Breeding Rhode Island Reds for Color
(A Beginner’s Guide)
It has been many years since anyone has written in The Rhode Island Red Chronicle
on the subject of color. In fact, in my reading of old Rhode Island Red Journals and Red Chronicles, in the
last 10 years, little is devoted to color and how to breed with success for it. As a student of breeding RI Reds, I feel I
have some knowledge that may help the beginner and thus helping some beginners avoid the frustrations of breeding for color.
I believe the number one reason beginners fail breeding Rhode Island Reds is they do not
remember the color pattern that is stated in the Standard of Perfection. You must read the words pertaining to Reds
and memorize them. It is absolutely necessary that you become as familiar with Arthur Schilling’s black and white photos
as you are of your children’s photos.
It would be helpful to take the black and white photos from an old Standard, photocopy
them, and place them around in your chicken house. This would help you compare your chickens with the typical brick shape
for a Rhode Island Red as shown in the Standard. Secondly, obtain feather samples from a reliable breeder to assist
you towards your goals of breeding the correct color hue for your strain of Reds.
Some questions I have been asked as to what can go wrong while breeding for color have
Why does the quill color get weaker each year?
Why is there pepper in the wing?
Why is it so hard to get pullets to have true ticking in the
Why do hens come back lighter after their pullet molt?
Why can’t they breed for a stronger undercolor?
Is it safe to keep young birds that have smut in their undercolor?
In this article, I will try to answer some of these questions with the writings of breeders
from the past or by the things I learned from breeding as a beginner. If any of the other Red breeders would like to contribute
from their experiences with color, I would appreciate it. Many of the new Red breeders would love to read fresh information
on the subject of breeding for color and type. Unfortunately there is very little information available. Most of the older
articles are based on the lighter-colored bird that was the standard in the past. Meanwhile, I’ve chosen some of the
best articles presently available to help with breeding today’s Rhode Island Red.
When it comes to overall breeding for color, Reds can be bred pretty much as the Standard
describes since the standard has been correct for color for nearly a century. In my opinion, there is no need to make changes.
All breeders just need to understand it and obey it. The biggest problem we get into, as beginners, in breeding our Reds is
excess black or misplaced black in our Red breeders. In my opinion, the most abused area is the female neck area or hackle.
Ticking in the female is a sex influenced factor and only appears in the female. If this
ticking is too heavy, it will be transmitted to the male as stripping in his neck feathers or slate in his undercolor. The
Standard of Perfection states ticking, but the average breeder pays little attention to this important section. What
many Red females have is lacing about ½ to two inches in length running down to the tip of her hackle feathers. This is a
major fault not only for the breeding pen but for the showroom as well.
I don’t believe judges cut this type of female with lacing enough because they continue
to be awarded the blues and find their birds on champion row. The breeder finds himself encouraged by their winning and then
places these females in the breeding pen producing more of the same type of fault in their Reds. Before he knows it, the lacing
becomes a fixed trait. Once fixed it is almost imposibble to remove in the breeding pen. But if judges would cut accordingly
for this fault, maybe Red breeders would be less likely to use this type of bird, which old-timers called "color culls", in
the breeding pen.
In 1954, Charles Nagle, a prolific writer for the Red Chronicle, wrote in his column
the "Asket Basket":
"My opinion doesn’t mean much but here it is. There is
nothing more pleasing to the eye as true RIR color. Notice I said red-not orange or chocolate. Rhode Island Red color while
not crimson or red in the sense that it indices a bull’s anger, definitely falls within the spectrum of red-not pure
red, but in the spectrum of "yellowish-red". Red, yellow, and black are combined to make the RIR color. To me, a dark wineish
bing cherry red is ideal. Judges have no right to prefer a certain shade while judging-yet many of them think they
In another article, Mr. Naugle warned us about judges who would say "Boys, your birds
are getting too dark." He told us Red Club members to keep pouring it on and fix our sights on that dark, even, rich "Bing
Cherry" shade of red." Mr. Nagle once wrote that if you had a strain of Reds with the female hackle with stripping you would
lose your deep, hot undercolor. Why the big fuss you may ask?
The red-yellowish color that feeds your undercolor would be reduces by the excess black
in the female neck feathers. There is another section that this excess stripping impairs and that is the red color in your
primary wing feathers. It is, in my opinion, that this lacing in the neck feathers in our Red females cancels out this dark
color in the primaries to a pale rustic shade of red. Old timers, such as the late George Underwood of Custer Park, Illinois,
use to say the primary wing color should be rich in color and should match the shade of the fluff on the females hocks. Most
people never heard of such an idea but, this was one of Mr. Underwood’s barometers to rich, even, dark surface and under
color. George also told beginners that the neck of the female should reveal a beetle green necklace, not stripping or lacing.
George only chose females with ticking as breeders and had one of the all time great color strains of the 60's and 70’s
Another observation that I have encountered is light egg color. Since choosing females
with less striping or lacing each year, I’m starting to see more dark brown eggs from my pullets. I believe it is from
using females with ticking as the Standard demands rather than color cull laced females as breeders.
Along with darker egg color, I’m noticing my baby chicks are getting darker in their
down color. Most chicks have a dark, mahogany shade when they are hatched. Their beak color is almost solid, a deep horn color
as well as dark leg color when fully mature.
In conclusion,, I urge you to start working on the female neck area. Select females for
your breeding pens that have more ticking than lacing.
Set a time period of about 3 years. Don’t be in a hurry as it takes three to five
years to improve a trait such as this.
In the next issue, I will discuss smut, pepper in the wings and share with you some classic
articles by Harold Tompkins and Emily Mayhood on this subject.
Till nest time, I’m yours for a better Rhode Island Red.