Friday, July 31, 2015

Anconas and Araucanas

Last week's Daily News reported a farmer out west taking emergency measures to protect his rare and endangered breeds of poultry from avian flu. Among the endangered breeds mentioned were Ancona hens.

A lot of breeds of poultry have become endangered because, although excellent for small family farms, they didn't stand up to competition from repulsive bioengineered strains bred on factory farms. I'm not really surprised that Ancona chickens would be among these breeds. Merely disappointed.

So I did a quick search. "Ancona chickens wow" popped up on Google. I thought that might make a good title for this post, then realized that "wow" referred to some sort of computer game. "Ancona chickens lay green eggs" also popped up. Say whaaat? I realized that a lot of people out there might be confusing two distinct breeds of chickens, Anconas and Araucanas. Both are attractive birds and can make excellent pets, but they're very dissimilar. I've lived with both.

"Ancona" refers to a place in Italy. Ancona chickens are related to Leghorn, Minorca, and Andalusian chickens; to my eyes Anconas are the prettiest of these breeds. They were bred as "all-purpose" fowl in Europe, then classified as egg-producers in America. Full-sized Ancona hens lay a lot of big white eggs, but they're also muscular, meaty birds, typically weighing about five pounds, and tough, hardy, easily encouraged to fight. Two hundred years ago semi-civilized Europeans would pay to watch Ancona roosters fight each other, a fact that shows that television may actually have improved  the taste and intelligence of some people.

"Araucana" refers to a place in Chile. Araucana chickens are affected in varying degrees by a lethal mutant gene; like Manx cats, show-quality specimens are tailless, with incomplete spines, and have abnormally dense coats. No living bird has two copies of the Araucana gene, and most living birds that show its effects are crossbreeds.

According to Wikipedia, the name "Araucana" properly describes hens who lay bluish-greenish eggs, but in order to become a viable breed the mutants found in Chile were crossbred with a Spanish breed that lay pinkish-brown eggs, so in the U.S. we find hens with fluffy necks and little or no tail who produce bluish, pinkish, or sometimes plain white eggs. There are also Araucana-mix chickens, "Easter Eggers," with fluffy necks and complete tails who produce bluish or pinkish eggs. Araucana chickens are not commercially bred for meat but the full-sized birds can be quite meaty, often heavier than Anconas. Although chickens fluff out their neck feathers (their hackles rise, in chicken fanciers' jargon) as a threat display, and Araucanas' neck feathers look permanently fluffed, the birds aren't very aggressive. My brother and I even kept two Araucana-mix bantam roosters who behaved like brothers and didn't fight.

A show-quality Ancona chicken has glossy black feathers, one out of three to five of which is tipped with glossy white. (The proportion of white to black can be higher; for show purposes too much white on an Ancona chicken is considered a fault. Crossbreeds may be blue-grey and white, red-brown and white, or plain black.) Show-quality Araucanas can be black, white, or any of several other colors; perhaps the showiest are the "duckwing" types whose feathers are brown or grey with glossy gold or white quills and tips, but this freakish breed looks different from other chickens regardless of its color. Crossbreeds come in all kinds of color combinations.

Breeds of chickens with which I grew up were Plymouth Rocks, Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, Games, a breed called Inglebright's that's not even discussed on Google, Cornish, Anconas, Easter Eggers, and all kinds of crossbreeds. The ones who became pets were the Games, Anconas, Easter Eggers, and mixed-breed bantams. (Somebody asked...bantams are miniature chickens, selectively bred for small size, usually but not always from within a breed of full-sized chickens.)

All chickens are basically prey animals whose survival depends on a well developed tendency to hide from any potential danger. Game and Ancona roosters, and sometimes hens with babies, often override this instinct and challenge potential attackers. Some individuals are foolhardy little bullies who attack children. Others are loyal and protective, like dogs.

We had one unforgettable Ancona hen who fell into each category. The mean one seemed to have made it a rule to respect men, fawn on women, and attack children. My brother and I were about the same height, his voice was deeper, and his hands were bigger, when we met this hen, so it was a complete surprise to us that she snuggled sweetly on to my shoulder and then tore a strip of skin off my brother's hand. (Ancona and Game chickens often do have the ability to bite or scratch through human skin; many chickens don't. This is something to keep in mind when choosing a pet for a child. However, my very first pet was a rather tough and dominant Game hen; she might have hurt me, when I was five or six years old, but she never did.)

The sweet Ancona hen never pecked another chicken or a child, so far as we could tell, in her life. She did, however, get into a serious fight with a big female red-tailed hawk. The hawk was much bigger than the half-grown hen, and should have been stronger, but red-tails do not normally eat other birds, and the ones who attack chickens usually don't have long to live. (Sharp-shinned hawks, a smaller species, do normally eat other birds and are likely to become "chicken hawks.") The hawk tore out most of the hen's tail feathers, and the Ancona hen tore out the hawk's eye, before my brother separated them.

Show-quality Araucana chickens are apparently quite special and delicate birds. Easter Eggers are healthier and easier to keep as pets. The distinctive quality that stands out about our Easter Eggers was that, after the year they became the majority in our flock, the flock never had a real "pecking order." What these peace-loving birds established was a non-pecking order. Mother hens would peck at anybody who approached their broods, and threaten their adolescent chicks during the weaning process. Roosters would play-fight to impress the hens, not doing each other any real harm, and one or two hens would play-fight right along with them. Occasionally two birds would really quarrel. Usually senior birds seemed dominant over younger birds, but they wielded this dominance mainly with a warning chirp or a hard stare. Chickens who liked each other stuck together and shared food; those who didn't like each other so much stayed apart and didn't call each other to share food. Possibly due to seniority, possibly due to my parents' culling out quarrelsome individuals from the flock, and certainly due in some part to their having much more space than most people give their chickens, the flock preserved a nonviolent culture even after it reverted to containing more of the more aggressive breeds than Easter Eggers.

When the Easter Eggers were imported into our neighborhood, we heard a lot about their blue-green eggs containing more carotene and less cholesterol than eggs from battery hens. Scientific studies show that the color of eggshells does not accurately predict the quality of the edible parts of eggs inside. When you open an egg from the supermarket, the pale yolk may be so watery that it bursts along with the shell and you can't separate whites from yolks. When you open an egg from a free-range hen, the firm, round, orange-colored yolk is easy to separate from the whites and bursts only when you sink a fork (or beater blade) into it. This is true regardless of the size or color of the eggs. Orange-colored egg yolks contain more carotene. Free-range hens are healthier, and their eggs are likely to be fresher, so yes, the eggs will look and taste and actually be better...regardless of breed.