By Briana Magistro
SC Staff Writer
The most common farm animal in the world is the chicken. It is estimated that there are over 20 billion chickens living on Earth at any moment, about three times as many humans.
Chickens were domesticated from the Red Junglefowl, a species native to eastern India, China, and other southeastern Asian countries.
The domestication dates back earlier than 2000 BC, and recent DNA studies have confirmed this.
These studies have also uncovered that chickens were domesticated in South America, prior to any Western World exploration. Chilean people would have raised chickens from other fowl species introduced by Pacific influences.
A study on chicken embryos showed that there is potential for tooth development in birds, connecting chickens and other fowl to their ancient counterparts.
There are many species around today. Each breed typically exhibits different plumage, egg colors, sexual dimorphisms, and sometimes behaviors.
The Rhode Island Red is known for its deep reddishbrown plumage and docile nature.
Fluffy feathers and motherly behavior characterize Silky Chickens.
The poultry industry raises Broiler Chickens, a result of agricultural hybridization to create the fastest-growing animal.
A good portion of the poultry and egg industries use intensive techniques, or factory farming.
Factory farming involves creating a hybrid animal that will produce profit the fastest.
For the meat industry, hybrids grow exponentially faster than their natural counterparts. Selective breeding strategies pick the fastest-growing individuals to breed.
These animals can also be given growth hormones to aid in increasing the growth rate.
In about six weeks, a chick can grow large enough to be slaughtered. Naturally, it could take months for a chicken to reach this size.
For egg farming, hens are given hormones to help them ovulate more often, producing more eggs. They may also be given hormones for bigger or more nutritious eggs, and can even be forced to continue laying eggs through artificial molting, which involves temporary starvation.
Both of these industries have been scrutinized in recent years. Anti-factory farm organizations have gone into these factory farms to investigate the treatment of the animals.
Hormones that increase size and productivity may not affect every tissue of the animal.
For example, a hormone given to chickens to increase growth rate does not affect the bones. As the chickens’ body mass increases, its bones lose the ability to support the animal, causing fractures and breakages.
The confinement of the animals has been looked into as well. Most animals in factory farm situations are kept in tight pens, or are packed in with so many other animals that the individual cannot move or get to food or water.
Enclosures such as these cause illnesses to spread quickly. Farmers use antibiotics and pesticides to keep sickness in check.
These medicines, however, can transfer to humans who consume the meat, and it is believed that they may be harmful.
“Fresh air” farms give animals some windows or opening to increase natural airflow.
However, it has been shown that these farms are still not providing practical enclosures for the safety of the animals.
“Organic” farms do not use hormones or any other medications on their animals. Many agricultural companies are starting to offer organic produce as well.
“Free-range” farms offer a natural farm setting for their animals.
Free-range products are considered to be the most natural and ethical in the commercial farming industry, according to most animal treatment organizations.
Although these products may cost a little more, consumers can be sure that the animals had natural lives.
Aside from food, chickens are also raised as pets. Abigail Dobrowolski, an ESU junior studying speech language pathology, owns chickens at home in Baskingridge, NJ.
“I currently own 12, and my dad is thinking of getting 6 more,” she said.
Dobrowolski’s neighborhood is not rural, as you may think. Individual towns can have various rules on keeping chickens.
For example, Dobrowolski’s town allows chickens to be kept by individuals living on an acre of land or more, and roosters are not allowed.
“All of the neighborhood kids come to my door and ask if they can buy fresh eggs,” Dobrowolski said when asked about living in a suburb with chickens.
Dobrowolski’s family raises their chickens from chicks. Shortly after hatching, chicks need to be taught how to eat and drink.
“You dip their faces in the water and the food!” Dobrowolski noted.
Introducing new chickens to a flock can be dangerous, especially if they are younger or smaller than the rest of the flock. Chickens form what is called a “pecking order.” Those at the top of the order eat first.
Chickens are very social, and like a structured hierarchy.
Removing or adding chickens to the flock can cause temporary chaos until a new order is formed.
If a smaller chicken is added to the flock, it may get picked on and pecked at.
“You put them in, but keep them fenced off for a few days to get them used to each other. Then you can let them integrate in, and they go through the pecking order again,” Dobrowolski commented.
Farmers may wait months for their chickens to grow before adding them into the main flock.
Taking care of a backyard flock can be a lot of work.
Dobrowolski said, “Every morning, you have to go out and make sure their water is fresh and clean, and you throw out some scratch so they can dig through that.”
Scratch is a mix of corn, seeds, and grains for the chickens to eat.
In the wild, chickens may also eat insects and very small animals.
Chicken pens must be cleaned out every few days to ensure a sanitary environment. Chickens themselves can get dirty, as they take dust baths to cool off.
When asked if her family needs to buy eggs, Dobrowolski said, “No. Among the 12 of them, they lay about 8 eggs a day.”
Chickens have a lot of natural predators, even in captivity. It is important to have a fortified enclosure, including a coop for the chickens to warm up in and nest in at night.
“We live near a wildlife refuge. There are a lot of foxes, bears, and owls. The chickens have a double-caged run and a chicken house,” said Dobrowolski.
Other predators include coyotes, domestic cats, dogs, and hawks.
Next time you go to purchase eggs, think about owning a flock of chickens. Having your own source of eggs can be a money-saver.
If considering owning chickens for yourself, check with your local town’s rules on backyard chickens before purchasing one.
Also, check your local supermarket for egg and meat brands that utilize free-range animals. Farmers’ markets may be a good place to check as well.
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