Chickens and History Lessons
Chickens have made appearances in centuries' worth of history lessons.
The connection between chickens and the study of science and agriculture is obvious, but it turns out poultry are no less useful as social-studies teaching tools.
Historically, chickens have followed humans on our journey, and mythology surrounds them as a result. A coin with a rooster on it was found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. To the ancient Greeks, chickens were a symbol of light and health. The Romans required white chickens for some ceremonial purposes, black ones for others. Roman art documents early chicken breeds, including mosaics that show a chicken similar to the current Dorking breed, identifiable by its fifth toe and colorful plumage.
Marco Polo’s reports about the amazing things he’d seen on his travels across Asia to China were so fantastic to Europeans that many didn’t believe him. His description of a chicken with feathers like hair was dismissed as a fantasy or even an outright lie, but it was true. Silkie chickens, native to China, do have hair-like feathers. They are also gentle in disposition and make good broody hens, able to set eggs and hatch them. It’s a trait that has been bred out of many breeds, because hens stop laying eggs while broody. Silkies’ black skin and bones have given them mythic status in their homeland, where chicken soup made from their carcasses is considered medicinal.
Chickens are even used to help tell the story of early America at Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg. Currently, the living history museum keeps flocks of Dominique chickens, (considered the first American breed), Dorkings, Nankins and Silkies. The Old English Game flock will be restored to the museum this year.
Elaine Shirley, Colonial Williamsburg’s manager of rare breeds, carries chickens to her presentations in a poultry basket the way they would have been taken to market in the 18th century.
“Chickens are small and portable,” she says. “Most of them are cool about being handled and will sit in your hand.”
Shirley’s presentations also include a piece of information that surprises many students: Many 18th-century poultry keepers bred their birds for cockfighting, a sport that enjoyed widespread popularity during that era but is illegal in all 50 states today.
“They were very common, and some of the best fighting cocks were raised by a woman in England,” Shirley explains. “A fighting cock was trained like an athlete and fed specific foods.”
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