By Paul Bradshaw, Florida
In the past few years, a number of new and exciting chicken breeds have been imported into America, but none more than the Cream Legbar chicken has captured the imagination of America’s poultry hobbyists. This beautiful British breed has fantastic coloration, a feather crest on its head, lays lots of blue eggs, and produces chicks that can be easily sexed as soon as they hatch. Couple these unique traits with a fascinating breed history and you have one of the most remarkable chicken breeds to ever arrive in this country. If you love chickens, it’s time to get acquainted with the Cream Legbar chicken.
Although Cream Legbar chickens only very recently arrived in America, their remarkable journey really begins almost a century ago in a laboratory at Britain’s prestigious Cambridge University. There, Reginald Punnett, the first genetics professor in Britain, sought to solve one of the most pressing agricultural puzzles of the day: How do you create a chicken that can be easily sexed when it hatches?
While this may seem like a minor goal, in fact, it was crucial to rebuilding Britain in the wake of World War I. The resource-strapped country could ill-afford to spend money raising baby roosters that held little market value when they reached adulthood. The British government charged the ingenious Professor Punnett with developing breeds of chickens that would allow even untrained poultry workers to quickly and easily identify the gender of chicks when they hatched so the unwanted males could be culled.
By the late 1920s, Punnett was hot in pursuit of creating what he called autosexing chicken breeds. Autosexing chickens are ones that display obviously differently color patterns between the male and female day-old chicks.
In 1929, Punnett revealed to the world the first intentionally bred autosexing chicken, the “Cambar.” The Cambar resulted from the mating of a Campine with a Barred Rock. When Cambars hatched, female chicks had “chipmunk stripes” in the down on their backs, and male chicks had a light-colored dot on the back of their heads. The differences between the genders were strikingly obvious, and these easily observed visual cues allowed even novices to immediately sex the chicks. Punnett’s genetic breakthrough was nothing less than revolutionary in the poultry world.
To fully appreciate the importance of Punnett’s work, it’s helpful to understand the difference between autosexing chicken breeds and the sex-linked hybrid chickens with which we are more familiar in the United States. If you go to your local feed store and buy chicks in the spring, chances are you are buying sex-linked — as opposed to autosexing — chicks. Sex-linked chicks are the first generation hybrids of two separate chicken breeds, produced by the millions in large commercial hatcheries. If you allow the sex-linked chicks to reach adulthood and breed with one another, they will not produce visually sexable chicks in the second generation. On the other hand, autosexing chicken breeds like the Cream Legbar produce visually sexable chicks generation after generation.
Although he created the Cambar as a demonstration project for auto-sexing, Punnett was to reach the pinnacle of his work a few years later when, working with Leghorns, Barred Rocks, and the wildly exotic blue-egg laying South American Araucanas, he produced the first Legbar. To show his mastery of genetics, it was not enough that Punnett’s Legbar was autosexing. Punnett also designed the Legbar so that it produced outlandish sky-blue eggs, and the hens often sported strange feather crests on their heads that further accentuated their exotic lineage.
It took Punnett and his associates almost two decades to produce a Cream Legbar chicken that was genetically stable and exhibited the odd array of traits first envisioned in the early 1930s. Cream Legbar chickens were introduced at the London Dairy Show in 1947 and received a written standard by the Poultry Club of Great Britain in 1958.
There are now well over a dozen autosexing chicken breeds in the world, but none are as popular as the Cream Legbar chicken. In Britain today, Cream Legbar chickens have been bred for commercial production under the name Cotswold Legbars, and hens can lay as many as 230 eggs during their first year. Their pastel eggs are in great demand in the finest food markets in the United Kingdom. Also, with their exotic good looks, Cream Legbar chickens continue to be a favorite in British poultry shows.
Cream Legbar chickens are medium-sized large fowl known for their active foraging and even dispositions. The roosters are rarely human aggressive and can weigh up to seven-and-a-half pounds. The hens weigh up to six pounds and quickly become accustomed to the presence of people. The hens reliably lay throughout the year, and adult hens routinely produce roundish eggs that place them in the “large” category as defined by USDA egg grading standards.
Cream Legbar chickens were first imported into the United States in early 2011, and they immediately were embraced by America’s backyard poultry hobbyists. Recently the Cream Legbar Club was formed in this country, and a group of enthusiastic Legbar fans has begun the process of drafting a breed standard, raising the visibility of the breed, and sharing experiences about this new immigrant. One important part of their mission is to explain the autosexing function of Cream Legbar chickens. Until now American hobbyists are generally unaccustomed to having at their disposal the enormously practical value of Professor Punnett’s amazing scientific legacy.
So whether you’ve kept chickens for decades or are just considering raising chickens for the first time, Cream Legbar chickens offer equally exciting and novel features for the poultry hobbyist. This breed, so new to America, is quickly gaining ground, and you can be a part of its very bright future in its newly adopted country.
Will you be adding Cream Legbar chickens to your flock?
Originally published in Backyard Poultry February / March 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.