Paul Siegel has been breeding chickens since he was 3 years old. On his family’s 35-acre farm east of Hartford, Connecticut, where the Siegels raised chickens and grew tobacco, sweet corn, and cabbage, he would look at the chickens’ red and the white feathers, see the offspring’s colors, and ask himself, “Why?”

“If I put a white rooster with a red hen, sometimes they all come out white,” Siegel recalled thinking. “Sometimes they come out as a hodgepodge. I was learning sex linkage. You’re developing this inquiring mind at a very early age.”

Since 1957, Siegel, a University Distinguished Professor and professor emeritus in the School of Animal Sciences at Virginia Tech, has studied poultry genetics by developing pedigree lines of chickens. Siegel uses them to learn how applying genetics to the breeding of high-quality chickens, aiming for traits such as high body weight, may affect the animal’s complex biology — a balance of skeletal, muscular, cardiovascular, and other yet undiscovered resources.

Siegel has worked with scientists from around the world using these lines and has published hundreds of studies on the subject and others in poultry genetics, like the evolution of chickens and the role of genetic adaptations in domestication.

Three-year-old Siegel may have sensed that much more was at work beneath the soft down of the chicks for which he cared. He had always been drawn to them over the tobacco or the vegetables, which didn’t peck or run off at his touch.

For the rest of his childhood, Siegel knew he wanted to work with chickens for a living somehow. But he didn’t know there was a way, until he joined 4-H in middle school and through it, met a researcher named Walter Collins. It’s this brief encounter and the years Siegel spent in his local 4-H Poultry Club that set him on a path to a 70-year career in poultry genetics.

“I just wanted to work with the chickens,” Siegel said. “4-H provided the vehicle.”

Paul Siegel, university distinguished professor emeritus, with his high and low growth chickens in 2010. Photo by John McCormick for Virginia Tech.

Paul Siegel, university distinguished professor emeritus, with his high and low growth chickens in 2010. Photo by John McCormick for Virginia Tech.
Paul Siegel, university distinguished professor emeritus, with his high and low growth chickens in 2010. Photo by John McCormick for Virginia Tech.

On the way to studying the chicken of tomorrow

When Siegel was 10, he went to 4-H State Congress at the University of Connecticut. He met Collins, a researcher at the university, at a short course. Siegel asked Collins what he did. Collins described himself as a poultry geneticist, which made Siegel perk up. Collins described the work: doing experiments with chickens. What did it take to get that kind of job? A Ph.D., Collins said. From then on, Siegel had a goal.

In middle school, Poultry Club offered Siegel extracurricular activities in line with future study of poultry genetics, but beyond that, Siegel said, his 4-H experiences taught him how to learn for the love of it and fail without falling apart — lessons he received mainly while competing in poultry judging and the Junior State Chicken of Tomorrow contest.

After World War II, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alongside the country’s major poultry organizations, launched the Chicken of Tomorrow program and its state, regional, and national contests to stoke innovation in the newly-formed broiler industry, as Maryn McKenna described in National Geographic. The contests, open to big companies and small farmers alike, challenged competitors to breed a better chicken.

4-H ran Junior State Chicken of Tomorrow contests encouraging students to do the same, and at 16, Siegel entered his flock into the contest for the first time at the encouragement of one of his local 4-H leaders. He came in second. The next year, he won.

“The Chicken-of-Tomorrow Committee presents this Certificate of Quality to Paul Siegel for outstanding achievement in breeding and development of superior meat-type chickens,” reads the plaque he received, which still hangs on the wall of Siegel’s study.

In 4-H, Siegel lost more often than he won. “I kept losing,” he said. “You lose a heck of a lot more than you win. I was also in Garden Club, and I would enter squash and other things. Most of the time, somebody else won. But you had the fun of participating. And so, you learned how to be a graceful loser. And if you learned to be a graceful loser, you also learned not to be an arrogant winner. That’s what things like 4-H teach you.”

Looking back, Siegel credits his 4-H leaders for pointing him toward the activities that ended up defining much of his youth. “I had very good leaders who made suggestions: ‘You want to try this? You want to try that?’” Siegel said. “The opportunities were there and I grabbed them, not even realizing I was grabbing them. But they were the way, the vehicle that allowed me to realize I could go to college, I could stay in agriculture. That was my journey. I never really had a destination. There was an opportunity. I took it.”

Among those opportunities was the chance to venture outside Siegel’s small hometown of Vernon, Connecticut.

“I went to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to give a demonstration,” Siegel said. “That was the first time that I had ever slept in a bed that had store sheets. I got to travel because of 4-H. It opened up the whole damn world for me.”

Paul Siegel is pictured with his chickens in 2021. Photo by Tim Skiles for Virginia Tech.

Paul Siegel, university distinguished professor emeritus, with his chickens.
Paul Siegel with his chickens in 2021. Photo by Tim Skiles for Virginia Tech.

Lessons for the wide world of chicken genetics

Siegel went on to attend the University of Connecticut, where he served as president of the Poultry Club and continued participating in judging contests. From there, he studied genetics at Kansas State University, where he received his master’s degree, then his Ph.D., after which he joined Virginia Tech, where he has remained for the entirety of his career.

Siegel continues to look at the biological trade-offs of breeding chickens to optimize certain traits. Genetically selecting for body weight, immune response, and other factors can affect how chickens eat, reproduce, take in oxygen, and hold themselves up. More recently, Siegel has studied microbiota as a part of this balancing act. “My job is not to breed a better chicken,” Siegel said. “My job is to try to understand the biology and the genetics of the chickens, and to train students that can go and breed better chickens.”

Along the way, he has witnessed transformative, costly technologies like whole-genome sequencing become cheap, standard tools available to geneticists. And decades on, lessons for losing gracefully from 4-H still apply.

“Even now, in the work that I do with tech, most of my experiments fail,” Siegel said. “I have experiments that have gone on for 50 years, and I am still groping to try to figure out what’s what. The fun is to learn.”

At 90 years old, Siegel sees no reason to end the fun. “I’m learning something new every day,” he said. “I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I retired 22 years ago, but I’m still in every day. And I’m doing now what I did in 1935, when I was a 3-year-old kid. I run experiments with chickens. To some people, it may not be a very exciting life, but to me, boy, I was up at four o’clock this morning. With the chickens at six o’clock. If it wasn’t for Walter Collins and my going to 4-H on the campus of the University of Connecticut, I would’ve never known that there was such an opportunity for me.”

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