With our two young white rock hens Boulder and Pebble, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize. They stick together like Thelma and Louise or even Laverne and Shirley. It’s rare to see buddies like this in the chicken world. They grew up as sisters and had a foster mom who abandoned them.
Predators attack constantly here. We fend them off but it’s the worst part of chicken raising. When our white rock hen Boulder sauntered up yesterday with blood all over her, I was even sadder than usual,. It looked fatal for sure. Boulder didn’t seem greatly concerned, pecking and scratching about as usual. Chickens don’t manifest pain, even when they feel it, studies have shown. For example, modern factory meat chickens suffer painful leg injuries due to their size, breeding and lack of exercise. Chickens don’t show pain, so how do researchers know modern meat chickens are in pain? Simple, they give them pain killers. The factory chickens with injured legs that had been sitting and not moving begin moving about, pecking and acting as much like a chicken as their crowded conditions away from the sun and fresh greens allows.
Researchers believe that chickens evolved the behavior of not showing pain to allow injured birds to avoid predators. Flapping and carrying on from pain just wouldn’t do.
Today, we look into a breed created in America that is everything anyone could need for dinner. Its also a vibrant bird that does not have any of the terrible genetic problems of modern broilers. While giant corporations like Avigen and Cobb have spent millions and made billions developing the modern meat bird which suffer weak hearts and terrible pain, the genetics of the White Rock make it the healthy, happy bird you would probably take on the road with you in case of a Zombie Apocalypse.
The White Plymouth Rock helped feed the UK and the USA during the mostly forgotten but lifesaving Poultry Revolution of 1900-1940. After WWII, they were used to help create the meat chicken sold in grocery stores today, which are still (incorrectly) called Cornish Rocks- referring to the white rock ancestry. Much more is hidden in the genetics of the modern meat chicken. More on that later.
Boulder weighs 7.7 pounds. Pebble weighs 4.1. Most of the time when chickens grow up, they seem to slowly forget mom and the brood they were raised with. Not so here. I got brand new baby chick Boulder from Fort Bragg Feed and Pet, which got her from Ideal Hatchery in Texas. She was a Larry Bird in a sea of shorter and smaller chirping White Rock birdies. I took only her, as I wanted big birds for my own healthy and free-range meat bird breeding program. I was hoping to buy a big meat chicken at Highway 20 Feed. But alas, they also had only smaller white rocks. It’s cruel to raise chickens alone so I got one and named her Pebble. I took them home and gave them to Foster Farms, our resident foster mother hen. Foster a Buff Orpington raised the two girls but strangely left them when they were still babies at three weeks. Not old enough to fend for themselves normally. They stuck like Elmer’s glue to each other. When Foster Farms tried to come back, they rejected her.
The White Rock first appeared in 1876, bred by Oscar Frost of Monmouth Maine and brought to a show in nearby Bangor. How did he do it? What breeds were used? Old photographs show chickens the size of Boulder and even bigger. The most interesting aspect is how much the white rocks of the 19th century resemble my two girls. They have the same bright yellow feet and large combs as the sisters.
Boulder has always been the calm sister, while Pebble clearly thinks it’s her job to look out for both of them. When the hawk flies over, or has killed a chicken nearby, Boulder looks up and freezes. Pebble flaps and pushes them both to cover (along with everybody else nearby) Both behaviors are actually appropriate and instinctive when a hawk comes. Knowing the difference? Priceless.
Mauled bloody and barely escaping the hawk last week, Boulder was calm, but Pebble was freaked out. She was following her “sister,” making staccato calls. I captured Boulder and took into Linda. There was a big hole in her under her wing and her feathers had been pulled out on the tips. A Red Tail Hawk is the likely suspect. The hawk seeks out our biggest chickens; killing three Giant Cornish meat chickens this year so far. Each one weighed in excess of 8 pounds. The hawk once attacked a 14 pound 2 year old Giant Cornish meat chicken, leaving it bloody. That chicken fully recovered but never goes out in the open.
She was so red with blood everywhere we were in shock and didn’t take a picture. Linda gave Boulder a bath in the sink. The blood washed right off and did not stain her beautiful, soft bright white feathers. Chickens hate water but they seem to get into a bath. You can look at the pictures and judge for yourself how much you think Boulder liked her day at the spa, which concluded with her falling sound asleep on her back getting a hair dryer blow dry. Pebble was nervously clucking about outside. We brought her in for a look. She waited for about 5 minutes for Boulder, and then ran off. When we turned Boulder loose outside, up running came Pebble.
Everything is back to normal for Boulder. She sleeps in the house and doesn’t seem overly worried about another predator attack. Pebble is very nervous. She has never gone back into the chicken house and sleeps 25 feet up in the tree outside. She never stops looking up.
Every contemporary and modern account differs about the origins of the White Rock. Some say Frost’s White Rocks where merely “sports” of the familiar plaid Plymouth rocks. Sports are normal deviations, such as black in panthers. Others have said Frost got a pair of true albino Plymouth Rocks and bred them. Albinos are found in everything from salamanders to humans. Albinos can pass the genetic lack of melanin down to their offspring.
The black and white checkered Plymouth Rock is one of the best ever made in the USA egg chickens. The Plymouth Rock was first exhibited as a breed in 1849. Several men claimed to have created it, using crosses of Dominiques, Black Javas, Cochins, and perhaps Malays and Dorkings. Until the White Rock emerged (followed by several other colors) Plymouth Rock originally. meant the barred, which others call checkered and I call plaid. Now it means the whole group of these chickens and one has to say “Barred Plymouth Rock” or Barred Rock.
The White Rock is bigger, meatier and nearly the equal in eggs. Pebble and Boulder both lay every day at 5 months of age. What’s for sure is that white rocks have notable differences in their bodies from traditional Barred Plymouth Rocks. They stand up straighter, indicating the presence of one of the “original” chickens like Malay or Jungle fowl. We have several varieties of white chickens. What makes Boulder and Pebble’s kind distinct is a feather arrangement that looks like cloud formations, where masses of feathers blend seamlessly in nonetheless distinct sections. The same charming patterns can be seen in the oldest photos of the White Rock. Breeding Frost’s White Rocks proved tricky. They seemed to revert to the familiar barred pattern.
Frank L. Platt’s “The American Breeds of Poultry” of 1921 is one of the finest books about chicken breeds ever. Chickens were a big deal in the 19th century, creating national crazes at a time when the majority of people lived on a farm. First came the Asian breeds in the 1840s, such as the spectacularly feather footed Cochin, the flowery and delicious Brahma and the dinosaur-like Malay. America then discovered the Mediterranean breeds, led by the leghorn, then and now a champion layer. Platt diligently documented the emergence of new American breeds, made for the hearty appetites and varied climates of the New World. These combined older American breeds like the Dominique with hardier Asians and Europeans like England’s finest meat bird the Dorking, which still has an extra toe, like the ones brought to the UK by the Romans.
Platt follows a dozen different threads on the creation of the White Rock. They proved to be hard to reproduce at first, often reverting to the traditional plaid. Some breeders figured out how to do it. Some of these breeders claimed the White Rock was simply a sport of the barred variety. Other breeders mentioned the inclusion of other breeds. Platt reports on the work of top breeder Rev. John Hughes of Table Grove, Ill. He had obtained some descendants of Frost’s birds and studied them carefully. He found flops to the comb that spoke of leghorns and occasional leg feathers, along with its larger size and straighter that screamed Brahma and or White Cochin.
“This is telling the truth about their origins and I believe the truth ought to be told,” Hughes wrote in 1901.
He said calling it a sport was disingenuous and would prevent the beautiful egg and meat machine from standing on its own in future years.
“How can a sport be better than the original,” he wrote.
More modern critics believe the Dorking, not the Cochin, was combined with Brahma, Leghorn and at mostly barred rock. What I have found in my breeding is the Boulder and Pebble phenomenon. No other Rock has such a wide range of sizes. We had Mighty Whitey, a 8 pound white rock, who mated with TexRex, the 18-pound meat chicken. They produced two offspring finer than any meat chicken we get from the hatcheries. (Plus two others not so large but still superior in size and breast).
Pebble and Boulder won’t be eaten. We hope to use them to create a truly local, healthy and spectacularly delicious meat bird to sell locally. Breeding a chicken that tastes better than you will believe is actually the easiest part. The hard part is doing it for less than $20 per chick. Doing this would avoid the increasingly virulent diseases coming from industrial hatcheries through the mail and feed stores.
If people won’t pay about $10 per chick, we will just eat like kings and queens here!