The origins of the Aracouna chicken have baffled scientists for the last century. The Aracouna Indians kept no written records and the source of the mutations observed in these birds is unknown. European explorers took note of these birds shortly after reaching South America. The birds are mentioned in the writings of the Portuguese explorer Magelhaes (Magellan) who documented their presence in 1519, less than thirty years after the maiden voyage of Columbus. The sky blue eggs were mentioned seven years later by Sebastian Cabot (1526). Although it is possible that the chickens were introduced by the Europeans, the immediate dispersal and distinct husbandry of these birds suggest that the bird was being raised by the natives before 1492. Similarly, radiocarbon and DNA analysis indicate that these birds are not of European origin (Story et al., 2007).
The Aracouna chicken was named after (or in honor) of the South American Aracouna Indians, a tribe of the Mapuche nation, who were one of the last independent native peoples to be conquered by the European forces. The Aracouna Indians were able to successfully maintain their independence until the late 1800s, when they were attacked by the full force of the Chilean army. One of the officers in the Chilean campaign, which ultimately defeated the Aracounas, was Dr. Ruben Bustros. An avid chicken fancier, Dr. Bustros noticed two unique breeds of chicken, later known as Collonocas and Quetros, which were being raised by the natives.
A representative sample of each breed was acquired and raised by Dr. Bustros. The resulting hybrids were originally called Collonca de Artes but eventually were popularized under the name Aracouna chicken. The chicken raised by Dr. Bustros had three unique characteristics. It produced blue eggs, had ear tufts and was rumpless. It is unclear if these three characteristics were found in the Aracouna chicken originally acquired by him, or whether these birds were the result of Dr. Bustros’ breeding of the original Collonocas and Quetros chicken.
The Aracouna chicken remained shrouded in the obscurity of rural Chile until 1914, when Dr. Bustros published an article about the birds. This article prompted a visit by Professor Salvador Castello Carreras, headmaster of Arenys de Mar, a Spanish institute of higher learning dedicated to the research and development of poultry. Impressed with the uniqueness of the Aracouna chicken, Professor Carreras introduced it at the World Poultry Congress in 1921. The publicity sparked avicultural interest and the bird began to be recognized for its unique characteristics.
When the bird was first brought to the United States in 1927, few pure Aracouna chickens remained. The original Collonocas and Quetros chicken which the Aracouna Indians had raised were dispersed, crossbred or destroyed. The birds salvaged to form Dr. Bustros’s original flock did not survive, although some of the Aracouna chickens he raised had been distributed among other breeders, who were able to insure the continuity of the breed. Until the late 1960s, when the Aracouna chicken was officially recognized as a unique breed, the birds were seen as an oddity, with few resources dedicated to their preservation.
The Biological Origins of the Aracouna
Columbus might have been the first documented European to sail to South America, but the Polynesians had been traversing large areas of the Pacific Ocean for thousands of years (Lee et al., 2007). Groups of Polynesian canoes, separated in the turbulence of the Pacific Ocean, were able to locate each other by the calls of a hybrid between the common domestic chicken and the green jungle fowl (known as the Bekisar). The green jungle fowl does resemble the common chicken, but it is scientifically classified as a separate species.
The green jungle fowl, indigenous to the jungles of South East Asia, is not mentioned in the halachic literature, nor is there any Jewish community which is known to accept it as kosher. It stands to reason that if the Polynesian canoes reached the South American realm of the Aracouna Indian, they would have carried a domesticated hybrid form of the green jungle fowl. There are some who have hypothesized that the Aracouna Indians acquired some Polynesian chicken and were able to hybridize them with the native bird, the chachalaca. This hypothesis needs to be further researched. If it can be proven, then the Aracouna chickens would have an ancestry which is distinct from that of every other known breed of chicken.
The Blue Eggs
The Aracouna chicken is one of the breeds used in the development of all greenish-blue egg laying breeds, including the legbars and Ameracouna (also known as the Easter egg chicken). In general, chicken eggs are white with different pigments called porphyrins which affect the color of the egg. The porphyrins are deposited into the egg of the chicken while they are being formed in the ova of the hen. In the case of many brown egg laying breeds, such as the Rhode Island Red, the brown egg color is the result of the pigment protoporphyrin, which is derived from hemoglobin in the blood.
The pigment is only on the outside of the egg’s shell. When brown eggs are first laid, the brown pigment can be rubbed off with the hand eventually resulting in an egg with a white shell. The Aracouna produces a pigment called oocyanin, which is a product of bile formation. Unlike porphyrins which are only on the outside of the shell, the greenish blue color resulting from the oocyanin permeates the shell. One method used to evaluate the purity of an Aracouna is the color of the shell. Although many hybrids will have blue or green eggs, the color gets diluted as the birds are hybridized.
Genuine Aracouna chickens are rare in the United States. Many hatcheries claim to sell Aracouna chicken but they usually have a footnote or some other disclaimer that the birds are not show quality. This is because most birds sold in the United States as Aracounas, lacking all of the bird’s unique characteristics, would be disqualified as such by any competent judge should they be entered in a poultry show. The difficulty encountered by breeders is that the Aracouna chicken does not breed true. It is estimated that only one in a hundred Aracouna chicks hatched from “pure Aracouna eggs” are show quality, exhibiting all the characteristics of Aracouna chickens.
The Aracouna chicken is rarely available in its pure form, but there are a number of restaurants which have expressed interest in serving the sky blue eggs. At this point the Orthodox Union is attempting to find a breeder flock which is of pure lineage so that the eggs might be available. If the Aracouna chicken is simply the result of a genetic mutation, then it would be kosher, as are all other breeds of chicken. However, if the Aracouna chicken was developed through a unique and as of yet unknown domestication event, or through the hybridizations with unknown species, the bird cannot be certified.
The ornithological and anthropological community has recently become interested in the possibility that chickens were kept in South America prior to the arrival of the Europeans. As scientists and archeologists continue to research this matter, and more evidence becomes available as to the origins of the Aracouna, the OU will evaluate whether it will be possible to certify the eggs of these birds.
Rabbi Chaim Loike, OU’s bird specialist, serves as OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator servicing egg, spice and chemical companies. His fascinating BTUS features on the pigeon, partridge, peacock, duck and birds of the Bible continue to elicit much interest and positive feedback. Rabbi Loike co-stars with his exotic birds in the much acclaimed DVD “Kosher Birds: Who Are They?” part of OU Kosher’s expanded educational outreach.