Because the Leghorn chicken is so prolific (up to 320 eggs/year!), it is the darling of the egg industry, and produces the vast majority of eggs in Canada. They lay white eggs, so it’s easy to tell. For those who prefer a brown shell, you can thank the Rhode Island Red and a few other breeds. Between them, they’ve locked up the market.
So what happened to the breeds we used to see around farmhouses, back in the day? Some of them are in trouble, with few individuals left, certainly not enough for a healthy population. Ten of these breeds (1,600 chickens total) find a home within the Heritage Chicken program at UAlberta (with another population at UGuelph, in case of catastrophe at one location).
“Currently, in-breeding is high among four of the breeds because they’re randomly mated,” says Marzieh Heidaritabar, the Gentec post-doc trying to develop a funded project for the program off the side of her desk. “But this isn’t efficient. Ideally, we want a proper breeding program to select the best animals. Genomics is the best tool to help us select the most diverse sires and females as parents of the next generation.”
Eighty-five chickens have already been sequenced. “That’s how we knew inbreeding was high in the first place,” says Marzieh. Now, another $70K is needed to finish the job, and fund students and tests. She plans to apply to NSERC this year to, hopefully, get the project rolling in 2021.
The goal would be to keep the unique genes in the breeds and increase the number of individuals over 2-3 generations to assess the success of the breeding program—but it may make more sense to merge the breeds if they are genetically close. Secondary objectives would be to examine immunity and behaviour, both of which may increase the suitability of the breeds for certain environments. Two other ongoing projects are working on perching and gait traits.
While Marzieh will go through traditional Tri-Council channels and the higher-tech GoFundMe platform, the program has been creative about fundraising in a different way. $175/year will get you a dozen eggs every other week for 10 months. Or you can adopt-a-rooster instead (similar program minus the eggs).
“Every little bit helps,” says Marzieh, “and it’s a great way to get the public involved.”