Chickens: The indispensable dinosaurs

As those of you with young children know, dinosaurs didn’t really become extinct 65 million years ago. A few of the smaller ones with feathers evolved into birds. One of those feathered dinosaurs now fuels our civilization with its tasty thighs and “nuggetized” breasts. Author Andrew Lawler estimates that 20 billion chickens now live on the planet; about three for every human. They have become the Swiss Army knife of living creatures, providing us with food, entertainment, vaccines, skin creams, arthritis relief and a host of other things. Yet, many of us rarely see a live bird. We have bred the institutional chicken to be a commodity so helpless that it can’t survive without us, but so valuable we can no longer survive without it.

Lawler tells the chicken’s story in fascinating detail in his book, “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” The short answer to his book’s question is that we met this bird in the form of the red jungle fowl in Southeast Asia at the dawn of civilization and proceeded to drag her with us as we wandered around the globe. The long answer involves explaining how we forge links with other animals and what responsibilities we have toward them once those links becomes nearly unbreakable.

The red jungle fowl, in several variations, still struts around a few Asian jungles. But their numbers have dwindled with loss of habitat. Our ancestors apparently admired these animals for their courage and cunning, but also found their meat and eggs tasty. In 1474 B.C., Babylonian princes carried four fowl into Thebes as a tribute to the pharaoh Thutmose III. Although it was already domesticated, the chicken was a rare and royal bird at that time, with origins that trace back to the Indus city of Harappas in 2600 B.C.

Men especially admired the fierce fighting abilities of cocks. Gamblers win and lose fortunes in minutes at the World Slasher Cup in the Philippines, a country where cock fighting acquired the status of a national sport. Cock fighting lost favor in most other countries, including the United States. But during our own Civil War, President Lincoln purportedly said, “As long as the almighty permitted intelligent men, created in his image and likeness, to fight in public and kill each other while the world looked on approvingly, it’s not for me to deprive the chickens of the same privilege.”

We’ve not only admired chickens, but worshipped them as well — and used them to divine the future. Although Persians, Greeks, Celts and Germanic tribes sacrificed chickens and used them for divination, Romans truly revered the bird. Lawler said, “Roman men carried the right foot of a chicken for good luck and ate rooster testicles to enhance their virility.” Chickens became essential for making policy in Rome and were used before all major decisions involving war and peace.

Early Christianity adopted the rooster as a symbol. The cock’s crow awakened people to a new day analogous to the way Christ restored health, awareness and faith. Roosters didn’t become tools of Satan until after the Reformation. The basilisk is a rooster-headed monster of the Middle Ages. In 1474, a rooster was burned at the stake for laying an egg. (It turns out that chickens can sometimes become “bilateral gynandromorphs” where half the animal is functionally male and the other half female.)

Our modern relationship with big breasted, egg-prolific animals began in the mid-19th century. From 1845 to 1855, Britain and America were “rgipped by an obsession with exotic chickens,” perhaps facilitated by a young Queen Victoria’s interest in breeding the animal. Like penny stocks, breeders made lots of money creating fancy feathered commodities. Many women, especially in the southern United States, found that breeding chickens for meat and eggs could be a profitable endeavor. During World War I, politicians urged people to raise chickens to help feed a nation at war. In 1928, republicans backing Hoover promised, “A chicken in every pot.”

Chickens also helped feed our country during World War II and led to a virtual “Manhattan Project” in bird breeding. In 1951, 10,000 chicken enthusiasts awarded Charles Vantress from California $5,000 for his winning entry in the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest. Lawler said, “The grilled chicken in your sandwich or wrap comes from a descendent of the Vantress bird.”

In 2012, the average American ate nearly 100 pounds of chicken per year. The chicken industry, led by Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Perdue Farms, employs about 300,000 people and is a 70 billion dollar industry. Seven billion hens lay more than a trillion eggs per year.

Animal rights activists deplore the way chickens (and other animals) often suffer under debilitating conditions and live brief lives devoid of any semblance of a normal existence, especially when their value is reduced to dollars. Yet, as a food source, chicken production releases only one tenth of the greenhouse gases that beef requires. Both its meat and eggs provide critical proteins and nutrients to vast populations, including those in China. About 150 Chinese cities hold populations of a million or more and that number is supposed to double by 2030. Doing right by the bird will require money and effort. As Lawler says, “The bird that once delighted or awed or healed, today raises uncomfortable questions about who we are, what we eat, and how we should care for and relate to animals.”

Our new Age of Dinosaurs features the chicken as its poster child and indispensable entrée for dinner. How will we continue our relationships with these very necessary creatures with which we’ve crisscrossed the world? It would be an ironic shame to make the old extinction story come true for both of us.

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