Few birds combine more intriguing characteristics than the Birchen Marans. It’s all about the egg color when it comes to being officially a Marans. If a bird does not routinely produce eggs darker than 4 on the egg color chart then it is not a Marans. Period.
However, the Marans is about more than just those dark eggs. Originally bred in France as a dual purpose bird, the Marans (always spelled with the ‘s’ at the end) is a delight to have on the farm. The quality of the meat produced by the Marans is unmatched on my farm. It has an exquisite texture and flavor, that make it quite distinct among heritage chickens. It is always a balancing act in dual purpose breeds to maintain both quality meat and quality eggs. They are opposing selection forces and improving on only one nearly always causes a decline in the other. Which is why, even if you are only interested in the dark eggs, you need to keep in mind what the breed was intended for and select accordingly.
The Black Copper Marans are renowned for having the darkest eggs. The Cuckoo Marans are typically strong as well. However, even in these darkest lines one has to be careful in choosing breeding stock or risk a decline in egg color quality over time.
Dark egg color in the Marans is something that has to be shepherded, especially in the Birchen (Silver) and Blue lines. If you don’t pay attention to which birds become your breeding stock, you can quickly find your Marans are producing colors that are barely noteworthy. Blue and Splash Marans are not considered official Marans plumage colors in part because maintaining egg color quality in these birds, that carry dilution genes, is extremely difficult. They are extremely beautiful birds all the same and definitely my farm favorites.
Marans typically have seasonal variation in their egg colors. Eggs tend to be darkest in the spring or at the start of an egg laying cycle, fade over the summer, and return to darker tones after molting or a break in egg laying. Without care and attention, you may find your overall egg color quality declining with successive generations, because when it comes to egg color among Blue and Birchen, there are definitely winners and losers.
There are things you can do to help ensure you maintain the best and darkest egg colors in your breeding stock. Here are the strategies I use with my Blue Birchen and Black Birchen Marans:
Selective breeding strategies
1. Select only your darkest Eggs
It should go without saying that the number one strategy for keeping your birds laying the darkest eggs is to only hatch from your best hens.
How do you choose your best Marans hens?
This is a dual purpose bird and the hens need to display good form, first and foremost. If you are not familiar with the breed, take a look at the breed standard description.
I look for big robust hens that have good meat qualities, such as large breasts, strong legs and relatively short necks. I think of the hens as being quite stocky and square. As with all chicken breeds, meat producing traits trade off with egg producing traits, so if you do not consistently seek to maintain both qualities, you will end up losing this dual purpose balance.
Next I look for social traits such as quiet, non-flighty personalities and good foraging abilities. These are important for maintaining easy to handle and easy keeping flock. I also look for small crown size because my winters here are cold and the classic Marans features don’t work well. This is where I break from traditional form and seek to breed down the crown and wattle size for improved cold weather performance.
Only after looking at these physical and social traits of the hen, then I consider plumage color and what I hope to achieve for feather color in the chicks.
Out of this pool of breeding stock Marans, which get separated out to a breeding pen away from the general flock, I then collect up the darkest eggs.
Your best Marans hens need to also have the following egg traits:
- Good egg shape without malformations
- Consistent egg layer
- Darkest egg color is a deep dark brown
- Continues to produce those dark eggs well into the egg season
- The dark color is a clear and consistent shade, without spotting and blotches
- Thick hard shell
Hens that produce dark eggs later into the spring and early summer are a better choice for breeding than eggs from hens where the color has already faded, even if it was dark earlier. In my experience, Blues have eggs that fade faster than Blacks, but there are exceptions and those are the birds you want to breed from.
Even a “darkest egg laying hen” can have an off day and produce a lighter egg, or one that has blotchy egg color. However, if a hen consistently produces blotchy eggs then I do not breed from that bird. The probability that her pullets will produce better eggs is a long shot. Always work from the best you have and aim to improve the quality over time. Clear consistent egg color is key.
If you have older hens that are still producing dark eggs, these eggs are more valuable to breed from than from a younger hen, because it shows consistency of egg color year after year which is a highly desirable trait. The other advantage of hatching from 2, 3 or even 4 year old hens is that their eggs are larger, resulting in larger, more robust chicks.
Egg shells should be hard and thick. You can test this by candling the eggs before setting them. If your candler shines easily through the egg, it is a poor choice for hatching because it lacks the deep color and shell thickness that should prevent that light from penetrating very far. For me, even with a bright light candler, I cannot see through the best dark eggs. The light will reveal any cracks, but also inconsistencies in the egg color that can help you detect and select for the darkest eggs.
Tips and tricks for your Marans hens
Marans, like many heritage breeds, need higher protein than what is typically provided in commercial feed. Providing supplemental protein can make a big difference in egg color (and size), especially in the summer.
Some of my Marans hens will hunt mice themselves in order to try and boost their own protein levels. You can try feeding some cooked eggs, fresh alfalfa or alfalfa hay, meat scraps, or other sources of protein a few days to a week before you want to start collecting hatching eggs. If you see a rebound in the egg color (gets darker and clearer), then adding more protein is definitely something that will improve your egg quality and hatching success.
Just be careful not to add so much protein that your birds start generating double-yolk eggs. Those eggs cannot successfully produce a chick so you are wasting your efforts. I don’t think I have seen a Marans produce double yolks at Rose Hill Farm, but Barred rocks definitely start producing multi-yolk eggs if you boost the protein levels too high in older hens.
2. Don’t Forget Your Rooster!
While it is obvious that you should be selecting eggs from your darkest egg laying hens, everyone seems to forget that the rooster is 50% of the equation!
To improve on egg color means you have to use your best rooster that came from your darkest egg laying hen! If you rooster came from a light colored Marans egg, then this is the tendency he is bringing into your breeding program. You are shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to Marans egg color.
How do you select the best Marans rooster for egg color?
This is where the rubber hits the road for selective breeding. To have the best rooster for dark egg color, means starting this process one year earlier, and using the tips above, select your best and darkest egg, hatch the chicks, and choose the best rooster (for meat, social and plumage traits) from this dark egg hatch.
It’s a lot of tracking but the results are worth it!
Here are the steps in detail:
(2) When you are ready to set eggs, sort the eggs based on color. You have already taken care of other traits through your selection of breeding birds, so now the focus is just on these eggs. Choose the darkest eggs without any speckling that are the hardest to see through when candling. These are the best eggs.
(3) Mark these eggs and track them during incubation. I usually number my eggs and then keep a spreadsheet to tell me which are the darkest at the start of incubation. This is day 1 of incubation. For advice on incubators and supplies, visit the Shop for Products page.
(4) At lock down (day 18), candle the eggs again and cross-check your original determination of egg color and quality and separate the darkest eggs. I either move them to a separate incubator for hatching or I use a mesh laundry bag to hold those eggs. Discard any eggs that feel light, they do not contain a chick. Eggs feel heavy when there is a chick in them. If in doubt, I leave the egg in and watch closely for any signs of a bad egg (weeping, change in color, bad smell), but over time you can get pretty good at discarding unhatchable eggs.
(5) Once the hatch is done, mark these special chicks before letting them re-join the rest of the hatch. My favorite leg bands for chicks come from Chicken Hill.
(6) Continue tracking these chicks as they mature. Remember to change out the leg bands as the birds grow if you cannot tell the birds apart by color or some other trait. Then choose your next rooster from this special group.
Choose your rooster based on the same careful process discussed for the hens. You already know that the group has come from your darkest egg laying hens. Now focus on his meat qualities, social characteristics (like dancing ability), crown and wattle size, and plumage characteristics. Breeding the selection winner to your darkest egg laying hens will ensure that you are working to improve your Marans quality over time.
3. Breed Back to Black
When it comes to maintaining egg color quality in Blue and Splash lines, sometimes the best choice is to breed back to Black. If your best egg color is coming from your Black Marans, but you want to keep Blue and Splash stock, occasionally breeding back to a Black Birchen rooster can vastly improve your egg color quality. Alternatively you can use Black and Black Birchen hens with a Blue or Splash rooster and achieve the same end.
The trick in this strategy lies in implementing steps above in (1) and (2) such that you keep breeding stock from these darker eggs birds.
This tends to be a longer term strategy because you first do the back to Black cross – let’s say Black Birchen rooster to Blue hen – save the best eggs as above. Then track the chicks from this cross through to see if the resulting pullets lay better color eggs than their mothers. Like I say, this is not an easy fix, but it typically works to boost egg color in Blue and Birchen lines.
If none of the tips so far are working to boost your egg color, then the solution may be to bring in new breeding stock from elsewhere. This can have many beneficial effects in increasing the vigor and genetic diversity of your flock. But Buyer Beware!
It is important to choose wisely among available Marans stock out there. They are far from equal. After working so hard to hone my flock, I am not inclined to just add bird labelled as “Marans”. I try to look for dedicated small-scale breeders who know their Marans.
Regardless of where the new stock has come from, ensure you apply your same standards and screening process. I find that much easier to do when buying hatching eggs (where you can see the egg color and quality right away), than by buying chicks or birds. Sometimes you have to just take what you can get your hands on and move forward.
If you keep a closed breeding pool of Marans on your farm, egg color may fade over time as a result of inbreeding. The solution is to bring in new breeding stock from somewhere else. Be sure to first screen the stock with the same criteria listed above.
I have found significant variation in the egg quality and temperaments of different Marans stock. Sometimes you have to be very strategic in your breeding groups to maximize the good qualities of new stock you have brought in while still preserving the good characteristics of your own line of birds.
If you have the space, you can set up two breeding lines of Marans from unrelated sources, and then cross-over later. That gives you two original stock lines that you will select from using your criteria, and then the option to cross one line to the other.
5. Retain Birds From Several Generations
Modern flock management techniques that focus on cohorts (single age classes) and restock every two years are poorly suited for dual purpose heritage breeds like the Marans.
There is a distinct breeding advantage when you retain one or more of your best birds over several generations – you can always back up and come forward again!
I like to keep my best hen (usually at least 1 to 3, but sometimes more) from each year and carry them forward for several generations. They essentially create a benchmark for me to compare my younger stock to. But they also provide a way to back up if my younger stock is not performing the way I envisioned.
One of the challenges of small scale breeding is that things can serendipitously go astray. Perhaps you lose a key breeding bird to a predator or accident. Perhaps your best to the best cross results in something that you just don’t like, which in my experience can happen easily with an outcross, for example.
Keeping your best hens over several years provides a back up plan. But it also lets you cross back in time, as it were. You can breed a young rooster to a 4-year old hen and hone specific traits easily when you have this time series to work with.
But the other important thing about retaining older birds in the Marans breed is that you can see whether the quality of the eggs continues year after year. I have some three-year old Black Copper Marans hens that produce very consistent egg colors. Even though I now have Black Birchen and Blue Birchen hens from these girls, I will keep those original Black Coppers for another few years as my safety net. If I run out of space (always a possibility for me), I will pare down to the single best Black Copper at age 4.
I use colored zip leg bands to track my hens – one color per year or per breeding line (by rooster) depending on what my objectives are. I have found the zip ties to have the least impact on the birds and retain their color the best, but the numbers are usually worn off in one season, making that feature quite useless unfortunately. I have found the leg charms to be particularly useful for tracking the bird(s) I think are my best. I will watch and then charm my top pick and continue to track performance over time. It helps me make sure that when I am moving out sale birds, I don’t inadvertently sell one of my best hens.
Track your progress!
One of the great joys of breeding is being able to see progress towards your goal. Even if you cannot find or afford the breeding stock of your dreams when you start out, you can, with careful selections, work to improve what you have in your hands.
When I started raising Marans, I had a dream of having Blue and Splash birds. I would not have imagined my luck in getting a Blue Birchen rooster out of a hatch and being able to breed for Birchen lines in my flock.
I now have a gorgeous Black Birchen rooster (“Rex”) from one of my lines to breed from moving forward. My first hatch from him just last week (bred to a separate line of Blue Birchen hens who originated from the Black Copper hens) and the early results look great.
I am still looking for a great Splash rooster to emerge. I had a perfect small crowned Splash rooster with super-feathered feet emerge out of last year’s stock only to have him mortally wounded in a fight with two Barred rock rooster who ganged up on him THROUGH the cage wire !?! Sometimes, it can be difficult and disappointing to work on a small scale when opportunities like that slip through your fingers. So the hunt for that perfect Splash will continue.
In the meantime, I get to enjoy the most beautiful blue chickens, eat those amazing dark eggs for breakfast, lunch or dinner as my heart fancies, and enjoy the exquisite meat of a finely raised bird. There is a lot to love about keeping Marans!
Selective breeding techniques can be applied to any type of chicken or livestock you are interested in, not just Marans. It is about setting goals and then using criteria to evaluate your choices moving forward. No two breeders are going to choose exactly the same traits to favor, and that why the best stock diversity comes from having many people working on the same breed over time.
Looking for help finding products that make raising chickens easier? Check out my Shop for Products page for helpful advice and product links for items I use at Rose Hill Farm.