Culling Black Javas
by Jim Ward
I recently culled through my black java cockerels. I thought it might be helpful to others to share my observations and pictures. To the new hobbyist selection of chickens might seem to require a magical eye, and asking questions of judges and experienced breeders akin to being required to understand a foreign language. (Cockerels are males under a year of age. Pullets are females under a year of age. Roosters are males over a year in age. Hens are over a year in age.) Mostly though it is just care and patience in choosing birds that suit what the keeper wants out of their birds.
For me I want my black javas to be good layers, especially during the winter time. I also want them to grow quickly and dress out nicely with plenty of breast meat. I would like for them to hatch their own chicks and be good mothers. They should be calm, but active. They should be easy on the feed bills because they can forage for much of their own food. They should grow well without requiring special feeds or medications. They should be healthy and robust in a variety of conditions, whether penned or out in the open. Lastly I want them to be competitive as exhibition poultry.
The problem of course is not breeding for one trait or another. The problem is producing a balanced flock of black javas whose individuals have on average most of the traits listed above. This is what makes breeding a challenge and bit of an art. For example a black java hen might have yellow feet but be small. Another black java hen might be large but have pink feet or be a poor layer. It is usually unwise to breed an otherwise poor specimen just because it is strong in one trait. It is usually equally unwise to discard an otherwise superior bird just because it lacks in a specific trait. In the end, each breeder must decide which birds combine relatively more of the desired traits to keep and use as breeders. They must also try to mate birds so that they complement each other’s weaknesses and hope that over time all the traits will come together in some of the chicks.
Generally speaking the more javas that are hatched and raised, and the more stringent the culling, the more opportunities there are to make progress in breeding the ideal black java in the shortest period of time. For the past five years I have tried to raise 100 chicks each year and to cull about 85 to 90 of them. However, significant improvements can be made by keepers with many fewer javas just by keeping the best cockerels and pullets they hatch, or even better that their hens hatch, each year.
While most of the traits I will touch upon below deal with the javas’ appearance since I am first and foremost a poultry exhibitor, I am still very concerned with my flocks temperament and productivity. Besides what I am doing along these lines with my own flock, I am trying to assist in the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ABLC) breed improvement project for the black java to restore and improve its historic levels of productivity (egg laying and meat production). (See the June/ July 2011 issue of Backyard Poultry for more information.) For those especially interested in selecting their javas for their productivity traits the ABLC has several nice publications for helping to do so.
Birth Defects and Abnormalities
A small percentage (one or two per 100) of my black javas have malformities when they are hatched: curled toes, cross bill, splayed or twisted legs, etc. These birds are all immediate culls.
For the past five years I haven’t introduced any new java blood into my flock. Sometimes maintaining a line-bred/ inbred flock such as mine can result in an increase in the frequency of malformed birds and other problems, but I haven’t noticed this yet. My mentors, long-time poultry keepers, believed that line-breeding was the best way to improve a flock. As long as progress was being made each year towards the breeder’s goals, they didn’t bring outside blood into their flock unless a bird could be obtained that was superior to their own. They also believed that flocks go through bottlenecks. Initially there is an increase in the frequency of malformities and other problems, but overtime as the birds with the malformities are eliminated from the flock, the flock becomes less prone to having these issues.
***This is also true of disease resistance. It may be harsh, but the one time I had a sick java I killed him immediately to protect the flock. I also killed him based on the belief that the bird likely had gotten sick because of some inherent genetic weakness. In addition to that one bird, three or four have died unexpectedly over the past several years. In general though, I found my black javas to be very healthy. They have also always tested negative for all of the diseases monitored as part of the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP).
Five years ago I started with a pink-footed hen from Duane Urch and a yellow-footed rooster from Monte Bowen as the foundation of my java flock. The hen was a superior bird in most every way except for her foot color so I made the decision to work with her. The APA and ABA require that the bottoms of the feet of black javas to be yellow. Birds with pink feet (the absence of yellow) are supposed to be disqualified. Yellow bottoms of the feet are also taken as a sign of java stock purity. Given these, my initial decision to use the pink-footed hen has resulted in my having to cull a great number of birds for not having yellow feet. The trade-off is that I didn’t have to cull birds for numerous other problems.
In principle yellow feet is a simple recessive trait, meaning that if you mate a yellow-footed rooster to a yellow-footed hen all of the chicks should be yellow-footed. In practice it has proven much more difficult to fix in my flock. One reason is that yellow-footedness is affected by the bird’s nutrition making the determination of pink and yellow feet sometimes a tough call. Birds kept inside and only fed a commercial laying ration are generally very pale. Also, hens in production naturally lose their yellow feet. A second reason may be that pink-footed hens lay better, which means since that I haven’t made individual matings, they disportionately contribute to the next generation of chicks.
At present most black javas are too small, so size has been a priority for my recent breeding efforts. Even after five years I still have to cull about half of my cockerels and pullets for being too small.
Size is easiest to compare when all of the birds are of the same age. (Obviously too, pullets must always be considered separately than cockerels.) It isn’t always possible to hatch all of the birds I want at the same time. In those cases a small animal/ baby/ bathroom scale can be helpful. An actual weight at a predetermined time point gives a measure of objectivity to determine which chickens are the heaviest, but care should be taken to account for changes in the growth of birds due to weather and other external factors between seasons and years.
Size has two components- frame (bone structure) and weight. Javas should have the weight of a plymouth rock, but a somewhat smaller frame more akin to that of the rhode island red, assuming one knows good specimens of those breeds from their local poultry shows. Javas grow slowly and sometimes it takes seven or eight months for the size differences to become obvious from just their appearance. Size can sometimes be assessed earlier based just on the relative sizes of the shank bones (the featherless portion of the leg). Birds with large, thick shanks almost always grow larger than birds with thin fine shanks.
|The bird on the left is clearly smaller than the bird on the right. Both are the same age|
Type is the most important characteristic of a breed of chicken. It refers to the overall shape of the breed, which is determined by the depth of the breast, the length of the back and the legs, the carriage of the tail, the posture of the bird (how it stands), etc. The java, as I understand it, should have a rectangular body with a slightly sloping back or top line. It should have plenty of breast reflecting its traditional use as a market fowl. It should stand relatively tall with its legs even spaced and centered on its body. It should be long and broad. It should have a lot of tail which is held high (55 degrees from horizontal for males). There should also be a soft break in its top line where the tail turns up.
The past several years I have chosen the birds that I thought had the best type based on the descriptions and pictures in the American Poultry Associations Standard of Perfection. Then I exhibited them at several poultry shows. (This was after my flock had been culled through for yellow feet and size.) At the poultry shows, I asked the judges for their opinion of my birds and listened to any advice and comments on how they could be improved (highlighted below). Later I used the birds that they deemed best in my breeding pens.
My best type cockeral (2011) as judged by Clel Agler and Jeff Halbach at the Top of Ohio Poultry Show
Javas should have a hock that is distinct in profile from the undercarriage of the body. The hock is the feathered part of the leg or the drumstick. Judges refer to having long, distinct hocks (and shanks) as having “leg”. This year I culled a number of birds that had reasonable size because they did not have enough “leg.” Fortunately I haven’t had the opposite problem of too much “leg”.
|The chicken on the left has less “leg”. The worst have no distinctly visible hocks and were culled.|
The tail is comprised of two types of feathers: the stiff straight main tail feathers and the curved soft sickle feathers. Females only have main tail feathers. Males have both types of feathers. The main tails of both males and females should form a “tent” or a broad triangle when viewed from the rear. If the triangle is collapsed in, the bird is said to be “pinched.” Not just about aesthetics, “pinched” birds are also likely to have narrower pelvises, which will adversely affect their egg production. Java males should have a long tail with abundant, wide sickle feathers that hide the main tail feathers. This year it was pointed out to me that one of the males I was exhibiting had a noticeable shorter tail with less or delayed development of the sickle feathers. It was culled.
The java is the longest bird in the American class. Typically large birds are also long. I try to chose the longest birds for my breeders. If visual inspection is not enough, a tape measure can be used to confirm that some birds are longer than others.
Besides being long, the backs of javas should be broad. The broadness of the back should extend from the shoulders all of the way to the tail as much as possible. Avoid birds that have a triangular or tear shaped body when viewed from above, i.e. wide at the shoulders and narrow at the hips. Narrow hips again translates into poor egg production.
A back problem that java breeders may need to watch out for is “roach back.” All of the cockerels in the first group of javas that I obtained from Duane Urch unfortunately had “roach back”. “Roach back’ is a when the back is not flat but has a convex shape or hump.
|an inferior “pinched” hen with a narrow tent.
|A superior hen with a broad tent. The right and left sides of the tail are widely spaced|
|A java male with fully developed sickle feathers.The tail is an inch longer
|A java male with a short tail with underdeveloped sickle feathers that is the same age as above|
|The back of this java is about 8 inches|
|The back of this java is an inch longer than the previous bird, about 9 inches|
Javas when they were the market chicken of choice for New York city in the 1880’s were reknown for their fine breast meat. It is important then to select the birds with largest broadest breasts. Javas will never match cornish breasts, but based on my experiences there is still plenty of room for improvement. I have had birds with almost no breast and others that were reasonably plump.
The breast forms much of the line that comprises the undercarriage profile. Attention should be paid to the differences between the Java undercarriage and those of the black giant and australorps, the two breeds of chickens most often confused with black javas. While the java should have ample breast and depth to its body, it should not have excessive depth to its body which would detract from the general rectangular appearance that is unique to its type.
Javas should have a neat medium sized comb and wattles. The comb should have five points and the blade (the fleshy part at the rear of the points) should extend straight back and not follow the contour of the head. A judge commented a couple of years ago that my javas had too much head, meaning too large of combs and wattles. He said that their heads were becoming Australorp-y.
With culling for yellow feet, size, and type I have only recently paid attention to the heads. I might caution against being a “head hunter” and culling javas just because of their combs and wattles. The combs and wattles are one of the most visible parts of the chicken, but not the hardest to fix. Size and type are much more important and difficult. This idea is supported by the number of points the Standard of Perfection allocates to type and size versus head based on the scale of points that was used to judge poultry in the earlier days of the APA and which is still valuable for encouraging a balanced evaluation of any chicken under examination.
One thing that I have slowly been culling for is extreme numbers of points, (more or less than 4 to 6), side sprigs (points that extend horizontally out), and fused points. Because the pullet’s comb is smaller and less noticeable than the cockerel’s comb, it is easy to overlook. However the pullet’s comb should be evaluated similarly to that of the cockerel’s. The pullet and the cockerel equally affect the head of their chicks.
|A cockerel with a fused point and too few points. It does have a correct blade
Color is separate from type. Black, mottled, white, and auburn javas should all have the same type. I previously mentioned the yellow bottoms of the feet of black javas. Now I will focus on a few of the other aspects of the black java’s color.
Black javas are disqualified if they have more than ½ inch of positive white in any part of their plumage or two or more feathers tipped or edged in positive white. This refers to the adult plumage. Chickens grow three sets of feathers before becoming adults. Juvenile black javas have white primary wing feathers.
I’ve been fortunate not to have any white color issues, but I have heard that some breeders have had some difficultly with white feathers because of recessive, or latent, mottled genes. Monte Bowen for instance told me that his line of mottled javas was completely derived from his black javas. White feathers may also be an issue if the recessive gene for white plumage color is hanging around in the black background.
In contrast to white feathers, red feathers in the hackle of black javas are somewhat desirable if only present in a few of the birds in the black java flock. Early on when I started breeding chickens, I was told by a breeder of black sumatras that the occasional red feather in the hackle was linked to black chickens having excellent beetle green sheen. If a “red” hackled bird wasn’t used in the breeding pen every once in awhile then the sheen would be lost, and the birds would start appearing dull. I don’t know if this is true, but since only a few of my chickens have red feathers in their hackles I have never discriminated against it. Obviously for exhibition purposes a solid black chicken with excellent sheen is preferred to birds with traces of red. Often an off-colored feather can be pulled before a bird is shown.
|A black java with a few red laced feathers in its hackle|
Black javas should have dark brown eyes. Culling birds only based on eye color is ill advised for the same reason as choosing birds only because of their head. The Standard of Perfection’s scale of points allocates only 2% to the color of the eyes compared with 66% for type. Focused on type, I have not culled birds for eye color.
Undercolor is the color of the fluff or the downy part of the feather not visible on surface of the bird’s plumage. In black javas it should be slate (dark grayish black). A judge noted that the undercolor of some of my black javas was too light- only light grey. As with eye color, I have not culled any birds specifically for bad undercolor. However I keep it in the back of my mind, in case a bird arises in my flock with superior undercolor.
Feather Width/ Quality
Every judge who handled my javas has assessed then for feather quality. The Standard of Perfection emphasizes feather quality because of the role of feathers as the protective covering of the chicken. In the case of the wings and tail, the judge inspects how wide the individual feathers are, with particularly attention given to the outer (thinner) edges of the primary and secondary wing feathers, and the sickle feathers. Feather width is linked to how fully and quickly a bird grows in all of its feathers. Generally birds with the broadest feathers “feather out” faster and have smoother, better-looking feathers, free from fraying and splits (not to be confused with fraying and splits caused by the bird being in poor condition). I try to breed from the birds with the best feather width but again balanced against the other important aspects of yellow feet, size, and especially type.
Javas should be excellent layers of big brown eggs. In general, I have found this to be the case with my black javas. However, I have had a few problems: some of the eggs have been chaulk-y on the outside, and one or two of my hens have had problems metabolizing calcium, resulting in eggs being laid with weak or nearly missing shells. Unfortunately, the eggs with missing shells are easily broken. The past two years the broken eggs have touched off an epidemic of egg eating in my flock. I now have to routinely trim the upper beaks of my hens to prevent the egg eating. My long term solutions to these problems are to cull any hens that I know are laying defective eggs and to never set eggs that are misshapen or defective.
Black javas should be calm, friendly chickens. I have never had a rooster turn aggressive towards a human. Occasionally though I have had what I call a “coward” rooster. These roosters hide in the corner of the pen and won’t stand up for themselves in the presence of the other members of the flock. Coward roosters generally become evident when cockerels are five or six months old, but occasional when they are older and have lost their place in the pecking order. I have culled these roosters, worrying that they will have low fertility and not mate well, and because I don’t wish for them to be injured or starved (kept from the feeders).