Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Brahmas are tall, stately chickens stepping gracefully across the pasture. Their brows overshadow their eyes a bit, giving them a serious look. Feathers extend down their legs and cover their feet. They are unmistakable.This video posted from Kosovo shows an imposing male.

Their advocates call them The Majestic Ones. They arrived in New England ports on sailing ships from China in the mid-19th century along with Cochins, followed by Langshans slightly later.

This light Brahma rooster shows his mild temperament, getting along with his Naked Neck cousin.
Look for Light and Dark varieties. Light ones are most often seen, with their white bodies topped at neck (hackle) with black feathers laced with white edges and ending with a glossy black tail. The color blends from the white head down over the shoulders. This color pattern is known as Columbian in other breeds.

Susan Nicolas' Dark Brahma rooster.
Should you spot the regal step of a bird with the black markings on golden feathers, you have found a Buff Brahma. The Buff variety is a later development, created after the buff color became so popular in the late 19th century, from Buff Cochins.

Susan's Dark Brahma hen
The less frequently encountered Dark Brahma roosters and hens are quite different from each other. The rooster is black from the breast down to the toes, topped with a silvery white back and head, tapering off to black feathers laced with white edges.  A lustrous black tail follows him. The hen has her own beauty, each feather triple-lined with penciled markings, black on steel gray to silvery white.
The Dark color pattern is the same as Silver Penciled in Plymouth Rocks and Wyandottes. They are always dressed for the show ring. Keeping the feathery white feet and legs of Light Brahmas clean takes special efforts. Barnyard dust is less noticeable on Dark Brahmas’ black leg and foot feathers.

Light and Dark Brahmas were included in the first Standard in 1874. The Buff variety was added in 1924.

Brahmas have a calm disposition and a stately carriage. They do not ruffle their feathers without sufficient cause. They are broody and will raise their own chicks. They don’t mind living indoors if necessary. Breeders allow them time to achieve their full magnificence, They grow for  nine months to a year to reach their full size and mature plumage. That slow growth may have made them less desirable to commercial operations looking for a quick return. Poultry lovers who appreciate their beauty enjoy the time they spend growing those lush feathers and impressive size.

Although their large size, 12 lbs. for the mature rooster and 9 ½ lbs. for the mature hen, has made them attractive to flock owners as meat birds, they are also good layers of brown eggs. They were originally a dual purpose breed. Such grand birds are kept for exhibition as well.

The bantam varieties were developed alongside the large fowl in the late 19th century. Brahma bantams are large enough to be useful production birds. At 38 ounces for mature males and 34 ounces for mature females, they are substantial and make a nice meat bird. 

They are also popular show birds.Bantam Brahmas are among the top 20 breeds shown.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Chickens wearing feathery scarves around their necks stand tall in their yard. A small comb sits on top of the head, above feathery eyebrows. Their ear lobes and wattles are completely covered by feathers. They look fierce, but aren’t alarmed by a visitor. They are Russian Orloffs.
Michelle Conrad's rooster shows off his walnut comb

Their walnut combs, which may have a few hair-like feathers springing from them, don’t freeze in cold weather. Their wattles and ear lobes are small and wouldn’t be affected, even if they weren’t insulated under those feathers. As befits a bird adapted to the Russian climate, these birds are hardy. Their expression is often described as “gloomy” and “vindictive.” 

They originated in northern Iran’s Gilan province. They share that Asian game appearance, with their long, strong Malay legs of the local chickens of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

In Iran, the breed was called the Chilianskaia. In the late 19th century, Russian nobleman Count Orloff Techesmensky brought some to Moscow, where they became known by his name. In the 1920s, another Prince Orloff, living in exile from the Revolution in England, acquired some Orloff chickens and won some poultry show prizes with them, keeping up the family name and tradition.
He's king of all he surveys. Or, perhaps, tsar.

They were included in the APA Standard from 1876 through 1888, but were dropped from later Standards. Bantams are still included in the ABA Standard, but they are not often seen.

The Spangled variety is most likely to be seen in the U.S., but breeders in Germany and England raise other colors, which American backyarders might keep: white, Mahogany, Black Breasted Red and others. The feathery face and short, hooked beak distinguish this breed’s appearance from any other.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Poultry census

The Livestock Conservancy conducted a poultry Census for North America last year.

Phil Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, advises The Livestock Conservancy on breeds. Based on the data collected in the census, he drew some conclusions:

Chicken breeds present the most challenges in organization and classification, not least because there are so many of them! Chickens as a whole have become increasingly popular for both production and as pets, and this has led to heightened demand for a number of breeds.

Two breeds have managed to graduate off of the list altogether: Orpingtons with nearly 16,000 breeding birds, and Wyandottes with over 21,000 breeding birds. These dual purpose breeds benefit from the popularity of small flocks. Their easy-going nature, particularly for Orpingtons, make them favorites. While not a full graduation, both the Brahma and Cochin managed to join the ranks of Recovering breeds due to greater numbers.

Don Monke's lovely White Wyandottes
To offset the graduations are a few breeds that have been added to the list. Some of these reflect a recent trend of importation of new breeds into the USA from a host of countries. In most cases, these are not yet recognized by the APA. Listing them may seem at variance with the strategy outlined for turkeys, but when non APA breeds are old established breeds in their home countries, the Livestock Conservancy has opted to incorporate them into our priority list. As a result, the Icelandic chicken joins the list as Threatened. The Spitzhauben joins the list at the Threatened level.

Other, more established breeds have moved around in various ways. The positive moves include several breeds that moved from Threatened to Watch: Andalusian, Buckeye, Buttercup, Delaware, Dorking, Java, Langshan, and Phoenix. The Buckeye, especially, has benefitted from a targeted program of breed recovery, management, and bird selection that is now being used across other breeds that hope to achieve similar success in recapturing historically productive types.

A Java from Garfield Farm
Jumping all the way from Critical to Watch include the Chantecler and Sumatra. The less dramatic jump from Critical to Threatened includes the Russian Orloff.

Gina Bisco's Chantecler male
Losing ground by moving from Recovering to Watch is the Rhode Island Red. This move acknowledges the complexity of chicken breeds, because this breed includes many birds that are not bred to the standard. Equally, many birds promoted as of this breed are likely not purebred. Sorting through these issues is important for this useful breed, and will serve as a model for other similar breeds in the future. Moving from Watch to Threatened are the Aseel, Houdan, Old English Game, Rhode Island White, and Sebright. More troubling are those that move to Critical, including La Fleche (from Watch), and Malay (from Threatened). 

Robert Gibson's flock of White Houdans
The CPL changes year to year, and this year has seen more than a few changes. Most of these have been within poultry breeds. This reflects the recent census that has shed light on the plight of many of these breeds. The short life-span and changing demand for these birds makes census a challenge, and that in turn makes the setting of priorities a difficult exercise. In the coming year we hope that additional breeders will weigh in and provide their own census figures to make sure the breeds are accurately placed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

New Breeds

This article appears in the 2016 APA Yearbook:
Getting a breed or variety recognized in the Standard is deliberately difficult. The APA confers recognition on a breed or variety only after thoughtful consideration and convincing evidence that birds breed true and that it has a significant following.
The process is described in the Standard:
Breed clubs organize their member breeders to advocate for their breed or variety. Breeders must have been APA members for at least five years. Those advocating for the breed’s recognition must submit a written account of the breed’s history and the proposed standard description. They must produce affidavits from at least five breeders who have raised the breed for at least five years, affirming that 50 percent or more of the offspring grow up close to type.
Birds of the breed applying for recognition must be shown at APA shows at least twice each year for two years. At least four hens, four pullets, four cocks and four cockerels must be shown.
Judges then submit their opinions of the breed and a qualifying meet is held. No fewer than 50 birds must be shown at the meet. Judges expect the birds to resemble each other closely, to establish the breed type. Birds should come from at least those five breeders who champion the breed.
Walt Leonard, chairman of the APA’s Standard Revision Committee, talked with me about breeds and varieties that have achieved recognition recently, and others that are working on being recognized in the future.

“The first 40 pages of the Standard are extremely valuable,” he said. “Read it more than once.  Read the glossary. See how the chicken is built.”

Go beyond the individual breed’s Standard description. The Standard explains the basics of breeds and exhibition. The APA includes the economic qualities of the breeds, whether they are known as layers, meat birds, both, or not so much.

“It’s not just a bag of pretty feathers,” he said. “That’s why we [judges] handle the birds. When I have that bird in my hands, I feel literally every part of it. We really do care about the purpose of the bird.”

Mr. Leonard and the other members of the Standard Revision Committee: Dave Anderson; John Monaco; Donald Barger; and Pat Malone; work year-round with APA members to improve their birds and help them meet the Standard.

 “Ninety percent of what the Standard committee does is tell people that we are not going to change the standard to match the birds they have in their backyards,” Mr. Leonard said.
New breeds
Breeds that have recently succeeded in being added to the APA Standard include the Black Copper, Wheaten and White varieties of Marans; the Blue Wheaten variety of Old English Game Bantam; the Splash variety of Cochin; Ginger Red variety of Modern Game; Self Blue variety of Bearded Silkie; the American Serama; the Ko Shamo; and the Nankin.

Although not previously recognized in the U.S., the Marans, Serama, Ko Shamo and Nankin have standards in other countries.
“We try to use the Standard of the country of origin as often as possible,” he said.

Black Copper Marans were recognized in April, 2011. Both the breed and the color variety are new to the Standard. The Wheaten variety was recognized later, in October 2011. The White variety was recognized in 2014.
Bev Davis' lovely rooster
The preliminary shows and the qualifying meet are not rubber stamps. They are opportunities for APA judges to work with breeders on the points that need improvement so that the breed or variety can be recognized. Being recognized is a process.

“We don’t want them to fail,” Mr. Leonard said.  “The Standard committee wants them to get in. But sometimes people get mad at us.”

White Marans were acceptable on their first try, but the more difficult Black Copper and Wheaten color varieties took a couple of meets each.

“We saw enough to make some adjustments in the color,” he said.

The Self Blue variety of Bearded Silkies was recognized in 2010. The lavender color has been contentious. The APA uses Self Blue as the designation for the color others call lavender. The APA has decided to continue to use Self Blue as the name for that color pattern, to avoid confusion with long-standing practice. It’s an even, light slaty blue color, as compared with the laced blue of the Blue color pattern.
Brenda Gillat's Silkie at the ABA
The Splash variety of bantam Cochins was recognized in 2014. The Splash color variety is slaty blue and white, in irregular blobs. The main tail feathers and primary wing feathers have more white than the rest of the body.
Feathersite's photo of a Splash Cochin
The Ginger Red color pattern of Modern Games was recognized, after a qualifying meet at the 2010 show in Shawnee, Oklahoma, the same show as the Self Blue Silkie qualifying meet. It’s a bright color pattern, a variation on Brown Red and Black Breasted Red.
Ginger Red Modern Game from the Modern Game Promotional Society
The Blue Wheaten variety of Old English Game was recognized in 2014. The difficult blue color is breeding unusually true in this variety of OEG females.

“These Blue Wheaten females are consistent and they are winning,” he said.  “I don’t know why they are coming out so good, but the females are winning.”

Nankins were recognized in 2012. They are another old breed that was neglected and are now getting attention for their many fine qualities. The chicks start dusting themselves early, and the females are excellent brooders and mothers. The females’ bright chestnut color compares favorably with Mr. Leonard’s New Hampshires.
A Nankin rooster from the Livestock Conservancy
“They’re active little bantams that fly like a pigeon,” he said.

Colonial Williamsburg has been influential in breeding Nankins and bringing them to public notice.

The Ko Shamo, a true bantam, was recognized in 2014, in the Wheaten color variety. Although it’s an ancient breed in Japan, it’s a newcomer to the U.S. poultry scene. It’s gained popularity in the past decade.

“The qualifying meet for Ko Shamos was the best by far,” Mr. Leonard said. “They showed 114 birds and they were all good.”
A pair of Wheaten Ko Shamos from Backyard Chickens
The Standard description for Ko Shamos requires that they have a split wing, missing a feather between the primary and secondary wing feathers. That’s a disqualification in any other breeds, but a requirement for these.

The chrysanthemum comb is another unique requirement new to the APA Standard. It starts out looking like a perfect pea comb, then grows into a chrysanthemum.

The Ko Shamo shares a pugnacious nature with other Oriental breeds.  Males dislike other males, so they must be kept in separate pens. Females can be cantankerous, too. Although they are small, they hold their ground with larger birds.

“I usually tell people that they are not a beginner’s breed,” he said.  

Mr. Leonard, who raises Ko Shamos himself, stayed out of the Standard discussions to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. This little bird has captured his heart.

 “They are cocky little birds that have a lot of personality,” he said. “They love people and will interact with you. I’m pretty jaded. Not too many birds get me excited. But these Ko Shamos are just fun to watch.”

The males engage in ritual behavior. They have an upright stance, with solid muscular bodies.

“One of their selling points is that they feel like a brick,” he said. “They are solid, like a Cornish. When I want somebody to like them, I say: Here, hold this bird. They don’t expect it weigh that much and be that hard.”

The hens are good layers of eggs that are bigger than would be expected from a 28-ounce bird. They are good brooders and mothers.

“The strain we have in California reproduce real well,” he said. “They are like mice. I could have a million of them here if I wanted.”

Ko Shamo chicks are tiny fluffs of energy. Mr. Leonard describes them as looking like bumblebees. He beds his birds on straw, which dwarfs them.

“The straw looks like telephone poles compared to the chicks,” he said. “Literally, it looks like they are crawling over logs.”

Ko Shamos have succeeded across the country. Even cold climates don’t bother them. When they first arrived from their warm Asian home, they suffered in cold temperatures. As a breed, they have hardened up.

 “The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “They are out there at shows knocking Cornish out. To go out and give the established birds a hard time is unusual.”

The American Serama was recognized in 2012 in the White color pattern. This new breed is the smallest bantam, a tiny handful of feathers. They are gaining popularity as pets. Their tabletop shows, although not APA certified, are attracting new participants to poultry.
Jerry Schexnayder's Seramas
“It’s a different spin on poultry shows,” Mr. Leonard said. “Anything that brings new people into the poultry world is positive.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Planning your flock

With so many breeds and varieties, it's hard to choose the one or two that are right for you. Or the one more to add to your flock. The February/March issue of Backyard Poultry has a Breed Directory of 25 breeds to consider. They are short profiles, to whet your appetite to learn more.
Consider a classic American breed, such as the Buckeye:
Chris McCary's Buckeye hen is a good mother.

A Buckeye is a rich, dark red-colored nut produced by the tree of the same name. Ohio is the Buckeye State. That’s where the Buckeye chicken breed was developed.

Recognize them by their buckeye-colored glossy reddish brown feathers. Don’t confuse them with a Rhode Island Red. The Buckeye is a deeper mahogany red with some black accents compared to the true red of Rhode Island Reds.  Buckeyes are heavier and stockier than the Rhode Island Red. Buckeyes have a pea comb, not the single or rose comb of the Rhode Island Red.

Buckeyes are vigorous, resilient and disease resistant. They exemplify the dual purpose ideal, growing to a solid size and laying plenty of eggs. They are the most active American breed.

They withstand cold winters well, with their freeze-resistant pea comb. They lay well into the winter.

Buckeyes charm with their engaging personality. They practically trip their keepers with friendly greetings as they cluster around their legs. Relations among birds are congenial, with roosters taking a gentle interest in watching over the flock. Fighting among males is rare. Their social nature is expressed in a variety of vocalizations, from a purr to a roar, particularly among the roosters. Their keepers see the dinosaur heritage in them.

They are good foragers on free range. They like to graze, and will keep the pasture clipped like a lawn.


Size: 6 ½ - 9 pounds
Egg color: Brown
Comb: Pea
Plumage: Smooth but fluffy. Glowing color
Active, friendly dual purpose breed. Shows well.

For more detailed profiles of more than 80 breeds, check out my book, TheBackyard Field Guide to Chickens.



Thursday, February 2, 2017

APA 2016 Yearbook

The APA's 2016 Yearbook is now available. The cover photos of a White Rock and a White Wyandotte are a perfect example of two American breeds. The comparison illustrates some of the differences between these two breeds.
I wrote three articles for the Yearbook: Poultry History Comes to Life; New Breeds and Varieties; and Poultry Marches on: The Livestock Conservancy Counts North American Breeds.

Poultry History Comes to Life at Living History farms such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Thanks, Elaine Shirley, for all the work you do keeping those flocks of historic breeds!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

APA Flock Inspection program

With increased interest in heritage breed poultry, the American Poultry Association is stepping up to promote standard breeds. Its new Flock Certification Program will certify consumer chicken and other poultry with the APA’s imprimatur.
“We have come to grips with how we will inspect for market quality and how the flock matches the standard,” said Dave Anderson, APA president.
Not every chicken with a Standard name will make a good, productive flock. Hatchery stock may have unacceptable defects. Birds bred for exhibition may have lost their productivity. Chickens are more than pretty feathers.
“They need to have good muscle development, fertility, and egg production,” said Frank Reese, owner of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas. “This program should help people improve quality and production of these birds.”
In the past, the APA inspected flocks, but abandoned that responsibility 50 years ago. Commercial poultry farms overwhelmed smaller Standard breed flocks after World War II. The chicken meat business turned to genetically similar industrially developed chickens, which are unable to mate and reproduce naturally. They grow to market size in six to seven weeks. If allowed to grow to maturity, they are hardly able even to walk. Their underdeveloped immune systems can’t protect them against even ordinary diseases.
Modern hybrids with flashy names such as Freedom Ranger and Golden Nugget have been developed to take advantage of the market for chickens that are raised in better conditions. They may be raised on pasture and fed an organic diet, but their genetics doom them. They may have unseen internal abnormalities such as cardiac and skeletal problems.
"Chickens have several serious welfare problems that come from bad genetics and can be fixed only with good genetics," animal welfare advisor Temple Grandin wrote in her book, Animals Make Us Human.
Standard breeds have recognizable identity and documented history. Reviving the inspection program in the 21st century will help standard breed producers justify the higher prices their products deserve.
The APA Standard of Perfection lists all the breeds that have been described and officially recognized for exhibition at poultry shows. That’s about 50 different breeds in hundreds of varieties. The first Standard was published in 1874. Dates are given for every recognized breed.
This Brahma rooster is historically a meat breed.
That original Standard was written to improve the quality, uniformity and marketability of poultry flocks. Over the years, its emphasis changed to focus on poultry exhibitions. Utility became an afterthought, although the Standard still lists Economic Qualities in its breed descriptions.
‘Standard’ is the operant word, meaning breeds that have been documented and officially recognized. Heritage, historic, traditional, antique, heirloom and other words are descriptive, but their meanings vary slightly and can be stretched and distorted to cover anything. ‘Standard’ is a word with a defined meaning: If the breed wasn’t in the Standard before 1950, it can’t get the certification.
APA qualified judges will inspect flocks for their adherence to the APA written Standard.
“The birds must have the general conformation of their breed,” said Mr. Anderson. “The flock cannot have more than two percent significant disqualifications such as roach back. The flock has to have less than 15 percent minor variations from the standard, such as the wrong eye color or side sprigs on the comb. Of course, the entire flock has to be healthy.”
APA poultry judge Butch Gunderson examines the head of a Buff Cochin at a show.
Judge-inspectors can offer advice to help the producer improve his flock. They can help the farmer pick out the best birds for breeding. Their knowledge, and that of the Standard breed producers they inspect, will help USDA inspectors learn how to grade Standard-bred birds.
“They are not just coming to judge your birds,” said Mr. Reese. “They are coming to help you. It should be a learning experience.”
Mr. Reese is the leading Standard breed poultry producer in the country. He currently supplies Emmer & Co. with up to 2,000 chickens every three weeks and Heritage Foods USA with 500 every three weeks. He raises Barred Rock and New Hampshire chickens, Bronze and Narragansett turkeys, and other poultry.
Mr. Reese, in cooperation with the Livestock Conservancy and others, has developed a Heritage Breed definition that relies on the APA Standard. His label has been approved by the USDA and goes on each bird packaged and sold. Thus far, he is the only producer whose label has USDA approval.
“The APA will offer a stamp like the USDA to help consumers make their choices,” Mr. Anderson said.
Certification assures the purchaser that the product they are buying meets certain standards. The USDA’s Certified Organic label is the best known. Certifications increase product value. The Certified Organic label has been so successful in increasing the return to producers that major retailers claim it, not always honestly. Fraud and lack of clarity as to standards have resulted in some erosion of its value, but it remains a significant contributor to farm income and consumer trust. Labels are so important to consumers and influential on the prices they are willing to pay that in some areas, such as fish, fraudulently mislabeling is common.
Emmer & Co. can’t keep up with the demand. Reese is raising as many birds as he can for them and works with other producers to increase the supply.
“These are true, authentic Standard bred chickens,” Reese said. “If you will breed them to meet the standards, you will have a marketable animal,”