Friday, February 10, 2012

Jim Ward's Brief History of the Java Chicken Breed

As a Black Java chicken breeder, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the history of Javas and other chickens during the past six years. I thought that I would share a few of my insights to see what the larger poultry community thinks, keeping in mind that they are conjectures and not established facts. It is a travesty to me that the Java chicken breed is not more widely known given the prominent role it played in the development of so many modern chicken breeds. I can’t image the tragedy that it would have been if Duane Urch, the Garfield Farm and a few others hadn’t kept this important foundational breed going in the late 1980’s and 90’s before its current resurgence.

Recently I have been thinking of chickens as belonging to one of six lineages: European Chickens, Asiatic Chickens, Hybrid Chickens, Aseel/ Malay-like Chickens, Araucana Chickens, and Longtail Chickens. Classifying chickens by my lineages results in groupings that are somewhat different than those used by the American Poultry Association. My emphasis is on ancestry, poultry dispersal patterns, and what I believe are unique styles and traits for each of the lineages. The American Poultry Association’s classes emphasize the place of origin of the individual breeds. The Aseel/ Malay, Longtail, and Araucana Groups in my mind are all distinct lineages, but clearly they are related to the Asiatic lineage of the Cochins, Langshan, Silkies and Javas. Though Silkies have five toes and crests, I believe most five-toed breeds descend from Dorkings, and crested breeds from Polish, both clearly European chickens. Similarly, most feather-legged chickens have Cochin or Langshan, Asiatic chicken, ancestry. Sultans may be the exception, their origins somewhat of a mystery. There is a nice article on the Egyptian Fayoumis chicken in Oct/ Nov 2011 Backyard Poultry that touches on the origins of the European Group.

 Javas, I believe, are quintessentially Asiatic chickens. Asiatic chickens, the Java being first and arguably the most important, were brought to the United States and Europe sometime around 1800’s with the advent of regular ship traffic from China, India and other Asian countries. The Java when it arrived in the United States initially was not a breed, as we define breeds today. Rather Javas were a collection of many colored utilitarian fowls imported from the Far East that shared the Asiatic traits. They are relatively slow growing, big, calm, large-brown-egg-laying chickens, like their cousins the Cochins, and Langshans. I also suspect that most of the early “Javas” primarily sported single combs, clean legs and a brick-shaped body. It is not difficult to imagine why such chickens would create a stir when compared to the relatively small, flighty, white-egg-laying traditional “European” chickens, such as Leghorns, Old English Games, Hamburgs, and, I argue, Dominiques.
The mixed and diverse Asiatic Java was perfect for crossing into the older European chickens to create a variety of new breeds. Between 1850 and 1950 poultry breeding, in my mind, boiled down to combining the best attributes of the “new” Asiatic chickens with the “old” European chickens. The three most prominent breeds of chickens that descend from the Java are the Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, and the Jersey Giant. From the first two breeds then are descended almost all of the rest of the Hybrid Group breeds that today form most of the American Poultry Association’s American class, a few of the prominent English and Continental Class Breeds, and several production breeds used for meat or brown eggs.
It is understood that the Barred Plymouth Rock was created by crossing the Dominique with the Java. The Dominique has been around since the colonial era of the United States and likely descends from European chickens brought to North America. Based on my experiences raising them, I believe the Dominique is a superior chicken for the small farmer. It is relatively hard feathered, fast growing, disease resistant, high flying, and cuckoo colored (which is valuable because it gives them protection from predators.) However the Dominique is relatively small, roosters weighing only about 7 pounds, and lays relatively small tinted eggs. Contrast this with the Java, also a superior chicken for the small farmer, which weighs 9 1/2 pounds, has big, brown eggs, doesn’t fly much, and has relatively soft feathers. Unfortunately, it is just rather slow growing. It is not difficult to image then that the goal of breeders in creating the Barred Plymouth Rock was a Java with the cuckoo coloring that grew faster and was more adapted to the local conditions of the US, or flipped, a Dominique-like chicken, only larger with big brown eggs. In short, the Barred Plymouth Rock was bred to be a better dual purpose chicken for meat and eggs than either of its parents
The story is similar for the Rhode Island Red. It was developed from crosses of the Auburn Java, Leghorn, and Malay. The Auburn Java parent contributed size, its brown egg color, and its rectangular, brick-shaped body. The Leghorn parent contributed its excellent rate of lay and its early maturity. The Malay contributed size, breast, attitude, feather quality, and color. In the case of the Rhode Island Red the breeders were particularly successful in creating a dual-purpose chicken that laid extremely well and produced a faster maturing cockerel for the Sunday dinner table, so much so, that the original Auburn Javas was supplanted and died out before 1900.
In the story of the Jersey Giant the Java was the “small” parent that was crossed with the feather-legged Langshan and Brahma (itself a hybrid of the Malay and the Grey Chittagong, a breed of chicken reported to regular reach over 14 pounds) to create a utilitarian, clean-legged, super-massive, caponized (castrated) chicken to compete against turkeys in the highly competitive roaster market in the early 1900’s. There are reports of Jersey Giants reaching over 20 pounds. In most ways the Jersey Giant is very much like a Java, down to its black legs and yellow bottoms of the feet, except that in all ways it is more massive. In fact, I have come to think of Jersey Giants as Javas on steroids. (Only three breeds have black legs and yellow bottoms of the feet-Javas, Jersey Giants, and Sumatras)
Perhaps ironically, given that the Java was for a time in the 1880’s the market bird of choice because of its fine meat qualities, and because its size was a driver for why it was crossed with other chickens to create new breeds, its real lasting legacy may be its brown eggs. The Java was likely the first of the brown egg layers to be introduced into the United States and it is likely that Americans developed a taste for brown eggs because of the Java. Further since almost every brown egg laying chicken recognized today descends from the Java, or one of the breeds developed from it, it is not a stretch to say that the brown egg gene in chickens today is basically inherited from the Java. I don’t think that the brown egg came to prominence merely because of its color. It is likely the brown egg color gene was linked to other traits inherited from the Java that farmers valued. I can only speculate about whether brown egg chickens were more fertile, were better winter layers, were better dual purpose birds, or were something else that was important to American farmers.
In view of the history I have just presented, some may accept the recent potential loss of the Java breed as just another casualty to progress made in the name of breeding “better” chickens. I view the breed though, as a piece of living poultry history that can’t be regained if lost. It holds genetic clues in its genome to the development of some of our most important breeds of chickens today. It tells us how we got where we are in poultry production, and also offers us a different path if ever we humans decide to produce chickens differently than we do today. More than all of this though, the Java to me is like the lost Leonardo DaVinci Painting featured in the latest National Geographic Magazine, worth treasuring for its beauty alone. Javas are a breed I sincerely hope more poultry breeders will discover and propagate.


  1. Really a nice article. Very interesting.

  2. Thanks for the concise learning experience. I just hatched my first five black Javas and am quite interested. Sincerely Lee Pannell - Bastrop, TX

  3. I am admittedly an outsider to this group, and normally would not presume to challenge the articles statements. However, considering that the logo of the organization states that the Java breed is "The second oldest American breed", I have to inquire about the claim made here that the Java "is not an American breed". This statement is contrary to all my reading to date which acknowledges the Java as an American breed. These authors, like yourself, chose not to document their statements with the primary sources. Can you document your claim that the Java is not an American breed, or is this a conjectured opinion? Thank you in advance.

    1. To Mr. Anderson I was asked by the writer of this article refer you to the current newsletter of the Java club which is on their Facebook page or to the Java Yahoo group to the articles section to read more. There is a new article written by Glenis Marsh who did tons of research on this and it explains why we believe this. Please email me at and put Java history in the subject line. We dont post articles unless they have been researched carefully becaus ewe are trying to put good information out to the public. Thanks Ruth