Jana Wilson makes her way through the large wooden gate as caramel-colored feathers flash in the Indiana sunlight and rubbery combs—crimson and strangely circular—bob and sway. Several sets of olive legs hustle over, and Wilson is soon beset by Sicilian Buttercups. Some gently cluck and coo their hellos. Others more loudly demand the treats she’s brought.
“They originally called them ‘Sicilian Buttercups’ because they came over from Sicily,” Wilson says. “And they are the only chicken in the world that has this completely circular, closed comb. There are no other breeds that have that. In fact, the motto of the American Buttercup Club was ‘The crown of the fancy.’”
During the past 15 years, Wilson has bred hundreds of Sicilian Buttercups at her Bloomington, Indiana, homestead. “I would hatch 100 and keep two,” she says. “That’s what happens when you have a breed that’s not very well developed—one that has a lot of flaws, because there’s not a lot of them and the bloodlines are not very good.”
When selecting the best specimens, Wilson considers each chicken’s comb configuration, leg color, body shape and feather pattern. Largely self-taught, she has relied on advice from other poultry breeders as well as the online Chicken Genetics group on Facebook. “A lot of people said, ‘Boy, you really went for the most difficult breed,’” Wilson says.
One of the trickiest aspects to breeding buttercups is keeping the circular comb closed. “The original genetics were [expressed with] two combs side-by-side,” she says. “So, they manipulated this bird so that the comb closed up.”
Failure to cull birds lacking the circular comb results in chickens with parallel combs. “If you just let them go—and I have some that look like that—then the combs are side-by-side,” Wilson says. “But it’s kind of cool.”
Saved by the Shell
With just a handful of U.S. breeders, Sicilian Buttercups have become as rare as hens’ teeth. Still, there was a time when they pecked and scratched on farms from Boston to Bakersfield. Sicilian Buttercups came to America in 1863 aboard Capt. Cephas Dawes’s ship called the Fruiterer. Loaded with oranges, raisins and figs, the ship was ready to sail from Sicily back to its New England base when some particularly attractive chickens in the local market caught the captain’s eye. Dawes bought them with idle thoughts of fresh meat on the high seas, but the birds’ egg-laying prowess invariably stayed their execution.
According to a 1913 report in the American Poultry Advocate, “They laid so continually and well, large white eggs with very firm shells and rich, delicate flavor, and as they were of a specially gentle, quiet disposition, they soon became the pets of the entire crew and fared well; and thus won the regard of captain and crew.”
After returning to New England, Dawes gave some of the Sicilian Buttercups to his neighbor, Carroll Loring, who went on to breed and help popularize the variety. In a letter to the American Poultry Advocate, Loring wrote: “Sicily Buttercups are handsome, attractive, endearing fowls to every woman, and money makers for man. They are very tame, docile pets, somewhat larger than leghorns. They bring success, comfort and profit to all who keep them.” To that high praise, he added, “With kind treatment, buttercups become companions like a dog or a cat.”
Loring is credited with naming the new breed “buttercup” after its cuplike comb and “reddish butter” coloring. In Loring’s day, it was thought that, with careful selection, the Sicilian Buttercup could be made to produce 300 eggs per year. Turns out, the Sicilian Buttercup is a relatively reliable layer.
The Gateway Chickens
Wilson didn’t exactly set out to follow in Loring’s buttercup-breeding footsteps. “The way we got into chickens was [my husband’s] fault,” she says. “He had a friend at work who was getting chickens.”
Curious to have a few of their own, they started with six American Red Stars.
“They were just for egg laying, and we fell in love with them,” Wilson says. “Then we went to a chicken show, and I was entranced by all the different breeds.” Drawn to eggs in shades of pale jade and aqua, Wilson added Ameraucanas to her flock. While looking for a few extra Ameraucanas, Wilson met Carl Fosbrink. Based in Seymour, Indiana, Fosbrink had Ameraucanas, but he also had buttercups. “I saw the buttercups and I was like ‘Wow! What are those?’” she says. “I thought they were gorgeous, so I bought two females.”
It wouldn’t take long before Wilson visited Fosbrink again. “I came home and read all about buttercups and decided to go back and buy a male,” she says. She began breeding Sicilian Buttercups in earnest. “I hatched a lot! And, later, Carl became very ill—too ill to take care of [his birds]—and, so, he sold me his whole flock.” Fosbrink passed away in 2015, and, Wilson notes, “I feel a great responsibility to him to continue on.”
In part, Wilson intends to honor Fosbrink’s memory by keeping his line of Sicilian Buttercups alive. But she’s also driven to keep the variety going in the U.S.
“The American Livestock Conservancy has a list of birds that are endangered and threatened,” she says. “The buttercup was actually taken off ‘Endangered’ and put on ‘Threatened,’ but I don’t understand why, because I don’t think there are that many.”
Just how easy is it to get Sicilian Buttercups in the U.S. right now? “It’s practically impossible,” Wilson says. “There are a few people out on the west coast [who raise buttercups]. And, unfortunately, I lost a bunch of my birds a couple of years ago.”
She’s still recovering from the setback. “The only birds I had left were some with bad qualities, so I kind of had to start over,” she says. Wilson had lost some key genetic traits, such as leg color. “I didn’t have any green legs left,” she says. “So, I fiddled around, and this year I went back to older birds. They don’t lay as much and they’re not as fertile, but I have my green legs back. I just look at them now and am like, ‘Oh, good!’”
She has some really nice birds this year, which she calls ‘The Preciouses,’ because she only has four of them. “I have a lot of older ones, but these are my new ones,” she says. “They are the standard bearers.”
To prevent problems associated with inbreeding, Wilson sometimes trades birds with other buttercup breeders. “There’s a guy out in New York I know, and he and I have swapped a couple of times,” she says. “And there are some hatcheries that offer buttercups. I bought some one year just to see what they looked like and thinking I might get some new blood, but they were terrible.”
She has even looked into traveling to Italy to acquire new buttercups.
“The ones in Italy are a little bit different,” she says. “They do have a circular comb, but they come in different colors. They aren’t just the gold buttercups.” But Wilson’s since shelved the idea. “It’s easier to ship a bird outside of the U.S. to another country than it is to bring a bird here,” she says.
Of the hundreds of buttercups she’s raised since 2003, Wilson believes only 20 were near-perfect specimens. She has exhibited her birds in regional and national poultry shows and has posted some wins. “With rare birds, it’s really hard to win, because people don’t know the standard,” she says. “And they’re going to have some flaws, because there aren’t that many birds to breed from.”
The American Poultry Association accepted the Sicilian Buttercup into its official Standard of Perfection tome in 1918. “The Standard of Perfection says [buttercups] have to have green legs and circular combs,” Wilson says. In particular, it describes, “A comb set firmly on the center of skull, with a single leader from base of beak to a deep cup-shaped crown formed by a complete set of regular points. The cavity within the circle of points should be deep; the texture of comb, fine and smooth.”
“Before production birds got popular, farmers would get together, and they would take great pride in breeding their birds,” Wilson says. “They would have little clubs where they’d get together to decide what the bird should look like.” They also entered their chickens in poultry exhibitions that were every bit as big as the Westminster Dog Show is today—maybe bigger. “In Madison Square Garden, they had this huge poultry show where the Sicilian Buttercup was introduced,” Wilson says. “Buttercups were the thing.”
Standards were also put in place for the coloring, size, weight and shape of buttercup hens and roosters. There are even disqualifying traits. If, for example, your buttercup’s ear lobes are “more than two-thirds red”? Get out! (Apparently, turn-of-the-century poultry fanciers hotly debated whether a bird’s earlobes should be red or white. “You can breed that in and out,” Wilson says. “And what happens is, when you have a white earlobe, they lay white eggs, but, if you let the earlobe go back to red, eventually they can go back to laying brown eggs.”)
Wilson recently added a second Mediterranean breed—the Ancona—to her chicken yard. Sporting black feathers with white polka dots, the striking birds certainly can hold their own next to their intricately patterned counterparts. But when it comes to her soft spot for the Sicilian Buttercup, there is simply no replacing it.
On bolstering her buttercup stock she says, “Every year you think, ‘Maybe this is going to be the one!’ I’ve had some lovely birds this year, and I’m much more heartened by my ability to keep the breed going.”
Sidebar: Sales Calls
Although she might be tempted, Jana Wilson can’t keep every buttercup she hatches, so she’ll occasionally sell her extra roosters and hens—but only after carefully vetting would-be buyers. “I learned you can’t sell the birds to just anybody,” she says. “These are not good birds for beginners.” Case in point: Because buttercup roosters have such large combs, they’re more susceptible to frostbite during the winter.
To help people understand what’s involved with buttercup care, Wilson talks with them before a sale and checks in on them afterward as well. She’s shipped buttercups as far away as Virginia, Arizona, Colorado and California. “I put apple slices in there with them,” she says. To date, all of the birds she’s shipped have survived.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Chickens magazine.