Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

In clearing off my desk to prepare for the New Year, I found this attractive reproduction of a painting of chicks, signed A.O. Schilling, 1944. What a fabulous year 2008 was! For me, it was a year of challenges and accomplishments. Writing my second book, How to Raise Poultry, occupied me for most of the year. Is there a better way to spend my time?

SPPA was the recipient of a collection of over 150 antique poultry books. I have made a list of them and plan to make them available to SPPA members by copying excerpts and creating image files of the pages for members to use as they research their breeds. The illustrations and descriptions these old works contain provide original sources for the traditional breeds.

A new Dorking Breeders Club has formed,, under the leadership of Jim Parker of Cridersville, Ohio. Dorkings haven't gotten the attention they deserve in recent years -- I haven't seen a single one at any of the shows I have attended here in California. Perhaps 2009 will see an increase in interest in this historic breed.

These Prize Dark Dorkings are from Harrison Weir's Our Poultry, published around 1902. A copy was included in the collection donated to SPPA.

2008 was a wonderful year for me and the SPPA and traditional breed poultry. Awareness is growing about our food systems and the importance of thoughtfully grown food and the role poultry play in our lives. I anticipate more progress in 2009. I'm eager to be part of it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Barred Hollands

Barred Hollands, such as the hen at right, are a modern composite that would make a good general purpose chicken for an integrated farm. They are good layers of white eggs and grow into a large, meaty table bird. Roosters ideally weigh 8 1/2 pounds, hens 6 1/2 pounds.

This hen belongs to Heirloom Heritage Farms in Spanaway, Washington,

They are also recognized in the Standard for exhibition. A White variety is also recognized.

The Standard gives their history as beginning with chickens imported from Holland. They were crossed with White Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshires and Lamonas and selectively bred for their productive qualities. They were accepted into the Standard in 1949.

Not many people are raising these useful, calm attractive birds. If you are considering starting a small flock for your own use or to produce meat and eggs for the market, Barred Hollands would be a good choice.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Eight Maids a Milking

In the 16th and 17th centuries, cattle breeds were as different from modern cattle as poultry breeds are. Devon cattle were among the breeds that the maids may well have been milking.

The American Milking Devon was developed from the breed named for the county Devon in England. It retains good production in milk as well as meat. This Devon heifer, "Fashion 5th," is an illustration from Livestock and Complete Stock Doctor: A Cyclopedia, by Jonathan Periam and A. H. Baker, published in 1910. The breed is known for its fast walking, which allows it to cover fields efficiently. It is a desirable breed for oxen as well as food production.

The Milking Shorthorn, which traces its history back at least to the estates of the nobility of Northumberland in England of those days, would also be a candidate for the hands of those maids.
Significant points for good dairy cows, according to the Stock Doctor, are: "... a small neck, sharp shoulders, small brisket and small bone. Moreover, small bone usually accompanies thrift, and is universally found in improved breeds."
Milkmaids are associated with good skin at this period of time. Because of their close association with cows, they often acquired cowpox, a much less serious disease that conferred immunity to small pox on them. Thus their skin was not marked by the scars of this terrible disease. The term 'vaccine' comes from the Latin word for cow. Edward Jenner relied on this observation to develop the first vaccine,

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Seven Swans A Swimming

Swans are one of the most charismatic of birds. Their graceful flight and peaceful beauty as they glide across the water have inspired humans to find spiritual meaning in them. Iron Age Britons considered them supernatural.

Mute swans are the traditional birds of folklore. Although migratory, they became semi-domesticated in Britain by the 10th century. Although Richard the Lionhearted is often credited with bringing swans to England on his return from the Crusades in the 12th century, documents exist dating swan keeping as far back as 966, during the reign of King Edgar.

It was in the 12th century that the Crown claimed ownership of all swans, In the 15th century, swan ownership was shared with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies. That continues today, with an annual ceremony called Swan Upping, in which cygnets, baby swans, are captured, weighed, checked for health problems, banded and released.

So Seven Swans A Swimming would have had royal as well as spiritual connotations.

Today in the U.S., migratory waterfowl are protected by state and federal laws. Permits are required to keep wild birds legally. If you are in any doubt about birds you are considering acquiring, check with the state department of fish and game, parks and wildlife or Natural Resources. This beautiful pen, a female swan, belongs to Craig Hopkins of Hopkins Alternative Livestock near Richmond, Indiana,

Mute swans are controversial residents along the East Coast, where they have displaced local Trumpeter swans,, Mute swans have been acquired as decorative waterfowl for parks and estates, but easily leave and become feral. To avoid those problems, the state of New Hampshire requires by law that Mute swans be pinioned, an operation done on young cygnets to remove the distal joint of the wing, making flight impossible.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Six Geese A Laying

Geese certainly were part of English and French life in the 16th century and long before. Geese have been hunted and tamed and domesticated since the early days of settled agricultural life.

Most modern domestic geese are descended from the European Greylag Goose, which still ranges across most of Europe and Asia. They have lived closely with humans for centuries. Even as little as a century ago, they were maintained as semi-wild livestock in England. Villagers let their geese forage and live on the River Cam. The geese spent the spring and summer on the village green, then migrated to the river for the winter. In February, the owners would call their geese, which responded to their voices and returned home to nest and rear their young. Those offspring were a significant contribution to the villagers’ income. Those Geese A-Laying were valued not for the eggs in themselves, but for the prospective birds into which the eggs would hatch. Eggs can also be eaten. Some modern breeds such as the China goose have been selected for laying, bringing their production of eggs up to 70 or more annually. The eggs are reputed to be superior for baking. The albumen is thicker than that of chicken eggs, making it unsuitable for whipping into meringue.

Geese typically choose their own mates and mate for life, although a gander may be willing to mate with more than one goose. They are good at brooding their own eggs and both parents enjoy raising the goslings. They will also adopt other chicks. They love having a family. This pair of Cotton Patch geese belonging to Dr. Tom Walker of Texas protect their goslings. One is out from under the mother and the father watches over it.

Those geese, through domestication and selective breeding, became the hardy Gray Goose. In France, pate de foie gras is a traditional food. Breeds in which the sexes have different plumage from each other are called auto-sexing. The males are solid color and the females saddlebacked, with contrasting color across their backs. Very ancient lines of geese include this trait, often tracing it back to locations where Vikings landed.

This gaggle of Saddleback Cotton Patch geese belonged to Jess Owens of Union County, Arkansas in the 1950s. Dr. Walker, who has championed the recovery of Cotton Patch geese, shared this photo with me. These geese were used regularly to clean cotton fields of grass and weeds. The Cotton Patch is a traditional American breed, very similar to the geese in this carol.

A group of geese on the ground is a gaggle. In flight, they are a flock.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Five Gold Rings

This verse probably referred to Ring-Necked Pheasants, or perhaps alludes to Golden Pheasants. Both of them are natives of Asia but have long had successful populations in Europe and the British Isles. The Romans probably introduced them to Europe during their Empire. Pheasant were accepted residents of Britain by the 10th century.

Pheasant has a long culinary history, probably since Neolithic times. It is a popular game bird, today perhaps the most hunted bird on the planet.

Ring-necked pheasants were introduced in the late 19th century first in Oregon, where they succeeded on the second attempt. After that, they were introduced in other states and are now the state bird of South Dakota. This photo comes from that state’s department of tourism.

Golden pheasants are successful feral residents in England, but they probably were not introduced there until later than the carol, perhaps as late as the mid-19th century. Their astonishingly beautiful plumage could certainly have inspired songs about golden birds!

The bird second from the top in this painting by J.C. Harrison is a golden pheasant. The other pheasants are a Reeves Pheasant, at the bottom, an Elliots Pheasant at the top, and an Amherst Pheasant in the center. The black bird at lower right is a Mikado Pheasant. The bird at top right is not identified at Gamebird, but appears to be a Copper Pheasant. Prints can be purchased from Gamebird magazine at

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Four Calling Birds

As noted in the first post on the subject of the Twelve Days of Christmas, ‘calling’ is a corruption of ‘colley,’ meaning black as coal, birds. Whether this means actual blackbirds or black fowl is a separate question.

Blackbirds were and are destructive to crops in Europe. Like other small birds, they have been trapped and shot for food. Italian workers in the 19th century took ‘pot shots’ at small birds on their way home from work, Ann Vileisis reports in Kitchen Literacy. The nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence, refers to baking blackbirds in a pie. Mark Cocker in Birds Britannica documents the practice of placing live birds under a pie crust just before serving as a medieval custom.

Or it could have referred to domestic fowls, such as the old French breeds, all of which were often black, or black Spanish chickens., such as these reproduced in 1983 by Dr. J. Batty from Lewis Wright's Poultry. Black turkeys were popular in the 18th century in Europe.

Black birds lost favor because the dark feathers show up in the skin of the bird prepared for the table, unlike white feathers. In the 19th century, white birds went through a period of unpopularity, because they were thought to be constitutionally weak. Food fads.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Three French Hens

Three French hens could be selected from the three old French breeds recognized by the APA for exhibition. Houdan, LaFleche and Crevecoeur were all in the original APA Standard published in 1874. They have long histories, as far as the 15th century in the case of the La Fleche, the 17th century for the others. All are large birds, topping out at 8 lbs. for roosters and 7 lbs. for hens. All are white egg layers.

Houdans have been known as Normandy fowl. They are a crested breed, recognized in mottled black and solid white varieties. Solid black, blue mottled and red mottled varieties have existed in the past and may be raised by fanciers yet.

In the U.S., Houdans were a popular dual purpose production breed in the 19th and early 20th century. They have five toes, like the Dorkings. This illustration is a reproduction of Lewis Wright's Poultry, published in 1983 by Dr. J. Batty.

The La Fleche, which may be the oldest of the three, was selected and managed for egg production in Britain and North America. They take their name from the town of La Fleche, around which production was centered in the early 19th century. They probably resulted from crossing Polish, Crevecoeur and Spanish birds, which gave them their white ear lobes.

Their unusual horned V-shaped comb is remarkable, in the past causing these birds to be called the Horned Fowl. Although now clean-headed, some breeders report occasional offspring with small crests or tassels. The French standard requires a crest.

Although recognized now only in black, they were bred in other colors in the past. In 1580, Prudens Choiselat wrote that blacks, reds, and fawns were the best. Blue and white strains have existed in the more recent past.

The Crevecoeur is sometimes compared to the Dorking, which has history on both English and French sides of the Channel. They also have V combs, although earlier in history they also had leaf combs. Currently recognized only in black plumage, white and blue were raised in the past.

The Crevecoeur was also used as a production fowl in the late 19th and early 20th century. These Crevecoeurs and the La Fleche are Robert Gibson's, from Yellow House Farm in New Hampshire.

Other French breeds would also be welcome on the Third Day of Christmas: Faverolles are a modern composite that would not have been contemporaneous with the carol. The unusual Salmon color pattern, unique to this breed, is distinguished by its remarkable difference between the sexes. Roosters are brightly marked with varied colors, while hens are more demurely light and salmon pink. They have both beards and muffs.

Marans are not yet recognized by the Standard, but their advocates are working toward that goal. They are an attractive sturdy bird, known for their dark chocolate brown eggs.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Two Turtle Doves

Turtle Doves are a wild breed of European doves, similar to North American Mourning Doves. They would have been common in England and France during the spring, summer and fall in the 18th century when this carol was published. It is a migratory species that winters in southern Africa.
Doves have symbolized peace and love for centuries. To the ancient Greeks, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was associated with doves and was sometimes depicted in a chariot drawn by doves. A dove brought Noah the olive branch, symbol of the renewal of life. The dove descended on Christ at his baptism, symbolizing the Holy Spirit.

Many fanciers keep domestic pigeons and doves. The terms ‘pigeon’ and ‘dove’ are often used interchangeably. Both pigeons and doves are in the same scientific family, but there are hundreds of species. Divisions are not clearly delineated, but generally pigeons are larger than doves

They are small enough that they can be kept as cage birds, although most keepers allow them some liberty. Trap and bob entries allow pigeons to enter, but not leave again.

Pigeons and doves are classified as either seed-eating or fruit-eating. Turtle doves are seed eaters. Most birds kept domestically are seed-eating, but fruit-eating birds can also be kept successfully.

This photo of a turtle dove appeared on the web site of the Times of Malta,, in April 2008. At that time, a reader was complaining about a plague of turtle doves damaging crops and advocating allowing hunters to shoot them. The relationship between humans and wildlife is subject to friction, generally resolved on the side of the humans.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The traditional English Christmas carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, lists many domestic folw, reflecting the significance of domestic birds. It was first printed in the 1780 children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, but it was much older by that time, according to the fact-based site The fact that three French versions exist suggests that it may have originally been a French carol. The partridge memorialized in the First Day was not introduced into England from France until the late 1770s, shortly before the carol was committed to print and published.

Some of the words have changed over the years: On Day Four, the ‘calling’ birds were originally ‘collie’ or ‘colley’ birds, meaning black as coal. The gold rings of Day Five were ring-necked pheasants. Those original meanings unify the verses around a bird motif.

The gray or English partridge was introduced to North America around the turn of the 20th century from its native Eurasia. It has adapted well and is now fairly common in North America. They are hardy birds, able to survive cold winter conditions in the Midwest and Canada. They aren’t much for flying, with a stocky body and short, round wings. Most flights are low, at eye level and shorter than 100 yards. They are 12-13 inches long with a wingspan of 21-22 inches and weigh about one pound.

The hens may lay as many as 22 eggs in a clutch and hatches of 16-18 are common. They are not usually raised as domestic birds.

This photo was taken by Terry Sohl on June 10, 2008 in Minnehaha County, South Dakota.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Genetic diversity

The issue of genetic diversity is getting more attention from the research community. As the industry pursues its goal of creating the most efficient organism to convert feed into meat and eggs, the genome of the birds being raised is being ever more restricted. Limited genetics means limited ability to respond to environmental conditions, an inherent weakness even as birds meet the industrial goal of growing bigger faster.

"This means most of the world's chickens lack characteristics that evolved when they lived in the wild, and may be useful again to help them face stress and disease as livestock," writes Debora MacKenzie in New Scientist, Chicken Genome Plucked Bare by Inbreeding, November 4, 2008

A study from The Netherlands offers the concept of 'robustness,' individual traits of an animal that are relevant for health and welfare, into selective breeding programs. [Clearly, this applies to industrial programs, as small flock breeders, especially those focusing on traditional breeds, typically value vigor and vitality and wouldn't consider including birds in their breeding pens that are not healthy and robust.]

"In order to be ethically acceptable, selective breeding in animal production should accept robustness as a breeding goal," the authors write in their abstract to A Plea to Implement Robustness into a Breeding Goal: Poultry as an Example, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, L. Star and E. D. Ellen, April, 2008 .
No one would question the robustness of this Russian Orloff, belonging to Michelle Conrad.

Another international research team has come to a similar conclusion,, which attracted the attention of the NYTimes Nov. 3, 2008:

"We suggest interbreeding some experimental commercial poultry lines with native or standard breeds as a backup plan, or ace in the hole, to help the industry meet future challenges, as traits such as disease resistance may be found among the rare alleles of other birds," said Bill Muir, Purdue University animal sciences professor who participated in the research.
Recognition of the importance in the commercial poultry community would help focus attention on preserving them. This attention is welcome and long overdue.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Blue color

Backyard Poultry forwarded a question from a reader about Blue Andalusian chickens. She'd heard that the blue color was not desirable for exhibition.

On the contrary, Blue is the only color variety of Andalusian chickens recognized for exhibition. The difficulty is with the inheritance of the blue color. Unlike other color varieties, it does not breed true, which means that when two blue chickens are bred to each other, all the resulting chicks are not blue. They will be a mixture of black, splash (black and white irregular patterned feathers) and blue individuals.

The APA Standard of Perfection describes it this way:

Blue Fowl, actually of a bluish slate color, genetically are black fowl in which the black pigment granules are modified in shape and distribution on the surface of the feather, creating a dilution of black and causing the characteristic bluish slate color. This condition is the hybrid expression of two hereditary color factors, black and a form of white (usually with some splashing), neither of which is dominant over the other, but which are blending in character. Blue to blue will produce offspring one-half blue, the other half evenly divided in black and splashed whites: and blue to black, and blue to splashed will produce the parent types equally, while black to splashed will produce all blues.

This sounds confusing, but if you think of the birds in your flock and how you would breed them, it will come clear.

It's more complex than breeding another color variety and knowing what to expect in terms of color. Breeding programs with the goal of approaching the Standard have more points to trip on. Conformation, comb, skin color and other breeding challenges have to be considered along with the additional complication of getting fewer offspring with the desired color.

They are beautiful, and this reader was especially fond of their large chalk-white eggs. They are worth the effort.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Andrea sent this picture of one of his Polverara chicks.

Andrea advises me not to draw any conclusions about the name 'Polish.' He documents crested hens for "many centuries" in Poland, according to an Italian reporter, Franco Holzer. Andrea considers it "more than possible" that the crested hens originally imported to England came from Poland. Crested birds were diffused in France, where they were likely crossed with the Polverara hen, resulting in the French crested breeds.
The old forms of the Polverara name were Padovana, Padoue and Padouans, a name they share with Polish.

This black Polverara rooster is another of Andrea's flock.