A color pattern and breed once thought extinct is today making a comeback.
In the early 1860s, chickens with a unique white and black color pattern called Erminettes were brought into the United States, reportedly from the West Indies. Having a very unusual pattern of white and black feathering on the body, they soon became popular with poultry fanciers.
When looked at from a distance, these birds appear to have a black-on-white splash pattern (black pigment “splashed” randomly over the white plumage). However, upon closer examination, one can see that the pattern is a mix of pure white feathers and pure black feathers. Erminettes usually have predominantly white feathers, randomly mixed black feathers throughout the plumage. Brought to the United States during the hiatus of the Victorian-era poultry craze, the unique color pattern gained popularity, and more than a few poultry keepers procured Erminettes to add to their flocks. By the mid-1880s, Erminettes were a popular and easily-spotted fowl in many farmyards. Many poultry keepers reportedly started trying to breed the color pattern into other breeds, and in many cases, the pure genetic material was muddied or lost. A wide variety of amalgamated body sizes and types resulted in comb variations, clean and feathered shanks, both yellow and white skin and legs, and each breeder called their birds “Erminettes.” The breed eventually declined in popularity, and by the late 1950s, it was thought the unique genetic color pattern and breed had been entirely lost.
Some 50 years later, in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA) sent out an annual alert list of breeds it considered critically endangered, or even extinct, to its members. The Erminette breed was on the list. One of the members, Ron Nelson, who had received the list, was driving through an area of Wisconsin sometime later when he spotted a flock of chickens he thought might be Erminettes. Ron stopped and made contact with the woman who lived at the home. She was in her 90s and confirmed they were indeed Erminettes. The original stock had belonged to her grandfather, and he eventually passed down the offspring to her. She gave Ron some hatching eggs, and the project of restoring Erminette bloodlines was soon underway. Ron passed away unexpectedly within a few years, and his sister set about disbanding and rehoming his flocks. One of Ron’s friends, Josh Miller, received all of the Erminette stock from Ron’s sister and continued his own breeding program with the birds. Ironically, no one else knew that he was working on the breeding project, and it was feared the Erminette breed had been permanently lost. According to Curt Burroughs, a breeder who is one of the most knowledgeable on the history of these birds, after several years of breeding them, Josh contacted Glenn Drowns at the Sandhill Preservation Center. Glenn also had an interest in preserving the breed. Through much time and effort, a handful of serious and dedicated breeders of these birds evolved in the United States and Canada, who are working to improve and preserve the breed.
The Erminette color pattern is unique because it does not breed true. Birds with Erminette plumage, bred to other birds with Erminette plumage, will result in the following offspring: Half of the offspring will have the Erminette plumage pattern; one quarter will be solid white, and one quarter will be solid black. The original hypothesis for this color pattern is that two co-dominant genes controlled it: one co-dominant gene for white plumage, designated by the symbol W, and one co-dominant gene for black plumage, designated by the symbol B. Birds with the Erminette pattern were thought to have one W gene and one B gene that controlled the color pattern. Breeding a solid white Erminette (two WW genes) to a solid black Erminette (two BB genes) produced all offspring with the true, white and black Erminette pattern. While the actual breeding results and ratios supported this theory, a deeper understanding of genetics led researchers to conclude that more genetic detail was involved.
The renowned poultry geneticist Dr. F.B. Hutt undertook genetic studies on the Erminette color pattern in the early 1940s. Hutt was the first researcher to postulate the co-dominant gene theory for the Erminette pattern. However, some genuine questions still existed about this theory. Very few Erminette birds had white and black feathers in even numbers. In theory, there should have been a consistent 50/50 ratio of white and black feathers under an equal, co-dominant genotype. The actual color mixes in the plumage lean toward predominantly white feathering, with black feathers making up approximately ten to forty percent of the color pattern. There are many things still unknown about the full genetic spectrum affecting the color pattern, but current research indicates it is not a full, co-dominant effect as first thought. It is also likely that several modifying genes may be involved.
Many breeders are currently working to standardize this breed. As common as this color pattern was for many years, the birds never gained a spot in the American Standard of Perfection as a recognized breed.
The birds are known to be excellent dual-purpose fowl for both meat and eggs, with many hens laying at least 180 cream-colored eggs per year. I had the good fortune to speak with Matt Hemmer of Smokey Buttes Ranch (https://www.smokybuttesranch.com/ ). Matt is probably the foremost breeder of Erminettes in the United States today. According to Matt, they are one of the best dual-purpose fowls he has ever worked with. He described them as phenomenal layers of extra-large eggs and a remarkable meat producer. Matt also fattens and sells these birds to the restaurant trade at 18 weeks. He describes them as having top-quality leg and thigh meat, long keels with lots of breast meat, and generally meeting the demands of what high-end chefs want from a heritage meat bird.
According to Curt Burroughs, his Erminettes out-produced his Rhode Island Reds. Curt also says the laying longevity of the hens is remarkable, with a number of his girls still going strong at four years of age. He describes his birds as being so docile that an 18-inch garden fence easily contains them. Reportedly, even the roosters tend to be peaceful and gentle.
Under the current breeding standards being set, an Erminette should have a body type and weight similar to a Plymouth Rock, with a full breast, yellow shanks and skin, and a medium, upright, straight comb. Plumage should consist of 15% black feathers evenly mixed with 85% white feathers, and there should be no red or salmon showing in the plumage. (You can find more detailed information on breed standards at https://theamericanerminette.weebly.com/ ).
Curt says anyone thinking about getting these Erminettes should be aware of a few problems. While they rank among the most gentle of breeds, they are rapid growers and need to be kept on high-protein feeds during the growth period. Otherwise, young birds may resort to feather-picking on each other. As docile birds, they also tend to be very unaware of predators, and free-ranging them can lead to disaster.
With all factors considered, Erminettes may be the perfect, sustainable breed to add to your holdings, whether for eggs, meat, gentleness around children, or a heritage breed for small-scale, commercial meat production.
Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.