Marans, care and keeping of the brown egg layer.

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The stunning dark brown eggs of the marans chicken

Maran or Marans?

Marans, always with the "s" at the end, are a rare French breed originating in Marans, France. It is incorrect to refer to a single bird as a "Maran" but rather a single bird is referred to as a "Marans."

The Marans is a breed of chicken originating in France. It is a medium breed compared to others, popular for poultry shows and is a dual purpose fowl known both for its extremely dark eggs as well as for its very fine meat qualities. The Marans has been bred and selected for generations for it’s hardiness, it’s appealing white flesh and glorious dark brown eggs.

Are Marans good layers?

Dark egg layers always produce fewer eggs per year that light egg layers. so while Marans lay a perfectly acceptable number of eggs it is not as good as some other breeds. Expect 150 to 180 fabulous brown eggs per year.

The dark brown Marans eggs were Ian Flemings favourite breakfast eggs which his housekeeper procured from a relative, so in his novels he wrote that James Bond 007 liked his eggs boiled for 3 1/3 minutes.

deep brown marans eggs

Above: The deep brown chocolate eggs of the Marans chicken.

Of all the different breeds of chickens I've raised, Marans are the cleanest and most docile. They rarely soil their nest boxes. I have never had an aggressive Marans rooster, and I grow out quite a few each year to select my breeders.

According to the French Ministry of Agriculture, Salmonella Bacteria cannot be found in Marans eggs. This is apparently due to the pores of the egg shell being smaller than other eggs and the inner membrane being thicker. 

What defines a Marans chicken:

The defining characteristic of this breed is the large, chocolate brown eggs they lay. The brown colour in Marans eggs is the result of a layer of pigment deposited over a finished egg as it passes through the oviduct.

This is different from other "grocery store" brown eggs, which are much lighter and chalkier in color, and in which the tan pigment is built into the shell calcium. In the case of a "grocery" brown egg, the colour cannot be washed off by scrubbing with water, whereas with a Marans egg, the coating may be scrubbed off using water. 

a marans chick

The coating on a Marans egg may be smooth colour, stippled, or even with larger spots, because it is the result of how the layer of pigment is deposited by glandular secretions as the egg moves through the oviduct.

The genetics of what makes the chocolate brown egg are not well understood at all. It is thought that several genes may be involved, all playing some role in the final outcome of egg colour. Breeding for the darkest coating on the eggs is desirable, but difficult, since the genetics are basically unknown. The best results are obtained by breeding pairs from the darkest eggs, and who lay the darkest eggs for the longest period.

The genes that make the egg colour follow the female or Dam line of the breed. 

The Marans good points: 

  1. Very beautiful dual purpose breed.
  2. Good for quality meat.
  3. Rich chocolate brown coloured eggs.
  4. Quiet, friendly and docile, easily handled.
  5. Good for free ranging.
  6. Disease-resistant and hardy and can tolerate almost all climates.

The Marans has some negative points:

  1. It is relatively rare and getting hold of them may be difficult.
  2. There are different standards across the world.
  3. It is a poor layer by modern standards.
  4. It is a seasonal egg producer that lays very few eggs in winter.
  5. Not all birds and varieties lay dark chocolate coloured eggs.

Marans Breed Profile:

Breed Name - Marans
Also known as - Poule de Marans
Breed Purpose - Dual Purpose
Breed Temperament - Friendly, Docile, Easily Handled
Size - Large
Broodiness - Average
Comb - Single
Climate Tolerance - Cooler but fine in all Climates
Egg Colour - Rich Chocolate Brown
Egg Size - Large
Egg Productivity - Medium and seasonal.
Feathered Legs    - Both depending on breed standards.

Varieties - Black, Black Copper, Birchen, Black-tailed Buff, Columbian, Cuckoo, Golden Cuckoo, Wheaten, White and some other colors are also exists but officially not recognised.

Understanding The Dark Egg Properly;

Sometimes a new pullet who is just starting to lay will have an egg "stall" going down her oviduct, giving the egg an abnormally long time to get coated, making for an abnormally dark egg. But further into her laying career, she is never able to produce these eggs again. Therefore, it is important to understand the basic method of rating egg color in a Marans layer.

dark brown marans eggs

To even qualify as a Marans specimen, a layer must be able to produce a #4 or darker egg reliably for a period of her laying season. The French do not even grade egg color on newly laying pullets until they have produced at least a dozen eggs, then they rate the eggs that come AFTER the first dozen. This helps to disqualify the pullet whose first eggs may be slow through the oviduct, thus resulting in abnormally dark color that later in her life is never reproduced again.

The Marans egg colour:

What you have seen in pictures is not really what you get all the time.

The ability to lay dark eggs waxes and wanes. The pictures you see of beautiful dark eggs are the best of what the hens lay, and no hen will lay such eggs every time.

While some breeders will claim to know, the truth is that no scientific proof is yet recorded that proves that egg colour is related to diet, hormones, age, light exposure, etc. 

The only thing we KNOW is that it is somehow complexly, related to genetics. And we do know that throughout a hen's laying cycle, the first eggs are typically the best, and she may then go on to lay eggs of lighter colour, which can then darken again after a laying rest, or after a period of broodiness. 

How to select for the darkest eggs :

But what we ultimately breed for in Marans is a dark egg and fine meat quality. Through a combination of genetics, diet, hormones, low-stress, and healthy light exposure, some hens produce more "paint" more consistently than others. 

So when evaluating a hen, or a flock, for egg quality, one has to look OVER TIME to see what eggs they produce, and FOR HOW LONG. 

A hen that lays a single spectacular egg is of little use to breed, because that egg is most likely the result of an abnormal condition, such that it got caught up and slowed down in her oviduct. What we need to breed for is the hen whose oviduct consistently produces a lot of pigment, over many eggs. 

The hen to choose for a breeding program is the one who consistently produces many fairly dark eggs, for a long part of her season, and for more than her first laying season.

Marans Poultry - Breed History

The town of Marans is an Atlantic port, about twelve miles north of La Rochelle, at the mouth of the river Sevre and the canal system that forms the famous MARAIS POITEVIN, more often known as the Green Venice. Fens rich in Gray clay, bathed in hot sunshine during the day but sleeping under a thick blanket of mist at night, surround the town.

It's in these immense expanses, often covered with briny water during the winter high tides, that on the raised ground could be found these courageous farmers cultivating their modest lands. Linked to their capital Marans, by the canals where small flat bottomed punts offer the sole means of transport. 

Since Roman times, Marans has been a port specialised in cereals that arrived mainly by river or canal from the surrounding regions. This favoured the development of poultry farming with a local breed of chicken known as the Pictave.

These early attempts at breeding were well supported by the many monasteries that were established in the area, monasteries detaining certain privileges for the utilisation of cereals, and a large population of monks maintaining a constant demand for eggs and chicken. The local farmers were breeding then a small black chicken that was the popular in the Aunis and Vendee fen regions.

In the 12th century, and during nearly two centuries of occupation, the English conquerors began using the port to export cereals, wines from Cognac, and the poultry. Trade with England that thrived, almost uninterrupted, for more than eight centuries.

In order to have fresh meat and eggs constantly available, ships have always carried live chicken on their voyages. 

However, it was not until 1880 that the Marans started to appreciate a widespread reputation, due largely to the rivalry between two brothers, both poultry merchants in London. One of them was one of the biggest wholesalers of white Russian eggs, then the most important poultry producing country in Europe. His brother, whose ships often docked at the port, had the idea of competing with the white Russian egg trade by selling the dark brown eggs of the Marans, bigger and fresher. 

Care of Marans:

Basically the care of Marans is probably very similar to the care of any other breed of poultry.

They need to live a stress free life in a healthy environment, with adequate shelter from the weather, and preferably access to fresh air and sunlight. They should have unlimited clean drinking water. And they should be given an adequate amount of suitable nutritious food, and sharp grit to enable them to digest it plus a suitable calcium supply when they are in lay to enable the formation of egg shells.

free range marans family

Nowadays many brands of poultry pellets are available which should have been carefully balanced to give your birds the optimum ration, or if you prefer you can make your own ration.

Grit is essential for the health of your birds, sharp grit allows them to grind their food in the gizzard, free ranging birds will find their own. Shell or limestone grit gives them the calcium to form egg shells and should be on offer to laying birds, especially if their food does not contain limestone flour. Mixed grit is readily available from farmers and gamekeepers stores, and a suitable grit should be constantly accessible for all birds from the day they hatch.

Feeding the Marans:

Even if you only have a few birds it is probably cost effective to buy full sacks of feed (20 or 25kg) and store it in a vermin proof bin, as the small bags can work out to be 4 or 5 times more expensive. Unless you only have one or two bantams you will probably use it up before the use by date of the vitamins. Check the use by date before you buy.

There are numerous types of chicken housing on the market, the main requirements are a waterproof roof, a draught-free perching area with well designed perches, preferably with droppings board for cleaning and hygiene; large enough nesting boxes which should be in a nice dark position, and as vermin proof as possible. Many of us like to eat chicken, and we are not the only mammals who do!

Another thing to try and consider when choosing housing how easily cleanable it is particularly as cracks and crevices can harbour mites, which then come out at night and feed off the blood of the birds. Should this infestation get bad it can lead to anaemia or even death. Some modern plastic moulded units may look easily cleanable, but if there is an "inside" section between double layers of the moulding this will be an ideal place for mites and lice to multiply, and you will never be able to get at them.

Incubating Marans Eggs

A little information this is some of what I have learnt over the years producing Marans.

If your eggs have come through the post place the eggs upright with the broad rounded end uppermost. Unpack your eggs carefully.

To further help the eggs to settle, rest your eggs for a few hours at room temperature. After they have rested for a minimum of 12 hours, but preferably not more than 36 hours ( as you want them to go into the incubator or under your broody as fresh as possible) set them to hatch.

If using a broody it is traditional to set an odd number of eggs, ie 7, 11, 13 but you don't have to. I always like to introduce the eggs after dark. Just gently put the eggs up against her breast and she will soon tuck them in. Also make sure she can easily cover all her eggs, for if not, as she moves them around in the nest each egg will get chilled and warmed in turn, resulting in a completely lost clutch.

If when using a broody you find she rejects an egg after a few days, bow to her superior knowledge and take it away. If she is sitting very tight, after a couple of days you may have to take her off the nest so she can have something to eat and drink, and defecate. If you put food and water by her she may not get off the nest at all and will "poo" on the eggs. The bacteria in the poo after 21 days at body temperature can result in the death of your chicks. 

When lifting her off do so gently, and make sure she is not holding any eggs under her wings. If there has been an "accident" and she has broken an egg or messed in the nest try cleaning the eggs gently with wire wool or very fine sandpaper rather than washing them, as once an egg has had its protective bloom washed off bacteria can gain access, and may result in dead embryos

If you are using an incubator it is best to have it running for two or so days before the eggs go in to allow the temperature to stabilise and to give you time to adjust the temperature. It is always best to try and have the incubator in a room where the temperature does not fluctuate too much i.e. hot in the daytime sunshine and cool during the night. 

By the way, too much fluctuation in temperature during hatching will mean many losses. You can check if your incubator is functioning well with a properly calibrated thermometer, and don't forget to check it in different places as there may be cool or warm spots. Follow the manufacturers instructions, presumably they have spent many hours testing their machines so they should know how best to run them, and if you have lost the instructions go to the manufactures website, where you should be able to download them. 
Hen eggs should take 21 days to hatch. 

cuckoo marans mother hen and chicks

If you are unsure whether there is a live embryo or not give the egg the benefit of the doubt. Use a proper candler with a cool light, and as the shells of my Marans eggs are very thick and dark I generally candle in a completely dark room, otherwise it is impossible to see anything. If you can candle in the trays that is best, but if you have to pick the egg up handle it very gently and don't shake it about. Try not to candle too often as this can affect the eyesight of the chick and may even cause blindness.

They are not the easiest to hatch as the shell is so thick and waterproof, probably from their originally having been bred in a marshy area and needing to have extra strong waterproof eggs. 

The eggshell when formed is white, but as it passes through the oviduct the brown pigment is applied layer by layer, with the darkest eggs having the most coats of pigment. That is why the first egg of a 3, 4 or 5 day laying cycle is always darker - it has spent longer being coloured. Each coat of colour increases the thickness of the shell making it that much more difficult for oxygen to reach the developing embryo, and for sufficient room to build up to in the "air sac" to allow the chick to move around when it is due to pip, and also making it more difficult for the chick to escape the shell. 

Also those hens which lay the very darkest of the eggs can retain their egg so long in the oviduct that the cell develops past its critical stage, and when the egg is finally laid it cannot stand the temperature shock, and will show as an infertile egg - whereas it is actually an early death, obviously the darkest of eggs are the most susceptible. One of the biggest and best French breeders in Marans who hatches 1000's of eggs a year reckons that a 75% hatch rate is an excellent success!

Don't forget the hatch may not all be exactly on the day you expect, especially if your incubator is a fraction of a degree under or over the correct temperature, or if it has been fluctuating throughout the hatch.

The chicks will start to "peep" in their shells before they begin to hatch, this is does not mean they are in distress. It is a good sign as it means they are calling to each other to synchronise the hatch, which if your incubator has cool or hot spots may mean that some of the chicks will have to attempt to hatch before they are fully formed. 

Nature wants all the chicks to hatch within a day or so, as the mother hen would need to take the earliest hatchlings off to feed after a day or two, which means that any chicks which have not made it out of their shells will have to be abandoned to die, if not the earliest hatched will expire from starvation.

When the eggs are put in the hatcher make sure that the surface the hatched chicks will stand on will not allow their feet to slip about, as if this happens at such an early stage it can affect their joints and make it difficult for them ever to stand up - called Splay Leg.

Sometimes a piece of old towelling on the hatcher floor is good, and if you think the humidity needs boosting it can be dampened with warm water when the eggs are put in the hatcher or when you stopped the egg turner in the incubator at day 17. 

Some Marans breeders recommend a humidity of around 60 during the actual hatching days, and also say to reduce the temperature by one or two degrees when hatching is due to start, but again follow your machines instruction manual if you are unsure.

Any hatched chicks can easily survive 24 hours and even 48 hours, without food or water as they will be living on the absorbed egg sac, but after this they need to be moved to a suitable brooder. If some of the eggs have still not hatched I give them a little more time, just in case.

The hatched chicks should be offered clean water in something they cannot fall in and get wet or even drown - a saucer with a few pebbles or bits of gravel in is fine, and of course ad lib chick crumbs, preferably put in something which makes a noise when pecked, such as a cardboard egg tray, as the noise encourages the chicks to peck at the food, something their mother would normally teach them. 

After a few days they will also love fresh chickweed from the garden, or a little lettuce, and they should always have chick grit on offer or a little sprinkled on their chick crumbs - without grit they struggle to digest their food. If you want to tame them as pets make suitable clucking type noises when you offer them food, and they will soon get to know your voice.

If you are a novice I do hope the above may be of some use. I find the older I get the more I realise how little I know about anything! And I wish you a very successful hatch and I hope you have as much pleasure as I have had from my Marans over the years. 

Tips for candling dark eggs:

Candling dark eggs is always problematic but there are a few things you can do to make it a little easier. The eggs themselves do not really require different conditions from any other breed of chicken eggs. higher humidity is a help.

  1. Use a very bright or home built candling lamp.
  2. Do it in a very dark room and at night so there is no light to interfere.
  3. Be sure of the source and age of the eggs you are incubating.
  4. Use the water method to see if the eggs bob about.
  5. Rely on your nose and feel to detect rotten eggs.
  6. Use a broody hen, they have an uncanny ability to spot infertile eggs. 

The Marans as a meat bird:

This  is about the dual purpose utility qualities for which the Marans was originally developed - so if for any reason you are opposed to the eating of meat in general or chickens in particular please move on to the next section.

Home grown birds will normally be allowed some sort of exercise, which will change the texture of the meat and result in slower growth - which of course means a more flavoursome bird, which is less soft in texture.

My personal preference (for my Marans) is to allow the surplus male birds total free range and ad lib straight wheat (after the initial few weeks on chick/grower ration). For the last 10 days to a fortnight the birds can be confined to a smaller pen somewhere where they can be kept calm.

In past times they would be caged and the cage covered with a sack to darken it so the birds slept when they were not feeding. They would not be fed the first evening, though they always have good clean fresh water available. Then 2 or preferably 3 times a day they are fed a wet mash (wet mash should be just wet enough to crumble) They are given as much as they will eat in around 15 minutes, and then the feed pans removed and washed so nothing "sours".

Boiled mashed potatoes, milk, soaked and cooked grains, were fed in the old days together with a little sharp grit in a separate pot -all easily eaten and digested - though now one must comply with DEFRA regulations regarding feeding (check with their website)

The reduction in exercise by penning encourages the laying down of inter muscular fat which leads to more tender and flavoursome meat. My Marans will usually reach a dressed weight of around 5-6 lbs in 24-30 weeks, and raised this way are cheap to produce, plus this gives a virtually fat free bird of beautiful texture.

Should you intend to rear any spare Marans cockerels for meat they were originally a dual purpose utility bird. Marans were valued for the excellent quality and fine flavour as gourmet table birds, as well as for their wonderful eggs, something which seems to have been overlooked recently.

In my experience all of the types of Marans make equally good table fowl. They grown large, have white skin and pale flesh.

Even fully grown at 9 months they can be tender and succulent.

Marans chickens are a fast growing breed and extremely hardy that will thrive in almost all climates. As a rule they are  docile, easy to look after and quiet. They are active birds, good foragers and do well free ranging. They are also tough and disease-resistant. 

I saw several restaurants in France that served Coq (as in coq au vin) and Marans. The Marans were always grilled breast or leg/thighs. One Frenchman told me they make the distinction because Marans meat is particularly tender, and therefore they don't "mess it up" with too much dressing.

About My English Cuckoo Marans:

I have been keeping Marans as a hobby and to produce dark brown eggs and tasty birds for the house for over 20 years, and now there is a renewed interest in poultry keeping I have decided to offer some of my Marans eggs for hatching.

I have always bred for large solidly built birds with good laying abilities, which are capable of producing a good quantity of very large dark brown eggs with big large deep golden yolks.

I much prefer the clean legged English Marans, both for looks, for keeping the eggs and nesting boxes clean, and their resistance to scaly leg (I have never ever had this in my fowl)  

My Marans flock is a fine healthy long-lived strain, and they are normally allowed complete free range over several acres of orchard and pasture (though recently the foxes have been calling in the day so they are sometimes restricted to their grassed runs for safety's sake). My Marans are fed as much as possible on wheat and other whole grains and natural food, and the land they are on is never sprayed or artificially fertilised. They have natural dried and ground seaweed meal and oyster shell grit ad lib as a supplement.

I have always selected Marans which have a calm, quiet temperament and I have never had any trouble with aggression from the Marans cockerels. As these birds are from a large strain they are easily kept penned in (or out) of parts of the garden, as they are too heavy to fly far.