The Mysterious Ayam Cemani: Indonesia’s All-Black Chicken with a Fascinating History”
The Ayam Cemani, hailing from Indonesia’s Java island, boasts a puzzling heritage, potentially stemming from a blend of green and red jungle fowls. Its name itself is shrouded in ambiguity, with ‘Ayam’ signifying chicken in Indonesian and ‘Cemani’ possibly denoting either a settlement or ‘solid black’ in Sanskrit.
What sets the Ayam Cemani apart is a rare condition known as fibromelanonis, resulting in hyperpigmentation that transforms not just its skin and feathers but also its flesh, bones, and internal organs into a deep black hue. Remarkably, their blood remains red, albeit slightly darker than that of regular chickens.
In Indonesia, these chickens were treasured as symbols of status, believed to possess mystical powers and serve as a conduit between the living and spirit worlds, thanks to their enigmatic appearance.
Dutch immigrants discovered this breed when they observed indigenous people using them in religious rituals, occasionally sacrificing them to appease the gods. Intrigued by their appearance, a Dutch breeder named Jan Steverink eventually introduced them to Europe in 1998.
The Ayam Cemani comes in various feather types, with the bottlebrush variety being the most valuable, commanding prices of up to $5000 per bird. The smooth-feathered ‘lidah hitam,’ or black tongue, is another distinctive variant. Only a few Ayam Cemani in the United States possess completely black tongues, while those with pink tongues likely lack one of the two fibromelanistic traits.
Despite their rarity and high cost, Ayam Cemani are not demanding to raise, described as hardy and resilient birds capable of withstanding most illnesses. However, their exclusivity is partly due to their low egg production—just one or two eggs per week, totaling 60 to 100 eggs per year. They can even take breaks of up to six months between laying cycles.
Additionally, not all chicks exhibit their striking black coloration, making purebred Ayam Cemani breeding a challenging endeavor.
Contrary to expectations, the eggs of these birds are pale cream with a faint pink tint, even though their black coloration develops during embryonic development.
With only around 3,500 Ayam Cemani worldwide, this breed remains relatively obscure, even among poultry enthusiasts. Preserving their unique status and allure is crucial, given their cultural significance and rarity. Disturbing this delicate balance could have unintended consequences, a fate that nobody desires.