Delaware Chickens: Heritage Poultry Breeds

Delaware chickens aren’t an easy-to-find heritage poultry breed, but they make a good homestead livestock choice for anyone wanting to raise free-range chickens for high-quality meat. The lovely Delaware chicken was developed for the broiler industry in the United States. Unfortunately, the Delaware arrived just before the White Cornish-White Plymouth Rock cross literally took over this market. The large-scale producers discarded not only the old dual-purpose chickens but also the alternative choices in newer, specialized breeds.

Around 1940, a hatchery man named George Ellis in Ocean View, Delaware, took a liking to the colored sports that sometimes occurred when New Hampshire hens and Barred Plymouth Rock cocks were crossed for the production of broiler chickens. These white birds were bedecked in the Columbian pattern, which is an irregular black barring on neck, tail, and wing feathers. Ellis and other interested breeders set out to breed from these birds, hoping to replace the Barred Plymouth Rock cocks in fathering broiler chickens. The advantage would be an almost white bird with rich yellow legs, which was exactly the bird that the market preferred.

In the eastern poultry industry, the Indian River, as this new breed was first called, became a popular purebred broiler and broiler cross when mated with the New Hampshire. The breed was also called the Ohio Beauty. With a final name change, the Delaware was recognized by the Standard of Perfection in 1952. Unfortunately, the Delaware’s popularity fell rapidly against the new hybrid cross, and exhibition breeders did not adopt the Delaware to any extent. Because the Delaware had not yet established a presence or name in home or farm flocks, it was even less secure than many of the older breeds.

Today it is very hard to find Delawares for purchase. In the late 1990s, the ALBC survey could locate only about a dozen breeders for the Delaware, and it estimates that the number of breeding hens is down to about 400 or fewer. Another problem for potential owners is that Columbian Plymouth Rocks are sometimes advertised as Delawares or represented as the same breed.

Ironically, for a breed that was not created for home flocks or small-scale production, the Delaware is an excellent dual-purpose bird. Owners report that the Delaware is hardy, friendly, and calm. Delawares mature rapidly for meat production, with excellent size and conformation. The hens also lay large brown or tinted eggs. One owner reports 70 percent USDA Grade Jumbos in summer and 30 percent in the winter. Delaware chickens have also been used in organic farming situations and on free range, both with great success. Delawares will not gain as fast as the modern industrial stocks that are ready for market in a few weeks, but the Delawares are more economical to bring to market weights in a forage situation.

Cocks weigh 7.5 to 8.5 pounds and hens 5.5 to 6.5 pounds. The single comb, wattles, and earlobes are bright red. The skin color is yellow, as are the shanks and toes. The beak is a reddish horn shade. The Delaware is unique to the United States and a perfectly useful breed, especially in certain situations. The seriously endangered situation has made the Delaware a conservation priority for the ALBC.

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 ofHistoric and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds is available at Amazon.