The Red Feather Problem: The Plot Thickens

I started considering the possibility that Elrond was not a purebred Australorp rooster. He was from a proper breeder, so I and the friend I got him from both assumed he was a purebred, and he should be, but there is room for mistakes to occur. You can never guarantee that a chicken is a purebred unless you’ve overseen the whole proceedings yourself. Chickens sometimes escape and humans sometimes make mistakes. To further this theory, Elrond’s inclusion in the batch of fertilised eggs bought by my friend was a mistake in itself, as she bought buff Sussex and Barnevelder eggs. Was an Australorp egg put in by mistake or did a buff Sussex or Barnevelder have a brief elopement with an Australorp leaving no-one the wiser? The first option is more likely, but let’s do a photo investigation. I tried to source breed photos from NZ but there are surprisingly few photos of NZ Australorps on Google. That just makes me want to breed them more…

Elrond does look very like the Australian Australorp rooster on the bottom left. But who knows? What I do know now is that a little bit of red leads to even more red…

When I was treating Frodo (that’s another story) I noticed two tiny spots of red feather on the little feathers under her face. I was shocked, but at the same time, not so shocked. I had never noticed them before, but they are very small. And if there wasn’t so much red now coming out in Frodo and Elrond’s offspring I may not have even noticed. Now I feel like I’m onto something. Maybe a bunch of (or all) Australorps from this breeder (who is actually no longer breeding them) got stuck with red in their colour genes. This would explain a lot. Whether there was a cross-breeding incident somewhere along the way causing persistent red feather appearances down the line (we can see how persistent they are already) or intentional breeding with say Orpingtons to improve some characteristic or another that introduced the buff/red colour I don’t know. I can’t really complain about Elrond as he wasn’t technically sold as an Australorp, but this red feather incidence does annoy me, as the breed is not that common here and it’s not doing anything to help the gene pool. But then the small gene pool is probably part of the problem. I suppose it’s hard to know what the offspring are going to turn out like but I think breeders need to make sure a line is stable before selling them and be strict about culling birds that don’t make the grade.

Frodo is looking very pale here because this was just after she’d hatched her babies: the face of a hard-working mum. But it’s the only photo I can find that shows the little bits of red in the feathers below her face. They are small, but they are indicative of a colour gene problem that could spiral out of control.

I haven’t helped by breeding from Australorps with red feather issues but I didn’t know how much of an issue they were and at least I have waited to see what they turn out like and haven’t sold any. I’m not willing to sell any of my current or future Australorps until I have satisfactorily dealt with this red colour problem. It must be contained! I have to be prepared to start again. I am not getting rid of my females, or Mr Bingley, but if I want to breed good Australorps in the future I will have to rely, at least partially, on new, quality stock, which I would acquire carefully, from someone reputable. That’s probably not going to happen for a while as I’m having enough trouble keeping up with things around here already. My breeding dreams will have to wait and I will just watch how my colour-challenged, yet still beautiful, youngies develop.

The Smoky Chick, with Little Spot behind. So much crazy red.

At least I decided what to do with the potentially fertilised, non-edible, withholding period eggs I had been saving since Elrond left. Aside from the fact that no-one was going broody anyway, I didn’t want more red feather problems and I didn’t want more chickens for once. Before I could change my mind I did something about those eggs. I cracked them for educational purposes. Here is a little timeline of events:

29th July

  • Elrond leaves in the afternoon
  • Frodo starts laying again

4th August

  • Legolas starts laying for the first time

Lets look at Frodo’s eggs first. As of today, Frodo has laid an egg every day except one, and the day before that she laid a very large double-yolker, which is like two days’ work. The first egg, laid the day Elrond was here, was infertile. For the next 12 days after Elrond left the eggs were fertilised. The two after that were infertile. Considering Frodo only started laying again the day he left that’s a pretty good amount of time for his juices to get to work and keep flowing.

Frodo’s eggs. Sorry about the light spots, it’s night time. The top yolk is a fertilised one: note the bullseye with regular, well-defined edges. The bottom one is infertile, with a smaller, foggy-edged white spot.

Since beginning her laying career, Legolas has missed two days. Legolas’ eggs were a bit different. Her first egg was what I am going to call semi-fertile: the yolk spot had a bullseye but the edge was irregular and it just looked a bit weird, like it had some genetic material but wasn’t quite there. Her second egg was fertilised. Her third egg was another ‘semi-fertile’ one and the rest were infertile. This doesn’t really tell us much about Legolas’ fertility as she only started laying six days after Elrond left, so she potentially didn’t let him mate much with her.

This is all very fascinating to me. If I had incubated Frodo’s eggs by one means or another I wouldn’t have included her first egg, which I cracked early on since I thought the first egg of the season wouldn’t be a good choice for hatching. After seeing that it was infertile I wasn’t sure about the fertility of the rest of them but I figured at least some would be fertile. Too right! It’s definitely something to keep in mind for breeding endeavours. If you have more than one rooster and want offspring from a certain one, have the others separated from the ladies for at least two weeks before you start collecting eggs for hatching. And if you want to hatch eggs after a rooster is gone, all is not lost! Unless you don’t have a broody hen or incubator.

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