National Geographic : 1948 Sep
Easter Egg Chickens BY FREDERICK G. VOSBURGH Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer B. Anthony Stewart ONE DAY 21 years ago, young Ward Brower, Jr., son of a prominent New York attorney, saw in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE a picture which fired his imagination. It was a painting of the Araucana chicken of Chile, the only domestic chicken that lays a blue-shelled egg.* Now, after more than 20 years of effort, he has developed a flock of "Easter egg chickens" that lay eggs of delicate pastel shades-not only blue ones but green ones, pink ones, and. most recently, an egg of a rich olive-drab color that looks as if it had been produced especially for the United States Army. Chickens with "Whiskers" The Araucana chicken that caught Brower's eye was a strange-looking bird without a tail and with a round tuft of feathers like whiskers on each side of the neck at the juncture with the head (Plate VIII). Most intriguing of all to the youthful Brower, raising chickens near Monroe, Orange County, New York, was the sky-blue color of the Araucana egg. Blue is his favorite color. Why, he reflected, should eggs be merely a monotonous white or brown? Maybe some of that Araucana blood would make it possible to produce blue eggs. Bostonians, Brower knew, like brown eggs, while white eggs sell best in New York City. Perhaps some other cities, he mused, might show a preference for blue eggs. Anyway, his eggs would have a built-in trade-mark, created by the mysterious chemistry within the bodies of his hens. Stronger, however, than hope of gain were love of Nature, the desire to accomplish some thing unusual, and the challenge presented by the difficulties involved in perpetuating this rare breed. Correspondence with the Department of Agriculture showed that, as far as it could learn, not a single living Araucana then existed in the United States. Two breeders were known to have owned them, but the birds had died. Brower thereupon determined to get some Araucanas from Chile. But from whom? He combed the poultry publications and finally, in an incubator catalogue, he found a testi monial letter from a chicken breeder in San tiago, Chile, one Juan Sierra Z. He wrote him-and nothing happened. At last, after a year and a half, he had an answer to his letter. The pure Araucana, it said, was exceedingly rare, if not extinct, and months of fruitless search had been the cause of the delay; even the Araucanian Indians had interbred their namesake strain with com moner kinds of chickens. However, Sefior Sierra had hopes of obtaining satisfactory birds from a friend. Six months later came word of success: "Your letter," wrote the obliging Chilean. "has remained unanswered for the reason that Mr. Haverbeck's fowls had all become diseased with Diphtheria and I was compelled to wait until they had recovered, but it happened that all the birds died with the exception of one hen and one male bird, so that I had to give up the idea of obtaining the birds from that source. I was, therefore, compelled to obtain these from other sources, and have now been able to secure 2 Hens and 1 Malebird which I propose to send you with the next boat sail ing... "The 3 birds are all different in colour, as it is impossible to secure birds alike as no one in the country breeds them pure, and these are best can be obtaining." Three Dismal Immigrants from Chile Shipping costs consumed most of Brower's modest capital, as he was not long out of col lege and was determined to be independent. But the sacrifice seemed well worth while when finally he saw the crate unloaded and con gratulated himself upon owning Araucanas at last. Carefully he opened the crate-and beheld three of the saddest-looking chickens he had ever seen. His heart sank as he saw that the trip had left them more dead than alive. Could these really be Araucanas? The rooster obviously had Dominique blood. One hen was part Rhode Island Red and the other's family tree had contained both Rhode Island Red and Barred Plymouth Rock ancestors. But the little red hen had the odd "rumpless," or tailless, silhouette and all three had feather "whiskers"-trade-marks of the exotic Arau cana breed. It was the autumn of 1930. The birds had just gone through a winter in the Southern Hemisphere and now they faced another. The * See "The Races of Domestic Fowl," by M. A . Jull, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1927.