Raising Sicilian Buttercups in America
Discovering a Mediterranean Chicken Breed
By Barbara Bullock – My love for raising chickens didn’t begin with the Modern Games and the Black Sumatras my two boys raised in 4-H here in San Luis Obispo, California. But they got me started. We soon learned about poultry clubs and shows that we could attend as a family; giving us an opportunity to spend time together that was otherwise hard to come by. Although my passion was for Sumatras, Sicilian Buttercups grabbed my attention and piqued my interest.
The unusual cup-shaped crown comb of the Sicilian Buttercups immediately caught my eye. They are a very regal breed and truly the crown of the fancy. I spoke with Phyllis Phelps, a member of the Central Coast Feather Fanciers (CCFF), about my interest in the Sicilian Buttercup breed. Another CCFF member, Patricia Woodland, had raised Sicilian Buttercups for years. I had no intention of competing with another club member, so I stayed with our Modern Games and Sumatras. But I continued to admire the Sicilian Buttercups’ beauty.
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After Patricia Woodland passed away unexpectedly in 2004, Phyllis Phelps offered me the opportunity of carrying on Pat’s Sicilian Buttercups. I was surprised, yet honored, to be asked. Seven hens and two cocks arrived at my house in good health. Their crowing was much louder than that of our bantam chickens. Since we live in a housing tract and our chicken coops aren’t exactly compliant with the letter of the city’s law, it worried me that our neighbors would complain and I’d be required to get rid of them. To this day, my neighbors tell me they would rather hear chickens than freeway traffic.
History of Sicilian Buttercups
Through raising them I have learned much about their history. Although the APA Standard of Perfection accepts their origin as Sicily, Craig Russell of the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities ascribes their origin to North Africa. Loyl Stromberg, in his Poultry of the World, quotes Reverend Ray Trudgian, in an article on the subject published in Poultry Overseas. Trudgian recounts an experience of following a cock’s crow in Bethlehem, to discover a flock of Buttercups protected by guard dogs. Trudgian refers to Easom Smith’s Modern Poultry Development, published in 1976. Smith contends that Buttercups were developed by Arabs of North Africa, who traveled through the Mediterranean countries. The breed could have made its way to Europe via Sicily, where the birds picked up their name. Smith describes the comb as “a veritable King David’s crown.”
Sir Edward Brown echoes the North African origin, quoting Professor Ghigli of Bologna, Italy on the subject. “The North African fowls are smaller than the Sicilian Buttercup, and the comb of the former is less fleshy. He suggests that the latter is due to a cross between the North African and the Italian, also stating that in Tripoli and adjacent countries there is much crossing of European races, such as the Leghorn, upon the small African breed,” writes in Poultry Breeding and Production, 1929.
The Standard says they were first imported to the U.S. in 1835. Stromberg credits Mrs. Colbeck of Yorkshire with importing them to England in 1912. Hatching eggs were first imported to the U.S. in 1892. Sicilian Buttercups were accepted into the Standard of Perfection in 1918.
Craig points to the similarities between Sicilian Buttercups and Egyptian Fayoumis as visual evidence of the relationship between the breeds. The color of the Golden Fayoumi is the same as that of the Sicilian Buttercup hen. Fayoumis sometimes sport a tight double comb similar to the Sicilian Buttercup crown.
Breeding to the Standard
I rely on the APA’s Standard of Perfection to guide my breeding decisions.
Legs that are not willow green in color will disqualify a bird at a poultry show. This green tint is difficult to obtain. Chicks’ legs are yellowish until they develop the slate color at four to six months of age. At that age, the greenish tint will also develop. Those without it can be culled.
The comb must stand straight, not flop over, and not have a third row of points. A third row of points in the comb of a bantam Sicilian Buttercup is a common problem. Heavy culling to perfect the comb must be done early. I check the developing comb when the chicks are six to eight weeks old, looking for extra points between the cups of the comb.
The required coloring can be just as difficult to breed as the correct comb and leg tone. Males are darker than females. The ideal male coloring, from top to bottom, is that the comb should be a brilliant red and the beak a light horn to compliment it. Red is undesirable in the earlobes, which should be white. Earlobes less than one-third white are a disqualification in showing. Feathers from the head down to the cape should be lustrous reddish orange. The tail should be black with the desired green sheen.
As for the hens, they should be golden buff with little points of black within the feathers. Overall, the regal tones of the coloring add to the royal look of this heritage chicken breed.
The hens often develop spurs. The spurs are not a disqualification because they are a Mediterranean breed. Male and female chicks can be distinguished within weeks by the larger development of the male comb.
Like other Mediterranean breeds, they are non-sitters. They are an egg production breed and lay white eggs. Exhibition weights top out at 6-1/2 lbs. for males and 5 lbs. for females.
They live up to their reputation as a flighty breed. They are accused of being “squirrel-tailed,” but that may reflect their high-strung Mediterranean nature. If they are frequently handled and accustomed to interacting with people, they hold their tails lower. It’s not a conformation defect, but a matter of training. The hours spent handling them bring out their exceptional carriage. They are much more royal than the average poultry in your yard.
I handle them every day from the time they hatch. I reserve sunflower seeds for a show treat. They welcome the approach of people to their show cages in anticipation of the seeds. Because they have become accustomed to being handled, they do not startle when they are cooped into their cages. The judge can approach a calm display.
The Sicilian Buttercups are on the SPPA Critical List for poultry breeds. Over the years I have seen other poultry fanciers take an interest in them for reasons similar to my own. I spread information about them at every show I attend, hoping to increase their popularity.
At the 2008 APA show in Ventura, California we had the largest number of Sicilian Buttercups exhibited in the last 40 years. Sixty-three full-size and bantams were shown. Larry Stallings, president of the American Buttercup Club, comments: “Since there are usually only a few exhibited, some judges either don’t know the standard or don’t think it important. Unfortunately, this occurred in Ventura. A hen with a badly deformed foot was placed first in her class. As an APA judge, I would have disqualified her. When the judge was questioned he said, ‘I don’t care, she is still the best bird.’ His choice for best of breed was a pullet that I would have placed well down in her class as she was lacking in color pattern and had a tail angle of 90 degrees.
“Often judges take the safe route by picking their class champion from the larger groups,” Mr. Stallings continues. “They also tend to pick solid colored birds. Patterned birds have more chances for defects in their color markings.”
I hope that one day they will be removed from the SPPA’s Critical List. My effort is to hatch 15 to 20 eggs in an incubator during the fall. They are strong and healthy from day one. By culling birds and breeding for the best combs, feathering and leg color, breeders can keep this breed strong and true. Educating poultry fanciers to the special qualities of this rare breed will help it progress to the day when it will no longer be at risk.
To learn more about the Sicilian Buttercup breed, an excellent website is americanbuttercupclub.org.
Do have experience with Sicilian Buttercups? We’d love to hear from you!
Originally published in the June/July 2009 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine.