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BREED: Sicilian Buttercup Chickens, also known as Flowerbirds or simply Buttercups, are a heritage chicken breed renowned for their unusual crown-like crest and unique coloring.
ORIGIN: Backyard chickens with cupped crests have been known in Sicily for centuries. Their plumage varied as farmers were more interested in their egg-laying ability. Similar combs had been noted in North Africa, particularly in the Berbera and Tripolitana landraces. Around 1600, the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi described similar birds, which also figured in European paintings of that time. The Sicilian breed is thought to have evolved from local chickens interbreeding with those brought from North Africa.
While the Italians standardized the Sicily In the early 20th century, the Sicilian Buttercup chicken was developed in America from Sicilian chickens shipped to Massachusetts in the late 19th century. This resulted in differences between the two breeds in traits such as size and coloring.
History of the Sicilian Buttercup Chicken
Sicilian immigrants may have brought birds from Sicily to America in the 1830s. However, the first well-documented importation was around 1863 by Captain Cephas Dawes, of Dedham (MA). He regularly shipped fruit from Sicily to Boston. On one trip, he bought a chicken “coop” at the local market to provide fresh meat for the trip. Shortly after setting sail, the hens were laying eggs, and so regularly, that it made sense to keep them for a steady supply of eggs. Fresh eggs were as much a luxury as fresh meat on a sea voyage.
After landing in Massachusetts, he took the birds to his father’s farm in Dedham, where a local breeder, C. Carroll Loring, took a great interest in them. He was impressed with the cup-shaped comb and golden color, coining the name Buttercup. After obtaining a herd, Loring bred them pure, including later imports, for about 50 years. Some imports did not produce birds with the desired crest shape, leg color, or plumage pattern, so it was difficult to generate interest in the new breed. Finally, an import of birds with desirable traits was bred with the best Loring stock to form the basis of the American breed.
After 1908 popularity grew as the breed found new champions who formed the American Buttercup Club in 1912. In the first year there were 200 members and 500 in 1914.
Standardization and conservation
The American Poultry Association recognized the breed in 1918. However, the standard was difficult to meet in markings, earlobe color, and good combs, while still maintaining utility. Apart from the differing opinions on the plumage, the color of the earlobe tended both to red and white, although the standard was set at red, as is still the case in Britain. Finally, the standard was revised in 1928 to predominantly white earlobes (which is common in Mediterranean breeds) and an agreed pattern for plumage. Yet over-enthusiastic promotion had left some breeders disappointed with rather average egg production. Therefore, the fame of the breed was brief, and it quickly became extremely rare.
British breeders imported from America in the early 1910s, forming a breed club that also enjoyed a brief period of popularity. Nevertheless, numbers declined sharply in both countries in the 1920s. British breeders also imported from Sicily, then from America in the 1970s. Bantams were developed in the mid-20th century and are recognized by the American Bantam Association.
CONSERVATION STATE: In 2022, The Livestock Conservancy changed the status of Sicilian buttercups on its priority conservation list from “Watch” to “Critical” because their numbers had dropped from over 1,000 registered breeding birds to less than 500 in the United States. There is also very little global. Similarly, the Siciliana in Italy has declined sharply in recent years. The American Buttercup Club reports, “The Buttercup fell into near obscurity and was saved by a handful of committed breeders. Today buttercups remain rare in both large and dwarf fowls.
BIODIVERSITY: The unusual buttercup comb is a rare genetic variation and thrifty foraging skills are valuable for free range poultry. A totally unique plumage color has been developed through selective breeding in America.
Characteristics of Sicilian Buttercup Chickens
DESCRIPTION: The long, medium-sized body curves gently from head to tail. The hen’s tail is widely spread and her abdomen is full. These traits give the hen healthy egg-laying qualities. However, it is the color of the hen that is most prized: a golden neck with few or, preferably, no markings; the body feathers are buff bearing parallel rows of oval black spangles. The male is orange-red with a shiny neck and saddle and a black tail. The black markings have an iridescent green sheen. The eyes are reddish bay and the beak color light horn. The earlobes are white, normally with some red (red is preferred in Britain). Plumage markings, comb shape and earlobe color are the main challenges for exhibitors, and it is difficult to assess final coloration until 6-7 months of age. Hens can have spurs.
VARIETIES: In America, only the original Golden is recognized, while the Silver variety was developed in Britain.
SKIN COLOR: Yellow, giving the hocks a willow green color, as the yellow skin covers a dark blue-grey undercoat.
COMB: A distinctive cup-shaped crown of regular, medium-sized spikes. The crown is the result of joining two single combs at the front and back.
POPULAR USE: Exposure or layers.
EGG COLOR: White.
EGG SIZE: Small to medium.
PRODUCTIVITY: 140–180 eggs per year. Hens are normally non-sitters.
LESTER: Hens weigh an average of 5 lbs (2.3 kg); roosters 6.5 lb (3 kg). Bantam hens weigh an average of 22 oz. (620g); roosters 26 oz. (735g).
TEMPERAMENT: Very active and lively, they love to explore and do not tolerate confinement. Although not noisy, they are very talkative with members of the herd. Some Sicilian buttercup strains are flighty, while others are calm and friendly, especially if handled with chicks.
ADAPTABILITY: They are excellent foragers, scratching and digging more than most breeds. Therefore, they are useful for turning compost and can support themselves when free range. They tolerate heat well, but do not like the cold. Large combs are susceptible to frostbite.
Originally published in the June/July 2023 issue of Backyard poultry and regularly checked for accuracy.