Scientist saves eggs that save chickens

Hungary’s national chicken has returned home to roost, and the country has Canada to thank for it.

But Roy Crawford, a retired animal and poultry geneticist from the University of Saskatchewan, says Hungary wasn’t the only beneficiary.

He said international efforts to preserve endangered livestock breeds also owe part of their success to this globe-trotting chicken and Canada’s role in its rescue.

Crawford said the story of the Hungarian Yellow was one example that inspired work in the 1980s that eventually formed Rare Breeds International, an organization that co-ordinates worldwide grassroots conservation projects.

It began in 1967, when two young Hungarian scientists arrived at McGill University’s MacDonald College in Montreal to get advanced training in blood typing chickens. They brought Hungarian Yellow hatching eggs with them so they could conduct research on one of their country’s native chicken breeds.

By 1971, the scientists had returned home and McDonald College wanted to get rid of its Hungarian Yellows. Crawford agreed to make a home for them at the U of S, partly as a curiosity and partly as a teaching example of a primitive chicken breed, which has “non-commercial, free range, backyard, rough-tough

chickens.”

By 1984, when Crawford attended a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization meeting in Rome to discuss livestock conservation, the university’s Hungarian Yellow flock was thriving.

During the conference, Crawford described his flock to Hungarian scientist Imre Bodo, a leading player in the international livestock conservation movement. Bodo was intrigued, because by then a crossbreeding program to create a Hungarian chicken that laid more eggs and produced more meat had wiped out the original Hungarian Yellow breed.

“It became evident that what I had here was the very last of the original Hungarian Yellow.”

Crawford agreed to air lift 720 hatching eggs to Hungary to help scientists there rebuild the breed. The Hungarians had promised to pay for the freight, but when the eggs arrived there was no money to pay the bill.

Crawford said money wasn’t available from his university either, so he eventually paid the freight costs himself, which he estimated to be several hundred dollars.

The bumps and thumps of international travel took their toll, and only 34 chicks hatched in Hungary from the Saskatchewan eggs.

“But those 34 were treated like the most precious gems ever, and the original breed has been restored and rebuilt in Hungary.”

Called the Canadian Hungarian Yellow in Hungary, the breed is still raised on government farms but has also been released to private farmers as backyard flocks.

In 1991, Hungary hosted a Rare Breeds International convention that featured a display of Hungarian native livestock. One of the exhibits included Canadian Hungarian Yellows.

“I was the star,” Crawford recalled.

When Crawford retired in 1991, he took the university’s Hungarian Yellows with him, settling them on his farm near Clavet just east of Saskatoon. It is Canada’s major Hungarian Yellow breeding flock, and has spawned a few smaller flocks across the country.

Crawford keeps a large flock of 60 females and 20 males to avoid inbreeding. Supply management’s quota rules stop him from selling the endless supply of eggs, so he gives them away.

“The neighbours think I’m great.”

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