DTE Cover

Gobar Times

Vol 9,  No 14   December 15,  2000
Preparing you to change the future every fortnight





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India, which gave the red jungle fowl, the mother of all poultry to the rest of the world, is now importing poultry from outside and destroying its own indigenous species. Today these unique breeds are disappearing, partly because of neglect and partly because of crossbreeding; about 99 per cent of all wild populations have been contaminated by domestic or feral chicken. But certain rare breeds still exist and there is time to save them
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Country of origin/range: North and northeast India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia.
Contributed genes to: All breeds of domestic chicken
Body weight: Cock: 672-1450 g, hen: 485-1050 g
Height: Cock: 65-75 cm, Hen: 42-46 cm
Comb: Single
Egg shell colour: Brown
Feather colour: Red-brown in neck, back and wing; black on chest, legs and tail
Eggs: Average of five-six eggs in a sitting


Source: Graphic narration of red jungle fowl’s spread from Poultry Biology, Part I, Chapter I: Origin and History of Poultry Species, R D Crawford; Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1987

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Long before the birth of Christ, a bird, never seen before in the valley of the Blue Nile, reached the court of the pharaohs. Neither the architectural grandeur of the court nor the ‘gold-draped’ Pharaohs could silhouette its beauty. A bright red comb rested regally on its head and shiny green and red feathers clothed its body finally ending in an eclipse plume. The Egyptians had never seen a bird which laid so many eggs. When it crowed, they listened with rapt attention. When it walked around the court, everyone made way. It became a showpiece in the Pharaoh’s court. Fascinated, they adopted the bird. Everbody used to be shown the chicken and training camps were set up on how to get this wild red jungle fowl (RJF) to lay eggs.

But much before the bird reached Egypt, available literature suggests that RJF (Gallus gallus) was first domesticated in the twin cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa in the Indus valley around 2500-2100 BC. Seals were found at Mohenjodaro depicting fighting cocks. Various clay figurines of the fowl were also found, including one of a hen with a feed dish. Two clay figurines were found at Harappa appearing to represent a cock and a hen.

While most wild animals were domesticated for meat, in the case of RJF, which belongs to the family of pheasants, it was for its fighting abilities. In Bhavprakash Nighantu, a book on ayurveda by Acharya Bhavprakash, he states that the Vedas, too, praise the fowl for its ‘courage’. Referred to as kukuth, it says that among the 20 qualities such as courage that a human being should possess, four should be acquired from the fowl alone.

The Indians were also the first to realise its medicinal and nutritional worth. Special attention has been paid to the bird in the ayurvedic system of medicine also. "The fowl is a medicine in itself," agrees Vaidya Balendu Prakash of the Vaidya Chandra Prakash Cancer Research Foundation, Dehradun. Rich in minerals such as copper and iron, in course of time, the fowl also became a welcome bribe (see box: Wonder bird).


The red jungle fowl (RJF) is one of the four jungle fowls found in the Indian subcontinent belonging to the genus Gallus, the other three being grey, Ceylon and green. It is also know as Gallus bankiva or Gallus gallus murghi.

RJF is distinct in its appearance. It’s strikingly colourful plumes and a majestic red comb gives it a regal appearance. But what makes it unique is the eclipse plumage, which is now used to identify the bird. According to Satya Kumar, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun: "The shape of the plumage makes it easier for the bird to escape quickly from predators through undergrowths and bushes."

The male plumage and the colour of the ear lobes differ according to the climate and geographical location. The shade of red varies from golden yellow to dark mahogany. There are also some differences in shape and length of the neck feathers among males. This divides the red jungle fowl into five clear subspecies: Cochin-Chinese red, Burmese red, Tonkinese red, Indian red and Javan red. Among unique characteristics of RJF is that it sheds its plumes in the summer. The hen, which can lay up to nine eggs in one sitting, has no visible comb or wattle.

The RJF population is distributed across the Indo-Malay peninsula. Apart from varied geographical locations, it also lives in most varied habitats — from rainforests to drylands.

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People can easily mistake the red jungle fowl  for a common domestic bird and it could, therefore, end up in the cooking pot rather than delight an ornithologist.

From the centre of domestication, the fowl soon moved where trade took the Indo-Aryans. Persia, modern day Iran, was possibly one the first countries to receive the domestic fowl from northwest India as part of the trade connections between the agricultural areas of the Indo-Gangetic plain and the Fertile Crescent. The Persians then took it to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), from where it went down to Asia Minor. In the 7th-8th century BC, it moved further to Greece and, by the 5th-6th century BC, it had encompassed a large area of the Mediterranean basin, where it received special privileges and honour in the Roman empire. The Romans considered it as sacred to Mars, the God of war, while Plato wrote of people cock-fighting instead of labouring.

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What makes it unique is the eclipse plumage, which is now used to identify the bird. An artist’s rendition of the red jungle fowl (below)
— Ram Kinker Baij (Delhi Art Gallery)

In Egypt, domestic fowl became firmly established under Greek and Persian influence. Several pictorial and written artefacts have been found in Egypt. One of them is a rooster’s head in a mural from the tomb of Rekhmara, vizier of Thutmose III (1479-1447 BC) at Thebes. Discovered in 1835, the drawings appeared in several books on Egyptian art and archaeology. The first reproduction was in Travels in Ethopia published in 1835. The mural depicted a procession of 50 human figures representing many races bringing tribute to Thutmose III. The tribute include a variety of animals and birds. Among them was a gold image of the head of a rooster with a pea comb and features of RJF.

The other possible route the fowl took while travelling to many parts of the globe is to Europe via the Black Sea through China and Russia. Ancient Chinese documents also indicate that the fowl was introduced in the country as early as the 13th or 14th century BC. The rooster is one of the 12 astrological signs in the Chinese calendar. They also reached the Germanic and Celtic tribes before the Christian era. They were brought to the us about 470 years ago with the European conquests.

Along with its spread, the fowl was christened according to the local dialect. For instance, pullet (young hen) in Latin comes from the word pil in Sanskrit.

It is said that among the 20 qualities such as courage that a human being should possess, four should be acquired from the fowl

The fowl’s diffusion rate is quite remarkable. It has been estimated at 1.5-3 kilometres a year, similar to the diffusion rate of technologies

Similarly, chicken and cock comes from Sanskrit kukuth or kukutha. Nomenclature aside, everywhere it went, it was regarded as a special bird (see box: Cocktale).

As the red jungle fowl started travelling across the globe, its connections to different aspects of human life also grew. It assumed the responsibility of sounding the wake-up call to humans. Because of this role, it was regarded as the Herald of Dawn and the guardian of good over evil in Zoroastrian. The call of the fowl means liberation from darkness. So profound was the veneration that by 1000 BC Zoroastrianism forbade the eating of the fowl. In Christian religious art, the crowing cock symbolised the resurrection of Christ. It was also the emblem of the first French Republic.

The Yoruba people of West Africa believe that the chicken made land on earth. As the story goes, the Sky God lowered his son Oduduwa and a five-toed chicken down a great chain from the heavens to the ancient waters. Along with the chicken, Oduduwa had a handful of dirt and a palm nut. He threw the dirt on the water. The chicken busily scratched and scattered the dirt all around until it formed the first dry land on earth.

In India, too, there are many beliefs and tales on the bird. One among them is the story of Goddess Kamakhya and the demon that wished to get wedded to her. He threatened mass destruction if she refused him. She then put a condition before him. Underestimating the demon’s capability, he was asked to build a temple overnight and the next morning she would be his. The demon got down to work and was in the process of finishing the temple much before dawn. Seeing that her trick did not work, she asked her trusted fowl to crow. Just before the last few bricks were to be laid, the fowl gave a full-throttled crow. And declared the arrival of dawn. The temple was left incomplete and the goddess was spared the ignominy of marrying a demon. The temple is now one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites and is located in Guwahati, Assam.

These are only a few stories about the fowl’s liaison with deities and lesser mortals.

The diffusion rate of the fowl is quite remarkable. In the book, The Chicken in America (1975), G F Carter, using dates of first records in widely separated places, estimated the rate to be between 1.5-3 kilometres a year — reasonably consistent with rates of other things like technologies and ideas. Backyard poultry became common. Soon people started developing newer breeds with selective cross breeding with other fowl, depending upon their egg laying and meat yielding characteristics. After a long period of trial and error the Asiatic, us and English breeds of the ‘chicken’ that we have today were finally born. All trace their parentage to RJF. Today, it has become a source of food for a large percentage of the world’s population. It is estimated that around 14,000 million tonnes of chicken was consumed in 1996 the world over. Unfortunately, in India, the land where it was domesticated first, the bird is almost forgotten. A recent study suggests that there may not be any pure strains of RJF left in the country. Worse still, nobody knows for sure because of the lack of research on the bird that gave us today’s ‘table God’.

Birds of a feather
Is the RJF extinct in the wild?

There are scientific theories on the monophyletic (tracing origin to one ancestor) and polyphyletic (many ancestors) origin of modern day fowls. The former goes with the theory of Charles Darwin (1868) that RJF is the sole ancestor of all the domestic chicken. He considered RJF the sole ancestor because, among other things, domestic fowls mated freely with RJF and progeny from this were fertile. The second theory says other three jungle fowl species — Celyon, grey and green — could also have contributed to the domestic fowl. The majority opinion, however, goes with the former theory attributing RJF as the mother of all domestic fowl.

If one goes by the popular belief on RJF origin, a paper, "Genetic endangerment of wild red jungle fowl Gallus gallus?", published in 1999 in Bird Conservation International by two us scientists Lehr Brisbin and A Townsend Peterson, is bad news for India and RJF. According to the authors, RJF has been genetically-contaminated over the years and there might be no pure strain of the fowl left. A survey of the 745 museum specimens of the RJF suggests that "percentagewise, about 99 per cent of captive populations and potentially all of wild populations have been contaminated by introgression of genes from domestic or feral chicken".

The researchers say that this is evident from observing the male eclipse plumage, an important indicator of a pure RJF. Although the eclipse plumage is somewhat observed in central and western populations, it has not been observed in eastern populations. The plumage is believed to have disappeared from Malaysia and the neighbouring countries by the 1920s. In extreme Southeast Asia and the Philippines, it is said to have disappeared even before scientific documentation began around the 1860s. The good news is the researchers did find some pure stock, though dismally low scattered in South Asia. In India and Nepal, the percentage of specimens having eclipse plumage was calculated at 18.2 per cent and 19.4 per cent in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. Other typical characteristics that were taken into consideration were the dusky black legs and the lack of comb in the hen. So far, the authors have only taken the external morphology into consideration, but at present they are preparing to initiate deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) studies in collaboration with several chicken genome laboratories.

The authors claim that the only pure RJF strains are the ones with them. Collected from western India in the 1960s, they now number 50-100. "They have been kept under typical avicultural conditions at several aviaries across usa," says Peterson, who is also associate professor and curator, Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Centre, University of Kansas.

Peterson describes the species as "critically endangered". "This is funny given that the species was not even imagined to be in trouble prior to our work, but it may well be effectively

"About 99 per cent of captive RJF populations and potentially all wild populations have been contaminated by domestic or feral chicken"

extinct in the wild... replaced by chickens-in-jungle fowl-clothing," he adds.

Hopeful, still
Although the researchers have given evidence on the genetic contamination of RJF, other experts say that the scenario is not as pitiable as portrayed by them. "I know that there are still pure populations of red jungle fowl in several areas," says Ludo Pinceel, coordinator for research and education of the European Jungle Fowl Group (EJFG), Belgium. Agrees Satya Kumar of Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, "There are good stocks in several protected areas of India like the Kalesar reserve forest in Haryana. These stocks show many pure RJF features." He is also optimistic that the fowl population in Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have no or negligible gene contamination, but has no scientific studies to back his claim.

There are apprehensions, however, on what "pure" means. Given the status of poor research and conservation, it is very hard to give correct facts and figures. According to Rahul Kaul,

"About 99 per cent of captive RJF populations and potentially all wild populations have been contaminated by domestic or feral chicken"

South Asia coordinator of the World Pheasant Association, the debate and the apprehensions will continue till the genetic mapping of RJF is done. But this is easier said than done. "The basic problem is we do not have a definite DNA of a RJF that we can call ‘pure’ so we can compare other RJF DNAs. The us, apparently, has the right markers," he says.

Although initiatives have been taken to develop markers and study RJF genes, there are hurdles on the way. Besides the money factor, research on genetics is turning out to be very time consuming, says Kaul. "But now that the issue of contamination has been raised, no research will be complete without taking the genetic aspects into account," he says.

The rooster finds a place on the walls of tribal people’s houses
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There are a lot of references to the RJF in books written during the period of the British Raj. It has been mentioned as a favourite game bird. But that is all about the information that is there on RJF during the last two centuries, says Kaul. "There are a few RJF in zoos. But the concept of record keeping or observation of the birds is just not there. Even the origin of many RJF in zoos is not known," he adds.

Unsafe or secure?
Amid the gloom surrounding RJF data, an experiment in Haryana gives some hope

According to the World Conservation Union’s listing, the bird is safe and secure. But it appears in India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as a Schedule IV species — no hunting of the bird is permitted. "Until now, RJF was considered as ‘not globally threatened’. But in the light of our present knowledge, we think that ‘seriously endangered’ would be a better qualification," says Pinceel. "Normally one should think there are enough populations left in the huge area in which they occur, but the major question is of purity. The problem is that there are a lot of red jungle fowl like birds, but perhaps they are seriously infected with domestic genes," he says.

Amid the lack of awareness and neglect of RJF in India, there is but one effort in saving the fowl that stands out — the captive breeding programme of RJF in Morni Hills, Haryana, undertaken by the Haryana State Forest Department. Started in 1991-92 with some local stock of RJF and eggs that were collected from the jungle, the stock is kept in an enclosure. In 1998, they successfully introduced 14 birds in the wild followed by seven in 1999.

Though the reason for starting the project was not out of concern for RJF per se, now the objective has shifted to reintroducing mature birds in the wild and replenishing the wild stock. S K Khanna, a veterinary specialist with the Government Poultry Disease and Feed Analytical Laboratory, Ambala, Haryana, explains the reason behind their objective. Habitat destruction and consequent decrease in RJF numbers could lead to an increase in some insect population, which make up a part of the RJF’s diet. The Morni Hills project will thus give a chance to scientists to study the impact of RJF on insect population and the health of the population living in areas where there is human-jungle interface. They can also study the productivity and immunoresistance capabilities of the fowl. "This is a long-term project. To begin with, we have been slow because of lack of technical skill and funding," says Khanna. "But as of now, there are no studies to show that decrease in RJF population could lead to subsequent increase in insect population," says Kaul.

The captive breeding project in Morni Hills, near Chandigarh, aims to replenish wild stocks of the red jungle fowl. So far, it has already released 21 of them

According to Satya Kumar, the Morni Hills stock is healthy and shows all the traits that the pure jungle fowl has. "We can say that the stock is relatively pure," he says. With a healthy population of the RJF in the nearby Kalesar reserve forest, the Morni Hills programme does seem to hold some promise for research on the RJF. "We are planning set up sub

"Until now, RJF was considered as ‘not globally threatened... but we think that ‘seriously endangered’ would be a better qualification"

centres as well and we are also trying to analyse and clear all the proposals for research that are given to us. As the genetic contamination issue is very important now, we have to look into every aspect of RJF," says P R Sinha, member secretary, Central Zoo Authority, Delhi.

The tangri is a considered a delicacy in India. But with the new World Trade Organisation rules, they may not be so for chicken breeders across the country

According to Pinceel, the Wildlife Institute at Bologna, Italy, is also working on a large World Pheasant Association project, particularly the four species of jungle fowl. One of the most important aims is to find a method to recognise hybrids from RJF. But wildlife samples for taxonomic studies are not allowed to be exported from India. "This would somewhat slow the research work which is in progress in various labs, because these laboratories will miss important reference samples. It would be important if DNA research on RJF could be implemented in India, perhaps in collaboration with other laboratories throughout the world," says Ettore Randi, Pinceel’s colleague.

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"There are a few RIF in zoos. But the concept of record keeping or observation of the birds is just not there. Even the origin of many RIF in zoos is not known"

— RAHUL KAUL, Regional Coordinator
(South Asia), World Pheasant Association

Meanwhile, in the us, companies are already making headway in genetically modifying chicken to suit market demands. Many are worried that this may further threaten the purity of the original fowl (see box: Fowl play).


Fowl play
Modifying chicken to suit the palate. Is it safe?

Breast meat is a delicacy in USA. So much so that a company called Avigenics has decided to genetically modify chicken into one that can give the country’s citizens more breast meat per palate and plate. Or to derive some medical benefit for the pharmaceutical industry. That’s not all. It is also thinking of copyrighting the DNA tag to prevent anyone from using the same technology. This they plan to do by introducing a unique DNA sequence into the ‘new’ chicken gene.

Chicken are injected with human genes to produce human proteins like insulin in their egg whites (albumen). The roosters ‘created’ by Avigenics have reportedly passed on a substance called ‘alpha interferon’ to new generations of chicken. Alpha interferon is used to treat Hepatitis and some malignancies. The same technology will be used to create chicken for daily human consumption. Genes will be added or removed from the chicken to yield better breast muscles or greater resistance to diseases. The company is also planning to make their new transgenic chicken available to poultry breeders as well.

Concerns have been raised about the dangers of making genetically modified (GM) chicken. It is reported that GM fish — the first modified animal life meant for human consumption — are breeding along with their natural counterparts. This is threatening the population of the natural ones as well as their purity. Similar things are feared with GM chicken. Those involved in the GM chicken experiment, however, argue that years of selective crossbreeding have created chicken totally different from their ancestors anyway.


Why save the rooster?
Poultry mess
Blacked Out

For the rest of the article   please refer to the printed copy of Down To Earth   December  15, 2000 or SUBSCRIBE HERE.

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