Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?
Nature’s Mr. Potato Head
Probably the Eskimo is the only branch of the human family which has been unable to profit from this domestic creature.
—William Beebe, A Monograph of the Pheasants
On a chilly dawn in a damp upland forest of northern Burma in 1911, thirty-four-year-old biologist William Beebe crouched in the soggy undergrowth as a village rooster crowed in the distance. In a clearing just beyond his hiding place, men and mules carrying rice and ammunition prepared to leave for the nearby border with China, which was then convulsed with famine and revolution. As the caravan moved off into the morning light and the thin tinkle of the harness bells faded away, wild pigs, vultures, doves, and local chickens entered the abandoned camp to scavenge for leftovers.
A few minutes later, a colorful bird with a sleek and slender body and long black spurs sauntered into the clearing. Peering through binoculars, Beebe watched transfixed as the rising sun pierced the woods and hit the bird’s feathers. “Just for a moment he was agleam, the sun reflecting metallic red, green, and purple from his plumage,” he writes. The domestic hens and roosters stopped to observe the stately newcomer pass. “They recognized him as something alien,
perhaps as superior, certainly to be respected, for they took no liberties with him,” Beebe adds. The wild bird feigned not to notice the other animals, pausing only to snatch a bite and eye a village hen, before vanishing with a regal strut into the woods.
Beebe followed, sliding his lanky body quietly across the wet ground. At the bottom of a gully he spotted the male bird in a clump of bamboo with a female, which clucked happily and scratched the soil for worms as the wild cock “allowed no fall of leaf or twig to escape him, and it was interesting to watch how, every second or two, he systematically swept the sky and the woods all about.” Never, he notes, was the bird off its guard, and he seemed to possess an almost eerie extrasensory perception. A distant yowling cat brought them both to attention; then a squirrel stirred nearby and the pair quickly darted into the dense forest.
This experience left an indelible impression on Beebe, who would go on to become one of America’s first celebrity scientists. The bird, a red jungle fowl, carried itself like “an untamable leopard; low-hung tail, slightly bent legs; head low, always intent, listening, watching; almost never motionless.” Beebe, an adventurous ornithologist who had traveled from Mexico to Malaysia, was awed by this singular creature that is the ancestor of the modern chicken. “Once the real fowl of the deep jungle is seen,” he writes, “it will not be forgotten.”
If the chicken is so common that it is concealed in plain sight, the wild bird from which it springs is surprisingly mysterious. Few biologists have observed the red jungle fowl in its native habitat of South Asia, and most of our knowledge of it comes from studies conducted in zoos on specimens that look like the bird observed by Beebe but act more like their tame barnyard brethren. Since the chicken and red jungle fowl are the same species—both bear the Latin name Gallus gallus—they can breed with each other. The number of chickens that can mate with their sibling and ancestor soared with the increase in the human population from India to Vietnam in the succeeding decades, diluting the wild gene pool. Beebe’s observations give us an invaluable glimpse of the wild bird that would become the chicken.
How this shy and sly creature transformed into the epitome of domesticity has long puzzled biologists. “Those birds which have been pointed out as the most probable ancestors of the Domestic Fowl, do not appear to be more tamable than the Partridge or the Golden Pheasant,” notes a perplexed Edmund Saul Dixon, an English pastor who served as Darwin’s poultry muse, in 1848.
Like all domesticated animals, the chicken began as a wild creature that gradually was drawn into the human orbit. The wolf that became the dog came to us in its search of scraps of discarded food, which we provided in exchange for protection. Wildcats fed on the mice that ate our grain stores in the ancient Near East, so both felines and humans tolerated one another. Pigs, sheep, goats, and cows began as our prey and eventually were corralled into herds. The chicken’s story is more enigmatic. Did the fowl come to us, did we go to it, or did we, over time, grow used to each other’s presence?
The word domestication comes from the Latin term meaning “belonging to the house,” and it suggests that, like a servant or slave, a domesticated animal does our bidding in exchange for shelter, food, and protection. Biologists today, however, see domestication as a long-term and mutual relationship, with bonds that can never fully be dissolved. Even feral pigs, Australian dingoes, and the mustangs of the American West retain genetic traits inculcated over thousands of years of living with people.
Few animals bond with us. Out of twenty-five thousand species of fish, the goldfish and carp can be considered domesticates. A couple dozen of more than five thousand mammals are domesticated, and out of nearly ten thousand bird species, only about ten are at home in our households or barnyards. Elephants can be trained to carry logs, cheetahs taught to walk on a leash, and zebras harnessed to pull a carriage, but they are only temporarily tamed, reluctant visitors rather than full-fledged members of the extended human household. Individuals from these species must be tamed anew with each generation. The red jungle fowl, distrustful of humans and ill-suited for captivity, seems an unlikely candidate for launching our species’ most important animal partnership. That is why Beebe’s minute scrutiny of
the wild bird in its native habitat is the starting place for charting the chicken’s journey across oceans and continents.
His visit to Burma on the eve of World War I had nothing to do with chicken history, however. It was part of an urgent mission by conservationists to study and record pheasants that faced extermination thanks to women’s hats and rubber tires. Hundreds of thousands of acres of prime pheasant habitat were then being cleared across South Asia to make way for vast rubber plantations to supply the burgeoning bicycle and auto industries. Meanwhile, the feathers of exotic birds were a popular fashion statement for hundreds of thousands of Americans and Europeans, and egrets, warblers, terns, and herons across the United States were decimated as a result. A small protest movement that began in Boston when two socialites met for tea and founded the National Audubon Society grew into a potent political force that led Congress to ban sales of native bird plumes.
The large millinery industry promptly turned to the jungles of South Asia, home to all but two of the world’s forty-nine pheasant species, including the red jungle fowl. This family of birds has elaborate and brilliant plumage unmatched by other avian species. Bird lovers feared that entire pheasant species would vanish before they could even be cataloged. “Members of this most beautiful and remarkable group are rapidly becoming extinct,” warned Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the New York Zoological Society. “The record of their habits and surroundings, which is important to the understanding of their structure and evolution, will soon be lost for ever.” Osborn and other worried New Yorkers turned to Beebe, the wunderkind of ornithology.
Beebe had dropped out of Columbia University to work at the recently opened New York Zoological Park in the Bronx, and he was only twenty-two years old when he designed its innovative flying cage. While other American zoos kept birds in small pens, this one was a breathtaking, open chamber, 150 feet long and 75 feet wide, soaring 50 feet into the air above a stream, plants, and trees. The flying cage became a central New York attraction after its 1900 inauguration. Rail-thin and with a dashing mustache, Beebe was adept at
combining science with adventure, high society, and entertainment. He befriended Theodore Roosevelt, liked costume parties, flew World War I air missions, starred in documentaries, and descended three thousand feet into the ocean in a bathysphere. “Boredom is immoral,” he once told a friend. “All a man has to do is see.”
In 1902, Beebe married a wealthy and talented Virginia bird-watcher and novelist named Mary Blair Rice. With Osborn’s encouragement and with financial backing from a New Jersey industrialist, they set out in 1909 from New York Harbor aboard the Lusitania, the ill-fated liner sunk six years later by U-boats that helped push the United States into the war against Germany. For seventeen months, the couple worked their way across the southern girdle of Asia, avoiding bubonic plague, fleeing a riot in China, and contending with bouts of Beebe’s periodic depression. Their marriage did not survive the difficult trip. Upon their return home, Rice left for Reno and filed for divorce, accusing her husband of extreme cruelty. He went on to publish the four-volume A Monograph of the Pheasants.
The couple discovered that mass slaughter indeed threatened numerous species, given rubber plantations, the market for feathers, and Chinese adoption of a diet heavy in meat. “Everywhere they are trapped, snared, pierced with poisoned arrows from blowpipe or crossbow, or shot with repeating shotguns,” Beebe wrote dispiritedly. He saw huge bales of silver pheasant feathers stacked in the customs house in Burma’s capital of Rangoon and complained that Nepal and China exported large quantities to the West, despite new laws forbidding their import. The fast-expanding rubber plantations, he added, severely reduced habitats for the remaining birds.
Beebe was particularly taken with the red jungle fowl, “the most important wild bird living on the earth,” given that it is the living source of all the world’s chickens. He watched with astonishment as one fowl rocketed out of the brush to anchor safely on the high branch of a tree, while another soared across a half-mile-wide valley. “There is no hint of the weak muscles of the barnyard degenerate,” Beebe states with a biologist’s condescension toward domestic animals. Most of the red jungle fowl’s days, however, are spent on the
ground, feeding in the early morning and late evening and resting in the shade during the heat of the day. That rhythm was in synch with many early farming societies in the tropics.
Little was known of the bird’s diet, so Beebe spent a good deal of time probing the digestive pouch near its throat—the crop—and picking through the guts. He found mostly remnants of plants and insects. Although an omnivore, the bird prefers grasses like bamboo shoots and live bugs to grain, herbs, or carrion. This would have made it, unlike crows or sparrows, a friend to early farmers.
Beebe also was struck by the sedentary and social nature of red jungle fowl, qualities that also likely appealed to ancient peoples. The birds rarely stray from their home turf, and mothers care for their chicks for nearly three months before they leave to form their own social groups. “It is seldom that I have seen or have heard of a solitary cock or hen,” Beebe writes. Unlike other pheasants, jungle fowl prefer to roost together at night. The favored place to sleep is usually a bamboo stalk bent low. That might seem a poor choice, since it is closer to the ground than a tree branch and liable to sway in the wind, but few predators can climb the smooth stalks. An isolated tree is another favorite perch, less vulnerable to nighttime attack. While most birds chafe at being locked up at night, the red jungle fowl’s sleeping habits and vulnerability lend themselves to a chicken coop.
The bird’s predators are, after all, legion. Minks and jackals like the taste of wild chicken, as do hawks and eagles, while lizards and snakes enjoy the eggs. The fowl is not, however, a prolific egg producer like its domesticated sibling. Each hen lays an average of a half-dozen each year in carefully concealed ground nests, fewer eggs than many other pheasant species. Nor is the bird larger and fleshier than many of its cousins. The copious meat and eggs that mark the chicken today are solely a result of human intervention over millennia and not a characteristic of its ancestor. But the male red jungle fowl’s ability to sense danger and crow a warning might have served as a handy alarm system for early human settlements.
There are three other species of jungle fowl—the gray, the green, and the Sri Lankan—and Beebe closely observed these as well. All
share similar traits, but they live in a much more restricted geographical area than the red, which thrives from five-thousand-foot mountainsides in the chilly Himalayan foothills of Kashmir to the steamy tropical marshes of Sumatra. From Pakistan to Burma to the Pacific coast of Vietnam, the red jungle fowl is at home in a remarkable variety of habitats, and has evolved into several distinct varieties specific to those climates. This capacity to adapt to a wide variety of climates and food gave the red jungle fowl the right stuff for a journey that would take it to almost every conceivable environment on earth.
Beebe concludes that the red jungle fowl is made of a mysterious and unique kind of “organic potter’s clay” that sets it apart from other birds, what he called “latent physical and mental possibilities.” He was writing at the dawn of genetics, and the same year that he watched the wild cock strut across the Burma clearing, Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University—Beebe’s would-be alma mater—published a series of seminal papers in Science based on fruit fly studies that demonstrated the existence of chromosomes that carry specific genetic traits. The research helped launch the modern genetics revolution that Darwin had laid the foundation for a generation before.
The fowl’s unusual plasticity, Beebe theorized, let humans mold it into the “beautiful, bizarre, or monstrous races” of the domesticated chicken. Plumage could be lengthened or shortened, colors and their patterns quickly altered, and the size of limbs extended or reduced. While the wild bird has a tail less than twelve inches in length, that of one Japanese breed stretches twenty feet. A domesticated rooster’s comb alone can take more than two dozen distinct forms. Males could be altered to become fierce fighters with fewer feathers for an opponent to grasp. With tinkering, the two-pound red jungle fowl morphed into the twenty-ounce bantam and the brawny ten-pound Brahma, while a White Leghorn hen can churn out an egg a day.
The red jungle fowl, in other words, is nature’s Mr. Potato Head. Its daily rhythms, diet, adaptability, and sedentary and social nature were the perfect match for humans. In 2004, a huge international team of scientists called the International Chicken Polymorphism
Map Consortium decoded and published the chicken genome, the first genetic map of a farm animal and potent proof of the bird’s economic importance. The researchers discovered that the vast majority of the 2.8 million single-nucleotide polymorphisms—selected pieces of the genome that each represent a difference in a single DNA building block—likely originated before domestication. The modern chicken, in other words, is still mostly red jungle fowl; although that conclusion was based on the assumption that the red jungle fowl genes that were studied were in fact those of purely wild birds.
The results offered practical ways for breeding companies to create even larger and meatier birds through crossbreeding for particular genetic traits, but they provided frustratingly little insight into the changes that transformed the wild creature into a barnyard staple. Later research hinted that a mutation prompting fast growth might have put the red jungle fowl on its domestication track thousands of years ago, but there is little evidence that humans bred the bird, at least initially, primarily for food. What scientists need is a reliably pure red jungle fowl to tease out the minute differences that make one bird wild and one domesticated.
This is not as easy as it sounds. By World War I, exotic bird feathers on hats were out of fashion and the rubber boom had crashed. This gave the pheasants of South Asia, including jungle fowl, time to recover. During his expedition, however, Beebe noticed in passing that some male red jungle fowl lacked eclipse plumage, a set of purplish feathers that appear when a male sheds its red-and-yellow neck feathers and central tail plumage in late summer. In fall, the bird molts completely and grows a new set of feathers. Chickens skip the eclipse plumage phase, so Beebe saw this as a sign of “an infusion of the blood of native village birds” into the wild genome.
Nearly a century passed before another biologist realized that the ancestor of the world’s most prolific bird and humanity’s most important domesticated animal was slowly and inexorably vanishing, a victim of its own evolutionary success as Asia’s expanding chicken flocks threatened to overwhelm the wild bird’s genetic integrity. Its passing could blot out the first steps of the chicken’s journey forever.
But thanks to an obscure U.S. government program designed to quiet the clamor of Southern hunters, the red jungle fowl may yet reveal its story.
Importing wild animals from distant and exotic lands is a practice as old as civilization. Early monarchs in the ancient Near East boasted of their menageries of lions and peacocks, a Baghdad caliph sent Charlemagne an elephant, and a fifteenth-century Chinese emperor showed off his giraffes to astonished diplomats. Since the vast majority of species are not as adaptable as chickens or humans to a new climate, diet, or geography, most transplanted animals quickly perish.
One of the few successful imports of a wild bird to the United States is China’s common pheasant, also known as the ring-necked pheasant, which was brought from the Far East and proliferated in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains in the 1880s, though it steadfastly refuses to live south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Many other alien species that proliferated proved disastrous, such as European starlings and English sparrows, which eat crops, harass indigenous birds, and can bring down a jetliner. In the early 1900s, at the same time that Congress moved to protect native species from hat fashion, lawmakers banned import of potentially harmful species.
By the Great Depression, native wildlife of all sorts, from deer to ducks, was rapidly disappearing, and alarm spread among conservationists, hunters, and the gun and ammunition industry. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed bipartisan legislation providing the first regular funding for wildlife research designed to understand and address the problem. World War II put a halt to this work, and the emergency only deepened a decade later when millions of returning veterans took to the woods with high-powered rifles. Hunting seasons around the country were sharply curtailed and the entire Mississippi River flyway was set off-limits. “American wildlife management officials now are facing what is unquestionably the gravest crisis in the long and colorful history of wildlife conservation on this continent,” warned the president of the International Association of
Game, Fish and Conservation Commissioners in an Atlantic City ballroom in 1948.
The chief of New York’s game conservation department, a self-assured and newly minted PhD named Gardiner Bump, proposed a radical solution. A hulking man over six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds, Bump argued that importing wild game birds from Europe and Asia to North America, if done scientifically, would replace the depleted stocks of native species. The director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wary of introducing a potential pest, since he led an organization created largely as a result of the outcry against alien species. Desperate for ideas in the face of impending catastrophe, he reluctantly agreed.
Bump and his wife, Janet, set out on a two-decade-long search for the best candidates, traveling from Scandinavia to the Middle East. None of the dozens of game bird species they shipped to the United States adapted and proliferated on their own. Meanwhile, Bump’s colleagues and superiors in Washington were under increasing pressure from Dixie lawmakers to find a bird to satisfy their disgruntled hunting constituency. Southerners had mainly duck and quail to hunt, and they were eager to bag more challenging game fowl like pheasant. In 1959, the Bumps rented a house in a well-to-do suburb of New Delhi with a backyard large enough to accommodate bird pens, betting that on the subcontinent they could locate a suitable Southern candidate.
Old British hands consulted by Bump urged him to focus on the red jungle fowl, which was secretive, smart, and fast and liked a warm, humid climate in a wooded environment. Bump assured Washington that he was on the trail of a promising species, but Indian civil servants denied his request to send an official expedition into the Himalayan foothills that were prime red jungle fowl habitat. In those days, India was friendly with the Soviet Union and wary of Americans close to its sensitive borders with Pakistan and China. Undeterred, Bump went on a private hunting holiday. Exploring the wooded hills and forests of northern India, where the Ganges River gushes out of the Himalayas, he was impressed by the challenge posed by the fowl. It was, he wrote, “almost as difficult to hit on the
wing as the ruffed grouse.” He decided to send out locals to net the birds and collect their eggs.
Bump had one overriding concern. He needed truly wild birds that would survive predators in the American South. If his imports were tainted with domesticated chicken genes, they might lack the shy and sly qualities of the fowl observed by Beebe, and therefore not last long enough to procreate. To avoid this problem, he directed that all the eggs and chicks of red jungle fowl had to be collected at least three miles from the nearest village. Later he maintained that most of the specimens were taken ten to fifteen miles from the closest human habitation, though verifying this claim a half century later is difficult.
The biologist died decades ago, but Glen Christensen, who worked with him in India as a young ornithologist, is still alive and pushing ninety. “Hold on, I have to get my oxygen,” he says when I call him at his home in the Nevada desert. After a pause, he returns to confirm that Bump was well aware of the crossbreeding problem. Christensen laughs at my idea of a hardy and enterprising outdoorsman roaming the wild hills of the Hindu Kush with rifle and knapsack. “He wasn’t too involved with the trapping. In fact, he wasn’t much of a field man,” he adds, taking another pause to inhale. “He sat in his compound in Delhi like an old country squire.”
More difficult than trapping the birds was finding a way to get them from New Delhi to New York, a seventy-three-hundred-mile journey. Flights from India to the United States required a series of plane changes and took a total of four days, a logistical nightmare for anyone shipping wild birds. In 1959, Pan Am inaugurated Boeing’s new 707 jet to reduce this time to one and a half days on the same aircraft. The Bumps held a lavish dinner party for Delhi airline agents, serving cocktails in the backyard among the sturdy pens while explaining their effort. Impressed, or possibly just drunk, the Pan Am agents agreed to help.
By May 1960, the Bumps were collecting red jungle fowl and their eggs brought by trappers. They hatched the eggs under domestic hens, placed them in backyard pens, and fed them a poultry mash commandeered from the American exhibit at the World Agricultural
Fair. Thanks to Pan Am, seventy were sent to four Southern states via New York. Later, in 1961, forty-five more were shipped to the United States. Meanwhile, state game managers bred the birds in special hatcheries, raising ten thousand red jungle fowl for release across the South, starting in the fall of 1963. The couple was hopeful that at last they had finally found a solution to the game fowl crisis.
The released birds, however, appeared to vanish in the Southern wild, victims of predators, weather, disease, or some deadly combination. Back in the States, Bump traveled peripatetically among state hatcheries for the rest of the decade, antagonizing game managers with his increasingly desperate demands. His critics, always legion in the conservation field, carped loudly that the effort to introduce foreign species was a waste of time and money. Wildlife populations had rebounded in the 1950s through a careful combination of hunting limits and habitat protection. The more insidious new threat, particularly to wild birds, was pollution. A former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee named Rachel Carson, who was mentored by William Beebe, published Silent Spring in 1962. The bestseller propelled the environmental movement toward understanding and preventing the chemical pollution and habitat destruction that were taking a toll on native species.
In early 1970, as the nation celebrated its first Earth Day and President Richard Nixon prepared to organize the new Environmental Protection Agency, Bump picked up the phone in his Washington office and called a young biologist in South Carolina with a keen interest in red jungle fowl. The foreign game program was about to be canceled, and the remaining birds kept for breeding at state game facilities in the South would soon be destroyed. “They are going to assassinate the jungle fowl,” he warned his junior colleague, I. Lehr Brisbin. “Save what you can.”
Now in his midseventies, Brisbin lives with his third wife in a tony suburban neighborhood not far from the nuclear weapons laboratory where he has worked for half a century, just off a street lined with faux
Colonial houses and well-tended lawns. His driveway begins like the others, and then abruptly turns into an unpaved track descending into thick woods. A box turtle wearing a radio collar lumbers past as I ring the bell and Brisbin calls for me to come in.
He’s sitting barefoot on the parquet floor of the foyer with a green knapsack and maps strewn around him. On the hall table behind him, a stuffed fox in a radio collar stares directly at me. “It just dropped dead?” he is saying into the phone. “Did you freeze him?” Pause. “Well, if your bird died it isn’t going to bother me as long as you freeze him.” He hangs up, grabs a wooden cane leaning by the door, and hoists his small, wiry frame upright. Brisbin has agreed to take me to see the descendants of the wild chickens that he rescued from destruction, birds that may prove to be the last of the world’s truly wild red jungle fowl.
His first job as an ecologist in the late 1960s was to determine if chickens could survive the trip to Mars. To do this, he put a squawking fowl into a metal box and lowered it into a deep lead-lined pit containing a low-level radiation source at the government’s Savannah River Site, where nuclear engineers made tritium and plutonium for weapons of mass destruction. Repeated exposure for a few minutes each day simulated the environment of outer space, beyond the protective blanket of the earth’s atmosphere. The ninety birds he studied proved remarkably hardy even after a month of significant exposure to gamma radiation. None died. Growth rates slowed, but the skeleton remained largely unaffected except for a slightly shorter middle toe.
Poultry, he concluded, could survive the interplanetary trip. He published his findings in the same month that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface. A bird accompanied those astronauts on their July 1969 mission to the moon, albeit in the form of freeze-dried cream of chicken soup. NASA managers dreamed of sending live animals with astronauts to settle the Red Planet, envisioning roosters crowing during a pink Martian dawn as self-sufficient pioneers established humanity’s first extraterrestrial beachhead. Dogs and cats could wait, but chickens and their eggs
were essential to the venture. The ecologist’s research for the space agency was part of that grand plan, which never took off.
As a graduate student at the University of Georgia in Athens, Brisbin had studied the growth rate of chickens through their entire life cycle. The bird can live a decade or even two. Since those grown for meat or eggs are slaughtered at a young age, however, researchers knew little about the middle and elderly years. Brisbin realized that it would be useful to compare the chicken’s life cycle to that of its wild ancestor, and he dreamed of going to India to see the wild chicken in its native habitat. Just as NASA never made it to Mars, Brisbin never got to the subcontinent. But a year after publishing his paper on outer-space chickens, he got Bump’s anxious call.
Alerted to the birds’ plight, Brisbin hopped into his Ford station wagon and drove two hundred miles to a Georgia game station, where he loaded up the car with a hundred red jungle fowl eggs. Two months later, he wrote Bump that he was raising thirty-five healthy young red jungle fowl in his chicken pens in the shadow of the nuclear facilities. He learned through trial and error that they were an unusually skittish lot, and he avoided touching the birds and limited their contact with people. A year later, despite his expertise and precautions, only eight birds were left. Two colleagues from the University of Georgia gave him sixty-nine additional red jungle fowl from the state game farm in Alabama, from the same stock that Bump had brought from India. That infusion helped stabilize the flock.
In 1972, Brisbin was transferred to a desk job in Washington. He could not take the fowl to the capital, but he also couldn’t find anyone willing to take care of the temperamental birds. The Bumps had retired to their upstate New York farm, ecology colleagues at Savannah River scoffed at Brisbin’s hobby, and nuclear engineers were embarrassed by the presence of low-tech fowl on their high-tech campus. Then, “out of the blue, Isaac Richardson called,” says Brisbin. An eccentric loner and wealthy owner of a beef-and-pork slaughterhouse in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Richardson sold meat for profit but raised exotic birds for pleasure.
Having heard of Brisbin’s plight, Richardson went to Savannah
River that June, took a dozen birds home, and reported back that they were thriving. Encouraged, Brisbin put the rest of his birds in a shallow box padded with foam so they wouldn’t bash themselves to death and drove them to Alabama. It was August in the Deep South and he didn’t have air-conditioning, so “I left at dusk and drove all night,” he says. After dropping off the fowl at dawn, he turned his car north to Washington.
Richardson proved a master in the difficult art of raising and breeding red jungle fowl. Three years later, he had expanded the flock to seventy-five. For the next three decades, he kept it healthy and isolated from other fowl to avoid diluting its genetic makeup. He gave birds to other amateur ornithologists, but most of those quickly succumbed to disease or stress. Even Beebe’s New York Zoological Park in the Bronx found them too difficult to manage. Richardson had some magic touch, and his extraordinary accomplishment achieved legendary status among the small circle of people aware of the skill and devotion required to maintain these difficult birds.
Brisbin eventually returned to South Carolina and studied the rate at which chickens scratching in the radioactive Savannah River Site soil—and later, poultry exposed to Chernobyl’s radioactive brew—could shed that toxicity. (He found that they do, and quickly.) He also published articles on radiocesium contamination of snakes, wood ducks, and feral hogs, and spent years researching alligators that lived in the hot-water plumes of the Savannah River’s cooling plants, which earned him footage on Marlin Perkins’s popular television show Wild Kingdom. He didn’t raise red jungle fowl during those intervening decades, but Brisbin says he always remembered what Bump had told him during that 1970 phone call. “Someday,” the New York ornithologist had prophetically warned, “they might be the only ones left.”
A quarter century later, Brisbin noticed that a special symposium on tropical Asian birds was planned for the 1995 American Ornithologists’ Union meeting in Cincinnati. “I thought, wow, here’s a chance to wave the red jungle fowl flag,” he says. His paper’s title—“Is the Red Junglefowl One of the Most Endangered Birds in Southeast Asia?”—was designed to provoke.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies three of the world’s four jungle fowl as in potential danger. The exception is the red jungle fowl, which lives in much larger numbers than its sibling species across South Asia and is rare only in the crowded city-state of Singapore. Brisbin argued not that red jungle fowl were disappearing but that the wild stock was losing its genetic integrity. It was species death by introgression—the mixing of genes—rather than physical extinction.
This is not a popular issue among conservationists, since physical extinction rather than genetic introgression is the overwhelming threat to celebrity wild animals like blue whales, Siberian tigers, and polar bears as well as tens of thousands of less beloved species. The wild Muscovy duck is threatened by crossbreeding with domestic mallards, while the limited populations of wild dogs around the world increasingly mix with feral and domesticated varieties. Plants also face challenges; wild rice strains, for example, are dying out across Asia. Brisbin and several other ecologists point out that chicken, duck, and rice are critical parts of humanity’s food supply, and that ensuring the genetic survival of their wild ancestors therefore is an important and prudent endeavor.
“I wanted to see if anyone would jump up and argue with me,” says Brisbin. His strategy worked when the biologist Town Peterson from the University of Kansas sprang up in the conference room to insist that introgression was unlikely to have a major impact on the wild bird. The two decided to collaborate to determine the truth. Since neither is a geneticist and sequencing was in its infancy, they needed a trait that provided a single clear physical difference between the wild fowl and the barnyard variety. They settled on eclipse plumage, since ornithologists knew that a full-blooded wild male sheds its red-and-yellow neck feathers and central tail plumage in late summer for a temporary ensemble of purple plumage, while chickens do not. As Beebe remarked, the presence of these purple feathers was a reliable sign that an individual bird was free of domesticated genes.
The effort took four long years. Searching through dusty drawers and musty storage rooms in nineteen museums across the United
States, Canada, and Europe, they came up with 745 red jungle fowl specimens collected over two centuries. By comparing the dates, seasons, and locations in which the specimens were collected, the scientists uncovered a distinct and disturbing trend. Eclipse feathers start disappearing from specimens dating back to the 1860s in Southeast Asia, and this seems to spread west over time. By the 1960s, as Bump was collecting his birds, eclipse plumage began to vanish almost entirely in the last western redoubts of northern India. This change, Brisbin and Peterson believe, was not simply a natural variation within the wild population. Specimen tags suggested that many of those lacking eclipse plumage were taken from areas where the domesticated chicken was plentiful. Northern and western India, where Bump had concentrated his efforts, could be the wild bird’s last stronghold.
In a joint 1999 paper, the two researchers warned that the “genetically pure wild-type populations may be severely threatened,” and that red jungle fowl studies based on existing stocks in zoos or in the wild “are likely to be tainted with domestic genes.” That called into question decades of studies comparing the wild fowl with chickens in order to flesh out how, when, where, and why the chicken was domesticated. Alarmingly, the red jungle fowl, “so important economically and culturally to humans, is apparently in danger of genetic extinction.”
Leggette Johnson’s farm on Gold Finch Road in Cobbtown sits amid the flat cotton fields of northeast Georgia, a two-hour drive south of Brisbin’s South Carolina home. On one side of the modest house is a spacious fenced-in area full of long pens taller than a man. Johnson meets us at the gate under an overcast autumn sky. With the wary look and the paunch, drawl, and overalls of the quintessential Southern good old boy, he is one of the few people in the United States successfully raising jungle fowl, and his flock includes descendants of the birds collected by Bump and cared for by Richardson.
“You go in there and they’ll go crazy,” he says, pointing a stubby
finger at a large wire pen. It is a statement, a warning, and a dare. Three birds are edging nervously to a far corner. One sports what looks like a little white turban above its small, dull brown body. Dental floss, Johnson explains. A hawk swooped down a month ago. Though the wire foiled the predator, the intended prey—a female red jungle fowl—shot against the cage in an instinctual attempt to flee. Her head split open, so Johnson retrieved some floss from the bathroom medicine cabinet, grabbed the dazed bird, and sewed up her wound while sitting on an upturned white plastic feed bucket.
Escape is always on their minds. Johnson points at the largest of the three birds huddled together behind the wire a dozen feet away. Against the monotone tan of the two hens, the rooster is a showy mass of blue and red and yellow that glows in the overcast. He bolted one day when the cage door was not shut quickly enough and was on the loose for three months, remaining near his hens but long foiling attempts at capture. “I couldn’t come anywhere close,” Johnson says. “If I did, he would haul ass.” The fowl trusted no human, save for a neighbor’s two-year-old boy in diapers, who could walk right up to the liberated animal but obviously posed no threat to the rooster’s freedom.
To get to the pen with the red jungle fowl, Johnson wades through an adjacent cage with other equally wild birds. Elegantly tailed pheasants and plump quail scatter as we walk through, more confused than distressed. “These I can feed out of my hand,” he says as they dart around our feet. “But not those,” he adds, pointing at the three huddled red jungle fowl. “People think you’re crazy when you tell them this, but if you get them really excited and catch one, it will quit fighting and limber up. Dies of heart failure, I guess.”
On closer inspection, the brown of the two hens has a reddish hue with delicate black stipples on the neck. Their beaks are tiny, and they lack the spurs and combs and wattles of the foppish male. I decline Johnson’s offer to let me accompany him into their cage, since I don’t want to be responsible for giving such rare specimens a heart attack. There are only a hundred or so of this strain left on earth.
Johnson shrugs, adjusts his cap, undoes the latch, and steps gingerly inside. An explosion of blurred wings alters the air pressure and
I involuntarily jump. When the farmer exits the coop moments later, the birds are huddled even tighter against the far corner in a posture that seems to mix abject terror with haughty resentment. When I ask him how this bird became the domesticated chicken, he doesn’t answer but leads me to the other side of the yard.
The Georgia farmer has one of the few collections of all four jungle fowl in the United States. The females all tend to be plain and brown and lack combs, the better to avoid detection when incubating their eggs on the forest floor. The roosters, splashed with vibrant colors, are more dazzling to bird eyes, which have four color cones to our three. Darwin explained such extravagance as an arms race among males in order to appear more appealing to their potential mates. Scientists now say that they are also trying to impress their competitors. Like the plumed helmets of ancient Greek warriors or the bright pantaloons and turbans of the nineteenth-century Zouave soldiers, livery can dazzle and psych out the enemy.
Johnson leads us first to a cage containing the Sri Lankan jungle fowl native to that teardrop-shaped island off the southeast coast of India. The rooster and hen move cautiously to the back of the pen, but they don’t panic. The male is similar in size and shape to the red, but with a yellow-orange palette with a splash of yellow in the comb. The next is the gray jungle fowl of southern India, and the rooster races back and forth in its cage on black legs, rustling its black-and-ocher feathers set on a grayish background with a bit of yellow on the neck. This hen, like the others, is plain, but has yellowish legs.
In the next pen is a green jungle fowl. Its natural home is on Java and Bali, islands of today’s Indonesia, more than two thousand miles east of Sri Lanka. This rooster stands strangely immobile, and stares at us with an unnerving intensity. He seems confident in his magnificent plumage, which is the most dramatic of all jungle fowl. His body shades from the color of long-exposed bronze to an emerald green. Feathers at his throat are a sky blue and bright violet, with splashes of ocher and electric yellow, and his comb shades from light blue to deep red.
What’s odd, Johnson says as we stand in front of the motionless
green jungle fowl, is that these three sister species are skittish, but not suicidally so. He’s never had to use dental floss on the birds on this side of his barnyard. Nor do the grouse, quail, partridge, and golden pheasant in the other pens approach the wild and untamed spirit of the red jungle fowl. He tries to avoid going into the pens with the reds more than once in three days to limit their trauma.
The unusual nature of these red jungle fowl recently drew the attention of Leif Andersson, a biologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University who has pioneered DNA sequencing of domesticated animals as a way to track their genetic past. He was part of the team that published the chicken genome in 2004. As Brisbin had decades earlier, Andersson realized that he needed a reliably wild chicken to compare with the domesticated variety in order to map the differences more accurately. In 2011, he visited Johnson’s farm to take a look at these unusual animals and sample their blood. The DNA of the Richardson birds, now being sequenced in Andersson’s Uppsala lab, could help unlock important clues to the chickens’ murky history, particularly if they prove to be among the last with an undiluted genome.
On our way back to South Carolina, Brisbin muses on the mystery of chicken domestication. Biologists are still arguing over when, where, and why the bird left the jungle for the backyard. Thousands of years ago, somewhere in South Asia, it merged with human society. Our farming ancestors may have welcomed an animal that feasted on weeds and pests, hunters may have captured it in the forest and brought home live birds that eventually were tamed, and foragers could have found unhatched eggs and incubated them artificially. Brisbin believes, however, that only a genetic mutation that turned off the fowl’s natural skittishness could have paved the way for the more placid modern bird. “There’s a five percent chance that when you hold one it will die,” he says of Johnson’s jungle fowl. This shift from wild creature to barnyard chicken—possibly just a random turn of the genetic dials—was a dramatic transformation of the animal, with big implications for our own species.
Suddenly, a squirrel darts in front of the car. I swerve, but hit the unfortunate animal. Brisbin orders me to turn around. “Do you have
a bag?” he asks with an almost childlike eagerness. “Let’s not waste it.” We return to find its head flattened, but it is otherwise unmarked. “It’s perfect,” he says, placing the bag in my backseat. Then he chuckles and confides that his collecting unnerves the sentries at the gate of the Savannah River nuclear site. “The guards don’t want to check my car because there may be a snake or an alligator in it.” He glances into the backseat. “Remind me to retrieve it when we get back to my place.”
A couple of months later, I call the retired Richardson, curious as to how this self-taught slaughterhouse owner maintained Bump’s difficult birds so successfully for so many decades, despite the ever-present threat of heart failure or disease. If anyone would have a gut feeling as to how this bird became the docile creature of today’s factory farms, it would be him.
A woman answers the phone in his home in Tuscaloosa. “I buried him six weeks ago,” Richardson’s wife says. “He was eighty-three years old and had never been in the hospital.” I give her my condolences, and then her daughter takes the phone and introduces herself. “He was very particular about their care,” she explains when I ask about the red jungle fowl. “He kept them separated and wouldn’t let them breed with other birds. And if anyone else came around—even me—the birds would be all in a tear.” She adds that just a couple of weeks before he died, she asked him why he prized these fussy and difficult fowl so highly. “He said, ‘I like them because there is no way to tame them.’ He said, ‘I like them because of what they are—wild.’ ”