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Playing the Landrace Card
Monday, August 15, 2011
There is much debate and confusion on what consitutes a distinct "breed" of chicken.  There are several definitions --some of them not particularly helpful-- that seek to bring clarity to the issue.  The one that I've found to be the most practical is this:  A breed is a group of animals whose individual members resemble each other closely enough to be easily recognized and that reproduce the same breed type when mated together.
In America, we tend to have a rather constrained view of what represents a chicken breed.  Every now and then I'll read some online commentary by a chicken hobbyist who says, for example, Swedish flower hens are really just a mix of breeds.  (This type of statement might cause a temporary lapse in the normally pacifist stance of Swedish farmers who, for more than half a millenium, have been breeding Swedish flower hens with nothing but each other.)
I assume this comment is based in the observation that there is quite a bit of variability in the superficial appearance of Swedish flower hens.  The dominant feather colors vary from chicken to chicken, some birds are crested and the others not, comb configurations vary, and the leg color is not uniform among the birds.  Yet, despite these minor differences, great superficial similarities remain.  The birds are of a uniform size and shape, the distribution of white on the feathers (no matter the base color) is fairly uniform, all Swedes are clean-legged, they lay an identical egg, the birds behave in a similar way, etc.  If you've spent any time around Swedish flower hens you will easily be able to identify one when you see it.  The irony is, of course, that a hundred years before Columbus discovered the New World, this "mix of breeds" had coalesced into indentifiable populations of Swedish flower hens in their native land.
Some  American poultry hobbyists also tend to ignore the fact that there are less obvious but perhaps more important genetic traits that are operating beneath the surface of a chicken.  To ignore the importance of these traits is to deny the true purpose of a chicken breed.  Remember, the bargain we struck thousands of years ago between our species and theirs is that chickens are allowed to live among us so we can eat their meat and eggs.  Breeding for superficial traits does little to advance our hard-won bargain.  It is the ability of a breed to reliably deliver on our bargain under specific --and often harsh-- environmental conditions that ultimately define the breed.  You can't easily see the internal plumbing of a brakel that allows it to form a disproportionately large egg for the dainty size of the hen's body, but you can see the result in the large egg it produces under free-range conditions.  This superior plumbing and foraging ability is genetically based, these traits took hundreds of years to evolve in this breed, yet they did so in the absence of a written standard for the breed.
One potential source of confusion is that Americans have little experience dealing with chicken landraces; a classification under which Swedish flower hens properly fall.  "Landraces" are groups of animals or plants that over time undergo natural and artificial selection to promote the stable production of food.  Usually the time period is long, the intervention of man informal, and the animals that result are keenly adapted to local environments.  So, for example, the hedemora of Sweden is a chicken that has over the centuries developed an undercoating of downy feathers to combat the extreme cold of that northen clime.  Such adaptations in America are rare if for no other reason than America was, in a relative sense, only recently populated with chickens.  Adaptation takes time.  The longer the time generally the more uniform in appearance landraces will become.
Americans tend to focus on breeds that were primarily created by artificial selection; that is, chicken breeds created as a project with a specific goal in mind.  And so we get breeds like the Delaware that were developed for a specific purpose in a relatively short period of time.  These breeds tend to be more uniform in look because, in the case of the Delaware, agricultural scientists removed the randomness of natural selection from the process.  We also tend to focus our efforts on breeding birds that adhere to a rigid written standard, usually the Standard of Perfection of the American Poultry Association, that encourages producing birds that look like clones of an ideal example of a breed.  You can understand that if a hobbyist spent his or her life pursuing a precisely perfect example of a breed, the variability of a Swedish flower hen might cause severe gastro-intestinal discomfort in those who seek this idealized notion of self-proclaimed "perfection."
Nevertheless, we are beginning to see some landraces emerge in America.  The Key West chicken is a feral bird that has adapted to an urban, island environment.  It has far greater variability than our Swedish flower hen, and so it would be difficult to pick out a Key West chicken from a poultry line-up.  They tend to look like a mixed American gamefowl, but beyond that it's difficult to see much uniformity.  But, give them a couple of hundred years and you might have an identifiable landrace in the Keys.
At any rate, it would be useful for American poultry hobbyists to reflect on the definition of "breed" and whether our conventional view is a little too confining.  We've entered an era where landraces are popping up on American soil for the first time.  We are also entering an era of economic uncertainty in which chicken breeds that adapt well to free-range conditions may quickly gain in our estimation.  It would be a shame to diminish their importance, and thus their chances of surviving, because each bird within these breeds doesn't look like a clone of the next.