source of fabulous wealth – it is a marker for human exploration, expansion, entertainment and beliefs. Archaeologists now use simple mesh screens to gather bird bones that can tell the story of how, when and where humans lived, while complex algorithms and high-throughput computing make it possible for biologists to trace the chicken’s genetic past, which is so closely tied to our own. And neuroscientists studying the long-abused chicken brain are uncovering unsettling signs of a deep intelligence as well as intriguing insight into our own behaviour.
Today’s living bird has largely disappeared from our urban lives, and the vast majority inhabit a shadowy archipelago of huge poultry warehouses and slaughterhouses surrounded by fences and sealed off from the public. The modern chicken is both a technological triumph and a poster child for all that is sad and nightmarish about our industrial agriculture. The most engineered creature in history is also the world’s most commonly mistreated animal. For better and worse, we have singled out the chicken as our meal ticket to the world’s urban future while placing it mostly out of sight and mind.
The backyard-chicken movement sweeping the United States and Europe is a response to city lives that are far removed from the daily realities of life and death on a farm, and the bird provides a cheap and handy way for us to reconnect with our vanishing rural heritage. This trend may not improve the life or death of the billions of industrial chickens, but it may revive our memories of an ancient, rich and complex relationship that makes the chicken our most important companion. We might begin to look at chickens and, seeing them, treat them differently.
Even as we grow more distant from, yet increasingly dependent on, the fowl, our ways of describing courage and cowardice, tenacity and selflessness, and other human traits and emotions, remain firmly bound up with the bird. “Everything forgets,” the literary critic George Steiner said. “But not a language.” We are cocky or we chicken out, henpecked or walking on eggshells. We hatch an idea, get our hackles up, rule the roost, brood, and crow. We are, in more ways than we might like to admit, a lot more like the chicken than the hawk or the dove or the eagle. We are, like the barnyard fowl, gentle and violent, calm and agitated, graceful and awkward, aspiring to fly but still bound to the earth.
Reprinted from The Independent