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In 2004 the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) conducted a chicken census. The results were astounding: of 70 chicken breeds maintained in the United States, half were endangered and 20 were nearly extinct. Many breeds have rallied since then, but others still need conservators to help them survive. A few years ago the ALBC launched its Heritage Chicken promotion; if you’d like to get involved, here’s what you need to know.
According to the ALBC, Heritage chicken:
- Must be produced by an APA Standard breed. Heritage chicken must be from parent and grandparent stock of breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) prior to the mid-20th century; whose genetic line can be traced back multiple generations; and with traits that meet the APA Standard of Perfection guidelines for the breed. Heritage eggs must be laid by an APA Standard breed.
- Must be from naturally mating stock. Chickens marketed as Heritage must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock; no artificial insemination is tolerated.
- Must be from chickens having long, productive outdoor life spans. Heritage chickens must have the genetic ability to live long, healthy lives and to thrive on free range or in pasture-based, outdoor production systems. Breeding hens should be productive for five to seven years and roosters for three to five years.
- Must be from moderately slow-maturing chickens. Chickens producing meat marketed as Heritage Chicken must have a moderate to slow rate of growth, reaching market weight for their breed in no less than 16 weeks. This gives chickens time to develop strong skeletal structures and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass.
In a nutshell, quoting from the ALBC website: “A Heritage Egg can only be produced by an American Poultry Association Standard breed. A Heritage Chicken is hatched from a heritage egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard breed established prior to the mid-20th century, is slow growing, naturally mated with a long productive outdoor life.” Terms like heirloom, antique, old-fashioned, and old-timey imply heritage and are understood to be synonymous with these definitions. In addition, chickens (and eggs) marketed under a Heritage label must include the variety and breed name on the label.
To get started visit the ALBC Conservation Priority List (CPL), where breeds are ranked according to the following criteria (click on each breed listed in the CPL to access pictures and information about it):
Critical: Fewer than 500 breeding birds in the United States, with five or fewer primary breeding flocks (50 birds or more) and estimated global population less than 1,000. Breeds in the Critical category of the 2010 CPL include the Campine, Chantecler, Crevecoeur, Holland, Modern Game, Nankin, Redcap, Russian Orloff, Spanish, Sultan, Sumatra, and Yokohama.
Modern Game from Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, page 131, © Adam Mastoon
Threatened: Fewer than 1,000 breeding birds in the United States, with seven or fewer primary breeding flocks, and estimated global population less than 5,000. Breeds in the Threatened category of the 2010 CPL include the Andalusian, Buckeye, Buttercup, Cubalaya, Delaware, Dorking, Faverolles, Java, Lakenvelder, Langshan, Malay, and Phoenix.
Golden Phoenix cock from Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, page 143, © Adam Mastoon
Golden Phoenix hen from Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, page 145, © Adam Mastoon
Watch: Fewer than 5,000 breeding birds in the United States, with ten or fewer primary breeding flocks, and estimated global population less than 10,000. Also included are breeds with genetic or numerical concerns or limited geographic distribution. Breeds in the Watch category of the 2010 CPL include the Ancona, Aseel, Brahma, Catalana, Cochin, Cornish, Dominique, Hamburg, Houdan, Jersey Giant, La Flèche, Minorca, New Hampshire, Old English Game, Polish, Rhode Island White, Sebright, and Shamo.
New Hampshire from Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, page 97, © Adam Mastoon
Recovering: Breeds that were once listed in another category and have exceeded Watch category numbers but are still in need of monitoring. Breeds in the Recovering category of the 2010 CPL include the Australorp, nonindustrial Leghorn, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, nonindustrial Rhode Island Red, Sussex, and Wyandotte.
Plymouth Rock from Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, page 68, © Adam Mastoon
Study: Breeds that are of interest but either lack definition or lack genetic or historical documentation. Breeds in the Study category of the 2010 CPL include the Araucana, Iowa Blue, Lamona, Manx Rumpy, and Naked Neck.
Bantam Naked Neck rooster from Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, page 135, © Adam Mastoon
Choosing a heritage breed for your backyard flock is easy, since many commercial hatcheries carry them nowadays. My Pet Chicken is the best bet for a small number of healthy, heritage chicks. If you want to show your chickens or are very serious about conservation breeding, it’s sometimes better to buy from an established conservator than from commercial hatcheries. Old-fashioned breeds from hatcheries are fine birds but aren’t usually bred to exacting breed standards. To find conservators involved with your chosen heritage birds, do a Google search using your chosen breed’s name and the word breeder or download a free PDF directory of heritage-chicken breeders from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website.
And if you haven’t yet chosen a breed, download the ALBC’s free, six-page “Guide to Rare Breeds of Chickens” PDF chart. It’s a dandy!