An overheard snippet of conversation can lead to terminal curiosity! That happened to me one day, when I had tuned in late to NPR and heard an author discussing his book—about chickens, no less—explaining how the worldwide spread of chickens was enormously important both to human culture and nutrition.
The book turned out to be “Why did the Chicken Cross the World?” by Andrew Lawler, interviewed on Marketplace by Kai Ryssdal. I bought the book recently and when a newspaper article happened to mention that this Chinese New Year was the Year of the Rooster, everything started falling into place.
Westerners use a solar calendar whose primary purpose is to exactly mark the time that it takes the sun to return to an identical position in the heavens. We tend to say that a solar year is 365 days long. However, in reality, it is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and approximately 46 seconds long.
And because there is a partial day involved, we have leap years with an added day included in February to compensate for that discrepancy.
There are also are lunar calendars where months are counted by visualizing a new moon that happens every 29.5 days. The lunar calendar has only 354.4 days which leaves an 11 day discrepancy in synchronizing with the solar year. This is calendar used without any correction in the Muslim world and that is the reason that significant events such as Ramadan, cannot be expected to fall in a particular season.
There is a combination calendar called lunisolar devised so that a lunar calendar has built in leap-months providing the necessary synchrony with the solar calendar. It is done especially so that certain holidays will occur at certain specific times of the year.
It was pointed out to me years ago, that the Chinese New Year always falls on or close to the Jewish new moon (month) that occurs in February. In this year’s case, Friday night, Jan. 27, 2017, marked the beginning of Chinese New Year and the Jewish month of Shevat.
Horoscopes and astrological readings seem to draw many people although I am not among them. However, many years ago, we were in Hawaii at a park that included statues of the Chinese animals associated with each Chinese year. There are twelve animals that are used in a strict rotation. A plaque accompanied each statue listing the personality characteristics of those persons born on each named year.
I was amused to see that some of the associations were closer than I would have thought by chance. Roosters—those born during the “Year of the Rooster”—are healthy and athletic, attractive and socially adept, amusing and hardworking.
Meanwhile let us return to the fowl itself —the chicken. Once, we were somewhere overseas at a zoo and several roosters sauntered by. There are many breeds of chickens and some are more colorful than others but these roosters were exquisite with feathers in hues of bronze, green, black and yellow. All I could think of was “If we weren’t so busy eating them, we might really appreciate them.”
The original chicken seems to have been the red jungle fowl of South Asia of 7-10,000 years ago. Archeological evidence shows them spreading west through Asia and Europe and eastward through the Pacific islands. They had multiple uses. Chickens were used as sacrifices and as a protein source both as meat and eggs. Apparently cockfighting is a wildly popular sport in some countries. Until World War II chickens for meat was not that popular in the US but with beef and pork feeding our servicemen overseas, chicken took on greater importance and in 1951 the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest led to breeding our modern meaty varieties.
One family in North Riverdale has kept ducks for years, but, so far, I have never seen any chickens!
Sura Jeselsohn lives in Riverdale. Point of View is a column open to all.
Editor’s Note: We know of at least two North Riverdale families who have, indeed, kept chickens, but the city doesn’t allow roosters—something about their noisy crowing. Perhaps that’s why Ms. Jeselsohn was unaware of the flocks.