Blue eggs, Chilean roots?
David Scrivener looks at the ever popular Araucanas, a breed with a mysterious origin
The mystery is that scientists have long believed that all domestic chickens are descended from Indian Jungle Fowl, yet when the first Spanish Conquistadors arrived in South America, there were thousands of them, easily enough to supply the explorers with eggs and fresh meat. Although it has been a matter of scholarly debate, the human pre-Columbian (before discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492) population of the Americas has generally been thought of as having arrived, via Siberia, before the age of farming.Archeologists and geneticists (studying human DNA) have discovered a lot, and are continuing to discover more about ancient peoples travelling, island by island, across the Pacific Ocean from south east Asia to the western coast of South America, now Chile. Consult a really up-to-date text book or website about this. I’m therefore unable to give any who and when details on this, but generally, people and their chickens arrived in South America from Polynesia long before the Spaniards.K Blackwood gives a lot of details about Pacific Island chickens on one of the best poultry websites (www.feathersite.com, see Rapanul/Olmec Fowl.) Rapanul Fowl are the local chickens of Easter Island, otherwise known as Rapa Island. According to the books I have (not the latest), Easter/Rapa Island was populated circa 1-400AD, well after the domestication of chickens.The chickens seen now on this and other Pacific Islands include green and blue egg layers, long crowers (crowing competitions, to be covered in a future article. Some of these breeds are in the UK, so if you really don’t like your neighbours...), game (fighting) breeds, all in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours, including some rumpless types. The last point is important, as it’s the Rumpless Araucana, known as Colloncas in Chile and Quetros in Peru, are regarded as the original and genuine among most fanciers around the world. Apart from the scientists using DNA testing to study the origins of families of people, others are using DNA to clarify the origin of chicken breeds. Because of their general economic importance, chickens are one of the most intensively studied species on the planet.Araucanas are nominally classed as coming from Chile, although they were noticed in many other parts of South America. Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition across the Pacific from the Philipines in 1520 was able to stock up with hen eggs, among other supplies, when they landed on the west coast, while a year or so later, Sebastian Cabot, who had crossed the Atlantic from Bristol, obtained a lot of chickens and blue shelled eggs in Brazil, on the east coast.The current Pacific route theory of their origin seems to have knocked out previous ideas that there had been some hybridising with wild South American species, such as Curassows, Guans and Cachalacas, but the DNA evidence, when fully examined, will settle the matter.An American Araucana enthusiast, David Caudill, wrote and published the excellent Araucana Poulterers Handbook in 1975, which is difficult to find now, but worth having if you’re really interested and can track down a copy. It included all the information available at the time.Moving on a few centuries, the oldest original reference in my collection is in my 1842 edition of Bonington Moubray’s A Practical Treatise on Breeding, Rearing and Fattening all kinds of Domestic Poultry. It includes: In addition, there is a South American variety, either from Brazil or Buenos Aires, which will roost in trees. They are very beautiful, partridge spotted and streaked; the eggs small and coloured like those of the pheasant; both the flesh and eggs are fine flavoured and delicate.(Buenos Aires was named rather than Argentina, because only the administrative centre of Buenos Aires and a few scattered settlements then existed.)Despite all this earlier evidence, the scientific community didn’t notice the existence of blue egg laying chickens until 1921, when Prof Salvadore Castello presented the first of a series of papers at the first World Poultry Congress, held at The Hague. He presented further details at later WPCs, held every three years, in a different country each time.Prof Castello was director of The Royal Spanish Poultry School, which also studied and assisted poultry keeping in Spanish speaking countries in South America, and made several trips to these countries. On August 6 1914, he noticed a lot of blue eggs for sale in the market at Punta Arenas, southern Chile. The birds he saw were rumpless, had small single combs, were white or pile (orange and white) in plumage colour, and he was told were called Colloncas locally. Prof Castello, and several other researchers have noted that native South Americans had their own vocabularies of poultry and egg terms which had no connection to Spanish, Portugese or any other colonising European language. This linguistic evidence was considered further proof of poultry keeping in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.Several types of chickens have been recorded in South America, but I don’t know how they were perpetuated, as I know nothing about South American sociology. Remember, all domestic livestock breeds are made by the people who keep them. Rumpless chickens were encouraged because they could escape predators (who often first grabbed the tail) easily, but they were less fertile than normal chickens, because semen often got lost in the feathers around the back end of both sexes. Therefore, one factor worked against the other, so a mixture of some rumpless and some tailed chickens in each flock seems to have been maintained in most areas.Coloured eggsA number of leading poultry scientists have studied blue and green egg laying chickens, first discovering that green eggs are laid by birds bred from crosses between blue and brown eggers. If blue egg layers are crossed with white eggers, the crosses will lay blue eggs, but often of a lighter shade. There may be a number of modifying genes involved, as further crosses lead to a gradual dilution of egg shell colour. Some strains of Araucanas have been developed from very unpromising stock which, when breeding operations started, laid eggs which (like some house paints) were ‘white with a hint of blue’.
These scientists also discovered a connection with blue eggs and pea combs, which led fanciers around the world to require pea combs. However, many, perhaps most, blue egg layers in South America have single combs, one reason being that many country poultry keepers there think single combs are the only ‘proper’ combs for chickens. Rose, walnut and cushion (as Silkies) have all been seen in mongrelised flocks of blue eggers in South America and elsewhere, but aren’t considered typical.As with the pea comb, scientists have also noticed that beards and muffs are associated with a more intense blue egg shell colour, and are often seen in South America. Beards are not accepted on standard Rumpless Araucanas in the US, although they are on Rumpless in the UK and Germany, and also on British type tailed Araucanas and their near equivalent in the US, Ameraucanas.With or without beards, Rumpless Araucana Standards have required them to have unique ear tufts since they were investigated in the 1920s and ’30s. This was later found to have been a mistake, the result of crossing between two different South American breeds by a Dr Ruben Bustos, one of the people Prof Castello contacted when studying the breed. It has since been discovered that the ear tufts were originally on another breed, tailed and brown egg laying. This is a great shame, as ear tufts are caused by a nasty lethal gene which kills a lot of embryos before hatching time. If two birds with nice symmetrical ear tufts are mated together, very few chicks will hatch. There aren’t many breeders of Rumpless/Tufted Araucanas in the UK, and most of them mate tufted to non-tufted (all rumpless), as this solves the dead embryo problem, and there are plenty of buyers out there interested in buying surplus stock, even without tufts.Because there are no (known) poultry shows in South America, there are just a few people interested in pure breeds. A lot of these keep blue egg layers, no doubt because of the local connections, but these, and a number of other prominent Araucana enthusiasts around the world, seem to have suffered more than their fair share of disasters over the years, many involving local foxes and dogs. There are a number of sad stories of enthusiasts who were just making real progress in developing a flock of reliable (in the blue egg department) birds with those characteristics which were said to be typical of the ‘pure breed’, when a neighbour’s guard dog, or a fox, has got in and killed most of them. It’s most unlikely that any of these enthusiasts will have had the secure runs and elaborate houses most exhibitors construct.Rumpless AraucanaWhen poultry fanciers around most of the world speak of Araucanas, they mean the Rumpless variety, ideally with ear tufts. As said above, this feature is now believed to have been a mistake in historical terms, as they were made relatively recently by Dr Bustos. Beards and muffs are not required in most countries, but are allowed in the UK. Whether or not they should have beards may (like a lot of other details of Araucanas) continue to be debated, but it does seem that some have, and some haven’t been bearded for as long as they’ve been known. Rumpless Araucanas are never crested.As far as the potentially lethal ear tufts are concerned, these appear in a variety of shapes and sizes, from a couple of straggly feathers up to an impressive ‘ear-ring’. Judges (who all know about the difficulties involved) will be very pleased to see a bird with a large and matching pair of tufts, and perfectly content with those with smaller tufts, as long as they roughly match on each side. Those who aren’t interested in showing, but would like to have a flock of one of the most fascinating of ancient breeds would do well to consider establishing a flock of non-eartufted Rumpless Araucanas.Most Rumpless Araucanas might be classed (like Silkies once were) as a very small large fowl, halfway in size between most other breeds of Large fowl and Bantams. Some much smaller Rumpless Araucana Bantams have been seen recently, and a few birds are larger Large fowl than they once were.Colour varieties vary a little in each country, but there aren’t as many as with the British or Ameraucana. The British Araucana Club made a mistake in their standards – they only listed the Partridge and Blue-partridge female pattern to go with Black-red and Blue-red males, which is correct for British type Araucanas, but not necessarily correct for Rumpless Araucanas, which are allowed with either the Partridge (including Blue variant) or Wheaten (including Blue variant) in every other country. This caused some internal debate a few years ago when some excellent Wheaten Rumpless were winning, and this was questioned by some members because they weren’t a standard colour in British Standards. As one of the judges who awarded prizes to these wonderful Wheaten Rumpless hens, I hope the matter has been resolved by now. I took an ‘international’ view, and my attitude that if anyone was at fault, it was whoever wrote the Rumpless Araucana part in British Poultry Standards.Crested LegbarI described these fully in CS February 2005, in the second of my articles on the Autosexing breeds. They were developed at Cambridge University during World War Two, work which was allowed to continue because the Government thought that work on poultry could be very important when everyone was digging for victory, keeping hens in every back yard and so on.
The part Araucana Crested Legbar was an offshoot of the Gold Legbar (made from Barred Plymouth Rocks and Brown Leghorns, and then selected for Leghorn type), hence the name. They were more or less made by accident, otherwise might have been called Araubars. Crested Legbars are generally like Leghorns in size and shape, plus a crest on each side of the large single comb. They have an attractive pastel plumage pattern. They’re covered by the Rare Poultry Society, and although very few are seen at the competetive shows, a lot come up at the auctions and are sold as layers by several of the breeders listed or advertising in CS.This article is from the June 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine. << To order back issues click the link to the left.