How a Descendant of Dinosaurs Became a Ubiquitous Dinner Dish

By Sarah Zhang | May 24, 2012 1:32 pm

wild chickens
Gallus gallus, the undomesticated ancestor of modern chickens

Chickens, the surviving descendants of once-mighty therapod dinosaurs, have come to dominate American dinner tables, where its meat is consumed at a rate of 80 pounds per person per year. How the wild grub-eating Gallus Gallus was tamed and commodified into frozen breaded cutlets is actually quite an epic story, one that involves (possibly) saving Greek civilization from Persians, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and continues today with KFC’s remarkable invasion of China.

Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler have written a cover story for Smithsonian magazine on the taming of the chicken that delivers these tidbits and gives plenty more food for thought. It was the Egyptians, for example, who first figured out how to artificially incubate eggs, so they could be hatched without the presence of hens—a method so important that their methods were kept secret for centuries:

This was no easy matter. Most chicken eggs will hatch in three weeks, but only if the temperature is kept constant at around 99 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity stays close to 55 percent, increasing in the last few days of incubation. The eggs must also be turned three to five times a day, lest physical deformities result. The Egyptians constructed vast incubation complexes made up of hundreds of “ovens.” Each oven was a large chamber, which was connected to a series of corridors and vents that allowed attendants to regulate the heat from fires fueled by straw and camel dung.

Still, the “factory farming” of 4000 years ago is no match for today’s productivity. These days, the two write, selective breeding has created large, meaty chickens  “so docile that even if chickens are given access to outdoor space—a marketing device that qualifies the resulting meat to be sold as ‘free-range’—they prefer hanging out at the mechanized trough, awaiting the next delivery of feed.” Adler and Lawler also delve into the culture of hobbyist chicken farmers, whose chickens, prized for beautiful eggs and feathers, go for $399 a chick. Frozen chicken at the supermarket might be just $3.99 /lb. But read the Smithsonian feature, and you won’t think of it as average dinner fare anymore.

Image via Wikimedia Commons / Lip Kee Yap 

  • Jockaira

    Yeah! But does it taste like chicken?

  • Ranger Jim Kirk

    Nahh. Actually it tastes more like snake… 😉

  • Marc

    They provide us with eggs and meat, so give chickens a good life with enough space to walk around.

  • floodmouse

    Support humane farming. Please buy “real” free range chickens and eggs that are raised on old-fashioned family farms. The extra price is worth a clean conscience, not to mention the health benefits. I’m told there is a measurable difference in the nutritional content of the eggs and meat – plus you get the benefits of avoiding toxic chemicals by eating organic food. When I was a kid in grade school, our teacher’s idea of a field trip was to take us to a huge metal chicken barn where the egg-laying chickens were confined in tiny cages where they couldn’t even move. The noise was deafening and the smell almost made me vomit. Those poor animals. If things have changed over the last 30-plus years in the commercial egg business, I doubt if the changes have been for the better. You should never treat any living creature in a way you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself, and if you are supporting the system financially, you are guilty of contributing to the cruelty. I expect people will resent me “preaching” like this, but I think it’s important to share firsthand experiences and make people aware of the problem.

  • Kaviani

    Please delete nonsense like comment #2. It has no place in a scientific discussion and only serves for emotional masturbation. “I think it’s important to share” – yeah, of course you do, as long as it means people will pay attention to you.

  • kokey hokey

    Kaviani, your an eegitt! He was joking, not masturbating either emotionally or otherwise. You should take your comments and stuff them up a chickens arse where they belong

  • Pippa

    Thank you for your comment, floodmouse! This should be a part of the debate. After all the subject is what we have done to chickens to get them to where they are now. Recognising mistakes and taking steps to rectify them should be a part of that. True, city dwellers may have little affordable access to free range chicken, but if it became more of the norm the price would go down, and those of us out in the country near farms have no excuse if we choose to eat meat. We should all think about the full impact of our choices. It would be nice to leave a healthy, peaceful, planet to our grandchildren

  • floodmouse

    Hi Kaviani. I think your comment was directed at me, since it quoted my post, even though I am not currently “#2”. In reply to your comment, I would just point out that ethics do have a place in scientific discussion, even if you happen to disagree with my ethics.

    In regard to Pippa’s comment that city dwellers have little access to affordable free range chicken, that is unfortunately true. I live in a small to mid-size city, and last summer at a local farm market I was lucky enough to meet a woman who raises free range chickens on a farm with her husband in a nearby community. They deliver eggs to customers in the city. The eggs are great: Brown, white, and green – some large, some small, some speckled, some with dark yolks and some with light, and occasionally one with a double yolk. Before I started buying these eggs, I thought Dr Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” was just a fiction. I never knew there really was such a thing as green eggs. Supporting free range chicken farming by your purchase of these eggs also helps support biodiversity, which is a political hot topic right now in the environmental movement. Commercial chicken farms have almost zero genetic diversity among hens. Old-fashioned family farms preserve older and hardier stocks of fowl, that have legs that are actually strong enough to walk on, and which can survive and reproduce without huge doses of antibiotics.

  • Iowa

    Ethics… blah blah blah. Science is not a slave to human emotions. Do you want to eat chicken or not? Without factory farms extremely few could enjoy this delicious bird.

  • Peter Limburg

    Not true, “Iowa.” I was born in 1929 and can remember that chicken was not for the “extremely few,” but something that even low-income families could enjoy once a week, if not more often. Factory farming has indeed made chicken a very common food, but it has certainly degraded the quality of the meat as well as the quality of life for the chickens–not to mention the serious environmental problem of disposing of large quantities of chicken manure.

  • m

    Just give up number 2. Explaining the wrongs of “old fashioned farming” to Pippa and floodmouse is like trying to teach a caveman how to use a Samsung Tablet.

  • Jojo

    I’ve eaten free range and regular chicken and their eggs. I’ve never been able to taste any difference.

    That being said, I do agree that it is criminal how chickens are raised in today’s factory farms.

  • Pippa

    Iowa, I hope you were just being provocative, or making an attempt to joke. If not – there is a difference between ethics and emotions. Maybe reference to a dictionary would help. And ‘m’ – I happen to be a scientist! I prefer a Mac to samsung because I can program so much more myself. :) Or were you ‘joking’ too? So hard to tell electronically. (I am serious.)

  • Serena

    Well, I am a small farmer (only 5 acres) but I do have 25 laying hens. The taste difference between my eggs and store bought is HUGE. Anyone who says they have tasted them both and can’t detect a difference obviously has some challenged tastebuds. Free range chicken eggs are better for you than factory farmed eggs too. They aren’t full of antibiotics (that were injected into the hens) they have lower cholesterol than factory farmed eggs. They are just a superior product all around.

  • Colonel Sanders

    Serena would be a bit more believable if she wasn’t making money off of those “free range” chickens.

  • Colonel Sanders

    Peter Limburg’s elderly memories of cheap chicken have more to do with advanced age and wishful thinking than reality.

    Chicken was far more expensive than beef or pork in the “good old days.” It wasn’t until the expansion of intensive chicken farming after WW II that chicken became a cheap and common meat. The expansion in US chicken production and the resulting exports of chicken to Europe brought about a trade war in the 1960s as the French and Germans tried to keep the price of chicken artificially high to benefit their chicken producers.

  • J.R.

    Interesting article for anyone who raises chickens. Like “Serena”, I have a small farm and raise free-range chickens for eggs. Not “free-range” as the government requires, meaning a certain number of square feet per bird – but the birds are still in a cage. Free-range in the pure sense. Once my flock is let out of the barn at morning, the birds can go wherever they want. They establish whatever routine they like, squabble among themselves, cozy with each other, eat whatever they choose (they are fed a grain mix a.m. and p.m.) and it’s up to me to find the eggs. Like all small farmers, I introduce new genetic blood periodically. My flock has roosters and I breed my own next generations. And yes. The eggs (from small to jumbo) are declared “the best ever” by those who eat them and cook with them. If you can find a free-range chicken farm, try the eggs for yourself! I suspect you will find, as I do, that the health benefits of humane chicken keeping will be apparent for humans. And I know it is for the birds (intentional pun.)


    I am one of those “factory farmers.” Times have changed. I raise hatching eggs which are quite tasty and have very yellow yolks. Much better than others I have gotten at the store. My chickens are happy and comfortable. When the temp outside is 90 + they are at 80- with a nice breeze. They have plenty of room to walk around, enjoy dusting in the scratch area, and don’t have to worry about predators. Chicken farming is a business that has to take into consideration of the welfare of the chicken and the monetary benefit of the farmer. As a job which is 24/7, there is not much benefit. No one wantsto pay alot for eggs or chicken. As a farmer, I have around 20000 birds with an annual in my pocket income of about $30000. Not much for the amount of work I have to do. So please cut us farmers some slack. Just to let you know, when I first got into this business I didn’t make aa profit for 8 years

  • Zipper

    Thanks for the info, floodmouse! I may be only 12 years old, but i know that it’s cruel to keep and animal locked up in a cage. My family owns 2 dogs, and they are allowed to go anywere they want except the couch. We let them run around, unleashed, in the forest behind my house whenever we go outside. they still havent run away yet. thanks all you free range farmers!


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