Privileged perch of Coq Gaulois

Not long ago, a dreadful thought struck officials at the French government's agricultural research agency. If an onslaught of avian flu were ever to force a mass cull of French poultry, what would become of the nation's proudest emblem, the Coq Gaulois?

In a trice, 2000 years of history and the strutting badge of French pride would be reduced to ashes, or whatever slaughtered chickens are reduced to. To a Frenchman, that is unthinkable.

There are some frog-bashers on the other side of the Atlantic who identify the French - especially since the war in Iraq - more closely with cowardly chickens than with courageous cocks.

But here "gallus gallus" occupies a privileged perch in the popular psyche as the national symbol.

It is easy to see why: the Gallic Cock is a magnificent beast, all the way from its aggressively spiked scarlet coxcomb and flame-colored neck to its long gunmetal and green tail feathers, curving like cutlasses.

The trouble is, there are no more than 150 males of the species in all the land, making it "a race in great difficulty," in the words of Jean-Paul Gresselin, who raises the birds in a spacious coop behind his home here in the depths of the Normandy countryside.

That has prompted the National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) into an unusual project: to acquire and freeze the sperm of enough of the birds to ensure that their DNA will survive any natural disaster.

These scientists are not alone in their quest. From "Project Tiger" in India to "Operation Nest Egg" in New Zealand - an effort to conserve the nation's Kiwi - governments, scientists, and animal rights activists have united throughout recent decades in a patriotic and technological push to keep their national symbols from going extinct.

Easily stressed

The project in Maizières, France, is not a simple task. The same sort of reasons that make it difficult to determine the sex of newborn chicks - the absence of any visible reproductive organs in poultry - also make it difficult to extract the seed of an adult cock.

The procedure takes what Mr. Gresselin calls "a very light touch," and not just from any old scientist, either. INRA specialists have found that the Gallic Cocks are "easily stressed," says Jean-Pierre Brillard, who is working on the project.

"The birds respond better to people with whom they have a better relationship," he explains.

Be that as it may, within a few months INRA hopes to have enough to freeze, at minus 196 degrees C, in two national "cryobanks," and a key piece of French history will be safe.

That history goes back a long way - to Roman times, say breeders, when one of Julius Caesar's companions wrote a description of the cockerels he found in the farmyards of ancient Gaul that corresponds exactly to the way the Gallic Cock looks today.

"It is the only race that has developed naturally without ever being crossed by breeders," says Gresselin, looking on indulgently as his rooster flaps its way onto the gate of its coop and hops down into a meadow beyond the chicken wire. "It's the original wild animal."

A loud crow

Since it grows slowly, and is never very meaty, and since it does not lay an especially large number of eggs, the Gallic Cock and his hen are of no interest to commercial breeders who are looking for battery-farm breeds offering quick turnover.

They have other drawbacks too, explains Gresselin, such as the fact that they are light enough to escape their coops.

And the way the cock crows - often and loudly - is a typically French attribute, it might be said, but one "not always appreciated by my neighbors," Gresselin says with a rueful laugh.

Still, the cocks are beautiful and the hens are tasty, and they offer their breeders a link to the past in these factory-farming days, says Nicolas Vermeulen, president of the Gallic Cock Breeders' Association.

"Let us look after our old breeds," he argues in the association's latest newsletter.

"Let us show off their aesthetic and gustatory qualities. Let us make good use of the animals our ancestors were proud of. In doing so, we have no need to fear the future, and its genetic improvements."

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