In 2014 we took a hike from our doorstep to the dramatic peak of Massanutten Mountain, which is the mountain in full, close-up view out our front windows. The further we climbed, the more I understood about the basis of the particular habitat we inhabit, because the bedrock and the weathered chunks of sandstone and limestone that had been wrestled from it by time and water and temperature and the force of motion were laid increasingly bare. To some extent, the same effect can be seen on the slope behind our place to the north and west, though most of our own soil shows no exposed rock. The effect is to render the woodland a little more spotty and ragged than it might be in deeper soil…sort of threadbare, with scrubbier trees and more light making it through the canopy and the shrub layer to the splotchy rocks.
I’m describing a hard place to make a living, unless you’re a lichen. But the wild creatures manage it mostly pretty handily. My aim with the Massanutten is to breed a chicken that is a survivor. Fully free ranged during the daytime in edgy, maybe even harsh and relatively barren conditions, this chicken relies on excellent instincts, alertness, and camouflage to thrive in its home. It needs to be able to deal with extreme weather and varied ecological zones from full tree cover to rocky slopes. It is a productive bird for the margins. If it is to be fed primarily with grain and supplements, and only augment its diet with forage, then egg production will be able to be year-round, which is the currently accepted standard for egg breeds. If it is to be fed primarily through forage, egg production will probably have to be tempered and perhaps revert to ancestral seasonal fluctuation, and meat production will be a more practical focus…like chicken ranching. I haven’t decided this point yet, but I do think this bird will be tipped more the second direction, so at current I am favoring strong incubation and brooding instincts in anticipation that meat production will be more advantageous for these marginal habitats. That’s not to say I don’t want a lot of eggs…when the resources are there, I want them to respond with plenty of them.
Right now the bird occurs in two color phases seen most clearly in the chicks: one phase hatches chicks with indistinct, cloudier color zones and variations (I like the parallel with the cloudy weather on Massanutten Mountain), the other resembles the more ancestral “chipmunk” coloration. The cloudier ones are more grizzled, less patterned as adults except on the neck, whereas the chipmunky ones show a pattern more like what is known as “partridge” coloring, though the tones vary from traditional partridging. I am refraining from making decisions about which direction to take the coloration yet, as I want some input from Mother Nature (golly she can be harsh). But I like the cloudy ones, and I’ve never seen others like them. It may end up that both phases are kept permanently and intentionally together rather than separately.
As far as body shape, I am favoring long, low (like the mountain itself), and well-meated birds that have plenty of room in the egg-laying compartment but are not especially deep in body. Especially I do not want a deep keel. I want a bird that looks good and fits well in a roasting pan and that keeps a juicy breast in the oven. I butchered a batch of Dominique hens once that impressed me greatly and which I am holding as the shape standard. I’ve not seen hens like them since and I don’t know which hatchery they came from. Weights are currently variable and I’m not too sold on any particular weight, though I think as big as we can achieve while still maintaining athleticism and vigor is probably the sweet spot.
Egg color is currently blue and blue-green…I’m thinking the blue/gray continuum is right. Cloudy, you see.