The Magical Chickens of Martin Silverudd
By Paul Bradshaw
Every nation seems to have its share of backyard scientists who are compelled to tinker with the chicken genome in order to create a superior breed of birds. Most fail, but a few lucky ones create fantastic chickens of enduring value.
Britain’s history is rife with examples including William Cook, who created the Orpington in 1886, and Sir John Saunders Sebright, who created a beautiful bantam by the same name. Across the ocean, in 1896 Nettie Metcalf became the only American woman to create a breed — the Buckeye — that was later adopted into APA’s Standard of Perfection. Despite these remarkable achievements, few if anyone can match the creative results of Martin Silverudd, a little-known Swedish monk who in the mid-20th Century and brought to life almost a half-dozen chicken breeds that exist today. Father Silverudd deserves recognition for being perhaps the most prolific creator of new chicken breeds in the history of poultry.
During his most productive years in the 1950s and 60s, Silverudd often stated twin goals of creating auto-sexing chicken breeds that laid a high volume of unusually colored eggs. Less plainly stated, but clearly evident in the results of Silverudd’s work, was the desire to create visually stunning chickens in all colors and patterns. To a remarkable degree, Silverudd achieved these goals. The result is nothing less than a magical mix of traits in a handful of fascinating breeds.
Silverudd had a fixation on the autosexing function in chicken genetics. Autosexing chicken breeds are ones that display obviously different color patterns between male and female day-old chicks. Usually the female chicks have well defined “chipmunk stripes” in the down on their backs, and males have a silvery sheen on their feathers and a blonde dot on the backs of their heads. These cues make it easy for even an amateur to identify the gender of the chicks as soon as they hatch. Autosexing chickens are different than sex-linked chickens because sex-linked chicks are produced as the cross of two different chicken breeds, while autosexing chicks are produced from a single breed that produces more autosexing chicks with each generation. Until recently, there were very few if any autosexing chicken breeds in America.
The palette of egg colors Silverudd envisioned is equally intriguing, and he ultimately created breeds that laid eggs that are green, deep brown, white, or cream-colored. In fact, Silverudd was successful in creating the only single-comb green-egg-laying chicken breed in the world.
Working in his native Sweden, the first breed created by Silverudd was the Fifty-Five Flowery Hen, so named because he produced the first ones in 1955 and the hens are covered with a complex and beautiful mottled pattern on their feathers. This breed, based in large part on Leghorn crosses, is clearly auto-sexing at hatching, and adult examples are strikingly different in appearance based on gender. The roosters are almost solid white and the hens are predominantly gray or gold depending on the color variety. Fifty-Fives are true to their Leghorn origins and are prolific egg layers.
Perhaps the most spectacular breed created by Father Silverudd is the Isbar (pronounced “Ice Bar”), a breed that originated in about 1960.
The Isbar enjoys the unique distinction of being the only single-combed chicken breed in the world that lays green eggs, and it lays them in great numbers and often throughout the winter. The eggs vary in color from a deep mossy to a light sea-glass green, and often there are speckles on the eggs that make them even more beautiful. Couple the egg color with the stunning blue feathers of these chickens and you have one of the most appealing poultry breeds anyone can own. While the autosexing function is usually absent in this breed, the other positive traits more than make up for it. Isbars were recently imported into the United States, and they have proven to be excellent free-rangers.
Another interesting Silverudd breed recently introduced to North America is the Queen Silvia, a chicken named after Swedish royalty. Queen Silvias are autosexing and despite their light coloration and white earlobes lay a brown egg. Queen Silvias come in both a silver and gold variety and in temperament are active and flighty — and also prolific egg layers — like Leghorns. However, Leghorns are only part of the genetic blend that created the Queen Silvia, and it’s likely that Silverudd injected into the mix the Norwegian Jaerhon when formulating this breed.
The two least-known Silverudd breeds are the Smaaland and the Molilja. Smaalands are clearly autosexing and are quite striking, particularly the hen with its red breast that probably come in part from Rhode Island Reds or New Hampshires. The Molilja is a yellow-brown bird that produces a cream-colored egg.
Although all of the Silverudd breeds remain rare even in their native Sweden, they survived their creator who passed away in 1986. In fact, some of the breeds are experiencing a bit of a renaissance with their recent importation to North America, including the Isbar, Queen Silvia, Fifty-Five Flowery Hen, and most recently, the Smaaland. For the first time, North American poultry hobbyists can experience firsthand the living legacy of Father Martin Silverudd and carry forward the fruits of his genius into a new century.
Paul Bradshaw owns Greenfire Farms in Havana, Florida, where he keeps a number of Silverudd chicken breeds. He wishes to thank fellow chicken enthusiast Ulf Duell for assisting in gathering information on Martin Silverudd and translating Swedish texts.