Which came first, the chicken or the egg? On our farm it starts with day-old chicks. They come via air-mail and we quickly whisk them to the brooder with heat lamps to keep them warm, and we give them their first food and water.
It takes about a month for their first set of baby feathers to grow out, then they’re ready for their initial exposure to the outside world. We primarily raise a breed called the Black Australorp, which is a pretty black hen with dark eyes and calm nature. These girls are a heavy breed, (meaning heavy in stature, compared with a Leghorn, which is a light breed) and start laying at about five months old. We also like Barred Rocks, also a heavy breed that typically lays better in the winter months, and Brown Leghorns, which are great foragers and lay white eggs. We also keep a few Auracanas, which are also a heavy breed that lays eggs with blue/green tinted shells.
They live in a mobile home that can be moved easily around the farm. This way we can keep them on clean ground and use them to fertilize our growing areas. Wherever they go, they are contained by a fence. This keeps them safe from predators and keeps our vegetables safe from the chickens.
We keep separate flocks of about 100 hens, each with at least one rooster (yes, he’s a happy fellow). Every fall the older flock is retired and turned into Stewing Hens, and new groups are started every spring and fall so we always, hopefully, have a consistent supply of eggs.
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Chickens may be the first species of birds ever domesticated. While there are four distinct wild fowl species on the Indian subcontinent, it is generally believed that all our current breeds of chickens are descended from only one of these species: the Red Jungle Fowl. Domestication could have begun as long ago as 4000 BC, and judging by the oldest breeds from the Indian region, the primary goal back then was to develop a vigorous fighting cock.
Soon, more breeds began to be developed in other parts of Asia. In Malaya, a leggy game-type bird took shape, Indonesians were working toward a very light game-type bird, and the Japanese preferred a heavy, stocky type of chicken.
By 1400 BC the Chinese and Egyptians had invented crude incubators to hatch thousands of chicks at a time, and Chickens were reported in Babylon by 700 BC, when Persian soldiers returned home after conquering India. Europe saw its first chickens when Alexander the Great’s victorious armies returned from the Middle East in 500 BC.The Greeks were fascinated with cock-fighting, and it was so popular that it was included in the early Olympic Games. The Romans continued the trend, and chickens were reported in Britain by the time Julius Caesar invaded around 55 BC.
During the Middle Ages, important races of chickens were developing in three widely different regions. The Mediterranean fowls are flighty and fine-boned, have a light stature, lay large numbers of pure white eggs, have white ear lobes and large combs (this includes the popular Leghorn). The Asian fowls deveopled in the moutainous regions of Asia and bear a large, heavy frame, loose, soft feathers, feathered legs, red ear lobes and lay brown eggs. The Asian Game fowls have a small frame, with tight, hard feathers, were very agressive, and laid brown eggs.
Columbus carried chickens to the New World where they further evolved. The greatest period of chicken breeding came during the 1800s and was spurred by three events: Robert Brakewell’s theory of selective breeding, Charles Darwin’s theory of genetic transmission, and the Victorian fashion making it trendy to create new varieties of animals.
By crossing the various breeds available, new chicken breeds evolved and most are still popular today. They can be grouped according to the area where they were developed.