Breed Profile: Russian Orloff Chicken

Beautiful and Hardy Heritage Russian Chickens

Breed Profile: Russian Orloff Chicken

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BREED: Orloff or Russian Orloff chicken, named for Russian Count Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov-Chesmensky (1737-1808), who became a renowned breeder of livestock and poultry after retirement from military campaigns.

ORIGIN: Chickens of this type were known in Russia during the 18th century, particularly the Gilan (Gilany or Gilyanskaya), described in G. N. Teplov’s 1774 book Poultry Yard, as a large meat and game bird of Persian origin (from the Gilan province which had been periodically under Russian rule).

Differing Opinions over Origins

Contemporary accounts suggest that Count Orlov possessed red Gilan fowl, as well as English Game, and other breeds. Russian poultry experts suspect that he developed the breed that later bore his name from crossing Gilan with other native and foreign birds. The original Russian Orloff chicken had red plumage similar to the Gilan.

Other poultry experts, particularly those in Europe and America, have inherited a different origin story from British poultry breeder Edward Brown. He wrote to breeder and writer Lewis Wright after attending a Poultry Exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1899. Brown had attended a conference where M. Houdekoff read a paper claiming that the Orloff had been well known in Russia under the name “Chlianskaia” (likely synonymous with Gilyanskaya) before they were promoted by Count Orlov. Brown’s letter was printed in Wright’s Book of Poultry for many editions, and forms the basis of the belief that the Orloff is in fact the Gilan and originated in modern-day Iran.

gilan-chicken
Gilan breed (Blue variety). Photo by Alexander Korolev (Королев Александр on Wikimedia Commons) CC BY SA 4.0. This is one of the oldest breeds in Russia and now very rare, recently recovered by private enthusiasts in Dagestan (the southern-most republic of the Russian Federation) and Moscow.

Russian experts maintain that both Gilan and Orloff were known as distinct breeds in Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries, as illustrated in Russian Imperial Poultry Society’s Album of Husbandry Poultry Breeds (1905). They are indeed separate breeds today. Orloff chickens have larger heads than Gilan, their legs and beaks are of different color, and, at least in the modern form, are smaller in size.

gilan-chicken-1905
Gilan from Album of Husbandry Poultry Breeds (1905)
orloff-chicken-1905
Orloff from Album of Husbandry Poultry Breeds (1905)

History of the Russian Orloff Chicken

From the late 18th century, the breed was widely kept in Tula, south of Moscow, from where it spread to other provinces. In the 1870s–80s it was enthusiastically described by Russian experts as a beautiful, large bird. Some roosters reached 10 lb. (4.4 kg) and were tall enough to peck crumbs from the table. In 1881, the first Orloffs were shown under this name in Moscow. In 1887, the first White variety was exhibited. A breed standard was set in 1899. Then, in 1901, various colors were shown at an agricultural exhibition in Moscow. The Spangled appeared at the Second International Show at St. Petersburg in 1913. By then many farms bred different varieties, those in the north being calmer, better layers, and those in the south being more of a game bird. Although primarily ornamental game, their potential as production birds became apparent.

russian-orloff-rooster
Spangled Orloff rooster, © The Livestock Conservancy, with kind permission.

International interest grew in the early 20th century following their appearance at Milan and Turin shows in 1906 and 1911. The first exports to Austria and Germany occurred in 1884, and to England around 1912. Breeding took off in Germany after an import to Dresden in 1910. From this flock, German lines were developed, including the first Bantams in the 1920s. Today’s successful Bantam lines resulted from later German efforts from 1947.

International Recognition and Local Decline

While the breed spread abroad, it became hard to find in Russia, as foreign breeds, such as Cochin and Brahma, became popular. Even in 1899, prominent breeder I. I. Abozin struggled to find flocks in Tula and other provinces where Orloffs had been numerous. He encouraged the breed’s restoration from small flocks found in Pavlovo.

The 20th century brought civil wars, revolutions, world wars, and social and political changes. This led to a second near extinction of the breed. In some cases, breeding efforts were abandoned and flocks consumed. From the late 20th century, enthusiasts and two research facilities have worked to restore Russian heritage poultry to its historic form.

In Germany, stocks diminished after the Second World War and records of standards were lost. The resulting recovered flocks varied from the original Russian type, but were equally valued. Imports of German types into Russia have helped the country to restore the breed. Both Russian and German type flocks are kept, but most are a blend of both.

russian-orloff-hen
Spangled Orloff hen, © The Livestock Conservancy, with kind permission.

Dates of arrival in America are unknown. Birds of this type seen by writer John H. Robinson as a child in the 1870s were probably Russian Black-Bearded, a similar breed now very rare in Russia. These were likely the “Black Russian Fowls” that featured in 1874 Poultry World and the “Russians” included in the APA Standard of Perfection 1875–1894, but dropped due to lack of popularity. Robinson mentioned the Russian type, including images, in his Popular Breeds of Domestic Poultry American and Foreign in 1924. Mahogany Orloff were known in America at this time.

A Varied but Endangered Gene Pool

CONSERVATION STATUS: Endangered on an international level with only about 5,000 recorded worldwide, and Threatened on the Livestock Conservancy Priority List. The FAO records 1,714 in the United States in 2015, 1,015 in Germany in 2020, and very small numbers elsewhere. Russian geneticists estimate 2,000 in Russia.

BIODIVERSITY: Genetic analysis in Russia has revealed a wide base of inheritance, likely due to the inclusion of breeds from different origins. Native Russian breeds have a strong influence from Asian breeds brought back from Persia. Orloff chickens have a high diversity in mitochondrial DNA (including a haplotype originating in southern China that is rarely found in European chickens). This diversity probably results from hybridization to restore traits during recent restorations of the population.

Characteristics of the Russian Orloff Chicken

DESCRIPTION: The head is medium-sized, distinctive, and reminiscent of a bird of prey. The orange-red to amber eyes are deep-set with a prominent brow. The wide skull is bisected by a cleft from the comb to the top of the head. The beak is short, wide-based, and curved. Muffs cover small red wattles and earlobes. The neck is long, bearded, with abundant hackle feathers that are slightly elevated. The rooster’s hackle is thickly feathered at the top, forming a characteristic “boule.” The body is broad, rounded, well-muscled, and has an elevated posture, evocative of the game type, but the hen’s body is longer and narrower than the rooster. The tail is held upright, especially in the rooster. Medium legs appear long due to raised posture. Yellow shanks and beak.

rooster-head-and-hackle
Spangled Orloff rooster, © The Livestock Conservancy, with kind permission.

VARIETIES: Spangled are the most common in America, although there are a few Mahogany. In Russia, there are Black-breasted and Brown-breasted Red, Spangled, Mottled, Black, and White. There is a Black and White Mottled variety in Europe. The ABA recognizes Black-tailed Red, White, and Spangled Bantams. Mahogany and Barred varieties were developed in Germany.

COMB: Strawberry or cushion comb, originally described as like a raspberry bisected along the long axis, covered with small tubercles with small feather bristles between, located low on the forehead close to the nostrils.

POPULAR USE: Dual purpose.

EGG COLOR: White or tinted.

EGG SIZE: Small–medium (In Russia, average 2 oz./58 g).

PRODUCTIVITY: Initially 160–180 eggs per year, dropping to 120–150 in the second year. Slow-growing, producing white, gamy meat.

WEIGHT: Roosters approx. 8 lb. (3.6 kg); hens 6.5 lb. (3 kg). Do not mature fully until two years old.

Cold Hardy Foragers

TEMPERAMENT: While originally pugnacious, modern strains tend to be calm and friendly, but will stand up to aggressive competitors. Good foragers who prefer to range. Generally non-broody, but make protective mothers.

ADAPTABILITY: Chicks mature and feather out slowly, but when raised outdoors and allowed to acclimatize, they become extremely cold-hardy and robust. However, they are susceptible to disease while young. Their compact comb protects against frostbite.

Sources

Originally published in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Spangled Orloff and Partridge Brahma flock in Russia.
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