The Secret Language of Poultry Fancy

This was a very tongue in cheek letter to the editor of Fancy Fowl – circa 1999.

The Secret Language of Naming Poultry

Dear Editor

As a newcomer to keeping poultry and owner of various patterned Wyandottes I have questions concerning colour.

Firstly: how is one meant to show decent looking trios of partridge or gold-laced Wyandottes when the colours of exhibition hens and cocks don’t match? They don’t even ‘go’ – they clash! In other breeds males and females are either the same colour but a few shades of the apart or they are sexually dimorphic but basically both are made up of the same colours, just arranged differently – either way the effects are delightful.

The exhibition cockerel in the Gold Laced Wyandottes is a rich golden bay, a bright top and relatively light breast contrasting with its black lacing – the overall colour gives an impression of orange; the exhibition females seem to have to be intensely dark, almost maroon, to have a chance of prizes. Placed next to each other they appear to have no relationship whatsoever (which is indeed the case as they are always bred from different pens) and as a trio, however good the individual birds look unattractively ill matched. Orange and maroon didn’t work in the sixties either! Exhibition Partridge Wyandottes suffer a similar problem, the females of soft partridge brown and the cockerels with lemon hackles look totally at odds as a colour scheme. Conversely the opposite sexed breeders of exhibition birds ‘go’ with their partners’ colouring nicely – so this isn’t just a sex (dimorphism) thing.

The Impossibility of True-Breeding Trios

Showing trios is satisfying and a very good advertisement for a breed, those who win trio classes should be held in high esteem. How can this be done with Gold Laced and Partridge Wyandottes? Compromise is not on the cards. I happily accept that standards can require males and females that need to be double mated (and actually be different breeds) but cannot understand how a standard can permit birds of opposite sexes to look like different breeds and not even look nice together. Were the exhibitors who set the standards colour-blind, or were the standards arrived at to suit the diverse shades of the exhibitors’ birds at the time?

Laced Wyandotte Confusion

My next question is about Blue and Buff Laced Wyandottes: what colour is the ground colour meant to be? Should the sexes be different as in Golds? In which case the shade of blue would also be different, or should they be the same and make a mockery of the current Golds on the bench? Can someone, please, say which colour we should commit to before I decide which birds to breed from next year. There seems to be plenty of sense in the background colour of all these breeds being the same rather than polarising them. This way you can have the fun of showing all three different varieties from a single family and as a breed means the gene pool will be three times as big as if all the three had to be bred separately.

My third query relates to the naming of the colours of chickens, which owes more to the fall of the Tower of Babel than to logic. I’m sure there are reasonable explanations for how the names of the different breeds came about but not why they are still used – other than to mystify poultry keeping. The complex and illogical naming of varieties/breeds is just like the secret languages that school children invent so others can’t understand them!

I’ll start with the quirkiness in the naming of the Gold Laced Wyandotte. If those lovely bright bay cockerels are gold, which I wouldn’t disagree with, then those incredibly dark pullets are not gold, they are not the sexually dimorphic version of the other, they are different colours pure and simple – so why give them the same name? I level the same criticism at the Partridge Wyandotte I referred to earlier. This leads onto the question of why is the silver version of Partridge Wyandottes called Silver Pencilled? (Actually I also have a problem understanding how the Pencilled/Partridges don’t have the name Laced because their pattern really is lacy – the Laced is more of a edged, scalloped or fish scaled pattern – but I think these names are probably too deeply engrained to change – how do these patterns translate in other languages?) But Pencilled does describe this delicate tracery quite well, so how is the Hamburg with autosomal (non sex-linked) barring (precise stripes that circle the body) with a clear neck also called Pencilled?

If the Wyandotte with black breast and white hackles etc. is Silver Pencilled how come the Brahma of the same pattern is Dark? The Dutch, a Silver Partridge and the Game a Silver Duckwing? If the Dorking is called Silver Grey and the females have a pink breast why is the Game not also Silver Grey? The non-Silver birds are no better; Partridge in one place and Black Red in another for no apparent reason.

The area of spotted chickens couldn’t be better designed to confuse the non-expert. White spotting is apparently caused by the mottled gene and when on a black background, the pattern can is called mottled as in Pekins, Wyandottes and Old English Game, but when in the Sussex the white spots are on a mahogany background flecked with black it is speckled. The spangled OEG is virtually the same as the speckled Sussex – but you wouldn’t know that from the name. Then not a lot different in colour, are the delightfully named mille fleur, but this name tends to be saved for the Dutch and Belgian breeds – I am sure the OEG wouldn’t want to find themselves saddled with a colour sounding as girlie as mille fleur, but it would help the novice if the names indicated that all these colours are very similar. If a mille fleur is on a lavender background it is called porcelain (another name that doesn’t tell you the birds have white spots), but has anyone thought what we would call a blue, lavender or even a chocolate based speckled or spangled?

Just as you thought you had mottling/speckling/spangling worked out you find that the spangled Hamburg is a strikingly marked creature with huge penny-sized black spots on a white or tan background, the patterns look different and are according to the experts genetically totally different, why do they have with same name? Before we finish on the mottled gene the Fancy has one more trick up it’s sleeve, the white spots of most strains with this gene get whiter by having bigger spots every year and some can become really quite blotchy but they are still mottled –a pied Leghorn has the mottled genes but is a bit “gayer” than a mottled – where does one end and the other begin?

How is anyone meant to know that what is Light in a Brahma is Columbian in a Rock?

What is Buff?

Buff to most people is a soft pale beige, in poultry it is a self, in breeds such as Orpington and Wyandotte it is a glistening clear bright orange, in Rocks, a gene changes the colour to a soft pastel hue, sort of creamy peach, but despite being genetically and visually different and it, too, is called buff. Buff laced is the colour of a Wyandotte where the edges of the feathers are white, in the UK there is often a strong blue-grey tinge on the white part of feathers especially near the head, and the body of the feather is reddish-brown giving the impression of a reddish-brown, white and grey bird; not buff at all!

As stated, a white edge to a brown feather (it is the same colour brown as the gold of the male exhibition gold laced Wyandotte) is buff laced – this pattern on a Poland is chamois, a chamois Friesian has a chestnut body with white tail in the males and lemon and white stripes on the female; so say chamois to anyone and they will know just what you mean – it’s a mountain goat!

Laced or Dotty Standards?

The Poland, Andalusian and the Sebright are laced right to the tips of their tails, the laced Wyandotte has a black tail, is this by accident or design? These two patterns are different enough to warrant names that denote the difference; having the same name indicates that they will look the same, so a novice believing one type to be correct must assume the other has an obvious fault. If the Andalusian is blue laced is the Wyandotte blue laced? And if someone was shown a blue-laced Wyandotte what is the chance they would be able to work out what a gold laced looked like?

Just Plain Cuckoo

Here’s another naming system that effectively disguises its genetic similarity; sex-linked striping of black and white is called barring, unless the markings are fuzzy when it is called Cuckoo. Pekins have both barred and cuckoo varieties. Who would guess that a Crele is simply a multi coloured bird made by barred or cuckoo on Partridge?

Back to Pencilled Hamburgs, again they seem to be double mated, the exhibition males look like and often actually are black tailed reds or whites, just like the colours of the dear little Japanese (which certainly aren’t pencilled) – a name for colour that makes you expect the sexes to look different would be helpful – and if the males shown are double mated and actually are black tailed reds why aren’t there female black tailed red Hamburgs on the bench?

Surely it is time for the Fancy to produce a standardisation in the naming of colours that reflects the physical appearance and the genotypes of colours and patterns – it should be predictable, so that you can deduce the name of one variety by knowing another! By all means, keep the old names for those who need them but give the rest of us a new language that is English and reflects the standards; so that poultry keepers, expert and novice alike, of all varieties, can converse.

Alternatively the Fancy could use a different name for colours dependant on variety, for example: no two buff breeds would be called buff – unless they were a different colour, in which case it would be preferable for the name buff to be applied to as many different colours as possible…. Sorry, I’ve just been told that is already standard policy.

Clare Skelton