Heritage chicken breeds play an important part on our homestead.
Did you know humans have raised poultry for meat and eggs for almost 10,000 years?
While I’m a big fan of industrial breeds such as production reds, who lay an egg every day like clockwork, I’m turning more towards keeping pure blooded heritage chicken breeds on our homestead, in part to preserve a piece of American history that might otherwise be lost.
We also use them in our breeding program, to improve the chicken breeds we’re developing, and so we can start hatching sex links to bring some income to our farm.
This year, we added several heritage chicken breeds to our flock – both hens and roosters so we can continue the terrific bloodlines of these breeds.
Now, according to the Livestock Conservancy:
A heritage chicken “can only be produced by a Standard-bred Chicken admitted by the American Poultry Association. A Heritage Chicken is hatched from a Heritage Egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard-bred Chicken, whose breed was established prior to the mid-20th century, is slow growing, naturally mated with a long productive outdoor life.”
Why bother with heritage chicken breeds?
One advantage to heritage breeds is, when it comes to hatching them, you know what you’re going to get.
After all, the purpose to breeding pure bloods is the genetic traits are predictable. Generation after generation of heritage chicken breeds show the same traits, whether it’s a certain color egg, a specific size, or plumage.
Centuries ago, when heritage chicken breeds were first developed in America or otherwise introduced to our country, for the most part they were developed as dual purpose breeds.
Buff orpingtons, for example, were specifically bred so they would consistently produce eggs but were also white skinned, making butchering easier, and were a hefty weight.
So, which heritage chicken breeds are good for a homestead?
I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a look.
In this article, we’ll look at 5 heritage chicken breeds and why they’re great for any homestead.
The first of the heritage chicken breeds we’ll look at are Orpingtons. We personally keep several Buff Orpingtons on our homestead, and they lay wonderful brown eggs regularly.
They’re a great dual purpose chicken, bred for both meat and eggs. If you’re off grid, they’re particularly advantageous because the hens like to sit on eggs, making them ideal for a sustainable flock of heritage chicken breeds.
Orpingtons come in several colors, including black, white, buff, blue and splash, and the buff color is the most commonly seen.
Orpingtons have a wonderful history, and were developed in 1886 by an English man named William Cook, who was a professional coach man.
To meet the need for a dark chicken that could be exhibited in London at shows without soot showing (London was a dirty place in those days!) and to meet market demand for a chicken that was large, white skinned, and good for the table, he developed Black Orpingtons.
These heritage chickens are named after the town they were developed in, Orpington, and were produced by crossing Minorcas, Langshans and Plymouth Rocks heritage breeds.
Later, the buff color was developed, and only the original colors are accepted by the American Poultry Association.
As a heritage chicken, Orpingtons are perfect for any homestead because they grow to good harvestable weight, lay large brown eggs regularly, and are attractively colored birds.
Rhode Island Reds
Rhode Island Reds (RIR) is one of the oldest heritage chicken breeds in America. When it comes to RIR, there’s industrial strains, bred for egg production as well as the heritage strains.
For this article, we’re talking about the heritage breeds, which look different from an industrial chicken strain.
According to the Livestock Conservancy, heritage Rhode Island Reds are listed as “recovering”, thanks to efforts by breeders and homesteaders who want to preserve this piece of Americana.
Directly descended from the heritage chicken breeds our ancestors developed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Rhode Island Reds originated in Adamsville, which is a village in Little Compton, Rhode Island.
They are larger than industrial strains, and perfect for either the table or for their eggs. They’re also the foundation for more modern “breeds”, such as Production Reds and Sex Links.
If you want to raise heritage Rhode Island Reds, do your homework to make sure the bloodlines are indeed true to this heritage chicken breed.
These heritage chickens are hearty birds that weather winter well, and are great with children.
Delawares are next on our list of heritage chicken breeds. They’re beautiful, striking birds that make a gorgeous addition to any backyard flock.
This heritage chicken originated in Delaware in the 1940s by crossing Barred Plymouth Rock roosters and New Hampshire hens. They’ve been important in creating modern broiler breeds, and for a while were the most popular meat chickens in the Mid-Atlantic area largely because of their color.
Delawares are critically endangered according to the Livestock Conservancy because their usefulness as broilers has been surpassed by Cornish Crosses, but they still make a wonderful dual purpose bird for any homestead.
We have a couple Delaware roosters on our farm and they’re friendly, hearty birds that grow well.
Plymouth Rocks (Barred Rocks)
The fourth on our list of heritage chicken breeds are Plymouth Rocks, also popularly known as Barred Rocks.
I talk in depth on this heritage chicken breed in one of my podcast episodes, so I’ll just briefly recap here.
The Plymouth Rock originated in America in the middle of the 19th century, and is one of the most popular heritage breeds in part because the barred birds are very showy and beautiful.
They’re also excellent egg producers. This type of heritage chicken was first exhibited in Boston, Massachusetts as a breed in 1849 and were developed from hybrid chickens with Spanish, White Cochin, Dominique, Buff Cochin, Black Java, and Brahma bloodlines.
And the original Plymouth Rocks were of the barred variety.
According to the Livestock Conservancy, the Plymouth Rock seems to have disappeared for 20 or so years until 1869 when this heritage breed appeared at a poultry show in Worchester, Massachusetts.
The Plymouth Rocks we know today are heritage offspring of the second set of Plymouth Rocks.
This heritage breed was accepted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Excellence in 1874.
The Plymouth Rocks we have on our farm are friendly birds that we’re raising to breed both purebloods and black sex links.
I like them because they lay nice brown eggs consistently and they’re a popular meat birds among our neighbors.
I’ve never kept Sultans one of the heritage chicken breeds we raise on the homestead, but after learning about them, I would like to!
Sultans are one of several heritage chicken breeds that are critically endangered,according to the Livestock Conservancy.
They’re natives of Turkey, where they were likely developed as ornamental birds for the gardens of the Sultan.
They have been rare since they arrived in England in 1854 when Mrs. Elizabeth Watts of Hampstead, England, the editor of the Poultry Chronicle (a British publication) received heritage chickens from a friend living in Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Their actual name is Serai Taook, which in Turkish means Sultan’s Fowl, which is where their name derived.
They’re very pretty ornamental birds, possibly the most among the heritage chicken breeds.
They don’t lay very well, but if you are not looking for a high efficiency bird and just enjoy having friendly companions, then preserving these heritage chickens might be for you!
Helping to save heritage chicken breeds is a wonderful pursuit for any homesteader. These breeds are a piece of American history, and we’re happy to continue preserving them!
I’d like to hear from you!
Which heritage chicken breeds most interest you? Email me at [email protected] or comment below!
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.