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Alternate uses: Chicken (disambiguation)

A chicken is a type of domesticated bird which is usually raised as a type of poultry. It is believed to be descended from the wild Asian Red Junglefowl, Gallus gallus.



In the wild, junglefowl sleep in trees. Chickens are omnivores and will feed on small seeds, herbs and leaves, grubs, insects and even small mammals like mice, if they can get them.

Domestic chickens are not capable of flying for long distances. They are, however, generally capable of flying for short distances, over fences etc., especially in order to flee danger, but also simply in order to explore the neighborhood. Because of the risk of flight, chickens raised in the open air generally have one of their wings clipped by the breeder — the tips of the longest feathers on one of the wings are cut, resulting in unbalanced flight, which the bird won't sustain for more than a few meters. (more on wing clipping)


Baby chickens (chicks)
Baby chickens (chicks)
The first pictures of chickens in Europe are found on Corinthian pottery of the 7th century BC. The poet Kratinos (middle of the 5th century BC, Athenaios 374d) calls the chicken "the Persian alarm". In Aristophanes's comedy The Birds (414 BC) a chicken is called "the Median bird", which points to an introduction from the East. Pictures of chickens are found on Greek red figured and black figured pottery. (Gr: ˇrnis, hen; alektryˇn, cock)

An early domestication of chickens in New Guinea is probable, since the word for domestic chicken (*manuk) is part of the reconstructed Proto-Austronesian language (see Austronesian languages). Chickens, together with dogs and pigs, were the domestic animals of the Lapita culture, the first Neolithic culture of Oceania.

Chickens were spread by Polynesian seafarers and reached Easter Island in the 12th century AD, where they were the only domestic animal, with the possible exception of the Polynesian Rat (Rattus exulans). They were housed in extremely solid chicken coops built from stone. Traveling as cargo on trading boats, they reached the Asian continent via the islands of Indonesia and from there spread west to Europe and western Asia.

Since they have become so widespread, they are now considered the most common bird in the world. The population in 2003 was 24 billion, according to the Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds.

Going broody

Chickens are gregarious birds and live together as a flock. They have a communial approach to the incubation of eggs and raising of young.

Chickens will try to lay in nests that already contain eggs, and have been known to move eggs from neighbouring nests into their own. Some farmers use fake eggs made from plastic or stone to encourage hens to lay in a particular location. The result of this behaviour is that a flock will use only a few preferred locations, rather than having a different nest for every bird.

Hens can also be extremely stubborn when it comes to always laying in the same location. It's not unknown for two (or more) hens to try to share the same nest at the same time. If the nest is small, or one of the hens is particularly determined, this may result in chickens trying to lay on top of each other.

Sometimes a hen will stop laying and instead will focus on the incubation of eggs, a state that is commonly known as going broody. A broody chicken will sit fast on the nest, and protest if disturbed or removed, and will rarely leave the nest to eat, drink, or dust bathe. While broody, the hen keeps the eggs at a constant temperature and humidity, as well as turning the eggs regularly.

At the end of the incubation period, the eggs (if fertilised) will hatch, and the broody hen will take care of her young. If the eggs are not fertilised, the hen will eventually grow tired of being broody and leave the nest.

Modern egg-laying breeds rarely go broody, and those that do will often stop part-way through the incubation cycle. Some breeds, such as the Cochin regularly go broody, and make excellent mothers.

Chicken breeding

The Roman author Columella gives advice on chicken breeding in his 8th book of his treatise on agriculture. He identifies Tanagrian, Rhodic, Chalkidic and Median (commonly misidentified as Melian) breeds, which have an impressive appearance, a quarrelsome nature and were used for cockfighting by the Greeks. For farming, native (Roman) chickens are to be preferred, or a cross between native hens and Greek cocks. Dwarf chickens are nice to watch because of their size but have no other advantages.

The ideal flock consists of 200 birds, which can be supervised by one person if someone is watching for stray animals. White chickens should be avoided as they are not very fertile and are easily caught by eagles or goshawks. One cock should be kept for five hens. In the case of Rhodian and Median cocks that are very heavy and therefore not much inclined to sex, only three hens are kept per cock. The hens of heavy fowls are not much inclined to brood; therefore their eggs are best hatched by normal hens. A hen can hatch no more than 15-23 eggs, depending on the time of year, and supervise no more than 30 hatchlings. Eggs that are long and pointed give more male, rounded eggs mainly female hatchlings.

Chicken coops should face southeast and lie adjacent to the kitchen, as smoke is beneficial for the animals. Coops should consist of three rooms and possess a hearth. Dry dust or ash should be provided for dust-baths.

According to Columella, chicken should be fed on barley groats, small chick-peas, millet and wheat bran, if they are cheap. Wheat itself should be avoided, it is harmful to the birds. Boiled ryegrass (Lollium sp.) and the leaves and seeds of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) can be used as well. Grape marc can be used, but only when the hens stop laying eggs, that is, about the middle of November; otherwise eggs are small and few. When feeding grape marc, it should be supplemented with some bran. Hens start to lay eggs after the winter solstice, in warm places around the first of January, in colder areas in the middle of February. Parboiled barley increases their fertility; this should be mixed with alfalfa leaves and seeds, or vetches or millet if alfalfa is not at hand. Free-ranging chickens should receive two cups of barley daily.

Columella advises farmers to slaughter hens that are older than three years, because they no longer produce sufficient eggs. Capons were produced by burning out their spurs with a hot iron. The wound was treated with potter's chalk.

For the use of poultry and eggs in the kitchens of ancient Rome see Roman eating and drinking.

In modern agriculture, "free-range" chickens are given a sizable area to move around in, while other chickens are raised in close quarters in "concentrated animal feeding operations" or "factory farms".

Hatching chickens

The following singular, though effectual mode of hatching chickens, prevails in the interior of Sumatra:

The hens, whether from being frightened off their nests by the rats, which are very numerous and destructive, or from some other cause hitherto prevalent in Sumatra, do not hatch their chickens in the ordinary way, as is seen in almost all other climates. The natives have for this purpose, in each village, several square rooms, the walls of which are made of a kind of brick, dried in the sun. In the middle of these rooms they make a large fire, round which they place their eggs at regular distances. In this manner they let them lie for fourteen days, now and then turning them, that the warmth may be equal in all parts; and on the fifteenth day, the chicken makes its appearance, and proves in every respect as strong as those hatched according to the course of nature.


Male chickens, known as cocks (in the UK), cockerels (if younger than one year) or roosters (primarily in the US), are common symbols of masculinity, and their natural inclination to fight has been exploited in staged cockfights, sometimes with a metal spike added to or replacing the natural spurs. Most countries have banned cockfighting, but it is still legal in two U.S. states, New Mexico and Louisiana, and is common in Southeast Asia. Cockfighting was popular in ancient Greece. According to tradition, it was introduced in Athens by Themistokles as a public spectacle. Fighting cocks were fed garlic and onions to increase their aggression. In ancient Greece, the gift of a fighting cock among men was a common way to initiate a homosexual relationship. Gems often show a cock combined with Eros, the god of love.

Chickens in religion

Chickens, Indonesia
Chickens, Indonesia

In ancient Greece, the chicken was not normally used for sacrifices, perhaps because it was still considered an exotic animal. Because of its valour, cocks are found as attributes of Ares, Heracles and Athena. The Greeks believed that even lions were afraid of cocks.

The Romans used chickens for oracles, both when flying ("ex avibus") and when feeding ("auspicium ex tripudiis"). The hen ("gallina") gave a favourable omen ("auspicium ratum"), when appearing from the left (Cic.,de Div. ii.26), like the crow and the owl.

For the oracle "ex tripudiis" according to Cicero (Cic. de Div. ii.34), any bird could be used, but normally only chickens ("pulli") were consulted. The chickens were cared for by the pullarius, who opened their cage and fed them pulses or a special kind of soft cake when an augury was needed. If the chickens stayed in their cage, made noises ("occinerent"), beat their wings or flew away, the omen was bad; if they ate greedily, the omen was good.

In 249 BC, the Roman general Publius Claudius Pulcher had his chickens thrown overboard when they refused to feed before the battle of Drepana, saying "If they won't eat, perhaps they will drink." He promptly lost the battle against the Carthaginians and 93 Roman ships were sunk. Back in Rome, he was tried for impiety and heavily fined.

In the cult of Mithras, the cock was a symbol of the divine light and a guardian against evil.

In the Bible, Jesus prophesied the betrayal by Peter: "And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me." (Luke 22:43) Thus it happened (Luke 22:61), and Peter cried bitterly. This made the cock a symbol for both vigilance and betrayal.

In many Central European folk tales, the devil is believed to flee at the first crowing of a cock.

In Indonesia the chicken has great significance during the Hindu cremation ceremony. A chicken is a channel for evil spirits which may be present during the ceremony. A chicken is tethered by the leg and kept present at the ceremony for the duration to ensure that any evil spirits present during the ceremony go into the chicken and not the family members present. The chicken is then taken home and returns to its normal life. It is not treated in any special way or slaughtered after the ceremony.

Sometimes cockfighting has a religious significance as well, as in Bali, where the shed blood is seen as cleansing.

Chickens as food

Chicken can be prepared as food in a large number of ways. Not surprising, they taste like chicken. Common traditional Western methods include roasting, baking, and frying, or more recently as a form of fast food (chicken nuggets). Their eggs are also eaten.

Chickens raised specifically for meat are called broilers.

In ancient Greece, where chickens were still rare, they were a rather prestigious food for symposia, like hare or wildfowl. Castrated cocks (capons), which produce more and fattier meat than normal roosters, were already known. Delos seems to have been a centre of chicken breeding.

In 161 BC a law was passed in Rome that forbade the consumption of fattened chickens. It was renewed a number of times, but does not seem to have been successful. Fattening chickens with bread soaked in milk was thought to give especially delicious results. The Roman gourmet Apicius offers 17 recipes for chicken, mainly boiled chicken with a sauce. All parts of the animal are used: the recipes include the stomach, liver, testicles and even the pygostyle (the fatty "tail" of the chicken where the tail feathers attach).

Capons are considered a delicacy. They were especially popular in the Middle Ages.

Many animal advocates object to killing chickens for food or object to the conditions under which they are raised. In many countries, such as the United States, the vast majority of chickens are raised in large crowded warehouses that prevent the chickens from engaging in many of their natural behaviours. Another welfare issue is the use of genetic selection to create heavy large-breasted birds, which can lead to crippling leg disorders and heart failure for some of the birds. Slaughter is another important welfare issue. Based on USDA figures, it is estimated that millions of chickens are burned alive in scalding tanks every year. Many chickens also suffer broken bones caused by rough handling before and during slaughter. In the United States, chickens are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act .

External Links concerning the treatment of chickens raised for food:

Chicken diseases

Chickenpox is a disease of humans, not chickens.

Famous chickens

Real chickens

Fictional chickens


Mythical creatures with chicken-like anatomy

  1. The hut of the Russian witch Baba Yaga moves on chicken feet
  2. The demon Abraxas, often depicted on "Gnostic gems" has a cock's head, the upper body of a man, while his lower part is formed by a snake. He often holds a whip.
  3. The Basilisk, an animal who kills with a single glance and poisons wells, was hatched by a toad from a cock's egg.
  4. The cockatrice.

Chickens in art

See also

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