Breeding Rhode Island Reds for Color
A Beginner’s Guide-Part 2
While researching the Rhode Island Red literature on the subject of excess black, such as smut, slate or pepper in the
wing bows, I found not much has been written in the past 30 years. I did find a few articles from the 1940’s written
by Charlie Naugle and Walter Gainey but it was mostly a dual of opinion and I feel little would be gained by using their viewpoints
with a beginner. It was mainly genetic therory than concrete breeding facts and experience.
For the beginner, these defects are not all evil. In adult birds, if you have an individual bird that has outstanding type,
surface color and vigor, these birds can be used in your breeding pen if done correctly. Slate or smut in the undercolor was
used in the early 20’s and 30’s to darken flock surfaces and undercolor. One outstanding breeder, Clarence Sibly,
stated to the late Kenneth Bowles at a show in 30’s that almost all his matings had smut or slate in them. At a show,
you would see feathers laying on the floor where Sibley pulled them out to avoid judges knocking his great birds down in the
In the early years, development of undercolor was more important than feather quality or breed type. This caused a big
decline in the popularity of the breed and opened the door for the New Hampshire to gain momentum in popularity as a commercial
bird. A lesson here to the beginner is "don’t get caught up in color fadism". Type is still paramount over color. You
must focus on breeding your strain on the whole. Using breeders with defects was a secret of the outstanding breeders from
the 1940’s and 50’s. They had such a great strain of Reds, new Red fanciers would clean out their best birds each
year. All they would have left were Reds that have excess black or type that left something to be desired. Yet each year they
would take these left over birds breed them correctly and next season they would have more outstanding offspring for the Red
fancier to choose from. The lesson here, beginner. Is to learn how to make up compensating matings with your birds, especially
your Reds with excess black in the undercolor and wing bows.
During a visit in 1988 with one of my childhood idols, Franklin J. Young of North St Paul, Minnesota, he told me that he
did not like to use birds with these faults. He also told me Mrs. Donaldson did not either. However, he would not get rid
of a bird who had a good trait that could help his flock. He would use this bird in a special mating or if he didn’t
have a mate for this bird he would hold it over a year and hope to find the correct bird to complete the mating. Franklin
told me he knew other Red breeders who would have a mating with females with excellent type with pepper in their wings mated
to a male with excellent type but with a clean wing or possibly a male who was lacking black in the primaries and secondaries
every 3 to 5 years. This mating was used to darken the over-all strain. To the beginner, it means these old-time red breeders
used pepper in their matings to darken their flocks. It was their belief that if you breed reds by the Standard over a period
of time your flocks would lighten. Franklin told me of people who used birds free of pepper or smut and even lacking in black
wing color. Within 3 years the strain lost all surface color and black in the trails making these breeders so frustrated they
gave up raising Reds.
One of the greatest Red breeders of all times was Harold Tompkins of Concord, Massachusetts. He was very open minded on
excess black in his matings. Here are his comments in an article published in the Poultry Tribune:
"Every fall or when my cockerels get to about five pounds each, I go over them very thoroughly, and every bird that shows
exceptional quality as he stands on the ground and when he is handled shows a bar of smut, is banded for future reference.
Only the deepest exhibition surface colored males will carry this desired bar of smut. When about two months or so later the
birds are fully developed and housed for the winter, all these birds are examined again, and those that have cleaned up, or
in other words absorbed the smut and are clean and deep in color, are put to one side for showing and breeding. Those that
still carry the bar of smut or any part of it are sold to breeders whose requirements necessitate to use of such birds."
"Birds of the above sort that are bred from a clean mating may be mated back to females that have a little excess black,
while those that are bred from a mating that has carried a little excess black are mated to exhibition females."
"By the use of this deep color on both male and female side, there is never any tendency for the flock to lighten up to
any extent, and the use of excessive amounts of smut at any one time is not necessary."
In my experience in the 1990’s in breeding Reds with pepper in the wings, I found the large fowl female to have a
much more pepper in her wing than a male; but I found a higher degree of black spillover in the male primaries than the females.
In my Red bantams, both males and females have very little pepper or smut in the wings.
If you have an outstanding female with pepper in her wings, she needs to be mated to a male who has a clean wing with normal
black markings as the Standard calls for. Better yet, her mate might be a male with mild black markings plus be free or smut
or slate in his undercolor. This very special male appears once in a great while and makes a perfect mate for a female with
peppered wings. If, in your breeding, you do come across a male with peppered wings, the best choice for his mate would be
a female with weak or no black markings in her wings. If you have another male who is equal to the male with pepper in his
wings, the better choice would be not to use the male with pepper in his wings at all and use the clean winged male.
How does a bird appear with pepper in his wings? I don’t know and no one has come up with a satisfactory explanation
for me. My opinion is that it is just excess black with no where else to go. Perhaps as we develop more strains of Reds with
ticking in the female neck feathers, the pepper problem will slowly disappear.
During my 10 years of breeding Reds, I have come to the following conclusions:
- Let your young started chicks that have excellent type but have slate, smut, or pepper mature before deciding to get rid
- Let your young started chicks that have slate or smut mature to see if they will absorb the slate or smut in their undercolor.
- Compensate in your matings, the strength or weakness of one mate to the other mate.
- Pullets seem to have more pepper in their wings than cockerels.
- Males are more likely to have smut or slate in their undercolor than females.
- While it is easier to breed your Reds with little black in the wings to avoid pepper, slate, or smut; but, while you do,
your females tails turn red rather than green and your overall surface color is lighter. The easy way out results in loss
of dark surface color as well as dissipation of beak and leg color.
I hope through my research and the findings in my breeding pens, you can better understand this puzzling obstacle in breeding
reds. Next time I will discuss black in the tail and breast color.