The Shenandoah chicken is intended as a large, dunn-colored egg-producing chicken with excellent hot and cold weather resistance, good foraging ability and good predator avoidance instincts. For frostbite avoidance and excess-heat radiating potential, but yet with full range of vision, pea combs are favored. The light brown/tan/buff color range was chosen as the best color for reflecting solar heat gain without attracting the attention of predators as white birds do. Black highlights in hackle and tail, as well as black flecking and penciling on the back feathers has been selected for to promote reasonable grassland camouflage. As yellow skinned birds with pigmented scales on feet and shenks, the resulting green hue of their feet adds to the grassland camo effect. They sport a large, full tail with flashy sickle feathers for the males, with the thought that this may freak out the hawks, just like metallized plastic strips deter songbirds in berry patches! Large body size for predator deterrence is characteristic, but the weight is distributed over a long and deep frame (in contrast to the stocky shape of, say, a Wyandotte or Plymouth Rock) and carried on long legs and shanks. This shape aids the birds in hot weather, when they can tuck their feathers close and expose all their long limbs and angular body to the air for cooling. In cold weather they fluff up to make their exterior a rounder, more heat-conserving shape. The long legs also help them step easily over tall vegetation and cover ground quickly while foraging or in an emergency. We hope this chicken may make a contribution to the soundness and profitability of ecologically integrated forms of agriculture in historically prairie-based regions, and to the cultural sense of local identity and pride for us and our farming neighbors.
The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, our beautiful home region, was, before European encroachment, prairie country. The double rain shadow from both the Allegheny Front and the Blue Ridge creates a semi-arid climate that favored fire, which favored grasslands of types not often seen again until you hit the Midwest. There was a bison herd and a subspecies of prairie chicken here, I understand.
With that in mind, rotational/holistic pasture-based beef production is one of the most reasonable choices for a regionally adapted agricultural specialty. Joel Salatin, also a Valley resident, has helped make this model famous, and a key to his system is to follow the beef herds with old hay wagons converted to Eggmobiles, as the chickens are experts at pest control and fertility resource integration: i.e., they love eating maggots out of the ripe cow pies they eagerly disperse into the grass.
But when I visited his farm in 1995, when our whole family was there in 2016, and when I see his chickens on nearly every food/environmental-themed documentary that comes out these days, what I as a chicken geek have seen is chickens not as well-adapted for their circumstances as I think they could be. He has typically used, I think, Rhode Island Red and Black Australorp, though he may use others, too. These breeds are not shabby choices by any stretch, but Joel himself has called for the development of a new breed or breeds to suit the needs of a changing agriculture. It is my hope that Tangly Woods can have a role to play in filling the need, whether through direct collaboration with Polyface Farm or otherwise. We’ve communicated with Polyface about collaboration and I did a breeding talk for the interns and staff, but they are now doing their own hatching and breeding to some extent and thus far have chosen to stick to their own program without direct genetic connections with ours. “Let’s each work on our airplanes and I’ll see you at Kittyhawk,” Joel wrote.
What we and a few other collaborators have come up with is a collection of light-colored, large-bodied birds loosely based on two hens I saw in my neighbor’s Black Java flock. These were pure black Java hens, but had hatched with the Buff Columbian color pattern. In breeder’s lingo, they were either “sports” (spontaneously arisen by mutation) or “throwbacks” (a recurrence of an older pattern). In either case, I saw the potential to take the Black Java’s excellent grazing/grassland foraging ability, good vitality and large body and egg size and formulate it with a cold-resistant comb, light coloration for heat resistance, and hopefully improved egg production (though some Black Javas are pretty productive for a heritage breed). A friend wanted some pet chickens, so I brokered a deal and then had access to them later for crossing with a cock I had acquired from my neighbor’s son’s brood that was ¼ Americauna, ¼ Black Java, ½ Buff Orpinton (probably). One of the offspring from that cross was for several seasons my best breeder in this project. Her name was Helen. She was big and rangy, light brown/tan with black highlights on neck and tail, and laid lots of big, olive-colored eggs.
The picture I have in my mind for this breed is a flock of large, angular, long-legged chickens of a light, drab assortment of tans, browns, and yellows (even varied on the same bird, ideally), with occasional ticks and highlights of black on some of the feathers of the neck, back, and tail ranging widely over a recently grazed paddock, enthusiastically tearing up the cow flops, chasing grasshoppers, stretching tall to harvest grass seed from the heads, and eating plenty of fresh grass themselves. And once each day, almost every day, sneaking into the eggmobile to tuck yet another large, olive-toned egg into a nest box. I picture them being watched over by an imposing, alert, courageous, and athletic rooster with a great big black flag of a tail that shimmers and flashes its iridescence, held high in the prairie wind. Something of a confluence of the Buckeye, the Black Java, the Black Langshan, the Americauna, and the Buff Brahma, but which lays like a Leghorn, and eats like a bird.
Sounds great, huh? O.k., we’re not there yet. I think we have a good start on the general form, with the size, shape, and plumage all being fairly consistently within the parameters I keep in mind, and with comb type, egg color, rate of maturity and rate of lay still having some inconsistency. As layers I would rate them “good” or “very good” for heritage type layers, but not yet “excellent.” We at Tangly Woods probably won’t get them all the way to fulfilling this vision on our own, because our 6 acre homestead has no cattle and not enough grassland to properly put them through their paces vis a vis ecological niche refinement. Interest in the breed has continued to steadily climb, however, so we are hopeful of some opportunities to select breeders from flocks positioned in more ideal circumstances. Please contact us if you might want to get involved by raising a flock of Shenandoahs for your own purposes, but from which I might select breeders, or by raising a flock of breeders of your own and joining us in the exciting work of origination. Our ideal process is not one in which we create the breed and treat it as a product to sell, but rather one in which we and our fellow Valley residents (or thereabouts) work together to craft the breed of chicken that meets our needs in this specific place with its own unique set of blessings and constraints. Join us!