Thursday, December 31, 2009

Seven Swans A Swimming

In the 17th century, Mute Swans were semi-domesticated in England. In the Netherlands, they were farmed, for their down, their meat and as ornamental birds, according to Sylvia Bruce Wilmore, in her book, Swans of the World. In the Netherlands, those practices continued until after World War II.

Because all swans in England belong officially to the Royal Family, swans given as gifts would have been marked on the upper part of their bills. Their markings identified the person who had responsibility for them and thus could benefit from them. Marks date back to 1370.

Mute Swans in the U.S., such as this one photographed by Larry Hindman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, are now regarded as unwanted invaders, trashing the fragile wetland habitat in which they live and chasing out other, more desirable, birds. They retain their mythic grip on people, touching the hearts of those who glimpse them gliding across a misty lake. This ancient Greek art shows Aphrodite, the goddess of love, riding a swan. This dichotomy confounds wetlands managers who want at least to control Mute Swans, if not eliminate them entirely.

“They are a beautiful form of biological pollution,” said Jonathan McKnight, associate director for habitat conservation at Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

Others disagree, citing Mute Swans’ circumpolar migratory route, and claim that they have a historic presence in North America, Current wildlife control professionals hunt them to reduce the population, which has been successful.

Tundra and Trumpeter Swans are unquestionably native birds to North America. They remain protected. This graphic from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources shows the differences in the heads and bills of the respective species.

My efforts to find evidence of swan production operations in North America have not found any evidence that they were ever raised commercially here. They are wild birds, the largest flying bird, and formidable aggressors willing to protect their nests. Swans A Swimming remain a lovely image, but one not practical for domestic production.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Six Geese A-Laying

Geese are a passion for me lately. They differ significantly from ducks and other domestic poultry – in their size, their diet and their behavior.

Geese would certainly have attracted the attention of the earliest hunters, as in this fanciful painting of a hunt of 9500 BC, shared with me by Jim Pickette of Nebraska.

Despite centuries of domestication, geese remain seasonal egg layers. Some breeds of ducks, another waterfowl, have become more productive egg layers over time and with selective breeding, but not geese. They retain this aspect of wild behavior.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in its book on Goose Production,, considers geese ‘under-utilised,’ “although there is a large pool of genetic material available for the genetic improvement of the domestic goose.” The authors identify 96 breeds of goose currently being raised around the world, but concedes that “there are probably more.”

The two main types of domestic geese are those descended from the European Grey Lag Goose and those from the Asian Swan Goose. The European line gives us the domestic Embdens, Toulouse and all their American descendants, such as these Pilgrim Geese from Metzer Farms, The Asian line gives us the African and China breeds, with their distinctive knobs.

The good news about having Geese A-Laying would be that the goslings would soon follow. Geese are excellent parents and protectively raise their young.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Five Gold Rings

Ring-Necked Pheasants can be the poultry interpretation of the Five Gold Rings in the carol. Although they aren’t native birds, they have adapted well to North America. They flourish in the wild and are probably the most hunted bird today.

I included a chapter in How to Raise Poultry on Gamebirds, because they are the wild relatives of domesticated poultry. Breeders who raise them need information similar to that required for successful poultry husbandry.

Hunters are a powerful and well financed group. To their credit, they realized that conserving habitat is vital to maintaining a healthy population of birds for them to shoot. Pheasants Forever,, has been a leader in protecting and restoring habitat for game birds. As they point out on their site, winter weather can be deadly for many species of farmland wildlife unless there is dense sheltering cover and a reliable food source nearby. The thick cattails of wetlands or stiff-stemmed native grasses such as switch grass are examples of good winter cover. If available, pheasants prefer these herbaceous covers because of the density of vegetation at ground level. However, the dense woody habitat of coniferous farmstead shelterbelts is the key to survival in most severe winters when wetlands are filled with snow and native grasses are flattened by ice. Woody plantings elsewhere on the land are also important, and the rules for shelterbelt establishment apply here as well.One of the up sides to making habitat their focus is that the habitat welcomes many other species and confers many other advantages, including ameliorating greenhouse gases.

Game Bird Gazette,, provides good advice to farmers who raise pheasants. They can be raised for meat or for stocking hunting ranges. A white variety eliminates the issue of dark pinfeathers on meat birds. Pheasant tail feathers are in demand for costumes and other decorations.

Christopher Taylor Nature Photography,, which displays this photo, includes a lot of great information about the birds. I especially enjoyed listening to the recording of the call!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Four Calling Birds

As noted last year, the ‘calling’ birds entry is thought to be a corruption of ‘colley,’ meaning coal black birds. Some historic breeds exist only in black, or are traditionally black. Many breeds have modern black color varieties.

American breeds such as Javas, Jersey Giants, sometimes called Black Giants, and the English Orpington, such as Michelle Conrad's magnificent rooster shown here, have influential black heritage. Asian breeds such as Cochins and Langshans, such as this one to the left, have a strong history of black plumage. Sumatras are always black. Black varieties of Orientals are relatively recent, such as Malays and Cubalayas. Among Mediterranean breeds such as the White-Faced Black Spanish noted last year, Minorcas were originally an entirely black breed called Red-Faced Black Spanish. In the Continental category, the old breeds Crevecoeurs, shown here, and La Fleche, noted last year as two of the three French hens, are always black.

Black East Indies ducks are an old breed, although whether they date back to the 17th century is a matter of discussion. Some authorities trace their history back only as far as the 19th century. Cayuga ducks, such as these of Robert Gibson at Yellow House Farm in New Hampshire,, are always black. The recognition of the breed dates back to the 19th century, but it originated from wild American Black Ducks crossing with domestic ducks. In that sense, it is an older breed. A black variety of Runner Ducks is recent, 20th century. Black ducks could fit the description of ‘colley’ birds.

Black turkeys were popular in Europe, after the wild turkey was introduced by Columbus. Colonists crossing the Atlantic to settle in America brought domesticated black varieties with them. Turkeys were often known by their origin as well, such as the Norfolk Black and the Black Spanish.

In domestic poultry, black plumage has an iridescent quality that gives it a greenish sheen, sometimes complemented with violet. The feathers are truly beautiful and eye-catching, suitable for a gift that would honor the season.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Three French Hens

The three old French breeds, Houdan, LaFleche and Crevecoeur, were the subject in 2008. This year, the newer breeds, Faverolles and Marans, are the gift of the day. In contrast to the elaborate crests and combs of the old breeds, Faverolles and Marans have single combs. These are Blue Copper Marans from Whitmore Farms,

The Marans, taking its name from the French city of Marans, was developed around the turn of the 20th century. Although that puts it later than the 18th century origin of the carol, it was created from several ancient breeds, including the de Malines and French Cuckoo or Rennes, an ancient clean legged Cuckoo breed from Brittany. Cuckoo refers to the color pattern of black and white barred feathers.

Marans are not yet recognized by the American Poultry Association, but their dedicated breeders are working to achieve that status. A qualifying meet, a significant event on the road to recognition, was held in September 2009. Although official recognition was not granted, the APA encouraged the breeders to hold another in 2010, with the expectation that the birds shown at that time will succeed in convincing the judges that the breed merits recognition. Birds must show sufficient resemblance to each other to establish the breed type. Black Copper Marans such as shown in these photos from the Marans Chicken Club USA,, are the variety under consideration.

The French standard recognizes eight varieties: Silver Cuckoo; Golden Cuckoo; White; Coppered Black; Black; Wheat; Black-tailed Fawn, and Ermine.

The English strain of Marans has clean legs. The French has feathered legs.

One of the exciting aspects of Marans chickens is that they lay dark chocolate brown eggs. This color chart comes from the Marans Club of France. They would certainly make a delightful Christmas gift, a reminder year round of the bounty of hens.

Faverolles were developed in the mid-19th century Houdans and Dorkings with Asiatic breeds such as the Brahmin and Cochin and the local fowl of the Auvergne region around Faverolles, France. The breed was recognized by the APA in 1914. [For reasons that I have not been able to determine, the ‘s’ is dropped from the Faverolle name, but retained on Marans. Go figure.]

The breeders who developed them wanted a good dual purpose chicken, a large meaty bird good for the table and laying well through the winter. Males weigh in at 8 lbs., females at 6 ½. Their eggs are tinted.

Today, they are kept mainly as show birds, with the attraction of the Salmon color pattern. Faverolles are the only breed with this color pattern. The males and females are very different, the males brightly colored with contrasting colored plumage of black, reddish brown and straw, and the very different and more subdued wheaten female. White Faverolles are also recognized. Breeders continue to work with Black and Buff color varieties. Both males and females have large beards and muffs. This illustration is from Dr. J. Batty’s 1983 reproduction of Lewis Wright’s Poultry. The group illustration is from Harrison Weir’s Our Poultry, c. 1912, and bears his signature.

Faverolles continue to be good layers of delicately tinted eggs and retain their broody and mothering qualitites.

Welcome gifts for the Third Day of Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Two Turtle Doves

Turtle Doves have a long history with humans,

Turtle Doves convey a message of peace and hope, appropriate for the holiday season. Their symbolism transcends religion: In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the dove was the messenger of revival to Noah on the ark in the Old Testament and the embodiment of the Holy Spirit descending on Christ at his baptism in the New Testament. In India, gods take the shape of doves. This tale of Strength through Unity comes from the Panchatantra Tales, In Islam, Mohammed was attended by a spirit in the form of a dove.

In the U.S., doves and pigeons – the terms are used interchangeably, although sometimes there’s a suggestion of size, smaller birds being doves and larger ones pigeons – are very popular. Their small size puts them within reach of those who live in small homes or even apartments. Literally hundreds of colors and types of pigeons have been developed by fanciers. Stephen Green-Armytage documents a selection of them in his photographs, Extraordinary Pigeons,

The gift of two Turtle Doves confers both the spiritual and the earthly virtues, their beauty reflecting their spiritual power.

In creating the American edition of Harrison Weir’s The Poultry Book in 1912, editors Willis Grant Johnson and George O. Brown decided to include a chapter on Pigeons, even though the English Weir had overlooked the species in the original. “There is an awakening of interest among fanciers for the fancy breeds, while squab-raising has become an important business in many sections,” they explain. They invited J.C. Long of New York to write the chapter, describing him as “one of the oldest and best-known pigeon experts in the country.”
I'd be delighted with such a gift.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Twelve Days of Christmas

I enjoyed highlighting the poultry aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas in 2008, so I’ll add to what I wrote last year and revisit the subject.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree: Partridges are gallinaceous birds that have not been domesticated. Scientifically, they are in the Phasianidae family,, which includes quail and pheasants. Partridges are further classified in the subfamily Perdicinae, which comprises francolins and Old World quail, These birds are native to Asia, with various species ranging across all kinds of habitat, from mountains to desert. Generally, they prefer open country such as grasslands but others conceal themselves in dense forests.

The Himalayan Snowcock lives in the harsh environment of the highest mountains on earth. The Common Hill Partridge is at home in the thick vegetation of the forest of India and south China. The tiny African Stone Partridge combs the sands of sub-Saharan Senegal to Kenya, a sort of bantam partridge. The most colorful of the group, the Crested Wood Partridge, lives in the tropical rain forests of Southeast Asia, in South Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. These illustrations are from the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds compiled by Consultant in Chief Dr. Christopher M. Perrins in association with the International Council for Bird Preservation.

Among modern chickens, the color variety known as Partridge is recognized in Cochin, Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, Chantecler and other breeds. It is similar to the Black Red pattern, the name more appropriately applied to game birds according to Dr. J. Batty in his Poultry Colour Guide. This illustration of Partridge Wyandottes is from his book.

Consult the Standard of Perfection for details of the Partridge color pattern description.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Black Java Roosters

A concerned chicken owner in Ft. Lupton, Colorado, north of Denver, contacted me looking for homes for her surplus Black Java roosters, such as these photographed at Garfield Farm Museum in La Fox, Illinois. She received 14 chicks from Duane Urch last spring and, with the perverse luck of the straight run, got only four pullets. Ten roosters are more than she needs, but since Javas are so rare, and Duane’s birds are so highly regarded, she is reluctant to make soup of them. She'd prefer to find places where they would be appreciated as part of a breeding flock. Please contact me if you know anyone who would be interested.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Why traditional breeds?

As with wild endangered species, traditional livestock breeds carry advantages that are significant to integrated, sustainable agriculture. They are vigorous and hardy. They can be self-perpetuating, mating and hatching their own offspring, as Harvey Ussery's hen demonstrates here, They resist common pests and diseases. Their waste, rather than being a pollutant, is an important part of an integrated agricultural operation, returning nitrogen to the soil to enrich it for more productive crops.

Intensive industrial production ignores these qualities in favor of the highest return to the quarterly bottom line. It’s a short-term strategy destined for disaster. Poultry breeds, along with other farm animals, are disappearing, as documented by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, Science Daily noted CGIAR’s 2007 report, Rare Breeds of Farm Animals Face Extinction, CGIAR has created a database to compile information about local African and some Asian breeds, eventually to expand to other developing Asian countries, Latin America and the Caribbean. The Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information System,, currently lists 124 local chicken breeds. They intend to expand the database to include geese, ducks and turkeys. It’s part of the International Livestock Research Institute,

Attempts at ‘improvement’ with hybrids are often doomed, as this example from a cattle experiment in the 1970s in India,

In North America, awareness of the inherent vulnerability of allowing large corporations to control how we produce food is growing. As consumers learn about the filthy practices that contaminate food and make them sick, they are recoiling from putting chicken and eggs on their plates. Consumer Reports found two thirds of supermarket chickens are contaminated, Families are adding a few chickens to their gardens, gathering their own eggs and buying meat from small producers.

Traditional breeds such as Robert Gibson's Crevecoeurs, an old French breed, shown here at Yellow House Farm in New Hampshire,, are the best choice for small flocks. Most traditional breeds are considered dual purpose, that is, they are good egg layers as well as meaty enough to be good eating. They don’t produce as many eggs as the industrial Leghorn, but they aren’t subjected to the same practices, either, such as being starved to induce molting in order to increase egg production.

The miracle of chickens is that they do lay so many eggs, without much regard to the seasons that govern egg laying in wild birds. That’s what domestication brought us, plenty of eggs, whether there’s a rooster around or not.

Add a rooster, and most traditional breed hens will lay fertile eggs, set on them until they hatch and then raise the chicks to independence. All for the same price: nutritious food and a safe place to live.

Traditional breeds are the best deal around.