Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto … What’s in a name? In the case of Ameraucana chickens quite a bit. I’m a bit of a stickler for grammar and spelling, but in this case it runs deeper. Tweak the spelling just a bit to ‘Americana’ and you’re actually talking about a whole different kettle of fish, er, chickens.
I bought my first birds in 2005: Silver Grey Dorkings, Welsummers and Ameraucanas. I bought more Ameraucanas in 2013. Or so I thought. It took a few years and a bit of experience to realize, that in both cases, I was sold Easter Eggers.
In this piece we’ll explore three distinct types of chickens: Araucanas, Ameraucanas, and Easter Eggers. I often hear people use these terms interchangeably and apply them to the wrong birds. So what’s the difference?
We can thank this Chilean breed for being the progenitor of blue eggs and the coloured egg craze. If you see these birds next to Ameraucanas you’re sure to see the differences between them. Araucanas are the result of selectively combining two breeds: Collonocas, which laid blue eggs and were rumpless and Quetros, which had tufts, a tail and laid brown eggs. The resulting hybrid is a tufted, rumpless, blue egg layer. Tufts are unique to Araucanas.
Tufts are different than Ameraucana muffs, which look like fluffy cheek feathers. Tufts are referred to as peduncles and appear as upturned feathers that stick out from the face near the ear. They are basically an organ attached to the side of the bird’s head that protrudes out from their face. There is quite a bit of variation in size, shape and location of the tufts: they can be present on both sides (bilateral) or just on one side (unilateral). A parent’s tufts are not a predicator of the kind of tufts their offspring will inherit. A chick will be born with them — they don’t develop as the bird ages. Double tufting is preferred by most fanciers and required for exhibition.
Unfortunately the tufted gene is dominant and lethal: when two copies (one from each parent) are passed to the embryo the chick dies in the shell @ day 17-19 of incubation without hatching. Some do hatch, although most will die within a week from a failure to thrive. The reason for that is the tufting gene affects both ear and throat development: the tufts can grow inward toward the brain or throat, which can create a hole in a chick’s throat. When Araucana chicks, which carry two tufted genes, are ready to hatch they pip internally (break through the membrane, before breaking out of the shell) and drown in the shell. (Personally, I’m not interested in having a breed in which 25% of chicks are expected to die).
Post-hatch mortality is also significantly greater among tufted chicks. Where many breeds attain hatch rates of 90%; Araucana breeders get successful hatches (double tufted & rumpless) of anywhere from 55% to 25%, including the post hatch period.
If you mate a tufted bird to a clean faced bird you will get 50% tufted and 50% clean faced and none will inherit the lethal gene. If you breed tufted to tufted you will get 50% tufted, 25% clean faced, and 25% dead in the shell. You end up with the same amount of tufted chicks either way.
Living tufted birds only carry 1 copy of the gene and that’s why a tufted bird can have clean faced offspring. A clean faced bird doesn’t carry the tufting gene and therefore, can’t pass it on.
Araucanas are rumpless, which means they don’t have a tail or tail bone because they are missing their last two vertebrae giving their back a sloped appearance. Inbreeding can create excessively rumpless birds that are missing several vertebrae. Chicks born with this condition are unable to poop and die shortly after hatch. Also absent is the preening gland (uropygium), which makes it difficult to keep their feathers clean. That trait is non-lethal, but can result in excessively short bodies.
The lack of movable tails also creates difficulty for fertilization, as the rooster uses the weight of the tail to make contact with the hen’s cloaca. To increase fertility, some breeders trim or pull out the feathers around both birds’ vents to aid in physical contact or mate a rumpless bird to a tailed bird in an effort to enhance fertility.
Araucanas should lay a blue egg. The blue colour is created by a liver bile pigment that is deposited throughout the egg at the same time as the calcium carbonate that makes up the egg shell. The blue pigment is on the inside, as well as the outside, of the shell.
Brown pigment is deposited on the outside of the shell just before the egg is laid. If you crack open a brown egg it will be white on the inside. Some Araucanas lay a green or olive egg, which indicates brown pigment genes somewhere in the bird’s history. The inside of the egg will still be blue, while the outside is green or olive, because the brown colour is only deposited on the outside.
Breed standards require pea combs, tufts, rumplessness, blue eggs and the following body colours: black, black red, silver duckwing, white, and golden duckwing.
Ameraucanas were developed from Araucanas, to create blue egg layers who don’t carry the lethal gene or have any of the health issues related to tufts and rumplessness. They have muffs (cheek feathers), a beard, a full, upright tail and pea combs, which are genetically tied to underdeveloped wattles.
Ameraucanas come in both bantam and standard sizes and the following colours: blue, black, white, blue wheaten, wheaten, buff, brown-red, and silver.
To confuse matters more, the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries, accept Araucanas and Ameraucanas as the same breed, whether they are rumpless or tailed.
So what is an ‘Americana’? This is not a recognized breed. It’s not just a spelling error; it has become a marketing tool for hatcheries to sell coloured egg layers that often do not meet breed standards for Ameraucanas. If you see ads with this spelling question what you are getting – in many cases, it will be an Easter Egger. It might not matter to you but if you are expecting a bird with two blue egg genes or that lays blue eggs, you might not get it.
These guys are not a breed, but as the name implies they are coloured egg layers derived from at least one parent with a blue egg gene (most often an Ameraucana).
Each parent carries two egg shell colour genes and passes one on to their offspring. There is a wide variation of egg shell colours – all dependent on egg shell genes and 13+ brown modifiers. The blue egg gene is dominant, but if a parent only carries one copy then 50% of their offspring will inherit it, and 50% will carry the white egg gene (and possibly one, or more, brown pigment modifiers).
Most of my birds have some Easter Egger in their family tree, which gives them muffs and beards. They also have some Appenzeller Spitzhauben or Polish DNA, which produces crests. I’ve spent the last few years, not perfecting purebreds, but trying to create interesting looking crosses that lay coloured eggs.
That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, someone once referred to my birds on a Facebook genetics site as ‘frankenchickens’. I would disagree – by cross-breeding I am hoping to create hybrid vigour in beautiful birds. My only problem is I can’t replicate the features I love – they often are one offs, which is the beauty of genetics. Some of them lay green, olive, blue eggs – which is what I am aiming for – while others lay cream, white, pink and shades of brown. If I’m lucky they have speckles.
Olive Eggers are one branch of Easter Eggers. They are a cross between a blue egg gene and a dark brown egg gene (e.g. Marans, Welsummer). A blue egg x light brown egg will produce various shades of greens (from minty to sage). Folks spend years breeding and cross-breeding birds to create the perfect olive egg. It is part science and part art.
So how did I know my original Ameraucanas weren’t what they were purported to be? The first bunch had muffs, beards and slate coloured eggs, but the cockerels weren’t the right colours and the hens laid green, not blue, eggs. Of the next four, only two had muffs and beards and didn’t meet colour standards. Their eggs were very pale blue, which makes me doubt they were carrying two blue egg genes.
Was that a problem? I loved them, so in that sense, no. The problem is, that in our ignorance, we perpetuate erroneous information. I bought those four Easter Egger hens from a young woman who was told they were Ameraucanas. When I sold them, I did so as Ameraucanas. Both of us were wrong.
One of my aims with this blog is to set a high standard of knowledge and practice, by putting out the best information I have at my disposal. If this post helps to clarify the difference in breed standards and genetics between these three types of chickens, then I’ll be happy. I may be accused of being a grammar queen, but in this case language is important.