(This section on chicken genetics and behaviors is a continuation of ‘Fowl Dukkha Revealed.’)
When I open the coop in the morning, Big Red Oedipus, the Auburn Rooster, hits the door ready to fight. Puffed up to twice his size like a cloud of red fire, he makes a bee line for the pasture fence and squeezes his bulk, real and for show, through a tiny hole like a cartoon character, and he is gone.
The Rooster is quickly joined by an adolescent flock that is nearly half roosters. The plan for genetic dispersal has taken on a different approach due to the neighbor’s new rooster.
The Rooster is not so selfless. Due to predation and emergency sales, Big Red’s harem is below optimum level. For a happy, satisfied rooster, you have to have at least 12 hens. If you have at least 12 per rooster, you can (usually) keep more than one rooster with little fuss.
The rooster nearby has a weak, young crow; a little strangled. Based on this, Red knows that he can take this rooster. He is leading his adolescent chicks on a raid. The basic idea is that Red will be able to diversify his genetic contribution over a wider genetic base while also possibly providing his progeny a chance to begin their own flocks with outside material.
Really, he doesn’t care. He just has to kill this rooster.
I chase them back into the pasture with dirt clods in the branches of a nearby tree and mend the outer fence. The lesson of Animal Domestication is that you subvert natural behaviors for personal benefit.
This clutch of chicks represents the first blocks of a breed I am trying to create. As far as I can guess at this point, two are half Ancona (See my earlier blog-post where I wax poetic about this breed), two are Dark Cornish and the final three are Easter Eggers (which should lay blue to green eggs). Against the backdrop of an Auburn Java, any one of these could be the start of a new breed.
I know that this sounds like mad science, and at some level, it is. I have a lot of respect for a farmer named Joel Salatin. I had spent years studying breeds and picking the heritage breeds that would work best in the desert, when I happened across an article he wrote for a giveaway copy of Acres USA. In the article, he explains that breed maintenance is not nearly as important as genetic diversity. The breeds, when considered, developed in the places they were originally found for thousands of years of domestication. Until the breed standardization of the early 19th Century, farmers in an unbroken chain had simply been building their flocks, new hens added from whatever sources were available, and each breed was a genetic flock that streamlined for the environment it developed in.
This profoundly changed how I was looking at my desert chicken project. It is difficult to find birds that excel in this extreme subtropical desert environment, but they do exist. Most of them are egg breeds, the conservation of resources being a plus. An egger-breed won’t eat nearly as much as a meat breed because they are not putting on bulk. One of the breeds is legendary, the Lamona, and if anyone is breeding those, they are keeping their cards close to their vests. The next might as well be legendary for all the luck I have had in locating them, the Catalana.
“W.W.J.S.D.?” What Would Joel Salatin Do? © ….He’d make his own dang breed. To do that, I have heard that he mixes three different breeds, one of which is the Blue Andalusian. Since he does this in cycles, the industry cannot seem to keep up with his orders of 16,000 birds.
Strange that his actions would cause a threat to the continuance of a heritage breed. He was seeking a replacement breed the last I heard.
My goal is an egger body shape, made large like an anti-bantam. Canny and quick, the bird has to be alert to predators while also being an active forager in a desert environment. I am also attempting to breed in a high disease tolerance, moderate egg production and and meaty carcass.
If I can give them plumage that looks like a smoky fire, all the better. So, I wonder what would happen if I took the hens from Hatch D and paired them against a Blue and White Polish?
I can see the farmer’s general acceptance of genetic modification because they have always done this on a much lower scale. Agriculture, itself, subverts the Natural Order for the sake of convenience. Changes are introduced which cause bounty or ruin, but the end result is something that can excel in the environment it is in, because any that couldn’t cut it have long since died off. Yet, the end result is still artificial because it is built upon human intervention and general maintenance.
Like a prize rose has to be grafted to a wild rose’s root, the genetic diversity comes from the pure breeds, the the evolution comes from the cross breeds. In the Monoculture of Big Ag, the entire system rests on a few specific strains on DNA, which is a dangerous thing to the survival of the whole. At this time, there is a need for people to maintain the heritage breeds in preparation for this eventuality, yet there is a place for mixing at the edges, too.
In Chile, there is a breed of chicken we call the Araucana or the South American Rumpless. They have cheek puffs and lay blue eggs due to a DNA rotovirus that happened early in the line’s establishment. This natural GMO founded the Ameraucana, and its DNA spreads out to Easter Eggers. They are also known to be quite docile, which is not exactly the mark of intelligence. Oddly, the cheek puffs are known to be a lethal gene that lowers the hatch rate significantly.
There is a legend among the Chilean farmers that raising and maintaining these birds is a punishment from the Gods for subverting the natural order. I like that, when the Divine takes an active interest in our stewardship of the environment.
Mankind has been rough on this planet. So many unique things have disappeared under our consuming grasp.
When you’re talking about the largest bird in existence, it is really a toss-up between the Elephant Bird and the Moa.
The Elephant Bird was most likely the inspiration for Marco Polo’s Roc, it stood 10 feet tall (3M) and weighed 880 lbs. (400 kg). It had gone completely extinct in the 17th Century due to human encroachment (this time, the French), over-hunting and secondary disease brought by chickens that someone thought they might need in the land of Giant Chickens.
The other was the Moa, towering at 12-13 feet tall (3.6 m), but only weighed 550 lbs (230 kg). It once thrived in New Zealand in many varieties. There was actually a predator for these things, the massive Haast’s Eagle, the largest Eagle ever to have been known to exist. The Māori arrived in 1300 AD and the Moa population was extinct by 1400 AD, though still remembered in Māori legend.
It staggers the imagination to think that, with proper management of a uniqueness in the world, we might have been selling chicken thighs like sides of beef.
For the wide diversity in the bird world, check out http://www.birdsofafeather.ca/about-bird-species
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