Learn more about the history of backyard chickens. For new chickens keepers and experienced ones alike, here’s an excerpt from Amy K. Fewell’s The Homesteader’s Natural Chicken Keeping Handbook. You can read more of Amy’s work in The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion
Chicken History and Terminology
Chickens have taken over the world! We can find chickens in most suburban backyards, on commercial farms, and even on postage-stamp-size subdivision properties. Chickens are everywhere in the twenty-first century, and rightfully so. From their amazing egg-laying capabilities to their quirky character traits, chickens are one of the most entertaining and beneficial animals on the homestead. But where did the chicken come from? Why are chickens so popular? And how, exactly, did they get here?
The Early History of the Chicken
We know that chickens have been popular for at least the last 7,000 years. In fact, chicken bones were thought to be found at a dig site in northeastern China, dating all the way back to 5,400 BC. Talk about historic! Or prehistoric?
It is thought that the oldest ancestor of the modern chicken is the red junglefowl, from the genus Gallus (from which all chickens are descended), which wandered across Asia in 3,000 BC and before. It wasn’t just the red junglefowl that is thought to have contributed to today’s chickens, though. There are many different subspecies of the junglefowl, including the gray junglefowl from southern India and others stretching across Java, Vietnam, Burma, and Bangladesh. Junglefowl were everywhere, much like chickens are today. They were a healthy dual-purpose landrace, offering meat and eggs to farmers and homesteaders.
Egyptians enjoyed the self-sufficiency of chickens so much that they created some of the very first incubators in order to hatch more chicken eggs than a mother hen could. By using a series of connected corridors and vents, the incubating chambers were heated by straw, organic material, and livestock (mostly camel) dung.
Centuries of cross-subspecies breeding led to other types of chickens, and just like that, chickens became a sustainable resource for villagers, homesteads, and even empires. Vikings and settlers carried chickens on boats to new lands and along roadways to new settlements. Soldiers carried chickens in crates on wagons and horseback, never knowing how long they’d be gone. It was easier to get an egg from a chicken (or dispatch the chicken itself) as a source of protein than it was to hunt and trap in the midst of battle.
The chicken was more than just a meat and egg source, though. In many cultures and religions, the hen was seen as a symbol of fertility and motherhood. Likewise, the rooster was seen as a symbol of courage and virility.
According to the writings of Roman politician Marcus Tullius Cicero, at the Battle of Drepana in 249 BC the senior flagship magistrate, Publius Clodius Pulcher, practiced the Roman religious requirement of observing chickens before battle. When offered grain, if the chickens fed well on the grain, it meant the battle would be successful because it was blessed by the gods. If the chickens didn’t feed well on the grain, the battle would be lost. Unfortunately, Pulcher’s chickens didn’t eat the grain, and he became so angry that he tossed them overboard. Pulcher lost the battle, leaving almost every single one of his ships at the bottom of the sea. Coincidence?
In the Gospels of the Bible, the rooster was used to fulfill the prophecy of Peter denying Jesus three times “before the cock crows,” thus signifying that Peter had denied the Savior of the world. Because of this, in the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I ordered that every church place a rooster on top of its roof or steeple as a reminder of this history. To this day, there are still many churches with rooster weathervanes.
Throughout history, chickens have been a noble and sought-after bird. Even today, chickens continue to make history. Many backyards are dotted with foraging chickens, and commercial egg and meat industries have changed the face of our food system, though not necessarily always for the better.
In 1873 the American Poultry Association (APA) was organized in an effort to maintain a standard of excellence for chicken breeds and to establish a way to classify chicken breeds. This is where many of our chicken breeds originated. Almost everything we know about certain breeds is derived from hours of research and observation from the APA. From comb structure to coloring and more, the APA has helped revolutionize the way we see chickens today.
Chicken History in the United States
Since the late 1800s, we’ve seen an increase in chickens and their uses in the United States, most likely due to the interest of the APA and other organizations. Here is a brief timeline of chickens in the American household from the 1800s to more modern times.
The 1800s to the early 1900s:
Many households had backyard flocks of dual-purpose birds (birds providing meat and eggs, simultaneously) during this time. Chickens often only laid modestly, about 150 eggs each year. With the exception of a Sunday dinner or special holiday or event meals, chickens weren’t consistently raised for meat. They were most often used for their egg production, though eggs could be sparse at times. Vintage homesteaders didn’t use supplemental lighting or offer vitamin D supplements in their feed, so chickens were naturally allowed to rest and recuperate during the darker winter months before beginning their egg-laying season once again in the spring.
The 1920s through the 1940s:
The infamous broiler breed of chicken was introduced to communities based in the Delmarva Peninsula area of the United States, as well as Georgia, Arkansas, and New England, in the early 1920s. Many backyard chicken keepers would begin small flocks for their own meat consumption, but most still preferred the easier to find (and manage) dual-purpose breeds.
My relatives, Edna Hitt and Helen “Mae” Smith Pullen (toddler), late 1940s, taking photo while tending to chickens
Mrs. Wilmer Steele was probably one of the first pioneers when it came to the broiler industry. In 1923 you might see her out in the field tending a flock of 500 chicks that she intended to sell as meat to the local community. Just three years later, in 1926, her little side business had become so successful that she built a broiler house that could hold 10,000 broiler birds.
In the 1930s the egg-laying business began to take on a bigger role in society. Some backyard farmers would raise large flocks of chickens, normally about 400 or so. These flocks would free-range about the farm without any confinement. They were housed in large, wide length and narrow width coops with roosting bars and nesting boxes. This looked nothing like the commercial egg industry today. However, with so many chickens, diseases and parasites could often be a problem in flocks. Hens tended to lay only 150 eggs a year, compared to the current 250-plus eggs a year for some modern commercial egg layers.
During this time, my own grandparents and great-grandparents were creating businesses off of their homestead chickens. When my grandmother was a child in the 1930s and ’40s, her job was to tend the chickens. They raised bantams specifically to be able to hatch their own eggs, as they are best known for this ability. My grandmother also remembers selling eggs and other farm-fresh goodness to the community. City trucks would often come to the farm, purchase large amounts of fresh harvests (be it eggs, vegetables, meat, or honey), and tote the products to large cities in Virginia to sell to those who didn’t live the farming lifestyle.
The 1920s and ’30s also brought with it the Great Depression. Chicken keeping wasn’t just a want, it was a necessity. Raising self-sufficient breeds and tending to your chickens was an easy source of food and a potential income for those who had chickens. Mountain folk, homesteaders, and farmers across the country (and beyond) could easily tend to this small livestock animal while oftentimes having to get rid of larger livestock, like cattle and pigs, because they were more costly to raise.
Cousin Helen “Mae” Smith Pullen and cousin Edna Hitt picking flowers in the fields while the flocks range behind them, late 1940s.
Other farmers and homesteaders, especially in the “hollers” of West Virginia, didn’t have any idea that there was a Great Depression happening. Their homesteading lifestyle had already prepared them to live within their means with easy-to-tend livestock like chickens. So many historic photos show our ancestors on farms, surrounded by chickens and farm equipment. Everyone had chickens, whether they wanted them or needed them.
The 1950s through the 1990s:
In 1949 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a voluntary grading program for meat and eggs, and by 1952 the broiler industry officially overtook the regular, everyday chicken farmer. Media and news companies were marketing meat and eggs on a regular basis under name brands by the 1960s and ’70s, along with programs that promised disease eradication and stated false claims like “brown eggs are healthier.” The chicken business took off, but it took out the vintage farmer and homestead along with it.
In the 1970s, books such as Carla Emery’s famous Encyclopedia of Country Living opened the floodgates to a new self-sufficiency movement. People were beginning to notice that our food source was changing right before our eyes, and many wanted to get back to living off of the land and, yes, raising chickens. Carla’s book inspired many people to take control of their lives again, but the movement didn’t last long enough to capture most of my parents’ generation.
When the 1980s rolled around, the modern family preferred preprocessed, already cut-up chicken for dinner. The ’80s housewife no longer wanted to butcher or buy a whole bird to cut up, and sometimes it was because she didn’t have the time, which meant she also didn’t have time to worry about chicken keeping. There was a decrease in chicken keeping and a substantial increase in name-brand, preprocessed birds and eggs. The American family now had two parents who worked full-time, children in school, and no time to think about the homesteading lifestyle. Life was busier, and families wanted all the shortcuts they could take.
As a child in the 1990s, I can remember growing up around my grandparents’ farm. Believe it or not, they never had chickens when I was little. They don’t even have chickens now. They have had cattle for as long as I can remember, even to this day, but even they fell into the ease of prepackaged foods and time constraints. We bought eggs that had a little red “EB” stamp on the tops of them, because we really thought they were the “best.” And while home-cooked meals were delicious, they didn’t come from the backyard any longer. Honestly, I didn’t know any differently.
When my grandmother explained to me as a child that chicks come from chicken eggs, I vowed to never eat eggs again. I was horrified. I literally had no idea that this was a normal part of life because my own family hadn’t embraced the homesteading lifestyle that my grandparents grew up in. We were a modern family, a busy family, and getting a chicken would’ve been more like getting a pet than actually caring about raising a healthy chicken flock to sustain our needs.
Not only had my family lost the skill set of natural chicken keeping, but we had also lost the desire to keep chickens at all.
2000 to the present day:
Now that I’m an adult, I’ve gotten over the vow I made decades ago to never eat chicken eggs again. There are now chickens freely roaming in my backyard. We process our own excess roosters that we hatch from our own incubator. We have a freezer full of chicken, whether it’s from a sustainable farm source or our own flock. Fresh eggs are collected every single day from our large chicken coop, and there’s a chocolate cake in the oven made with eggs that were just laid this morning.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, people began questioning their lifestyles, just as they had in the 1970s. Our food sources were especially in question. In 2001, when Sally Fallon published her book Nourishing Traditions, a fire was ignited in the hearts of so many people who had begun learning about traditional foods and how to raise and prepare them. From the 1920s into the 1960s, Americans watched their food sources become tainted with antibiotics, unnecessary livestock treatments, and false health claims from the industrial food complex. People slowly began gardening and relearning homesteading skills they had almost lost. Even today, people are still becoming more and more aware of the issues in our food system.
However, it wasn’t until 2008 that people really began tossing around the idea of having chickens in their backyard once again. Chickens? Really? Could a yuppie in suburbia even take care of chickens without overalls and a straw hat? Many things contributed to modern chicken keeping, including the recession, which caused people to think about raising their own food and where their food came from.
It didn’t matter if you had overalls and a straw hat, though, because by 2010 backyard chickens were popping up everywhere. There were chickens in every backyard, whether you lived in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of a subdivision. There were even pet chickens in apartments and on back decks of townhouses. Questions weren’t asked—you simply came home with chickens, set up a little chicken coop, and suddenly you became a chicken keeper overnight.
And why not? Chickens are one of the easiest livestock animals to tend for just about any household. What Carla Emery began in the 1970s caught on with my generation in the early 2000s . . . finally!
A New Type of Chicken Keeper
A new type of chicken keeper has been born in the twenty-first century. We’re raising chickens because they are fun, because we want to know where our food comes from, because they are easy to raise, because they are sustainable, and because we are confident that we can actually raise them whether we’re farmers or not. We’re not just “raising” chickens, though—we’re raising chickens differently. We’re raising chickens naturally, with a desire to give them as good a life as we have. Not only are chickens feeding us naturally with their eggs and meat, but we’re feeding them naturally too, because we know that it makes a difference in our own bodies in the long run.
I know that the chicken keeper within me not only wants to learn new and incredible things about raising chickens naturally, but also wants to share those things with others. And because of this desire in so many of us, we may just change the face of chicken keeping altogether—back to a time when chickens dotted every single pasture and yard because, well, it was just that natural.
General Chicken Keeping Terminology
Whether you’re just getting into chickens and you’re in the research phase or you’re already into chickens and you’re wondering what in the world all of this newfound language means, this next section is for you.
When my family first got chickens, I remember mingling in our local online chicken education group. I was seeing all of these new words that made zero sense to me. How on earth was I going to be a good chicken keeper if I didn’t even know the difference between a pullet and a hen?
What follows is general chicken keeping terminology you’ll need to know about the wonderful world of chickens and while reading this book. For more specific terminology (like the different types of chicken combs, breeds, etc.), you’ll find those in their appropriate chapters and sections.
Chicks and Hatching
Brooder: the place you house your chicks, with a heat source, until they can be transitioned into the flock.
Broody hen: a hen that chooses to hatch her own eggs.
Broody warning/scream: the loud scream that a broody hen typically emits while nesting; this is completely normal.
Candling: the process of shining light into an egg that has been incubated to check the viability of life.
Chick: a baby chicken.
Clutch: a nest of eggs that a broody hen has decided to hatch.
Incubator: a machine that hatches eggs through heat and air circulation.
Juvenile: a young chicken between the chick and adult chicken stage (typically between 8 and 18 weeks old).
Non-setter: a breed of chicken that does not typically go broody.
Pip (or pipping): the small hole (or act of making the hole) that a chick pokes through the egg when getting ready to hatch.
Straight-run: an unsexed group of chicks, meaning the hatchery has not yet sexed them to be sold either as males or females only.
Zipping: the process that a hatching chick goes through by circling around the egg (inside) and creating a row of holes so that it can pop the top off of the egg to hatch.
General Chicken Terms
Bloom: the protective coating on the eggshell.
Chook: a term for chicken or fowl, used throughout Europe and Australia.
Cock: an adult male chicken.
Cockerel: a juvenile male chicken.
Comb: the top portion of the chicken’s head that is (typically) red and fleshy and normally stands upright.
Cull: the act of getting rid of a chicken, either through butchering or selling.
Egg song: the consistent squawk that a hen makes for the first minute after she lays an egg.
Hen: an adult female chicken.
Layer: an adult female chicken that lays eggs consistently.
Molt: the process of shedding old feathers to make room for new ones, typically taking place in late summer or fall.
Pullet: a juvenile female chicken.
Rooster: a male chicken.
Spurs: the large talons that protrude from inside the legs of a male chicken, though some females can have spurs as well.
Vent: the area of a hen where an egg is expelled.
Wattle: the large flaps of flesh that dangle from a chicken’s chin.
Bedding: the material that lines the coop floors and nesting boxes, typically straw, wood shavings, cardboard chips, or organic matter.
Coop: the dwelling where chickens are safely housed.
Nesting box: the box where a chicken lays her eggs
Roost: the high bars in the chicken coop that chickens perch on at night to sleep.