Sir John Saunders Sebright was passionately interested in animal breeding and husbandry. He is cited in Darwin's On the Origin of Species and is also mentioned in several of Darwin's other books. He was born in 1767 and became a Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire, England. Somewhere around 1810, he began creating the elegant Sebright chicken. Thirty years later, he was happy with the results and he died in 1846.
Sebright wanted to develop a very small bantam. Not only did it have to be very small but he wanted it to have laced plumage. The Sebright is a true bantam. There is no 'large' or standard version. It is an ornamental breed and there are two recognised varieties. The plumage of the Golden Sebright has a base colour of dark gold with every feather evenly laced with black. The Silver Sebright has a whitish silver base, again with every feather laced with black. The Sebright has a short back and quite large breast. The wings point to the ground giving the bird a proud, jaunty appearance. There are no feathers on the legs which are slate-blue and the beak should be a dark horn colour.
The cocks do not have the long, sickle-shaped feathers that cock birds would normally have in the tail, neck and saddle areas. This trait is known as 'hen-feathered'. The cause is a mutation. Large amounts of male sex hormones (androgens) convert to female sex hormones (estrogens).
The Standard calls for hen-feathered birds, and any birds not hen-feathered face automatic disqualification. However, because of a belief that hen-feathering affects fertility, some breeders will occasionally breed from cocks that are not hen-feathered.
The rose comb is covered in fine points. A small spike or leader sweeps back from the head. Once the comb, ear lobes and wattles were a purple-red but nowadays they are usually a bright red.
This breed is very small. Cocks weigh around 22 ounces and hens 20 ounces. The eggs are small with a cream or tinted shell. The Sebright has little purpose except to be beautiful – but it fulfils this function very well. It is not a good layer, it doesn't make a good meat bird, it rarely goes broody and the chickens are not easy to raise. Once mature, the adults are generally quite hardy. They are friendly but very active and inclined to be skittish.
Because they are so light and have relatively large wings, they fly quite well. They really need to be kept confined. The breed is highly susceptible to Marek's disease, sometimes called fowl paralysis. This disease is caused by a herpes type virus which only affects poultry. It is highly contagious and is spread by feather dander and dust. It can stay in the environment for extended periods and affected birds may show no signs of the disease until some months later.
The first individual specialist breed association was the Sebright Bantam Club which Sebright founded for the breed's enthusiasts. In 1874, the American Poultry Association included the Sebright in the first edition of the Standard of Perfection. According to the American Bantam Association, the Sebright is one of the ten most popular bantam breeds.