Pheasant Fowl, Hamburgs and Redcaps
with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2001, 6(4):8-11
Silver Penciled Hamburg cock from People's Farm & Stock Cyclopedia, 1885
Over the years much has been made of the relationship between the Hamburg group and the Redcaps. In recent years this has been to the disadvantage of both the Redcaps and the Golden Spangled Hamburgs. While there clearly is a relationship between the two and the Pheasant Fowl as well, they were not as has sometimes been suggested all developed from a common ancestor by selection. For a hundred years or better various writers have declared that it would probably be impossible to trace the exact background of any of these fowls. While others for that long and more have been busy documenting and speculating about that "untraceable" history. While some of the speculation is more indicative of an active imagination than a serious devotion to poultry history, there is more than enough information to develop a rather clear picture of that background, which has often been blurred by nationalism and a Eurocentric view of the world.
Writing in 1599, the Italian naturalist Aldrovandi described a rose combed and spangled Turkish Fowl that agreed with the Spangled Hamburgs in all respects. He also mentions a similar penciled fowl. There are other records, some of even earlier date, from the eastern Mediterranean of similar, although usually single comb, penciled fowl. It is in those fowls that we find the root of the Hamburg breed, as well as Campines, Fresians and several other breeds. Given the British and Dutch history of trade with this area, the suggestion that such birds were independently developed from other stock is simply ridiculous. In fact, Hamburg-like fowl in the west can be traced at least to the 1300s. The long involved arguments whether the British or Dutch developed the Hamburgs or whether the former developed the Spangles and the later developed the penciled are usually pretty meaningless. Although both nations selected and to some extent modified the original stock, the breed was very recognizable long before it reached western Europe. Perhaps prompted by the fact that the fowl, now called Pheasant Fowl, is now officially called the Old English Fowl and because that fowl's unique pattern, male with laced breasts and spangled females (the spangles not as refined as in the Hamburg) clearly shows a relation to the spangled pattern. It has been suggested that this is the original fowl and the Spangled Hamburgs are a refinement. This sounds plausible, but given what we know about the original Turkish Fowl, isn't very likely. It is possible that this "pheasant pattern" came directly from the east with the spangled and penciled fowl as an already established variant. Dale Rice, who did considerable work with Hamburgs, said that some of his spangled x penciled crosses approached the Pheasant Fowl pattern. And such crosses whether they were made in Britain or Turkey may be part of the Old English Pheasant story. Writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who claimed the old Spotted-breast Game was one of the originators of the Pheasants were probably correct. Considering the variation in type between the Old English Pheasants and Hamburgs and what influences besides Hamburgs might account for the Old English Pheasant's type, the Pheasant was probably a midpoint in the production of the Redcaps. What other influences mixed with a Hamburg Game base would lead to the modern Redcap is the final question. The answer is well known, or was.
When I first talked to Bruce Lentz about Redcaps, he said "they are pretty good chickens but they should be, like a lot of good chickens they are mongrel Dorkings." IÕm not sure whether Bruce based this on hints in Weir's book, other poultry books, or the traditional view he grew up with, or if he made a shrewd judgement based on his knowledge of the breed and of British poultry history. I found other old timers, such as Harold Shuert and A.J. Hine, agreed with the view. In 1972, when I was pouring over old poultry journals in British libraries I found articles linking Redcap size and pattern to Dorking influence and the pattern in the British version of the female Red Dorking to Redcaps, or at least the Hamburg group. But I didn't have to get to Britain to document Redcap/Dorking heritage. Sometimes a great deal can be told not only about what things should have but also what isn't desired. A check of Vic Corson's British Standard found that five toes were mentioned in the Redcaps faults and disqualification section. To drive the point home, Vic's flock produced a 5 toed pulled a year or two later. Bruce told us that in his youth Redcaps that produced "Five Toed Sports" were still common.
The Redcaps arose in a time when the common fowl in Britain were Games and the Old Five Toed Fowl (not yet, at least widely, known as Dorkings). The group that would later be known as Hamburgs was probably next in numbers, but mostly restricted to the north. Here and there were a few members of the Spanish group (mostly around the cities and towns). It should surprise no one that crosses between these groups were tried and that useful and unusually attractive fowl were retained to become the basis of new varieties.
Just as Dorkings were not originally called Dorkings, the term "Hamburgs" was not originally applied to these so-called Pheasant Fowl. Whatever they were called, they were probably the most important group of fowl for the show community. In the English speaking world, poultry exhibition began with this group. For many years prior to the all breed shows as we know them today, the various members of this group all had their admirers. Specialty clubs were formed for the Moonies, Crescents or Half Moons, Pheasants, and Corals or Redcaps. These clubs were dedicated to breeding the respective types to perfection. To encourage their members, prizes were offered and awarded to the best fowl. Popular prizes included silver bells, copper tea kettles and plum cakes ("takes the cake" is another of those poultry terms that has made it into general usage). At the early shows, actually club meetings, only hens were judged. Then classes for males were added. Occasionally multiple club meets were staged and in time the modern all breed show developed.
Telling this tale correctly is complicated by the names. A lot of names existed and they varied with time and place. Today the largest segment of this group is called Hamburgs, but before 1849 the term rarely applied to any of these fowl. The Hamburg named referred to chickens, but it applied to the breed we know as Polish today, which was also called Crested Dutch and Polands.
The group apparently was first known as Pheasants in England due to their size and activity. As various varieties and even strains became better known, names such as Black Pheasants, Spangled Pheasants, Golden Spangled Pheasants, Mooney Pheasants, Silver Mooney Pheasants, Lancaster Mooney Pheasants and so on became common. In time some of these were shortened to Silver Moonies, Golden Crescents, etc. Other names that focused on the combs or the laying ability, such as Corals and Everlayers, sometimes with markings and place names added, also appeared. Names such as Creoles, probably a corruption of Corals, and Copheads, of unknown origin, came into use as well as more place names like Bolton Bays and Bolton Greys, which at time referred to Spangles and other times Pencileds. The Penciled may have a long history in Britain, but they were certainly overshadowed by the Spangles and even the Blacks, until importation of Dutch Everyday Layers from Holland were made in the early 1800s.
By mid century an obviously related group of fowl was known by an inconvenient and muddled group of names. This problem became clear at the dawn of the modern poultry show era. Hoping to clear this confusion and reunite the separated members of what was obviously a single family, various poultry authorities assembled at the Great Birmingham Show. The deliberations bogged down with the various camps generally unwilling to give ground to any of the others. Finally the day was carried by a suggestion from Reverend E. S. Dixon, a noted fancier. Dixon based his proposal on the suggestion that at least some of the Penciled fowl were being imported through the port of Hamburg, or at least by ship from that port. Amazingly a name with virtually no connection to the breed was accepted by most of the group. Its primary advantage was that while it was disliked by almost everyone it allowed a compromise by which none of the competing camps could claim victory. The name Pheasant Fowl (later Old English Pheasant Fowl) was retained by the strains with laced breasted males largely because they differed in type from the main family. And Redcap was settled upon for the large usually red eared types and a comb that had become a long established fine point.
The compromise stuck but the controversy hardly ended immediately. Fifty years later some breeders still insisted that the breed was wrongly called Hamburg, preferring to call their stock Moonies or Pheasants, even when the preferred type of Spangled was no longer the round "moon." The Hamburg War raged hotly and bitterly here, in Britain and the rest of Europe for sixty years or better. These controversies and extreme emphasis on fancy points helped to unseat the group as one of the premier egg production breeds and drove them from their position among the prominent show breeds.
Despite some loss of prestige, the various local races were blended into uniform, attractive varieties that with a little careful selection still excel in usefulness. The modern and rather elegant, pointed at the top, rounded at the lower end, Spangles came into general acceptance for much the same reason the name Hamburg did. They had the advantage of not being one of the previously preferred types. This is not to say that the Moon and Crescent patterns were not pleasing to the eye. The Penciled pattern also underwent change. Originally it was identical to the Campine pattern, but over time was refined to the state that the light and dark color of the females were nearly identical. In all varieties one of the most highly conflicted battles waged between preference for henny feathered and normal feathered males. The hen feathered males date to club shows when only females competed. The hen feathered trait is often attributed to the Old English Game, but this may not be true since it was found in both English and Dutch strains. The henny feathered males I've seen were attractive but hardly equal to the graceful natural tailed males. This was a hotly contested point and the outcome might even be considered slightly surprising, given that the matter was decided differently in the closely related Campine. In Hamburgs the trait was long established and even dominant in some areas, while in Campines it was unknown until 1907 when a single male (actually a Braekel) swept to prominence and within a few years stamped the hen feather trait on all the major show stains in Britain and North America. Purists might point out that in Campines the males are hen colored but unlike Sebrights and some Game strains, the feathering is intermediate between henny and normal. But the Campines are another story. Even after the normal males were accepted, some breeders retained hen feathered cocks for producing exhibition females, a practice that continued at least into the 1960s.
Although some early mention of White Pheasants can be found, the variety never obtained any prominence until the late 1800s due to the general bias against white fowl. Even this variety was the subject of considerable controversy. Here the main battle was over leg color. Some white strains had white legs and others had slate blue legs, like the other Hamburgs. The final decision was for Hamburg unity, but the APA Standard Committee required five changes and a lot of hurt feelings before becoming final.
Even today the Hamburg Wars have not all resolved themselves. The tail problem in Spangles has been a bone of contention for one hundred and fifty years or more, and today still raises temperatures to the boiling point. Like leg color in White Hamburgs, consensus has swayed back and forth a couple of times. In Silver Spangled Hamburgs, both cocks and hens have clear white tails with spangles at the ends. The Standard for Golden Hamburgs requires solid black tails. Nevertheless, many strains of clear tailed Golden Hamburgs existed and prior to 1840 anything but black tails were pretty well unknown in either color. Even in Silver Hamburgs, clear tails didnÕt become the norm until much later. If traced back in time far enough, Spangled males more or less resembled Penciled or Old English Pheasant males with some showing a trace of spangling on the breast and wings.
Even the Redcaps, which came far closer to dual purpose status than the Hamburgs, were a point of controversy. Names such as Derbysire Redcaps, Yorkshire Redcaps, York Everlayers, Copheads, Redheads, Rosetops, Corals, and Creoles all had their supporters. Then there was the matter of how the comb should be formed. During the club show period the breeders endeavored for a comb perfectly circular, without a point at the back. When the modern standard was adopted with a more typical rose comb, many breeders complained that this was not only wrong, but a sign of a Hamburg cross. I'm probably missing something here, but that somehow seems fitting on a Hamburg cross. In his youth Bruce Lentz talked to people who were part of the controversy. His opinion is that the more typical rose comb had finally been adopted simply because it was easier to breed consistently. While the perfectly round comb was possible, such combs were frequently pitted and often exhibited an inverted leader or spike and those without such flaws were not infrequently rectangular or oblong in shape. Even the modern Redcap comb is often high in the center.
Historically, the Hamburg was an egg farmer's or fancier's fowl, while the Redcap was more likely to be found on a diversified farm since it was competitive as a layer and a better table fowl. Its game heritage also won the Redcaps some adherents. There were several strains that were considered competitive pit fowl.
Earlier I mentioned that the relationship between the Hamburg group and the Redcaps worked to the disadvantage of both the Redcaps and the Golden Spangled Hamburgs in recent years. As the Golden Hamburg and the Redcap became rarer, breeders searching for an outcross often turned to Golden Hamburg for Redcaps and to Redcaps for Golden Hamburg. In either case this is obviously a better choice than Golden Laced Polish or White Wyandottes, [where] enough difference in pattern and ground color, ear lobes and other areas abound. Such a cross not followed by a long and careful period of selection is more than likely harmful rather than beneficial. In the case of Hamburgs, despite the difference in tail color, Silver Spangles are certainly a far better choice for an outcross (an argument for having the two patterns conform). If inbreeding is a problem with Redcaps, small size may already be a concern. Going to one of the smaller of its parent breeds won't help much. A better outcross would be the Dorking. Historically the Redcaps usually sported 8 lb. males and 7 lb. hens (some large strains attained 9 and 8 pounds), but they were standardized at 7.5 and 6 pounds. In my youth many were 8 and 7, but today fowls approaching even the standard weight are unusual. In Stairway to the Breeds, Ian Kay puts the current British weights at 6.5 and 5.5 pounds.
Several color variants of the Golden Spangled variety have also existed, such as the Golden Bay (preferred), Redbay, and Dark or Blood Red. While all of these can be beautiful in their own right, indiscriminate mixing that occurred in the recent past has not facilitated producing birds close to the standard. The Golden Penciled preferred in Red Bay also comes in Golden Bay.
Other names were used for these breeds, but most were variants of the names mentioned, with the exception of Chitty-Pratters, Praters and Prats. Chitty means little and Praters means talkers. Also, Creoles was used for Hamburgs as well as for Redcaps, as was Everlayers and to a lesser extent, Corals. This is an attractive and interesting group. Few if any fowl will give the fancier or back yard hobbyist a better opportunity to try their breeding skill.
So far I've restricted myself to standard colors in North America. Others have existed and a few still hang on here and there. Some are reasonably popular in Europe, including Blue Penciled and Spangled variants of the typical gold and silver varieties. Buff and White Penciled (sometimes called Yellow Penciled), a black fowl with buff spangles (a white spanged equivalent should be genetically possible), Black Breasted Red, Buff, Blue Cuckoo, and Mottled. Some of these patterns are intriguing, and if the Hamburg group and their allies should return to the top of the show ranks again, have the potential of being extremely popular.
The Pheasant Malay, also known as True Malay Game, Malay Pheasant Game and other names, is probably the Malay at the bottom of the Kraienkoppe pile. It is, in fact, the "Malay" used in the creation of the Rhode Island Red. Various writers have mentioned it as an influence on the Hamburg and even as one of the breeds used in the development of the Redcaps. While the Pheasant Malay seems to have reached Britain too late to be a foundation breed for any member of this group, I can't rule out some casual crossing. There may be a belief that the round comb once popular in Redcaps was related to the walnut comb of the Pheasant Malay. The low nature of walnut or cushion combs would make this unlikely. The Pheasant Malay is certainly an elegant, stylish fowl, but the style is distinctly different from that of the Hamburg group. I suspect that the major connection is in the use of the term Pheasant, which merely denoted a light, active bird.
back to Poultry Page
Direct questions and comments to Barry at FeatherSite -- questions and comments