A Suburban Farm of 6th Happiness.

Working on a New Breed

I am very excited about our baby chicks this year!   I am still working on the page about them, and which will be available for Chicago area enthusiasts to purchase.   The reason I have so many extra chicks to place this year, is that I have a genetic project I have long drempt of doing… to get all the foundational breeds / genetics to start working with, I had to order from different hatcheries, from breeders who sold hatching eggs, and hatch some eggs from our own flock.  I couldn’t find all the breeds/mutations I needed at one hatchery, so I had to go to another, and yet another…. and each one has shipping minimums, so I had to order extras.  I will soon get a page up listing the extras I have available for purchase.  You can see the chicks available on this page.  Not all these breeds are for the project, some were just to round out the orders to meet minimum shipping requirements).   Suggestions for breeds I have not thought of incorporating are welcomed (or that you think I shouldn’t).

I have been dreaming about doing this  for years now.  I want a dual purpose chicken breed, created with (sub)urban needs in mind.  In particular, I am considering traits that seem to best address the needs of a sustainable breed for urban “food deserts”.  It should be:

  • Calm and docile.  A good pet that does well in confinement / small spaces (by which I mean, in a coop, or enclosed run/fenced yard.  Not in a battery cage with half a dozen others)
  • Dual purpose
    • a reliable egg layer. (Living up north, hens will ideally, continue to lay, albeit somewhat less often, in winter, without the need for artificial lights and forced moulting)
    • a good meat bird; fresh, wholesome meat that has been humanely raised is often an expensive part of a grocery list, and may be difficult or impossible to obtain in food deserts.  Protein is especially important for growing children who may not get enough when in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
      • Those that do not want to eat the chickens they raise, can sell or trade/barter the roosters to those that would.  And if they do not want to hold on to them even that long, the male chicks can even be sold as a food source for those with snakes or other pets.  We even add chicks that die or must be put down due to genetic diseases to the food for our dogs or cats.  Speaking of which, they must be sexable when they hatch, or very soon after…
  • The breed must be auto-sexing (males and females easily identifiable either immediately or very soon after they hatch).  People need to know if its worth their raising males if they want egg layers (or females if they want meat), and they can sell the ones they do not want (or cannot keep) as soon as possible.
  • Attractive plumage; pet people like unique appearances and variety.  Unique appearance also helps win over people who have neutral or negative preconceptions based on stereotyped images or negative exposure to high volume commercial operations and the breeds favoured by these operations.
  • Naturally strong immune systems.  Some breeds have it, some don’t.  Breeding practies often influence this further, keeping/improving it, or ignoring and carelessly loosing it in favour of something else.
  • Brown eggs (possibly olive and blue added later)
  • They should be economical in their food intake, being good at foraging (when possible), and thriving on table scraps, restraunt or grocery store ‘discards’, and other ‘food waste’.   Dual purpose chickens can be very beneficial for those in ‘food deserts’, but often people in these areas cannot afford to buy special food to keep a flock healthy let alone  improve egg laying.  Thus, the breed must be able to thrive on what it can make do with, without the need for expensive supplements and preformulated packaged diets.
  • Roosters that do not crow as much as typical (‘long crowers’ are a genetically selected for trait; logically, the opposite should hold as well).  I want to see a future where it is easier for (sub)urban dwellers to keep a rooster if they want to so that they can help keep the breed diversified, and also because roosters play an important social and protective role in the flock.
    I want to be clear- ALL ROOSTERS WILL CROW- but the frequency and duration of that crowing can be influenced genetically, as can their aggression levels.  The roosters we have had that crowed the least, still crowed in the morning.  As such, we take our roosters indoors, to a moveable coop, and cover the windows so the sunlight doesn’t wake them until we wake up.  After they crow a bit, we put them outside and they pay attention to the hens and/or food.  They almost never crow during the day outside.   This is what I’m aiming for.
  • Two roosters nesting together.Roosters that are less aggressive/territorial than we tend to accept in the hobby:  again, aggression can be genetically selected for; ‘game cocks’ have been for centuries.  Selection in the opposite direction is possible.  I have in fact done this exact thing with fancy mice– many fanciers ‘accept’ that male mice ‘stink’ (marking territory) and must be housed alone (when not in with a female to breed), as they will otherwise fight, sometimes to the death.  Within a few years, I had males living in colonies, that could be removed for breeding, and then put back in the male colony, without problems.  Studies along these lines have been done with other species, such as rats etc.)  If more backyard hobbiests start to keep roosters, I want them to be able to keep more than one if they have the space and interest, so that their flock doesn’t become quickly inbred.  Not that inbreeding is always bad, but many hobbiests don’t have the genetic understanding to know when it is appropriate, when it is not, or how to limit the loss of genetic diversity even as you select to set certain traits (reducing diversity for that one trait); some just are not comfortable trying it even with the support and guidance of someone with the experience and know-how.
  • A bantam (miniature) version should be made available.  When we started with chickens in the early part of the century, it was with bantams.   As renters, we did not have a private backyard.  The 3 or 4 chickens we could keep had to be caged indoors (we used large dog crates)  and we gave them ‘free range’ time either indoors (wearing bird ‘diapers’) or on a chicken-proofed’ balcony/patio.   Bantam chickens can be similar in size to many popular species of pet birds, especially parrots or parrotlets, and as such, they can often get around local city laws that are anti-backyard chicken if the city specifically permits ‘caged birds’.   Caged pets/birds are also often permitted by landlords when other species of pets are not.   Therefor, bantam chickens can be an important part of urban sustainability, especially in food deserts.
    Unfortunately, many bantams are bred for novelty and show, and as a result, many bantam breeds do not lay reliably, and go broody easily.  There is nothing wrong with this, if one is breeding for show, pets, novelty, or using them as brooders for other breeds’ eggs.  But it is not ideal for the situation I am interested in addressing.  Bantams that are economical eaters can turn a family’s food scraps/waste into wholesome eggs, or even meat.  And autosexing means they need not worry about accidently raising unwanted roosters.Speckled Sussex Chicks

Certainly, other breeds exist that are autosexing (legbars being rather popular at the moment), or dual purpose (many heritage breeds), and so forth.  Many chicken keepers, especially in more rural areas, select for chickens that are economical (eat less but produce more eggs and/or meat), but I have not really encountered any serious breeding efforts towards reduced rooster agression or reduced crowing.  And all these traits tend to be pick and choose-  not rolled into one package.   I recognise it is a tall order to want a breed with all these traits, but I don’t think it is impossible.  I have been breeding many animal species for decades– rats, mice, rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs etc, even sheep!  I have dealt with all of these issues individually, or in combinations.  Here, I am putting together what I know from past experiences, into one breed that fits the ideal I have in my mind’s eye.

If anyone in the Chicagoland area is interested in working with me on this project, please contact me.  I love to talk genetics- be that teaching those new to it, or discussing concepts with those who have been studying it for years.  However, you need not know anything about genetics to help out!  My space is limited, and it would be very helpful to have other people (both backyard hobbiests and teachers doing class hatching projects) to help hatch eggs and/or  raise chicks to adulthood, so we can evaluate the population’s genetics (eg: identify and breed out any undesirable defects) and identify the birds with the best traits to use for further breeding.    It would also be of great help to have some people in more rural areas who can keep more roosters, and who enjoy watching animal behaviour and taking notes- they can help us identify which roosters are less aggressive, and crow less often (traits which will likely go together in selection).


tags: chick breed project   chicken breeding   chickens   food deserts   self sufficiency   sustainable agriculture