Most chicken farmers prize prolific egg layers or broilers with meaty breasts. Tom Whiting puts a premium on plumage. The 59-year-old oversees around 100,000 birds, raised to produce feathers for fly-fishing lures, on three ranches in western Colorado. “Fly tyers are extraordinarily picky,” he says of his clients, which include lure-making firms in Australia, Singapore, and South Africa. “The feathers have to be absolutely perfect.”
Whiting ensures perfection – and claims 70 to 80 percent of the world market – by breeding his own birds. Since earning a Ph.D. in poultry science (with a specialty in genetics) from the University of Arkansas in the late 1980s, he’s developed dozens of breeds, including the Coq de Leon, Brahma Hen, Spay, and Whiting Grizzly (above).
At about 50 weeks, the chickens are butchered and their feathers harvested. (Removing them would be painful to the bird.) The rest of the chicken is then composted for use on farming fields. “It’s a funny niche business,” Whiting allows. “But I’m actually designing new chickens, which is vastly more satisfying than I ever imagined.”