The following article was taken from:

Poultry: A Practical Guide to the Choice, Breeding, Rearing, and Management of all Descriptions of Fowls, Turkeys, Guinea-fowls, Ducks, and Geese, for Profit and Exhibition.

Author: Hugh Piper

Publication Date: 1872

Keep only good, healthy, vigorous, well-bred fowls, whether you keep them to produce eggs or chickens, or both. The ill-bred mongrel fowls which are so commonly kept, are the most voracious, and consume larger quantities of food, without turning it to any account; while well-bred fowls eat less, and quickly convert that into fat, flesh, and eggs.

“Large, well-bred fowls,” says Mr. Edwards, “do not consume more food than ravenous, mongrel breeds. It is the same with fowls as with other stock. I have at this moment two store pigs, one highly bred, the other a rough, ill-bred animal. They have, since they left their mothers, been fed together and upon the same food. The former, I am confident (from observation), ate considerably less than the latter, which was particularly ravenous. The former pig, however, is in excellent condition, kind, and in a measure fat; whereas the latter looks hard, starved, and thin, and I am sure she will require one-third more food to make bacon of.”

For the amateur who is content with eggs and chickens, and does not long for prize cups, excellent birds possessing nearly all the best characteristics of their breeds, but rendered imperfect by a few blemishes, may be purchased at a small cost, and will be as good layers or chicken-producers, and answer his purpose as well as the most expensive that can be bought.

The choice of breed must depend upon the object for which the fowls are kept, whether chiefly for eggs or to produce chickens, or for both; the climate, soil, and situation; the space that can be allotted to them; and the amount of attention that can be devoted to their care. If fowls are to be bred for exhibition, you must be guided by your own taste, pocket, and resources, as well as by the suitability of the situation for the particular breed desired. The advantages, disadvantages, and peculiarities of the various breeds will be described under their respective heads.

In commencing poultry-keeping buy only young and healthy birds. No one sign is infallible to the inexperienced. In general, however, the legs of a young hen look delicate and smooth, her comb and wattles are soft and fresh, and her general outline, even in good condition (unless when fattened for the table), rather light and graceful; whilst an old one will have rather hard, horny-looking shanks; her comb and wattles look somewhat harder, drier, and more “scurfy,” and her figure is well filled out. But any of these signs may be deceptive, and the beginner should use his own powers of observation, and try and catch the “old look,” which he will soon learn to know.

All authorities agree that a cock is in his prime at two years of age, though some birds show every sign of full vigour when only four months old. It is agreed by nearly all the greatest authorities that the ages of the cocks and hens should be different; however, good birds may be bred from parents of the same age, but they should not be less than a year old. The strongest chickens are obtained from two-year old hens by a cockerel of about a year old; but such broods contain a disproportion of cocks, and, therefore, most poultry-keepers prefer to breed from well-grown pullets of not less than nine months with a cock of two years of age. The cock should not be related to the hens. It is, therefore, not advisable to purchase him from the same breeder of whom you procure the hens. Do not let him be the parent of chickens from pullets that are his own offspring. Breeding in-and-in causes degeneracy in fowls as in all other animals. Some birds retain all their fire and energy until five or even six years of age, but they are beyond their prime after the third, or at the latest their fourth year; and should be replaced by younger birds of the same breed, but from a different stock.

Poultry-breeders differ with respect to the proper number of hens that should be allowed to one cock. Columella, who wrote upon poultry about two thousand years ago, advised twelve hens to one cock, but stated that “our ancestors did use to give but five hens.” Stephanus gave the same number as Columella. Bradley, and the authors of the “Complete Farmer,” and the article upon the subject in “Rees’s Cyclopædia,” give seven or eight; and those who breed game-cocks are particular in limiting the number of hens to four or five for one cock, in order to obtain strong chickens. If fine, strong chickens be desired for fattening or breeding, there should not be more than five or six hens to one cock; but if the supply of eggs is the chief consideration, ten or twelve may be allowed; indeed, if eggs are the sole object, he can be dispensed with altogether, and his food saved, as hens lay, if there be any difference, rather better without one.

The russet red is the most hardy colour, white the most delicate, and black the most prolific. General directions for the choice of fowls, as to size, shape, and colour, cannot be applicable to all breeds, which must necessarily vary upon these points. But in all breeds the cock should, as M. Parmentier says, “carry his head high, have a quick, animated look, a strong, shrill voice (except in the Cochins, which have a fuller tone), a fine red comb, shining as if varnished, large wattles of the same colour, strong wings, muscular thighs, thick legs furnished with strong spurs, the claws rather bent and sharply pointed. He ought also to be free in his motions, to crow frequently, and to scratch the ground often in search of worms, not so much for himself, as to treat his hens. He ought, withal, to be brisk, spirited, ardent, and ready in caressing the hens, quick in defending them, attentive in soliciting them to eat, in keeping them together, and in assembling them at night.”

To prevent cocks from fighting, old Mascall, following Columella, says: “Now, to slacke that heate of jealousie, ye shall slitte two pieces of thicke leather, and put them on his legges, and those will hang over his feete, which will correct the vehement heate of jealousie within him”; and M. Parmentier observes that “such a bit of leather will cause the most turbulent cock to become as quiet as a man who is fettered at the feet, hands, and neck.”

The hen should be of good constitution and temper, and, if required to sit, large in the body and wide in the wings, so as to cover many eggs and shelter many chickens, but short in the legs, or she could not sit well. M. Parmentier advises the rejection of savage, quarrelsome, or peevish hens, as such are seldom favourites with the cocks, scarcely ever lay, and do not hatch well; also all above four or five years of age, those that are too fat to lay, and those whose combs and claws are rough, which are signs that they have ceased to lay.

Hens should not be kept over their third year unless very good or choice. Hens are not uncommon with the plumage and spurs of the cock, and which imitate, though badly, his full-toned crow. In such fowls the power of producing eggs is invariably lost from internal disease, as has been fully demonstrated by Mr. Yarrell in the “Philosophical Transactions” for 1827, and in the “Proceedings of the Zoological Society” for 1831. Such birds should be fattened and killed as soon as observed.

History, the exact origin of the common domestic fowl and its numerous varieties is unknown. It is doubtless derived from one or more of the wild or jungle fowls of India. Some naturalists are of opinion that it is derived from the common jungle fowl known as the Gallus Bankiva of Temminck, or Gallus Ferrugineus of Gmelin, which very closely resembles the variety known as Black-breasted Red Game, except that the tail of the cock is more depressed; while others consider it to have been produced by the crossing of that species with one or more others, as the Malay gigantic fowl, known as the Gallus giganteus of Temminck, Sonnerat’s Jungle Fowl, Gallus sonneratii, and probably some other species. At what period or by what people it was reclaimed is not known, but it was probably first domesticated in India.

The writers of antiquity speak of it as a bird long domesticated and widely spread in their days. Very likely there are many species unknown to us in Sumatra, Java, and the rich woods of Borneo.

The process by which the various breeds have been produced “is simple and easily understood,” says Mr. Wright. “Even in the wild state the original breed will show some amount of variation in colour, form, and size; whilst in domestication the tendency to change, as every one knows, is very much increased. By breeding from birds which show any marked feature, stock is obtained of which a portion will possess that feature in an increased degree; and by again selecting the best specimens, the special points sought may be developed to almost any degree required. A good example of such a process of development may be seen in the ‘white face’ so conspicuous in the Spanish breed. White ears will be observed occasionally in all fowls; even in such breeds as Cochins or Brahmas, where white ear-lobes are considered almost fatal blemishes; they continually occur, and by selecting only white-eared specimens to breed from, they might be speedily fixed in any variety as one of the characteristics.

A large pendent white ear-lobe once firmly established, traces of the white face will now and then be found, andby a similar method is capable of development and fixture; whilst any colour of plumage or of leg may be obtained and established in the same way. The original amount of character required is very slight; a single hen-tailed cock will be enough to give that characteristic to a whole breed. Any peculiarity of constitution, such as constant laying, or frequent incubation, may be developed and perpetuated in a similar manner, all that is necessary being care and time. That such has been the method employed in the formation of the more distinct races of our poultry, is proved by the fact that a continuance of the same careful selection is needful to perpetuate them in perfection. If the very best examples of a breed are selected as the starting-point, and the produce is bred from indiscriminately for many generations, the distinctive points, whatever they are, rapidly decline, and there is also a more or less gradual but sure return to the primitive wild type, in size and even colour of the plumage.

The purest black or white originally, rapidly becomes first marked with, and ultimately changed into, the original red or brown, whilst the other features simultaneously disappear. If, however, the process of artificial selection be carried too far, and with reference only to one prominent point, any breed is almost sure to suffer in the other qualities which have been neglected, and this has been the case with the very breed already mentioned–the white-faced Spanish. We know from old fanciers that this breed was formerly considered hardy, and even in winter rarely failed to afford a constant supply of its unequalled large white eggs. But of late years attention has been so exclusively directed to the ‘white-face,’ that whilst this feature has been developed and perfected to a degree never before known, the breed has become one of the most delicate of all, and the laying qualities of at least many strains have greatly fallen off.

It would be difficult to avoid such evil results if it were not for a valuable compensating principle, which admits of crossing. That principle is, that any desired point possessed in perfection by a foreign breed, may be introduced by crossing into a strain it is desired to improve, and every other characteristic of the cross be, by selection, afterwards bred out again. Or one or more of these additional characteristics may be also retained, and thus a new variety be established, as many have been within the last few years.”

Size may be imparted to the Dorking by crossing it with the Cochin, and the disposition to feather on the legs bred out again by judicious selection; and the constitution may be strengthened by crossing with the Game breed. Game fowls that have deteriorated in size, strength, and fierceness, by a long course of breeding in-and-in, may have all these qualities restored by crossing with the fierce, powerful, and gigantic Malay, and his peculiarities may be afterwards bred out. The size of the eggs of the Hamburg might very probably be increased without decreasing, or with very slightly decreasing, the number of eggs, by crossing with a Houdan cock; and the size would also be increased for the table.

The French breeds, Crêve-Coeur, Houdan, and La Flêche, gain in size and hardiness by being crossed with the Brahma cock. The cross between a Houdan cock and a Brahma hen “produces,” says the “Henwife,” “the finest possible chickens for market, but not to breed from. Pure Brahmas and Houdans alone must be kept for that purpose; I have always found the second cross worthless.”

In crossing, the cockerels will more or less resemble the male, and the pullets the hen. “Long experience,” says Mr. Wright, “has ascertained that the male bird has most influence upon the colour of the progeny, and also upon the comb, and what may be called the ‘fancy points,’ of any breed generally; whilst the form, size, and useful qualities are principally derived from the hen.”

Breeding, breed only from the strongest and healthiest fowls. In the breeding of poultry it is a rule, as in all other cases of organised life, that the best-shaped be used for the purpose of propagation. If a cock and hen have both the same defect, however trifling it may be, they should never be allowed to breed together, for the object is to improve the breed, not to deteriorate it, even in the slightest degree. Hens should never be allowed to associate with a cock of a different breed if you wish to keep the breed pure, and if you desire superior birds, not even with an inferior male of their own variety. “No time,” says Mr. Baily, “has ever been fixed as necessary to elapse before hens that have been running with cocks of divers breeds, and afterwards been placed with their legitimate partners, can be depended upon to produce purely-bred chickens; I am disposed to think at least two months.

Time of year may have much to do with it. In the winter the escape of a hen from one run to the other, or the intrusion of a cock, is of little moment; but it may be serious in the spring, and destroy the hopes of a season.” Many poultry-keepers separate the cocks and hens after the breeding season, considering that stronger chickens will be thereby obtained the next season. Where there is a separate house and run for the sitting hen this can be conveniently done when that compartment is vacant. In order to preserve a breed perfectly pure, it will be necessary, where there is not a large stock of the race, to breed from birds sprung from the same parents, but the blood should be crossed every year by procuring one or more fowls of the same breed from a distance, or by the exchange of eggs with some neighbouring stock, of colour and qualities as nearly allied as possible with the original breed.

By careful study of the characteristics of the various breeds, breeding from select specimens, and judicious crossing, great size may be attained, maturity early developed, facility in putting on flesh encouraged, hardiness of constitution and strength gained, and the inclination to sit or the faculty of laying increased.

Sir John Sebright, speaking of breeding cattle, says: “Animals may be said to be improved when any desired quality has been increased by art beyond what that quality was in the same breed in a state of nature. The swiftness of the racehorse, the propensity to fatten in cattle, and to produce fine wool in sheep, are improvements which have been made in particular varieties in the species to which these animals belong.

What has been produced by art must be continued by the same means, for the most improved breeds will soon return to a state of nature, or perhaps defects will arise which did not exist when the breed was in its natural state, unless the greatest attention is paid to the selection of the individuals who are to breed together.”