by David Cronenwett
Taking a breather from a very hot backyard sauna one recent drizzly evening, I find chickadees and nuthatches playfully flitting about my friend’s cottonwood. Nick and I are sitting by the door of his new wood-fired creation, steam freely pouring off our skin into the night’s cool air. The wooziness brought on by too many rounds in the heat leaves us both silent in this elemental moment of gentle rain and twilight.
And suddenly, we hear a soft clucking.
Peering over toward a penned off area of the yard, there is movement low to the ground; a familiar, jerking here and there punctuated by an unmistakable barnyard voice. The sublimity of heat, rain and evening light is quickly squelched, as it would seem, by the incongruous and uninvited appearance of Nick’s chickens. “They’ll eat damn near anything…including each other if they could.” Standing there in the rain with nothing but a towel and a glass of Malbec, he philosophizes further, positing, “We rarely let them out into the yard, since they’d probably chow on dog waste, and you really don’t want that stuff in your morning omelet.”
As I struggle to erase this delicious image from my mind, the question of these large, avian garbage- vacuums gets me thinking. How long, I wonder, have we kept these odd creatures in our care and when did they become such a mainstay of the global diet? We both hop back into the cooker for another round of steam and pain, and the hens go on about the business of eternal consumption in their enclosure.
The domestic chicken, Gallus gallus domesticus, is categorized in the taxonomic order Galliformes along with grouse, pheasants and other largish, mostly ground-dwelling birds. Current genetic science identify the earliest, wild relative of the chicken as the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) still found in tropical Asia. While this bird looks strikingly like a modern chicken, there were probably additional species included in the early domestication process, such as the Gray Jungle Fowl and others. Estimates range from 7,000 to 10,000 years of active domestication, though it is believed that the species that became G. domesticus was not originally kept for food production, but for entertainment. Males are notably aggressive towards other males, a quality that produces regular brawls amongst them. Cockfighting was widespread in the ancient world and remained so across multiple cultures, to the present. Though banned in many countries today, it remains a popular, underground blood-sport in the third world.
The interest in chickens as a mass food source probably wasn’t realized in a meaningful way until the Egyptians developed a method of artificial incubation, which was a very labor-intensive enterprise in ancient times. Chicken eggs will only hatch if kept under a constant temperature between 99 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit, a relative humidity around 55 percent and each egg rotated by hand a few times per day over a three week period. The birds and their eggs could now be produced at scale throughout the Mediterranean civilizations, eventually including the Roman Empire, where chicken cuisine became culturally established and by whom dishes such as the omelet were created.
With the collapse of Rome, the elaborate methods of fowl production were lost and the chicken as widespread table fare declined greatly. Over centuries since then, the bird remained present in the human diet but only as a minor player, until about the 1950s. At this time, a quantum leap in poultry production was made when chickens were integrated headlong into the massive, industrial farming apparatus; some facilities today are capable of rearing a quarter million birds at a time. This scale of production certainly raises ecological concerns with regard to waste management and more but had the ultimate effect of turning chicken into a mainstay chow of the world. In the early 90’s for example, chicken surpassed beef consumption in the United States and has only seemed to flourish in other countries and cultures.
In recent years, interest in locally raised food, often viewed as an alternative to the industrially-produced variety, has led to a surge in backyard chickens coops nationwide: even in urban environments, chickens kept for eggs or meat have become very common. In a place like Montana however, this can present unique and dangerous challenges.
Bear management specialist Jamie Jonkel said in a 2011 interview, “Chickens are the new garbage. There are so many chickens on the landscape that it’s like having garbage cans with wings just tempting the bears.” And it is true; bears, especially grizzlies, find the frenetic, scurrying fryers to be irresistible and must appear like a convenient paddock full of feathered McNuggets. Unfortunately, some hobby poultry farmers do not adequately protect their birds, which in grizzly country is best done with a good electric fence. Many bears have been relocated or euthanized because of people’s unwillingness to do so.
Gallus gallus domesticus, while eagerly munched by people worldwide in a multitude of cuisines, has many associations that are culturally distinct, such as when we refer to a person’s cowardice as “being chicken” or panicked behavior as “running around like a chicken with its head cut off”. The running joke, “it tastes like chicken” is used to describe nearly anything of mild, unobjectionable flavor and of course, the “chicken and egg syndrome” has been around for centuries to describe issues of causality and origin. It should also be remembered that in a real way, chickens ease the suffering of humanity with the development and production of critical vaccines in labs, using millions of their eggs each year for this purpose.
Despite our deep love of wild birds, the species we interact with most frequently and meaningfully is the humble Gallus. From southern fried to salads, scrambles and General Tso, the bird and its products are never far from our lives. Nick’s backyard layers continue to stir about in the evening drizzle as he and I begin to trudge inside. “Want to stay for dinner?” he asks, “We’re having pot roast.”
David Cronenwett writes this column on behalf of Montana Audubon, a statewide wildlife conservation organization (mtaudubon.org). Cronenwett is a writer, naturalist and Audubon staff member who can be reached at [email protected].