Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Domestic Chickens
Nature Bulletin No. 396-A   November 21, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The domestic chicken belongs to a family of hen-like ground-dwelling birds which includes the quail, grouse, partridge, pheasant, turkey, guineafowl and peafowl. Because of their anatomy and relatively small brains, some scientists think that they, -- rather than the ostrich, emu, cassowary and other flightless kinds -- are the most primitive birds. Chickens, undoubtedly, are the silliest of all domestic animals. There is an old riddle: "Why does a chicken cross the road?" Anyone who has seen a squawking hen try to run or fly just ahead of an automobile, will answer: "No brains ".

Domestic chickens apparently are developed from wild jungle fowl native in southern Asia and neighboring islands. The red species in India weigh about two pounds and a pair raises one small brood per year. Today there are 100 or more standard "breeds" of chickens. In some the roosters may weigh as much as 16 or 17 pounds; others are smaller but equally remarkable: a "champion" hen may lay 350 or more eggs in one year and 200 eggs-a-year hens are quite common.

Aside from the game chickens developed for cockfighting, the Asiatic breeds are large heavy birds like the Brahmas and Cochins which originated in China. The Mediterraneans, notably the Leghorns and Minorcas, are much smaller but celebrated for their production of eggs. Distinctive breeds were developed in England and other European Countries. Most of our famous American varieties were obtained by crossing selected strains to develop dual-purpose chickens which are excellent layers and nearly as large as the Asiatics. Some breeds from France, Poland and elsewhere are raised chiefly for their ornamental appearance or as curiosities, and there are several kinds of bantams -- favorite pets of so many farm children.

Nowadays, large hatcheries ship day-old chicks all over the country to farmers and poultry raisers; most of the males to those who specialize in raising broilers; females to those who want egg-layers. Many professional poultry-men keep their chickens in batteries of wire- bottomed cages with ultraviolet lights in lieu of sunshine, and provide a scientifically balanced diet. It is a big industry, but about three-quarters of our chickens and eggs are by-products of general farming. A chicken house on an up-to-date farm is properly designed, sanitary, heated in cold weather, and has electric lights regulated to shorten the sleeping period at night. The flock is regularly inspected and the inefficient culls removed.

On old-time farms, chickens were raised and tended mostly by the womenfolk. For many necessities and their few luxuries, they depended upon the butter, eggs and chickens traded-in at a store or sometimes sold for precious cash. Flocks were often a mixture of scrubs from several different breeds, Barred Plymouth Rocks and Dominiques -- with maybe a few Brown Leghorns -- being favorites where we come from. The chicks were hatched from "settings" of 15 eggs placed under "broody" hens which also raised them. Each evening the eggs were gathered from the primitive henhouse, the haymow and mangers in the barn, and any secret nests that we children managed to discover. In late summer -- the molting season --and midwinter, there were few to gather. Then we killed and stewed the oldest hens. From late spring until hog-butchering time in early winter, we had fried chicken every Sunday and when "company" came. But when we visited our kinfolds in town, they knew what we wanted.

Beefsteak !

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