Domestic chickens are descended from wild Red Junglefowl, and potentially Grey Junglefowl. It is difficult to place exactly when and where chickens were domesticated, but it was at least 7,000 years ago. A fixture of farm life, chickens come in a range of sizes and shapes. There are over 60 breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association and hundreds of breeds recognized worldwide.
What They Eat
Chickens are omnivores, eating all types of food. Outdoors, they eat seeds, insects, grubs, worms and small animals such as mice and lizards. On large farms today, chickens eat a commercial diet packed with protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Chickens drink lots of water. They require 2-3 times as much water as feed per day.
Where They Live
Chickens live wherever humans do. People have developed different breeds to fit different environments. Some breeds, such as Plymouth Rock, are good foragers. Others, such as Araucanas, are well-adapted to living indoors. In urban areas, backyard chickens are growing in popularity.
What They Do
Chickens are social, flock animals, with several hens living with one or more roosters. Hens spend their days laying eggs, pecking for food, or resting on a roost. Although chickens are birds, they do not have extended periods of flight like other birds. Their flight ability is typically limited to a few feet due to their small wing size and large, heavy bodies. Regardless of poor flying ability, domestic chickens are still able to get high into trees or homemade roosts for sleeping.
How They’re Doing
Because they are important to people, chickens are not in danger of extinction. However, some breeds of domestic chicken are rare, such as the Modern Game, the Campine, the Ayam Cemani and others.
The Minnesota Zoo has a flock of chickens at the Wells Fargo Family Farm. When the Farm is open, visitors to the Chicken Barn can get a close look at the flock and follow the chicken’s life cycle from egg, to fluffy chick, to full-grown chicken.
Meet the Animals
The Zoo’s chicken flock changes from year to year. The current flock consists of Red Star and Light Brahmas breeds.
Red Star chickens are a breed developed in the 1950s for egg production. They are a cross breed from Rhode Island Red and Rhode Island White chickens. Due to the genetics of this cross, Red Star female chicks are reddish-brown, and males are white. This makes it easy for farmers to distinguish males from females and keep what they want for their flock. However, if you cross Red Stars together the next generation of female and male chicks can be either white or red. Both first and second generation Red Star chickens can be found at the Wells Fargo Family Farm, can you tell which is which?
Light Brahmas are a large breed of chicken that was used for meat production until the 1930s. Roosters of this breed can weigh over 10 pounds! This breed has a mostly white body with black feathers on the neck and tail. They also have feathers that go all the way down to their toes. Brahamas can be found in the bantam (miniature) chicken size and in other color varieties such as Dark, Buff, White, and Black. Nowadays, other cross breeds, called broilers, are more commonly used for meat. Broilers were developed for faster weight gain than Light Brahmas.
The Minnesota Zoo is also home to a wild relative of domestic chickens. Guests with a keen eye may spot a female Sri Lanka Junglefowl in the aviary along the Tropics Trail.
Care at Well Fargo Family Farm
The Zoo’s chickens live in the Chicken Barn. This building contains roosts and nest boxes. It also houses areas where eggs are hatched into chicks. In warm weather, hens, roosters and chicks peck in the dirt of the fenced-in, outdoor yard.
Every morning, newly laid eggs are moved from nest boxes to a warm incubator. Eggs are generally incubated for 18 days. After that time, eggs are placed in a hatcher, where most will hatch at 21 days. Any unhatched eggs are removed and discarded.
When hatching, a chick uses a sharp projection at the top of its beak called an egg tooth. The chick makes a hole, or pip, in the shell, and then rests for 3-8 hours. After resting, it breaks the shell all around and pushes its feet against the small end of the shell. In about 40 minutes, a chick can work its way free from the shell.
After hatching, young chicks are moved into a brooder. This area is designed to keep chicks warm and dry, while giving them easy access to food and water. Chicks in the brooder range in age from two days to one week old.
Farm staff sometimes allow guests to pet chicks. To pet a chick, gently run one finger along the animal’s back.
- Unlike people, chickens can’t have a “sweet tooth.” While they can taste salt, they can’t tell which foods are sweet. Besides, chickens have no teeth!
- Before clocks were widely used, many people relied on roosters to wake them up in the morning.
- A rooster’s morning greeting, cock-a-doodle-doo in English, is chicchirichí in Italian, ko-ke-kok-ko-o in Japanese, and ‘o’o’o in Mandarin Chinese!
- People have developed different chicken breeds to fit different environments and production requirements. Some breeds, such as Plymouth Rock chickens, are good foragers. Others, such as Araucanas, are well adapted to living indoors. Leghorns and other cross breeds of chicken are raised for high egg production. Cornish chickens are often used in cross breeding to produce fast growing market chickens for meat.
- Chickens are smarter than you might think. Studies prove that if you show a chicken an object, and then hide it, the chicken realizes that the object still exists—something human toddlers aren’t always able to understand.
- In 2018, there were over 391.3 million egg-laying hens in the United States. Iowa has the most with 67.7 million hens! According to the American Egg Board, Minnesota ranks as the seventh state for egg-producing hens.
- The United States has the largest broiler chicken industry in the world. According to the National Chicken Council, there were just over 9 million broilers raised in the United States in 2018.