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    'Bucking' The Odds | Spring 2012 Out Here Magazine

    Bringing the American Buckeye Chicken back from the brink

    American Buckeye rooster
    Out Here

    By Jeannette Beranger

    Photography courtesy of ALBC

    Buckeye chickens nearly became extinct — less than 100 existed in the United States at one point — but through the efforts of conservationists and dedicated farmers, this rare bird has made a remarkable comeback.

    The Buckeye was developed in the 1890s by Nettie Metcalfe, of Warren, Ohio. In 1902, she exhibited a pair of her chickens in the Cleveland, Ohio, poultry show as Buckeyes, which are subtly different from similar red breeds by resembling the warm, lustrous, red color of the nuts from its namesake tree.

    Not long after their show premier, the breed was accepted into the 1904 American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection.

    Metcalfe produced an active chicken with a personality as big as its large body. They have little fear of people and follow their owners for food or attention.

    These birds are considered a dual-purpose breed that produces a fine table carcass and respectable numbers of large brown eggs. They adapt to a wide array of climates and environments and do best outside of confinement and in free-ranging conditions.

    But in the decades after their debut, the Buckeye breed diminished because the commercial poultry market preferred the widely popular Rhode Island Red breed. By 2003, only 72 Buckeyes remained, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy estimated.

    Consequently, the conservancy launched a three-pronged recovery plan: boost total numbers; incorporate selective breeding to ensure that birds were productive and met industry standards; and develop a niche market that would put the Buckeye back on the menu.

    Central to the project’s success were the participant farmers.

    Beginning with a small flock of Buckeye chicks given to him by conservancy, Gra Moore, of Carolina Heritage Farms in Pamplico, S.C., grew birds for the recovery program and in return was taught how to choose productive breeding stock.

    Beyond supplying meat and eggs to local chefs, the birds are valuable for soil improvement, pest control, and act as feathered lawn mowers.

    "I was most impressed with ALBC’s recovery game plan and how it factored in the need to offer long-term security for the breed by giving it a job," Moore says.

    Moore has expanded his flock of highly productive birds and now runs a small hatchery operation with the Buckeye breed being central to its success. During the hatching season he provides hundreds of chicks to a growing number of enthusiasts throughout the country. He also provides chicken for Charleston, S.C.'s top chefs who want the flavor of heritage chickens on their tables.

    Douglas Hayes, of Azalea Springs Farm, in Calistoga, Calif., incorporated Buckeyes into a sustainable production system he developed on his farm.

    Beyond supplying meat and eggs to local chefs, the birds are valuable for soil improvement, pest control, and act as feathered lawn mowers.

    "Bringing these birds onto the property was one of the greatest business decisions I have made for the farm," Hayes says. "There is no doubt that they have had a great positive impact on the quality of my pasture."

    Seven years after the first poultry census, the conservancy found in 2010 that everyone’s hard work has paid off for the Buckeye. The population of breeding birds totals more than 2,400 and the birds being produced are of great quality.

    No doubt they meet the expectations long ago set by their creator, Nettie Metcalf.

    Jeannette Beranger is the conservancy’s Research & Technical Program Manager.

     

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