Black Cocks. No, really.

This is Zissou. He is a rooster over a year old, thus by proper terminology he is a cock (under a year old is a cockerel). He is also black, really black, because he is a Svarthona. The Svarthona is among a few breeds that exhibit hyperpigmentation known as fibromelanosis. Their color even extends into their meat, organs, and bones! If there were ever a black cock, this is truly it.

A black Svarthona cock in all of his fibro glory.

While other such breeds originated in Indonesia and more or less remained there, the Svarthona spent a good chunk of time developing into more of a landrace in Sweden. Thus they are a more cold-hardy bird than their fellow fibro counterparts. Perfect for our endless Ohio winters.

Named after Steve Zissou of The Life Aquatic, my intent was to hatch chicks from him some day and then he could be affectionately referred to as Papa Steve. Luckily unlike his namesake he didn’t shoot blanks. He is indeed a papa now. And here is his handsome son, Ned.

Ned is a Silkie x Svarthona cross rooster with a wonderful disposition.
Ned looking handsome AF.

My goal with these is to work towards a dual purpose black meat chicken that is cold hardy and excellent at foraging. Yes I said black chicken meat. Yes, these are intended to be butchered (well not these specifically, but their future grandkids). While it might sound off-putting at first, there are actually health benefits to the unusual color.

A silkie chicken with black flesh in a pot looks unusual.
Whole Silkie chicken from musclefood.com

Black meat actually has roughly double the amount of carnosine, which is an antioxidant known for its positive effects on brain health. And we all know how fast health trends blow up. As it is black foods colored with activated charcoal have been taking the food world by storm. I’m sure bendy mindful yoga folk will be praising the endless health benefits of black chicken meat in no time, so I may as well capitalize on it.

Aside from the wow factor and niche market potential, I want to encourage others to raise their own food and do so ethically. The downside is that the most common meat chicken is the Cornish Cross, an unthrifty stinking beast riddled with health problems. They spend most of their time eating or sitting in their own filth (or both simultaneously) even when offered a nice yard to wander around in.

Four week old Cornish Cross broilers eating their non gmo fermented feed.
4 week old broilers, they only have 4 more weeks to go!

To me that is no way for a chicken to exist, and they aren’t exactly hobby farm friendly either. Unless carefully cared for and properly penned they easily dehydrate, are predator magnets, and somehow end up hurting themselves on everything.

I saw a need for a better meat bird. Something that matures a little slower both for better flavor and to avoid the leg problems that can occur in meat breeds known for rapid growth. To offset the cost of them living longer the goal is to select for great foraging skills and the ability to thrive in a free range environment.

Naturally I also wanted the potential to keep a few around as layers and breeders for the following year. Cornish Cross are just that- a cross between the Cornish and the Rock (others suggest a 4 way cross that includes other breeds as well), so they do not breed true, nor can they naturally breed due to their size- if they even make it to breeding age.

Thanks to enlarged hearts, overheating, and stroke to name a few common Cornish Cross ailments they are usually not long lived if left to exist past their recommended butcher date of 6 to 8 weeks.

A svarthona cock and a Cornish Cross hen.
Zissou and an 8 month old Cornish Cross hen. Bow chicka wow wow.

I think if backyard farming were more accessible and less finicky more people would do it. Sadly however, many of the most popular livestock breeds have been too finely bred and rely too heavily on a perfect environment and antibiotics to get by. To counter this I encourage people to seek out locally bred livestock that have been raised in the area across several generations. This way they are more resistant to area specific diseases and parasites, and better suited to the local environment.

Also, if you can afford to breed large enough numbers to lose a few, definitely do so. Predators, environment, and disease are the well honed pruners which will carefully sculpt your livestock over time. In a few generations you will notice healthier thriftier animals.

To that end I hope to make the final result of this project available to backyard farmers who are looking for a more manageable and sustainable meat breed. Look at that, from black cocks to ethical backyard farming. Bet you didn’t see that coming!