Eat a chicken, save a breed

MONTREAL -- For several years, a small group of poultry enthusiasts has been pushing to save an authentic Canadian chicken from extinction. They finally have cooked up a plan to save the rare breed of barnyard fowl from oblivion -- and it involve...

MONTREAL -- For several years, a small group of poultry enthusiasts has been pushing to save an authentic Canadian chicken from extinction.

They finally have cooked up a plan to save the rare breed of barnyard fowl from oblivion -- and it involves tossing thousands of them on the barbecue.

The Chantecler chicken, a bird once thought to be extinct, remains alive, but only around 2,000 of them are thought to be in existence and the majority of them are in Quebec.

The province now plans to ensure the breed's continued survival -- by marketing it for the dinner plate.

Three organizations representing Quebec's egg and poultry producers have signed an agreement to allow limited commercial production of the Chantecler.


"The only way to save the breed is to eat it," says Fred Silversides, a poultry research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Agassiz, British Columbia.

Silversides has mapped out the breeding plan that will preserve the Chantecler's gene pool and create business opportunities for producers.

"Any breed, of any species, if you're using it, then the population is strong and stable," he says.

Breed beginnings

In 1908, Brother Wilfrid, a monk from Oka, Quebec, began to carefully crossbreed several chicken races to create a Canuck clucker that could withstand this country's harsh winters.

By 1921, the Chantecler, designed to produce meat and eggs, officially was declared a new breed by the American Poultry Association. The organization lists it among 53 types of chickens from around the world in its large-breed class.

Chantecler producers say the hearty, white birds have lived up to their billing as the chicken best suited to thrive in the Great White North.

The red, fleshy appendages on the Chantecler's head -- also known as combs and wattles -- are small, making them frostbite resistant.


Brother Wilfrid's birds soon became cultural symbols in Quebec, where they were designated as a heritage animal in 1999.

"It's a traditional race that at one time was part of our culture, of our heritage," says Andre Auclair, whose farm in St-Paulin, Quebec, is home to about 5 percent of the world's Chantecler population -- or about 100 chickens.

Auclair, director of Quebec's federation of producers of heritage breeds, estimates there are fewer than 1,500 Chanteclers across Canada, and only about 2,000 in the world.

"It's on the brink of extinction," he says.

He says the Chantecler served as a good commercial bird until the poultry industry created today's "high-performance hybrids," which grow fast and pump out eggs at a dizzying rate.

Eventually, Brother Wilfrid's slower-growing creatures no longer were commercially viable.


But Auclair predicts the Chantecler, which he says has more flavor than most broilers, will sell in a specialized market.


On Sept. 25, Quebec's poultry and egg producers agreed to take the necessary legal steps to allow 10 farms to raise Chantecler flocks, each comprising 150 hens and 15 roosters.

Greg Oakes, who has been raising Chanteclers at his farm near Guelph, Ontario, for more than 25 years, hopes the deal will trigger a similar initiative in Ontario, as well as other provinces.

He says the fowl would make ideal commercial poultry, especially compared with the mass-produced kind that are ready for the supermarket less than two months after they hatch.

"They're not raised at such a speed that they're prone to these health issues -- they're not going to keel over and have a heart attack," says Oakes, who also serves as chair of Rare Breeds Canada, a group that works to conserve scarce breeds of heritage farm animals.

"Because they haven't been in cages for, like 30 years, they haven't had their natural instincts bred out of them.

"They still know how to be a chicken."

Meeting the Chantecler

Silversides was introduced to the Chantecler in the 1970s by one of his university professors while he studied in Saskatchewan.


"He thought that the Chantecler was extinct," Silversides recalls.

"He actually had a stuffed Chantecler -- that he claimed to be the last Chantecler -- in his office."

Some 20 years later, when Silversides himself was a professor at Universite Laval in Quebec City, he started hearing stories about the iconic chicken.

"And it really appeared that maybe they weren't extinct after all," he says.

They weren't.

For 80 years, about a dozen farmers around Quebec had been quietly raising tiny flocks of the birds, striving to preserve the bloodlines.

Over that time, Silversides says the breed went through 30 to 50 generations of natural selection, making the race even more distinct.

"These people are committed to the cultural aspects and the rare breed aspects," Silversides says.


"It is special -- it's a Canadian thing, as well."

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