Fly Fishing Hackles
the true story
Whiting Hackle Farms
By Tom Whiting
Intro by George Gehrke
|15 May 02
Clean, immaculate, disciplined and dedicated best describe this Tom Whiting Hackle Farm.
When I first saw, this set of hatchery buildings that dwell just on the other side of the road from the Gunnison River, one immediately realizes this place was chosen with care. I finally had time to meet the man whose dream had come true who built these buildings setting now on seventeen high altitude acres in Delta, Colorado.
I'm a fly fisherman and fly tier. My dedication to the world of fly fishing has been a life's journey that has spanned sixty years. I started fishing on my seventh birthday on a Michigan Lake at a youth camp on July 28, 1941. I fell in love with fishing with that first nibble. I got the same sense of excitement as that first nibble as when I first saw these buildings as our Ford 250 Pick Up topped the last hill, and suddenly it was there. It was like opening the first page to a new book and I was eager to meet the author. My wife Gladys, gasped, "Oh look! There it is!"
Indeed it was.
I stopped at the top of the hill and took two pictures. The Gunnison River sparkled in the sun, clear and alluring. We then coasted down to Tom Whiting's driveway and turned into the high security farm. We followed the signs and instructions.
I finally parked and we gathered our note books and camera equipment when suddenly, there was Dr. Tom Whiting walking out of a building headed for us. A big smile and hand shake started the morning. My first impression is that this is a serious, hard-working man.
"Let's start off with a picture of you and Gladys Tom with a few buildings in the background?"
"Great. Good idea." As Gladys stood next to him . . . and here is my first reminder of what the man looks like - we had met at a trade show a few years ago. Time has been good to him.
I had made an appointment to interview and exchange business ideas with Tom Whiting months in advance. Business requirements finally allowed Gladys and me to make the one thousand-mile drive to Delta Colorado for three days of conversations required to gather the current history of America's Hackle & Saddle Fly Tying Industry beginning where and how it started, who has been involved and influential with the present gene pool, how it has evolved and finally where it is today and possibly where it is headed in the future?
With that thought, this duel article is a precis form of a great number of facts for the story of America's fly tying hackle industry really could be the story of many personalities and lives, most of which are no longer with us. The important contributions have landed in the lap of one primary individual in this entire world and that individual happens to be Dr. Tom Whiting.
18 May 02: I have been thinking on this article for several days now and I can see that this is really a very complicated piece and subject for it covers nearly a hundred years of sporadic efforts of scattered gene pools beginning with individuals that simply wanted to raise a few roosters of better quality in the early 1900's who usually found them in county fairs and on remote farm sites. That sequence of events is best explained by Dr. Tom Whiting in a form of narration from his writings he is presently working on. No one can explain it better than Dr. Whiting can. (Text by Tom Whiting throughout this definitive article is noted). Personally, it's been a long time since I've listened to a finer story and devoted enterprise.
This is only one of several brooder buildings on one of four farm sites that have been built by Dr. Tom Whiting since he assumed stewardship of America's Hackle Industry. Behind each of the five doors are two rows of bird cages. On each row are layered two sets of cages, one on top of the other, spaced and recessed back into an upper and lower level. This building alone represents twenty rows of high quality birds that extend four hundred and twenty feet in total building length. The power required that is pushing fresh air through this system in a cross ventilation design is enormous and constant. Moisture and heat control systems alone that monitor each brooder building requires a small fortune to install. This is no basic egg-laying operation. These are clinical buildings built to pamper the finest poultry stocks in the world. Besides the temperature controlling systems, the internal environment is coupled to air conditioning and humidity control requirements, all of which is computer driven or sensor monitored. One would expect to open one of these doors and be blown back by the stench of it all but not true! The air is just as fresh inside as outside. Surprisingly, there are no odors. The drafting system is cross
ventilated so every bird is in total comfort and always breathing fresh air. The din inside is a mild content clucking, not loud noise or excitement. These are happy birds and they're content for good reasons.
19 May 02: The cost in raising fly tying hackles is mind boggling. It's evident by just the feeding requirements alone. Some buildings are wider than others but beside each one is a feed hopper. Each hopper is capable of holding seven tons of a special blend of feed developed by Dr. Whiting. However; seven tons of feed is too much to put into the feeder silos because one needs to have it used before fermenting spoils the special mash. These hoppers constantly supply all the food and high protein diet the birds required around the clock. Everything is automated including the fresh watering system which is interesting in and of itself. So, let us step inside and look at what's behind one of these doors
Starting right at the door, here you're looking down 420 feet of brooder rows. In fact, the camera cannot even see the end but possibly only half way down the entire length. The cages have a long conveyor feed tube which drags feed down them via spaced washers on a cable.
The mash or grain drops down into a regulated feeder that once full allows the next cage feeder to be filled and so on and so on it goes. I think I have a picture of the drive mechanism which I will show next that automates this system.
The right photo shows the empty washers coming around to pick up another portion of feed.
Automated control panels interlace the entire compound. Nothing is left to human memory. Environmental conditions are critical for the next fourteen months.
Birth, is a highly personal thing and there are some of us that become so involved in our careers that there are certain things we just don't allow employees to do alone. Dr. Tom Whiting was about to help deliver chicks again on the day of my arrival as "a hatch" was in progress and he would not leave the incubators until every last baby chick was assured all the medical help it needed to survive. Doctors are supposed to do that, help the new born make it into the world, that is. The above chicks are but a few hours old taken the following morning.
20 May 02: The new genetics are ongoing, but before Tom Whiting got to this point of being able to look at the quality of chick we see in the photograph above, first required he devote a good portion of his life getting an education . . . a very expensive education.
At this point, it might be wise to have the man himself explain in his own words the new world that encompasses the "Dry Fly Hackle" as presented by Thomas Whiting, Ph.D. So, "Before we jump into the particulars of hackle breeding and production, it might interest the reader to know a little about the author. Mostly, why (as now Tom begins to write here) I am in the hackle business, and furthermore, why am I writing this chapter on dry fly hackle?
Whiting Hackle Farms
By Tom Whiting
Modern dry fly hackle occupies a unique position in the pantheon of tying material - it is both man made and natural at the same time. Roosters grow the feathers, naturally, but only because man bred them to do so, provided them the necessary environment, and then devised ways to harvest and process these feathers. These creations of man - the hackle rooster and the dry fly, bring together many elements; man, bird, fish and water. No wonder dry fly hackle occupies a uniquely important position in fly fishing, it is the meeting and merging of many worlds. It is the final connection between man and a wild trout.
Quality hackle is essential to excellent dry flies. Producing this quality hackle is no small feat, and is almost as much a calling as an enterprise. Surprisingly more is involved in this endeavor than is generally thought. So the purpose of this article is to provide the fly tyer a glimpse into hackle breeding and raising, and the myriad of steps and challenges involved, so they can more fully understand an appreciate this special tying material.
I am involved in hackle breeding and production because they are such fascinating subjects and pursuits. They also are great and fun challenges, in many ways and at many levels. The hackle business also has a rare completionary aspect to it, where a full cascade of steps all the way from the pedigree lines and breeders to the final packaged product have to be looked after. This is an unusually complete pursuit when compared with most other agribusiness which typically has a much more confined activity and focus.
I am writing this chapter because I so enjoy this career I want to share the fascinating facts about it with whomever else is interested in fly tying. I wish I could give all curious fly tyers a tour of the whole process, but unfortunately genetic and biosecurity considerations and the busyness in the company precludes such visits. So writing as completely as I am able a description of the whole process will have to suffice.
The other reason why I'm motivated to write this chapter is I want to let the fly tyers of the world know how much we appreciate them and that we take their needs seriously. Our goal is to breed and produce the best quality dry fly hackle we possible can, which provides excellent value and is a pleasure for the fly tyer to use. It also bings us satisfaction to think others are gaining pleasure and utility by using our hackle. We actually are tickled that people want these feathers, so we can have the challenge and fun of producing them. Thank you one and all.
How I got into this whole career of hackle was I was prepared for it, then it sort of found me. As a young boy I was inexplicably fascinated and keyed into birds. I also had a personal ambition to raise and produce things, so I became involved in poultry when around ten or eleven, I raised chickens and some game birds. I even had quail breeding plans and programs in my head as a boy.
No matter what I did or where I went in life I always wanted to raise birds. This led me on a natural path to study poultry science in college for which I received a bachelors degree from Colorado State University in Avian Science. While at C.S.U. I had two summer internships at large international poultry genetics companies, which was where my special interests and career goals lay. I then went on to graduate school at the University of Georgia and received a Maters Degree there in Poultry Science, specializing in poultry genetics and husbandry. After this very expansive experience I returned to my home state of Colorado and became production manager of a large commercial egg production complex - 750,000 layers laying three million eggs and eating one million pounds of feed each week. A better training ground could not have been found. Still I wanted to accomplish three major goals - get a PH.D., build my own company and live in an area I would like to vacation in. So I left the egg company and went to the University of Arkansas for the doctorate. While there I also began exploring business ideas that encompassed my specialties, poultry genetics and husbandry. I happened to contact a former professor from C.S.U., Dr. Carey Ouarles, to inquire about buying or leasing his hatchery for one business idea I had. Dr. Quarles instead offered to sell me the hackle company he had developed, Colorado Quality Hackles. I took a trip out to Colorado, was introduced to the business, and very quickly realized it was what I wanted to do. Heck I'd be happy to breed these hackle chickens for a hobby let alone as a business. I researched the field as much as possible and made the contact with other hackle growers who also happened to be for sale at the time, Ted Hebert first and then Henry Hoffman. Eventually I was able to strike a deal with Henry Hoffman for his stock. I finished my doctorate in December 1988, signed the deal with Henry, and then relocated and set up my fledgling company in western Colorado in February 1989. The first Hoffman Hackle chicks were hatched out there in April, and I have never looked back. I consider myself fortunate to have found an avenue to pursue what I consider the most interesting subject there is, genetics, and to create a beautiful and appreciated product from it. Everyone should be so lucky.
The perspective I am taking for this chapter is to try to describe what are the breeding and production considerations that go into hackle raising. My goals is not to make the readers hackle raisers but rather to enlighten them or satisfy their curiosity about the process and challenges of creating this important tying material. And I hope they find it as fascinating as I do.
Hackle producing can be broken down into three major areas; breeding, production and processing. Each area has its own formidable challenges, yet all must be realized together in order to achieve the desired end - quality hackle. Excellence in one area and not the others will rarely result in the desired complete quality. To further complicate the endeavor, the desired end is actually a moving target where hackle quality is ever advancing. This coupled with the fact you are dealing with an evolving, dynamic organism and the complexities begin to mount. Nonetheless it is best to start at the beginning, and that is with breeding.
Breeding quality hackle chickens is a very involved, complex, long term, laborious, dynamic, often frustrating, yet always challenging endeavor. It is difficult, in the daily struggles, to not lose sight of the fact that the whole intent of the pursuit is to coax a rooster into generating a feather that ties well on a fishing hook which then performs well on the water. From the egg to the stream it is truly a long trek, and it is the hackle herders who endeavor to make it. Few embark on this journey and continue it solely for profit - there are certainly easier ways to make money. Rather, hackle breeders have a need to create something, something which is functional, beautiful, appreciated and challenging.
It is good to start out with the appreciation that even though the hackle breeders get the credit for the fine feathers, it is the roosters who do the actual producing. It is the chickens, or more specifically the individual feather follicles within their skin, which generate the coveted feathers. The bird itself can be viewed (if you are a reductionist) as merely a biological support system for feather follicles extruding dry fly hackle. Such a perspective is a worthwhile insight but it hardly gives credit to the organism as a whole, which any hackle producer will tell you provides many of the major challenges. So a respect for the fact that quality hackle production is an interspecies collaborative effort is not an inappropriate place to start any discussion of the subject. That is why I think of hackle as a man made natural product.
In order to create a solid hackle breeding program, fundamental knowledge of genetics, breeding, production, etc. are all quite important. But before any of these subjects can be addressed, three important aspects of hackle should be emphasized.
First it should never be forgotten that the unit of use is the individual feather. The whole breeding program must always focus on the feather; how it wraps, the hackle collar it produces, how the components (barbs, quill, stiffness, etc.) Work together to perform the intended function. Too easily does the focus of the bird o the pelt distract from the all important individual feather. The acid test of a hook in a vise at the tying bench should always be he final determiner for the breeding pen If not, a fundamental violation of the whole intent of the effort has been committed and the integrity of the breeding program can be compromised. So don't select birds, select for feathers, and then use the birds that happen to be attached to those feathers.
Secondly, a balanced breeding program is very important. The person directing the breeder selection must possess a significant breadth of understanding to achieve optimum balanced progress. As mentioned above, primary focus must always be on the unit of use, the individual feather. But beyond this a thorough and intimate knowledge of the stock the breeder is working with is crucial so the strengths and weaknesses of the feathers of the stock can be known. Only then will the breeder know where selection emphasis needs to be applied to create the best overall feathers.
Good hackle is a combination of features and traits that in their totality perform a specific function. Deficiencies in particular features or traits must therefore be addressed right along with the development of strengths. This is why balance in the selection program is so important. Balance is making appropriate emphasis decisions to achieve concurrent progress in strengths along with correction of deficiencies in a whole host of characteristics. Finding this balance becomes the challenge, but it is by far the best approach. Over emphasis on one or only a few traits (i.e. feather length or stiffness) can be at the expense of quality loss in other areas and/or development of undesirable traits (i.e. severe turning problems). When out of balance selection is carried on for too many generations, the negative traits can become so entrenched they become "fixed", which makes them difficult or even impossible to correct. So it is generally safer and better to sacrifice rapid strides in a few desirable traits for slower progress in these traits but with a balanced, complete development of all important feather qualities.
A modification of this balanced approach is called for in the case of significant negative feather or bird problems, such as barb length asymmetry or severe turning problems. Total eradication of these deficiencies then becomes the objective. This dictates ruthless culling of any individuals that possess the trait(s) in an attempt to eliminate them from the population. Then only those birds which don't manifest or harbor the particular bad traits in question will be considered as breeder candidates. Onto these select individuals the balanced, positive trait selection program should then be applied.
So in summary, in order to find this all important balance, the breeder must know, intimately and thoroughly, the strengths and weaknesses of their stock, and then make appropriate selection emphasis judgments.
The third aspect of hackle that should be pondered prior to delving into breeding strategies and genetics and the like is historical perspective. Where have the birds come from, where are they now, and where are they going? Any breeder should have a vision of a goal of where they want to take the stock, from a feather point of view. Without this projection towards the future, the intervening steps to achieve some ultimate feather cannot be as well defined or directed. So it is important to know where you want to end up. Lacking a clear vision for the future is a little like driving without a destination; you may be able to go off in the right general direction or cover a lot of miles, but it's usually better to know at the onset where you want to end up. Serious commercial hackle breeding has only been occurring for about 30 years now, so at least a recent historical perspective is easily obtained. Yet the enormous progress that has been achieved in these 30 years, from barnyard stock to highly developed and refined hackle thoroughbreds, shows the incredible genetic plasticity of the chicken. Things change fast so it is crucial to have a clear idea of where you want to steer this genetic momentum.
To summarize these aspects of hackle that should proceed and influence any breeding program:
If you do not want to trudge through the following dissertation on genetics, selection and husbandry, I can save you quite a bit of confusion and effort by just providing the following maxims: find the best, breed with the best, and hope for the best. And to find the best you need to select for three things: (1) feather quality, (2) feather quality, and (3) feather quality. Then sort out your particular matings to breed as close of relatives as you dare. And then if you have done all the above, and only after you have done completely all the above, look at color. There you have it - hackle breeding in a paragraph. Of course there are a few subtleties involved, which I will try to deal with in the following pages.
Finding the best is much more difficult and involved than would ever be expected because of the large impact environment has on feather qualities. The variability in feather quality traits found among individuals is not all due to differences in genetic merit. Rather, much of the observed variability. One rooster may not necessarily be superior genetically to another rooster, but appears superior only because he was less negatively impacted by that particular environment. Conversely, the greatest genetics in the world can be undermined by any number of sub-optimum conditions, resulting in thoroughly mediocre or even poor hackle. Geneticists refer to this as "heritability." Heritability is the proportion of the observed variability in a given trait that is attributable to genetic variability, and thus the balance of the observed variability is due to environmentally induced causes. This environmental aspect of heritability is especially important when breeding hackle birds, for several reasons.
First, feathers are definitely important to the bird, but they are on their hierarchy of bodily needs. Before the bird channels metabolic resources to feathers, it meets other higher priority needs first. Energy and nutrients for basic survival obviously have the highest priority. These are followed by body growth and maintenance. Reproductive activities, i.e. Egg laying, semen production, etc. come next. Only after these other substantial needs are fully met do the chickens allocate metabolic resources to feathers. The implications of this are that all the proceeding metabolic needs of the bird must be more than met in order to allow ample surplus nutrients to be available for feather growth. Therefore, the nutritional program for the chickens is crucial. A generous, well-balanced, complete and often costly ration is called for. Skimping on the feed can be more than foolish otherwise, it might cost you in feathers. Furthermore, the truly superior individuals genetically may need an even higher plane of nutrition in order to manifest their potential. The ration therefore cannot just be formulated for the average needs in the flock, or else the truly superior individuals may be nutritionally handicapped. You lose two ways with poor feed: the feathers won't be as good as they could be, and your very best roosters (genetically) may not be able to fully develop and so, tragically, might never be found for use as breeders.
Secondly, anything in the environment that negatively impacts the birds takes away from the full expression of their genetic potential for feather quality. Disease, both acute and chronic, poor air quality, molds and toxins in the feed, poor water quality, disturbances, vaccinations, nonuniform lighting, temperature extremes, significant dust or ammonia, rodents, rough handling, poor cage design - the list goes on and on. Basically anything that isn't optimum for the roosters, or in any way stresses them, chips away at the realization of their feather quality potential. And because all the genetic hackle stocks today are to some degree inbred, in some cases extremely inbred, they are more susceptible to stresses than more vigorous non-inbred stock. This dictates that to have the roosters achieve what they are capable of achieving they need to be almost pampered, or certainly at a very minimum given excellent husbandry and housekeeping.
Thirdly, uniformity in environmental conditions is a basic requirement for any kind of accurate assessment of genetic merit. Unless all the roosters get as closely as possible the same environment, the observed variability cannot be greatly relied on to reflect true genetic variability. Otherwise it becomes questionable which roosters are truly superior genetically, or whether certain individuals just happened to do particularly well in their own unique micro-environments.
Summary on Heritability
Because of the profound influence of environment on expression of genetics potential for feather qualities, the hackle breeder must control and make as optimum and uniform as possible all the environment conditions under which the breeder candidates are raised. Without doing so, and it is a matter of degree and not absolutes, the selection process to find the best of the best can be easily compromised. Anything else is stumbling at the starting line.
The Availability of Variability
Genetic variability is the fundamental raw ingredient with which a geneticist works. Without some genetic variability in a population, progress is not possible - the organisms would all be clones. And with clones, except for the rare and non-fatal mutation, there's no variability with which to work. As described above, environmentally induced variability is really false variability which actually hampers the geneticist. So where does the genetic variability in the hackle stocks come from which allowed such significant progress in such a short span of time? Therein lies one of the major problems - there have never been many places to go, at least for good stock. Variability isn't in itself hard to find, but good usable variability is. And the better the stocks become, the scarcer this desirable and worthwhile genetic variability will also become.
Of the major hackle producers currently at work, their basic gene pools go back to only two principle stocks, the Darbee/Miner and the Hoffman.
Harry Darbee was a well know Catskills fly tyer and promoter of fly fishing who inspired many to pursue fly fishing and fly tying. He bred and raised hackle roosters, to supply his own commercial tying needs mostly, but also to promote fly tying by making available his good (for that time) hackle stock. Harry was especially known for his blue dun hackle, which he plucked from his roosters as needed. A layer from Minnesota named Andy Miner made contact with Harry Darbee in 1954 and was given some hackle stock eggs, which he hatched, raised and studied. Andy was a meticulous, ever curious and patient soul, and through judicious study, experimenting and perseverance bred a markedly better hackle rooster. Despite his many years of intense and patient work, Andy never sold a single egg or pelt. Instead, in the true spirit of fly fishing, he gave them all away, to probably anyone who asked. These excellent Miner birds were the foundation stock for the Metz Hatchery by Ted Hebert's Genetic Hackle, Colorado Quality (for that time)dry fly capes and the beginnings of a dry fly saddle. By Henry's own estimation these initial birds saved him 10 years of development time, and he was off and running. In addition, Henry always favored tying with saddle hackle and saw the potential in developing further these already exceptional saddles. So he set out with determination to do just that, and steadily did.
Because Henry was a commercial tyer, using these feathers in his own work, he brought an end-user's perspective to his breeder selection. Literally he'd tie flies with the. Feathers, and the best tying feathers determined which roosters became the sires for the next generation. This performance criteria put Henry's program in a league of its own and garnered rave reviews and near mythical devotion.
Besides being passionate about fishing, being born in the right place, and finding truly exceptional foundation stock, Henry did two other things very well: 1. He confined his hackle breeding exclusively to Grizzly for roughly the first 15 years, thus focusing on only one color, which greatly accelerated and refined progress, and 2. Very wisely Henry kept his production small and focused on quality instead of quantity. The Hoffman operation rarely exceeded 2200 roosters a year with Henry and Joyce doing nearly everything, with help from other family members, including even Henry's elderly mother and father.
By the 1980's The Hoffman Grizzly was world famous, almost legendary, and so coveted it was rarely actually obtainable. The dry fly saddle had progressed markedly and was truly unique, having to be seen to be believed. Henry had also expanded his color range to include white and brown, other essentials to fly tying. But Henry wanted to get out from under the considerable work load and drudgery of hackle production before he was too old to enjoy an extended retirement of fishing. So he put his life's work up for sale. Man were interested, but few had the necessary compliment of skills to develop further the potential in the Hoffman gene pool. What was needed was knowledge in poultry production, genetics and processing, and a genuine interest, commitment and willingness to put forth the time and effort necessary to succeed in this long term endeavor.
After a few years of trying to find a suitable buyer, Henry Hoffman and Tom Whiting got together and struck a workable deal. Tom was just finishing his PH.D. in poultry genetics and husbandry at the University of Arkansas, and had a B.S. and MS in poultry science and some valuable industrial poultry experience (i.d. managing a commercial egg complex that produced three million eggs a week). Henry agreed to consult for five years, to transfer his techniques and knowledge, and to preserve continuity in the breeding program. Whiting chose western Colorado to set up the new operation, and in April 1989 the first Hoffman chicks were hatched out there from eggs sent by Henry from Oregon. From about 5000 birds that first ear to nearly 100,000 in 1996, the Whiting Farms Hoffman Hackle has risen to be one of the dominant hackles in the world market. In addition, numerous new colors have been developed, 0 now and expanding. Whiting Farms has production on three ranches in western Colorado and currently has 41 employees. Also in development are "Wet Fly" feather chickens, Junglecock, Coc de Leon feather chickens from Spain, and some exotic pheasants that provide fly tying feathers. The mission of Whiting Farms from its inception has been to become THE supplier of high quality fly tying feathers for the world.
It is worthwhile to note how narrow and small the origins of these principle gene pools really were. In lengthy discussion with Henry Hoffman, it was determined that even though he got his start with the initial excellent trio of Barred Plymouth Rock Bantams, the total number of chickens from which his entire "Hoffman Hackle" gene pool originated was at most a dozen individuals, and possibly as few as six or eight! This is an incredibly minute foundation from which to start a breeding program, yet apparently adequate.
The origins of the Darbee/Miner stock were much broader and more fluid. Both pioneers sought, swapped and stirred up all the birds they could for many years, resulting in substantial genetic diversity in their stocks. Yet the entrepreneurs who started their enterprises began with only very limited samplings of the Miner birds. Robert "Bucky" Metz hatched out chicks from only a few hundred eggs obtained from Andy Miner. Ted Hebert derived his entire foundation stock from only a few dozen hens from both Darbee and Miner, four roosters and a few dozen hatching eggs. And Colorado Quality Hackles gathered up the dwindling survivors from the Miner farm, with permission from Andy's widow "Miss Nellie" a few years after Andy had passed away. /so none of the current major producers began with anything more than backyard sized flocks from which they built their entire businesses. This fact is a testament to the perseverance and resilience of both the individuals and the humble chicken.
Most all the producers have brought in an outside rooster or two from time to time, usually to begin a new color development. Such importations do interject some novel genetics. Yet these new color projects are usually restricted to a dedicated sub-line, and so didn't substantially relieve the ever accumulating in breeding occurring in the main population. As the genetic hackle stocks progress and get better and better, such importations and use of outside birds, particularly using non-hackle stock, will probably occur less and less often. This is because the time and effort required to out cross for a new color and then backcross to retrieve feather quality is an arduous, often six to ten generation project. It's easier, much easier, to dy new colors. Also there's always the risk of bringing in a poultry disease from the outside.. Such hurdles are great impetus to keep the established genetic hackle stocks intact and self-contained, and understandably, carefully and jealously guarded.
Despite these narrow, modest origins of foundation stock, the sheer expansion of hackle bird numbers in recent years has mushroomed the availability of good variability - at least within companies. Gone are the days when hackle growers kindly swapped birds, eggs and information with open, fishing-buddy camaraderie. Now it's a high stakes, high security, closed door, tight lipped, almost paranoid industry. All f his isolation is really just a result of the money, very good money, and deserved money due to the difficulties, risks and investment involved in large scale hackle production. Still it is somewhat sad to think what the selfless pioneers, Andy Miner and Harry Darbee, who quietly launched this journey, might make out of the modern hackle and fly fishing industries. I'm sure they would be astonished at the birds. But would they be supportive of the consumer-oriented fly fishing industry of today? We really can never know, but neither can we stop progress.
The entrepreneurial fervor which propelled the hackle business forward demanded large investments of capital, expertise and effort. All of these have catapulted the hackle forward, accelerating progress and blossoming good variability. As a result the future prospects and security of these precious hackle stocks is more secure and assured. And the all important availability of variability is in excellent condition. At least within companies.
The Unimportance of Color
Hackle color actually catches more fly tyers than it does fish. Presentation of the dry fly and the accuracy of the insect imitation the dry fly attempts, from the fish's subsurface vantage point, are more often what coax the strike - not whether the hackle is the exact hue of dun to match the hatch. Nonetheless, fly tyers extend their perfectionism even to hackle color. Commercial fly tyers are especially concerned with color - possibly because the shop owners to whom they sell their flies insist on color consistency in the shop fly bins. Therefore, hackle color really becomes more of a business/sales requirement than a fishing performance consideration.
Nonetheless color has its importance and therefore should be put in its proper perspective to fish and fishing. The visible range of colors humans see is comparatively unimportant to the fish. The spectrum of colors we sense and appreciate are beautiful, in a gaseous atmosphere, but they do not transmit well through water, making the aquatic inhabitants understandably insensitive to them. Under water the ultraviolet wave lengths of light transmit more effectively and so are more important to fish vision. Except with the aid of a special light we cannot see well this ultraviolet spectrum. Yet if fly tyers were expressly interested in creating flies whose "color" attract fish, they'd be researching the ultraviolet image of the food insects fish eat, and with the aid of "black lights" trying to match their materials and designs to imitate the ultraviolet "signature" thee insects present to fish. So in a broader meaning of the word "color"is important to fishing, but not as most fly tyers think. To prove this point examine any hade of brown hackle, dyed or natural, under ultraviolet light. They all go to black -- and that's probably what the fish sees, along with the more important silhouette and dimpling of the water.
Fishing is fishing, of course, but fly tying is art. So color is very important. Hell, if we were just trying to harvest fish we'd be using a net instead of a five weight. So let tyers argue forever over the subtleties and importance of dun or ginger shades. Such concern for color makes the hackle breeders job more interesting and esthetically pleasing. Some of the colors, especially the gingers, cree, dun, even black, make for beautiful roosters and feathers. And besides the fish don't buy, use and appreciate the pets, tyers do. And if color is important to the tyers, then it is very important indeed.
No matter how much one knows about genetics and feathers and fishing, the success of any hackle breeding effort may largely be determined by the selector's ability to evaluate feather qualities on a live rooster. This may sound obvious enough. But no matter how obvious it may be it doesn't make it any easier. And this ability, and will, to handle the live roosters is undoubtedly the acid test of anyone's desire and determination to be a hackle herder. Let me try to create a mental image of what the selector is up against and getting into.
The origins of the Darbee/Miner hackle stock are largely Mediterranean and English class chickens, predominately the Blue Andulusion breed from southern Spain and Old English Gamecock from England. These breeds are tall, strong, fast, lean, tenacious, rangy survivors. Many fighting cock lines are largely derived from these stocks. Add to this heritage about 60 years of selection for maleness in secondary sexual characteristics, such as long hard feathers and vigor, and what emerges is a chicken with a personality only Attila the Hun could love. These aren't gentle barnyard or fancier chickens, but demons in hackle disguise. And your goal is to look at their feathers, objectively and carefully. Well I have news, he ain't exactly going to cooperate
You see every hackle rooster seems to realize who exactly is responsible for sentencing him to a solitary cage for the last 6 months, with nothing to look at or listen to other than lots of other confined roosters. And he also realizes he probably has only one good chance to hammer the living hell out of you. So he typically doesn't pass up this golden opportunity In fact, it's easy to be convinced he's saved up all his fury and hostility for this one special moment with you. And you want to look at his feathers!?. Even with goggles, gloves and armor, if you can emerge from this encounter unpunctured or bleeding, you might be hackle herder material. My particular favorite is when they claw climb up your face, and then launch themselves from atop your head. And then you have to go catch the son of a bitch as he eludes you then ambushes you from under the cages. Your sentiments can quickly shift from wanting to evaluate their necks to wringing hem. Some of my most sheepish moments in life have been after hurling an especially bad rooster across the barn in utter frustration, only to watch them flutter and sail to the floor, ruffled and cackling indignantly, with every single other rooster in the shed chiming in to let you know they all witnessed your little moment of weakness. The mocking din can be deafening. 99.9% of humanity would walk out right then, for good. The few who would stay, and actually get back to work, are the true hackle herders.
Another major distraction is the sheer wall of noise 10,000 mature roosters can create with their crowing. Chickens are descended from the Red Junglefowl, a pheasant-like creature from India and southeast Asia. Male Junglefowl, called Junglecock, are polygamous and set up female gathering territories during the mating season. Crowing serves in an area. The modern domestic rooster till crows, especially when the sun comes up or the lights come on, to declare his all-important presence. Unfortunately, it hasn't dawned on the hackle roosters that they needn't expend such effort when they're the undisputed masters and possessors of their own unchanging and unchallenged personal space. Yet nothing seems to dissuade them from crowing, so hard at times it seems they'll almost tip over and pass out. Put 10,000 stomping, sexually deprived, throaty hackle roosters in a high density, reflective shed and the din can be almost painful. Even the best ear protection money can buy only takes the edge off the noise. Talking is out of the question, and extended periods of time under this decibel level is very fatiguing and tends to make anyone irritable. Yet the selector's job in the rooster barn is to focus and concentrate on small and complex feathers. This auditory avalanche makes such work exceedingly difficult. Even just thinking can sometimes become a challenge. Henry Hoffman tells an amusing story about how he once came across a grizzly rooster, which couldn't, or wouldn't crow. Henry kept going back to him and rechecking his feathers in case there was anyway he was good enough to be used as a breeder, in the slight hope this lack of crowing would be inherited. Such a hope shows the added burden crowing puts on the hackle breeder's effort. It truly tests one's patience.
So if you can survive the gauntlet of beak, wings, spurs, claws and the noise, then your next challenge is to objectively evaluate the feathers on the cape and saddle. This is not easy. Besides having to contend with a generally uncooperative subject in a distracting environment, the feathers and characteristics you are looking at are quite complex and small. Also you must look at them in a systematic way so as to bring objectivity to the analysis.. All selectors develop their own particular technique, that suits them and he needs and idiosyncrasies of their stock. But all procedures incorporate a series of steps that isolates individual feathers and then surveys the pelt(s) as a whole.
Without a fairly regimented procedure, the feather and pelt variations that present themselves can easily overwhelm, distract and confuse the selector. Measurements and notes are often taken, sometimes forms filled out for later reference, and even feather samples collected. A full analysis of a rooster can easily take 45 minutes! But this would only be for the real contenders. Most breeder candidates can rather quickly be eliminated as not representing sufficient progress to the program or having some unacceptable trait.. Nonetheless, good feather scrutiny is an arduous slow, painstaking process. But it is also the essence and foundation to any good breeding program. And a great breeding program is built by finding truly excellent roosters, one at a time.
One important generalization that can be made about this type of work is that such breeding programs are largely a numbers game. The more individuals that are examined, the more likely it will become to find those rare individuals that possess the ideal complement of characteristics sought by the selector to maximize balanced progress. But there are two sides to this equation, the number of individuals you look at and the number of characteristics you look for.
The first component of this equation (number of individuals) helps the program. The second component (number of characteristics) complicates and hinders progress. It's great to look at lots and lots of roosters in hopes of finding those special few. But every additional characteristic looked at both slows the process and lessens the likelihood of finding individuals which excel in every single trait. Some compromise or balance between these competing factors needs to be struck. And this is where the judgment of the selector, rooted in intimate, thorough knowledge of the needs of their stock, comes to bare. Do they blast through huge numbers of roosters, snagging only the exceptional individuals whose qualities jump out at them? Or do they slowly and carefully pick apart modest numbers of roosters to find the most outstanding individuals? It becomes a question of depth versus speed. Generally his question is answered by how developed the stock is at that particular point in time. The more highly developed the stock is, the greater the necessity to examine finer and finer details and to examine more and more feathers. So the better the stock is the harder selection becomes. This is one reason the current top stocks are more likely to continue on top - they are further along the path of refinement. But this will only remain true if the selector in charge is making good selection emphasis decisions, and doing a good job selecting.
So what are the characteristics which need to be examined for quality hackle development? They range from the very obvious to the very subtle.
As experience is gained and n eye for qualities develops, oddly, an eliminatory rather than a positive perspective can develop. The better the birds become, the smaller the differences separating them, requiring greater depth of scrutiny. And more often what eliminates a candidate is the finding of a defect or deficiency, rather than the degree of strengths. The selection perspective therefore shifts from the positive to the negative. To paraphrase a master selector Henry Hoffman, There are probably more things to select against than to select for."
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Traits
One basic concept of genetics that needs to be grasped is the difference between qualitative and quantitative traits. Hackle breeding involves both, and understanding the distinction helps determine the best approach when attempting to make improvements in the different types of traits.
In the simplest sense a quantitative trait is continuously variable and a qualitative trait is distinctly variable. Example - gender is a qualitative trait; an organism is either male of female, with no real possibility of something in between, and it is under genetic control. So it is qualitative. An example involving hackle would be barring, the feather color pattern of alternating black and white bars which provides the "grizzly", is qualitative - a feather is either barred or not barred.
Quantitative traits, on the other hand, aren't so clear cut and are continuously variable or different by degrees. They also are usually normally distributed (a bell shaped curve), and if quantifiable have a mean (average) and a standard deviation (descriptive statistic relative to the mean). Familiar examples might be body weight of Americans or IQ, both of which vary continuously over certain ranges and have quantifiable means and variances Examples of quantitative traits from hackle breeding include feather length, barb density along a given length of quill and total number of feathers per pelt. Each of these traits varies among individuals, and they have to be examined and/or measured in some detail in order to determine where an individual stands relative to the other candidates.
As might be obvious, qualitative traits are considerably easier to select for than quantitative traits. But you can't simply restrict your selection program to the easy-to-deal-with qualitative traits and ignore the more difficult quantitative traits. Otherwise the breeding program would be quite limited and incomplete. In fact, the traits of real importance to hackle quality are mostly all quantitative. So it is more important to be strong in quantitative genetics than qualitative genetics, which is typically the opposite of where most breeders start out
The general areas of concern to hackle breeding that are of a qualitative nature are:
First let me describe how feathers are actually formed. Feathers are generated out of individual feather follicles. These follicles are part of the skin and distributed in discrete areas and patterns within the skin. Each individual feather follicle is a complex collection of specialized cells, which has two major functions. First it literally generates - forms - the feathers, and can regenerate the feather. The second function is to hold or anchor the formed feather, even mobilizing it outward or close to the body, by means of an erector muscle and tendon. Periodically the muscle and tendon connection joining the feather with its follicle is relaxed and the feather is released, or molted. The follicle then changes mode to regenerate a replacement feather.
The complexity, variety and functional beauty of feathers is one of the marvels of evolution. As will be described in greater depth later, birds are descended from reptiles, and feathers are actually just elongated, elaborate and specialized scales. As a vestige of their reptilian ancestry birds still have proper scales on their feet and shanks. Still the feather is quantum leap beyond thee mundane scale.
Feathers are formed in a complex, orderly progression, and are not simply extruded out continuously as hair or fingernails are. Rather, a feather has a distinct form that can vary greatly over its length between tip and base. Therefore the feather follicle must alter the assemblage of component as it forms the feather to create the tip, the middle and the base of the feather. If you think about this it's a rather amazing feat. Not only is the simple follicle generating a complex structure gradually and coherently as it generates it. In a sense the follicle is carrying out a program, which has a beginning, middle and end, and the program is automatically repeated when the feather vacates the follicle for whatever reason. If this wasn't amazing enough, each follicles can actually carry out an assortment of programs to generate several types of feathers. These different types of feathers out of the same follicle can be related to age, season, hormones and sex. Follicles follow a set progression of feather types determined by age beginning with down on the chick, replaced by juvenile plumage, sometimes through several changes of juvenile plumage, culminating in the adult or nuptial plumage - all out of the same follicles. Season can dictate different feather "programs" as well, as when a ptarmigan grows all white plumage for Winter camouflage and mottled brown plumage for Summer camouflage. As will be described more fully in the "sex limited" section of this chapter, hormones can have a profound effect on what type of feather comes out of a follicle on a female bird: female type feathers in the presence of estrogen, male type feathers if estrogen is absent. And of course the basic sex of the bird, in sexually dimorphic species, can radically alter feather form and function - as in a peacocks's gargantuan and colorful tail compared with a peahen's relatively modest and drab tail plumage. The feather follicle is truly an amazing little factory, capable of creating complex, changeable, strong, colorful, functional yet beautifully simple feathers. We all admire feathers, but really we should revere the humble follicle.
Plumage colors and patterns are part of this feather formation process. As a feather is formed and extruded out of the follicle it becomes a non-living yet attached tissue (as is hair). The colors and patterns of the feather are not applied to the feather but are incorporated into the structure of the feathers as it is formed. This structural inclusion of color and pattern has a major effect on what color and pattern are visually perceived.
Gallinaceas birds, which encompass ground dwelling, precocial chicken-like species (including pheasant, quail, grouse, partridge, turkey and guinefowl amongst others), have some basic similarities but also great diversity in feather colors and patterns. Yet despite the plumage diversity within this Gallinaceas group, only two pigment colors are capable of being generated by their follicles - black and brown. The pigment forming cells within the follicles are of two populations, those that synthesize black pigment (eumelanin) and those that synthesize brown pigment (pheomelanin). In fact in all bird species these two pigments are what produce the wondrous array of colors and patterns in plumage, with the sole addition of green pigments in the parrot species. So how do these rather mundane pigments of black and brown create the enormous palate of colors and shades present in even just the Gallinaceas species? That is where the pigments being incorporated within the structure of the feather comes into play
The black and brown pigments are deposited as minute packets or capsules of pure pigment within the structure of the feather itself as it is being formed. These deposits of pigment are not continuous within the structure but are so small and numerous as to present an even appearance of color to the feather.. Not only is it unnecessary to have a continuous layer of pigment within the feather structure to create a color, but it possibly could be detrimental to the strength of the feather because the pigments themselves might not contribute to the structural strength of the feather.
The different colors and shades seen in feathers are created by four interacting variables. First, the density of pigment capsules within the structure. Second, the proportion and distribution of the black to brown pigment capsules. Third, the genetically determined modifications of the pigments, such as dilution genes which reduce black to gray and brown to buff. And fourth, and most interestingly, the structural overlay of the pigments by the feather material itself which modifies the light refraction emerging out of the feather.
This fourth factor deserves some greater elaboration. The feather material matrix or structure itself changes what wavelengths of light reflects out of the feather. And light wavelength determines color. This reflective color can be quite different than the actual pigment color it is reflected off of. The best example is probably the bluebird or blue-jay. Both species are definitely, without a doubt, blue appearing. But if you had one of their feathers in your hand at this moment and held it up to a light or to a window, the color coming through the feather would be a definite dull brown without a hint of blue, yet the feather structure limits the wavelengths of light refracted out of the feather material to only the blue wavelengths. So we see blue and not a hint of brown. This is the difference between reflective versus transmitted light. The purity of this wavelength restriction can create some stunningly intense colors. The best example is possible the incredible iridescence of some male hummingbirds. When sunlight reflects off of (or actually refracts out of) their feathers, intensely brilliant blues, reds or greens are seen. And these particular iridescent colors can seemingly shift on a single hummingbird as its relative position to you and the light source changes. But like the blue-jay, if you looked through these feathers with transmitted light, they's be dull shades of brown! Other examples more familiar to the fly tyer include the iridescence of peacock hurl, the "eye" of the peacock's tail (hold one of these up to a light) and the beetle-green sheen of clean black rooster hackle or tail plumes.
So the mundane pigment colors of black and brown can be transformed into a rainbow of shades and colors when part of the feather structure. The next opportunity you have to examine a cock ringneck pheasant, pause and admire the amazing diversity of browns, buffs, green, white, purple, blue and the patterns of its plumage. Even though it's a common species, its uncommonly, almost irrationally beautiful. All because of the way pigments are incorporated into the feather structure.
Now that you understand how feathers are formed and colors are created in feathers, its time to delve into how colors and patterns are genetically controlled.
The logical or reasonable notion that plumage colors and patterns are created by the addition of pigment is not actually correct. Rather the opposite is true - that plumage colors and patterns are created by the removal of pigments, not the addition. It is a fundamentally negative system instead of a positive one. This can be best understood by describing a few of the basic plumage colors of chickens, and how the gene actions responsible create them.
At least 95% of the chickens in the world today are white feathered. A white chicken is not white because it possesses a gene that instructs the feather follicles to generate white pigment into the forming feather. Rather it is white because it has a gene, a mutant gene in fact, which causes the feathers to be formed un-pigmented. This gene acts by disrupting the formation of a specific precursor compound necessary for the biochemical creation of melanin pigments. Remember feather follicles are a complex collection of specialized cells of which the melanocytes are responsible for generating pigment for the forming feather. These melanocytes snag basic nutrients out of the circulating blood and chemically rearrange them in a biochemical cascade to create pigments. The gene that creates white, or more correctly un-pigmented feathers, has a disruptive effect on this cascade resulting in inhibition of one biochemical step. Therefore melanin never makes it to completion - and so the feather comes out white instead of pigmented.
There are six genes which can cause white plumage. Far and away the most important is "dominant white", designated "I", which is used in nearly all commercial meat and egg chickens to assure the more desirable white plumage. The "I" actually stands for "inhibitor gene" because its mode of action is inhibition of formation of one of the melanin precursor compounds. White plumage in jungle fowl would be unnatural and disadvantageous from a survival point of view. So this, and all the "white" genes, are a result of mutations on the genetic normality of pigmented plumage. But man sometimes intervenes with nature and preserves these rare mutations when they arise in domesticated animals. And if the mutation appear potentially useful or even just interesting the breeder sets about isolating, stabilizing and perpetuating the mutation genetically - occasionally to the point of creating a novel breed or strain around it. All variations in domestic animals have arisen by such creative incorporation and development of chickens, rabbits, etc. All represent collections of perpetuated mutations. And most of the breeds we work with today, which are just unique compilations of various mutations, were created long before he first laws of inheritance were even described around 1900. Man has been to some extent under his control. Which is almost the definition of domestication - controlled and directed reproduction.
A plumage pattern well known to all fly tyers is grizzly. This pattern is also created by the inhibition of pigment deposition, not the addition. The mode of action of the barring gene "B" is not to place a black pigment band on a white background, but rather the periodic and regular inhibition of pigment creation on an otherwise all black chicken as the feathers develop within the feather follicles. It has been proposed that the biochemical action occurring to create grizzly is a rhythmic buildup and then exhaustion of a pigment inhibitor flowing throughout the body and not just within each follicle, and that is why the barring lines up on the bird and appear to be coordinated across an entire feather tract.
A rare plumage pattern called "Cree" provides an interesting glimpse into the mechanism of the barring gene. True Cree is a very attractive repeating pattern of black, brown or ginger and the white from the tip to the butt of the feather. Because feathers are constructed by the follicle from the tip to the butt, the Cree Pattern results from a differing sensitivity to inhibition of the black and brown pigments. Black is more rapidly inhibited than brown apparently because as the black ceases the underlying brown continues for a while until it too is totally inhibited, resulting in the white or non-pigmented band. When the inhibitor is exhausted both black and brown are reinitiated at the same time, indicating a difference in sensitivity to the inhibitor rather than just a shift in the barring of brown relative to black. This can be confirmed by closely examining a good Cree Pelt. Occasionally the black bar will be absent on one side of the quill and not the other, and the brown or ginger will line up with the leading edge of the opposite black bar, indicating both pigments started at the same time. The difference between cree and grizzly is not the underlying brown bar but rather the synchrony of inhibition of both black and brown pigments. To prove this point, subject a grizzly feather to hair bleach. The black pigment will be removed more rapidly clearly leaving a brown or ginger grizzly of the same barring width. The black bars just visually dominate the brown bars in an unaltered grizzly feather.
Cree is rare because it requires a three-way cross to produce; initially a grizzly and brown mating, then the resulting grizzly variant (the F1) crossed back onto brown or black hens to get the cree. Its rarity is more a function of the large array of other colors and patterns than cree that result from what is referred to as the F2 segregation, including barred ginger, light ginger, golden badger, more grizzly variants, furnace and a host of odd speckled variants that can be difficult to sell. True Cree only represents a fraction of all the F2 segregates, and then it doesn't breed true- cree crossed with cree never gives cree. And that is why cree is rare - - it is not hard to produce, just inefficient and troublesome.
This concept of pigment inhibition as the mechanism to create plumage patterns and colors can be explained in another way. A totally black chicken is a chicken which has no inhibitor genes in action. As a result the pigment cells just constantly churn out a steady level of pigment resulting in solid black with the underlying brown not evident. A caveat to this intense total pigmentation of feathers is that plumage such as black or coachman brown tend to be softer, the barbs less stiff, than less completely pigmented colors, i.e. grizzly or regular brown. I speculate this is attributable to the high density of pigment capsules within the feather matrix necessary to create these dark colors . . . and that this higher density diminishes the structural stiffness of the barbs slightly resulting in less stiff hackle. Further substantiation of this pigment influencing stiffness effect is that white, or more accurately non-pigmented feathers, usually have the sturdiest barbs, sometimes to the point of being needle sharp and needle stiff.
Dun, is in a sense the holy grail of hackle colors. It is a very useful color or shade for imitating mayflies and other highly desired fish food insects. But dun is also somewhat elusive genetically. This is because the principle gene used by most hackle producers to create dun is the Blue Andalusian type dun which is incompletely dominant and therefore does not breed true. The mode of action for dun is again inhibition. The blue gene "Bl", partially inhibits the creation of black pigment so the density of black pigment capsules incorporated in the feather matrix is reduced, thereby giving a diluted black, gray or blue appearance. Because this is not a sex linked gene, and so all individuals have a pair of these genes, any individual can be one of three combinations; bl bl which is black, Bl bl which is blue, or Bl Bl which is white splashed with blue. This is a classic example of an incompletely dominate gene where the inhibition effect of Bl is not complete over bl, and so the effect is only partial. It also shows what is referred to as a dosage effect where two doses of Bl in an individual have a greater degree of thee effect, namely near complete pigment inhibition compared with only one dose. This incomplete dominance creates an extra hurdle when producing duns in that this type of dun won't breed true. Breeding black (bl bl)with white splashed (Bl Bl) is the only way to produce 100% blues (Bl bl). But most breeders' experience with this approach results in duns which predominately tend to be quite dark or iron blue duns, not the more desirable medium or light duns. The other option, mating blue (Bl bl) with blue (Bl Bl) generates three colors; 25% black, 50% blue and 25% white splashed. From a sales point of view the white splashed pelts are not in much demand and therefore can be a problem to sell. Additionally, a blue on blue mating can generate a wide array of dun shades due to the influence of other background genes, such as lacing (lg). Therefore the predictability of this type of incompletely dominant blue is not conducive to consistent and manageable hackle production. Nonetheless when it does work it can provide some excellent complex and very buggy dun shades.
Fortunately there are four other ways genetically to produce what are collectively called duns. The next most common route is the use of the "self blue" or the lavender gene, designated "lav". The common name "self blue" indicates it does breed true, in other words lavender mated with lavender yields 100% lavender. This is a distinct advantage when compared with the non true breeding Bl bl type dun. The one disadvantage of the lavender gene is it is rather pale and not as complex a dun shade as the Bl bl. But it does generate the more sellable lighter blue color and remains quite consistent and doesn't tend to go too dark readily. The term lavender is fairly appropriate for this blue shade. When the lavender gene is crossed onto a brown plumage background stock, instead of the more typical black background, the resulting color is a beige, or sometimes called a sandy dun. This dual color potential indicates the lavender gene has inhibitory effects on both black and brown pigments.
There are two other minor routes to dun for hackle producers. Pale watery dun can be arrived at fairly readily by crossing dominant white, I I, onto any basically black stock, grizzly included. The resulting offspring are heterozygous for dominant white, I i, and because of the incomplete inhibition of black pigment by only a single dose of I, some "leakage" of black pigment occurs resulting in a pale watery dun which may or may not have black flecks. If the cross was made with a grizzly an interesting "ghost barred white" results which has faint but noticeable pale water dun barring. Both of these types of pale watery duns are excellent candidates for dying to darker dun shades because the initial faint pigment contributes to the final complexity of the dyed dun.
The other minor route to dun is the infrequent occurrence of a medium dun that occasionally drops out of certain ginger lines. The capes have a classic "honey dun" mix of ginger barbs and medium to light dun web. The saddles on these roosters tend to have less ginger and more dun than the capes, and sometimes possess a perfectly even and complete medium dun. Unfortunately these individuals are infrequent and the mode of inheritance is apparently not simple, so consistent production of these ginger duns is somewhat elusive.
The most promising of the genetic paths to dun is what I have named "Dominant White Dun." The gene is unique i that it is another mutant of the same gene as dominant white, referred to as an allele. The dominant white dun gene also inhibits black pigment, but more incompletely, with the resulting dun an exceptionally buggy brownish bronze gay. A lighter and a darker manifestation of the gene occurs providing some additional variety. The complexity of the color is the greatest of all genetic duns and so lends itself to more accurate and interesting insect imitation as well as a bronzy glint in the sunshine. The dominant white dun gene in a hackle line is unique to Whiting Farms.
The interactions of these dun genes has not been explored to any great degree yet. In the future I anticipate whose new arrays of dun shades will become available through the mixing and interactions of all the genetic duns.
These few examples of single gene plumage color or pattern inheritance illustrate how qualitative genetics have been investigated and how they are applied. These particular examples also are some of the more interesting and useful in regard to hackle breeding. There are many more qualitative characteristics which impact hackle feathers, but it would be beyond the scope of this chapter to address them all. If the reader wishes to obtain a more extensive listing of genes I have cited several of the more important and useful texts on poultry genetics in the bibliography.
Another concept in genetics that is worthwhile to understand is linkage. By strict definition linkage refers to proximity of genes on a single chromosome, the closer they are the greater the linkage they have. The relevance of this is if the genes controlling two distinct traits are close together on the same chromosome, selection for one of the traits will usually result in selection for the other. If the genes are quite close, in a sense next door to one another, then you can hardly separate them - selection for one will get you the other. This can be either good or bad. It is a negative linkage if selecting for one desirable trait results in gaining another undesirable trait along the way. It is a positive linkage if selection for one trait results in concurrently obtaining another positive trait.
Linkages can be broken, which is a form of mutation or rearrangement of the genes on a chromosome. By these rearrangements the genes can be "mapped", which places specific identifiable genes by order and distance on a given chromosome. Some very exciting work is being done in this area now, particularly with viruses, plastids and bacteria. Such mapping is an important initial step in being able to manipulate genes in lower life forms, allowing segments or sequences to be literally "snipped out" and rearranged or even transferred between species. It's basically playing God - but it has great potential for good, particularly in vaccine creations, disease resistance and basic research. Another even more ambitious undertaking is the "Human Genome Project", where all the human chromosomes will be attempted to be mapped. Some liken this project to the effort o putting a man on the moon - but with far more profound and far reaching effects. The difference is we can see the moon and know what it does and that it's going to stay a quarter million miles away. Understanding the human genome will open a gate into everyone's biological backyard - and who knows what will be let in or out.
Linkage mapping of poultry genes has been carried out to a moderate extent, due mostly to the convenient research vehicle that chickens, turkeys and quail provide. Unfortunately, not many traits of relevance to hackle breeding have been specifically mapped - research laboratories at the agricultural universities typically focus on more mainstream poultry traits such as those that effect egg or meat products. Nonetheless there are a few interesting linkages that impact hackle breeding. Because they have not been specifically researched and mapped, these are just apparent linkages, or what I refer to as functional linkages.
Slow Feathering and Barring
There are several genes which affect the rate of feather growth, together and separately. The clarity and narrowness of the barred feather pattern, which produces the grizzly, is highly correlated with the rate of feather growth. The slower the feathers grow the narrower and more distinct the barring will be. Rapidly growing feathers produce a wide, indistinct, often uneven and smudgy barring. Therefore all highly refined grizzly hackle stocks will be noticeable slow feathering. The breeders working on improving their grizzly lines didn't intentionally select the slow feather growth individuals specifically. Rather, they chose the best barring, which was in large part due to a slower rate of feather growth. Over many generations of such selection the grizzly stocks have become universally slow feathering. This connection happens to be an example of both functional linkage and chromosomal linkage. The barring gene "B" is located on the sex chromosome (designated "Z"), and the principle slow feathering gene "K" has been located on the same chromosome, though the genes are too far apart to be considered closely linked. Some would consider this barring quality/feathering growth rate correlation a negative functional linkage because the desired barring quality results in a somewhat troublesome slow feathering - the birds are harder to brood, and more prone to pecking one another. But as in most hackle breeding, quality overrides convenience.
Another probably more important functional linkage is hackle quality and disease resistance - specifically to Marek's Disease. Marek's disease is caused by a Herpes virus which inhabits the sheaths around the major nerves of the body and results in paralysis and tumors in chickens, particularly skin tumors. The virus is shed in the feather dander and so is ubiquitous in the environment and is a common poultry disease around the world. Practically all commercial chicks are vaccinated for Marek's Disease at one day of age at the hatchery with an injected live vaccine which protects them their whole life. Hackle chickens are especially susceptible to this disease. Most of the hackle producers use the strongest Marek's Disease vaccine available, often in higher than normal dosages, to protect their stock. It is just my speculation but the hackle birds' susceptibility to this particular disease may be linked in some way with the fact hackle chickens have been selected for extreme feather characteristics for many generations, and that the Marek's virus is shed in the feather dander and the disease largely affects the skin from which the feathers grow. Another possible connection is that the hackle lines are to some degree inbred and so not as vigorous or hardy as non-inbred stocks, and the Marek's disease often flares up when the birds get stressed, i.e. paralysis after initial caging. In a similar way the human herpes virus that inhibits the nerve sheaths in the mouth area often flare up when people get stressed, and the result is a cold sore.
Marek's Disease nearly put Henry Hoffman out of business in the mid-1970's. Henry probably brought onto his home farm a rooster from another source which carried a more virulent strain of Marek's virus. His grizzly birds were highly susceptible and the virus devastated them. For a few years, until Henry began to vaccinate and isolate his young chicks, the disease nearly destroyed his breeding program. He couldn't make much progress selecting for feather quality when most of his birds were sick or dead. Fortunately he was able to get the problem under control. As a caveat to this experience the best "family" of grizzlies Henry had was called the "H" family. The "H" did not stand for Hoffman, but rather "Hospital Pen". When the roosters succumbed to Marek's Disease they often are partially paralyzed or just very sick and down. In an effort to salvage all the roosters he could, Henry put these down birds in the "Hospital Pen"and attempted to nurse them along. Out of the survivors of this pen Henry created a line he called the H's which then became his best grizzly line for the rest of his career. This may show there can be as much serendipity to hackle breeding as there is science.
One of the more important functional linkages in current hackle breeding is the correlation(s) between cape qualities and saddle qualities - or actually the lack of correlation(s). There are no linkages between cape and saddle qualities.
The current interest and effort by nearly all the hackle producers to develop in their stocks a dry fly saddle, such as Henry Hoffman created, could be viewed as a dubious undertaking. The fact that no dry fly saddles arose in any of the non-Hoffman stocks, despite many years of intensive selection for cape hackle traits, is functional proof there is very little or no quality linkage between the two pelts. It wasn't until thee other breeders specifically started to select for saddle feather traits that any progress was realized.
Feathers have six basic functions. The first function of feathers is a simple insulation to help maintain the bird's body temperature while in varying temperatures in their environment. The second major function is physical protection. Feathers form and provide a durable shield to protect the bird's relatively delicate skin from abrasions, punctures, sunlight, and the general insults which the environment subjects them to. Interestingly, because feathers become worn over time and so less functional, all birds periodically molt and grow themselves new feathers. Molting is a bird's way of renewing its multi-functional covering of feathers. The third principle function of feathers is for flight. The large primary and secondary flight feathers affixed to the rear edges of the wings provide propulsion and lift, respectively. The fourth function of feathers is for aerodynamic contour, to smooth the shape of the body to allow it to be more functional flight form. The fifth function of feathers is camouflage, so birds can blend visually with their surroundings. This is especially important for ground nesting birds that must incubate their eggs for anywhere from two to eight weeks and are therefore quite vulnerable to predators. The sixth and final function of feathers is for display as a secondary sexual characteristic. A peacock's high and colorful tail plumes are one of the more extreme examples - the tail's purpose is to attract pea-hens. The degree of emphasis of each of these six functions of feathers depends on the species, their environment and their inherent behaviors. Penguins in the arctic must rely greatly on the insulation value of their feather coats but have little need for display, because they are monogamous and often mate for life. Therefore penguins have minimal differences in plumage between the males or females. At the other extreme are tropical or jungle species whose brilliant plumage is largely intended to make them stand out in the heavy forest canopy to attract as many mates as possible. The huge variety of feathers, in form and function, is truly a marvel of evolution
Feathers grown in "tracts" or discrete areas on the body, and not continuously over the entire body surface such as fur does. Feathers over lap one another and also overlay the non-feathered areas between the tracts. The areas or tracts where there are feathers are called pterylae, the non-feathered areas apterylae. The different feather tracts (and there are usually ten of them) have different functions. The wing tract (alar tract) grow long stiff flight feathers to provide structural surface area to create lift to support the body weight of the bird in flight. The breast tract (ventral tract) grows softer feathers which conform to the body, to smooth it aerodynamically and protect it. The neck tract (capital tract) and on a Junglecock/rooster is to provide a secondary sexual characteristic (full, strong bull neck), and to flare when facing an opponent in a cock fight, to intimidate the antagonist and protect his own neck from spurs and beak. The back of saddle tract (spinal tract) has some of the same secondary sexual characteristics of rooster neck hackle, but from a functional point of view provides little more than body insulation and protection. Because the different feather tracts have markedly different functions it is not surprising that their feather characteristics are different, and that these characteristics are under different genetic control. This also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Natural selection would favor limited changes in feathers within a given tract more readily than across-the-board feather changes in all tracts. So it is not surprising selection for cape hackle characteristics would have little or no effect on saddle hackle characteristics, if no unconscious or unintentional selection were occurring. In other words, no selection linkage occurs between cape and saddle feather qualities.
So what's the big deal, why not just select for both cape and saddle hackle traits at the same time? Why, because there is a "cost" to any and all selection. To divert selection pressure to additional traits, which have no linkage to one another, will lessen the progress in all the traits. Therein lies the difficulty, cost and danger. To try and develop a dry fly saddle where there isn't much of one to start with will undermine the maintenance of quality on the cape. Because these combination of qualities we call dry fly hackle already represent genetic extremes, lessening selection pressure will almost certainly result in slippage of quality. Just to maintain a static level of quality in these developed and refined stocks, I estimate as a rule of thumb, a minimum selection pressure of 95% is needed (using only the top 5% t reproduce with) just to maintain the same level of quality in the next generation. If this is the case in a good cape hackle line with an undeveloped dry fly saddle, then to try to develop a saddle will almost surely compromise the cape. To put some numbers to this situation, in order to maintain cape quality level, the top 5% of the roosters need to be found to be used as breeder sires. To develop the saddle, say the same selection pressure is exerted, the top 5%. Because there is no linkage between cape and saddle feather characteristics, the selection pressure needed becomes the top 1/4 of 1% of the breeder candidates! (5% x 5% = 0.25%). Unless selection pressure is slackened on one or both tracts, then the selector has to search through 20 times the number of rooster candidates to find the same number of sires to breed with to just maintain production at the same cape quality level. That is why trying to develop unlinked traits is a dubious proposition, or at best certainly a very challenging one.
The reasons Mr. Henry Hoffman was able to develop both pelts to dry fly quality are first, they both started out focused on the dry fly, and second, he concurrently selected for both capes and saddles over twenty three (23) focused years starting in the mid 1960's. The other breeders are probably a good 20 years behind at present. In addition, dual pelt selection is a much more difficult program to carry out than just cape selection. The linkage hasn't and is not going to change. To illustrate, out of approximately two hundred (200) breeder sires found and used every generation in my hereditary programs, I consider myself lucky to find ONE rooster each year that has both the best cape and saddle. One of the most painful and frustrating facets on breeder rooster selection is all the excellent capes or saddles the selector has to pass up because the other pelt just isn't of breeder quality. So many times you wish you could put an outrageously good cape from one rooster on another rooster that has an outrageously good saddle - graft them in effect. Alas! That isn't possible. Still the challenge to find that one supreme rooster is part of the allure and reward of hackle breeder selection.
Sex Linked, Sex Limited and Sex Selected
Dry fly hackle is provided solely by roosters. It is the very nature of these roostery feathers to possess the characteristics which fly tyers long ago discovered could support a fly on the surface tension of water when a hackle feather was wrapped around a hook that fly fishing changed forever. Hen feathers, from the same parts of the body as roosters, are radically different and cannot function in the same ways. The hen hackle is softer, they possess more web which absorbs water, and they are markedly smaller and so provide much less material to work with. These feather trait differences are simply the result of what are called secondary sexual characteristics. The primary sexual characteristics are the gonads - - the ovaries and testes. The secondary sexual characteristics' ultimate function is to expedite the union of the primary sexual characteristics - - procreation.
Interestingly it is not testosterone from the testes, the "male" hormone, which creates these male secondary sexual characteristics. Actually it is the absence of "estrogens", the female hormones, which dictates if rooster feathers will be grown or not. Research has been done where the ovaries are removed from a hen (a difficult operation). The hen then grows rooster feathers and even behaves like a rooster, crowing and strutting - - without any supplemental testosterone. This is because estrogens act as a suppressor to development of male secondary sexual characteristics, and so without ovaries and therefore no estrogen, the hen's feathers instead grow as rooster feathers. In the reverse situation, neuter a rooster, referred to as caponization, and he still grows rooster feathers without any supplemental testosterone. The capon grows rooster feathers and not hen feathers because there still are no ovaries producing estrogens to suppress rooster feather development. The behavior of the capon is definitely less rooster-like though - - they don't fight, are quieter, put on more body fat and tend to have longer, silkier feathers.
One hackle producer claims he can make a hen grow rooster feathers with only a simple procedure. Since removing the ovaries is a very difficult and impractical task, this hackle grower removes the testicles out of his harvested hackle roosters (which are quite large, up to two inches long each and many times the size of their brain). The fresh testicles (several usually) are then surgically introduced into the body cavity of a young hackle hen. Some, but not all of these modified hens will then grow harvestable rooster capes. What is probably happening is that the testicles remain viable and the hen body does not reject them, but instead accepts them and keeps the testicles alive and functioning hormonally. The testosterone from these transplanted testicles is apparently suppressing estrogen production from the young hen's ovaries, or inhibits development or maturation of her ovaries, or simply overwhelms the estrogen she does produce. In any case, the normal and expected suppressive effect of her estrogens does not occur and the latent rooster nature of all hen feathers is unleashed, and a quasi-rooster results. I personally think it would just be easier to hatch out more roosters. And additionally, what do you do if they are breeder quality?
This discussion of the effects of hormones on feathers was to emphasize the differences between the sexes when it comes to feathers. Both sexes carry the same genetic make up for hackle quality, but because of the suppressive effect of estrogens, only in the male are the desired feather qualities manifested. This is referred to as "sex limited". The sex limited nature of most hackle traits of interest complicates and hinders hackle breeder selection. In effect you are operating blind with one half of the genetic equation, because the female contributes one half of the genes to all offspring. Where this leaves the breeder selector is either selecting females for rooster-like feather traits or analyzing pedigree information to estimate the genetic merit of a given hen by h ow good her male relatives are. The first strategy (pedigree analysis) is much more involved but usually more accurate. Pedigrees require complicated and time consuming records and extensive identification and tracking of both males and females. Which strategy, or combination, a hackle breeder uses is largely a matter of personal preferences, for all have produced good results.
Any Minor was known for the exhaustive pedigree information he maintained on his hackle stock, which reportedly he studied and poured over on a daily basis. Andy related some of his techniques and strategies to Ted Hebert which were largely based on scrutiny of the females. Ted paraphrases Andy Minor as saying "the females are where you need to spend your time, the males are obvious." So Andy Minor did both, female selection and pedigree analysis. At the other end of the extreme was Henry Hoffman who almost never examined females for feather qualities in his breeding program, relying rather on rooster selection entirely. The one time Henry did select females was to reduce his breeder hen population after a purchase deal fell through and not as an intentional breeding strategy. Henry also used minimal pedigree information, relying almost exclusively on scrutinizing all roosters each generation and then just using the best from each family. Oddly, even though Henry almost never selected females, the lineage he traced from generation to generation carried the female's family designation no matter what family the roosters he had used to breed them or would choose to breed with them. Basically an unquestioned matriarchal lineage system driven by rooster selection exclusively. Uniquely Hoffman.
One side effect of selecting hens for rooster-like feather characteristics is the gradual shift away from overall hen-ness of the females. Their feathers definitely become longer, narrower and less webby. But also their behavior becomes less hen-like as well - - to the point of almost rooster aggressiveness. As Ted Hebert likes to chide me, "My hens can whip your roosters any day"! And they probably could, after the 50 + years of hen selection for rooster qualities that Harry Darbee, Andy Minor, then Ted, have carried out.
Sex Linkage is another interesting subject in the realm of hackle breeding. Sex linkage is a special form of linkage, as described previously in this chapter. It refers to what genes reside on the sex chromosome. This puts them in a special category because most chromosomes are paired, but the sex chromosomes are an unlike pair. And it is the unlikeness of this pair that dictates which gender a new life will be. Gender is determined by who gets what sex chromosomes at conception. In humans and all mammals the male has the dissimilar sex chromosomes, referred to as X and Y. Females have two X's and so are designated as XX. Therefore when the chromosomes split and reduce by one half, to join with their partner's half to form a new life, it is the male who actually determines which sex the offspring will be. This is because the male parent can provide either an X or a Y, but the female can only provide an X or an X. If the offspring gets his fathers Y he will be a son, XY, and if the offspring gets his fathers X, she will be a daughter, XX.
Unlike humans and other mammals, birds, reptiles, and oddly butterflies, have the opposite sex chromosome arrangement. It is the females who have the dissimilar sex chromosomes, designated in birds as ZW. Therefore, it is the female bird which determines the gender of each of her offspring, not the male. Another way of viewing this sex linkage is a daughter obtains all her sex-linked inheritance from her father and can only pas it on to her sons. A son gets half of his sex-linked inheritance from each parent, and can pass it on to both his sons and daughters.
Another implication of sex linkage is that male birds have two doses of all the genes on the sex chromosomes, because they are ZZ, and females only have one dose, because they are ZW. The simplest example in hackle of this sex linked dosage effect is the barring in grizzly. Barring is an incompletely dominant gene, identified as "B", which is on the sex chromosome and so is sex linked. Roosters have two sex chromosomes ZZ, and so have two doses of barring, noted as BB. Females on the other hand are ZW and so can only have one dose of barring, noted as B-. The effect of this dosage is the degree to which the periodic inhibitor of the barring gene occurs. In roosters the unpigmented "white" portion of the barring is approximately equal to the pigmented black portion. But in hens the white portion is usually less than half the width of the neighboring black bars. In addition the white bars are whiter and clearer in the roosters than in the hens. This is a classic example of the dosage effect due to sex linkage. Other sex linked genes which impact hackle breeding are silver/gold plumage color, slow feathering and dwarfism.
Birds are actually just specialized and evolved reptiles. It doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to realize feathers are really just elongated, specialized scales. In fact birds still have reptile-like scales covering their feet and shanks. So, if anyone ever asks you which came first, the chicken or the egg, answer confidently, "obviously, the egg!" (gg: Of course, who ever saw an egg lay a chicken?) And if they dare to challenge this assertion simply point out that chickens originated from Junglefowl, which evolved out of millions of years of evolution from the first bird, Archaeopteryx, which evolved out of a reptile that certainly laid eggs - - so without a doubt the egg came vastly first, not the chicken!
One of the more surprising aspects of hackle raising is the radical diversity of production techniques and systems employed by the different hackle herders. Considering the commonality of goals; efficient, manageable production of quality hackle, it's amazing how differently the growers each have gone about trying to achieve these goals.
There are a number of reason for this diversity of approaches, including:
There is a wealth of information available for most all aspects of poultry; nutrition, husbandry, equipment, housing, disease control, to name but a few of the major areas. But there is precious little information that is specific to raising chickens for solely feathers. True, much of the research and knowledge within poultry science is applicable to hackle production, and very helpful and even essential. But you can't go to a text, library or land grant university and learn how to do it. You basically are on your own.
Because of this ground floor initiation into the challenges of hackle herding, how the hackle pioneers initially approached and solved the myriad of problems they encountered led them on very individualistic tracts. As might be expected, different people in different situations arrived at often quite different solutions. Thus evolved markedly individual techniques and systems. And as they built upon and refined their own methods, the divergence and individuality of each was perpetuated and intensified.
So much of the differences in hackle production methods amongst the herders is due to the fact they had to figure out for themselves what would work for them and that includes myself. The best example is the use of cages for roosters. Cage use runs the gamut amongst the different producers. Some growers developed programs where cages are never employed, the chickens being raised together in mass. To combat the natural tendencies of the roosters to do one another damage by fighting and pecking, various techniques were used to prevent this, including dim and/or red lighting, beak trimming and even the use of red contact lenses initially developed for caged egg layers. Whatever their approach the goal was to figure out a way to keep the roosters from doing damage to another's feathers long enough to get them to a harvestable age, typically around 35 weeks of age. Notable producers who developed "no cage" systems included Andy Minor, Al Brighenti, the Ewing family and the Chanticleer hackle brand, among others.
At the opposite extreme are a few growers who make extensive use of cages; individual isolation cages for every rooster, caging at a relatively young age (10 - 14 weeks) and even having their breeder cages. Most notably Colorado Quality Hackles and Whiting Farms. And there are a few who have refined intermediate programs where the roosters are raised well beyond sexual maturity together (16 - 18 weeks) using light restriction, then caged late (around 20 weeks) for the latter half of their lives. Ted Hebert has been the most successful using this combined approach.
What path the fledgling hackle herders initially set out upon had a large bearing on where they continued to put their efforts. As in the example of caging roosters, whatever the approach they chose to pursue, it took many years of trial and error and innovation in order to refine their particular programs. Therefore, this initial path choice is one of the principle reasons for the overall diversity of production approaches that exist amongst the hackle herders today.
The degree to which the hackle herders have operated in isolation has run the gamut from friendly openness to absolute secrecy. Some of the early pioneers, notably Harry Darbee and Andy Minor, were generous to a fault in sharing their knowledge, experience, techniques and even stock with whomever expressed an interest in hackle raising. Henry Hoffman, on the other hand, was so concerned that his stock and techniques would be stolen that he deliberately remained anonymous and secretive, even marketing his pelts through a third party for a good many years.
As fly fishing steadily gained popularity in the 1970's, 1980's and into the early 1990's, demand for hackle motivated a few people to develop hackle herding into serious businesses. For the most part, many shut down their lines of communications between producers, who responded as competitors usually do. It could be argued, considering the lack of solid knowledge on how to raise these roosters for their feathers, more could have been gained by the producers if they had been more open amongst themselves and shared information, then by closing off to on another. But such is business.
This isolation and secrecy is another major contributing factor to why such different production systems evolved and persisted amongst the hackle herders.
The fact that you are trying to produce a fairly delicate and certainly damageable product located on the outside of a less than cooperative animal dictates a whole host of production constraints and challenges. Sometimes you are convinced that even though the roosters have brains no bigger than a grape they have made the connection regarding you wanting their feathers, and so they seem to set out purposefully to destroy that which you are raising them for. And they often like to do it one week prior to harvest. If nothing else they have a sense of timing.
Because of the damageability of the feathers, much of the herders efforts are geared towards foiling the opportunities that the roosters have to damage their feathers. This influences cage design, feeder arrangement, lighting programs, and even physical manipulations of the birds (i.e. beak trimming). The solutions to these challenges are certainly not universal. Thus the techniques employed differ in strategy and detail between the producers
These hackle considerations are not the usual challenges other types of poultry producers face. They are concerned more typically with growth rate, egg numbers, fleshing, feed efficiency, etc. Feathers are rarely even thought about. In fact hackle producing has vastly less in common with other types of poultry than it does with more obscure animal enterprises such as mink production. As with mink the end goal is to produce a high value product which is derived from the outset of an uncooperative animal that usually has to be kept in an individual cage. This similarity of pursuit is partly why three of the ranch managers employed by Whiting Farms had previously been mink ranchers, with no prior experience with poultry.
Because of the uniqueness of the challenges facing hackle raisers, when compared with other types of animal agriculture, the production solutions are usually not textbook derived. The solutions therefore reflect more the individuality of the solver and of the product. These aspects contributed to the diversity of production systems amongst the producers also.
What production techniques actually work can often be dictated by the ferocity of the hackle stock. Some stocks are relatively docile, while others are demons from hell. Raising roosters without the physical isolation of individual cages may not even be an option in some cases. In addition, dry fly saddles are markedly more vulnerable to damage, both from bird to bird contact and from cage design. So higher value roosters and aggressiveness both favor the use of cages.. Because the different stocks vary in these two aspects, different production programs appropriate for the genetic constraints of that stock have been developed.
It would seem logical that as any stock is improved and becomes more valuable, particularly in regard to developing a dry fly saddle, the advantages of cages will become more pronounced. In addition, more attention will be directed towards refinement of cage design and the subtleties of husbandry. The finer points of both can often make the difference in realizing he upper reaches of the rooster's genetic potential. Nonetheless the genetically determined personality, if you will, of the particular hackle stock is often the starting point around which these cage designs, production systems and husbandry refinements are wrapped. And what highly refined program works for one stock may be totally inappropriate or unworkable for another stock. This is why often markedly different systems of production were developed by the herders - they had to be different to accommodate the genetic constraints of their particular stock.
The impact of climate on quality hackle production is possibly one of the least appreciated of the major contributing variables.
Feathers are the interface that the bird has with it's environment. Conversely, what that environment is has a large impact on the feathers. To ignore environment when trying to produce quality feathers can almost be as detrimental as ignoring nutrition - one impacts the feathers from the outside in, the other from the inside out.
Environment needs to be considered at three levels: the immediate environment of the chicken house (temperature, humidity, light intensity, etc.), the particular climate of the region, and the seasonal changes of that regional climate. Each are major variables that impact the bird, and their feathers, both because of the bird's reactions to these variables and because of the direct effect of the variable on the feathers. The complexities of the interactions between climate at all levels, the bird, and feathers are enormous, and multi-multi-dimensional.
One variable alone, light, is multi-dimensional in and of itself. The intensity of the light, the photo period or daily length of the light, even the color spectrum of the light (the compliment of wavelengths that make up the light),both visible and invisible, all impact the bird in complex hormonal ways. Add to this the seasonal changes of all of the above, relative to when the rooster was hatched and maturing, and the complexities of just this one variable become staggering. Take in all the variables that make up an environment or climate, and their effects and interactions, and the complexities become almost boggling. Add to this the fact that birds by their very nature are highly mobile and have evolved to be very responsive to their environment; they migrate seasonally, they tour their territory daily, they nest at precise times, they molt at precise times, they change their plumage - in quantity and color - seasonally (i.e. ptarmigans). The list goes on and on.
The monumental impact of climate and environment on feathers is generally and greatly underappreciated.
The obvious question that arises is what then is the ideal or optimum climate in which to raise hackle chickens? This in itself brings up another level of considerations. First, what is the optimum climate for raising poultry generally? Ideally, poultry production is carried out most easily in climates that are moderate with little seasonality, dry, close to good supplies of feedstuffs, with readily available, inexpensive and good labor and transportation resources.
Yet poultry are raised under a huge range of climates, from Saudi Arabia to Siberia, and everywhere in between. Chickens, in particular, are amazingly adaptable, provided they are given some basic husbandry; feed, water, some shelter and heat when young. But these are just survival minimums. For good productivity and efficiency, a high degree of environmental control (usually power ventilated and thermostatically controlled). Automatic feeding and watering systems, and some degree of lighting control are all required. The modern poultry industry is a testament to the creative application of technology and science to large scale animal agriculture - no segment has advanced as rapidly or as far as poultry in this century.
But where does this leave feather productions? Fortunately, for the hackle raisers and fly tyers of the world, many of the advances in poultry production science, equipment, housing and technology can be readily applied to advantage for feather production. And because of the availability of all these advantages, the actual climate in which the hackle chickens are raised is not nearly as important as it once was.
Genetic hackle is a uniquely American product. Historically it originated in several northern tier states, primarily Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania and the New England region. These particular locations arose because of the proximity of dry fly fishing, the coincidental homes of the originators of hackle production, and the highly seasonal Northern latitudes. The farther North (or South) one gets from the equator the grater the seasonal ranges in day length, light intensity and temperature extremes. This is not coincidental to early hackle production development. The very first hackle raisers, notably Darbee, Miner and Hoffman, made very little use of poultry technology or climate control. And, not surprisingly, their production was very seasonal - hatch in the Spring and harvest in the Winter. This particular seasonal pattern lent itself to hackle production for three distinct reasons. First, it was the natural pattern of the birds themselves - breed, lay and hatch in the Spring, grow in the lush Summer, molt in the Fall and mature in the Winter. Secondly, the harvest of the feathers in the Winter coincided with the use and demand for the feathers, for fly tying in advance of the coming Spring and Summer fishing seasons. And thirdly, and possibility most importantly, the relatively rapid increase in day length (photo period) and light intensity as the young roosters grew in the Spring and Summer, and the converse in the Fall, conforms to the optimum progression for extreme feather growth. It has been studied and proven with many northern, non-migratory bird species that great seasonal shifts in photo period stimulates the development of a higher density and sturdiness of feathers. And these feathers develop in advance of the coming cold weather, not as a result of it - otherwise it would be too late. So the roosters grown for hackle were being "keyed into" this natural stimulation for dense, full feathers due to the latitude they happened to be grown in. Add to this intentional selection for these very same traits and what develops is an intensification of the seasonal light fluctuation effect on feathers. What the early hackle pioneers were probably unaware of was they set out on their little projects in naturally favorable climates and latitudes. It may have been rough going with severe winters, minimal housing, laborious chores, difficult conditions and seasonal extremes. But these factors were probably significant contributors to the early hackle breeders' success and progress. Such demanding conditions probably also contributed to the natural hardiness and vigor of their stocks through natural selection - only the fittest survived to breed next season. Andy Miner's birds were renowned for how hardy and disease resistant they were.
This discussion of the advantages and significance of hackle production in northern latitudes is mostly of just historical relevance. It answers partly the where and why of the origins of genetic hackle. Hackle production now is not so bound to any particular climate or location due to the advent and availability of modern poultry production techniques and technology. Yet it is always valuable to have an appreciation for the place and the path of history, and for the people that made that history. Still there are decision makers in the hackle/fly tying industries who don't apparently grasp these facts. One particularly well known fly tying company purchased a decent hackle stock in the 1970', that had originated in the New England are, to produce their own feathers. For reasons of their own the company relocated the stock and hackle production to northern Florida and tried to operate in open sided, non-environmentally controlled sheds. This would have been contrary to all sensible logic had they thought about it. Nonetheless they struggled for many years, with no success, until finally they gave up, and the hackle line was made extinct. A total loss at all levels. Another example is a commercial fly tying company in the late 1980's which purchased a decent hackle stock, originally developed again in the New England region, and relocated them down to Central America to be close to their tying operations. In this case the logic had some practicality. But again the fundamental requirements of the genetic stock were violated, and as should have been expected, no good hackle production resulted. Apparently, in the end, the villagers of the area just ended up eating the hackle chickens. So I suppose not a total loss.
Due to the high cost and high need for decent tying hackle, the fly tying companies have probably all entertained ideas of growing their own roosters. Furthermore they often envision doing the hackle production in the same areas as their tying operations; for convenience, transport logistics, and the fact labor is usually readily available and inexpensive which is the very same reasons they have their tying operations located there. All these ideas have good business merit. Yet if the rooster's requirements for growing decent hackle are not accommodated any such plan is probably doomed to fail And if they do put in the required environmentally controllable facilities, which by their very nature are quite expensive, then all cost advantage of producing their own hackle is probably canceled out.
Inexpensive labor cannot replace environmental control when it comes to hackle. Couple this with the fact that most of the larger commercial fly tying operations are located in third world countries, which are often hot, humid, and a middle latitudes - all of which conditions are detrimental to optimum hackle production. In addition dependable electrical supplies, feed supplies, feed quality, water quality, technical support and knowledgeable management can be monumental problems in third world countries. And just to make it even more difficult and risky is the prevalence of exotic poultry diseases in these areas - the village poultry often being reservoirs for all kinds of parasites and diseases. This creates a two fold problem; obvious disease risk to the hackle stock, and potential importation restrictions of the flies and/or hackle pelts into relatively disease-free western countries. And if all that weren't enough, it's hard to cure hackle pelts in a hot, humid climate and the bug problems can be immense.
Despite all these negatives some fly tying companies still look favorably on producing their own hackle. Their logic is that even if the roosters don't do well the resulting poor hackle can still be used in their own tying operations. What this logic doesn't encompass are the advantages of specialization and the potential disadvantages of diversification. Unless it is a matter of non-availability, the fly tying companies are better off focusing on their own involved and complex specialty- fly tying. To distract or dissipate their own always limited resources and efforts on another non-complimentary and equally difficult business endeavor makes hackle production probably a poor business decision. A fly tying company, if it can obtain a dependable supply of hackle, is vastly better off buying feathers than trying to produce their own. Especially if the company can get commercial grades of hackle, typically graded as #4's and #5's which are below cost, loss minimization products for the hackle grower. If a tying concern nevertheless does wade in to the mire of getting a hackle operation up and running they'll probably discover growing their own will be the most expensive hackle they'll ever buy.
Eccentricities of the Herders
One element that cannot be overlooked in regard to the diversity of production techniques is simply the individuality of the hackle herders themselves.
There have only been a handful of characters who have devoted significant effort and portions of their lives to the advancement of hackle. The very fact that there has been so few, and that they have all had markedly different personalities, backgrounds and motivations, contributed to the uniqueness and diversity of their approaches. It's possibly a good thing they all were so different in that a whole host of approaches were tried and developed. The foundation on which their successors continued therefore was made that much more broad.
But don't let me portray the notion that all approaches were good, some were not. One of the hackle industry's dirty little secrets is that some growers developed systems or engaged in practices that can only be viewed as barbaric towards the birds. Severe beak trimming to the point of mutilation, disarticulation of the lower mandible to prevent pecking, and denial of feed and/or water prior to harvest to remove subcutaneous fat to improve the pelt cosmetically, are all horribly cruel and unacceptable practices. Fortunately most of the producers who engaged in any of these practices went out of business or at least are no longer in production. The current producers are more conscientious and professional, in part due to the fact that quality hackle production favors pampering of the roosters, not cruelty. Hopefully such progress, or departure from such unfortunate chapters, can be viewed as the maturing of an industry - - for the benefit of all involved. Fortunately what will be the likely trajectory for the future is that as hackle continues to improve in quality, the quality of the care of the roosters will also continue to improve.
A good example of this increased sensitivity towards the birds is the near universal use now of carbon dioxide for euthanasia. It's an unavoidable fact that the rooster has to forfeit his life so a pelt can be harvested. All sorts of ways for killing the roosters prior to harvesting their pelts have been used in the past, with varying levels of pain and quickness. Still I feel strongly that the least we owe the rooster is as quick and painless a death as possible. Carbon dioxide (CO2, or dry ice which is odorless) provides a very satisfactory and safe way to carry out this unfortunate deed. The bird's respiratory system, which evolved to be an efficient oxygen extraction system for the high demands of flight, is very sensitive to CO2. And because the human or mammal system is not so efficient or sensitive to this gas, it is a relatively safe substance to use around workers. Because CO2 is heavier than air, the birds just have to be dipped into it and they are almost immediately rendered unconscious and they simply and painlessly go to sleep and then they die quickly due to asphyxiation. Almost all the hackle producers use carbon dioxide in this way today.
Another of the basic, essential concepts of applied breeding is that of selection pressure. In order to move any population in a specific direction over time, some sort of force must be applied to it. In the case of poultry breeding, where large populations are the usual situation, this is accomplished by limiting the number of individuals which are allowed to reproduce to create the next generation. How these individuals are selected has been the subject of several other sections of this chapter. Nonetheless, this concept of limitation is of fundamental importance to applied breeding.
Selection pressure can be viewed from two perspectives: Either the proportion excluded from reproduction or the number allowed to reproduce. Thus a selection pressure of 90% can be interpreted as the 90% of the candidate population excluded from reproduction, or the 10% allowed to reproduce. In this example, 90% is the selection pressure and 10% is the selection level.
The success and rapidity of any progress in a breeding program is largely a function of the selection pressure applied to the population. Typically the greater the pressure exerted the more rapid the progress, provided the accuracy of the selection process is good. Because of the high reproductive capacity of poultry (i.e. 150 offspring per year per female) and the rapid generational time (6 - 7 months), intense selection pressures are possible, and so is rapid progress.
Single digit selection levels are not at all uncommon, i.e. Using only the top 5% or top 1%, especially on the male side. This is because poultry are polygamous where one male can naturally fertilize 10 to 20 females. With artificial insemination, one male can provide good fertility in up to 50 females provided the semen is properly collected, handled, extended with special diluents and inseminated. These uneven sex ratios allow the selection pressure on the male side to be 10 to 50 times greater than on the female side. As an example, if a selection pressure of 85% is used on the females (only the top 15% retained for breeding), then on the male side a selection pressure of 99% can be used if the top 1% are retained for breeding and each mated to 15 females. If the traits are highly heritable, meaning the observed variability from which the selection is made is mostly due to true genetic variability and not environmentally induced variability, then these 85% and 1% selection pressures should result in material progress each generation. These are the concepts and numbers which make up a breeding program.
Breeding programs though are not made up of single traits. Rather, the goals of most any breeding program are always multifaceted. IN hackle breeding there are easily 50 specific items or traits that come into consideration when scrutinizing roosters as breeder candidates. The goal then becomes to find individuals which are excellent or at least strong in the majority of the most important traits. Not only is this a formidable task, but the selection pressure interactions are not favorable either. This is because selection pressures involving unlinked characteristics are multiplicative. In other words, the selection pressures of all the traits selected for must be multiplied together. As an example, if a selection level of 10% is desired for two unrelated traits, then the combined selection level required becomes the top 1% of the candidates (0.10 X 0.10 = 0.01 or 1%). For three traits it becomes the top 0.1%, for four traits the top 0.01%, for five traits the top 0.001%, etc. Obviously to strive for high selection pressure on anything more than a handful of principle traits becomes nearly a mathematical impossibility, or at least very impractical. Nonetheless a balanced and complete selection program is always a good idea, and only selecting for a few traits is an effective but ill advised or even detrimental strategy. So what can be done?
Several approaches have been tried and proven in the mainstream poultry breeding arenas involving eggs and meat to surmount these numerical obstacles. In breeding for meat type poultry, where the traits are more generally highly heritable and not sex limited, dividing to concur has proven to be highly effective. To circumnavigate the difficulties of selecting a single line for all the many traits needed with meat chickens or turkeys, the traits are instead allocated into multiple separate lines. At least two lines and often four are developed, each selected for specific traits or strengths (i.e. growth rate, feed efficiency, leg strength, fleshing, etc.) Each line then has strong selection pressure applied to the traits it's targeted for development, with minimum selection pressure applied on a host of other traits to assure no general backsliding. The lines are then crossed to generate offspring which have high degrees of performance for all the selected traits of the parental lines. In addition these crosses usually exhibit some degree of "hybrid vigor", which results when unrelated stocks are crossed, such as occurs with dog mutts or mules.
The last 50 years of scientific meat poultry breeding using these strategies has resulted in phenomenal progress. This genetic success is one of the reasons why poultry meat is the #1 meat in the world today and destined to become even more dominate due to such progress in efficiency. The handful of poultry breeding companies which supply the world's genetic stock - - less than ten with a dominate few - - are very sophisticated research organizations. Often the chicken eaten today is a product of up to 6 generations of complex selection going back to the parental lines (2), the grand parent lines (4), great grandparent lines (4 to 8), elite lines, full pedigree lines and research lines, in conjunction with complex multiplication systems and networks distributed world wide. The reason there are so few of these breeding companies is the complexity and cost of the entire program can only be borne by large companies which have major shares of the world market.
Strategies for breeding egg laying chickens are very different. Egg laying traits by their very nature are sex limited to only the females and the traits are generally lowly heritable. Both of these aspects make the breeder's job more difficult. In the case of the sex limited nature of the desired product (eggs) the male breeder candidates are chosen by performance data from their female relatives; mother, full sisters, half sisters and daughters. These analyses become very involved, slow and costly, requiring enormous amounts of data collection and analysis. The additional challenge that most of the traits involving egg production are lowly heritable, meaning the observed variability is largely environmentally induced and not true genetic variability, makes the precision of the selection even more elusive. All these difficulties dictate a staggering amount of costly pedigree tracking, data collection and statistical analysis. But the highly competitive yet relatively small breeder market for egg stock demands it. As with the meat breeder industry, the egg breeder industry is dominated by only a few companies worldwide.
Interestingly enough, even though several of these few poultry genetic companies breed both meat and egg stocks, never has one company had the top bird in both arenas. This fact is probably due to the very different techniques employed for breeding each type of stock, and probably also due in some measure the differing abilities of resident geneticists.
How this all relates to hackle breeding is that these mainstream poultry genetics companies are light years ahead of the hackle breeders. True, some of the hackle breeders employ systematic selection programs and do have varying degrees of genetic knowledge. But nowhere is there a hackle program that utilizes truly up to date poultry genetic knowledge and systems.
First, hackle breeding is much closer to egg laying stock breeding due to the sex limited nature of the traits of interest and these traits' generally low heritabilities. Yet most of the hackle breeders use a rather crude, relatively unsophisticated mass selection system much closer to the meat breeders. The choice of approach greatly limits the possible progress in each generation. Second, some hackle breeders only use a single sex selection approach, typically selecting roosters and ignoring the hens. This isn't in itself wrong, it just radically discounts the selection effort invested in the roosters. If the females are unselected (a selection pressure of 0%), or in other words just average, nonetheless they still contribute half the genes to the next generation. Then a selection pressure of even 99% on the male side becomes reduced to approximately a 50% selection pressure overall. Considering the genetic extremes that these hackle stocks already represent, a 50% selection pressure may not even be adequate just to stay even quality-wise, let alone make any progress. In fact without some significant selection pressure it is highly possible any hackle stock will decline in quality rather rapidly, reverting to what geneticists refer to as "wild type" - - equalizing to less extreme genetic normality. Not infrequently, supposed genetic hackle stocks are offered for sale on the market which purportedly go back to some well know hackle line. But if the stock offered for sale has merely been reproduced without some knowledgeable selection, for even just a few generations, then it has very likely declined from any original quality. The third and possibly greatest shortcoming of the current hackle breeders is the lack of environmental control for the breeder candidates. Without uniformity of environment, any selection program is compromised. And because the hackle traits are already lowly heritable, the selection efforts are doubly compromised by these inconsistencies in environment.
The most likely strategies to provide optimum genetic progress in hackle chickens are either egg type selection programs which involve a great deal of pedigree performance information or inbred line crosses. The later strategy involves creating highly inbred lines around superior individuals by repeatedly mating close relatives (also sometimes referred to as "line breeding"). This line breeding creates a high degree of genetic uniformity and predictability. It also can bring out deleterious recessive genes which then can be culled out. These inbred lines are then crossed to test which lines combine particularly well together, referred to as "specific combining ability" or "nicking". Many seed breeding companies (i.e. for corn) and some egg stock breeders use such inbred line systems to great advantage. Unfortunately this is a difficult approach in that to develop many inbred lines is a costly endeavor in time, resources and data. Then to test all possible combinations to find which do nick well is another further costly program. When many colors are desired the whole matrix would become quite unwieldy. This approach could possibly work on major colors which breed true, such as for grizzly, brown or white, and possibly for heterozygous dun where white splashed and black lines could be developed for crossing to generate 100% duns. But the difficulties and expense of such an inbred line system, despite its appropriateness, maybe too great for the hackle industry yet.
Nevertheless, without some pedigree based selection system, hackle breeders will be doomed to expend enormous effort for only minimal progress. In addition, what are referred to as "genetic plateaus" will commonly be encountered where little or no progress will occur despite great effort. These plateaus result from the exhaustion of available genetic variability and/or limitations on the selection system used. And if you're not moving forward you're probably sliding back.
Hackle of the Future
I believe hackle breeding and production, other feather availabilities, and fly tying overall as a science and art are all on the verge of another renaissance. The recent advancements in tying materials alone is sparking renewed creativity. Many new books for the beginning fly tyer to the advanced tyer, such as this volume, all indicate a heightened interest and maturity in tying.
As an indication of the greater and more diverse feather availability that will come in the future, we at Whiting Farms are developing several new product lines. Junglecock are now in production, the genetics of the unique Coc de Leon feather chickens from Spain are being explored, and the collection of various pheasants and experimenting with several species crosses are all being conducted t satisfy the desires of the tyers of the world today.
Our largest single project outside dry fly hackle production is the ongoing development of what we are calling the "American Hackle". This is a unique genetic line of chickens being bred specifically for a diversity of unmet tying needs. Various feathers from these specialty birds will be excellent to satisfy tying across the entire spectrum of fly fishing. For example:
I hope you the reader have found this glimpse into hackle breeding and production interesting. Your interest and patronage is sincerely appreciated. We wish you all good fishing and satisfying tying.
Suggested Further Reading: