Backyard Heritage Chicken Breeds

We’ve compiled the key characteristics and anecdotal information on 20 compelling heritage chicken breeds, including the Rhode Island Red, Leghorn, Australorp, Jersey Giant and more.

February/March 2014

By Oscar H. Will III

Not long ago, most farms and households in the United States played host to at least a small flock of chickens. Chores such as collecting eggs and butchering birds were a part of daily life for all but the most urban residents. In many cases, the household’s flock consisted of a multipurpose breed suitable for egg production and of sufficient size to fill a frying pan when young, or to roast when mature.

For those interested in reviving the tradition of a hardy, homestead flock, we’ve compiled key characteristics and anecdotal information on 20 compelling heritage chicken breeds, including the Rhode Island Red, Leghorn, Australorp, Jersey Giant and more. In addition to a short description of the breed’s dominant features, the following chart includes the bird’s size, comb type, plumage, egg color, primary use and origin.

This information was compiled from The Livestock Conservancy’s Priority List and originally appeared in the article Perfect Chickens by our friends at Grit magazine.

To browse a library of more than 82 different heritage chicken breeds and 163 varieties, download our Pickin’ Chicken App for your iPhone or iPad. 

Andalusian Chickens Illustration

Andalusian

Size: medium
Comb: single
Plumage: black, blue, white
Legs: clean
Egg color: white
Use: eggs
Origins: Spain
Status: threatened
These birds make an attractive addition to the home flock. The hens are good layers and show little tendency to broodiness. The Andalusian’s preferred blue color results from crossing white birds and black birds. With two blue Andalusians, the resulting offspring exhibit a pattern of 1 black: 2 blue: 1 white (neither dominant nor recessive). 
Australorp Chickens Illustration

Australorp

Size: medium
Comb: single
Plumage: black
Legs: clean
Egg color: brown
Use: dual
Origins: Australia
Status: recovering
The Black Australorp was developed in Australia using Black Orpington stock originally imported from England. An Australorp hen carries the dubious honor of world-record egg layer. In 365 days, she laid 364 eggs. This medium-heavy breed is an excellent homestead chicken because it makes a fine layer and has a compact but meaty frame.
Brahma Chickens Illustration

Brahma

Size: large
Comb: pea
Plumage: buff, dark, light
Legs: feathered
Egg color: brown
Use: dual
Origins: North America
Status: watch
Although often considered a meat breed, heavy-framed Brahma hens are also efficient egg layers. The light feather coloration pattern consists of a white base with white and black accents on hackles, feet and tail. The buff variety is similar, with buff as the base color. Dark Brahma hens have a gray and black penciled base, while the rooster has a black base and white shoulders.
Campine Chickens Illustration

Campine

Size: small
Comb: single
Plumage: golden, silver
Legs: clean
Egg color: white
Use: eggs
Origins: Belgium
Status: critical
Campines are among the oldest breeds found in North America. The birds exhibit a black barred feather pattern with a buff or gray base. The hackles on both males and females are uniformly golden or silver. Hens don’t typically go broody, and Campines are described as alert, intelligent and excellent foragers.
Cochin Chickens Illustration

Cochin

Size: large
Comb: single
Plumage: widely variable
Legs: feathered
Egg color: brown
Use: meat, ornamental
Origins: China
Status: watch
One of the largest domestic chickens, Cochins are poor layers but excellent setters. Early American settlers valued these fowl for their uncanny good looks and their willingness to hatch eggs from virtually any other poultry breed or species. Cochins are well-suited to confinement, but due to thick, fluffy feathering, egg fertility is often lacking.
Cornish Chickens Illustration

Cornish

Size: large
Comb: pea
Plumage: widely variable
Legs: clean
Egg color: light brown
Use: meat
Origins: Cornwall, England
Status: watch
The famed Indian Game bird, as the Cornish was once known, was bred for meat production in a self-sufficient and relatively hardy package. The birds have massive breasts and thighs that, when coupled with their short and closely held feathers, make them look somewhat prehistoric. This breed provided a large proportion of today’s meat-breed genetics.
Dorking Chickens Illustration

Dorking

Size: medium
Comb: rose, single
Plumage: colored, silver-gray, white 
Legs: clean
Egg color: white
Use: dual
Origins: England
Status: threatened
In addition to striking plumage, the Dorking has remarkably short legs and five toes instead of the four more prevalent among chickens. Although it is a good layer, the Dorking remains renowned in England for its delicious meat. As a table fowl, the Dorking chicken has few peers. The flesh is tender and delicate.
Hamburg Chickens Illustration

Hamburg

Size: small
Comb: rose
Plumage: silver or golden spangled or penciled, black, white
Legs: clean
Egg color: white
Use: eggs
Origins: Holland
Status: watch
Hamburgs are known to be a little skittish, but they are good foragers, have strong flying abilities and thrive with free-range management. The breed is cold-hardy and highly active, and it may have been developed before the 17th century. Hamburgs are excellent layers but are not at all broody. Their eggs are small.
Jersey Giant Chickens Illustration

Jersey Giant

Size: extra large 
Comb: single
Plumage: black, blue, white
Legs: clean
Egg color: brown
Use: dual
Origins: New Jersey
Status: watch
The mellow Jersey Giant was originally bred to replace the turkey as a premium table bird. Mature roosters typically weigh about 13 pounds and adult hens weigh close to 10 pounds. Jersey Giants are the largest purebred chicken breed. This extra-large bird lays extra-large eggs and demonstrates both good vigor and fine foraging ability.
Langshan Chickens Illustration

Langshan

Size: large
Comb: single
Plumage: black, blue, white
Legs: feathered
Egg color: dark brown
Use: dual
Origins: China
Status: threatened
The Langshan was introduced to the Western world in the mid-19th century. The hens tend to be broody, and both sexes are extremely cold-hardy. Langshans are adaptable and thrive under confinement or free-range management. The birds are noted for their long legs, high tails and stately appearance. Langhsans lay dark brown eggs and produce notably white and flavorful breast meat.
Leghorn Chickens Illustration

Leghorn

Size: small
Comb: rose, single
Plumage: widely variable
Legs: clean
Egg color: white
Use: eggs
Origins: Italy
Status: recovering
Leghorns are active foragers with small appetites. They are known for their high rate of egg production and excellent hardiness. Leghorns can be found in many colors, including brown, buff, cuckoo, mottled, red, silver and white. Their long tail feathers, slim bodies and regal combs make the roosters easily recognizable as the poster child of farm poultry.
Minorca Chickens Illustration

Minorca

Size: medium
Comb: rose, single
Plumage: black, buff, white
Legs: clean
Egg color: white
Use: eggs
Origins: Minorca, Spain
Status: watch
Among the largest of the Mediterranean breeds, the Minorca is an efficient layer of large eggs. In spite of their size, these birds are not particularly known for meat production because of their narrow frames and characteristically slow growth. This breed makes an ideal laying flock where summers are warm and the birds have plenty of space to range.
New Hampshire Chickens Illustration

New Hampshire

Size: medium
Comb: single
Plumage: red
Legs: clean
Egg color: brown
Use: meat
Origins: New England
Status: watch
Competitive and aggressive, New Hampshires are a good meat chicken with fair egg-laying ability. Bred for rapid growth and early maturity, they are prone to go broody and make good mothers. The standard New Hampshire rooster weighs about 8.5 pounds and the hen weighs approximately 6.5 pounds.
Old English Game Chickens Illustration

Old English Game

Size: small
Comb: single
Plumage: widely variable
Legs: clean
Egg color: white
Use: ornamental
Origins: England
Status: watch
Domestic Old English Game chickens are descendants of ancient fighting cocks and have changed little in size or appearance in more than 1,000 years. Old English Game hens do show broodiness; however, they don’t make good mothers because they’re so small and aggressive. These birds should be kept securely confined because they can fly impressive distances and easily revert to a feral state.
Orpington Chickens Illustration

Orphington

Size: large
Comb: single
Plumage: black, blue, buff, white
Legs: clean
Egg color: brown
Use: dual
Origins: Orpington, England
Status: recovering
The original Black Orpington was bred by William Cook in 1886 by crossing Minorcas, Langshans and Plymouth Rocks. The traditional colors are black, buff, mottled, speckled and white; buff is the most common. Orpingtons are well-known for their fast growth rate, excellent egg production and good table quality. These fabulous backyard birds frequently go broody, do well in cold climates, and have a calm, friendly demeanor.
Plymouth Rock Chickens Illustration

Plymouth Rock

Size: large
Comb: single
Plumage: widely variable
Legs: clean
Egg color: brown
Use: dual
Origins: Massachusetts
Status: recovering
This friendly, docile bird originated in Massachusetts in the 19th century. The Plymouth Rock has a great reputation thanks to its hardiness, broodiness, meat production and egg laying. Often called “Rocks” or “Barred Rocks” after its most popular color, this breed is cold-hardy and gets along well with people and other animals.
Polish Chickens Illustration

Polish

Size: small
Comb: V-shaped
Plumage: widely variable
Legs: clean
Egg color: white
Use: eggs, ornamental
Origins: Spain
Status: watch
Although named for the feathered caps historically worn by Polish soldiers, this crested breed is thought to have originated in Spain. Historically, Polish hens were known for their egg production. As modern ornamentals, though, they always require protection from foul weather. Polish chickens come in many color variations, often with contrasting-colored crests.
Rhode Island Red Chickens Illustration

Rhode Island Red

Size: medium 
Comb: rose, single
Plumage: dark red
Legs: clean
Egg color: brown
Use: dual
Origins: New England
Status: recovering
The Rhode Island Red is the best-known and most successful dual-purpose U.S. breed. Perhaps the best layer of all dual-purpose breeds, Rhode Island Reds can lay between 200 and 300 eggs per year. Roosters of this breed can weigh more than 8 pounds, and hens weigh about 6 pounds. Known for their hardiness and ability to continue producing eggs in marginal conditions, Rhode Island Reds make first-rate farm chickens. The hens are peaceful, but roosters tend to be slightly aggressive.
Sussex Chickens Illustration

Sussex

Size: large
Comb: single
Plumage: light, red, speckled
Legs: clean
Egg color: tan to brown
Use: dual
Origins: England
Status: recovering
As an excellent meat and egg producer, the Sussex makes a perfect homestead chicken. The hens are broody and make good mothers, and the cockerels are heavy and well-muscled. Sussex chickens are well-mannered, friendly and easy to handle. They are also cold-hardy, robust and adaptable to various management schemes.
Wyandotte Chickens Illustration

Wyandotte

Size: large
Comb: rose
Plumage: varied
Legs: clean
Egg color: brown
Use: dual
Origins: United States
Status: recovering
Having originated with a silver-laced color pattern in the 19th century, the Wyandotte is now available in golden-laced, white, buff, partridge, silver-penciled and other color patterns. This resilient breed is calm and cold-hardy, and it adapts to a wide range of management practices. The Wyandotte’s eggs are large and plentiful and the breast meat is succulent, making it a superb breed for home flocks.


Illustrations from WATT Poultry Tribune

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