Red Junglefowl

Gallus gallus

Red Junglefowl - Male
Jason Thompson / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Believed to be the direct ancestor of all domestic chickens, the red junglefowl is an attractive game bird with a long history of association with humans. That association, however, is one of the greatest threats to this member of the Phasianidae bird family. Because of hybridization with feral and domestic poultry, this wild chicken is facing genetic extinction. Learning more about the red junglefowl is the first step toward protecting it, and this fact sheet can help every birder better appreciate one of the most familiar bird ancestors in the world.

Fast Facts:

  • Scientific Name: Gallus gallus
  • Common Name: Red Junglefowl, Wild Chicken, Jungle Chicken
  • Lifespan: 12-14 years
  • Size: 18-29 inches
  • Weight: 1.5-2 pounds
  • Wingspan: 15-20 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Red Junglefowl Identification

The overall jizz of the red junglefowl, including the round body, long tail, and small head, immediately identify these birds as game birds or poultry, but birders must look more closely to be certain of the field marks that identify the species. Red junglefowl have a small, pale bill that is hooked at the end, and both males and females have pale grayish legs and feet. Otherwise, males and females look very different, and males are much more dramatic with a red-gold head and neck and long, graceful feathers on the upper parts. A fleshy red comb tops the head and paler red wattles frame the cheeks. The male’s chest and underparts are black, and the long, dark tail shows green iridescence and a bright white rump patch. Green and blue iridescence shows on the wings.

Females are much more camouflaged with mottled red and brown plumage and smaller, duller wattles on the face. Females also lack the long tail, but may show some minor orange or gold iridescence on the neck.

Juveniles look similar to females but have slightly darker underparts. Young males (called cockerels or cocks) will quickly develop their mature plumage. These birds show their boldest colors and smoothest plumes during the breeding season. During the non-breeding season, males will molt into a much duller, less dramatic eclipse plumage.

These are noisy, vocal birds with shrill, cackling calls that sound similar to domestic chickens. Like their domestic cousins, they call mostly in the morning but will issue alarm calls whenever necessary.

Red Junglefowl Habitat and Distribution

Red junglefowl prefer open woodland and scrub areas, as well as grassland, plantations, and agricultural areas, where they often stay on the fringes of forests and jungles that provide safe cover. Though domestic chickens are found worldwide with different degrees of hybridization, true red junglefowl are native only to southeastern Asia including eastern India, southern China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These birds have also been introduced as a wild species on many islands throughout the Pacific Ocean, as well as in eastern Australia. Escaped domestic chickens, which can often resemble red junglefowl quite closely, may be seen nearly anywhere.

Migration Pattern

Red junglefowl may roam widely in search of food, particularly during periods of drought or other times when preferred foods may be scarce. Despite their wandering behavior, however, these birds do not regularly migrate.

Behavior

These are shy game birds that spook easily and when threatened will run or flush into low flight. They are strong fliers, roost overnight in trees, and feed on the ground, scratching in leaf litter and dirt while foraging. In the non-breeding season, they join mixed flocks with other game birds, though in the breeding season they are highly territorial and will establish a hierarchical "pecking order" among birds in the same flock. Submissive birds will crouch before more dominant birds, which will stand taller and more imposing with the tail raised.

Diet and Feeding

Red junglefowl are omnivorous and will take advantage of a wide range of food sources. They prefer seeds, grain, small insects, and fruit, but will eat different parts of plants including buds and roots, and may also eat nuts, small lizards, and other foods that are readily available. When feeding, they scratch at the ground to uncover seeds and insects, then peck rapidly where they have scratched. On rare occasions, red junglefowl may forage in trees to peck at ripe fruit.

Nesting

These are monogamous birds in the wild, though hybridized and domestic birds are frequently polygamous. Males will entice females with courtship dances that include displaying food, clucking, and bobbing motions. Interbreeding with domestic and feral birds is common. Nests are shallow scrapes positioned on the ground, often under a clump of grass or brush for camouflage and protection. The nest is typically lined with small sticks, feathers, bits of leaves, and grass.

Eggs and Young

A female red junglefowl will incubate a brood of three to seven pale, cream or light brown eggs for 18 to 21 days. After hatching, the chicks can move and forage very soon, and the female parent will care for and guide the chicks for up to 85 days until the young birds form their own social group.

Red Junglefowl Conservation

While the red junglefowl is not considered threatened or endangered, the pure genetics of Gallus gallus is at great risk from hybridization with feral and domesticated chickens throughout its range, particularly in extreme southeastern Asia and the Philippines, where genetically pure red junglefowl may already be extinct. When poultry is allowed to roam freely, the birds interbreed and the unique characteristics of the wild birds are lost. Eliminating feral chicken populations in sensitive habitats and encouraging better control of domestic poultry to prevent this hybridization is essential to ensure the red junglefowl is not completely lost. Further genetic testing and analysis of different red junglefowl populations will be necessary to determine where such conservation efforts are most critical.

Tips for Backyard Birders

In suitable areas of their native range, red junglefowl will easily roam into yards and gardens where food is available, including insects, berries, and weed seeds, and they will happily forage in leaf litter and tilled soil. These birds will also come to ground feeding areas where cracked corn or mixed birdseed is offered. In many areas where feral chickens are present, the birds will also regularly clean up under hanging bird feeders or visit ground bird baths. Providing a dry, loose patch of dirt as a dusting area is another way to help attract red junglefowl and wild chickens, and the birds will also appreciate shrubby cover or brush piles nearby for safety.

How to Find This Bird

Birders who want to add a true, wild red junglefowl to their life lists will need to visit the bird’s native range with relatively undisturbed forested or forest edge habitats. Listening for the familiar chicken-like calls can help locate these birds, and while the red junglefowl is a wary bird, they can be easy to spot in areas that have reliable food and water sources. Red junglefowl can be easiest to spot in early morning when males are more vocal and the entire flock may be feeding more intently.

Explore More Species in This Family

There are many familiar birds in the Phasianidae bird family, and learning more about the wild counterparts of popular domestic poultry can give any birder better insights into these amazing birds. Species closely related to the red junglefowl include:

Visit our other wild bird profiles to learn even more about all your favorite species!