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, in turn, favored grasslands of types not often seen again until you hit the Midwest. There was a bison herd and a subspecies of prairie chicken (Heath Hen) 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. Chickens were historically pastured here, before the prevalence of the CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) model of chicken production, and some rotational cattle farmers in this area are starting to include chickens in their management program, following a few days behind the cattle in the grazing cycle. Managed this way they aid in manure dispersal and fly control, as well as furnishing a secondary enterprise of pasture-based egg production. However, some farmers are disappointed by the birds they are able to get from commercial hatcheries when used in this system. The foraging and predator-avoidance instincts may or may not be present, and some of the vaunted, highly marketable, characteristic yellow/orange yolks to be expected from pastured laying hens fail to materialize, presumably because some of the hens stick to eating feed and skip the salad course. To my knowledge, there has never been a breed of chicken fully developed for this kind of production system. The Shenandoah intends to be this breed.
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 shanks, 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. They carry substantial meat on their rangy frames, but do not conform to the traditional “broiler” or “roaster” shape. However, when harvested at 16-20 weeks, the males do roast nicely. Sometimes we have roasted them on their sides because of their unusually deep body shape, which yields four distinct meat types for various eaters: drier white, drier dark, more succulent white, and more succulent dark.
The body 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 picture I have in my mind for this breed is a flock of large, angular, pea-combed, green-footed, long-legged chickens of a light, drab assortment of tans, browns, and yellows (even varied on the same bird, ideally), with ticks and highlights of black on some of the feathers of the hackle, 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 coop 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.
As we’ve bred them over the years, two competing color schemes, or “morphs” have emerged: A classic Black Breasted Red–similar to the Cubulaya or Falverolle–wherein males have red/orange hackle, saddle, and primaries with black breast and tail and an iridescent wing patch and females are cleanly buff with black hackle highlights and a black tail (these birds have light yellowish-green feet), and another morph in which males are more buff-orange overall with maybe a few ticks of black on the breast and a tick or two in the wing patch and the females are heavily penciled on the back and saddle. I know of no other breed with this second color pattern as an isolated (pure or consistent) trait. Chicks of the BB Red morph are usually pure yellow or with just a hint of the dark marking and “chipmunk” stripes of the wild ancestor. Male chicks of the Shenandoah-specific morph are typically light with some “chipmunk” marks, but the females are usually more solidly “chipmunky.” This hints at the tantalizing possibility that the second, more unique morph may hold the potential to be purified into an “auto-sexing” form, which is to say chicks could be separated pretty reliably into male and female groups just after hatch, so they could be marketed and raised separately. We are likely to try to exclude the BB Red morph over time and isolate the “Shenandoah” morph as the universal Shenandoah color pattern, but currently both are present.
This all 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 we 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 Shenandoah 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!
History and Background of the Shenandoah Breed
The fairly consistent collection of light-colored, large-bodied birds we are calling the Shenandoahs is loosely based on two hens I saw in about 2010 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 Orpington (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. Since then we’ve added in a few other bloodlines, including a pair of Cuckoo Marans hens and one or two other accidental crosses between Black Java and Americauna that came along.