Purpose of the Massanutten chicken
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. Our aim with the Massanutten is to breed a chicken that is likewise a survivor. This chicken will need excellent instincts, alertness, and camouflage to thrive as it free-ranges up to full time in its hardscrabble woodland home. If it is to supply the needs of homesteads along the Massanutten range (and similar environments), 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 wooded margins of human habitation. 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. We haven’t fully decided this point yet and are still feeding them all they want to eat, but we do suspect this bird may eventually be tipped more the second direction, so at present we are favoring strong incubation and brooding instincts in anticipation that meat production will be more advantageous for these marginal habitats. That’s not to say we don’t want a lot of eggs…when the resources are there, we want them to respond with plenty of them. At present, as it happens, they are as productive of eggs, especially in winter, of any of our flocks.
Of all of our projects, this one is closest to our hearts, as the birds are bred for the specific natural state of our particular location, which was probably at least partly a forested saddle in a valley that was mostly prairie habitat. We are breeding them for an unobtrusive woodsy camouflage, the “Realtree (TM) chicken,” I sometimes like to call them. They should be wise to forest raptors and hard for any predator to spot in the underbrush.
If you’ve ever seen an Eastern Screech Owl up close, you have the basic idea of what the plumage of a Massanutten is intended to look like. If you put them up next to a grizzled old tree trunk, they almost disappear. And like the Screech Owl, they so far tend to show up in two color groups. One group has a brown or dunn coloration in the background, the other has white, with perhaps some brown staining. The chicks show up as more silvery or with browner fuzz right away. Both types have lots of fine black grizzling and penciling over the background as juveniles, giving the white-background birds a grey or silvery look, and which only the females usually get to keep into adulthood while the males take on the dramatic light hackle and saddle feathers of something like a Silver Duckwing color pattern, or perhaps have a bit of brighter color mixed in. A few males show some grizzling in the mature sickle feathers and breast, and we aim to increase this trait. The most favored females and young males have each feather tipped in a fine band or spot of black. I have not seen any other chicken that displays this particular combination of plumage traits. There is debate in the family as to whether the brown birds should be allowed over the long term. The brown-stained white background, heavily penciled/grizzled/spotted probably have the best camouflage, but the little brown chicks with their chipmunk stripes are kind of irresistible, and lacy penciling over mahogany on the hens catches the eye up close, to be sure. But if it catches our eye, what other eyes (fox, Cooper’s hawk?) is it catching? Also in play is that the white background versus brown may be another sex-linked trait, with the white background corresponding to what is called the “silvering” gene. If so, it is possible the Massanutten could also be used as the female side of sex-link crosses with Shenandoahs, Blacks Run Browns (should they continue), or even the Cub Run Creles to produce hybrids for other specific ecological niches (or customers’ aesthetic, productive, or behavioral preferences). Sussing out this potential will take some time, or may never happen, realistically.
As far as body shape, we are favoring long, low (like the mountain itself), and well-meated birds that have plenty of room in the egg-laying compartment but are not very deep in body. Especially we do not want a deep keel, though for aesthetic reasons of matching the mountain’s beautiful form, a keel line running parallel to the back line that terminates in somewhat of a prominent point at the front is favored. The functional reason for the shallower body is that we want a bird that slips out of a predator’s grasp easily and that looks good and fits well in a roasting pan and keeping a juicy breast in the oven (I butchered a batch of Dominique hens once that impressed me greatly and which I am somewhat holding as the shape standard. I’ve not seen hens like them since and I don’t know which hatchery they came from). Weights for the Massanutten are currently variable and we’re not too sold on any particular weight, though I think as big as we can achieve while still maintaining the ability to nimbly scurry through the understory is probably the sweet spot.
Egg color is currently variable, with all tones being in the pastel range. Thinking that many woods-based coops may be, like ours, low-light situations at the egg-collecting time of day, we are favoring the range of colors between sky blue and baby blue as our direction to steer towards, as they are the most visible in dark nesting boxes in the corner.
Foot color is usually yellow at the moment, but brown shadowing or staining on the scales is favored to increase camouflage, and full pigmentation resulting in dark blackish green feet is our eventual goal. The yellow feet are snazzy, but are just too visible to predators spotting or giving chase. I know this because when I want to catch a chicken, it is always nice when it has bright yellow feet to grab for; it makes the job that much easier.
The breed has a rose comb, with a few hens allowed with single combs, as per the old way with rose comb breeds, to prevent low fertility developing in the flock (There is supposedly a quirky link between very pure rose comb genetics and some kind of kinky-tailed sperm defect). We don’t favor big, beefy combs for males, since we want the full range of visibility for aerial predator detection, but rose combs kept showing up and just looked good on these birds, plus the form of rose comb that was most commonly appearing was one considered a defect in most rose comb breeds: one that has a hollow towards the front. Choosing this “defective” form for our birds makes selection easier (since this seems a natural tendency of the rose comb gene), thumbs our noses at the American Poultry Association’s bizarre and arbitrary snobbery about poultry aesthetics, and, best of all, imitates the form of Massanutten Mountain, which ends at the southwestern peak in a dramatic bowl formation visible only from certain locations in the east part of the Valley, or from above. Massanutten resort is located inside that bowl (and we dearly hope they decide to stay there!). To prevent frostbite in the males, we favor points on the comb that are not too long, and the point or blade that terminates the comb in the rear is best if it lays along the line of the head like a Wyandotte rather than turning up into a point like a Dominique or Rose Comb bantam.
Once again our late, dearly beloved neighbor Samuel Johnson’s flocks figure prominently in the conception and genetic background of this breed. He was, for several years, stewarding some Rose Comb Colored Dorkings for historical conservation purposes. I worked for them at Hickory Hill Farm part time then, and was involved in the selection process. I was deeply impressed with the Dorking’s “wild type,” grizzled coloration, as it sometimes appeared, as well as the breed’s ability to avoid capture. They were almost as hard to get ahold of as guinea fowl, what with their generous, silky plumage, torpedo-shaped bodies and short legs. But they developed rather slowly, produced a rather lackluster amount of slim, diminutive eggs, and they were a white-skinned bird, which is favored in Europe for table use, whereas the yellow skin is generally preferred on this continent (I concur with the local preference! Long story, but it’s not just aesthetics.) It occurred to me that if I could mix in some Americauna, I could get some better egg laying traits and yellow skin and maybe even black/green feet without totally messing up that great grizzly coloration and the storied table qualities. The Americauna I was able to find was from our friend Mike (who used to live at Tangly Woods before we bought the place), who had a rooster he liked that was part Americauna, part Barred Rock. I think I saved him out of a batch of cockerels we were butchering together and bred him to some of Samuel’s Dorkings that were the most like the colors I wanted, and we started selecting.
Over time I expect other genetics that I am not remembering have slipped in here and there, as we at Tangly Woods maintain a posture of being open to serendipity when it makes sense. For example, there is a hen in that coop right now who is full-blooded Shenandoah, but who happened to have the body shape and some plumage characteristics of a Massanutten, and who further happened to spontaneously decide to move herself across the land from her coop of origin and join the Massanutten flock in the woods. Hmmm. Well, she will probably get bred as a Massanutten in 2024, because maybe it will be a flop or maybe it will bring great things, and you can always cull the bad ones but if you don’t try it you will never know!