Sicilian Buttercups

Sicilian Buttercups from "Feather World" magazine, 1920s

Sicilian Buttercups from “Feather World” magazine, 1920s

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Rufius – 2014 flock sire

“THE SICILIAN BUTTERCUP – one of the best little fowl that ever laid an egg.” (- POULTRY, Australia’s weekly newspaper on poultry husbandry, 1931)

We specialize in breeding Sicilian Buttercup chickens, and keep only this breed of poultry. Although this is a very beautiful breed, we believe these birds can do more than be fancy and be for show, and we are working on bringing our line(s) back to being a true laying bird, which was this breed’s original purpose. This breed has a fascinating history and is truly a part of America’s heritage.

Sicilian Buttercup Eggs

The Sicilian Buttercup chicken is an American breed once praised as a layer of plenty, large, white table eggs. However, the breed never became a lasting household name. Today, returning from the brink of extinction, the birds are kept for ornamental purpose. The stock available in North America is now much smaller in body size than they once were, and hens lay smaller eggs less frequently than they once did, ranging between 43 and 45 grams in size and about every other day. Hens in their second year may lay eggs up to 56 grams.

Sicilian Buttercup eggs

Eggs from our Buttercup chickens

BUTTERCUPS - supplement to "Poultry Tribune", Mount Morris, Ill, U.S.A. Nov. 1925

BUTTERCUPS – supplement to “Poultry Tribune”, Mount Morris, Ill, U.S.A. Nov. 1925

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Rufius, son of Kinglet

Sicilian Buttercup History

Chickens similar to the Sicilian Buttercup, or Buttercup for short, made their first appearance in North America in the late 19th. century on board of a ship bringing oranges from Sicily to the USA (most likely to Boston, NY). The birds were intended as provision. During the journey, however, some of them proved themselves as very good layers and, instead of being eaten, were sold and found a new home in Massachusetts, [1] where they came to be known as “Flower Birds” [2], most likely due to the duplex comb in the shape of a flower (cup).

The breed we know today, however, originates with hatching eggs [3] / hatchlings [1] imported in 1892. The “Erhaltungszuchtverein für sizilianische Hühnerrassen” in Germany (the club for the preservation of Sicilian poultry breeds) puts it a little different, in that it describes, that today’s Buttercup population in North America goes back to imports SINCE 1892 [4], agreeing that today’s Buttercups don’t trace their lineage back to the original “Flower Birds”, but does not rule out additional importations after 1892.

The Buttercup is closely related to the indigenous Siciliana breed of Sicily, a breed created most likely hundreds of years ago by crossing the then local stock from Sicily with birds brought from North Africa [3] like the Egyptian Dandarawi [5]. While the Buttercup is known only as one variety here in North America, the Siciliana comes in an assortment of colours, ranging from black breasted red, black, blue, and white.

In the USA, the Buttercup had its début among fanciers in December of 1913 (100 years ago!) at the Palace Show of the Empire Poultry Association in New York. It was announced as a “new breed of chicken to attract many poultry fanciers.” It was rivaling the White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds in the show for first place and as prolific layer of very good health. Interestingly, it was described as a cross breed imported from Sicily [6]. Did they mean the breed was created in North America by crossing the Siciliana breed of Sicily with other breeds to create the Buttercup?

The Buttercup reached Australia in late 1914 from America. Just three years earlier the breed had been practically unknown, but was now popular on three continents. An Australian periodical proclaimed: ” they are forging to the front rank with such remarkable strides that they are causing comment in the poultry press everywhere, and are a most popular variety of poultry with their owners, for those who try out the Buttercups become their fore- most friends. Even in England they have taken hold already.” [8]

In 1931, the Sicilian Buttercup was featured as on of 50 collector's cards enclosed with John Players & Sons gigarettes.

In 1931, the Sicilian Buttercup was featured as on of 50 collector’s cards enclosed with John Players & Sons cigarettes.

The breed was admitted into the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection in 1918 [7]. In 1928 the Buttercup’s Standard of Perfection was changed. Because the Buttercup was classified as a member of the Mediterranean Class, white ear lobes now became essential [4]. However, even today, pure-bred birds don’t always display white or all white ear lobes, which is sometimes falsely interpreted as a sign that the bird comes from a line which was recently out-crossed to a different breed. In England, the standard still demands that ear lobes are red.

Like its Siciliana relative, the new Buttercup was known as an excellent layer of large white eggs and was even called “All the Year Egg Machine.”[8] It was said to be healthy, robust, early maturing bird frequently laying as early as four months old without inclination to go broody.

It was not long, however, that the new Buttercup underwent “improvements”. The birds were made bigger from the original stock, with more pronounced sickles in the male and an overall more elegant appearance. The necessary outcrossing for these attributes may have cost the Buttercup some of its original qualities, like the extraordinary vitality of the chicks, the early maturity of the cockerels, and the early point of lay for pullets. Improving the Buttercup may be directly linked to several studies done in the 1930 (see Genetics of the Fowl by F.B. Hutt) relating attainment of marketable egg size in pullets (2 oz./57 gram) to age of first egg and body weight. It was proven that pullets which matured sexually early and well before reaching their mature body weight laid under-sized eggs for longer than late maturing birds, which were older at first egg, but attained marketable eggs size faster. The Buttercup was intended as a commercial bird alongside White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds, and the reason for its improvement may be rooted in egg size.

Although the Buttercup traces its origin to Sicily, the breed, as we know it today, was created in the United States and should more aptly be called “American Buttercup”. While the birds may have changed since their arrival, the unique spangled colour did not and was preserved in the American birds when it went extinct in the country of the birds’ origin [4].

Gold Buttercup pullet and gold Buttercup cockerel from "Poultry World" magazine in 1927 or 1928

Gold Buttercup pullet and gold Buttercup cockerel from “Poultry World” magazine in 1927 or 1928

A club for the new breed, The American Buttercup Club, was formed in 1912, but interest in the breed suffered neglect [7] until it was nearly gone 30 years later [4]. Today, the Buttercup is among the rarest breeds of poultry [7].

The Buttercups from the USA found many fanciers in England since 1912, where the breeding of different colours of Buttercups commenced, including a silver variety. Around 1929 show entries in England of Buttercups was high, and English Buttercups participated in laying performance tests in the 1960s. The Buttercups rate of lay in winter was particularly prized. New imports from Italy gave rise to new colour variations, which were even entered into the standard as the new breed “Flower Birds”, only to disappear again. Today, the Buttercup in England is critically endangered [4].

Whether or not the Augsburger Huhn, a rare chicken breed from Bavaria, is in some way related to the Buttercup or Siciliana is unknown. It is interesting to note that the Staufer (House of Hohenstaufen), a dynasty of German monarchs in the Middle Ages, were granted kingdom over Sicily in 1194. Their seat was just kilometers away from the city of Augsburg.  However, the black Augsburger Huhn with a Buttercup comb is said to have been developed in the late 18th. century by crossing the French Le Fleche with the Lamotta from Italy.

Sicilian Buttercup Description

The Buttercup should have a weight of 6 ½ lbs. for males (5 ½ for cockerels) and 5 lbs. for females (4 lbs. for pullets). This makes it bigger than its ancestor, the Siciliana, for which the standard in Italy describes 4 ½ – 5 lbs. for males and 3 ½ – 4 lbs. for females [2].

The Buttercup chicken derives its name from the combination of unique comb in the shape of a cup and the golden buff butter color of the hen’s plumage. The comb of the Buttercup chicken is actually two single-combs, called a duplex comb, that merge in front and at the back. On in the best specimens, the two combs form a cup-shaped “crown” well set on the center of skull, surmounted with a complete circle of regularly spaced medium-sized points. For this, the birds are called “Kronenkämme” in Germany, which means “crown combs” when translated. The comb is to be smooth with a deep cavity. Combs are supposed to be small in females.

Buttercups display sexual dimorphism in the colour of the male vs. the female. The rooster is a rich reddish orange with a iridescent green black tail. He has some black markings on his primaries and may have spangles on his thighs and breast. The hen’s body is golden buff, intricately marked with small black spangles running in pairs along the length of each feather, except on those of the head, front and back of the neck, and the cape. The main tail feathers sometimes have complex colouring reminding of leopard spots or tiger stripes. While such variants do not comply with the Standard of Perfection, they are very attractive and unique to this breed. Some say, Buttercup hens resemble Ringneck Pheasant hens.

Both male and female have yellow skin, white ear lobes (in the US standard, but red in the British), and willow-green legs. The hen’s lay white eggs, sometimes with an ivory tint.

This is a very active, independent and sometimes reactive/flighty breed best kept with access to a lot of space. They are excellent converters of feed into eggs. They forage well and if kept free ranging will find a considerable amount of their own food. They are very friendly and curious when handled frequently and gently. As a Mediterranean breed they lack body size and sufficient feathering to keep warm without protection in cold weather. Large combs on roosters need to be protected from frost bite by keeping the temperature inside the coop above freezing.

Ostfriesische Möwen

A pair of Ostfriesische Möwen in Germany

Silver Buttercups PROJECT!

The only recognized colour for the Buttercup is gold. But at some point, breeders in England bred a silver variety. It is unknown to me if the silver mutation may have been introduced by crossing to a different breed or if the mutation simply appeared within the breed itself, where it was then perpetuated.  The gold Buttercup is a beautiful bird, but personally I think that the silver Buttercup must have been a sight to behold! The silver variety is now extinct, but we can get a good idea of its beauty by looking at the plumage of the German chicken breed “Ostfriesische Möven”. The chicks of the Ostfriesische Möven look just like Buttercup chicks in their markings, but the ground colour is a very light yellow to whitish grey. On February 8th. 2014 a chick hatched from our flock of Buttercups that was distinctly lighter in colour.  As the chick is feathering out, most of the plumage is definitely silver, but not perfectly. It will be with some excitement that we watch this cockerel mature.

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Silvio (right) next to his gold brother, for comparison

At 4 months old, “Silvio” (below) is showing the typical plumage of a heterozygous Silver (S/s) Buttercup cockerel. His plumage displays much “leakage” of the red pigment pheomelanin, which will not be visible in a momozygous (S/S) Buttercup – which we are breeding towards. This process is called “rinsing”.  Heterozygous (S/s) Silver cockerels have a large scale of phenotypes and the leakage of pheomelanin can be displayed to various degrees – some have practically none.

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16 weeks old heterozygous Silver (S/s) Buttercup cockerel “Silvio”

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“Silvio” (behind) next to his sire “Rufius” (in front)

A new shipment of 22 day-old Buttercup chicks from the USA – intended to diversify my blood lines, arrived on May 5th. 2014 and included ANOTHER SILVER COCKEREL! Is this spontaneous mutation more common than previously thought or am I incredibly lucky to happen upon ANOTHER ONE? More excitement, as we watch “Argento” mature. How much pheomelanin will his phenotype allow to leak through?

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4 weeks old heterozygous Silver (S/s) Buttercup cockerel “Argento”

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“Argento” (left) next to a gold (normal colour) brother

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The surprise arrival of “Argento” not only represents a genetically unrelated silver cockerel for my project, but his comb is much better as well.

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Sources

See also
The American Livestock Breed Conservancy http://albc-usa.org/cpl/buttercup.html

Our Sicilian Buttercups: