26 Jan 2017

The King of the Dawn

Male Red Junglefowl in its natural habitat © Philip Pikart
By Shaun Hurrell

Awaken to the sound of the rooster. Hard work and good fortune are ahead. Celebrate the Chinese New Year by recognising the only bird in the Chinese zodiac.

It’s a “cock-a-doodle-do” in the USA, a “konkoliirikoo” in Ghana, “kuckelikuuu” in Sweden, “chicchi-ri-chììì” in Italy, “O-O” in China… as dawn breaks around the world, somewhere, everywhere, there is a rooster waking up a human.

There’s probably no other bird that is so much part of human life. For the world’s 7.5 billion people, there are over 12 billion chickens – making them the world’s most abundant bird. But they are much more than that biologically, culturally and spiritually, and the 28th of January marks the start of the Year of the Rooster, which, according to the Chinese zodiac, will bring good luck, wisdom, bravery, and hard work.

And if you’re thinking “it’s just a chicken,” having being habituated to their ubiquity since childhood nursery rhymes, stop… and look again. Beyond the source of meat and eggs, beyond the clucks and cruelty of battery farms: do these extravagant-looking birds look out of place in farm or village, almost like a pheasant?

Imagine: some 7,000 years ago, one of our ancestors is treading lightly through a lushly-forested part of Asia. Suddenly, a rustle in the leaf litter… thick avian claws are scratching through the undergrowth for insects. If you’d seen Jurassic Park, you’d compare them to the agile and slashing legs of a velociraptor. But instead you look up and see feathers the colour of sunrise, a magnificent scarlet fleshy crown on the male, and large, strong breast muscles (used for sprint-flapping into the trees away from danger). The experience of seeing these wild junglefowl could have either been beautifully meaningful, or your lucky day for a wholesome meal – if you wanted and could catch it.

From this day forward, the Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus, which are closely related to pheasants in the family Phasianidae, was domesticated, hybridised and integrated into human culture as the chicken we know today. From Asia they have spread westwards (and eastwards) through time to be associated with every human community, apart from perhaps the Inuit. For better or for worse, the junglefowl was first appreciated for more than just its meat – originally for recreation (cockfighting) and for predicting the future, and its stunning plumage has also been used for ornamentation.

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It’s easy to see how this bird has come to be associated with goodness in life. One of twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac, the rooster (cockerel, or male chicken) has general characteristics of hard work, good luck and virtue. In Chinese, the world “luck” and “cock” have the same pronunciation: Ji. Vivian Fu, Assistant Manager of BirdLife's China Programme, says: "The rooster represents wisdom (because of its crown), bravery (their boldness in fights), kindness (owing to their social nature of sharing food), and faith (they call every morning)."

And without the call of the cockerel waking up humankind at dawn, maybe, our species would have been a lot less productive.

The Asian perspective on chickens is somewhat refreshing. In some “Western” cultures this common bird is a synonym of being “faint-hearted”, and to human carnivores its meat is perceived as somewhat “inferior” (even to some birders… they’re hardly a bird anymore). While the truth is that these birds are a reliable, precious source of “lean” protein for billions of people, and from a climate change perspective, they are a far less damaging species to breed than cattle.   

Conservation of the most numerous bird on the planet?

The Red Junglefowl's elegant plumage © Panu Ruangjan

The Red Junglefowl's elegant plumage © Panu Ruangjan

Well, the domesticated chicken, technically – whilst thought to be “mostly” Red Junglefowl – is a hybrid of other Asian junglefowl species, and through selective breeding is not quite the slim, agile tree-rooster of its wilder relatives. It is also thought to take its characteristic yellow legs from the Grey Junglefowl Gallus sonneratii of India. For the IUCN Red List however, for which BirdLife is the authority on birds, the domesticated chicken in effect constitutes an introduced species worldwide and therefore does not meet criteria for assessment. But look on Datazone, and you’ll find that Red Junglefowl is listed as Least Concern, along with the three other junglefowl species.

These wild junglefowl still live in Asian forests but are so numerous that they are not of conservation concern. That said, there are fears that domesticated chickens left to roam are mixing with wild junglefowl at forest edges and could one day hybridise the species out of existence. And in Singapore, where the rooster’s association with punctuality and prosperity is prominent in the Garden City’s development, there is little remaining forest cover, and wild Red Junglefowl are worryingly endangered.

In Vietnam, a Critically Endangered bird of the same family, Edwards's Pheasant Lophura edwardsiis tied to the fate of the Red Junglefowl, where indiscriminate trapping for more resilient species like the junglefowl is severely threatening the pheasant, which is just about hanging on in very small fragments of forest (due to past herbicide spraying during the Vietnam War, logging and clearance for agriculture). Viet Nature (BirdLife in Vietnam) is working on a project to save Edward's Pheasant from extinction.

In the rest of Asia, through BirdLife’s work to protect Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) that includes hundreds of identified forest sites where wild junglefowl are found, for example Western Siem Pang in Cambodia, and Harapan Forest in Indonesia, we are working to ensure the chicken’s wild ancestors’ “ku-ku-ruyuks” (which, apparently, are more high-pitched and end more abruptly than the domesticated rooster’s) continue to herald dawn, productivity, prosperity and luck forever more.

Don't count your chickens... Edward's Pheasant © Myles Lamont, World's Rarest Birds

Don't count your chickens... Edward's Pheasant © Myles Lamont, World's Rarest Birds