The Araucana & Those Glorious Tufts

By Ann Charles
(Originally published in the 2011 APA Yearbook)

     Ear-tufts are the 'crowning glory' of the Araucana breed and it’s one unique feature, yet the breed is probably better known for it’s blue eggs. The origin of the tufting gene in the Araucana is much debated and may always be a mystery, but it is the one trait that the Araucana, as defined by the APA Standard of Perfection and the Bantam Standard, share in common with no other recognized breed of chicken. With out good ear-tufts, you simply do not have an Araucana that has any hope of making a show bird. And the initial step toward exceptional ear-tufting may surprise you.
     It is my opinion, that one of the first things you can do for your Araucana, to insure good tufting, is to eliminate all slow or ‘tardy’ feathering genes from your flock. There are a number of these, but the primary gene is at the 'K' locus. K_ represents slow feathering, it is a dominant gene, and it is sex-linked (carried on the Z chromosome). The desirable Araucana genotype, for any variety, would be k+/k+ for the male bird, and k+_ for the female.. This represents a rapid feathering bird and this genotype is recessive. As an additional plus, the ‘fast feathering’ gene “k+” appears to be a marker for genetic aspects that protect your birds naturally from Avian Leukosis.
     It is advisable to keep records on your chicks at hatch and note position of the tuffs, their apparent size, and direction (some will turn up or down visibly at hatch). It has been my experience that Araucana with small or medium sized tufts are not usually the best producers of good tufted offspring. I suppose it is a no-brainer to assume that the birds with the biggest, and best balanced tufts would produce the same. And, any of the genes that inhibit feathering in any way, probably also inhibit proper tuft development, and possibly the health of the bird in general.
     Unfortunately, Araucana brood stock is ridiculously difficult to obtain. Yet there occasionally will be a breeder who is selling off their stock, for whatever reason. Or you will more likely be able to acquire single birds here and there, over time. If you can find some breeding birds, my suggestion is just keep hatching chicks from them until you get some good double-tufted ones. Keep those back as breeders. And, eventually you should eliminate all single-tufted birds as breeders (a bird with a tuft on only one side of the head). But these are a start for most new Araucana breeders. And always try to breed from fully rumpless birds (no tail at all). You will probably find that many of the old anecdotal warnings relating to “short backs”, as a result of repeated rumpless to rumpless matings, will not manifest in your flock. 
     You will be culling many, many chicks if you decide to take on the challenge of this breed. There is a reason that it has always been said that 1/100 makes a show bird when it comes to Araucana. And that does not mean perfect, excellent, or even nice "show bird". . . . It probably means one that will simply not be disqualified by the judge at the show. Those nice double-tufted, rumpless birds with no big glaring flaws are jewels and they are rare. And that is the hardest thing to make non-Araucana breeders understand.
     I would also suggest you keep excellent records of which crosses work the best, and don’t give up on any bird as a breeder unless you have made several different crosses. I believe there may be a number of modifying genes that effect the expression of tufting. And until all of those modifiers are bred out of your flock you will not have free ‘dominant’ expression of the tufting gene. But, having large well-balanced tufts is never a guarantee that an Araucana will always produce the same in their offspring. This is where record keeping and pedigreed breeding is so important. As an example, I have a really nice white bantam Araucana pullet, with big balanced tufts that curl back around the back of head almost touching - very attractive. She has been Champion AOCCL a few times and I had high hopes for her in the breeding pen. She turned out to be a dismal failure. Over a 6 month period, and in between shows, I set 52 eggs from her that I have a record of . Of those 52 eggs, 15 were infertile, leaving 37 fertile eggs, with 36 of those hatching. Of the 36 . . . 17 were fully rumpless (all cockerels used as breeders were rumpless). Of the 17 rumpless chicks, only 4 exhibited any tufting, and of those 4, two (2) were single tufted! One chick had nice balanced, even, tufts of good size. But that bird was a Brown Red (not a standard variety for Araucana) and was sold ONE chick, a white pullet, had two good sized, but uneven, tufts. Normally, this last white pullet would not be a keeper for me. But if it is your best bird out of 52+ eggs set, it is not unreasonable to put her in the breeding pen and hope that she out produces her mother. That white bantam hen (like a lot of Araucana being shown) is now permanently retired to show bird status. The point I am trying to make is that regardless of how many years you spend breeding Araucana, you are going to run into situations like that. 
     With Araucana, unlike other more plentiful breeds, there is no one (that I know of) that you can go to and buy a nice breeding trio from to get started. With Araucana, you must start with whatever you can find that has the four traits that define this breed. Namely, pea comb, rumplessness, blue egg laying . . . plus ear-tufts in at least one of your breeding birds. And you go from there.
One key piece of advice - NEVER lose visible tufting in your flock. Don’t fall for the mistaken idea that the tuft gene is there, but it is just “hidden”. As you work on breed improvement, and focus on breed type, rumplessness, size, vigor, hatchability, etc, you must also keep good visible tufting at the fore front. If you don’t see it, you usually don’t have it. And if the tuft gene is present in your flock and not being expressed, that is bad also. There is no way of telling how many tuft inhibiting genes you have accumulated while working on other aspects of Araucana “type”. You may find that this ‘non-tufted’ outcross line to be completely useless as breeding birds. I, and many others, have been down that path, don’t waste your time. 
     However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, if you stick with this breed long enough, and it does not drive you insane due to frustration. You will get your lucky breaks, along with your setbacks, as I am sure happens with any breed. For the last couple of years I have either earned some luck or all of the work put into my breeding program has finally started to pay off. I actually have a few birds that have started producing almost 50% double tufted chicks from those hatched. And that is how a dominant gene (tufting is dominant) is supposed to behave.
     One more thing, if you are happy with just being an Araucana “exhibitor” and are not interested in taking on such a difficult challenge as a breeder . . . Then contact a breeder and purchase the best Araucana you can find and just enjoy exhibiting them. Araucana have wonderful, friendly depositions and are beautiful and truly unique birds. There is nothing else like them!


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