For as long as there has been civilization, chickens have been penned, raised and bred for use by humans. Whether the goal was more or bigger eggs, more durable shells, larger stature, bigger breasts, decorative plumes or birds that lived longer and healthier lives, people have tried to build a better chicken.
Now, 21st century science is being applied to breed chickens with feathers that suit the specific demands of a small designer market: fly tyers.
On a fifth-generation farm in northern Crawford County, Joel Alsdorf patiently and painstakingly breeds specific strains of chickens. Many are hatched but few are chosen -- some for feathers of certain colors, sizes, textures and other characteristics and others because their physiques are so perfectly attuned to the needs of fly tyers, they are specially fed, housed and pampered to spawn a race of super-feathered chickens.
Alsdorf's hobby has grown into a business servicing a small cottage industry. Alsdorf Genetic is one of just a few companies breeding chickens solely for fly tying.
"We have a dairy farm, too, and my dad's passion was always dairy genetics. When I got into raising chickens, I carried on that interest," Alsdorf said in a recent phone interview.
Genetic purity and sanitation are so vital to the company, he said, visitors are prohibited and costly steps are taken to prevent contamination.
"Raising chickens for ornamental feathers goes back at least 1,000 years to the Japanese imperial gardens where they bred chickens called 'onagadori' with tail feathers 10 or 15 feet long," said Alsdorf. "Those birds were taken to Europe where most fly-tying feathers originally came from."
With the exception of turkey, peacock and a few other exotics, most fly-tying feathers come from chickens because a well-established culture of domestication produces a wide variety of easily available and affordable products. When a commercial market for fly-tying feathers emerged about 80 years ago and suppliers relocated to America, demand led to close inbreeding, resulting in less healthy birds that had lost some of their hatchability and vitality.
At Alsdorf Genetic, each bird wears a leg band for identification, and the careful introduction of new genetic material into breeding stock has dramatically strengthened the flock.
Alsdorf works with a nutritionist to feed his chickens a calorie-controlled diet of high-grade feed including chopped vegetables and alfalfa, vitamins and minerals, limestone and ground oyster shells, and they're never given growth hormones, he said. Most of his birds roam freely by day and duck into shelters at night to stay safe from predators. Chicks live in temperature-controlled brooding houses. Breeders are pampered indoors. While some eggs are hatched in incubators, some hens are encouraged to hatch and raise their chicks.
"We want to keep the birds' mothering instinct. That's one of the 30 traits we look for," said Alsdorf.
Some of his chickens live 10 years or longer, and some have become part of the family and are given names.
"I know of one who's 14 year old," he said.
Cross-breeding conducted under mandatory or recommended state and federal guidelines has resulted in more dynamic lines of feathers with improved patterns, sizes, color variations, microscopic properties and durability under fishing conditions.
"If you're tying a dry fly, you want it to not break the surface tension of the water," said Alsdorf. "When you wrap a feather around the hook, the [feather] barbs flare out and provide enough surface contact that the fly stands up on the water and won't sink. More barbs angled in the right way give it even more buoyancy."
Alsdorf Genetic breeds hen necks with round tips and high density for dry flies, and webbing conducive for collaring wets. Dry fly saddles are short-barbed, glossy and stiff. Bugger saddles are genetically conditioned to grow to Wooly Bugger dimensions. Neck feathers are designed for sheen with soft, pliable stems that don't twist when wrapped on hook sizes from No. 22 up.
Alsdorf's passion, he said, is in developing new properties unique to his flock. For 10 years he's been developing a strain of genetically improved turkeys that sprout designer fly-tying feathers.
"I'm trying to produce a golden oak modelled turkey quill used for tying Muddlers, nymphs, streamers and some salmon and steelhead flies," he said. "This is the first year I've shown it to anybody."
The business side of Alsdorf Genetic is still in development. Oil Creek Outfitters in Titusville is the exclusive distributor of its feathers.
"Joel's birds are awesome," said fly shop owner Mike Laskowski. "[Turkey feathers] have been so hard to get, most tyers use imitation.
"Now we can use the real thing again. Priceless in patterns like the Muddler Minnow, March Brown wet fly, etc. I'd better stop there. I am a feather geek, so I can get carried away with some feathers I like."