Jersey Giant Chickens: Heritage Poultry Breeds

A large-meat hertiage poultry breed, Jersey Giant chickens are also reliable egg producers. The Jersey Giant is an American-bred bird developed by two brothers, John and Thomas Black, in New Jersey in the 1880s for the meat markets in NewYork City. At least three breeds were used in its creation: the Black Langshan, the Black Java, and the Dark Brahma. It has also been suggested that the Black Orpington and the Cornish entered into the mix. First called the Jersey Black Giants, they were later marketed by other breeders as Marcy Giants and Sears Jersey Giants.

The Brahma is a large, quiet bird, Asiatic in origin, with heavily feathered legs. It is also a long, deep bird with a full, broad breast. The Brahmas were vastly popular in both Britain and North America. The Dark variety was not as popular as the White, which was the object of breeding for plumage points at exhibition, although the Dark variety could be as productive as the White.

When these large, dark breeds, the Dark Brahma, Black Java, and Black Langshan, were brought together, they produced a very heavy bird with excellent breast development. The Jersey Giant is the largest breed developed in the United States. The Black Jersey Giant was admitted to the Standard of Perfection in 1922.

The breed was aimed especially toward the commercial production of capons. Unfortunately, the Black Jersey Giant grew too slowly to compete with Cornish Rock broilers, which are ready for market in a few weeks. The Jersey Giant grows its large frame first, then covers it with flesh. At six months, a cock is a well fleshed 10 pounds. Because it is so large, the Jersey Giant does require sufficient good-quality feed to avoid bone problems.

Another problem for the Black Jersey Giant was its dark feathers, which left dark pinfeathers on the skin. The American market came to favor birds with white plumage and light-colored legs. The White variety was developed and standardized in 1947 from white sports of the Black. A slate Blue variety was created from a sport in the 1980s, but it does not breed true for blue color.

The Jersey is known as a rugged breed that does especially well in cold climates. The hen also lays well through the winter, producing brown eggs. The hens will brood but are somewhat too large to set eggs easily. The Jersey Giant has a long, deep body with a wide back. The Black variety is slightly larger than the White. Cocks can weigh 13 pounds and hens 10 pounds, but the average bird never reaches the size described in the breed standard. The Jersey Giant is a yellow-skinned bird with a single red comb and wattles and dark brown eyes. The White is a solid color with willow-colored shanks. The feet are yellow on the bottom, and the beak is yellow with gray streaks. Adult Whites occasionally show a little dark or gray ticking on some feathers. The yellow skin and white plumage make this variety more acceptable on the market. The Black Jersey Giant has a greenish sheen to its black feathers. The feet are also yellow on the bottom, but the shanks and toes are black with a little willow shading.

The general public never adopted the Jersey Giants to a significant degree, although farm flocks are found among those who appreciate the combination of a large meat bird and a reliable egg supply. Exhibition strains also exist for both the Black and the White. The Jersey Giant remains a popular and impressive bird for 4-H or country fair competition. At least two important heritage strains are available for preservation.

In Canada, the last production strain of the White Jersey Giant vanished in 1967. Fortunately, one flock based on this source has been preserved since 1968. This strain is more tightly feathered than usual, which gives the birds a smaller appearance.

In the United States, the foremost breeder of Jersey Giants is Golda Miller, who has maintained a closed flock for more than fifty years. Miller has stressed quality, size, and production so that her flock closely reflects the original breed type. She breeds Blacks, Whites, and the newer Blues. Several breeders have also maintained the Miller line in their flocks.

Both the White and Black Jersey Giants still make excellent home flock birds. The White is rarer than the Black.

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. TheEncyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds is available at Amazon.