One of the most talked about, but least understood, aspects of gamefowl husbandry is the subject of breeding. Let me disabuse you of one notion immediately. I am not an expert, never have been, never will be, don’t even pretend to be. So, if you decide to read further, keep repeating that to yourself. What follows are some of my observations, experiences and, yes, downright opinions, gleaned from almost thirty years of fooling around with gamefowl on one level or another.
In those thirty years, I would be hard pressed to name five real breeders that I have personally known. Yes, that’s right, I could count them on one hand. Even more surprising, less than half that number have been what I would term successful cockers, if success is to be measured by percentage of fights won. Most of the true breeders I have known have been small timers with a limited number of fowl and resources. Yet, over the years, these breeders have consistently produced fowl much sought after by other cockers. Not surprisingly, most have concentrated on one, at most two, families of fowl.
Don’t confuse a gamefowl raiser with a real breeder. Let me illustrate this point. A friend and I were discussing breeding one day many years ago, when the name of a certain individual-who had been prominent in the sport for many years and was much admired-came up. I foolishly observed that the guy must be a really good breeder to have done so well for so many years. My friend looked at me as though I had taken leave of my senses. “Are you crazy? That man has run through and ruined more good families of chickens than you or I will ever own in a lifetime!” And he was right. Despite the fact that the man had been at or near the top for many years, it had been with a succession of different families, none of which he kept more than a few years, then discarded and went on to another winning family. To give the man his due, he was an excellent raiser of gamefowl and was great at recognizing and obtaining good fowl in the hands of others.
It is my contention that successful gamefowl breeding is as much art as science. Consider the following observation. Over the years, I have known many knowledgeable men whose background and education would seem to guarantee success with gamefowl-these included veterinarians and guys with advanced degrees in genetics and animal husbandry. Such was not the case, however, since nearly all were barely average-if that-as cockers. I have known guys who could recite genetics- phenotype, genotype- chapter and verse, but put them on a yard with a field of gamefowl and they didn’t have a clue.
I feel that I have told you hardly anything of value thus far, so I think I will answer some questions that a “young” cocker e-mailed me and see if they might clarify some points that you other beginners might have.
Q: Selecting brood fowl. What qualities should come from the cock’s side? The hen’s side?
A: Horse breeders have an adage, “Strength and endurance from the female, speed and action from the male.” Not a bad rule of thumb.
Thoughts on Breeding Page 2
Q: Do you believe in cross influence since genetically the offspring are 50/50? Father influences daughter/mother influences son.
A: There may be some validity to this since it is proven that some characteristics, like gray color, are sex-liked. Personally when I make a cross of a “pure” line and a crossed line, I prefer that cross to be on the female side. I have no proof this actually works, however.
Q: Why do good traits seem to exhibit themselves in crosses than pures? Is the gene selection random or a fixed pattern?
A: That last one is a million dollar question and one that geneticists would love to know the answer to. Crosses are better usually because they tend to have “hybrid vigor”, whereas closely bred fowl may exhibit poor traits due to concentration of the gene pool.
Q: What is your method of “setting a strain”?
A: One generally sets a strain by identifying an “ideal” and breeding toward that ideal, often using an individual more than twice in the line.
Q: How come crosses don’t carry on after two or three generations?
A: Some do. Otherwise, how do we account for “pure” Hatch, “pure” Butcher, etc., which were once, after all, merely crosses.
Q: How do we recognize prepotent individuals? Is there any other way other than test mating? What percentage of the offspring should show traits for the parent fowl to be considered prepotent?
A: I know of no other way than single mating and testing offspring. Look for consistency in looks and actions among brothers and sisters. As far as parents are considered, look for nearly 100% shared traits to identify prepotent parent individuals.
In conclusion, let me share this with you. The late Cecil Davis of Jackson, Tennessee, told me this. “I have only seen two families of ‘super chickens’ in my life, those Hatch of Bill Ruble’s in the ’60s and the Cantrell Greys in the ’70s.” I personally was fortunate enough to see the Greys myself and they were truly “super”. Since then, I haven’t seen their equals for all-around performance. But someday, someone will breed them. Who knows? Maybe it will be you.
If you enjoyed these ramblings, let the good folks at Pit Master know and maybe I’ll jot some more down, or suggest a topic and I’ll try to oblige. In the meantime, I would suggest you pick up a copy of “Modern Breeding of Gamefowl” by Narragansett, the pen name of Frank Shy. He had some interesting ideas on breeding, and, oh yes, he was one of the five “real” breeders I referred to earlier.