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Not just winging it: Group works to save rare chickens

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy wants to protect the genetics of old-fashioned breeds.

FRESNO, Calif. — At about the time Foghorn Leghorn appeared on the Looney Toons drawing board in 1946, he began disappearing from America’s dinner tables.

Now the bird on which the rooster cartoon character was modeled is among 66 types of old-fashioned chickens the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is trying to save from extinction as factory-raised cross varieties command 90 percent of the market.

“When we can identify something in danger, we need to protect it,” says Barbara Bowman of Sonoma County, an original board member of Slow Food USA who has a dozen of the last 510 Delaware breeding stock chickens in existence. “The old breeds provide really sturdy genetics that we have to guard.”

Since the arrival of industrialized agriculture, more than 95 percent of vegetables that had been grown in the world have disappeared, according to the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.

America’s purebred chickens began a similar decline after World War II, when poultry producers, seeking to hold onto the market gained during wartime beef shortages, participated in the national “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest. The goal: a broad-breasted variety that could be mass produced quickly on minimal feed. A Cornish-Plymouth Rock cross dominates today.

Now the North Carolina-based Conservancy hopes to do with chickens what seed banks have done for heirloom vegetables. “All of the other breeds lost their jobs because they couldn’t grow as fast,” said Marjorie Bender, technical program director.

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