Known as the ‘Lamborghini of the poultry world’, the Ayam Cemani is the world’s most expensive breed of chicken, with a single bird fetching prices of up to $5,000.
Originating from Indonesia, its name pronounced ‘che-MA-ni’, has its roots in Sanskrit, meaning “jet black.” But what truly sets Ayam Cemani apart is a genetic condition called fibromelanosis, which causes every cell in the body to release melanin, turning the bird a striking black color and encompassing its feathers, organs, and bones.
The Origins of Ayam Cemani
The origins of Ayam Cemani are believed to be a result of interbreeding between the green and red jungle fowls on the island of Java in Indonesia. The name itself, a fusion of ‘Ayam’ for chicken in Indonesian and ‘Cemani,’ possibly meaning ‘solid black’ in Sanskrit, hints at the breed’s most striking characteristic.
What truly makes the Ayam Cemani so fascinating is a condition called fibromelanosis. Unlike conventional albinism, this genetic anomaly takes black to a whole new level. This condition causes all the chicken’s cells to release melanin, turning the feathers and skin an inky black, and darkening the muscles, bones, and even its internal organs. Ayam Cemani have 10 times the amount of melanin as a chicken without fibromelanosis. The blood of the Ayam Cemani remains red, albeit slightly darker than other chickens, creating a stark contrast with its jet-black exterior.
In Indonesia, Ayam Cemani is considered a status symbol, cherished by affluent households. In local folklore, these birds are believed to possess magical powers, serving as a bridge between the realms of the living and the spirits due to their otherworldly appearance. They were often used in religious ceremonies and sometimes sacrificed for fertility rituals.
The Dutch Connection
The Ayam Cemani’s journey beyond Indonesian shores can be traced back to Dutch immigrants who witnessed the locals using them in spiritual rituals. Intrigued by their unique appearance, a Dutch breeder named Jan Steverink finally brought them to Europe in 1998, opening the door to their international recognition.
Rarity and Value of Ayam Cemani
Among Ayam Cemani, the bottlebrush feather type is the most coveted, with a single bird fetching prices of $6,000 by rare bird collectors. Another variant, the smooth-feathered ‘lidah hitam’ or ‘black tongue,’ is highly sought after and such high-quality individuals can fetch a staggering $10,000. Ayam Cemani with completely black tongues are especially rare, with only a handful in the United States.
The extremely high levels of melanin in the body of Ayam Cemani surprisingly do not translate to their eggs. The egg color of an Ayam Cemani is off-white, similar to a regular chicken egg you would find in a supermarket. Ayam Cemani only lay about 60 to 100 eggs per year, about a third of the amount a regular chicken would lay. These infrequent eggs sell on the market for about $16 each. This inflated price results from the challenge of maintaining a purebred flock, coupled with their low egg production which all contributes to their rarity and drives up their price.
Contrary to common misconceptions, Ayam Cemani is not a fragile breed. They are known for their hardiness and resilience against most common poultry ailments. Despite their stunning appearance, they are relatively straightforward to raise and have become cherished by poultry enthusiasts for their unique qualities.
The Ayam Cemani have tickled the fascination of humans throughout their history; indicated initially by their place in Indonesian culture and folklore, and now by their value on the global market among rare bird collectors. With their deep black exterior, mysterious origins, and magical allure in Indonesian culture, they have earned their reputation as the Lamborghinis of the poultry world.
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