Everyone is familiar with chickens, whether it’s because you keep them or eat them. They’re the most populous bird on the planet, far outnumbering some other birds by billions. There are approximately 34.4 billion chickens on the planet.
The next most populous bird, the red-billed quelea, only has a population of approximately 1.5–2 billion. Have you ever wondered, though, how we got to where we are with chickens? Why don’t you see wild chickens running around? The history of domestic chickens likely goes back even further than you’d guess. It is estimated that humans domesticated chickens around 8,000 years ago. Let’s talk about the origins and evolutionary history of chickens.
What Are Chickens?
The binomial name of chickens is Gallus gallus domesticus, and they are one of only four species belonging to the Gallus genus. The other birds in the genus are types of junglefowl, which is what chickens were domesticated from. Junglefowl have existed for millions of years in some form, with fossils of over a dozen distinct species having been found. All living junglefowl are native to Asia, although some have been seen living in the wild in South America as well. It’s likely that these birds were introduced by humans and did not occur in this area naturally.
Surprisingly, chickens’ closest relatives are the red junglefowl, which have the binomial name of Gallus gallus. The domestic chicken is a derivative of this bird. The other living junglefowl are the Ceylon junglefowl, green junglefowl, and grey junglefowl. Genetic studies have shown the domestic chicken to be primarily descended from the red junglefowl, but genetic markers of the other three species have also shown up in chicken DNA. This research also indicated that chickens were initially domesticated in parts of China, Thailand, and Myanmar.
How Long Have People Been Keeping Chickens?
For decades, it was believed that people began keeping chickens sometime around 2,000 BCE in the Indus Valley. However, some archaeological evidence has indicated that chickens may have been domesticated as early as 6,000 BCE. Some researchers even believe that they may have been domesticated before that. That means that chickens have been with us as a source of food and companionship for at least 4,000 years, and potentially longer than 8,000 years.
Even with how long we’ve been keeping chickens, people are still working to improve the domestic chicken through selective breeding and crossbreeding with junglefowl in an attempt to increase tolerance to temperature extremes and improve immunity. Selective breeding has also led to a significant difference in the appearance of chickens bred for looks and show and those bred for meat and egg production.
Why Are Chickens Important?
If you own chickens, you obviously recognize their importance in your own life, whether it’s through the humor and companionship they provide or the eggs and meat they provide. But chickens are incredibly important to humankind as a whole. Chickens are a highly efficient and environmentally-friendly form of pest control and are known to eat dangerous insects like ticks, scorpions, and termites. They also eat a wide variety of foods, making them a good way to cut down on your home’s waste production. Chickens can be fed kitchen scraps of many types of fruits, veggies, and even proteins and starches. A single chicken can eliminate upwards of 2 pounds of food waste from your trash output every month.
Improving Soil Conditions
Keeping backyard chickens specifically can have additional benefits. They are efficient garden tillers due to their tendency to scratch through the soil in search of food. Allowing your chickens to wander your vegetable garden during the non-growing season can improve your soil’s condition and facilitate the breakdown of organic matter. They also produce a much smaller eco footprint than commercial chicken farming operations, which are known for being a massive source of water pollution and unpleasant odors, along with typically being unhealthy and stressful for the chickens.
One of the top resources that chickens provide to us is their eggs. Chicken eggs are not just tasty and widely available. They are also extremely healthy, touting close to 7 grams of protein per egg, while coming in at only about 70 calories. They also contain close to 5 grams of fat, with only 1.5 grams of that being saturated fat. They contain less than 1 gram of carbohydrates per egg, making them a good option for low carb diets, as well as a great addition to a balanced diet.
Chicken eggs also contain choline, lutein, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, B vitamins, and vitamins A, E, and K. The egg is considered the most inexpensive form of a complete protein source for humans.
Although eggs are often considered a source of cholesterol, studies have indicated that the cholesterol in eggs doesn’t impact overall cholesterol levels or the risk of heart disease. Some studies have suggested that chicken eggs may even help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease for some people. However, the potential benefits of the cholesterol in eggs have shown to not positively impact cholesterol levels or heart disease risk in people with diabetes. A 2013 study concluded that people who ate three eggs per day had an overall decrease in LDL, or “bad cholesterol”, and an increase in HDL, or “good cholesterol”.
Primary Food Source
Chickens themselves are also an important source of food for people across the world. Chicken meat contains tryptophan, which may help increase serotonin levels, leading to an elevated mood.
Different areas of a chicken provide different nutritional values, though. While a skinless chicken breast comes in around 110 calories and 1.5 grams of fat, a skinless chicken thigh comes in around 170 calories and 8 grams of fat. A skinless wing and drumstick have very similar nutritional content, both containing around 130–140 calories and 4 grams of fat. These values will differ based on the chicken’s sex, age, diet, and breed.
If you’re wondering how chicken stacks up against other poultry meats, it comes in with nutrient values that fall slightly higher than quail and turkey meat but lower than duck meat.
Chicken is often one of the least expensive meats at the supermarket, if not the least expensive option. This is due to the abundance of chickens and the ability of chicken farms to keep more animals in smaller spaces compared to other types of meat animals, like cows, pigs, and turkeys. Chicken is often one of the only meats available in stores that serve food deserts, providing many people with low incomes access to a healthy, lean protein.
Chickens have been with us for a long time, potentially giving other domesticated animals, like sheep, a run for their money. Chickens were domesticated about 2,000 years before turkeys and around the same time as ducks. They have been an exceptionally important part of human’s lives for thousands of years, but they are often underappreciated.
It’s no secret that changes need to be made to the commercial chicken farming industry. It is an industry rife with animal neglect and sometimes even outright abuse. Chicken farming has a negative impact on the environment and creates extremely unpleasant smells that can be difficult to tolerate for people who live nearby. However, commercial farming of chickens does make a healthy food option affordable and available to many people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to lean proteins, or even proteins at all.
Meat and eggs aside, chickens are important to small farming operations, backyard farms, and urban farming developments. They help control pests that carry disease or damage crops, improve the soil, and reduce waste. They are also interesting animals that provide companionship to many people. Keeping chickens can be rewarding and improve the overall quality of life for many people.
- You may also be interested in: Where Do Chickens Live in the Wild? (Countries & Environments)
Featured Image Credit: JLSnader, Shutterstock