Chickens brought to New Zealand by Captain Cook

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A red junglefowl rooster, ancestor to modern domesticated chicken Gallus gallus, part of the Introduced wild population established on the island of Kauai Kauai, Hawaii.
Credit: Wild Horizons/UIG via Getty Images

Chickens were introduced to New Zealand by Captain James Cook on his second voyage, and not transferred there from existing populations in Polynesia, a new study concludes.

The Australian study used radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis to determine the age and origins of ancient chicken bones from three archaeological sites on New Zealand’s South Island.

The researchers found the age of the bones from two sites corresponded almost exactly with Cook’s 1773 expedition to the area.

The bones from the third site, were younger and were probably from birds brought there by seal hunters.

Surprisingly none of the chicken bones appear to have belonged to birds brought to New Zealand from elsewhere in the Pacific, as was common practice among Polynesians.

“When the first Polynesians were exploring or settling in the Pacific, they had to have a survival strategy and part of that strategy was to bring chickens to snack on or establish in the new environment,” Geneticist and co-author Michael Herrera, from the University of Adelaide, told the ABC.

Chickens were first brought to Polynesia between 1000 CE and 1300 CE and chicken bones from later expansion and settlement of human populations have been found on islands such as Hawaii and Easter Island.

While people travelled to New Zealand they appeared not to have established colonies of chickens.

Herrera says one reason may have been the abundance of food already available on the islands.

“If they did bring chickens with them, because large game are available like flightless birds, maybe it wasn’t worth the effort to establish them because there were other resources available,” he said.

Like the Polynesians, Cook transported chickens with him as a food resource for his crew.

Records show he acquired chickens at least once during his voyage to the Pacific.

When there, he gifted several pairs of roosters and hens to Maori chiefs, close to the areas where the bones were found.

Cook wrote in his log book that he had little confidence the birds would survive. Nevertheless, one year after chickens were released at West Bay in Marlborough Sound, a fresh hen’s egg was found there.

“Previously, there has been no record of what became of the chickens Captain Cook left in New Zealand, yet the bones examined here suggest they may have been bred and transported by Maori moving along the east coast of the South Island, and were possibly traded between groups,” the researchers wrote.

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