Fertility & Hatchability in Araucanas: Raising the Bar

It seems that the Araucana as a breed often gets a bad rap for traits that other more common breeds can take for granted. Most articles written by the scientific and/or poultry community talk about the problems associated with Araucana — Rumplessness, tufts, low hatchability, poor fertility, and failure to thrive. Invariably, poor performance in these areas is attributed to either the tuft or the rumpless gene. From my own experience with the breed I think it is more probable that low fertility, hatchability, and vigor is more often due to the management and breeding practices of the breeder who may be concentrating on other areas like tufting or color, and neglecting fertility and hatchability.

Araucana breeders all have their own experiences with the breed and we can learn much from each other. I have a different view point than most since I set eggs every week of the year through all kinds of weather and conditions. This article is primarily about my own experiences from working with the breed over the last five years. My flock has made substantial progress from where I started. Except for one hen (good old Delilah), my first Araucana were poor layers, had poor egg shape, and low or non existent fertility. But I was glad to have them! They were a start. The fertility problems existed in both the hens and the cocks. The hundreds of hatching eggs that I bought from many, many sources had a lot of the same problems. Of course, for hatching eggs, I was mostly limited to what I could scrounge on either Eggbid or Ebay since most Araucana breeders don’t ship hatching eggs because of unrealistic expectations of the recipients (and rightly so). As one long time breeder once said, “It is a waste of good eggs.”

There is a mountain of good information available both on the internet and in books on what a hen’s egg should look like, how big it should be, it’s shape, how big a clutch should be – and how all of these contribute to fertility and hatchability. It is a fact that a hen that lays a large (2.0 oz.), well formed egg, and lays frequently and steadily will have much better fertility and hatchability than a hen that lays occasionally and/or inconsistently and has poorly shaped eggs. The Standard for Araucanas calls for a medium sized egg. In my Large Fowl Araucana I select for a well shaped slightly larger egg (around 2.0 oz) since this is better for hatchability. My goal for all my large Araucana hens and pullets is to lay a 2.0 oz egg with excellent shape and color 5-6 times per week. In my Bantams I want the same thing but with the eggs closer to 1.3 oz each and a steady lay of 3-5 eggs per week.

The fluff around the vent area is of huge importance in Araucana. A number of articles about breeding Araucana recommend that you trim the fluff on both male and female birds to help insure close contact and good fertility. If you only have a few birds and you are just starting out this is obviously your best option. You need numbers before you can start culling hard. But from the beginning I rarely trimmed fluff and now I don’t have to do it at all. I simply culled the birds that had fertility problems and kept the ones that didn’t. I now have consistently good fertility. My flock seems to have evolved to accommodate any breeding problems inherent with the rumplessness and if you take a close look at the fluff of my most consistently fertile birds, they have “light” fluff. I would hope that we could one day change the Standard for large fowl to require “light fluff” to make up for any drawbacks that the rumplessness may have on the actual mating process. I recently had a nice big rumpless Black Breasted Red Araucana pullet start laying a beautiful 2.0 ounce blue egg. Unfortunately she had inherited some pretty heavy fluff. After 2 months in the breeding pen and not a single fertile egg I faced the options of trimming her or culling her. She is now a nice pet in a New York neighborhood where fertility is frowned upon (no roosters are allowed). Check your best breeding birds and you will probably find that they have light fluff.

hatchability & fertility
Rear shot of an Araucana pullet with light fluff. When stimulated by the rooster in preparation for breeding she will drop and flatten the fluff at the same time that she raises the rump feathers. An unobstructed breeding contact is achieved in this way. Heavy fluff is not so readily moved aside and tends to accumulate a buildup of feces, on both the rooster and the hen.

On low fertility – if you have four hens that are giving you a steady average 50% fertility (and it can’t be blamed on environmental conditions) then the chances are that all of your hens aren’t fertile 50% of the time across the board. What is more likely happening is that two are fertile most of the time, and two are fertile rarely, or never. That is a very important concept to remember. Cull the infertile birds if it is consistent and cannot be contributed to a known management problem, and keep the fertile ones. Suddenly your fertility can go through the roof overnight. Same thing with the cock birds. And, in my experience, fertile birds will usually produce fertile birds. It is reported that heritability of fertility and hatchability is supposed to be fairly low. But, assuming management is consistent, that leaves not much besides inheritance for the source of both desirable and undesirable traits. If a hen has poor fertility, poor egg shape, and heavy fluff and that keeps her fertility low, consistently, it is most likely due to inheritance.

I think the one important thing that Araucana have taught me is that they are not a “cloned” breed. Unlike other breeds which are more common, and due primarily to low overall numbers, you will rarely see Araucana that all produce alike or even look that much alike (type wise), except for individual strains or flocks. We have very few long term Araucana breeders in the country and most of them have closed flocks. You will see specific traits in each flock that the individual breeder may have specialized in, especially for the breeders who are raising exhibition Araucana. So when you get Araucana breeding stock remember that each bird needs to be evaluated as an individual. Some may be excellent show birds, but the breeder has been happy with 50% fertility, and maybe 25% overall hatchability from eggs set (which may be common in show birds of all breeds). Some show bird breeders actually breed for poor egg laying ability so that their exhibition hens don’t draw down during the show season due to heavy egg production.

By selecting your best birds for as many positive traits as possible, with each breeding season, your Araucana should keep improving over time. There are a lot of breeding and selection methods available and any breeder should choose the ones that suit them best. The same methods do not work for everyone. The most important thing is just to keep at it, with your goal being overall genetic improvement of your Araucana flock with each year’s hatch. Just don’t forget that selecting for fertility, hatchability, and vigor should be at the forefront.

First published in December 2007