Around 8,000 years ago in the jungles of Thailand, or so the story goes, an ingenious individual braved beak and claws to catch a brightly colored jungle fowl. Then she caught another. Housed, fed and bred, the birds became domesticated and quickly spread across Asia and Europe.
Today, it’s estimated that there are more chickens in the world than people, with as many as 13 billion of the birds in China alone. Nobody knows for sure how many breeds of chicken there are, but we do know there are a lot.
Your backyard can sport a flock of Frizzles. You can have a coop of Crevecoeurs or a pen full of Plymouth Rocks. You can give your mama a Yokohama or a hutch full of Houdans. Or maybe you’d just want a Dorking hen to keep, because the breed’s name makes you laugh.
Weight-wise, Gallus gallus domesticus (the Latin name for all chickens) range from the teensy Serama Bantam that weighs no more than a can of soup to the aptly named Jersey Giant. They wear feathers of black, white and brown, of course, but also red, gray, blue, silver, gold and shimmering green. Like people, their body types vary from tall and skinny to short and plump. Their combs might be V-shaped, small and round, or reminiscent of a slicked-back James Dean style. Chickens all have sharp claws, but some are covered with what look like finely furred, elegant spats.
Hens – generally smaller than roosters – might lay white eggs or brown eggs (which, incidentally, have no difference, nutrition-wise), but you’ll also find naturally colored, non-Easter-Bunny-dyed blue, pink and green ones. Most hens start laying eggs around six months of age, and many, if allowed, are dedicated mothers. Hens often "talk" softly to chicks while incubating. Listen closely, and you might hear the not-quite-yet-hatched chicks peep back.
But don’t think the rooster is just around to make noise and chase hens (which they will do throughout the day, but more likely in the afternoon). His plumage is much showier than the hen’s; some breeds of cock fowl sport tail feathers that are measured in feet rather than inches. Those long feathers are a liability and a style statement for both fowl and fashionista. And even though a rooster’s crow has the equivalent decibel level of street traffic, anybody who’s tried to sleep near one knows that the cock-a-doodle-doo carries considerably.
Speaking of which, a rooster doesn’t always cock-a-doodle-doo. In Japan, he says kok-ke-kok-ko-oooo. He screams kikiriki in Greece and Germany. Spanish roosters say quiquiriqui, and in Italy, he says chicchirichi.
While many people think chickens are nothing but dumb clucks, the truth is that they have complex societies and excellent communication skills. They’re great readers of body language, are highly in tune with coop-mates, and they recognize one another. Chickens form strong bonds of friendship, sometimes with an animal other than a chicken. The famous pecking order keeps social hierarchy intact, and chickens are able to remember where each flock mate stands in that order. They have dozens of different vocalizations, including excitement, danger and contentment. And if you really want to know, chickens prefer red over all other colors.
So before you call "fowl" when someone eggs you on or says you’re a big chicken, you might want to stop and thank him. Being a chicken, as you can see, is something to crow about!
Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.