We don’t have to remind you of the benefits of raising your own poultry. But picking a breed with the characteristics you want can be tough, especially because of the differences within breeds.
The Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA) compiles an annual list of heritage poultry breeders. Selecting breeding stock from reputable breeders will help strengthen the quality characteristics of various breeds.
The SPPA had this to say about the importance of heritage breeds:
Finding traditional breed birds can be a challenge. The breeders are as rare as the breeds themselves. The Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities provides connections for breeders who care about these unique breeds. The Breeders Directory is the single most important tool to open and maintain communications among breeders. It lists members who are currently raising birds, what breeds they are raising and how to contact them.
"Recent converts to poultry conservation have found the directory to be their most useful tool," says SPPA president Craig Russell. "It not only provides a source of breeds but also puts breeders of the same fowl in touch with each other."
"There may be considerable variation among varieties, even within strains, of any given breed," Russell says. Historic breeds that have become rare may lose vigor due to inbreeding or acquire undesirable characteristics over time. Breeders may select birds for qualities other than those prescribed by the Standard of Perfection. They may select for a non-standard color pattern or develop separate strains for meat and egg production. Exhibition breeders may ignore production qualities or historic traits such as broodiness. In breeds with healthy numbers, these individual preferences are lively and delightful. For breeds with small numbers, such changes can exert disproportionate influence on the breed.
Nevertheless, flocks of historic breeds retain genetic strengths that can be cultivated by careful breeding. "No matter how run down a particular type may be, a judicious breeding program can return them to the desired type and utility," Russell says.
He’s personally facing such a breeding challenge. A devastating raccoon attack killed birds that were the result of years of his selective breeding. He’s retrieving birds he formerly considered culls that were placed in other flocks and adding birds from hatcheries. He plans to restore the Red Caps and Crevecoeurs that died in the predator attack.
"I’ll use the good sized females and the small males with good type and color as the base," he says. "I’ll get the size back in them, add vigor with outcrosses, and then work on color."
More detailed information on traditional breeds and breeding methods is available in Christine Heinrichs’ book, How to Raise Chickens. Heinrichs is SPPA Historian.
For more sources of chicks and hatching eggs, check out our free Directory of Hatcheries and Poultry Breeders.