Protective coat | The rare breed has thicker feathers that keep it warm and encourage it to lay eggs in winter
Most livestock breeds are known for their distinctive features, such as the long hair on a Clydesdale’s lower leg or the trademark black and white markings on a Holstein.
A Chantecler chicken, however, stands out for what it doesn’t have: a prominent comb on its head or a distinctive wattle under its neck.
Despite its visual shortcomings, a Chantecler rooster on display at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair in Brandon was one of the most popular animals at the event. It stood on top of its cage as hundreds of children stopped by to touch its feathers.
The Chantecler (pronounced shan-te-clehr) is particularly important because it is the only chicken breed ever developed completely in Canada.
“We think it’s Canada’s only proper breed,” said Daniel Chappell, who raises a flock of Chanteclers with his wife, Anna, near Bowden, Alta.
“Wikipedia will tell you there are two or three, but those are cross-bred…. This (Chantecler) is the one that breeds true.”
Brother Wilfrid Chantelain, a monk in charge of the flocks at a Trappist Monastery in Oka, Que., spent nine years in the early part of the 20th century developing the Chantecler. He wanted to create a dual purpose chicken that would be hardy enough to withstand Canadian winters, which is why its comb and wattles are small.
“They’re very suited to our climate,” Chappell said.
“Most chickens have the traditional five pointed straight comb on top of their head and they have pretty big wattles…. Those features are both extremely prone to frostbite.”
Wilfrid combined White Plymouth Rocks, White Leghorns, Dark Cornishes and a couple of other breeds to create the White variant of the Chantecler.
The American Poultry Association recognized the Chantecler as an official breed in 1921.
Besides its lack of a comb and wattles, the Chantecler’s inner layer of feathers is thicker than most other chickens, Chappell noted.
“Normally, chickens don’t like to lay (eggs) in cold conditions,” said Pam Heath, who farms south of Brandon and manages Rare Breeds Canada, which is dedicated to conserving heritage livestock breeds.
“That’s what he (Wilfrid) was breeding for: is there a chicken that (can) survive a Canadian winter and still lay eggs.”
Heath said the breed will lay about 200 eggs per year, much less than the 320 that commercial layers can produce annually.
“We’ll never compete with that, but we (rare breeds) don’t need to. We have other things that are special, like the hardiness in our breeds… and disease resistance.”
The Chantecler breed remains popular in Quebec, particularly with smaller scale farmers who tap into the market for local or organic poultry.
However, the breed is almost non-existent in Western Canada, and only a handful of farmers raise the birds.
The Chappells raise Chanteclers because they respect the breed’s Canadian heritage, winter hardiness and the fact that it produces a respectable amount of eggs and meat.
Chappell said many heritage species would be extinct if not for the work of the American Poultry Association. While generally a positive development, it has also resulted in the decline of agricultural production traits because the association is show-focused.
“They call it fancy points,” he said.
“So a lot of focus has been on feather and body shape and comb type, with less focus on egg laying.”
However, the Chantecler is still a decent producer and the Chappells intend to focus solely on the breed.
“We’ll get up to 300 hens. We’re going to get rid of other breeds and just do Chanteclers,” he said. “We don’t heat our coops and they’re not insulated, so we have to be very careful about the breed we use.”