by Chuck Everett
The whole act of preservation of our rare breeds begins and ends with patience. It has often been stated that patience is a virtue. When dealing with rare breeds’ patience is not a virtue; it is a requirement! Certainly patience can be a learned behavior. Maybe it can even be acquired over time. I just wish folks wouldn’t try to learn or acquire it with the rare breeds with which I’m working. I don’t wish to sound harsh: just honest. This year alone I have mailed out somewhere between three and four hundred hatching eggs all of rare breeds. It is always depressing to here that the folks who were so eager to receive the eggs have dropped the said rare breed in a year or so because they didn’t realize how much patience this whole process was going to take. Many of our rare breeds have fallen into a state of mediocrity or worse. It takes years and years of work to bring them back from the brink of extinction to a place where they even approach the Standard description.
I’ll get calls that ask why the leg color is wrong, or why the weight is not up to Standard, or if there is anyone else raising the breed that is further along. Oh, might I add that most of these calls come from the folks that I felt sorry for and I sent them the eggs for FREE. All I ask for many times is the cost of the postage and about half the time that isn’t even sent back to me. I just figure they needed the money worst than I did and write it off: back to the calls. I usually begin by asking, ‘You know these are rare breeds don’t you?’
After I receive an affirmative answer, I then ask what attracted them to the breed. Nine times out of ten that is when I find out that they wanted to be different, to standout at the local poultry show, and to brag to all their “going green” suburban friends that they were saving a piece of living history. No where did I hear anything about patience or hard work or the challenge of breeding for improvement. I didn’t hear any of these things because these folks either weren’t aware of the need for improvement or it never even crossed their little minds. So, this article is meant to inform folks before they call for hatching eggs or chicks.
1. Rare breeds need improvement. The improvement could be related to health and vigor, type or feather color. Possibly it might include all of these things. It is important to remember that there is no perfect fowl. They all have some fault somewhere. Even the best of the show strains still throw chicks with faults. It is only more so with rare breeds.
2. Improvement requires patience. In the first years of working with a breed you will see some dramatic improvements that come about by simple selection processes. However, this all slows down after those first few generations. Sometimes, it even seems that you go backward instead of forward.
3. Improvement requires culling. Culling is a part of the selection process. It begins when the chicks hatch and continues all the way to the breed pen. The harder you cull the faster will be your improvement: provided you have hatched plenty of chicks. If you can’t cull a bird then don’t call me or any other breeder for stock. You are wasting our time and taking away potential birds from our breeding stock.
4. Improvement requires a basic working knowledge of the breed you wish to improve. This may seem rather obvious. Yet, there are lots of folks out there who don’t own a Standard and aren’t planning on breeding to the Standard. How else can you seek to improve a breed unless you have a Standard to guide you? If your breed of choice is not included in the APA or ABA Standard then you should research the breed and find out of there exist a Standard from the breeds country of origin or from another country that has written Standards.
5. Improvement comes with hands-on experience. I believe in research and study; otherwise I would never have done the hard work required for my master’s and doctorate degrees. That said experience is the best teacher. Reading about something and doing it are two totally different things. As a matter of fact, don’t believe everything you read: especially on the Internet. Any fool can put something online. It doesn’t make it true just because it is in print. Also, be very careful concerning old poultry material. Years ago there existed many opinions that reflected the wisdom of the day which has now been proven to be untrue. Even the description of our old breeds in these older poultry records can not often be trusted. During the 19th century many writers quoted other writers as if they were speaking from personal knowledge. What they quoted might not have been true at all.
6. Improvement requires an understanding of breeding and breeding systems. One of the great things about raising chickens is that I get to breed they way I want too: so do you. Yet, there are still some basic breeding systems that have been proven through the years. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Read about these systems, talk with others and decide what would be the best fit for you.
7. Improvement requires good management. Management includes everything from feed to housing. I have found that if I free-range my young stock they are healthier throughout the remainder of their lives. There is no substitute for green grass and sunshine. A good start is essential to good birds. Birds need to be routinely wormed and sprayed for lice and mites. There housing needs to fit your particular location. You’re not running a hospital, but the housing should still be cleaned and sprayed periodically.
8. Improvement is enhanced by sharing stock with other serious breeders. Now we were all new once upon a time. I don’t want to discourage you from sharing stock with new folks at all; just make sure they know what they are getting into. Whether you give stock away, trade it or sell it, you need to be honest about the quality of the stock. Sharing stock will give you a person to go back to should your line need freshening up or should something happen to your birds. The person you share with might be a better breeder even than yourself; thus, you can get birds from your on line that end up being better than your own.
It has not been my goal to discourage anyone from raising and breeding rare breeds of poultry. On the contrary, I have only meant to encourage and inform. Raising and breeding rare breeds is my passion. This year alone I have hatched over 400 chicks of the rare breeds I keep. I plan to keep only a few of these birds. The remainder will be eaten by my family, given away to friends, or sold at poultry shows I attend. I begin hatching each year during Christmas week and continue to do so until the first week of June. That means that I’m setting eggs every 7 to 10 days during that entire time. Poultry is my passion; improvement is my goal!
For more information on breeding, and preservation of poultry, visit the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. You can also reach Mr. Everett at the Ultimate Fowl Forum.