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September 15, 2009

The Original Chicken: Jungle Fowl

The Humane Society of the United States

by Richard Farinato

It’s just before dawn in the tropical forests of Thailand. As the first glow of light appears on the horizon, the morning chorus of birdsong begins to build, as it has done from the earliest days in this wild place. "Cock-a-doodle-doo! Cock-a-doodle-doo!" rolls out from the branches of a tree ...

Huh? What? Was that a chicken? In a word, yes—a rooster: wily, beautiful, industrious, and courageous, announcing to the world that the sun is up, as his kind has done in the jungles of Asia for thousands of years. No coops, no henhouse, no battery cage, no farmer to feed him, he is as much a part of the wildlife of this environment as is the leopard or monkey. 

He is correctly identified as a jungle fowl, for all you lifers keeping a list.

From Whence They Came

He is the species from which all of our domestic chickens have descended, and spread out all over the globe, thanks to the efforts of the wandering humans who first domesticated his ancestors some 8000 years ago in this place. But this is no domestic chicken.

He flies down to the forest floor from his nighttime roost, crowing again after he lands. In response to his calls, his hens begin to emerge from the undergrowth, some leading clutches of fuzzy chicks, and gather around him. 

They speak to each other in a mix of abrupt and drawn-out clucks and cackles, reinforcing the social bond of the group. Shaking their feathers into perfect array, they move off to begin their day of foraging for fruits, insects, seeds, buds, flowers, and invertebrates in the leaf litter covering the ground, scratching it aside with their powerful legs and feet as they hunt by sight.

In All His Glory

The male is a spectacular bird. On top of his head is a blood-red, fleshy, serrated comb, and two matching wattles hang from under his lower beak. His plumage is fantastic, different parts of his body covered with different shapes and patterns of feathers, some tiny and round, some sickle-shaped and over a foot long, arching above his tail. 

His colors are reds, bronze, blacks—some iridescent, some flat. He is leaner than his modern barnyard kin, and much more athletic. He’s a runner, saving bursts of flight for those moments when he needs to make a flashy and fast exit. 

When he struts for his girlfriends, or wants to intimidate a rival, he raises his neck feathers and drops one or both wings close to the ground. If necessary, he’ll use the two sharp horny spurs that grow backwards from his lower legs as weapons, jumping and thrusting them forward.

Like many birds species, the female jungle fowl is not as colorful or distinctive as the male. She needs to be just the opposite, in fact.  Her colors are browns and buffs, her plumage nondescript, so that as she sits on her eggs in her nest on the jungle floor, she blends in with her surroundings:  out of sight, out of mind, and hopefully safe from predators. 

Tending to the Kids

She is all business and passes on the strutting and loud vocalizations of the rooster. As she goes about her routines, she keeps in touch with the others with low, crooning noises; she gathers her chicks with the same calls.

If not on eggs or leading chicks that are too young to flutter up into the trees, she sleeps on the ground.  Otherwise, she’ll roost off the ground like her mate. 

Within the small flocks of four to ten hens that each rooster assembles, there is a distinct hierarchy of social standing; each hen knows her place in this pecking order, which is the social system with any chickens living in a group. 

Jungle fowl roosters court hens with elaborate dances, heads bobbing, feathers fluffed, and wings extended as they shuffle sideways.  They’ll also pick up pieces of food, and drop them near the hen to coax her attention. 

His job is to attract a harem, breed his hens, and maybe guard the hen and her brood if he’s around.  He’s not involved in sitting on eggs, or keeping newly hatched chicks warm and dry.  

Essentially, mom does all the parental work.  Luckily, the chicks, a day or so after hatching, are all ready for life.  Like all Galliformes (chickens and their relatives: turkeys, quail, and pheasants), jungle fowl chicks are precocious, ready to follow mom’s lead as she forages and uncovers food, which they rush over to grab, learning with every passing moment. 

Beauty In Variety

There are four species of jungle fowl still living in Sri Lanka, India, and Southeast Asia.  Although the red jungle fowl is thought to be the progenitor of the domesticated bird, some think that other species like the gray were also involved. 

Regardless, the diversity evident in today’s domestic chickens is similar to what we see in our domestic dogs.  From the giant breeds like Cochins and Brahmas, to the light breeds like Leghorns and Minorcas, to the all-American Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock, and on to the diminutive bantam varieties, chickens are creatures that we too often ignore for what they really are-birds. 

With the same beauty of feather and repertoire of behavior that we associate with eagles, or parrots, or penguins, the jungle fowl and his extended family are a fascinating tribe, both on their own and entwined with ours.


Richard Farinato was senior director of The HSUS' five animal care centers. 

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