Javas: An Ideal Homestead Bird
by Pete Malmberg
Garfield Farm Museum
PO Box 403
LaFox, IL 60147
To get to Garfield Farm Museum you turn north off of busy Rt. 38, a major east-west highway near the western edge Chicagoland. As you drive up the gravel road, you seem to be driving back into time. Turning into the farm past the 1846 Inn, you are presented with a scene many of us dream about, a farmyard full of plump chickens scratching about. With the fast pace of modern life, many people are thinking of returning to the slower rhythms of country living. Most of us conjure up images of white picket fences, green pastures and chickens pecking in the farmyard. But stop for a minute and take another look at those chickens. Are they the common White Leghorn and Rhode Island Red or are they black, mottled or even multi-colored? Along with a yearning for the old style farm life is the renewed interest in breeds of animals that were commonly seen on the farms of yesteryear. Many of the old livestock breeds are rapidly disappearing and some are already lost. Even if you have no experience with livestock or don't have enough land for a herd of sheep or cattle, you can still help preserve rare species. A good place to start is with a flock of Black Java chickens.
Javas are one of the oldest, rarest, and most useful dual-purpose chickens in North America. (Javas are good egg layers and grow to a good roasting weight fairly quickly.) A history of this breed reveals that the two main varieties, Black and Mottled, arrived in North America from the island of Java as early as the late 18th century. Java importation continued until the 1860s. They were soon found in farmyards throughout the eastern US and made their way to Missouri with western expansion. The peak period of Java popularity occurred from the 1850s to the 1880s when the black variety was used as a market bird in New York and New Jersey, since the black pin feathers revealed how well the birds had been plucked. Because of these qualities they were crossed with other early chicken breeds to develop new breeds of larger birds.
The decline of the Java began during the 1880s when Black Javas were again crossed with other breeds to produce the Black Jersey Giant. Almost immediately, the Java was relegated to farmyard status. Agriculture was changing and farmers were starting to specialize. A dual-purpose bird was not as desirable as a chicken that was bred specifically for egg production or meat production. These days all commercial poultry are white making it harder to tell how well they have been plucked. Both of the Java varieties have gradually declined during this century.
In the 1980s, Garfield Farm Museum started keeping a small flock of Black Java chickens. Garfield Farm is a former 1840s Illinois prairie farmstead and teamster inn being restored as an 1840s working farm museum. As the museum became aware of the dangerously low numbers of Black Javas in the world we decided to make a concerted effort to save the breed.
In order to ensure that our Javas were a pure strain, and could be used to rebuild the breed, genetic testing was done with the help of the University of Iowa. The tests compared blood samples from Garfield's Javas with samples from similar and related breeds, Barred Rocks, Black Jersey Giants, Australorps, and birds from the last commercial supplier of Black Javas, Duane Urch. Urch/Turnland Poultry supplied the original birds for the Garfield Farm flock.
Although the tests were not conclusive because they involved such a small number of birds they did, however, conclude that there is a strong possibility that all of our Black Javas are a purebred line. The study also concluded that there were several distinct lineages present within the Garfield flock and that these Javas are genetically different from the other breeds studied in the tests. These results make sense because the Urch flock has been a closed flock since the late 1950s or '60s.
As we progressed with the breeding and hatching of Black Javas at Garfield Farm Museum, we were contacted by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. They offered to incubate and hatch eggs in their facilities, thus allowing us to increase the numbers of this rare breed more quickly. With the increased numbers of chicks we have been able to increase the size of our flock and have a supply of chicks available for other chicken enthusiasts who want to start flocks. In addition to the rewards of reviving the Black Java breed we were surprised with the hatching of four White Java chicks in 1999. The White Java was never officially recognized as a breed but had been known as a variation of the Black Java. The last White Java was seen in the 1950s but the genes were still carried by our flock of Black Javas. We have now hatched about 75 White Javas and will be offering White chicks and eggs for sale in 2002. With increased hatching of White Java chicks we have again been surprised with the appearance of another vanished strain of Java. Some of the White chicks have a blue-gray color to their first feathers. This is a start on the road to reviving the Blue Java. At this point, none of the chicks have retained the blue-gray coloration into adulthood, but further careful breeding of these chicks should produce Blue Java adults.
Java temperaments, laying abilities, and meat quality have been a tremendous help for us in interesting potential new breeders. These birds are very calm and easily handled while still being a very active breed. They are excellent foragers and do well in the barnyard. Hens lay large rich brown eggs and many are good mothers. Young cockerels make excellent table fare. The size of Javas also makes them a very desirable bird. Roosters average about nine and a half pounds while hens tend to be about six and a half pounds.
With dedication, perseverance and some publicity, this important part of American agricultural history can once again return to its place as one of the ideal homestead birds. For more information about the Java breed contact Garfield Farm Museum at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join the Java Club, contact Pete Malmberg at: email@example.com.
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