Due to their history of having developed culture and traditions with little to do with the outside world for 200+ years during the Edo period, the society of Japan takes elements of their heritage very seriously. Combine that with the lethal destruction that the Second World War brought on all their precious monuments, and it’s no surprise that there are movements and organizations that fight to keep the defining characteristics of Japan alive when facing modern challenges.
Honoring History through Preserving Heritage
When you think of Japan, the first thing that comes to your mind may be what it is popular for. Sushi, anime, Japanese cosmetic and technology brands, and quirky practices. However, there is much more depth to what Japan holds and has to offer. From something as beautiful as a majestic castle built in the 1600’s to an animal that has been revered as unique for countless years, these places, sites, and monuments become declared cultural properties by the Japanese government so that they may be preserved and protected.
The Onagadori is one animal that is part of this list. Its eggs are not allowed to be brought out of the country, and it is not exported. The Onagadori that are found overseas has been raised from exports that were made before they were claimed as a cultural heritage.
What is an Onagadori?
With its Japanese origin rooting from the Kochi Prefecture, this breed of Chicken is loved for its long and majestic tail. The average weight of a male Onagadori is around 1.8 kg (3.9 pounds), while the average weight of a female Onagadori is around 1.35 kg (2.9 pounds). Its usual skin color is yellow, and it lays light brown eggs.
While there are many different breeds of chickens in Japan that are natively bred for specific uses, the Onagadori is one breed that is used for exhibition. It still falls under the “chicken” classification, bearing the scientific name “Gallus gallus domesticus”. Many people mistake this chicken breed for another breed; which is Phoenix - but both breeds do have a close relation to each other.
Before the Onagadori were known as such, they also went by a different name. That name is “Goshikidori”. They were called this because the word can be broken down into two meanings; “Goshiki” which indicates a pattern of colors, and “Dori/tori” which means fowl – so literally “a fowl of the pattern of 5 colors”.
Another name the Onagadori were given as they were in the process of refinement was “Chobikei”, and “Nagaodori”. It was only in its complete stage of breeding, where it was continued to be exported all over the world was it finally and officially known as the Onagadori.
The Onagadori's ancestors were merely common domestic chickens. They did take some of their characteristics from the green junglefowl, which has had a role in fathering the Onagadori species. One of those very important characteristics is their ability to delay molting (compared to other chickens) as well as perch.
For the Onagadori to fully molt, it would take cycles of 3 years. Meanwhile, they continue to grow their tails, reaching lengths of up to 12 feet, to a whopping 27 feet.
It took a lot of work for breeders to properly develop the Onagadori, carefully mating and perfecting the set of characteristics they were looking for. When you see an Onagadori, it is most often perched high up on a hutch to avoid getting their tails dirty, ruffled and damaged. Sadly, its conservation status has hit a critical level.
The History of the Long-Tail Fowls
It all began with a mix of the female red jungle fowl, and the male green junglefowl specifically. These two birds came from Java and were called “Bekisar”. From the very beginning, they already had the characteristic of having a long tail and long crowns. When a hybrid from the female red jungle fowl and male green junglefowl would be born, specifically the male offspring would be used to evolve a new species, as female hybrids of this kind are sterile.
Exports To China
By 206 B.C., these male fowl were rampant and had many descendants. This produced many male hybrids with long, gorgeous tails, which made for decent money when exported to China – particularly in Southern China’s Hainan Do. Those birds would further evolve and refine themselves, branching out to another of many species, which is the Shokoku. These chickens did have tails, but they did not grow as long as the Onagadori.
From China to Japan
It was around the year 700 to 900 AD that China had a large influence on Japan in terms of exported languages, cultures, goods, plants, and even animals. One of the birds that were brought into Japan was the Shokoku. The Shokoku species would then be bred with another species, which was the Totenko. This was documented by Kochi Prefecture’s official fowl record keeper; a man named professor Hiraoka.
The Birth of the Onagadori
The combination of the Shokoku species and the Totenko species led to the birth of a new breed, the Onagadori. As this species was being refined by breeders during the Taisho period (from 1912 until 1926) they were fed frogs, dragonfly nymphs, and rice husk, to name a few. By the 1920’s, they were starting to be bred as cage birds. This was to prevent them from any accidents involving their large feathers that would grow to enormous lengths.
The Export of the Onagadori Around the World
The reason you find these birds outside of Japan nowadays is because they were exported to Europe during the mid-1940’s from Yokohama Port. At that time, any bird that was exported from this port would be called a “Yokohama”, no matter what species that bird was.
When the sets of Japanese fowl arrived in Europe, they did not take well to the climate and habitat, which made it necessary for European breeders to cross them with local breeds to keep some of the genetics of the Onagadori. This made the new family more resilient to its new environment, as many of those that were freshly exported would perish. Thus, a mix of the Onagadori, Totenko, Game, and Leghorn breeds formed the Phoenix, which is what is often mistaken as pure Onagadori.
Also, the Europeans were not too pleased with the fact that the Onagadori did not molt as much because that meant that they would keep their frayed and damaged feathers for a long time instead of continually replacing them. The Phoenix molts more often (once every year, or a couple of years versus the Onagadori’s 3 years), and has different characteristics, such as a straight comb, etcetera.
When Is It Classified as an Onagadori?
You can tell that the bird is of the Onagadori species when both is tail, and saddle takes 3 years to molt. Although the bird may look like an Onagadori, it needs these specifications to truly classify as that breed; otherwise, it cannot (strictly) be classified as such, even if their lineage is in the process of being refined.
Other disqualifications include if the color of more than half of the bird’s earlobe is red and if its sickles or “Utaibane” have a smaller foot measurement than 5 feet or 1.5 meters.
What Does the Onagadori Look Like?
The male is known for having a medium-sized single comb. There are usually 5 points facing straight upwards. The texture of its head is smooth, while its size is also medium. Its face is also round-shaped. As for its beak, it is slightly curved, of medium length. They have large, shiny, and wide eyes. Its breast expands, and is very broad, followed by its belly, which is muscular and firm as it decreases in size towards the tail. They have legs that, just like the rest, are medium length, and are upright.
The male Onagadori has a medium-sized wattle and a proportionate neck. The feathers on the neck reach down to its shoulders, beyond its throat. It has strong, large wings, with a lengthy span, possessing firm wing tips. Lastly, its back is broad and long and is smooth all the way down to the tail. In a year, its tail should grow around 90 centimeters, while a few other feathers will continue to molt for the next 3+ years.
On its tail is the Kawari-honge/kouge. This is a special feather, being the widest of them all, spanning 3 meters in length. This is a very important factor in determining the prize factor of the Onagadori, as the count of these feathers can range from 1 to 4. If the Onagadori has 4 kouge, then that means it is very expensive, highly prized, and extremely sought-out for.
When it comes to the female Onagadori, it looks more like the female Shokoku species. However, the Onagadori female would have longer feathers, whose back feathers create the shape of a semi-circle. It is also a bit thinner than the female Shokoku species.
Varieties of the Onagadori
There are many varieties of the Onagadori, which will be discussed briefly in this article;
The Fujishiro Onagadori has a comb that’s colored bright red. In females, this is a pale red hue, while the red can be seen on the male’s face and wattles. Their beak is colored yellow, and their eyes are a mix of brown and red. Their earlobes are either a very pale yellow or white, and they have green or yellow legs.
As for the Shiroiro Onagadori, it is colored white, holding a red comb as well, with a yellow beak, red eyes, and white earlobes.
There are other variants, such as the Akazasa, which is black breasted, the Shirozasa, which has traces of silver, the Goshiki, which is pale and considered the “original” color of the Onagadori. There’s also the Shojo, which is called the “black-tailed buff”, and is colored golden red, and possesses a black tail.
How to Care for Your Onagadori
The Onagadori prefers to live in terrain that makes up an archipelago, in a climate that is either tropical or mildly subtropical. That means it likes neutral temperatures; so it needs shade where it is sunny, and a heater if it is being bred in a cold country. It eats whatever bugs and harvest are produced by that kind of climate and terrain.
Raising the Perfect Onagadori
Onagadori hens usually have no problem laying eggs and raising chicks by themselves, though you may have a higher hatch rate if you use an incubator. The success of raising the perfect Onagadori for show lies in picking out who is suitable for it based on characteristics. You will want to separate the chicken that is most calm and docile, as they are least likely to damage their feathers in a fight or by accident.
If you want to breed your Onagadori, take care to choose a hen with full saddles and lengthy sickles.
Where to See A Live Onagadori: Visit Tosa Onagadori Chicken
If you are in Japan and want to see a Tosa Onagadori in the flesh, you can visit the Long-Tailed Chicken Center, which is also known as “Tosa Onagodori Chicken”. The address of this tourist facility is 〒783-0006 48, Shinohara, Nankoku-shi. It’s open from 9 AM until 5 PM from March until October (that includes summer during August), and 9 AM to 4 PM from November until February. It is closed during Holidays.
To get in, adults must pay 800 yen, while groups of 20 people can get in for 600 yen each. Primary schoolchildren can come in for 400 yen each, but if they come in groups of 20 (for a school trip, for example) the fee is 350 yen per head.