Thursday, April 23, 2015


Delawares, a 20th century breed developed for the broiler market, turned out so pretty that it was recognized by the APA as an exhibition breed. The breed lost traction with the overwhelming turn of the poultry industry away from small and medium-size flocks to truly industrial production. By the 21st century, it had all but disappeared.
These Delawares belong to Melissa Kirby
Because it was developed from crossing Bared Rocks with New Hampshires and its development was well documented, dedicated breeders have re-created it. They are raising birds and judges are taking note. The most highly regarded are coming from Kathy Bonham at Timberline Acres in Nevada, Missouri.

Leslie Joyce of Oregon is working with birds from Kathy Hardisty Bonham in Missouri. The color is good, but the tail needs to be broader. “I LOVE my ‘Kathy's Line’ birds,” she said, “though they are still a work in progress.” 

Kim Consol's champion Delaware hen
Ms. Joyce finds the males protective and good flock leaders. She watched her breeding cock go after and chase away a hawk that threatened the flock. Although they are brave and free range happily on her pasture, they don’t fly over the fence and leave home. And the chicks are the cutest ever.

“I like that big-headed bird,” she said. “Delaware chicks are tiny fat balls of fluff. They have a funny, serious look.  They are classic chicks.”
Raising a breed that can reproduce itself appeals to Ms. Joyce. She considers the chicks the local feed store sells mutts because they don't conform to the written standard for their declared breed. So far they have performed well for her laying operation, 120 birds seasonally producing 30 dozen pretty eggs a week for a local buying club and the rest for a short list of customers who like her eggs.

The hatchery hens are good broody hens and mothers, raising their own interesting-looking chicks. They’ve happily hatched and raised the Delaware chicks for her breeding program. But they aren't the chickens she wants to breed seriously. Her goal is to get the Delawares to breed true, meaning all their offspring resemble their parents in predictable ways that increasingly match the breed Standard. She is looking forward to getting her first broody Delaware hen so she can compare their mothering ability to that of the hatchery hens.

The pale brown egg isn’t as eye-catching as the exotic blue and green that show up in her laying flock, but she detects a slightly better flavor in the Delaware eggs.

“I think their eggs are a little yummier,” she said. “It could be the way they process the fat that makes the yolk creamier.”

All those qualities make the Delaware the breed that best suits Ms. Joyce. “That’s the proof that your chicken can be a chicken,” she said. “That’s more important than cranking out a million chicks.” 

Good winter laying, good meat birds, sturdy and savvy out on pasture, pretty on pasture and in a show cage, calm, and a little bit goofy,” said Ms. Joyce.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hawaii's chickens offer insight into history

Scientists are taking Hawaii's chickens seriously. he NY Times reports on what they are finding:

On the island of Kauai, chickens have not just crossed the road.
They are also crowing in parking lots, hanging out at beaches and flocking in forests.
“They’re absolutely everywhere,” said Eben J. Gering, an evolutionary biologist at Michigan State University who has been studying these truly free-range birds. “They seem to be living a whole diversity of lifestyles, from eating garbage and cat food to being fed by tourists at the beach to foraging on native arthropods.”
In a paper published last month in the journal Molecular Ecology, Dr. Gering and his colleagues tried to untangle the genetic history of the Kauai feral chickens, which turn out to be not only a curiosity for tourists, but also a window into how humans domesticated wild animals. The reservoir of genetic traits could also prove useful for breeders.
Modern breeds of chickens are, by and large, bigger versions of the red junglefowl, a Southeast Asian cousin of pheasants that was domesticated more than 7,000 years ago. (There also appear to be some genes mixed in from the related gray junglefowl.)
On the Hawaiian island of Kauai, feral chickens are widespread and have become a tourist attraction. Credit Hob Osterlund for The New York Times
American scientists published in 2004 the genome of the red junglefowl. And in 2010, an international team coordinated by Leif Andersson, a professor of medical biochemistry and microbiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, sequenced the genomes of eight breeds of farm chickens. The comparison of chicken DNA, Dr. Andersson said, sought to answer, “Which are the most striking changes that have taken place during chicken domestication?”
One discovery was that all of the domesticated chicken breeds have the same mutated form of a gene that is the blueprint for a hormone receptor in the thyroid gland. The scientists are still investigating how the mutation changed the bird, although Dr. Andersson said it might play a part in chickens’ ability to lay eggs continuously instead of just in certain seasons.
Later research, examining DNA from chicken bones dating back 2,000 years recovered from European archaeological digs, found that the mutation was not always ubiquitous. That disproved the notion that the mutation was crucial to domestication.
Chicken researchers say the uncertainties arise in part because of limited knowledge of the wild red junglefowl — the 2004 genome, for example, came from a single female. Also, the wild birds today may be different from those that were originally domesticated. Chickens and red junglefowl readily interbreed, and the wild birds may have become more chickenlike over time.
“There is still surprisingly a large amount that we don’t know about the domestication process that made this bird so valuable to us,” Dr. Gering said.
The Kauai chickens provide a new perspective — domestication in reverse.
Local lore is that many of the Kauai chickens are descendants of birds that escaped when Hurricane Iwa in 1982 and then Hurricane Iniki in 1992 blew open coops. (Feral chickens are found on other Hawaiian islands, but not in overwhelming numbers. Some speculate that Kauai is overrun because mongooses, which like to eat eggs, were never released there. Dr. Gering said another reason could be that the two hurricanes only sideswiped the other islands.)
Annual bird counts organized by the Audubon Society support that notion: The numbers of chickens on Kauai jumped a few years after each hurricane.
But the genealogy of chickens on Hawaii stretches back much farther. The first people there were Polynesians, who embarked on long ocean voyages to specks of islands in the expanse of the Pacific. They arrived at Hawaii at least 800 years ago.
Wherever the Polynesians went, they took their chickens, which were much like the ancestral red junglefowl.
Fossils of chickens dating to the Polynesian era, long before Capt. James Cook, the British explorer, arrived in Hawaii in 1778, have been dug up in a cave on Kauai. From the fossils, scientists led by Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, have extracted mitochondrial chicken DNA, part of the data they used to reconstruct the paths of Polynesian expansion. (Mitochondria, the energy factories in the cell, possess their own genetic code, separate from the main strands of DNA in the cell nucleus.)
The same Australian researchers concluded Polynesians never made it all the way to South America, because South American chickens do not have the Polynesian genetic signposts.
In the new research, the scientists sequenced DNA from 23 chickens from eight regions of Kauai. As the influx of farm chickens encountered the older Polynesian red junglefowl population, Dr. Gering wondered, “How is that population evolving?”
The mitochondrial DNA of a few of the chickens matched that of the Polynesian chicken bones from the Kauai cave; more had the DNA of recent European breeds. Not all of the feral chickens had the mutated thyroid hormone receptor of modern domesticated chickens. The birds’ appearances also indicate that ancient traits persist. Some look as if they have just walked off the farm, but many others, with burnt orange and black plumage for the males, look like red junglefowl from the forests of India or Vietnam.
Dr. Gering’s collaborator Dominic Wright, a biology professor at Link√∂ping University, noted that many of the roosters sounded more like red junglefowl.
Both types of birds crow, but the last syllable of the junglefowl’s crow is shorter. “It sounds like it’s being throttled right at the end,” Dr. Wright said.
Other crowings fell in between in duration. “It’s so diverse,” he said. “It certainly seems to be a lot of the original wild reservoir.”
Dr. Wright is also interested in the floppy red combs on the chickens’ heads. Domestic hens have been bred to be larger and lay eggs prolifically — traits that would seem to be attractive to roosters hoping to spread their genes. The prolific hens advertise their ability with a large comb. And yet, the feral hens on Kauai have quickly reverted to a more ancestral body shape — smaller in size and smaller combs.
“That implies there are other trade-offs that are advantageous,” Dr. Wright said. “It must have been really strong selection.”
In follow-up research, the scientists would like to observe more of the characteristics of the feral chickens — How many eggs do they lay? How often? Do they grow quickly like the farm breeds? — and then try to connect the genes responsible for the evolution of the hybrids. Dr. Wright is mating chickens and red junglefowl to precisely study how traits and behaviors are passed on.
Dr. Gering speculated that until recent decades, the Kauai chickens were largely like the ones that the Polynesians brought long ago, living in small parts of the island and modest in number. Then they began mating with the escaped farm chickens or their descendants, with greater fecundity and a wider range of habitats.
“We think that’s why we’re seeing them now at Walmart and all over the place,” Dr. Gering said.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Coop tours

This article about Chicken Coop Tours is in the current issue of Backyard Poultry magazine. The magazine has a nice map showing where the listed tours are being  held.

Kimberly Stein's coop in Fort Collins, Colorado
Kimberly's chickens investigate their new water feature.
Backyard chicken keepers are proud of their chickens and their coops. Inviting the public along for a coop tour has become a popular way to get chicken folks together. It’s fun, and gives everyone a chance to exchange ideas.

Many places hold their tours in the spring, but others wait until summer or combine them with harvest events. Check around your community to find out when and where the local tour is.

Joshua Heiling showed off his coop in Madison.
Madison, Wisconsin’s Mad City Chickens have been sharing coop ideas for more than ten years. They’ve gone digital, posting a Google map for participants to follow on their phones.

In Atlanta, the eighth annual Urban Coop Tour attracts around 300-500 visitors to 14 coops. Backyard chicken keepers often keep other critters and livestock, such as guineafowl, turkeys and rabbits. Bees are popular.

Claire Reeve makes use of a narrow space next to her Atlanta home.
“It’s almost become an urban farm tour,” said organizer Anne-Marie Anderson, who has chaired the event for the Wylde Center for the past four years.

Ms. Anderson got involved with chickens through her gardening business. She didn’t know anything about chickens, but got some a few years ago and now teaches chicken classes as well as organizing the coop tour. She currently shares ten chickens with her neighbors. They include Orpingtons, Sussex, Easter eggers, a Jaerhon and a Black Copper Marans rooster.

“He was a surprise,” she said.

In Fort Collins, Colorado, the Sustainable Living Association sponsors both a Tour de Coop and a Tour de Farms. The Sustainable Living Center championed Fort Collins’ legal acceptance of backyard chickens, which clarified the requirements in 2013. Chicken keeping is relatively new, so they are learning as they go. About 35 showed up for the eight-mile bike tour of eight backyard coops in 2014. A bike technician was on hand to help with mechanical problems. The tour concluded with a locally-sourced organic dinner.

“People wanted to talk about issues they had had with predators, feed, medications and unfamiliar behavior, like broodiness,” Kimberly Stein, program director, said. “They were excited about new breeds they hadn’t heard of. A Polish hen named Tina Turner was a sensation.”

In Raleigh and Cary, North Carolina, more than 1,000 turn out for the tour. It’s a fund-raiser for Urban Ministries as well as a chicken event. It has evolved over its ten-year history, into an event celebrating humane animal care, local sustainable food and community involvement. Its Coop Carnival in 2014 highlighted nonprofit agencies that benefit both humans and animals.

"My husband went all out on design," said Marian Crabb of Decatur. "He started by thinking of the arches we'd seen in French cathedrals. Over time those arches began to take on the shapes of eggs. A construction miscalculation then cracked the egg. These shots are from the construction process two years ago. The doors to the upper coop are now fried eggs!"
“Non-profits and sponsors had booths at the carnival, and we offered food and entertainment as well,” said organizer M’Liss Koopman. “All with a chicken theme, of course.”

In Tucson, Arizona, the Food Conspiracy Co-op sponsors the City Chickens Coop Tour in December. Water’s scarce there, so using less is a theme at the sites on tour, showcasing features such as composting toilets, aquaculture systems and both photovoltaic and passive solar systems. The tour includes Tucson Botanical Gardens’ coop, the coop of Watershed Management Group’s Lisa and Catlow Shipek and one at thriving midtown urban Dreamflower Farm. ReZoNation Farm in Avra Valley has mobile coops and visitors can see the coop at Drachman Montessori Magnet School Ecology Program, winner of Sustainable Tucson’s Green School Recognition. 

In Norwell, Massachusetts, the South Shore Natural Science Center sponsors the Hen House Hop, a tour of local coops that starts at the center. Friends of a Feather 4-H members are on hand to share backyard chickens pointers for success. Coops include local solutions to predator issues and surviving New England’s cold, wet weather. Tickets are sold to benefit the center’s Jose Carriero Children’s Garden, where children of all ages can get their hands in the dirt and learn where food comes from. The center has an on-site Nature Center Preschool.

Eugene’s Visit Coop Town USA shows diverse coop designs, ranging from high tech to simple and utilitarian. With about 3,000 locals keeping chickens, it’s easy to find coops for the tour.

“The coops on display are generally diverse, ranging from high tech to pretty designs to simple and utilitarian,” said Bill Bezuk of Eugene Backyard Farmer

In Boise, Idaho, the 2014 Tour de Coop included a raffle that sold a custom built coop complete with feed and four chicks, two original artworks and other items. The event raised over $3,000 for the Bishop Kelly High School Scholarships Fund.

 “The people who get involved are an interesting, varied mix,” Ms. Anderson of Atlanta said. “Chicken people are easy-going, bubbly and vibrant.”

Chicken coop tours

Keeping a few hens in the backyard has become so popular that advocates in many cities have organized tours of local coops. This list highlights some of them. Check around your area to find out whether your area has one. If not, perhaps you are the one to get it started!

Atlanta, Georgia, Urban Chicken Coop Tour, March 27, 28, 29

Austin, Texas, Funky Chicken Coop Tour, April 4,

Dallas, Texas, A Peep at the Coops, Sunday in May, 

Davis, California Tour de Cluck, May

Denver, Colorado, first week of October,

Fort Collins, Colorado, May 15 or 16, Tour de Coop,  

Phoenix, Arizona Tour de Coops Valley Permaculture Alliance, November

Tucson, Arizona City Chickens Coop Tour, December

Davis, California Tour de Cluck, May,

Fort Collins, Colorado, Tour de Coop, 15 or 16 May,

Chicago, Illinois Windy City Coop Tour, September 19-20

Boise, Idaho Tour de Coop September,  

Raleigh/Cary North Carolina Tour D’Coop May 16 

Monmouth and Independence, Oregon Coop Tour July

Eugene, Oregon Visit Coop Town USA, 23 May

La Pine, Oregon Coop and Garden Tour, second Saturday in August

Seattle, Washington City Chickens Coop Tour, July,

Madison, Wisconsin Mad City Chickens City-Wide Coop Tour, June