The History and Future of Marans Chickens
Cuckoo Marans is the Most Common Variety in the U.S.
By William Morrow – Marans chickens are synonymous with chocolate brown eggs. Marans chickens originated in the French village of the same name about 240 miles southwest of Paris or 100 miles north of Bordeaux. Marans is a port town in the Bay of Biscay. A steady supply of trade ships over the centuries brought with them new breeds of poultry which were bred with the local chickens, resulting in the varieties of Marans chickens that we have today.
Pronunciation of the breed name is all over the place. If you look at the French language rules, the “s” at the end is silent. Marans is pronounced Muh-ran. (Probably the most difficult thing for Americans to do is roll the “r”. It was my downfall in high school foreign language class.) Marans are very popular in England as well as France. Ian Fleming, the creator of the James Bond novels, made Marans eggs Agent 007’s favorite, sealing the egg’s elite status with the British.
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Though increasing in numbers, Marans chickens are still considered rare in the U.S. Original imports were mostly from the U.K. and of the Cuckoo variety. The U.K. standard calls for clean shanks, while the French standard calls for sparsely feathered shanks. This difference in feathered versus non-feathered shanks has proven quite controversial among breeders working to get the breed accepted into the American Poultry Association Standards of Perfection. Cuckoo is still the most common variety in the U.S., but thanks to more recent imports and lots of hard work by dedicated breeders, many more color varieties are now available. These include Silver Cuckoo, Gold Cuckoo, Black Copper (Brown Red), Blue Copper, Splash Copper, Wheaten, Black Tailed Buff, White, Black, Blue, Splash, Birchen (Silver Black) and Columbian. All of these except the Blue Copper, Splash Copper, Blue and Splash varieties are part of the official French standard. Although, the French Marans Club acknowledges that the Blue color has existed in Marans chickens since its origin. Marans chickens are a heavy, dual-purpose breed raised for both meat and eggs. Bantam Marans exist, but they are very rare.
Of all the different breeds of chickens I’ve raised, Marans chickens are the cleanest and most docile. They rarely soil their nesting boxes. Rooster behavior for Marans chickens is excellent. I have never had an aggressive Marans rooster, and I grow out several hundred each year to select my breeders. This more passive disposition spills over into other aspects of behavior as well. With Marans, you need to run a higher ratio of cocks to hens to keep your fertility up. I run 1 cock for every 6-8 hens versus 1 cock for every 10-12 hens for my other breeds. I have also noticed that when I integrate a batch of younger birds into the main breeder flock at 5 months of age, they don’t get bullied around as much by the adults. They are also the first birds to go in at dusk. Now, this probably all sounds very nice and positive, but in general, passive behavior is not associated with highly productive birds. If you think about Leghorns or Production Reds, you think of flighty, nervous, high strung birds that are the last ones to retire to the roost when dusk approaches. It is well known that your most productive layers are going to be your more assertive, active birds.
The Famous Egg
If you’re interested in raising chickens for eggs, there are lots of benefits and challenges of raising Marans chickens. There was a time that Marans chickens in France were known for 200 eggs a year. That hasn’t been our experience here in the U.S. I hope to improve this with continued selection. As with most birds developed in the first half of the 20th century, the Marans chickens are a dual purpose, heavy breed. This meat type conformation will naturally result in a lower lay rate. To select for heavy egg production, you will lose the heavy type. Some also say that by selecting for the darkest egg color, you are selecting for hens that pass the eggs more slowly through the oviduct resulting in hens with a lower lay rate. (The longer it takes for the egg to pass, the more coats of brown/red color are applied.)
The brown/red colors in the Marans eggs are pigments called porphyrins. Porphyrins are derived from hemoglobin in the blood. As you recall from your high school biology, iron is what gives blood its red color. If a Marans egg is exposed to light for a prolonged period of time, the red pigments oxidize and turn dark brown. This is a trick that some less scrupulous breeders use to photograph very dark eggs for sale. Never trust a picture of a Marans egg – egg photographs are too easily faked or altered. Better to rely on the reputation of a breeder. I’ve also noticed that eggs just don’t photograph well. I’ve photographed eggs from our Marans chickens on numerous occasions and the pictures never look as good as the eggs do in person.
Marans egg color is a very controversial and often misunderstood topic. Egg color does vary by each individual bird, by the time of the year, diet, health and management (free range on green pasture vs. confinement). Generally speaking, hens coming on line in the spring will lay the darkest eggs. Egg color then fades as the laying season progresses into late summer. Then, when she comes back online after her winter molt and rests, the dark egg color returns and the cycle starts all over again. Egg color can be an even brown, or spotted and stippled with varying shades of brown. Some breeders only hatch out the even brown color.
We found that our customers like the uniqueness of the spotted eggs. So, we hatch out both the spotted and even types of dark brown eggs to perpetuate those traits in our bloodlines. It is unrealistic to expect every bird in your flock to be a dark brown egg layer all year long. Egg color does not work like that. Brown egg color is controlled by at least 14 genes and is not well understood. If it were as simple as only hatching the dark eggs, everyone would have a good line within one generation. The French Marans Club has developed an official egg color chart with a 1-9 color scale. The French standard specifies that a hen must lay at least a 4 to be considered a Marans.
We raise Black Copper Marans and Blue Copper Marans. As with any Blue variety of chicken, you will also get Splash as a by-product of breeding. So, we also have Splash Copper Marans which can be very useful in your breeding program. As with many heritage chicken breeds, most of the stock in the U.S. came from a handful of bloodlines, so they tend to share common faults. Faults to look out for with any of these varieties when selecting your best for breeding are:
- Yellow on shanks or bottom of feet (often appears as willow shanks with yellow foot pads)
- White on ear lobes
- Black eyes (this is recessive and easily corrected)
- Side sprigs
- Brown, red or copper on body of hen (other than head, neck & hackles)
- Excessive brown, red or copper on breast of male
- Excessive tail length on males
- Excessive feathering on shanks and toes
- Clean shanks
- Undersized/underweight (males less than 8.0 lbs, females less than 7.0 lbs)
- Hens that lay light colored eggs
The Future of the Breed
The year 2009 was an exciting year for Marans. The breed had its first qualifying meet at the American Poultry Association’s (APA) annual show in Belvidere, Illinois this past September. There were 82 birds shown by 14 exhibitors. It was a very good turnout. The latest and most well-organized breed club to date is the Marans Chicken Club USA. They helped organized the National Qualifying Meet. The qualifying meet was for the Black Copper variety. The Black Copper Marans is the most common variety in France. It is also the most well developed and has the best egg color. It is used by more experienced breeders to improve and develop the other varieties. This should be done with a very good understanding of color genetics and accompanied by meticulous record keeping. Otherwise, you can mess up a good bloodline rather easily.
The then APA president, Dave Anderson, judged the Marans Qualifying Meet accompanied by the Standard Revision Committee. The APA was impressed with the quality of the hens but acknowledged that the cocks were not as consistent in type as they would like. Many of the birds were young. In a letter to the Marans Chicken Club USA, Dave Anderson acknowledged that the Black Copper Marans were on the borderline of being accepted by the APA, but in the end, the APA decided to leave the application open/active and allow a second qualifying meet in 2010. This means we need more breeders working with and showing Marans. So, if you have any room in your pens, Marans could be the breed for you. You and James Bond can have something in common!
Originally published in 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.