The standard buckfowl looks not dissimilar from a large chicken. Cocks average about ten pounds, hens around seven. Their plumage is generally dark, deep russets and streaks of forest green, though males will sport brighter plumage when ready to mate. Domestically bred buckfowl may have colors or sizes specific to their breed. A casual observer would easily mistake a buckfowl for a chicken. The primary exception, of course, is that buckfowl bear a rack of antlers on their heads. Antlers are largest on the males, between four and eight inches long. In the wild, these look quite the same as deer antlers, with several small branches from the main horn; some domesticated breeds have specific variations, such as the wide and moose-like Ludach Elks or the narrow and spiraled Argiat Whites. Hens will also bear small antlers in breeding season or when brooding, usually no longer than four inches. All varities of antlers may be shed and grow back, some doing so seasonally.
Habitat & Behavior
Buckfowl are native to the Smaragaid Forest and the Thicket in Siogal. They appear to be endemic, with no neighboring place reporting any such bird, though a number have found their way out of the County by way of curious passing merchants. They roost in tree branches and thick brush, scratching seeds from the forest floor or eating insects and lizards. The birds flock together most of the year, with the males separating out a harem of hens in the spring for breeding. The cocks create a mating display to attact hens for their harem. They will attempt to find brightly-colored objects - flowers, berries, even beetles - and thread them onto their antlers. The cock will approach a fertile hen and display his antlers, strutting his neck and slowly shaking its head back and forth to show off his array. He will also make a call, a low and soothing "Clllluuuuck, clllluuuuuck," rather than the loud crowing of a standard chicken. If the hen approves, she will go off with the male to be part of his harem for the season.
Males often compete for females' affections, sometimes as many as four or five cocks all displaying their antlers to the same hen. If a male feels threatened by another, he will engage it in a territorial fight. Lacking spurs on their feet as the common chicken, buckfowl males will charge at one another, often in low flight, locking antlers and trying to turn the other to the ground. These combat displays can go on for several minutes as the two cocks flip and twist their rivals. In rare cases, a male may be killed by a broken neck or serious eye-gouging; most of the time, an exhausted loser will flee, leaving the victor to claim the female.
After mating, the female will nest and lay a brood of four to six eggs. During the mating season hens also sprout a small pair of antlers, not as strong as the males' but enough to fend off potential predators. The males will patrol their nest area, driving off rivals with their antlers and giving out cries at the sight of predators. The hens' coloration make it easy to blend into the underbrush. The chicks hatch about four weeks later and will stay with their mother until adolesence a few months later. At that time the hen will push her offspring away from the nest so they can start their own flocks. Males will start to grow antlers around this time, but may not reach breeding age for at least another season or two.
These behaviors vary with domesticated breeds. Some lay eggs considerably more often or go broody less so their eggs may be harvested. Some varieties bred for meat may have breasts so engorged they find it difficult to fight, while others are bred specifically to lack the competitive instinct. Most domestic males still retain their affinity for displays, and will often cover their antlers in stray buttons, beads, or shiny thread. Siogalish children often make sport of leaving bric-a-brac for cocks to collect, seeing whose objects are most favored by the birds.
In common agrarian life in Siogal, the buckfowl serves several purposes. First is egg production. Buckfowl eggs are slightly larger than the average chicken egg, and come in a variety of colors, from pure white to dark brown to rosy pink and sky blue. They produce a deep orange yolk which makes the egg fine for frying, scrambling, or any other cooking purpose. Domesticated varieties of buckfowl lay eggs more frequently than the typical spring-layers in the wild, most laying year round. Buckfowl hens usually lay for at least five years, making it a worthy investment for the hungry household.
Second in farming importance is meat. Aside from wild game and fish, buckfowl is the most common meat eaten in Siogal. The flavor is not unlike chicken, but with more dark meat and a slightly gamier flavor. Many families will eat buckfowl once a month or on special occasions and feasts, typically roasted or smoked. In presenting a dressed buckfowl, the head is removed but the antlers are laid beneath the back to create a sort of prop. It is custom to compliment the host on the impressive display of the bird's antlers.
Buckfowl are also bred for show. Although there are no formal competitions, many farmers brag about the size of their buckfowl, or their brilliant plumage, or tremendous antlers. Such display birds are often bred only for their appearance, neglecting their usefulness as egg producers or poultry meat. A proud farmer might even train his buckfowl to follow him around or stay perched on a shoulder that he might go about town to receive compliments.
Buckfowl (also known as elkfowl or hornbirds) have been domesticated in Siogal for many centuries. A survey of the Tir dating back to the reign of King Ughaire noted a farm as posessing "twelf an tweny buck-bairds, ov fine plummage an wyde antleres," one of many entries including the fowl, suggesting it was a common domestic creature by that point. The early domestication of the buckfowl predates the common Gallus gallus chicken, which are rare in Siogal, mostly due to lack of need or interest. Even the smallest country households are likely to own at least one or two buckfowl for eggs.
A less savory but still popular practice is cockfighting with buckfowl. Males are naturally competitive, particularly during the spring breeding months, but with an instinct that can be bred or trained to be perpetually aggressive to one another. Enterprising Siogal farmers exploit this by having buckfowl cocks fight until submission or death. The practice is quite old, and probably at one point had a religious connection; even today in Fiodin cockfighting is considered the domain of the aristocratic families and a priest performs a ceremony before the matches begin. The cocks are traditionally placed in a circular ring in the ground, typically a dirt dugout but more permanent rings may be lined with wood or stone. Once released by their handlers, they will fight one another with their antlers, beaks, and feet until one is driven out or dead. A few breeds, notably the Galba Spiker, are bred specifically to fight, with exaggerated antlers, sharp beaks, and aggressive personalities. To up the stakes, some in Sudhalin and Torwyth go as far as equipping their cocks with blades, strapping them to the antlers. The practice is considered unsavory outside of those towns, however.
Even with domestication common, wild buckfowl hunts are a popular pastime. This is typically done in groups, as small as three or four but as large as two dozen, and often with hunting dogs. Hunters will march through the Thicket or the Smaragaid Forest to stir a flock out of the brush, then shoot them with arrows or darts. Wild buckfowl is gamier than the domesticated variety, and their antlers are not as prominent as some varieties bred for that trait, but hunted birds are often stuffed and put on display like any other wild game.
Hunting stories produce tales of legendary buckfowl of great size and racks. Hunters still tell of Big Pete, a supposedly giant buckfowl cock that lives deep in the Smaragaid Forest. They say Big Pete stands three foot tall, with a rack the size of a full-grown elk. His antlers are decorated with animal skulls of creatures that dared to cross him; some even say a human skull or two are found displayed on his mighty rack. The actual existence of such a creature has little solid evidence, but who knows what mysteries lay deep in the enchanted wood?
The buckfowl is a common creature in Siogalish folk tales. The cock is a proud creature in fable, preening and strutting his antlers. An old fable tells that his antlers were once made of silver, but the clever marten convinced cock to bury his head in the dirt that the insects and worms might be impressed by his display; when cock did so, the silver became so dirty and tarnished that the antlers are brown to this day.
There are dozens of buckfowl breeds, bred for myriad purposes. Some have ancient lineages predating even King Káellugra, others go into fashion overnight and disappear just as quickly.
A show bird, the Ludach Elk gets its name for the wide and moose-like antlers its cocks are bred for. The standard Ludach Elk coloration is dun brown, with white streaks on the eyes and wings. Ludach Elk males have a less pronounced wattle and comb than other varieties. Their egg laying abilities are scant, producing only during the spring. Their meat is somewhat gamier, but fans of the breed claim the older a Ludach Elk is, the better its flavor.
The Argiat White was bred near Orodal in the foothills of the Argiat Reeks. Its name belies its color, a mostly white bird though mottled gray along the edge of the wings isn't unwelcome. The Argiat Whites are really known for their antlers: twisted, long, and straight, almost gazelle-like. They reach unusual lengths; ten inches isn't uncommon among purebred Argiat Whites. Their eggs are particularly large as well, and the hens lay frequently, but the taste of such an egg is underwhelming compared to a standard variety.
This is a fighting breed that is good for little else. Galba Spiker cocks grow their antlers early and do not naturally shed them, the older portions of the antlers calcifying into bone. This gives them large racks notable for their many sharp and narrow prongs. The males are particularly aggressive; even from hatching they have the stubs of growing antlers and the cockerals must be separated from their siblings or they will start fighting. Though not bred for their plumage, Galba Spikers are brilliantly colored, bright red with variegated emerald and purple tails. This is likely due to their high testosterone levels, which spur antler growth, aggression, and color alike. Galba Spiker hens are much duller, but also carry the trait for antlers; the hens, however, are much more docile than the cocks.
The Siogalish name gives away the purpose of this one: Beann is the Old Siogalish word for antler. This breed produces and sheds antlers with regularity, allowing the racks to be collected for human craft. Because antler growth requires considerable calories, Beanna are lean creatures, and egg production in hens is limited to two to six in the spring. The antlers Beanna produce are thin and spindly, not much practical use for the birds but valued in Siogal handicraft. They are used in a number of industries: sewing needles, decor, clothing fasteners, etc.
A popular bird for its eggs and poultry, the Conlow King is multifacted, being large and stately as well as practical. The bird is slightly heavier than the average buckfowl, with a larger breast and meatier legs. Its plumage is a deep indigo blue, its iridesence more distinguishable in the cocks than hens. The males' long and colorful tails blend from blue at the base to emerald green at the end, with black wattles and combs and upward-pointed antlers. The hens have small antlers of their own and lay prodigious numbers of eggs. The Conlow King males are not particularly aggressive, but they still make a show of breeding, collecting bright items on their antlers and strutting about farms in the west.