Commentary

Why did the chicken cross the…ocean?

In Peru, harvests time has arrived, but in Utah, Spring has just started. In the spring, all sorts of baby animals make their appearance. Bunnies, calves and colts cavort around the farm. And chicks.

I depend on my trusty hens to provide me with a cheap supply of healthy eggs. My last brood has gotten too old to be reliable layers, so I went to my local farm store to pick up my new baby chicks. (I have no rooster, so allowing a brood to hatch was not an option)

There were the usual varieties available. Rhode Island Reds. Australorps. Plymouth Rocks. I had to special order my favorite type, the Araucana.

I wanted to be sure of my choice, so I went online to do a little research about this particular breed and their history. Where did they originate and why were the eggs blue? A little reading and I realized I had found another intersection between Peru and Utah

Araucana Chicken
Araucana Chicken

When Pizarro arrived in Peru, he found the Inca used chickens in their religious rituals. The domestic birds were common throughout the new world. Although Columbus had landed just 40 years previously, and the Inca had an extensive trading network, would it be possible that the chickens had been brought to Peru and incorporated in Inca religious ceremonies and were commonly raised by many households?   

This raises the questions; Where did these chickens come from? Why are their eggs blue? How did they get here?  Why were they having chicken dinner in Chile 600 years ago?

The first question is quite intriguing. Why did the chicken cross the ocean? Chickens were domesticated almost 10,000 years ago in India and China. They are small, they eat almost anything, they produce a protein source, an egg, almost every day. They are literally small raptors1 – descendants of maniraptora2  or dromaeosauridae3 The dinosaur limbs were originally grasping claws which evolved into wings. While the bodies changed, the attitude didn’t. Chickens are territorial and roosters were kept for cock fighting, even before people figured out that perhaps they might be good for eating as well. 4  

Raptor
Raptor

Who wouldn’t want to have small dinosaurs who eat almost anything running around in the front yard playing with the children? Did I mention they taste like chicken?  

The next question; how did they get to Peru from China? Even though they evolved the ability to fly, they can only fly for short distances.  So, they must have hitched a ride.  

There has been controversy surrounding the idea of connections between the Polynesians and South American cultures. That is until an archeological dig in Chile, just a couple of miles in from the coast, called “El Arenal” unearthed the remains of a chicken dinner. The dating of the chicken bones placed the feast about 1425AD, well before Columbus was even conceived, let alone asked the Spanish queen for money. 5

The ancestors of my chickens, the Araucanas, the ones I was buying at my local Intermountain Farmers Association, made a journey across the Pacific Ocean instead of the Atlantic!  

Or did they? The chickens that I bought had the name of Araucana, but did their DNA match the breed from South America?  

The Araucana was a hybrid of two breeds of chickens raised by the Araucana Indians. The Collonocas and the Quetros. The Colloncas were a rumples breed that laid blue eggs, while the Quetros had ear tufts and brown eggs.  

The genetics gets interesting at this point. If you cross a pure tuft with a pure tuft – all the chicks die.  It is a lethal combination. So, in order to get chickens, you must cross a tuft with something else – like the rumpless. The rumpless bird also has issues. So crossing the two birds created a better breed of chicken.  

Blue Chickens Eggs
Blue Chickens Eggs

There is some question of what defines a ‘true’ araucana chicken. One of the distinctive features is the blue eggs. This is another interesting genetic anomaly. At some time, the birds acquired a virus. Actually, a retro-virus. That doesn’t mean a virus from the 1970’s, but it does sound like something out of a science fiction thriller. A retro virus is RNA that has ‘reverse transcriptase’. When it enters a host, it copies its genetic material into the hosts DNA. It changes who you are on the cellular level – inserting new coding so new types of proteins will be produced. (Human immunodeficiency virus -HIV is a retro-virus.) Somewhere back in history the chicken contracted a retro-virus that causes biliverden – a pigment from bile  to be deposited into the egg shells. This created blue eggs. They aren’t just blue on the outside, but all the way through the shell.

A problem with buying “Araucanas” from my local store, is often I am not actually getting the true Araucana, or even “Ameraucana” (another breed traced to South American roots)  but a hybrid that is just labeled ‘Easter Egger’ or ‘Ameracana’  (note the ‘u’ is dropped) This breed is not a pure breed, but a mutt.  Each chicken may look different. They frequently lay blue eggs, showing a close relationship to the Araucana, but there may also be green, brown or even pink shells. My chicks probably fall into the ‘Easter Egger’ category, which means they have the Araucana genes somewhere in their heritage, but they are also mixed with other breeds.  

They are not prone to fighting, they are good in both the heat and the cold and they are very prolific, laying an egg each almost every day. According the Easter Egg Club of America, they are the most popular chicken in the United States.

My chick’s ancestors probably crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For my part, I just like having these sweet little fuzzy dinosaur descendants peeping happily, and eventually providing me with eggs. Blue eggs.  

 

1 http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/avians.html

2 http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/saurischia/maniraptora.html

3 http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/saurischia/dromaeosauridae.html

4 http://quatr.us/food/chicken.htm

  1. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/how-did-the-chicken-cross-the-sea/
  2. http://www.cashsblueeggs.com/araucanahistory.htm

 

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