Breed in Focus – The Ancona

I’ll tell you all about my current obsession, The Ancona Chicken. (Gallus gallus domesticus)

(To all of the World of Warcraft people who accidentally got redirected to this blog, this is not “The Ancona Chicken” you are looking for. Now, go outside and don’t come back in until the street lights come on.)

savage henry

The Ancona Chicken is a stunning Mediterranean breed with mottled feathers, black with white tips. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Mottled Leghorn,’  this is a separate breed with its own bloodline.

When a breed is established and standardized, it will, traditionally (though this is not always the case, especially with “Ornamental breeds”) will be named for a city nearby.  Ancona is a city in central Italy, originally established by the Greeks in 387 BC. That should give you an idea how deep this bloodline goes. When chickens were first brought to this area, Plato was teaching Aristotle at the Platonic Academy.

H. C. Sheppard

H. C. Sheppard

The standardization of this breed dates to the 19th Century. They were first shipped to the United States in 1888. H. Cecil Sheppard of my hometown, Berea, OH imported Anconas in 1906 and quickly became a major player in this popular breed with a rather sizable farm. If you are wondering where the farm is these days, it is called the Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

From the book "A Little Journey Among Anconas" by J. Cecil Sheppard, 1922  (Special thanks to Google for digitizing)

From the book “A Little Journey Among Anconas” by J. Cecil Sheppard, 1922
(Special thanks to Google for digitizing)

We ordered our start, 25 hens from Murray McMurray Hatchery since Sheppard is out of business. The problem with starting a show flock is that you have to start it with show birds, and try to maintain the breed. Getting substandard birds and trying to breed them up to show quality is difficult and time consuming. I discovered that the Ancona was the perfect way to test a breed store’s knowledge, as well. If you ask about an Ancona and they keep trying to correct you to Ameraucana, they don’t know anything about chickens.

Since I was introducing this breed to the area, I got the purest strains I could, and ordered 25 hens. There is a method to this madness. As any chicken farmer can tell you, every hatchery has ‘Chicken Sexers’ and they are actually paid quite well. That’s because Sexers can move quickly through a batch of chicks and their services will change your odds of getting all hens from ’50/50′ to ’90/10,’ yet there is no real basis for the science of how it gets that way.

Even with the odds being heavily stacked against getting a rooster, I knew that I still would, and when they grow up together, they get along better.

My original intention was to get 25 chicks and sell half of them, but I discovered very little interest at the time (November), and I was a little nervous in that I am _not_ a chicken sexer, and I didn’t want to hurt my chances  by giving away my rooster.

A culling happened anyway, and it was completely unintentional, but worked out to our advantage. The heater in the brooder box had a thermostat error and went on the fritz. 90° in November is not uncommon in Southern Arizona, but having a heater decide that is too cold is. By the time we discovered it, half of our precious flock was dead.

Yet, half of them were not, despite enduring 125° for a couple of hours. That’s the mark of a good desert chicken.

Anconas are an ‘egger breed,’ and as such, they stay very small and lean, using most of their feed as energy for the egg machine. They lay standard sized white eggs, which were the brown eggs of the early 20th Century (no difference beyond the color of the shell, but people wanted them because they were different than what they were used to), and they lay them in prodigious numbers.

Some chickens are ‘flighty’ in that they go to great lengths to avoid human contact, but Anconas seem to have more of a pheasant-like wariness. They stayed out of my way, but they were not scared of me.

They were also quirky in strange ways. Every night when it was time to coop up, they would line up, with the rooster supervising, and file patiently in.  Feeding time had the feeling of a formal dinner, each chicken taking it’s place and eating in an orderly fashion.

They made up for this by being some of the most talkative and curious breed I have dealt with. As they matured, I realized that I should not have them penned, but having a mixed flock pastured, I didn’t want them to get mixed together. I began putting things into their pen to climb on, just to try to keep them occupied.

The Ancona Rooster stares down a Dark Cornish Hen

The Ancona Rooster stares down a Dark Cornish Hen

My flock’s rooster was Henry, and he immediately excelled at the role. He made sure that treats were distributed evenly as were his attentions. He also had a spectacular crow that sometimes he would start unleashing at 3 in the morning. We began calling him Savage Henry when he began defending his territory from safely inside his pen against all comers, though he remained quite friendly with me.

When my wife’s heath deteriorated, it went quickly. The pain had been with her for about a year and a half, and suddenly we had a brain surgery immediately on the horizon. As I took up more and more slack, my time and ability to care for the chickens quickly disappeared. I ended up selling the flock as a lot at cost or slightly lower and they sold within an hour. You have to do the right thing when your care of your flock becomes you taking the eggs out with a shovel once a week. (That is a hard thing to do, to have to throw away buckets and buckets of eggs because your coop is a mess.)

I miss them. Their enclosure is currently full of Easter Eggers I got on the cheap, and they have no real personality. I did keep one Ancona hen, and now in the mixed flock, she has excelled at free range pasturing. She’s still quick and alert, even with one eye being covered in a ‘comb over.’ Her pattern makes her vanish in the shade of a tree and look spectacular in the sun, which brings out the green beetling of her black feathers.

If I get the chance, I will get the Anconas again when I know that I can keep them exclusively. What a fine bird!

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