Humans first domesticated the red junglefowl of southern Asia roughly 6,000 years ago and, over the millennia, have developed hundreds of breeds. Domestic chickens serve many purposes, from the billions raised annually for commercial food production (primarily white leghorns) to specialty breeds raised by fanciers. While a rise in the popularity of locally sourced eggs has spurred an increase in media coverage of backyard chickens, the popularity of chicken culture has remained fairly steady. In February, six fluffy, yellow chicks arrived at the Los Angeles Zoo and were greeted with great interest from staff and guests alike.
The Zoo’s previous resident Gallus gallus domesticus was a popular outreach bird named Lucy, a Red Cochin that passed away in June 2010. Since then, bringing more chickens in had been a perennial suggestion. So, when word got out that chickens would be added to the Muriel’s Ranch collection, various “consultants” began approaching Curator of Birds Mike Maxcy.
“I must’ve had a dozen people… suggesting what the best breeds are and why I must bring in this particular breed as ambassador animals.”
“Many people are familiar with chickens,” Maxcy says. “Maybe they grew up with chickens, maybe their grandparents lived on a farm, or maybe they’ve seen chickens at a children’s zoo. When people are familiar with certain animals, they have more opinions about them, so I can bring in rare species and most people are content to allow the experts to care for them. But a lot of people have opinions on how to care for chickens—especially what breeds to bring in. I must have had a dozen people, from animal keepers to docents to administration staff, suggesting what the best breeds are and why I must bring in this particular breed as ambassador animals.”
Ultimately, Maxcy chose three breeds that could tolerate wide temperature ranges, would grow to a good size for exhibiting to guests, and had a positive track record in being able to interact well with people: Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, and Buff Orpington.
“Look! She’s a chicken mama and that’s her baby!”
The goal for these birds is that they will eventually be multi-taskers—able to serve as ambassadors with Zoo guests both in the contact yard at Muriel’s Ranch and in one-on-one encounters such as Animals & You as well as participate in outreach programs that take them off Zoo grounds to nursing homes, group homes, and other facilities for people who are unable to come to the Zoo. So it’s important that they be suitably socialized. The Nursery staff hand-raised them in the display window there for several weeks while the birds completed their quarantine. Curious guests peered into the Nursery window to watch while animal care staff interacted daily with the chicks so that they would grow accustomed to being handled by humans. “Look!” exclaimed one youngster when she spotted Animal Keeper Ginger Paschall cuddling one of the birds in her lap. “She’s a chicken mama and that’s her baby!”
Currently, the chickens have limited contact with visitors, but once they reach their full adult size, if all goes as planned, they’ll move from the yard they currently share with the miniature horse to a more accessible yard.
“I think people are intrigued by them because they don’t really know what chickens are.”
Nursery Keeper Barbara Grisham grew up with chickens, and she keeps a flock at home. She is familiar with the history and habits of these busy birds that seem to be murmuring in constant conversation as they scratch around their territory in search of food. Chickens may be the most common bird on Earth, recognizable to most, and yet the actual animals remain a mystery to many.
“I think people are intrigued by them because they don’t really know what chickens are,” she observes. “Chicken is something wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store, and often people don’t really know where their food comes from. So when they see the different breeds, they’re like, ‘Hey! It’s chicken! They really are living birds.’”
Domestic chickens and their junglefowl relatives are Galliformes, an order of heavy-bodied, ground feeding birds that also includes turkey, grouse, quail, partridge, pheasant, peafowl, and the Cracidae (chachalacas, guans, and curassows). So after you’ve had a chance to meet the chickens at Muriel’s Ranch, take the time to visit their wild relatives, the great currasow and blue-billed currasow in the South America section of the Zoo. On the way, you might cross paths with our resident free-ranging peacocks, another wild relation.