Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

 
9780715650691: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

Veteran journalist Andrew Lawler delivers a “fascinating and delightful...globetrotting tour” (Wall Street Journal) with the animal that has been most crucial to the spread of civilization—the chicken.

In a masterful combination of historical sleuthing and journalistic adventure, veteran reporter Andrew Lawler “opens a window on civilization, evolution, capitalism, and ethics” (New York) with a fascinating account of the most successful of all cross-species relationships—the partnership between human and chicken. This “splendid book full of obsessive travel and research in history” (Kirkus Reviews) explores how people through the ages embraced the chicken as a messenger of the gods, an all-purpose medicine, an emblem of resurrection, a powerful sex symbol, a gambling aid, a handy research tool, an inspiration for bravery, the epitome of evil, and, of course, the star of the world’s most famous joke.

Queen Victoria was obsessed with the chicken. Socrates’s last words embraced it. Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur used it for scientific breakthroughs. Religious leaders of all stripes have praised it. Now neuroscientists are uncovering signs of a deep intelligence that offers insights into human behavior.

Trekking from the jungles of southeast Asia through the Middle East and beyond, Lawler discovers the secrets behind the fowl’s transformation from a shy, wild bird into an animal of astonishing versatility, capable of serving our species’ changing needs more than the horse, cow, or dog. The natural history of the chicken, and its role in entertainment, food history, and food politics, as well as the debate raging over animal welfare, comes to light in this “witty, conversational” (Booklist) volume.

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About the Author:

Andrew Lawler is the author of more than a thousand newspaper and magazine articles on subjects ranging from asteroids to zebrafish. He is a contributing writer for Science magazine and a contributing editor for Archaeology magazine. He has written for National Geographic, SmithsonianDiscover, Slate, Columbia Journalism ReviewThe New York Times, and several European newspapers, among others. See more at AndrewLawler.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

1.

Nature’s Mr. Potato Head

Probably the Eskimo is the only branch of the human family which has been unable to profit from this domestic creature.

—William Beebe, A Monograph of the Pheasants

On a chilly dawn in a damp upland forest of northern Burma in 1911, thirty-four-year-old biologist William Beebe crouched in the soggy undergrowth as a village rooster crowed in the distance. In a clearing just beyond his hiding place, men and mules carrying rice and ammunition prepared to leave for the nearby border with China, which was then convulsed with famine and revolution. As the caravan moved off into the morning light and the thin tinkle of the harness bells faded away, wild pigs, vultures, doves, and local chickens entered the abandoned camp to scavenge for leftovers.

A few minutes later, a colorful bird with a sleek and slender body and long black spurs sauntered into the clearing. Peering through binoculars, Beebe watched transfixed as the rising sun pierced the woods and hit the bird’s feathers. “Just for a moment he was agleam, the sun reflecting metallic red, green, and purple from his plumage,” he writes. The domestic hens and roosters stopped to observe the stately newcomer pass. “They recognized him as something alien, perhaps as superior, certainly to be respected, for they took no liberties with him,” Beebe adds. The wild bird feigned not to notice the other animals, pausing only to snatch a bite and eye a village hen, before vanishing with a regal strut into the woods.

Beebe followed, sliding his lanky body quietly across the wet ground. At the bottom of a gully he spotted the male bird in a clump of bamboo with a female, which clucked happily and scratched the soil for worms as the wild cock “allowed no fall of leaf or twig to escape him, and it was interesting to watch how, every second or two, he systematically swept the sky and the woods all about.” Never, he notes, was the bird off its guard, and he seemed to possess an almost eerie extrasensory perception. A distant yowling cat brought them both to attention; then a squirrel stirred nearby and the pair quickly darted into the dense forest.

This experience left an indelible impression on Beebe, who would go on to become one of America’s first celebrity scientists. The bird, a red jungle fowl, carried itself like “an untamable leopard; low-hung tail, slightly bent legs; head low, always intent, listening, watching; almost never motionless.” Beebe, an adventurous ornithologist who had traveled from Mexico to Malaysia, was awed by this singular creature that is the ancestor of the modern chicken. “Once the real fowl of the deep jungle is seen,” he writes, “it will not be forgotten.”

If the chicken is so common that it is concealed in plain sight, the wild bird from which it springs is surprisingly mysterious. Few biologists have observed the red jungle fowl in its native habitat of South Asia, and most of our knowledge of it comes from studies conducted in zoos on specimens that look like the bird observed by Beebe but act more like their tame barnyard brethren. Since the chicken and red jungle fowl are the same species—both bear the Latin name Gallus gallus—they can breed with each other. The number of chickens that can mate with their sibling and ancestor soared with the increase in the human population from India to Vietnam in the succeeding decades, diluting the wild gene pool. Beebe’s observations give us an invaluable glimpse of the wild bird that would become the chicken.

How this shy and sly creature transformed into the epitome of domesticity has long puzzled biologists. “Those birds which have been pointed out as the most probable ancestors of the Domestic Fowl, do not appear to be more tamable than the Partridge or the Golden Pheasant,” notes a perplexed Edmund Saul Dixon, an English pastor who served as Darwin’s poultry muse, in 1848.

Like all domesticated animals, the chicken began as a wild creature that gradually was drawn into the human orbit. The wolf that became the dog came to us in its search of scraps of discarded food, which we provided in exchange for protection. Wildcats fed on the mice that ate our grain stores in the ancient Near East, so both felines and humans tolerated one another. Pigs, sheep, goats, and cows began as our prey and eventually were corralled into herds. The chicken’s story is more enigmatic. Did the fowl come to us, did we go to it, or did we, over time, grow used to each other’s presence?

The word domestication comes from the Latin term meaning “belonging to the house,” and it suggests that, like a servant or slave, a domesticated animal does our bidding in exchange for shelter, food, and protection. Biologists today, however, see domestication as a long-term and mutual relationship, with bonds that can never fully be dissolved. Even feral pigs, Australian dingoes, and the mustangs of the American West retain genetic traits inculcated over thousands of years of living with people.

Few animals bond with us. Out of twenty-five thousand species of fish, the goldfish and carp can be considered domesticates. A couple dozen of more than five thousand mammals are domesticated, and out of nearly ten thousand bird species, only about ten are at home in our households or barnyards. Elephants can be trained to carry logs, cheetahs taught to walk on a leash, and zebras harnessed to pull a carriage, but they are only temporarily tamed, reluctant visitors rather than full-fledged members of the extended human household. Individuals from these species must be tamed anew with each generation. The red jungle fowl, distrustful of humans and ill-suited for captivity, seems an unlikely candidate for launching our species’ most important animal partnership. That is why Beebe’s minute scrutiny of the wild bird in its native habitat is the starting place for charting the chicken’s journey across oceans and continents.

His visit to Burma on the eve of World War I had nothing to do with chicken history, however. It was part of an urgent mission by conservationists to study and record pheasants that faced extermination thanks to women’s hats and rubber tires. Hundreds of thousands of acres of prime pheasant habitat were then being cleared across South Asia to make way for vast rubber plantations to supply the burgeoning bicycle and auto industries. Meanwhile, the feathers of exotic birds were a popular fashion statement for hundreds of thousands of Americans and Europeans, and egrets, warblers, terns, and herons across the United States were decimated as a result. A small protest movement that began in Boston when two socialites met for tea and founded the National Audubon Society grew into a potent political force that led Congress to ban sales of native bird plumes.

The large millinery industry promptly turned to the jungles of South Asia, home to all but two of the world’s forty-nine pheasant species, including the red jungle fowl. This family of birds has elaborate and brilliant plumage unmatched by other avian species. Bird lovers feared that entire pheasant species would vanish before they could even be cataloged. “Members of this most beautiful and remarkable group are rapidly becoming extinct,” warned Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the New York Zoological Society. “The record of their habits and surroundings, which is important to the understanding of their structure and evolution, will soon be lost for ever.” Osborn and other worried New Yorkers turned to Beebe, the wunderkind of ornithology.

Beebe had dropped out of Columbia University to work at the recently opened New York Zoological Park in the Bronx, and he was only twenty-two years old when he designed its innovative flying cage. While other American zoos kept birds in small pens, this one was a breathtaking, open chamber, 150 feet long and 75 feet wide, soaring 50 feet into the air above a stream, plants, and trees. The flying cage became a central New York attraction after its 1900 inauguration. Rail-thin and with a dashing mustache, Beebe was adept at combining science with adventure, high society, and entertainment. He befriended Theodore Roosevelt, liked costume parties, flew World War I air missions, starred in documentaries, and descended three thousand feet into the ocean in a bathysphere. “Boredom is immoral,” he once told a friend. “All a man has to do is see.”

In 1902, Beebe married a wealthy and talented Virginia bird-watcher and novelist named Mary Blair Rice. With Osborn’s encouragement and with financial backing from a New Jersey industrialist, they set out in 1909 from New York Harbor aboard the Lusitania, the ill-fated liner sunk six years later by U-boats that helped push the United States into the war against Germany. For seventeen months, the couple worked their way across the southern girdle of Asia, avoiding bubonic plague, fleeing a riot in China, and contending with bouts of Beebe’s periodic depression. Their marriage did not survive the difficult trip. Upon their return home, Rice left for Reno and filed for divorce, accusing her husband of extreme cruelty. He went on to publish the four-volume A Monograph of the Pheasants.

The couple discovered that mass slaughter indeed threatened numerous species, given rubber plantations, the market for feathers, and Chinese adoption of a diet heavy in meat. “Everywhere they are trapped, snared, pierced with poisoned arrows from blowpipe or crossbow, or shot with repeating shotguns,” Beebe wrote dispiritedly. He saw huge bales of silver pheasant feathers stacked in the customs house in Burma’s capital of Rangoon and complained that Nepal and China exported large quantities to the West, despite new laws forbidding their import. The fast-expanding rubber plantations, he added, severely reduced habitats for the remaining birds.

Beebe was particularly taken with the red jungle fowl, “the most important wild bird living on the earth,” given that it is the living source of all the world’s chickens. He watched with astonishment as one fowl rocketed out of the brush to anchor safely on the high branch of a tree, while another soared across a half-mile-wide valley. “There is no hint of the weak muscles of the barnyard degenerate,” Beebe states with a biologist’s condescension toward domestic animals. Most of the red jungle fowl’s days, however, are spent on the ground, feeding in the early morning and late evening and resting in the shade during the heat of the day. That rhythm was in synch with many early farming societies in the tropics.

Little was known of the bird’s diet, so Beebe spent a good deal of time probing the digestive pouch near its throat—the crop—and picking through the guts. He found mostly remnants of plants and insects. Although an omnivore, the bird prefers grasses like bamboo shoots and live bugs to grain, herbs, or carrion. This would have made it, unlike crows or sparrows, a friend to early farmers.

Beebe also was struck by the sedentary and social nature of red jungle fowl, qualities that also likely appealed to ancient peoples. The birds rarely stray from their home turf, and mothers care for their chicks for nearly three months before they leave to form their own social groups. “It is seldom that I have seen or have heard of a solitary cock or hen,” Beebe writes. Unlike other pheasants, jungle fowl prefer to roost together at night. The favored place to sleep is usually a bamboo stalk bent low. That might seem a poor choice, since it is closer to the ground than a tree branch and liable to sway in the wind, but few predators can climb the smooth stalks. An isolated tree is another favorite perch, less vulnerable to nighttime attack. While most birds chafe at being locked up at night, the red jungle fowl’s sleeping habits and vulnerability lend themselves to a chicken coop.

The bird’s predators are, after all, legion. Minks and jackals like the taste of wild chicken, as do hawks and eagles, while lizards and snakes enjoy the eggs. The fowl is not, however, a prolific egg producer like its domesticated sibling. Each hen lays an average of a half-dozen each year in carefully concealed ground nests, fewer eggs than many other pheasant species. Nor is the bird larger and fleshier than many of its cousins. The copious meat and eggs that mark the chicken today are solely a result of human intervention over millennia and not a characteristic of its ancestor. But the male red jungle fowl’s ability to sense danger and crow a warning might have served as a handy alarm system for early human settlements.

There are three other species of jungle fowl—the gray, the green, and the Sri Lankan—and Beebe closely observed these as well. All share similar traits, but they live in a much more restricted geographical area than the red, which thrives from five-thousand-foot mountainsides in the chilly Himalayan foothills of Kashmir to the steamy tropical marshes of Sumatra. From Pakistan to Burma to the Pacific coast of Vietnam, the red jungle fowl is at home in a remarkable variety of habitats, and has evolved into several distinct varieties specific to those climates. This capacity to adapt to a wide variety of climates and food gave the red jungle fowl the right stuff for a journey that would take it to almost every conceivable environment on earth.

Beebe concludes that the red jungle fowl is made of a mysterious and unique kind of “organic potter’s clay” that sets it apart from other birds, what he called “latent physical and mental possibilities.” He was writing at the dawn of genetics, and the same year that he watched the wild cock strut across the Burma clearing, Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University—Beebe’s would-be alma mater—published a series of seminal papers in Science based on fruit fly studies that demonstrated the existence of chromosomes that carry specific genetic traits. The research helped launch the modern genetics revolution that Darwin had laid the foundation for a generation before.

The fowl’s unusual plasticity, Beebe theorized, let humans mold it into the “beautiful, bizarre, or monstrous races” of the domesticated chicken. Plumage could be lengthened or shortened, colors and their patterns quickly altered, and the size of limbs extended or reduced. While the wild bird has a tail less than twelve inches in length, that of one Japanese breed stretches twenty feet. A domesticated rooster’s comb alone can take more than two dozen distinct forms. Males could be altered to become fierce fighters with fewer feathers for an opponent to grasp. With tinkering, the two-pound red jungle fowl morphed into the twenty-ounce bantam and the brawny ten-pound Brahma, while a White Leghorn hen can churn out an egg a day.

The red jungle fowl, in other words, is nature’s Mr. Potato Head. Its daily rhythms, diet, adaptability, and sedentary and social nature were the perfect match for humans. In 2004, a huge international team of scientists called the International Chicken Polymorphism Map Consortium decoded and published the chicken genome, the first genetic map of a farm animal and potent proof of the bird’s economic importance. The researchers discovered that the vast majority of the 2.8 million single-nucleotide polymorphisms—selected pieces of the genome that each represent a difference in a single DNA building block—likely originated before domestication. The modern chicken, in other words, is still mostly red jungle fowl; although that conclusion was based on the assumption that the red jungle fowl genes that were studied were in fact those of purely wild birds.

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Andrew Lawler
Verlag: Duckworth Bloomsbury Trade Mai 2016 (2016)
ISBN 10: 0715650696 ISBN 13: 9780715650691
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Buchbeschreibung Duckworth Bloomsbury Trade Mai 2016, 2016. Taschenbuch. Buchzustand: Neu. Neuware - A social history of the chicken, and mankind's relationship with this remarkable bird. Blends history and natural history with sociology, and traces the chicken's journey from domestication some 10,000 years ago to the present day. 336 pp. Englisch. Artikel-Nr. 9780715650691

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