Chickens and Science Lessons
Photo by Rachael Brugger
Chickens can be used to teach high-school students about breeding for certain traits, like comb type.
For older students, science and its applied cousin, agriculture, are obvious places where chickens fit into the curriculum. Students can start by learning chicken anatomy
High-school and college students can even use poultry as a gateway to understanding genetics. Single genes influence crests; naked neck and reduced feathering; different comb types such as rose, pea or single; and the fifth toe on Silkies, a trait called polydactyly. Interbreeding color varieties demonstrates full and incomplete dominance, such as occurs with blue dilution. The blue color variety breeds offspring in which half the chicks are blue, one quarter are black and the other quarter are splash, a mix of blue and white feathers in irregular-shaped splotches rather than distinct v-shaped ticking.
While students in the middle grades may not be ready to chart chickens’ genetic traits, they can look to poultry for a primer in agriculture. At Bauer Speck Middle School in Paso Robles, Calif., fifth-grade teacher Judy Honerkamp focuses her lessons on chickens during the school’s annual Ag in the Classroom Days. The mission of the event is to raise awareness of agriculture, where food comes from and the importance of food systems in our lives. Studying chickens helps her students learn about life processes and cycles, food cycles, and key agricultural concepts.
“It gives the kids education along with fun,” she says.
Honerkamp has found chickens to be an especially useful tool in teaching about domestication and its biological impacts. Biologically, only a few among the millions of species of animals have been suited to domestication. Chickens are among the earliest domesticated animals, dating back nearly 8,000 years.
To introduce the concepts of domestication, start with the fact that chickens lay eggs year-round, unlike seasonal-laying wild birds. Many chickens take a break from laying in the winter, a remnant of their wild heritage and biological relation to the length of daylight. You can even link all this to the anatomy and physiology of chickens by comparing them to other birds. Here are some points to consider:
- Hens do not need a rooster to continue to lay.
- Wild birds mate and lay eggs seasonally, usually in the spring. This allows chicks to hatch during good weather, making their survival more likely.
- Geese, along with some ducks, remain seasonal layers.
- Other duck breeds have been bred as egg layers and lay as many eggs as chickens.
All of these domestic traits (and more) have been purposefully bred into birds by human owners over the last 8,000 years.
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