Despite my pain and musings on the divine, I am still just a simple farmer. If I wanted to pontificate at large on the nature of the Universe, I should have been a minister or a scientist, but there were hindrances to my development in either.
Now, as you have seen, I still dabble a little in the Bible, but I also dabble a lot in science. When you own chickens, you are partaking in one of Mankind’s oldest experiments, Animal Domestication: If I am nice to it, will it hold still enough for me to eat it? The history I have heard, they can trace the domestication of chicken to China about 3000 years ago. You’d think that it would have started sooner, but perhaps the dogs we had co-evolved with for 9000 years before that kept scaring them off.
When I first started talking chickens at people, they always seemed surprised that there was more than one type of chicken. Even people who kept chickens seemed to have limited knowledge. I once had an industrial farmer try to strike up a ‘heard you like chickens’ talk with me. ‘I had chickens. 40,000 of them,’ he said with pride. When I asked him what kinds, he seemed confused for a moment. “Dunno,” he said. “White Ones?” McDonald’s had needed a lot of eggs, and KFC a lot of chicken, and he had stepped up to the task, salting the farmland around him with liquid manure until the EPA had shut him down.
Despite the wide variety of chicken breeds, all chickens, with a few exceptions, are descendant from the Red Jungle fowl. There, literally, is one branch on the chicken tree. Now, this is not odd in domestication genetics. I remember reading that they had chased the Blue Eye gene back to one family, a generalized mutation. This would mean that all blue eyed people are related, like distant cousins, though thousands of generations removed. Not sure if that one is true, but it follows what I have learned on the farm.
I have learned a lot from Big Red Oed. When we hatched him from fertile eggs I picked up from Riverwalk Farm, I had asked for ‘whatever she had available’ so I figured that I was getting cross breeds. I was calling him a RIR mix, and when he was about two, it was confided that we were in possession of a rare Auburn Java.
The Java is not just a very old breed and the base root on many other breeds, but it is also the first breed developed in the US from Asian chickens of unknown origin off of an island in Java sometime before 1835. This was an odd time in the birding world as they had recently realized the the Great Auk had nearly died out. The Great Auk was an important food source around the Atlantic, a wild caught chicken dinner penguin that an old lady with a cane could run down. Eventually, demand for their feathers drove them to extinction. The very last recorded capture of a Great Auk tells us that the last of the might penguin hunters later clubbed the bird to death when they decided that it was a witch. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_auk#Extinction)
The Preservation movement started then, when people realized that uniqueness was leaving the world and that we were responsible. Being a more agricultural society then, it became the project of many farmers to identify their birds, record traits and trace shipment histories for the origins. The competition became fierce as the fairs had people for miles around trying to breed the most perfect genetic representation of a specimen.
The Java was first mentioned in print in 1835, providing the base stock for various mutations kindly referred to as breeds. Jersey Giant and the Plymouth Rock both hail from Java stock. The standard was set for breeds in 1883, covering Black, White and Mottled Javas. In 1910, the White was removed from the standard as being too similar to the White Plymouth Rock, and the line died out by the 50’s. I have heard one breeder claim that White was still possible in a proper mixing of genetics, with a yard full of white Javas, but I was never sure until Big Red Oed.
Auburn Java genetics is still present in the Black Java line and will occasionally produce a throwback. My rooster is a representative of a breed of chickens thought to have died out in the 1870’s after founding the Rhode Island Red breed. Throwback genetics can be odd, though. Despite his deep red plumage, he still throws chicks at a 50% ration to Black. With no Auburn Java females, there is nothing to strengthen the red in the offspring. About ten percent of the time, he’ll give a red offspring, the others get a mottled fire red and black that is just as stunning.
The problem is that, no matter how beautiful the bird, each of the breeds are a controlled evolutionary experiment from a specific time and place. Sometimes you can get that to work where you are, sometimes you win, when a thing out of place thrives where it is not supposed to, and sometimes that thing that you have placed in this environment cannot survive and it dies.
With my core flock, I don’t have to wonder if they can cut it in the desert, because I had a pretty heavy predation issue in this area, a few times. The main culprit were two packs of pet dogs, each lead by a little dog. In one case, it was a chihuahua and the other a shih-tzu. Each of the packs also had the big bruiser that can tear chain-link. The big guy would tear a hole and the little one would dive in and chase the chickens to the snarling jaws of the dogs sticking their heads through the hole.
You read that right. An Auburn Java-Silkie Rooster. Never saw them do it, but they apparently did quite regularly. The picture doesn’t do him justice. The darks are a smokey grey and the red flashed in the sun. His big red walnut comb looked like a fire hat, so we called him Fire Marshal Bill, or ‘Marshal’ for short. I was arranging hens to breed him against when I caught the dogs that killed them, which is how I know how the attack worked. At this point, I had lost 20 birds.
Yet the others survived, and this not only proved that they were the best choice for this environment, but we lost so many due to basic generational hierarchy. During a rather large, but controlled hatch, the Silkie who had disappeared for nearly a month returned from a secret nest in the undergrowth with 15 chicks. Our chicken math was thrown off kilter, and, as we tried to account for this many more birds, they began sleeping in the trees. Red was keeping the adolescent chicks out of the coop to maintain his genetic base. With in a week, the problem took care of itself.
This is the new batch.
On the next post, I’ll go into genetic plan breeding and interesting behaviors. Check out https://grimmjest.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/the-joy-in-genetics/
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