Their unusual name could come straight from the pages of a Harry Potter novel! But just to put aside any misconceptions about Deathlayer chickens, they don’t die when they lay eggs, nor are the eggs poisonous. The name has two possible sources, as you’ll discover in this article. Ultimately, it refers to the fact they were considered exceptional layers!
Table of Contents
- Rare Breed
- Originated in Germany
- White egg layers
- Excellent free-range
Background and History of the Dealthlayer Breed
The Deathlayer, or Westfalische Totleger, is a German chicken breed. Although it has a very strange name for what is a quite beautiful bird, there are a few theories behind it, as we’ll find out.
The breed has been around for more than 400 years. It’s a Landrace breed, meaning that it was self-developed from the natural breeding of birds living in a specific area. Since poultry associations, breeders clubs, and exhibitions became popular in more recent times, it’s to be expected that the breed has also been improved, a little less naturally, by some enthusiasts.
Breed names are usually based on the chickens’ origins or their character traits. Perhaps that’s how the Deathlayer got its unusual one.
The first part of their name, Wesfalische, is the German for Westphalia, a region of northwest Germany from where the fowl are thought to have originated.
From historical documents, the Totleger is listed as coming from the cities of Bielefeld and Herford. Here the fowl were colloquially known as ‘everyday layers.’ In the Low German language, this was the word “Doutleijer”. The dialect may have caused the word to be misheard as “Totleger” = ‘dead layer’. So everyday layers became death layers.
Another popular theory is that the name was bestowed because these hens are such good layers. They continue producing eggs well into old age, almost to the day they die. Whatever the reason, they are beautiful poultry, and if nothing else, their Deathlayer name is very unique and memorable!
The first mention of fowl similar to the Westfalische Totleger was in 1600 by Aldrovandi. He referred to it as a ‘Turkish chicken’, and that could well be their roots. But from the description he gave, the bird was unmistakably a Deathlayer.
Newly imported chicken breeds started to flood Germany in the late 1800s. They had been bred to lay many more eggs than any landrace hen was capable of, and they were also suitable for providing meat. It wasn’t long until the Deathlayer fell out of fashion and numbers declined.
In 1904 an association for the preservation of the Deathlayer fowl was formed. Temporarily they were able to keep the breed going but were unsuccessful in spreading the idea due to the very stiff competition from new breeds.
Deathlayers became more of a novelty bird, kept by a handful of enthusiasts almost exclusively for exhibition purposes. By 1980 they had almost completely died out. Luckily, a breed association was formed in Germany, and gradually, the population began to increase again.
By 2005 there were a recorded 343 male and 1492 female birds registered. Today they are still considered critically endangered in Germany.
The Deathlayer is a close relative to the “Brakel” and the “East Frisian Gull,” both of which have striking similarities to the Deathlayer, the main difference being that Deathlayers have a rose comb.
Despite being recognized in Germany, they are not yet on the American Poultry Association’s list of recognized breeds. Should their popularity increase, this could change in the future.
In the United States, Deathlayers are incredibly hard to find, as there are still very few available. They first made their American debut shortly after 2014.
Temperament and Behavior of the Deathlayer Chicken
If you go back 300 years and consider the Deathlayer chickens running around at that time, it must have seemed an astonishing chicken to the people of the era. They would have roamed freely, rarely being fed, other than the odd handful of grain here and there. They were, and still are, excellent foragers. Despite their active lifestyle and limited food ration, they still produced many eggs, around 200 a year.
Back in the 17th-century, chickens were very self-sufficient. They lived free-range, scratching for food from dawn till dusk, at which point there was no cozy coop to return to. Their roosting choices would have been the boughs of a tree or, if they were lucky, a barn.
These characteristics have stayed with the Deathlayer. They are highly efficient foragers and often choose to roost in a tree rather than return to the warmth and security of a perch in their coop for the night.
They are very active and usually quite wary. They need taming from young chicks to be genuinely comfortable around people. That said, once they are
tame, a Deathlayer will often come and peck food from your hand when offered.
If you need to keep them restricted within a certain perimeter, then all you need is a stout fence of at least 5ft in height.
Due to their wild landrace nature, Deathlayers don’t tolerate confinement and do best in large spaces, particularly woodland, orchards, or meadows.
For anyone with enough space, the Deathlayer is a hardy breed, able to find a good percentage of its own food. This means producing eggs costs you less. They’re often a bit skittish about being handled, so they aren’t really suitable for children. They’re also not a particularly broody type of hen, so they may not appeal to a novice chicken keeper either.
However, if you have a little experience and want a truly majestic, rare chicken breed you can keep for next to nothing, then the Deathlayer may be right for you.
Breed Specifics and Traits of the Deathlayer
Deathlayers are kept for ornamental and egg-laying purposes. They make very attractive additions to any flock. Let’s take a closer look at their appearance.
Weight – Roosters weigh between 4.41 and 5.51 lbs. (2.0 to 2.5kg). Hens are 3.31 to 4.41 lbs. (1.5 to 2.0kg).
Lifespan – This is around five to eight years, but a lot depends on how well they are kept and the food you feed them.
Color – There are two color varieties of Deathlayer, Silver, and Gold, although we would call it silver penciled and gold penciled due to their feather pattern.
Feather pattern of a silver penciled rooster – The neck, shoulders, back, and saddle are all silver-white. The tail is black with a strong iridescent sheen of greeny-blue. There is a slight penciling at the edge of the sickle feathers. The rest of the plumage has irregular, coarse, black penciling, which fades to dark gray in the downy plumage of the belly. The under feathers are dark gray.
Feather pattern of a silver penciled hen – The neck is silvery-white, which begins to have a slight penciling in the lower section. The rest of the plumage has noticeably more refined penciling than in the rooster. It gives the appearance of being covered with black dots. The penciling extends into the tail feathers except at the tip, which is black.
The feather pattern for a gold penciled rooster is the same as the silver, except everywhere there are silver-white feathers, there’s gold. The same is true for the hen, the only difference being that her golden color is paler than the roosters.
European Breed Standard
This is the European breed standard for the Westfaelische Totleger.
Overall impression: The female has a strong land hen shape with a medium-high stance, full plumage, and a very lively nature.
The head is robust, and the chicken is weatherproof with a full, deep, rounded, country chicken shape and medium-high posture.
The rooster has a distinctly full breast and the hen a pronounced belly. The hackles are full, and the face is also covered with small, fine feathers. The speckled color pattern of the plumage is typical of this chicken breed and appears in both silver and gold. The Deathlayer has bluish-white ear lobes, suggesting a white eggshell color, their legs are blue-gray.
Deathlayer Breed characteristics
A full, deep chest, well-developed belly, the tail is carried somewhat loosely, thighs are not very prominent, a small rose comb and small ear lobes and wattles.
- Head: Medium size, elongated, moderately broad
- Face: Red, set with fine feathers
- Comb: small rose comb, finely beaded, with thin, straight, or slightly inclined spine
- Wattles: Of medium length, fine in texture
- Earlobes: Small, round, bluish-white
- Eyes: Dark brown
- Beak: Strong, bluish horn-colored
- Neck: Of medium length, with rich hackles
- Body: Full, deep, rounded
- Back: Moderately long, slightly sloping
- Shoulders: Broad and rounded
- Wings: Strong and firmly attached
- Saddle: Full hanging
- Tail: Full feathered
- Chest/Breast: Well rounded
- Abdomen: Broad and full
- Thighs: Strong; of medium length
- Legs: Fine-boned; gray-blue
- Toes: Widely spread
- Plumage: Tightly fitting
Deathlayers seem to cope well in cold conditions due to their rose comb and tight feathering. Not so much is known about how they tolerate heat, but providing they are given somewhere cool to retreat on hot days and always have access to clean, fresh water, they should be fine in a Mediterranean-type climate.
As they are very alert, retaining many of their wild fowl characteristics, Deathlayers will be pretty adept at getting themselves out of danger from predators. However, as with any chicken breed, they have almost no defense when they are roosting.
Health and Disease
There don’t appear to be any specific health concerns related to Deathlayers. One problem that may occur due to their low numbers is inbreeding, particularly if the line is to be kept pure.
As with all chicken breeds, it’s necessary to ensure that they are regularly treated against lice, mites, and worms.
To remain healthy, chickens require the correct type of food for the bird’s age, and don’t forget to give only feed formulated for their purpose.
As Deathlayers are egg-laying, they should receive a good quality layers ration when they are laying eggs. However, to maintain good health, it is better to put them on general chicken food when they are not laying. This is because there is too much calcium in layers ration for a non-laying hen, and it can damage their health.
During winter, chickens must require access to somewhere warm and dry. In areas with very harsh winters, they could require some form of gentle heating from something like a heat lamp or overhead perch heater.
In the summertime, your chickens really need to get out of the heat. The provision of a well-ventilated coop that’s insulated against high temperatures should be provided.
Clean, sanitary conditions and access to fresh water are always requirements necessary for healthy birds.
As Deathlayers have white earlobes, they lay white eggs, as white earlobes are a common link to white egg-laying hens.
They mature fast in approximately 20 weeks, although when they start to lay will be dictated by the season, and often they don’t begin until the following year.
Deathlayer eggs are white, off-white, or white with slight speckling. They lay on average 150 to 250 medium-sized eggs per year.
Where to Buy Deathlayer Chickens
Due to the rarity of the breed in the United States, the price per bird is still high. If you’re lucky enough to spot one being exhibited by a breeder, they may have some birds to sell. However, the easiest way of finding them will be through a hatchery. These specimens should come from stock initially imported from Germany.
From Greenfire Farms, a single, unsexed day-old chick costs $99.00 in either silver or gold.
A single silver chick from Star Hill Farm (Spectrum Poultry) is priced at $25.
Delivery and vaccination (where possible) cost extra. Prices are for illustration purposes only and are subject to change at any time.
The Westfalische Totleger, or Deathlayer, is still a very rare chicken in the United States. They are a beautiful fowl with either silver or gold plumage and attractive black penciling.
Being a landrace breed, they’re hardy and healthy chickens that thrive when free-range.
The hens lay medium-size white eggs often throughout their lives. Their natural alertness means they have some ability to avoid predator attacks during the day.
Due to their cost, lack of broodiness, and flighty natures, they are perhaps not the best choice for new chicken keepers or children, and are more suited to those looking for something a little more unusual to add to their flock.
To discover more about a large range of other chicken breeds, head on over to our blog.