Dominique Chickens: Heritage Poultry Breeds

The Dominique Chicken breed is a good heritage poultry breed for those who want a bird known for staying in the middle ground: Not too big or small, not incredibly prolific but certainly steady, in both egg and meat production. This hertiage chicken breed is also calm and docile. The basic farmyard chickens brought to the New World by the English colonists were probably similar to the common Dorking, Old English Fowl, and Old Sussex Fowl that were all present in southern England in the seventeenth century. These birds arrived with the colonists before the later importations to England of the Asiatic Games, Cochins, and Mediterraneans. The Dutch colonists to the New World may have also brought along their indigenous chickens, such as the old Hamburg stock.

Whatever their exact origin, the smallish, barred Dominique type was well known before 1750. One hundred years later, one poultry writer would state that Dominique chickens were “so familiar as to need no description.” They were sometimes described as Dominickers, Pilgrim Fowls, Puritan Fowls, or Plymouth Country Fowls. Both rose- and single-combed birds were seen, although the rose comb seemed to be more common. An often-heard expression was “spunky as a Dominicker rooster.”

There is a great deal of evidence attesting to the Dominique as a popular farm bird over the eastern half of the United States by the mid-nineteenth century. President Abraham Lincoln owned Dominiques. This early farmstead chicken had to be a hardy, self-sufficient bird. Other than a few scratch grains, feed scavenged from the livestock, or food scraps, the chickens around the cabin or farmhouse had to forage for seeds, insects, and plants on their own. The irregular barring lent them protection from the predators that surrounded the farm. Fluffy, heavy plumage kept them warm in rafters or coops, and the little rose combs were far less likely to freeze in winter. The hen would raise a clutch or two of chicks to provide chickens for the cooking pot. The Dominiques were excellent layers, and their feathers were used for pillows, comforters, and mattresses or feather ticks.

At the first poultry show in Boston in 1849, these rose-combed, barred birds were entered as Dominiques. The import of the Asiatic breeds also began in the 1840s, to great interest and enthusiasm. The Plymouth Rock was partially developed from a Dominique cross in 1865 and exhibited four years later, although the name Plymouth Rock was also used for Dominique-type birds even earlier in New England. In 1870, the managers of a state poultry show in New York resolved the confusion over names. The barred birds were divided into medium-sized, rose-combed Dominiques and medium- to large-sized, single-combed Barred Plymouth Rocks. The next year, the Dominique Standard of Excellence confirmed that only rose-combed birds were acceptable. Most likely, a great many large single-combed Dominiques were absorbed into the new Barred Plymouth Rock breed.

Both the Dominique and the Barred Plymouth Rock were accepted into the Standard in 1874. With the increased interest in poultry improvement, the Dominique gained greater uniformity in type and size, but the Plymouth Rock went on to great popularity along with other new and improved breeds. The Dominique began its fade into obscurity, for it was already regarded as old-fashioned. By the turn of the twentieth century, agricultural writers were warning that this traditional breed needed rescue for it had been arbitrarily lost in the rush to adopt newer breeds. Soon even the Dominique’s history was being lost. By 1916, the USDA’s Farmer’s Bulletin on Standard Varieties of Chickens dismissed the older Dominique by declaring that “similarity in plumage of the American Dominique and the Barred Plymouth Rock has been the cause of the former’s popularity.” In 1946, a poultry science textbook explained that the Dominique, like the Chantecler, had “not been generally adopted by the public, and therefore few flocks are found” (Winter and Funk 1946, 32).

By the mid-twentieth century, the Dominique was rarely seen, and many knowledgeable people worried that it would become extinct. The ALBC was extremely concerned when it could locate only six National Poultry Improvement Plan flocks totaling 110 hens. The ALBC also worried about impure flocks and whether the Dominique existed only in exhibition strains. Fortunately, four breeders persisted in keeping and breeding this historic American breed: Carl Gallaher, Robert Henderson, Henry Miller, and Edward Uber. Almost incredibly, many old bloodlines were saved, including one historic flock more than a hundred years old. Much of this preservation was a quiet effort with birds passed from breeder to breeder.

In 1973, the Dominique Club of America was founded to promote the breed, both the standard and the bantam, and to encourage new breeders. The efforts of this active group should serve as a model for other rare breed conservation clubs and associations. The club has conducted in-depth research on its breed and has used that information to educate the public and promote the Dominique. The club is well organized and responsive to inquiries. It also produces the informative Dominique News and an annual breeder’s directory and in 1997 published the definitive reference for the breed, The American Dominique: A Treatise for the Fancier, by Mark A. Fields. Many of the longtime breeders would like to see the breed called by the same name: the American Dominique. The Dominique Club now has about three hundred members, and the Dominique poultry population has increased.

The attention drawn to the Dominique by the ALBC, which used the breed as a symbol of American rare breed conservation, has also played a big role in promoting the breed. Today the Dominique is more popular than it has been for several decades. Those in search of Dominiques need to watch out for some hatchery stocks that have introduced Barred Plymouth Rock in order to circumvent inbreeding. The ALBC and the Dominique Club are probably the best sources of information for obtaining high-quality birds. Different strains vary in weight, conformation, egg production, and broodiness. The historic Voter strain is especially important.

Those seeking to conserve the Dominique should pay close attention to the descriptions of the breed from the past. The Dominique chicken was a moderate-sized bird, with cocks weighing from 6 to 7 pounds and hens 4 to 5 pounds. The adjective medium is used liberally in the old standard, because the Dominique was not a breed of extremes but rather one of pleasing balance. The head, the rose comb, the neck, the back, the thighs, even the toes and earlobes were described as medium in size. The breast was described as broad, round, and carried well up. The body was full yet compact. The long tail was carried up with well-curved sickle feathers. The carriage of the cock was proud with a full hackle. The hen also carried her tail up but appeared plumper and full breasted.

The only color variety of the Dominique is described as bluish gray or slate. Each and every feather is crossed with irregular barring of dark slaty blue and lighter gray. The tip of each feather is dark. The cock often has finer barring, which can make him appear a lighter shade than the more heavily barred hen. The Dominique feather markings are definitely more irregular than those of the Barred Plymouth Rock. There also should not be any metallic gold or brassy sheen in the feathering even when exposed to sunlight. Old poultry books described the Dominique’s fine, lacelike bars on the ends of the feathers. This characteristic is nearly lost in the contemporary breed, although it may be recoverable through the descendants of the old David Hyman strain in the Colonial Williamsburg collection. The eyes are a rich reddish bay. The skin, beak, shanks, and toes are bright yellow. Occasionally red dots of xanthophyll, the yellow carotene pigment, are found on the outside of the legs. The comb, wattles, and earlobes are bright red. The earlobes should be oblong and medium-sized. The comb should be a neatly shaped rose crown with a round, tapering spike. The entire comb should be covered with small pebbling. The hen’s comb is slightly smaller than the cock’s. Single combs appear in most Dominique bloodlines, most often in hens. Breeders are divided in opinion over whether single-combed birds should be used in a breeding program.

The Dominique is an active bird and a good forager that does very well on a free range. Docile and calm, it also does well in confinement. The heavy plumage, rose comb, and early feathering are well suited to cold weather. The spring pullets grow fast, mature early, and continue to lay light to dark brown eggs well through the winter. Most Dominique hens will go broody, but not overly so, and raise a clutch of eggs. The Dominique also produces a good table bird.

The revival of interest in the Dominique is rewarding to those who kept the faith in this spunky, little bird that served the early settlers and farmers so well. A Dominique in the barnyard is a piece of living history, and yet it remains a hardy and productive bird.

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 on Amazon.