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Chicken History & Breed Characteristics

CHICKEN HISTORY & BREED CHARACTERISTICS
By Tina Winstead, Ph.D. 

There are more chicken breeds in the world than there are reasons for raising them.  If you know what your purpose is, there is sure to be at least one breed of chicken to strike your fancy.  In fact, many people can’t stop sampling breeds until they run out of space to keep them.

Chickens are organized by class, breed and variety.  Class refers to the geographical region where the breed was developed.  The classes of domestic fowl are American, English, Asiatic, Mediterranean, Continental and Other.  Breeds are distinguished within a class by differences in body shape, size, and skin color.  Breeds are further divided into variety by comb type, feather color and pattern.  A strain is produced by inbreeding members of a specific variety or breed through at least five generations.  The resulting off-spring always looks the same and can be identified as belonging to a certain strain.

Bantams are miniature chickens which originated in the Dutch East Indies.  Typically, they are identical versions of the standard sized chicken.  However, there are some bantams which have characteristics not found in standard poultry.  These are sometimes referred to as true bantams and the others as miniatures.  The American Standard of Perfection lists all characteristics of standard and bantam size fowl.  The Bantam Standard includes breeds of varieties not found in the Standard of Perfection.  In general, bantams are kept for ornamentation or sometimes as natural incubators due to their broodiness.  They are also prolific egg layers and can be used for meat. 

Chickens are also divided into categories based on their productive qualities.  Each group is noted for their success at producing meat, eggs, or both.  In addition, certain breeds are known as exhibition breeds and others have usefulness for their feathers in fly-tying.  The American and English classes are typically considered dual purpose breeds.  That is, they are good at both egg and meat production.  The Mediterranean class is noted for their excellent egg production.  This class is fairly light in body weight so are not used for meat production.  The other classes are more often considered ornamental.

Chickens raised on commercial poultry farms are not pure breeds.  Geneticists have selected birds with the best performance and bred them with birds of specific characteristics to produce the super bird of today.  Commercial meat birds are a cross between Plymouth Rocks, Cornish and other breeds.  Their offspring are bred to produce the dominant white feathers preferred by processors and consumers.  Since these commercial birds are hybrids they will not breed true at your home farm. 

For hobby farmers, other factors come into play besides production qualities.  If you want a flock that will withstand cold northern temperatures stick with the full feathered American and English class.  Choose varieties with smaller combs that are more resistant to freezing during hard winters.  If children will be involved it is better to raise a more docile breed that will easily tame.  Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Brahma and Dorking will all fit this requirement.  For smaller hands, the Cochin bantam is a nice choice.  Most of the high egg production breeds are also extremely flighty.  They can be handled and tamed with a lot of effort but in general they are very reactive to stimuli.

Roosters are not necessary for egg production but they are needed if you want chicks.  Of all of the birds that hobbyists raise, roosters tend to be the least appreciated.  Even if there are no zoning ordinances to prevent you from raising poultry, your neighbors may not enjoy the sound of crowing.  And no, crowing doesn’t only signal sun-rise.  Crowing can be heard around the clock.  Your just mature rooster can spoil the simple pleasure of pitching a tent in the backyard with the kids.  Sleep will not come easy.  Another unpleasant trait of the rooster is the audacity of proving that he is at the top of the pecking order.  You too will be included in his attempts to chase, jump at and otherwise scrap with all living things.

Before embarking on a poultry project check your local ordinances.  Zoning laws can be very strict or loose enough that you can work with them.  Oftentimes, being a responsible poultry raiser is all that is necessary to keep peace in the neighborhood.  Offensive factors such as noise, appearance and smell should be eliminated from your hobby.  Just work within your local laws and maintain a tidy poultry house.  Both you and your chickens will be happier.

Interest in raising chickens has varied over the centuries.  As a result, many breeds developed in the late 1800’s have all but disappeared.  The American class chickens have suffered due to zoning ordinances, the depression and general shifting of interest.  To combat this decline of breeds a few organizations have been developed.  The first of these is the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA).  The SPPA is composed of volunteer judges that track endangered breeds and varieties.  The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) was formed in the mid 1980’s to identify the most endangered old production breeds.  This group has published lists of existing flocks and their number.  As a result, the Rare Breed Poultry Conservation Project was developed to provide assistance to those hobbyists trying to prevent the extinction of rare and endangered breeds.

Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities
1878 230th St.
Calamus, IA 52729
www.feathersite.com/Poultry/SPPA/SPPA.html

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
PO Box 477
Pittsboro, NC 27312
www.albc-usa.org

Characteristics of common breeds of chickens

 Class  Breed

Varieties

Usage

Egg Color

 American

 Plymouth Rocks
 Dominique
 Wyandottes
 Javas
 Rhode Island Reds
 Rhode Island Whites
 Buckeyes
 Chanteclers
 Jersey Giants
 Lamonas
 New Hampshires
 Hollands
 Delawares

 

7
1
9
2
2
1
1
2
2
1
1
2
1

Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual

Brown
Brown
Brown
Brown
Brown
Brown
Brown
Brown
Brown
White
Brown
White
Brown

 Asiatic

 Brahmas
 Cochins
 Langshans

 

3
9
2

Meat
Meat
Dual

Brown
Brown
Brown

 English

 Dorkings
 Redcaps
 Cornish
 Orpingtons
 Sussex
 Australorps

 

3
1
4
4
3
1

Dual
Egg
Meat
Dual
Dual
Dual

White
White
Brown
Brown
Brown
Brown

 Mediterranean

 Leghorns
 Minorcas
 Spanish
 Andalusians
 Anconas
 Sicilian buttercups
 Catalanas

 

12
5
1
1
2
1
1

Egg
Egg
Egg
Egg
Egg
Egg
Dual

White
White
White
White
White
White
White

 Continental

 Hamburgs
 Campines
 Polish
 Houdans
 Crevecoeurs
 La Fleche
 Faverolles

 

6
2
10
2
1
1
2

Egg
Egg
Egg
Dual
Dual
Dual
Dual

White
White
White
White
White
White
Brown