Chicken population by country, 2010* –
World: 19.5 billion
Asia 10.1 billion
U.S. 2.3 billion
Europe 1.9 billion
Africa 1.6 billion
Latin 2.9 billion
What They Mean
Science has spoken: the egg came first. The modern chicken is a domesticated descendant of the “Red Junglefowl,” a bird native to the Himalayan foothills. Genetic experts have recently determined though, that there’s a bit of “Grey Junglefowl” DNA mixed in as well, which accounts for the yellow legs found on the common chicken but not the Red J. Somewhere around 10,000 years ago, therefore – likely in a village or temporary camp in the vicinity of modern-day Thailand – the crossing of a wild Grey rooster with a tame Red hen (or vice versa) produced an egg from which emerged the first modern chicken. So unless the geneticists change their minds, it’s settled.
Ten millennia later, this chick’s descendants have a reasonable claim to be the world’s most populous bird. Counting beaks in 2010, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization found 19.5 billion chickens, producing 1.1 trillion eggs annually. By way of context, a decade ago two ornithologists (Gaston & Blackburn, in the Journal of Conservation and Biodiversity) estimated the world’s total bird population at a figure somewhere between 200 billion and 400 billion. ProgressiveEconomy lacks the expertise to endorse or to critique this figure. But if the low-end estimate is correct, one in ten of the world’s birds would be a chicken. Some quick data:
Chicken populations:Chickens remain most populous in the lands near their birth: 4.8 billion roost in China, 1.6 billion in Indonesia ((home to the “bantam” rooster, named for the erstwhile Javanese capital Bantam), 1 billion in India, and another 1 billion are scattered around Southeast Asia. The western hemisphere ranks just behind, with 2.1 billion in the United States, 1.2 billion in Brazil, and 500 million in Mexico. Worldwide, the 19.5 billion total means a rooster, hen, and chick per human being. Brunei Darussalam’s stunning 13 million chickens for 400,000 people leads the world in bird-to-human ratio, at 33:1.
Production and Value: The 19.5 billion chickens produce 86 million tons of meat per year, for a production value of about $120 billion. The U.S.’ $23 billion accounts for a fifth of the total.
Trade: World exports of chicken meat come to 10.7 million tons per year, meaning that trade accounts for about an eighth of world production. The biggest buyers are China and Hong Kong at 1.5 million tons of chicken, followed by Russia at 900,000 tons and Saudi Arabia at 500,000. Two poultry-trade superpowers, U.S. and Brazil, account for 7 million tons and $8 billion of the $16 billion annual value. By comparison, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s cautious estimate of international arms exports is about $50 billion for 2007 – the most recent year available – which places the chicken-meat trade at a third of the value of weapons sales. Egg trading, meanwhile, runs at 1.4 million tons and $2 billion a year, with the U.S. second to China by weight but leading in dollar-value.
The U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization’s database for farm trade and production includes chicken, other animals and meats, plants and vegetables, and processed foods (but not fish): http://faostat.fao.org/site/573/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=573#ancor
Poultry analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Poultry/Trade.htm
Compare and contrast – Arms sale data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): http://books.sipri.org/product_info?c_product_id=443
The American Poultry Association: http://www.amerpoultryassn.com/
The Economist charts livestock by country: http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/07/global-livestock-counts
Blackburn & Gaston on world bird populations in general: http://www.springerlink.com/content/g462245897502720/
The home of the Bantam Rooster: http://www.humasprotokol.bantenprov.go.id/
The Red Junglefowl: http://www.arkive.org/red-junglefowl/gallus-gallus/
And last –
Aristotle confounded – First to raise the chicken-or-egg question in print, Aristotle discounted the possibility that the egg could be first. Unfamiliar with DNA, he argued that eggs by definition require layers, and that the question was therefore meaningless. Too bad! Wikipedia summarizes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_or_the_egg
Darwin partially confounded – C. Darwin thought the chicken came directly from the Red Junglefowl. Very good guess! But not quite right. Science Daily explains the Grey Junglefowl link: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080229102059.htm
The debate continues – Confident (unless something else turns up) about the chicken’s genetic origin, scientists continue to argue about geography. A 2007 study pinpointed northern Thailand around 10,000 years ago. Others prefer a multiregional hypothesis in which separate first-chicken breeding events occur in Southeast Asia, India, and China. Chicken then reached Europe and Egypt via the “Indus civilization” known from sites such as Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan around 1500 BC, and sub-Saharan Africa by 500 BC. Experts debate the arrival of the chicken in the Americas, apparently a few centuries before Columbus. Background: http://archaeology.about.com/od/domestications/qt/chicken.htm