A small family farm is hoping big birds might be the key to getting people to crow about genetic diversity.
North Whidbey’s Cascadia Heritage Farm has focused on breeding and preserving critically endangered breeds since the farm’s beginning.
The farm’s latest endeavor is to create a vigorous and healthy stock of Malay chickens, one of the tallest breeds of chicken in the world.
Titled the MIGHT Project, for Malay Invigoration Gene Hybridization Team, the goal is to take a breed that has traditionally been inbred and “invigorate” it by crossing it with other chicken breeds, such as the Aseel.
The fowl bred through the project will be referred to as “Cascadia Mighty Malays.” The farm currently has three adult Malays that have taken years to track down. A Malay chick was hatched from a mated pair in January.
A survey completed by the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities nearly 20 years ago determined that the Malay was the rarest breed in North America. The breed may have descended from gigantic chickens.
George Cerrato, who owns Cascadia Heritage Farm with his veterinarian wife, Shuna, and their 6-year-old son, Viggo, said the MIGHT project has not been without its challenges. Earlier this month, a Malay rooster that showed no previous signs of illness mysteriously died.
Cerrato suspected he may have died of a stroke. The body was sent to Washington University Veterinary School for a necropsy to uncover the cause of death.
“If we want this type of bird to continue to exist, we have to figure out a way to make it healthier,” Cerrato said.
Genetic and health issues are not uncommon in such a rare and small population as that of the Malay chickens, he added. Issues range from crooked toes to joint problems and can even include sudden illness such as a heart attack or a stroke.
It’s a paradox any breeder recognizes: to have a healthy animal, the genetic base needs to be broadened, even if it means compromising the standard of the breed.
That’s where the MIGHT project, and crossing the Malay with other breeds, comes in.
“If you love that animal, you have to open yourself up to a wider gene pool,” Cerrato said. “Because if you don’t, you’re going to inadvertently bring in genetic disease that’s going to kill the thing you love.”
Cerrato is hoping others will take an interest in the MIGHT project, increasing genetic diversity and small-scale farming. He has already given two Malay chicks away to a partner of his in the project.
“If we want to capture peoples’ imagination, to get them interested in this lifestyle, big birds might help,” he said.
Besides the long legs and necks, characteristics of the Malay breed include deep-set eyes and three curves in their back. Shuna, Cerrato’s wife, said the breed is also believed to be more calm and talkative than others.
The Malay fowls at Cascadia Heritage Farm are currently about two and a half feet tall. A year from now, if breeding goes well, they could break three feet.
The Cerratos are currently creating 16 enclosures on their farm for the chickens to live.
The farm also has about 40 Aseel chickens, which are believed to be closely related to the Malay breed. Aseel chickens were first bred for cockfighting. Contrary to this seemingly violent background, the Aseel chickens at Cascadia Heritage Farm are tame and trusting, following Cerrato around like a small dog.
“We believe they’re a treasure trove of genetic diversity and wealth,” Cerrato said of the Aseel breed.
The Aseels and Malays are ancient breeds that originated in India. Cerrato said he found out about the breeds from the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that lists all the endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.
“These birds are extremely valuable because of how unique they are,” Cerrato said. “Not only are they unique genetically, but they also represent the cultures they were a part of.”
Having genetic diversity, he added, will help make the chickens less prone to disease. In the event of an avian flu, this could be a very good thing.
Viggo, Cerrato’s son, is the resident “chicken expert” at Cascadia Heritage Farm. He has names for every chicken, such as “Frankenstein,” “Fat Wing” and “Vanilla Ice Cream Hen.” He knows which chicks go with which hens, and he was the first to notice the deceased rooster.
“The goal is to have kids like Viggo have these experiences so that later on in life he can have something to remember and be hopeful about,” Cerrato said.
Another goal of the farm, he added, is to find ways to get young people involved with agriculture. He does not like the hopelessness of some young people he has encountered.