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By Tamsin Cooper
BREED: The Ancona chicken is named after the port from which birds of this breed were first exported from Italy to England in 1848.
ORIGIN: Chickens of this type were once most common in central Italy, especially in the Eastern Marche region where the port of Ancona is located. The original birds had irregular black and white patterns, and probably some with colored feathers. The Apennine mountains separate this region from Tuscany and Livorno, from where Livorno chickens were exported to America. Although Anconas have similarities to Spotted Leghorns, poultry experts have noted differences that warrant a separate classification.*
From backyard poultry to international popularity
HISTORY: The Ancona chickens that arrived in England in the 1850s were of an unknown breed type. At first many breeders thought of them as crosses of Black Minorcans with White Minorcans, especially given their dark hocks, and later as Spotted Leghorns. Early Ancona had irregular mottling, considered ugly. Males frequently wore white tail feathers and sometimes golden-red quills and tail-coverts. However, some breeders, living in cold and windy regions, have turned to the original “old-fashioned” breed for its hardiness and prolific egg-laying, including during the winter months. Others focused on improving appearance by selectively breeding darker birds to achieve a regular pattern of small white tips on black beetle-green feathers.
In 1880, breeder Mr. Cobb had achieved this look and exhibited his birds. The breed gained popularity, and the breed standard, based on this new type, was established in 1899, initially very controversial. However, the new look did not diminish the spawning ability. Rose-comb and bantam varieties were developed in England and first introduced in 1910 and 1912 respectively.
Around 1888, the first Ancona arrived in Pennsylvania, then in Ohio in 1906. The APA recognized the single combed variety in 1898 and the pink combed variety in 1914. At this time, the Ancona chicken became the one of the most popular layers in the United States Like many heritage breeds, their populations declined in America and Europe after the appearance of improved layers later in this century. Renewed interest in heritage breeds has allowed remaining strains to find their way back into the hands of new enthusiasts. Breeders are also found in various European countries and Australia.
The importance of conservation
CONSERVATION STATE: Ancona is on The Livestock Conservancy’s watch list and is considered at risk by the FAO. In Italy they are critically endangered: only 29 hens and six roosters were recorded in 2019, a huge drop from 5,000 in 1994. However, there may still be unregistered flocks occasionally found in yards Marche farmhouse. In the United States, 1,258 were registered in 2015. There are also about a thousand in Great Britain and 650 in Australia.
BIODIVERSITY: The breed preserves the old lines of rustic heritage chickens, which differ from the beginning of Livorno, although probably related. The bloodlines have largely declined due to loss of popularity, but the hardy and useful traits are worth keeping.
ADAPTABILITY: Excellent autonomous foragers that fly to avoid danger. They are hardy and seemingly insensitive to bad weather conditions. However, like all chickens, they must have access to dry, windproof, well-ventilated shelter, and large single combs are susceptible to frostbite.
Characteristics of Ancona chicken
DESCRIPTION: A light bird with broad shoulders and large wings held horizontally and close to the body. The large tail is held diagonally, slightly higher in males. The yellow legs bear dark shades or mottling. The smooth red face has large bay-red eyes, red wattles and crest, white earlobes, and a yellow beak with black markings on the upper part.
The soft, tight plumage consists of black beetle-green feathers, about one in five bearing a small V-shaped white tip, giving a mottled feather pattern. The white markings grow larger and more numerous with each molt, so the birds appear lighter as they age. Ancona chicks have yellow and black down.
VARIETIES: Some countries have developed other colors: Blue Mottled in Italy and Red in Australia (which both carry the characteristic white mottling).
SKIN COLOR: YELLOW.
COMB: Simple with well-defined points and an anterior lobe, erect in the male, folded to the side in the hen without covering the eye. Some American and British lines have pink combs.
TEMPERAMENT: Alert, fast and very fickle, they are very active and noisy birds. However, they can learn to follow someone they know well and trust. They need room to roam and can roost in trees.
Ancona Chicken Productivity
POPULAR USE: Once a highly acclaimed coat, now bred primarily for exhibition. In 1910, American poultry magazines ran numerous advertisements praising the egg-laying ability of the Ancona hen.
EGG COLOR: White.
EGG SIZE: AVERAGE; minimum 1.75 oz. (50 grams).
PRODUCTIVITY: Hens lay an average of 200 eggs per year and are excellent winter layers. Chicks grow and feather rapidly, with pullets often beginning to lay eggs around five months of age. Hens are fertile but tend not to brood.
LESTER: Hen 4–4.8 lb (1.8–2.2 kg); rooster 4.4–6.2 lb (2–2.8 kg). Modern British varieties tend to be heavier. Bantam hen 18–22 oz. (510–620g); cock 20–24 oz. (570–680g).
QUOTE: “…Ancona is always on the move. If free range, they feed largely for themselves, roaming fields and hedgerows from morning till night, and keeping warm by constant exercise. They don’t sit in corners, shivering in a northeast wind, but always seem busy and happy; and on many winter days, with thick snow on the ground, small paths were swept for them to peripheral manure heaps in the fields, along which they rush with outstretched wings and cheerful clucks, to spend hours scratching, then return to their homes to lay…” Mrs. Constance Bourlay, the first large breeder in England, quoted in Wright’s Poultry Book1911.
*House, California, 1908, Hens of Livorno. Exhibition and usefulness. Their varieties, selection and management“On the continent, Black Mottles have been bred for many years. They are black splashed with white. The markings are quite different from the Ancona, although the birds themselves are quite different from the Ancona in general shape and style characteristics.
Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard poultry and regularly checked for accuracy.