The Java Experience: Raising a Critically Endangered Breed by Michael Dougherty from the August/September, 2007 issue of Backyard Poultry
The Java Experience
Raising a Critically Endangered Breed
By Michael Dougherty
Our first foray into “chickens” was a disaster. We were first interested in Cuckoo Marans, a chicken that many recommend as a heritage breed. I still recall ordering eggs on eBay and buying my Hovabator at a local farm store. When the eggs arrived, four were broken out of the dozen we ordered. Still, we hoped for the best and attempted to incubate them. None hatched. Research on the Internet revealed that poor handling by the USPS could result not only in breakage, but fatal damage to unbroken eggs. We were discouraged and decided to wait before we would try again. As it turned out, we would discover what would become our new home, NW Arkansas, and we didn’t want to hatch and move chickens. We would wait, and try again.
After the first bad experience with mailed eggs, we were understandably cautious about expecting anything. The move to Arkansas was to be our next attempt at hatching eggs. During the time between our first bad experience with the Marans eggs, and our move to Arkansas, we read about critically endangered breeds. The first selling point for Javas, in our view, was not that they were critically endangered, although that mattered a lot. The most compelling reason for our choice was that Javas are superior foragers, and they consume 50% less feed than more conventional breeds. The fact that they were critically endangered and that we could be a part of re-establishing this valuable breed was a plus. We located Java eggs on eBay and decided to give it another shot. These eggs were from the Garfield Museum line. We were so anxious to have chickens that we timed the arrival of the eggs to our final move to Arkansas. They were in the Hovabator within a week of our arrival.
Anyone new to incubating eggs will attest to the build-up of anticipation as the 21 day hatching date arrives. There is the incessant fiddling with humidity and adjustment of the temperature levels. I admit to being so concerned about my early attempts at incubation that I would get up at night and check to be sure things were in order. Since then, I am more relaxed and have a clearer idea of what matters and what does not. As a novice I might check the air circulating Hovabator six times a day, but now it is only twice, once in the morning and just before we go to bed. The thermostat seems to be pretty reliable so temperature is usually not an issue. The primary concern for us is regulating humidity. I did purchase an inexpensive humidistat and it has been very valuable managing the humidity.
I was on edge when we went to bed the 20th day, knowing we were at the moment of truth. It was about midnight in our new Arkansas home when Moonpie hatched, our first-born Java. He was the loudest hatchling we have had to date. He was and is a vibrantly alive rooster, and the alpha rooster in our flock. The second chick was Sunpie, a white Java. At least one university website claims that white Javas are extinct, but the truth is that they occur naturally in the bloodline now and then. Sunpie is a beautiful bird. Sunpie narrowly escaped a dog attack thanks to my wife Mandy who rescued her from its mouth. Moonpie, and our two additional Black Java hens formed that first flock of Javas. A short time later, I contacted a White Java breeder and obtained and hatched two White Java roosters out of a dozen eggs. Poor results, but probably due again to damage in shipping. We are now hatching our own eggs with about 90% success.
According to poultry historians, the Java breed is either the oldest or second oldest American chicken breed, dating back to the mid 19th century, possibly as early as 1835 or earlier. From those early beginnings, the breed rose in popularity to become a dominant commercial breed. In the early 20th century, more specialized chickens bred for either eggs or for meat replaced dual-purpose heritage chickens like Javas. By mid-century, so many poultry farms had converted to these more specialized breeds that the Java breed nearly died out. Many of today’s most popular breeds were derived at least in part from Javas. These include Jersey Giants, Rhode Island Reds, and Plymouth Rocks. By around 1990, there were fewer than 200 Javas known to exist. Even today, the numbers are low and the bird remains critically endangered. Depending on the source, the estimated total number of Javas today is either under 2,000 or under 1,000. The fate of the breed remains uncertain.
Well Suited for the Homestead
Javas are a large dual-purpose heritage breed. They lay a large light brown egg. Our Javas live up to their reputation as excellent foragers. Our flock scratches all day in the wooded areas around our home. We own a 21-acre farm on top of a mountain in Arkansas. It is mostly wooded and the oak leaves out back have never been raked. This is a chicken club med; they love to dig in eight inches of unspoiled leaves all day long. I do feed the Javas scratch, but truthfully I doubt they need it.
Javas are workhorses, and not really show horses. I consider them sturdy and attractive birds, and well suited to a small holding, but they are not eye candy like my Black Breasted Red Phoenix or White Crested Black Polish chickens. By comparison, those breeds are toys. They eat more feed, and they lay much smaller eggs. We enjoy them, but if I had to make a choice, I would always choose the Java as my homestead bird.
About the Breed
If you like black chickens, the Java is a beautiful bird. They have shiny feathers and a beautiful metallic green sheen if the light is right. Javas also come in white and mottled varieties. If the count of breeders is any indication, the favored varieties are black, mottled and white, in that order. At least one university site lists the whites are extinct.
Our experience so far is that Javas have a good temperament and live up to their reputation as being gentle. Java roosters average over nine pounds and hens over six pounds. They are built like tanks with square, stocky bodies with big breasts. We have two whites, and the remainder of our flock is black. I would estimate that our rooster Moonpie weighs at least 10 pounds. He protects his position as top dog and any skirmishes are brief and to the point. He has not attacked me or my wife. He does get excited about a red coffee can now and then and will make an aggressive display and maybe peck the can. To date, the coffee can has not succeeded in dethroning Moonpie as top dog, but the battle is joined now and then.
The Future of Javas
Javas are a critically endangered breed in spite of their excellent attributes for small holders. Java numbers have improved, but they remain on the brink of extinction. If you do a web search on Java chickens you will find very little information. But for the efforts of a few breeders they would be extinct. There are a few heroes in the efforts so far. Early efforts at restoring the breed were led by the Garfield Museum and a few other Java breeders in the mid-1990s when it was on the brink of extinction. Most of the major commercial breeders do not breed and sell Javas, but with a little diligence interested persons can still locate birds. We encourage small holders to keep at least a few Javas to help preserve the breed. As a critically endangered breed they are one good disaster or ill-conceived federal program from extinction. Small holders are central players in efforts to prevent extinction of Javas and other rare breeds.
For our part we hatch Java chicks and give them away to friends and neighbors. To date we have established four additional small flocks, roughly 40 more birds in total. Our goal is to create a number of small flocks nearby with people like ourselves who like chickens, want a good dual purpose utility bird, and are basically small holders. Anyone interested in raising Javas could contact us and we would consider requests or refer you to any breeders we are aware of. We will not ship live birds, would sell hatching eggs, and would consider gifting small hatches in NW Arkansas on case by case basis.
What the future holds for the Java breed is unclear. It is a superior bird for back-to-the-landers and small holders. Low feed costs and its sturdiness makes it ideal as a free range bird as well. We believe it is a well positioned breed as feed costs rise due to ever higher energy costs. In places like NW Arkansas, where there is minimal snow cover in the winter, Javas forage year round and require very little feed. They also have the reputation as a superior table bird. They are productive layers. All these factors should bode well for the future, but with fewer than 2,000 birds remaining, no one can predict might happen. Critically endangered birds are very vulnerable to extinction due to disease outbreaks like bird flu and NAIS. Regardless of what happens, this is a breed we can highly recommend, and those who create small Java flocks are contributing to the preservation of this rare heritage breed. The more of us that are raising Javas across the country, the better the percentages are for their future.
It’s 4:30 in the morning and I am awakened by Moonpie’s deep, throaty crow. His deep voice echoes in the woods behind our home atop Gaither Mountain. As I awaken, my mind turns to the early chores of our small farm in the first light of dawn. I check the coop and turn the chickens loose to free range as the sun rises. There is a quick head count and the reassurance that no chickens were lost to predators in the night. Relieved, I toss out some scratch, and move on to other tasks. Our Javas have survived another day. As the day begins with Moonpie’s crow, it ends with securing the chickens at night in the coop. I worry briefly about their vulnerability in the night and return to the house. This is the daily rhythm of our small farm on Gaither Mountain.
For more information on the Java breed, or to locate breeders, contact the The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC): firstname.lastname@example.org or the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA): email@example.com.