The New Iowa Blue Chicken

Silver Penciled Iowa Blue HenAs an early 1900’s type chicken, the Iowa Blue was created at a time when chickens were expected to do more than simply (I use that term lightly) lay eggs and produce meat.

In the time period starting in the middle to late 1800’s till the 1940’s and 50’s, breeds were created on the farms which they were expected to provide for. This is quite different from today where breeds (or strains in the case of hybrid flocks) are often times created by corporations or hobby farmers.

These early chicken breeds weren’t always as “fine-tuned” in type and color as their modern counterparts, but they did possess something more; namely, they provided for the survival of their masters as well as offering the ability for their owners to experience a self-sustaining independence.

This required a chicken to be hardy enough to handle to elements of nature; the wind and cold, the rain and heat, threat of a predator while at the same time growing to a good size with minimal human support. Add to this the expectation of eggs and meat, as well as procreation, and you have before you a poultry man’s dream.

Those birds (and breeds for that matter) who were unable to keep up with the rigors of rural life, would find themselves without support or perpetuation (unless they were to find favor within the show ring or were endorsed by the wealthy as a statement of wealth).

Iowa, as a State, is positioned in such a location as to enjoy (or suffer depending on one’s perspective) the humid heat of a southern summer while at the opposite end of the calendar, the arctic cold of the Canadian tundra. Such extremes aren’t easy on livestock, especially stock that is at the smaller end of the scale. It is in this environment that the Iowa Blue was developed and for which the Iowa Blue was expected to flourish in.

When one evaluates and compares the various chicken breeds available (and consider that this list was much shorter at the turn of the 20 th century), one easily sees breeds suitable to the summer heat of our southern states, while at the same time recognizing breeds designed to tackle the frigid cold of our northern states.

However, none could be found to take on both the Iowa summers and winters with ease. The southern bred breeds would freeze in our winters and at best would be expected to lose their combs and wattles to frostbite, while the northern bred breeds would perish from heat stroke as they suffered in our humidity.

For Iowa, no breed could be found to take on with ease and simplicity, our 100+ degree days with 100% humidity only to be expected to bear our -30 degree days with contentment a mere six months later. To this extreme expectation the Iowa Blue was bred not only to survive in, but to perform to the expectations and survival of the farm family. To this expectation, the Iowa Blue would appear to have triumphed victoriously.

Breeders living in the state of Iowa have observed the Iowa Blue foraging as though not a care existed, while birds of other breeds are panting in the shade with wings outstretched as they seek to survive the summer heat. These same breeders have gone on to observe the same birds scratching at the coop floor and actively maintaining their pecking order, while their pen mates of other breeds are hunched in a corner, feathers fluffed, struggling to survive the winter cold.

Where the Iowa Blue is found living in the southern states, the breed seems most tolerant and adaptable, no doubt due to his ability to handle Iowa’s summer heat. Where flocks are found to exist to the north, the Iowa Blue’s cold adaptability serves to accent the bird’s ability to thrive without care or worry.

Anyone in the nation wishing to raise a breed capable of handling the elements will find the Iowa Blue an easy ward; This is especially true for those individuals who live in the mid-western States that experience the wide range of elements found in that locale.

Survivability is a common trait found in the early 1900’s era breeds, and to this ability, the Iowa Blue is second to none. Beyond the ability to make the elements of nature appear as nothing, this breed has mastered the ability to stay alive, well beyond the ability to survive what the weather brings.

From the moment they hatch from the shell, one quickly realizes the Iowa Blue chicks behaving in the most unusual ways, quite unlike anything witnessed by any other breed. Once they are but a few hours old, the chicks will begin their crouching and popping (the term given by breeders to describe their unique hopping).

When one approaches the chicks from above, they will crouch down low, observe their handlers actions, then pop if the handler gets too close for their comfort. If the clutch is large enough, the popping will appear like popcorn popping. Some of the chicks will make short to high pops straight into the air, while others will sideways pop in varying lengths and degrees.

They are keenly aware of aerial movements, and one is unable to surprise the chicks, even if all appear to be “sleeping”. As the chicks advance into their second to third weeks of age, the popping will cease and will be replaced with deep crouching followed by rapid evasiveness if they perceive one is too close for comfort.

An interesting note concerning this crouching and rapid fleeing is that pheasant chicks exemplify this same trait. This trait no doubt rendered support to the claim that the Iowa Blue was “sired” by a pheasant.

Chick down color varies depending on the color variety. On the Silver Penciled chicks, a soft chocolate brown down color combined with light mottling on the face, is the most common. The down has a very unique look to it, almost like a silvery under color to the chocolate down, and gives the chick a very dimensional appearance.  On the Birchen colored chicks, one will find a mostly black chick with various amounts of white on the belly, chin, and sometimes the face.

As adults, the Iowa Blue is defiant in its survivability. Not only are they innately aware of their surroundings (especially aerially), but they pair up that awareness with a confidence that they can handle any threat that comes their way. And their confidence is justified. When new owners first witness an Iowa Blue rooster engaged in battle with a hawk, or chasing a raccoon off the property, a new respect and admiration is instantly manifested.

They often times are in a state of disbelief, and are somewhat shocked when they recount the incident to another Iowa Blue breeder, only to have the breeder respond with a nodding of the head, and a simple, “That’s what they do.” This determination to not only stand out in the open when other chickens flee for cover, but to proudly strut as if to dare the predator to take them on, and then engage the threat with fierce combat, is but a common occurrence to those familiar with the Iowa Blue.

No breed of chicken exists, save for the Iowa Blue, that will rise to the challenge of attacking any and all threats that come their way. Whether it’s a hawk, opossum, raccoon, cat, etc., the accounts of their dedicated protection are numerous indeed, and each breeder will have multiple witnessed testimonies to their protective abilities.

No doubt, much more happens than is witnessed. When it comes to pests, the Iowa Blue feels the role of exterminator belongs to them. Mice, rats, or snakes will soon meet their end if an Iowa Blue gets their eye on it. They will jab at them with their beaks rendering the pest wounded, then grasp the creature within its beak and shake it vigorously; much like a dog shakes its victim.

Although the Iowa Blue possesses an aggressive nature toward those creatures it deems a threat, that same aggression is not expressed toward humans. Regarding humans, the Iowa Blue would rather keep a short distance, blending uniquely the calm and flighty characteristics. When you enter their coop, they will simply walk out of your way, always staying within a few feet’s distance, but should you make an attempt to capture them, they will quickly avert your attempts.

It is best to handle one’s Iowa Blues after they have roosted as they are much easier to capture. Once captured however, they respond quite calmly. But do not be deceived by that calm nature, as they will make their escape when they perceive your defenses are down, or your hand has lightened its grip.

Iowa Blue’s like to roam. They like their space and are active foragers. They handle confinement well and without complaint, however, one will find the breed to flourish is given the opportunity to free range. Having a history of surviving with minimal human intervention, it’s not uncommon to witness the breed minding its own from spring to fall with little to no supplemental feed necessary (given they have enough space to glean their needs).

Birchen Iowa Blue RoosterThis characteristic transforms flock keeping from tending to pastoral observing during these seasons, and add to this the flock’s natural inclination for self-protection, and one realizes that this breed allows the flock keeper much freedom and independence from the traditional maintenance of the average chicken flock.

Survivability runs deep in the blood of an Iowa Blue, and what would survival be without the inclusion of procreation? In this, the Iowa Blue does not fail. Generally unbroody their pullet year, the hens will develop a strong desire to hatch a clutch as they age, and some flocks are known to have every member broody within a week of the first hen setting her mind to brood.

This trait to “group” brood is found in greater numbers from the Sandhill Line than the Ideal Line. Hens are known among some breeders to be persistent in their desire to brood and can be somewhat difficult to break (again, this persistency is more often found in the Sandhill line).

Once the clutch has hatched, no other hen can rival the protective Iowa Blue hen. She will willingly give every ounce of strength she has to defend and protect her young. Iowa Blue roosters have a reputation as flock defenders, and it is a common occurrence to witness an Iowa Blue rooster aiding in the protection of his posterity. This is yet another trait unique to the breed, as few (if any) breeds can claim as a whole that the roosters will protect, defend, and aid in the rearing of the offspring.

One obvious disadvantage to broodiness is the lack of egg production, and to this end a few breeders have expressed an interest in developing the laying qualities in their flocks. This would of course result in less inclination to brood, and in time we may find individual lines of Iowa Blues who lay more and brood less, while some breeders will maintain consistent broody lines. One can however, induce the hen to resume laying by removing her chicks at a designated time, and therefore increase the egg supply while maintaining the brooding quality.

Egg production has a history within the Iowa Blue, albeit through an early 1900’s perspective and expectation of egg production. At the time the breed was created, the common egg production of the “better” laying breeds was around 150-180 eggs per hen, per year. Compared to our modern hybrids who are laying anywhere from 250-350+ eggs per hen per year, the early era laying breeds initially seem unfit for the job of supplying eggs for the home.

When comparing the Sandhill and Ideal lines there is a marked difference in laying abilities as well as laying patterns (with Sandhill Line hens laying a darker tinted to light brown egg and Ideal Line hens laying a lighter tinted egg, often with small white specks on the outside of the shell).

The Sandhill line hens are known to lay in “streaks” where an egg a day for weeks is followed by a week or two off, only to repeat the pattern of weeklong laying. Their eggs are a bit smaller than the Ideal line and their egg production is closer to the 150 eggs per hen per year.

Observations of the Ideal line show these hens to lay a bit more consistently throughout the year with a production in the range of 180+ eggs per hen per year, with a little larger of an egg (more and larger eggs are no doubt the result of the infusion of Leghorn blood). A seemingly low number of eggs for a bird traditionally raised as a dual purpose provider, but consider this; a hen who broods for 21 days followed by rearing for 3 months, has invested around 112 days to her procreation duties. This leaves her with roughly 250 days to maintain her production duties. In light of this, producing 180 eggs in 250 days isn’t as insignificant as initially perceived.

Egg production of these numbers is quite common among the better laying broody breeds, and it may prove somewhat challenging to boost egg numbers while at the same time preserving the hen’s natural inclination to brood.

With extinction ready to grab the Iowa Blue out of existence every few decades of the breed’s reign, few individuals (if any from 1980 to present) have actively and aggressively pursued egg laying qualities into their flock breeding programs – that is, until now. Modern breeders recognize there is room for improvement, and with a group of dedicated breeders, we could expect to see some significant improvements in short order.

As a dual purpose breed, the Iowa Blue was expected to put on a justifiable amount of meat for consumption. In this department it seems the modern Iowa Blue has room for improvement. Historical recollections have presented a disagreement as to the size of the breed.

W.C. Fenton listed the roosters as 9-11 pounds with hens weighing in the 8 pound range. His account is the only one listing such weights and is the only one found to be in disagreement. The remaining accounts described the bird as a medium sized creature, and two individuals (Michael Moore and Glenn Drowns) described the Iowa Blue’s size to rest between a Leghorn and a Plymouth Rock.

This last size description is in line with what we are experiencing in our flocks today and so it would seem that one of two scenarios have transpired. Either the original Iowa Blue was of the medium size (which would seem the most likely), or the Iowa Blue was originally a larger sized bird but has been reduced in size due to inbreeding.

Officially, the Iowa Blue Chicken Club has accepted that the Iowa Blue was originally a medium sized bird (based on accounts as well as pictures of the original birds) and has therefore represented the standard as a rooster being 7lbs, cockerels at 6lbs,  Hens are 6lbs, and the Pullet being 5lbs.

These size recommendations appear to maintain breed consistency and should prove to add value to the breed as a meat supplier. Accounts from past persons familiar with consuming Iowa Blue meat have stated that the carcass was suitable as a table fowl with a pleasant flavor.

Iowa Blue body type is a unique feature of the breed. When viewed from the side, the overall body shape should be rectangular, similar in some ways to the Rhode Island Red. A full and deep breast is ideal and the breed is set well on the legs. The back should be wide and level.

The head has a somewhat upright appearance, and the tail is set at a jaunty angle of 80 degrees. An Iowa Blue tail is quite distinct, putting a “stamp” on all crossbred offspring. Tail set is neither overly full nor elegantly flowing.

The Iowa Blue should make a great addition to a backyard or farm flock.  They are hardy birds that pull their weight graciously around the yard.  Being a medium sized dual purpose breed they require less feed than larger birds, produce good egg quantity and size, and have the ability to prove a delicious table dressing.

Author: Curt Burroughs
Photos courtesy of The Iowa Blue Chicken Club
You can find breeders and more information at www.IowaBlueChickenClub.com

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