Siciliana - Sicilian chickens with cup-shaped combs

Siciliana - the Sicilians

They are very rare today even in Italy, their country of origin, and this in spite of the breed's age. Italian paintings from the 16th century already show the spangled chicken with the cup-shaped comb, which was the ancestor of today's two breeds.

portrait of a Sicilian cockerel

Siciliana cockerel, golden duckwing, at the European show 2006 in Leipzig
Breeder: Marino Morosini, Italy

Exactly where they came from, and how the breed was developed, is unknown, like in most ancient old domestic breeds. Surely their history began in the south-east of Europe, where the whole group of spangled and crested breeds came from. The Sicilian's relationship to that group is still obvious from its original spangling and their gene for the duplication of the comb. Also, a Buttercup judge in Amerika wrote even in 1929 that "small curled-up feathers back of the comb are of no importance"!

Sicilian pullet at the European show 2006

Siciliana pullet, golden duckwing
bred by Marino Morosini
at the European show 2006 in Leipzig

North African fowls are thought to have been crossed with local Sicilian breeds for the creation of the Siciliana. Such an influence seems possible indeed, taking into account the similarity of breeds like the Dandarawi or Fayoumi. Aldrovandi in 1600 wrote about a chicken he named "gallus turcicus", a North African chicken with cup-shaped comb, white or silver colour with black spangling, and bluish legs. Wandelt cites an observation made by Weber in Madagascar, who in 1912 saw chickens of the Buttercup type there. And last but not least, an American lady born in Libya told me, that she remembers such spangled fowls with cup-shaped comb from her childhood, and they were so common in those days that even today, only a Buttercup looks "normal" to her!

Ferrucio Frau-Sanna wrote in 1922 that there were several small and isolated flocks of the Sicilian breed on Sicily, and it seems they were not very even in type. According to this author, it was thanks to the work of professor Tucci that the breed got a more uniform appearance. Whether the golden duckwing colour was introduced at that time, or whether it always existed alongside the spangled variety, cannot be said for certain. However, the birds of golden colour with the beautiful black spangles that sailed to America in 1835 seem to have been already very rare or even lost in 1922, because Frau-Sanna describes a brown hen, "of a very dark brown, with little black dots, not too nutmeg-like in colour" and with a salmon coloured breast. He does not mention any golden colour, nor a clearly defined spangled pattern. This variety no longer exists today. Personally, I think the golden duckwing is really old, as any crosses tend to slow down the Sicilian's extremely early maturity (as can be seen in the black variety), but all the outstanding features described by the old authors are still valid for the golden duckwing Sicilians of today.

pullet - Siciliana collo orocockerel - Siciliana collo oro

Ferrucio Frau-Sanna, like the other authors of old, praises the Sicilians' early maturity, the lack of brood instinct, its high egg numbers, its activity and high resistance against diseases. He says the average weight of a male should be two kilos, of a female one and a half kilos, which is what today's standard describes, too. In Italy, there are three varieties of the Sicilian today, golden duckwing, white, and black. Of these, the golden duckwing birds with their willow green legs are the most popular, although even these are very rare. It proved very difficult to find breeders at all.

a pair of golden duckwing Sicilians

Sicilians in Germany

Two years ago, I took the rare opportunity to lay hands on twenty hatching eggs directly from Sicily, and because it was in the middle of a harsh North German winter, raising all seventeen chicks that hatched turned out to be a real effort.

Right from the start they showed clear differences to the Buttercups of English origin that I was familiar with. Even the newly hatched, day old chicks looked different.

Buttercup chickSiciliana chick

The first picture shows a Buttercup, the second a Sicilian chick. Not only in colour and size do they differ, but also their beaks, the pattern on their downs and the expressions of their faces are different.

I was amazed when after two weeks the combs of the little male chicks started to redden and grew larger. After all, they weren't even fully feathered yet! The activity of those chicks was incredible. In order to avoid cannibalism from sheer boredom, I had to provide lots of space, hiding places, branches to climb around on, and continuously I had to replace the whole carrots that kept them from pecking at one another. At the age of four weeks the cockerels started their first attempts to crow! Their outward appearance was already clearly distinct from that of the pullets. (Interestingly, this is something the breed shares with the Dandarawi, the Egyptian breed with cup-shaped comb). According to findings of the Istituto Sperimentale Zootecnico in Palermo, the testicles of two months old Sicilian cockerels have the same size as those of six months old New Hampshires or Rhode Island Reds!

For this reason, the cockerels of the Sicilian breed cannot be raised in separate pen, like you can do with other breeds (something that was perfectly possible with the young male Buttercups). They do not fight at all, but their sexual instinct is so strong that the stronger cockerels chase the weaker ones incessantly, and try to mate them as if they were hens. The best way to raise them, therefore, is in a really large pen together with an old rooster and old hens. These can effectively defend themselves, and the youngsters keep peace and they all live together harmoniously.

head of a Sicilian cockerel

head of a Sicilian cockerel
origin: Antonino Palazzolo, Palermo, Sicily

The first pullets I hatched started to lay when they were exactly four months old. This is extremely early for a purebred chicken. Their eggs were disappointingly small, weighing only 30 grams. But as the pullets grew, egg size increased accordingly, until they reached a final weight of 60 - 65 grams. The pullets laid all winter, without any artificial light or heating in their coop, and kept on laying until summer, when unfortunately they went broody. Only one hen knew the standard, which wants them to be non-sitters! Her sons will have great value for breeding, of course.

I find the Sicilian's laying ability still remarkable among purebreeds. Not surprisingly, I also find they eat more than other breeds - of course they need lots of high-quality food to perform so well. After a slight initial shock when I realised I had not at all got the same breed that I knew from England, I started to love and admire these friendly and beautiful birds. Sicilians show an enormous activity as youngsters, but as adults they are just normal and docile and can get very tame. Although they are able to fly, they prefer not to once they are grown up. The large combs of the males need some extra care in German winters, but apart from that they seem to have no problems with our climate.

Meanwhile, there are already a small number of breeders in Germany, organised in the club owning this website. The club also has found friends among breeders and judges in Italy, so a start was made that makes hope for the future.

golden duckwing Sicilian at the European show 2006

Siciliana cockerel, golden duckwing,
at the European show 2006 in Leipzig
Breeder: Marino Morosini, Italy

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Copyright: N. Mersch, unless otherwise stated.