COLUMNS


So the Araucana and the Easter Bunny Walk Into a Bar...

By Diane Wells


The Araucana and its cousin, the Ameraucana, are increasingly popular poultry breeds thanks to their habit of laying blue-tinted eggs and their ability to pack on pounds for the soup pot. Their origins lie in Chili, and the tale of how they came to be is worth telling. During the 1800s, the Araucana people lived in remote areas of that country and kept two breeds of chicken: the rumpless Collonocas that laid blue eggs, and the tailed Quetros that had ear tufts and laid brown eggs. Dr. Ruben Bustros, a man that has gone down in history as the patriarch of Chilean aviculture, first observed these two breeds in the 1880s while serving in the Chilean military. He later returned as a civilian, collected a number of birds from each breed and returned home to begin a long-term selective breeding program.

Bustros' efforts were recognized, and the Araucana was unveiled in 1921 at the first World Poultry Congress held in Holland that year. Three distinguishing characteristics stood out: the bluish hue of its eggshells, the lack of a rump (due to the complete absence of tail feathers and a coccyx) and the presence of ornamental ear tufts, or earrings as they were called at the time. The Auracana's first introduction to the U.S. soon followed: J.W. Keller, director of the Pratt Experiment Farm of Morton, Pa., imported two males and five females in 1924. However, it took more than 50 years before the American Poultry Association accepted them as a distinct breed in 1976.

The American Araucana, or Ameraucana, began to draw attention in the 1970s, following decades of efforts to develop a larger, tailed version of the Araucana. The new version also included the presence of a beard and muffs (clusters of feathers jutting from below and around the eyes as opposed to the Araucana's feather clusters erupting from a flap of skin adjacent to the ear). There was considerable controversy surrounding the development of these birds, and from what I understand it continues today. However, the American Poultry Association (APA) has recognized the Ameraucana since 1984, so it is considered a distinct breed.

The Araucana and Ameraucana are genetically programmed to produce an egg with a blue shell. It's not known how a domestic chicken acquired such a trait, though there is a theory that it stems from a long-ago cross between chickens and the Chachalaca, an early breed of pheasant. Whether or not this could have resulted in fertile offspring is up for debate. Regardless, the blue is derived from the pigment oocyanin, a byproduct of bile production. Such blue-egg genes are dominant, and any crossbreeding with either the Araucana or Ameraucana will result in offspring that lay tinted eggs.

I write tinted because the vast majority of Araucana and Ameraucana chicks sold by farm supply stores or commercial hatcheries are not true representatives of the breeds, at least according to APA standards. Rather, the chicks are crossbreeds that produce olive, greenish or blue-green eggs with occasional brown spots or speckling. A true Araucana produces an egg that is blue inside and out. An Araucana/Rhode Island Red cross produces an egg with an olive-brown shell on the outside and a white shell on the inside. Such mongrels are a market response to a demand for hens that lay colored eggs, hens that are affectionately referred to as Easter Eggers, rather than a demand for a pure breed. For a while, the demand was also in response to reports that blue eggs contained little to no cholesterol and were, therefore, healthier. We now know these reports are false. Studies have shown they actually contain more cholesterol and less protein than the common White Leghorn egg.

The APA currently recognizes five Araucana varieties: black, black-breasted red, golden duckwing, silver duckwing and white. The American Bantam Association (ABA) recognizes six Araucana varieties: black, black-breasted red, blue, buff, silver and white. With respect to the Ameraucana, the APA and ABA recognize eight varieties: black, blue, blue wheaten, brown red, buff, silver, wheaten and white. The moral of this story is if you're interested in showing these birds, be sure to get your breeding stock from folks whose number one goal is to maintain the standard, not those who want to supply hens that lay colored eggs.

I must admit I jumped on the blue-egg bandwagon this past year in an attempt to make my farm's eggs stand out at the market. We all know how you package your farm's products can and will affect sales. Well, eggshell color is no exception. When a customer opens an egg carton and is greeted with a pleasing pallet of pastels, from creams to beiges to blues, believe me you've won them over.

As far as the birds themselves go, I purchased them through my local feed supply store, and although I was told I was purchasing Araucanas, I am now the proud owner of six Ameraucanas that would not stand up to APA standards. In spite of that, it is my experience that these birds are as unique behaviorally as they are visually. While my other egg-laying breeds have been content to roost on perches built inside the barn, the Ameraucanas insist on flying up to and roosting in the barn's open eaves, even in the heart of winter. During the warmer months, while the other girls are content with drinking out of the communal water trough, the Ameraucanas insist on darting across the barnyard, scooting under the gate and drinking from the brook that divides the barnyard from the sugar bush. I can't decide if such behavior is a result of their being a touch less domesticated or simply a little nuttier than the average egg layer. I would like to think it's a smidgen of both.

The author, a regular contributor to Farming, is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom