The Chantecler Chicken

“Chantecler”

Canadienne, elle l’est, la blanche Chantecler;

Son plumage de neige évoque notre hiver;

Sa tête altière et fine, et de crète allégée,

Contre nos froids autant semble bien protégée,

Et le nordais pour elle est un simple zéphyre,

Sans crainte son œil contemple l’avenir

 

(Canadian she is, the white Chantecler

Her snowy plumage evokes our winter

Her proud and fine head, with her reduced comb

Against the cold is well protected

And the North wind is just a light breeze to her

Without fear her eye looks to the future.

Translation by Anne Gardon)

 

Poem in honour of the Chantecler

 by Dr. P.E. Rochon, Clarence Creek, Ontario, January 1919

 

 

Chantecler Rooster 30 x 24 collage on panel

In the early years of the twentieth century, a man named Wilfrid Châtelain, who was a Trappist monk at the Cistercian Abbey at Oka, Quebec, received a visit from his father. Brother Wilfrid, an agronomist by training, was in charge of the poultry flocks at the Oka Agricultural Institute at that time. He and his father were touring the flocks when something about the birds struck them as odd:  All the varieties of poultry they were looking at were of European or U.S. origin. Not one breed of chicken had ever been developed in Canada.

Brother Wilfrid, University of Montreal archive

 

Brother Wilfrid decided to rectify this situation, and in 1908 he and the monks of the monastery at Oka began developing a Quebec breed of chicken. The goal Brother Wilfrid established for himself was to create a chicken which would be dual purpose: a good layer of eggs and also a good, meaty bird for the table.  He wanted a bird that would lay well even in the cold, dark, winter months, and would have a small comb and wattles to avoid the perils of frostbite, a bird which would be hardy and robust and would also have a good carcass weight. It took ten years of devoted research and careful breeding, trials, and aggressive culling for the Trappist monk to arrive at the type of chicken he had in mind.  Brother Wilfrid used Dark Cornish, White Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, White Wyandotte, and White Plymouth Rock as the foundation of his new breed which he named the Chantecler after the rooster in the play by Edmond Rostand (author of Cyrano de Bergerac) of the same name. The rooster Chantecler believed his crowing caused the sun to rise.

 

An Association for the Chantecler chicken was formed in 1918. In 1919 the Chantecler was shown with much acclaim at the First National Poultry Conference. And in 1921 the Chantecler Chicken officially became a breed when it was admitted to the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection. The original type of Chantecler developed at Oka is white, but somewhat later, Dr. J. E. Wilkinson of Alberta developed a brown “Partridge“ variety. This later variety was admitted as a breed in 1935.

 

 Chantecler Rooster, Wikipedia commons

The Chantecler is a large bird with a broad breast.  Males weigh up to 3.9 kg, females between 2.5 and 3 kg. The hens can lay up to 210 eggs in their first year’s lay. The egg colour is light brown. The Chantecler has a small “cushion” comb and very small wattles, and the legs and curved beak are always yellow. The breed has a fairly docile temperament and is exceptionally well adapted to the cold.

The breed became popular on family farms in Quebec and beyond up until the 1950’s when its numbers decreased dramatically. At one point in the late 1970’s the Chantecler was believed to be extinct. But due to the efforts of some small farmers who had never given up on it, Brother Wilfrid’s chicken was brought back from the brink, and in 1999 was awarded “Patrimoine mondial québecois’ status. The Chantecler’s numbers have improved somewhat due to renewed interest in the breed, however it remains on the Rare Breeds Canada endangered list.

Université de Montréal archive. Drawing taken from one of the scrapbooks dedicated to the Chantecler chicken.

Sources: le Soleil, 01 mars 2014, www.livestockconservancy.org, Canadian Farm Animal Genetic Resources Foundation Internet archive, Association Québécoise de la volaille Chantecler, www.archiv.umontreal.ca/exposition/chantecler/Wilfrid.html

 

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