Barcodes and Anarchists, or, Knowing About Chickens

I will be the first to stand up and say I don’t know much about the finer points of poultry breeding. I know the value of a backyard flock of hens, a value that seems to have slipped away much in recent years. When we lived in town and had a little flock of layers out in the back garden, we were exceptional in the neighborhood. It was an old neighborhood, and you just know those little houses built in the 1920s all had chickens in their yards once. It seemed too bad, to know that a practice so wholesome and easy as keeping your own hens had become something to remark upon. We brought our hens with us when we moved out to the hills, and though those birds have passed on several times by now, we continue to keep a mixed flock of egg layers. They are a diverse group of ladies, and the occasional gentleman, who qualify as “multi-purpose birds.” They must grow well, lay well, eat well, and weigh in at a satisfying 6 or 7 pounds when they are culled as stewing hens later in life.

I fear, however, I am only carelessly aware of the points poultry breeders would consider when evaluating hens. I can shop for a sheep, all right. Chickens, I buy them by the carton more or less and must trust the breeder to deliver to me what I have ordered. Give me a dozen Barred Plymouth Rocks. Barcodes we call them around here, for the obvious reason.

A group of young Plymouth Barred Rocks partying with a canteloupe.

A group of young Barred Plymouth Rocks partying with a cantaloupe.

I love their fancy skirts and old-lady roundness.

Another year, give me a dozen Hampshire Reds. They’re a smaller hen, more urgent somehow, but with a nice temperament, and they lay lovely warm pale brown eggs like the Barcodes do.

Give me robust, healthy chickens that make a nice chuckling sound in the barnyard and lay a pretty carton of eggs. Our customers are not looking for uniformly sized, white-shelled, graded and labeled eggs. They come to us because the eggs they buy here are as fresh as ever an egg was. When you break that egg into a pan, its yolk will stand up half an inch from the sizzle, and it will be as yellow as a summer dawn sun. And that box of eggs, when opened, is a treat to the eye. The dozen eggs is made up of variations of color from palest brown to darker brown to freckled brown.

One year someone gave us some young hens that had lost their charm as a diversion for the children. Among them were a couple of Easter Egg layers, unidentified chickens who gave pale blue-green eggs. My customers were delighted with the addition of green eggs to the boxes of brown so, next time I was ordering chicks, I looked out for some to increase the color flock.

And here is where I became confused.

Aracaunas are what you want,” wrote one friend. “Araucanas,” advised another, modifying the spelling. “No,” said someone else, “they are Americanas.” And then once more: Ameraucana. “Easter Egg Chickens!” I was told then. Tomato, tomahto, potato, potahto… Richard solved the whole thing by calling them Anarchists and suggesting we just get some.

I ordered what the hatchery listed as “Araucanas (Ameraucanas), the “Easter Egg” chicken.” That figured to take care of it.

But I really did want to know, you know? Because, it seems I am not the only one confused about this, and it does seem a person should know what kind of birds are running in the flock.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is my first line of inquiry on livestock breeds. I was surprised, when I looked up Araucana in their list, to see a bird that did not look much like the hens growing up in my flock. And, further, it is listed under the “study” heading which, in ALBC talk means “Breeds that are of interest but either lack definition or lack genetic or historical documentation.” And more, “Note 1: Araucanas and Ameraucanas are often confused […yes…] with each other, and may be sold interchangeably.

So I clicked on over to Wikipedia, my next source of quickly found information:

The Araucana, also known as a South American Rumpless, is a breed of chicken originating in Chile. The Araucana is often confused with other fowl, especially the Ameraucana and Easter Egger chickens, but has several unusual characteristics which distinguish it. They lay blue eggs, have feather tufts near their ears, and are rumpless.

There’s that confusion again. But ear tufts and rumplessness are two things my hens do not have.

Here is the Araucana Club of America logo, showing the rumpless condition of Araucanas.

and here’s a Wikipedia photo of a white Araucana with ear tufts:

Then further, I read:

When the Araucana was first introduced to breeders worldwide, in the mid-20th century, it was quickly realized that the genetics that produced tufts also caused chick mortality.[note] As it turns out, two copies of the gene causes nearly 100% mortality shortly before hatching. One copy causes about 20% mortality. The tufted gene is dominant however. Because no living araucana possesses two copies of the tufted gene, breeding any two tufted birds leads to half of the resulting brood being tufted with one copy of the gene, a quarter being clean faced with no copy of the gene, and a quarter of the brood dead in the shell having received two copies of the gene.

This sounds very difficult to me. I do not wish to offend breeders or denigrate the Araucana chicken. But the kind of breeding care required to produce a stable henyard of natural Araucanas is something I can only admire from a distance. It’s completely beyond me to attempt this kind of record-keeping and control of matings. No matter how much I loved a breed, I would learn to un-love it for being impossible.

So, I moved on, and consulted the Ameraucana Breeders Club. Here at last I see photos of hens that look like mine (that is, to my unrefined eye, they look like mine), and here I read:

“Ameraucanas” are first and foremost BLUE EGG layers. They MUST have “pea combs”, and be bearded and muffed and tailed, and CANNOT have any tufts. They also MUST have slate blue legs, and red ear lobes (females pale). There has been a definite relationship established between the “Pea Comb” gene and the “Blue Egg” gene. Both these genes have been shown to be carried on the same chromosome, and thus closely related.

The site contains a long piece on the history of Ameraucanas and Araucanas, (as long, almost, as this post is becoming) and I’ll let you all go there if you want more detailed information.

Regarding tufts versus muffs and beards: above you saw ear tufts. And quite decorative they are! Here below is a bearded lady from our flock:

Ameraucana pullet

Bearded Lady: Ameraucana pullet

Click the photo to see it a little larger. Note she has blue-gray legs, a pea-comb (short little thing, not the floppy kind), an upright tail, and a distinct beard. The beard is quite different from the ear tufts of the Araucana hen. This hen is still young. I’m not sure where the beard ends and “muffs” start, but I’m expecting her facial foliage will increase some as she grows up. Someone who knows the breed better than I could clarify the description.

After reading several additional articles and looking at some more photos, I am now clear in my mind that Ameraucanas weren’t bred from Araucanas, nor were Araucanas bred from Ameraucanas. Both are the result of independent breeding from types of blue-egg layers that were at one time non-standardized but have now been accepted by the American Poultry Association as established breeds. The Ameraucana was officially accepted as standard in 1984.

And this brings us back to the Easter Eggers. Returning to Wikipedia:

An Easter Egger or Easter Egg chicken is any chicken that possesses the “blue egg” gene, but doesn’t fully meet any breed description as defined in the American Poultry Association(APA) and/or the American Bantam Association (ABA) standards. Further, even if a bird meets an APA or ABA Standard breed description, but doesn’t meet a variety description or breed true at least 50% of the time it is considered an Easter Egger.

In short:

USA & Canada Araucana – Tufts (lethal allele), rumpless, blue eggs, green legs and yellow skin (with exceptions).

US Ameraucana – Beards and muffs (NO lethal gene), with tail feathers, blue eggs, blue legs and white skin.

Easter Egger – Whatever. Blue-green eggs, though.

Table 1. Araucana versus Ameraucana.
Characteristic Araucana Ameraucana
Tail no yes
Ear-tufts yes no
Beard no yes
Muffs no yes
Blue eggs yes yes

[This table is reproduced courtesy of the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), available on the website The Araucana Chicken.]

Heads up! (No, that's a tail.)

Heads up! (No, that's a tail.)

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Published in: on July 12, 2008 at 10:39 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Had to stop by and say HI after seeing the comment on Stoneheads blog about cabbage. My grandparents were Danish and boy do we love that red cabbage. Great blog!

  2. Nita —

    And so hard to do it wrong! (the cabbage I mean, not the blog…)

    Thanks for the note.

    S.

  3. Sheesh! Who knew chickens were so complicated?

    Whatever the case, Easter eggers rock!

    We adore our three, Rangy, Sandy and Dandelion. Two have the muffs (Look more or less like the beauty in your picture)and one is smooth and sleek-headed. All lay those marvelous green eggs.

    We have two easter egg/cuckoo marans (AKA “Chocolate egger”)cross hens and they lay dingy dark green eggs!

  4. I’d love to find some Marans around here. Something about those beautiful dark shells just wants to be in my egg boxes!

    S.

  5. What a well-researched and interesting article. Thank you. I wonder why they call the eggs of Ameraucana’s blue. My “Tulip” lays these army green eggs. I’m wondering what hatchery Tulip came from. I bought her at the farm supply store so who knows………..? Again, my thanks for the informative piece.

    • I’m pleased you found it useful.

      My hens also lay pale green eggs. I believe the genetic attribute that allows shell color in the “blue-to-green” spectrum is called “blue,” though some variation around blue is the same gene site at work.

      S.


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