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Breeding Blue Leghorns

My experience breeding Blue Leghorns

By Tony Wonka

I first started breeding large Black Leghorns in 1993 when I was able to secure a batch of chickens from renowned breeder Arthur Smith from Ipswich, Queeensland. Arthur was a friend of my late father and showed Anconas and Black Leghorns with him in the 1950's.

From this first batch I got 7 chickens and started the Blacks from there. I tried to breed blues in 1995 by introducing a blue pullet breeding male from Mike O'Connor of Murwillumbah. The first season I had mixed results and the following year much the same. The type and head gear was fair and color a bit blotchy - lots of lavender shading and darker blue in the hackle and tails. Also I was starting to get some barring in the primary feathers and the heads were ordinary - small lobes, and double folds in the female's combs. In 1998 I decided to bite the bullet and discard all the blues and blacks I had which were results of this attempt to breed blues.

I was very fortunate to have the loan of an outstanding White Leghorn Hen from Clive Claus of Rosewood. This was an exceptional female which had won Best in Show twice that season and from memory a major award at that year's Brisbane Royal. I am forever indebted to Clive for loaning me this female for what was an experimental mating. I selected the best black male which was pure Arthur Smith's line. Both these birds had all the traits needed when commencing a new strain. True leghorn type, good big bodied birds, great heads, good leg color and no faults.

This female laid 32 eggs which all were incubated; there were 24 fertile eggs on first testing at 14 days but a disappointing final hatch of 16. They were a mixed batch to say the least. Half were white as chicks, 5 appeared to be blacks and the remaining 3 were blue. My first thoughts were that the mating was a failure with so many whites, however in the long run it proved a blessing in disguise.

I ended up after 6 months with 12 half grown birds - 2 blue, 4 black, 2 cuckoo and 3 sports (black and white). The latter sports consisted of 1 male and 2 female. At maturity 3 of the 4 blacks were males with no white undercolour but white in the tail and some wing flights - no rust in the hackles. The 2 cuckoos were evenly barred but full blue tails and primaries, the male had a double serration so he was dispatched to the pot and the female was sick half way through her first year and never developed into a good size hen so I didn't breed on with her. The two blues were females but one had a lot of white in her primaries and was never bred with, the other very light but consistent blue color, good size and nice head. She was too light in color to show but was a valuable breeder.

I was unable to get back Clive's white hen for a second mating but still had the black male and put him over a blue female, a sport female and the only black pullet from the first hatch. I put the sport male over 2 of my original black hens. Next season I set 65 eggs, sadly poor fertility about 50% and hatching rate 70% I only ended up with 24 chicks again a motley crew. On hatching I again had plenty of sports 10, and the balance evenly spread of blacks and blues. The best blues came from the sport cockerel over the black hens and the blues were from this pen: I did get some slashing blacks from the black male over his sport and black daughter from the original white hen. They were solid black, big bodies nice heads with beak and leg color as bright as fresh corn and they retained that leg color apart from when in heavy molt. They also had red eyes but in later year's one female which was a great show hen ended up with silver eyes: no other female had this and it never seemed to worry as a breeder as I never again had a light eye.

For the past few years I have generally made up 3 pens headed by a sport male, a black male and a blue male and mated them with a similar color range that is sport male over sport, black and blue females: black male over sport, black and blue female and so forth for the blue male. I only breed from 1 male of each color each season over 9 females in total and generally try to get about 30 chicks overall. For the past few years I always retain the sports as breeders they are invaluable: although I have noticed that even blue to blue has produced some great blues and even nice blacks but you always need to keep the sports in the mix somewhere.

I made a big mistake in 2002 when I added too much meat meal to the growing ration to get quicker development and ended up with full blown combs on the females and now 2 breeding seasons later I am still trying to get the combs back to a good size, the males are fine but the female combs still need a bit of work: it was a good lesson in leaving nature take its course rather than try to artificially improve.

It might disappoint the purists but since 2001 when I started the 3 pen mating program eg using black, blue and sport male - I don't toe punch any of my birds. It might sound a bit strange specially when trying to breed such a difficult color, that is pure black and pure blue but each season usually last week of August I pick the best black, best blue and best sport male then select 9 females - 3 of each color for that seasons mating. Sometimes I will use the same male or some of the same females depending on how the season has been.

For the past 4 years with no toe punches and just breeding from the best I have produced some nice birds and always get enough to put together a show team although we only have two decent Leghorn shows in Queensland each year - the Leghorn Clubs show at Rosewood in July and the Brisbane Royal in August. I like to keep about 4-5 breeding males all the time so I have a few reserves in case of death etc and by running the youngsters and the previous seasons cock birds together from about 4 months of age they seem to get on with each other and never have any lingering fights, I run all the females together until they finish their molt and then select enough for a show team.

I find it's very necessary to keep all leghorns out of the full time sun so all the runs have large shade trees or shade cloth shelters. If they run in full sun their feathers get really brittle and the black looses its gloss and the blue gets really washed out. I don't have any trouble with leg and beak color and attribute this to a regular diet of fresh horse manure. Having stables on the farm is a big help, every other day I throw half a dozen handfuls of fresh horse manure in the pens, by afternoon its all gone and this is attested to the greenish beaks on the birds - they look like kids just having had a big feed of mulberries only the color is green not black. I think the horse manure is also good for keeping the cherry red in their combs.

Show preparation is very simple. By being round your birds from early stages they are quite placid and easily take to show pens and I find all they need is 3-4 days in a show pen. From about 6 weeks I like to spend a few days a week hand feeding them with either bread of green pick. After a few days they get used to taking it from your hand and this keeps them manageable all the time.

I never wash them and for their legs I use a battery toothbrush and a warm solution of something like WD 40 or any degreaser. I firstly wash their legs in warm soapy water then apply by hand the WD40 working it up their scales give it a few minutes to take up then dip the battery toothbrush in warm water, fire it up and within a few seconds the legs are clean. Just work the toothbrush across the scales lightly against the scale taking care not to dig the bristles too hard into the skin, you will find any dirt or grime will come away very easily. It's essential then to give the legs a good coating of hand moisturizer to balance the coarseness of the WD 40.

A Leghorn in good condition won't need too much lotion on their heads, I stay clear of heavy oily solutions like olive oil or baby oil - they look too artificial and give a greasy appearance. If you can afford it the best I've found is Oil of Ulan or now called Oil of Ulay mixed with a very small amount of metho or vinegar just enough to provide full penetration. It's also a good idea to use a very soft toothbrush to clean their nasal passage and any areas of built up dirt like small hollows in males combs prior to using the lotion. Obviously with blue leghorns a good pluck of any black feathers prior to the show is essential.

I often show the sports in AOC classes because some of the best type Leghorns falls into this color category. Black and Blue Leghorns are one of the finest of the large soft feather varieties. A stunning black or blue fowl, legs and beaks the color of corn, combs like strawberries and lobes like almonds covered in white chocolate - what more can you ask for.

Contact me if I can help Tony Wonka. 02 6676 6486.