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The Big Book

12 crazy facts about chickens, and then some

Kai Ryssdal and Tommy Andres Feb 12, 2015
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In his book “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” author Andrew Lawler traces poultry’s path from a few small forests to nearly every dinner table in America. 

Here’s some stuff from the book that blew our minds:

1. At any given time, 20 billion chickens are alive and squawking on our planet. That’s three for every human, and more than all the cats, dogs, pigs, cows and rats combined.

2. The only country without live chickens is Vatican City. The only continent without them is Antarctica.

3. Under federal law, chickens are not considered livestock, or even classified as animals, if they are raised for food. 

4. Though it can barely fly, the chicken has become the world’s most migratory bird, in food form. One bird can be parceled out to half a dozen countries or more. For example: The feet go to China, the legs to Russia, wings to Spain, intestines to Turkey, bones to Amsterdam for soup and breasts to America.

5. In Ancient Greece, sacrificing a cock to Asclepius (the god of medicine) was a common practice of a sick person who wanted to get well. Today when we’re sick we eat chicken soup. Chicken does indeed have healing properties: The meat contains cysteine, an amino acid that is related to the active ingredient in a drug used to treat bronchitis. A 2011 study by an Iowa physician determined that people with viral illnesses who ate chicken soup recovered faster than those who didn’t.

6. Chicken bones found in western South America indicate that Polynesians reached the New World at least 100 years before Columbus, and that they were raising chickens first too. Pre-Columbian chickens means that Old World and New World humans met sometime after the end of the Ice Age and before Columbus.

7. Roosters have no penises. Instead, a male chicken fertilizes the female’s eggs by inverting its cloacae (the single-lane end of the urinary and digestive tracts) and pressing it against hers. “Biology can’t explain why our favored slang word for the male organ refers to a bird that lacks one,” Lawler writes.

8. Roosters are randy, maybe that’s why: “Male chickens prefer new partners to familiar ones. Scientists call this salacious behavior the ‘Coolidge effect,'” Lawler writes. “During separate tours of a chicken farm by President Calvin Coolidge and his wife in the 1920s, Mrs. Coolidge remarked on a rooster that was busy mating. She was told that this behavior took place dozens of times daily. ‘Tell that to the president when he comes by,’  she said cooly. When the message was relayed, the president asked if the rooster mated with the same hen. He was told no, that the male preferred a variety of partners. ‘Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge,’ he responded.”

9. In 2007, a scientific team extracted a protein from a 68 million-year-old tyrannosaurus rex and found it to be identical to one that exists in the chicken. Let’s see if “Jurassic World” updates its dino-DNA video.

10. Chickens called “bilateral gynandromorphs” that contain distinctively male and female parts on separate sides of their bodies. This has occasionally led to chickens that look like roosters but can lay eggs. They inspired the mythological creature known as the basilisk, a rooster said to lay an egg that would hatch into a chicken with a lizard or dragon body.

11. Thank Charles Vantress next time you sit down to a chicken dinner. He won the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest in 1951, sort of an X-prize for bigger-breasted poultry. To compete with pork and beef, A&P supermarkets helped organize the contest that challenged farmers, scientists and breeders to come up with “breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks.” Nearly every chicken we eat today is a descendant of the Vantress.

12. Today the average American eats around 70 pounds of chicken a year, five times the 1950 amount. The chickens have also gotten much bigger. Before the “Chicken of Tomorrow” took hold, a broiler required an average of 70 days to reach the average weight of 3.1 pounds, with 3 pounds of feed needed per pound of bird. In 2010, only 47 days were needed to make a 5.7-pound bird that required less than 2 pounds of feed.

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