RHODE ISLAND REDS
THE LOST SECRETS
Robert A. Blosl
Silverhill, AL 36576
I have been asked by our Red Club secretary, Emmett Rachels to submit an article pertaining to Rhode Island Reds for this
year’s APA yearbook. After some deep thought about a subject of general interest, I felt color in Rhode Island Reds
would be a perfect choice. Since it has been nearly 20 years since anyone has written much on the subject. I feel my experiences
in the breeding pen, reading old Red literature and interviews with old-time breeders would give you information that could
help a few of you who wish to take on this grand old breed.
The first area that I would like to discuss concerning color in Rhode Island Reds is the general surface area visible from
outside a show coop. The standard of Perfection demands an even shade of red with luster and rich in color. However, there
are many shades of Rhode Island Red color such as a red bay to a dark, dark crimson hue. The latter, in my opinion, is the
shade of choice. If you let the surface color get too light within 3 to 4 years, your strain of reds will be nothing but out
and out color culls. A barometer to aid you on how dark you want to get your reds is in the quill color of your birds. The
desired color is a Bing Cherry Red or blood red. Pull four of the feathers out from your birds in the area above the kidneys.
This is in the area of the saddle. Choose your best birds with the darkest quill color you can find but do not take an hatchet
to a great bird because the quill color is not as dark as you want. Over 3 to 5 years of selection, you can strengthen this
trait and your over all flock will be the color that old-timers strived for.
It has been my experience that the darkest Rhode Island Reds in large fowl always have poor feather structure or feather
quality over the back area. This is more noticeable in Pullets. Over the back area, their surface feathers were stringy. This
gives the overall color a darker hue but this is, in my opinion, the wrong way to go as the standard demands a quality of
feather with good substance. The same pullet as a hen will usually molt back with good feather quality. My experience is to
only breed from a few pullets who have the desired feather quality, medium width of feather as the standard calls for. However,
in my E.W. Reese strain of Reds my good feather quality females are lighter in surface and quill color. Also, they are shorter
in body length thus losing some of their brick shape which is paramount in your breeding program. These females also display
excellent head points and produce cockerels with near perfect heads. This is what I believe is the old Mohawk line or the
traits that Mrs. Donald Donaldson of Decatur Georgia used to call in her Reds back in the 1940’s. This would be the
blood lines that she mixed into her strain from the great Red Breeder Harold McGuire. Mr. McGuire was from the area of New
York state that the Mohawk Indians originated. It is somewhat of a mystery but this is a suggestion from Judge Johnny Batson
who knew Mrs. Donaldson when she was breeding her Reds in the 50’s and 60’s.
The next area of importance is the color of the tail. Here the secret, I believe, lies in the female. Over the years, most
Red breeders mate their star male birds who have great type and color. Their tails have a beautiful beetle green color that
makes these birds the envy of the showroom. Yet when they mate these birds each year, they do not put such importance in the
female. They might mate their good male bird with one or two good females then put 3 or 4 more females in the pen to round
out the mating. It is better to put the best male in the breeding pen with the best female or maybe two. These are the females
who produce the best offspring for overall color and good, green tail color. The late Kenny Bowles once told me, "75% of all
Red bantams are too light in color. The female tails are only half green and half red. These are color culls. If I have any
pullets like this, off their heads, go!", he said.
The great color breeder, George Underwood, once showed a group of Red breeders the facts of life on color in the tail section.
One breeder was bragging about how good his tail color was in his males. George went up to the man’s Red male, pulled
him out of the show coop and said, "Yes, he has a good green tail on the outside where you view him from the show coop, but
pull his fluff feathers down above his vent area and turn the bird upside down and look at the color from the inside of his
tail." "Look," George replied, "See, he has red in his tail feather 4 inches from where the tail feathers join into his body.
This a major fault in many Reds." George said, "You want the green color to go to the skin inside and outside of his tail.
My friends, this is a breeding secret for the green in the tail because it feeds into the depth of the surface color." That
is why our fore fathers placed the green in the section of our Reds when they wrote the Standard in 1902. George Underwood’s
secret to having great color in his Reds was correct placement of black where it was called for.
Now the section that I feel is the most disobeyed section by breeders and judges who judge our Reds is the neck area. The
standard calls for ticking on the end of each hackle feather of the female. Gary Underwood best describes a correct hackle
feather this way. When looking at a Red pullet or hen from above when you hold her it should look as though she has a green
necklace around her neck. Each feather on her lower neck should look as though you took a small watercolor paint brush and
painted a small amount of beetle green paint on the end of each feather. I.W. Bean, the father of dark-colored Reds in the
early 1900’s once wrote in "Blue Ribbon Reds" that he preferred mild ticking or no ticking at all. What we have today
and for that matter the past 50 years is lacing on the neck feathers of our females. Our large fowl females have neck hackle
two and three inches long with lacing. These females also produce cockerels that have lacing in their neck feathers, smut
or slate in their neck undercolor. This is the worst sin that can happen to a red breeder. Once this trait gets fixed into
a line of birds, it is hard to get bred out. Bean, Underwood, and Bowles, great red breeders from the past, have said select
your females with ticking not lacing. Set a goal of 3 to 5 years to breed this out of the Reds. By correct selection each
year of the best birds, this can be accomplished.
This leads me to the next area that has been neglected or not even thought of but is the breeding secret of a great color
strain of RIR. This is the red shade in your primaries. Take the birds out on a sunny day at noon. Open the wing of the bird
especially a female and place the wing primary on the fluff of the bird’s hock area. Look at the shade of color. It
usually is 2 or 3 shades lighter than the fluff area. Now look at the secondary wing color and this red shade usually matches
the hock fluff color. The goal over 5 to 10 years is to select pullets that have primary wing color that is equal to the secondary
wing color and matches the hock fluff color.
This has never been done with any consistency but it was shared with me by Gary Underwood when I visited him several years
ago. This is one reason why George Underwood had the best color in his line of Reds. It will work but only by a dedicated
Red breeder who has the desire to be successful in breeding RIR.
Another important area in the color makeup of the RIR is undercolor. The color pattern in our RIR is made up of black,
blue, white and yellow. The yellow seems to be the feeder of the undercolor and the color of our primary wing in our modern
day RIR strains. The area that cancels out the dark red primary wing color and the rich deep undercolor is in the neck lacing.
George Underwood had females that had the correct ticking that has just been described. Lacing in the female neck color cancels
out the yellow in the genetic color make-up and thus gives the birds weaker undercolor and faded wing primaries. This is not
my secret. It was told in the 1950’s by two great RIR writers, Dr. Alexander Grieve and Charles Nagle of Ohio. Each
month or so one of them would write in the RIR Chronicle. Their subjects were mostly genetic in nature. It would put the reader
to sleep. Many Red breeders felt they were talking over their heads and, in fact, they were. But without a doubt they were
correct. Mr. Bean had no idea when he wrote his great article on red color in "Blue Ribbon Reds" that he was correct in his
thinking. Nor did George Underwood know this great principal, but George obeyed the Standard, lived by the Standard, and died
by the Standard. That is why he was equal to Mrs. Donald Donaldson and the King of Rhode Island Reds, Harold Tompkins of Concord
MA, with his strain of even-colored red large fowl.
I have one more major area of color in our Reds that I would like to share with you that is the black in the wing of our
birds. The Standard calls for black in the primaries on the outside of the quill and the secondary black to be towards the
birds body. It is worth noting that originally the Standard called for the black to be on the same side of the quill on the
primaries and secondary. This was a mistake as Lester Tompkins, Harold’s father explained to the Standard committee
and the Standard was changed to the way it reads today.
In the past few years, I have seen Red Bantams with near perfect wing color. The secondaries of the male is full in the
right area of the male birds feather. However, on the large fowl the secondaries are weaker or absent from black at all. Strive
for good color in the Rhode Island Reds wings. If a cockerel with perfect primary black color and strong secondary black color
appears, don’t take the hatchet to him because his first primary feather next to the auxiliary feather is spilled over
into the red area. This is what my mentor, CM Terry of Basset, Nebraska, called misplaced black. It has no other place to
go but to spill over in the wings. Sometimes your females will have black splashes on their back area. These make excellent
breeders to help maintain your color. Harold Tompkins once wrote that an ideal mating was if you have pepper or spill-over
in your female and a male who had no pepper or spill-over. Harold Tompkins told Mr. Terry that you must compensate on the
opposite side of the mating. If females have pepper the males must be free of pepper or spill-over black. Otherwise, your
offspring will have excess black. Two things need to be remembered from the glory days of Ken Bowles (1)
Clean Red and (2) Black Red. Clean Red means your bird has no pepper of spill over. The wing is a near as the standard
calls for. Black Red is mild spill over or pepper on the primaries. Always mate your birds accordingly. Do not mate Black
Red wing males to Black Red wing females. If this happens, this trait will be fixed in the line and it will be nearly impossible
to breed out.
In talking to Mr. Bowles in 1988, I asked him how will I know if I get too much black in my wing. His replay was simply
you will know. Believe me, I follow this advice every year when I put together my mateings. It pays!!!
Occasionally, you will get a pullet who has a wing with little black and she will have normal ticking in the neck or good
color in the tail plus good type. Take very good care of her because she is worth $500 as a breeder. She is good in a mating
with a male with excess black in the wing.
Writing about wing color as I have just done seems to have been a no-no with Red breeders of yesterday. They seem to lack
the courage to lay the cards on the line. However, I feel it is my duty as a Red fancier to tell you the truth about this
dilemma. It is the hardest thing I have ever tried to do and it will take me at least another ten years to figure out. I hope
I have not confused you on this important issue of Rhode Island Red color, but it will make you or kill you if you don’t
To the judges or prospective judges who are reading this-take these things under consideration when placing a bird up for
an award. Pepper in the wing is only 1/2 to 1 1/2 point cut to the degree. Lacing in the neck is a 2 1/2 point cut as well
as poor head points, shortness of back, a chopped off breast, or low under-carriage.
My last area on color is the undercolor called smut or slate. Many Red breeders use smut to strengthen the surface color.
R. Paul Webb of Oklahoma City used smut to develop his outstanding line of Rhode Island Red Bantams in the early 50’s
and 60’s. A feather such as this should be pulled out before a show so the bird will not get cut by the judges. This
is a minor fault and a lot of old-time judges would bring a first place bird down to third or fourth place if they had any
trace of smut in the undercolor. In the breeding pen, you can use smut as long as only one mate has it. The other mate must
be free of smut or slate.
If you have young cockerels say 3 months old loaded with slate in their baby chick undercolor, do not kill them because
as adults they might develop beautiful feathers free from heavy smut. Mrs. Donaldson once wrote in the Rhode Island Red Journal
that a cockerel that has heavy slate or smut as a chick but grows up clean will make a great breeder. She said he has the
absorption power to help hold off misplaced black in the wings and other sections of the male bird.
Many times old-time breeders will have a mating of beautiful Red hens mated to a flashy clean Red wing cockerels but the
females were full of pepper in the primary wing area. This was called a color feed mating. A lot of great breeders and show
birds would come out of these mating. The secret is not to mate any of these offspring to a bird whose parents, grandparents,
or great grandparents had excess black in the wings.
Just remember-What you see with your breeders is not always what you get. Your breeders carry all the great traits of their
ancestors going back as much as five generations. This theory was practiced in the 30’s by a great Red breeder, Clarence
Sibley. He had a flock of Reds equal to Harold Tompkins. Kenny Bowels felt he was the greatest Red breeder that ever lived.
In conclusion, I have shared with you views that I hope will help you understand Rhode Island Red color. These are secrets
passed on by great breeders of yesteryear. However, let me say, it is my opinion that the Rhode Island Reds I have handled
today are equal or better in color than they were 40 to 50 years ago. I can only speak for Single Comb Rhode Island Red large
fowl. In my opinion, E.W. Reese, Jr. of Thompson, GA is just as good as any Red breeder who has ever lived. He was a great
student of the Standard and a master craftsman of breeding excellent, true-to-type and color Rhode Island Reds as Mrs. Donaldson
was for which his Reds originated. It was my greatest joy in life to visit him at his farm is 1989 and today own his pure
line of great large fowl.
If this article will help a few of you in the next few years, I feel my ten years of research and experimental mateings
will be of value. Till the next time I am yours for a better Rhode Island Red.