The celebrated chicken

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-2o6ufgQnvW.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘The king of the barnyard surveys his harem.’);

When the rooster crows each morning, he is announcing to the world that chickens are indeed splendid creatures as there are more chickens than any other type of bird in the world.

Domestic chickens belong to a family of hen-like, ground-dwelling birds that includes the quail, grouse, partridge, pheasant, and peacock. Because of their anatomy and relatively small brains, some bird experts believe they, rather than the ostrich, emu, cassowary, and a few other flightless species, are the most primitive birds. Chickens are sure the silliest (by human standards) of all domestic animals. Anyone who has ever seen a squawking hen try to run or fly ahead of an automobile knows the answer to the age-old question: “Why does the chicken cross the road?” The answer is obvious: it has no brains!

Chickens apparently developed from wild jungle fowl native to southern Asia and neighboring islands, and today there are more than 100 standard breeds of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some may weigh as little as a pound, but others may tip the scales at 16 to 19 pounds. Some types are conservative egg layers, but others may produce 350 or more eggs per year, and 200-eggs-a-year hens are common.

Aside from game chickens developed for cockfighting, the Asiatic varieties are large, heavy birds similar to the Brahms and Cochines, which originated in China. The Mediterraneans, notably the leghorns and Minorcas, are much smaller, but they are famous for their legendary feats of egg production. Several other types were developed in England and other European countries.

Some breeds from France and Poland were developed for their ornamental and symbolic appearances. In fact, the national symbol of France is Le Coq Hardi, The Bold Rooster, and coq au vin is a standard entree in four-star restaurants (sometimes, to our dismay, the French do really outrageous things).

And, there are many types of small bantams, which are the favorite pets of children on the farm. Most of our famous American chickens were obtained by crossing selected strains to produce dual-purpose birds that are excellent layers, tasty, and nearly as large as their Asiatic ancestors.

Today, hatcheries ship day-old chicks to all parts of the country to farmers and poultry raisers. The center of the scientific production of broilers in the U. S. is the Delmarva Peninsula on the East Coast, which includes Delaware and the eastern shore regions of Maryland and Virginia. Here the birds are reared in scientifically developed structures and are fed a wholesome, controlled diet. Veterinary care is provided for the flocks, including immunizations, and the deluxe dwellings feature controlled temperatures and lighting, and some even offer piped-in music, presumably to soothe any ruffled feathers among the occupants.

This is a far cry from bygone days on the farm. Chickens were usually raised and tended by women and children. For many necessities and a few luxuries, such as a new apron or bonnet, the women depended on the butter, eggs, and chickens traded at the general store or sold for scarce cash. Farm flocks were often a mixture of “scrubs” from several breeds—barred Plymouth rocks, Dominiques, and brown leghorns.

The chicks were raised from settings of about 15 eggs placed under a “broody” hen, which also tended the young birds. Each evening the eggs were gathered from the henhouse, haymow, mangers in the barn, and from secret hiding places the children managed to discover. In late summer, the molting season, and midwinter, the eggs were few and far between. Then the oldest hens found their way to the stewpot and eventually to the table. From late summer until hog butchering time in early winter, the farm family usually had fried chicken on Sunday and always served it when the preacher or other important “company” visited.

The chicken is very familiar to the undergraduate college biology student, who frequently takes a course in vertebrate embryology in their junior or senior year. In most biology departments, microscopic sections of a 33-and 72-hour-old chick, serializing the developmental stages of a vertebrate, are studied in great detail for extended periods. I developed a psychological aversion to fried chicken after completing this course. Fortunately, that aversion was overcome in a rather short period of time. Please pass me a wing and a drumstick.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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