Chicken: The Universal Bird of the Modern World

This post is part 1 of a 2-part series about chicken. Read Part 2: “Farm raised, Free Range, or Frozen? Navigating the Modern Chicken Market”

Chicken. It’s everywhere.

It seems every cuisine, no matter the culture, has its favorite dish of this meaty bird—from stews to curries, roasted whole to deeeeeep fried, humans have thousands of ways to eat these ubiquitous birds. And that’s not even counting the ways we use their eggs (think every baked good ever).  Most modern Americans consume a chicken product in some form at least twice a day. That, my friends, is a lot of chicken.

But have you ever wondered how it got like this? How did chicken become such a universal food source?

I know I sure have. And so, while I finish up my scrambled eggs, I’m going to take us on a concise history of the chicken to discover just how this bird (and it’s meat) conquered the world.

Ancient History: The Fighting Bird becomes Fowl

The Red Jungle Fowl cock, complete with leg spurs
The Red Jungle Fowl cock, complete with leg spurs

Back in 2004, the chicken had the honor of being the first bird to have its genome completely mapped. This mapping confirmed one of its major ancestors to be the Gallus gallus, or Red Jungle Fowl, found in southeastern Asia.  Although there is evidence of Gallus gallus domestication up to 4000 years ago, it seems the birds were much more popular as fighters than food. The Jungle Fowl cock came equipped with wicked leg spurs as well as aggressive behavior, making cock fights an easy and popular form of entertainment —one which still exists today in much of the world. It wasn’t until this domesticated fighting bird was introduced to Egypt that anyone took notice of their potential as a food source—and even then it took a while.

ancient-eqypt-chicken
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic of chicken production. Picture from www.touregypt.net

The ancient chicken was introduced in Egypt around 1750 B.C. but it wasn’t until 1,000 years later that the Egyptians began to use them for more than entertainment and tomb decorations. In 750 B.C., those wily ancient Egyptians discovered the art of artificial insemination. The Egyptians followed up this discovery of how to make bunches of baby chickens with the invention of large, oven like buildings used as artificial incubators. These inventions led to a massive spike in the availability of chicken, and it became a common meat source for even the common people of the land.

Around the same time in history, the Mediterranean was beginning to develop their taste for the bird. In Rome, chicken was considered a delicacy. In an effort to get more pounds per beak, Roman farmers began to experiment with different feeds and natural breeding to produce a bigger bird. They also became fond of the eggs, and are credited with inventing the omelet—a dish that remains popular today.

But when Rome fell, so did chicken production. Middle ages Europe exchanged the chicken for hardier birds like the duck and goose, and the Roman chicken lost its bred-in bigness, returning to Iron Age size.

Moving on Up: Chicken Reemerges

old-chicken-coopThe role of the chicken didn’t change much in the first two millennia of the A.D., remaining mostly a bird kept in the backyard for some eggs and the occasional dinner. This all changed in 1920’s America. It was then that the “broiler”—a bird bred specifically for its meat (reminiscent of its Roman ancestor)—was introduced to the market, discovered by a woman named Mrs. Wilmar Steele of Sussex County, DE.

Mrs. Steele is considered the pioneer of broiler chicken production. History holds that in 1923 she bought 500 broiler chicks to raise for their meat. Selling the adults was so profitable that by 1926 she was able to build a broiler house big enough to hold 10,000 birds. It was clear there was money to be made in raising these meaty chickens.

In the 1950’s, industrial chicken farming exploded. This was largely due to the industry’s adoption of “vertical integration”, meaning that everything from the feed production, to the broiler house, to the processing plant was owned and performed by the same company. By 1952, the chicken produced by the industry monoliths surpassed that produced by farms, and by 1960, 90% of all “for-meat” chickens were raised and slaughtered by “integrated” companies. 

By 1970, the chicken industry had basically evolved to its modern state. Humans had figured out how to enrich chicken feed with antibiotics and vitamins to improve chicken health and meat quality. The genetic improvements to the birds through breeding had yielded the incredible result of birds that matured in half the time and needed half the calorie input per pound of meat as their ancestors did. The giant “farms” had also been almost entirely mechanized, allowing for massive amounts of chicken to be processed daily.

chicken-size
Documentation from a 2014 study on the change in chicken size

The modern chicken seems to have very little in common with its fierce fighting ancestor. The chicken we eat nearly everyday comes from a monstrous bird, nearly four times bigger than their 1950’s equivalent, with the breast of the bird weighed in at an incredible 80% bigger than 60 years ago.

According to the National Chicken Council, the modern broiler industry consists of 35 vertically integrated industries. In 2015, these 35 companies churned out no less than 9 billion chickens—weighing in at 40 billion pounds of ready to eat chicken. Unsurprisingly, most of that chicken was consumed stateside, where we annually consume 90lb of chicken per person.

Whatever your opinions on the chicken industry, it remains a fact that these birds have come a long way in our culture—and our cuisine—since they were first domesticated as fighting animals 4,000 years ago. They have been the most popular source of meat in the USA since 1992, and human consumption of the bird is not slowing—domestically or worldwide. It leaves one to wonder where this feathery fowl is headed in the next few millennia.

Read Part 2 of this 2-part series, “Farm raised, free range, or frozen? Navigating the modern chicken market.”

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