Finding Art in Poultry: The Onagadori Chicken

I really think that you are going to love this unique bird! Come along with me as we learn about the rare Onagadori.

オナガドリ (Onagadori)
Beautiful Onagadori standing on a perch.

Like the art of origami and cultivating bonsai trees, Japan has made an art form of poultry, too. The Onagadori is a beautiful example of this love and care for art in life.

The Onagadori chicken breed is not just an ordinary bird but a spectacle of feathers and an emblem of Japanese tradition. Let’s delve deeper into the enchanting world of the Onagadori with expanded insights into each characteristic of this rare breed.

Fun Facts

  • The Onagadori’s tail feathers can grow indefinitely, with records of some birds sporting tails over 20 feet long! This unique feature results from a genetic mutation that affects the molting process.
土佐のオナガドリ(Tosa’s long-tailed bird) A Onagadori displaying its long tail feathers
  • It’s said that these chickens were so prized that they were often given as prestigious gifts to samurai and nobles.
  • Caring for Onagadori tails is an art in itself. Special techniques such as “Tomaru” are used, which involves housing the birds in unique structures that help protect their tail feathers.
  • There are only a few hundred pure Onagadoris left in the world, mainly in Japan, with breeders taking great pride in preserving the purity of this lineage.

History

  • The breed comes from the Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku, Japan. It has been safeguarded for centuries, with the Japanese government now involved in its conservation.
  • It is believed that selective breeding to enhance the tail length began during the Edo period in Japan (1603–1867).
JAPAN – CIRCA 1951: a stamp printed in the Japan shows Long-tailed Cock of Tosa, Tosa Onagadori, circa 1951
  • The Onagadori was officially designated a National Natural Treasure in 1952, highlighting the breed’s cultural and historical importance to Japan.

Life Span

  • The life expectancy of an Onagadori can be significantly impacted by the level of care they receive, particularly in protecting their tail feathers from damage and disease.
  • Breeders must ensure the birds have enough space to move without their feathers becoming tangled or dirty, which could lead to health issues.
  • Despite their regal appearance, Onagadoris are robust chickens with a lifespan comparable to other domesticated breeds when kept in optimal conditions.

Temperament

  • Onagadoris have a serene and majestic presence, often described as walking with a dignified elegance.

  • They can be personable and enjoy human interaction. However, they are less active than other breeds due to the need to protect their tails.
  • Breeders often report that the Onagadori’s temperament makes them a joy to work with, though their care requirements can be demanding.

Health and Care

  • Onagadoris require specialized housing with clean, dry, and soft bedding to protect their tail feathers. Elevated perches that allow the tails to hang freely without touching the ground are essential.
  • The birds need a balanced diet formulated for long-lived birds with high-quality protein to support continuous feather growth.
  • Regular health checks are crucial, especially to inspect the feathers for any signs of damage, pests, or infection, which can quickly become serious in such long feathers.
  • Due to their rarity, having a veterinarian familiar with the breed or at least with exotic birds is recommended to ensure proper medical care when needed.

Availability in the USA

  • Onagadoris are rare outside Japan, but a few American breeders have succeeded in establishing small flocks through careful breeding and selection.
  • The birds available in the USA may not always be pure Onagadoris; they are often crosses that exhibit some of the breed’s characteristics, like the Phoenix chicken.
  • Those interested in keeping Onagadoris in the USA should connect with specialty poultry associations or seek out breeders who focus on Asian heritage breeds.

Egg Production

  • Onagadoris are seasonal layers, with their peak laying period in the spring. The hens are known to be broody and can make excellent, albeit rare, mothers.
  • Given their status as ornamental birds, Onagadoris are not bred for egg production. Their eggs are considered a rarity and are seldom sold for consumption.
  • Breeders tend to focus more on the quality and health of the birds rather than the number of eggs produced, as preserving the breed’s unique characteristics is the main priority.

Price of Eggs

  • Onagadori hatching eggs are a luxury item in the poultry world, often sold by pre-order and reserved well in advance.
  • The high price reflects not only the rarity of the breed but also the extensive effort that goes into maintaining the stock and ensuring the birds’ health.
  • Before investing, potential buyers should do thorough research and, if possible, visit breeders to understand the full scope of owning an Onagadori.

Male and Female Onagadori

Tail Length and Appearance

Males: The most striking feature of the Onagadori rooster is its extraordinarily long tail. This breed is famous for its tail feathers that can grow several feet long, with some records of tails reaching over 20 feet. These feathers are luxurious, flowing, and a defining characteristic of the breed.

Females: Onagadori hens also have longer-than-average tail feathers than standard chicken breeds, but they are nowhere near as long or as pronounced as the males. Their tails are more practical in length and do not have the same degree of dramatic flow.

Plumage

Males: Besides their long tails, Onagadori roosters have a more vibrant and pronounced plumage overall. They often display various colors and iridescence in their feathers, particularly around the neck (hackles) and saddle.

Females: Hens have more subdued plumage. They are often less colorful than the males, with more uniform and practical feathering. Their feathers are more geared towards camouflage and protection, especially when nesting or raising chicks.

Size and Stature

Males: Roosters are generally larger and more robust than hens. They have a more pronounced comb and wattles, which are typical secondary sexual characteristics in chickens. Their stance is often more upright and commanding.

Females: Hens are smaller in stature and have less prominent combs and wattles. Their body shape is more streamlined for ease of movement, which is particularly important given their potential role in nesting and brooding.

Behavior

Males: Onagadori roosters, like most roosters, can be more territorial and assertive. They are often more vocal and engage in typical rooster behaviors like crowing and displaying to hens or perceived rivals.

Females: Hens tend to be quieter and may exhibit nurturing behaviors, especially if they go broody and want to hatch eggs. They are typically more focused on foraging and less on social dominance.

A Similar Breed: The Phoenix Chicken

The Phoenix chicken is a breed closely associated with the Onagadori, and they share several similarities primarily due to their common ancestry.

Golden Phoenix rooster in rural farmyard.

Here’s how the two are alike:

Long Tail Feathers

Both Onagadori and Phoenix chickens are known for their impressive long tail feathers. The Phoenix, though not typically as long as the Onagadori, is bred to have a visually stunning tail that can reach several feet in length. The long-tailed appearance of both breeds is one of the most striking similarities.

Non-Molting Trait

The Phoenix chicken, especially those lines closest to the original Japanese imports, has a version of the non-molting trait found in Onagadoris. This genetic trait reduces the molting frequency, allowing their tail feathers to grow longer than typical chickens. However, it’s important to note that while Onagadoris have tails that can grow indefinitely, Phoenix tails usually only grow for a year or two before molting.

Ornamental Purpose

Neither Onagadoris nor Phoenix chickens are considered utilitarian breeds for egg or meat production. They are primarily raised for exhibition and ornamental purposes due to their elegant appearance and beautiful plumage.

Japanese Heritage

The Phoenix chicken was developed in Europe but owes much of its genetics to the Onagadori. German and Dutch breeders created the Phoenix in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by crossing long-tailed Japanese breeds, including the Onagadori, with local European chickens.

Special Care

Both breeds require a level of care that is typically more intensive than that for standard chickens. Their long feathers need protection from dirt and damage, which involves specialized housing and often individual care. Breeders specializing in either of these chickens tend to be deeply invested in their well-being and preservation.

Pheonix rooster and hen standing on a wooden ledge

Rarity and Preservation

While the Onagadori is considered rarer, both breeds are relatively rare in the poultry world. They are kept by a small number of dedicated breeders. Both are seen as breeds worth preserving for their beauty and uniqueness.

Despite these similarities, it’s important to distinguish that the Phoenix is a distinct breed with a separate breed standard. Over the years, breeders have developed the Phoenix to adapt to different conditions and ensure its viability outside Japan. This has resulted in some distinct differences from the Onagadori, especially regarding the tail length and molting patterns.

Summary

Caring for Onagadoris is not just about preserving a bird breed; it’s about upholding a cultural legacy. These birds are a bridge to the past, a reminder of the grace and beauty that can arise from dedicated stewardship. They require time, patience, and an understanding of their unique needs. Still, for those who choose to embrace the challenge, the Onagadori offers a truly rewarding experience.

Please let me know by commenting if you enjoyed learning about the beautiful and rare Onagadori!

Chris Lesley Bio Picture
Chris Lesley has been Raising Chickens for over 20 years and is a fourth generation chicken keeper. She can remember being a young child when her grandad first taught her how to hold and care for chickens. She also holds a certificate in Animal Behavior and Welfare and is interested in backyard chicken health and care.

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