New Zealand Rare Breeds Website: – Information


Origin and Dispersal 

The English language contains no single word that refers to the domestic cock and hen collectively and exusively. However, the word “chooks” (from British dialect) is widely used in New Zealand and Australia to describe this poultry species (Gallus gallus domesticus), and is accordingly used on this website. It is accepted that the the word “Chicken”, which originally referred to young domestic fowl, is now generally used to refer to adults as well – this usage was first included in the Concise Oxford Dictionary in the 1990s – but it has the disadvantage of not differentiating between young and old, or between alive and dead.


Male Red Junglefowl
Male Red Junglefowl

It is generally accepted that domestic fowls – our Chooks – are a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl of Asia (Gallus gallus). Although they are one of the most common and widespread of all domestic animals, some of the details of their domesication and subsequent spread throughout the world are as yet uncertain.

In 2012 a study by researchers from Australia, USA, New Zealand, Japan, Spain and Chile, was published examining mitochondrial DNA from forty-eight archaeologically derived chicken bones recovered from sites in Europe, Thailand, the Pacific and Chile, and from Spanish colonial sites in Florida and the Dominican Republic. The results provided support for archaeological hypotheses that the domestic fowl had been taken by human agency to Europe at about 1000 BP* and the Pacific at about 3000 BP*, indicating multiple prehistoric dispersals from a single Asian centre. These two dispersal pathways converged in the Americas where they were introduced both by Polynesians and later by Europeans. The earliest undisputed date for domestication is approximately 5,400 BP* from the Hebei province of China. (Storey et al 2012.)

Poultry of the World
Poultry of the World, 1868

Many of the chook breeds that we have today were developed in the mid-nineteenth century when “fowl fever” or “poultry mania” raged through Victorian Britain. Poultry were seen in a new light and an influx of new breeds not only delivered aesthetic appeal, with a resultant added interest in showing the birds, but also with greatly enhanced egg laying and meat capabilities. (Cawthray 2014; Trotter and McCulloch 2010.)

Although domestic fowls were an important item of livestock for the Polynesians, where they were established in most East Polynesian island groups (and appear to have been introduced by them into South America), there is no evidence that they brought them to New Zealand when they arrived about a thousand years ago. A probable explanation is that their stock was consumed, or otherwise failed to survive, on the canoe journey from their homeland island.

Feeding the fowls
Feeding the fowls, 1885

The first poultry known to be introduced into New Zealand were those brought by James Cook on his second voyage in 1773-1774, and although on his subsequent voyage in 1777 he was told that a local chief had “a great many Cocks and Hens” (Beaglehole 1976:76) it was not known how long they survived.   A 2016 study using radiocarbon dating revealed that some domestic fowl bones found in late Maori middens pre-dated permanent European settlement (ca 1803s onwards) but overlaped with the arrival of James Cook’s second voyage of 1773-1774, and therefore were likely to be some of those, or progeny thereof, liberated during that voyage. (Wood et al 2016.)

Subsequently domestic fowl, along with other livestock, were brought into this country by missionaries and other visitors and settlers in the early nineteenth century, such as Samuel Marsden in 1814 (Marsden 1913).

Before the end of the nineteenth century breeds that were being shown in New Zealand were: Andalusian, Brahma, Chochin, Dorking, Game, Houdan, Java, Langshan, Leghorn, Minorca, Plymouth Rock, Poland, Red Cap, Spanish, and Wyandotte. Not all of these breeds exist here today.

* BP (Before Present) is a term used in radiocarbon dating to mean before AD 1950.


Beaglehole, J. C., 1967. The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780. Hakluyt Society, Cambridge University Press.

Cawthray, Andy, 2014. A brief history of heritage chickens. The Guardian, 24 April 2014.

Dohner, Janet Vorwald, 2001. The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Marsden, J. B., 1913. Life and Work of Samuel Marsden. Whitcombe and Tombs, New Zealand

Storey et al 2012. Investigating the Global Dispersal of Chickens in Prehistory Using Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Signatures. By Alice A. Storey, J. Stephen Athens, David Bryant, Mike Carson, Kitty Emery, Susan deFrance, Charles Higham, Leon Huynen, Michiko Intoh, Sharyn Jones, Patrick V. Kirch, Thegn Ladefoged, Patrick McCoy, Arturo Morales-Muñiz, Daniel Quiroz, Elizabeth Reitz, Judith Robins, Richard Walter, and Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith.   PLOS ONE (Public Library of Science), San Francisco.

Trotter, Michael, and McCulloch, Beverley, 2010. Rare Breeds of Heritage Livestock in New Zealand. David Bateman, Auckland.

Wood et al 2016. Origin and timing of New Zealand's earliest domestic chickens: Polynesian commensals or European introductions? By Jamie R. Wood, Michael J. B. Herrera, R. Paul Scofield, and Janet M. Wilmshurst.   Royal Society Open Science. (Independent scientific academy of the UK.)

Back to Chooks

© Copyright 
  Go to Rare Breeds Home Page 
See also Navigation Bar at top of this page

Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand

HTML5 icon