Glossy feathers, some long enough to graze the rooster’s feet, drape in graceful arcs as Thomas Whiting holds the bird upright at arm’s length for me to see. This is no ordinary chicken. Even the rooster, who fluffs up as if on cue, seems to know he’s special. Plump and alert, he holds himself like a proud churchgoer. Whiting stares at the bird with a mixture of pride and scrutiny, as if critiquing a work of art.
“This is a beautiful dun color,” says Whiting, who owns 5,000-acre Whiting Farms, just outside Delta. “It resembles a mayfly, which is one of the fishing flies people tie. Ever heard of a mayfly?” He speaks slowly, unperturbed by the pandemonium of bok-bok-boks and cock-a-doodle-doos in the dimly lit barn.
Chickens and fishing might seem like an odd coupling, but for Whiting Farms, it’s big business. The 60-year-old geneticist primarily breeds these birds for their hackle—the long feathers on the neck or saddle—which fly-fishers use to tie flies. The fowl are sometimes worth 80 times as much as typical meat chickens; their head pelts (“capes,” in chicken-industry lingo) sell for between $20 and $150 a pop.
“These birds were actually a lot meaner when I got ’em,” Whiting says, still examining his rooster. “I always select for calmness.” By “select” he means he specifically chooses to breed chickens that are more docile, leaving the surlier individuals out of the gene pool. Even so, his bare arms are hatched with scars from handling his broods. He jokes that on some days he looks like “a junkie with bad aim.”
After nearly three decades, the abuse no longer fazes him. It’s simply an occupational hazard in a field he’s dominated for years: Whiting Farms controls the majority of the $5 million world market in fly-tying hackle. Whiting, who sports a shaggy mop of brown hair and a gray moustache, credits his success to an unwavering, intense, and unexplainable interest in chickens. He’s loved the birds since he was 10, when he procured his first mail-order chicks and started peddling eggs to his Denver-area neighbors. He then went on to earn a master’s degree in poultry management and genetics and a Ph.D. in poultry science. He even worked at big-egg operations for a time. But Whiting ultimately found his niche at 32 years old when he bought some chickens and set up a farm in western Colorado. Ever since, he has dedicated his life to breeding designer chickens, the likes of which the world had never seen.
Feathers, Whiting likes to say, are one of the world’s great wonders. Much more complex than hair, they evolved from reptilian scales and grow in a multiplicity of forms, textures, and colors. For birds, they serve many uses, from flight to camouflage to temperature regulation. But humans love feathers too. Crafters use them in everything from jewelry to dream catchers; hair stylists weave feather extensions into their clients’ tresses; artists employ them to create replicas of feathered animals for museums; and fashion houses use them to embellish their haute couture. Whiting Farms sells to those sectors and more, but the business’ 23 full-time employees primarily serve one market: fly-fishers.
Ask an everyday angler and he’ll likely tell you that part of the allure of fly-fishing is the challenge of figuring out which store-bought fly in his box will catch a trout’s eye. But ask an avid angler and she’ll probably say the challenge begins well before she ever hits the river, when she’s selecting the materials she’ll use to design her own new fly patterns. Whiting estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of American fly-fishers tie their own flies. But for those who do, it can become an obsession. Fly-tiers use numerous materials—from fine wire to fur to synthetic foam—to mimic the delicate bodies of insects, but feathers are an essential ingredient. Tied around a hook, a high-quality feather’s barbs splay perfectly so the fly can alight on the surface of a stream or lake, hopefully enticing a trout to rise and take a bite.
Although Whiting rarely ties flies himself—he doesn’t even like to fish—he does understand his clients’ fanatical focus and borderline mania. Over the years, he has responded to fly-tiers’ whims by creating bespoke chickens with unusual feathers. When asked for heronlike strands for creating saltwater salmon and shrimp flies, Whiting spent a decade crossing Chinese silkie chickens with his own birds to produce the furry feathers. After one angler requested unusually stiff, shiny feathers, Whiting imported chicks from the ancient European Coq de Leon breed from Spain and bred them to refine the quality of their plumage. Later, he developed the first American wet-fly hackle, which is designed to sink below the surface and mimic small bait fishes’ movements. “I think I’m better [at this] because I’m not a fly-fisherman,” Whiting says. “It’s just an interesting genetics project, and I’m objective.”
So far, his methodical, scientific approach has proven wildly effective. “In the old days, the capes were infinitely smaller and had fewer feathers of much poorer quality,” says Dave Hughes, the author of more than 20 books on fly-fishing and fly-tying. “Tom greatly expanded the number available while also improving the quality of the feathers, which is a hard thing to do.”
Whiting isn’t averse to challenging work, toiling with almost preternatural patience. It can take years to understand the results of his experiments, which take place in his 22 barns rather than in a laboratory. To manipulate genetics, Whiting applies what’s called “selection pressure.” In the same way he chooses certain birds for docility, he can select for plumage by painstakingly inspecting every bird, filling out a two-page summary on traits of the most promising birds, and sending a few feathers to a fly-tier for testing. Using feedback from tiers, he decides which birds to breed. After 28 years of selecting for long, even, symmetrical feathers and only breeding the best-dressed birds, his chickens’ strands are at least eight inches longer than those of their ancestors from 1989. That’s when Whiting bought the business from amateur geneticist Henry Hoffman, who was among the first to breed chickens for fly-tying hackle and attained a cultlike following among fishermen for a time.
Although other modern-day companies, such as Metz and Keough, produce feathers for the same purpose, fly-tiers prize Whiting’s plumes for their uniformity, colors, durability, and prodigious length, which allows enthusiasts to tie several flies from one plume. Whiting’s genetic breakthroughs have earned him awards from Small Business Exporter of the Year from the U.S. Small Business Administration to a lifetime achievement award from Fly Tyer magazine to write-ups in publications like Modern Farmer—but the scientist/farmer doesn’t seek the limelight. He relies on his DNA tinkering to create some of the world’s most striking chicken plumes and lure in customers. “We don’t advertise,” he says. “We don’t do trade shows. If people want feathers, they know where to find us.”
In a sterile, concrete-floored room that thrums with the sounds of machines, Whiting peers into an incubator the size of an industrial walk-in freezer. Inside, thousands of eggs sit in racks that tilt back and forth, roughly mimicking how a hen would rotate the soon-to-be newborns. “It still seems like a miracle to me,” he says, “that you can put an egg in an incubator, and 21 days later a perfectly formed baby chick breaks its way out of it.”
Often zipping around his farm for 12 out of 24 hours, Whiting still does much of the day-to-day bird work himself. He pulls racks of hatchlings out of the incubator and sorts them by breed, handling each one with the gentleness of a new parent. He inspects every rooster and hen, sifting through feathers with a bright light, to decide which will be bred. He also decides when they will meet their ends. “Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays,” he says. “Those are life-or-death days.”
Designing, breeding, and ultimately killing animals to use their parts for fashion or crafting or fly-tying isn’t without controversy. In the early 2010s, for example, when long feathers became fashionable as hair accessories, Whiting Farms’ plumes went for as much as $1 apiece. PETA wasn’t amused. The animal rights organization sent a cease-and-desist letter to one of the feather merchants—which sourced from Whiting Farms—for saying its products came from birds that were “treated ethically.” PETA criticized Whiting on its website for confining roosters in “tiny stacked cages inside deafeningly loud barns before they are killed and skinned.”
Whiting was upset. Having worked for commercial egg-laying businesses and studied meat operations in school, he prides himself on providing better conditions for his birds than industry standards. “These are the most pampered chickens I know of,” he says. They have to be, he explains: If there is any period of stress in a bird’s life, a shrunken, faded band can appear in its feathers, effectively ruining them.
The farm’s full-grown roosters are indeed kept in cages. If they aren’t, Whiting says, they fight viciously, sometimes maiming or killing one another and jeopardizing the quality of their feathers. But they are allowed to run around until they’re 12 to 14 weeks old. Unlike meat chickens, which are generally harvested when they’re between 35 and 55 days old, feather birds typically live for about a year. Instead of live-plucking them, which would be painful (and illegal), Whiting Farms euthanizes the birds using carbon dioxide. Whiting also composts the bodies of all his animals. Still, he’s aware of the ethical questions his work elicits.
“People say, ‘Why do you waste resources on something that’s as ephemeral and frivolous as fly-fishing?’ ” he says. “And the only way I can rationalize it is this: The fishermen and -women preserve the [natural] resources. They’re out there with Trout Unlimited and Fly Fishers International and lobbying Congress for the Clean Water Act and all those kinds of things. They have a vested interest. I think that’s worthy of doing what we do.”
On a daily basis, what really motivates Whiting isn’t trout habitat or protecting water quality. It’s the genetics puzzle he’s created for himself: trying to figure out how to maintain the profitable breeds he has while creating new and arguably weirder chickens, both for their feathers and increasingly for other intriguing purposes. His thriving feather business—Whiting struggles to keep up with demand—has allowed him to pursue what he calls “hobbies.” One such side venture is breeding a line of blue-egg-laying hens, which he sells to backyard hobbyists through a mail-order catalog. Another is conserving rare breeds, such as the Red Shouldered Yokohama, Crevecoeur, and Sumatra, to protect the diversity necessary to maintain the species in the event of disease or climate-change-induced die-offs. He’s even working to develop roosters without combs and wattles—the red flesh on their heads and below their chins—because the tissue is susceptible to frostbite in colder climates.
But feathers are still his cash crop and intellectual preoccupation. Some nights, long after his staff has gone home, Whiting lingers in his office. These moments of solitude are some of his favorite times. While most poultry geneticists crunch numbers on computers in an effort to bolster bottom lines that rely on chickens bred to be fatter on less feed as quickly as possible, Whiting stoops over giant ledgers scrawled with notations about the characteristics of his genetic lines, working out whom to breed with whom to produce something beautiful that nature has yet to create on her own. On the wall behind him, a frame showcases capes from decades ago next to his own more recent creations. The difference is striking. The silky feathers stretch longer and longer with the passing years, as if monuments to what was once thought improbable. It’s in these quiet moments that Whiting wonders: What sort of fantastic results could the next decade bring?