How the Chicken Conquered the World

The epic begins 10,000 years ago in an Asian jungle and ends today in kitchens all over the world

Chicken reigns in the 21st century. (Tim O’Brien)
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The Egyptians constructed vast incubation complexes made up of hundreds of “ovens.” Each oven was a large chamber, which was connected to a series of corridors and vents that allowed attendants to regulate the heat from fires fueled by straw and camel dung. The egg attendants kept their methods a secret from outsiders for centuries.

Around the Mediterranean, archaeological digs have uncovered chicken bones from about 800 B.C.. Chickens were a delicacy among the Romans, whose culinary innovations included the omelet and the practice of stuffing birds for cooking, although their recipes tended more toward mashed chicken brains than bread crumbs. Farmers began developing methods to fatten the birds—some used wheat bread soaked in wine, while others swore by a mixture of cumin seeds, barley and lizard fat. At one point, the authorities outlawed these practices. Out of concern about moral decay and the pursuit of excessive luxury in the Roman Republic, a law in 161 B.C. limited chicken consumption to one per meal—presumably for the whole table, not per individual—and only if the bird had not been overfed. The practical Roman cooks soon discovered that castrating roosters caused them to fatten on their own, and thus was born the creature we know as the capon.

But the chicken’s status in Europe appears to have diminished with the collapse of Rome. “It all goes downhill,” says Kevin MacDonald, a professor of archaeology at University College in London. “In the post-Roman period, the size of chickens returned to what it was during the Iron Age,” more than 1,000 years earlier. He speculates that the big, organized farms of Roman times—which were well suited to feeding numerous chickens and protecting them from predators—largely vanished. As the centuries went by, hardier fowls such as geese and partridge began to adorn medieval tables.

Europeans arriving in North America found a continent teeming with native turkeys and ducks for the plucking and eating. Some archaeologists believe that chickens were first introduced to the New World by Polynesians who reached the Pacific coast of South America a century or so before the voyages of Columbus. Well into the 20th century, chickens, although valued, particularly as a source of eggs, played a relatively minor role in the American diet and economy. Long after cattle and hogs had entered the industrial age of centralized, mechanized slaughterhouses, chicken production was still mostly a casual, local enterprise. The breakthrough that made today’s quarter-million-bird farms possible was the fortification of feed with antibiotics and vitamins, which allowed chickens to be raised indoors. Like most animals, chickens need sunlight to synthesize vitamin D on their own, and so up through the first decades of the 20th century, they typically spent their days wandering around the barnyard, pecking for food. Now they could be sheltered from weather and predators and fed a controlled diet in an environment designed to present the minimum of distractions from the essential business of eating. Factory farming represents the chicken’s final step in its transformation into a protein-producing commodity. Hens are packed so tightly into wire cages (less than half a square foot per bird) that they can’t spread their wings; as many as 20,000 to 30,000 broilers are crowded together in windowless buildings.

The result has been a vast national experiment in supply-side gastro-economics: Factory farms turning out increasing amounts of chicken have called forth an increasing demand. By the early 1990s, chicken had surpassed beef as Americans’ most popular meat (measured by consumption, that is, not opinion polls), with annual consumption running at around nine billion birds, or 80 pounds per capita, not counting the breading. Modern chickens are cogs in a system designed to convert grain into protein with staggering efficiency. It takes less than two pounds of feed to produce one pound of chicken (live weight), less than half the feed/weight ratio in 1945. By comparison, around seven pounds of feed are required to produce a pound of beef, while more than three pounds are needed to yield a pound of pork. Gary Balducci, a third-generation poultry farmer in Edgecomb, Maine, can turn a day-old chick into a five-pound broiler in six weeks, half the time it took his grandfather. And selective breeding has made the broilers so docile that even if chickens are given access to outdoor space—a marketing device that qualifies the resulting meat to be sold as “free-range”—they prefer hanging out at the mechanized trough, awaiting the next delivery of feed. “Chickens used to be great browsers,” says Balducci, “but ours can’t do that. All they want to do now is eat.”

It is hard to remember that these teeming, clucking, metabolizing and defecating hordes awaiting their turn in the fryer are the same animals worshiped in many parts of the ancient world for their fighting prowess and believed by the Romans to be in direct communication with Fate. A chicken bred for the demands of American supermarket shoppers presumably has lost whatever magical powers the breed once possessed. Western aid workers discovered this in Mali during a failed attempt to replace the scrawny native birds with imported Rhode Island Reds. According to tradition, the villagers divine the future by cutting the throat of a hen and then waiting to see in which direction the dying bird falls—left or right indicates a favorable response to the diviner’s question; straight forward means “no.” But the Rhode Island Red, weighted down by its disproportionately large breast, always fell straight forward, signifying nothing meaningful except the imminence of dinner.

Santería—the religion that grew up in Cuba with elements borrowed from Catholicism, native Carib culture and the Yoruba religion of West Africa—ritually sacrifices chickens, as well as guinea pigs, goats, sheep, turtles and other animals. Devotees of Santería were the petitioners in a 1993 First Amendment case, in which the Supreme Court unanimously overturned local ordinances banning animal sacrifice. The case pitted a Santería church, Lukumi Babalu Aye, and its priest, Ernesto Pichardo, against the city of Hialeah, Florida; many mainstream religious and civil-rights groups lined up with the church, while animal-rights proponents sided with the city. “Although the practice of animal sacrifice may seem abhorrent to some,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the decision, “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”

Chickens make wonderful pets, as breeders will tell you, especially if they think they could interest you in buying some chicks. They are as colorful as tropical fish but more affectionate, as cute as guinea pigs but better tasting, and, according to Jennifer Haughey, who raises chickens near Rhinebeck, New York, “far better mousers than our cats.”

What characteristics do chicken-owners value most? To Barbara Gardiner Whitacre, who raises five breeds of chickens in upstate New York, a leading criterion is egg color—the deep chocolate-brown eggs of her Welsummers, the jade green of the Ameraucana, the speckled olive of Ameraucana hens after a Welsummer rooster got loose and created an inadvertent cross. Also, hardiness, cuteness and a willingness to brood—to sit on a nest full of fertilized eggs until they hatch, contributing their own labor to the farm economy. The eggs don’t even have to be their own: As necessity dictates, Whitacre will substitute eggs laid by another hen, or even a duck. Unfortunately, these qualities are sometimes in conflict. She raises a breed called Silkies, with good looks to spare, bearing luxuriant feathers of an exceptional fluffiness. However, they also have blue skin and dark blue, almost black, meat and bones, which means they’re not the first thing you think of when company’s coming for dinner. Two years ago, Whitacre reluctantly sampled two Silkie roosters. “Of course, it was utterly delicious and tender, but blue-gray meat?” she recalls. “And the bones really are freakish-looking. So now if I can bring myself to use one for food, I generally use it in a dish with color: a nice coq au vin or something with tomatoes and thyme.” This is a prejudice not shared by some Asian cultures, which prize Silkies for food and medicinal purposes. Whitacre was surprised to see whole frozen Silkies, which each weigh only about a pound and a half, selling for more than $10 in her local Asian market.

Exotic and heritage breeds of chicken go for considerable sums of money—as much as $399 for a single day-old chick, as listed on the website of Greenfire Farms, where the names of the breeds are almost as beautiful as the birds themselves: the Cream Legbar, with its sky-blue eggs; the iridescent, flamboyantly tailed and wattled Sulmatler; the Jubilee Orpingtons in speckled brown and white, like a hillside on which the springtime sun has begun to melt the winter snow. The Silver Sussex, according to the website, looks “like a bird designed by Jackson Pollock during his black and silver period.” An advantage of many heritage breeds—an advantage for the chickens, that is—is that they spread their egg-laying careers over several years, unlike commercial varieties, bred for production, that are washed up in half that time.

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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About Jerry Adler

Jerry Adler is a former Newsweek editor.

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