Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Chickens, 2012


I spend a lot of time looking at chickens. Try looking at them yourself. They're incredible.

You've heard of combs and wattles. That flap posterior to the cheek region is called an ear lobe.

Transylvanian naked-necked chicken, photo by Lily15.

I don't want to say too much about chickens as I'll be here all day (drat, semi-failed). Must say a few brief things though. The history of chicken domestication is complex (though the Red junglefowl Gallus gallus is the primary progenitor), as is the story of how people took chickens (from a centre of origin in or near south-east Asia, perhaps in Thailand) west to Asia Minor, Europe and Africa, as well as east across the Pacific. Some Asian chicken breeds (often used primarily as fighters) were and are gigantic and strikingly long-legged, and some people have suggested that a now extinct, mysterious giant species or form of chicken - dubbed Gallus giganteus - contributed to the domestic chicken gene pool. By crossing several large Asian breeds, the American Jersey giant was created - a breed where cocks can weigh about 6 kg. Debate continues over whether Polynesians took chickens to South America prior to the time of Columbus. Polynesian chickens had key roles in entertainment (fighting) and ornamentation (on Hawaii, their feathers were used to indicate the sovereignty of kings on decorative poles termed kahilis) as well as in providing edible protein.

People have bred featherless - yes, naked - chickens, and there's also a highly distinctive Romanian breed (sometimes unofficially dubbed a turken or churkey on account of a vague similarity with turkeys) with a naked neck. Japanese Yokohama cocks can have tail feathers measuring anything up to 10.6 m (this is the record-holder, reported in 1972 from Shikoku). Silkies are famously weird in having hair-like plumage (rendering them flightless) as well as five toes on each foot and blueish-blackish skin, flesh and bones. Black meat and bones are also present in the Indian Kadaknath and Indonesian Ayam Cemani. Birds in general typically possess white or black skin, yet many domestic chicken breeds have yellow skin. There's a ton more that could be said, but consider this a teaser.

And, finally, for those who have never seen it before...

The accompanying paper (available as a free pdf) is available here. For more on gamebirds at Tet Zoo, see...

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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