Breed Profile: Hamburg Chicken

Different Origins for Silver Spangled Hamburg and Golden Penciled Hamburg

Breed Profile: Hamburg Chicken

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Breed: Hamburg chicken (UK spelling: Hamburgh) groups birds from two different origins: Holland and Britain. Accordingly, they are known as Holland fowl in the Netherlands (not to be confused with the U.S. breed of the same name). In the UK, they emerged from birds from northern England formerly known under several names. Despite their different origins, the group shares the same distinctive features.

Origin: The Penciled strain has been known in Holland since the fourteenth century, while the Spangled variety developed from local breeds in northern England. Subsequently, black varieties were derived from crosses with black fowl in Germany, and Spanish fowl in England.

History: The British imported the Dutch Penciled strain in the 1700s under the name of Dutch Everyday Layers. In England, they were called Creels, Chittiprats, and Chitterpats (meaning diminutive hen) and Bolton Grays (for the silver variety) and Bolton Bays (for the golden variety).

Silver Penciled Hamburg hen and rooster. Painting by J. W. Ludlow, 1872.

In northern England, chickens known as Lancashire Mooneys and Yorkshire Pheasant fowl, bearing moon-like and crescent-shaped spangles respectively, have been raised for at least 300 years. In addition, black Pheasant fowl were recorded in 1702. Poultry experts noted that birds from both origins shared common characteristics. So, in the 1840s, they grouped them together for show purposes under the name Hamburgh. They may have chosen a German name due to a trend for the exotic and a similarity in coloring to other northern European breeds.

Gold Spangled Hamburg rooster and hen. Painting by J. W. Ludlow, 1872.

The Redcap also derived from Pheasant fowl, as a larger and highly productive bird. For a while, they became overly selected for their large rose comb, to the detriment of their utility. The British also developed a White variety, which remained unrecognized. Although a great layer, British breeders concentrated on their exhibition role.

The Hamburg chicken was imported into America before 1856 with a slight alteration to the spelling of the breed name. Here, breeders valued the hens’ prolific egg-laying ability and encouraged the White variety. Indeed, the American Poultry Association recognized all six varieties in 1847. However, the Hamburg chicken lost favor to other egg-laying breeds around 1890.

Golden Penciled Hamburg hen. Photo credit: David Goehring/flickr CC BY 2.0.

Conservation Status: “At-risk” in Netherlands and Germany, “Priority” on the UK’s RBST Watch List, and “Watch” on the Livestock Conservancy Priority List.

Biodiversity: The Hamburg chicken has descended from two gene pools of heritage chicken breeds that need saving for their unique traits.

Description: Medium-sized, with delicate features, round white earlobes, bright red wattles and rose comb that tapers backward to a long straight spike, and clean, blue-gray legs. In time, the rooster develops a full sweeping tail and arched sickles.

Silver Spangled Hamburg rooster. Photo credit: Joe Mabel/flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Varieties: Silver Spangled and Golden Spangled have large round black spots on a silver or golden-brown ground color, the Golden having a black tail, while the Silver rooster’s face, neck, and tail are predominately white.

Silver Spangled Hamburg hen. Photo credit: David Goehring/flickr CC BY 2.0.

Silver Penciled and Golden Penciled have fine black striping over their ground color, although roosters bear little penciling and their tails are black, edged in the ground color. All black markings have a glossy green sheen.

Golden Penciled Hamburg hen and rooster. Painting by J. W. Ludlow, 1899.

There is a Black variety and a White variety, while other colors have been developed in the Netherlands.

Black Hamburg rooster and hen. Painting by J. W. Ludlow, 1872.

Skin Color: White.

Comb: Rose.

Popular Use: Eggs.

Egg Color: White.

Egg Size: 1.7 oz. (50 g); Bantam 1 oz. (30 g).

Productivity: 120–225 eggs per year (depending on strain). These chickens lay for longer than the average number of years. Penciled birds mature from five months and Golden Spangles later. Hens rarely go broody.

Weight: Rooster 5 lb. (2.3 kg); hen 4 lb. (1.8 kg), although penciled varieties may be smaller; bantam rooster 1.6 lb. (730g); hen 1.5 lb. (680 g).

Temperament: Due to an active and alert nature, they can be flighty, excitable, noisy, and feisty.

Golden Penciled Hamburg hen. Photo credit: David Goehring/flickr CC BY 2.0.

Adaptability: As excellent foragers, they need very little additional feed when free-range at pasture. In fact, they need plenty of space and do not tolerate confinement. On the plus side, they excel at fleeing predators. On the other hand, they can fly long distances and prefer roosting in trees and nesting in hedges. They thrive in any climate. In particular, they are a cold-hardy breed, as the rose comb is resistant to freezing. The Penciled variety and young can be delicate, although adults are quite robust.

Quotes: “We have, therefore, in Hamburghs several real breeds and not mere varieties of fowls of long distinct breeding, yet probably of someone more remote single-origin, of which they still bear traces…

“In suitable circumstances they are also most profitable fowls, being quite small eaters, but most prolific layers, except perhaps the Golden Spangled, which vary much… These good qualities come out best upon a free range, where Hamburghs will to a large extent keep themselves, foraging all over the ground early in the morning for worms and insects, on which they depend largely for their great productiveness…

“When free-range is thus at command, these birds do best on the natural open-air plan, roosting at night in sheds entirely open, or even in trees, which hardens them… Thus treated, when once past chickenhood they will be found hardy: the Pencilled breeds being most delicate, and specially subject to roup if cooped up in small runs and houses for which they are not adapted.” Lewis Wright, UK, 1912.

Sources: Wright, L. 1912. Book of Poultry. Cassell
Dutch Poultry Club
Dutch Rare Breeds Foundation
Roberts, V., 2009. British Poultry Standards. John Wiley & Sons.

Originally published in the April/May 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Silver Spangled Hamburg hen with chicks
Gold Spangled Hamburg hens

Originally published in the April/May 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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