Hungarian Yellow Chickens
Like many nations, Hungary honors people, animals, and talents as national treasures, including chickens. Seven breeds of landrace poultry are believed to have bred true for several hundred years, and are consequently of great interest to genetic researchers, as well as poultry historians. Registered with the MGE (Association of Hungarian Small Animal Breeders for Gene Conservation), these breeds include the Hungarian Yellow, Hungarian White, Partridge Hungarian, and Speckled Hungarian, as well as black, white and speckled varieties of Transylvania Naked Neck fowl.
A Rare Breed of Heritage Chickens
Unfortunately, the beautiful, golden-buff Hungarian Yellows have become somewhat rare in their native Hungary. They are also rare in North America. At the writing of this article, there were less than half a dozen breeders of the birds found in both the United States and Canada. In Hungary, three state academic institutions, as well as a number of small farmers, are maintaining the breed and its genetic material. The birds are supplied to family farms that have an interest in perpetuating and maintaining these living national treasures. Preservation of the breed today, both in North America as well as in modern Hungary, is largely due to the efforts of a single poultry geneticist at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Roy D. Crawford, some 50 years ago.
I spoke with two North American breeders of these birds, both of whom are located in Canada: Charlene Labombard, of DC heritage Poultry (www.dcheritagepolutry.com), located in Renfrew, Quebec, and Matthew Nelson, of Grade Eh Farms (www.gradeehfarms.ca), located in Delta, British Columbia. Both were able to provide much personal knowledge about the Hungarian Yellow. Matthew, who formed a friendship with Dr. Crawford many years ago, was also able to share the information he learned firsthand. He also breeds the Hungarian Yellow fowl on a family farm in Bellingham, Washington. From this operation, he is able to sell and ship a limited number of chicks within the United States (www.springcreekheritagefarms.com).
Keeping the Line Going
Introduction of the breed to North America began in 1967, when a group of Hungarian researchers came to MacDonald College, in Montreal, Quebec, to study genetics and blood-typing in chickens; they brought a supply of Hungarian Yellow hatching eggs with them. By the early 1970s the study was concluded, and the researchers returned to Hungary, leaving the flock at the college. MacDonald College did not have a use for the flock, so offered it to Dr. Crawford. Recognizing the genetic treasure-trove being given away, Dr. Crawford gladly accepted the birds and started breeding and studying them.
Dr. Crawford retired from the University of Saskatchewan in 1981, taking most of the Hungarian Yellows with him. A few years later, Dr. Crawford, by chance, happened to meet another Hungarian researcher at a United Nations Conference in Rome. By this time, the Hungarian Yellow Breed was nearing extinction in its native homeland, due to the ravages of war and being crossbred with other “more productive” fowl. The researcher was surprised to learn that a flock of these Hungarian birds, in their pure genetic form, existed somewhere outside of his native homeland. Dr. Crawford sent him 720 hatching eggs. However, when the researcher and his colleagues attempted to pick them up at the Budapest airport, government officials demanded hefty payment for shipping and delivery, which they were unable to pay. After frantically trying to find funding to help the researchers, Dr, Crawford ended up covering the charges out of his own savings. Out of 720 eggs sent, a total of 30 hatched. It is the offspring of these thirty birds that make up most of Hungary’s flocks of Hungarian Yellows today.
Birds of a Feather
The coloring of these heritage chickens can best be described as a yellowish-buff. Both sexes are somewhat similar in color. Main tail feathers of the hen are black, while tail feathers of males are a lustrous, greenish-black. Lower neck feathers of the hens are often tipped in brown or black while body plumage may range from a yellowish-tan to a light, reddish-buff. Roosters can tend to have a more reddish cast to the plumage than the hens and feathering of some males may have white tips on the golden body feathers. Matthew also said some roosters entering the breeding season sometimes have a reddish-cast to their legs. They have straight, medium-size red combs, with circular or round red wattles. Shanks, skin and beak are yellow. Being a landrace fowl, there is a wider range of genetic variation and phenotypes than in breeds which have been standardized.
While not extremely large (hens average of 4.5 to 5 pounds while roosters average of 5.5 to 6.6 pounds), the birds were valued in their native land for meat, as well as egg production. Before World War II, breeds like the Hungarian Yellow Chickens were prevalent farmyard fowl. They had adapted, over the years, to the idiosyncrasies and harshness of the regional climate. As foragers, they had become reasonably good producers, supplying meat, eggs and feathers for insulation and pillow stuffing. The production breeds introduced in the 1950s weren’t as good at foraging for nutrition and had to be managed with dry chicken feed.
According to the Hungarian National Centre for Biodiversity and Gene Conservation, Hungarian Yellows were known for their fine bone structure, and fine-fibered, highly palatable meat, making them desirable for both domestic and export markets. While not comparable in size to a modern, hybrid broiler, this landrace breed produces a round, meaty-breast with firm, lean meat, well-suited for soups and stews.
According to Matthew Nelson, the birds themselves are extremely slow growing and do not reach marketable size until about eight months of age. Heritage breeders know that it’s often difficult to compete with production hens who mature for market in eight weeks. But Matthew notes that the tenderness of the meat, even from older fowl is worth the wait. Stew hens of this breed have tender flesh, even when two- or three-years old.
Well-known as very hardy, year-round foragers, Hungarian Yellow chickens were one of the most productive fowl of all Hungarian egg-production breeds. Records from the 1930s indicate hens often produced 130 to 140 medium, cream-colored eggs per year. Matthew and Charlene Labombard indicate that the birds in their Canadian flocks tend to be somewhat seasonal layers, and do take a pause in the winter. Matthew told me that this break is short-lived, however, and the hens start gradual laying after the winter solstice. Production picks up noticeably by the middle of February.
While many breeds of chickens have a significant egg production drop after the first year of laying, the Hungarian Yellows are known for consistent levels of production in both the first and second laying seasons. According to a 2008-2010 European study on the egg production of Hungarian breeds, published by European Poultry Science, the chicks were hatched in the spring and started laying in the fall. The laying season or cycle went through the winter months and into the following summer. The birds were maintained with only natural light during the winter months. In the study, most Hungarian Yellow hens laid consistently throughout the winter. During two seasons of laying, consisting of 220 and 233 days respectively, hens produced an average of 100 eggs in the first season and 115 eggs in the second season. This finding was highly unusual since hens from most breeds average a forty-percent production drop in their second laying year.
Advantages of Developing Landraces
For poultry keepers looking for a very pretty, unusual landrace breed, that has strong foraging ability, alertness, and proven longevity of lay over two or more seasons, Hungarian Yellow chickens may be worth considering.
Resources for Heritage Breeds
Canadian Heritage Breeds Association
The Livestock Conservancy [USA]
Rare Poultry Society [UK]
American Poultry Association ( A.P.A)
Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (S.P.P.A)
As a breed that has predominately survived in open fields and farmland. the roosters can be aggressive toward predators (and owners), and protective of the flock. According to Matthew, they are not a rooster that you may want to trust near small children. Hens, according to European Poultry Science, were historically known to have excellent mothering skills and made good setters and brooders. Both Matthew and Charlene have described the hens as somewhat nervous and flighty, a characteristic of landraces who have survived by being alert and nimble.
DOUG OTTINGER raises chickens, ducks, and geese on his small hobby farm. Doug’s educational background is in agriculture, with an emphasis in poultry and avian genetics. Doug recently lost his wife and companion of 40 years, following her long battle with Multiple Sclerosis, and he is continuing writing and working from his small hobby farm in far-Northwest Minnesota.
Originally published in the August/September 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.