The History of Chickens

Chickens are one of the earliest animals domesticated around the world. Though history tells us they were most likely originally kept as sporting birds, chickens have accompanied the advancement of human civilizations through the years.

Houdan Chicken Breed

The Houdan is an old French breed of chickens. It has been recognized for exhibition since 1914.

Photo by Robert Gibson

Content Tools

Chickens can make a great addition to your farm or homestead. In How to Raise Poultry (Voyageur Press, 2011), Christine Heinrichs provides all of the information you need to know to successfully raise a flock of birds. This excerpt, which details the history of chickens, is from Chapter 1, “Chickens.”

The History of Chickens

Chickens are the domesticated Gallus that has accompanied the advancement of human civilization. Chickens were one of the earliest animals domesticated, no doubt in many places over time. They were likely domesticated in Southeast Asia as early as 8000 BC. The junglefowl that are their antecedents are so tempting they would certainly have attracted humans to catch and keep them.

Since the mists of prehistory, chickens have spread around the world. New evidence of domesticated chickens in South America adds strength to the idea that South Pacific Islanders and Polynesians made contact with the West Coast long before Columbus arrived from Europe on the East Coast.

Chickens were most likely originally kept as sporting birds, for fighting contests between game cocks. But they acquired religious and spiritual importance early in their journey with humans. Junglefowl crow in the morning, which associated them, in human minds, with the sun. Spiritually, they chased away the dark spirits of the night. Hens lay eggs year-round and raise multiple chicks, with one rooster leading a flock of hens, making them natural symbols of fertility. The solicitous behavior a hen exhibits toward her chicks resonates with our feelings of maternal love. Junglefowl inhabited the ecosystem created by humans. They foraged among hoofed livestock, scratched in dung piles, hunted insects in the fields. They foraged on everything left after the threshing of cereals and grains.

Small in size and adaptable to almost any climate, chickens were Everyman’s livestock. Even those who couldn’t afford to keep large animals such as horses and cattle could afford a small flock of chickens. Without requiring much attention from humans, they naturally raise their own replacements. With domestication came year-round egg-laying, which provided a food source as well as perpetuation of the flock. Chickens were suited not only to settled agrarian life, but they made productive companions on long journeys, whether crusade, war, or exploration. The fishermen of Southeast Asia raised a junglefowl hybrid called the Ayam Bekasir that had an especially long, loud crow, allowing them to stay in contact with other fishermen. Chickens made their way into every corner of human life. European traders returned to their home countries with the colorful birds of Asia. There, these Asian game birds and other breeds were bred into the European flocks, adding feather colors, types, and other characteristics.

The captive populations of birds gave their keepers the opportunity to exercise selective breeding. Chickens reproduce relatively rapidly, faster than dogs or cattle. Differences in color, feather quality, size, comb, and other characteristics emerged rapidly, resulting in the development of distinct breeds. Such individual flock changes might have first occurred accidentally; for example, an enclosed flock, bred over a couple of years, may have become dominated by red tails or long sickle feathers. As people observed their animals over time, they learned that they could influence their flock by choosing those birds with desirable characteristics as breeders, thus increasing those characteristics in their flocks.

Such individuality at first might have had the advantage of simply distinguishing one farm’s flock from another, reducing theft. Breeds became a way to manage the poultry on a farm. Aesthetics undoubtedly played a part, appealing to the owner’s sense of beauty. Utility qualities, such as growing larger more quickly or laying more eggs, would certainly have been a source of pride as well as greater value and improved nutrition. Even one egg a day would have made a huge difference in a primitive diet.

Thus breeds were established early on. In the thirteenth century, when Marco Polo traveled from Italy to China, the small Silkie chickens he found there surprised him, because they were so different from the smooth-feathered Continental breeds of his home.

Colonists in America took pride in their livestock, but organized breeding was less important than egg and meat production and animal survival. Traditional breeds like Dorkings and English Games accompanied them from England. Birds used for cockfighting, a popular sport, acquired the name Dung Hill Fowl. Later, Dung Hill Fowl described the mixed breeds that resulted from catch-as-catch-can barnyard breeding. “Hen fever” emerged as a craze in the mid-nineteenth century. Wealthy businessmen became caught up in the fad of breeding and exhibiting chickens. The arrival of the Java breed in the 1840s was a major event, and the Buff Cochin’s arrival in England in 1845 fed the frenzy. The buff color was bred into nearly every chicken breed by the end of the century. The first offical US poultry show was held in 1849 in Boston. Today, that show is known as Boston Poultry Expo.

Eventually, the Civil War intervened, diverting attention from recreational pursuits. The violence of the war exterminated much livestock. After the war ended, those who worked in poultry production and exhibition renewed their efforts, refining and developing distinctive new American breeds, such as the Dominique and the Plymouth Rock, in all its color varieties. They organized the American Poultry Association (APA) and published the first Standard of Excellence in 1874. The Standard formalized judging standards for poultry shows. It remains the tool for breeding excellence for exhibitions. Now called the Standard of Perfection, it continues to evolve to meet changing conditions.

Poultry that was formerly kept by rural households and made locally available gradually became a consumer product. Chickens were transported to urban markets as populations migrated to cities. Various breeds gained their advocates as poultry producers competed for consumer dollars: Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Cornish, Langshans, Plymouth Rocks of various color varieties, Wyandottes, Leghorns, and Houdans each held significant positions in the marketplace.

The growing poultry industry adapted technology to chicken raising after World War II. Traditional breeds lost ground to modern crosses developed to meet production goals. Where previously all chicks had been raised—males as meat birds and hens for eggs—separate breeds and varieties within breeds were now developed to supply separate markets for meat and eggs. Chicken breeding became a laboratory matter, to create the composite that would most quickly convert feed into meat and eggs. The result for meat is the modern Cornish/Rock cross, which reaches market size in six weeks; the result for eggs is the laying Leghorn. Cornish/Rock crosses suffer from congestive heart failure and skeletal deformities. Leg disorders often make it difficult for them to walk. Laying Leghorns reach the end of their economic lives in a year or two, at which time they are euthanized en masse and composted.

Along the way, the traditional breeds slipped from economic notice. The APA, formerly the professional organization for producers as well as exhibitors, became less important than marketing organizations.

With the increase in consumer demand for heritage breed poultry, the APA is exploring its role with respect to certifying producers’ flocks as standard breeds.

Traditional breeds have been maintained both by fanciers as exhibition birds and by rural residents, who appreciate them for a broader spectrum of qualities, namely their ability to raise their own chicks and perpetuate a flock, forage for their own food, and provide high-nitrogen manure to fertilize crops and gardens. Niche markets are developing for heritage-breed meat and eggs.

In many cases, these heritage chickens carry unique genes for beneficial traits like disease resistance. They are living examples of proud histories. Keeping a flock of traditional-breed birds allows your farm to conserve traits that may prove invaluable in the future.

Feed and Nutrition for Your Chickens

Chicken nutrition has been exhaustively studied for the poultry industry. The goal for industrial operations is to convert feed into meat and eggs as quickly and cheaply as possible. Your own flock of traditional-breed birds will take longer to mature. Commercial formulations are available as complete feeds. Purchase proprietary formulations from local feed companies, or create your own.

Chickens are omnivores. They eat both vegetable matter, such as greens and seeds, and animal matter, such as insects and small animals. Both sources contain the carbohydrates, oils, protein, vitamins, and minerals chickens require to be healthy and productive. Chickens enjoy foraging for their own food. Consider whether your chickens will have foraging time in pasture or in a movable chicken tractor.

Freshness is important in feed. Commercial preparations are generally stable, but the nutrients inevitably decline over time. Feed is a perishable commodity. You can more easily monitor the freshness of feed that is made closer to home. Keep only as much feed as your birds will consume in a month or less. Some flock owners taste their feed to check for sour or rancid taste. Spoiled feed can kill chickens. Store it in a cool, dry place in a secure container. Keep bugs and mice out.

Formulated chicken feed comes as mash, crumble, or pellets. The crumbled and pelleted forms provide more uniform nutrition than mash. The fine grind of mash allows heavier ingredients to migrate to the bottom. Follow feeding directions. Most commercial preparations are designed to be fed freely. Limiting feeding to once or twice a day may result in the chickens not getting adequate nutrition.

Commercial formulated feeds provide complete nutrition, unless their tags specify otherwise. Feeding scratch grains and kitchen trim may not be recommended, but they enjoy it so much, I can’t imagine having chickens and not giving them interesting things to eat. Offer greens and other tasty treats as a supplement to commercial feed formulations.

Eating is an important part of a chicken’s day. Scratching and pecking are natural behaviors that occupy most of their waking hours. If they are not on pasture where they can enjoy the results of their scratching, provide them with interesting things in their enclosure to attract their attention: hang dried vegetation from their fence, or give them garden clippings and kitchen trim. Without interesting things in their environment to forage, bored chickens will begin to peck at each other, which can lead to cannibalism. Directing their natural behaviors at appropriate targets can head off these problems.

Commercial feeds are tagged with a nutritional analysis of the contents. Protein is the most significant element. Growing chicks and laying hens need more protein than roosters or hens who aren’t laying. Chick starter is 20 to 22 percent protein, broiler feed is 20 to 22 percent protein, and layer feed is 16 to 18 percent protein. More is not better. Excess protein in the diet can damage kidneys and cause skeletal problems. Give your birds feed that is appropriate to their needs.

Chickens on pasture will need supplemental feed. Chickens are generally self-regulating about their nutritional needs, but they may overeat commercial feeds in an attempt to address deficiencies. Fat chickens do not lay well. If the fat pad between your hen’s legs is cushy, she’s overweight. Consider more exercise or limit carbohydrates like scratch feed.

Most chick starter is medicated with a coccidiostat. Coccidia are protozoan parasites. Their eggs are commonly found in the soil of a chicken pen, so most chickens are exposed at some time. Coccidiosis can devastate chicks. The low dose of medication in feed allows them to experience some infection and acquire immunity. This kind of medication does not risk developing antibiotic-resistant infections. It is short term in the life of the chicks, so it does not enter the human food chain. It’s worth feeding to protect your chicks.

If you do not want any antibiotics in chick feed, ask your feed store to order antibiotic-free feed for you, or make your own.

Layer feed includes calcium, one of the significant differences between it and other feeds. Hens need calcium to produce healthy eggshells, which are made of calcium carbonate. Hens on pasture require a dish of calcium source such as oyster shell to meet their needs. Chicks should not get layer feed, as the extra calcium would interfere with their development.

Clean water must always be available. Lack of water will hurt your flock faster than any imbalance in their feed. Their bodies are 55 to 75 percent water, and eggs are 65 percent water. Chickens drink about twice as much water by weight as they eat. They breathe out moisture. Chickens have no sweat glands, so the evaporative heat loss in the air sacs of the lungs is the single most important way they cool themselves.

Chicken digestion depends on grinding the food into small pieces in the crop. They have no teeth, as conveyed in the expression “scarce as hens’ teeth.” Sharp-edged sand and other inorganic material in the crop performs that function, allowing the bird to extract nutrition from the food. Birds on pasture will find their own. Birds that are confined should have a dish of grit available to them at all times.

Managing Your Chickens’ Health

Good nutrition, fresh air, and clean living conditions are the best defense against livestock diseases. Chickens can and do get sick and infested with parasites despite the best care, though.

Staphylococcus bacteria are common germs that can infect a cut locally. The infection can become systemic, meaning that it spreads throughout the body. Make sure the coop has no sharp edges on which chickens can cut themselves. Treat wounds with triple antibiotic ointment. If a chicken develops swollen joints or footpads or has a sore that oozes yellow pus, treat with erythromycin from the vet or feed store. Escherichia coli in dirty litter can infect chickens, causing diarrhea. Mycin antibiotics also treat that condition.

Avian mycobacteriosis, or tuberculosis, causes nodules (called granulomas) to grow in internal organs. Infected chickens decline and eventually die. When symptoms occur in small flocks, birds are usually tested and infected individuals separated for treatment. Some commercial operators destroy the entire flock and disinfect the premises. The Mycobacterium avium is difficult to eradicate.

Aspergillosis, better known as brooder pneumonia, is a fungal disease caused by organisms that grow in contaminated feed and wet litter. Birds don’t transmit it to each other.

Once they develop symptoms, they are likely to die. There is no treatment. Aspergillus is a common fungus, and most birds do not get sick unless there are overwhelming amounts of the fungus. Clean and dry living conditions help flocks to prevent contamination.

Marek’s disease is a contagious herpes viral disease in chickens that causes infected birds to grow tumors. Turkeys also occasionally contract it. Tumors grow in vital organs and the nervous system, eventually killing the chicken. All chickens are considered at risk. Chicks can be vaccinated on the eighteenth day of incubation or in the first days of life. Adult chickens that have not been previously vaccinated can be, and some farmers advise annual boosters for adult flocks. Make sure all the chickens you acquire are immunized, or immunize them yourself. An alternative is to obtain Marek’s-free stock and keep a closed Marek’s-free flock.

Infectious coryza, or roup, is like a cold but can be very severe. Chickens can develop secondary infections of the mouth and eyes that persist for months. Vaccines are available for farms that have a history of coryza, but they must be specific to the variant of the disease infecting the area. Early antibiotic treatment with erythromycin and oxytetracycline can help.

Vitamins for Poultry

Nutrition research identifies thirteen vitamins required by poultry. They fall into two groups: fat-soluble and water-soluble. The fat-soluble group includes vitamins A, D3, E, and K. The water-soluble vitamins are the B-complex vitamins: thiamin, riboflavin, nicotinic acid, folic acid, biotin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, vitamin B12, and choline.

All these vitamins are essential for poultry and human life. Vitamin A affects the health and proper functioning of the skin and lining of the digestive, reproductive, and respiratory tracts. Vitamin D3 has an important role in bone formation and the metabolism of calcium and phosphorus. The B vitamins are involved in energy metabolism and the metabolism of many other nutrients. Brewer’s yeast, or nutritional yeast, is a good source of B vitamins. It may be added to chicks’ water in the thirteenth and fourteenth weeks of age to ensure adequate absorption of B vitamins and to help the chicks avoid leg problems that might otherwise develop at that time.

Eggs supply these vitamins to the developing embryo. That makes them a good animal source of vitamins for humans.

Housing for Chickens

Chickens need secure housing. Although they can survive being confined indoors, they do much better when they have a yard to scratch in. After you’ve addressed the basic requirements, their housing is limited only by your circumstances and imagination.

As domestic birds, chickens are subject to predation. Their housing needs to be strong enough to resist the efforts of other animals trying to get at them. That includes the floor. Chicken wire or metal flashing buried around the perimeter will foil digging predators. A concrete floor can be hosed down, an advantage for cleaning. A deep-litter system is most successful on a dirt floor, to allow moisture to move through the litter and naturally occurring microbes to do their work. Deep-litter management on a concrete floor may require more frequent cleaning, and the manure may need to complete its composting process on an outdoor compost pile before being applied to plants. Deep-litter management recruits the chickens’ natural scratching and pecking behaviors into a balanced system of fibrous litter material. It creates a compost system of decomposing vegetative material, such as leaves, wood chips, or chopped corn cobs mixed with chicken manure, which is high in nitrogen. The composting mixture becomes a home for microorganisms, insect larvae, and other invertebrates that eventually turns into a desirable garden fertilizer. Cleaning is required only once or twice annually.

Chickens are roosting birds. Roosts should have rounded edges and be smooth enough to avoid cuts to the birds. Natural branches offer a rough surface they can grasp. Having roosts all at one level avoids chickens jockeying over which one gets the top roost.

Chickens need protection from weather extremes. They are resilient and adapt to all climates well, although they need shade in hot climates and shelter from wind, rain, and snow in cold ones. While protecting them from the elements, their shelter also needs to be well ventilated. They need fresh air.

The site should be well drained. Swampy land can foster development of disease organisms like aspergillus. In wet areas, the chicken house can be constructed on blocks that raise it above the wet ground.

Different Types of Chicken Breeds

Chicken breeds are separated into foundation breeds and composite breeds. Foundation breeds are historic breeds from which modern composites were developed. Theoretically, if a composite breed like the Chantecler were to disappear, it would be possible for breeders to re-create it. However, the genetics of foundation breeds like the Java would be lost forever, as with the extinction of a species.

Foundation breeds are Java, Cochin, Langshan, Dorking, Hamburg, Campine and Braekel, Laken-velder, Polish, Leghorn, Spanish, Minorca, Andalusian, Old English Game, Malay, Shamo, Sumatra, Phoenix, Aseel, Naked Neck, and Araucana. More than fifty large-fowl breeds and more than sixty bantam breeds are classified by the APA for exhibition purposes. They are divided into categories based on origin: American, Asiatic, English, Mediterranean, Continental, and the catchall category of All Other Standard Breeds. The Standard of Perfection contains precise definitions of each breed and color variety against which birds are judged at exhibitions. Both Standards are constantly undergoing revision, with some breeds being dropped and others added. In 2011 the Marans breed, in the Black Copper variety, was admitted to the APA Standard, both a new breed and a new color variety. The Bantam Standard added the Splash Modern Game Bantam variety and lists Inactive Breeds such as Scots Gray, which are seldom shown.

Breeds are defined by body shape and type, which are distinct to each breed. The definition of body shape includes dimensions and body proportions. The Cornish, for instance, are very broad across the shoulders compared to other breeds. Type takes precedence over color in selecting breeding birds. Poultry breeders abide by the maxim “Build the barn before you paint it.”

Size and weight are significant breed characteristics. Rare breeds that have few infusions of new birds often lose size over years of breeding. At the same time, each breed has an optimum size that needs to be maintained in breeding operations.

Feather quality differs among breeds. Hardfeathered birds include Games and Orientals. Their firm feathers are held close to the body, very different from soft-feathered breeds like the Cochin. Silkies are unique in having feathers that resemble hair. They require special care, since their fine feathers are not as water-resistant as other chickens’ and can become sodden if exposed to wet conditions.

Most breeds come in multiple color varieties. For example, ten color varieties of Leghorns are recognized, and breeders raise many more that are not recognized by the Standard of Perfection. Color requirements are specified in the Standard of Perfection for showing purposes. The primary, secondary, and main tail feathers may be different in color from the undercolor. Brassiness is a serious defect in color. Feathers may be solid in color or have penciling or laced markings. The Delaware’s color pattern is its most distinguishing characteristic and important to its value in breeding for sex-linked chicks. The skin on the legs, feet, face, and earlobes of a chicken may be black, red, slate, grayish-blue, or white.

Combs vary by breed, and some breeds have recognized varieties that differ by comb. Rose Comb and Single Comb varieties of Leghorns, Minorcas, and Anconas (all Mediterranean breeds) are recognized. Some breeds, such as the La Fleche and the Sicilian Buttercup, have unusual combs that are part of their charm as well as required elements of the Standard of Perfection.

Chicken Products

Chickens are raised primarily for meat and eggs. Small producers can sell their products at farmers’ markets and from their farms. Check local and state laws for regulations.

Traditional breeds are gaining notice in the marketplace for their superior taste and gourmet appeal. Organic poultry sales quadrupled between 2004 and 2006. The Nutrition Business Journal estimates that sales will continue to grow at 23 to 37 percent a year.

Barred Rocks, Buckeyes, Cornish, Jersey Giants, and New Hampshires are all good traditional breed choices for niche marketing. Local markets may be willing to partner with you in selling your product. Food brokers like Heritage Foods USA are selling table-ready Dark Cornish chicken. Local breeds that are not recognized by the Standard could become popular local products.

Want to learn more about raising poultry? Learn a little bit about Raising Guinea Fowl on Your Farm.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Raise Poultry: Everything You Need to Know, by Christine Heinrichs, and published by Voyageur Press, 2013.