BIG BIRD

That massive, viral chicken would have seemed totally normal to Americans before the age of factory farming

You might have already seen the video of a giant white rooster that has left the internet stunned today. The bird has quickly been identified by viewers as a brahma chicken. While some call the animal “terrifying,” the bird used to be much more common before the advent of industrial farming, and it’s pretty good-natured too.

The video was first posted in a Facebook group dedicated to decorative poultries on March 17. It shows the brahma chicken ducking its head before emerging from a green wooden coop, extending one long leg, then another as it walks down the ladder. Once totally out in the open, the bird makes a grand entrance flapping its wings, turning around to reveal its sheer size.

The brahma chicken is a heritage breed and was once one of the most popular chickens available on the market, raised for both meat and eggs. Before US industrial farms grew to rely on just one commercial breed—the industrial hybrid called the Cornish cross chicken, which is white and small in size but has a large breast—poultry used to come from birds like the brahma.

“They were very popular up until 1930s or so, until industrial agriculture took over with these quick-growing breeds, and that’s why the brahma and other heritage breeds trailed off,” says Ryan Walker of The Livestock Conservancy, which advocates for livestock diversity. Industrial hybrids are ready for market in four to six weeks, but the brahma could take anywhere between 12 weeks to two years.

“If you stepped back 100 years before industrial farming took place,” says Walker, “there would be a much larger piece of the pie made up of these large birds.”

But this bird is jumbo-sized even among its peers. Judging from the video, Dianna Mejstrik, district director of American Brahma Club, estimates it to be around 3 feet (91cm) tall and weighing about 10 pounds (4.5kg). To compare, the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection states the standard brahma rooster is 2.5 feet tall, says Mejstrik, with pullets, hens, and roosters weighing 5 to 8 pounds.

“He had to really duck down to get out of that structure,” says Mejstrik, who raises 20 brahmas in Glenwood, Iowa, for showing. “It’s quite an impressive brahma.”

Also known as pure or standard breeds, heritage chickens must adhere to four standards: They must mate naturally, be raised outdoors and not in confinement, grow slowly, and be traceable to recognized mid-20th century breeds.

Mejstrik says these majestic birds are “absolutely adorable”: laid back, docile, and hardy. They can also withstand cold winters in the north, thanks to their thick feathers. Sold only by breeder farms, their advantage over industrial “egg-laying machines” is that they are healthier, free-ranged birds, she says. Their meat is leaner and more full-bodied.

But because they take more effort to raise, the brahma is rare and considered an endangered livestock by the conservancy. Data collected by the conservancy during a 2015 national census indicates there were 7,505 brahmas across the US.

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