Araucana Chickens

The purpose of these writings is to share some of my experiences perpetuating the unusual traits of the South American chickens commonly called “Araucana Chickens”.

awesome-araucana-chickens-1The onset of these experiences began in 1973 when a friend gave me the sole survivor of his chicken flock after predators had wiped out the rest of his flock. This blue-grey hen produced a nice blue egg and lived many years. She was clean faced with no beard, muffs, or tufts and had a tail. She never stopped her laying eggs cycle and was a great mother. She was an impressive standard sized bird that somehow managed to hatch out 24 chicks at one time after disappearing for some time and emerging with her brood from a nest she must have shared. This happened a couple of years after I got her and I had several hens by then, laying blue, green, or a pinkish colored egg by that time.

Not long after getting that first hen, I happened upon a September 1948 National Geographic magazine with an article and very nice pictures of the South American Araucana chickens with their blue eggs and ear tufts. The tail-less trait was known to exist historically but the author could not locate any at that time. There was a reference to a April 1927 National Geographic article about these same Araucana Chickens with some pictures as well and for years these National Geographic books were my only resource. In my mid – twenties then with an innate eye and desire for quality, my quest began, find some tail-less tufted birds. At that time hatcheries did not have what is now called “Americana Chickens” as they were all called Araucanas then and they were much more variable in body types, egg colors and feathering.

About that time, more and more of the bearded trait chickens seemed to be appearing, some with feathered legs, five toes, a variety of comb types and with many different feather or leg colors. Also People started calling the beards “Tufts” and there were no tail-less birds to be found. I wanted the earlier traits that I had read about in those National Geographic magazines and had a flock of 20 or so hens and a few roosters by that time . Not many people had heard about them and folks would not readily believe chickens could produce colored eggs. I continued the quest for true “Araucanas” traits in the Magazine mostly through feed store researching for contacts. At that time that was my only resource, so stopping at out of town feed stores was common for me. Along with some other hobbies that included traveling to out of town nurseries for plants (Cicads), fancy goldfish (Koi Carp and Orandas)and classic car restoration (Porsche and old Mopars). I was working full time, going to school full time for R.N. and Geology degrees, and still managed to put 28,000 miles on my car (Van) in one year. The journeys paid off in the neighboring town of Norco, California a very “Horsey” town with many feed stores at that time.

The owner of a feed store in Norco, California admitted to having a tail-less tufted flock of these Araucanas consisting of only a few birds and he was definitely not interested in selling any. Well, I respected and admired his position and started buying my feed there. After some time he offered me an unwanted extra rooster for a rather high price at the time and I was glad to pay it. His small flock of 10-12 birds was pretty motley, looking back, with perhaps half tail-less and a few that were tufted and bearded. He sold me a tall rooster with a beard and nice ear tufts and  tail-less as well. He was blue-grey with a yellow hackle and red in his wings. I then ordered a “Rolex” incubator and started setting eggs. After providing the fellow with a few chicks at the feed store and the promise of more, he gave me the address of a man in Oregon, Jack Aurell where he got his initial stock from. I arranged for a couple dozen eggs to hatch and WOW what luck, they were awesome. Jack had them for many years, his entire flock was eventually tail-less, many with  ear tuft traits. I talked to Jack Aurell 25 years or so later after finding his phone number and calling him. He lost his entire flock to a pack of dogs and new of no one with any of his bird’s strain .

Jack Aurell offered interesting knowledge and experiences about Araucanas. He sent me a letter about the man he said discovered these chicken’s origin, I may still have the letter. It goes like this: The Araucana Indians of Northern Chile had tail-less hens that laid blue eggs called a “Collonca”. The Araucana Indians were never conquered by the Spanish. The hens were crossing with a wild bird called a “Quetro” that had the ear tufts and reportedly produced a pinkish egg. The Quetro was the only known bird with ear tufts and is apparently extinct in the wild and may have been a type of “Wild Jungle Fowl” cross according to Jack.

I have read other articles that are similar to Jack’s account some 25 years later but I do not actually know his sources.  A very good article written by Richard Collard titled “Araucana History in North America” mentions a 1914 picture documentation at an exhibition in Santiago, Chile of birds developed by Dr.Rueben Bustos and later written about in 1921 in a paper by Salvador Castello Carreras a Spanish Poultry expert and headmaster of the Royal official school of poultry industry in Spain. It is accepted that the rumpless, tufted birds of today have originated from at least two lineages  that influence many generations to this date. This diverse genetic pool is still finding  its footing a hundred years later. There are many good written articles, history sources, and dedicated hobbyists willing to share information and experiences.

Jack talked about his 100% tail-less flock of many years and that he was having a problem with a very bobbed tail-lessness making for an inadequate small outlet. Hens will die at the first egg laying, lack an oil gland and roosters could have a low fertility rate due to performance inabilities. His cautions have led me to hope for birds with a good oil gland for natural preening purposes but still tail-less. Difficult because, although tail-less, occasionally a few long feathers will grow out near that oil gland on some birds. I still get a few tailed birds, which I do occasionally keep for other traits. I do believe most of mine are lacking the oil gland but do have a healthy vertebral process. Rarely, I will get a beautiful healthy hen that dies at the first egg laying time. I have big birds that lay small eggs and small birds that lay large eggs so I can see how it could happen. I have not done a post mortum exam but if it were a problem I would , with 40 plus years of Operating Room Surgery Assisting experience (R.N.F.A. from U.C.L.A.) I could learn much.

awesome-araucana-chickens-2An awesome multiple tuft trait that has come up on a few birds in the last 35 plus years, with three tufts on one side and two tufts on the other side, both trailing down laterally. Both of the “Five Tufted” birds were roosters. The most recent was a white three tufted hen in the spring 2011 hatch. I have read about a lethal ear tuft trait that inhibits hatching of a mature chick if inherited from both parents and I believe it. I find some unhatched chicks in every hatch. I do not always know the causes which could be humidity or any number of reasons.  My best hatch this year was 78% with no candling of 100 plus eggs (Spring 2011). The rare quality of all the traits coming together allows for some interesting combinations to say the least. I have never gotten a 100% tail-less tufted hatch of any amount, a good amount would be half, and even that is rare for me. So rare are the quality traits passed down that it is my belief that the color of the bird’s feathers on an Araucana should be the last thing considered by judges and that only for a tie breaker. There is so much beauty, diversity and function of feathers that should be of high priority aside from the color. We all know that Red Corvettes are not faster than Blue Corvettes. The Japanese judge their Koi Carp in this fashion (color considered after quality) and it seems to have strengthened quality genetics for the future. I have only shown my birds once at the “Northern California Bird Fanciers Association” I took six birds and got six first places and two were best of breed (one Banty, one standard). It was not enjoyable for me and I am sure the birds didn’t like it much either. I have no plans for showing in the future but that may change.

Another strain of Tail-less Araucana chickens entered the flock when I met a, soon to be, friend of mine, Dorothy. Had I not noticed a fine Arabian Horse  Stallion in her pasture we would probably not have met as I had a terrific pure “Desert Bred” Arabian mare that I raised from a filly. Dorothy wanted some of my Araucanas and she had some nice tail-less black and white birds with green legs. Their parents were imported from Colombia and they were first generation hatch. I got two hens and a rooster, all tail-less, the hens laid green eggs. You could not buy anything from Dorothy unless she liked you and also the homes where her favorite things were going. She was a retired well-to-do lady that had three national champion Collie dogs, each a different color, and a “Bask” (National Champion Arabian Horse) son, along with about ten different kinds of chickens, all quality show birds from all over the world. I crossed my Araucanas with a Show Quality Rhode Island Red hen of hers and got birds that laid “Army truck green” colored eggs and learned early on that blue plus brown make dark green. I was glad to do some trading with her for birds and I am sure we were both happy .

The third major part of the Araucana quest came when I answered a moving ad for all the chickens this wonderfully interesting eighty year old fellow had. Charlie Andrews had a small Ranch on the border of March Air Force base in Riverside, California and had lived there for most of his life. There was a mile of plowed field around the air strip and Charlie’s chickens had the run from his huge pepper trees where they roosted, to the air strip. All of his birds descended from a hen that wandered onto his ranch with her batch of chicks. He had no idea where she had come from as his neighbors did not have chickens. He believed she  wandered in from the Air Force Base, apparently from a  South American  source, because of the blue eggs. They all laid blue eggs only and it was a beautiful site to see a nest with all blue eggs with some degree of intensity enhanced at their borders. Some eggs looked perfectly round, some glossy, others had a darker blue ring that gave a “Saturn Like” ringed look around the egg and I repeat they were all blue eggs for thirty plus years; he did not know they could lay any other color. They all had long flat tails and they all were clean faced, many had a white patch at each side of their heads sometimes with a bluish tinge on them. Most were black and white of many types: nearly all black or white or spots of each, odd patches, rings and some duckwing colors of birds, odd mixes and some had blue legs. I still get dark skinned birds and spotting possibly from this strain’s influence in banty and standard birds, but I am not sure where it came from. The dark skin trait is most obvious when it is on a white bird they have black, green or sometimes blue legs. The deal was I got all of the chickens and I had to catch them myself.

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They had never been pinned up or domesticated except for providing water and some food. They had their own nest sites where he got his eggs. He had never caught any or added any to the flock or provided any shelter. They totaled about forty and only excessive roosters had been culled out. I arrived in the day time the next day, with my huge fish net with six foot long handle, and I caught exactly none of them. I know what you are thinking but, I was a marathon running college student at the time. I tried all day, by nightfall we had a new plan, we connected two twenty foot long swimming pool sweeper poles together, got a high power flash light, a tall ladder, and the long handled fish net, then waited for darkness of night. It took the next three weeks of catching as many as possible each night to get them all. With help and teamwork we dislodged them from their roosts in the tall pepper trees. A flying chicken can fly about as fast as a young man can run with a flashlight in one hand and a fish net in the other. Many would take off and fly the length of a football field at night, I was repeatedly amazed, my other chickens did not do that. These were as wild as they could be and always remained wary. I kept that strain pure for the next ten years or more, until I moved to Northern California. When I moved north I entrusted my good friend Gene with the entire flock and a couple of 1936 Dodge cars, at his Ranch. Then about a year later, I had some room and had built pens on my twenty acre parcel of land. My friend, Gene, generously gave me the pick of any remaining birds  in 1987. Very nice that he still had all that I gave him to choose from. I chose nine hens and three roosters of good quality and showing all the bloodlines prominently and other traits I wanted in the flock. To this day Gene still has this genetic line. All of my current flock has come from those nine hens and twenty five years of selective breeding and springtime hatching. I continue to miss the pure Charlie Andrews strain but see their traits every generation. Charlie and I remained friends for years. I still keep in touch with Gene, we went to high school together I have given him many birds over the years.

I have only met one person that had tail-less, tufted  Araucana Chickens in the last 25 years. I cannot remember his name now, we only met a few times and that was over twenty years ago. He lived in Gridley, California and had a PHD Degree in Poultry Genetics and was a retired professor from the University of California at Davis, as I remember. He had banty and standard size tufted Birds. He got standard size birds from me, appreciated my endeavors, and I got some tufted bantys from him that were tufted but not tail-less. He would hatch every egg an Araucana hen produced her entire life. He tried to incubate them even before the egg cooled off from being laid. He said with such a recent cross with these two sub-species, the genetic pool is so large and variable a hen may only produce one unique offspring her whole life with the traits you are looking for and it was necessary to hatch all eggs to optimize outcomes, so that is what he did. A busy, and a little on the grumpy side fellow, but a wealth of knowledge and perseverance. He had no other types of chickens that he was this dedicated to. I still have a banty strain from his line and mine mixed, but I never got any standard size birds from him. I talked to someone recently that had gotten some Araucanas from him several years ago, so perhaps they were related to mine and continue on somewhere, I hope so! For decades I have given flocks away to folks that were interested in keeping them pure.

Well, now it is Springtime 2011 and I have never hatched so many chicks, starting in February, Somewhere around three hundred now After running a few ads on Craig’s list I was informed about the “National Poultry Improvement Program” or NPIP for short. This necessary certification allows for interstate shipping of poultry or eggs. I decided to not sell birds until certified. With fifty hens and a half dozen or so roosters representing this year’s genetic pool. One flock of bantys with a white rooster and six of flocks of standards are producing eggs. 50% true blue, 30% turquoise blue, 10% green shades, 2% pinkish, 5% pale green/grey. There are a few colors of eggs that I personally do not have names for like greenish-gold variations or odd grey tones. Some eggs are perfectly round, occasionally a Saturn looking ring look will occur and with others it is very difficult to tell the usual pointed end from the air bubble end. Early on in the flock there was an obvious connection between hens that had straight combs because nearly all would produce a pinkish egg, but they tended to be more likely tufted, including the multi-tufted birds then. My oldest hen is near twenty years old now, possibly older, she has two inch spurs with good feather and leg condition, still laying and brooding. Nearly all of my hens take a year to lay the first egg but a few start as early as six to nine months. The Bantys tend to start laying eggs earlier but some will take until the following spring to lay their first egg, as wild birds do.

My Araucanas are unlike many hatchery breeds or hatchery bred chickens that can be sexed by color or wing feather length when they are chicks. For male/female differentiation the hen’s tendency of having longer flight feathers is used. This can take many years to accomplish in a breed of chicken and not something I have bred the chickens for. Comb size, feather coloration with occasional spurs on hens further complicate identification in my birds, sometimes  until nearly half grown. My standard size birds tend to be “Game Like” or “Gamey”, as they are alert, wary and fly extremely well. Hens like to brood and will protect nests with considerable biting, kicking and scratching, wing feathers flapping alone can cut your skin. If left alone they are great mothers, roosters protect flocks, all will work as a unit once pecking order is established. They are very hardy and have had long productive lives without medication or vaccination for the time I have had them. I would love to go to South America to see the see the origins of these awesome traits in their local chicken stocks in  Northern Chile and would welcome that opportunity.

Ear Tufts, what an interesting appendage on these Araucana chickens. The variations are numerous enough to create a very individual looking bird. Basically there is an ear lobe that long feathers grow on and it is usually located near the their ear’s external auditory canal opening or even down the neck a few millimeters to a couple centimeters (thumbs width) down. The feathers grow out of these lobes much like the hair on any ones round  head, and that is “Unique” for most part. Symmetry gives a nice balance because there are so many sizes, shapes, colors, and numbers of feathers and also the direction the feathers want to point. The most prized trait by many people and the trait all of my roosters have had since the first one. At first, not all of  their ear tufts have been symmetrical but they were tail-less as well. The hens included much more variation. I stopped marking eggs and banding chicks to adult birds years ago but I learned a considerable amount while doing it. Things like: Both tufted parents did not noticeably produce more nicely tufted chicks than only one parent having tufts. Also, A good Tail-less, tufted rooster can produce a tail-less, tufted chicks when out-crossed with a Rhode Island Red, Americana, or hen with any number of other chickens. Another thing about ear tufts, they can occur in birds that never hatch due to an inherited lethal factor of inheriting the trait from both parents. This is not fully understood but widely accepted. Since I have had Birds that had multiple tufts (five), I think there is more to be learned. For some reason there is a sad number of tufted chicks that never pip through the egg and appear mature otherwise. I suspect there are multiple factors, a possible equilibrium problem related to the ear or piping through the membrane inadequately, some will pip at the bottom and have a fluid obstruction problem and not hatch. Their eggs have unusually strong membranes so humidity may be adjusted to optimize hatching conditions, and with too little humidity the membranes are strong enough to shrink and encase the chick. The yolks are as large from the smaller eggs as the large eggs. Many times the yolks are indistinguishable by visual comparison in a bowl together, another possible factor. They have incredible taste worthy of any “Gourmet Cooking”, many will attest.

With all these years of line breeding, what are now call, “True Araucana Chickens” in the good ole “U.S.A.” I am still amazed at the diversity of their traits. Besides endless color patterns of the feathers their skin, eye, leg, and beaks vary in color also. Not all feathers are equal in flight, as strength, quality and shape, coupled with desire are necessary. An interesting trait in the last few years was the appearance of a crest on a hen. This very nice Tail-less tufted hen had a ridge of feathers from the back of her head downward and mid-line about two inches. The crest seemed to get more prominent that year and really gave her a dinosaur look, until she molted and the crest disappeared. She is particularly sneaky and is the first to escape to free range as well as being friendly. I get some birds colored much like the 1927 National Geographic picture, white with red in the wings. Also; White birds with black spots and black birds with white spots. Blue/gray mixes, reds, stripped, ringed feathers or color tipped feathers add to the mosaics. It seems like something new happens each year producing a beautiful new color and pattern on a wonderfully balanced bird. A golden/tan color seems to be an emerging feather color type with green or yellow legs. Some look more like a drab Quail or Partridges,  or even  bright pheasant looking colors with red, blue, brown, black or white in striking patterns, especially on roosters.

Another unusual trait in some roosters crowing is a tendency to have a “Caw” at the end of their crow. It seems, after the normal crow is complete there is still considerable air in their lungs being squeezed out and that makes for a “Caw” or “Haw” sound at the end of their crow. Since people commonly living at such high altitudes in the Andes Mountains have a larger lung capacity, perhaps their chickens do also. I have had some years where nearly all the roosters crowed like that especially the younger roosters just learning how to crow. This year just one young-adult rooster has the longer type crow so far. The roosters tend to have a very wide chest, especially when compared to other breeds of chickens the same size and can be pretty heavy for their height, even the bantys. Of course their chests are their main flying muscle and where most of their weight is concentrated, they are notably great fliers.

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In general there are some things I have noticed in my Araucana strain that I have not seen in other breeds of chickens. They love to fly, they will fly instead of walking many times. They fly 12 feet straight up just to roost. Sometimes half a flock or more will take off and fly one hundred feet together, all landing about the same time. They fly when they are happy and feeling good. I have seen them fly a hundred feet just to land turn around and fly back. The wide chest and upright stance of these birds gives a “Proud look” along with a certain alert appearance. They tend to be wary, if you worry them they take notice and be more evasive than other breeds of chickens I have seen or had. Hens are good mothers but due to wariness need to be left alone while sitting on eggs as they will fight to not share nests or may have a pecking order issue with another hen. Sometimes it is very difficult to tell the sex of a young bird because the comb size varies and they do not mature as fast as other breeds. The feather coloration differences between roosters and hens is not obvious in some colors and patterns of developing birds. They absolutely live longer than any other chickens I have owned. I usually do not keep roosters as long but many hens have lived near to twenty years in good health. The eggshells are thick and egg membranes are tough, so cracking them for use takes a serious whack. Smaller eggs have have a larger yolk, by that I mean; if you place several different sizes of eggs from standard chickens in a bowl, the yolks are the same size and tend to be more orange than yellow in color. Also; there are colors of birds not standard in chicken standard descriptions. This is where I do not agree with any standardization of Araucana color types. Historically this breed is less than one hundred years old from one unknown extinct pure strain of bird crossing with another variable domesticated strain of chickens or, in other words, two mixed strains brought together. Major obvious variations other than color exist in South American  chickens, therefore I have valued the the more unusual wild or non-standard color types choosing quality over color. Having said that, I do see recurrent unusual non-standard colors, some, for decades disappear, then show up with one bird. I do keep many like colored birds together in larger flocks now. I do get birds of show standard colors and also many that are not, yet produce consistently enough to be  a line of their own. The blue/gray color has lightened on some birds to almost white. You can get quality tail-less tufted looking birds the first generation with an Americana cross using one of my birds. It is possible crossing my Araucanas with other breeds of chickens as well, but better ratios and results with Americana chickens and egg colors continue. They are cold tolerant, surviving the occasional snow here the last twenty five years without heat or problems. Hens have hatched out chicks with snow on the ground at Thanksgiving and not lose any chicks through the winter. I do build adequate coops with dry shelter and try to face them south for some winter solar exposure. Their feathers are strong and can cut your skin with their natural evasive flying maneuvers when they are caught. Egg shape varies from round, to the symmetrical oblong or the usual shape of eggs. Sometimes spotted eggs occur with a hen and do not appear to be part of the shell but it does not wash off. An  intensified ring of color that gives a Saturn look to the eggs sometimes happens with some hens (usually blue eggs). Leg colors include: green, white, black, yellow, blue, and others, some without names like yellow-black or greenish yellow black. Ear tufts are of every imaginable combination from one small back sweeping feather at the edge of the external auditory canal (ear hole) to a dangling ball of two inch long feathers swinging from a pendulous lobe a thumbs width down the neck from the ear hole and just about every tuft size in between including the pinwheel (fan blades). Any tuft combination is possible and they may be on one, or both sides of their heads. Their heads can have small waddles and pea combs and sometimes a white patch on the side if their heads from the “Charlie Andrews” wild blue egg laying strain trait.

Pictures best show some of the things I have talked about and 2011 will be the first year of yearly photo documentation with fifty five hens in six flocks and their offspring.

Summer and Spring 2012 has been busy in my Araucana Hatchery world. The National Certification is A-1 with no positive testing results ever, and the highest Hatchery inspection ratings. Although I can ship most anywhere in the U.S.A. I have not, and I am just now at the brink of marketing this year’s production and that will be local only. With twelve fine flocks / eighty hens and chicks of all sizes I can offer many options. The real joy is; another year presents itself for viewing new additions. Anticipating the incredible abilities of this still emerging breed of chickens never ends. I can see a need for a larger piece of land in the future for their comfort and prosperity.

The launch of the web site in 2013 and serious marketing should make for a banner year of introducing these birds to the world and expanding their potential from my forty year effort. I learn new things every year about their history or genetics like; there were three birds last year with two tufts on one side, and one tuft on the other side, I lost both of the hens before maturity and the beautiful Rooster was only used for six months. I have pictures of him. I have enjoyed the freedom to pursue what I value in this unusual breed of birds. I belong to no clubs or organizations and do not show. I have introduced four hens to the flock over the years, one white, one near black 10 plus years ago; and last year two hens from eggs from a certified provider (Thanks Ann). This year’s Standard Size hens total is: 122 tail-less hens with 64 having bilateral tufts in ten flocks. Two flocks of Bantys. Thank you for your time, Enjoy the Planet!

Eddie Sheppard
Awesome Araucana Chicken Hatchery
(Since 1973)