Chickens are a perfect choice for homestead livestock; they don’t require much space or special equipment, and keeping a small, backyard flock is an easy and fun way to expand home food production. You can serve your family the freshest (and most nutritious) eggs they have ever eaten, and you can re-create the rich flavors of your grandmother’s homegrown/homemade fried chicken. When you raise your own birds, you also can be sure they are treated humanely and fed good-quality feed.
There’s yet another good reason to keep chickens these days: More than half of the 70 breeds of chickens found in the United States are in danger of disappearing, according to a recent census conducted by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) of Pittsboro, N.C. Of particular concern are five breeds that were developed in North America: Javas, Buckeyes, Chanteclers, Delawares and Hollands.
Today, most Americans eat eggs and chickens from a few highly specialized breeds used by the commercial poultry industry. As family farms disappeared, so did thousands of flocks of chickens. The newer commercial breeds are more productive than the older farm breeds when the birds are confined in facilities with controlled environments. But these commercial breeds have not been selected to maintain important traits such as ability to forage, longevity, tolerance to extreme cold or heat, predator avoidance and broodiness (tendency to set and hatch new chicks). If you plan to raise chickens, you are much more likely to find these valuable qualities in a heritage chicken breed.
So which breed should you choose? First, consider whether you want the birds for eggs, meat or both; some breeds were developed for optimum egg laying, not for meat production. Eggs from heritage birds also can vary widely. For example, the Hollands lay white eggs, while the Delawares lay large, dark-brown eggs. Another factor to consider is the breed’s personality: Javas, Delawares and Chanteclers are known for their sunny dispositions. But most importantly, different breeds are specialized for different environments, so be sure to look for a chicken breed that meets your needs — such as high winter egg production or tolerance for cold climates.
Below are profiles outlining the history and exceptional qualities of these five most-endangered American breeds.
The Java is one of the oldest breeds of chickens developed in America. Its ancestors are reputed to have come from the Far East, possibly the isle of Java. Sources differ on the origin of the breed, but Javas were known to have been in existence in America by 1835. The breed was famous for its meat-producing qualities and was considered the best for this purpose when it was introduced.
While very little is known of the Java’s ancestry, the Java itself has played a significant role in the development of more modern breeds of poultry. Javas were used in the creation of the Jersey Giant — America’s largest breed of chicken and one that eventually took over the Java’s niche of meat production. Javas also may have been used in the creation of Rhode Island Reds, as both breeds share an especially long body with a full, well-fleshed breast. White Javas are said to be the basis for White Plymouth Rocks, and were so similar in appearance that eventually breeders had a very hard time telling them apart.
Monte Bowen, a Java breeder in Plevna, Kan., says that “Javas are good foragers, and the hens are excellent brood hens and mothers. They are gentle and patient in disposition.” Bowen has been influential in cultivating Black and Mottled Javas. Java pullets may start laying at 5 months of age, early for heavy fowl. “Not fantastic, but overall laying quality of the Java is, to me, good for a heavy breed of fowl,” Bowen says.
The Java is a premier homesteading fowl, because it has the ability to forage for a large percentage of its feed. Javas come in three colors: black, white and mottled (black background with white splashes). All three varieties excel as very trouble-free chickens. They grow more slowly than today’s industrial chickens, but are much more self-sufficient. When allowed to roam, the Java will lay a fair number of large brown eggs on very little feed. With their good temperaments, hardiness and a good dose of self-sufficiency, this is an excellent breed for those new to raising chickens.
From the “Buckeye State” of Ohio, Buckeyes were developed by Nettie Metcalf of Warren, Ohio. She wanted a cold-tolerant and active fowl that could withstand the frosty Ohio winters, so she mated a Buff Cochin rooster with some Barred Plymouth Rock hens to produce what she reportedly thought of as “a large, lazy fowl.”
She added liveliness by introducing some Black-breasted Red Game roosters, and some of the resulting chicks grew red feathers when they matured. This was notable since red fowl had not previously been seen in that part of the country. By 1896, Metcalf was consistently producing chickens with a deep, lustrous red plumage that is the hallmark of the breed today.
The Buckeye retains the stocky shape of its Game chicken ancestors, which makes it a good bird for producing meat. This Game chicken background also may account for the breed’s assertive nature, making them very confident around people. The Buckeyes have stout muscular thighs, and a broad, well-rounded breast.
“They are big enough to produce generous portions of meat, but are also pretty good layers,” says Craig Russell, president of the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities in Owatonna, Minn. “It is a good dual-purpose breed, more than simply the meat bird that Metcalf tried to create.” Buckeye hens lay medium-sized, brown eggs.
Buckeyes can readily adapt to a variety of living conditions, but because of their active nature they do best when allowed to free-range, or live where they have room to move around. These chickens like to explore and to scratch the ground, so care should be given to pen them away from your flower beds. Because their very small combs and wattles are unlikely to be damaged by freezing, Buckeyes are one of the best choices for climates with cold winters.
Brother Wilfred Chatelain noticed that there were no chicken breeds of Canadian origin while tending the flocks of chickens at the Cistercian Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac, in Quebec. Plenty of American and English breeds were being used commercially in Canada, but no breed had been developed that would thrive under Canada’s rigorous climatic conditions.
So in 1907, Brother Chatelain began experimenting. He crossed White Leghorn, Dark Cornish, Rhode Island Red and White Wyandotte, and he later added White Plymouth Rock. From his flock he selected good egg layers that could produce ample meat and that had very small combs and wattles. He called them White Chantecler. His results were so successful that in the 1930s, J.E. Wilkinson of Alberta crossed Brown Leghorn, Dark Cornish, Partridge Cochin and Partridge Wyandotte to create the Partridge Chantecler.
The Chantecler is a calm, gentle and personable breed of chicken with a reputation for excellent egg-laying ability. Having almost no comb or wattles, they tolerate heavy winters very well, says breeder Erin Traverse of Poultney, Vt. “Here in Vermont, where 30-degrees-below zero is common for days, even weeks at a time, frozen combs are unheard of on Chanteclers. Up along the Canadian border and points north, the winter laying ability of this breed is very much appreciated.”
Chantecler hens are noted to lay plenty of brown eggs, even during winter when there is less sunlight (light stimulates egg production). Traverse says his hens average 180 to 200 eggs a year. With 20 years of experience as a chef, he says he also finds the meat as delectable as the finest of Indian Games, Old English Games, Dorkings and Houdans.
The Delaware was bred in the Delmarva Peninsula, along the East Coast in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, just after World War II for the production of broilers. In the 1940s, it was standard practice to mate Barred Plymouth Rock roosters with New Hampshire hens to produce a commercial broiler. A Delaware poultryman, George Ellis, noted several white offspring with black barring only on their tails and necks. They caught his eye because white-colored chickens tend to have a more appealing carcass, lacking dark bumps where new feathers are about to emerge. He reportedly decided to experiment with these light-colored chickens to see if they would reproduce this color on their offspring, and they did. The Delaware breed, or “Indian Rivers” as Ellis first called them, appealed to commercial poultrymen and dominated the commercial poultry industry along the Delmarva Peninsula for the next 20 years.
Because of its commercial beginnings, the Delaware is a very productive breed. The birds are noted for a fast growth rate, reaching broiler size in about 12 weeks. The pullets begin laying early in the season and have a reputation for high egg production. They produce eggs well through the winter, a time when many breeds slow their production in response to shorter days. This breed is a good example of a dual-purpose chicken — producing plenty of meat and large brown eggs with a moderate amount of care.
“Delawares are real personable,” says breeder Jord Wilson of Prairie Grass Poultry in Lexington, Okla. “As chicks, they come right up to you. They are curious and gentle, not flighty as adults.” Because of their temperament, Delawares will adapt to a variety of living conditions, including confined spaces. This breed is a good choice for anyone looking for a very productive and friendly chicken that will do well in moderate climate zones. And they are hardy. When an intestinal disease infected part of Wilson’s flock, he did not lose any of his Delawares.
Read more stories online
Visit www.MotherEarthNews.com/livestock to read the following stories:
The best chicken breeds for backyard egg production are elegant heritage breeds.
Build this mini-coop to keep the birds safe and easily move their pen around so they can feed throughout your yard and garden.
“Chickens in the City”
Even city dwellers can keep a few hens as easily as they keep dogs or cats. We surveyed 20 cities across the country and found that most allowed chickens.
“Poultry Pest Control”
Mother readers report that a few hens can control grasshoppers and other garden pests.
Hatcheries that offer heritage breeds
Ideal Poultry Breeding Farms (254) 697-6677; www.idealpoultry.com
Sandhill Preservation Center (563) 246-2299; www.sandhillpreservation.com
Stromberg’s (800) 720-1134; www.strombergschickens.com
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy provides information on endangered breeds of livestock and poultry, suggests conservation activities and connects like-minded people through its extensive network of members. Books on raising poultry are available through the organization’s catalog and Web site. Contact the ALBC at P.O. Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312; (919) 542-5704; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.albc-usa.org.
The Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities promotes conservation of poultry through its network of breeders. To join, contact Craig Russell, President, Route 4, Box 251, Middleburg, PA 17842; (570) 837-3157 or Glenn Drowns, 1878 230th St., Calamus, IA 52729; (563) 246-2299.
The North American Java Club Janet Ott, 825 N. 7th St., DeKalb, IL 60115; email@example.com
The Association for the Preservation of Chantecler Fowl
Andre Auclair, 2400 rang St. Louis, St. Paulin, PQ, J0K 3G0, Canada; Phone (if you speak French): (819) 268-2037
Counting Our Chickens: Identifying Breeds in Danger of Extinction, by Marjorie Bender, Robert Hawes and Donald Bixby. Includes contact information for mail-order hatcheries and individual breeders of endangered poultry breeds. Available from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Chickens in your Backyard: A Beginner’s Guide by Rick and Gail Luttmann. A comprehensive guide covering the basics of raising chickens.
In the 1930s, when white eggs brought a premium price, Rutgers Breeding Farm decided to develop a dual-purpose breed of chicken that would lay white eggs. They crossed stock imported from Holland with White Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire and Lamona. Through careful selection they created the White Holland. Simultaneously, they created the Barred Holland by mating White Leghorn, Barred Plymouth Rock, Australorp and Brown Leghorn.
The Barred Holland was much more popular with the farmers, possibly because the Barred Plymouth Rock was very popular at this time. The Barred Holland produces plenty of large white eggs while being well fleshed. The White Holland never enjoyed as much popularity and is probably extinct now. Hollands have earned a reputation for being ideally suited to farm conditions.
“They were developed so the small farmer who didn’t have a market for brown eggs would have white eggs from a meaty bird,” says Duane Urch, a member of the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. “They are a good bird for homesteaders and small acreages. Hollands like to run and are good foragers. They are not a timid breed, but they are not aggressive either.” Hollands are a good choice if you are looking for a productive breed and you prefer white eggs.
FINDING RARE BREEDS
Chicks can be obtained from mail-order hatcheries, farm stores and individual poultry breeders. To locate local poultry breeders who sell fertilized eggs for incubation, chicks and mature birds, check with the groups. Individual breeders are good sources for quality breeding stock if you become interested in maintaining a breeding flock of your own. You may also find heritage birds for sale at poultry shows, fairs and, on occasion, farmer’s markets. In Silex, Mo., for example, breeders of Delawares and Mottled Javas sell live birds at the city’s farmer’s market.
Not all hatcheries will have rare poultry for sale and if they do, demand may exceed supply. To improve your potential for success, place your order early — January is not too early to pre-order next spring’s chicks. If your order doesn’t get filled, mark your calendar and try again the following year. Each order helps increase market demand. “Every time you buy some rare-breed chicks from a hatchery, you are giving the hatchery a reason to hatch more next year,” says Donald Bixby, the ALBC’s technical programs director.
Christine Heinrichs is the publicity director of the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities.on Schrider is the communications director for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy