Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Trying to Improve Size - The New Sussex!

For a while now, I've had some "SECRET" chickens hidden in the Aloha flock.  There's a good reason I've been keeping mum.  It seems in the past, every time I touted a promising new addition, that chicken would suddenly meet a sad fate.  The Aloha Project has had many ups and downs, and several tragic losses along the way.

You know that saying, don't count your chickens before they hatch.  So I've been trying to hatch chicks from this pen, before I announced that it exists.  I have ONE chick hatched so far.  He's about two weeks old at this point.  Not much of a start, but it is a start.  I've had the parents for over three months now.  I guess it is time for the big reveal!  I have Buff Sussex!  And I have . . . something else.

I've been trying to find Buff Sussex for AGES now, to add to the Aloha flock.  They were imported by Greenfire Farms from Australia back in 2010, but they are not sold by Greenfire any longer, and are hard to find from secondary sources.

Buff Sussex video:


I know their large size and light color would be the PERFECT addition to the flock.  And as far as bringing in fresh bloodlines, you can't go any further than Australia!  They are incredibly hard to come across, today.

Sometimes, I do a nationwide search on Craigslist, and doing this now and then, I have found stray Buff Sussex flocks in different places like Iowa and Washington state.  Unfortunately, none of those folks shipped chicks or eggs, so they were all dead ends.

This past August, when after doing this random search one day, I found a pair advertised for sale on Craigslist in Southern CA!  I thought surely the owner was mistaken, most likely it was a mis-labeled Buff Orpington.  (The ad had no photos.)  I tried not to get my hopes up.  Imagine my surprise, when the owner sent pics, and yes, they were Buff Sussex!

Now, the plan was to find Buff Sussex, breed them to Speckled Sussex, and try to introduce the Mottled gene and basically create a Buff Speckled Sussex (or "Mille Sussex") and use that to improve size on the Alohas.  Well, I looked at the photos, and it turns out, not only was this a Buff Sussex rooster - but someone had saved me the trouble and already ADDED spots!

Yep, the Mottling was faint, but it was there.  A few speckles on the chest, a bit of white in the wing.  We'd need a lot more, but at least the gene was present, which means, when crossed to Speckled Sussex hens, they should all show some degree of Mottling.  Very few Buffs were imported, so no doubt the spots were from out-crossing to Speckled to expand the gene pool.

Okay, now here is where things get really, really, really weird.

The owner mentions, would I also be interested in a Red Sussex?  At first I said no, because while Red Sussex are a very rare strain, if I'm going to use a red bird, the New Hampshire has the yellow legs that I'm looking for, instead of the pink legs of Sussex.

But later, when I talked to her on the phone, she mentioned the Red Sussex . . . was kind of strange.  Like, strange how?  She offered to send me a photo.

My heart stopped when she emailed me the photo.

Well, basically, strange as in . . . it's an Aloha.

Big hen, yellow legs, tons of spots.
Wait a second . . . I didn't make this!
Except, it's not related to my stock at all.

I have never sent any Aloha chicks to the state where this hen's breeder lives.  However, the breeder she got these from, has similar breeds to what I have been working with.  Speckled Sussex, Swedish Flower, and more.  The best I can figure, is that while trying to improve or expand bloodlines (Red Sussex, for example, have a very small gene pool in the US) this breeder used a similar cross to what I've been trying here, and in some strange, freaky happy accident, hatched out the "wrong" kind of chick, that has now found the PERFECT home.

It is possible that it is just a uniquely marked Swedish, perhaps.  But it had a lot more white than any five month old Swedish hen I've come across.  However it happened, whatever it is, someone created exactly the kind of chicken I'd been trying to make for years, and it landed back here in Arizona to join my flock.  My Mom and I did a road trip, and the caring owners of this lovely trio met us half-way.

I hesitate to get my hopes up, because so far, due to a number of reasons, we've only managed to get ONE chick from this pen.  First, when they arrived, the hens weren't quite old enough to lay, and the heat was still going strong.  (It was 110 the week they arrived from CA.)

This photo shows size, spotted hen smaller than Buff.
Similar in size to Rhode Island or Speckled Sussex.
We kept them super-safe in a cooled indoor budgie aviary at Stephen's.  A few weeks later, the first egg appeared in the pen.  Unfortunately, the dim light in the aviary, has not been enough to stimulate good breeding and laying behavior.  I have been terrified that anything would happen to this hen and rooster before I can hatch some chicks from them, which makes me desperately want to pen them indoors.  However, to increase light exposure, we recently moved them to one of the outdoor breeder pens.

Note size difference.  Hen in front - a small gold-mottled Aloha.
Behind her, the "mystery" hen who is full size.
To the right - a Dun Light Sussex hen, who is enormous.
I am still holding my breath.  When we brought them to the outdoor pen, I added three more girlfriends, which brings the total up to seven hens in there with him.  However, while the hen's egg production has been discouragingly low, they are not the real problem.  Of the previous two dozen eggs that I tried hatching from what was laid in October, all but two of the eggs were infertile, and only one from this pen hatched.

I don't think it is the rooster's fault, because there is also a breeder pen of Silkies in the same budgie aviary.  Two Silkie roos with several hens, and those eggs also had terrible fertility.  I hatched two chicks (one Silkie, one from the Buff rooster) from three dozen eggs collected from the two pens.  Therefore, the fertility issue has to be environmental, or I would have had better success with the Silkie eggs.  It was not the incubator, because eggs from my own pen had a hatch rate of 80%.  I am pretty sure the dim light in there is to blame.

So with trepidation, we have now moved the group to the outdoor pen, and I will anxiously be hoping for eggs to hatch.  If this pen gets going, this could give us the final ingredient we've been needing for this program.  We need a really HUGE rooster, with spots, who can overcome the size issue this breed has had from the very start.

The NEW outdoor breeder pen.
Three big Meyer Sussex, the Mystery Aloha.
One Buff Sussex, one Dun Light Sussex, one nice Aloha.
I am seriously hoping that now that I have posted this, my beloved new additions will not meet an untimely fate.  I really, really need to get some chicks hatched from this pen.  They survived the last of our Phoenix heat, now we are in the darkest time of year, so laying is slow due to reduced daylight.  I am hoping the added sunlight, plus being sandwiched in the breeder pen between two other active flocks, will encourage this rooster and his hens to get busy making some fertile eggs for me to hatch!  I would really love to keep MANY roosters from this pen.  In fact, if all goes according to plan, roosters from this cross would be added to almost every breeding pen next Fall.

It is possible for chicks from this cross to resemble the hen.
The yellow legs color is recessive, so they would have pink legs.
In addition to this very promising pen, I also have a Dun Sussex rooster, who will be mated to very small but extremely colorful Aloha hens.  The chicks from this cross will not show mottling the first generation, but will carry the gene.  (Half may also carry Dun.)  I am hoping that if I keep some hens from this pen, and cross them with a rooster from the Buff Sussex pen that would carry Mottling, that perhaps we can produce fully mottled offspring that are 75% Sussex, 25% Aloha, light in color, and huge in size.

My understanding of the Silver gene (that is the "white" color of the Light Sussex) is feeble at best.  But I am hopeful that I could pull the Mottled colors back out in the next generation.  A kind person on BYC was very helpful trying to better my knowledge of how to work with this color.

This Dun Light Sussex rooster painfully illustrates my size issues.
Another shot of the Dun Light Sussex with tiny colorful Aloha hens.
I will move a few of the most colorful yellow-legged hens
 to the Dun Sussex pen, to make sure the chicks carry
the yellow leg color gene, even if it doesn't show.
(This hen is not laying yet.)
Whether or not all of this works, depends on if these chickens will finally cooperate . . . .

And if it does work, in one year, the Aloha Chicken Project could finally reach its goal of large, super-spotty chickens with yellow legs.

To be continued . . . .

Monday, December 9, 2013

Stephen's 2013 Alohas

Yesterday, I paid an visit to Stephen, who has been raising a huge group of about 60 chicks that I hatched for him, back in May and early June.

This hen has the perfect (excessive) amount of white for an Aloha.
There is no mistaking this hen for a Speckled Sussex.
We have done two rounds of culling previous to this, mostly to remove excess roosters and anything that was obviously too small, or not spotted enough.  The previous batch of culls were eagerly bought up locally, and this final culling has many chickens that two years ago would have been the best I had bred!  But we've made tremendous progress this year, thanks in large part to Stephen and his efforts to set up breeder pens and raise groups of chicks to adulthood.

Yellow legs!  Some with good size and body type.
The biggest leap forward this year, has been in the addition of yellow legs.  Now that I better understand the gene (it is recessive) we've better paired the pens and the result was a much higher percentage of yellow legged chicks!  The first season we successfully focused on improving comb type, and now leg color is working itself out.

Blurry pic showing more yellow legs.
Unfortunately, less progress was made this year in improving size.  While the current generation has the added Sussex and Swedish (plus just a dash of NHR and Buff Rock) that has improved heft and shape on a lot of hens, there are still a lot of very colorful but too-small hens.  

I adore the gold spotting, tons of white on this hen.
She's tiny but so beautiful.
I think we have finally found the ingredients that will get us over that hump next year, provided they aren't met by unforeseen tragedy.  Much of the size issue in past years, has been fighting natural selection, as the lighter gamey type of chickens seem to be tougher, more disease resistant, and less prone to heat stroke.  So naturally, in times of stress, (our 115 degree days) the larger and heavier chickens pass first.  (Perhaps their mass produces more body heat?)

Hen in foreground has great color, but poor type.
Rooster in background has size, but looks Sussex.
However, he did inherit the yellow legs!  
Speaking of natural selection, Stephen and I were busy catching every last rooster and hen in the large coop.  When we were totally done, he noticed something I'd completely missed!  Hidden atop some stacked cages, were two crafty hens.  They flew up there when we first started catching all the other chickens, and had stayed up there the entire time.

We laughed and decided that, being as if we had been coyotes or dogs, those would have been the ONLY two survivors in the entire coop, that they probably deserved to stay.  Neither was that remarkable in appearance, they pretty much looked like Speckled Sussex.  However, they get bonus points for being the smartest chickens in the coop.  

These hens are about 2-6 weeks from laying.  We will sort them out and set up new breeder pens for 2014.  The real exiting stuff, however, is the new additions, to try and finally fix the size issue, which are the subject of my next Blog post.

I took a ton of photos of the many gorgeous chickens from Stephen's stock.  Chicks should be hatching all of Spring 2014 from this group plus my own pens.

Sometimes, I get the feeling, I take entirely too many photos of the Alohas. But I just love how all the patterns and colors on their feathers and different.  The colors and different amounts of white fascinate me!

By far the most spotty rooster, we kept him for color despite the pink legs.

These hens show the variance in body type that has not yet been worked out.
The "round" shape of the hen on the left will be favored over the lighter build.

Neon yellow legs!!!
Adorable round, fluffy caramel-colored spotty hen.
So many pretty spots

But, even the cull pen this time around, looks beautiful.  I think the real sign of progress is not only how pretty our keepers are, but the improvement in color and quality of our culls.  

Below are some of the "culls" who will be sold as pets and laying hens:

Trio of lovely small hens.

These two hens look just like miniature Speckled Sussex.
These hens would have been in the breeding pen last year.