Alleghenies

The Allegheny Chicken is intended for small farm and homestead egg production—preferably free range but adaptable to most typical management systems—in the hill and mountain country of Appalachia, most especially the stretch of mountain ranges in western Virginia, West Virginia, western Maryland, and central and western Pennsylvania.  It seems to me that this is where I sometimes hear the word “Allegheny” used to refer to particular mountains, ranges, or the whole regional geological system, hence the naming of the breed.  These environments are often characterized by lush, heavily shaded moist deciduous forests, the shade being cast even deeper in the innumerable ravines and hollows found in this old, eons-eroded mountain landscape.  This lends support to the notion of dark coloration being favorable camouflage, especially in the warm half of the year.

Personally, the Allegheny Mountains, particularly of West Virginia and Pennsylvania (my original home state) have always held something deeper than charm for me.  They are the emotional site of some kind of unnamed longing, probably for reconnection to self-organized nature and felt human interdependence with wild environs, but I’ve not yet been satisfied with any arrangement of words I’ve attempted to put to it.  So I’m trying breeding a chicken instead.

As such, the Allegheny Chicken is the most artsy of the projects, with symbolic aesthetics playing a strong role in its formation.  The Allegheny Mountains are coal country; coal culture is strong and at times even a source of pride for the people who work the mines, or whose ancestors did.  I am of course appalled at the devastation to land and climate that coal production has wrought and is wrighting, but I must not shrink from the realization of all the ways our whole society (of which I am an undeniable product) has benefitted/is benefitting from that abundant energy source, and I do not disparage the people who have gathered in the hill towns to work the mines or the pride they have felt in their work and communities.  And so coal country and culture gets an artistic nod from me in the Allegheny chicken:

At hatch, the chicks are mostly as black as little chunks of coal (though you see some with rusty tinges).  As they grow and feather out, a few feathers appear with shades of red and gold, which always strikes me as a slow-motion representation of the coal catching fire.  The outer feathers of adults are up to half red/gold tones in varying patterns; the black portions are usually a little iridescent.  The fluffy undercoat of all birds is a rich, sooty black (no gray, please).  As birds age they may show a few “ashy” whitish feathers around the head.  The feet are free of feathers with the ancestral “normal” number of toes, and are also black on the shanks and the tops of the toes, with the breed’s yellow skin showing on the bottoms of the feet.  An interesting trait (not totally unique to this breed, probably) is that often the tip of the middle toe including the nail will be yellow also, which I fancy as the miner’s “flashlight.”  More unusual is the black pigmentation that frequently occurs (and which I favor for breeders and am trying to increase) on the facial skin and even somewhat on the comb.  I think of this as representing the miner’s coal-stained face.  Lest you think I’ve overdone it on the coal symbolism I’ll let you in on the symbolically transformative secret of this breed: the eggs, which represent the future, come out green.

Combine this general visage with the pea combs I’ve chosen for resistance to the intense cold these birds must face in their mountain homes, and to me you’ve got a pretty snappy-looking chicken.  But despite its dramatic coloration and attractiveness up close, these birds do seem to blend into the woods pretty well, especially at dusk, and the ones that have more gold feathers can disappear into the leaf litter on the forest floor surprisingly well.

In terms of non-aesthetic characteristics, I have thus far accepted a wide range of sizes and shapes when selecting my breeders, preferring—to paraphrase Carol Deppe—to let diversity live where it may.  My main criteria are that I want birds that lay a lot of good-sized and nicely-shaped eggs, I want a bird that is worth butchering (no skinny birds allowed), all birds should be physically fit and not overly fat but not wound tight either (think Black Java, not Rhode Island Red).  The general body type is of an average-sized, well-balanced bird roughly on the order of the Plymouth Rock series, though I favor fuller, well-organized tails.  As far as temperament, they should never be aggressive with humans (I make soup from the males that get uppity), and not overly aggressive with each other, either.  A calm, pleasant flock is what we’re after.  Handling them should not be too stressful or exhausting.  But this does not imply stupidity.  On the range these chickens know how to hide from hawks and flee from foxes, and their general suite of survival and foraging instincts are in pretty good order.  The presence and level of broody instinct varies on these birds, and I don’t yet know which direction to take things in that regard.  I personally prefer chickens that can hatch their own young, but for egg production purposes this can be a liability when the hens start taking six-week vacations from egg duty.

I hope this and other questions that might come up can be answered not by me but by us.  My hope is, for this and the other breeds, to engage with several other interested flock owners to create and maintain the breed.  If it comes from only me, I fear it will be disconnected and irrelevant, and also the process will be less meaningful.  For this breed especially, I don’t even live in the environment for which I intend the bird, so it will be hard to truly hit the mark.  The actual experienced conditions give the most reliable feedback.  Consider this paragraph a solicitation: can I interest you in joining me in developing this beautiful and productive potential contribution to the Allegheny regional rural and food culture?

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