Barred Plymouth Rock chickens are calm birds that are adaptable to many environments.
ILLUSTRATION: CAROLYN GUSKE
The Barred Plymouth Rock chicken breed is well known as a strong dual-purpose chicken, as they are a good poulty breed for year-round egg laying as well as meat production. The roots of the Barred Plymouth Rock chicken lie in the American Dominique. Long before the official recognition of poultry breeds in the APA Standard of Perfection, barred birds from New England were called Dominiques, Plymouth Country Fowls, and Plymouth Rocks. At the first American poultry show in Boston in 1849, both Dominiques and Plymouth Rocks were exhibited, but any distinction between them was certainly fuzzy. Both rose and single combs were seen in both flocks.
In 1865, a cross was made between a Dominique cock and a Black Cochin hen, or, according to others, it was a Black Java hen. Or perhaps both. Four years later, a Plymouth Rock chicken was on exhibit at Worcester, Massachusetts. The distinction between the emerging Plymouth Rock and the Dominique was made the next year at a New York State poultry show. The single combed, medium- to large-sized, barred birds were entered as Plymouth Rocks. With their separate descriptions, both the Dominique and the Barred Plymouth Rock were entered in the Standard in 1874, although the Barred Plymouth Rock no doubt absorbed many single-combed Dominiques. Besides the addition of Black Cochin and Java, some writers have suggested that Malay Game, Dorking, Langshan, Brahma, Black Minorca, and others have entered into the mix. Several individuals claimed credit for developing the breed.
The Barred Plymouth Rock chicken rapidly gained popularity, being slightly heavier than the Dominique and an excellent producer of meat and eggs. The Barred Plymouth Rock was widely adopted and spread around the world. Through World War II, the Barred Plymouth Rock was the most common farm chicken in the United States and called by some “the Hereford of the poultry world.” Different strains specialized in meat or egg production, and the Barred Plymouth Rock was also used in such broiler crosses as a New Hampshire cock with a Barred Plymouth Rock hen. It was also a favorite among fanciers, who worked hard to breed the exact, perfect color to standard.
Several other color varieties were also developed. The White Plymouth Rock was developed by 1888 from a barred sport. Eventually this variety was heavily selected for rapid meat production and a heavier carcass. The White Rock is a foundation of the modern industrially produced broiler.
The Barred Plymouth Rock earned its huge popularity as a dual-purpose breed. A hardy bird even in cold weather, it is also docile, tame, and active. Both cocks and hens have an upright carriage and are graceful, stylish birds. The hens are broody and good mothers. The hen will also lay light brown eggs year round. The bird itself has a long, broad body with a moderately deep breast. The yellow-skinned Barred Rock matures early into a broiler at 8 to 12 weeks of age. Cocks weigh up to 9.5 pounds and hens up to 7.5 pounds. Breeders of Barred Rocks need to avoid underweight birds, small, narrow bodies, and high tails.
The coloring of the Barred Plymouth Rock is distinct. The barring on the feathers continues down to the skin. On the cock, the black and white bars are of equal width and end in a dark tip. In the hen, the black bars are slightly larger than the light, so that the cock appears slightly lighter in color. The overlapping of the feathers also produces a slight bluish tinge. The eyes are reddish bay, and the comb, wattles, and earlobes are bright red. The beak, shanks, and toes are yellow.
The Barred Plymouth Rock has been eclipsed in popularity by both the White Rock and White Leghorn specialists. There are still acceptable numbers of Barred Rocks in farm flocks, but just like the other dual-purpose breeds, they need to be watched for signs of further decline. The Barred Plymouth Rock is also divided into three general levels: exhibition, industrial production, and the old dual-purpose farm bird. In Canada, the University of Alberta’s Poultry Conservation Program maintains an old University of Saskatchewan R.O.P. (Record of Performance poultry improvement plan) strain. The birds of this strain are slightly smaller but have excellent egg production, fertility, and hatchability. The RBC Heritage Hatchery Network also has a Shaver Poultry Breeding Farm strain of the Barred Plymouth Rock.
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 from Amazon.