Crèvecœur Chicken: Conserving a Historic Breed
The Livestock Conservancy works to preserve the Crèvecœur chicken
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Heritage chicken breeds are being lost. The senior breeders that kept them, the show circuit where they exhibited, farmers who kept flocks, and consumers who sought them out for the difference in meat and eggs, have declined as society has changed. Market pressures are against the traditional breeds, which mature more slowly than commercial and hybrid cousins. It takes focus and will to bring rare historic breeds back to popular use.
Jeannette Beranger and The Livestock Conservancy are doing that. The Conservancy champions all livestock, but Ms. Beranger, as program manager, has taken a special interest in poultry. After success with the Buckeye, she is now working with the Crèvecœur chicken.
The Buckeye chicken project started in 2005. Don Schrider, an accomplished breeder who was then on TLC’s staff, led the project. He invited several other groups to collaborate in recovering this American breed as a broiler chicken. Ten years later, the breed was moved from the Critical to the Threatened category on the Conservation Priority List.
Ms. Beranger turned her attention to Crèvecœurs six years ago. Her husband Fred, a professional chef, is from Brittany, in France, the ancestral home of Crèvecœur chicken. She and her husband visit relatives in France regularly, and she speaks and reads French. All those helped her fill in the background on Crèvecœurs.
She wanted to find a private breeder who could affirm the flock’s history. She found Connie Abeln in Missouri and called her.
“People’s memberships lapse, but they might still be breeding Crèvecœurs,” she said. “Sure enough, she still had Crèvecœurs.”
Ms. Abeln was populating the family’s three-acre farm with chickens. She had placed her first order for 25 Crèvecœur chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery in 1997, adding a second 25 in 1998. She had bred and improved her flock since then.
“We fell completely in love with the Crèvecœurs.”
Breeding to the Standard
Those chicks grew up to have strengths and weaknesses. She looked for the V comb, the beard, black plumage with no more than one inch positive white in any feather, and weight. Some grew out to meet those traits, but some did not.
“That V, horned, comb makes them look like devil birds,” she said.
She separated the birds into two flocks, to improve them toward the Standard. The exhibition birds became her main flock. The rest are a secondary flock.
“When I realized that they were rare, I separated the flock so that I could outcross them,” she said.
She prioritized the seven or eight points she wanted to improve, such as height, comb, and laying. She kept in mind Temple Grandin’s advice on breeding, that if you single-mindedly select for a certain set of traits, you can lose other traits you want to keep.
She kept records of every bird she bred, on a spreadsheet and in a card file.
“I made sure I had somebody exceptional on every one of those traits, so I would be able to use that bird to improve that trait in my flock.”
She gave her birds time to grow up. After two years, they have mature plumage. The hens proved laying potential for two seasons. They resisted disease and gained weight.
“By the time they are two years old, you know a hen is a good layer or not.”
Over the years, she added longevity to her selection. One rooster lived to be 18. Currently, she has one who is 14, who she paired with a beautiful two-year-old hen who has won at shows but isn’t a good layer.
“She is a good companion for him,” she said.
Her flock now numbers about 60, and she knows every one of them.
Conserving a historic breed
When Ms. Beranger called in 2014 and they connected about their Crèvecœurs, the Crèvecœur chicken project took a big step up. The strands of hatchery flocks and a private breeder came together.
Ms. Abeln gave Ms. Beranger, on behalf of TLC, half of her adult birds, both sexes, from both flocks.
“I split both these flocks with Jeannette to make sure she got a sample of all the good traits,” she said.
Those birds were the start of the Conservancy’s flock. She provided TLC with both the birds she intended to show and the birds that, while good, had traits that would disqualify them according to the Standard.
“She took a leap of faith to trust me with her birds,” she said. “It’s a project of love for her. It’s humbling that she trusted me.”
Reaching out across the Atlantic
The next step was international, to get birds from France into the mix.
Ms. Beranger worked with an import vet from USDA and Paul Bradshaw at Greenfire Farms in Florida to arrange to import Crèvecœur chickens. He was able to import two bloodlines.
“I was stunned that we were able to make that happen,” she said
The French imported lines produced birds that met the Standard right away, reaching six pounds at 22 weeks old, far outpacing the four pounds her flock was producing.
“It was quite a step forward.”
Documenting a rare breed
Ms. Beranger documents everything about her birds. She weighs internal organs — testicles, liver, heart — of every bird she processes. Testicle size has quadrupled, from the size of a fingernail to as big as a quarter. Aggression has increased, but they are nearly 100% fertile.
She takes pictures of everything, “Even if it seems stupid,” she said. “It’s part of documentation. What does a chick look like? You don’t know what’s normal unless you can see it.”
Ms. Beranger is recovering historic detail about the breed. The APA’s Standard description dates back to the first Standard in 1874. She’s scouring stock journals from the 19th century for details and translating the Crèvecœur chapter from a French book written in the mid-19th century. She’s got the most nearly complete history of the breed to date, but she’s still working on it.
“If you are getting involved with a foreign rare breed, it’s really helpful to go back to where they came from to find out what they are all about.”
Starting new flocks
With a breed that is rare, having multiple flocks in various locations improves the breed’s resilience. It’s important to make sure yours isn’t the only flock around. Ms. Beranger will share hatching egg and stock, but she figures only about one person in ten she shares stock with will stay with the breed.
Over the years, Ms. Abeln has helped other breeders start flocks. She will ship live juvenile and adult birds, but not chicks. She brings birds to sell to shows and posts the shows she will attend to Poultry Show Central.
“My focus is on getting birds into the hands of people who will take care,” she said.
Breeders in Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and other states are keeping flocks of Crèvecœurs. The separate flocks support genetic diversity.
Advice on Crèvecœurs
“Crèvecœurs are not for everyone,” Ms. Beranger said. They can’t see well because the crest gets in the way. They aren’t safe as free-range birds.
“They must be protected from predators,” she said. “It’s easy to sneak up on them. My chicken coops are Fort Knox.”
Unless they have immaculate housing, they get wet and dirty.
“The birds aren’t going to look picture perfect all the time,” she said.
Weather can be a problem for chickens, especially when it’s icy. Crèvecœur beards and crests can ice up when they drink water in cold weather. Ms. Abeln removes it from their crests and beards only if they are annoyed by it.
They are well suited for a chicken tractor for backyard flocks. They have a sweet and gentle temperament and make wonderful backyard layers.
“Part of my market is backyard birds,” said Ms. Abeln. “They lay a long time, and age gracefully into a backyard pet.”
One of the issues Ms. Beranger is pursuing is perfecting the finishing diet to optimize their weight gain in the last month before processing. Crèvecœur chickens in their native Normandy gain plenty of weight in that month. She wants hers to do that, too.
“Don’t be afraid to talk about eating your chickens,” she said. “They are not just lawn ornaments. We want to make them useful table birds.”
She’ll return to France in February for further research into local records.
North American Crèvecœur Breeders Association is getting organized.
“It’s a really interesting project,” Ms. Beranger said. “I’ve learned a lot, but I’m not an expert by any means.”
In addition to the description in the Standard, Crèvecœur chickens are known for:
- Ultrafine meat texture
- Calm, not flighty or aggressive
- Tall and aristocratic
Helpful Crèvecœur links
The Livestock Conservancy, https://livestockconservancy.org/, includes information on heritage breeds, its Conservation Priority List, and its Breeders Directory.
Ms. Abeln has posted videos of her birds on YouTube.
Half of this flock went to Jeannette Beranger:
This trio that includes the sport white Crèvecœur:
These three roosters are neighbors, if not neighborly.
These two boys were raised as brothers by Nankins parents:
Crèvecœur breeders who can supply stock:
- Jeannette Beranger, The Livestock Conservancy, Senior Program Manager, 919-542-5704 ext 103, www.livestockconservancy.org
- Connie Abeln, firstname.lastname@example.org, 636-271-8449
- Virginia Kouterick, email@example.com
- Tammie Glammeyer, 970-618-2902, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook ITSAR Ranch
Sue Dobson in Oklahoma, email@example.com
- Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, https://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/index.html,
- Ideal Poultry Breeding Farms in Texas, https://www.idealpoultry.com/, will have Crèvecœurs through the fall.
Originally published in the April/May 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.