Garfield Farm and the Black Java Chicken
A Second Chance for One of America’s Oldest Heritage Chicken Breeds
By Ann Stewart – Increasing the population of the Black Java chicken was the primary goal for Garfield Farm. In the mid-1990s, the Java chicken was nearly extinct. Once a popular market bird renowned for its meat production, and believed to be America’s second oldest breed of chicken, fewer than 150 breeding birds remained in the United States.
At that same time, Garfield Farm Museum, an 1840s-era farm museum in LaFox, Illinois, was searching for just the right breed of chicken to establish a flock.
“We chose the Black Java chicken because it seemed to be in the most troubled shape,” explained Pete Malmberg, Operations Director at Garfield Farm at the time. “It was also appropriate for the time period for Garfield.”
Malmberg, along with Garfield Farm Museum Executive Director Jerome Johnson, felt strongly that the genetics of this dual-purpose American poultry breed, once a common sight in 1800s barnyards, should not be lost.
Although Garfield Farm had kept some Java chickens around since the 1980s, it was not until 1996 that the farm began its preservation effort of the Black Java chicken, Johnson said.
Garfield’s Java breeding flock began with just a dozen birds that first year.
However, over the course of the next two decades, a small, dedicated group of people worked together to hatch thousands more. Along with re-introducing the breed to flock owners nationwide, the Garfield Farm breeding project also resulted in the re-discovery of White and Auburn Javas, two color varieties of the Java breed thought to be extinct.
A Premiere Homesteading Fowl
A true American heritage breed, the Java turned out to be a perfect fit for an 1840s farm museum. They have thrived on the 375-acre Garfield farmstead.
“They do very well in a barnyard,” said Malmgren. “Overall, they’re a healthy, hardy bird.”
The breed was originally renowned for meat production and was popular during the second half of the 1800s. Javas were also noted for their hardiness and foraging ability. The Java played an important role in the development of other American poultry breeds, including the Jersey Giant, the Rhode Island Red, and the Plymouth Rock.
However, faster-growing market birds resulted in a gradual decline in the popularity of the Java. By most accounts, the breed was rarely seen outside of barnyard flocks by the 1950s, and its population had diminished greatly.
The Java’s conservation status is classified as “threatened” by the Livestock Conservancy, meaning that there are fewer than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States and fewer than 5,000 worldwide. The Livestock Conservancy’s last census, in 2011, showed a breeding population of at least 500 Javas in the United States. (The Conservancy is conducting a poultry census over the summer of 2015. Updated population numbers will be available upon completion.)
The Breeding Project
Garfield Farm Museum’s initial breeding stock came from Java breeder Duane Urch, of Urch/Turnland Poultry in Minnesota.
“We knew that Duane’s flock had been a closed flock since the 1960s, so they would hopefully have the true Java genetics,” said Malmberg.
The museum also confirmed the purity of its Java bloodlines through genetic testing done at the University of Iowa.
Garfield Farm’s initial goal was to simply increase the population of this threatened breed.
“In the beginning, we were just trying to hatch out as many as we could,” said Malmberg.
Forming a Partnership
In 1999, Tim Christakos, manager of the chick hatchery exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) visited the farm during Garfield’s annual Rare Breeds livestock show.
“I found out that Garfield was trying to conserve this breed. We were hatching commercial chickens at the museum at the time, and I thought that this would be a great opportunity to help the breed,” explained Christakos. “I called them and from that, we started this partnership between Garfield Farm and the Museum of Science and Industry.”
The MSI hatchery offered Garfield Farm much larger economies of scale.
“We can hatch so many chicken eggs compared to what they can from hens laying eggs,” said Christakos.
Although exact numbers are not kept, Christakos estimates that the museum has hatched at least 3,000 of the Black Java chicken and 2,000 White Javas.
From March through November, Christakos makes a weekly trek to Garfield to bring Java eggs to the MSI facility, where they are sorted, washed, and numbered by hatch date.
Chicks then hatch out in full view of spellbound museum visitors, in a large incubator that is part of its genetics exhibit. The exhibit also includes an explanation of the Java breeding partnership between Garfield Farm and the museum.
Christakos said he maintains a waiting list of people from around the country interested in buying baby chicks. Java chick orders are first routed through Garfield Farm, then sent to Christakos at the museum.
Two Extinct Varieties Return
Christakos also has played a role in the re-discovery of two varieties of Java chicken believed to be extinct: the Auburn and the White Java.
The White variety was the first to emerge, in 1999. Although White Javas were mentioned in earlier literature on the breed, the variety was thought to have died out completely by the 1950s.
“At first, I didn’t even know it was anything out of the ordinary,” said Christakos. “Everyone at Garfield was just amazed at that, though. By hatching so many chicks, these recessive traits finally got to re-emerge.”
Malmgren even exhibited a White Java at a nearby poultry show.
“He won a ribbon for being the first to show a White Java since before 1900,” Christakos said.
A bigger surprise was waiting, however.
“In 2003 we hit the real jackpot. We finally had a chick emerge with these little brown tufts. I kept her aside hoping I’d get a male,” Christakos explained. “By the 12th or 13th chick to hatch, we had full-blown Auburn color. This was a color that by all accounts had been extinct since the 1870s. It was the find of a lifetime, and it was really back to the future for breeds like the Rhode Island Red, breeds that owe a lot to the Java.”
In the spring of 2004, the much-awaited male Auburn chick finally hatched.
Christakos and Garfield staff realized they were on to something very special. The chicks showing Auburn colors were set aside, with the hope of continuing and preserving those very rare color genetics.
Garfield Farm has since worked with poultry breeders in the development of the Auburn Java variety, although that variety is no longer bred at Garfield Farm.
The Java Standard
Admitted to the American Poultry Association (APA) Standard of Perfection in 1883, the Java breed is noted in the Standard as a general-purpose bird, producing meat along with brown eggs. The Black Java chicken and Mottled are the two APA recognized color varieties. White Javas were once included in the Standard, but were removed sometime before 1910, as they were thought to resemble the Plymouth Rock too closely.
According to the Standard, cocks should weigh about 9 1/2 pounds and hens about 7 1/2 pounds. The Java has a single, upright comb with five well-defined points. The breed should have a broad, long back with a slight decline, and a broad, deep body. Legs should be black or nearly black, and the bottom of the feet should be yellow.
The Black Java chicken breed is noted for the striking beetle green sheen of their black feathers. Mottled Javas share the same lustrous greenish-black color, but with sharply defined, v-shaped white tips on some of their feathers.
Although the Java is believed to have Far East roots, possibly on the island of Java, its exact point of origin is unknown. According to the APA Standard, the breed underwent considerable modification once it was brought to the United States. It is thought to have become established in America sometime between 1835 and 1850.
Breeding to the Standard
Although Garfield Farm’s initial goal was to simply increase the population of the Java, it became apparent over the years that a more formal breeding program was needed.
“It had gotten to be kind of a mess,” said museum staff member Bill Wolcott, Garfield’s Operations Manager from 2008 to 2014. “You could breed two blacks and get a black, white, auburn, or a sort of mottled. The white flock had never been separated from the black flock, and the recessive gene that caused the white had run rampant in the flock. You could no longer breed two blacks and get a black.”
Wolcott and Garfield Farm staff member Dave Bauer worked diligently to sort the flock.
At that point, Garfield staff also received help from Don Schrider of the Livestock Conservancy.
“We worked in partnership with the Conservancy to begin improving the quality,” Wolcott explained. “Don gave us a lot of help and helped us pick the best birds for the breeding program. We did individual pairings to try to identify the Black Java chicken without the recessive white gene, and were finally able to identify a small group of what we called Garfield Javas without the recessive gene for white.”
Initially, five breeding pens, each containing a rooster and four or five hens, were set up.
Garfield Farm also purchased additional birds from a Black Java chicken flock from Duane Urch of Urch/Turnland Poultry, the source of their original flock.
“We knew that Duane was not producing whites out of his blacks, so we crossed those birds with birds at Garfield without the white gene, and the numbers of other colors we were getting dropped significantly,” said Wolcott.
In 2014, Wolcott’s last year at Garfield Farm, he put a strong emphasis on the quality of the birds produced.
“That last year I tried to breed to the Standard of Perfection and I was aggressively culling more than anybody had. We’d been struggling with comb size, wattles, and the proper sheen,” Wolcott said.
He explained that Garfield Farm’s main focus for its poultry flock is the Black Java chicken, although a flock of White Javas is also maintained there.
Currently, Bauer continues to work on Black Java quality at the farm.
“We are down to about 100 birds right now,” Bauer said. “I’m still trying to focus on culling to the Standard. We focused on foot color first, the number of points on the comb, and last year, in addition, we were trying to focus on size. We’ve made big progress in the quality of the birds, but there are things we have to keep an eye on season after season.”
Bauer and the Museum are also taking precautions to preserve the genetics of the Garfield Javas for the future.
“For the first time we have established satellite flocks, in case something were to happen to our birds,” Bauer explained. “Last year we established two, and we set up our third this year. These are flocks that are housed off-site. We provided some assistance in getting them started. This will help us keep our bloodline intact in case something happens to the birds here. And, down the road a few years, we can hopefully do some crossing back and get some cross-pollination within the line.”
Preserving heritage poultry breeds and their genetic diversity may benefit poultry fanciers as a whole, according to Garfield Farm Museum Executive Director Jerome Johnson. The genetics of the past may hold the key to solving the problems of the present and future, whether in the form of diseases, changing economies, or other unknown factors, he explained.
Christakos, of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, also feels that heritage traits need to be protected. “Saving the Java, in general, might provide the tools we need for the future. We need to continue to preserve the genetics of these rare breeds for future generations,” he said.
Sources: Java Breeders of America, the Livestock Conservancy, the American Poultry Association.
Ann Stewart is a freelance writer and homeschooling mother of three kids. Her poultry adventures are based in northern Illinois.
Do you know any fascinating facts about the Black Java chicken? We’d love to hear them!
Originally published in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Backyard Poultry.