Rhode Island Red Chickens: Heritage Poultry Breeds

The Rhode Island Red chicken was originally a dual-purpose fowl, but the most common strains today are selected for egg production.
Janet Vorwald Dohner
July 2010
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The Rhode Island Red was developed not by fanciers but by poultry farmers in the area of Little Compton, Rhode Island, beginning about 1830. From the beginning, the breeders’ goal was a utilitarian, dual-purpose chicken, not a show bird. They started with their own stocks, which were a blend of many breeds.

Three important types seemed to have had the greatest influence on the Rhode Island Red: Asiatics, Game, and Mediterranean. There are also early references to reddish colored Shanghais. At this time, the Asiatic Cochins and Brahmas were often confused and called by many descriptive names—Pootras, Chittagongs, Shanghais, and Cochin Chinas. These large birds contributed size and egg-laying ability. The upright red Malay Game was also an important contributor to the Rhode Island Red, giving the breed its deep color, hard feathers, and hardiness. The Malay itself, however, was never popular in North America. The Brown Leghorn also contributed excellent egg production. And there are suggestions of Cornish Game, Java, and Wyandotte in the Rhode Island Red.

The Golden Buff or Golden Red, as the breed was originally called, was first exhibited about 1879 but was bred in large numbers for practical uses before then. The single-combed Rhode Island Red was admitted to the Standard of Perfection in 1904, and a rose-combed variety was entered the next year. In the early years, it was common to see both rose- and single-combed birds in the same flock.

The Rhode Island Red is widely considered to be the most successful dual-purpose breed in North America, although the Barred Plymouth Rock is a close second. Exported to Britain and many other countries, the Rhode Island Red may be the world’s most widely distributed chicken breed. The breed is probably the best egg-layer of the dual-purpose chickens and has been widely used for that function, laying in the range of 250 eggs per year. It is not a meat specialist, but its size and conformation make for a good eating bird. Its dark-colored pinfeathers were definitely a handicap in its becoming a more popular market bird.

Because of its good production and other useful traits, the Rhode Island Red was one of the most successful and widespread farm flock birds for many years. It is long-lived, very hardy, and adaptable to all sorts of conditions or feed. Many, though not all, Rhode Island Red roosters are aggressive. The hens are usually quiet in disposition. Hens from the egg-laying strains are usually non-broody. The breed is Rhode Island’s official state bird.

The strains of the Rhode Island Red that have been heavily selected for egg-laying are now smaller in body size, less broody, and lighter in color. These strains have been used heavily in the creation of egg-laying crosses. There is also an exhibition strain of Rhode Island Reds that is sometimes called the Mahogany Red. The emphasis on dark rich color has been paramount over utilitarian function in most show birds, although many show birds have good shape and substance.

The old-type single-combed Rhode Island Red is the endangered member of this family. This traditional type is a medium-heavy bird, with cocks weighing up to 8.5 pounds and hens 6.5 pounds. These yellow skinned birds lay medium to dark brown eggs. They have a rectangular and long or oblong body. The eyes, comb, wattles, and earlobes are all bright red. The beak is a reddish horn color, and the shanks are rich yellow shaded with red. The cocks should have a line of red pigment running down the sides of the shanks to the tips of the toes. The overall color is a rich, lustrous, brilliant mahogany red. Lighter shades are associated with the egg-laying strains, although the deep red color of outdoor birds will also fade in the sunlight. Black feathers are often seen in the tail or wings, but “smutty” birds, or those with black in the body, are not desirable. The undercolor should also be rich red, not gray or black. The plumage forms a smooth surface.

The Tottle strain of Rhode Island Red is unique to Britain and preserved by the Traditional Livestock Foundation along with the Tottle Light Sussex. These two breeds were once crossed to produce excellent hybrids. The Alberta Poultry Research Centre at the University of Alberta maintains Roy Crawford’s University of Saskatchewan strain.

The old Rhode Island Red remains one of the best dual-purpose breeds for the farm flock. It is hard to imagine a farmyard without the little red hen.

Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds is available on Amazon.

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